From my place on the floor I watch as a man in a grey suit fumbles with a key. The young couple behind him shiver as December wraps itself about them. They peer around the verandah where red and yellow leaves lie huddled in corners and cobwebs straddle the balustrade like the Brussels lace I wore in my bridal veil.
‘Is the sea really close, like the brochure says?’ It is the woman who speaks. She has a childlike face, wide-eyed, full of hope. She turns sideways. She’s pregnant. It shows.
The woman takes a step to the gate at the end of the little path.
‘May we look there first?’
The man in a sports jacket follows her, takes her hand, while the grey man with the clipboard scuttles after them.
Down the garden path—that’s the way, then take the steps. It’s not far. When you reach the bottom—you’re on the beach, by the sea, my beautiful sea. You can swim every day here, off the Dorset coast, though sometimes the water proves too cold, even for me.
They’ll be back soon enough. I will wait. I have all the time there is.
I’m in my favourite place, with my back to the sofa, sitting on my Moroccan rug. It’s a kelim, the sort of rug that folds up small; that you can carry around. But it’s been lying on these stripped floorboards here for so long now that in places its blue dye has almost faded to white. It has a permanence. I smooth the long fringes—they’re what distinguish this rug, the mass of pale blue tassels at one side, left unfinished when it was made. I like to plait and un-plait them, as people might work worry beads.
From here, I can enjoy the outside world without slipping into the cold. All around me, to the east, the west, the south, are windows. Today the glass has frost patterns, but on summer days curtains of fine bamboo cast a corrugated shade across me. Only the north is dark, the house behind me. I don’t spend much time there. I don’t like the dark.
The agents always start in this room, bringing people through the french windows, as if this is a large entrance porch and I am the threshold guardian. I meet everyone who passes through.
Will it be low tide? I can almost hear the scrunching of the stones under their feet. Perhaps they are watching the oyster-catchers hopping about the shingle.
I turn, reaching for a cushion to wedge behind my back and catch a glimpse of the bookshelves which flank the door to the rest of the house. The books are in no particular order, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales rubs shoulders with The World’s Greatest Short Stories; they can take their choice.
Maybe they’ll find the house chilly. Usually in winter the old iron stove is stoked high with wood. But the kindling is still stacked on the floor, and I suspect spiders are hiding there.
They’re coming back. Their faces are purple, as if they’re near-dead from the cold, the sea-wind, the exertion. But she is laughing.
‘It’s perfect,’ she says, as she steps through the door that the man with the clipboard has opened. Fresh, fresh air enters with her. ‘Tom. We have to live here. It’s the house of dreams.’
She looks radiant. Like a child opening her Christmas stocking and finding all she has wished for.
‘You’ll manage the commute,’ she says determinedly.
She is no child. I can see the glint in her eye, the way she holds her chin. She is someone who gets what she wants. Her husband’s smile is tender with love, ‘Are you sure, Bella?’ He looks tired, old before his time. I kick out to warn him, but he moves, and it is the woman who trips.
‘Bella!’ Her husband catches her, holds her. Maybe she’s the one to focus on.
‘It’s that rug,’ says the suited man. ‘Scraggly thing, not even finished.’
They make a fuss over her, but she is fine. I did not hurt her. Besides, people like her don’t know what it is like to be hurt. They pass into the rest of the house and their voices fade.
I know what it’s like.
I rub my shin, where the young woman’s shoe caught me. There are things I could teach her. I pull at the tassels again, at the fronds of my Moroccan rug. For it is here, always here, that I best remember.
I met Mohammed in the Djamaa El Fna square. Funny to think of myself like that; in a purple kaftan, a peace band round my forehead, standing high off the ground in my orange and purple platform clogs. Travelling the hippy trail in the long vac, an unlikely law student, it was my third evening in Marrakech. I wandered among the evening noise and bustle of the snake charmers, the monkey-dancers, the fortune-seekers, breathing in the incense, dust and barbecue smoke, the sun sending its warm goodnight embrace, and there he was: Mohammed, the story-teller.
From the laughs and cheers I could see he was entertaining, he had gathered the biggest crowd. I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, but I found myself drawn to him, as if an invisible force was at work. In his calico-coloured hooded robe he resembled a capuchin monk. He was no monk.
I remember how his eyes, dark and soulful, fixed on me, as I stood among the crowd, and how the way he looked at me made me shy. The sun hid behind the Atlas Mountains and the veil of night began to form in the rosy sky. Then Mohammed dispensed with the crowd. He stepped down and put his arm behind me, saying, ‘Come.’
His voice was kind; to be trusted.
He guided me to one of the long tables in the centre of the square and we sat under the pale coffee-coloured awnings where people were eating and drinking. The air smelt of barbecued lamb, rosemary, of tagine of pigeon and apricot. Mohammed ordered us fresh mint tea and filled it with sugar, and we talked in a mix of English and French and ate young dates filled with sweet almonds. Above us the lights of night took over, stars, the crescent moon and electric bulbs.
I told him my name was Jules. ‘A jewel,’ he said, ‘like amethyst?’ and we smiled at each other. Mohammed enchanted me with stories, like a modern-day Aladdin, and I laughed and asked for more, and he said he had stories to last me a lifetime. We sat under the flickering lanterns and I scarcely noticed the tables being dismantled and packed away. It was then he began the tale of a simple mountain shepherd boy who chanced upon a young foreign hippy girl and I realised he’d invented a story about us.
By now the crowds had all gone home to bed. We were alone in the empty square. He took my hand to lead me along the dark narrow streets.
Some weeks later we went to the Atlas Mountains where he said if we looked carefully we might see amethyst sparkling in the dust, but I saw only the pink earth. We drove over pink roads, watched sheep graze in the pink light under the thin pine trees. When we returned to Marrakech the walls of the city also shone pink and on all the rooftops, storks were nesting.
One day Mohammed took me to visit his friend Aziz outside the Medina and left me there. Aziz was a carpet-maker. I said I would like a rug. He said he would tell the women because they did the work, and what patterns did I want. I said I wanted a rug for Mohammed’s girl; then I laughed and confided that I would love Mohammed forever. Aziz smiled, a little sadly, and said perhaps this was so.
I said I’d decided to stay in Marrakech. I would drop out of university. I could teach English when the summer crowds dispersed. Perhaps Mohammed and I could marry. I pushed away thoughts of my conservative middle-class parents back home in Hampshire. I was young. I could do anything. I was free.
Aziz told me I should go home and forget Mohammed. He would never marry me. He said Mohammed was a Berber—his home was on the way to the Wadi Mehasseur. Later I learned this meant Gateway to the Abyss. Aziz said Mohammed was only in Marrakech for the summer to earn money; there was not much income from sheep. At the end of the summer he would leave.
‘No,’ I screamed and I ran from Aziz, from his carpet workshop. I ran along the alleyways, losing my way among the many dead ends, blinded by the tears in my eyes. ‘It is not true,’ I said again and again, to convince myself.
Eventually I neared the place where Mohammed was living, and I saw a woman go in before I reached the door. She was carrying a child in her arms and calling, ‘Mohammed’, in a familiar way. Through the shutters I heard their voices, and they grew louder. I stayed in the safe shadows of the street. The evening crowds shuffled past me, the moon climbed in the sky. The shouting of Mohammed and the woman ceased. The city fell asleep. Aziz found me there, after midnight, leaning against the wall of the neighbouring riad. Even before Aziz told me, I knew who the woman was.
Aziz took me to his family’s place and made up a bed for me. He smiled his wistful smile.
He said, ‘Mohammed loves you, but…’, and he shrugged.
I said nothing. At dawn the following morning, I returned to Mohammed’s place and hovered nearby. I saw her leave, carrying his child. Then Mohammed noticed me through the window and beckoned me in. He said he did not love her, but she was his wife. He did not want to lose me. Then I saw the child’s rag doll on the floor. And I left.
Aziz drove me to the airport. At the last minute he handed me a parcel wrapped in newspaper, tied up with string. It was the rug, he explained, but unfinished. I carried it, swaddled like a newborn. But the packet remained unopened. For many years it lay on a shelf in my bedroom at home, until the paper mummified.
Years later, before I met James, I returned to Marrakech. Aziz was where he had always been, just near the Medina, selling kelims. He smiled his apologetic smile and said Mohammed had wanted to follow me, but I’d left no address. After Mohammed drove his wife back to the mountains he rang Aziz to say he would go to England; somehow he would find me. It made me smile to hear this.
Mohammed never reached Marrakech. They found his truck halfway down the mountain-side. Near where we had once looked for amethyst.
After my visit, when I went home, I took the rug out of its paper packet and I saw the patterns they had chosen: the stars with eight points, the tiny double crosses, the interwoven initials of M and J.
It was then that I cried and longed for the one thing Mohammed had given me.
I never told James about the abortion or Mohammed. He wouldn’t have understood. Besides, by the time James and I married, I had moved on from my hippy phase, become wrapped up in my job, a copywriter for a provincial paper. 18p per column inch was what they paid then. James merely assumed I’d always been of a melancholic nature.
It was his second, my first marriage. He came with twins, a ready-made family, though we never bonded, so real motherhood eluded me, and there’s never been a baby here. Yet it was a happy enough life, the sort that comes from not daring to risk losing oneself in love again, though we had security, more of less, until James’s heart attack. He had his share of unfaithfulness, so I will not apologise for my minor aberrations, for that’s all they were, attempts to reach a disconnected part of myself.
But since James died, my past has returned, like a book I’ve not fully understood. His children are selling the house, though he left it to me, and I intend to stay, for here I have the sea where I can swim and swim until I find the answer to the riddle of why we yearn for what fate snatches away.
The couple have returned from their tour of the house. The woman picks up a photograph:
‘Did she die in the house?’
‘No. She was washed up in the tide. Heart attack. Her children said she liked to swim in all weathers. Crazy old thing.’
The man in the sports jacket is studying the particulars: ‘My wife is keen for us to make an offer. I see it’s freehold, probate sale... presumably it comes with vacant possession?’
‘It’s being sold as is.’
His wife kneels on the rug: ‘I recognise this, it’s a Moroccan kelim.’ She looks up at her husband, her eyes shining with a new idea. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Marrakech, we must go there.’ Her husband sighs, smiles. She fingers the long blue fronds. ‘This is like a playmat for a baby. I wonder why it was never finished...’
One day she will understand. I will show her.
They are tassels to wrap the baby in.