It was our last day. We’d been in Morocco for a couple of months, travelling around, staying in cheap hotels where the walls were too thin and the taps didn’t work and the sheets on the beds were patched and grey. Now we were in Rabat, and we didn’t want to be there. It was different from Marrakesh: less African, more European, a place of white concrete buildings and office blocks–somewhere to wait for a flight, nothing more. We’d reached the end of the journey: a day and a night and then home. Perhaps that was our first mistake. We forgot where we were.
Amanda had already left: she couldn’t get used to the dirt and the flies, and she missed her dog. Roddy had stayed on with Jane and me. His presence seemed to help. He could make Jane laugh when she didn’t want to talk to me. Sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t half in love with her.
Morocco had come between Jane and me. She found the attentions of Moroccan men oppressive. Each time she went into a bazaar, it happened: in the slow-moving crowds, everyone pressed close together, invisible hands pinched and pulled at her flesh. Once, she managed to grab someone’s hand, and before the man could pull away, she wrenched the fingers back, and he gave a cry of pain. People laughed as he slid among them, holding his hand to his chest.
If I tried to explain the Moroccan men’s behaviour in terms of Islam, we argued. Eventually we stopped talking about it. Instead, we spent hours in our hotel room reading, or avoiding the silence between us by making love. We had been together for almost three years, but we knew it wasn’t going to last, and neither of us wanted to make the first move.
Our last afternoon in the hotel bedroom we lay on the metal-framed bed, smoking hashish, the fan in the ceiling spinning above us. We were naked, and our bodies were smooth with sweat. I’d read all the books we had with us except some poems by Pope, which the hashish made impenetrable. In the street below, a caged bird was singing, on and on. The sun-bleached sky through the half-open shutters was a colourless glare, alien and frightening. I moved towards Jane and she took me in her arms.
It wasn’t Jane’s fault. I don’t think it was my fault either. We were together, but she could have been anyone; so could I. Two strangers fucking in a Moroccan hotel.
When we woke up, the diagonal of sunlight had disappeared, and the room was darker. We took turns washing under the tepid trickle of water that was the shower. We both knew what had happened, but we’d been lovers long enough to pretend. Jane was thirsty and went downstairs to the café to drink some mint tea. I said I would be with her in an hour or so.
I sat on the rusty balcony and watched the sun setting over the city. It was Ramadan; and once it was dark, the lights of the mosque near the station were switched on, the muezzin began the call to evening prayer and the streets filled with people. They had been fasting since dawn–the devout had not even allowed themselves to swallow their own saliva. But during the hours of darkness, the fast was suspended. The night was carefree and permissive, and the crowds in the street below seemed to have a hectic, almost carnival energy.
Men walked hand in hand along the roadside, nudging each other to look at unveiled tourist women window-shopping, their grey-looking husbands walking uncertainly behind them. People in djellabas, women in veils, police with pistols and machine-guns, groups of young men in sharp silk shirts–all of them poured through the narrow streets. The mass of people had a strange electricity: I wanted to be part of it.
I went downstairs, left the key at the desk and walked among the passers-by. The endless succession of faces was hypnotic, and I lost track of time as I wandered through the lanes near the bazaar. It was after eight o’clock when I got back to the hotel.
I found Jane and Roddy at a restaurant on the corner of the square a few minutes walk away from the hotel. They were already eating, and Jane was annoyed that I was late. I had been lulled by the anonymous movement of the crowds and felt only half awake. Her anger exaggerated the distance between us.
The lights on the ugly cement fountain in the middle of the square changed colour from ambulance red, through sodium yellow to horror-movie green and blue, then back to red. The different colours caught our faces in turn as we watched a man with no legs, propped on a little wooden trolley, his hands in clumsy leather pads, pushing himself around the fountain. Roddy made a heartless joke, which fell flat, and ordered another bottle of wine. A man went by, lashing a donkey with a whip of jagged black rubber, cut from an old car tyre. Jane turned away. Some boys playing in the gutter noticed her reaction, and one began lashing a smaller companion with a bit of rope, whooping and laughing in Jane’s direction.
We left the restaurant around eleven. Roddy and Jane walked together, while I followed a few paces behind. I didn’t want to avoid their company but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The trip was over, and we were going home, back to the real world.
Roddy and Jane stopped, and Jane pointed upwards, beyond the silhouettes of the buildings and the dazzle of the neon signs, towards the moon–a silver sphere misted by cloud, floating in the west. We decided to walk to the beach and watch the Atlantic waves breaking against the shore in the moonlight.
It was good to get away from the flashing signs and the smell of low-grade petrol. As the noise and the lights receded, we came to a field of white rocks and boulders. We walked among them for a while, towards the moon and the sound of the sea, until we came to some stone tablets overgrown by thorns and realized we were wandering through a graveyard.
Some of the gravestones had inscriptions. I stopped to decipher the sinuous Arabic lettering. Roddy and Jane went on ahead, their voices fading into the darkness and the roar of the waves.
I knelt down clumsily by one of the graves and let the sand slip through my fingers. I was drunk in a Muslim graveyard. The dead seemed indifferent to my sacrilege. It was a good place to be buried, I thought, with the heartbeat of the Atlantic reverberating in the stones, and the wind blowing from Africa.
As I lay propped against a gravestone, waiting for my head to clear, voices came towards me from the direction of the town, and two shadowy figures appeared among the white rocks. They were walking down to the sea. They didn’t see me, and I watched them go by without saying anything.
It seemed to be getting colder.
I got up and followed the path that Jane and Roddy had taken. The graveyard ended a short distance from the sea wall. The shoreline stretched away in a great curve, framed by the darkness of the sea and the night sky. I called out, and Roddy’s voice answered me.
He and Jane were sitting together, two dark shapes on the luminous sand between the sea wall and the waves. I sat down beside them, and we watched the long white crests emerging from the darkness, one after another, vanishing against the shore.
‘Every seventh wave,’ said Jane. ‘It’s true. Every seventh wave’s larger than the rest.’
I asked why.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.’I read it somewhere. It’s just the way it happens.’
We counted the waves for a while.
‘How far is America?’ asked Roddy. ‘Thousands of miles away. Each wave’s travelled thousands of miles to get here.’
No one challenged what he said. Even if it wasn’t true, it seemed the right thing to say. Then there was a shooting star.
We waited for another. It was the end of August, and we hoped it might be the beginning of a meteor shower.
‘Salaam!’ A figure silhouetted against the moonlit surf came towards us. He asked us in French what we were doing.
‘Eh, oui.’ He turned to look at the sea. ‘La mer est belle.’
He squatted down in the sand beside us, his back to the sea, and took out a packet of cigarettes. Did we want to smoke some kif?
The moon was almost directly overhead, and the man’s face was in shadow. The wind had dropped. I asked Jane what she wanted to do.
‘I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘But we’ve got an early start tomorrow.’
As we passed the smouldering cigarette between us, two more figures emerged out of the darkness. Our companion shouted a greeting and invited them to share the remains of the cigarette. They were friends of his. They didn’t understand us when we spoke to them in French, and after a minute or so they began talking softly to each other in Arabic. The man with the kif rolled another cigarette, and Jane said how good it was to be in a group of strangers, sharing kif, all looking at the same moon.
Even if there weren’t any more shooting stars.
Two more men appeared from behind us. They were wearing uniforms. I was nervous until I saw that they weren’t police. They were soldiers and everyone in the army smoked kif. One was tall and solid-looking; the other’s uniform looked too large for him. They all began talking to each other in Arabic, and then the man with the kif turned to us: the soldiers wanted to know if Jane was married, and, if so, who was her husband?
We’d been asked the same question all over Morocco. I gave the usual explanation: things were different in the country we came from, women preferred to get married later, some didn’t even want to get married at all. We were simply friends, travelling together.
The soldiers’ boots squeaked as they squatted beside us in the sand.
‘Busy place,’ said Roddy. ‘Rabat on a Saturday night.’
Jane and Roddy laughed, and the man with the kif asked why they were laughing. I said they were surprised how many people there were. The man took the cigarette from his mouth and threw it towards the ocean. Then he spat on the ground. The soldiers were whispering with the other two men. I heard the word ‘bint’–Arabic for ‘woman’–and saw one of the soldiers glance towards Jane. Something wasn’t right. Maybe it was too much wine and hashish. I got up. Jane asked what I was doing.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I think we’d better go.’
The man with the kif was already on his feet. He stretched out his hand towards me. Jane was asking if there was anything the matter.
‘We’ve got to go,’ I said. ‘Now.’
Jane and Roddy began to get their things together, but it seemed to be taking them an age. The man was standing between me and the sea wall. The moon was bright as an arc light. Everything was turning into something else.
The man grabbed at my shirt. Jane screamed. Roddy shouted,’Fuck off!’ I pulled away. The two soldiers came at me. The big one bent down, and a handful of sand hit me in the face, blinding me. A fist smashed against the side of my head. I got one eye open as someone kicked at my crotch. I managed to catch the leg and twisted the man over. Then I saw the knife. The big one had a knife. A flash in the moonlight.
‘Knives!’ I shouted. They’ve got knives!’
Someone whistled, and another shrill whistle answered from the shadow of the sea wall. There now seemed to be six or seven of them. A trap. I was in front of Jane, Roddy was beside her. The men were in a circle around us. The soldier with the knife shouted something and waved his arm at me–the blade was invisible in the dark. Someone lunged at Jane.
‘Get help, Roddy!’ I shouted.’I’ll stay with Jane!’
They wouldn’t want a witness. Some would follow Roddy. He could lose them in the dark.
The soldier with the knife said something to the others, and the shadows in front of us spread out.
Roddy darted forwards, turned and ran towards the sea wall. Two shadows ran after him, then another. The man with the kif whistled over his shoulder and turned towards us.
‘L’argent!’ He pointed at Jane’s bag–it was still on her shoulder. In the darkness further along the beach, I could hear shouting.
His voice had a sharp edge. He was nervous. Jane started to give him the bag, but, as she lifted it over her head, the man snatched at it, jerking her neck. Some of the bag’s contents fell on the sand, the man grabbed at them and ran off into the dark. The soldier with the knife took a step forwards.
‘La fille,’ he said.
A shadow moved to the right of me. A fist slammed into my face. The big soldier was pulling Jane’s hair, yanking her head back, holding the knife at her throat. He tugged at her hair, hard, and she screamed. He let go, grabbed her skirt and slit it from the hem to the waist.
Everyone else had gone. Now there were just the two soldiers, Jane and me. I could manage the soldier in front of me, but the big one had the knife and he was pointing it at Jane’s face. His other hand was under her skirt.
Jane cried out. The soldier slapped her, grabbed at her waist and cut the elastic.
The knife was at her belly.
‘Stay alive,’ I said.
The man gestured with the knife, and Jane lay down on the ground. He pulled up her skirt and waved her legs apart with the knife, then handed it to the soldier in front of me, who held the blade at my throat. The big soldier undid his trouser buttons, knelt down and spat between her legs.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Jane. ‘It doesn’t mean anything.’
The man pushed her legs further apart and got on top of her.
The soldier jabbed the knife at my face.
‘Let them do it,’ said Jane. ‘It’s not important. I want to get out of this alive.’
It was the first time I saw someone fucking another person.
It didn’t last long, maybe a couple of minutes. Then he stood up and took the knife, and the other soldier started. Jane began to laugh, on the edge of hysteria.
‘He can’t get it up. It’s a pathetic little thing.’
The soldier slapped her and pressed her hands to the ground. He lay on top of her for a while and then got up. The soldier with the knife at my throat muttered something and moved towards Jane. I guessed they would kill me first, then her.
The big soldier kicked her legs apart, undid his trousers and began masturbating. If I rushed him, I might get the knife, I might not. If they killed me, they would kill her. I measured the distance between me and the man in front of me.
The soldier with the knife was now lying on top of Jane. I called her name softly.
‘Sshhh!’ she said. ‘I’m OK. He’s got the knife at my throat.’
I was less than ten feet away. I could see Jane’s hair in the moonlight. The soldier was moving about on top of her. I could see the rhythm of his body, the steady, instinctive motion of his hips. I could hear him breathing through his nostrils. I caught the ammoniac smell of sex. The bright, silver-blue light of the moon shone over everything.
His breathing was getting louder, little snorts of air that turned into deeper, heavier grunts of effort.
We were caught in a place where it seemed we were the only people alive, moving and breathing under the stars.
The sky disappeared, as a fist slammed into my eyes.
The soldier was still on top of Jane. He was breathing heavily, he was about to come. I could predict the moment. He grunted, and the air in his throat gurgled into a final gasp.
He pushed himself up from Jane’s body. He was still holding the knife. He stood up and said something to the soldier in front of me. I called out to Jane.
The bastard,’ she said. She was crying. ‘The bastard.’
‘L’argent!’ The soldier with the knife pressed the flat of the blade under my chin; the metal was cold and smooth. I lifted my head slightly. Someone’s hand found the money belt at my waist. The man behind me clutched my hair and pulled my head back, while the soldier with the knife tore my shirt open.
Fingernails scratched my stomach. There was a sharp tug at my waist, and the soldier stepped back with the money belt in his hand.
Jane had got to her feet. Her bag was still hanging from her neck. She took it off and threw it on the ground. The soldier holding my hair let go and picked up the bag.
They were going through our things. We had a chance. If Jane was OK, we could make a run for it.
‘It hurts,’ she said. ‘The bastard hurt me.’
She could hardly stand and began to sob. If we tried running, she wouldn’t make it.
The big one shouted something in Arabic and spat on the ground. Suddenly they were gone.
I held Jane in my arms.
The waves were still breaking on the shore in the moonlight. We walked towards the sea and stepped into the milky surf. She washed herself, and the water glowed and sparkled with phosphorescence.
We stood in each other’s arms, not saying anything, the sea gently rocking us.
A beam of light flashed on the top of the sea wall and swung across the water. We held each other closer. There were men’s voices. Another beam of light raked the empty beach. Someone was calling our names.
I kissed her and tasted the salt on my lips. We let go of each other and walked towards the shore.
Photograph © Abbas