She did only the things she found herself already doing.
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Tom awoke, opened his eyes. He was in a small room, the only light seeping from a small window quite high above the bed. If he wanted to look outside, he would have to stand on the bed, but he did not feel like standing just now. A dusty base camp duffel bag lay on the tiled floor beside the bed, not yet unpacked.
The muffled sounds from outside the window were a curious mixture of car horns and drumming, so he was clearly in some city, then, not in the mountains anymore. Yes, that must be it. He was back in the city now, back in Marrakesh. Someone with a small white van had brought him to Marrakesh. The driver wanted to drop him at some motorway roundabout on the edge of the city, Tom remembered now, but he had insisted on being taken to Djemaa el Fna instead, where he knew he could find a room for the night.
It was already quite late, so he had dumped his bag in a room at some backpackers’ hotel and ducked into the maze of the old Medina, his feet seeming to remember the winding way to Le Foundouk, with its posh ground-floor bar and its moreish Moroccan mojitos, the recipe replacing rum, the bartender had told him, with a local brandy made from figs. His wobbly feet had had a bit more trouble remembering the winding way back to his room, not helped by the fact that he had completely forgotten the name of the hotel.
Then Tom remembered that today was his birthday. Or what was left of it was.
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Tom had an early afternoon breakfast of goat cheese, cucumber and flatbread on the terraced roof of the hotel, sitting cross-legged on overstuffed cushions with backpackers who had already moved on to the slowly stewed tagines they had ordered hours earlier for lunch. He then decided to treat himself to a new pair of babouches, diving back into the mad alleys of the old Medina in search of Souk Smata, or the so-called slipper souk. Without too much hassle or too much haggling, Tom purchased a pair of mustard-coloured soft leather slippers and then, for another hour or two, wandered somewhat aimlessly around some of the other souks before finding himself back at Djemaa el Fna, possibly pulled there unwittingly by the same hypnotic drumming he had heard while lying in bed half awake that morning.
All that shopping had made Tom thirsty. The bar at Le Foundouk would not open until seven, so he decided to try the bar at the Grand Hotel Tazi, which, according to his guidebook, was pretty much the only place in the Medina where you could drink a cold beer outside the bars for residents only at the five-star hotels. The Grand Hotel Tazi was a simple five-minute walk from Djemaa el Fna but, when he got there, it looked far from grand. Painted a rather unappealing puce, the hotel dominated a busy corner in a somewhat seedy neighbourhood, with frayed international flags drooping either side of the entrance.
According to Tom’s guidebook, the bar at the Grand Hotel Tazi had ‘the ambience of a railway station waiting room’. That waiting room was easy enough to find since the bar was basically the hotel lobby, located to the left of the reception desk as guests walked through the door. It was rather gloomy inside, the furniture consisting of plum velvet tub-shaped armchairs gathered somewhat loosely around round wooden coffee tables with marble tops, the plum velvet badly faded and stained, of course, and the marble table tops in need of a good wipe. But the waiters seemed welcoming and friendly enough and, from the look of the groups of merry drinkers scattered around the bar, there were no complaints about the beer.
Tom ordered a Flag Spéciale, please.
‘Deux bières, monsieur?’ the waiter suggested.
‘Oh okay,’ Tom said. ‘Bien, deux bières.’
This was obviously going to be Tom’s kind of place. The waiter soon returned with two nicely chilled bottles of Flag and a small plate of black and green olives. Yes, Tom thought again, obviously my kind of place. It suddenly occurred to him that the bar at the Grand Hotel Tazi was almost the opposite of the bar at Le Foundouk, with its snazzy furniture and its even snazzier cocktails. But Tom never minded a little seediness. In fact, comparing the drinkers in the bar at the Grand Hotel Tazi to the drinkers in the bar at Le Foundouk, Tom began to wonder whether he blended better with the drinkers here than he did with the drinkers there, especially after a week of trekking through the mountains. Some of the other drinkers here looked as though either they were about to go trekking themselves or they had already been trekking, too, wearing the least dirty, least smelly clothes left in their bags.
Tom took a swig of his beer and pulled a battered paperback edition of The African Queen from his shoulder bag, thinking he might read another chapter. The story C.S. Forester published in 1935 was not turning out to be the story John Huston told in the Hollywood version of that novel in 1951. Tom could not imagine Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart doing the things in the stern of that thirty-foot steamboat that Rosie and Charlie do there in the book. Compared to the book, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart behave almost as much like sister and brother as Rosie and her dead brother did, with the things Rosie does with Charlie in the story Tom was reading as unthinkable for Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, Tom thought, as they would have been for Rosie and her priggish brother.
Tom had also brought another book on this trip, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, a story he had read before but which he wanted to read again in Bowles’ adopted home of Morocco. Jane had forgotten to bring anything to read, so he had lent it to her on the trek and she probably still had it. The Grand Hotel Tazi reminded Tom of some of the places where Kit and Port stay in Bowles’ novel as they travel south through the Sahara, the accommodation gradually becoming grimmer and grimmer. About halfway down the Algerian desert, Kit and Port stay at a hotel in Aïn Krorfa with piles of rotting rubbish on the patio, rooms that smell like stale wee and soup that is more weevils than noodles. The name of the place is, of course, the Grand Hotel.
Just as Tom chuckled to himself about the resemblance between these two grand hotels, Jane, Gwafa and Udad walked through the door, laughing loudly about something. Jane spotted Tom first and stopped laughing, though she only somewhat stopped smiling. Then Gwafa and Udad stopped laughing, too, and looked where Jane was looking. After a beat or two, Jane bolted up the stairs to the right of the reception desk, with Udad leaping behind her, his long legs taking two or three steps at a time. Gwafa just stood there, looking at Tom, his eyes, those big brown eyes, begging for a brotherly hug.
‘Maybe we should have told them we’re married,’ Jane said. ‘Or at least that we’re together.’
It was late afternoon on the second day of the trek through the Atlas Mountains, with Tom and Jane settling into their canvas tent for the first time. The night before, they had stayed at what Gwafa called a gîte d’étape but what had seemed to Tom and Jane just some half empty room in someone’s house in some village who obviously knew both Gwafa and Udad well.
Tom’s guidebook had told them it was quite easy to find guides for such a trek in the village of Tabant, the standard start for a circuit of Jbel M’goun, the third highest peak in the Atlas Mountains and the highest peak in Morocco outside the Toubkal region. At 4071 metres, Jbel M’goun was less than one hundred metres lower than Jbel Toubkal itself, the highest mountain in North Africa at 4167 metres.
After a little haggling in Tabant, Tom and Jane had agreed to pay Gwafa and Udad five thousand dirham for a six-day trek, with Gwafa employed as guide and Udad employed as both cook and muleteer, the cost including three meals per day, a large canvas tent where they would eat and where Gwafa and Udad would sleep and a small canvas tent for Tom and Jane, as well as Udad’s trusty mule who would carry the food and the gear.
Tom had planned a trip to M’goun rather than to Toubkal because the M’goun region was supposed to be more traditional (whatever that meant) than the Toubkal region, because the trek to Jbel M’goun was less popular and thus less crowded than the trek to Jbel Toubkal and because it made no difference whatsoever to Tom whether he climbed the highest peak in Morocco or the third highest peak in Morocco. On a weekend visit to Tom’s flat about a month before he was due to depart for Marrakesh, Jane asked whether she could come, too. It would be their first trip together since their relationship had devolved from boyfriend and girlfriend to just friends about two or three years ago.
During lunch on the first day of the trek, Gwafa had asked whether or not they were married. Without thinking too much about it, both Tom and Jane had said no, they were not. They were just good friends. And so, the battle had begun. Gwafa got Jane pretty much to himself when they were walking, since Udad had to hurry ahead with the mule to prepare the tasty tagines they would often eat for both lunch and dinner, and Udad got Jane pretty much to himself when they were not walking, when Jane would help with the cooking and the washing up. Though both Gwafa and Udad could speak some French, Jane could not. If they wanted to talk to Jane or Jane wanted to talk to them, Tom had to translate.
When Jane was walking with Gwafa or when Jane was helping Udad cook, they played, but the play was purely physical, not verbal. So that they would not misunderstand this playfulness, Jane had asked Tom to tell them that she came from a family of two boys and one girl, that she grew up playing outdoors on the family farm with her two brothers and that she had been a bit of a tomboy. When Tom had translated this, both Gwafa and Udad had looked at Jane, then they had looked at one another for a moment or two, and then they had looked at Jane again, a bemused look on both of their faces.
‘What’s wrong?’ Jane had asked. ‘What did you tell them about me?’
‘I told them what you told me to tell them. I think they’re confused by the French phrase for tomboy. In French, tomboy is garçon manqué, which literally means a failed boy. Or someone who should have been a boy, not a girl.’
‘You told them I’m a failed boy?’ Jane had barked at Tom. ‘Tell them I’m a girl.’
‘I think they know you’re a girl. All too well. You’re playing a dangerous game here, Jane, a game whose rules none of you seems to understand.’
With their boots drying outside the door of the tent, air mattresses inflated and sleeping bags unstuffed, Tom and Jane sat beside their duffel bags, unpacking the things they might need that evening, like thick fleeces, wool hats and torches. Tom also unpacked his copy of The African Queen and tossed it onto his sleeping bag.
‘Do you wish I wouldn’t have come?’ Jane asked. ‘Do you wish you were doing this trek alone, the way you’d planned to do it?’
‘I don’t know yet,’ Tom said, pausing for a moment. ‘How far have you got in The Sheltering Sky? Have you got to that chapter where Kit and Port hire a couple of bicycles, ride into the desert, sit on the edge of the cliff and watch the sunset? It’s probably the only somewhat romantic scene in the whole book.’
‘No, not yet. I haven’t been able to read much on this trip. I don’t know how you can read so much. I would rather do things.’
‘Well, anyhow,’ Tom said. ‘They sit on the edge of the cliff and watch the sunset together. Very romantic. But then, that night, Port hires another bicycle, rides back out to that cliff and sits there on his own in the dark. Port says he could never tell Kit he had done that, that she wouldn’t understand why he wanted to go back there without her. But then he says perhaps she would understand all too well.’
‘Yes, she probably would,’ Jane said. ‘So then, I will leave you happily on your own, just you and your beloved book, with the tent all to yourself. I’m off to play sous-chef with the boys in the big tent.’
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When they arrived at the refuge on the plateau below Jbel M’goun the following afternoon, the winds were too strong for Udad to pitch those old-fangled canvas tents. The night before, the powerful winds blowing from the south across the Sahara had picked up some sturdy wooden picnic tables and smashed them against the stone walls of the refuge. Fortunately, the stone walls of the refuge were much sturdier than those picnic tables and, even more fortunately, there was room for them all in the inn.
At 2900 metres, Terkedit Refuge was a relatively luxurious refuge, used by most trekkers making an attempt on the summit as a sort of base camp, staying there both the night before a summit attempt and the night after. The refuge consisted of three rather roomy rooms. The room in the middle was the dining hall where the trekkers would hang out, sitting on wooden benches along wooden tables, some of them drinking the pricey cold beer that the caretaker sold, with a few drinking bottles of the even pricier Moroccan wine. The room to the left was the kitchen where the guides and the cooks would hang out, huddled around a toasty woodburning stove, preparing big pots of communal stew. The room to the right was the dormitory where the trekkers and the guides and the cooks would all fart and sleep and snore in what looked like an enormous bunkbed, with one large plywood platform hovering above the other, both bunks covered generously with cushy sleeping mats. For a small charge, there was even a warmish shower around the back.
Over couscous the night before their attempt on the summit, Gwafa told Tom and Jane that, if the weather was good the following morning, they should be able to climb to the top of Jbel M’Goun in four or five hours, with another three hours for the descent. If the weather was bad, though, and those strong winds were still blowing off the Sahara, it would be too dangerous to make an attempt. The final push to the peak was a path along a narrow ridge that was dangerous even when there was no wind. A group of grumpy German trekkers sitting beside them, well into their beers that evening, had failed to summit that day because of the strong winds and they said they seriously doubted things would be any better tomorrow.
Sadly, the Germans were right. When Tom, Jane and Gwafa left the refuge early the following morning, the winds had weakened considerably but, only a couple of hours later, just below that narrow ridge, the winds returned to full strength, with absolutely nothing between the desert from which they were coming and the sea to which they were going but that sandstone wall of a ridge, with Tom, Jane and Gwafa hunkering behind it. Walking uphill into the wind towards that ridge became painfully impossible, more like being blasted by cinders than being blasted by sand. Even squatting on the side of the mountain with their backs to the wind was surprisingly painful. Trying to protect Jane from that blast, Gwafa sat as closely behind her as possible, his legs straddling her legs, his arms wrapping them both inside his jacket, his face buried in her blonde hair. He could not have looked happier.
Nobody summitted that day either.
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When they returned to the refuge early that afternoon, Tom took a tepid shower, pulled on a thick fleece, a pair of jeans and some warm wool socks he had bought in Kathmandu and went to see the caretaker about that cold beer. Jane also showered, put on her pyjamas, for some reason, and her warmest boot socks and disappeared into the kitchen.
With his sleeping bag wrapped around him, Tom sat cross-legged at the far end of the top bunk, sipping a cold Flag and reading another chapter of The African Queen. After an hour or two, Jane joined him, with a scrap of paper in her hand.
‘Been playing sous-chef again?’ Tom asked.
‘Nope,’ Jane said. ‘He doesn’t need me. They’re cooking a big pot of mulligan stew, with the cooks just tossing in whatever they’ve got left. That’s why we all had the same couscous last night. I think it’s couscous again tonight.’
‘Then what have you been doing in the kitchen?’
‘Learning Berber,’ Jane said, obviously pleased with herself.
‘Yes, seriously,’ Jane said. ‘Why not seriously?’
‘No, that’s brilliant,’ Tom said.
‘Guess what this is in Berber,’ Jane said, looking at that scrap of paper and pointing to her slightly turned-up nose.
‘Not a clue.’
‘Anzan. This is aqemmum,’ she said, pointing to her mouth. ‘And this is tit,’ pointing to her eye.
‘Tit? Are you sure they’re not making these words up, Jane? Who’s been teaching you this?’
‘Gwafa and Udad,’ she said, showing him the scrap of paper on which someone had drawn a stick woman, clearly dressed in Jane’s pyjamas, with arrows connecting various words to various parts of the body. ‘See? Hand is afus and foot is adar. You don’t need to translate for me anymore.’
‘No, I guess not,’ Tom said.
‘And did you know that Udad plays the flute? Perhaps we can persuade him to play after dinner tonight.’
Which is precisely what happened after dinner that evening in the dining hall. Udad played the flute, accompanied by some of the other cooks drumming on pots and pans with an assortment of kitchen utensils, and Jane danced in her pyjamas, joined by some Dutch and German women, though not in their pyjamas. Tom worked his way through a bottle of rather rustic Moroccan red wine, while Gwafa watched Jane dance, though with his hands on his lap, not clapping to the beat like almost everyone else.
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It was a short walk to the next stop, with Tom wondering whether this six-day trek could not quite easily have been a five-day trek instead. Gwafa told him they would stop at a very basic mountain refuge and, if no one was there, they could either stay in the refuge that night or pitch the tents beside it.
No one was there. The refuge was smaller than any of the three rooms at Terkedit Refuge, with stone walls and a dirt floor, though, unlike Terkedit, it had a fireplace. They decided to stay in the refuge, which seemed to please Udad since, once again, he would not have to pitch those awkward tents. Instead, he built a fire in the fireplace and cooked a quick lunch, with Jane, as before, helping him chop the vegetables.
With the whole afternoon to fill, Tom decided to go for a walk along the river he could see in the valley below the refuge. Tom wanted to walk alone, but Gwafa insisted on going with him, saying he could easily get lost in these mountains or possibly break an ankle and, as guide on this trek, Tom was his responsibility. Jane and Udad immediately agreed, so rather than argue with everyone, Tom relented and off they went.
It was a relatively easy river to follow but, rather than simply turn around and follow the river back to the refuge, Gwafa somewhat suddenly suggested they take a short cut over a saddle he had spotted on the ridge above them. It would be a much faster route back to the refuge, he said.
‘Oh okay,’ Tom said.
It was a steep scramble up some scree to reach the saddle, but it was much worse going down. The other side of the mountain was covered with dense thorny shrubs, with no obvious route either through them or around them. Gwafa suggested they plunge straight through, which they did, snagging and tearing their shirts and their trousers, the thorns scratching their arms and their legs until they both bled, the blood beading on their bare arms, staining their clothes.
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‘What do you look like?’ Jane said, laughing.
They had heard the flute as they approached the refuge, making Gwafa walk even faster for some reason. When they walked through the door, they had seen Jane dancing on a rug in front of the fireplace, wearing the brown burnous that Udad slept in. Udad squatted with his flute, peasant style, on a rug beside her. Gwafa and Udad had looked at one another briefly and then they had both looked at Jane.
‘What do we look like?’ Tom said. ‘So, you were worried I might get lost. Jesus, Jane. You have become Kit. You’re even wearing Belqassim’s burnous now.’
‘Who the fuck is Belqassim?’ Jane said.
‘Just read the book, Jane,’ Tom said.
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‘Gwafa wants to take us to some waterfalls tomorrow,’ Tom said. ‘Something called Cascades d’Ouzoud, apparently not too far from here. He will probably want more money. This was supposed to be the last day of the trek, the day they get paid and we say goodbye.’
The last day’s walking had also been quite short, mostly following the river in the opposite direction to the direction Tom and Gwafa had walked the day before. They had arrived at the gîte in Agouti well before noon, a small village not far from Tabant where they had begun the trek. Udad had already left to take the mule home, saying he would be back in time to prepare lunch.
‘I told Gwafa we don’t want to go to the waterfalls tomorrow,’ Tom said. ‘I told him we just want to go back to Marrakesh.’
‘Um,’ Jane said. ‘Maybe I wouldn’t mind seeing the waterfalls tomorrow. Maybe we should split. You go back to Marrakesh and I go to the waterfalls. Maybe we do that. You like travelling alone, right?’
Tom decided there was no point spending the night in Agouti now. He gave Jane his half of the money to pay Gwafa and Udad and asked Mohammed, the owner of both the gîte and the shop next door, about transportation to Marrakesh. It was his lucky day, Mohammed told Tom. Transportation from Agouti to Marrakesh was tricky, but a driver was coming from Marrakesh with a small van that afternoon to drop off gear for a group of trekkers and, for the appropriate fare, he might take Tom with him back to Marrakesh.
Mohammed also told Tom that he organised such treks, that if they had come to him to organise their trek, he would have arranged for them to have proper guides, guides with badges proving they had completed the requisite training to be professional guides, not faux guides like Gwafa and Udad. They were just a couple of local lads, Mohammed told Tom. Nice enough boys, but definitely not proper guides.
When one of those local lads saw Tom waiting with his bag outside Mohammed’s shop, Gwafa asked him what was going on, what was wrong. Tom told Gwafa he hoped to get a ride to Marrakesh that afternoon, that Jane had the money, that she would pay them that evening and that she might want to go to the waterfalls tomorrow. Gwafa still looked more than a little confused. Tom had obviously not answered his question.
‘Elle n’est pas une bonne amie,’ Tom said.
Gwafa looked closely at Tom for a while with those big brown eyes, carefully considering his response, a response he perhaps thought would tell Tom what he thought Tom had just told him.
‘Lui non plus,’ he finally said.
Tom stood as Gwafa walked over to where he was sitting in the bar at the Grand Hotel Tazi. For a moment or two, they simply stood there, neither of them speaking. Tom eventually asked Gwafa whether they had visited the waterfalls that morning. Gwafa told him they had. Then Tom asked whether they were staying there, at the Grand Hotel Tazi, all three of them. Gwafa said they were. Gwafa then asked Tom whether he was staying there, too. Tom told him he was not. He was just there for the beer. After another moment or two of uncomfortable silence, Gwafa extended his hand rather awkwardly to shake. Tom shook his hand, then Gwafa walked back to the reception desk and slowly climbed the stairs to the rooms, step by beaten step. Tom sat back down in the tub-shaped armchair and took a long swig of his beer. He looked at the stairs and almost laughed.
‘Excuse me,’ said a young woman sitting nearby with a young man, both dressed in what was obviously outdoor gear that was neither dirty nor smelly, taken from bags full of such clothes. ‘Have you been trekking?’
‘Yes,’ Tom said.
‘Did you organise the trek yourself?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Tom said.
‘We’re looking for some guides,’ the woman said. ‘Those guys look like guides. Are those guys guides?’
‘No,’ Tom said. ‘Not really.’