Pete lay back against the wall of the small sitting room holding the steaming tea in his hand, welcoming the pain of the heat against his fingers. The smell of mint was heady as he put his lips gingerly to the rim of the hot glass and slurped at the sweet liquid. He was in the best and the most prominent room in the tiny house. All around was wall seating covered with brightly covered cloth. The only table, of the type thrown together for sale to the tourists in the medina, a burnished yellow metal plate resting on a spindly wooden affair. The people here prided themselves on the size, quantity, and luxury of the tearooms in their homes. This one was very humble, and she knew she was fortunate to have one at all.
The baby had been screaming for several minutes, and the man made a few lethargic attempts to entertain her; it was a little girl baby, he knew because she wore pink. Everyone knows boys wear blue and girls pink, but even here deep in Islam? He tried feeding her with a piece of bread, the Berber type off the big round loaf. But the infant screamed even louder, so he gave up. She was red in the face. Maybe I’m a monster to her; any more yelling and the neighbours will rush in and lynch me. The woman picked the baby up and hung it suspended from her head in a long scarf. The screaming stopped and became gurgles of laughter. The man felt nothing though. The screaming child didn’t touch him, didn’t irritate him, and he was at peace. He knew and trusted the woman; she was kind and well-intentioned. Her house was spotlessly clean although draughty and cold, but a solitary electric fire brought some warmth and cheer to the room.
As she cooked in her minuscular kitchen with just one burner on a historic gas stove, and the baby swinging from her head, she spoke incessantly in her pidgin Spanish. The man ignored her; it was probably the baby to whom she was talking. He didn’t understand anything she said, he never had. She hadn’t changed; she would communicate with him when necessary with gestures and pushing or pulling him.
The woman had been his friend for years, ever since he scared off the man who was hassling her in Tangiers and took her to his flat. She had been carrying a small battered case, so he knew that she had nowhere to go. Her name was Latifa, and she became his willing slave, in his home, for the several months that he lived there. From sunrise to dusk she’d cook, clean, prepare, and follow him around the house. He would leave dirhams on the kitchen table and, after lunch, the change and receipts would be there waiting for him
to check. He never did, he didn’t care. Then one day he left, leaving her with some money and amongst friends. She was broken, he had never had her, never wanted her, and she had never been anything to him but a girl needing a friend. Over the years he had always sent her money from wherever he was, and she would always let him know where she lived.
The man’s name was Pete. He wanted to be in a wilderness or a desert just surviving in the way he was so good at, but the solitude would weigh heavily upon him, and he needed someone when the blackness descended. He didn’t want much, just a girl of the kind he had always loved. Strangely enough, he had only ever loved Russian girls. He was made to love and care for a woman, a traditional breed of man unwilling to move with the times, although acutely aware that they had changed and that he would one day need to move forward.
Over the years he came to know that the stranger, the misfit, was him. Pete couldn’t adapt to the new western woman and her foibles, her arrogance, and male traits. He came to see that in Spain the hereto downtrodden Spanish Maria was wreaking long overdue revenge on her masculine counterpart, after years of abuse at his oft-times cruel and unfaithful hands. Pete, an outsider, a child of a more evolved and structured culture, with its ideals of fair play and good manners, which he practised as his moral code, was shocked to discover that his Spanish partner had grown to hate him purely because he was a man. He watched on confused, as he realised that men had become a form of prey to her and her kind.
No longer the days of passive courtship. Now they, the women, were the predators; they selected, they destroyed egos and spirits. He concluded that, of course, this had all been designed and would be followed by the era of the pulling down of all the constraints and taboos painstakingly erected by our forefathers for the protection of our societies. To the degree that humankind in the Western world would be finally subjugated to the wills of the senseless super-brains who ran the consumer giants. Pete could see all this, you didn’t need to be a genius, but it seemed to him that the majority of people in the West were blind or mesmerised by what was happening.
Latifa pulled at his arm, and he drowsily opened his eyes. The earthenware dish was heavily laden with semolina cooked with young tender lamb, vegetables, and chickpeas. She gave him a spoon, and he started to eat straight from the dish in Moroccan fashion. The baby was on the carpeted floor with a little girl of some five or six years of age who must have come to the house while he slept.
As he ate, he noticed the beautiful facial features of the child and her long thick hair. Even though she was dressed in rags and dirty, her face smeared and her hands black, the child was striking. She glanced at the food, still attending to the baby, and even though she looked away, her eyes wandered back to the overladen dish. Then she’d put her chin out abruptly as an inward gesture, a self-correction, and look elsewhere. She’s starving poor little cow, Pete thought, but proud, amazing a five-year-old urchin with a gutful of pride.
“What is her name?” He pointed at the child.
“Malak” she replied. “Her mother works, so she and her sister are on the streets all day.”
“So what’s the problem with school?”
“No money.” She said something about him to the child, who turned and looked at Pete. Her teeth were white and perfect, and her smile entirely unexpected in a face whose total lack of expression must have been the child’s only weapon against the evil and negligence which was happening around her, and which she instinctively knew was so, so wrong.
“Give her couscous.”
“No, she will have what we leave.”
So he went to the other room and found a plate and a fork. He stacked the big platter high with semolina and placed it before the child, who fell on it like a wolf cub, using her hands to devour it ravenously. He gave her bread and a Coke.
“Malak!” he said loudly, and she looked up but continued eating. “Tell her to stop.”
Latifa, his friend, spoke sharply to her and the girl stopped and looked at him. “She says she is sorry.”
“She has nothing to be sorry for, just tell her she will make me happy if she uses the fork.”
Latifa spoke to her, and the little girl listened attentively, humbly. Then she laughed, a peal of heartfelt mirth, looking at him, and Pete, caught unawares, grinned back in spite of himself. She ate the rest of the food with the implement, experiencing some difficulty. As she ate, she kept looking into his face and gently laughing. The man was smitten with the child. Her beauty, wisdom, and pride were amazing for a little girl living in abject poverty. And, of course, he realised that the child somehow was aware of her power as a woman to be, of her loveliness and charm, and knew how to use them given the right opportunity. She knew instinctively, intuitively, he thought, that he was the type of man who would love children and hold sacred their right to be children. Of course, there was also the possibility that she just believed that foreigners were the greener side of her particular river.
“Latifa, the girl is filthy. She’s probably covered in lice and fleas also,” he muttered.
“They live in a cave. Her mother earns money to eat, only one hundred euros each month, and now the father has made her pregnant again.”
He put his head into his hands. He couldn’t help; just sweeten the moment for the child, and even more, for himself. No longer able to take on other people’s problems, He
was not so long back from death’s door, weak physically, emotional, and with all his affairs in a mess.
“ I must sleep now, take her to the Hamman19. Here are some dirhams. Get her scrubbed and her hair cut. Oh, and buy her a dress and underclothes. No, two dresses and a few sets of panties.”
“And her sister Murdiyyah. She is also dirty, and she is eleven.”
He groaned. Latifa had a good heart and to her, Pete, like all foreigners, was wealthy. Whenever Pete had ever wanted to help Latifa with one of the various people she often took under her impoverished wing, it always became the never-ending story. He wondered if the reality was that people, seeing that she was a kind soul, often mistook it for stupidity and took her for a ride. But then she shouted at him for his caution, for his distrust.
“Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Allah, Allah sees all.”
He finished up realising that for a deprived person in a country with no social security, life, mere survival was a continuous struggle, and without the Latifa’s of this world, many more would perish than did.
“Yes, take her also,” he grimaced. “And please let me sleep now.”
He awoke to the sounds of children playing outside in the alleys. He thought of how people, human beings, could make wars on each other when they knew children were playing in the same street or town square where they dropped their targeted destruction. He had listened to some children speaking––fourteen or fifteen-year-olds––in a square by the port when he had been in the city. They were just kids, and strangely they were mixed: urchins and also well-attired and beautifully-spoken children; they seemed all to be together. They were preaching peace and love, and against the misuse of technology. Many people had sat down with them to listen, and Pete also sat with them fascinated, wondering who they were. There were children of all ages, many of them street dwellers. Then some uniformed police came running up, and the children fled. One man, presumably a plainclothes agent, had seized the ankle of one of the young speakers. It was right beside where Pete was sitting. The boy, of about fourteen or fifteen years of age, was struggling to escape, screaming, and the man was viciously punching him, trying by the looks of it to hit him on the tender area between his legs. Pete kicked the man from behind in the same way in which the man was trying to maim the lad. He yelped and doubled up releasing the boy, who immediately broke free. The youngster, turning as if in afterthought, smiled his thanks and beckoned to Pete to run with him, but Pete was tired, so he went quickly down some steps and melted away into the surroundings as he always did. That was just yesterday or the day before. He kept remembering the kids and smiling to himself.
19 Public baths.
But now he could also hear the sea breaking on the rocks just below the Kasbah, the sound coming in through the small high window in the room. He could make out the salt in the air and the smell of fish, so he left the house and walked down to where the fishing boats had just come in, and the fishermen were selling their catch. It was still sunny, but a sea mist had descended over the port and beach area, giving it an air of mystery, of enchantment. The magic was broken by the Moroccan haggling going on all over as trading took place. The fish was selling well, especially the big pieces, and, as he wandered, men hailed him in Arabic or Spanish, waving fish, octopi, and nets full of prawns before him. Pete smiled and thanked them, shaking his head; if Latifa had been there, they would have bought two or three good fish––bass or grouper––to take home. Sea bass cooked on an open fire, or a whole monkfish, or grouper, the inevitable Spanish mero. Life wasn’t bad, and he was hungry again.
He saw a family, a woman with two girls and a baby in arms, arrive to buy fish. As they came closer, he saw it was Latifa. Then the two girls came up to him smiling; he was confused, bewildered. Beautiful girls, their hair covered with silk hankies in a time-honored way. He was taken aback as the older one kissed him on both cheeks, and then, only then, he realised who they were, and Malak ran at him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Pete took her and held her at arm’s length. He felt quite emotional, a lump in his throat. He thought he was with his family, his woman, his baby, and his beautiful daughters. All the fishermen were looking on, smiling and laughing, calling schuina schuina. “Beautiful. Beautiful.” And Pete looked at the little girl.
“You are beautiful, Malak, so lovely.”
She couldn’t understand, but knew what he said and ran off to Latifa, suddenly bashful.
Latifa took him by the arm and pointed, “Fish?” Pete nodded, so the bartering began while he, looking around, spotted Murdiyyah, the elder girl, who had taken charge of the baby. He smiled at her.
“Hello,” Murdiyyah smiled back at him, and as she and Malak stood together playing with the little girl baby, Pete felt so happy and full. I don’t deserve this, why don’t I? just because I can’t cope? No, you fool, you could if you do as the shrink said and took the lousy pills. What is it anyway that I deserve or don’t? It’s nothing, just a couple of kids. I put my hand in my pocket, fix them up for a few days, and now I feel like they’re mine. But they are mine, as much as anyone else’s. They’re mine to love from afar.
You know if it came to the crunch, I wouldn’t mind dying for them if it would make them safe and happy. I would see that I had meant something to someone. I feel better now than I have for a long time. You are indeed sweetening these moments for me, little girl. I will see how far I can go in bettering yours before the enormity of things climbs on my head before it all begins to drown me again.
Some men walked past; one stopped to buy fish. Another man who was standing back told him what to get. It struck Pete as strange. They were all well dressed, quietly spoken, and big, and the one who decided on what fish to buy was in the middle as if they were guarding him. Pete glanced at them as they strode towards a restaurant, where presumably the fish would be cooked. They walked in a body around the decider but, for a brief instance, they parted to enter the building, and Pete could see the decider distinctly. Pete smiled as he noticed the man’s way of walking, with a limp, just the tiniest of limps