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Arthur Mackeown - April 2010
Arthur Mackeown - April 2010

Arthur Mackeown is 63 years old, British-born and a member of Kibbutz Horshim near Petach Tikva. He has been writing short stories for about 2 years and has had work accepted for publication in Abandoned Towers and Bewildering Stories magazines. He is also a part-time artist and sculptor in a small way. His hobbies, apart from writing, are travel and photography.  

The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.

  

On the House

    At six o'clock on a cold February morning a taxi drew up on the corner of the  square known as Djemma el Fnaa, or Place of the Dead. The passenger, an overweight Englishman named Thomas Jones, peered doubtfully through the cracked windscreen.

    "Are you sure this is it, mate?" he asked.

    "La Place des Morts, M'sieu!" said the driver proudly, and spread his arms wide as if to embrace the vast, dusty rectangle and the pale red buildings surrounding it. "Zee Place of zee Dead Ones!"  

    Thomas could hardly argue with that; rarely had he seen a place which looked deader. Nothing moved but a couple of ragged drunks squabbling under a faded sign with the picture of a camel on it, and the words: 'Wellcum to Marrakech.' As Thomas emerged from the taxi one of the drunks shouted at him and shook his fist.

    "Great," muttered Thomas. "Just great."

    He paid the driver and trudged wearily over to the row of budget hotels on the edge of the square. As they all looked pretty much alike he opted for the first one he came to and went inside. In the cramped lobby several men sat together over a game of Backgammon. When they saw Thomas they raised their eyebrows and grinned at each other; unshaven, fat, middle-aged tourists sporting pony tails and gold earrings are not a common sight in Morocco.

     One of the players got to his feet and addressed Thomas in French. Thomas pretended not to hear, and the man laughed pleasantly.

    "Don't worry, sir," he said in English. "I only asked how you are liking my country."

    "Great," said Thomas. "Couldn't be better."

    "My name is Sayeed. What is your name? Where are you from?"

    The reception clerk spoke sharply to Thomas' new friend, waving him away like a troublesome fly. "You should not speak to people like that one, sir," he cautioned. "It is not good. For how long you require a room?"

    "Two nights, please."

    "We have one vacancy," the clerk said. "Check-out time is ten o'clock." He gave Thomas a card with the hotel's name on it. "If you enjoy your stay with us, please tell your friends…"

    Thomas signed the register and the clerk handed him a key. Then a teen-aged bellboy showed him to his room, a clean, white cell on the top floor, with a door leading to the roof. Without bothering to undress he collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep. 

                                                                   *

    Several hours later he was jerked awake by the bellboy knocking insistently on his door. He'd been dreaming of Marilyn Monroe performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, and she was just getting to veil number six…

    "M'sieu Jones, M'sieu jones, is now 5.30 in afternoon, sir."

    "Bugger off!"

    "But M'sieu Jones, you ask…"

    "Go away," he groaned, but it was too late. Marilyn had fled.

    "You want tea, sir?"

    "No, I do not want tea," Thomas snapped.

     He dragged himself off the bed, yawning and scratching and mumbling about people who wouldn't let other people sleep. There was no chance he'd ever get off again, as the most awful din was coming from the street below his window. Wondering what on earth was going on, he shuffled out onto the roof, lit a cigarette and leaned over the railings.

    Wellcum to Marrakesh, he thought.

    Against the hazy back-drop of the snow-covered High Atlas the old city stretched out beneath him, purple and coral pink under a clear yellow sky. To his right, swallows dipped and darted about the flat-topped minaret of a tiny mosque, whose mud walls burned bright orange in the setting sun. By craning his neck Thomas could just see into the courtyard, where shadowy forms prostrated themselves towards Mecca as the call to prayer blasted out over the rooftops.  

    Down in the Djemma el Fnaa someone was beating thunderously on a drum, in a fast, repetitive rhythm. Flutes wailed, horns blared and brakes screeched. Innumerable mopeds whizzed to and fro. Hundreds of people milled around food stalls lit by skeins of glowing light bulbs. Flames belched from ovens and open grills, sending up billowing clouds of grey smoke into the cold air. There was a strong, rich smell of  diesel, roasting meat and hot bread.

    This was too much for Thomas, who hadn't eaten since yesterday evening. He stubbed out his cigarette and hurried inside for a quick shower and change of clothes. Then he checked out his three-day old beard in the mirror. An article he'd read on the plane claimed some women prefer bristly men, so he decided to keep it. Before going downstairs he tried half-heartedly to suck in his beer belly, and compromised by covering it with the largest, loudest Hawaiian shirt he had. Oh, well, he'd worry about going on a diet another day. Right now, he had something else on his mind: grub. 

                                                                    *

    The moment Thomas entered the square he was ambushed by a troupe of dancers with tasseled hats. They skipped playfully around him, twisting their heads and rolling their eyes, and refused to let him go until he paid them to get out of the way. Behind the dancers hovered grim-faced child musicians who screamed "Photo five dollah!" at every tourist they saw. Berber acrobats in red and green climbed up and up on one another's shoulders to impossible heights, then tumbled back to earth with a bounce and a bow for the cheering onlookers. Snake charmers lay in wait to slip large, wriggling cobras around the neck of anyone unwise enough to get close to them, and faith healers did a thriving trade in tiny antelope heads, and bunches of blackened, dried chameleons. 

    None of this interested Thomas. He wanted his supper and nothing was going to keep him from it. Even so, it took him all of ten minutes to elbow his way through the crowds to the food stalls, where a brigade of beaming, mustachioed cooks cheerfully shouted out their wares in Arabic, French, English and Japanese. They had chicken and fish and sausages and snails, couscous, rice, salads and sheep's heads, sticky French cakes and huge samovars of hot, sweet mint tea. A small boy with a no-nonsense manner seized his arm and pushed him down on a wooden bench, face-to-face with a local family. The young mother poured him a cup of tea and smiled shyly.

    "Do you need a guide, sir?" asked someone.

    He turned his head and saw he was sitting next to a small, neatly dressed Moroccan of around forty, with a lined face and a pencil mustache. It was the man who'd spoken to him in the hotel lobby, the one the clerk had warned him about.

    "Not really," he said. 

    "You have been to Marrakesh, before?"

    "First time," answered Thomas, without thinking.

    "Then you must have a guide. Where will you go tomorrow?"

    "Er...I'm not sure, yet."  

    "Perhaps I can give you a tour of the square tonight?" the man persisted. "It will be...how do you say...'on the house?' "

    "Look," said Thomas, "no offence, but I'd rather be on my own. All right?"

    The guide nodded. "Of course, sir," he replied, and stood up. "But if you do change your mind, you remember my name? Sayeed? Everyone here knows me."

    Thomas watched the guide as he walked away. He saw him greet a pair of Scandinavian women like old friends. After some laughing conversation, the trio linked arms and strolled off. Thomas hoped that would be the end of it. 

    Two minutes later the small boy bustled up and dumped a steaming plate of chicken and vegetable couscous on the table. An adult second-in-command brought a side-dish of tiny, spiced sausages and a pile of pitta bread. 

    "You eat!" the boy ordered. His assistant grinned.

    Thomas obeyed. Forgetting all about the guide, he ate and ate until he was completely stuffed. When he'd finished he paid the modest bill and went in search of a beer. Not surprisingly there was none to be had, so he settled for coffee at a small restaurant outside the entrance to the old city market. As if by magic the guide turned up again--minus the blondes, unfortunately--and sat down at the next table.

    "Gave you the old heave-ho, did they?" asked Thomas.

    "Pardon?"

    "The girls."

    "Ah, les femmes! les femmes! What can I say? Women are wonderful, but they are sometimes in the way of more important business." 

    "And what business would that be?" 

    "Have you thought about tomorrow?"

    "I already said 'no'."

    "But I can offer cheapest rates in all Marrakesh. Anywhere you want to go. Or perhaps is something you wish to buy in the market? I can show you very fine shop of genuine Tuareg jewellery. Not expensive..."

    This reminded Thomas that his sister had a birthday coming up, but he had no intention of allowing this conman to cart him off to some over-priced tourist trap.

    "Owned by your brother, I suppose?" he said.

    "I have no brother, sir. Only sisters."

  

    Thomas was getting tired of this.

    "Now, look..."

    "Perhaps you require references? I have them. See what satisfied client has written about me..."

    They were interrupted by the waiter with Thomas' coffee. The waiter glowered at the guide. 

    "This man makes problems for you?" he asked. "Is okay, we know him here. If you want, I call police et finis...he is gone."

    The guide paled.

    "No, please. I have wife and family. If the police come..."

    "Nobody's calling the police," Thomas said. "I just want you to go away and leave me alone."

    "All right, sir, all right. I am going. I am already gone. Thank you so much. You will not see me again."

    "Hang on a minute." Thomas took some money from his wallet and held it out.

    "M'sieu, what you are doing?" asked the waiter. 

    The guide stared at Thomas for a moment, before accepting the money and tucking it carefully into the top pocket of his jacket. Then he nodded once, turned, and disappeared in the direction of the food stalls. 

    The waiter shook his head in disgust.

    "Now he tell all he friend 'bout you, m'sieu," he predicted gloomily. 

    Thomas ordered another coffee and stayed for a while, doing sums in his head to see if he could afford to buy his sister some of that Tuareg jewellery the guide had told him about--a necklace or a charm bracelet, perhaps. Then, as the entrance to the market was only a few yards from where he sat, he decided to give the bedlam of the Djemma el Fnaa a miss for the time being and go shopping instead.   

  

       The market at night was a Hollywood film-maker's dream, its twisting, red-walled streets jammed with shoppers bargaining loudly and eagerly over brass-work, spices, fabrics, inlaid tables, tiny leather slippers decorated with gold sequins, and just about everything else you could imagine. Thomas wandered slowly from shop to shop, taking his time, ignoring the blandishments of the merchants, and being careful not to show too much interest in anything. He knew from experience how hard it was to escape the clutches of a determined Moroccan salesman.   A whole hour went by until he found what he wanted—a pair of silver earrings inset with blue stone against the evil eye.

   As he turned back towards the Djemma el Fnaa, feeling very pleased with himself, a man in a striped robe cannoned into him and almost lost his balance. He caught at Thomas' arm to steady himself, and murmured, "Pardon, M'sieu, pardon."

    "Don't worry about it," said Thomas kindly. 

    The man patted Thomas on the shoulder, grinned at him in a friendly fashion, and vanished like a genie into the crowd. Ten seconds later, Thomas discovered his watch had vanished as well. 

    He wasn't having that and hurried after the thief, cursing furiously. Within minutes he found him again, chatting with a shopkeeper and sipping coffee as innocently as you please. "Hey, you!" he yelled. The thief looked up in surprise. When he saw Thomas' red, angry face, he jumped to his feet and disappeared round a corner. "Oh, no you don't," said Thomas and managed to put on a burst of speed. In his haste he almost knocked over a young man who shouted something in English and tried to block his path, but Thomas dodged round him and kept on going.

                                                                *

    The excitement of the chase didn't last for long. As the wily thief drew him deeper and deeper into the ill-lit, serpentine passageways of the old city, Thomas began to curse his own stupidity. Who did he think he was--Rambo? What kind of twit would go blundering off into the dark like this without even knowing where he was going? It was definitely time to call it a day. "You're an idiot, Thomas Jones," he said, and leaned against a wall, panting heavily. It was only a cheap digital watch, after all, as the thief would soon learn when he tried to sell it, and serve the bugger right. Then he remembered the earrings and checked his pockets to make sure the thief hadn't got them as well. They were still there and so was his wallet. Be thankful for small mercies, he told himself; all you've got to do now is find a way out of here. 

    This was easier said than done, as he had no idea where he was. But he couldn't stand there all night, so he picked a direction at random, and began edging his way cautiously through the murk, his hands groping the walls, trying not to slip on the damp cobble stones. In the middle of an unlit section of the street he hit his knee on the wheel of a cart and swore out loud, and then jumped aside as an enormous mule laden with wooden crates clattered past him, almost running him down.

    Thomas rested for a moment after that, waiting for his heart to stop pounding, and then pushed on, squinting ahead of him into the gloom. At times he thought himself completely alone, but then a match would flare in the shadows and he'd catch a sudden whiff of acrid tobacco, or hear the slam of a street door, or someone angrily scolding a child. Every now and then hooded, robed figures would swiftly brush past him without a word. For some reason he hesitated to call after them.  

    His wanderings eventually brought him to a residential neighbourhood filled with the aroma of cooking spices, and the homely sounds of laughter and music from hidden courtyards. Here there was light from shuttered windows high above his head, and he passed heavy, ornate wooden doors set deep into the walls, each with a single flickering lamp above it. He was beginning to think he should knock on the next door he came to and ask for help when he found himself in a small square surrounded by crumbling blank walls, where a group of teenagers were playing football.

    "What you doin' here, man?" asked one.

    "Trying to find the market. Do...?"

    "Got any money?"

    Thomas didn't like the youngster's tone, or his wide, over-friendly smile.  

    "Never mind," he said. "I'll find it myself."

    The boy moved a little closer, holding something behind his back. The others began to spread out on either side of him. One of them giggled.

    "How about dollars?" the boy whispered. "You got dollars, man?"

    "Halaas!" shouted a voice.

    Thomas had no idea what the word meant, but it certainly did the trick. The would-be muggers ran off as fast as they could, taking their ball with them. From behind him Sayeed stepped out of the shadows.

    "Do you need a guide, sir?"

    "How did you know where I was?" asked Thomas suspiciously.

    "The bell boy from your hotel. He is my cousin. He was going to his home when he saw you running through the market. You did not hear him call to you?" 

    "And you came to rescue me?"

    "The hotel sent me, sir. You have not paid your bill yet."

    Thomas surrendered.

    "Very funny," he replied. "Let's get a move on, then. I'm freezing me nuts off."

    "Nuts, sir?"

    Thomas was about to translate when the guide silenced him by raising a finger to his lips.

    "Is not safe here," he said. "We go. Now," and set off at a fast pace, which soon had Thomas struggling to keep up.

    They marched for around half an hour through a maze of backstreets and winding alleyways, the guide occasionally glancing behind them and saying urgently, "Come, come quick!" Finally, they entered a broader, better-lit street, and the guide slowed down a little to allow Thomas to catch his breath. The few people they saw ignored them, apart from a little girl who skipped alongside them for a while, chattering away and asking unintelligible questions. She didn't seem at all put-out when nobody answered. 

     They re-entered the market at the very spot where Thomas had left it, and Sayeed stopped and pointed up the street ahead of them.

    "Just go straight from here," he said. "You will see the square on the left."

    "Look, mate," said Thomas, "I really don't know what to say..."

    He started to pull out his wallet, but the guide shook his head and patted a small bulge in his top pocket. 

    "I already told you, my friend. On the house."

    Before Thomas could reply Sayeed spotted a family of Japanese tourists.

    "Time to go to work," he said.

                                                                       

    Thomas had had enough entertainment for one night. When he reached the square again he simply walked round it until he came to his hotel. The reception clerk was asleep on a settee in the corner, so he retrieved his key by himself and went upstairs to his room, where he dragged a chair outside and sat chain-smoking until he dozed off. 

    When he awoke the drums were silent. A light rain was falling and he shivered in the chill. From below came the voices of workmen as they dismantled the last of the food stalls. He wondered what time it was, and sighed. A new watch around here would probably cost an arm and a leg, and then stop working before he got back to Casablanca. He'd ask Sayeed where to get one tomorrow.