Story from Geoffrey Heptonstall



The wind that swept the leaves stirred the waters between the rocks. At the edge of one world we saw another. Glimpsed beyond the heat haze was a line of land. We knew it to be Europe. It was not far. The ferry between the continents went through the foam-speckled water like a sharpened saw through rough timber. So much was visible from the roofs of the Kasbah.

The satellite dishes seemed incongruous for people who displayed age-old traditions in their daily lives. They wore ancestral costume, led mule carts, sold hand-woven carpets, and heard all the old prayers every day. The modern world reached them as surely as we reached them.

We were a source of income as well as curiosity. Rich infidels in search of exotic experience. Their welcome was a duty they performed. Their true feelings were harder to discern. Winning the respect of these people was not something most visitors considered. They admired the welcoming, the Arab desire to please. ‘I want to make you happy,’ the trader would say routinely, even as he hoped for a good profit. He was not a hypocrite, for he also wished to please himself at the same time, and saw no conflict in these aims.

‘I love bargaining with them,’ a woman said over breakfast. She mentioned loudly and proudly how much she had paid for shoes of inferior quality. They were not the bargain she believed them to be. She had had refused the trader’s absurdly high price, negotiating down. It was not nearly enough. This we could not tell her. For her part she could not read the silence of everyone who was listening to her.

We were on the roof terrace in the cool of early morning. By midday the clouds would disperse and the sun would burn. For the time being the air was tolerable. ‘I expected it to be warmer than this,’ the woman said. She was not accustomed to the patterns of the local climate.

A mule somewhere not too far away cried out in its customary way replete with pathos for the sterility of its condition and for the life of toil for which it was bred. It was to born to work. It could never love, although a kindly owner might show it affection. We saw that once, but the more usual attitude was indifference that was cruelly unfeeling of a sad creature.

Mules could often be heard in the early morning and late at night. When there was music they might bray into the early hours when dogs barked and chickens clucked in a flustered protest.

Below us in the streets of the Medina people wandered. Women, their heads covered with cotton scarves, carried provisions home. Men, often in traditional dress, wandered. Youths in modern clothes loitered. They were the ones looking for innocent tourists whom they might exploit. We were used to them, having been fooled by their charm and their friendliness. We were to pass them later as we walked through the Medina. ‘I am student I like to speak and learn more English.’ That was the familiar opening ploy. We were fooled once by who carried round his neck an identity card that proved his student status. Who but a trickster would do such a thing?

The trickster guides you through the narrow alleys of the old town within the walls. He shows interesting things. He takes you to interesting shops. Then he charges a higher fee than any legitimate guide would ask. He has understandings with merchants he knows. Vendors of herbs and spices, of leather bags, of Berber scarves – he takes you not to the best such vendors but to the ones he knows, the ones with whom he has an understanding…

‘The people here are so friendly,’ the woman on the terrace at breakfast says. ‘So helpful. Such a happy people leading a simple life, a natural life that we Westerners have forgotten. They appreciate food and water as precious things that we take for granted. They don’t take these things for granted.’ She sipped her coffee while everyone else was silent. ‘There is so much we can learn from them.’

‘You have to be careful,’ someone replies. She makes no response at the time. Later, much later, she says ‘I am always careful, of course. I mean, I’m not a fool.’

When her bag was stolen the following day she was stricken, although very little was taken apart from the bag itself. Her cards and cash were on her person. It was the bag itself she regretted. It had been her pride, expensive to buy by local standards but so much cheaper than it would be in Paris or New York. ‘I only put it down for a moment,’ she explained. ‘I thought I could trust those people. They seemed so friendly, but I guess not.’ She looked out across the Medina to the modern developments behind in the hills. It held her interest no more. She longed to be home.

She felt she had been a fool. She had put her bag down on the seat next to her in the café while she talked to someone at the next table. A local young woman was telling her about the beauty of the Atlas Mountains. ‘You must go there. I can arrange visit for you. My brother, he very good guide.’

‘My bag!’ the visitor cried out. ‘Has anyone seen my bag?’ Nobody spoke. Nobody looked directly at her, although somebody, she felt sure, had seen something.

Thieves, she learned, are clever. Deftly they take things, knowing that other people are not looking even as they gaze abstractedly at the scene. Talk of the Atlas Mountains was very likely a decoy while the bag was swiftly and discreetly taken. The thief would not hurry away, but take time, sitting at the table nonchalantly, betraying nothing of the crime committed moments before. Thieves are skilled. They know how to gain their victim’s trust.

The woman’s trust had been betrayed. Something like vengeance descended on her as she wandered about the medina, searching for her bag. Her hope was that it would be found somewhere, discarded. She knew that was not going to happen, but desperately she went on looking. It was as if she might conjure it into her possession again.

We saw her for two or three days afterward wandering in her agonised search. Then she disappeared. Nobody saw her go. It must have been an early departure before breakfast. A dawn flight to Madrid to make her connection across the Atlantic.

‘It’s better to forget these things,’ we all agreed. ‘She let it ruin her stay.’ The loss was heavy on her heart. It broke her trust. That, not the expense of the theft, hurt her most. It was a lesson for the traveller to learn: don’t behave as you would back home. That was not the lesson she had anticipated learning, but it was what she received. Travellers often meet the unexpected.

On the terrace in the afternoons we were served mint tea, so refreshing after the hours of walking in the heat and hurry of the medina. We hoped to see the gardens beyond the gate of the medina. One afternoon when we went the gates were locked. The gardener at work had no French, only Arabic. We walked back in the heat, only to lose our way in the confusion of sun and noise and dust.

On the way we past stalls of merchandise. ‘I make you special price,’ the vendors said in that familiar phrase of false promise. We knew it was a fiction of the kind that makes life tolerable when trying to sell goods in a street of rival merchants. ‘I want to make you happy,’ the vendor would add. If we bought something we would be happy, then he would be happy. All the while we remembered that you had to be careful.

From the mosque came the call to prayer: ‘God is great. May God protect you from evil.’ We had heard this Arabic so often we could distinguished the words and understand them. They were good words. People went about their lives hearing them as they might hear the wind in the trees. The call to prayer was so integral to their lives that they did not need to intentionally listen. For us, non-believers and foreigners, the call was arresting. We could not hear it without responding in some way, if only personally and silently.

The sand, by contrast, blew silently about us. It came in from the mountains. Leaves rustled as they scurried along the ground, but the sand was carried on the wind in such fine quantities that it could be neither heard nor seen. We could feel the spray on our skins. There were no clouds that might choke the throat. It was part of the air we breathe. It was part of life in Africa, like the intense heat of the sun and the poverty of the people.

The wind that swept the leaves reminded us that winter was coming even here. The single season of summer was true further down. Here we were again looking out to the coast of Spain and the first hints of a European winter.

‘You want to go across the mountains?’ someone said, approaching us. These people were adept at mind-reading. Yes, we wanted to go further, but not this time and not with a stranger who approaches us in the street. ‘I am from mountains,’ he explained. ’I take many persons wanting real Morocco. I show you.’

We smiled. We could only smile. To engage with this stranger was to invite the kind of pestering that was not easy to shake off. He would play on our conscience, accusing us of being ungracious if we did not answer his questions about ourselves. He would seek to befriend us, all the time hoping to make money.

We did not know him so we could not trust him. His words were like the dust in the air. Honesty at times seemed as precious as rain. We remembered the trusting woman whose bag was stolen. Who knows? It might have been this very man because he had such a false, ingratiating look about him. ‘I like to take my European friends to my village. They see my family. They see true Morocco,’ he said as we walked away. Behind us we heard the muttered curses that revealed the man behind the promises.

It was such a man, perhaps, who took the woman’s bag. With that thought, unspoken then but understood, we hurried away from the scene. We should go across the mountains and into the desert one day in a way we found acceptable. We had to be careful. Though we liked what we saw and the people there, we knew not to be taken in. The poor see all who are not poor as rich. Who can blame them? The poor are like the sand, the dust, the leaves that drift by almost unseen.

And we, what were we but the water that comes in with tidal flow, only to withdraw as readily and as certainly. Out there was where we had the safety and comfort of another life.  We could sail or we could fly. Whatever choice we made was within our reach, leaving behind the cry of mules and the pleading of eager tongues.


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