We were on the roof of the hotel eating something delicious from a tin. Guava? Pineapple? At the edge of the roof were our rooms, each one white with a black hole doorway. The smell was like if you rustled your hand thru dust. And lapping over the other side of the roof came the voices of the people passing along the alley that led down to the Petit Socco. At night, stretched under a thin cover, these voices took on all the languages under the sun but turned into cockney, West London flavour, as they went by my unglazed window. I became like the unlucky monkey with its head thru the hole in the table, the diners spooning up its brains; only the people going by the window were putting stuff in not taking it out.
It was down to keef, grass, marijuana. We’d gone to the fountainhead, we’d made the pilgrimage to the nearest place we could be sure it grew. The soft, pale green chopped leaves, the sweet eternal reefer; the voice which told you you were leaving, the slow slow roll of the head against the pillow with all the crepisculations of the cotton and the hair running into the bone and beyond. And the music.
I hadn’t known about the music when we’d done our planning. At home I sucked up Willis Conover Voice of America`s Jazz Hour from underneath the pillow, with its signature, take the A train. If I had known then that the relay station was on a hill just south of Tangier I would have got there somehow and beaten the door down and licked them like a dog. I hadn’t known – the dancing boy winding himself round and thru his tunic, whirling a scarf; the men behind tapping the drums or bowing the strings, the hooked nose poking a wind pipe about. The round tables with the mint tea, the peach coloured half-circles above the doors, the hot bowl of the pipe. The phrase was it blew my mind.
The route was clear, you looked at a map and there it was. London to Tangier. We were sixteen, IGM and I. He had flame red hair, a hulking shuffle and a pre-Raphaelite profile damn him. Strictly girls only. I was light on my feet, with a bad teeth waxy face. On a good day people wrote down what I said on anything that came to hand. MB took us down to Dover in his father’s black Citroen DS. Wow! – he must already have been seventeen. He snuffled a bit but we told him he was base camp. It was to him we telegraphed for money just like in the books and it was he who picked us up, shivering and hungry at Dover six weeks later, having had the actual rubber gloved finger of the British Customs man up our arses.
All three of us were Latymerians, pupils at the well thought of school by the Thames between the Hammersmith and the Barnes bridges. On a summers day in 1961 the school lined the dual carriageway which split our playground to cheer Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. He swept past standing in an open Rolls Royce, three times larger than his capsule had been. You couldn’t see whether he was saluting or holding his big brimmed cap on. He came from the Airport to meet the Queen.
As schools went Latymer was progressive, not yet snobbish, in lunch break the drug takers amongst us would slip down King Street to the chemists and buy slimming pills or cough syrup if we didn’t have any weed. In 1963 as Princess Pompiona, in the three night run of the school play I had to dish out quite a bit of sex backstage, but not to the big boys in the lead roles: AR, MN. Nor to the chemistry master BB who’d found my arse well before the Customs men.
It was to be a straight run south, IGM explained. We both had un peu Francais and IGM thought he could use Latin dative in Spain. He was very can-do. France was rain and black and white movie roads, trees flicking past and the mad secret army man in a hunched Beetle showing me a pistol in the glove locker “accidentally”. Spain was the blackened concrete of Franco’s frontier at Irun, the great, grapefruit strewn, plain of Bobadilla, the wooden benches in the trains and the hard sun, (a new sensation for us Limeys). Poked awake by guns on the beach at Algeciras we were lodged in a hostel for dying men. Thank you Europe – tomorrow Africa.
I tell you, isn’t that something – they do stuff other ways. I put my foot on African soil and saw those guys scudding about in dressing gowns and fall off my feet slippers. There is another way to do stuff – all thought up by them. True, it was a split city Tangier. It had a European part and a Tangerine part, but still it was straight away exciting. Rifi hooked onto us nice and quick, maybe on that first rucksacked walk into the Casbah up the Rue de la Marine. He had a face like a burst fruit and a big smile and he spoke rapidly, confidently. He became our guide, our aid and he never let us down.
So, we were on the roof of the hotel eating something delicious from a tin. It is a very small cast that memory has left me. IGM is strumming a guitar, two American girls lounge with their brown legs all anyhow. Another time (or the same) there was Scottish criminologist Jock Young researching his first book The Drugtakers: the Social Meaning of Drug Use or maybe just taking a break from writing and with him a lantern jawed pal I never got the name of and some little guy on a goat hair rug he carried everywhere.
Another day (or the same) there is a scuffling, a cursing and I slip back into the hotel and look down the madly jewelled spiralling stairwell to the cool central court and down the stairs is crashing our deserter in seersucker. The forces in Vietnam tripled that summer but he stripped off his GI uniform in Germany, got down to Morocco and set up as a smuggler and what he’s wrestling down the stairs is a keef stuffed camel saddle. Enterprise. He’s going to chance the Post he says; we’re eating spicy stew a stones throw from Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton’s pink painted pad. We don’t go in and trip over William S. Burroughs or Gysin or Bowles or any of the other literary cats having a naked lunch. We don’t penetrate the scene. We don’t, in that three weeks, hardly go out of the casbah – we’re here to stone it and we do.
I know it was 1965 because I caught the Rolling Stones in their skanky swim wear on the beach. Got a look at their skinny white thighs and rushed into the surf with an ounce of finest in my pocket. Postcards. Memory wont raise its skirts any higher; something African made a claim on me, something to do with time, the perceptual system: stuff comes in, your head does something to it and then you perceive it – Tangier put a knot in that loop. It was like the loop included something I couldn’t quite see which I did wrong trying to make useful. I’ve been too hung up on useful ever since while all the time this beautiful garment, shimmering, was waiting for me to put on – and I never did.
But I’m coming out of that now, I’m starting to see another way; I don’t lunge for the fish any more because I know it is just the water and the bent stick. I have no knowledge in the real sense of the word. The way I am now is I hardly project at all, I can feel the back spaces of my head as well as the front. I sit quiet and drop my attention equally over the whole scene.
Look at this description by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski of the African view of time:
Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy towards it. It is subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man…*
…Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world, ebbing and flowing, and if it draws near and fills us up, it will give us strength to set time into motion – something will start to happen. Until this occurs, however, one must wait; any other behaviour is delusional and quixotic…
You may say that the northern crust of the continent, like at Tangier, has been muslimmed out but I think Kapuscinski’s insight rests solid. I think our elder brothers down there know something useful about our place in time, our place in the middle of quantum mysteries. Scientists shake their fingers at us and insist these things are not for the everyday scale – but I’m not so sure they can’t be accessed. Take phase entanglement for example.
Effectively if two space/time events interact they each pick up and carry on certain information about the other. Phase entanglement, if true, means part of each space/time event is left in the other’s care to use Nick Herbert’s expressive phrase. Memory anybody? I wont say it is but it is like when you balance something finely, I mean an object say a pot or pan on the washing up pile, your hands leave the balance you’ve made and you turn away but feel the connection still, feel the forces in balance in your head. Don’t you?
Tangier anybody? I didn’t mean to get into this – feeling for the continuity between whatever happened there in 1965 and now when it is coming time to reckon up, put some stuff in a coloured handkerchief and set out with the six foot ash staff for the place, the hollow in the bushes, where I can lay up and wait for the shadow of the bird who’s going to come down and peck peck peck me away out of life.
Up on the hotel roof, the warm orange disc is lipping the parapet with its smile. The call to prayer begins, the honking speaker with the dusty wires, and the seduction of the swallowed and stopped sounds begins to work on me. The American girls have gone away with IGM. The criminologist and his friend have gone into their room to cook. There is just the man squatted down on his goat hair rug. A booking office clerk who still wears half his uniform. I’m lying on a hip and an elbow. He is saying what he says every time we’ve seen him the last few days,
“I’m going back tomorrow”
Each time we see him he’s lost another button off his waistcoat. He trades them.
“So where you going back to?”
It seems right somehow; the first time we saw him he still had his semi-pillbox cap like a toy version of the kepi worn by the Foreign Legion brutes. The black cloth lined with red piping came in just after diesel electric locomotives. Modernisation by engineers, re-branding by Hardy Amies, designer to the Queen. He turned the rail staff into proper flunkeys. Windsor station with its Victorian fretwork for Europe’s last monarchy.
“Didn’t you find a family?”
I knew he’d had this idea of a nest, paying a little rent, teaching a little English. Rifi was looking out for something for him. I saw him curled up in his nest behind the door in the last and smallest room with no window and his red piped waistcoat pegged up with the carpet bag he had his things in.
He looked down. He was actually whittling a stick as we spoke, he had an idea about making things to sell.
“What’s that?” I searched for his name but I didn’t have it, Colin? Paul?
He looked up. He had glasses and heavy eyebrows half outside them, it was like he was going to ask me where I wanted a ticket for. How complicated could his job really be I wondered. Could I be a booking clerk?
He showed me what he had been working on and I recognised thought. It was the top half of a pen. He’d noticed that pens were used as a sign by pushy Tangerines. They paraded them in the jacket top pockets. He thought they would put up with fakes if they were cheap enough. He was going to paint them silver.
It seemed to work. When we left Tangier we brushed past him on the way to the Port. He had a nook between two buildings where guys bought his fakes. By then he had a soft brown hat and a baggy suit jacket and he’d grown a moustache to match up with his eyebrows. He must have found a family; I didn’t see how he could have made so many wooden pen tops so quick himself.
* Ryszard Kapuscinski
The shadow of the sun
Penguin Books 2002