On the House

by Arthur Mackeown


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 over to the row of budget hotels on the edge of the square. Too tired to drag his heavy rucksack any further,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 talk 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 address 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 said to...”

“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 Marrakech...

Directly beneath him stretched the old city, purple and coral pink under a clear yellow sky. To his right, swallows darted and dipped about the flat-topped minaret of a tiny mosque, whose mud walls burned bright orange in the last rays of the 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.

To his left lay the Djemma el Fnaa, where a lone drummer accompanied by wailing flutes was beating his drum in a fast, thunderous rhythm. Horns blared and brakes screeched as horse-drawn carriages packed with excited tourists blocked the traffic. Innumerable mopeds whizzed to and fro.

Hundreds of people milled around food stalls lit by skeins of glowing light bulbs. Flames belched and spat from ovens and open grills, sending up billowing clouds of grey smoke into the cold air. His nostrils filled with the mouth-watering smells of roasting meat, hot bread and mint, and he remembered he hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

He thought he’d better get down there sharpish, or there’d be no food left, so he stubbed out his cigarette and hurried back 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.

* * *

As he entered the square Thomas 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, 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 in the least. Circuses could wait. First 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. He was spotted immediately by a small boy with a no-nonsense manner, who 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, although he knew the man would almost certainly be back.

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 winked.

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’ve 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 fini... 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 as protection against the evil eye. As far as he could tell they were a real bargain, and he was very pleased with himself. If he’d gone with that guide there’d have been a fifty per-cent mark-up, for sure.

As he turned back towards the Djemma el Fnaa 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, he 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. The absence of people he could see unsettled him, yet he knew he wasn’t alone. Sometimes 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?”

Hallas!” 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 bellboy 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 are a valued customer. And 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. We must go now,” he said 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 back streets 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 here 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 came out into the market at the very spot where Thomas had left it. 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. “Konichi-wa?

* * *

When Thomas reached the square again, he went straight back to his hotel. He’d had enough entertainment for one night. 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.


Copyright © 2010 by Arthur Mackeown

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