Zellige

The throb in her abdomen, sting in her groin, stiffness in her lower back, swelling in her left knee – which she knocked when she collapsed outside the tannery – the grit behind her eyelids, tightness in her calves, rip in her still swollen tongue – she remembered biting it deliberately to eclipse the pain as she was lifted into a wheelbarrow and pushed through the crowded, cobbled streets of the medina – the ache and discomfort she was still suffering nine days after her fallopian tube had ruptured, was nothing compared to the hurt of knowing Michael wasn’t coming.

Salma had knocked twice before entering Elspeth’s room. She’d brought a bowl of salty olives and a fax from her brother.

Aamir worked in the Kasbah in Soho, a small restaurant off Brewer Street that Michael often stumbled into late at night when the adjacent bars were too crowded, too noisy and too concerned by his levels of inebriation to serve him anymore. Aamir and Elspeth had spent many an evening manhandling Michael into cabs or, if they thought he could make it, the short distance back to the flat – they would half drag, half carry him there themselves. Things had got desperate, Michael went to rehab and weeks later emerged sober and keen to start writing again so Elspeth had kept him away from bars, and everyone away from him, and in between working shifts at The Blue Anchor, her early morning cleaning job and the odd few hours modelling for an artists’ collective, she cooked wholesome soups, hired foreign-language films from the video shop on the corner and read to him. He’d kept it up for three months, and even had a meeting with a publisher about a new collection of poems, before stumbling back into the Kasbah one Thursday night and vomiting into a vase. It was Aamir who told Elspeth she’d done all she could; that she needed to go away and if he could be so bold, his sister ran a small hotel in Fez.

“What does he say,” Elspeth had asked as she tried to sit up. Salma came closer to the bed and rearranged the pillows behind her back.

“Michael no come,” she’d replied.

Elspeth took the fax and scanned it quickly. The first part was from Michael: “can’t find passport … can’t face flight … too sick.” His handwriting was still beautiful, the page dancing with expansive flourishes of thick italic ink. Then Aamir took over with a paragraph written in Arabic – obviously meant for his sister – and underneath he’d written in English:

“Michael is in a bad way. He cries for you or maybe himself, it’s hard to say. He’s sent some money for my sister, for her to look after you, so you can take as long as you need. When you are better, Salma will take you to our cousin’s factory. They make Zellige tiles, each one shaped individually from local clay and hand painted. They are the most beautiful tiles in the world, but they are not perfect.”

*

Salma was a wonderful cook. Every lunchtime, after Elspeth returned from the hospital, she bought her homemade bread and salads and thick Harira soup. In the evening, she made tagines – chicken, beef and goat – and she would carry an earthenware pot up to Elspeth’s room and set up a little table in the corner by the window. When she removed the domed lid, the rich aroma of meat, ginger and garlic would waft towards the bed. Elspeth had no appetite to begin with, but after her first visit from Docteur Larbi, who reassured her that she was healing well and that there was no infection – either in the ropey scar that reached from her belly button to the itchy strip where they’d shaved her pubic hair, or deeper in her abdomen – she began to tentatively look forward to Salma’s meals and the short bursts of company; the few forkfuls of bland couscous and coriander leaves soon gave way to bowls filled with thick, spicy stew.

*

It wasn’t an unpleasant room in which to convalesce. A much simpler décor than the rooms downstairs with their chalky blue walls and carved wooden doors, piles of Berber cushions, coloured rugs and big clay pots filled with dense, dusty-looking plants, but its sparsity suited Elspeth. The pale yellow walls and plain metal bed seemed a fitting place to reflect on how she’d managed to end up alone in a city so far from home. The high windows and pendant lamp offered just enough light.

*

Elspeth had no memory of the hospital. She recalled the thin-limbed boy standing over her and praying whilst his brother got the wheelbarrow. She remembered how he jabbed himself in the chest saying “Medhi, Medhi” then gently held her hand as she mumbled her name and where she was staying.

She wanted to repay him for his kindness and asked Salma if they would be able to find him again, but she just laughed and shook her head.

“One million Medhis in Medina!” she’d said.

Elspeth remembered that morning clearly enough: the pain in her shoulder – she’d assumed it had come from carrying a heavy rucksack – and the upset tummy that she’d put down to the street food consumed the day before. She remembered wandering through the narrow streets of the souk and recognising a stall selling musical instruments hanging from a corrugated sheet of metal, and another selling spices and bunches of dried fish which caught the light where the sun slew down between the roofs. She’d known that sooner or later she’d find the tannery again – the smell would warn her when she was getting close – and she was in no hurry. She’d stopped to admire a huge copper urn and haggle over a bag of dates.

She wanted to buy Michael a leather pouffe. She had no idea how she would get it home or indeed if she would even choose to see him when she returned, but she couldn’t resist the idea of him resting his sore foot on one of the beautiful round stuffed cushions, instead of a pile of tatty books. His gout was a result of his drinking of course, but when it struck, he drank even more to numb the pain. He was probably beyond deriving any pleasure from the colourful leather and splendid geometric designs, but caring for him was a habit she was also struggling to break.

And there it was: The Rue Chouara with its stalls of tightly packed slippers, handbags hanging round doorways and tables laid out with jackets, wallets and purses. Herded into a shop, mint leaves were pressed into her hand and she was led up some steps at the back, and out onto a balcony which overlooked the terraces of the crumbling stone buildings surrounding the rows of round terracotta vessels filled with colour, and the squarer white vats, full of pale liquid made from cow urine, pigeon faeces and quicklime. That was where the raw skins were soaked before being hauled out, scrubbed, draped over balconies to dry in the blistering heat, then scraped and plunged into the wells of dye. Even when she’d held the mint to her nose, the stench was overwhelming. Elspeth remembered feeling a little dizzy and she’d sat down on a proffered stool as a guide explained to her that this was an ancient process. He described men standing thigh high in vats, stomping on the animal skins to help them absorb the colour, how much they would sweat when they buffed them with oil to lock in the stains.

“Where do they get the colour from?” she’d asked, trying to put off the moment when the hard sell would begin.

“Orange is henna, blue is indigo, yellow from saffron and red, the colour of love,” he’d said, pausing for a flirty smile, “is from the poppy flower.”

*

When Docteur Larbi came again, to remove her stitches, he told her that she’d almost bled to death.

“By the time we get you in the operating theatre,” he said, “you already in hypovolemic shock.”

He had a heavy accent and even though he sounded out “hy-pol-ov-em-ic” syllable by syllable, she didn’t recognise the word and asked him to repeat it.

“You were very pale, Madam,” he explained. “Very pale and nearly looking at death. We had to cut you very fast. It isn’t the most prettiest scar,” he added on examination.

When he straightened up, he stared pointedly at her left hand lying on top of the bed sheet.

“Ectopic pregnancy is often come with lifestyle. Many partner mean many diseases. You are older lady, so maybe you be careful now?”

“Will I still be able to have children?” Elspeth asked.

“You are older lady,” he replied wobbling his head from side to side. “Next time I bring oil to rub in and help with healing,” and he left leaving the door slightly ajar.

*

Elspeth tried reading. Salma bought her some English books from the shelf in reception: a couple of dog-eared thrillers, a Jilly Cooper and a history of the Al Karouine Library. Elspeth flicked through them and then left them on the bedside table and lay propped up on her pillows, staring at the fan.

*

The night she met Michael, she’d been with some friends at a pub in Hammersmith and they’d dragged her along to a party somewhere out near Shepherd’s Bush. It was on the top floor of a tatty terraced house and as they stumbled up the street from the tube station a man was sitting astride the balcony, swaying and singing in a language Elspeth didn’t understand.

“Yan is at it again,” someone said as they pushed open the front door and started to climb the stairs. Elspeth didn’t follow them. She sat on the stone step and lit a cigarette.

“It’s rather beautiful, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her. She turned around to see a man – tall, solid, battered leather jacket – resting his shoulder on the doorframe. “It’s a polish love song.”

“Is it safe?” said Elspeth looking up at the foot hanging four floors above but directly over her head.

“Love is never safe,” he replied.

She moved in with him three weeks later.

*

When Michael had his second poetry collection published, it was well reviewed and as his editor had promised, it opened doors. There were readings in the big London bookshops, interviews in literary magazines and even a weekend newspaper, and they were invited to all the right parties. That’s when she first noticed his drinking was a problem. They all seemed to drink a lot, but he would come home and carry on, often sitting up until dawn. She’d wander into the sitting room to find him sprawled in an armchair, surrounded with notebooks, scraps of paper and empty bottles – wine, beer and spirits. Eighteen months later, she was visiting the bottle bank every couple of days and by then it was only whisky and vodka bottles that she was chucking into the huge metal bins, feeling cheated if they didn’t smash.

Sometimes he tried to give up and within hours he would be sweating, shaking and weeping. He would cling onto her as if he was drowning and beg her to never leave him and then stagger around the tiny flat howling abuse at the world – his publisher, his father, his ex-wife and her, of course. He said she was suffocating him; her care, her love – he didn’t want it. He hit her once and was so full of remorse he wrote a poem that went on to win a prize.

He slept with other women, so she did too. She wanted to hurt him like he’d hurt her, but she couldn’t bring herself to hold another man. When he found out, he laughed, then cried and they spent three days in bed. He told her she was the most beautiful, arousing and inspiring woman he’d ever known. She was the love of his life, his queen, his muse; his Calliope and his Fanny Brawne, his Beatrice Portinari, his Maude Gonne. Then they ran out of gin.

For six years she’d cooked and cleaned and typed up his poems. She’d made excuses to his publishers and peace with his friends. She’d massaged his feet, worked triple shifts to pay their rent and then come home to scrub his piss out of their mattress. She’d lost time, self-respect, any meaningful career of her own, and now an ovary and maybe her last chance…

Michael liked to shrug and quote Kafka: “the positive is already given”. She picked up the Jilly Cooper and read the last page. “ENOUGH” she scrawled in pencil down the margin. Enough. Enough. Enough.

*

Another guest in the hotel was travelling back to London. It was short notice, but Salma suggested that Elspeth travel on the same plane and that way they could ensure that she’d be looked after and that at no stage would she need to carry her bag. Elspeth came down to the dining room and met the woman in question. She was a grandmother, travelling alone after a recent divorce. She hadn’t been too friendly, or too talkative, or indeed overly keen to help, all of which had been a relief. Elspeth wasn’t looking for friendship, she just wanted to get back to England without putting her recovery at risk. And she couldn’t have coped with too much kindness, not now that she had decided her days of giving too freely of herself, were over.

She went to reception the following morning and used the phone to confirm her flight. She looked out through the open door into the street and wondered about a gentle walk later – once the sun was lower in the sky and she could find a short route entirely in the shade – but nothing was gentle in Morocco. The moment she left the sanctuary of her hotel she’d be approached by beggars, hawkers selling hashish, street urchins, and she had nothing for them.

She wrote some letters instead, which she didn’t post, and slowly packed her bag.

*

On the last morning, she got up early, dressed herself and sat on the end of her bed. Docteur Larbi had given her some painkillers for the flight and she laid them out on the table with her passport and the last of her dirhams, which she planned to leave for Salma and her family. She read Aamir’s fax again, before rolling it up and putting it in the bin in the corner of the room. She traced the mosaic of black and white tiles with her big toe, and carefully bent down to put on her shoes.

A few days before, she’d remembered her Sony Walkman in the bedside table. The batteries were flat, so Salma’s husband had bought her some more. Before leaving London, she’d grabbed a handful of cassettes and thrown them loose into her rucksack, but space was tighter now, so she chose a tape at random, inserted it into the machine and slid the others into her walking boots.

There was a knock at the door and before Elspeth could answer, it swung open and there was Salma’s daughter, carefully balancing a tray with a glass of mint tea. Elspeth had seen the girl downstairs, watching from behind her mother’s skirt. She must have been seven or eight years old, a scrawny little thing with long hair that looked like it could do with a brush. It was the first time she’d been up to Elspeth’s room and it took all her concentration not to spill the hot, sweet liquid as she walked in a pair of leather sandals, much too big for her feet. With each careful step, the buckle on a broken strap slapped the floor.

“Thank you,” said Elspeth as she took the glass in both hands and placed it on the windowsill. The girl grinned, exposing more gaps than teeth, lifted her arm and rattled her bangles.

“Very nice,” said Elspeth and the girl nodded. “What’s your name?”

The girl bounced up and down on her toes.

“Do you speak English? Or French?” The girl grinned again but said nothing.

They stood like that, staring at each other, nodding and smiling until Elspeth saw the girl glance at the Walkman lying on the bed. She picked it up and held it out, but the girl stepped backwards so Elspeth put the headphones on herself, pressed play and started bobbing her head to the music. The girl smiled, less confidently now and a frown followed shortly afterwards.

“Music,” said Elspeth, over annunciating, but the girl clearly didn’t understand. She reached up to her own ear and fiddled with the lobe.

Elspeth tried humming along but the girl took another step backwards, closer to the door.

Elspeth removed the headphones and lowered herself carefully onto the bed. She patted the sheet beside her and the girl, understanding this at least, came over but she wouldn’t sit. She hovered in front of Elspeth instead, her eyes darting back and forth between Elspeth’s face and hands. Elspeth slowly lifted the headphones again and placed them on the girl, adjusting the two sponge pads so that they sat flat against her ears. The girl waited, Elspeth held up the machine again and pressed play.

The girl jerked her head towards the window, then the door, then the fan, before turning back to Elspeth, her eyes wide with wonder. Elspeth clapped her hands and laughed, and the girl laughed too, before twisting round and squinting at the shower, the ceiling cracks, the floor, still looking for Elgar’s cello.

Clare Owen

About Clare Owen

After completing an English degree at Oxford University and working as an actor and arts administrator in London, Clare Owen married a boatbuilder and moved to Cornwall. In 2008 she founded a theatre company specialising in improvising the real life stories of audiences around the county and she co-writes and performs with the all women ensemble, Riot of the Freelance Mind. Her short stories have been published online and in print, including in Mslexia, Storgy and the anthology An Outbreak of Peace (Arachne Press). Her first YA novel, Zed and the Cormorants, will be published April 2021 (Arachne Press).

After completing an English degree at Oxford University and working as an actor and arts administrator in London, Clare Owen married a boatbuilder and moved to Cornwall. In 2008 she founded a theatre company specialising in improvising the real life stories of audiences around the county and she co-writes and performs with the all women ensemble, Riot of the Freelance Mind. Her short stories have been published online and in print, including in Mslexia, Storgy and the anthology An Outbreak of Peace (Arachne Press). Her first YA novel, Zed and the Cormorants, will be published April 2021 (Arachne Press).

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