Ultima, p.8

Ultima, page 8

 

Ultima
 



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  ‘You’re so kind,’ I cooed, ‘but you know – I should really be more discreet. Our client is a very private person.’

  ‘Naturally.’

  I thanked her again and retrieved da Silva. We were barely out of the door before I heard Poppet sensationally informing the company that someone had come to look at Les Orangers.

  Da Silva had Google Maps up on his phone. ‘The Kasbah’s this way.’

  ‘Yes. I can see it.’

  We made our way up a steep street towards the main Tangier square, the Grand Socco. Taxis honked and crawled between crates of live chickens and Berber women in wide-brimmed straw hats with trays of eggs and herbs. First I took a look at the ex-pat estate agent’s, Price and Henslop. Despite a number of fancy-looking modern villas advertised in the windows, the office had a flyblown air. There was no notice for Les Orangers. The cafés around the wide, irregular space of the Socco were full of men, smoking and drinking tea and Coca-Cola. The only female customers were tourists. We sat down outside the rather gorgeous art deco cinema and da Silva finally ordered his espresso. He lit two fags with the Dupont, glancing cautiously round for pouncing pickpockets.

  ‘What now, then?’ he asked glumly.

  ‘Well, we’re on the list! Worth the sermon, no?’

  ‘How did you do that?’

  ‘I used to work at the House. Magic password. The address of the place we need isn’t listed online. Thought it was worth a try. Now you are going back to the hotel and I’m going for a walk. Without you. My passport’s at the Miranda, I’m not going far.’

  *

  For a while after he had left, I wandered through the streets down to the port, revelling in simply, finally, being alone. I bought a paper cup of little grey snails in thin amber liquor from a huge steel cauldron and ate them with a pin. Then I retraced my way to the market, eyeing the goods tumbled out on cloths on the pavement. Ancient phones, single worn shoes, cassette tapes – it seemed incredible that anyone could have a use for most of the junk, but crowds of men were energetically picking it over. One cloth held nothing but rusted bolts and screws, another a variety of well-worn tools. Promising. I asked the stallholder in French if he had a hacksaw. He rummaged around in the heap and produced a new one with a red plastic handle. ‘Only one dirham!’ About ninety pence.

  ‘Shuk’haram. Thank you. But I wanted something more like this, please.’

  I held up a wooden-handled hammer. ‘Something old.’

  He pushed his gnarled wool beanie back on a bald head and sorted through the strata of iron to produce a little saw, the blade discoloured with age but the teeth still sharp-looking.

  ‘Perfect!’

  ‘Five dirhams for this.’

  He looked almost disappointed when I immediately handed over a note, but it would have been indecent to haggle. I put the tool carefully in my bag and headed into the medina.

  I was making for the Petit Socco, the smaller square which had once been the centre of literary Tangier. Pushing through swinging rails of djellabas, leather babouches stacked up for tourists, stacks of argan oil soap, I was lost in minutes, but getting up a map felt like cheating.

  ‘You want something, mademoiselle?’ A young guy, black – not Moroccan – in jeans, hoodie and box-fresh Nikes.

  ‘Non merci.’

  ‘You want the Kasbah, your hotel? You want . . . something to smoke?’

  ‘Certainly not!’ I sounded like an E.M. Forster governess.

  ‘Why you here by yourself, then?’

  ‘Please, I’m fine. You’re very kind. Now I have to go.’ I turned blindly down the nearest alley, which turned out to be the entrance to a hunched, shabby mosque.

  ‘Lady. You is lost.’

  I scrabbled in my purse for a few dirham notes. ‘OK. You win. I want to get to the Petit Socco.’

  ‘No charge, lady. This way.’

  I followed him for an embarrassingly short period of time to a steep triangular space, lined like the larger square with cafés. He refused another offer of money, but didn’t show any sign of fucking off as I took a seat at a yellow-enamelled table.

  ‘You wanna buy me a Coke, lady?’

  ‘No. Please go away.’

  ‘OK.’ He made to leave, rolling his shoulders emphatically. Had he thought I was trying to pick him up? Of course he had. Christ.

  ‘Wait! Sorry, what’s your name?’

  ‘Abouboukar, lady. Abouboukar from Côte d’Ivoire!’

  ‘Do you want that Coke?’

  ‘Sure, lady.’

  ‘Can you drive?’

  ‘Drive? Sure I can. Well, I haven’t got a licence, but—’

  ‘Grand. Have a seat.’

  We had a very satisfactory conversation over his Coke and my mint tea, exchanged numbers and agreed to speak the next day. He offered to escort me back to the Miranda – no charge – but I didn’t see any reason for he and da Silva to meet just yet. Instead I asked Abouboukar to find me a taxi to the Café Hafa, just out of the old city on the cliffs above the sea, and ate grilled sardines and flatbread on my own, just the way I liked it.

  *

  Poppet’s card took us to a street of fifties apartments between the old town and the new, three- or four-storey buildings with Spanish-style, glass-enclosed balconies. We took a wheezing lift to the top floor, where the door was opened by a servant in white shirt and trousers and a fez. As he was taking our jackets, a small woman in a headscarf bustled down the hall with a tray of empty glasses. She offered them to the man, who refused to take them, and the two began a vigorous argument in Arabic. Poppet barrelled out of a side door in a black and gold number with matching turban, snatched the tray, screeched at the woman in pidgin French and actually kicked the man’s backside as he turned to stow the coats.

  ‘Twenty years they’ve been at it!’ Poppet crowed. The servant had resumed his post by the door, apparently unperturbed. ‘The cook won’t serve drinks because of alcohol. Hassan there won’t take the tray because he maintains it’s woman’s work. Really. Well, here you are, dears. Come in, come in! Katherine and er . . .’

  ‘Giovanni,’ I supplied quickly. Da Silva took that and dipped over Poppet’s outstretched hand, which seemed to rejoice her. He was wearing a pressed pale-blue linen shirt that flattered his dark hair, though he had balked at my suggestion of a tie. Evenings in Tangier were cool, so I had stuck with the Sunday-best look, an ivory-silk shirt worn under my old black Chanel suit. Poppet handed us an enormous gin and tonic each and conducted us to the drawing room, a mixture of Edwardian chintz and velvet with Moroccan tables and carved ottomans. The thick dark-red velvet curtains were drawn, though it was barely sunset outside, and the air was heavy with tobacco and the tinny, oily breath of people who have been drinking through a long afternoon.

  ‘Now, where’s Jonny?’ asked Poppet busily. ‘He’s not here yet. Never mind, you can talk to—’

  A girl with a curly cap of red hair sprang up from behind a sofa. ‘I’m Muffie!’ she announced. ‘Sausage?’ She was proffering a plate of chipolatas. ‘Heaven, aren’t they? We all bring them over from Marks and Sparks, when we go home.’ From the way she sighed the word you would have thought London was beyond a distant ocean, involving a three-month voyage with a stopover in Port Said. ‘And this is Juancho.’

  Juancho looked like a miniature polo player, a wizened cheroot of a man in riding boots and jodhpurs with a sun-strafed forehead and artful grey curls hanging off his collar.

  ‘They’re after Les Orangers,’ whispered Poppet conspiratorially.

  ‘Are you now? And is that all that brings you to Tangier, dear boy?’ This voice, which boomed and minced in equal measure, seemed to be attached to the stripe-shirted arm that was snaking its way around da Silva’s shoulders.

  ‘Leave him alone, Vivi,’ slurred Juancho in a heavy South American accent. Apart from da Silva and me, all of Poppet’s guests appeared to be well and truly pelted. The arm snaked down da Silva’s chest as its owner turn
ed towards us, a big fair Englishman in a paisley cravat. ‘Vivian Forrest. You can call me Vivi, darling. But your girlfriend can’t.’

  ‘How do you do?’ stammered da Silva.

  ‘Fairly, fairly. Spotted you at church this morning, didn’t we? Now tell me’ – the arm was drawing da Silva away – ‘you look jolly fit. Keen on the muscle exercises, are we?’ They made for a corner where several more cravatted Europeans had corralled a couple of Moroccan boys.

  ‘Darlings, look what I’ve brought you!’ shrieked Vivi.

  The camp sat weirdly with his rugby-player physique, but I reckoned da Silva was more than capable of handling a few old queens, so I turned back to Muffie. Juancho had subsided amongst the cushions, fumbling for a cigarette, though he already had a gold-tipped Sobranie between his withered lips.

  ‘They say it’s haunted, you know,’ Muffie confided, ‘Les Orangers. Jonny Strathdrummond says they can’t get any of the locals to clean it.’

  ‘I was hoping to meet him. But . . . er, what brought you to Tangier, Muffie?’ I added quickly. I didn’t fancy another round of working out who everyone knew in common.

  ‘Oh, I make jewellery and bags and things. That’s one of mine, over there.’

  She pointed across the room to a woman in a dark trouser suit, burgundy lipstick bleeding onto her teeth. On the floor next to her brogues was a green silk pouch with two Moroccan bangles for a handle.

  ‘Lovely,’ I managed, which I suppose it was, if occupational therapy was your thing. ‘You must give me a card. So tell me more about the ghosts!’

  ‘Well, Jonny Strathdrummond says they’ve heard noises there. Groaning and moaning, like a banshee.’

  ‘Really?’ I had a feeling I knew what that might be. ‘So it’s pretty spooky?’

  ‘Oh yah. Out on the cliffs, past the Hafa. You wouldn’t catch me there on a dark night!’

  We were interrupted by Hassan ringing a small handbell while the cook brought out a huge dish of what looked like shepherd’s pie.

  ‘Din-dins!’ squeaked Muffie. Da Silva was practically sprinting for the hot buffet, out of Vivi’s clutches. The food was actually delicious – peas with lettuce and crisp rosemary potatoes alongside the pie, though I doubted even they would soak up all the gin. We hung around, but the famous Jonny Strathdrummond didn’t show, until Poppet kindly offered to ring him up.

  ‘Migraine!’ she announced. ‘But he says he can meet you tomorrow evening, at the Club Maroc at six thirty.’

  ‘You’re a marvel, Poppet,’ I thanked her.

  ‘Well, we’ve got to stick together, haven’t we? Are you and your colleague going to be here for the New Year?’

  ‘I don’t think so, sadly.’

  ‘Such a pity! The dervish musicians are quite something – they go all over the town with their lovely drums. Now, do telephone if there’s anything you need. And if you change your mind about New Year, the Whitakers always have the most wonderful party – they’d love to see any friend of Laura’s!’

  As I was manoeuvring us into the hallway, a hand clutched at me from behind a miniature orange tree on a brass stand. ‘Want another drink?’

  ‘No, thank you, I’m afraid we’re leaving.’

  ‘Oh. Well, if you don’t want another gin and tonic, you can fuck off!’

  I peered between the bright little fruits. It was the vicar’s wife.

  *

  Da Silva glared at me all the way back to the Kasbah. ‘Sono pazzi, gli inglese. Are you all alcoholics?’

  ‘Most of us. Burden of empire and all that.’

  ‘And why did you feel the need for that shit? Montenegro?’

  ‘Because the thing is . . .’ I paused. How to explain the name game to an Italian? The slapping of mutual acquaintances down like cards, ascertaining precisely where someone stands in the hierarchy of status that everyone pretends doesn’t exist any more?

  ‘There’s a certain sort of English person, who still thinks of themselves as part of a particular class. They care about stuff like how people speak, where they went to school – most of all, who they know in common. Knowing people is a password, like I said. And if people aren’t in the club, they want to pretend. It’s even more difficult because the club has invisible walls. So Poppet will think that because I said Montenegro, because I mentioned the House, that we are those sorts of people. Like her, or at least, who they’re all pretending to be. So, when we do our thing tomorrow, all that information will confuse them. It will keep them explaining and gossiping for weeks, while we skip town. Besides, didn’t you think it was a nice party?’

  ‘I don’t understand dick of what you’re saying.’

  ‘You don’t need to. Just do as you’re told.’

  8

  From the terrace at the top of the riad I had looked across the harbour to a long crescent of sand framed with tall modern hotels. Between the buildings and the Bay of Tangier was stretched a palm-flanked promenade, lumen-clogged with the lights of early evening traffic. From that perspective, Tangier was a city like any other, but up here, in the sinuous alleys of the Kasbah, it was almost impossible to believe it existed. As I walked uphill the next evening between the white walls and bright painted doorways, women in djellabas and sandals filled plastic containers at standpipes, precariously illuminated by the crazy web of improvised electric wiring that trailed like creeper between the houses. Grubby, half-dressed children streaked busily past me, a man pushing a handcart loaded with a luridly patterned velour sofa spat thickly as he laboured up a flight of shallow steps. The shadows were moth-soft with tumbling, skinny cats. The higher I climbed, the quieter it became, and the layered scents of the air – diesel, sewage, lemon, jasmine, cumin, sweat – peeled away until, as I came out into the square, I could smell only the clean ozone of the Atlantic.

  The Club Maroc looked incongruously smart against the stillness of the crumbling, ancient citadel walls, its gleamingly restored colonial verandas shut in with spruce green blinds. A doorman in a white jacket waited outside; as I approached another chunky Mercedes taxi pulled up and he held the door open for a middle-aged tourist couple.

  ‘Bonsoir, madame.’

  Inside, it was the twenty-first century again, the standard version of Morocco peddled from Moscow to New York. Dark-red walls, low brass tables, intricate lanterns, embroidered cushions. I asked for the bar and was directed across a courtyard strewn with the inevitable rose petals to a roofed terrace furnished with stolid leather club chairs. I took a seat and a waiter appeared with a small brass bowl and a long-handled jug, from which he poured orange-flower water over my hands before handing me a monogrammed linen towel. I asked him in French for a kir framboise and sat back, watching the smooth dimming of the sky.

  ‘Miss Gable? Miss Katherine Gable?’

  The voice came from behind the high back of my armchair. It was the kind of voice I had become unaccustomed to hearing since I left my job at the House in London, a relic of a voice, marooned somewhere between D-Day and the Suez crisis, though its owner couldn’t have been more than sixty.

  ‘May I? Thank you. Jonathan Strathdrummond. Drink? Oh, very good, I’ll take a gin and tonic, there’s a good chap.’

  ‘Thank you for meeting me, Mr Strathdrummond.’

  ‘Oh, please call me Jonny. We don’t stand on ceremony out here, you’ll find. You must have seen that at Poppet’s place, eh?’

  Jonny wore a crisp pale suit, gleaming Church’s brogues and what I strongly suspected was not an Old Harrovian tie. If he’d taken down the accent and removed the signet ring he might have passed, but then presumably the reason he lived in Tangier was so he didn’t have to.

  ‘Found the place easily enough?’ He took a long swallow of his drink.

  ‘Yes, thank you. I had a wonderful walk.’

  ‘Game girl. Have to have your wits about you in the old Kasbah.’ I was tempted to add that I’d forgotten my parasol and would he send his bearer for it, chop-chop, but I didn’t think he’d la
ugh.

  ‘As I explained in my email’ – Jonny winced a bit at that, perhaps it was knocking a bit at the old colonial dream to mention technology – ‘I’m interested in Mikhail Balensky’s house.’

  ‘Quite. Rum business, what?’ Christ, was the man ever going to let up on the dear old Raj shtick?

  ‘I understand it’s for sale.’

  ‘That’s about it. Sorry I didn’t get back to you. Christmas holidays and so on. Do you know Tangier well?’

  I could see that estate agent hadn’t perhaps been Jonny’s optimal career choice but I was going to have to move things along a bit. Abouboukar had messaged me to say they were waiting at the property with the truck, but he and the boys wouldn’t stand around all night.

  ‘Would you care to see a menu, madame?’

  Jonny looked at me hopefully. Close up, I could see the foxing on his shirt cuff, the grease in the carefully pressed seam of his trousers. Momentarily, I was rather sorry for him.

  ‘Thank you, I don’t think we have time.’ I turned back to Jonny. ‘The thing is, my client is very keen to acquire the house, and so I need to see it as soon as possible.’

  ‘Really?’ Any wistful longing for a pigeon tagine forgotten, Jonny was all business. He reached into his jacket for a diary. ‘Well, how about the day after tomorrow? Got a few things pencilled in but I daresay I could bung them back—’

  ‘I want to see the house tonight, please. Perhaps you could ask them to call us a cab?’

  ‘Now? But, well, it’s dark.’

  ‘That’s not a problem.’ I leaned forward and laid a confidential hand on his arm. ‘You see, the thing is, my client is a very busy man. He has a very significant portfolio and he tends to get . . . distracted. If we both want our – um – commissions, Jonny, we need to move on this.’

 
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