When The Ink Dries was first published by Taylor Street Publishing on 6 June 2012 under the title Casablanca, my Heart. The relaunch under the new title and with a new cover took place on 17 October 2012. The reason for the relaunch was that my publisher thought the original edition too sugary. Although a romantic story, it is not a traditional romance as it focuses on a larger scope than just the male and female protagonists.
More info soon!
What happens when a Romance writer meets a Moroccan prince from Casablanca, the city of her dreams?
Author Heather Simpson is taking a cruise on a break from her husband when she is approached by the handsome Ghalib, a French-Moroccan aristocrat who seems to know everything about her and who has been eager to meet her for years.
When the ship docks the next day in Casablanca, Ghalib invites her into his home and into his heart.
As she returns to her husband, was this a short steamy fling or a significant event in the web of coincidences that brought them together and as surely parted them again?
Sometimes it seems we are destined to meet up with the love of our life for only a fleeting moment, leaving us thinking, ‘Did fate work so hard to bring us so little or is there more to come?’
Chapter 1 – Male Attention
Atlantic Ocean, 2 July 2005
We all think we know who we are until life slaps us in the face, just when we least expect it. And then we wonder why. Is it to keep us on our toes, to show us life can be just a random happening, to fulfil that unfathomable Karma assigned to us? No matter how long and hard I have mulled over these questions, there are no answers. All I know is that I had the greatest happiness on earth and I lost it just when I
thought it was truly mine. In a split second I wrecked it all, squandered it for good. But even blame doesn’t rub out the pain; in the end it only increases it. Luuk, my beloved husband is dying and I am taking a vacation on a luxury cruise ship on the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away from his still, white bed, his shallow breath, the tireless monitors. Don’t tell me all this is just to escape the inevitable. I know. I loathe myself, sitting here all dressed up at a table with total strangers when I need to be with the one person I love. All this entourage is staged because I cannot really be with him anymore. I keep wondering whether he still loves me. There is no way he can tell me anymore. And what has that done to my love for him? Will it last forever? If only the questions would cease to roll in like the waves on the sea shore. I am so tired of them and still they come but at least they are more bearable here than when I’m at home. I need the distraction. I desperately need nonsense to rattle through my brain so as not to hear my own sombre thoughts. I blink in the light of the thousand-armed candelabra above our heads, forcing myself to turn my attention outwards, to this ship and to the people on it. Where did I read that sentence: ‘Let everyone be better than you.’
I am one of fifteen semi-strangers sitting around the oval dinner table, our separate conversations muted slightly by the room’s heavy velvet drapes. To my left lounges Henry Fisher, a retired chemistry professor from Boston, Massachusetts. As this is already our fourth day aboard the British liner Costa Victoria, Henry has had ample opportunity to regale me with stories about his wife’s childless womb, her rheumatic joints, and the unsavoury details of the illness which had recently transformed him into a widower. Having exhausted these now familiar musings, he is ready to strike a more cheerful note: his publications.
“I must admit, my dear Femmy,” he says, dabbing the corner of his mouth with a linen napkin, “it is a profound surprise to me that the world’s leading scientific journals, Scientific American and The Scientist, are still lining up to publish my articles. What with all the young blood and all … What’s more, considering today’s extremely advanced research techniques, one would think they had better things to do than print my fossilised ramblings.” He chuckles, a wheezy sort of cough I’ve heard repeatedly over the past four days. “Why, just last month …”
Henry’s rosy cheeks glow with pride, emphasising a myriad of tiny veins which distract my attention from his voice. Still, I am glad he is doing all the talking. I can confine myself to throwing in a timely ‘Aha’, ‘Is that so?’, ‘Really?’. I imagine if we continue at this pace, there will be enough favourite-Henry-topics on my plate to take up the next seven days.
So far he has shown little interest in my life. I cherish this anonymous role in which he has placed me, as I prefer to travel unnoticed. I am sure the circles in which I move are different from his, so I feel safe with him. He is a likeable old chap, absolutely harmless. He is the perfect table companion, under the circumstances.
On my right rocks a plump English teenager who is travelling with her mother and grandmother. The three have similarly shaped figures, possessing little conversation but sufficient appetite to fill their loose-fitting garments. They barely even speak among themselves, apparently preferring to expend their energy scanning the food laid out before us. I’ve met this small female ensemble only at meal times, when the young girl in particular shows a single-minded interest in the puddings and ice creams passing under her nose, spooning heaps of them into her mouth while her eyes scan Elle or Cosmopolitan. The ladies and I haven’t spoken with each other since the introductory round on the first day and limit ourselves to a brief ‘hello’
every time we sit down.
Fortunately, Henry makes up for what they lack in dazzling repartee. An irrepressible urge to interrupt Henry’s monologue creeps up on me and I decide it’s time to sidetrack him.
“Now tell me, Henry, what made you decide to take a cruise to this part of the world?”
He seems surprised to hear my voice, but carries on regardless. The corners of his lips twitch in what I imagine is meant to be a provocative smile, but causes the opposite effect. “A silly question, my girl!”
He chuckles again, sets his napkin on his lap, and I watch it slide to the floor for the umpteenth time during this meal. Myopic, watery eyes blink from behind dust-ridden spectacles, and a pair of mussed white eyebrows wiggle in a pathetic attempt to look naughty. “What other reason could I have other than meeting lovely ladies such as yourself?”
“Oh, Henry, you flatterer!” I give him a coy smile, encouraging him to continue with the gallantry rather than return to the dry lectures. My response seems to please him; he starts fussing with his asparagus soup, tilting his spoon to hide a small, pursed smile.
While I busy myself with picking up Henry’s napkin, the two young women opposite us, Trisha and Amanda, burst into another fit of high-pitched, tinkling laughter that draws all attention to them. I glance in their direction, annoyed at the rowdiness the two platinum blondes and their friends constantly produce. Their loud voices and coarse jokes dominate our table at breakfast, lunch and dinner and the two invariably find themselves at the centre of some group of male admirers, even those seated at other tables. At the introduction I missed whether they were sisters
or friends. What’s sure is that they were trained at the same theatrical school. They display the same posed mannerisms, all played to the gallery to draw attention. I have to hand it to them; the effects are astonishing. Men drool over them, spurring them on to exclaim ever-increasing bêtises, as if they’re the most amusing and talented entertainers in the world. Their show has a stiff dose of mania, so you know at some point something will get out of hand. I don’t want to be around to witness that. The girls are American, probably from Texas; they have that slow, Bush kind of accent. They’re all about new money and little refinement.
I am contemplating whether I’ll go ahead and do us all a favour by asking them to turn down their volume a few notches, when I’m caught by the penetrating gaze of two very blue eyes. He must have entered recently, because I’m sure I haven’t seen him at our table before. He is seated between the two women, so he must be part of their entourage. His gaze fixes me in place as if his hand is pressing against me. It happens at such an unexpected moment I don’t know how to react, and I forget to look away. I’m painfully aware of how vulnerable and exposed I am to this fixation. I do the one thing I wish I wouldn’t do: I blush.
His eyes speak of recognition, which could mean he knows who I am. This is another blow to my self-esteem. The last thing I am looking for during this trip is
having my identity revealed. I’ve tried to look a bit different from the pictures and televised interviews I’ve recently given by dying my hair a few shades, wearing it longer and hiding behind my sunglasses most of the time. So far I think no one on the ship has yet pieced together I’m the author of ‘Summer Blues in Italy’ and ‘The City with the Cross’. Authors can generally enjoy relative anonymity as their faces aren’t imprinted on the public’s retina. But if he has recognised me, I’m sure things will change and I will be the private plaything of these sybaritic cruise passengers before I know it. Even Melanie – horrors! – will give up the gossip on Jennifer Aniston
and Madonna to turn her blasé interest to my person. One cursory glance at my
fellow passengers assures me that if they know who I am, they’ll be all over me. That would lead to a grim few days ahead, for bored people are all alike. When they sniff celebrity, they follow their prey around, ‘befriend’ them so they may taste the last morsel of a famous person’s personal life. Conversations on demand, autographs on the oddest parts and objects, and endless snapshots of you with them and their Chihuahuas. The only safe haven in this minefield would be Henry Fisher. I cannot allow this to happen.
I order myself to remain calm. No need to put the cart before the horse. I might even be mistaken, thinking he knows me. It is unlikely, anyway. The women haven’t bothered to shoot me even one glance over the past few days, though they would be the ones reading my books, not him. He’s probably just a bored, rich layabout, turning himself on by staring at me. Heaven knows why. The company he’s chosen to be with is ten times more glamorous than this solitary scribbler. That’s what it must be: boredom. I look away and ignore both him and his lot.
I return my undivided attention to Henry, who struggles with his lamb chops. The grease on his chin threatens to dribble onto his shirt. Relieved by this distraction, I seize a chance to act the dutiful daughter-figure, helping him tuck his napkin in his shirt to prevent further calamities. Then I concentrate on my own plate, eating my vegetarian dish with studied precision.
I am trying to feel at ease on this ship. It is my temporary home, and I forbid myself to let my thoughts wander to my permanent one. I promised myself I would do that, and I promised it to Rita and Melissa. I am determined to enjoy this holiday. God knows, it is a much needed one. And I want so much to see Casablanca.
Despite myself, I throw another furtive glance across the table, only to find he is still studying me in an unscrupulous manner. His expression carries a mixture of lust and curiosity. I avert my eyes, scolding myself for my lapse, but even with eyes cast down his gaze burns the front of my dress. I’m sure my cleavage is too obvious in my black evening gown. I should have brought a shawl to cover my breasts. I am not good at this.
Henry and I manage to arrive at the dessert without further complications from his side. The bustle of activity that explodes to my right indicates the sweet things have arrived on the table.
“Henry, would you like some rice pudding?”
I grab the dish before Miss Plumpy has time to claim it all for herself. The laughter ringing from across the table must be prompted by my decisive action. Before I know it, I’m looking across the table again. This time I notice a change. His eyes are still on me, and he laughs with the others, but when he catches my glance he interrupts the eye contact and starts talking to the blonde on his left. She giggles, gazing up at him, then engages him in the conversation she was already having with her sister.
Good. His interest was short lived. So much the better. It gives me the opportunity to study him in return. Interesting characters can be found everywhere, and a writer has every excuse in the world to gawk. There is something in the way the woman and he address each other, with a knowing glance, his arm on her chair, the huge diamond on her finger identifying her as a likely candidate for his wife.
Irritation rushes through me, tingling in my fingers. What was he doing with me? She didn’t even notice he was flirting. It’s a relief, though, to know he’s married, because this guy is obviously trouble. He’s too handsome for his own good.
The group’s decibels rise as the level of burgundy wine drops. One glass has already been knocked over, spreading a purple stain on the damask tablecloth. Even good old Henry, blind as he might be to human emotions apart from his own, seems to sense the tension rising at the table. He glances up from his pudding to venture a professorial observation across the table. When he has completed his study, he turns to me.
“That is one heck of a plebeian group over there,” he says, speaking quietly enough that only I can hear. “One of the stewards told me this afternoon that the new guy is a Moroccan prince of some sort. That’s as may be, but I find them all to
be quite disgusting in the way they flash their gold about and are all so voluble.”
I can’t help smiling. “A Moroccan prince? Well, well! But yes, I agree. Quite common people, boring even themselves with their lifestyle, no doubt. Vegas or Monaco,
that’s where they belong. But Henry, let’s not pay any attention to them. Tell me. From everything you’ve been saying, you obviously have a keen power of observation.”
“Oh yes,” he says, clearly pleased to be back on his favourite topic. “And a keen memory as well. I have the memory of an elephant, some say. I never, ever forget a face.” He glares across the table when a fresh giggle bursts from the Americans. “I shall remember every face I see on this cruise and never forget them. It is a blessing and a curse, you know.”
“I can only imagine,” I reply, my expression creased with sympathy. “And what about the relationships between people? You seem to have a natural insight about that. Did you also study the chemistry between you and your wife?” I’m sure he’ll be on it for the remains of the dessert.
After the meal I return to my cabin to fetch a shawl as I want to go on the upper deck for some fresh air. It’s good to retreat from the social chatter for a while. I am so used to a quiet life that I feel a bit overtaken by all the faces and impressions. I sit down in front of the mirror on the red plush-covered stool. Who’s this young woman I’m staring at? The contours of the face still say early thirties, but the eyes look much, much older.
“Why are you always so critical of other people when you damn well know you’re not a hair better than them?” I ask my mirror image. “Your perceptive powers are great for characterisation, Mrs Lovecraft, but they suck when you’re dealing with actual people. Oh, god, I can’t do this, Luuk. I can’t!” Before I feel myself spiralling down into more ‘can’t do’s’, I get up from the stool, grab the Kashmiri shawl and go on
The evening is soft and sensual, just as the brochure promised, and topped off by a sunset of peerless beauty. I linger outside, delaying the return to my cabin where I know I will be tempted to work – or worse, worry about home. With my elbows on the railing, I watch the seagulls dive in and out of the spume following the ship. The ghost of a breeze encourages me to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders.
Two tanned hands with long, slender fingers appear next to my elbow, a gold ring on one of the third fingers. A whiff of tobacco and musk after-shave enters my nostrils, and for a moment it is almost as if his lips brush my hair. I am shocked. It’s him again. And for a second time he has caught me unawares, this time stealing up from behind me without so much as a sound. My mind tells me he shouldn’t be this close, but my body fails me. For a moment I am at the mercy of two arms and an exotic fragrance.
“Finally I have found you.”
When he speaks, the spell is broken. My natural timidity springs to the surface.
“You frightened me! What do you want?” I regain my composure and slip past him, needing to create a safe distance between us. I’m about to walk away when he grabs my arm.
“Wait, please. I mean no harm. Sorry I scared you. It was not my intention. Please. I want to ask you something.” He lets go of my arm and I believe his apology is genuine. I hesitate. His deep, pleasant voice is a surprise, the accent a melting pot of French, Arabic and American. I wait, curious now. The adrenaline boost feels good, making me alert again, snapped back to life after a period of somnolence. I study him in the evening light and must again admit he’s very attractive, with dark, exotic features. Nothing average about him, and the way he’s now struggling to find his words is fascinating: the contradiction of prudence and devilry.
“You are Mrs Lovecraft, the writer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” I sigh, disappointed. There is no use denying it. My anonymity has once again gone by the wayside. Using the same counter-question is always the best approach. “And who are you?”
He waves a dismissive hand. “Never mind who I am. I am not interesting at all. You are the one who is interesting. Ah, you have no idea. In truth, I must admit, I
am obsessed with you. I have been ever since I first saw your picture on the cover of ‘Summer Blues in Italy’. I have read all your books. I love them. Three years ago I sent an email to your publisher, but they told me they do not forward messages to you from male readers. Did you know that? Apparently only women readers are entitled to admire you, which is a sad thing. I am convinced the way you write, you educate men more than you do women. Mrs Lovecraft, I cannot tell you how glad I am we finally met.”
I am momentarily speechless. “I see,” is all I manage to say. He is the first male fan I’ve ever come across, and I am surprisingly uncomfortable with the idea. As the wind veers and my shawl slides accidentally down my arm, I see again the man’s unscrupulous nature. He takes the slip of my shawl and readjusts it around my shoulders. The brief, warm touch of his fingers on my skin lingers.
I swallow, hoping my voice does not betray my nerves. “Thank you for your kind words; however, I do hope you can draw a distinction between the writer and the books. I don’t live the life I write about. I hope you understand that despite
the fact I’m here on this ship, taking a cruise.” He nods pleasantly, his blue gaze never wavering. I sigh. “I had hoped to travel incognito. I wanted to be on this ship without anyone knowing who I was. This is my holiday, you see. May I please ask you to refrain from telling anyone who I am?”
“Of course. I respect your anonymity, Mrs Lovecraft. And of course I know the difference between the writer and the written. But if I might, I do not
understand why you do not live the life you write about. I think you are wrong to believe you are not entitled to some real, live romance.” I frown, confused. “You know nothing of my life, sir.”
“Oh, but I do, Heather. You do not know -”
“Heather?” I step back, startled. “How on earth do you know my real name?” I search his eyes, but for once he avoids my gaze. I persist. “Who told you my name, and what do you know about my life? My readers only know me as Femmy Lovecraft.”
He gives a brief shake of his head. “I cannot tell you. I am sorry, but no. Do not worry about your identity; I will not tell anyone. Only Amanda, my wife, knows you are here, and she will not tell anyone either. She was the one who phoned to let me know you were on this cruise ship. That is why I arrived this morning.”
My palms are suddenly damp, and I feel my heart racing. He should not have known my name. Someone has given me away. Who could it have been? I must be calm. Professional. I try to relax into a smile and dismiss the unwelcome news as
long as I’m standing here with him. “A real fan, hey? Well, maybe we can talk books in the morning. It’s been a long day for me and I’m off to bed now.”
He nods with an almost regal motion. “Good night, Mrs Lovecraft.”
“Good night.” I walk away, my back straight, the click of my high-heeled sandals noisy on the wooden deck. As I’m about to leave the outside deck through the sliding doors, I turn back to look at the stranger. He has lit a cigar and still observes me through a veil of smoke. I try to look self-assured, frowning slightly. Inside,
I shiver with anxiety. He’s found my Achilles heel. “You will have to tell me,
you know, how you know my real name.”
“I cannot. Really. So sorry. Good night,” he says again, then turns away. He leans his lower arms on the railing, studying the waves as the wind steals the smoke of his cigar.
I fight the urge to go back and argue the truth from him. Instead, I head into the warm corridor and return to my cabin. I’m relieved to find my way to number 408 without trouble. So far I’ve managed to lose my way every time, wandering through the maze of long, beige corridors with their identical rows of brown cabin doors. This is a small victory. I unlock the door and peer furtively down the hall, but there is no one on the floor. I enter my cabin and close the door behind me. I lock it straight away and lean back against it, catching my breath.
I am overcome with nerves. Who could have given my name to that mysterious stranger? I booked the cruise in my own name as that’s in my passport but I just introduced myself as Femmy to everyone at the table, no last name. Could any of the staff have blabbed, or is it someone from my own circles? If that’s the case, I have to find out who it is and put a stop to it. I kick off my sandals and stretch out on the double bed. Stuffing the frilly cushions behind my back, I grab my mobile and browse through all the contacts. The list provides no clues. I’m more upset than I want to acknowledge. My real name is only stated on official documents and known to my family, a handful of friends and my publisher, no one else. Ever since the accident I have good reasons to keep it that way. As a private person I’ve made a stupid, tragic mistake that should never become known to my readers. So I’ve protected my identity for years. I owe that much to Luuk and can’t allow the safe barrier to crumble now. So how on earth did a Moroccan prince find out my real name and things about my private life? If that’s what he really is. Well, one thing is
certain, that guy is not supposed to know I am Heather Simpson. So where did he
get that information? I really have no clue.
“I should be writing ‘whodunits’ instead of love stories,” I mutter.
I pick up my phone again and dial Rita’s number. Her voice is an immediate comfort.
“Heather? This must be bad news. We promised we wouldn’t call during your holiday, remember? So you calling me can only mean trouble. What’s up, Hon?”
“Oh, Rita, it’s so good to hear your voice, no matter when.”
I feel better already. I’ve turned to the right person. Rita will deal with this mystery.
And now I need to put that man out of my head and slip in between the sheets as
tomorrow is the day of days. I want to get up really early to see the skyline of Casablanca with my own eyes, the city of my dreams, the reason I agreed to go on this cruise. I am so excited I’m sure I won’t be able to sleep. Something good might come of this trip after all. Feeling my blood rush in my veins is something I have not felt for a long time. It’s the city, the city!
Chapter 2 – The Magic City
Casablanca, 3 July 2005
I awake to the beeping of my phone and when I pick it up from the cushion next to me, the alarm tells me it’s 7 am. Returning from a surprisingly deep, dreamless state, I find myself wide awake, ready to fly up to the top deck of the ship. There is
no time for a shower or proper dressing, so I slip into my tracksuit and sneakers and leave my cabin hurriedly. Taking two steps at a time, I rush up all the seven stairways to the top deck and impatiently wait for the sliding doors to open. I step outside into a glorious morning, greeted by a gentle Atlantic breeze and a pair of friendly seagulls. The sea is rippled sapphire, with the sky still milky-blue in the dawn haze.
With my hands clasped around the railing, I scan the horizon and there it is, Casa’s foremost landmark – the Hassan II Mosque. Majestically it rises from the sea, like an elegant swan with a long graceful neck. As we draw closer the immense, glistening structure is much more impressive than the photographs I have seen of it. Tears well up in the corners of my eyes, gently swept away by the breeze. I look around me longing to share the intensity of my feeling with others but there is just me and the two seagulls, dozing on the railing. What do they care for great art, for the zest
of faithful people creating the most magical architecture on earth? I am savouring this beauty alone, taking it in and storing it in my heart. I still can’t believe it is really me watching the white city come closer and closer. The thought that my sandaled feet will actually be walking in that Mosque this afternoon gives me shivers of delight.
I stay on deck until we’re almost moored and I can hear the melodious singsong of the Arabic voices of the men talking from the ship to the men ashore. I know I really need to speed up and get ready to explore the city, so I make my way back to my cabin, dreaming, filled with joy. If there’s one place in this entire world capable of reviving my senses, I’m convinced it’s Casablanca. As I enter my cabin I hear through the porthole chaotic shouts and subsequent peals of laughter. I feel the ship shudder once over its entire length as it comes to a final halt. More cheers follow. We are here!
I struggle out of my tracksuit and skip into the shower. There is hardly time to feel the water on my skin, I’m so consumed by anticipation. The summer dress I bought especially for the occasion hangs outside the shower, the dress that yells ‘Casablanca, here I come!’ I unhook it from its hanger and run my fingertips over the silky fabric, drinking in the greens, yellows, reds and blues. It is as if Luuk’s paintbrush has exploded on this canvas, celebrating life. But no. I won’t think of him now. Not now.
I slip the dress over my head and marvel at the way it flows around my body like water, cool and nimble as the texture of my dream. I complete my toilet in no time, adding a dash of Allure and some mascara. Red sandals, matching red handbag and I race to the breakfast room, taking the wrong turn twice and cursing myself for my lousy sense of direction. The entrance to the breakfast room is clogged with people
taking their time, chatting. I manage to dodge around them and return a wave from Henry, who waits at the bread corner. He must have been on the lookout for me, because he sprints across to offer me a croissant on a plate.
“Wow. It looks like Ingrid Bergman’s come alive again when I see you standing there!”
“You’re very sweet, Henry.” I’m just about to take the plate from him when he attempts a courtly bow and the croissant slips to the floor. He looks aghast at his clumsiness. “Oh! Let me get you another one.”
“Never mind, Henry. No time today. I just came in to grab a coffee.” I pour myself a cup from the large percolator, plopping in two lumps of sugar. “I want to spend the entire day in Casablanca. I’ll have breakfast later, somewhere in the centre.”
I walk to the window, cup in hand, and witness the bustle in the port, enjoying every detail. I don’t know what it is about Moroccan people, but they are so colourful, so vibrant and cheerful. Until today, I’ve only seen them in Amsterdam. The immigrants who arrived in the seventies to do our dirty jobs have now firmly settled amidst the locals. They give a special flavour to Holland’s capital, these passionate, lively people.
“Bye, Henry! Have a lovely day,” I call across the room, stepping through the door.
I’m aware of his eyes following me, filled with disappointment. He is unable to grasp how such a pliable dinner companion can turn into a distant madam overnight. There is so much he doesn’t understand and never will. He’ll find another conversation partner, a more genuine one, and one closer to his own age.
I rush down the gangplank, giddy with excitement, filled with a lightness that hasn’t flowed through me in years. With all my heart, I plunge into the exotic smells and sounds of the Arabic world. I am haggling over the price of a richly embroidered shoulder bag that will make a nice gift for Rita when I am suddenly yanked from the souk and dragged away by my arm. I yelp.
“Hey! What’s going on? Let me go!” I glance towards my captor and am startled to discover the hand clamped around my arm belongs to the same tall, dark man that harassed me the night before on the ship’s deck. Surprisingly, he looks more alarmed than aggressive. I wrestle to free my arm and open my mouth to protest, but he’s ahead of me.
“Don’t!” he whispers emphatically. “Come on. Just a few minutes. Let me explain.”
I’m tempted to scream and kick his shins, as his grip around my arm is like iron. People should be alarmed that I’m being abducted at this marketplace, but they’re not. I glance around, seized by a new fear. What rights do women have in this country? Perhaps I’d better avoid a public scene. As a result of that fear, I let myself be dragged along.
“Let me take you to another place,” he says. “It is close by. Please follow me. Truly, I mean you no harm.” He tries to reassure me as he tows me along. We’re about to reach the end of the line of stalls, diving under birdcages, avoiding clothes racks and stumbling over rolled-out carpets. My wonderful day in Casablanca seems suddenly to have mutated into chaos, filled with shouting and banging. My eyes burn under the relentless heat and kicked-up dust, my nose fights the stink of sweat and spices.
“Let me go, you bastard. Let go of me or I’ll scream!” I twist my arm and he releases my wrist. My eyes must be full of fire, because he holds up his hands apologetically. “Who do you think you are? You can’t just follow me around and stop me from buying a gift for a friend! Why this? Are you out of your mind?”
“Excuse me a thousand times, Mrs Lovecraft. I am truly sorry for scaring you like this, but you see, you were about to make a mistake at that stall. I have known Samira, the woman who owns it, all my life. She is a thief. Her little brother, Ahmed, already had his hand close to your handbag. He would have taken your wallet the moment you’d put it back into your bag. I acted rashly, you see, to protect you. I was not following you. I just happened to be in the neighbourhood.”
He seems to be sincere in his explanation, which takes most of the sting out of my anger. There is something in the careful way he chooses his words, the expressiveness of his dark face, the intensity of the blue eyes that seem to encompass me. I lower my defensive wall a touch. “Are you sure? How do you know? Do you live here?”
“I do. Please forgive me for not having introduced myself last night. May I do so now? I am Ghalib Tourniquet, citizen of Casablanca for thirty-nine years, and proudly so … apart from the little Ahmeds.” He offers me a smile and his hand. Not knowing what else to do, I take it, feeling its firm, warm pressure enveloping my fingers. The sensation is pleasantly different from the tight grip he had on me seconds before.
I shrug. Humour seems the best tactic. “I guess I have to thank you for depriving me of the experience of a famous Casablanca pickpocket adventure. Is there some kind of medal I can pin on you?” His laughter is spontaneous and kind. It touches a place inside me that hasn’t been touched for a while, causing a flutter near my heart. The suddenness of the emotion catches me off guard. Am I intrigued? I’m at once gender-aware, seeing myself for what I am: a young female tourist alone in a Muslim country. Femininity clings to me like my new floral dress. In my naivety and with a head full of dreams, I have thrown myself with abandon upon a city I now see as a lot less friendly than the picture I had in my mind.
Now I’m here, facing the one smiling stranger I should not trust. He has trespassed, crossing the walls around my secure garden, my private life. But it happens anyway, in one careless moment. Still, I am bent on conquering this city on my own. I have been in tighter spots than these. This man has taught me to be aware, and I will use that lesson as I continue with my explorations of this exotic place.
“Thank you, then,” I say, “and goodbye.”
I’m about to direct my footsteps towards the Hassan II Mosque, my next Casablanca stop, when my knees wobble. I feel suddenly ill. Nausea washes over me; the world does not carry its normal appearance anymore. It’s quite obvious that within seconds I will faint. Glancing wildly around for a place to sit, somewhere cool, I stagger a few steps. Then everything happens quickly. The heat of the sun beats down on me; I’m too weak to stand on my own two feet. I’m afraid to lie down in this strange, frightening land. My insides are gripped by an unquenchable thirst, then … nothing.
The next thing I see is a shirt, milky blue and crossed by tiny white lines. My cheek rests on the soft material, and I inhale the subtle aromas of Dior Homme and cigars. Not unpleasant, not at all. My memory returns to me, but I close my eyes again. I concentrate on the hand stroking my hair, first at the back of my head, then moving downwards, gently unravelling the one strand that always gets knotted at the nape of my neck. How has he found that spot so soon? Could it be that his informer is that familiar with me? It is an intimidating idea, and I push it away. I’m feeling too
comfortable right now. I want to relax into what is, no thinking for the moment.
With my eyes still shut, I try to imagine where and how we are sitting. I picture how I’m half lying against him, my head on his chest. There is no space between us anymore; he’s that close to my side, one arm securely around me. The place is shaded, though through my eyelids seep glints of sunlight. I am aware of a solid, cool plateau beneath us. Is it a big stone? The city’s cacophony of shouting merchants and hooting cars is still present, but at an agreeable distance.
Inching back into reality, I sense my entire body is sticky with cold, drying sweat. My dress, my beautiful dress, is glued to my skin like a wet sheet. I’m horrified, though I know it’s unnecessary, even strange to worry about my appearance in this half-dazed moment. Why do I worry? Is it for his sake?
The strength of a male body cushions me, alive and vibrant. In my mind’s eye I see again the image of Luuk’s pale, sunken face on the pillow, his beautiful eyes forever closed. The gap between the two men is shockingly wide, this one lives.
I open my eyes and manage to sit up. “I’m sorry. My turn to be sorry.” I wriggle out of the stranger’s – Ghalib’s – embrace and move a few inches away. “I don’t know what came over me.” He sits up as well and places both hands on his knees. The moment feels awkward, but his voice sounds optimistic and in charge. “Never
mind, Mrs Lovecraft. I took the liberty of helping you away from that heat when
you lost consciousness, and I sat you on this bench. There is no need for you to apologise. The truth is, I’m feeling rather guilty. I hope I did not bring this on you by interrupting your shopping so abruptly.” He frowns and shakes his head. “No. I think it must be the heat. Anyway, I am glad I could be of assistance. It cleans the slate, does it not? I hate to imagine what could have happened had you fallen into the hands of someone less honest than me, like one of Casablanca’s many Ahmeds.”
I can’t help raising my eyebrows at his blunt self-praise, but he waves his hand. He apparently hasn’t finished his speech and indicates he knows what I’m thinking.
“This must sound awfully unjust, coming from my mouth, but it is one of the reasons I am so glad to have bumped into you today. I want to set things straight with you.” He gets up from the bench to dust off his jeans, eyeing me shyly. “I have been feeling bad since our conversation on the ship. It is your right to know who is giving away your personal secrets. So I have decided to tell you, and I am no longer going to avail myself of that person’s services. But I cannot tell you here, not now. I am certain the information will upset you. You may need to feel a little stronger before you can stomach the truth.”
My fan-cum-attacker-cum-gallant knight clearly enjoys the roles he is playing. Perhaps he envisions himself as one of my fictional characters, such as Count Barsilow in The City with the Cross. I try to digest everything he says, but my brain still feels sluggish. Not knowing how to respond, I say nothing. A strange confusion
has come over me, a combined sense of something old fallen away and something
new loaded on top of me. I do not understand where the change comes from. Then there are flashes through my brain. Blue lights, sirens, angry voices yelling through
the dark mist.
“The fucking bitch almost killed me! That may be Femmy Lovecraft, but her real name is Heather Simpson!” It comes as a shock. Will I finally remember the
details of the accident? That drunk Jordy Wolf shouting at me. I don’t want to be known as Heather Simpson anymore. Let me be Femmy Lovecraft. Lovecraft is a
good name for a writer. I am a writer after all, not a private person with a private life. A private life is what other people have, not me. My mind swoons. I am on the brink of losing consciousness again. The heat and noise here is extreme. With all my might I fight the black pitch I don’t want to drop back into. Please, don’t turn time back four years; I don’t want to remember what happened. Any life, any lie is better than going back to where I lost all that was dear to me.
The Moroccan stranger offers me a hand to help me to my feet. Once I am vertical, I peel my dress from my thighs and adjust the shoulder straps. I’m relieved to see my handbag lying safely by my feet and pick it up to check its contents. Everything is where it should be. Routinely, I unscrew my lipstick and hold up my hand mirror, then apply a glossy pink colour. When I am finished, I scrutinise the rest of my face and decide I look normal, just sweaty and pale. I pat my nose and forehead dry with a tissue and dig down to the bottom of my bag to find a hair clip. I fasten my damp hair on top of my head and sigh, feeling relatively presentable. When I look up, his
expression says he is enjoying my female rituals.
“Ready,” I declare. “Though I don’t know for what.”
“Do you think you could walk to the end of the street? My house is just around the corner. I could serve you tea and something to eat. That might make you feel better.”
My stomach rumbles with enthusiasm. I have had nothing since coffee this morning. The idea of sitting in a cool house appeals greatly. “You live here? This close?”
“I do. That is, I live here for part of the year. My mother’s family is from Casablanca. I will explain all that to you if you accept my invitation. Later, if you like, I could take you to the shops at Boulevard Zerktouni. That is the best place in Casa to shop safely for better quality souvenirs. That is … uh … if you would like to.”
His suggestion sounds friendly and harmless, so I accept. As well as the creature comforts which now appeal, the professional in me, always researching, is interested in seeing the inside of a Moroccan house. I am also curious about getting to the bottom of this source of his, who knows so much about me.
“Okay. Thank you. That would be nice,” I say, dismissing the alarm bells in my head telling me this might be the stupidest thing I ever did.
I take a step, but sway unnervingly. He is instantly by my side, supporting me with his arm. We start out at a slow pace, but I soon settle into a comfortable walk alongside him. We leave the small park and stroll along the side of the road where the sun is shaded by the stone coverings attached to the houses. At the end of the street, we arrive at another square lined with more market stalls.
He senses my question and answers before I ask. “We are still in the Ancienne Medina. You only leave it by passing underneath the Clock Tower porch. I will show that to you later.” We stop at one corner of the square in front of a white, two storey house. Its door is a cheery blue. “Here we are,” he says. “Do you think you can support yourself for a moment, so I can unlock the door?”
I prop myself against the cool stone wall and look up, falling immediately in love with the house. From within the whitewashed walls peer small windows, framed in the same bright blue as the panelled front door. Flower boxes, overflowing with red geraniums, decorate the window sills. The old house breathes coolness, giving it a solid air of stateliness.
“You see? The house welcomes you in your own national colours: red, white, and blue.”
His tone is jocular, but the remark raises my hackles. Of course he knows I’m half-Dutch; he claims to know everything about me. I hesitate before stepping inside, thwarted by the unpleasant sensation of my boundaries being trespassed. What will become of me?