Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Where We Gather at Night

“He had the knack you had with the camera, only he captured things perfectly with words, the words one wants to hear, not the words that are necessarily said.”

It’s you, isn’t it, standing there beside the man boiling buckets of snails at a street stall under a blazing string of bulbs. It is you, I’m sure of it, tall and thin, straining to hear the small voice of the child whose hand you hold as the battling and bartering takes place all around you: the soapbox comedians fighting for audience and the self-proclaimed prophets calling for witnesses and disciples and the medicine men pushing vials of gecko blood and the charmers piping tunes to the river snakes they pass off as cobras and the dervishes whirling and the blind beggars begging and the curbside dentists performing extractions and sell­ing used American dentures to fill the spaces in Moroccan mouths.

I close my eyes and the square becomes a blistering car wreck with the glass-shattering rattle of bells and the biting clatter of metal castanets. I dare to open my eyes and can’t believe it. Still you. I would drift toward you through this cloud of charred lamb and incense if I were brazen, but I am not brazen—look at the way I left you, seven years ago, after all.

After all. After three years of mar­riage during which you were sadder than sad. When we met, I was a sur­prise, a spark in your dark decades; but it was only a matter of months before you fell back into the familiar and threw away your cameras and let the cat shit in the darkroom sink. I married you anyway, as your whole world turned feral. I got right down on all fours.

Three years in came the interven­tion—in the guise of an invitation to holiday on the Costa del Sol with my sister. She was desperate to get away, but her husband was tied up, I had to come, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “You’ve packed in your job, haven’t you?” she said. “Mmm,” I con­ceded. “Well then!”

Well then. We flew from Heathrow to Granada, where she’d rented a small cottage clinging to a rugged hillside, the sea nowhere in sight. It was October, bitterly windy and the electrics were dodgy, so we ate bread and ham by candlelight and her sermon reminded me of why she was an international tax lawyer and why I was once again unemployed. “We’re worried about you,” she said. She added up the figures of my life on one hand and saw only one option. I had to end my marriage: “like a dripping faucet” was how she put it. Someone needs to turn the bloody thing off.

I pretended not to hear. In fact, I didn’t respond at all until she repeated herself the following evening. “But I love him, Meredith. And he needs me.” It sounded pathetic, but it was the truth.

“Mmm. Just like Mum loved Dad,” she said, raising her eyebrows. Mum’s life of servitude and submission, she meant. Mum’s bunions and victimhood and misery.

“Would you just fuck off and stop meddling in my life,” I blurted out. “It’s my life.”

“Precisely,” she said, turning her back and dropping the plates and the bread knife into the sink.

In what must have been the early hours of the morning, Meredith left a note and my plane ticket on the kitchen table before she released the handbrake and steered the rental car silently down the hillside. The note simply said: Your life. She’d underlined “your.” And scribbled out a question mark. Typical Meredith: sanctimonious bitch.

It wasn’t the first time she’d abandoned me somewhere to make a point. There was the time when I was twenty-two and she was thirty and she told me it was time to grow up and move away from home and I argued that I was grown up, that I wasn’t dependent on Mum and Dad, that I could take care of myself. She pulled into a petrol station, saying, “I think we missed the bloody exit. Go and ask the bloke, will you?” And as soon as I got out of the car, she peeled away, leaving me to face the fact that the only option I had was to call our father.

But I was twenty-nine now. I’d come to Spain for a holiday and I was determined to have it, with or without her. The morning of the note, I climbed down the hill and thumbed a ride with a minivan full of Brits headed for the coast. They dumped me en route, at the edge of the old city where I bought a packet of crisps and a map and navigated my way through narrow streets funnelled between whitewashed walls. I licked salt from my fingers in the Plaza de San Nicolás and gazed at the beckoning palaces in the distance.

At the Alhambra, I clutched my ticket stub and wandered aimlessly, Japanese reverberating off marble floors and courtyard walls and threading itself like a needle through paragraphs in English and French until words were not words anymore, simply notes floating up to salt the blue skies of the foothills above the Sierra Nevada. I wondered then if you were remembering to feed the cat and I hated you for the fact that apart from the miserable and expensive honeymoon weekend we’d spent in the Lake District wearing damp shoes and tearing pages out of books in order to get the coal fire started, we’d never been on holiday.

I stared into a hall cordoned off by thick rope, my eyes adjusting to the dim. The walls were covered in elaborate mosaics stretching upwards to a domed wooden ceiling. Look at this! I wanted to shout at you. You have such an eye, you used to take such wonderful photographs, why don’t you anymore, why aren’t you here?

There was a man on his knees working in a shadowy corner with a small paintbrush, completely absorbed, a smile dominating his face. His concentration didn’t waver as tourists stood behind the rope and stared upward, failing to notice him, their voices echoing throughout the hall. I wondered if he was Muslim and whether he always looked like this—whether he smiled when he prayed. I forced myself to look away out of some sense of propriety.

You abandoned smiling, dismissed it after our wedding as if you’d only put on a mask for the occasion. It was the first sign I’d seen of your illness, the one you told me had plagued you since you were seventeen years old, the one that had mercifully lifted for the first six months of knowing me.

At seventeen you’d come up to Oxford and studied math and made vague motions toward slitting your wrists in deep dormitory bathtubs. You graduated at the top of your class and took a job in merchant banking in the City, which drove you to swallow a bottle of aspirin that left you with tinnitus in your left ear. I fell in love with the residue of damage and with the fantasy that I could whisper and you would hear it above the perpetual drone.

You quit London and returned to Oxford because you thought you’d been happier there even though you had no happy memories of the place. You took photographs, made a living capturing other people’s lives on film—supplying them with evidence for the manufacture of happy memories: weddings, graduations, anniversaries. You had a knack for timing—for pressing the shutter that very second before things inevitably fall apart; capturing the occasion as people wish to remember it, not as it actually might have been.

We met when you took photographs of the opening of the restaurant where I was chef. You pressed the shutter just the second before the stiff peaks of the egg whites I was beating collapsed with a miserable sigh.

“I walk a fine line,” I said, and you laughed as two dozen whites slid into the rubbish bin and then told me you had not laughed in years.

I liked the chemical smell of your skin when you crawled into bed. I said you were an artist; you said you were nothing more than a technician. I gave you paper for our first wed­ding anniversary, hoping you might sketch. You’d given up your cameras by then and spent the days in your study watching stock prices rise and fall. You spent the evenings drinking from tall yellow cans in front of the telly. You doubled your dose of green and white pills and said, “It’s not you, it’s me—I did warn you.”

But I wanted to be with you. I joined you in your office in order to be with you. I read and napped on a mattress on the floor while you sat in your chair and chain-smoked and I forgot about my job and you never even asked me whether I was going to work. I wanted to share your illness: I lived like a mildewed log hinged to your muddy riverbank, I even ate some of your green and white pills.

I believed what was yours was mine until that day at the Alhambra when I found myself smiling at the man with the small paintbrush and realized I’d only ever been a tourist visiting your strange land. I’d buried myself in order to disappear into your background. It was the first time I’d been apart from you since that day you captured my egg whites falling flat, and at this distance your depression was as alien to me as I would be—exhumed—to you.

The man crouched in the corner of the Hall of Ambassadors was doing some repair work to a section of mosaic tile, fine, detailed work, preserving what is telling and beautiful, his knees rooted in the floor. I felt the comparison acutely—that my life had no texture, no story, no light, that inertia borne of depression is by definition a black hole, and much as I loved your left ear and your cloudy eyes and your numbed heart and believed you needed me, even wanted me, there was no possibility of being or becoming. There was no future. We were poisoned embryos in a Petri dish.

I hate Meredith at times.

You’re an artist, I would one day tell the man crouched on the floor and he would do me the tremendous favour of not disagreeing.

I visited the Alhambra every morning that week, lingering, observing, standing behind the thick rope. On Friday, the man finally turned his head and looked at me. Then he beckoned. When I hesitated, he rose, slapped his dusty knees, shook his foot awake and stepped forward to take my hand as I straddled the rope and entered his Moorish world. He was Moroccan so we spoke in French: mine rusty, his oiled. He had the knack you had with the camera, only he captured things perfectly with words, the words one wants to hear, not the words that are necessarily said. He was restoring the mosaic tiles on the floor and he showed me how to hold the paintbrush, posing my thumb and forefinger around its slim body. I felt a cavity crack open at the base of my spine.

I accompanied him into the hills at lunch where he offered me an orange from a paper bag and I stared at his feathery black lashes while he peeled the orange for me with his blackened thumbnail. “I’m a chef,” I told him, when he asked who I was. “At least, I used to be.”

He told me about his grandmother: how she had rolled semolina between her fingers every single morning for sixty years, raised eleven children on couscous, never taken a holiday in her life.

I wished you well when I wrote to you that night, even though I told you I was not coming home. I wished you happiness, but I scratched that out. I wished more that whatever binds you to unhappiness might begin to unravel.

The truth of Amir’s words did not matter during the months it took him to complete the project, they did not matter during the naked afternoon hours of siesta, or the nights where I cooked extravagantly in his tiny kitchen and we drank red wine on the rooftop, the months financed by regular cheques from Meredith. I know it’s a difficult transition, she wrote. I’ll support you in any way I can.

I did not mention Amir.

When he told me he had been asked to return to Morocco to restore the mosaics of an old riad I didn’t hesitate. Even if I had neglected to tell him about you, even if the place and the invitation were his, I couldn’t resist: this was movement, this was life.

I did not write to you to tell you I was crossing the Mediterranean because I feared the dead weight of your anchor would keep me still. I did not write to Meredith either because I feared her caution, her judgement, would keep me sensible. Amir and I floated on the sea, riding a thin wooden membrane over the refuse of lost cities and disparate countries all flooding the same bath, mixing hot and cold; wine, olives and oil bobbing in the best of blue waters. My only thought of you was of the time you told me that strawberries didn’t float. I didn’t believe you—you proved it to me in the bath.

The residence in Marrakech was vaulted from the lanes of the medina by white walls and wooden doors the height of trees. Within, there were countless rooms behind latticed windows that faced the inte­rior courtyard of faded mosaics and a crumbling fountain. The Swiss couple who had bought the building was employing a crew of master craftsmen to lovingly restore the residence to its original condition with the addition of mod cons. Amir’s job, for which he was handsomely paid, was to remove the barnacles and make the jewels shine again.

I met Ursula and Frederik the night after our arrival in Marrakech. “Sarah,” I pointed at myself. “Amir’s friend,” I offered, when they looked at me with curiosity. Over the course of dinner we all got drunk—Moroccan reds followed by grappa—and I revealed my thwarted career as a chef and a theory about spice routes that would have sounded demented if I were anything close to sober. Nevertheless, by the end of the evening, they’d offered me a job. “It’s sarah-endipity,” Frederik said, sounding even drunker than I. The refurbished residence was to be an exclusive hotel for discerning clientele—people who expect alternatives to tajine. Could they promote me as a world-class chef?

“If you’re not averse to lying,” I laughed, and offered to cook for them the following evening.

Amir and I stayed in one of the finished rooms while Ursula and Frederik returned to Switzerland. Ursula said all the hammering was giving her migraines. I drew up plans for the layout of my kitchen. I explored markets, sampling local ingredients, and Amir and I made excursions on Fridays, travelling over poppy-cov­ered hillsides to Berber villages in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. I met farmers, shook their hands, made deals that would bypass their brokers. I was pleased with my menu, and with Ursula’s news that she’d be arriving with Parmesan and Parma ham in a month’s time.

When his work was nearly done, Amir announced that he would be returning to Casablanca shortly, his hometown. “But I can’t come with you,” I said, a little stupefied, neither question nor answer. I had a job now, a future in Marrakech, but his work here was nearly over. “Perhaps I can visit you on weekends,” I said hopefully: it was only a four-hour bus ride away.

He shook his head. “It is different in Casablanca,” he said.

“How so?” I asked.

“My wife is there.”

I could not blame him for not telling me he had a wife; I did not manage, after all, to tell him about you. But the fact is, I wasn’t married to you in any real sense anymore, was I? I wasn’t coming home to you. And where were you by then? The child whose hand you now hold amidst the circus of Jemaa el-Fna Square—the square of death, where the smell of execution lingers—looks about six years old. Perhaps her arrival was already immi­nent by the time Amir was on his way home to his wife in Casablanca.

I missed you terribly in the months after he left. I still loved you. And it was lonely without an escort: Amir had led me this far, the rest was up to me. So I refined my menu according to the comments of early customers, and the season changed and the eggplant became too bitter and cilantro suddenly became available and I fattened local raisins with imported rum and, at the end of most nights, I ate dinner with Ursula and Frederik in the kitchen—I still do.

In the first few months after the hotel opened I would carry my glass from the table back to my room with its cool mosaic floor and its deep bath and I would think of you, feeling guilty. I resisted the urge to write to you and wrote to Meredith instead, first confessing, then inviting her to come and visit. I wanted to repay her in some way but she was always too busy. She wrote letters telling me she was proud, even envious of the risk I had taken and how it was paying off, etc., etc.

It was true: within a year we had a solid clientele of repeat customers, people who took my olive tapenade back to Europe and spoke my name.

We work well together, Frederik and Ursula and I. Frederik is rich and fat and wears designer trainers and Ursula is thin and elegant and wears designer jackets. They must think me very strange, a British peasant of sorts with my passion for produce and my lack of interest in clothes, but it doesn’t really matter, we are all strange here in our own way. I’m fond of them, despite the tax evasion and the occasional snobbish remark. They do at least try to keep the latter in check.

Meredith is only really interested when my life is in crisis. But then I wonder if this is a crisis, seeing you here. I move in to eavesdrop and I’m sure it’s your voice, but strangely, you are speaking Spanish. You call the girl Anna, and I have the desperate, sinking feeling that perhaps you came to Spain in search of me but I had already left. And I wonder if Meredith knew this—I asked you to send my belongings to her flat, after all. There is little difference between having been a visitor to your depressed planet and standing here in Jemaa el- Fna Square, while you hold the hand of a child, and a petite dark-haired woman, who must be the mother, your lover, slips her arm around your waist. You were forced to travel in search of something, and where you did not fi nd it, you found something unexpected instead. That it took me leaving. That it takes all my heart in this moment to step backwards and leave you and your new world intact. And preserve my own. “I divorce thee,” I say aloud. You turn in my direction as if you have heard me above the cacophony, as if I have penetrated the tinnitus in your left ear. It doesn’t surprise me that the teeth are not yours, nor the eyes the right colour. It doesn’t surprise me that it is not you at all; it doesn’t matter. “I divorce thee, I divorce thee,” I repeat. Thrice before God. A formal end that requires neither your presence nor consent.

I wander back home clutching a sack of dates, dodging bicycles, joining the fl ow pouring down the narrow lanes of the medina. I take the key from the palm tree and open the girded wooden door at the end of our pink passage. I dump my sack in the kitchen, grab a bottle from the pantry and am on my way up the steep staircase to the roof, when I encounter Frederik. I squeeze past his boozy bulk. He is standing three stairs below. He reaches straight out in front of him and touches my thigh and then his hand slips round and gropes clum- sily at my behind while he asks me whether I need anything from France. Ursula is in Paris for the spring collec- tions. He clutches the wall for balance with his other hand. I tell him the toilet off the kitchen is blocked again, needs attention, and continue up the stairs, relieved by the air and the starry night and the white roofs and minarets. I grow herbs up here now, and keep my own chickens. I love chickens more than I ever would have imagined. Their glottal chatter. The utter marvel of their eggs. You once told me that the stron- gest points of an egg are its ends, as if a steel pole runs north to south. A three-hundred-pound man could stand on the end of an egg and not break it. It was impossible to prove and, even if you had, at the time I wouldn’t have believed anything could be so perfect.