As the truck sped away, Radouan waved farewell, brushed himself off, and walked down the long drive to The Baroness’s place. It was still barely six in the morning. He knew she always rose early and when one of the gate keepers let him in, and old A’hmed whom he hated led him up to her suite, sure enough, as they entered, her voice sounded from inside the heavy silk curtains of her canopied bed.
‘Wer ist da?’ she asked sleepily.
‘It’s me,’ Radouan replied, ‘sorry I’m so early but...’
The Baroness peered through an opening. ‘Don’t look at me, please, I look awful, bad night... and look at you... you look awful too... my God, habibi, what has happened to you?’
Radouan looked away, ‘I’ve been in Ouarzazate... coming up the pass I almost killed myself... totaled a rented car...caught a lift in a passing truck.’
‘But mein Gott, habibi, was ist dieser ... what is that awful smell? Have you been drinking? Were you sick?’
‘I was drinking but the smell is onions... I had to sit in the back of a truckload of red onions.’
‘Take off your clothes immediately, give them to A’hmed and go in and bathe yourself... Have someone scrub you... quickly... GO! You have many changes of clothes here in the closet... Allez! Schnell, Schnell!’
While he was gone, she ordered coffee and bread and the bean soup, of which he was so inordinately fond. Then she retired to her dressing room and tried to do something about her face. After bathing, Radouan slipped into a gandoura and found her seated at a table near the big bay window overlooking the garden.
‘It’s very interesting you came this morning.’ she smiled tentatively, ‘We’ve known each other for such a very long time I think I’ve developed a telepathic relationship with you, but... Warom… Musst dar dich immer zerstorende. Why? Why must you continue to be so self-destructive? All night... yes, all night long I was feeling your presence,’ she shrugged her shoulders nervously, ‘you were upset about something... behaving dangerously and I became frightened, yes, because there are certain things I’ve put off telling you... certain arrangements. Things you must know that will explain my merkwurdiger verhalten... strange behavior over the years.’
‘You don't look like you spent a sleepless night, you look good!’
‘You always say that! I think you’ve just memorized that sentence. Really, I could be dying, which I am, and you would say the same thing.’
Radouan lowered his eyes and remained silent. How else could he cheer her up, he asked himself?
‘Things are happening faster than I expected... I mean this disease I... I’m beginning to lose weight... sometimes I feel I’m already a ghost...’
‘In Arabic yes... ghoul... In the mirror I no longer recognize myself.’
‘That makes two of us,’ she chuckled, ‘but let me go on... Do you have to be somewhere?’
‘No, no of course not,’ he replied absently, thinking that he should be in Paris with Delphine, ‘Why else would I have stopped to see you?’
‘It’s a rather longish story I have to tell you, but it’s very important… do you have the patience to hear it?’
The baroness settled back in her chair and focused on the old cypress trees outside the window waving like one of Van Gogh’s paintings in the morning breeze. ‘As you know, when I arrived here with my father, I was very young, twelve years old exactly. We celebrated my twelfth birthday in a palm grove near the Mamounia where the Casino now stands... spring of 1940... I’ve told you all this before…’
‘Shahrazad,’ Radouan replied sleepily, ‘you are Shahrazad...’
The Baroness laughed: ‘And you are Malik Shahrayar, I suppose? Let me see, where was I? Yes... well, six years later in 1946 when I was presented to society here in Marrakech, Pasha Glaoui gave a big party for me... more than half a century ago! All our friends from Europe who had survived the war came down: Winston with his son Randolph and Randolph’s wife Pamela... and there was David Herbert, a life long friend, and Barbara Hutton with her prankster cousin Jimmy, David Windsor and his American wife, and so many others including a young Moroccan with whom I began to have a light hearted romance... which was very difficult because my father always had me watched...’
She took off her glasses, ‘The more barriers he put up to keep us apart the more passionate our affair became... went on secretly for years... I thought he was the great love of my life... but as one of your poets once observed, love can be a snake disguised as a necklace or a nightingale which refuses to stop singing.'
Radouan looked grim.
‘Please don't look sad, habibi... you know very well that you are the great love of my life. You know that. This man I was in love with, he was a handsome young man from Fez... from a Chorfa family. His father was one of the few Fassis who were invited to Glaoui’s court because of course Glaoui was a Berber and Fassis are mostly Arabs... where was I, yes... well, for sixteen years this affair went on, and on and I became terribly frustrated. Then he married a girl from Meknes, he had to, and I hoped our romance would end but of course it didn’t and in 1962 when I was thirty-four, I became pregnant with his child. Yes, and don’t look so surprised because I know you aren’t! He pleaded with me to marry him... by then he had taken a second wife so I would have been number three. Then he went to my father and asked... Father was sixty-eight at the time, hated the idea that he was losing his famous good looks, and more arrogant than ever because by then he’d become very rich. So he turned down my lover... ordered him out of the house... this house... my lover, a Cherif of Fez, the father of the child I was carrying.’
Radouan could see she was still very angry at what had happened. ‘I know it’s very early,’ he said plaintively, ‘but do you think it’s too early for a drink?’
The Baroness smiled indulgently, it had been some time since she had had Champagne in the morning, but why not, it was a special occasion.
‘There should be a bottle in the fridge under the bar,’ she said, ‘we’ve both had a hard night...’
She toasted him and they touched glasses. ‘Of course, I was ready to marry him instantly... no matter how many wives he had, but my father said if I did that he would never see me again and would cut me off financially forever. God only knows whom he would have made his heir. All his family members had been killed or disappeared during the war and most of my mother’s family too. But our life together until then had been so wonderful it was hard for me to understand why he was being so difficult. Now I realize he thought he was protecting his fortune because, according to Moroccan legal custom, if I had inherited anything from him, it could have become my husband’s property. That’s what he was afraid of...’ She smiled mischievously, ‘and he was jealous too because he had never remarried and I was his hostess.’
She sipped champagne and narrowed her eyes. ‘I told my father I would not have an abortion... he wanted me to go to Switzerland and have an abortion but I refused... and I insisted if I couldn’t marry my lover, at least I should be allowed to have his child and raise it up. Finally he agreed, but on the condition that I should never see my lover again. Can you imagine? But I said okay and prayed for a little girl. Yes... knowing that a girl would create fewer problems, I prayed... Mach Allah... and had a boy!’
‘There is no power and no strength save in God, the Almighty, the Magnificent,’ Radouan intoned in Arabic.
‘Yes, that is true,’ she nodded thoughtfully, ‘one absolutely cannot avoid one’s destiny... I had a boy! His face was like the sun and moon combined... masses of thick curly brown hair... large eyes like yours... I’m afraid the whole affair was a terrible embarrassment for my father and a few weeks later my child disappeared! YES. And I’m sure my father had him spirited him away but I’ve never been able to prove it.’
‘Spirited away? What does it mean?’ Radouan asked.
She looked surprised. ‘Spirited? Well, it means... in English yes, secretly taken away... in Arabi, makhtoufa. No?’
‘One night my little boy simply vanished. I never saw him again! The story was given out that one of the nurses had run off with him. My father claimed he’d initiated a search and although the police had followed every lead they could not find the nurse... or my baby. That’s what I was told at the time. She dabbed at her eyes with her scarf. ‘I wanted to kill myself. I’d always idolized my father but after that, ach... I began to avoid him. And a few years later he died... poor guy... thrown by one of his favorite ponies...on the playing field. At his age he should have had more sense.. Broken neck... died instantly... I was there. I saw it happen.’
‘After that, I employed my own investigators to search for my son but nothing came of it. Since then I’ve had to live with the thought that he might have been destroyed by my father, or worse, that he may be alive somewhere living in poverty with that nurse... unlikely, as he was so beautiful, but still possible. If he had lived, he would be exactly your age.’ she beamed at him through watery eyes, ‘That is why I’ve always had a very special place in my heart for you, habibi... very special.’
Radouan gazed at her thoughtfully and said: ‘I’m sure the servant who carried him off received a large sum of money and a ticket to some far away place. Or maybe it was your lover himself, who arranged for his son to be brought to Fez and raised up there in his household as an orphan he had taken in -it happens... And your father... maybe he cooperated with your lover to spirit your little boy away… As you say, it was God’s will.’
‘But my lover was devastated. I received letters from him. I can’t believe he would have lied to me...’
Radouan sighed and shook his head. ‘How can you not believe… of course, he would have lied to you? Is he still alive, this old lover?’
‘Died a few years ago,’ she gestured helplessly.
‘Tell me,’ Radouan said, ‘in all these years... why have you never told me about this? I could have helped you find him...’
Minna fidgeted with the edges of her old Pashmina shawl. ‘Well, because my lover was still alive, of course... and because I was afraid you might tell someone. All these years I have kept this to myself. Now I’ve told you because I am dying.’ She sighed and nodded her head, ‘and because everyone else concerned is dead or too old to care. The only person on earth who knows this story is you, habibi, unless of course that maid is still alive, or unless my lover told someone.’
‘In the Medina we have a saying: Nass el mouta fi rouda matou bi’alayn... half the people in the graveyard died from gossip... You know I never gossip. I could have helped you find him. I know how to talk with people.’
‘Yes...’ the Baroness raised her voice, ‘I was afraid you would undertake to do that very thing... and that it might get you in deep trouble... killed for example.’
He gazed at her inquisitively, ‘What are you sayin'? I can see you’re holding something back...’
She sighed, ‘Well, actually there is someone claiming to be my son. I have seen him. He is not my son but somehow he knows the whole story of my son’s abduction... rattles it off like he’d memorized it...’
‘Tell me his name...’
‘I can’t and I won’t! You don't need to know and I’m not going to say anything more about him. He is not my son! My son was fair, his father was fair, and this person is dark. But I’ve told you all this, habibi, because I wanted you to understand why I’ve always thought of YOU as my son. You are exactly the same age. Did it never seem strange to you that we could be lovers?’ she laughed, ‘I know it has to me... I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt about our relationship... one does not usually go to bed with one’s son... although it happens.’
‘Yes, it does,’ Radouan replied thoughtfully, more often than you think.
‘My only real friend.’
‘No no, you have many friends... many.’
‘But not like you, habibi, never like you.’ She sipped her champagne and gazed at him steadily. For a long time now she had wanted to tell him how fortunate she had always felt, how lucky, really, to have known and loved him - that in her old age she should have been blessed with the companionship of such a great soul, - and it made her sorry for those people who find love early in life and lose it, as she had, or see it wither away slowly.
‘Have I told you I must get married soon?’ Radouan said finally.
‘I see I am embarrassing you now, I’m sorry...’ the Baroness smiled, ‘you always change the subject when you’re embarrassed...’
‘It’s my mother,’ Radouan replied, ‘she says it is time for me to settle down and start having children.’
‘Your mother is a very wise woman. I agree thoroughly. I only wish I could transform myself into a beautiful young girl again...alas I am not Aala-al'Din!’
‘The girl’s name is Hafida. At fifteen she is already plump... like a young cow... simple and happy, but not presentable...’
‘Fat in young women is often a sign of sexual frustration.’ The Baroness sighed. ‘I’m sure though with you in her bed she will become beautiful. Remember Prince Charming, the story you loved where the prince wakes up the sleeping beauty?’
‘Yes of course.’
Minna’s eyes glittered, ‘When you were sixteen you used to beg me to read it to you. Your Hafida, I’m sure, she is a sleeping beauty... her beauty is asleep and now you must awaken it.’
‘I will have to think of someone else when I go to bed with her...’
‘She laughed raucously and coughed. ‘I shouldn’t think that would be too difficult! But finally, I think you will come to love her. When will the wedding take place? I must try to stay alive for that...’
‘Don’t speak like that,’ he scolded her gently, ‘of course you will be alive. The date hasn’t been fixed yet... that’s for me to decide, but we are engaged so it’s sure to happen.’
He filled up their glasses again and began to feel more awake. ‘I have to tell you, though, there is a further problem: the day before I met Hafida and her family, can you imagine, only one day before... I met an unforgettable girl and we… jus' now in Ouarzazate I was with her… we were due to leave for Paris together yesterday but my passport and papers were here in Marrakech so I had to let her go back to Paris by herself... Mach Allah... but I worship her; really... for the first time in my life I’m experiencing something more than just passion. In a few days I will go up to Paris and marry her...’
‘Mein Gott, habibi, who is she? What does she do?’
‘She’s French, a psychology student from Toulouse University... but she’s beautiful... been supporting herself by modeling... here in Marrakech on a shoot for Vogue. I introduced her to Francesco - you know him I’m sure: Francesco Monte. We’ve been in Ouarzazate negotiating a five million dollar contract for her first picture.’
Astonished, Minna stared at him: ‘But fantastic, al zeen, how brilliant!’
‘I didn’t keep one centime,’ He laughed self- consciously and looked worried. ‘Believe me, on the head of my mother, it’s the first time I never took a commission and I’ve been regretting it all the way back from Ouarzazate - Which is why I got drunk after they left, I guess, and almost killed myself on that mountain. But she’s very beautiful, very intelligent and we’ve led similar lives... she’s the woman I’ve been waitin’ for. Don’t worry, you will meet her...’
‘But you,’ The Baroness said thoughtfully, ‘you are also beautiful. In the fullness of manhood... a Chevalier always ready to ride forth against injustice... maybe in another life you were a knight like Don Quixote.’
Radouan’s lips curled slightly, revealing perfect white teeth. ‘I’m not like Don Quixote... my search is the same but I’m not so old and I don't ride forth... there are other ways... you will see.’ He gazed at her affectionately. ‘My Mom... ma chere ‘zizati... you know how I love your moujamala, your flattery... It has helped me through many depressing moments, given me ideas about myself I would never have thought about... made me like myself and given me courage...’
‘When you curl your lips like that,’ she replied wryly, ‘you look exactly like a young camel... do you think, perhaps in our long relationship with animals certain traits and features have rubbed off on us.’
‘If that is true, then many Europeans and Chinese should look like pigs...’
They laughed together and she nodded her head, ‘But honestly, I’ve never really flattered you... only told you the truth. If it’s been able to lift your sense of self esteem then I’m happy for that.’
‘I was depressed but now I’m feelin’ better...’ Radouan smiled.
‘So am I...’ she sipped her champagne. ‘Well well, Francesco Monte... better be careful he doesn’t take this girl away from you... he has a certain reputation you know... What’s her name?’
‘Delphine... But Francesco knows if he did that I would kill him...’
‘He knows you that well?’
‘What do you think?’
Minna averted her gaze ‘And what will you do about this girl your mother has chosen for you?’
‘Really, I don't have to marry her. Parents are held responsible for the outcome of marriages forced on sons. If I bring up that point, my mother will back down, but I think probably I will marry her... and Delphine as well. What do you think?’
‘And what about Toni?’
‘What about her?’
‘The Baroness wagged her finger at him, ‘She’s divorced her husband and come down here expecting you to marry her... or did Rupert divorce her?’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Oh come, habibi, how could I not know! You met her for the first time here in this house, years ago! I talk with her constantly on the telephone.’
‘Their divorce was not my idea, believe me... I’ve always liked Rupert.... I still do, we’re Polo buddies. They shouldn’t have done such a useless thing!’
‘But the fact is they did, mon ami... she has left England and come down here all because of you.’
‘Of course, I will marry her... I love her deeply... Probably I should marry her first.’ He stared proudly at Minna and raised his glass, ‘I’m an Arab and a Musulman and can have four wives if I want, and many concubines. You think I couldn’t keep them happy?’ he grinned. ‘You know me.’
‘Yes I do know you,’ she replied gruffly, ‘and I adore you, but I don't think three or four wives will make you happy...’
She topped their glasses and gazed at him hopefully: ‘Have you thought any more about what we discussed last time you were here... I mean about helping me out?’
‘Out of what...are you in trouble?’
‘Out of my body, habibi... out of this damn thing that is falling apart around me like a package coming undone!’
‘Yes, I have. But I told you I don't like you to speak of these sad things. We must go together to Sidi Zween... they will cure you I’m sure...’
‘Soon, habibti, I jus' have to make the arrangements.’
‘But I don’t want to suffer... to become helpless. I hate pain... have you...?’
‘Yes,’ Radouan sighed, ‘don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I have a friend whose sister has a pharmacy. I also have the method: how many sleepin’ pills to take, of what kind, and how much whisky... also your opium. ’
‘When can you get them?’
‘Soon, I already have the opium...’
The Baroness beamed and sank back in her chair. ‘Ah the Poppy... what a relief... Thank you, habibi... chokran! Then we can wait until you return from France and marry Hafida. You aren't going to be there long are you?’
‘A few days, two weeks at the most - as long as it takes to get Delphine to marry me. I mustn’t lose her... I don't want to share her with anybody!’
‘When you return I’ll make myself ready.’
Radouan jumped up and started pacing around the room. ‘Please don't speak of it, habibti... Before I go to France I will arrange that my sister Fouzia, will to take you to Sidi Zween. She knows everyone there.’ He got up to leave.
You’re not leaving are you?’ The Baroness looked surprised, ‘Sit down... I have something further to tell you... the most important part’
Radouan sat down on a footstool facing her and began to massage her foot.
She sighed with pleasure. ‘What I’ve told you so far was to prepare you for what I’m going to tell you now. It’s really very simple and I hope it’s been done in a way that you will have no problems.’ She reached down and took both his hands. ‘You see... I have made a Testament, which names you as the sole heir to all my assets: cash, shares and properties here in Morocco and abroad... I’m leaving everything to you because for some reason I think you will know what to do with it... If one gives money to those who have experienced poverty I think sometimes they know how to use it better than all the experts in the world. When I die it will all be yours...’
Radouan was devastated, kept his eyes lowered and continued to massage her feet.
‘Although she does not know the value of my estate, the Baroness continued, ‘the Notaire Madame Saadi has all the documents and I am going to give you copies that were registered here in Marrakech yesterday... there are also copies with my Avocat in Geneva. But you will have to engage a Moroccan Avocat of your own, preferably someone from outside Marrakech because you may have a battle on your hands here. This place... this property, Dar Chems... actually I am giving it to you next month to be sure you get it. Next month you will become the owner and I will be the tenant... I will pay you rent which you will use to keep the place going, pay all the people who work here, etc.’
Astonished, Radouan looked up at her and shook his head. ‘But your family members... surely they will oppose this.’
‘habibi, I have no family... Remember? I can see you’re very tired... we’ve gone over all this before... all lost in the war... and I am the last one. If anyone comes forth with a claim on my estate they are lying. If the authorities here in Maroc try to take this house or any other of my properties here... which they might... there is enough cash with Credit Suisse to buy them back many times over... especially this place... our house, yours and mine... these gardens, years of work and care... I couldn’t bear that...’
Patting her eyes again with a tissue, she continued. ‘I’ve left written instructions in my Testament that I’m to be interred here in a mausoleum that has just been finished. I don't think you’ve seen it but there is room for you there too. I want you to live here in this house and find some peace of mind... in your old age perhaps you will sit in this room and think of me.’
Tears streamed down Radouan’s cheeks: ‘I don't like you talkin’ this way, you mustn’t think about it.... You can’t... you absolutely must not leave me. Who will I come to when I feel bad, for advice, for flattery and tenderness?’ He knelt down beside her, put his head in her lap. ‘My mom... Thank you for what you’ve done... and be sure, I will always fight for this place to keep it... to protect it....’
He stood up, lifted her frail body into his arms and they embraced.
‘You must go now, I suppose,’ she whispered. ‘You didn’t mention Nicholas, how is he?’
‘One day okay, the next not okay.... It’s like that. But actually, for the first time in years he’s a little better, chouiya, chouiya. We’ve cut down on his drinking’ and he’s actually doing some light work... trimming up the garden...’
‘Give him my love, will you? I’ve always enjoyed his madness.’ She laughed. ‘Tell him I’m going to come and visit him while you’re in Paris, but don't tell him I’m sick. Ask Prospero to call me and let me know when would be a good time.’
‘You aren’t sick. You must keep that thought in your mind.’
She shook her head and said, ‘When I’m gone, I mean dead and gone, you must bring Nicholas out here to live. You, Nicholas, your wife Hafida, Antonia down the road in her own place and your Delphine in Prospero’s riad, which you will soon be able to restore to its original splendor. I would like to think that’s what might happen...’
Radouan opened the door to go then turned back: ‘I... I don't like to leave you like this but hang on. I’ll come out before I leave for Paris’
‘Inch Allah, Inch Allah.’ The Baroness said wistfully, ‘Here... I almost forgot to give you this, a copy of my Testament and other papers you should have... Keep them well hidden, habibi; No one knows I’ve given you these, not even my Notaire, Saadi.’
‘I will, ’bibti... I will. May God grant you tranquility.’
©Elwyn Chamberlain 2006