The next morning Toni had rung up Madame Saadi and invited her for lunch. And as Radouan had predicted, Saadi, eager to show off her new friend, had asked if she could bring Youssef along. Once she got to know him, Toni was certain her intuition would tell her whether or not he was really Minna’s long lost son.
And so, at one thirty the following afternoon, there she was, Madame Saadi, in the foyer looking cool and sportif despite the heat, her large face radiant, her short fat body covered in the folds of an expensive looking cotton gandoura.
Behind her, taller than Toni had expected, stood Youssef and Madame Saadi introduced him. Youssef extended a firm hot hand and they moved into the drawing room where Toni offered them champagne, the better to loosen their tongues, she thought, and poured out three glasses.
Madame Saadi congratulated her on finally getting her apartment air conditioned and while they made small talk, Toni observed Youssef: small dark brown eyes set too close together, a prominent nose, bronze skin, curly black hair, a thick neck and an athletic physique. This was Youssef in faded jeans and a Turnbull and Asser shirt; dressing up and dressing down. She was intrigued and in a sense charmed, but put off by his confusing manner, which was in turn churlish yet urbane, sometimes haughty, sometimes obsequious. In fact her first impression was that he was not an Arab at all; the mouth was all wrong, the bone structure non-existent, and his lower lip drooped slightly to one side - the mouth of a concealed personality.
As they sipped their champagne and talked, his calculating eyes darted here and there about the room. A face that should have been handsome was somehow twisted, the smile that could have been bright was a grimace, but the body was superb and she could see why Madame Saadi looked so well. Toni had known her for years, almost as long as she had known Radouan, but it was obvious now, despite her new healthy happy look, Madame Saadi was uncomfortable. Her hands flew to her hair, to her bracelets, to her purse and back. The conversation was stilted and one awkward moment followed another. Toni had counseled herself not to be the first one to mention Radouan; Saadi must make that move, and she was confident Saadi would because she could not afford to lose Toni’s account and must explain herself. Explain, for example, why she had called the police, why she had shown the public prosecutor Minna’s will, if not her new friend Youssef here as well, and why she had been leaking all this gossip to the international press?
On the other hand, from her side Madame Saadi foolishly assumed that Toni knew little or nothing of all this. She had been called to assist in getting Radouan out of jail, an undertaking where lurked vast money making opportunities; so easy with these rich foreign women, fashionably vague, not inclined to go into details and so easily swindled. But she had not counted on the fact that one of Toni’s ancestors had been a Viceroy in India, where successive generations of the family had learned all the tricks and served valorously, while serving them selves as well!
After three glasses of champagne, when Toni had still not mentioned Radouan; instead had asked the happy couple how they met, how Youssef liked Marrakech etc and etc, Madame Saadi’s finely honed instinct for self preservation sent a signal up her spine that made her hair stand on end. Nevertheless, she gave what seemed to be a calm, perfectly credible answer: they had met because Youssef had come to see the Baroness who was out of Marrakech at the time. Learning that Madame Saadi handled the Baroness’ affairs, Youssef had sought her out with the thought that she could introduce him when the Baroness returned.
‘Perhaps you didn’t know,’ Saadi continued, ‘that many years ago the Baroness had a relationship with a man from Fez which resulted in pregnancy and the birth of a male child. That child, now a man, is Youssef.’
‘Really!’ said Toni pretending to be amazed.
‘Yes, replied Madame Saadi, ‘but before he could meet her, the Baroness was murdered. I was called by A’hmed her old servant whom you must know. He swore he saw Radouan leaving the house by the first light of dawn.’
‘And how did she die?’ Toni asked.
‘Maybe you didn’t know that she was suffering from a wasting disease that greatly reduced her strength. We think she was smothered.’
‘Smothered!’ cried Toni in astonishment, ‘How awful. I’m afraid I’ve been so busy since I got back I haven’t heard any of these details. But why would Radouan have killed her?’
‘He must have heard about Youssef, that he was in Marrakech and people were saying he was her son and heir. You know how people gossip.’
‘But why would it matter if Youssef were her son?’ Toni asked
‘Because she’d already made a Testament designating Radouan her sole heir that’s why! If Youssef had been able to present himself to her, tell her the story of his life, then naturally she would have changed her will in his favor. But he never got the chance. Haven’t you seen the journals...?’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t.’ Toni lied apologetically, ‘I try not to read them. So you’ve known Youssef for some time then...’
‘Not that long,’ Madame Saadi smiled coyly, ‘a few months... Of course I was suspicious of him at first,’ she glanced fondly at Youssef, ‘here in the Maghreb one must be suspicious about everything. But I had him investigated and everything he told me proved true. Can you believe, the very morning she was murdered, that very morning, we had an appointment to go out and see her. Youssef had wanted to go sooner but I wanted to prepare her for meeting him... since she wasn’t in good health... prepare her... she had become so fragile I thought the shock might kill her. I had to be very careful.’ Madame Saadi threw up her hands despairingly, ‘So we waited and then it was too late.’
‘So you think Radouan knew Minna had made him her heir?’
‘Absolutely, I’m certain of it, in fact I have witnesses... people he told.’
‘My dear Saadi, here in Maroc, we all know witnesses can be bought and sold like sheep; for a few dirhams anyone will say anything!’
‘Are you calling us liars?’ Youssef asked coldly.
‘Not at all, my dear fellow,’ Toni replied, sensing she might have flushed her quarry, ‘I’m not saying you don’t actually believe what you’re saying, but that doesn’t mean I have to believe it! I’ve known Radouan since he was sixteen, twenty years in all. We met through the Baroness who had known him since he was twelve or fourteen. She meant everything to him. It’s absolutely inconceivable that he could have murdered her; there must be some mistake. And he certainly didn’t need the money. He’d just made a small fortune on a film deal and on the day we were married in England, I transferred a rather large sum of money into an off shore account for him. I assure you he had no idea her fortune was so large, or what she was going to do with it. But we wouldn’t have cared, and we don’t care now. If you are really her son and can prove it to whoever decides these matters, then I can tell you Radouan will be perfectly willing to go along with any decision made by the Tribunal.’
Having unburdened her self of this message, Toni led them in to lunch where the first thing she noticed was Youssef’s table manners. For one who appeared so urbane and sophisticated, they were very odd; using a knife and fork, let alone several knives and forks for different courses was obviously beyond him. He wielded the large dinner fork for the fish course, the dessert spoon for couscous and finally finished by attacking the chicken with his hands. He also gripped his silverware in an odd way with his fists and seemed to have great difficulty deciding which hand to use. She thought it strange for someone supposed to have been educated in Paris and Rabat, the son of a man who’d been a member of the sophisticated court of Pasha Glaoui to eat in this manner. And the more she observed him, the more convinced she became that such a creature could never have come from the womb of her good friend Minna.
‘How long have you been here in Marrakech?’ she asked Youssef.
‘About four months now off and on... It was only a year ago the woman I had always thought of as my mother, a maid called Latifa, told me, as she lay dying, the real story of my birth... How my father, our Patron, had ordered her to abduct me from the Baroness’ house and bring me to Fez. It came as a shock! I’d always thought of myself as the son of Latifa, whose husband, a local carpenter, had run away.’ He gazed at her measuring her reaction, then continued, ‘The special attention I received from the Patron had always puzzled me. As I grew older and he sent me abroad to University and bought me expensive presents, of course I began to wonder what was happening.’
Too smooth, Toni thought. ‘Did your father whom you call the Patron... did he have any other children?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied earnestly, ‘two girls, half-sisters, who now live with their mother in France. So I assumed, because he had no other male children, that’s why he took such a particular interest in me... made me his heir, even though he never told me I was his son. He is dead now... may God make Paradise his abode... the year I finished law school he died. I miss him. We spent many long nights together discussing philosophy and history... He knew many things.’
Toni sipped her mint tea and sat listening, perplexed by his delivery. The fact that he hadn’t known he was the Patron’s son until recently would account for his crude mannerisms; but it was the WAY he spoke, that rattled her: too well rehearsed, a certain disingenuousness. Or could it be because he was speaking English, a language he didn’t really understand? But his English was good, better than his French was in fact! What then this parrot-like recitation? What was it all about? Who else could have known all this?
The afternoon finally ended in a series of apologetic gestures from Madame Saadi as she and Youssef prepared to leave. She was sorry everything pointed towards Radouan. It wasn’t her fault that A’hmed had seen Radouan drive out through the gate that morning he left for France. It wasn’t her fault the Baroness had left him everything, Mach Allah, none of it was her doing. When A’hmed called her that terrible morning what else should she have done? As for the stories circulating in the press, well, she certainly had not spoken to any reporters. ‘But this is Marrakech,’ she laughed merrily, ‘and every one knows Marrakchis are terrible gossips.’
After they had gone, it was obvious to Toni their case rested only on the words of servants, realized she had never really liked Madame Saadi and vowed to distance herself from her as soon as possible.
The light was fading; the timeless cries of the Muezzins reciting the call to evening prayers echoed through the palms and on the terrace her thermometer hovered at fifty degrees. As the pink city shimmered like a mirage under the setting sun, Toni lowered the blinds and tried to sleep but could not. The mystery of Minna’s death, all the facts and lies, paraded before her like sheep jumping over fences- and jumping back again. The only person Minna ever mentioned who would receive anything on her death was A’hmed who was supposed to receive an income for life. Had A’hmed been afraid Radouan would prevent him from receiving this bequest?
She was thoroughly confused. What a strange, tangled relationship they’d had, Radouan and Minna; such opera, so incestuous; the wild scenes in which Radouan would go crazy and start destroying things. Minna was the mother he could sleep with again and he was her forbidden lover.
©Elwyn Chamberlain 2006