Beauty From Ashes

Entry by: macdonald

14th October 2016
I order an iced tea, the one that comes in a glass with mint and sugar. I would prefer whisky, despite the early hour and the heat. Aziz drops the bunch of mint on my table, then fades back into the souk. What a fool to wear a Fez; a red one to boot. Why am I always saddled with locals like him? But at least when I look up from my paper I can spot him. It’s getting hot, even under a parasol. I smell toasted sesame. The melon merchants cry their wares, children scamper, an old Bedouin in rags, sweeping dust and fruit peelings from the cobbles. Maybe he’s the contact? I inspect him over the rim of my glass. No. Too old for the desert; probably abandoned by his tribe. A hen squawks in my ear and I jump as it’s carried off for the family pot, legs tied together with twine. I need that whisky. Why didn’t I listen to my mother? When I told her I was to be posted to North Africa she worried that she’d next see me on television about to get my head cut off.
‘I’ll be in Morocco,’ I told her. ‘You’ve been there on holiday.’ But now the fundamentalists are in town and I’ve been six months undercover, with a beard I’ll shave off tomorrow if I’m still alive. I’m about to meet someone who will take me to Hafiz himself. Thirty million dollars on his head and I have the back-up of one overweight local who wears a Fez and likes to quote from Khayyam.
A herd of goats invade the square. The cat stretched at my feet, wakes and sprints off as these clumsy ruffians, their grunts and tinkling bells doubling the noise and confusion, stampede around. A large specimen, several shades of brown in his shiny coat, stops two yards away, and one of his dark oblong pupils assesses me. I wonder what his thoughts might be, until I notice the eye rotate to the greenery at my elbow.
The animals are in rebellious mood and two youthful herdsmen are incapable of controlling them. Even when calm, goats little esteem the rule of their human masters, and easily outwit the pursuers, nimbly avoiding them, but reluctant to leave their companions entirely. I take hold of the big brown fellow by the twine holding a tin bell to his neck and haul him towards the pen. Others follow. Someone hands me an orange. I sit on a low wall to peel the fruit, glancing across the square.
A woman holding a wicker basket, a tiny lamb at her feet. Leading the lamb by a string, she moves towards me. She is wearing a loose fitting turquoise djellaba, skirt to her ankles. As she comes close her large eyes hold my gaze. She pulls back her hood and dark ringlets of hair brush the soft, peach coloured skin at the base of her neck. My heart thumps in my chest, my mouth suddenly dry.
‘Are you Mitchell?’
Her voice is soft and husky and my name has never been spoken in such a way. I’m not sure I recognise it. She waits, lips and eyes settling into an enigmatic smile. I have never seen anyone like this before; lovely beyond telling. The blood throbs in my veins, the juice of the half-peeled orange seeps between my fingers, my thoughts melting into a shapeless mass, my tongue dry and lifeless sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am incapable of replying to my name.
‘I think the mint is for me,’ she says and I step away from the wall, the movement jolting my tongue:
‘Yes,’ I say.
My sticky hands reach for the mint, my eyes remaining fixed on her. As she leans forward with the basket, my hand brushes the skin of her forearm and she tilts her head, her dark eyes falling silently on me once more. She drops something into my palm.
‘Thank you, Mitchell,’ she says, the lamb still at her feet, the basket now clutched to her chest. The skirt brushes against the smooth, tanned skin above her ankles as she walks away. At the far corner of the square, she kneels and scoops up the lamb. Its curly white fleece presses into the flesh at her neck and the linen covering her breast. She lifts one little hoof and waves it at me, laughing. The lamb too gives a single bleat. Only when she is out of sight do I examine the object in my hand. A scrap of paper, folded several times. I hear a familiar voice close to my ear:
‘At the beginning, your beauty shone with rays of glory. Love came and set the whole world on fire.’
Aziz is standing there. 'What a knockout,’ he says, lifting the paper from my open palm.
‘Sixty two, Chemin des Campaniles,’ he says. ‘I know it. Ten minutes from here.’
It is a non descript block, and I’m relieved to see, separate from other buildings. Prefabricated breeze blocks. Two stories. Ten men in all inside with Hafiz behind a desk on the first floor. No orange jump suits, no big knives. My cover hasn’t been blown. I stick to the script, hand over the USB stick and leave.
She is standing outside the door, the lamb lying at her feet. Suddenly I am light-headed,my legs wobbly. I hesitate in the doorway. I know Aziz is watching, clutching his mobile. Once I am fifty yards away a drone operator in Nevada will press a button. Twenty seconds later the building will be a mass of fragmented concrete blocks, molten girders, and smouldering ash.
I lean on the door frame. Somewhere a whole lot of watchers and listeners are cursing me, but I must try. One of the heavies is on the stairs to the first floor, but I know Hafiz will need ten minutes to look through the list of names on that USB stick. If I could distract her for a second. One chance.
‘May I ask you a question?’ I say and those amber eyes settle on me again. She steps back a little and pushes hair away from her face, gives a hesitating nod.
‘Do you believe in love at first sight?’ This time it's her that can’t hold my gaze and she looks away. In an instant her peachy skin will flush but I don’t have an instant. I grab the string and skip away with the lamb. Not too fast. I turn back, try to smile. It’s a game. She is annoyed, but she’s following. I stop and pick up the lamb. She grabs for it too but I turn and now I run. She shouts:
Fifty yards to the corner. Don’t look back. Is she still following? Keep running. Don’t look back. I see the Fez. Aziz is running too. He was right. The whole world's on fire.