by Anne Goodwin
He’d set out to find the blue mosque, but he must have taken a wrong turning, veered right instead of left somewhere, because now he was lost within a mash of alleyways devoid of street signs. He’d tried asking for directions, homing in on men in European dress who might speak English, but without luck. Did they walk on because they genuinely couldn’t understand him or because they couldn’t be arsed to help?
The narrow lanes amplified the heat, sniping it from stone wall to cobbled wynd and back again, catching him in the crossfire. Sweat traced rivulets down his back while the searing sun reminded him constantly of his bald patch. Had Maureen come along, she’d have ensured he wore a hat. But she’d opted to remain in the resort, with a guard at the gate and round-the-clock buffet serving both local and European cuisine. Part of him wished he’d stayed there too.
The holiday was a gift from their children; our three gorgeous girls as Maureen intoned at the slightest opportunity, though the youngest was over thirty with girls of her own. Despite being presented in honour of his retirement, Roy had known he’d have no say in where they pitched up. Even so, he was surprised Maureen plumped for Morocco. If it had been a lifetime’s ambition to go there, she’d been extremely adept at keeping it to herself.
There’d been talk of our three gorgeous girls joining them but, in the end, only the middle one, Hayley, could find the time. Or the funds. She seemed to have money to burn: when Roy proved unable to lounge in the sun for more than five minutes without complaining of boredom, she’d collared the rep to book him a city break. While relieved to escape the sanitised splendour of the resort, Roy felt as if it were Hayley and Maureen who were the parents and he the child, banished to his room for fidgeting.
The alley shunted to the right, opening out into a small square, where nothing matched the picture in his guidebook. Laundry stretched between the upper windows like paper chains at Christmas. A man sat on a stool aside a dark doorway, leathered hands clasped across his belly. His throat parched, and his left heel throbbing with the beginnings of a blister, Roy resolved to abandon his search for the mosque and ask for directions back to his hotel or, better still, a taxi to deliver him there.
The man smiled as Roy approached, revealing a set of gums interrupted by a single brown-stained tooth. ‘As-salam’alaikum.’
Roy recognised the words, but he couldn’t contort his tongue around the customary reply. ‘Taxi?’ he asked instead.
‘Aiwa.’ Grinning, the man gestured towards the open doorway.
Thinking it unlikely the rectangle of solid black concealed the office of a taxi firm, Roy asked again. ‘Taxi?’
This time, in addition to smiling and pointing, the man mimed bringing a cup to his lips. He nodded vigorously as Roy peered into the gloom. Patting the pocket of the lightweight travel trousers where he kept his passport, Roy inched into the shadows.
Twenty or so men in traditional Arab dress, the loose long-sleeved full-length nightshirt-affair that brought to mind Wee Willie Winkie. Clustered around low tables, cross-legged or lounging on cushions, they paused their chat, and card and board games, to examine the intruder. Had he gate-crashed some private club?
As he pondered whether to bolt or brazen it out, a waiter sidled up to him, his long apron stiff with grease. The other men resumed their play as the waiter escorted Roy to a vacant table, fortunately one at a more regular height.
Roy assumed the waiter had disappeared to fetch a menu, but he returned almost immediately to set down a small straight-sided glass of amber liquid. It wasn’t until the heat shocked his fingertips that he smelled the mint and realised this wasn’t lager. He gazed around sheepishly but no-one appeared to care.
Was it the absence of alcohol or of women that made this place so much calmer than the pubs back home? Certainly there was none of the posturing he’d come to expect. In his youth, he’d known bars where women weren’t welcome, where fathers taught their sons to hold their ale and a layer of sawdust absorbed what their stomachs couldn’t tolerate. He’d left such places behind when he was courting Maureen and hadn’t missed them until this moment. Now it struck him that, when he’d envisioned initiating his son into the rites of manhood, one of those bars had formed a constant backdrop: the air thick with tobacco and testosterone, relics of an era in which everyone knew their place, and stayed there.
His mind had screened the father-son scenarios with the allure of a soft-focused TV commercial. A gentle rivalry over their allegiance to opposing football teams. Buying the lad his first razor and showing him how to use it. Advising him to carry a condom. An argument over his first tattoo. As the waiter crept up again, Roy shook the regrets from his head.
When the waiter indicated a nearby table, where two men hunched over a backgammon board, Roy took it for an invitation to join the game. Until he noticed the water-pipe bubbling on the floor. Roy nodded. They had these in England now, but he’d never tried one. His marriage had been a smoke-free zone since the birth of their first grandchild.
He wondered what they were up to back at the resort. In fact, it didn’t take much wondering: they’d be lying by the pool cultivating their tans and, if the rep wasn’t around to remind her it could offend the locals, Hayley would have removed her bikini top. He’d blushed the first time, but Maureen had laughed, saying her breasts had cost enough, she might as well flaunt them.
Watching the waiter assemble the water-pipe with the solemnity of a priest, Roy imagined Hayley by his side. She’d bombard the man with questions, ignoring any signs of unease on his part. She’d be loud, brash, comfortable in her skin. She’d be an embarrassment.
The waiter placed a glass flask on the floor, half filled it with water and screwed an elaborate metal cylinder into the opening. This he crowned with a ceramic bowl, into which he crumbled tobacco, and covered it with a perforated metal plate. Summoning a boy to bring a tray of glowing charcoal, he took a pair of tongs and added the fuel.
Roy wondered if the holiday would have been easier if their other daughters had accompanied them. When Louise and Zoe had given their apologies, or perhaps excuses, he’d hinted to Maureen they might be better off as a couple, without any of their gorgeous girls. She’d soon put him in his place. ‘You want me to tell Hayley she’s not welcome? When she’s been out of our lives for so long?’
He’d worried Maureen would be disappointed. That, after such a lengthy estrangement, they wouldn’t bond as she’d hoped. As things turned out, the disappointment was entirely his: Maureen and Hayley got along all too well.
The waiter inserted a hose into a slot at the side of the contraption and passed Roy the mouthpiece. The water in the flask frothed as the cool smoke began to permeate his lungs.
He’d never forget her ringing the doorbell as they settled down to the evening news. Not a word in fifteen years apart from that one postcard to let them know she was alive. All those years swinging between blaming themselves and blaming each other; between fury at, and fear for, their child.
Then there she was in their front room without warning or apology. There she was sipping tea from the best china with new breasts and a new name. Squeezing Maureen’s hand to stop her from crying, while relishing the fuss she’d brought back to the family home.
‘The prodigal son returns!’ He’d meant to lighten the mood and, indeed, Hayley’s glossed lips had shaped themselves into a smile. But Maureen had flashed him a look rife with decades of accusations and he’d realised, as the newsreader babbled in the background about some faraway catastrophe, that his views no longer counted. On the brink of retirement, he’d got the message that it wasn’t only at work his contribution was no longer required.
Maureen complained he’d been too hard on the boy, criticising when he should have encouraged. But their middle child seemed determined to avoid doing anything that merited encouragement. Roy wondered if he’d actually been too soft; his own father would have thrashed it out of the lad the day he came down for breakfast in his sister’s dress.
If only they’d found a place like this for a proper heart-to-heart. If only the boy had stuck around long enough for Roy to teach him the skills he’d need to be a man. How not to get a girl pregnant. How to wield a razor without nicking his chin. By running away before he’d finished school, his son had made a mug of him. By returning, Hayley had done the same.
She’d offered no explanation, at least not to him. Perhaps she’d confided in her mother. Perhaps she thought a skirt and heels and boob job explanation enough.
His gaze lingered now on the men in their alien clothes, his ears struggling to attune themselves to the rhythms of their speech. Their talk was a succession of throat clearings, but that was the least of what he failed to understand. Men in gowns that looked like dresses. Sons returning to their childhood homes as girls. A father’s inability to navigate a foreign city. The whereabouts of the blue mosque.
Savouring the tobacco through the water-pipe, Roy watched the bubbles tumbling in the flask. He thought of his youngest grandchild, three months old and blowing raspberries. Perhaps it was a reflex, something all kids did, but he couldn’t imagine any other baby looking so cute.
What was he trying to prove by fleeing his family? By clinging to authority he no longer possessed? ‘You’ve got to accept folk as they are, not as you think they should be,’ Maureen insisted. That was all very well, but he craved acceptance too.
The man at the next table caught his gaze. Before Roy could look away, he raised his glass and smiled.
He’d lost a part of himself when he lost his son, but no amount of sulking would bring him back. Perhaps here, where everything was topsy-turvy, he might discover a part of himself that could adapt to gaining an extra daughter. He didn’t have to approve of her choices. Only concede her right to choose for herself.
He raised his glass to salute the man at the next table. A man so different to Roy in culture, language and dress. But wouldn’t they drink to the same objectives? Wouldn’t they toast their families’ health?
There’d be no shame in returning to the resort a day early. Challenging his daughter to a game of snooker or a few lengths of the pool.
‘Tobacco and Testosterone’ won the Ilkley Festival short story prize 2016 and will appear in Anne Goodwin’s new anthology, Becoming Someone, due 23rd November 2018. Anne’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, appeared in 2017. Anne is also a book blogger focusing on fictional therapists.
Website: annethology http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/