The girls on the top deck brush the hair from their faces. The hazy blue mountain ranges, rising on both sides of the Strait. The places you will never go, the life there. Ilham’s eyes wander over the mountains of the Rif, the country they are leaving behind. Why did they stay so long in Rabat? They had the car – they could have gone south, to the desert, but instead they spent the whole time hanging around the city. The terrace at Café Maure; the view of the Bou Regreg estuary and the Atlantic Ocean behind. The boys. The contraband at the boats.

It feels like a loss, that they didn’t go to the desert, like a missed opportunity. They could have asked Saleh to go along; women in Morocco rarely travel alone. The looks, the comments – if it remains at that.

They’ve been on the road for six weeks now, two weeks longer than planned. There had been problems. Situations. Those are behind them now; most of them have been solved.

Saleh comes towards them, holding onto the benches to keep from being knocked over by the pounding of the ship and the hard wind.

The other passengers are downstairs in the salons. Men are sleeping with their legs up on the worn benches; children are fussing, watched over by the women, their fatigue bottomless. The vague smell of piss everywhere.

The freedom on the top deck is better, in the lee of the pilothouse as much as possible.

Hola, chicas,’ Saleh says.

‘Have you taken a look at him?’ Ilham asks.

He nods. ‘No worries.’

She is on unfamiliar ground; she has to trust him.

His almond eyes, the domineering curl of his lips; you want to believe him.

Fahd shows up too. He stumbles towards them across the deck, in his wake a boy they’ve never seen before. Fahd slides up beside Saleh, and the new boy sits down beside Thouraya. A long, nasty face, yellow teeth his lips can’t quite cover. He produces a hip ask, pours whiskey into the opening of a cola can.

‘Who are you?’ Ilham asks. She leans over. The wind tugs at the words in her mouth.

‘Mo,’ Saleh says. ‘He’s a gas.’

‘Can’t he talk for himself?’ She sees Mo’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drinks.

The cola can goes round; the girls pass.

‘He’s riding with me,’ Fahd says.

‘Oh really?’ Ilham says.

‘Cheaper than going alone.’

Fahd can’t get his cigarette lit, not in the hollow of his hand, not in the shelter of his coat either.

Murat had nestled down into the deep hollow made for the spare tyre, where he would spend the crossing, in the dark, covered with baggage. And now, suddenly, there are six of them. That’s not good.”

Ilham turns her head and looks at the crests, the sandy-coloured Spanish land beyond. Her mood has swung. Something has been disturbed. The order of things. They started off the day with the three of them, Thouraya, Saleh, and her, united in a conspiracy to get Murat to the far side. First they picked him up in Témara, in Tangier harbour number five; Fahd showed up – he was going to take the spare tyre back to Holland. Murat had nestled down into the deep hollow made for it, where he would spend the crossing, in the dark, covered with baggage. And now, suddenly, there are six of them. That’s not good. She was born on the fifth of January. There are five people in her family. The star on the Moroccan flag has five points. Five is better than six. The Israeli flag has six points, and her father hates the Jews.

They light cigarettes from the one Fahd finally got lit. Thouraya snaps her fingers.

‘Woof,’ Fahd says, and hands her a cigarette. Ilham asks him for one too.

She sucks smoke into her lungs. She thinks about cancer. Her uncle died of cancer. From the steel mills, her father says, but as a matter of fact there isn’t a single photo in which he’s not smoking a cigarette.

***

It’s her uncle’s fault that she was born in Holland. In 1975, her father arrived in France from Targuist – that was all fairly easy back then; his brother convinced him to travel on to Holland. They worked in shifts at the Hoogoven mills, and shared a room in Beverwijk. They married and were laid off during the steel crisis in the early eighties. Life beat them down. Her uncle rose to his feet again, her father remained lying; he was the weaker of the two. But her uncle is dead and her father is still alive.

Sometimes she thinks about life as a française. What it would have been like. A big country, more air. The way she’s sitting on deck now, the sky high and spacious above her.

She hears her friend say: ‘Hey, give me a little room, would you?’

Mo grins and puts his arm around Thouraya. A mouth made for saying dirty little things.

‘You they’d like to marry,’ Thouraya had said to her sometime in the last weeks. ‘With me they only want to do dirty shit.’

Ilham had looked at her when she said it. Thouraya probably meant well, she gured, and she said: ‘They’d marry a dog, if it had a Dutch passport.’

Thouraya pushes the boy’s arm away. ‘Buzz off, man!’

Ilham looks at Saleh. No counting on him. She slides up a few feet, Thouraya slides along with her.

Going back – that had been their parents’ dream. Everything they did and did not do was a part of going back on that day. That day that never came.”

The boys laugh about it. That’s the way it works, Ilham thinks, their earnest little game; they can’t not do it. Their desire, their eagerness – it has to be on display all the time, it determines their position in the group. They want it, the girls do, they just don’t know it yet. They have to be told that they want it.

When he slides up to her again, Thouraya stands up resolutely and says to Ilham: ‘Yallah.’

The other boys talk her into sitting back down; he’ll cool it now, really.

A bit of ash blows into Ilham’s eye. She dabs at it with the tip of her sleeve.

Saleh is sitting sideways on the bench, looking back at the land they’re leaving. She knows he has plans to go back, to set up something there – a boy like him probably has more of a chance in Morocco. The words ‘detention centre’ and ‘repeat offender’ wouldn’t be hanging in orbit around his life there. Going back – that had been their parents’ dream. Everything they did and did not do was a part of going back on that day. That day that never came.

Saleh fishes a joint from the seam of his Gucci cap. The smoke stays inside him for a long time, finally leaving his nostrils in thin, blue streams.

He has said that there’s nothing for them to worry about. They don’t check passenger cars. They could never do them all. Vans, campers, okay, but not passenger cars.

He has done this before, he says. He’ll check on him during the crossing. Bring him a bottle of water, that kind of thing.

from The Death of Murat Idrissi, translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe, £12.99)

 

Tommy Wieringa was born in 1967 and grew up partly in the Netherlands, and partly in the tropics. He began his writing career with travel stories and journalism, and is the author of several internationally bestselling novels. His fiction has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Oxford/Weidenfeld Prize, and has won Holland’s Libris Literature Prize. The Death of Murat Idrissi is published by Scribe in hardback and eBook.
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Author portrait © Johan Jacobs-Kleiner

Sam Garrett has translated over forty novels and works of non-fiction. He has won prizes and appeared on shortlists for some of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, and is the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authos’ Vondel Prize for Dutch–English translation.

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