Readings — From the November 2019 issue

No. 13 Baby

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From Night Boat to Tangier, a novel published in September by Doubleday.

At the Café Central, in Plaza de la Constitución, he drank café solo and waited. Around him there was the ceaseless hum of the old Andalusians’ talk. They balled up their napkins and threw them to the tiled floor. The old men spat, narrowing their faces. Their skins of almond shade. The air was blue with cigarette smoke that rose in slow drifts. The old ladies wore ankle-length fur coats for the winter sun. They had high, comical arched eyebrows painted on and looked perpetually startled. The coffee machines laughed and spat also. The patrons drank café solo and con leche and cortado and hot chocolate and ate sugary lengths of long, twisted churros. A woeful-looking fat man from Birmingham arrived just a few minutes late. He had a look of high moral injury as he took a seat opposite Maurice Hearne. His great, fleshy frame came to rest in a soft stack of complaint.

You’re a bloody daft child, he said. If you had any sense, you’d get up right now and run a fast mile. And you would not look back, Maurice. You would not look fucking back.

He ordered chocolate and a ración of the churros and fed on them with tiny, anxious bites. He spoke lowly, as if they might be spied on. He borrowed from the waiter a pen and tore a scrap of paper from the waiter’s pad and passed these to Maurice. He recited slowly the details and number of a bank account and it was in a half-sung drone, as if he was praying. There were no two ways of doing it, he said. It was half the money first and then he would be allowed to meet Karima.

You want your bloody daft Irish head examined, he said. And I mean no offense, son, because my mother was from County Mayo. But these people? These people are a sensationally bad idea. I know of what I speak. You’re swimming out of your water. You should throw away that piece of paper. You should forget you’ve ever seen my plain little face. Because these people, Maurice? Oh sweet Jesus God no.

He paid for Maurice’s coffee and shook his hand tightly as he stood to leave.

Rethink it, he said. Go home. Have your life. Get a job of gainful. Make some bloody kiddies.

Alone again, Maurice watched himself in the café as though from a distance. His vision was blurred at the edges—the fear. The crowd thinned out. The Spanish cafés ran on unlearnable hours. Here we’re all in; here we’re all out again. Fur coats trailed on the tiled floor. Somber waiters in white shirts swept up the napkins and the cigarette butts. The headwaiter looked like a ’tacheless Salvador Dalí and drank a ball of cognac and was sustained. It was like a funeral; the sad Andaluz faces. Maurice drained the last cold beads of his coffee and left.

It was dusk already in the street and he walked in the full gloom of youth and the sparrows bickered among themselves clannishly and hopped gaily from the bins. On the Alameda Principal he walked under palm trees still strung with Christmas lights to spell felicidades and he was aroused by the fear and by the scale of the money, both. He liked the happy, mysterious babble of the evening streets, and he tried to distinguish some words. Vah-lay, he heard again and again—vah-lay—and it sounded regretful, a sigh. In a bar on the Alameda he fed coins to a phone on the counter and called the hallway phone in the old house of flats at St. Luke’s Cross. He felt her hurry down the stairs to answer, down that haunted stairwell, and he counted off the steps, eight, nine, ten, to the softness of her voice—

Did you see him?

Oh, I fucken did, yeah. Jesus Christ.

Really?

A big sweating Brummie fuck. Kept telling me to go the fuck home out of it.

So is this it, do you think?

It’ll be tomorrow. I think it’ll be fine.

It isn’t too late not to.

Cynthia, it’ll be fine. It’s farming.

Ah but Maurice listen to me.

I miss you. I badly want to see you.

Yeah well that’s all fantastic until.

It’s going to be okay. I’ll be back soon. I can hear you still.

The city ran a swarm of fast anchovy faces. The surge of the night traffic ran. The harbor lights were festive and moved across the oily water. He walked as far as the beach of Malagueta to get his head right and let the fear settle. He recognized at once that there was heroin in the vicinity of Malagueta by night. The heavy sea was constrained on tight lines. He sat in the dark on the sand and listened to the night, the traffic; the fast sibilant hiss of the Andaluz voices.

He reasoned that if he didn’t sleep there was no way he could dream about his father.

Karima was about forty and thin and kind of good-looking in a skanky way and with sexy bad teeth when she opened her mouth to take in huge, derisive gulps of her cigarette smoke, as if it couldn’t possibly feed the burning want of her Saharan lungs. Her thin face folded to a grimace on the intake, creased again to smile as she exhaled. She steered her small, neat car through the new suburb set high in the Málaga hills.

You have a face, she said. It’s like what you call in the films? In the fairy story? In the Walt Disney?

I don’t know if I like the sound of this, Maurice said.

I mean the little creature, she said. In the woods. The word?

She shook her head as she drove—she could not find the word. She turned onto an unfinished road at the top of the new development. Large, ominous birds hovered to hunt above the red dirt of the hills. There was a sensation of lizards. The white apartments were clean as picked bone and appeared to be untenanted—there were no cars. Way beneath them the Mediterranean was brilliant in the winter sun.

Elf! she said.

Okay, he said.

You are an elf, she said. Your face.

I take no offense, he said. You mean that I have an elfin look. Is what you’re trying to say to me.

Elfin?

Meaning elf-like, he said, or with elf-type characteristics.

And certainly they were by this point wondering what it would be like to fuck each other.

Very strange, she said.

His mother said always they must have found him in the Ummera Wood. Even as a kid, in the stroller, he was tuned to odd frequencies, it seemed. Karima parked the car beside a raw apartment unit, as yet unplastered. There were no people anywhere to be seen. She wore low-rider jeans and a pale lemon Adidas polo; he did not recognize the make of the trainers. She lit another cigarette and smiled at him to show her awful, yellow, alluring teeth, also the warm dark of her maw. She brought him inside the unfinished apartment and there displayed a hundred kilos of graded Moroccan hashish stacked neatly. The extent of it certainly was agricultural. She said that tonight or even the next few days would be good. He could send his people. They could get together at the port of Málaga late on.

And this is the way it will go, she said. You don’t ever need to see Tangier.

They went outside again and got into her car. She went by a different route and turned down an unpaved avenue.

Something else we see, she said.

She brought him to another unfinished apartment. As soon as she unlocked the door he could smell the stench of human filth. A man wearing just a pair of yellow vinyl football shorts was chained to the chrome leg of a kitchen island—he was blindfolded also and gagged. There was no furniture; the walls were unplastered. The man moaned dully and rolled over to show his bound mouth. He was slick with pain. There was a long, dark bruise running half the length of his thigh.

Okay, she said, and they left again.

They got back in the car and she smiled.

This is also how it goes sometimes, she said.

Ah yeah, Maurice said.

She shook her head slowly—her regret was sweet, girlish.

He’s French, she said. They’re all cunts.

You’d hear that all right, Maurice said.

She drove him to a bar in the mountains. It was deserted but for the owner. He was a thin, grave man in late middle age. He looked as if it was all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words, and he was absorbed by a mystic lady who spoke in a deep, husky tone on a small TV playing above the counter. Maurice lacked the language but he could sense easily that the mystic was conversing with the dead. She hovered her palms above snapshots of elderly Spaniards. Souls as nothing but the husks of Polaroids. Even as he filled their glasses from the beer tap the somber owner did not take his eyes from the screen.

Do you believe in the dead? Karima said.

How’d you mean?

You think they can see us?

Down here?

Yes.

Right now?

Yes.

I fucken hope not.

Maybe they can just hear us, she said.

Karima came from the Rif mountains but she lived now in Málaga. When she turned to look up at the TV again he arranged a glimpse down the front of her polo shirt. At the top of the left tit was inked a tiny 13. He knew that she would be a great presence in his life. By a sort of sensual divination he knew this. A phone number streamed across the bottom of the screen beneath the mystic lady, and the barman took a pen from behind the register to make a note of it.

Karima turned to Maurice and she smiled as she found him down her shirt front.

Why would you think of that now? she said.

On the screen the mystic put her hands to her face and exclaimed desperately—she made a sudden, piercing sound, eerie as an owl’s hoot. Messages from elsewhere, apparently.

There is nothing fucking good coming through, Karima said.

Well this is it, Maurice said.

Charlie Redmond flew in the next day. Charlie Red had never been on a plane before. It seemed to have raised him a notch higher in self-confidence levels—a notch that he did not need. First night, he was up and down the Alameda Principal acting like he was number one. His snout in the air, the shoulders moving, turning to check out the Spanish girls going by, nodding slowly and serenely as they went by, like a connoisseur taking the waft of something precious and rare.

Are you trying to look like you’re involved in the fucken drug business? Maurice said.

Drug business? Charlie said. I’m import-export. I’ve flown in for a trade show.

Charlie wore a two-piece velour Gio-Goi tracksuit, a Kangol slouch hat, and some kind of Brazilian—fucken Brazilian—trainers. The soles were made out of virgin rubber, Charlie confided, with soft wonder in his voice. Charlie every month bought The Face and i-D magazines, spent hours on the fashion layouts, poring over them, with an expert’s keen and rueful air.

They were in a bar on the Alameda drinking beer and eating tapas.

What’s this bollocks, Moss?

Octopus, Charlie.

You windin’ me up?

Can you not see it? Look? It’s got all the little tentacles and shit?

And we’re supposed to be atein’ that? This crowd would want to cop themselves on altogether.

Nervously he took a bite, chewed suspiciously for a moment, then relaxed into it with a warm, open smile.

Gorgeous, he said.

But beneath Charlie’s left eye there was a tic of nervous fluttering, as if a tiny bird was trapped beneath the skin, and it signified that the night was a heavy one.

They took a taxi down the port to see Karima’s people and to arrange the transportation.

We play it like it’s the nine hundred and eighty-ninth time we’ve done this, Maurice said, and not the first.

Charlie Redmond did not need telling. The thing about Charlie was that you took him into a room and they knew. One look and they fucking knew. A single glance into the soulful eyes of Mr. Charles Redmond and they knew that this could go in any direction.

At the port of Málaga the night sky was bled out pale and the anchor lines and the rigging of the off-season yachts made a nervous chatter in the breeze. In the throw of the arc lights the gulls hovered with comic, gruesome eyes. After a short wait a jeep pulled up and a heavyset, smiling driver beckoned them with a broad, pantomine gesture.

We’re on, Maurice said.

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