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To escape depression and Christmas jollity at home, a middle-aged English secretary called Agatha books a package holiday in Agadir, Morocco, because of its name. There she hires Abdul, a virtuous Moslem student of 21, to be her private guide.
Abdul spots the car in the noisy taxi park next to the souk. Its driver has lined up four passengers for his battered five-seater Mercedes, but he won’t leave for Essaouira until he’s found six.
A scarfed woman with baby on hip has bagged the rear window seat on the left, two squawking chickens at her feet. The driver is insisting the birds go in the boot. An old man in a djellaba and two young men in jeans are hanging around with cigarettes. Abdul — or Abi, as I call him in my head — negotiates the single front seat for us. The two men scowl at Abi, who doesn’t smoke and wears a traditional robe “because tourists prefer that.”
Abi gets in next to the driver, leaving as much room as possible. I follow, pull the door closed and lean away from Abi. But the driver insists Abi budge up against me so he can work the gear lever. Abi puts his arm around my shoulders. It’s the first time he’s touched me. I don’t worry because I’ve decided he’s probably gay. Anyway, we have no choice.
The driver puts his foot down and speeds along the hilly coast of western Morocco. Hairpin bends push Abi and me together — first against the door, then towards the driver. We try not to lean on each other, but that’s agony for the muscles. And I think “Sod it, Aggie! Relax! You’re on holiday!” So I unclench my tummy, stop not leaning on Abi, and let centrifugal force (or whatever it is) push my body into his, his body into mine. I put my mouth to his ear and whisper: “It’ll be more comfortable if we go with the flow.” I don’t know what Abi understands by this — and I’m not even sure what I mean, to be honest — but there’s a definite reaction. He’s been very reserved on our two private excursions in Agadir, but now he nuzzles my neck in a way that convinces me he’s not gay after all. I rest a hand on his knee. The driver shoots us dirty looks.
Two and a half hours later we arrive outside the old walls of Essaouira, and spill stiffly out of the taxi. The place looks undistinguished and scruffy until I take Abi’s arm and he leads me through a gate into the city. There’s a long main street with flagstones and shops either side. I smell ginger and cinnamon at a spice stall advertising “Moroccan Viagra.” We come to squares with white walls, green shutters and open-air cafés. There’s a castle with ramparts by the sea. Sea-gulls swirl, and there’s a lovely salty seaside smell.
I wish I’d known about Essaouira before. Agadir was rebuilt after an earthquake, and has nothing much to offer but beaches. I booked too quickly because the name reminded me of mine. But Essaouira is beautiful. Normally I would never pay for a second hotel room when I’ve got one paid for and waiting. That’s not me at all. But now I can’t bear the idea of staying here for only two or three hours, so I decide to stay the night.
I haven’t got any clean underwear, but so what? I’ll wear dirty knickers or no knickers at all. My mother wouldn’t approve, but at my age I can surely do what I like. I’ll buy a toothbrush and take a taxi back to Agadir in the morning. Abi reminds me of the Gala Dinner at the Hotel Mirage. Fuck that, I think, pardon my French.
We lunch at an outdoor place near the port where you pick fish from a stall and watch them cook. Abi says tourists often get ripped off because the staff persuade them to choose expensive items like lobster and exaggerate the weight. I’m safe because he tells me which fish to choose. I order white wine and insist Abi have a taste, saying it’s hypocritical of Morocco to make good wine and expect Moroccans not to drink. He seems to like the sip, so I order a glass for him and a second one for me.
Then I ask Abi if he has to return to his mother in Agadir. Or can he stay in Essaouira too? He says he wouldn’t mind staying as he has a friend who will give him a bed. He can find a room for me, though I mustn’t expect anything like the Hotel Mirage. I tell him I’ll feel safer if he stays at the place he finds. In a separate room, of course.
While Abi goes to find us somewhere to stay, I sit in the sun with my wine, head spinning. He looks so handsome as he walks that I imagine us in the same room. In the same bed, without our clothes on … That idea gives me butterflies and a lump in my throat, and it rather frightens me. While I’m sure Abi has a wonderful body, mine is long past its Best Before date. The contrast would be sad. For him, of course, but also for me. I don’t feel ashamed when I go to bed with men my own age. (Not that I’ve done that for a year or two.) Their bodies have always gone further to seed than mine. Flab round the belly, droopy buttocks, balls heading for the floor. And man breasts! Moobs, I think they call them now. But I should stop fantasising about Abi. He’s a clean-living boy who can’t possibly be interested in me. I should know better at my age. I could be his mother. Oh God, I could even be his grandmother! He’s only twenty-one.
Abi returns as I’m finishing my wine. He takes me to the Hotel Mogador, which is built into the old walls of Essaouira overlooking the sea. It’s very simple, but clean and good enough for one night. Though it’s a single, my room has a queen-sized bed, a fact that makes me strangely pleased. Abi’s room is two doors away.
I pay for the rooms — they’re very cheap. Abi tells me the receptionist suggested charging me the inflated list price and splitting the profit between them, something he says is a common practice with tour guides. Abi refused. He’s an honest boy.
Then he shows me Essaouira, starting with the fort and ramparts where Orson Welles filmed Othello. I’m surprised Abi knows about Orson Welles, but I guess guides mug up on that kind of thing. We visit art galleries, carpet shops and artisan workshops. He takes me to a place that sells sculptures carved from the roots of thuya trees, whatever they are. Many of the pieces are abstract, but some are shaped like couples hip to hip. The wood smells sweet, musky, erotic. There are price labels, which are rare in Morocco, and the numbers seem low. I ask Abi which sculpture he likes most, and buy it without bargaining. Again, that’s not the usual me.
Abi asks if I need him any longer, as he wants to see his friend Mohammad and go to the mosque. Can we arrange a time to meet tomorrow? I haven’t counted on being alone all evening, and want us to go shopping and eat together. I offer more money. Double time “for a night shift”. Abi says he’ll have dinner with me if I really want, and turns down more cash.
We pick up a toothbrush and toothpaste at a pharmacy, and Abi helps me buy a white djellaba on the main street. I’ll wear it for dinner and as a nightshirt, and it will be a nice souvenir for home. As I know my way back to the Hotel Mogador, we part there and agree to meet there at eight. When Abi’s out of sight I buy a denim shirt in what I guess is his size. He’s helped me dress like a Moroccan; I’ll make him look like a cowboy.
In my room I polish the sculpture with spit and toilet paper and set it on the window sill next to the parcelled shirt. Gazing out at a purple sea with white foam, I decide to walk to the fort, because the guidebook says it is a good place to watch the sunset. The book is right. The sky changes from blue to grey to milky white and tangerine. The sun slips into the sea and shoots a blaze of red into the clouds. Seagulls shriek.
It’s so beautiful, my eyes water. I wish Abi were with me.
Sunset over, I return to the hotel to shower and get ready for dinner. I’ll be paying, of course, but the dinner is also a present from Abi to me. He’s giving me his time.
The restaurant is rather touristy, with cushions and low tables and candles. Abi says it belongs to a friend of Mohammad’s father. The waiter makes a fuss of us, and it’s probably quite expensive, but for once I don’t calculate or care.
Abi is even more good-looking in the candlelight. His white teeth light up the darkness, and his brown eyes are so deep and liquid I could drown in them. I ask if he has a girlfriend. He says he won’t look for a wife until he finishes his studies, gets a proper job, and inherits his mother’s little house. It seems that might happen quite soon. “She’s really very ill,” he says. “She knows she’s dying.”
Then Abi asks how old I am, and I tell him that’s not something you ask a woman. People are as old as they feel, I say, and that evening I feel like a teenager. Like Juliet with her Romeo, I think, though I don’t tell him that.
I persuade Abi to drink wine again — red, this time, though I can’t remember if we’ve chosen fish or meat. My mind is not on the food. I pay with my credit card without checking the bill. No, I’m really not myself today. And then I take Abi’s arm and we walk back to the hotel under a moon that is big and bright.
We collect our keys at the small wooden reception desk and climb to the second floor. My room is 26, the number of the house where I grew up and my mother still lives. When we arrive outside 22, Abi’s room, he starts to say goodnight and arrange what time to meet for breakfast. I say we should have a nightcap. He doesn’t know the word but follows me into my room. I get the glass from the bathroom sink and pour whisky from the flask I’ve filled with airport duty-free. Abi’s never tasted whisky, so he chokes at first but says it makes him feel very warm. He moves to the window and caresses the sculpture. I feel warm too.
Abi opens my present, and I say he must try it on. He says he can’t put the shirt over his robe. Of course he can’t, I say: he must take his robe off first. He should go to his room to change. But he stays and says shyly that he will remove his djellaba in my room — on condition I take mine off too. Trembling, I say that I will, but only if he goes first.
After gazing down for agonising seconds, muttering as if in prayer, Abi pulls his robe over his head and stands before me in only plain white boxer shorts. He’s so beautiful with his broad young chest and flat belly that I almost faint.
I don’t dare reveal my body with the light on, but my father used to say every woman can be Marilyn Monroe in the dark. So I stand up, flick off the switch, remove my own white robe and walk towards the shadowy outline of my young guide. I’m completely naked, as I jettisoned my bra and knickers before dinner. I kiss Abi on the lips and press myself to his chest. I feel his hardness and tell him to remove his shorts. We fall on the bed. His body is hot and hard. It’s heaven.
“This is my first time,” Abi whispers.
And this is my first time with a virgin.
He comes too quickly, of course. But it doesn’t matter. It’s wonderful. And it’s just the first of … well, who’s counting? It’s the best sex I’ve ever had. Not because of any technique. You can’t talk about technique with a virgin, even a quick learner like Abi. But he opens himself so much to the experience.
And Abi enjoys my body. Even in the morning, when light seeps through the shutters and I can’t hide in the dark. My body, with all the rolls and sags and wrinkles of … fifty-nine years. There, I’ve said it.
He whispers “Thank-you, Aggie. Thank-you, Aggie dear. Now I understand what the fuss is about.” I say “Thank-you, Abi!” It’s the first time I’ve called him that out loud. His eyes fill with tears.“That’s what my father called me,” he says.
Abi goes to room 22 to wash, mess up the sheets and make the hotel think he slept there. It’s too late, because the maids have already been round. Then he returns to where I’ve just put on the loose trousers and blouse I wore yesterday. He says he’ll have to borrow my trousers because he wants to wear the denim shirt, and he can’t wear that under his djellaba.
So I pull off his robe and there is his body again, with its shiny skin, muscles and the hardness I fail to ignore. Abi locks the door and undresses me with tenderness and care. It’s years since anyone undressed me. And we make love again. Far more than sex. Dear Abi.
After we check out, ignoring looks from the man at the desk, we have coffee in the square and go to the beach. We don’t talk, just walk along the water holding hands. I don’t care who’s watching, or what people think. Or what my mother would have thought.
We could have spent more time in Essaouira, but I know it’s time to get back to Agadir. Abi seems to feel the same. We’re happy at what happened, but anything more would be an anti-climax. I buy us kebabs from a stall and we make our way through the walls to the taxi station.
Another old Mercedes is collecting passengers for Agadir. I pay for three places so it can leave immediately with Abi and me each getting a complete seat in the back. Abi sits in the middle, an old man to his left and me on the right. We hold hands in silence all the way.
Back at the Hotel Mirage, we run into Abi’s cousin Samir, my holiday rep, who is arriving to sell excursions to his latest package group in the foyer.
“How’s he been, your private guide?” Samir asks. “Was he satisfactory?”
“More than satisfactory”, I say. “He was perfect”.
Settling up over mint tea — Moroccan whisky, as Abi calls it — I give Abi the biggest tip I’ve ever given. Though I doubt we’ll ever be in touch again, we exchange addresses.
And then I say goodbye to the boy, the man, with whom I’ve just spent the happiest, most intimate, night of my life. Just a handshake. And a smile. A real smile as we look into each other’s eyes.
Tomorrow I fly home.
“Aggie dear”. That’s what Abi said.