WE guessed he was dumb or maybe he just had nothing to say. As the big Arab shook us awake the travel clock flashed 4.30am.
Madame was at the top of the stairs. We had no money to pay for our rooms. No hard currency anyway. “Travellers cheque?” we ventured optimistically. Madame’s eyes narrowed. With her hair in a severe bun on her head and her lips red as blood she railed at us in French. Neither me nor Mark spoke French, we were idiots. Maybe she put a curse on us, if she did, it worked.
The square in Taroudant was broiling already although the sun had barely bothered to climb above the dun buildings. The chatter was horrendous people swarmed over the bus stuffing it with chickens, goats and grandfather clocks.
I squeezed into my seat. On one side Mark, on the other a large, sweaty Moroccan who tried to sell me silver trinkets and when that failed hashish. On the seat in front a smooth-skinned youth in white robes turned fully around just to stare at me. His sad eyes never flinched. Like everyone, he just didn’t care.
The bus was ancient even by North African standards. It spluttered, belched back fumes and screamed in agony as the insane driver searched for gears. The journey to Marrakech can be done in three hours, it’s 125 miles as the crow flies. I was to envy that crow. “Forget the air conditioned buses, the tourist experience, we’re going to travel like locals, “ Mark had enthused.
He now somehow slumbered next to me despite the fetid heat and the tears and moans as all concerned prayed to whatever god they believed might see them through Moroccan public transport. Even a dig in the ribs failed to rouse him.
At last we were on our way until half a mile later we stopped to pick up a naked man covered in ash shrieking oaths who did a profound line in BO. Another ten minutes and a veiled mother with a seemingly endless supply of children flagged us down, then Bedouin warriors straight out of a David Lean film clambered on board with a clatter of mad swords. The delays were excruciating, the list of people endless. There was nowhere for anyone, but they crammed in.
My throat was parched, my eyes dry as dust as I gazed at the Fanta Orange signs withering and warping in the merciless sun. I searched my empty pockets feebly for coins as he hours marched on.
At one point we rounded a bend on the mountain road. A bus similar to ours lay on its side, its windows smashed. Dead bodies lay under tarpaulins whilst up on the slopes survivors squatted and whimpered with grief and shock. It was the worst or perhaps the best on a good day for bad omens
Still Mark slept; it was if he was in a coma, it was like the only way to rouse him might be to play recordings of his loved bones urging him to wake up. Maybe a special message from Bono. He was snoring lightly. I killed another hour imagining ever more complex ways of killing him
Then I began to slip in and out of consciousness. I feared I might die and then part of me hoped I would and I saw God coming to me with a tray of drinks and a sign which said travellers cheques were accepted in heaven. I would have wept for joy if I could have spared the moisture.
When we finally pulled into Marrakech eight hours later small boys clambered all over the bus. Their faces appeared at windows, their smiles as brilliant as the skies. In their hands they proffered china flasks filled with ice-chilled water.
I grabbed one from the nearest boy and greedily glugged on it. I had finally broken. “Money, money,” the boy said. I wiped my cracked lips. “Travellers cheque?” I said and laughed so hard the boy laughed too.