By Olivia Gunning
Ali always set the alarm. It was his job.
I had my jobs and he had his. Mine were pretty classic women’s duties.
According to some, Ali wasn’t evolved enough to tackle such tasks.
According to others, he just couldn’t be bothered. He said, jokingly, that his semi-traditional Moroccan upbringing made him “domestically limited.” The upshot was that I was meal-planner, cook, dishwasher-loader and surface-wiper. Ali pressed coffee, squeezed oranges and lit barbecues – muscular activities. He dealt with the compost and got Luy dressed.
And he set the alarm.
Some mornings were more fraught than others. We both had jobs and deadlines. But Ali was good with the alarm. Ali was good with time in general, just like me. Ironic really, given the Moroccan penchant for tardiness, that we were always so punctual.
Why, then, did he forget that day?
Why didn’t I remind him to set the clock?
Ali, Luy and I always had breakfast together. On weekdays, it was hurried by our schedules. But when we could, we’d reserve a slow stretch of morning for toast, tea and radio.
That Tuesday, though, the alarm clock didn't go off at seven. As soon as we woke into the light and sounds of our quarter we knew it. It was eight. On Tuesdays, I start work around ten so it wasn’t the end of the world. But Ali was had an appointment with Mr Bensayeed next door.
“I don’t want to rush,” he said. So he called and asked if half-past-nine would suit and Mr Bensayeed said he’d be glad to rest a while longer.
“Show me how you do those scrambled eggs,” Ali said to me. He smiled at my astonishment.
“How didn’t I know you can’t even scramble eggs?” I asked.
But I was delighted he wanted to cook. He watched and nodded.
“Stir it gently. You don’t want it to stick but you don’t want it grainy either. I’ll get Luy’s clothes ready.”
When I came back, he’d scrambled the eggs pretty well, chopped up some tomato and cucumber, doused it in our favourite Marrakech olive oil and added some Atlas mountain thyme. He even made mint tea in the embossed metal teapot and brought out our best tea glasses. Everything was on a hand-made tray from Essaouira, a wedding present from Ali’s grandma, Lalla Meriem.
I still remember Ali beaming as he carried it to the table. He held the engraved tray as though he might drop it – a boy in an egg-and-spoon race.
It was a long, greedy breakfast outside on our veranda, with the mosaic tiling and traditional carved cedar table that still smelt of the tree. The heat of summer had retreated, and the morning was just-right with October warmth. There was that faint, regular wind blowing in off the Atlantic.
The old pipe-playing man was walking up and down our street, trilling with the birds. We liked the old piper. He was one of the innumerable alms-seekers who survived on the guilt of the city’s people. He never asked, never approached, never stretched out his hand. But he accepted donations – food, clothes, coins.
The old pipe player always wore the same green traditional djellaba cloak and his pipe was shrill and merry. When the sun was high, he crouched under a tree, three streets away. I’d see him as I drove to work.
The pipe music mingled with the radio newsreader announcing the latest election of a European far-right politician full of occidental, war-mongering politics, poised to impose another layer of havoc and horror on the Arab world. We eyed the clock, enjoying unplanned lateness, and played peep-o with Luy.
At quarter past nine, we said goodbye. Full, washed, content.
I took Luy to the crèche and then carried on to my job at the Cultural Centre. I was on time for my meeting about the exhibition of the street kids’ work and the performance of a Palestinian touring dance group.
At Eleven O’clock, the phone call came.
Ali went to Mr Bensayeed’s house as planned. He completed his routine physio treatment, working on Mr Bensayeed’s bad knee.
This was all as usual.
Except that Tuesday was the day of The Plan.
For the previous three weeks Mr. Bensayeed and Ali had been plotting a new adventure: A walk around the block.
In our quarter, the white, cubic houses with tall art-deco windows are contoured by four streets. Elsewhere, the city is a dry, diesel-drenched place where poverty clangs and despair menaces. But here it’s restful. Birds and insects murmur and the gardens are ever-watered.
Mr Bensayeed reported that Ali, patient and stoic, held onto his arm, issuing soft, constant coaching on moving his femora correctly. Mr Bensayeed was shaky with Parkinson’s. They reached the first street corner and turned into the smaller side road, the one where pink and red hibiscus battle for space in the hedgerow.
The early autumn day, when date palms let drop sheaves of fruit like udders, was perfect for gentle walking. Ali and the faltering Mr Bensayeed passed beneath the giant datura tree that dangled her heavy, hallucinogenic bell-shaped flowers.
Mr Bensayeed said that he knew he was mumbling a lot and that Ali listened and responded in his placid way. Ali was good at communicating with suffering people. Something mollifying about him. He said that too many physiotherapists disregard the link between emotional and physical pain. He’d always nag me about my neck.
“If you stressed less, you’d hurt less.”
“Lucky I married a physio,” I’d laugh. “I get treatments whenever I want.” Ali and Mr Bensayeed turned into the third road where bees skated in and out of the white bougainvillea, petals falling like paper snowflakes. But then there came the loud buzz of a scooter that disturbed the serenity of the quarter. One of the two men jumped off the bike and approached Mr Bensayeed and Ali with a large knife. He pointed it into Ali’s side. The street was empty. The man demanded wallets, mobile phones and watches, but Ali and Mr Bensayeed had none. The man didn’t believe them and got angry. Mr Bensayeed became agitated and began to warble, flailing and trembling.
Pickpockets and muggers are so common in our city and they usually have knives, but they don’t usually use them. The police assume that this one panicked.
Mr Bensayeed said that Ali reached into his jacket, checking if he had some money, but the man with the knife must have assumed he was looking for a weapon.
He drove the knife into Ali’s side and pulled it out. Just once. He jumped on the scooter and they sped away.
Mr Bensayeed passed out and was found slumped over Ali.
My Ali died beneath a man who was so close to death. Two weeks later Mr Bensayeed passed away. A heart attack had been scheduled by destiny and it took him.
Luy went to nursery every day. We didn’t really like sending him but it was the only way. He was always overjoyed when we fetched him, dark curls – just like Ali’s – dancing off his head. He was a blessing of a child - calm, contented, slept at night, ate well.
“My best friend,” Ali would say to him.
When Luy was born, we’d been surprised to find comfort in humdrum. We discovered how routine could be soothing, that the soft echoing of similar events was a source of happiness. But Ali was gone and there was no more comfortable humdrum. Time was slow and throbbing.
Luy asked for Papa often. He’d hear a car draw up by our front gate and tear out of the house calling. “Papa! Papa!” At the same time, he was still upset by the usual sources of bother – strange foods on his plate, where the tortoise was, a bent wheel on the truck in his fat hand.
People came to help. Well-meaners. Some brought rituals and others recommendations, all designed to shepherd grieving, to assist my understanding of tragedy.
Ways of getting over it.
Moroccans flock together in great numbers during bereavement. But some kind of clichéd, quintessential Englishness, that I didn’t know I had, led me in the opposite direction.
Lalla Meriem was the first to turn up. Nobody knew her age, but we estimated from collected memories that she was around 80. She’d nursed her husband during horrendous diabetes that had taken him twelve years before. She’d also lost two children during childbirth, a younger brother, both parents, not to mention a good collection of aunts, uncles and cousins.
Death was no alien.
Lalla Meriem was a religious woman (unlike me) with a lot to say about God and the afterlife. She knew that good people would be judged favourably by the maker.
“Yes. Believers, like Ali.”
I didn’t know if Ali’s daily wine-drinking or clandestine morning breakfasts during Ramadan excluded him from the good people, even though he held an unmoving respect for the religion that had framed his childhood. I couldn’t tell Lalla Meriem that, of course. She assumed, (as did many) that Ali was as pious, devout and abiding as she was herself. I didn’t feel like dismantling her illusions. I liked her. She was one of the few family members who didn’t do the whole wailing thing at funerals. Not like Ali’s sisters and mother, who all arrived howling, hyperventilating, fainting.
I know that outliving a child is an experience worse than none. God help me if ever Luy goes, I think I’d take myself with him. I’ve begun to visualise it like a sick fantasy. But once death blows against the back of your neck, the possibility magnifies.
Ali was not scared of death.
“There’s nothing more natural,” he’d once said. “The one thing we can be sure of is dying. We just don’t know when.”
He’d have never been a wailer or a fist-pounder. Ali was anti-drama, carrying sadness softly. A subtle, quiet mourner. I’m not a public yowler either. In private, though, I can lose it a bit. Shout and cry. I might even throw a glass across the room.
Only Lalla Meriem comprehended my aversion to crying and caterwauling. She deftly diverted the mourners, stayed at my side, speaking for me, answering questions, responding to remarks. Her hands, thick with bread-making muscle, held my wrist, spreading calm through my bones that were otherwise seized with dread as I watched my world without Ali, strange and removed, unveil itself.
“We’ll stop the visits here,” commanded Lalla Meriem from my living room sofa. “It’s too small. Everyone will come to my house to pay respects.” She was allowed to decide this, as the oldest living relative. The matriarch.
An inspector called several times. He was of impressive girth, thick moustache and was naturally sweaty. He spoke very bad French and no English, which was to be expected. Despite his shirt, jacket and crease-fronted trousers, he still looked tatty. On each visit, he announced they were close to arresting suspects.
As I saw him out the last time he called, I noticed the old pipe player crouched on the opposite side of the street, looking right at my front door. His pointed knees were drawn towards his pointed beard, the hood of his cloak pulled up. His pipe was on the pavement next to him. His skin was ridged and dark.
The inspector took a final drag on his black tobacco and flicked it, right across the road. It rolled near the old pipe man, still smoking. The inspector squeezed into his car and left.
I looked at the old pipe man who looked back at me. He nodded. I returned a nod and an embarrassed smile.
From that day, the old pipe man’s new place was opposite my front door.
The funeral was the usual three-day event. I rejected the tradition of wearing white. Just couldn’t do it. I wore simple dark blue clothes.
Whispers and glances were exchanged until Lalla Meriem barked gruff words in Arabic. Everyone sat on the high, narrow sofas, a four-man band playing traditional music, inexplicably channelled into an amplifier even though we were in a living room. Waiters served tea during the day and ceaseless, copious meals at night. There was a strangling odour of incense.
It’s fine. I know it’s what works for them.
Would anything have worked for me? Would it have worked if it had it been like Granddad’s funeral where the post-burial reception had fallen on a beautiful summer’s day and turned into a garden party. Where people had worn pretty dresses and dapper suits and got gradually, smilingly drunk, admiring Granddad’s standard roses and delphiniums.
But Granddad had gone when his coronary heart disease overpowered the life in his body. No surprise.
Ali’s clock helped me sleep. Many battle insomnia during such times, but not I. My sleep was busy, full of frenetic dreams. I slept on Ali’s side, the clock next to me on the bedside cabinet.
It was a vintage, metal clock that Ali loved. It didn’t tick. It’s hard to find tick-free clocks. We’d searched high and low because we hated ticking. You can’t sleep with ticking because you count the ticks instead of letting go. It was a simple clock that just told the time and rang with rattling bells.
If you set it.
I set it every night and managed to get up on time every day. We’d have breakfast, the old pipe man’s concert playing meandering in from the street.
One morning, as we left the house, Luy and I saw the pipe man crouched opposite covered in blossom. Above him the orange tree was shedding tiny flowers. It’d scattered them like crumbs all over the old pipe man and the pavement around him. The old pipe man watched as I struggled with Luy’s car seat. He came over and brought some little flowers. He leant into the car and showed the flowers to Luy who at once forgot to object to the car seat. I strapped him in.
“Thank you,” I said.
The old pipe man smiled and plodded back to his place on the pavement.
I wondered if he knew something, if he’d seen something.
After a few weeks, my friends oriented me towards a therapist.
“You’re depressed,” they said. “And that’s totally normal.”
Why did people want to tell me about normal?
“But a therapist will be a helping hand – more objective and professional than us.”
They found a therapist they considered “just right” for me. Her name was Hélène, she was around 50, and remarkably direct. She asked me about the burial.
“Burials are a good way of gaining closure,” she said with clinical sympathy.
“Yes. Closure is good.”
“Yes. Helps you fasten something in your mind. A burial is a decisive, undisputable action. Such actions assist closure.”
I stared at her, wondering if she were real. Her clothes were so smart and her hair so styled. She wore expensive make up, jewellery and piercing perfume.
“Tell me about the burial.”
“I didn’t go.”
“Didn’t go? Can you tell me why?”
“Well, women aren’t allowed to go to burials here.”
There was a silence. I thought she must be feeling a little idiotic for having asked. She’d lived in Morocco for over twenty years and she asked me that.
“Ah yes,” she said. “Of course.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
“I don’t know. I never thought about going so…”
“So I just imagined it.”
“And how did you imagine it?”
I imagined it as Ali had told me. He’d been to a few burials, as a man. “What I like about our burials,” he said, “is that we go in through the front door of the mosque and when the prayers are finished, they open another door. You don’t come back out through the front door. There’s another door that leads to the cemetery and when they open that door, there’s a beautiful graveyard, all green and peaceful. You don’t retrace your steps – you just go on. Like going into another realm.”
Ali liked continuity. Chains of events, sublimely predictable and logical. I imagined them taking him out of the cool mosque and filing along towards the freshly-dug grave. I imagined them lowering him, wrapped in the white sheet, into the ground. Fabric against earth.
Ali liked the idea of a sheet, soft and enveloping. He was horrified by wooden coffins, closed in. Cotton sheet against the soil that took his body into the folds of the earth.
I told Hélène all about that. And she asked me if, when I imagined the soil reclaiming him in that nice place, it offered me this feeling of closure. I didn’t know what to say.
What the hell is closure anyway? Some kind of justification? Was it alright now that Ali had gone into the ground? Was everything OK because they’d buried him in a place he said was nice?
“What I want you to ask yourself,” she said, “is if you can begin to accept his passing, visualising the burial.”
“Not really, no.”
He wasn't supposed to die then.
He forgot to set the clock. I didn’t remind him.
I skipped my appointments with Hélène because I thought it better to spend the money on swimming. The pool was in a giant room, glazed from floor to ceiling so you could see outside right onto the ocean. The Atlantic smashed and twirled at the glass, brutish and free. I began swimming regularly.
Rhythmic, stolid strokes, eyes fixed on a single spot with each length, limbs mechanical. Fifty lengths each time, once a week.
I went more often when my parents came to visit. A good way of avoiding them. They brought marmite, tea and an awkward atmosphere. Morocco is so removed from their lives in Suffolk that they couldn’t help being stiff and inexpressive in spite of my loss. They’d never been quite happy with me moving away.
Are you certain it’s a good idea to live there? How long do you think you’ll stay? Is he really someone you think you can spend a lifetime with?
If only I’d married someone supremely English, stayed on our green land, replicated them, with reassuring familiarity.
They stayed a week, shuffling around the house, hiding in their room when people visited. Dad worked on the Telegraph crossword and said, rather absently, “You can always come back, darling. You really might be better off.” Mum wore tea dresses, drank sherry and made fish pie and trifle.
She made too much so I began to leave the old pipe man boxes of food outside the door. Every few days I’d find one of the empty boxes filled with little flowers that the pipe man had collected from the hedgerows.
Unsurprisingly, my mother did not warm to the old pipe man.
“What’s he doing there?” she quizzed with anxiety.
“Well, he’s always been around…” I began.
“He’s so dirty. Those feet!”
The old pipe player wore battered plastic sandals. His toenails were the texture and colour of old bark and his heels thick and yellow as beeswax. “You should be careful of people hanging around you and that child.” But I knew the old pipe man was no danger.
I wasn’t intending on going to Ali’s grave until one day, there was a leak in the roof at work and the office was closed.
A day off. Terrifying unplanned time.
The idea of the graveyard presented itself. I got into my car and set the satnav. The glossy French voice guided me to my destination with striking pleasantness. Did she know where we were going?
The cemetery was out of town, along miles of motorway, well into the slums. Newly-constructed, uniform hunks of cement painted white then instantly dirtied by the roaring, panting emissions of eternal traffic.
Yet Ali was right about the graveyard. It was panoramically quiet and clean. Each headstone was numbered. I knew that Ali’s was 3896. I walked between reams of white tombstones, drawing closer and closer to Ali’s number.
I couldn’t read the inscription in Arabic, except for his name.
I touched it, followed it from left to right. I read the three letters.
Ain. Lam. Ya.
I traced them with each of my fingertips, felt his name against my skin. I sat there for a while, no knowing what to think.
Satnav lady took me home. I played with Luy, fed him, read to him. He fell asleep, easy as clockwork, in my arms. When I was sure he wouldn’t stir, I stole out of his room, into the silent living room. I sat on the sofa and wept.
A few weeks later, my brother Paul took three days off work and came to visit from Bristol. He’d been to Morocco twice in eight years and we saw each other when I went to England. He remained the reserved, sweet boy he was during our childhood. Quiet and easily embarrassed. He’d had the same side parting and glasses since he was a teenager. We held affection but were distant with the years that passed.
Paul brought a book about grieving. He produced it from his rucksack with trembling hands. On the cover was a picture of a cherry tree bough on which a robin was perched next to a butterfly. Paul said the book talked about five stages of grief.
“They follow like so. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.”
“Oh really?” I said.
“They say they’re universal,” he explained. “We pass through one to get to the next.”
“And then what?”
“Well, then, you may kind of ….be able to start …to feel like…”
“I don't want to feel like anything. I just don’t get it. And I don’t see why I should ever get it. It just shouldn’t have happened.”
“No,” Paul said, his eyes lowered. “Of course not.”
“I know one thing. I will never get to the point where I’ll think it’s OK.” Paul looked at his book. Closed it. Put it down. Looked up at me briefly. I saw he had tears in his eyes, my little brother. I reached out to him with my arms.
“I wish you’d come home,” he said at the airport before leaving.
“I can’t,” I replied. “But I know what you mean.”
“And another thing. I wish you’d throw out that clock.”
I made a new routine. I set the alarm and got up early and read books Ali loved. I read Driss Chraibi, Tahar Benjelloun and my favourite, Abdellah Taïa. He knew about being in a land that’s somehow yours but not always accommodating.
I’d made the decision to stay. It was the land I’d shared with Ali and one that he adored with ardent fidelity. All the same, life in Morocco without Ali stretched out before me like a burnt track.
During those mornings, the old pipe man would walk up and down the stretch of road. He played melodies that turned around in circles, endless and repetitive.
When Luy woke in the morning, he’d find me on the sofa and lie quietly at my side. He became a hushed child who sucked a blanket. We’d stay there a while, just us two, listening to the pipe man. It was Luy’s coming to me with his restful softness, that made me know I had to live. Because sometimes I’d wanted to take a box of pills and disappear.
Funny how children can save our lives.
I didn’t throw the clock away. I set it every night. And only when I’d set it was I able to sleep, knowing it was there, counting time away silently.
But one night, I was restless. The moon was vast and high and gaped at me through our window. The night was soundless. I could see the shapes of branches and lights from the neighbours’ windows. The clock listened to my breaths and I watched its hands turning towards dawn.
It was so very quiet that night. No cats screaming, no rats scuffling, no neighbours arguing. The unfading traffic had stopped, even the wind was etherised.
It was the first time I was persuaded that Ali was there, padding through the house.
I felt him.
I got up and followed Ali’s steps from room to room, walking the way he walked with easy, insouciant steps. I did as he did – watered the houseplants, smiled at our photos. I cut some cheese, ate a grape and poured some water, leaving the glass and knife on the side.
Then, the old pipe man began to play as the darkness became pale. I decided to make breakfast. I cracked the eggs and cut up tomato, mixing it with olive oil and thyme. I took down the green tea and boiled it up with mint leaves from our garden. I put it on the hand-made tray. I ate it at our cedar table.
As dawn stole in, I watched the fine, white plumbago flowers leaning out of the hedge like confetti and smelt the colonising honeysuckle. I heard the old pipe man, still playing some sweet-tempered song, stirring it into the half-light.
It was then that I understood.
I knew why Ali had not set the clock that day. That Tuesday morning when I had time and he’d made time.
It was Ali’s job to set the alarm. It was not my job to remind him. Ali had wanted that time. He’d wanted it to make breakfast, to squeeze juice and to scramble eggs for us.
And I understood that Ali had forgotten the alarm for a reason. And that it was, quite simply, so that he could have a little more time, just with us.