That was when you saw the sacrifice. The Mini laboured up a chalky road which snaked among the red hills to the village Malek had indicated. You danced awkwardly with the men while the women looked on through their veils. Then one of the herdsmen wrestled a ewe from his flock, pinning it to the ground with his knee. Under his murmurs and tender caresses it appeared to fall into a trance, lying still as he made the bloodless incision in its belly and so, so gently eased his arm inside, half way to the elbow. A moment later its eyes had glazed over and you realised it was dead.
Afterwards they had wanted you to eat some of the meat and you would have done, vegetarian or not, but Mary's face had gone quite pale and you took her back down to Ali's house.
"That wasn't a sacrifice, that's how the tribesmen kill their animals for food," says Herman. Sacrifice or not, for you it would always be something sacred. You had never seen anything so beautiful.
But that was later. Your story began a week before when you and Mary arrived at what the guidebook had described as a sleepy backwater, a peaceful fishing village with a picturesque market where tribesmen from the mountains came down at the weekend to peddle their wares.
"Whoever wrote that obviously hadn't ever been there," says Herman dismissively. Herman's married to a local woman, he's almost a native so you tend to take his word for things. He's taken you under his wing and you're glad about this because Herman's a black belt karate expert. Nobody messes with Herman and as long as you stick with him you feel everything will be all right. His muscular chest and arms bear in cheap blue ink the tattooed memory of his years at sea. He can break bricks with his bare fist but he's got a gentle heart. He was the only one who didn't laugh in your face when you said you wouldn't be in here long.
"It didn't look so bad when we arrived," you say. Actually, you were so tired after the long drive from the border you didn't care what it looked like. From the road you saw a splash of white against the red and thought it looked pretty. There were a row of dusty palms along the sea front and a square which might have been charming had it not been for a bunkerlike building bristling with antennae. Opposite was a cafe and above it a sign saying Hotel Amar in cracked red letters.
If only you had waited a little longer! But you were impatient after your long drive and when no one responded to the bell in the empty foyer you allowed the small boy who was tugging on your sleeve to lead you up a narrow road up the hillside. A spidery young man wearing a bead necklace and a wide smile was hanging from a balcony. "You want a room?" he said. "I have very nice room."
That was how you ended up staying with Ali.
Herman's holding his daily workout session. You'd like to take part too but though no one's said anything it's understood that this is just for the top guys, Ahmed, Mohammed, and the others. Yusuf could take part but he prefers to sit on his bedroll like a buddha and give advice.
"You're not doing it properly," he says to Mohammed, who's writhing on the floor. A growth the size of a blackberry nestles in the curly hairs at the back of his neck. Herman says "okay, that's enough," and Mohammed drags himself to his feet, giggling like a girl. There's a damp mark on the tiles where his belly was.
Everyone sits round and watches as Herman demonstrates a flying kick. Herman's fighting skills have earned him respect. The top six almost consider him one of them. But of course he could never be totally one of them because he's Dutch. For some reason he conducts the class in Spanish. "Dele! Otra vez. Mas fuerte. Otra mano. Eso es!"
Mohammed squeals, clasping his neck, a trickle of blood on his fingers. Ahmed's been a little clumsy. Ramon retrieves the growth from under the lip of Yusuf's bedroll and returns it to Mohammed, holding it daintily between thumb and finger as if it were an olive that had rolled off someone's plate.
On closer inspection the village turned out to be less picturesque than you might have hoped. Most of the buildings hanging from the hillside were little more than hovels, hastily thrown up out of breeze blocks and corrugated iron. It wasn't particularly quiet either. There were a surprising number of brand new Japanese bikes around. Their owners seemed reluctant to turn off their engines even when they were chatting to their friends in the street below, which was most of the time.
You drove a little further down the coast and discovered some good beaches but your first day out you both got so sunburned you had to stay in the shade after that. You wanted to drive on and explore the interior. The guidebook spoke of ancient walled cities and ruined castles. But Mary seemed happy to sit on the balcony and smoke. Ali had a block of hash roughly the size and shape of a half housebrick. Mary wanted to buy some but Ali just smiled. "No need you buy. You just ask and Ali give."
Mary had decided she hated the country. The men stared and the women kept touching her hair as if they doubted it was real. Everything about the place disgusted her, the smells, the crowds, the skinny dogs scratching themselves on the street corners. On the first day she came across a butcher's shop; tatters of flesh drooping on iron hooks in a cloud of flies. After that she refused to eat anything with meat in it. The search for food she could eat ate up more and more of the day.
Ali told you more about his business. Each time he went abroad he took a kilo or two of hash hidden among his luggage. He said he had an infallible system for concealing his merchandise; a friend of his could get the hash placed inside cans of fruit. "You take some cans back to England, huh?" he insisted. Mary said it was a good idea but you thought she was probably only saying this to wind you up.
Mary was the most beautiful girl you had ever been with. Her beauty was such it was hard to comprehend what she was doing with someone like you. Recently she seemed to be wondering about this herself. Several rivals were manoeuvring ominously on the horizon, students like you, but more amusing and handsome. You began to panic. A series of ugly quarrels ended in a stinging declaration: yes she was fed up and it was all because of your jealousy. You decided to exploit your last remaining advantage, your money. You weren't rich, but in a world of impoverished students the moderate allowance you got from your parents was wealth indeed. By saving throughout the last term you had put aside enough to pay for the trip.
The problem was that by this time Mary was terminally bored of you. This had become so clear you were rather taken aback when she agreed to go with you. Why would she want to spend two weeks travelling at close quarters with someone she had only the week before described as "the most tiresome man in college"? Now you were beginning to understand. The motive was revenge, though she doubtless presented it to herself as education. She would teach you that jealousy was an animal that bit the hand that fed it. That's why you were stuck in this ugly village in the middle of nowhere, why she was flirting with a guy you knew she wasn't really interested in.
Your best course was to pretend you were quite happy sitting around on Ali's balcony. Sooner or later, you reasoned, she would get bored. And now it seemed this strategy was beginning to pay off. She was angry with Ali because for the second night running he was drinking wine and hadn't offered her any. As usual, the power had been cut off and the three of you were sitting out on the balcony surrounded by candles. Mary was rolling a giant spliff using about a dozen papers. It was far too much for three but Ali's big stash seemed to have gone to her head. Ali was saying, "with four tins only you could make big money," and you were wondering what that crowd was doing in the street down there. You craned your neck to get a better look. What was it, an accident? Some kind of celebration perhaps?
It was odd. Everyone seemed to be looking your way.
There were three sharp raps on the door below, as if someone had struck it with a hammer. Ali stiffened, his eyes dancing in his head. He snatched up his half housebrick and leaped through the bead curtain leading into his private apartment. One of his shoes remained behind under the table.
Mary sat frozen, the half-rolled spliff in her hand. "Get rid of that!" you yelled. The two of you retreated into the sanctuary of your darkened room. Mary dropped a handful of hash chips she had in her hand into a crack in the side of the bed. Your head was spinning. You had to sit down. There was the sound of heavy boots on the stairs and then the place was full of policeman clutching rifles.
One of them motioned for you to get off the bed. He ripped the mattress off and began tossing the slats one by one on the floor. He scoured the timber with his torch beam and would have found the hash Mary had just secreted there had he not abruptly lost interest and wandered off. But then another policeman began shouting triumphantly, "Mon Capitain, mon capitain. Regardez!". He had found a plateful of cigarettes which Mary had torn open to make her joint.
The police station turned out to be the self-same bunker in the square. You sat fidgeting for more than two hours on a wooden bench in a room smelling of stale sweat and coffee. There was a picture of a chubby man in a fez on the wall who you took to be the king. Overhead the heavy blades of a fan beat the air. Fear gradually settled into boredom. After all, they hadn't found any hash. What could they do?
A policeman painstakingly misspelled your names, addresses and occupations on an official form. Then you were led out into a patio where scrubby weeds had grown up through the paving stones. Ali was there, his wrists manacled together in his lap. Somewhere along the line he had lost his other shoe. It came as something of a surprise to see Ali there. You assumed he had got away. Then you noticed his hash was sitting like an exotic paperweight on a folding table at the back of the patio.
Mary yawned. "Jesus, how long are they going to keep us here?"
There were about half a dozen policeman lounging around under a fig tree. Their blue uniforms, with their silver buttons and cord sashes, might once have been impressive but the effect was spoilt by stains and ingrained grime. One of them was older and wore a peaked cap which he removed from time to time to scratch his scalp. Since you came out into the patio he had been puffing out his chest and talking in a melodious voice but his audience made little effort to feign interest. They scuffed their boots and spat and darted lascivious looks at Mary.
Then another policeman arrived. For a moment first Mary then you were appraised in a steady, cool gaze. He shook each of the policemen by the hand and then strolled off to the corner of the garden with the chief. The two of them spoke together confidentially, the older man from time to time stroking the lapels of the other's uniform in a curiously tender gesture.
The new arrival wandered over to where you were sitting, holding out slightly shyly a packet of cigarettes - Marlboro, not the local brand. Mary took one. "Please, take the packet," he said. He shook hands with each of you as he had done with his colleagues. "I am Malek," he said in a way that seemed to suggest that in all likelihood you had already heard his name spoken and were merely waiting to fit it to its owner. His shaven upper lip was curiously delicate, almost feminine, and this contrasted oddly with his muscular, slightly squat body.
Malek apologised for the wait. "This is poor country," he said. "Here every body learn you must be patient. Even you must learn." He said Ali had denied the hash was his and the inspector was wondering whether to charge all three of you for possession. "I told him, why make more work? Let the tourists go. I think soon he will agree. But for now, patient." He consulted a gold watch nestling among the hairs on his wrist and patted his stomach. "Now it is time to eat."
It was then that he told you about the festival in his village. "Go today. Tell them Malek send you. You will find it very interesting experience."
Turning his back on you, he took Mary's hand in his. When he let go you saw that her face had turned quite pale.
Later you asked her about this she pulled a face. "Don't start on that again!"
"What do you mean, don't start?"
"You know." She sat chewing a lock of straw-coloured hair. "He seems nice enough, though."
"He's odd. I don't trust him," you said, and immediately regretted it.
Mary smiled mischievously and said, very deliberately, "Maybe that's what's nice about him."
You don't know anyone who's been to jail. You've seen plenty of movies though. And you know a bit of jail folklore:
"What's the first thing that happens when you got to jail?"
"You get buggered. It's a jail tradition."
Well you haven't been buggered yet but this is the foreigner's cell. There's a modicum of civilization here and only 18 people in a cell five metres square - luxuriously spacious by the standards of this prison. Across the passageway there's a cell twice as big with around a hundred people in it. There's not enough room for everyone to lie down at once and they say the food they push through the bars each day doesn't always make it to the people at the far end. At night sometimes you can hear them fighting.
Ali's in one of those cells. You guess it serves him right.
Ahmed's nodding at you from his corner. Ahmed and the other six top guys shouldn't by rights be in the foreigners cell. They're paying a lot of money to avoid having to share a cell with the hoi polloi. Ahmed's still nodding but you're pretending you haven't seen. You don't want to get involved. He's got an expression like a whipped dog and some ugly scars on his face. Now he's beckoning with his whole arm so you can hardly make out you haven't noticed.
"Wanna smoke?" You don't want to smoke drugs in jail, least of all with Ahmed. You refuse politely.
A dangerous dark fire comes into his eyes. "I offer you some of my precious smoke and you say no!" He lights up a joint and hands it to you sternly. "No, hold it like this. That way they can't see from the door."
Ahmed's fingers are stained yellow and tremble slightly. As he smokes his eyes glaze over. He boasts about the shipments of hash he's made across Europe. Tons of the stuff, he says. They didn't fuck around with suitcases with false bottoms like these other punks. They used cargo ships. Planes even. He, Yusuf, Mohammed and the others - all six of them - were picked up after the King discovered one of the princes using drugs. He seems proud that it was the King who sent him to jail and no mere judge.
You inhale deeply, forgetting your intention was to smoke as little as possible. It's strong stuff; you can feel it in your eyeballs and fingertips. Then you notice Ahmed's gone. Your heart misses a beat: there he is talking softly with one of the guards through the bars of the door. The room starts to flip and there are spots of light in front of your eyes. In just a moment the door's going to open and they'll come for you. You'll struggle but it won't do you any good. They'll get you into a cell on your own . . .
Ahmed sits down beside you once more. You catch a brief glimpse of a tightly wrapped cellophane package before it disappears somewhere behind his bedroll.
"Business," he says.
Mary went down to see who was knocking and reappeared a moment later with Malek. What could he want, you wondered. He was in civvies; a triangle of dark wiry hair showed in the collar of his Lacoste shirt and he smelled of cologne.
He opened his hand like a magician to reveal a cone-shaped joint, very neatly rolled with the paper pressed down and twisted like the end of a firework. You shook your head and tried to indicate to Mary that she should refuse too . . . with the inevitable result that Mary took the joint and bent forward to the flame Malek was chivalrously offering her. She drew deeply, funnelling the smoke into her nostrils in two milky rivulets. "This is good stuff, " she said.
"The police always have the best drugs." Malek laughed. Then, turning to you, he said, "You sure you no smoke, my friend? You no trust me perhaps?"
"Of course I trust you," you said, wondering why you should do. "I don't smoke, that's all." The joint passed from her lips to his and back.
"Today I investigating a complaint," said Malek, looking very severe suddenly, "That you don't have good time in my village."
"Oh but we did!"
"They say you refuse to eat sheep meat."
"Mary didn't feel well," you said. Mary began giggling vacuously like she always did when she got stoned.
"I see now you are cured," he said chuckling along with her. Suddenly you felt fed up with both of them. Partly because of this and partially to show you're not feeling jealous (why else would Mary be flirting with this unpleasant-looking policeman?) you wandered away and spent several minutes looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror, irritated as usual by the callow, baby-faced youth you discovered yourself to be. When you came back they were sprawled on the couch, damp-eyed and limp. You wondered if it had been sensible to have gone away. Mary was capable of doing anything to humiliate you.
Mary was looking at Malek. It was a look you knew well. Now, sitting on a rolled up bedroll scratching your flea bites, you remember that look. You see her giggling with Malek. He's touching her hair.
"Come on. Pay attention," says Herman. You push a circle of dried orange peel across a strip of cardboard onto which a chequerboard has been traced in biro.
"It sounds to me like she set you up," says Yusuf. "She and that policeman together."
Herman scowls. "Shaddafuckup. What you know about it anyway? Don't you listen to him. He just wants to fuck your head."
"Thanks. Your move."
Herman lifts one of his tablets of compressed bread and hops one, two, three times.
"For you, my friend, the game is over," he says. "So what happened next?"
"We go back the following morning and that fat bastard of a police inspector starts taking our photo. You know, mugs shots."
Then he spent more than an hour trying to match our faces to pictures of eyes, noses, mouths and ears in a police identification manual, persevering despite the lack of Caucasian features in the manual. The inspector pretended not to understand our question so we asked Malek.
"Don't worry," he said "this is - how you say? - paperwork. You are witnesses only." He said Ali was also being charged for drinking wine and that was even more serious than the hash. We could help him with this is we wanted. Tourists were allowed to drink wine.
"When will we get our passports back?"
"Tomorrow you go speak with governor. You tell him you drink wine - if you wish. Then you free to go."
Evening. This is always a difficult moment. Mohammed picks out a tune on his mandolin. He sits to one side of the door where they can't see him. The soundbox is a saucepan with paper stretched over it, the fingerboard came from the doorjamb of the latrine, the strings were plaited out of threads from his clothes. The hardest part must have been carving the tuning pegs. It's a beautiful piece of work. You think about the time it must have taken to make it, the months of boredom. Mohammed strums. The others hum along as the unfrosted bulb overhead glows gradually brighter.
Malek grinned from behind the controls of a brand new Land Cruiser, the sun glinting from his shades. He opened the door for Mary then gestured for you to follow in the Mini. The whole village put down its work and watched as the foreigners' tiny car was escorted along the sea front. Passing the row of dusty palm trees, you noticed for the first time that those were vultures not coconuts crouching among the dark fronds. The Mini strained to climb the steep hill above the village. Just as you were leaving the last shacks behind, Malek took a sharp left and stopped in front of a large brick building. It struck you as odd that a village as small as this one should have two enormous police stations.
Malek made you wait outside a darkened office by the entrance and you saw him shake hands with a ghostly figure behind an immense desk. There was a sharp reek of nicotine and, through the gloom, you glimpsed an ash tray on the desk overflowing with cigarette butts. Malek motioned you to join some young policemen sitting under the trees and said he would be back for you in the morning.
As he drove away, Mary clung to you. "I'm scared," she said.
"We'll be all right," you said, hoping you sounded more sure than you felt.
The shadows deepened. Two policemen staggered through the undergrowth with a cauldron of soup. You were given enamel mugs and invited to dip them in with the others. The ghost from the office glided through the twilight to join you. He lit a match and a pale, moonlike face and nicotine-stained moustache emerged briefly from the darkness. The recruits seemed uncomfortable in their chief's presence. The moment he retired the air was full of laughter and perfumed with smoke. You were no longer surprised to see policemen rolling joints but it was a shock when one of them started roasting Ali's hash block over a candle flame.
You wondered whether you couldn't just drive away into the darkness and leave these policemen behind but you knew you wouldn't get far without a passport. When a joint came your way you accepted it resignedly and settled back into the narcotic embrace of the night, the cicadas singing in the grass, the stars peeping through the branches above you. Later, they brought out blankets and everyone laid down to sleep on the dry leaves. Mary wrapped her arms around you like a shipwrecked sailor clutching a piece of flotsam.
Malek reappeared at first light and you were joined by several young recruits heading for the capital to visit their families. One of them carried a live chicken on his lap. The Jeep stopped outside the bunker and Ali was brought out and thrown in the back, trussed up like a bundle.
Malek led the three of you into a small office where a middle aged man with a shiny pate and bushy eyebrows reclined in a leather armchair. A brass souvenir of the Eiffel Tower on the desk seemed somehow reassuring. Malek launched into a speech in rapid Arabic, bowing now and then. The governor sat rubbing his face in his hands. You wondered if this was a gesture of exasperation at being bothered with the details of the case or simply fatigue. Malek's flood of words abruptly dried up and the governor appeared to nod off. When he looked up you expected him to ask you about the wine. Instead he said, in English, "You must all go to jail," and before you could object some guards came in and bundled you out.
For a week all you've seen is the inside of the cell so when the guards arrive saying you're all off to the shower block it's quite an outing.
"Come on, do it properly," says Mohammed. He grabs the soap from you and rubs it hard against your back. You notice Ahmed's eyes are fixed on Mohammed. It's not a friendly look.
On the way back you catch sight of Ali, his cadaverous face pressed against the bars of one of the cells. His eyes meet yours for a moment but quickly turn away.
The guards have taken advantage of the prisoners' absence to turn the place upside down. The cards, books, draughts and chess boards have all gone. So has the Mandolin. Mohammed takes it stoically but there are tears in Yusuf's eyes. "They don't want time to pass quickly for us," he says and shakes his head.
The prisoners hum some songs before the light snaps out but it's not the same as before.
Later you are dozing when you feel something - an insect perhaps - crawl over your arse. You jerk round. Ahmed is leaning over you.
"What do you want?" Ahmed slinks away wordlessly back to his bedroll. It's a jail tradition. You lie awake for hours wondering when Ahmed will pounce again. You decide to talk to Herman but when the morning comes you somehow can't find the words to tell him.
And then the next night the same thing, but this time when you turn round he's standing there with his penis in one hand and a knife in the other. "Choose," he said. "Which you prefer?"
The guards call out your name. The other prisoners look at you enviously. Who ever came to see them? Malek is waiting for you in the visitors' room. He seems to be in excellent spirits.
"I am so sorry, my friend. The inspector do not listen to me. But today I have good news for you. Ali tell judge the hash all his. So you now free to go."
The guards return your possessions in a bin bag. Then they pull open a pair of wooden doors like the doors to a church you step out into the blinding street. Impossible that it should be so close. When you remove your hand from your eyes there's Mary beside the Mini. She pulls you towards her and you half bend, as if to indicate that you're not entirely sure if you're pleased to see her.
You get in the car, somehow you breathe more freely inside this enclosed space. Mary stays on the pavement talking to Malek. You turn on the engine to hurry her and she gets in, giving you a look that tells you you're being ungrateful but that she forgives you. A moment later you are in the traffic stream, weaving through taxicabs and pony carts. You can hardly believe it's true.
Each time you glance back in your mirror he's still standing there, arms on hips staring after you. Finally, you round a bend and he's gone.
You stop at a cafe and drink cups of muddy coffee while the old men stare at the odd young couple speaking a language they do not understand.
"What have they done to you?" Mary asks.
"What do you mean what have they done to me?" you snap. Then, realising this is hardly an adequate reply, you say "I'd rather not talk about it. Not now anyway." Mary searches your face as if she suspects some profound change of personality. "And you? What was the women's jail like?"
She looks shy and says in a quiet voice, "I didn't go to jail. After you and Ali were taken away Malek spoke to the governor again and told him he would vouch for me."
"So where have you been?"
Mary plays nervously with her hair. "Malek put me up at his house." When you say nothing she says, "He said if I didn't you would stay in jail."
A hundred miles the other side of the border you book into a snazzy hotel. You're going to try and put all of this behind you. After a swim and an expensive meal you lie on a double bed waiting for the climactic act of the show you've been putting on for each other's benefit. With a now-or-never feeling you kiss Mary on her lips and place a hand tentatively on her breast. Gently, she pulls it away.
"Why don't we just leave it for a little while, eh?" she says, and you feel tears finally bursting, tears of relief, tears of rage and of humiliation. There are tears in Mary's eyes too and you know that sitting here fully clothed on this hotel bed the two of you have never before felt so naked.