“We got a new doorbell,” says P.
“Did I tell you?”
My fork stops dead in the air, half way to my mouth. It’s the best opening line I’ve heard in a while.
“No, Mum,” I reply. “You didn’t.”
She embarks on an account of it, describing the melody (which I’ve forgotten) and telling me how nice it is to have a doorbell that plays a tune. It makes her smile, she says, whenever someone calls. I do wonder about the caller though. Are they smiling? There is no doubt in my mind that my brother, who pops in to see them every week, will be appalled. She doesn’t seem to have thought about my feelings either, about the difficult position this places me in – to be a person whose mother has a doorbell that plays a tune. This on top of the clock in their living room that plays a tune. I can’t remember that one either – I think I’ve blanked it out – but there’s no escaping it when, on the turning of the hour, the clock face splits in two and each half does a three sixty rotation, slipping back into place on the final note.
It’s all a bit much. What if someone were to call at a minute past one, and the clock was still going off as she answered the door? Have they thought about that? Aural mayhem. I can imagine any visitor taking a step backwards, my brother included – it’s the kind of thing that would make even family think twice about going in.
The word dotage springs to mind.
Still, it’s the best opening line I’ve heard in a while.
Four days earlier. We’ve ducked into a shop on the Batalla del Salado, out of the buffeting levante. It’s been a dry and very windy year in Tarifa and there’s something about prolonged levante that gets to a person. Between that and my increasingly long hair, I both look and feel like a madman. I’m aware that I probably sound like one too so I’m trying not to talk too much.
It’s nice and quiet in the shop. The folks want me here to help out with Spanish. M, for the time being, has his back to us, dealing with another customer. We do that thing where you walk around in individually decreasing circles and look at things that don’t interest you while we wait. Then we wait a little more as M is accosted by some kind of Health and Safety person with a dossier and plenty to say about toilets and steps and such. It’s a universal characteristic of the human eyebrow that, whenever its owner is required to wait for an indeterminate amount of time it travels northward as if being pulled there on a slow elastic, before pinging sharply southward into a permanent scowl. It’s as we arrive at this point that the Health and Safety person finally goes away and we perk up.
“Yes,” I say to M.
“My parents,” I indicate them, “would like tattoos.”
M looks at S, then at P and then at me. He successfully suppresses a shrug, I’m sure of it. But he doesn’t bat an eyelid.
Two days later. We’re at the port. The folks have tattoos. K and I couldn’t be more impressed with the rock’n’rollery of it all. I think P would be the first to concede that it’s out of character, and no less so is the journey we’re about to take – across the Strait of Gibraltar and five hours by rail to the utterly astonishing city of Fes.
Fes is not my mother’s usual sort of destination. She likes Guildford, and the quiet spots that dot England’s south coast. There’s a place called Tilney Hall. Country pubs, that kind of thing. She’s not a person who can easily be persuaded outside of her comfort zone and if she feels she’s being bullied that way she becomes especially intransigent. All usual attempts to entice her into doing anything unexpected are doomed to failure, especially if the proposed adventure will involve missing Coronation Street.
Except…except, here we are. Once in a while, as a result of some alchemy invisible to the rest of us, she agrees to something. None of us ever sees it coming, and this time she’s done it in style. Fes el Bali, as the medina is properly called, is the world’s largest car-free urban area and the most extensive intact medieval city in the muslim world. Its nine thousand four hundred streets – not a single one of them wide enough for four wheels – teem with a population of over a hundred and fifty thousand people, many of whom make a living today from centuries old traditional crafts and yada, yada, yada.
It’s mental, is what I’m telling you.
It certainly isn’t Guildford. As I watch her potter down the Talaa Sghira, the gentler of two sloped souks that descend crookedly toward the mosques and shrines that are sunken into the heart of this holy city, as she ambles past pashmina stalls and perfume outlets, stepping aside for unruly scooters and heavily laden horses, the sight of her seems to me like something very clever that’s been done with photoshop. We’ve stopped because S finds himself embroiled in some hard negotiating over a child’s puzzle and K has spotted a jewellery shop she feels is worthy of her attention. P, unnoticing, walks on so I call out to her to wait for us.
She takes no notice and keeps walking.
Nothing. I raise my voice.
No reaction. I’m anxious that I’ll lose my mother – who it isn’t clear knows how to use a mobile phone and probably isn’t carrying hers anyway – in the labyrinthine mess of the medina. She’s almost out of sight.
“Mum!” I yell at her.
On this, one of the busiest thoroughfares in this, the most frenetic, disorientating and noisiest of cities, I find myself, for just a moment, the centre of attention. Every shopkeeper in sight has turned to look my way, the same question written on each of their faces.
“Why is the long-haired madman screaming at his mother?”
One or two of them appear to be on the point of intervening.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?” I ask her. I’ve run down the street to catch up with her and my hand is on her shoulder.
“I thought it was one of them,” she says. “They’re all shouting all the time.”
I hesitate for a moment. Having retrieved her, I’ve calmed down.
“You thought they were shouting Mum?”
Our last night in Fes. In the courtyard of a decidedly luxurious riad, we tuck into some upscale food, having just spent an hour on the roof taking a last look at the medina. The talk is of future trips. Adventures we might all undertake together or that S and P might. P is reacting with disdain to anything we put on the table and we find ourselves having what I call the Coronation Street conversation: three against one, trying to tug her out of her zone.
“Comfort is overrated,” I say, managing to patronise where I mean to encourage.
It occurs to me as we gang up on her that we might be missing the mark here, castigating this tattooed woman for being too staid, lamenting her conservatism when she’s just spent three days dodging donkeys and sits with us now in the ornate courtyard of an old palace in Africa as a thunderstorm rumbles overhead. It hasn’t been an easy time for her. She just lost her little brother. I think neither we nor indeed she sees at times what she is capable of.
Still we can’t stop ourselves. We’ll do this again. We’ll try to cajole her into this or that. I hope that, once in a while, she listens. Comfort is overrated – it has its place but is best appreciated from the vantage point of our adventures, when we miss it a little. What we call an adventure may change according to where we are on our journey but the principle applies – we must keep moving through the mazes, inside and out, looking for something to marvel at, searching for synapses to spark. I’ve enjoyed this adventure with my mother, and look forward to more.