In the early morning of a Moroccan summer in 1960, Youssef stood on the balcony of his apartment and watched a white shadow slice through the water. Two hundred tourists were on route to come through and buy rattan baskets and stand at the edge of the water to say, The water is beautiful! and So many stars! The Americans were the loudest and the Brits were the worst tippers, but the Australians were both loud and poor tippers, and so Youssef’s brother Omar always put him in charge of them.
Youssef was the younger brother, and the better looking — their father had had an affair with a Cuban model after the depression ended (she had been a guest on Humphrey Bogart’s yacht), and the model had had Youssef sent over with a wet nurse so she could focus on her career. He’d met his mother once since then, by accident in an airport lounge; she was on her way to Paris, and he had found a job serving drinks from a cart to the A-list passengers. He had worked a few more shifts in the airport lounge before he’d slept with a hostess in the cargo loading area and given her his life’s savings to visit a doctor in an alleyway.
Working on his brother’s boat was not his second or even third choice (2. marry an heiress; 3. swimwear model) but jobs were hard to come by. There were few perks, but at least the work at least kept him in good physical condition, so when the cruises did stop in their port, he could work the crowd and sell a few crayfish.
The market was lively six mornings a week. Youssef had a good side business selling things he’d pulled out of the sea. People handed over their money in exchange for someone’s old wedding ring or a steel bucket or a long-lost earring. From time to time a customer would recognise their own treasure in the pile — an item they had tossed from the bow of their boat, or something stolen and abandoned by a jilted lover — and demand it be returned, and Youssef was an honest man at his core so he did. And, yes, he then charged them a little extra for their crays, but it wasn’t as though he was in the business of retrieving people’s lost and found from the sand.
Omar, on the other hand, drove in from the hills every morning to get the boat rigged up, and when the sun was high, they raked the seabed with their traps and measured the crays against their forearms. So many of them were small. People were saying that the ocean had been ‘fished out’. Sometimes they said it to Omar’s face, as though he were responsible. He’d punched more than one man standing on the jetty, spraying his catch with salt water to keep it looking fresh.
They had learned to fish from the deck of their father’s boat, and after that boat had been recovered from the sea and sold for parts, they continued his trade. It meant early mornings, but early evenings as well, and Youssef spent his walking into the grottos, where one woman or another stood at the top of the steps and sang into the night. It was hot there, thick with heat coming off the street food stalls, and, near the brothel, someone had strung ribbons of bare bulbs. The girls found their way down to the night market and their faces gleamed with the reflection of the lights and of the moon. He knew he would have to be up at three-thirty to get to the boat but he stayed out late anyway, listening to the music and putting his lips to the salt-sweet and browned shoulders.
A man like Youssef could find himself in high demand in such a place, depending on the season and the state of unrest to the east. The men who visited were war-weary and closed up, and they fucked him with their eyes closed and told him to close his eyes, too. But they paid well, and he held their secrets close to his chest, and the extra money meant he could spend one day a week on his balcony, reading poetry aloud into the morning and watching Omar head off in the boat with only José for company. (José was not a good or even competent fisherman, but he was getting on for sixty and could spin a mighty yarn.)
That Thursday morning he went out on the boat with Omar and José. The older man told a story about the time he’d seen a mermaid in the Black Sea, where he had been visiting with his uncle’s wife’s cousin’s family. They all knew the cruise ship was due in late that afternoon, coming around the coast from Spain, full of sangria and gothic buildings and houses painted in blues and yellows. Omar would have to get the boat back and the catch cleaned by two, if Youssef were to have any luck at all with the tourists. No one wanted a fling with a man who smelled of fish, no matter how beautiful his mother had been.
The water was clear and deep blue and they pushed the boat out past the shallows, dropped the pots over the side and baked their skin in the hot sun. José went on about the mermaid, about how his uncle’s wife’s cousins had felt certain it must have been a walrus, but the Black Sea had seen even fewer walruses than it had ever seen mermaids. He even went back the next day to find her, and she gave him a necklace of shells threaded together, but the uncle’s wife’s cousins said José must have made it himself. He had lost it, anyway, when he had moved from Portugal, so who could say for certain? Youssef reassured the old man that he believed him, and that he had seen a mermaid himself once, from a distance, and no one had believed him either.
Omar dropped a fishing line in the water. Sometimes he did, on these clear days, to break up the tedium of watching buoys show the position of the crayfish pots. José had a rod as well so the two men sat with their lines and pointed at the silver fish moving under the waves. Omar caught one, and another, and a few more, and he banged each one against the side of the boat and lined them up along the deck. They would split them evenly at the end of the day, which didn’t seem fair given José was such a terrible fisherman and Youssef didn’t fish at all, but that was the nature of their arrangement.
Around noon, Omar pulled out the lunch his wife had made, and the cruise ship came into focus on the horizon. It was a British one, Union Jack bright against the sky. The water between the two boats stretched wide; they still had a couple of hours before the cruise would pull in to dock.
‘Pull up the pots,’ Youssef said. ‘I need all the time I can get.’
Omar wound up his line and tossed his many silver fish into a bucket of water. José watched as the two younger men lifted the pots to the surface, telling them a story about a time he’d caught a train from Berlin to Rome with Jean Arthur, or at least a woman who looked very much like her, and he had offered her a glass of wine but that was during the American prohibition and she was worried she might be arrested, even after José explained she was well outside of US borders.
The men had caught twenty-one crayfish, twelve blue crabs, a pair of men’s shoes, two muddy catfish and a silver necklace with a charm threaded on it. Youssef bound the claws of the crayfish and let them slap their tails together in the wooden boxes. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes and saw the tourists banging around just the same, on the deck of the cruise ship, pretending they were dancing. Omar steered the boat into the dock and the three men unloaded, which is to say the two men unloaded and José spun them a yarn about the time he’d had dinner with Enzo Ferrari, who had made José pay for his own meal even though he’d only had the linguine. A crowd had gathered at the end of the jetty, and Muhammad Kabbal had a pair of binoculars and was staring into them.
‘Youssef!’ he shouted. ‘You will have your work cut out for you tonight!’ And one of the people surrounding him grabbed the binoculars to confirm that the inbound tourists were both pale and ugly, and didn’t look like they had an American dollar to share amongst themselves.
Omar cleaned and scaled the fish, and cut the belly out of one he would take home to eat with his wife and children. He racked them up on his market stall. On his sign, he wrote SPECIAL: CRAYFISH, which was the same thing he always wrote on his sign, but for one superstitious reason or another he insisted on writing it anew every day.
‘Come and see for yourself, Youssef!’ Muhammad Kabbal said, shouting as he always did, but Youssef said he would rather be introduced to them face to face, and that he didn’t judge them anyway, that he loved women of all shapes and sizes and incomes and paleness.
(He did not mention the many men of different shapes and sizes and incomes and paleness. It was understood but not spoken. The men would sweep through the village with their eyes glassy (the conflict to the east would never end, not really) and more local men than just Youssef would take them to the brothel or to the dockyard or to their fishing boat, but there was no question of their ever staying for dinner, unless they had miraculously brought a woman with them. Then, it was acceptable to imagine the stranger and the local would take her in turns, pass her between them like a pipe.)
While he waited for the ship to dock, Youssef weighed each still-living crayfish and labelled it with its price. A couple of the women peeled away from staring into the binoculars and bought the smallest ones, which they always did in order to flirt with Youssef for a minute without stretching their purses too far. He knew they released them; he could see them from his stall, crouching at the lip of the water, cutting the string.
‘Maybe there will be a wife for you on this ship,’ said Sara, who was the shorter and prettier girl. ‘Will you romance her, Youssef? Will you dance?’ She spun around on the spot. Her hair was tangled and it flicked sand into his eyes.
‘Youssef doesn’t want a wife,’ said Samia, who was long and thin like a pencil. ‘He only needs her for the night. Or maybe two nights, if his catch has been small this week.’
He said nothing. He was expected to say nothing. There had been a time when he had spoken back to them, but they had both since married, and their husbands were standing out on the pier with Muhammad Kabbal, and there would be a fight if he flirted back. He sold three of Omar’s fish and a crab. One of the men who lived in the grottos had a look through Youssef’s lost and found box and took back a knife he’d dropped in the water some months beforehand. The rest of the produce would have to wait for the ship’s passengers; half the village was unemployed now, since the mine had closed, and the other half would be soon, with no one to buy what they were selling.
The sun came through filterless and burning hot. The people on the pier were sweat-soaked and high on the hash someone was passing around, and they started jumping. One after another, they disappeared off the end of the pier without waiting for the person before them to surface. Youssef asked José to fetch a bucket of clean water from the sea, and he tipped it over his head and his clothes clung to the young body underneath. He fed the remains of Omar’s gutted fish to that cat that was always nearby. She ate her fish and disappeared behind Yazid’s shellfish stall, where he was laying out oysters in gleaming aphrodisiac rows.
Youssef had, after his father had been turned over in his boat, studied English in his spare time. He had traded crayfish for children’s books, to begin with, the ones the tourists had brought with them on their holidays, and found the repeated words throughout — the, and, he, she — and then the words he could connect to the pictures — cow, apple, cat, and something called Old Macdonald. He had, on three occasions, managed to sweet-talk his way on to the ship itself, and watch movies in English in the theatre, and marvelled at the ribbons of film spiralling out after the projectionist had fallen asleep. He began to trade his seabed jewels for adult novels, stories about desert islands and adventures with dwarves and something called beat poets. Sometimes, after the tourists had left, he found their books abandoned behind sun lounges and on tables in one of the village’s two restaurants, and he picked those up as well and kept them in his apartment.
By the time he was twenty-six, he spoke an enthusiastic sort of English, and he used it to sell crayfish at twice their usual price, and to flirt with the women, and to make passes at the men in a language his friends and family could not understand with colloquialisms he had learned from a woman called Barbara Cartland.
At the pier, one of the children shouted, ‘It’s here!’ and the ship banked and slowed and dropped anchor right in front of her. The other children disappeared up the hill, where they would get cool fizzy drinks and orange juice and chebakia, which was always too sweet for the tourists but which they ate anyway, so they could gloat to their friends about the authenticity of their experience.
Muhammad Kabbal had returned to his store as well, and now waited close to the ship with his shoes displayed on a silk rug, shoes he made especially for the tourists who wanted the authenticity of the purple and orange fabrics and the beaded stitching. Almost every tourist bought a pair of Muhammad Kabbal’s shoes, and they would wear them around the deck on their way to Algeria and tell one another, Look at my fancy African shoes, and when they got to Malta, they would say, I have been to Africa. See? Look at my shoes. And when they returned home to their grey terrace house in London or Vancouver or Sydney, someone would say to them, Look at those fancy shoes! and they would share the story of the man they met on the dock in Morocco, who only sold the most authentic shoes, and they were a little more expensive, but how many times are you going to meet a cobbler in Morocco?
Omar’s wife cooked the crays at her own stall nearby and Omar had set up a few folding chairs and card tables, so the tourists could sit in the afternoon sun and eat their spiced candies and wear their new African shoes. The sun and the blue sea would work together to claw their way into the tourists’ heads, and suddenly they would notice the man selling the crayfish, the high Cuban cheekbones he had, the inexplicable doe-eyed blinking he did, the eyelashes he might have had artificially curled, and the way his muscles moved under his shirt as he worked. And those tourists would find a reason to buy another crayfish, and to sit in the sun a little longer, and to watch Youssef while he moved the crays and jammed his knife into their backs and sweated and smiled and blinked and stretched.
Omar elbowed his brother’s ribs. The ship’s horn sounded, and the gangplank dropped. The pale and ugly tourists piled out like termites, fossicking and foraging in their single file rows.
Youssef unpicked the tight string around a crayfish claw. When the day was over he’d ask a couple of the girls back to his apartment, where he would pour a glass of bourbon he’d been given by an American woman last cruise ship season. Late in the night they would spill out to the balcony — one or two asses with nothing to cover them but the summer air, and Youssef watching his dick slide in and out of them, feeling nothing.