For five straight minutes, Maia held a breast that wasn’t there. She cupped her hand where her left breast should be and stared at herself in the full-length mirror.
As she cradled it, she reached into that space and touched the skin with her right hand. Her fingertips brushed the withered stump of her breast and worked their way in small circles to where her nipple used to be.
The scar was dappled and hard, like old leather, but around it her skin was translucent and felt like it would puncture if pressed too hard. She switched over to her right breast and explored it just as carefully as the one that had been removed.
Satisfied, Maia glanced at the woman stood before her in the full length mirror, before she dressed in the clothes that were laid out on the bed next to her packed open suitcase: cotton knickers, left-side padded bra, silk stockings, and a late-afternoon black taffeta cocktail dress that alone cost more than the hotel servants earned in a week.
She put on gold earrings with single droplet pearls, and pulled arm length gloves over wrinkled but elegant hands — covering her long tapered fingers and manicured dark-red painted nails.
The bedroom was painted white with faded walls and a cracked ceiling where a large overhead fan made gentle shush shush sounds as if to quiet the heat in the room. It was late afternoon but so overcast that a single lightbulb provided most of the light as it flickered on- and-off.
The windows were closed and the shutters rattled against the heavy wind and torrential rain. It had been like this all morning — starting up in the early hours as Maia tried to sleep.
Maia fastened her grey hair up in a tight bun, fascinated by the black strands that refused to change with age. She held a rainbow- coloured silk scarf from the bed up against her pale throat, then threw it into the suitcase, before she zipped it up and put it with a second larger suitcase beside the bed. The cream-coloured linen, pulled tight and turned back beneath two pillows, had a dent where the suitcase had been.
She picked up both suitcases and headed to the door.
At the threshold she put the suitcases down and turned round to pick up her purse from the wooden dressing table. As an afterthought she unclipped the purse and applied a quick smear of lipstick in front of the mirror before she marched downstairs, not waiting for her bags to be carried.
The hotel was darker than her room and overcrowded. She had to push her way through middle-aged couples with children, and young men huddled by the reception desk, before she could put her suitcases down.
In one corner she noticed what she considered to be four unmistakably English ex-patriots sat in the shade around a table. Three of them looked like great old bears hunched over the table. Jovial, bearded men, who smoked stubby cigars and played cards in the dim light, drinking rum in small tumblers with ice and sliced lemon.
The fourth man, sat between them, was much younger. He wore a pale suit and had jewelled rings on the fingers of his right hand. A large cup of syrupy mint tea sat on the table untouched before him. He smoked a filtered cigarette and blew smoke out to one side as he noticed the woman look over.
The man ordered drinks in Maghrebi Arabic and the waiter smiled at him.
‘Another round for the barflies,’ he said to his associates and took a sip of mint tea.
The lights went out. People caught their breath in the dark. The men continued to drink, smoke, and play cards, as though they were the only people in the hotel. The lights came back on a few seconds later. A couple of nervous tourists shuffled closer to the table, perhaps hoping to join in, but the men ignored them just the same.
Maia rang the brass bell on the reception desk.
A small fan on the counter whirred away to itself next to a radio that announced repeated severe weather warnings for Marrakech.
She rang again.
The hotelier stood talking to his younger brother who leaned in close enough to whisper in his ear.
Maia rang again and was met with a bemused expression as the man turned to greet her.
‘Madam Carter. You should not have brought those bags down yourself.’
‘Hassan, where is my fucking taxi?’
The hotel went quieter than when the lights had gone out. In the hushed near-silence even the fan seemed subdued.
‘I don’t understand, Madam.’
‘Yes, you do. You speak English. Why isn’t it here yet? You know that I need to get to the airport.’
‘All the planes will be grounded. As you can see — ’
‘I don’t care whether the planes are grounded. I’ll deal with that matter when I come to it. I want to be there, not here. And I don’t want to wait in this place a moment longer. Now, did you order me a taxi or not?’
Hassan smiled, ‘Of course, Madam.’
‘So, where is it then?’
‘I should have expected him by now,’ he said.
‘You said that an hour ago.’
‘I can assure you, Madam, it will be here as soon as possible. Hamri is a good man. He has a family to support and needs the work. His wife has been blessed with a new child. He was the only man willing to come out for you in these conditions.’
She lowered her voice so that he had to lean forward to hear. ‘Have I not already said that I appreciate this?’
‘And that I’ll pay the man double for his efforts?’
‘It is understood.’
‘So, you’re not going to keep me waiting now, are you?’
‘We are only waiting on Hamri, Madam.’
‘So, you run along and get me my taxi. And I’ll get out of here.’
Hassan bowed. ‘Inshallah,’ he said.
As Hassan walked over to the telephone, Maia fanned herself with her purse. She looked around to see the young ex-patriot gentleman watching her, and flushed for an instant with embarrassment.
‘One has to put one’s foot down in these situations,’ she said.
The young man nodded, with knowing eyes and a slight smile. ‘You can’t argue with the weather, lady,’ said the old bear to his left, without looking up from his cards.
The signal from the radio next to Maia distorted and lapsed into static.
‘Pardon me for interrupting, I don’t mean to be rude, but a lady shouldn’t be out in such conditions. One wonders why you’re so intent to leave. You are aware of how bad it is out there?’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said.
‘I was listening to the radio,’ he continued. ‘There has been extensive flooding. Automobiles have literally been picked up and moved, deposited like pebbles. They say the wind’s so strong that the rain is horizontal.’
‘Even so,’ she said. ‘I need to get to the airport.’
‘I’ve seen it before,’ he said. ‘People are always in such a rush to leave when the weather turns, but it will pass.’
Maia turned and listened to the man.
‘Take these people here — they came from a different hotel about two miles up the road. They were advised to stay where they were but insisted on being driven over to this hotel instead. The storm followed them. If they’d stayed where they were, they’d be out of the worst of it by now. If you ask me, the planes at Marrakech will be on the ground for the next few days. My advice is to stay here.’
‘Perhaps you’re right,’ she said. ‘But I really must be leaving.’
Maia turned round to the desk and rang the bell again. Hassan was still on the telephone. She couldn’t understand what he was saying but, as he shifted from one foot to the other, she made out one word that she knew. Mektoub: it is written.
Hassan put the phone back in its cradle and stared at it for a moment before he turned back to her.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘I am afraid that there has been an accident. About an hour ago. Hamri, the man that you wanted to come out in these conditions, was on his way here when a tree fell. Not just on to the road, but directly on to his taxi. It is believed that he died straight away. I have just spoken to his wife.’
Maia unclipped her purse and placed it on the counter. She reached in and pulled out a cigarette and an ivory lighter. Her hands shook as she lit the cigarette and drew on it hard. She blew the smoke out in hurried breaths, as though not wanting to take it into her lungs.
‘So, when can you send someone else out?’ she said.