Sophie and Charlie travelled from Malaga to Melilla on a boat full of Spanish soldiers returning to their postings in Melilla, a Spanish enclave on African soil. Travelling too was a crazy Australian boy, Carl, who, with nothing but a supply of chewing gum, for trade he said, a battered and completely out of date ‘Africa on a Shoestring’ and a spare jersey, was intending to hitchhike through Morocco into Mali and visit Timbuktu. He had allocated himself three months for a round trip. He had worked in London for two years and saved up for the time off but, despite this, had extremely little money. He seemed to think his plans quite unexceptional and easily achievable. Sophie thought he was an optimistic and very adventurous young man and probably very mistaken in his plans.
Charlie and Sophie weren’t carrying much themselves, the main burden of their possession being his guitar and her mandolin, which they had agreed they had to bring. They always found that, when travelling, music opened doors and made strangers friendly. It also passed the time when there was a transport delay. Sophie had not travelled outside her own country before but Charlie knew that music broke all language barriers. He had been just about everywhere and had chosen Morocco as Sophie’s first step out into the wider world because it was quite familiar to him, he had been there with his wife before, and he knew Sophie would be completely knocked out by what she was about to experience. Sophie loved Islamic design and he knew she was about to see more of that than she could ever imagine in one place.
Dolphins leapt and dived beside the boat, shining silver in the sunlight as Charlie and Sophie shared the bread and churizo and olives they had bought in the market that morning. Sophie felt as if she was in a dream but one more intense than she would have been capable of imagining. The brightness of the light was intense.
The Australian boy made Sophie and Charlie feel older and wiser. Sophie was glad he made her feel wiser and not dull and boring too, as he might have done a few years before. Carl had met up with a young man from Senegal, called Gad, who didn’t speak English or French or any other European language, so they didn’t speak to each other at all, just signalled, as if across a wide space.
Gad walked bent half over because he carried a big, heavy kit bag full of jeans and other things to trade and didn’t want to let it out of his sight for a second. Gad clearly didn’t trust anyone much, certainly not Moroccans, and looked very disapproving when he saw Charlie and Sophie chatting with a Moroccan man as the boat, beneath a full moon, drew near Africa.
The Moroccan was returning home from Spain and said he went to Spain to trade in leather. Charlie had his doubts about the trade being in leather, but maybe unjustly. If he was doing anything illegal it didn’t seem to be profiting him much. The Moroccan was not happy with the way Spanish people dealt with him and was taking advantage of the time on the boat to drown his sorrows. He was drunk. Sophie was a little surprised at this. She thought Muslims didn’t drink and that maybe it was even illegal for them.
Sophie shared Gad’s distrust to some degree, enough to keep a very close eye on the zipped up pockets of her brand new rucksack, but it was the soldiers who made her most nervous because they we carrying guns. Everyone and everything was unknown to Sophie, except Charlie, and she thought it best to exercise a little caution, at least until she had a better measure of where she was and where she was going. Charlie always seemed just a little too casual about safety and Sophie was not entirely sure if he would notice straight away if something was starting to go wrong so she always kept an eye open for both of them. Sophie felt safe knowing that if she pointed out a problem Charlie would know what to do about it. Charlie had no shortage of courage.
Charlie said that the Australian boy reminded him of his younger self when, years before, he had dropped out from his studies and, infuriating and disappointing his parents, taken to the road. He felt some nostalgic affection for the boy’s almost maverick attitude to life and his innocent presumption that he would get to his destination in one piece and to schedule, simply because he had named it. Sophie thought that if the boy didn’t reach his destination, and that seemed very likely, it would not matter because he was sure to get somewhere and that hopefully it would in some way be the right place for him to be. He said he just wanted to find a really peaceful place.
Looking out across the water, in the full moonlight, seeing the first hills of Africa draw near Sophie kept saying to herself over and over again,
‘That’s Africa, and this is me standing here, and I am looking at Africa. Between Africa and me there is nothing but a short stretch of water and some air. It’s real and it’s Africa. This is really happening to me. I have to fix this moment in my mind forever.’
Sophie’s heart expanded with every wave and swell that bought them closer to the shore. She had a strong sensation of the space between Africa and her own front door and the fact that she had made a direct connection between them. The journey had begun only the morning before when she stepped out of her front door and walked to the train station and now she was on a boat miles from home. She could hardly believe what had been given to her and her heart was swelling with love and gratitude for life. She was going to step off this boat onto an different continent, a huge, hot, unknown, and entirely other continent.
Charlie and Sophie avoided, with some difficulty and an abundance of cautious mistrust, the persistent hustlers at the quay and found a cheap hotel for the night, Carl and Gad following them, suddenly startled like uncertain children in the dark. Sophie felt, in contrast, that she knew exactly what she was doing.
In the morning, there was no sign of Carl or Gad and Charlie and Sophie headed for the bus to the Moroccan border without them.
Sophie was really excited now. Melilla still had the style and atmosphere of Spain but now they were leaving that behind and crossing the Moroccan border, a muddy section of street with a few ugly huts on either side. They walked past the passport office by mistake because they thought it was a toilet block and were directed back to it when they reached the Moroccan barrier without their passports stamped.
The official in the office was relaxed and friendly and stamped their passports whilst joking and flirting with Sophie. Seeing by the passports that they were not married the man told Charlie that he should marry Sophie before he lost her because he could see she was a good woman and Charlie said that he maybe would but he’d have to divorce his wife first.
“Ah yes, this is one of the sad things about Europe. Too much divorce. Bring him to live here,” he smiled at Sophie, “Then he can have two wives. He must treat you like a lady”.
“Maybe I’m not a lady,” Sophie joked.
“Yes you are lady. In this country all women are ladies,” he said smiling.
Sophie found this first English conversation with a Moroccan man, full of smiles and joking, reassuring. It was a good start and took away some of her fear.
Sophie’s head was constantly full of questions. Of course she wanted to go to Marrakech and Charlie had promised to take her there later but first he wanted to see Fes. Charlie had never been to Fes before but had come across a book that described the city as one of the wonders of the world, a place full of the most skilled artisans, locked in the past. He also wondered about travelling on to Essouiera, but had been there with his wife and children years ago and was not sure that, once there, he might not find himself over-taken by nostalgia and distracted by the memory of his wife. He said that it might not be fair to take Sophie there, although he very much wanted to see it again and knew that she would love it.