Matthew William Jeng-Zhe Seaton

Trip to Chefchaouen

The sky looks blue, but it is not. 

The sea looks blue, but when you hold water in your hand, you see that it is not.

The moon looks larger than the stars, but this is not true.

I do not eat too much. This is not good for you. Not too much sex; not too much food. These are my rules. Rules. In crisis you can eat pig. Of course. Nothing is closed. It is madmen who think otherwise.

He talks about the architecture of Morocco. Most of the beautiful architecture in Morocco is European, he says.

Wiry build, thin, Berber face. Placid shirt and jeans with leather sandals. 

‘Must be some sort of wise man’, Will mutters to me, struggling to contain himself.

When I awake, Will asks me for his glasses. I had fallen asleep on his bed before he had come in so that I could be next to the charger port. He had slept on my top bunk. Hot air in the hostel rises to the ceiling. Will was not usually angry, but it was early, and I had left the room in a mess.

A day beginning at six, still tired. A three-hour taxi ride, there and back, to Chefchaouen from Fez. We pay little attention to our driver, who is cordial enough. Rene is sitting next to him, Will and I in the back. Will is being polite to me, offering me his camera to take photographs of the walls of Fez as we leave the medina. He thinks I am offended; mostly I don’t care enough to talk to him.

Majid stops the car a few miles outside the city limits to show us a view of the valley, just waking up. He buys cactus from a fruit seller for us to try. We’ve tried it already. We smoke, admire the view.

Stopping at a cafe on the side of a road he talks to us, asks us where we are from. He talks about where he is from. Desert, Berber; he tells me his brother is a nurse in London and I feign histrionic interest. He tells us about the history of Morocco, though most of it we’ve heard before. He shows us a magic trick where we (Majid and I) take turns to write down four-digit numbers. I add my numbers up and realise they add up to the number that, unbeknownst to me, Majid has written down on his bit of paper before I reveal my own. William and I exchange looks, mine half-impressed, his half-condescending. Magic Majid, he whispers to me. 

Majid shows us a place to buy cigarettes. Rene is short-changed by a few dirhams. Though he doesn’t notice, Majid does, muttering there are good people in Morocco and then there are idiots.

Arid vistas into the orange distance punctuated by the vegetation of oases. Cacti, palm, reed, village life. Farmers minding crop and herd, relaxing in the shade. Some walk slowly through their fields as we shoot past. I imagine them pensive, with rich inner lives. Telephone wires always following us beside the road. Otherwise, it feels 12th century.

We climb higher into the Atlas. Cedar trees in desert sands, dried grass; donkeys ragged; sheep, similarly.

The heat is becoming less bearable, the early morning cloud has burned off. Majid stops at the side of the road so that we all of us, save Will, can smoke. He shows us how to do the trick he showed us earlier: every four-digit number I write down (each digit between 1-8) he follows with digits that correspond to sum 9. We are slightly impressed, but, remembering the trick from some other time, I fain mostly. I need to piss. Will and I discuss whether to ask Majid whether he minds if I piss in a bush. When I ask, Majid replies, ‘Toilette? Yes, the bush is free. No dirhams.’ 

On the stereo, Majid plays Pink Floyd, Berber music, Neil Young.

Approaching Chefchaouen, he suggests we spend three and a half hours in the town before heading home. We try to increase the time by two and a half hours, making the time we leave seven o’clock. He says carefully that this is a bit too late. We agree on half five. The journey back would take five hours after dark.

In Chefchaouen, the moment we leave the taxi we are offered the local hashish, famously good, by some young men. I keep my hand in my pocket, gripping my wallet. Rejecting the offer, we look for somewhere to eat. We turn our faces away from a line of restaurants as men rush out of them to meet us and try to coax us inside. We settle on a small restaurant where we sit on the terrace. We have a small Moroccan salad (lettuce, tomato, onion) followed by a tagine. I have goat. Then watermelon for dessert. The food is okay, though I am disappointed by the goat (‘a poor man’s lamb’, I claim) and wish that the food had been more spaced out. It cost us 40 dirhams, or about £3.60, each. 

As we explore the blue-painted streets, Rene is in a childish, petty mood. He is annoyed that we are not in the lower, southern part of the city. Little is discernibly there. No blue houses, too many cars. He sulks. I let it ruin my time. I think mostly about how I could upset him by telling him he’s selfish, childish, not my friend, etc. The streets are beautiful, and we all take pictures.

At Rene’s silent demand, we go to the south. He perks up but I am too annoyed at him to enjoy things, so I talk little, sitting tight-lipped and sanctimonious. I pretend, still, to be easy-going. I look in every mirror to check my hair. I am heckled many times (‘ni hao’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Japanese’, ‘Jackie Chan’, ‘chinky boy’, etc.). Going from cafe to cafe we smoke cigarettes. In one cafe we walk into we are shown up to the terrace, but our order is never taken so we just sit, admire the view, and smoke. Neither Rene nor I are especially interested in driving conversation. Will takes the reigns: he makes banal statements, neither open questions nor interesting anecdotes nor analysis. Instead, facts. Each statement not the beginning but the end of a conversation.

‘These houses don’t look like the blue’s been taken off. How to do it. I suppose you could strip it but that would be a lot of work…’

Rene and I stay silent. With each successive statement, we think we have reached the nadir. I plan how I will stop being Will’s friend. His discursive method is to disagree with our occasional statements and observations. His voice monotone, never loud or expressive.

‘I wonder why the driver wants to leave so early.’

‘He doesn’t want to drive in the dark.’

‘Irrelevant. Motorways don’t have lights.’

‘I suppose. The windy roads through the mountains are probably a bit hairy in the dark.’

‘No, they aren’t. They make no difference. Do either of you drive?’

A long, drab silence. Someone says, ‘then what are you talking about?’, triumphantly, to please himself.

We all like only to talk and never to listen to one another.

Generally, today I am quiet, bored. Glad I’ll be going home soon and seeing Joel. I regard him as a proper friend.

Majid picks us up at 5.40, ten minutes late. We are scared he might have gone off, perhaps got the wrong time. Rene restlessly circles the car park for those ten minutes looking for him, thinking perhaps he is sat, in the 40-degree heat, in his black MPV, waiting for us.

When Majid picks us up, he asks how it was, we say merely that it was nice and very beautiful, nothing else really to say. We ask him what he had done; he had gone walking close by in the woods. 

On the way back I begin to feel sick. I had been sticking my head out of the window, letting the air blast me, perhaps starving my brain of oxygen.

Rene needs food so we stop at a place. Majid haggles for us, he gets us good meat for 78 dirhams. Overhearing the food price in my half-sick stupor, I am momentarily excited that they are talking about the price of the whole fare. We sit down to eat, and Majid speaks at length [see top]. We reply with simplistic questions, slowing our voices and talking in mock foreign accents.

Watching the telephone wires on the side of the road rise and fall gracefully as we hurtle along in the car. The wires sometimes kiss each other, once just before the middle, again just after. Rene asks Majid about his milometer. Majid is a careful driver, never in a rush to overtake, waiting for the safest moment. Leaning over to me, Will says in a whisper: notice what he’s doing with his fuel. It took me a while to decode this comment.

I begin to feel sicker. I pull my phone out anyway and type out the events of the day into a memo, writing out all the disgust I feel for myself and for my friends word for word, as the memories of the day impress upon me until I reach the final moment before I pick up my phone to type–of the image of the looping wires–and when finished, sit back numb and with nowhere else to go. I leave the writing untouched and unread for five years, occasionally thinking back to the day with disgust. As a day that provoked a dark and vague feeling resembling an epiphany. Or the opposite of an epiphany, where the whole event made me only aware of how little I knew.

The two friends whom I had visited Morocco with I had not spoken to properly in years. It was not complete silence between us, but worse: we met only to reinforce the feeling that the time in our lives in which we could delude ourselves into thinking we were friends was over. Our conversations would amount to little more than catch-ups, sharing the facts of our lives since we had seen each other last.  Our relationships were past tense, and we were living in its painfully drawn-out epilogue. Sometimes, I met them when I thought my life was going well, other times not. The same with them. Each meeting, nevertheless, would finish with the feeling that we had entirely run out of things to say to each other and that our lives were stagnant. Drawn back to those moments on the final days of our holiday together, when our misanthropy and selfishness and separation from each other became finally and unavoidably conspicuous.

I opened up the memo that I had saved on my phone for the first time on a brisk, Autumn day in Glasgow as if retrieving an artefact from another life. Someone I loved was reading a book next to me on the sofa. I had moved with them to the city only a short while before. I do not dare describe them here–that person I love–because I fear that describing their character in these passages would establish some continuity between them and that previous life, and that they would be marked by the same cynicism; that here, I could only write about them as if our relationship together was desperate and bleak and almost-ending.

I do not dream.

The night after reading this, I am in Morocco again.

The heat rising through the morning. Clouds burning off as we climb into the Atlas Mountains. Our feet translucent. Watching beneath our soles the sirocco moving north across the sands.

Murder in the afternoon. The screams of a bloody throat. Mother and child in their white mourning clothes. Eyes cold and staring in the shadows of the courtyard. Corpses horse-drawn through the medina at dusk. 

Guilt, trial, a sentence; then the hangman fixing the noose tight around my throat. He raises the rope and hangs me from a pole. I slowly choke, not finding death.

Awaking with the morning light. My rotting body riding a horse out into the triumphant desert sands.

Approaching Scotland by train. The border has opened. 

The landscape flat as I move across it. Townships, farmland, fir trees. Rivers and then the sea off in the distance. Then right beside the tracks: the beach. I’m looking for my notebook, a pen. 

          Inland, rivers beneath the bridge, white foam on the rocks perhaps it’s a good thing the pandemic prevents travel because 
          The grass green, then arid, the trees bare, the fields turned over with soil dried to a slight crust. 
                                                                   of british tourists, their old colonial haunts 
          Houses, then lines and lines of telephone wire, linking distant parishes to the grid. 
am a migrant’s son, my father was raised in an orphanage and brought over to England from
          A pastoral scene in transit. Things unveil themselves. Nothing more than their changingness. The sky blue, the clouds only wisps, the birds far away and fleeting. The sheep close, static as we fly by. A line of trees on a field’s boundary. Reservoir, marshland, fences, a dead and broken tree.
renounce who I once was                               a nation that has shut itself off from the rest of Europe, that dreams to shut itself off from the rest of the world, that
          Lindisfarne far off in the distance. A small impression on the landscape, an extremity covered in heather. Why do the flat lines of this country seem so extreme?
the young man I once was, but you cannot                    you can tell stories that didn’t happen,          
                          cannot write and be dishonest              
           realise that your writing attempts to suppress and change your identity            
 							        cannot ignore it

Grassland then the beach, the rocks, the whites of the tide. Secret beaches. Limestone rocks approaching Berwick-upon-Tweed. Lines cut by the sea into an ancient pattern. The light glinting at a thousand points on the viaduct passing the river into Scotland. The sea is not teasing, but present, blue.
From this train, these objects.

When Majid had driven us back inside the perimeter to the old town of Fez, he parked up as close to our hostel as he could. About a hundred yards away. The roads became too narrow for his car, a colour and size I cannot now recall, from driving through.

Neither do I remember if we forced from our mouths one more cynical comment about the distance we must walk, like vagrant fuel to keep our dead friendships warm. An act as despicable as burning books.

He asked us each for our emails so that we could keep in touch. Then he told me he would write to us and shook each of our hands.

I still await his email. Surely, there was no reason that he should ask for our contacts if he did not intend to write. True, we had spent a long time in his company. But perhaps there have been hundreds of now-faceless taxi drivers whom I have spoken to with more dignity, interest, and respect than that boy spoke to Majid five years ago. Today, I wonder why he asked, and why I never heard from him. After the day was finished, after the flames of pleasure that a whole day of company with strangers can light in one who enjoys the company of others; in the chest of one who was listened to, and gave voice to the thoughts that visit them when sat in silence behind the wheel of a car, driving through the desert to a destination not really theirs–that fire that melts and binds you to other people, that draws you closer–after that had ebbed away in the early hours of the morning before he rose, when he thought back and this time put together all the comments we made in his presence, that we thought were hidden in plain sight by our polite intonations–the slick irony that coated the underside of everything we said–in that moment, did all the affection and camaraderie and fraternity he felt toward us turn to a bitter taste in the mouth and a feeling of disgust?

Perhaps. I will never know, never find a way to apologise. There is little chance I will ever meet him again.   

Matthew William Jeng-Zhe Seaton is an English-Singaporean writer from outside Birmingham. He is a student of creative writing at the University of Glasgow and holds a MA in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. He is the editor of a zine called chewgulpspit and is currently completing his first novel and is soon to be published in Erato Magazine. Matthew writes about modern male relationships, otherness, and colonial legacies through a surreal, sometimes absurd, prose style. He currently lives in Glasgow.