She comes to the height of my waist. She reaches up to the table and takes bread, meats and pieces of fruit. She makes her way back to the table, almost hops onto her seat. Pulls open her napkin spreads it open on her lap. Eats, chews, looks around.
It was once a grand hotel. You can see it in the large empty sitting rooms, the heavy dusty red curtains, the giant pot plants. But those days are gone, it’s beginning to fall apart ever so slightly. A man on the ledge looking down at death. Things creak, the walls have stains, waiters, careless with orders dissapear for ages, sections are closed off, the fountains don’t work, there’s an air of being unable to keep up with such great aspirations. Shriveled palms. Plastic flowers. Dust. A souvenir shop cut to half the size with a sleepy cashier. Cheap toilet paper. A squeaking trolley in the passage. Receptionists who yawn, repaint lips red. Make calls to boyfriends. Some of the staff try to keep up with the delusions of grandeur, others have long given up.
There are three giant pools, one man trying valiantly to clean two closed ones.
This woman I told you about, she’s tiny, has a scarf tightly wrapped around her face. Mid forties, probably. Old face, bright eyes. I see her at breakfast and dinner. One night, our last night in Fez actually, it suddenly dawns on me that she is sitting alone – that actually she’s not waiting for someone to come or that she’s part of a party that I just can’t see. She’s sitting alone, eating alone, wiping her mouth and leaving alone. She came here alone. This makes me terribly sad to realise. I hesitate for a moment, then wake up, leave our table, go to hers.
‘Will you come sit with us?’ I say and gesture to our table.
She doesn’t speak English. French and Arabic only, so she looks at me blankly. I gesture to our table. I smile. Repeat the offer. And when she still seems confused, I pick up her glass and water bottle and motion towards us.
She smiles, beams actually. Picks up her plate and ambles along. My parents, mortified at first, smile too. She settles down, takes her place and we sit and eat in a strange, awkward, happy kindof silence. We make gestures towards the food served (Oh it’s too much! Very tasty! Needs salt). Smile. Smile. Laugh. Awkward pauses. Chewing. Cutlery scraping. Finally I think to use my translation app on my cellphone – she speaks into it uncertainly, ‘mon nom est...’. The app doesn’t translate, and we sit awkwardly around the phone waiting for something to happen. I gesture to her to speak louder and shyly, she tries again. Finally it picks up her voice and we all yelp in excitement when we get a broken conversation going. She lives in France with her parents; it’s a pleasure to meet us, where are we from? Then our tour guide, also eating supper joins us, invites us to the hotel bar (again, once grand, now worn away, cigarette burns in the carpet, chipped ashtrays and sticky counters but still carrying some grace with its heavy wooden panels). So we settle down on these little armchairs; my father, my mother, this little French woman and our translator; he’s Moroccan, lonely, eyes like catfish, some great sorrow in his heart, you can see; but he only tells us about it later, while smoking cigarettes, mouth pulled to one side. A lonely soul, you can see. Never married, doesn’t regret it, he says. When he tells us about his father, he closes his eyes. But that’s another story for another time. Tonight, he translates, tell our guest about us, answers our questions to her.
She never married, this woman. She travels by herself all over the world. Her parents were very scared for her at first, on account of her height but now they let her go. Once a year, she gets on a plane, checks into a hotel for a week or so and has a holiday. She’s even been on hajj, she tells us. You’re very brave, I tell her. I mean it. I am in awe. She smiles. With God’s grace, she says. I wonder how she does it, she probably can’t even reach a towel rack to get a towel off to bath, yet here she is travelling around, making her way by herself. I feel ashamed of all the things I think I can’t do, when she, this woman half my height has more bravery than I have ever mustered in my life. She’s lovely company and I wish she had more company to keep. How lonely I think, it must be to eat breakfast alone, and holiday alone and sit by the pool and have people look at you. But she doesn’t seem to look at it that way at all. She seems happy, content, smiling. By the grace of God, she said. I try to imagine how she must have been raised to be so lovely. We laugh, make jokes, drink hot sweet mint tea. A group of men watch a soccer game behind us, laugh raucously. Cigarette smoke wafts through the air. Our translator is drinking his second cup of strong coffee. I feel like the coolest kid in town. Hanging in a rundown hotel bar with my parents, the grieving tour guide and the brave small woman.
I feel it in my heart, these are the best people, the best people I could know.
It gets late, we say our goodbyes in Arabic, French and English. We smile. I watch that little woman make her way to the elevator. She walks with pride and I know I’m never going to see her again.
Later, my father hugs me, tells me thank you, says a prayer for me.
By the grace of God, I think. By the grace of God.