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The Princess of Essaouira
The bus journey from Marrakesh had taken a little over three hours, so I stretched and took in a deep, fresh, salty breath of Atlantic sea air to ease the aches and pains I felt from sitting through one of the most uncomfortable trips I had ever endured.
Sections of modern highway constantly gave way to longer stretches of dusty, rutted unpaved roads. A never ending scene of dry, arid scrubland passed as I gazed out through a dirty window, while trying to ignore the odour of a morbidly obese woman, whose massive rolls of fat flowed over the armrest separating us, half filling my seat.
The monotonous landscape passed me by, interrupted briefly by lonely subsistence farmers eking out an existence from the impoverished desert soil or herds of goats moving with the agility of monkeys through the branches of Argan trees, feasting on the succulent nuts, famous throughout the world for the health benefits of the oils they contain.
But here I was at last, in Essaouira, a town on the west coast of Morocco. I had journeyed here to meet up with an old friend from Ireland, Sylvia, and Mike a new friend from Dallas, Texas. I had met Mike in Ecuador while backpacking through South America. Despite the fact that we were complete opposites, we had become firm friends. Mike, as old as the pyramids, a giant of a man, with a wild beard and even wilder hair, is an extreme Republican, a conspiracy theorist, an avid Trump supporter and he has a frightening in-depth knowledge of guns. Whereas I on the other hand tend to be a pacifist and believe in civil and personal liberty. After Morocco, Mike and I were planning to travel together through Jordan, Israel and Egypt.
Sylvia? How to describe Sylvia. She is a spirit from the sixties, Scott McKenzie, Flower Power, San Francisco and weed. We both share a love of music, film, good books and travel. Like myself she is in her mid sixties, fearless, full of adventure and living life to the full. I wondered how my two friends would get on with each other, probably hate at first sight, followed by pistols at dawn.
I retrieved my bags from the luggage compartment under the coach. My tension relieved by the cool sea breeze and warm midday sun, I turned to take in my surroundings. The bus had deposited me half way down a beach front promenade. On the beach, holiday makers were busy doing nothing, splayed out on sun loungers, perfecting a winter tan, before returning to the cold of Europe and Britain. Others enjoyed the sea, splashing, wading and swimming, while further out, surfers guided their boards through the rollers in search of the perfect wave.
Up to my left, I could see tourists galloping on horseback through the ebb and flow of the tide. Less courageous souls were riding up and down the sand, nervously perched high up on the backs of camels, led by men dressed in black or brown robes with their faces hidden beneath peaked cowls.
Over to my right, in the distance, a fleet of blue and white fishing boats bobbed gently up and down, protected by ancient harbour walls. Flocks of sea birds swooped overhead, hoping to scavenge bits and pieces of filleted fish, cast overboard from the trawlers into the water. All along the the beach, tall Palm trees offered shade from the sun and shelter from the wind.
I turned away from the beach and with a pack on my back, pulling a wheelie bag behind me, I ventured into the traffic of a four lane highway separating rows of cafes and bars from the beach. It was like a real life game of Frogger, as daredevil drivers zoomed past me at breakneck speeds. I reached the far side with shattered nerves, but otherwise fully intact and began to walk along pausing now and then to read menus posted outside various restaurants. Ahmed’s Turf and Surf stood out from the rest and the menu looked good. It was the busiest establishment on the strip, which is always a good sign. A scent of fresh coffee and the sound of lively conversation filled the air. The tables were crowded with tourists drinking pints of frothy local lager.
A waiter quickly made room for me at a table being shared by three other men. I ordered a beef and egg tagine and a pint of beer. My order arrived promptly and the tagine proved to be delicious. Introductions were quickly made and I was warmly welcomed by my new friends. Two of them were English. The oldest was Jimmy, a seventy year old, retired drag queen, who spoke with an over the top, camp Scouser accent. Jimmy regaled us with stories of his life, working in the Hippodrome in London. He was covered in tattoos, with a snake sliding up his neck and a spiders web on his bald head. His friend Jacob, was as drunk as a skunk. He claimed to be a Manchester Jew, who after retiring from the British SAS had become a Mossad agent, working all over Europe for the Israelis. I noticed that if anyone pointed a phone or camera in his direction, he would either turn away or shield his face with his hands. The third man was much younger than his companions, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties. He was Nepalese and travelled the world, sourcing rare antiques and fine art for wealthy clients back home. His name was utterly unpronounceable. Jacob told me not to bother even trying, that everyone called him Tibetan Tim. Tim constantly pointed out that he came from Nepal, not Tibet, but no one seemed to listen.
I was thoroughly enjoying the afternoon, until, half way through my third pint, when suddenly, the skies darkened. Ominous black clouds rolled in from the ocean. The gentle breeze stiffened into a strong wind that quickly shaped into a ferocious storm. Heavy rain pounded into the ground and thumped onto the parasol over our table. Within moments the beach was deserted, save for a few camels, tethered securely with stout ropes. The beasts turned their backs to the elements in a vain attempt to find shelter from the stinging rain. The storm whipped up into such a frenzy that the palm trees bent sideways under the onslaught. Massive forks of lightning crashed into the ground, followed immediately by deafening crashes of thunder. My friends and I joined the other customers in a hasty retreat to the safety of the bar. Inside was dimly lit, all of the tables occupied by local men watching English football on big screen televisions. I was told that it was too risky for them to be seen drinking in public, but that the police turned a blind eye, as long as they remained indoors.
The bar became jam packed with all of the customers from outside, combined with people from the beach shoving and pushing their way in from the rain. Outside, huge waves crashed over the sea wall and flooded the main road. All of the traffic had disappeared. As the road vanished under the flood, I half expected to see Noah sail past in an Ark laden with animals. Such was the intensity of the storm --- it seemed as if the Gods from ancient Greece had abandoned Mount Olympus and were waging war in the sky above us. The flashes of light and roars of thunder rolled into one continuous, frightening assault.
A few hours later, just as it had arrived, the storm died in an instant. The noise replaced by silence and the torrential rain replaced by a fine drizzle. I said goodbye to my new friends, promising to see them all again tomorrow and made my way outside into the North African night. In haste to escape the downpour I'd left my bags outside. They were soaking wet and my backpack weighed twice as much as it had earlier. I pulled out my phone and loaded up Maps Me, my favourite app and entered the address for The Red Castle hostel. Maps Me led me through huge gates into the Medina, down the main shopping street and then into a warren of narrow alleyways. Left, right, straight ahead, left again. There was little or no street lighting in these alleys and they were deserted except for cats prowling about, searching for prey. The walls seemed to press in on me in the darkness. As I passed a recessed doorway, I heard a faint whimper, at first I thought that it was just another cat, but there seemed to be something human about the cry. I switched on the torch in my phone and peered into the gloom. My light shone into the face of a young woman. She was clearly distressed and she cowered away from me. Kneeling down in front of her, I tried to assure her that I meant her no harm. Judging from her ragged clothes, unkempt dirty hair and the grime on her face, streaked from the recent rains, I guessed that she was an outcast of some sort. No matter what she was, I couldn’t leave her abandoned like this and tried to persuade her that I would pay for a room for her to sleep. She responded by pushing herself even deeper into the darkness. Nothing I could say would convince her to come with me. I had no choice but to leave her and with a heavy heart resumed my search for the hostel. Along the way I heard footsteps behind me and glanced back, There she was, walking about five paces behind. At last I spotted the bright neon sign for the Red Castle and entered into a small reception area. The woman followed me, but stopped at the doorway, too unsure of me to come in any further.
The man behind the reception desk noticed her and began to curse at her in Arabic. The woman started to back away from the door. I interrupted the man and told him that I wanted to book a room for her.
“No sir” he said. “This woman, she is unclean. She no stay here. Is impossible. Anyway, we are full up. All the dorms are booked tonight. Please sir, send her away.”
After much discussion and the exchange of three hundred Euro, the man, Joseph, relented and agreed that she could share my private double room. I beckoned to the woman and invited her in. She followed me and Joseph up a rickety staircase to the second floor and down a narrow tiled corridor to a room at the end. The room was sparsely furnished with a double bed, a dresser, a wardrobe and a sofa. A door in the corner led to a small shower and toilet.
I asked Joseph to tell the woman that I would sleep on the sofa and that she could take the bed. She smiled at me in gratitude. Even though Joseph had extorted an extra three hundred Euro from me, he still hovered about, expecting a tip. Ten more Euro and he was gone, leaving me alone with this mysterious woman.
The woman sat down on the edge of the bed, still tense and wary. I slumped into the sofa, exhausted from the morning bus ride, too much beer and the long walk from Ahmed's Bar to the hostel.
“My name is Natasha. Thank you for your kindness.”
She spoke good English, with a husky, sultry East European or Russian accent.
“My pleasure Natasha. My name is John. John Chambers.”
Natasha smiled at me. Her smile was radiant. It lit up her entire face. She seemed much more relaxed and at ease with me now.
“I would like to take a shower, Mr John. Would you mind?” she asked.
“Go ahead, Natasha, be my guest. There should be some towels and toiletries in the bathroom.”
Natasha stood up from the bed and walked over to the bathroom. She moved with such grace and poise that I was amazed that I hadn’t noticed it earlier. Moments later I could hear the sound of running water coming from the shower. I lay back and closed my eyes. Just as I was about to doze off, the water stopped and Natasha came back into the room. She was wrapped in a large bath robe, with her hair tied up in a towel. She removed the towel and let her hair fall down over her shoulders. It was ebony black, with an almost blue shine. She was transformed. The street grime washed away, revealed her natural beauty. High cheek bones, full red lips and the deepest darkest brown eyes I had ever seen. Her skin was a light alabaster colour. She was stunning to look at. Once again she gave me that warm seductive smile and with a shrug, allowed her robe to fall to the floor. The sight of her naked, perfect body took my breath away. Speechless, I had no idea how to react. I was in my early sixties, she was half my age. Despite myself, I became aroused.
“Mr John, go freshen up. You share my bed tonight. No need to sleep on that old sofa.”
I was in and out of the shower in seconds. Now fully awake, I climbed into the bed and lay beside her, unsure of what would happen next. Many Europeans are comfortable with their naked bodies, perhaps, I was reading too much into this. I dared not touch her and turned on my side, facing away from her.
Lying in the dark, her husky voice washed over me.
“Mr John, do you not want me? Am I not attractive? It is so long since I was with a man…please, hold me.”
I felt her arms wrap around me, her lips on my neck. I turned, more aroused than at any time in my life. I sank into her and we exploded into frenzied passion. Like wild animals, we clawed and tore at each other, biting and tearing. Giving pain, taking pain. And as the ferocity of our mating intensified, so did the pleasure. We rose together to unheard of heights of passion, and when it seemed we could go no further we soared higher and higher, until at last, we shuddered into rapture and collapsed, utterly spent, drained and exhausted.
I slept fitfully that night. I had the strangest dreams, but when I woke, the dreams were gone and I couldn’t remember what they were. I snuggled into Natasha and kissed her shoulder. She responded to me. This time our lovemaking was gentle, slow and intimate. I fell back asleep, back to the strange dreams and once again the memory of them was gone when I awoke.
A glance at my watch brought me fully awake. I had texted Sylvia and Mike the night before, while Natasha was in the shower and had arranged to meet for lunch at Ahmed’s Bar. I wanted them to meet my new friends from yesterday and now I couldn’t wait for them to meet Natasha.
“No Mister John, stay here with me. Make love to me again. We can meet your friends later.”
“Sorry, my sweet princess, I promised to meet them for lunch. I’m already late.”
“Okay, my love. You go to your friends. I will come later. Would you give my clothes to Joseph for cleaning? And when they come back I will follow you. I know the Turf and Surf pub. I will sleep some more and meet you and your friends for dinner.”
I picked up Natasha's clothes from the bathroom floor, before leaving. The clothes were little more than rags and I dumped them in a bin outside the door. A young woman was busy cleaning the tile floor further down. I approached her and asked if she could speak English. She could, so I offered her a few hundred Euro to go clothes shopping for Natasha. I gave her a generous Fifty Euro for her time and gave her an estimate of Natasha's size.
All five of my friends were waiting at tables outside Ahmed’s bar when I arrived, breathless from the long walk. Sylvia and Mike sat alone, while my friends from yesterday were sitting together at the same table we had shared yesterday. I waved to Sylvia and Mike and called them over to meet the others. I spent the afternoon talking about Natasha.
By the time she arrived, just after dark, I’m sure they must have been sick and tired of hearing her name. The moment Natasha approached our table the conversation stopped. The cleaning lady had excellent taste and Natasha was dressed in an exquisite, hand embroidered, crimson silk gown. It clung to her body like a second skin. The men were captivated and I could see a glint of envy in Sylvia's eyes. Soon, the conversation was back in full swing. Everyone found Natasha enchanting. I began to call her my Princess of Essaouira and she called me her knight in shining armour. After a delicious dinner, I excused myself to visit the men’s room and Tim from Nepal followed me out.
As we approached the men’s toilet, Tim grabbed me by the elbow and steered me to a table hidden in a dark corner.
“John, I must talk to you. This woman, Natasha is not good. She is beautiful, yes; she is young, maybe; she is enchanting certainly. But John, she is wrong. I sense a dark spirit inside her. Something dangerous, hiding deep within her. She has no soul, John. You must leave her. She will destroy you, if you remain with her.”
“What on Earth are you talking about Tim? Meeting Natasha is the best thing that ever happened to me. I only met her yesterday and I’m already in love with her. Are you mad? Leave her? If she’ll have me I intend to marry her. I know that there’s a huge age gap, but I don’t care. I love her and that’s the end of it.”
“Please John, please be careful. She is not what she seems to be. Believe me. In Nepal, my father is a Shaman, a spirit guide. I have learnt many things from him. I can sense evil from this woman. I will say no more. You are a good man, John. Listen to my words. Be careful. Use caution.”
I could feel myself getting angry with Tim and before things could get worse I left him and continued into the men’s room.
The rest of the evening was wonderful, except for some gentle hints from Sylvia that this relationship was inappropriate. I put that down to petty jealousy and ignored her.
We all shared a final bottle of red wine before saying our good-nights and promising to meet again the next day. Natasha and I walked arm in arm, back to the Medina. Everything appeared more vibrant to me. The scent of spices stronger, colours more vibrant. For the first time in a long time, I felt alive, I felt complete. My heart pulsed with new energy. I was happy and content.
Rather than returning directly to our hostel, we explored the Medina. Even at night, it was busy with street vendors selling their wares, women grinding spices, donkeys laden with produce being led through the maze of narrow streets and alleys. At one point we passed a butcher’s shop, when the smell of raw meat hit me it ignited a terrible hunger in me. It was frightening. I craved the taste of raw meat. I felt a lust for fresh blood.
Shaking with dread, I stopped and tried to compose myself. Natasha held me and leaned in to whisper in my ear.
“Don’t worry, my love. I have given you a gift, a precious gift. You will love me all the deeper, or you will curse me for what I have done. I will spend tonight with you for the last time, unless you love me. I am Countess Natasha Sicherov of Saint Petersburg. I will leave you tomorrow night. On this night in twelve months time, I will wait for you on the steps of the Imperial Palace in my home city. Come, let us return to our room and share our love, one last time.”
Confused, I allowed Natasha to lead me by the hand, back to the Red Castle. That night was wilder, more savage, and depraved that I could ever have imagined. The next morning, Natasha was gone.
I cried, I wailed, I called her name. She was gone. I felt empty, hopeless, despairing. Filled with anguish, I forced myself to wash and dress. How could I explain my loss to my friends? How could I live without her? Despite my pain, I knew that I needed to be with my friends, so I left the hostel and headed back to the bar. It was a little after one in the afternoon and the bright sun hurt my eyes, the heat irritated my skin. I couldn’t wait to get into the shade of a parasol. It felt as if I had a flu coming on. By the time I reached Ahmed’s I was exhausted.
Sylvia was sitting alone at our usual table. None of the others had arrived yet.
“My God, John, you look awful. Are you okay? What’s happened? You’re so pale, you must have picked up a bug.”
Before I could answer, the rest of my friends arrived. They all commented on how tired I looked. I passed it of to something I ate. As the day progressed, I became more and more lethargic and had little interest in talking. I explained that Natasha had left me. I left soon after dark and headed back to the hostel. Along the way, the same bloodlust I had experienced outside the butcher shop overwhelmed me. I followed a young woman down a dimly lit alley and at just the right moment, I pounced. I sank my teeth into her neck, ripping through flesh, until I tasted her blood. I sucked and drank with a feverish hunger, until finally sated, I fell to the ground, filled with self loathing and shame.
Now, I understood. I had accepted Natasha’s gift.
I am immortal. I am a monster. I have no soul.
Will I travel to Saint Petersburg? Do I love Natasha? Do I hate her? I don’t know. I am a creature of the night. I hunt.