Olivia's stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, STORGY, Penny Shorts, The Fiction Pool, Five on the Fifth and Scarlet Leaf Review. She began writing fiction as soon as she could hold a feather and self-published her first story, Mrs. and Mr. Patchwork, aged six.
Later, having studied English Literature in London, Olivia trained and worked in journalism. She moved to Morocco and continued writing as a travel writer, studying linguistics and working as an English teacher. She spends half of her time in a fictitious world.
As a journalist, Olivia has written for Fodor's Travel Guide, The National, Elle Decoration as well as several travel supplements. She lives and works in Casablanca, Morocco.
Facebook: Olivia Gunning-Bennani
That Saturday, Rali carried the book in his hand despite the potential for rain. The rains of December were prone to falling thick, swamping the city of Casablanca in minutes. But Rali went out with neither coat nor bag. So far the day was warm and sunny enough. No need to carry more than the necessary.
He took a bus leading from one world to another. It was a Parisian vehicle, so old that it had been withdrawn from French traffic yet was still considered viable for Morocco. The windows were cracked, the upholstery full of holes and the engine hacked up pitch smoke. The skeletal driver’s steering was psychotic. At extreme speed, they swerved and veered away from the eternal strings of seven-storey apartment blocks that overlooked the dual carriageway. These new slums stretched back like cement forests onto what had been, until recently, farmland inhabited by peasants. The bus careered across three lanes of traffic and roared through red lights. Everyone held tight, unfazed.
Rali got off at Oasis. It was one of the few remaining quarters where colonial French villas survived. Red hibiscus bursting with yellow pollen as dazzling as turmeric, purple bowers of bougainvillea, the perfume of honeysuckle and the hum of contented insects.
He walked along five different narrow roads to reach her house. Rue des Colombes, Rue Gavarnie, Rue d’Aix, Rue Tholonet and finally, Rue Franceville. Number 91.
His age inverted.
So early to be a criminal.
From the road, Rali could see that the yellow-walled house was in disrepair. He rapped at the corroded iron door, which scraped open.
“Salam,” Rali said, to the emaciated guardian of the house.
“Walikoum Salam,” replied Kebir.
Rali started towards the front door.
“La,” grunted Kebir shaking his head and index finger.
They followed the stretch of drive around the side of the house to a small back door. The paint was peeling and a pane was cracked.
The garden had once been something else. A place where chic ladies, svelte as their Vogue cigarettes, bronzed themselves, chinking glasses of pastis. Where children squealed across the lawn and where summer lawn parties chattered. Now it was arun with ivy and oleander, oranges heaving at their branches. The grass was long, spike-like, parched.
Somehow, though, there was glory in the great volume of everything. It allowed the garden to enfold itself away from the world over the yellow wall, the world that crawled and spread and clattered.
Casablanca. Real city. Raucous city of fallen elegance. The city that Rali knew, for the first time since the whole mess had started, was where he should be.
“Her room is this way,” said Kebir. The white-painted stairs were yellowing, chipped with time and inattention.
Four doorways left the first floor landing. They walked to the furthest, the narrowest. Kebir opened it onto a slim, creaking staircase that turned back upon itself. Rali followed.
“Madame Fiona’s room,” announced Kebir. He turned and was gone.
Rali entered, hesitantly.
“Ahh finally,” she said from the bed. “You turned up.”
“Am I late?” Rali stammered. He’d not expected directness. He was used to the French penchant for jabbing comments but weren’t the British evasive?
“I’m sorry, Madame.”
“It’s fine,” she said, her English accent unmistakable. “Sit down. Did you bring a book?”
She turned to him, as if turning were painful, to make the first eye contact.
Her fine white hair was drawn back symmetrically into a very long plait. She was slender-limbed, frail, with a fine nose and chin. Dressed in white and grey. Something ethereal hung about her like sweet air. Something between one thing and another, one place and another, one person and another.
“Look at that,” she said. “We’re wearing the same colours.”
Rali looked down at his grey joggers and white T shirt. The same colours. His limbs, in contrast, were dark and his hair black, chopped short. The beginnings of a beard smudged his chin. He was tall with substantial shoulders.
“Ah,” she said, eyeing the book. “Amin Maalouf. Leon l’Africain. Another book I haven’t read. If only my eyes hadn’t given up on me.”
“Yes I thought maybe… it was a good book.”
“Something we should read?”
She smiled and within her face there was a softness.
“Remember French isn’t my first language. I might need help.”
And so Rali began. Less faltering than he feared.
That year, the holy month of Ramadan fell during summer, and my father rarely left the house before nightfall because the people of Granada were uptight during the daytime, arguments were frequent and their dark moods were a sign of the piety, since only a man who didn’t observe the fast could maintain a smile beneath the fiery sun….”
“When is Ramadan this year?” she asked.
“Ah. A summer fast.”
“Yes, this year it’s going to be hot and hard.”
“Do you do it?”
“No. I have done. Not anymore. Maybe I should.”
Rali remembered when he’d first cheated during Ramadan, aged 15, smoking joints behind a rock on the far end of the beach.
“Read on please.”
I…circumcised by a barber and baptised by a pope. I have many names and many nationalities but come from nowhere. I’m the son of the road. My country is a caravan. My life is the most unexpected of crossings.
Rali read twenty-two pages, barely looking up. He told of the ancient Alhambra, the sharing of brimming goblets, of veiled women, of sultans and djinns. Fiona was quiet. White head upon white pillow. The window was open and the quiet breath of late afternoon swished against the eucalyptus branches that encircled the room. The only room at the top of the house, almost a tower. At each wall there was a window, a small bathroom leading off into a corner.
He closed the book and placed it on his lap. She was asleep. He waited. Would she awaken? For a while he listened to the movement of the air outside and of her breathing, steady, rhythmic. It was the closest thing to silence he’d heard in so long. And he felt all the scurrying pieces of his life begin to settle inside his head.
After a few minutes, he left.
* * *
When Rali got home, his mother was making a tagine of chicken, lemons and olives. The odour reigned over the house.
“How was it?”
“Did you read?”
“Of course I read.”
“How does she look?”
“Kind of old.”
“What about the book?”
“Dunno. I think she liked it. Said she likes travel books.”
“You’re going back on Wednesday.”
“The only way I can keep you on the straight and narrow.”
“And it’ll help her get better.”
“I hope, anyway,” said his mother. “She was always good to me when I worked there.”
After lunch, Rali went to his room and gave into the thoughts of Hassna that had threatened reinvasion since he’d chased them away at dawn. It wasn’t the first time he’d traced back to when Hassna had made her entrance into his life.
Hassna from his street, his childhood, his classroom.
Hassna of the thick straight hair, shiny as a panther’s eyes, black as its coat, her own dark eyes sharp as spears. Hassna, the everyday neighbour, yet for so long so invisible. Hassna sobbing in a doorway when a football caught her high forehead, skipping with friends and crawling with marbles. And a few years later chewing gum with the gigglers and whisperers. Until the day that Hassna was grown up, with lipstick and pretty shoes.
Then one morning she passed before him on her way to the high school they attended, stopping and turning.
“Rali – feel like walking with me?”
“I’m not going.”
“Oh come on, don’t fuck up the year again.”
He gave in. Hassna was suddenly worth going to class with, going to school for.
They walked together, from that day, every day, for the rest of the year. And somewhere along the way, charm and captivation ran stitches between them. They began to feel their route was somehow shared, that they could see the same world. Enamourment stole in.
* * *
By Wednesday, the weather had changed to hot, full of illusions. Kebir was waiting at the great metal gate. He smelt of old sweat and bitter coffee. They exchanged few words. The garden had been watered and flowers slung out thick perfume.
“Take the same route,” Kebir said, and started towards the garage door.
Rali stopped and watched him, wondering where his quarters were, if the garage were actually his room. Kebir began turning the handle. But then felt Rali’s eyes and turned.
“Well go on then!” he said irritated.
Rali knew that Kebir had waited before opening the garage door.
“Ah you came back,” she said as he entered the room. She was sitting up in bed, dressed in pale blue cotton. Clean, tidy, brushed.
“Of course,” Rali said.
“Are we going back to the Alhambra?”
“I guess. I mean…if you’d like.”
“Well, I adore the place.”
“You've been there?”
“Ahh, have I?!” She lay back against a triangular pillow, her grey eyes alight.
“My husband was an archaeologist.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Yes. We adored ancient sites. The places civilisations inhabited. We went all over Africa.”
“That’s lucky,” Rali said.
“A life without travel is a poor one.” She paused. “Anyway, read.”
They moved away from annexed Granada to the Sahara. The vast Sahara. A desert crossing with the paternal uncle during the freshness of night amid the cries of jackals and the chants of turbaned Cadis.
“I imagine you haven’t been to the Sahara either,” she interrupted.
He continued, knowing he was monotone. The text became laborious and his thoughts followed another path.
“Where are you thinking of?”
“I’m sorry Madame?”
“You’re somewhere else.”
He faltered. “I am.”
“Where is that?”
Rali hesitated again.
“I don’t know, Madame.”
“Where you’ve just come from, Rali? I heard you’d been away. From Morocco.”
“I was in Paris, Madame. But I ran away.”
“Why did you do that?”
Rali, generally taciturn, was surprised that he was so close to telling. But he balked.
“I’d rather not say, Madame.”
He read on, telling of the great kings, inspired poets and intrepid travellers unable to reach the destiny they believed was promised to them.
“Death,” said the poet, “holds life by both ends.
Old age is no closer to death than infancy.”
A shadow passed over their faces as their eyes locked.
“You’re closer to infancy, Rali, you know.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I don’t feel like it.”
“And I’m at the other end,” she said.
They looked at one another for a while.
“I’m tired now, Rali.”
And as she lay down, so tentatively, he saw how weak she was.
“As you wish, Madame. Do you not want me to continue with Leon L’Africain?”
But her eyes were already closed.
* * *
“How is Madame Fiona?” Rali’s mother asked.
She was stuffing lumpy cushions into faux-satin embroidered covers that she washed every month. They had no outside space so the washing was strung from one window to the next along the outside wall of the flat, sagging like a vast petticoat.
“Seems ok,” he replied. “Still can’t work out what’s wrong with her.”
“No, it’s a mystery,” she shook her head and battled with a large stretch of foam. “What are you reading to her?”
“Never heard of it,” said his mother, who’d never read a book.
In his room Rali took out another book. It was the first time he’d allowed himself to look at it since Paris. He turned the pages very slowly. Falling in Love and Loving, by Italian sociologist, Alberoni. He stopped at the parts Hassna had highlighted. The parts he knew by heart.
How Hassna loved reading.
“When I get into a new book it’s like discovering a new fruit,” she’d say.
How she’d chanted the words of Alberoni to him, reiterated them like incantations. He looked at the part she’d extracted for him.
“Falling in love is a process in which the other person, the one whom we have encountered and who has responded to us, overpowers us as an irresistible love object. It is this fact that compels us to rearrange everything in our life and to rethink everything, starting with our past. In truth, it is not a rethinking but a remaking. It is a rebirth.”
“Bitch,” Rali thought, reading it through again. “How the fuck did I believe in it?”
But he had believed in it, that humid June, exams nearly through, as they lay on a blanket in the wasteland near the old quarry, the endless construction of blocks of flats edging the skyline like ugly lace. Wild lavender grew rapid and tall around them. There was a burnt mattress littered with foil and tubes, remnants of the junkies. It was there that Hassna and Rali fed and concealed their mutual infatuation from everyone, most of all Hassna’s parents and team of boxing-ring brothers. And there that they laid their plans.
“Imagine,” Hassna said, black eyes vivid. “By the time you get there in, say, November…”
“Ok, I hope. But imagine November is sure…”
“Yeah…” he said, kissing her forehead. “Carry on.”
“I’ll have a studio or something set up with all we need. Cups, dishes, towels.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“No you are.”
Hassna left in July.
“I’ll be with my cousins first. Helping out my aunt with the cleaning company near Clignancourt. Until college starts.”
“Your brothers will find out!”
“Don’t worry,” she’d said. “Leave it to me.”
They organised cyber cafes dates where nobody would trace them. The connection was usually too erratic for video chats but they managed to meet online and sent long emails.
She was so efficient. By the end of the September she had him a work contract fixed up at a Moroccan bakery in Barbes helping with deliveries.
“Lucky I’ve got contacts and that you’ve got that licence,” she said. “Your bike obsession turns out to be useful after all.”
Rali earned cash washing cars and sold hash on the side to speed up procedures. He needed to pay for the plane ticket and visas. It all took, as Hassna had envisaged, about five months.
How the months had trawled.
He read another part of Alberoni that they’d highlighted during that five-month wait.
“A brief separation is enough for us to realise that we receive something special and unmistakable from that person we have fallen in love with, something that we’d always been looking for and that can only come from him or her; if he or she leaves us it will be lost to us again and this time forever.”
* * *
During the following session, Leon L’African led them to Fes. The exiled Moors within the immaculate medina. The Jews and the Andalusians. Concealed debauchery and public piety. Disease and death and adventure.
“I’ve been to Fes,” he volunteered.
“Ah! That’s a place to visit. Did you take the train? I love that journey.”
“No. I went by motorbike.”
“Do you have a motorbike?”
“I had one. Well… it wasn’t mine,” he stopped for a few seconds. “I stole it.”
“Stole?” Fiona was grinning.
“Yes. I stole it and I took to the road and followed the signs to Fes.”
“Because I wanted to escape. And I love bikes.”
“Did you get caught?”
“Yes. I didn’t have insurance. The police stopped me.”
“Well I managed to get out of it. It was my neighbour’s bike.”
“You stole from your neighbour?”
“Well, we worked it out.”
“I see.” Then she smiled and said. “Motorbikes are a lot of fun.”
“Madame…” His shoulders dropped and he leaned back against the wall.
“Please… call me Fiona.”
“Alright. Mrs. Fiona. Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What happened to your husband?”
There was a tender pause in her eyes.
“Cancer. It took him.”
“And it may take me too, Rali.”
He fell cold, wordless.
“It’s alright, Rali. We all have to go. And anyhow, I find it so desperate trying to live without love.”
Fiona watched Rali’s face tipped towards his shoes, two vertical lines forming between his eyebrows.
“Such deep lines for such a young face,” she said. “Tell me where they come from next time.”
“I think I’ll go now, Mrs. Fiona.”
* * *
The previous October, Rali had left Morocco like a miracle. Visa fixed, pockets stuffed with more money than he’d ever held. He’d arrived in Paris in the early hours and Hassna was there. They waited all night for the dawn train to Gare du Nord, huddling on the hostile ground of the platform at Paris Orly; two abandoned kittens.
“That was so long,” he said to her. “So hard to be apart.”
For ten days, Rali accompanied the Barbes baker through the streets of Paris, learning the ropes, delivering Moroccan pastries to restaurants and caterers. Hassna hadn’t been able to find an affordable studio so they had a room in a shared house. The housemates were mostly immigrants yearning for papers. Sometimes the electricity worked. The kitchen was revolting and the bathroom stank of blocked drains. But they had their room and made it nice.
As he made his way home through the quarter of Barbes, Rali heard his own language. Shady figures collected there, selling drugs and imitation sunglasses. Every day, the atmosphere was tense and menacing, the police aggressive and suspicious. Every day, a Maghrebi was pushed up against the wall by a duo of officers, frisked and sometimes taken away. Rali looked down as he passed, avoiding gazes.
* * *
The next time Rali arrived at Fiona’s bedroom door, a man was there. A doctor? Fiona was sitting on the edge of the bed. He and Fiona spoke in near-whispers and she was nodding with a smile that looked at once knowing and sad. Rali hovered awkwardly, half turning to go.
“It’s alright, Rali,” she said. “You can come in.”
“I don’t want to bother…”
“Come in,” Fiona said.
She and the man finished their conversation. The man took his briefcase and left quietly, nodding at Rali.
“Could you help me to that seat,” Fiona said, her eyes skipping to the large wicker peacock-tail chair in the corner. “I feel like sitting today.”
Rali had never touched an older woman. His grandmothers had died together when he was a baby in a car accident. His father had been driving. Rali took Fiona’s frail forearm and she clasped her wan fingers around his wrist. With his other hand, he pushed gently under her arm and she lifted herself, diaphanous, to her feet. They crossed the room to the woven chair.
“We bought this in 1978,” she laughed. “It’s done pretty well!”
“Yes, Madame. It’s nice.”
“Now, Rali, this time let’s do some poetry.”
“Yes. Do you mind? I see you brought Leon L’Africain again.”
“I don’t know any poetry.”
“I’ve got something. Go over the mantelpiece. I think it’s there.”
Rali found the book. “Stevie Smith?”
“A favourite of mine. It’s in English I’m afraid. Find In my Dreams.”
“Alright Madame. I’m not sure I’ll be very good at…”
“Just get on with it, Rali. There’s no judgement between you and me.”
He opened the book to page 42. Fiona smiled contentedly while Rali read, with a definite accent, but fluidly all the same.
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don't know what I think.
“Aren’t you glad they don’t know what we think, Rali?”
“I suppose so, Madame.”
“They really don’t know,” she added and looked through the eucalyptus branches at the window.
For a while they didn’t speak. Rali looked at the poem again, rereading it to himself. Fiona watched him.
“Do you ever write anything, Rali?”
“Not really. Well, I’ve scribbled a few things but not much.”
“Will you read something of yours next time?”
The silence was punctured by hooves trotting past and the call of the rag-and-bone man. Fiona’s eyes were still open.
“Don’t be too afraid to leave again,” she said.
* * *
November had embarked in Paris with predictable wet and gloom. In the evenings, Hassna and Rali would sit on their single mattress talking and eating unsold food from the bakery – pasties, crepes and so on. It didn’t taste like home but it was free. Occasionally they’d take a walk in the quarter where the streets were fraught with the pain, disaffection and the fear of asylum-seekers, inbetweeners. There was damp in the walls of their room, which they tried ignore by reading Alberoni.
This uniqueness of the other person actually increases when we fall in love. And it extends to us as well, in that our desire to be loved is caught up with our sense of being unique and even extraordinary, certainly irreplaceable anyway when we are simply being ourselves.
It was this uniqueness, their uniqueness, that made Paris just about bearable.
Until Friday 13th November, when gunmen entered a concert venue and shot more than 130 people dead, while others opened fire on cafes and restaurants. Bombers walked into the stadium during a football match. A synchronised, slick attack that rocked Paris into dread.
The city stopped. Shock. Their shared house was suddenly quiet, half-empty. Fear infected the streets. Rali felt nervous eyes follow him.
On Monday, the baker announced he would be closed for a few days. The city was in lockdown, state of emergency. But a week later, the baker said he didn’t need Rali anymore and that’s when Rali cracked. He pleaded. And when that didn’t work he lost control, bellowing and raging. And when that didn’t work, he stepped outside, desolate. He eyed the black-clad, armed officers on the street corner. He eyed the boss, whose back was turned, and he took the bike that wasn’t his and sped off in quiet, deft rage.
Hassna was incensed.
“You did what?” she cried.
“I took it,” he sulked.
“Are you insane? Do you want us to go to jail? Be deported?”
“Oh shut up,” he said. “What the hell did you want me to do? That cunt fired me for no reason.”
“So you….took his bike?!”
Hassna looked at Rali with a regard he’d never seen in her before. In all the faces she’d shown him
“Do you know who we are now?” her voice raised several pitches. “Do you know how we’re seen?”
“Oh for god’s sake,” he rolled his eyes and then began mimicking her. “Do you know who we are?”
That was it.
“Is it that I don’t recognise you,” she said. Her words were slow. “Or rather that I didn’t I know you before?”
“Fuck off and leave me alone.”
And that’s what Hassna did. She turned and left, livid. She left and she never came back.
* * *
Fiona was in the garden. She sat on a plastic lounger with green cushions. There was a tint to her usually transparent cheeks. Make up. But her face was drawn, her lips thin as threads, her skeleton finely visible through ashen skin. On the small mosaic table beside her was a long glass with pink drink in it, slices of cucumber floating between the two straws.
“Rali!” he smiled. “Here you are. For our last session.”
“Is it, Madame?”
“Yes, Rali. And the first time I’ve been in the garden for months.”
“Yes, very.” She took a sip of the rosy drink. “Kebir carried me down this morning. Such a pretty day. And do stop calling me Madame.”
“Yes it is. Sorry.”
“Did you bring me something you’ve written?”
“Yes, Madame. It’s not very good. I was always bad at writing.”
“I just brought one passage. Quite short.”
Fiona smiled. “That’s fine Rali.”
Rali read his clumsy words, both voice and paper trembling.
She may be cruel to me, making me suffer, but because I love her and I have so much affection for her, I don’t want to make her suffer. I just want her to be happy.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Fiona. It sounds like nonsense.”
“Not at all! Carry on!”
Love shows the differences between what is separate and what is united. Love separates in order to unite. But in the end, in all human relationships, there is dissatisfaction and deception. People may laugh at what I say, but that’s how it is. For me.
There was a silence.
“Are you ready to leave again now, Rali?”
“I don’t know, Madame. I’m completely lost.”
“That’s why you need to go. You need to travel. But this time, alone.”
She looked up at the eucalyptus branches, their tongue-like leaves stroking the old yellow house, the menthol scent hanging over the garden like soft goosedown.
“I have something for you, but I can’t walk far enough. You’ll have to carry me. Kebir is out.”
And so Rali lifted the tiny woman. A bag of precious bones, brittle as a burnt biscuit.
“Towards the garage,” she said. “Careful.”
He carried her along the dusty, worn driveway. And when her long plait fell over his shoulder and down his back, he realised it wasn’t her real hair.
Rali set Fiona down and she took three tentative steps.
“Open the door, please. It’s not locked. “
Rali twisted the handle and heaved the door open. Fiona steadied herself on his arm and shuffled forwards.
She turned on the light.
He looked. A motorbike.
That’s for you, Rali.”
“Is that a Triumph Bonneville?” Rali managed to pronounce, words jamming in his throat.
“It is indeed. It’s a T120TT, built in 1967.”
“A 650 cc,” Rali said, awestruck.
“That’s right. My husband and I bought it in 1975. We were in our twenties.”
Rali approached the bike like an explorer in a tomb.
“Get on,” she ordered.
The fuel tank was deep red and the seat black leather with gold logo. He climbed on, bending his body to grip the handlebars. The fenders, exhaust pipe and spokes shone, and in the round, glinting mirrors Fiona’s face beamed.
“It was on that bike that my husband and I rode through North Africa. It’s been along every stony track and sandy path.”
“I can’t take it,” Rali’s throat clasped for air and sound.
“Take it,” she said. “And go.”
They stared at each other for a few moments.
“You have to, Rali,” said Fiona. He saw her eyes dampen. “And anyway, I have nobody to give it to. We installed a storage compartment. There’s some money in there. Enough to get you by for a few months. Spend it wisely. All the papers have been transferred into your name. It’s yours. I’m trusting you.”
“But where shall I go?”
“That, I don’t know. Maybe you’ll plan or maybe you’ll just follow the wind. Just go. And the further you go, the more you’ll understand. We’ll never know what you’re thinking. But, eventually, you will.”
Rali studied the black-faced speedometer. 130 mph.
“Now give me a ride back to my chair. I want to finish my Pimms.”
Rali helped Fiona onto the passenger seat. Her breakable fingers held at his waist as he fired the bike up and took her along the drive, back to her pink drink.
He set her down, helped her onto the green lounger.
“That was a great ride,” she laughed.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Fiona.”
“Goodbye, Rali.” She smiled, laying back her head and looking up at the eucalyptus leaves sweeping the sky like brushes on a drum.