A Lame Excuse

Mrs Harvey Morton Vandenberg III surveyed her mount and sniffed, which turned out not be a wise reaction. The dusty, mangy animal turned its head slowly over the empty, sagging hump of its back, fixed its mournful eyes on her, and farted, long and sonorously.

Muriel – for that was her own name, before she affixed her late husband’s so tightly to her that it clung like a well-fitted corset even two years after his death on the golf course – backed away.

There was sand in her sandals and flies around her hat, and she was not a happy woman at this stage of her trip.

She had embraced widowhood with a resolve and fortitude that might have surprised some, though not those who knew her well. The ladies at her bridge club were, in fact, amazed that it had taken her a good six months before she announced her intention to go out and ‘See the World’. Since then she had cruised the Caribbean, cosseted in the finest staterooms; explored Europe from the vantage point of the best hotel room balconies and the back seat of a rented Rolls Royce; and even – her most recent adventure – taken the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing.

The ladies of the bridge club had paled at this last trip – what would Harvey have said about Muriel going from one Commie country to another, and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of foreign insurrectionists? Muriel, admittedly, had not been good at ‘rubbing shoulders’ but she was good at greasing palms, and that had found her a sleeping car to herself plus a constant supply of hot water, bottled water, and food that had not been obtained in any way from a yak.

It had given her momentum and ideas. She had decided that she would see every continent before her sixtieth birthday, which was still four years away. Africa was going to be a problem, so she had decided to tackle it head-on, straight away. She consulted the Internet and, having discounted approximately 95 per cent of the Dark Continent, was left with the places closest to Europe and, therefore, civilization. And so, here she was in Morocco. In the Sahara, to be precise, or at least the fringes of it.

Beyond the low, white building where the tour group had been assembled for a lunch of roasted, graphically intact lamb and the ever-present couscous, dunes shimmered terracotta, and henna, and paprika hues under the bright sun, their wind-sifted shapes forming sharp ridges and soft rills.

Everyone else was younger than her, and seemed terribly excited. The four Australians had found the most unlikely things – a clutch of battered surfboards – propped up behind the building. They were currently sand-surfing down the nearest dune. The three Brits were sitting in the shade, mopping their brows and applying extra sunscreen, and reading passages to one another from the Lonely Planet guide about what they might experience. A French couple had joined the party in Marrakech, which was a relief to the others as they shared a language with the Moroccans, although the main guide, Mohammad, spoke quaintly stilted but grammatically perfect English.

The party of eleven was complete. And yet there were twelve camels, all lying grumbling in the sun, a haze of flies around their eyes and tails. Muriel wondered whom the last one was for. As the thought crossed her mind, out of the shadows stepped a man wrapped almost entirely in brilliant lapis-blue cloth.

“A Tuareg!” she heard the Brits whisper to one another as they flipped the pages of their guidebooks.

Mohammad gathered the party around and introduced them to the swathed figure, who regarded them silently with dark, impassive eyes.

“This is Amezwar. His name tells us who he is – a leader, and a guide. He will take us to the oasis for the night, and there we shall eat, and sing, and tell stories, and watch the sun rise over the great dune.”

There was a buzz of excitement in the party as Mohammad and Amezwar led them to the camels that had been allocated them.

Muriel regarded her camel, and her camel studiously ignored Muriel.

“This is Tadefi,” Mohammad said, “her name means ‘sweetness’.”

There was a snort. It wasn’t clear if it came from Muriel or the camel.

Muriel was helped aboard. It wasn’t easy, being a lady of a certain age who had lived well, and whose only exercise had been on the golf course, and even then only occasionally, given that Harvey would berate her so if she let him down.

Then, with a word from Amezwar, there was an almost chorus-line-like rise and sweep, as the twelve camels lurched – rear end first – to their feet and formed themselves into the sort of train that has crossed the desert with more precious cargo for millennia. The lowering sun sent their shadows stretching away as they slowly began to move off.

Almost immediately, Tadefi, Muriel’s camel, lurched as she lost her footing. Muriel shrieked and clung to the saddle, willing herself not to fall.

“We have to stop! We have to stop!” she shouted. “My camel is lame! I need another one!”

The rest of the party looked round at her flustered, scarlet face, and then down at the implacable, chewing face of Tadefi. Nobody said anything.

Mohammad and Amezwar dismounted their camels and walked back to Muriel. Amezwar bent down to check Tadefi’s feet, and said something to Mohammad in a desert language only they could understand.

“He says that she is nervous. That she knows you do not like her, and that you are afraid. She is pretending to turn her foot in order that you may have an excuse not to be carried by her to the oasis. She does not want to make you unhappy.”

Muriel was about to bluster and say how ridiculous that was, but bit her words off and, inexplicably, found tears pricking her eyes. She gazed down at her saddle. This was something new to her. She could rage most effectively at bad service and poor excuses the world over, but she was at a loss to deal with this.

Mohammad looked up at her and said something to Amezwar, who spoke to the camel quietly and it very gently sank down into the sand. Mohammad held out his hand to Muriel.

“Come, Amezwar thinks that you have not been properly introduced to Tadefi. That is my fault, and we shall rectify it now. Tell her how you feel and she will respond accordingly.”

He led Muriel round to face the quiet beast. Muriel had not noticed before how beautiful a camel’s eyelashes were – long and thick and straight, and such liquid-chocolate brown eyes. Amezwar took her hand and placed it on the camel’s soft nose, and she felt the breath and the warmth, and it didn’t seem to matter about the flies that buzzed around and settled on her skin.

She said, “Hello, Tadefi. Hello, Sweetness. I’m Mrs Harvey… I’m Muriel. I’m told it means ‘shining sea’. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit lost in this place. I’m a bit lost, altogether, really. But I am searching to find my way, to find where I belong, and who I am. Will you help me?”

She realized that tears were running down her face. It was, she knew, the first time she had cried since Harvey died.

Tadefi gave a small snort and tossed her head.

Amezwar said something to Mohammad, who touched Muriel on the shoulder.

“He says, Tadefi is ready to carry you now, she understands your intentions.”

Muriel was silent as she walked back to the saddle, and swung herself aboard. She moved with more ease as Tadefi rose from the ground.

After that, the gentle, rocking motion of the camels felt like a calm sea, as they traversed the darkening desert. And the full moon rose, sending their shadows in a new direction over the silvering sands.

And, at last, though too soon for Muriel, the few palm trees and tents of the oasis came into view, and they unsaddled their camels, and fed and watered them, and then there was, indeed, food, and songs, and stories late into the night.

As Muriel fell asleep by candlelight, in the rough camp bed in the simple brown woven tent, she heard the sounds of a camel settling down to sleep just outside, a comforting, creaking sound of tired bones sinking onto soft sand.

“Goodnight, Tadefi,” she whispered.

There was a snort in reply, but it was a good snort, and, Muriel thought, it could have been a lot worse.

This story was read at the inaugural Towcester Literary Festival, on
10 June 2012, and was dedicated to my mentor, Errid Farland. 

8 Responses to “A Lame Excuse”

  1. Annie Januszewski Says:

    Fabulous Fay!! xx

  2. Christine Brom Says:

    Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. xxx

  3. mskatykins Says:

    Fay, this is really beautiful writing and it’s actually made me cry (as I type this!). Bravo!

    What a wonderful dedication as well. Errid would be very proud.

  4. fayfran Says:

    Thank you, guys.

  5. Jenni Bradbury Says:

    This really made me laugh AND cry..a perfect combination in anything I read!!! Great stuff, Fran xxx

  6. Virginia Howes Says:

    I loved this! A titter in most of the early paragraphs, until……you achieve a complete change in depth and mood. You have succeeded in transmitting something of what it means to be a widow.

  7. G. K. Adams Says:

    Beautiful writing, Fay. You gave Muriel depths even she didn’t know she had.

  8. John Smith Says:

    humorous intro, interesting, and perhaps a few parallels I recognise

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