This story is by John Notley and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Not a single puff of white cloud marred the blue Mediterranean sky as Mrs Susan Carpenter, shielding her eyes from the harsh glare of the sun, stepped on deck from the air-conditioned coolness of her cabin. Even at that early hour of the morning she could feel the heat etching into her bare arms and shoulders. She stood still for a few moments looking towards the ragged peaks of the Rif Mountains silhouetted behind the port where the cruise ship had docked at dawn. Through the thin soles of her sandals her feet sensed the fierce heat rising from the scrubbed white boards beneath them.
She moved towards the ship’s rail and balanced her large brown handbag on it while she searched inside for her sunglasses. Her fingers brushed against the top of of a photograph in a slim silver frame which protruded from one of the pockets. She carefully drew it out and tears welled in her eyes as she looked once again at the familiar features of her late husband. She pressed her lips to the photograph, returned it to the bag, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and slipped the large round sunglasses on the bridge of her tiny nose.
Henry should have been with her on this cruise. They had planned it many months before his untimely death from a coronary had robbed her of his company. They had gone everywhere together, never been apart for more than a day or two throughout their married life. Henry had taken care of all the details whenever they traveled abroad; tickets, passports, traveler’s cheques, everything but the packing which was Susan’s department.
This cruise was to have celebrated a very special occasion – their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. She would have cancelled it but for her doctor’s insistence that she should go ahead with her plans. “Why cancel it?” he had asked her. “What good is it going to do to dwell upon your loss. You can’t bring him back. Find a friend to go with you. The holiday will do you good”.
At the time Susan had been upset by what she considered had been a callous and unfeeling remark, but now she realised that he had been right. Although the dull ache was still there, especially when she looked at the photograph, the change had done wonders for her mentally and meeting so many new people had helped her to come to terms with her grief.
She had found a companion in Barbara Sands from the bridge club back home in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a teacher of similar age and recently widowed like herself. Together they had shared the excitement, like young schoolgirls, of discovering such ports as Lisbon, Barcelona and Naples. Unfortunately the cruise was now nearing its end. “Ulysses” had tied up at dawn in the port of Ceuta, Spanish Morocco, the last call on the itinerary before returning to Southampton.
Barbara joined her at the rail: “Hi. Susan! Sorry I kept you waiting so long but I just couldn’t find my passport”. Together they followed the other passengers now making their way ashore to board the excursion buses which were waiting to ferry them to Tetuan. As Susan stepped off the gangway a small dusky figure pushed past her. Suddenly he snatched the handbag which hung from its shoulder strap and weaved off through the throng of tourists leaving the ship.
Susan was rooted to the spot. “Stop him” she screamed. “My handbag, he’s stolen my handbag”. It was no good. The boy had disappeared in the crowd and was nowhere to be seen.
“What shall I do?” she turned tearfully to Barbara “I haven’t any money – it was all in the bag. And my passport, everything was in there”. “Don’t worry” Barbara assured her “We’ll report it to the tourist police, they’ll advise us what to do, I am sure”.
The found the police office just inside the dock gates. The officer in charge was most helpful. He was a short, stout man, smartly dressed in a khaki uniform with gold epaulettes on the shoulders.
A forbidding looking pistol hung from the shiny leather belt which struggled to encompass his generous waist. He gestured expansively with large hands as he offered them seats in his cramped office on the quayside. He sat down on the opposite side of the desk, removed his peaked cap and mopped his brow with a non-too-white handkerchief. When he finally spoke to them he he did so in English, uttering his words slowly and carefully with a very strong Spanish accent.
“Madame, I beg of you, please do not alarm yourself” he said after Susan had described the incident. “I regret that this has happened many times before. However, all will be put right. Go to the city with your fellow passengers and enjoy yourself for some hours. There is much to see. I guarantee that by the time you return to the ship I will have caught the rascal responsible for this outrage and recovered your handbag. The honor of my country is at stake. The honor of my uniform also” he added.
Susan looked at him in astonishment: “I wish I could believe that, I really do. I don’t see how you can ever find him, he must be miles away by now”. The officer arose, replaced his cap and gave a little bow. “Please leave it to me. I have my methods. Good day ladies”.
They boarded the last bus which was taking on the few remaining passengers and left the docks. Their sightseeing tour took them first to the modern city center around Mohammed V Square, the Royal Palace and the Archaeological Museum. During lunch they were entertained by a group of traditional folk dancers which included jugglers, firewalkers and the ubiquitous snake charmer. The afternoon was spent in exploring the narrow winding streets of the Medina. Here they bartered with street vendors over grossly overpriced handmade objects of beaten brass which would look absurdly out of place when unpacked and displayed at home.
“Oh, how Henry would have loved it here” repeated Susan many times during the afternoon. I am sure he would have bought one of those gorgeous carpets, he was a great one for ethnic crafts”. The two women found the colors and smells of the market fascinating as they threaded their way through crowded alleyways rubbing shoulders with sun-bronzed men from the desert leading shabby donkeys laden with goods. It seemed as if they had been transported back to Biblical times.
The sun was a ball of fire in the Western sky when the bus came to a shuddering halt alongside the ship again. The police chief was standing on the quay waiting for them. As Susan stepped down from the bus he came forward to meet her, his fat face wreathed in a broad smile. In his chubby fingers he was swinging a brown handbag suspended by its long strap.
“I believe this is your property, Mrs Carpenter” he beamed as he handed the bag back to her. “And I think you will find the contents all correct. I have now redeemed the pledge I gave you this morning”.
“Why, I just cannot believe it” Susan was almost speechless. “This is wonderful. Here….” she rummaged through the bag and pulled out two ten dollar bills. “You must take this”.
“No, Madame” he held up his hand in protest “that is quite unnecessary”he said as he took the notes, crumpled them with his other hand and thrust them into his jacket pocket. “I am only too happy to have been of service to you and I hope that you will take away pleasant memories of my country. Now you must hurry, the ship is ready to depart”.
Susan thanked him again and joined the passengers who now lined the rails as the great white liner slowly edged out of the harbor aided by two small smoky tugs. She quickly checked through the contents of the bag – passport, traveller’s cheques credit cards and yes, thank God, the photograph in the silver frame. She looked at the picture with a sad smile “I guess you were with me the whole of this trip. I couldn’t bear it if I had lost you again”.
She closed the bag and waved cheerfully to the stocky uniformed figure who still stood on the fast receding quayside as she ships’s siren thundered its farewell blast. The police chief returned her wave with a casual salute. Behind him a small, thin, brown-faced boy wearing a ragged galabiya tugged at his jacket. He turned around and taking a silver coin from his pocket tossed it to the boy who seized it greedily.
“Don’t let me catch you doing that again, Ahmed” he shouted as he aimed a cuff at the boy’s head, and his left eye closed in a huge wink.