This post is the fourteenth in a series which starts HERE.
Sousse in the dark is a nightmare. Although I lived there from 1997-99, my memories are hazy and now there is a new one-way system in place, as well as much development. The traffic chaos is the same; crazy lane changing, laden mopeds weaving through the vehicles, taxis tooting at traffic lights. I’m swept along towards the centre, scared to come off the main road in case I get lost but concerned where I’ll end up. The newly-built five-star hotel I’ve booked is by the sea so I am hoping that if I keep driving towards the beach, I’ll just happen upon it…
I drive through busy streets feeling increasingly jittery. The whole day has been a whirlwind of anxiety; picking up the hire car at Tunis airport to find it had no rear seatbelts, trying to find my way from the airport onto the motorway to drive south, the stress of arriving at the village after all these years, and then leaving my daughter there with the strangers who were her family.
‘Keep heading for the coast,’ says my mum beside me. Except we’ve driven in circles and I’ve lost my sense of direction.
We are stopped at one of the many police road blocks. Armed officers check our papers and I ask them directions – but I can’t understand their reply and they’re impatient for me to move along, as are the vehicles honking their horns behind me.
I continue, my hands sweating, then decide to pull over and try my iPhone again. ‘I’ll switch on data roaming to see if I can get maps to work.’ It’ll cost a fortune and probably won’t work – my phone has been useless so far – but I’m getting desperate. I ignore the drivers that honk and shake fists in protest at me being stopped at the side of the road and eventually manage to access maps. It seems our hotel is behind us, and we’re on a one-way street. Who knows how far it continues, or how I would get back to this area. I turn onto a side street; we’ll walk from here and hope we remember where the car is in the morning.
A group of young men watch me and my mum drag our bags out of the boot and lock the car.
‘Hey, lady. You want some help?’
It would be easy to be intimidated by this bored-looking group of Arabic men, all staring at us. But I know there’s nothing to be worried about; I was married to a young man just like them and I worked with Tunisian lads for two years. I know how friendly they are.
‘Can you tell me where this is?’ I ask, showing them the name of the hotel. ‘We’re lost.’
They gather round. ‘It’s not far!’ says one of them. ‘We will take you, and we will carry your bags.’
‘It’s fine, we can manage them,’ I reply, but our bags are taken out of our hands and we set off en masse. I knew this would happen (they take being friendly to an irritating extreme).
‘Will the car be alright there?’ I ask the man who has taken my bag.
‘It’s safe for sure. There are police everywhere these days.’
This is true; the police presence had been powerful back in the nineties, but now it was even more noticeable (it is only eight months until the Tunisian beach massacre takes place near Port El Kantaoui, 10km from Sousse, exactly where my base was, exactly where Samir died).
We arrive at a beautiful hotel and I give the young men a few dinars for their help. It is unseasonably hot for October (34C) so we are sweaty and exhausted. What joy to get into the luxurious bedroom with state-of-the-art air conditioning that turns the room into a fridge in minutes.
We shower, eat a light dinner, then take a walk to find the apartment block I used to live in. It was shabby back then; now it looks even grimmer. Some of the local shops are still there too; the grocer who over charged me for vegetables almost every day for two years, the butcher who kept live chickens in cages in his shop and the miniscule store that had a man behind a counter who would fetch whatever you asked for from his stock room. I used to write what I wanted on a piece of paper: two toilet rolls, a tin of tomato puree, a litre of UHT milk, a bottle of shampoo and a tube of toothpaste, and he would fetch it. A bit like a tiny olde-worlde Argos.
By 11pm Mum and I are back at the hotel, tucked up in bed. ‘It’s been a tiring day,’ says Mum, ‘but we’ve survived it.’
My phone pings with a facebook message – the hotel’s wifi is working. It’s a photo from my ex-brother in law. I show my mum the phone.
We peer at the photo that’s arrived; my daughter looks happy.
Then I examine the background; it doesn’t look like the village. I message him back in French. Where are you?
A few minutes delay, then another ping. We’re visiting Hammamet.
WHAT! Hammamet was 60km from the village.
You’re in Hammamet now?
I can’t believe it! My heart is hammering. Bloody Tunisian men! How dare he take my daughter 60km away from where I thought she was staying – and so late at night. The frustration, fury and lack of control I felt all those years ago come rushing back to me.
Take her back to the village right now. I never agreed for her to go to Hammamet.
Are you going back to the village? Who is with you? Have you been drinking?
I try ringing his phone, and my daughter’s, but I can’t get through. I pace the room trying to decide what to do. Should I find the hire car and drive to Hammamet myself? But then what?
I feel close to tears with despair and worry. I imagine her on her own with a group of young foreign men, and I feel sick. I should never have left her.
Mum and I lie in bed, wide awake despite our exhaustion. An hour or so later I get another message, in English this time: Hi Mum, we’re on our way back to the village now. I had a great time in Hammamet. Aisha came too and I got a henna tattoo! See you tomorrow, love you xxx
I message her back. Glad you had a nice time. See you tomorrow xxx. What else could I say?
I am awake for a long time, trying not to feel anxious, but worrying anyway, and yet not even sure what it is, exactly, that I’m fretting about. Maybe it was just the shock of thinking my daughter had been taken somewhere when she perhaps hadn’t wanted to go, when I’d been feeling stressed and confused all day about leaving her in the first place. What if some young Tunisian man took a fancy to her? I knew what charming bastards they could be…
My apartment block, the greengrocer, who was closing up for the night, and the henna tattoo my daughter got in Hammamet when I thought she was in the village.
Next: Losing it.
If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.
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