Under The African Sun
SANDRA stared at Brenda, the new college principal. “There are only twenty of them, and they’re all over eighteen,” she spluttered. “Diane and I have taken students abroad on countless educational visits – they are tourism students, after all. We’ll be fine.”
The principal looked at Sandra over her glasses, shaking her head.
“These tourism degree students are mostly girls. I’m unhappy about so many in the charge of two women in Morocco.”
“But it’s booked and we’re leaving on Tuesday. It was all approved months ago.” Sandra struggled to keep her voice calm.
“Even so, I’d be much happier if there was a male member of staff with you. I’ve asked Charles Carruthers to accompany you, and he’s agreed.”
“So,” Sandra fumed to Diane at lunchtime, “we’ve got that new guy from the management team coming with us. He’ll be no help at all. But he’s coming just because he’s a man.”
“Is he the one who bored us all to death about the college finances at the last staff training day? Charles someone?” “Carruthers, yes.” Diane smiled.
“He might be OK. He’s good-looking.”
“Oh, no. Tell me I haven’t got a whole week of you flirting to look forward to!” “I never flirt!”
“You do. All the time.”
The following day Sandra knocked on Charles’s office door, forcing herself to smile as she entered.
He looked up and waved her to sit down.
“I’m Sandra. I’ve brought you the itinerary for the Morocco trip,” she began. “I gather you’re coming with us.”
“Hmm.” He didn’t sound enthusiastic. “I’ll look over your itinerary this afternoon and let you know.”
“Let me know what?” Sandra asked, bemused. “You know. Approve it.” Sandra gaped at him. “And I’ve written a briefing sheet for the students,” he said. “Would you like me to do the briefing, or can you? I’m a bit pressed for time.”
He reached into a desk drawer and handed her a sheaf of papers.
Sandra scanned the sheet, her temper rising.
“The students must dress
modestly,” she read aloud. “And you’ve put on a curfew time! Do you think that Diane and I don’t tell them all of this?”
She continued reading to the end, where he had signed his name. Underneath, it said Group Leader.
“I was under the impression that I was the group leader, having organised the entire trip,” she said icily.
“It’s a matter of seniority,” he said smoothly.
“I’ll see you at the airport,” she snapped. “Tuesday, six a.m. sharp.”
“We’ll be starting our descent in a few moments,” the pilot announced. “I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that Morocco is experiencing a heatwave.”
“Excellent,” Diane murmured to Sandra, glancing at Charles across the aisle. “He’s already given me a lecture on dressing professionally.
“We should be wearing suits, apparently. Give me a break! Anyway, I look forward to seeing how he gets on in his suit if it’s really forty degrees.”
The next couple of days were taken up with trips to the foothills of the Atlas mountains to experience Berber culture, a desert safari, lectures from the local tourist office and a visit to a mosque.
Charles asked frequently whether the students were learning anything, until eventually one of them asked why he didn’t come to any of the evening briefings at the hotel.
“I don’t need to hear Sandra or Diane telling you what time you have to be ready the next day, and to dress appropriately,” he said dismissively.
The student laughed. “Come tonight. At seven o’clock.”
Charles was quiet during the briefing, and didn’t remonstrate when Diane informed him that she was taking the students to a night market not far away and that they wouldn’t be eating in the hotel.
“Will you be eating here?” he asked Sandra.
Sandra sighed. She could feel her precious free evening slipping away.
“Yes. Diane and I usually have one evening each away from the students, otherwise we’re worn out by the end of the week.”
“I’m worn out already,” Charles confessed. “Would it be an imposition to ask you to have dinner with me? Could we go out somewhere?”
“I can’t leave the hotel in case one of the students needs to come back, or there’s some sort of problem. If anything happened to Diane
On a trip to Morocco, the last thing Sandra wanted was a chaperone!
the students would need to know where I was. We’re on duty twenty-four seven, really.”
“Of course,” Charles said, embarrassed, leading her into the hotel restaurant.
“I felt a bit of a fool at the briefing,” he said once they’d ordered. “I assumed it was you doing it.”
“Different students give a presentation every night on what we’re going to see the next day. They spend weeks preparing them, but they need to add to them when we’re here. It can be something as simple as not knowing a street is one way.”
“They plan the route?” Charles asked in surprise.
“They plan everything. It’s what they want to do – tourism management. They do a huge amount of research.”
“I certainly learned a lot,” Charles said. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow afternoon’s trip now. I’d better do some work here in the morning, though. Will that be OK?”
It was the first time he had consulted Sandra on anything since they’d arrived, and she smiled.
“It’ll be fine. We’re off to the Medina. Diane gets the haggling bug as soon as she sees a market. You’re better off out of it.”
It was the first time she’d heard Charles laugh, Sandra realised. It was a nice sound.
“I’m going up to the room to take these shoes off. They’re killing me!” Diane said the following day as soon as they arrived back at the hotel. “I’ve told the students they’re free until we leave for the desert barbecue, so let’s hope we get a bit of peace. Look – there’s Charlie.”
She pointed to their colleague who was sitting with his laptop at a table in the hotel garden. At his elbow was a cold drink.
“Go and join him. He likes you,” Diane added in a whisper, giving Sandra a playful shove.
Charles looked up at the commotion. His face stiffened then relaxed slightly when he saw Diane heading for the stairs.
“You look exhausted,” he said to Sandra. “Would you like a drink?”
He signalled to a waiter, and Sandra soon had a glass of iced tea, covered in condensation and tinkling with ice.
“How was the Medina?” he asked, shutting his laptop. “Hot, I imagine.” Sandra rolled her eyes. “It would have been more fun without so many giggling girls. I mean, they’re great, just excited. We did attract a lot of attention.”
“At least they were cool,” Charles said with feeling. “It’s a good thing Morocco’s so relaxed and friendly.”
The waiter passed and Charles looked guilty.
“Should we have ordered a drink for Diane?”
Something in his tone made Sandra frown.
“Sorry, that probably sounded rude. I find her a bit . . .” “Overwhelming?”
His face split into a smile. “Something like that.” “She’s gone to deal with blisters. She walked all round the Medina in stilettos. I couldn’t have done it.” She gave a sigh. “Diane is younger than I am, and much more in tune with the students. She’s enthusiastic and . . .” “Loud?” Charles supplied. “She’s great, and the students love her, but she makes me feel very . . . sensible.”
Charles laughed. “Take this morning,” Sandra continued. “The students were attracting attention, but so was Diane. The last straw was when two men offered me a camel for her. Like I was her mother! No-one offered so much as a goat for me!”
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, was it?” Charles asked, still laughing. “Did you take it?” “Take what?”
“The camel,” he said seriously. “I know these no-frills airlines charge extra for every little thing. I just wondered what would happen if you turned up at the airport with a dromedary. It could sit between us, I suppose.”
“Laughing again?” Diane appeared, raising her eyebrows at Sandra.
“I thought you were having a rest.”
“I was, but Katherine – one of the girls,” she added for Charles’s benefit, “has lost her purse in the Medina. Unlikely we’ll find it, but I’d better try. I’ll be back before it’s time to leave for the barbecue.”
“Why can’t they keep track of their belongings?” Charles said, sounding like his old self. “Should we come with you?” Diane shook her head. “Someone has to stay with the students. Maybe Sandra would stay and you could come?”
Sandra smiled behind his back. She was pretty sure a visit to the Medina with Diane wasn’t what Charles had in mind.
“You could go with the student, Charles,” Sandra suggested. “It wouldn’t take long.”
“So what’s the story?” Diane said the moment Charles left. “He’s suddenly very friendly towards you.”
“There’s no story,” Sandra said, blushing. “It’s taken him a while to relax, that’s all.”
“I’ll be interested to hear how they get on,” Diane said, smiling. “I don’t think Charles speaks French.”
“He’ll be fine. But hot! I don’t think he’s brought anything cooler to wear.”
The talk turned to staffroom politics for the next half hour or so, but was interrupted by a screech of tyres outside.
Charles appeared in the foyer, white faced.
“I don’t understand how it happened,” Sandra said later when she and Charles were in the hospital, waiting for news of Katherine.
“I was guiding her across the road. She hesitated, so I grabbed her arm and a motorbike came out of nowhere and knocked her down. He must have been travelling too fast. I didn’t see him.” He was still white and shaking.
“The road outside the hotel is straight,” Sandra said. “You must have been able to see him.” She paused. “You were looking the right way, weren’t you? You hadn’t forgotten they drive on the right?”
She saw the recognition in his eyes of how it must have happened.
A doctor in a white coat came out and addressed Charles in Arabic. Charles looked at Sandra questioningly.
“How is she?” Sandra asked in halting Arabic and the doctor smiled and switched to a mixture of Arabic and French.
“Thank goodness,” she said when the doctor disappeared again. “Katherine’s fine. A broken arm, but that’s all. She’s very lucky.”
“You mean I am,” Charles said shakily. “What would have happened if –?”
Sandra put a hand on his arm.
“But it didn’t,” she said firmly. “Katherine will be out soon, apparently. I’ll ring Diane and tell her everything’s OK. They’ll be on their way to the barbecue.”
“I suppose she speaks Arabic as well?”
“We went on a course before we started taking students to North Africa. We do try to be prepared, you know,” she added mildly.
“I realise that now,” Charles said. “I’ll have a few things to report to Brenda when we get back.”
“What, that two women are not quite as useless as you both thought? That we could perhaps have managed by ourselves?” Sandra asked, laughing.
“Absolutely not,” Charles said seriously. “I shall tell her you need a man with you at all times. Even in the UK.”
“But only if it’s me, of course.”
Sandra looked at him closely. Could he be blushing?
“I wonder,” he asked tentatively. “Could we start again?” n