Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Pack of Smokin' Camels

He took a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket. I assumed they were exactly that, a brand of cigarette that I hadn't seen for a very long time.
I took a sip of my soya latte, and continued to aimlessly chat, anticipating his offer of a cigarette and my refusal, but it never came. He appeared to be having some kind of trouble with the pack. He shook and prodded it, held it to his ear, looked into it with a bulging eye and even whispered sweet nothings into its cardboard depths, until finally he lost patience and gave it a firm bang on the table.
This did its job and dislodged a tangled heap of tiny camels into the overflowing ashtray. Each grunted as they struggled to rise to their feet in the glass pit filled with its discarded cigarette tips and smouldering ashes, and when all were able they began their ascent up and over the craggy glass lip until they stood nose to tail in front of their demanding master. All five took a military-style stance: head held high, back poker straight and feet stamped firmly as their master rolled through what I presumed were their names: Pistachio, Date, Chickpea, Apricot and Sesame. I half expected each one to lift a hoof and salute me.
Despite being unbelievably tiny, they were perfectly formed, remaining me of the toy I fought to find before my cousins in the cereal packet. The three males had bigger feet and the females long, curly eyelashes. In short, they were as desirable as Fabergé eggs, and somehow knew it.
The blue-faced Arab sitting across from me was sweating, “If I win, you become my seventh wife,” he said in a perfectly calm tone which was very much at odds with his appearance.
I shook my head, “You'll lose,” I said, “and when you do, you must once and for all stop pestering me.” He seemed relieved that I'd agreed so easily to his wager.
In truth, I didn't really know him, but he had been trying to persuade me to marry him since we'd met twenty years ago in Tunisia. I was a teenager and he was the resort's bingo caller. He wasn't a very attractive man and was a bit of a wanderer, which was why his wives never seemed to last very long, but he had some charm and his blue face, an unfortunate accident with permanent dye, had become a sort of homing beacon. He often showed up just when I needed him; waltzed into my life no matter where I was and sat across from me as he did now.
At first it had been the normal wooing, beginning with the promise of one hundred average-sized camels; then bribery, my parents guaranteed a comfortable home for the rest of their lives; then came trickery, nearly fooling me into standing in for the delayed bride at what he told me was a rehearsal wedding, but this was a whole new, desperate level. His proposals had never travelled this road before, and I confess it was exciting. I could be gambling my life, as I knew it, far away.
He rummaged in the briefcase he'd brought with him and placed the bottom half of a black edged rectangular box on the table, poured in a bag of fine sand and smoothed it over with a minuscule rake, using this to also create five lanes in the knuckle-deep sand. He drew the start and finishing line with a stumpy, index finger.
The tiny camels quivered with adrenalin as he fastened the even tinier cloth-doll jockeys to their humps, the detail in every single one was incredible with their shiny black boots, pristine white breeches, and silk quilted jackets and hard hats in racing colours. Each camel when equipped with their jockey took up their position behind the starting line in the sand pit.
I'm feeling generous,” he said throwing tumble stones between his moist palms, “if three of the five cross the finishing line in the order you pick, then I won't bother you again.”
I was about to declare my winning order of camels when a harassed woman appeared and slapped the Arab's blue face hard, then popped Apricot in her mouth and chewed slowly with a broad evil grin.
And that is how I came to be his seventh wife.

Picture credit: The Great Camel Race by Rick Nilson. To view more of Rick's work, visit