Ascent of Toubkal

by Catherine Olver


Today, we follow Mohammed. He has conjured
a crumpled cigarette-box from his pocket:
picking one from the row there is a click before it glows,
a little exhaust pipe. We pass the water, exhausted.
Despite the morning coating of sun-cream, milk-white,
I am as sun-burned as the rock I’m sitting on.
I sweat into my straw hat. The incline has been kind
so far, but ahead, in the haze of distance,
scree roughens the mountain-sides.
Madeleine is mounted on the mule –
a blonde child who has strayed into
the wrong picture-book. Her voice carries
like a mosquito, whining in the thin air.


A palatial tent has been unloaded from the mule.
Inside, we sit on the dust-red rugs playing cards
and drinking peppermint tea – a brown stream
poured from a great height into little glasses.
Holding it to my eye, the sprig of peppermint inside
the glass makes it look like a fish-tank.
We try to list the queen’s grandchildren,
Dickens’ novels, supermarkets, Bond films, the four
Shakespeare plays with apostrophes in their titles.
We have paused for the rest of the afternoon
so that we can learn to breathe again.


Two in the morning. With no mirror
on the mountain, I put my lenses in blind.
In turn, we perform our ablutions behind a rock
and barter in whispers, toothpaste for loo-roll –
even Madeleine is picking up Moroccan habits.
Forty miles away in Marrakech the clocks have changed
but Mohammed can’t remember which way.
He worries we will miss what we have come for.
The moon has risen. It’s time. In a queue
we feel our way from stone to stone in the shadows.
There is no way of knowing how far we have come.