Gone. Definitely gone. I ferret in my cupboard, find my bag, my money, my passport. Still there, just the phone. One careless moment. The door had been locked. Had it? I should have been more careful, should have had it with me. How? I was in the shower, only a moment. They didn’t get my passport. It was only a phone. Still. Violated. In my room. Not mine, not really, just for now, stupid hostel, should have had better locks. I shouldn’t have left my phone on the bed.
Downstairs, my words falter, my French never feels enough, my Arabic is almost non-existent, but he understands, nods, like it had happened many times before. He shoves a piece of paper across the counter to me.
“Allez au poste de police.”
He turned back to the computer, job done.
I gather myself, my bag across my front, passport, money all tucked away. This time. I check for my phone, even though I know it’s gone, then set off. I pull my coat closer as I get on the train, fix my gaze on the white walls, blue metal work, white and brick houses, which soon give way to the long rail road across the salt lake. The chimneys are still spewing out smoke, a constant in every journey I make to the city. As we pull into Tunis Marin I glimpse the usual flock of greying winter flamingos.
I should never have chosen that hostel, cheaper in some sprawling suburb. I’m too white, too tall, too ginger, too obviously a target even amongst all the other transients who stay there. It’s got better the longer I’ve stayed, better, not never good. I’m never relaxed on the way to work, and when I find somewhere else to stay … I’ll try harder, ask the other teachers at the language school. Someone must know of a place where a single woman could …but maybe that’s it, maybe I’ll never feel safe here.
As I stride through the crowds on their way to work I glance down at the paper, damp from my hand.
“Want carpet? Come and see Berber carpet exhibition, last day today.”
I don’t make eye contact, “Non,” shake my head, move on, navigate the maze. I know where to go now, which route through the medina for bread, for juice, how to avoid the stench and slaughter of the meat market. I thought I could find a way to avoid the touts too, but now I know that will never happen as long as I am who I am.
The police station is dusty, crowded. Security checks, carried out by an imposing man, almost my height, make me feel like the thief. The constant presence of machine guns exposes something in me. The policewoman who deals with me is beautiful, serene in the chaos. I can explain the theft, drag the right words to the surface, jumble them together. She shakes her head, her English better than my French as she says, “You won’t get it back.”
We fill in the forms, I leave, carry on my way to school. There’s a phone there, I can make a call, see if my insurance will cover it. Something in me bucks against this futile act, wishes for enough money that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t need to negotiate with insurers, stay in the crappy hostel, work in a country where freedom is growing, yet I have less freedom than I’ve ever known.
I pause at the gate of the school, wave of voices from the open windows draw me in. I’m late, my class is waiting. Habib meets my eye, nods, opens the gate. I stand there, and for a moment I’ve walked on, packed my bags, … but I know the wrangles involved in leaving the country. I exhale, turn, and walk through the gate.
It’s only three days later when I hear. Arnaud is always the first with the gossip, his words spilling in French and English, we’re used to that strange polyglot in the staffroom here.
“Suicide Bomber” comes out clearly amongst the muddle. Three policemen, dead. “She went in to report a stolen wallet, but she had a bomb under her coat.”
And I wonder how she got in, why she did it, what balanced the sacrifice? I remember the faces of the policemen, the impassive man who did the security check, the beautiful woman, her face sombre and resigned as she dealt with my report, the shorter man, a little stout, who held the door for me on the way out. And that evening, I stay on at the school and use the internet to look at the price of a ticket home.