Book Excerpt: ‘American School’

Moroccan pastry

“American School,” a novel by Adult Third Culture Kid Jill-Morgan Aubert, follows the intersecting lives of students, teachers and parents in the close-knit world of an international school in Morocco in the 1990s, examining the complexities that arise when individuals live in the uneasy space between cultures and the impact this has on family and community. Rose, a long-time British teacher at the school, is married to a Moroccan man. In the novel, she contends with the difficulty of never finding a home for herself in her life and marriage. With her mother showing signs of Alzheimer’s, she returns to England to care for her, hoping she can put regret behind her and atone for a lifetime spent away from her family and country. This scene takes place before Rose returns to England.

Winter was Rose’s favorite season. The cold and damp reminded her of home. She went to bed with a hot water bottle and most nights the cat slinked into bed with them and curled up around her feet under the blanket. She learned to turn over slowly in bed so not to end up with a startled cat’s claws planted in her heel. She loved waking up in the morning and throwing over her shoulders the bright blue shawl that her mother had knitted, over 30 years ago, for her 21st birthday.

Warming tea in a winter cottage
Photo via Envato Elements

When Rose moved to Morocco, she did not go home for Christmas that first year. She considered this to be her first real grown-up decision, more so than leaving home to move thousands of miles away to be with a man. When she still lived in England, the days leading up to Christmas left her walking in a sort of dream state where wonderment became her primary sense and she felt closer to who she had been as a child.

Her first year living abroad, on the morning of December 25th, she woke up in bed next to Ali and smiled as he kissed her awake. When he turned from her to get up, she felt a grim coldness descend on her that turned into ache as the day progressed, like it was just any other day. She thought of her family in England painting sugar cookies and cooking Christmas dinner as aunts and uncles and cousins gathered at her parents’ home, while she sat in her new apartment with a man she loved who on any other day made her feel a vibrating warmth inside her.

But not on Christmas, and it scared her.

It was the first time she questioned her decision to leave everything behind and join him in this new country. She felt foolish and girlish for having such a strong need for Christmas but there it was, and she couldn’t seem to find her way out of it.

Moroccan door
Moroccan door (Photo via Envato Elements)

After the children were born, she made a few trips home at Christmas, but it soon became too expensive and harder to do. Instead, she recreated Christmas inside their own home, putting out lights and decorations, hauling up from the basement the Marks & Spencer artificial tree she had her mother ship to her years before, at huge cost and effort.

Rose stood halfway up the staircase, winding a strand of Christmas lights around the banister and making her way down the steps. Ali came out of their room and stopped at the top.

“I’ll be done in a minute or you can squeeze by, if you need.” Rose said.

He started to come down the stairs and Rose turned her body toward the railing so he could pass. He moved past, not touching her.

Rose stepped back out onto the step and continued winding the lights.

Ali went to the hall table and picked up his wallet and keys.

“I have to go to the shop for a couple hours this morning. I’ll try to make it back this afternoon.”

Rose nodded and Ali came back to the steps to reach up and give her a small kiss on the cheek. She smiled at him and patted his shoulder as he turned to leave.

She returned to her lights. She did not expect Ali to be home in the afternoon. It was rare for him to get home in time for dinner. Almost all of his weekends were spent working at the shop and for most of their childhood, the children and she were on their own, seven days a week. She was used to it. It was their life.

Rose pulled out a dead lightbulb from the strand and replaced it with a fresh one from the box. There was another life not lived. A life where Ali did not have to take over the family business at the age of 22 when his father suddenly collapsed on the shop room floor. The life she thought she would have when she set out from England to be with him.

Moroccan mille feuille pastries
Moroccan mille feuille pastries (Photo via Envato Elements)

During that first summer in Morocco, the country was exciting to her. The city was bursting to life with young people newly released from the older generation’s customs. Ali was one of many bright young things she met that summer, but he stood out from the group of childhood friends he ran with as the brashest, the funniest, the star. They all loved him and soon Rose found she did too. Every night that summer became a piece of their story she held on to. One night, he grabbed her hand at a party and pulled her out, breathlessly telling her that he absolutely had to show her something. They careened through the dark streets of the shuttered market until they came to a queue of people lined up outside an old wooden door.

“What is this?” she asked, looking around for a sign or marker.

“You’ll see,” he winked at her and lit a cigarette.

In the queue were a few young people like them as well as some rumpled and tired looking policemen, a junkie whose eyes continuously darted left and right as he felt the effects of drugs leaving his system, and a number of hard-looking women dressed in tight skirts that Rose could only surmise were prostitutes.

After a few moments the door opened slightly and the group moved forward to enter but a man shouted, “Only two at a time! Only two!”

People stepped back as the first two in the queue went in and Ali picked up Rose’s hand as they waited.

When it was finally their turn, the door opened and they entered a long tiled hallway. Rose followed Ali as he led the way. Far down at the end of the hallway she saw men in a brightly lit kitchen, dressed all in white, moving large mounds of dough from tables into ovens. Where their feet shuffled over the flour covered tiles, they left sweep marks with the cuffs of their pants.

Ali and Rose turned into a small room and an old man stood hunched over a table of fresh baked sweets.

“Which one do you want?” Ali turned and asked her.

Moroccan pastry
Moroccan pastry (Photo via Envato Elements)

Rose looked at the table laden with fresh baked breads and treats then blinked and looked up at him. The whole thing was so absurd, so delightful — a secret, after-hours bakery — that she felt overwhelmed and couldn’t make a decision as simple as choosing a pastry.

Ali laughed and turned back to the baker. In Arabic he pointed to a number of different pastries and after some back and forth in loud tones with the old man, he managed to convince him to let them buy enough to bring back to their friends at the party.

Rose and Ali exited the secret door and were back on the street with their arms full of warm cakes and breads wrapped in stiff lavender colored paper. They headed back to the party and Rose followed as Ali threaded his way through the dark streets. The smell of the food was too much and they stopped so Rose could take all the parcels while Ali opened one of them. He held it to her so she could take the first bite. The sweet custard inside melted in her mouth.

“How did you find that place?” Rose asked as she passed some of the parcels back to Ali.

He shrugged, “I just saw a queue one night and decided to get in it.”

“You saw a group of junkies, prostitutes, and coppers and your first thought was to queue up behind them?”

“Why not? I thought there must be something good on the other side of that door, yes?”

He winked at her again and she laughed. Then he held up his finger with the one last bite of the pastry. He stepped forward to give it to her, but she moved past it and kissed him instead, crushing the warm pastries between them. He grinned and kissed her back, wrapping his arm around her, careful not to get any custard in her hair.

Wooden stair banister decorated with festive Christmas lights
Wooden stair banister decorated with festive Christmas lights

Rose stood back to look at her work. The banister was done and the lights pulsed softly on and off. She went to the table by the front door where she had placed some artificial holly and berry, it was the first thing you saw when you walked into the house. She rearranged the holly so it sat on the table better.

Rose knew that running through the streets with an arm full of baked goods and the taste of sugar from Ali’s mouth on her lips was only a scene that could be lived as a youth. That was not the life lived of an adult. But something inside her felt like a glimmer of it could still be lived, should still be lived. If not, what was it all for? Twenty years of laundry and cooked meals and bath times, patching blue jeans and hair braids and shouting down the telephone to her parents over long distance calls. It had all rushed by.

Ali was so young when had to take on a responsibility he wasn’t ready for. He changed and the man she fell in love with on a dark market street with warm baked goods in her arms receded inside himself. At first, she thought the Ali that she knew would return and so she waited, patiently, as he struggled with his grief and the responsibility of managing a business that kept 20 men employed and their families cared for as well as put food on their tables.

But days turned to years and Rose fell pregnant and then the children came and there never seemed to be a moment for Ali to stop and emerge from the fog that took over him. Rose put her head down to get through the time raising the children and Ali put his head down to get through running the business and decades passed and Rose realized they had never taken the time to finally stop and look up at each other. They lived in the same house and moved around each other with their routines but too much time had gone by since they had first fallen in love and the time for their relationship to reach a place of ease had passed.

The entryway of the house looked beautiful. After years of accumulating Christmas decorations, on trips back to England or by reappropriating items she found locally and forcing them to be stand-ins for Christmas decorations, she finally found a way to bring a true holiday feel to their home. Rose pressed her hands together as she looked around, waiting for a glimmer of childlike wonder and magic to take hold. Even if she was back in England with all the trappings of Christmas at her fingertips, she would not have been able to reach the level of splendor she had created in this room. She waited and watched the lights softly blinking on and off. But all she felt was a coolness inside.

Jill-Morgan Aubert grew up in North Africa, Europe and North America. This high-mobility childhood led to a personal preoccupation with observing and exploring culture and community, including the ways in which we are shaped by family relationships. Never quite successfully putting down roots anywhere, she currently lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and two children. She recently had a creative nonfiction story, “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” published by the small press Maudlin House. The story can be found at maudlinhouse.net.


Culturs Global Multicultural Media

Celebrating Cross-Cultural TCK Identity
© Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
Verified by MonsterInsights