Tired Of Waiting

It’s hard being left behind. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife


I seem to have spent half my life waiting. Not the kind of waiting that brings a sense of calm, of nature taking its course, of things expected — the kind that is soothing to the mind and balm for the soul. No, for me, it was the kind of waiting during which a rising tide of panic would make me feel as though my insides were being twisted in a vice.

My first introduction to what was to become a drearily familiar pattern was at university, when T moved to Liverpool for his Master’s degree at the beginning of my final year. He’d drive over to Sheffield every Friday afternoon and back again to Liverpool on Sunday evenings. As he usually arrived at more or less the same time on Fridays, I never had any cause for concern at first. Perhaps just a glance at my watch, a slight frown creasing my forehead and a fleeting thought, “He ought to be here by now,” skittering across the surface of my mind.

One Friday, however, things changed. I’d been waiting patiently all afternoon for the sound of his key turning in the lock and when it didn’t happen, I started to worry. There had been nothing in his most recent letter about arriving later.  He was usually on time because he had a weekly appointment at four on the dot every Friday afternoon at the University Dental Clinic, where he was used as a guinea pig by enthusiastic, if inexperienced, dental students. The upside was that the treatment was free — the downside that he was never quite sure what colour his crowns were going to be.

Four o’clock came and went. The hours crawled by, seeing me start to pace the room and chew my nails. This lateness seemed strangely out of character, especially since our friends were planning on celebrating the thirteenth anniversary of the beginning of the Algerian independence war that same evening.  The party was to be held in the Students’ Union and we’d been looking forward to it for ages.

By seven in the evening he had still not arrived, so I pulled on my duffel coat and headed reluctantly out into the rainy night to walk the few hundred metres to the Union. The world was a dark grey blur, with the raindrops beading the paintwork of the cars parked outside the Union building and bouncing off every hard surface. Pulling the hood of my coat over my hair and keeping my head down against the icy needles of rain, all I could see were slick, black pavements and streams of grey-brown rainwater sluicing down the storm drains.

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Sitting alone in the Upper Coffee Lounge, staring out at the rain hammering on the plate-glass windows in time with the drumming of my fingers on the arm of my chair, I was the only one not in a party mood. Our friends tried to reassure me that T would turn up at any moment. One of them, seeing that I was still not fully convinced, finally said that if he hadn’t arrived by ten, we’d set off to Liverpool to find out what had happened to him.

That did the trick, and so it was with a certain equanimity that I spied T strolling in through the door at half past eight, seemingly without a care in the world. He couldn’t understand the reason for all the fuss. He’d spent the afternoon visiting flats to rent in Liverpool, as the one in which he was living was barely adequate. No, he hadn’t missed his dental appointment — he’d cancelled it.  He’d merely omitted to tell me. A lesson for the future.

Once married and in Algeria, things went downhill.  There were times, when he was overseas for work, when I could go for days, even weeks, without any news.  Sometimes it wasn’t his fault, as our phone was often cut off.  But at other times the phone would be working perfectly. I don’t want you to think of me as some kind of control freak, as all I wanted was a brief phone call from time to time  to let me know he was safe, not a detailed account of his movements.

I’d work myself into a state, my imagination running riot, checking the phone constantly to see whether there was still a dialling tone. Every morning, on waking up, there would be the same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Every meal tasted like cardboard, which no amount of chewing would let me swallow.  I’d convince myself that if he didn’t call soon I was going to be sick. The ticking of the clock marked the seconds, each passing moment only adding to the time during which there had been no call.

Every time the phone rang, my heart would bound in my chest, and I’d rush to answer it, only to grit my teeth and force back the tears when I heard the wrong voice at the other end. Sometimes I would be barely civil to the person calling. I often felt like shouting at them to get off the line.

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The problem was that T. knew that he was safe, but I didn’t. It is always worse for the one who stays behind. By contrast, he never worried about me, as he always knew where I was. T was not heartless by any stretch of the imagination, but this lack of accountability — from Algerian men — was one of the aspects of life there I found increasingly difficult to accept. My husband was simply behaving the way he was expected to behave. To deviate from this norm would have been perceived as weakness — the behaviour of a henpecked husband.

When he had his car accident, it was as if my worst nightmare had come true. Clutching our newborn son, I’d waited in vain all that evening for T to come home. For once, there had been no happy ending, with him calmly sauntering into the house, looking at me with a sarcastic lift of the eyebrow, and making me feel an idiot for overreacting.  With his accident, the unthinkable HAD happened and could easily happen again.  But, in spite of everything, we had both survived. Barely.

There were countless occasions when I was forced to stay at home and wait. In Algeria, that’s what wives do. Company wives were all but invisible. We were never invited to any corporate “do,” except for the first year, when the then Sonatrach CEO had held a New Year’s Eve party, complete with party hats, streamers, turkey and foie gras, for his engineers and their wives at my favourite restaurant, La Passerelle. An occasion never to be repeated.

Celebrating le réveillon was starting to be regarded as heresy, a leftover from colonial times and nothing to do with Algeria’s secular or religious traditions. There was a general outcry and plans for similar celebrations the following year were swiftly cancelled. So we wives were condemned to sit at home waiting for our husbands to return from their strictly male gatherings.

I honestly don’t know whether T ever worried about me. His poker face never let slip any sign of anxiety or apprehension.  Except once. On that particular occasion, I had to drive Fatiha home and run other errands, as T was busy with other things. I backed my Fiat carefully out of our driveway, with him guiding me. As I set off around the corner, I glanced in my rear view mirror and could see him still standing there in the road, staring after me. When I returned an hour later, opening the double gates with a clang, he was sitting waiting for me on the veranda, as I had done so many times before.

“I just had this feeling when I saw you drive off,” he confessed to me a few hours later. “I was sure something was going to happen to you.” He looked at me sheepishly, his mouth twisted in a wry smile, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. A feeling of warm satisfaction flooded through me. For once, for one glorious moment, the tables had been turned.

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The Broken Pitcher

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.

– Anon


Acu? Amek ? Acu? Tamɣart-iw?” (What? How? What? My mother-in-law?)

My father-in-law was shouting down the telephone, holding the receiver in one trembling hand, and repeating every word the caller was saying as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Shot in the head, you say? Dead? Allah yarhamha.” (God have mercy on her soul.)

My mother-in-law had crept out of the kitchen on hearing the phone ring and her husband’s raised voice. She stood there in the doorway, nervously twisting a cloth in her hands. For her, the telephone was something to be feared — it always brought bad news. Even in later years, she would jump in fright whenever the phone rang. She would then go and stand next to the person answering the call, looking up at them with watery blue eyes full of unspoken fears.

Her husband had struggled up from the couch where he had been lying in order to answer the phone’s insistent ringing. Eyes sunken and skin sallow, overcome by one of his bouts of sudden and devastating fatigue, he stood there swaying on his feet, as pale as a ghost, a sickly cold sweat glistening on his skin, and his face masking the turmoil inside. He had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years before and seemed to grow  weaker every day.

Putting the receiver down with a sigh, he turned to meet the disbelieving gaze of his wife. Before he could say a word, her hands went up to her head, tearing off her headscarf and yanking down her coils of bright chestnut hair to hide her face, from which all colour had suddenly fled. A high keening note burst from her and she started clawing at her cheeks, leaving bloody red tracks scored by her nails into her white skin.

T, aged just fifteen at the time, had been standing, unnoticed, in the corner of the room. Pain washed over him, and his body trembled. His grandmother Zayna had gone. She had been a second mother to him — a solid, reassuring presence in his life. All he had left of her now was a fading image in his mind. He could still see her, sitting on a mat on the floor as usual, her strong, capable hands folded in her lap and the colourful fringe of her headscarf obscuring her face. But, no matter how hard he tried, he could not make out her features; they had been consumed by death’s empty darkness, just like her.

Suddenly his grief and shock turned to fury. Rounding on his father, and abandoning the respectful tone he usually adopted when addressing him, he snarled, “Why did you have to be so brutal? Why couldn’t you have broken it to her gently?” His father, who had staggered back to the couch and sat down again with a groan, looked silently at T for a long moment and then said, “And how was I supposed to do that? Go on, boy, tell me how.”

They were to learn the painful details in the days that followed. T’s grandmother had gone to the spring with the other women to fetch water, as she had done practically every day of her life. Some years before, T’s father had built a concrete holding basin for the mountain spring trickling down the rock face. This cool oasis, surrounded by lush greenery, provided a welcome respite for the women of the village from the grinding rhythm of their daily work out in the fields and at home — a safe place where they could sit and chat.

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On that particular summer’s day, the leaves above and around the spring displayed more shades of green than could be counted. Some new leaves were still pale enough for the sunlight to pass through, while others were a deeper, richer green. But soon the chilly winds of autumn would leave behind only memories of the season past, replacing the green by the transient beauty of red and gold.

Picking up her pitcher full of water, T’s grandmother swung it up on to her head, and started up the path to the village with the other women. Suddenly the peace of the afternoon, broken only by the chirring of cicadas and the laughter of the women, was shattered by the whine of bullets. A French sniper, from the outlook post in the neighbouring village, was targeting them with his heavy 12.7 machine-gun.

The sniper might have been a young recruit, sent out to Algeria to do his national service, and amusing himself by shooting at anything that moved. Or it could have been a hardened veteran, with cold eyes and an even colder heart, taking aim at the group  of women on purpose, firmly convinced that Algerians were mere animals — subhumans not worth the lead in the bullets that took their lives.

Zayna stumbled and fell to her knees, her pitcher full of water falling to the ground. She pitched forward and lay there, her headscarf stained with blood and her colourful dress making an incongruously bright patch of colour against the dusty path. One of the bullets had ricocheted and struck her in the head, killing her instantly — her skull and the pitcher both shattered beyond repair.

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Back in Algiers, T’s mother had pleaded in vain with her husband to take her home so that she could say her last goodbyes. One thought was uppermost in her mind; on their last trip to Kabylie two years before, she had taken leave of her mother without a second thought. There had been no inkling, no foreshadowing of what was to come. Now she would never be able to tell her again how much she loved her, never be able to hold her close again and gaze into her dark eyes shining with love.

They would not have reached the village in time for the burial, anyway. According to Muslim tradition, Zayna had been buried in the village cemetery in the presence of her two sons, one only seventeen years old, within twenty-four hours of her death. It would have taken longer than that to obtain the necessary travel permits for her daughter. The roads along which they would have to travel were also extremely dangerous, with control points manned by trigger-happy French troops every few kilometres. These measures all came under the umbrella term of “pacification” – a euphemism for repression and genocide.

In the space of a few years, T’s mother had lost both parents. But the crueller blow by far had been her mother’s death. To die like that, on the rocky path up to the village, with  the other women screaming and running for cover from the hail of bullets. She had been just fifty-two years of age and in rude health, as only those born and bred in the mountains can be. Now looking at her husband, a mere ten years younger than her mother, but so tired and frail, T’s mother felt a ball of icy dread form in her stomach. Surely she couldn’t lose him, too?

T was not allowed to be afraid — not allowed to show the fear that bloomed like a monstrous flower in his head and heart. He had to assume the roles of warrior and protector, combined with those of comedian and storyteller, in order to lift the spirits of his mother and younger brothers.  He had to reassure his mother each time his father failed to return from a trip to Algiers to pick up supplies.  He had to sit on the farmhouse steps in the early morning light, watching the sun creep over the horizon and his father’s van lurching up the road towards him. He had to help his father out of the vehicle, pale and exhausted, after another arbitrary arrest, another day of interrogation, another night spent in an army camp.

That autumn, my father-in-law decided to enrol T in school again after the year-long students’ strike. It pained him to see his eldest son working as a farmhand when he was capable of so much more.  His wife, however, did not agree. Aware of her husband’s poor health, she thought it was time T settled down and replaced his father at the bakery. It was his turn to be the family breadwinner.

The Judoka

Judo teaches us to look for the best possible course of action, whatever the individual circumstances.

-Kano Jigoro


 

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One cold, wet evening in late October, 1965, I was to be found sitting in the spectators’ gallery of the Sheffield University sports hall, situated a few hundred yards from the main campus. Having nothing else to do, I’d accompanied a classmate to his fencing practice. Little did I know that I had a meeting with fate that evening — that a casual glance down would change my life.

Talking about my life, it had been quite challenging over the previous few weeks — settling into my digs, finding my way around the Arts Tower and the Union, and trying to make new friends. It was proving harder than I had thought. A few days into the first term, I had watched the Rag Day floats, full of boisterous students, crawling down Western Bank at a snail’s pace, and felt very much like the new girl in town. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be groups of laughing friends, or, what was even worse, couples with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, gazing into each other’s eyes.

When my schoolfriend, Helen, had returned to her digs, I stood there amongst the broken spars of wood and scraps of painted canvas that were all that was left of the floats, and felt a sense of piercing loneliness. I had never felt lonely before — had never lived alone. At home in Blackpool, I had family and friends. Here there was nobody. Apart from Helen, I didn’t know a soul in Sheffield. There were faces and bodies all around me, but not a single one was familiar. All  I wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about my shoulders. When none came, the world suddenly felt cold and empty.

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But I was only eighteen, after all, and soon cheered up. I had my whole life in front of me. Sitting in the spectators’ gallery, my duffel coat wrapped around my shoulders for warmth, I squinted through the clouds of testosterone wafting up from the judo club members wrestling with each other below my line of sight, and tried to make out what was going on in the fencing class at the other end of the gym.

From time to time, however, I’d look down at the new judo recruits going through their paces on the tatamis spread out on the polished wood floor. Most of them were weedy first-year students, with long, thin legs and knobbly knees. Their exposed chests were hairless and painfully undeveloped, and their skin had the pale translucence of dead fish, occasionally marred with the flaring red of an acne outbreak. My eyes slid over them without interest, then stopped and widened in appreciation.

Their coach, or trainer, or whatever he was, was standing there with his hands on his hips, unsmiling, as he watched them performing shoulder rolls on the tatami. His eyes narrowed as he followed their movements. From time to time he would demonstrate the roll himself, throwing himself forward with practiced ease. His dark hair, wet with sweat, despite the chilly temperature in the gym, flopped over his forehead until, with an impatient gesture, he pushed it back. I gazed admiringly at his broad shoulders, and, although I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes, I was captured by the fringe of long lashes veiling them.

Oblivious to my stare burning a hole in his kimono, he didn’t glance up and continued with his training session. “Too bad,” I murmured to myself, reflecting sadly that I was always attracted to the dark, brooding — and ultimately unobtainable — type. He was most certainly out of my league, as he looked to be in his early twenties, older than the eighteen-year-olds he was coaching. Perhaps a junior lecturer or a postgraduate student? It was with some regret that I tore my eyes away and turned my attention back to the fencing.

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I didn’t recognise T when he approached me in the Union a few days later — he looked different with his clothes on — and it took me a while to put two and two together. The good news was that he seemed just as interested in me as I was in him, but the bad news was that I had to share him with his judo schedule. He’d train for two or three hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and take part in inter-university tournaments at weekends. It was fine if these tournaments were held in Sheffield, but he often had to travel to other venues with his fellow team members.

When we’d been together just over a month, and with the Christmas vacation due to start in a couple of days, he had to go to Swansea to try and obtain his next belt. Our relationship was brand new and I was apprehensive about the looming separation. I was still unsure of my feelings, but there was something about him that had me muddling my words and blushing uncontrollably whenever he was around. Looking at my miserable face, and with his friends waiting impatiently, he leaned against the wall in the Union building and pulled me to him for a long moment, before sauntering off with the rest of the team, sports bag slung over his shoulder.

But not everything about judo was romantic. Usually it meant a succession of bruised shins, broken ribs, sweaty jockstraps and kimonos -— I once dyed them pink by mistake at the launderette — and a strict ban on any kind of physical intimacy the night before a fight. Above all, there was the knot of fear in my stomach whenever I watched him step on to the tatami and bow to his opponent before a fight. I was somewhat reassured at the beginning when I saw him smiling during his fights — it couldn’t be so bad if he were smiling, surely? My confidence took a dive, however, when I learnt that he always smiled when things became really tricky.

He’d started judo soon after independence when he was at the University of Algiers. It wasn’t as well-known then, usually going under the name of ju-jitsu, and it was difficult finding anyone who actually practiced it. Ju-jitsu is the father of judo, but they are, in fact, two completely different types of martial art. T had been attracted to the whole package —  the opportunity to let off steam through sport and the ceremonial precision of it all.  He must be the only Algerian ever born never to have shown the slightest interest in football.

T became captain of the university team in his third year. Sometimes I would accompany him for the away tournaments, including one trip to Birmingham, where we had an Algerian friend, Bibi. He and I made our way up to the spectators’ gallery, and waited for T to appear. Members of each team were supposed to be evenly matched, but the problem was that the captain of the Birmingham team was a black belt. Not only that, he was over six feet tall, a huge bear of a man, with burly shoulders, a neck roped with muscle and hair sprouting everywhere, even on his back. I closed my eyes on seeing T and his opponent bow to each other and heard Bibi muttering, “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” to himself like an incantation.

I was praying fervently to the gods of judo when Bibi let out a loud whoop of triumph. “Il l’a fait tomber! Il l’a fait tomber!” (He threw him! He threw him!) he shouted, and flung his arms around me. I opened my eyes just in time to see the giant flat on his back with T straddling him, trying to put him in an armlock.

T didn’t win his fight, because the giant decided to park his considerable weight on his chest and he was forced to yield. But it was enough that he had been able to throw his opponent, a feat nobody had managed before. T told me later that, as he was waiting for his turn on the tatami, a member of the opposing team had been standing behind him, muttering, “Just you wait and see! He’s going to tear you limb from limb!” Luckily for me — and for T — it didn’t turn out that way.

 

If you want to read more about our university days, more information here

Sand Through A Sieve

Men are restless, adventurous. Women are conservative – despite what current ideology says.

-Doris Lessing


“A3yigh thi xedmah agi.” (I’m sick of this work).

Thus spoke my father-in-law, turning to his wife with a shrug, his brows forming one straight line above his piercing dark eyes. His face was stern, even a little melancholy, in repose. It was a long-boned face, tapering to a rounded chin, with a prominent Kabyle nose, under which grew a neat black moustache à la Hitler. Beneath a high forehead, his deep-set eyes were half hidden by drooping eyelids, and his gaze was steady and slightly ironic. Continue reading

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

“You can go and see the doctor on Friday, then….”

It was the summer of 1976 and I was on holiday in Britain with our two small children. Sitting in my parents’ living-room, I had clamped the phone against my ear to try to muffle the sound of canned laughter coming from the television in the corner of the room.  The children were sitting on the carpet in front of it, eating bowls of cornflakes, entranced by the novelty of daytime programming.  Shouting to make myself heard over the noise of the television and the static on the line, I asked T to go and pick up a prescription the following Friday at our doctor’s surgery in Bethioua. Continue reading