Surprise, Surprise!

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I have always hated surprises. No, really. I like my life to be planned out, and for me to know exactly what I’m doing, for days, if not for weeks ahead. Call me obsessive, a control freak, what you will – to me, it is the only way I feel safe. I always had a slight tendency to be like that, anyway, but Algeria just magnified this failing, blowing it up to monstrous proportions.

Unfortunately, I have a husband who just loves springing surprises on me. Usually involving his arrivals. Either he arrives early or late, but never when I expect him. He has even refined his torture technique to the point that he will, when the mood takes him, pretend to be stuck somewhere miles away, when he is just about to put his key in the lock of the front door.

When we were at university, he would go back to Algeria during the long summer vacation to spend time with his family. University vacations are seemingly endless – three months in summer – so he’d spend a good four weeks in Algiers. I’d usually fill in the time alone by working at a temporary summer job, usually for pressing financial reasons. Even though I had the maximum grant, it still didn’t stretch through the summer.

The first year, I decided to go down to London to stay with my sister in her Pimlico bedsitter. That juxtaposition of the words “Pimlico” and “bedsitter” seems to be a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But it was still possible, in the sixties, to live in one of the most sought-after central London locations for just a few pounds a week. I soon found a job with Reader’s Digest in their offices near the Old Bailey and would trek back to Pimlico every evening, sometimes stopping off at a mini-supermarket to buy a few things for supper.

T had been gone for a few weeks and although I was receiving letters on a regular basis, I had no idea when he was due back. I had been moping around with a long face for weeks and was becoming seriously tiresome. Thankfully, however, my sister had the patience of a saint.

One evening, clutching my few purchases in a brown paper bag, I trailed up the three flights of stairs to my sister’s bedsitter and heard the sound of the radio on the other side of the closed door. My first thought was that she had been taken ill and had decided to come home to sleep it off. Even when I pushed the door open, finding it unlocked, and saw a large suitcase standing there, I didn’t catch on.  It was only when T leapt out from under the bedcovers where he had been hiding in anticipation of my arrival, did I react, and only then after a few seconds of goggling like a landed fish at the expanse of tanned skin and the wide grin on display.

He did exactly the same thing the following year. I had decided to stay in Sheffield during the summer and had found a job at the Yorkshire Electricity Board offices to pay the rent on my shared flat. One evening, one of the other Algerian students, a Kabyle called Chérif, he of the impossibly beautiful face and the long, curled eyelashes, and his girlfriend, took pity on me, inviting me over to their place for supper. I can still remember the menu. It was garlic veal and potatoes, cooked in the same pot.

All evening, Chérif had been teasing me, pointing at some indeterminate spot behind me when we went for a drink afterwards at the Union, a look of surprise on his face. Of course, I’d think T was standing there behind me and would whip round in my seat. In the street on the way home, he’d suddenly exclaim. “Isn’t that him over there?”

I was at the end of my tether by the time we arrived back at my flat to watch a bit of television and hardly reacted when Chérif said, “I can hear someone at the door! Perhaps it’s him!” Just to prove him wrong, I angrily strode over to the door and, wrenching it open, was confronted with a surprised-looking T, who hadn’t even had time to knock. I was so shocked I didn’t recognize him for a nanosecond, wondering what this handsome stranger wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase was doing on my doorstep. Perhaps a seriously good-looking vacuum tool salesman?

He’d do the same thing when my birthday rolled around, pretending to forget to wish me a happy birthday on the pretext that exams were only a few days away, ignoring me all morning whilst revising, then, after lunch, when I had worked myself into a state of righteous indignation, have all our friends jump out with presents, birthday cards and a cake.

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What began as a joke in Sheffield quickly turned sour once we moved to Algeria. The unpredictability of life over there only added fuel to the bonfire of my anxiety. Besides, in Britain, I hadn’t yet been traumatized by my husband’s serious car accident so soon after the birth of our son. I can fully appreciate the fact that communications were bad, as well as the punctuality of Air Algérie flights, but surely a timetable of “around the twenty-seventh, give or take a few days” would not satisfy the most laid-back of spouses, never mind a worrier like me?

So it was that I’d fret for days, starting at every sound or rattle of the gate, especially when the twenty-seventh had been and gone. Obviously, the “give” was more accurate than the “take.” To be fair, he has since explained that giving me an exact date would have been more worrying for me, so he preferred to give himself a wide margin, as sometimes unforeseen circumstances could crop up. Hmm. There IS a kind of skewed logic in this, as our telephone was often cut off for months on end.

So when my small son would lean excitedly out of the window at nine o’clock at night, shouting, “C’est Papa! C’est Papa!” (It’s Daddy! It’s Daddy!) a few days before his father’s expected arrival, I wouldn’t believe it until I had actually seen – and touched – my husband in the flesh.

He was once away when my parents arrived for a visit. It was only a matter of a few days between their arrival and his, but I was feeling resentful. My parents didn’t mind in the slightest, but I did. He had been due back one evening (give or take a few days) and we had been listening anxiously as various planes droned overhead. We had already been doing this for a couple of nights and the waiting was getting to me. Midnight came and went and still no T.

I finally gave up and took myself off to bed. Lying there, I could feel my stomach churn and hot tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly, I heard my Dad talking to someone, his voice surprised and happy. Then I heard another male voice reply. It was my husband. Leaping out of bed and running down the corridor, I saw him standing there, loaded down with suitcases and duty-free bags, in animated conversation with my father. The children soon woke up when they heard their father’s voice and started excitedly opening the many bags.

I can remember standing there, looking at him, with a feeling of overwhelming relief swelling my heart — yet mixed with anger at the emotional wringer through which he was constantly putting me. To be perfectly fair, I really think he had no idea of the effect it had on me.

I really, REALLY don’t like surprises – even happy ones.

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Back To School

Les amis : une famille dont on a choisi les membres.

Friends: a family whose members you have chosen.

-Alphonse Karr


“T’as quel âge, dis? Combien de fois t’as redoublé?” (How old are YOU then? How often have you repeated your year?)

T. glanced down at the small fourteen-year-old boy squinting up at him. On his new classmate’s face was an expression of barely repressed glee, his slanting black eyes triumphant and his mouth twitching upwards on the left, dimpling his cheek. He was smartly dressed in tight trousers, shoes polished to within an inch of their life, and a carefully-ironed shirt and tie. His wiry black curls had been plastered down with brilliantine and carefully combed to one side.

There could not have been more of a contrast with T.  One of the unfair things in life is that when a boy reaches a certain height, he is expected to be a man, regardless of his age, and T had simply reached it ahead of his peers. He had that shy look about him teenagers often get when they’ve grown too fast, like they aren’t really sure about being a man just yet. But his recent loss and new responsibilities had made his childhood a thing of the past.

Two years older than his classmates, his shoulders had broadened from working outdoors on the farm, and his face had already begun to lose the rounded contours of childhood, replaced by the defined bone structure of an adult. The beginnings of a downy moustache were visible on his upper lip and his shock of hair had been cropped short. His clothes, although relatively new, were already too small for him, barely reaching his bony wrists and ankles. Towering over his pint-sized interrogator, he didn’t bother answering, but contented himself with a noncommittal shrug.

His calm demeanour, however, belied the grit underneath. By the end of the first term, he had shot to the top of the class, but still felt compelled to revise every evening on his return home. Passing his exams and going on to university was his ticket out of his present situation — counting every penny and depending on his uncle for a tiny monthly pittance, barely enough to feed and clothe his family.

His classmates quickly revised their opinion of him.  Soon they were debating on whether they would keep him in their group of friends after all, as he was a little TOO conscientious for them. He brought down the tone of the whole gang, showing the rest of them up. Finally they opted to keep him – after all, he was useful when they wanted to copy their homework from someone.

 

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Class photo  – Back row, T third from the left, Ali second from the right. Front row, Salah second from the left and Mus second from the right. Henri is on T’s left.

Every school day from then on followed the same pattern. Every morning, T gulped down his bowl of café au lait downstairs in the bakery, breathing in the delicious scents of fresh bread, croissants and pastries. Breaking off the crusty end of a baguette and cramming it into his mouth on his way out, he would then sprint along the street to the Café de la Place, where his friend Kamel was waiting for him, nonchalantly leaning against a pillar and smoking a forbidden cigarette, the lighted end cupped against his palm so that nobody could see.

They would climb up the steep rue Arago together, stopping every now and then to catch their breath. The long winding street was lined with shops, Spanish bodegas and bars, of which the facades, still damp with morning dew, would glisten in the warmth of the sun. Some of the townhouses, festooned with curly wrought-iron balconies and stucco decorations, were covered with purple wisteria or creamy-white jasmine, the blooms adding their scent to the already heady smells of hot coffee and fresh bread seeping out from the numerous pavement cafés along their route.

Laughing and joking together like teenagers everywhere, they would suddenly fall silent when they saw an armed patrol coming towards them, machine guns at the ready. T’s heart would  be hammering in his ears, but he would manage to keep his gait casual with no hint of hesitation. Once the soldiers had passed them, it would take a while for the two boys to feel relaxed enough to start fooling around again.

T would surreptitiously lift the lapel of his jacket, to look at the badge with the FLN emblem — green and white with a red crescent and star in the middle — that he had pinned underneath. This emblem would become Algeria’s national flag after independence. Of course, it goes without saying that, if he had been caught with this badge, his fate would have been sealed.

Every morning, T. hoped to catch sight of one particular young lady, who, walking along the opposite pavement, and under T’s insistent gaze, would wave shyly at him. Of course, Kamel did not hesitate to make fun of him; laughing uproariously at his friend’s blushes and gleefully mocking his timidity. It never went any further than an exchange of glances — T never even knew her name, never spoke to her, but it was the first time since his father’s death that he felt that his life was beginning to return to something approaching normal.

Once they had arrived at the school gates, they would meet up with the rest of their friends. Salah, the jovial onewas the small boy who had impertinently asked T’s age at the beginning of the school year, and would eventually accompany T to Britain seven years later; Ali, the handsome one — as suave and elegant as any Italian, with the knife-edge crease to his trousers and the wavy black hair; and Mustapha – Mus — the fiery one, the cherished only son of a gendarme. Kamel, with his Elvis-style quiff, was the laid-back one of the group, and T. the serious one. They formed a tightly-knit group of friends, always looking out for each other.

They had to, because they were, in fact, the only four arabes in a class of thirty-four pupils. All their other classmates were pied noir, with names like Robert, Henri, Pierre and Noel. Sometimes, in the early years, there were tense discussions between the two sides about the political and social situation in Algeria. They would gather together in the schoolyard and put forward their opposing points of view.

The pied noir students tried to explain that their fathers or grandfathers had arrived in Algeria with barely a sou to their name, and that they had worked hard to clear the land and drain the salt flats to make them suitable for farming. They had then planted orange groves and  vineyards, not forgetting the buildings, blocks of flats and villas that they had constructed— all linked by an extensive road network, every road with its plane or eucalyptus trees standing sentinel on each side.

On the other side, T and his friends protested that their ancestors had been there centuries before the French, only to be relegated now to the status of second-class citizens, treated worse than animals, subjected to abuse, dispossession and deprived of even the most basic of human rights. The war that was being fought in the mountains and the cities of Algeria was being reproduced there in the schoolyard, although the weapons of choice were barbed remarks and not rifles or bombs.

But the situation was gradually deteriorating and the relations between “Arab” and pied noir students became less and less convivial, until the two groups were barely speaking to each other. There was an invisible barrier between them. It had always existed, but had become almost tangible, with the pied noir students even being forced to undergo military training at weekends to learn how to use firearms.

One of T’s classmates, Henri, a good friend until then, had slapped T good-naturedly on the back one Monday morning before class, and, puffing out his chest and with a visible swagger, exclaimed. “It’s a shame I didn’t come across you in the street yesterday, vieux! I would have put a bullet through your brain without a second thought!”

Comic Book Hero

La bande dessinée c’est l’évasion.
Comics are a form of escape.
– Grzegorz Rizinski

Jeddi! Jeddi! (Grandad! Grandad!) Did you bring my comics?”

T’s father had just finished parking his Citroën in front of the boulangerie on the main square of Maison Carrée, when T, aged eight, hurtled towards it and started pulling frantically at the car door handle. Continue reading

Harvest Home

In my belief, a harvest is also a legacy, for very often what you reap is, in the way of small miracles, more than you consciously know you have sown.

-Faith Baldwin


“Please, sir,” T. pleaded, “My brother isn’t fourteen yet. It’s only October, and his birthday isn’t until November. Just let him stay until then, and if he doesn’t work hard, he’ll leave.”  He was sitting in the headmaster’s study, holding his younger brother’s hand tightly in his, and trying to look grown-up and responsible. Trying to stay strong for K’s sake. Continue reading