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.
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.