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.
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.
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.