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Fade To Grey

Another reworked chapter of the first book


Saying goodbye is a little like dying.
― Marjane Satrapi


All I can remember of 1968 is greyness. The greyness of the dawn light when I would get up early every Friday to take the early train to Manchester and then on to Liverpool. The grimy greyness of Liverpool itself. The lonely greyness of the small Sheffield flat in which I was spending the rest of my time. The overwhelming greyness of the two clouds hanging over my head.

One was the thought of my Second Part Finals at the end of the year, signalling the end of my university studies. I’d already ordered, with a sinking heart, my graduation cap and gown compete with its hood trimmed with fur and the raspberry pink ribbon of the Faculty of Arts. I can remember looking at them and thinking, “And what if I don’t pass?” My greatest fear was disappointing my parents.

The second cloud was the fear of what lay ahead once T had finished his Master’s. We had not really talked about the future beyond that, as he was pinning his hopes on Sonatrach allowing him to continue his studies. All I knew was that something would have to be decided at the end of that year.

Perhaps he would pack up his stuff and go back home, thinking of me with nostalgia in later years — “Ah yes, I remember an English girl I once knew in Sheffield…”, or rather “Ah oui, je me souviens d’une Anglaise que j’ai connue à Sheffield...” Either that, or we would have enough courage to embark together upon what would surely be a rocky road ahead.

One grey cloud lifted when it turned out that I’d been worrying about my exams for nothing. I managed to obtain a respectable Honours degree and wore my cap and gown with pride on my graduation day. Mum and Dad, down from Blackpool for the day,  were thrilled beyond measure.

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On our return to Liverpool, we fell into a domestic routine — a foretaste of married life in some ways. I was supply teaching French at Speke Comprehensive on the outskirts of Liverpool, and T was spending his days in the University turbine laboratory, putting the finishing touches to his Master’s thesis, which went by the catchy title of — concentrate now — The Response of a Wedge-Type Pitot Static Yawmeter to the Fluctuating Pressures Caused by a Rotating Blade Row. Yes, it’s gibberish to me, too.

It was a bitter-sweet time for me, because I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the year, and yet we were together again after a year’s forced separation. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling, though, that after three years as a couple, we were spending our last days together — that this was to be our swan song.

My mood was in tune with the season — the leaves turning brown and being blown, soot-speckled, into sodden heaps on the dirty pavements; a thin, spiteful rain falling from the dark grey clouds lying so low over the city it seemed as though the heavens themselves were pressing down on me.

We were still waiting for Sonatrach’s reply to his request to stay on to do a Ph.D. He had been head-hunted by Rolls-Royce in the meantime, but his reply had been firm. Once he had finished his studies, he was going home. Alone or with me? That was the question. Having received no answer by the beginning of November, and with his thesis finished and submitted, we decided to drive down to Sonatrach’s offices in London.

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T in his turbine lab

Arriving there, we were ushered into a room and listened, in stunned silence, to a  Sonatrach official saying, “But don’t you see?  Your country needs you. You have to go back immediately. Your office is waiting for you in Arzew.” When T asked whether he could stay on until his Master’s graduation ceremony in February, he was told absolutely not. He had to return to Algeria straightaway.

Frozen with shock and disbelief, we started off on the long journey back to Liverpool. T drove with one hand, the other clasping mine. We kept stopping at motorway service stations to sit there in silence, in front of cold cups of untasted coffee, our heads bowed as we desperately clutched each other’s hands across the sticky Formica tables. He seemed to come to some kind of decision, saying that he wanted me to go to Algeria during the upcoming Christmas holidays and that we would take it from there. Something to hold on to.

Those last few weeks were sheer torture. I wept constantly. We went back to Sheffield to give the news to all our friends. Every time he opened his mouth to say, “Il faut que je rentre…..” (I have to go back), my chin would start wobbling, my face would crumple like a child’s and I would dissolve again into floods of tears. Friends would look at me with pity in their eyes, not knowing what to say.

On our return, we had been invited to a party by one of my teaching colleagues, and spent the whole evening mindlessly pressed together, barely moving, in the middle of the dance floor. Wrapped in each other’s arms, we were totally oblivious to the other couples dancing around us.

I was in denial, stubbornly refusing to help him pack his things and bursting into tears whenever he asked me, irrationally convinced that by not doing so I could prevent him leaving and keep him there with me. At night, I would cling ever more desperately to the solid warmth of his body, painfully aware of each passing hour.

He made a few last-minute purchases — presents for his family and a long-coveted radiogram, a typical Sixties piece of cabinet furniture containing a combined radio and record player. This bought me a few days’ grace, as we had to wait for it to be delivered before he could set off on the long journey to Algeria, driving though France, Spain and Morocco.

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I went reluctantly to a parent-teachers’ meeting one evening, resenting every precious minute spent apart from T. He came to pick me up in the car. When we entered the flat, he didn’t switch on the light straightaway. He went into the living room, fumbled around with something, then came towards me, took me in his arms and started dancing slowly with me to music coming from some hidden source. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw a red light winking in the gloom of the living room.

The radiogram had finally been delivered and I knew he had to go.

When everything had been packed into his car and into a little trailer, we set off to London. From there, I had to take the train back to Liverpool, because I still had to teach until the end of term. The only thing I had to cling to was the decision we had taken that I visit Algeria that Christmas.

As the train pulled out of Euston, I thought my heart would break. I can remember the other passengers glancing curiously at my tearstained face and swollen eyes, as I stared unseeingly out of the train window. I leaned my forehead against the smeared glass, watching the countryside stream by me into the past, together with everything that had happened during the previous three years. As though some spell had been cast, the world became grey, entirely grey — drained of all colour. I seemed to be living in an old black and white film. The air itself seemed grey, as though shrouded in a mist of misery so fine it could not be seen, only felt.

Even though it was many years ago, I can still remember the devastation I felt and the conviction that nothing would ever be the same again.

When I arrived back in our flat in Liverpool that rainy evening, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, pull the pillow over my head and seek oblivion for a few hours. I turned back the covers and there on the bottom sheet was a hastily scrawled note. It just said “Ne pleure pas” — don’t cry.

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