Sometimes we survive by forgetting.
“Where on earth is he?” I muttered to myself, pacing up and down the house, from the bedroom — where our new-born son was sleeping peacefully in his cot — to the living-room and back again, as if I wanted to wear a path along the tiled corridor.
It was ten o’clock in the evening and I had been waiting for five hours for T to return from the ammonia plant. I had gradually become more anxious, throwing angry glances at the telephone as if I could bully it into ringing — ringing and giving me news. Still, no news was good news, wasn’t that what everyone said? I clenched my fists tightly until my nails dug into the palms of my hands, barely noticing the pain.
The only thing of which I was really aware was the sound of my heart knocking against my ribcage. It was not until I glanced into the mirror that I realised that I had been biting my lip so badly it was bleeding. Our daughter, sensing my growing anxiety, wouldn’t settle, standing in the living-room doorway screaming her head off and looking like an angry baby chick in her yellow pyjamas, her hair standing up in spikes.
It was Ramadan again. Our baby had been born twelve days before, to our intense relief. We now had a son, as well as a daughter, so social and family pressure was off us. As dusk fell quite early, around five in the afternoon, we’d already eaten and I was lying on the bed, resting, when T came in and said he was just going back to the ammonia plant for a couple of hours. I settled back against the pillow with a resigned sigh.
I’d become used to the fact that work seemed always to take priority over everything else. On reflection, I can understand my husband’s commitment and passion for his work. He really thought that he was helping his country get back on its feet after so many years of war, but little did he know that the dice were already loaded and that people were working in the shadows to prevent it happening.
As eleven o’clock came and went with no sign of T, I rang the works switchboard. No, they hadn’t seen him, but then the security guards on the gates had only come on duty an hour before. My heart plummeted. Around midnight, I picked my daughter up, and, first making sure that the baby was asleep, rushed around to a neighbour’s house. The neighbour immediately promised that he would go and look for my husband.
Frightening thoughts ran through my mind on a continuous loop, until they left no room for anything else. I’d find myself standing an inch from the front door, staring at it as if I could will T to open it; imagining my smile of relief and the quiver in my voice as I told him how worried I’d been. Finally, around one o’clock in the morning, there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find the neighbour’s wife. She took me inside, and gently told me that T had had a car accident on the way back from Oran.
Her husband, after an hour spent fruitlessly searching for T, had finally rung the hospital. He was told that T had been brought in after a car accident, unconscious and suffering from a fractured femur. I couldn’t understand. T had always driven fast, like most young men. Only two weeks before, he’d taken a mere fifteen minutes to cover the forty kilometres to Mostaganem to be there in time for our son’s birth. He’d always been a safe driver, though, rarely taking unnecessary risks.
The next morning our neighbour accompanied me to the private clinic where T had been transferred. On the way, he said that he’d gone straight to the hospital after being informed about what had happened, to find that T had regained consciousness, but couldn’t remember anything about the accident. Not only that, he couldn’t remember very much at all.
When questioned gently, he said that yes, he was married, yes, he worked at the ammonia plant, and yes, he had children – a little daughter. When asked who C was, he replied that it was his father’s name. When told that he had a baby son with the same name, he replied in no uncertain terms, “Stop f***ing around!” (or rather the French equivalent.)
Arriving at the clinic, I rushed into his room. His condition seemed to have deteriorated. He was just lying there, not even turning his head when I entered. The consultant told me that they didn’t know whether he was simply in shock, or whether he had some kind of brain damage. He had to be taken urgently to the hospital in Algiers.
I felt my legs give way.
When T’s brother arrived later, on compassionate leave from the army, he was white with shock, his pallor accentuated even more by the olive green fatigues he was still wearing. T had just given him a blank stare as he walked into the room. I nudged him gently, saying, “Look, your brother is here. Aren’t you going to say something?”
Very, very slowly my husband’s hand lifted towards his face. He put out his index finger and started to pull on his lower lip, making a burbling sound. His brother turned even paler, if possible. In contrast, I smiled in relief, because this was, of course, our famous running joke when I begged my husband to talk to me when he came home in the evenings. He was still in there, somewhere.
Sonatrach used their biplane to fly T and his brother to the hospital in Algiers. Although I wanted desperately to accompany him, I couldn’t leave our new-born baby, so Fatiha, who had only been working for us for a month, stayed with me every night for the next four weeks, walking home every evening to break her fast, then returning in the dark on her own, carrying a couffin filled with goodies.
There would be a plate of gâteaux secs and a bowl full of steamed couscous. We’d warm up the couscous and stir butter and sugar through it. I didn’t care how fattening it was, it found a place in my heart and has remained there ever since.
Details began to emerge about the crash. As it was Ramadan, all the shops would stay open until midnight, so T, after finishing his inspection at the plant, had decided to drive to Oran to buy me some more second-hand books. On his way home, a car, its lights switched off, had crossed the road from left to right, straight into his path.
Unable to see the other car because of a dip in the road, T had crashed into its side at full speed, killing the front-seat passenger outright. My husband had been found unconscious in the foot well of the wreckage of our car, with all the seats, wrenched from their moorings by the impact, piled up on top of him. Of course, there were no such things as seat belts or airbags at the time.
In Algiers, it was soon confirmed that he had sustained no brain damage, but was simply in deep shock. My brother-in-law gave me gruesome details of how no anaesthetic was used before drilling into T’s shinbone to install the traction equipment meant to align the two ends of the broken bone. He’d then been operated on, and a stainless steel pin inserted in his femur.
Although colleagues had kept me updated as to his progress, I was desperate to talk to T myself. One evening, unable to wait any longer, I phoned the hospital and asked to be put through to his ward. When I asked whether my husband was talking, the male night nurse answered, in a surprised voice, that of course he was talking. I begged him to be allowed to talk to him myself. After saying sniffily that this was not a private clinic with telephones by every bed, he promised me that he would do his best.
I could hear the squeak of a hospital bed’s wheels getting ever closer to the phone. Finally, I heard T’s voice. “Hello, love,” he said. Suddenly, my world righted itself again.