The Taj Mahal

For those who haven’t read my book, an extract.


Bliss it was at that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Wordworth— The Prelude


A week or so after the party, T and I were still warily circling each other, unsure of whether to take our fledgling relationship to the next level. That is, I was the one who was unsure. I found him fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Amongst other things, he had the kind of looks that could, at the best of times, knock me slightly off-balance.

I had spent most of my time since the party more or less avoiding him. I must admit his intensity frightened me a little and I had taken to hiding whenever I saw him. Once he realized that I knew his real name and nationality, he would try to reassure me with statements like, “I’m not Arab; I’m a barbarian.” Of course, this kind of assertion was guaranteed to have the opposite effect, making me want to flee in the opposite direction, visions of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun going through my head. Luckily, I then realised, with relief, that he meant Berber and not barbarian.  It all added to the odd mixture of fear and attraction that I felt.

A few days later, he caught me trying to slip out of the Upper Refectory. A quizzical look on his face, and with one dark eyebrow raised, he listened  patiently, as, staring at my shoes, I tried frantically to fill in the heavy silence between us with a long, rambling monologue about my unwelcoming digs and my dragon landlady. Anything to avoid looking at him. For some strange reason, I found it difficult to hold his gaze.

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Standing unnervingly close to me, he waited until my incoherent mumbling had trailed off into silence, and then casually suggested that I “pop up” to the flat that he shared with two other Algerian students to join him and his friends if I became too bored on Sundays.  I told him that I’d think about it.

It’s true that Sundays then were the most boring days of the week. Twelve seemingly endless hours, the silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of the Sunday newspapers. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Even in Sheffield, it was the same. The shops were shut, the streets stone-cold dead and the Union practically deserted, its refectories and coffee lounges shuttered and silent.

In desperation, I decided to take T up on his offer and so, the following Sunday, a cold, frosty day in the second week in November, I set off to take the two buses up to his flat. I had just consumed a gargantuan Sunday lunch, as it was included in my rental contract and I was determined to get my money’s worth, even though my landlady’s stodgy and unpalatable cooking lay like a leaden weight on my stomach.

Arriving in front of the flat, stamping my feet in the cold, I hesitantly rang the doorbell. The door was thrown open by one of his Algerian flatmates, who, with a knowing grin, ushered me inside. The living-room was a warm fug of Gitane cigarette smoke and lively chatter, with about ten students — Algerian, French and English — lounging around, laughing and joking and listening to a Marie LaForêt record. She was singing Un amour qui s’est éteint and her plaintive lament for a fading love affair was at odds with the bursts of laughter coming from every corner of the room.

A, the beautiful postgraduate student whom we had met at the party was there,  jabbing her cigarette for emphasis as she rammed home her views on the war in Vietnam, American imperialism and the imminent rising-up of the workers of the world against the evils of capitalism.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a double mattress taking up a large part of the floor space in the living room. I later found out that A and her Algerian boyfriend were temporarily homeless and had set up camp in the living room of the flat. Their clothes were folded in neat piles by the side of the bed. It was all so thrillingly bohemian. Blackpool seemed so far away — a different world.

Scan.jpegAs I stood timidly in the doorway, unsure of what to do next, I spotted T sitting at the table in front of the window, chatting to a friend.  He glanced up, saw me standing by the door and came over to me, a gleam in his eye, looking  like the cat that got the cream. I had risen to the bait. Now all he had to do was to reel me in.

Draping a possessive arm around my shoulders, he drew me into the room. I sat there on the sofa, his arm still around me, mesmerised by the web of languages being spun around my head. Everyone seemed to pass from one to the other with such ease. Sentences beginning in English would veer into French and back again, with a sprinkling of Arabic for good measure.

With French pop songs playing softly in the background, we could have been a group of Left Bank intellectuals discussing the finer points of the Absurde in Camus’s writing or Sartre’s existentialist thinking. The sweet, pungent smoke curling from the glowing tips of French cigarettes reinforced the impression. We were even wearing the statutory dark jerseys. Dark clothes, dark hair and eyes and pale winter faces.

After about an hour, suddenly the cry went up. “Allez, les enfants! On va au Taj? (Come on, kids! Shall we go to the Taj?) The Taj? What was that? After a couple of seconds, I realised they were talking about an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal on Ecclesall Road, one of the first in Sheffield. Although there were quite a few Indian restaurants in Britain at that time, I had never eaten an authentic curry.

So a group of us set off downhill towards Ecclesall Road, drawn by the siren song of curry. I found out later that the Algerian students liked curry so much because it was the nearest thing they could get to their own cuisine. Indian food, at least, boasted some kind of flavour in comparison with the bland and overcooked English meals of the time.

Even in the Union refectories, most meals on offer were watery grey stews in which lumps of gristle, potatoes and carrots were doing a slow breaststroke. “A very nice mutton stew, dear,” would say the lady behind the serving counter, trying her best to convince us of the merits of what was pretentiously called a “navarin of lamb.”

Outside, the sky was a clear cobalt blue and the watery winter sun was peeking through the bare branches of the trees lining the roads, its pale rays making the icy pavements glitter as if they had been dusted with crystallised sugar. We made our way downhill, strung out across the road in groups of two or three, still talking and bickering amicably. Bundled up in our coats and faculty scarves, our warm breath hung in the still cold air like smoke.

Suddenly, T set off at a run, pulling me behind him as if I were on water-skis, instead of in my thin-soled shoes. Taken by surprise, slipping and sliding over the ice, I shrieked in fear and excitement. I slammed into his body at the bottom of the hill as he skidded to a halt, catching me in his arms to stop me falling over in an ignominious heap.

I didn’t object as, laughing at my poppy-red cheeks, he dropped a quick kiss on my upturned mouth, still open in mid-scream. For the rest of the way, he kept me close to his side, pulling me against him with one arm wrapped tightly around my waist. Looking back, I realise, with a pang of sadness, just how very young we were.

I would soon became used to being manhandled in this way; sometimes being thrown over his shoulder as he practiced judo manoeuvres in the middle of the street, to the astonishment of passers-by. He would always make sure that my landing was soft, however — never failing to catch me before I hit the ground. I didn’t know it then, but that would be a metaphor for our future life together.

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Homecoming

Home is where you can always return, no matter how long you’ve been gone.

-Anon


Returning to their village after their bankruptcy in Fouka, T’s parents felt as though they were retreating into their shells. For them, the house that they’d built during the years of plenty was a sanctuary, a cocoon, a place where they could rest —where they could heal. This was their ancestral land. Nobody could tell them to leave.

For my father-in-law, however, it was a frustrating time. He was back to square one. He  had lost all his money, but now had to find a means of earning a living and providing for his wife and children.  It wasn’t easy.

Most of the population of Kabylie were undernourished. Sometimes whole villages survived on a meagre diet of roots, acorns, grasses and nettles — anything to alleviate the torture of hunger pangs. Anyone passing through the Kabyle villages could feel their blood congeal with sadness at the sight of malnourished children with hardly any flesh on their bones, their anguish transmitted only by their eyes and weary movements. These children would often succumb to diseases like typhoid, typhus and cholera.

In spite of his failing health, T’s father set to work with a will, clearing the undergrowth, cutting down great oak, ash and beech trees to sell for firewood and creating terraces on the mountainside where he could grow his crops. They didn’t bring in enough money, though, even the fruit from the trees he had imported from America, and so he decided to follow a youthful dream – searching for uranium in the mountains.

Every morning, the other villagers would see this strange figure — tall and thin, his eyes sunken and his skin sallow, with grizzled hair around a bald crown and a bushy black beard covering most of his face — set off with his geiger counter on his quest. He would dig everywhere, on his own lands, on those of his neighbours in the village or even in nearby villages.

Sometimes, he would dig a deep hole, let himself down on a rope and not have enough strength to pull himself up again, overcome by a fit of hypoglycaemia, during which he would shiver and shake, a cold sweat glistening on his gaunt features. He never found any uranium. But he did bore holes through to the water table and left many a neighbour with a source of water on their land to sustain their meagre crops.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, revelled in being back home. Were it not for strict Kabyle social conventions, she would have been spinning around like a little girl again, arms out wide and fingers spread.  Instead she inhaled the air carrying the fragrance of the thyme and wild garlic growing on the mountainside; the essence of her childhood.

She felt free, unrestricted, like paper floating in the sky. No need to cover up with a cumbersome haïk and voilette. Here she could walk around with her head held high, confident in the knowledge that the men of the village would lower their eyes respectfully at her approach.

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She would sit on the steps of their new house and daydream for hours as she gazed out on the mountainous landscape, each craggy peak crowned with a chaplet of red-roofed stone houses. Sometimes she’d climb down the slope to her favorite spot, sit amongst the wild flowers, alive with bright butterflies, and enjoy the view of the whole valley spread out below her. From her vantage point, she could see the streams of ice-cold water falling into the river Assif, clear and sparkling in the sun. The sound of the rushing river formed the background to daily life in the village and lulled its inhabitants to sleep every night.

For T, it was a total immersion into Kabyle life. Although he had been born in the village, his parents had moved to Algiers when he was a baby, and his only visits to Kabylie had been during the school holidays. Now he was enrolled at the junior school in Ath Laaziz, a neighbouring village three kilometres away, where a Breton teacher would soon take him under his wing, confident that the new boy in his class would pass his entrance exam to secondary school with flying colours.

He soon made friends with the village children and would play with them near the ancient olive tree at the entrance to the village, around the gravestones in the cemetery, or on the banks of the river. At the weekend, he would go down with his father, both astride their donkey, to the Saturday market at Souk el Djemaa, to sell their fruit and vegetables there. On their return, he would sit sleepy-eyed besides the fire, or companionably on the roof terrace with his brothers, listening to the cicadas chirping and clicking in the undergrowth.

But the storm clouds were gathering. T’s grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack in his fifties. My mother-in-law, who had always been the apple of her parents’ eye, was devastated. She wanted to turn the pages back and dwell on the finer details: how the crows’ feet around her father’s eyes would deepen when he smiled; how his hands were roughened and scarred by his trade as a gunsmith. But life was pulling her forward into the unknown with one hand and erasing her past with the other.

My father-in-law was becoming so desperate for money he had decided to sell his half-share in the Maison Carrée bakery to his younger brother. His wife was against the idea – for her, it was the only asset they had left. He wouldn’t listen to her as usual, and so set off to Algiers to sign the papers.

Walking through the familiar streets, he suddenly came upon a drunk, or a madman, dressed all in white, ranting and raving in the middle of the pavement. Staggering along, his eyes fixed on nothing, his skin hidden under layers of grime and his hair a tangled mop of black and grey, the man kept shouting out the same phrase over and over again, “Je ne vends pas mon oeuf!” (I’m not selling my egg!) before seeming to vanish into thin air.

T’s father took this as a sign from heaven. Still reflecting on what had just happened, he arrived at the solicitor’s office, where a great pile of cash was waiting for him on the desk. When he told his brother he had changed his mind, the latter burst into tears. It was lucky that he did have a change of heart, because the money coming from his share in the bakery would be the family’s sole source of income for many years to come.

Rumours of a war against the French occupants were spreading like wildfire, especially in Kabylie. Men were slipping away at the dead of night to join the maquis.  The French authorities reacted by using any means they could to stamp out any rebellion; sending military convoys up into the mountains, using napalm to burn down forests -— and any khatiba (unit) hiding there — bulldozing access roads to the villages and filling the sky with the clatter of dual rotor helicopters, nicknamed “Flying Bananas,”  and used intensively, as was napalm, a decade later by the Americans in Vietnam.

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T’s father realised that things were only going to get worse and felt it would be safer in Algiers. T had won a scholarship to the same boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou that his father had attended, but the rest of the family moved to a small, rented bakery in Belcourt in the centre of the capital. In the space of two months, T’s father was already making regular deliveries of fresh bread to local shops.

The bakery was also a pastry shop and ice-cream parlour, selling créponné, the delicious Algerian lemon sorbet. The only problem seemed to be that fresh pastries would disappear at an alarming rate, with gaps regularly appearing in the serried ranks of baked goods ready for delivery. Nobody knew who the culprit was, until T’s father realised that cakes always went missing when two of his younger sons went along for the ride. That, coupled with their guilty expressions and the traces of cream around their mouths, was a dead giveaway.

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No Entry

We dream, we wake on a cold hillside, we pursue the dream again. In the beginning was the dream, and the work of disenchantment never ends.
― Kim Stanley Robinson


I suddenly heard the clang of the double gates being thrown open and the tyres of a car screeching down the slight incline to the garage. The only person it could be was T, but it seemed highly unlikely at that time in the morning. He had left for the refinery only a few hours before, as he always liked to be at his desk before the work buses arrived, to set a good example — unlike other managers, who had a tendency to begin the working day nearer lunchtime. Continue reading

The Good Life

The poetry of the earth is never dead.
― John Keats


My mother-in-law threw a worried look at her husband and ventured timidly, “Don’t you think it would be better if we stayed here in Maison Carrée, instead of moving house and starting all over again?”

T’s father brushed her arguments aside impatiently, convinced that the country air, away from the unrelenting heat and traffic fumes of Algiers, would do him good. Recently diagnosed with diabetes, his natural energy and drive had been sapped by the illness, the transformation cruel to watch for those who depended on him. Continue reading

Tired Of Waiting

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. Continue reading

The Broken Pitcher

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.

– Anon


Acu? Amek ? Acu? Tamɣart-iw?” (What? How? What? My mother-in-law?)

My father-in-law was shouting down the telephone, holding the receiver in one trembling hand, and repeating every word the caller was saying as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Shot in the head, you say? Dead? Allah yarhamha.” (God have mercy on her soul.) Continue reading

The Judoka

Judo teaches us to look for the best possible course of action, whatever the individual circumstances.

-Kano Jigoro


 

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One cold, wet evening in late October, 1965, I was to be found sitting in the spectators’ gallery of the Sheffield University sports hall, situated a few hundred yards from the main campus. Having nothing else to do, I’d accompanied a classmate to his fencing practice. Little did I know that I had a meeting with fate that evening — that a casual glance down would change my life.

Talking about my life, it had been quite challenging over the previous few weeks — settling into my digs, finding my way around the Arts Tower and the Union, and trying to make new friends. It was proving harder than I had thought. A few days into the first term, I had watched the Rag Day floats, full of boisterous students, crawling down Western Bank at a snail’s pace, and felt very much like the new girl in town. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be groups of laughing friends, or, what was even worse, couples with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, gazing into each other’s eyes.

When my schoolfriend, Helen, had returned to her digs, I stood there amongst the broken spars of wood and scraps of painted canvas that were all that was left of the floats, and felt a sense of piercing loneliness. I had never felt lonely before — had never lived alone. At home in Blackpool, I had family and friends. Here there was nobody. Apart from Helen, I didn’t know a soul in Sheffield. There were faces and bodies all around me, but not a single one was familiar. All  I wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about my shoulders. When none came, the world suddenly felt cold and empty.

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But I was only eighteen, after all, and soon cheered up. I had my whole life in front of me. Sitting in the spectators’ gallery, my duffel coat wrapped around my shoulders for warmth, I squinted through the clouds of testosterone wafting up from the judo club members wrestling with each other below my line of sight, and tried to make out what was going on in the fencing class at the other end of the gym.

From time to time, however, I’d look down at the new judo recruits going through their paces on the tatamis spread out on the polished wood floor. Most of them were weedy first-year students, with long, thin legs and knobbly knees. Their exposed chests were hairless and painfully undeveloped, and their skin had the pale translucence of dead fish, occasionally marred with the flaring red of an acne outbreak. My eyes slid over them without interest, then stopped and widened in appreciation.

Their coach, or trainer, or whatever he was, was standing there with his hands on his hips, unsmiling, as he watched them performing shoulder rolls on the tatami. His eyes narrowed as he followed their movements. From time to time he would demonstrate the roll himself, throwing himself forward with practiced ease. His dark hair, wet with sweat, despite the chilly temperature in the gym, flopped over his forehead until, with an impatient gesture, he pushed it back. I gazed admiringly at his broad shoulders, and, although I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes, I was captured by the fringe of long lashes veiling them.

Oblivious to my stare burning a hole in his kimono, he didn’t glance up and continued with his training session. “Too bad,” I murmured to myself, reflecting sadly that I was always attracted to the dark, brooding — and ultimately unobtainable — type. He was most certainly out of my league, as he looked to be in his early twenties, older than the eighteen-year-olds he was coaching. Perhaps a junior lecturer or a postgraduate student? It was with some regret that I tore my eyes away and turned my attention back to the fencing.

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I didn’t recognise T when he approached me in the Union a few days later — he looked different with his clothes on — and it took me a while to put two and two together. The good news was that he seemed just as interested in me as I was in him, but the bad news was that I had to share him with his judo schedule. He’d train for two or three hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and take part in inter-university tournaments at weekends. It was fine if these tournaments were held in Sheffield, but he often had to travel to other venues with his fellow team members.

When we’d been together just over a month, and with the Christmas vacation due to start in a couple of days, he had to go to Swansea to try and obtain his next belt. Our relationship was brand new and I was apprehensive about the looming separation. I was still unsure of my feelings, but there was something about him that had me muddling my words and blushing uncontrollably whenever he was around. Looking at my miserable face, and with his friends waiting impatiently, he leaned against the wall in the Union building and pulled me to him for a long moment, before sauntering off with the rest of the team, sports bag slung over his shoulder.

But not everything about judo was romantic. Usually it meant a succession of bruised shins, broken ribs, sweaty jockstraps and kimonos -— I once dyed them pink by mistake at the launderette — and a strict ban on any kind of physical intimacy the night before a fight. Above all, there was the knot of fear in my stomach whenever I watched him step on to the tatami and bow to his opponent before a fight. I was somewhat reassured at the beginning when I saw him smiling during his fights — it couldn’t be so bad if he were smiling, surely? My confidence took a dive, however, when I learnt that he always smiled when things became really tricky.

He’d started judo soon after independence when he was at the University of Algiers. It wasn’t as well-known then, usually going under the name of ju-jitsu, and it was difficult finding anyone who actually practiced it. Ju-jitsu is the father of judo, but they are, in fact, two completely different types of martial art. T had been attracted to the whole package —  the opportunity to let off steam through sport and the ceremonial precision of it all.  He must be the only Algerian ever born never to have shown the slightest interest in football.

T became captain of the university team in his third year. Sometimes I would accompany him for the away tournaments, including one trip to Birmingham, where we had an Algerian friend, Bibi. He and I made our way up to the spectators’ gallery, and waited for T to appear. Members of each team were supposed to be evenly matched, but the problem was that the captain of the Birmingham team was a black belt. Not only that, he was over six feet tall, a huge bear of a man, with burly shoulders, a neck roped with muscle and hair sprouting everywhere, even on his back. I closed my eyes on seeing T and his opponent bow to each other and heard Bibi muttering, “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” to himself like an incantation.

I was praying fervently to the gods of judo when Bibi let out a loud whoop of triumph. “Il l’a fait tomber! Il l’a fait tomber!” (He threw him! He threw him!) he shouted, and flung his arms around me. I opened my eyes just in time to see the giant flat on his back with T straddling him, trying to put him in an armlock.

T didn’t win his fight, because the giant decided to park his considerable weight on his chest and he was forced to yield. But it was enough that he had been able to throw his opponent, a feat nobody had managed before. T told me later that, as he was waiting for his turn on the tatami, a member of the opposing team had been standing behind him, muttering, “Just you wait and see! He’s going to tear you limb from limb!” Luckily for me — and for T — it didn’t turn out that way.

 

If you want to read more about our university days, more information here