Rue Monseigneur Leynaud

Surely, there couldn’t be so many people living in one house?

It seemed an impossibility. That had been one of the thoughts running through my mind during my very first visit to the family villa on the rue Monseigneur Leynaud in Bellevue, an eastern suburb of Algiers. The occasion had been, of course, the first time I had set foot in Algeria to be formally presented to T’s family,  to see whether we were brave enough to take the plunge – and whether the family would accept me.

The visit was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and I didn’t really take any notice of the house itself, or its fittings and furnishings, surrounded as I was by a sea of smiling faces and curious stares. Various cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles appeared seemingly from nowhere.  I knew that T’s family shared the house with his uncle, but try as I might, I couldn’t work out in my head how approximately fifteen people could live in a two-bedroomed house. Of course – silly me – I was applying European standards, that is, one bed, or even one bedroom per person, to the Algerian reality.

It was not even a complete house, as the bottom storey had been left unfinished by the original owner, the French army captain from whom T. had rented it. There was one large room downstairs, but the rest of the ground floor was used as storage space, with reinforced concrete pillars holding up the concrete slab constituting the floor of the upper storey. The villa looked as though it had been built on stilts.

Upstairs the rooms had been divided between the two families. There were two recognisable bedrooms, one belonging to T’s uncle and aunt (later to be known as the Witch Downstairs), and one where my mother-in-law slept.  There were two other rooms, one belonging to T’s family, and dominated by a large dining-table and chairs. A marble fireplace built diagonally across one corner showed that, at one time, the room must have been cosy and well-appointed.

The other room, a tiny space belonging to the uncle’s family, was filled almost to bursting with a shiny veneered dining table, on which a crocheted mat and a vase filled with artificial flowers had been carefully placed, six plushly-upholstered dining chairs and a glass-doored display cabinet containing gilded tea and coffee services that were never, to my knowledge, used. Nobody outside the uncle’s family could enter this room or even breathe its air.  It was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.

Even at the time, it seemed strange to me that, in such an overcrowded house,  one whole room was used simply for display.  This was keeping up appearances with a vengeance. In many ways, this room  resembled  the formal parlours of my grandparents’ generation and served, more or less, the same purpose.

This is where honoured guests were served tea and coffee, perched uncomfortably on the overstuffed dining chairs. This is where T. and I were served lunch in the early days of our marriage, when we were still in the good books of The Witch Downstairs, and she still lived in hope that T. would suddenly decide to take his whole family to Arzew and leave the house to her husband – or rather, to her.

The kitchen was a nightmare. Originally a pleasant, sunlit room with a balcony accessed through a glazed door, it had now been divided into two separate cooking areas, with plywood and cardboard sheets blocking the window and the door. My mother-in-law’s domain was the original kitchen, the aunt’s outside on the balcony. Any natural sunlight would struggle to penetrate the ramshackle dividing wall and so the kitchen was always bathed in a dank, murky half-light, lit by one flickering low-wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling.

The sink had one single tap, which would make a clanging noise when turned on and, after a couple of death rattles, cold water would gush out – or not, depending on whether the supply had been cut off. There was no hot water at all, and pans of water had to be heated on the stove for washing the dishes or indeed washing anything.

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T sitting at the desk in his mother’s room

The claustrophobic atmosphere was not helped by the dark, bulky items of furniture looming up from out of the shadows. They crouched like prehistoric monsters against every wall, waiting to pounce and catch your shins a glancing blow, all the while exuding an odour of must and wormy wood.

This furniture had been bought by my father-in-law during the forties and was still in use, even though it was extremely impractical, offering little storage room for the amount of floor space it occupied. My mother-in-law refused to get rid of it, however, as it was a reminder, in a way, of a time when her husband was the driving force behind the whole family – respected and feared in equal measure. The wardrobes, double bed and marble-topped sideboards were a symbol of her status as a married woman and proof that her husband had been a person of consequence.

The bathroom had all the original fittings – a stately art deco washbasin, taps and bathtub, but it was impossible to take a real bath. The most you could hope for would be to stand up in the bathtub and pour warm water from out of a saucepan over yourself. The toilet had no seat, no flushing mechanism and the lock was infuriatingly contrary –  refusing either to lock properly or to open when required. I soon learned to do whatever was necessary with one foot jammed firmly against the door.

All of the trappings of a once-beautiful house were present, but it was difficult to maintain it as such, with so many people living there. My mother-in-law’s bedroom was used as a living-room, with everyone lounging on the bed, as there was no other seating in the room, unless you counted a desk and straight chair shoved up in one corner. The colour of the walls added to the generally depressing atmosphere as my mother-in-law had chosen a paint of a particularly opaque, muddy blue that T. had spent one whole university vacation slapping everywhere.

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Me, our daughter of five months, T’s brother and mother in her room

The only splashes of colour were in the garden and along the window sills, where all kinds of flowering plants grew in a riotous display. Like their blooms, the dresses worn by T’s female relatives were also a medley of bright mismatching colours, often embellished by a rose or some other flower, even a sprig of mint, tucked under their scarves.

My puzzlement as to where everyone slept was resolved the very first night I spent there. T’s mother had a single bed made up for me with crisp new sheets in the sacrosanct dining-room. At my side, on the floor, the three young girls, T’s younger sister and his two teenage cousins, slept in a row on sheepskins thrown directly on to the tiles. No sheets for them – they covered themselves directly with striped woollen blankets.

All of the young males of the household slept downstairs in the large room – the four brothers still living at home and their three cousins.  The atmosphere was like that found in any teenage son’s bedroom, but multiplied many times. I only ventured down there a few times, to be knocked sideways by the odour, ripe with testosterone, sweaty socks and unwashed male bodies.

All the males – except for T, of course. As head of the family and eldest son, he slept in solitary splendour in his mother’s bed. She, poor thing, slept on a mat on the kitchen floor, the only space left available.

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

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T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.