The Day The Earth Stood Still

Il est doux d’essuyer, d’une main secourable,

Des larmes d’un ami que le malheur accable.

It is bittersweet to wipe, with a helping hand,

The tears of a friend weighed down by misfortune.

Étienne Vigée: Les aveux difficiles (1783)


Tiens, tu as du courrier.” (Here, there’s a letter for you.) The pion was holding an envelope out to T., who lifted his head in surprise. Drawing his brows together, and holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an unexploded bomb, he looked at it uncomprehendingly. A letter? For him?

After bringing the serving plates to the canteen table around which T and his friends were sitting, the pion had returned with the letter.  For those who don’t know the French educational system, a pion is usually a university student earning some extra cash by working as a school monitor or quasi-prefect. Prefects are not chosen from amongst sixth form pupils, as in Britain.

He ran his finger under the flap of the envelope, took out the letter, unfolded it  and started reading it under the curious gaze of his friends. They seemed to sense that it contained bad news, which it did — very bad news. T. lifted his head and stared at his friends, his eyes blank and unseeing, as the world around him seemed to fall away.  His heart was still beating — it hadn’t stopped — but his chest felt hollow. He carefully refolded the letter and put it back into its envelope, his hands moving as if some inexperienced puppeteer were controlling them remotely.

The letter, from the French military command,  informed him, in no uncertain terms, that his request for a deferment of his national service had been refused, as it had missed the deadline by a whisker.  He would have to report to barracks the following October, barely a few months away. T’s throat seemed to close up, but he managed to croak, “My request for a deferment has been refused; I’ve been called up!”

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His friends did not seem overly saddened by this news, with only Kamel remaining silent. They made a few tasteless jokes at T’s expense, and Salah, clasping his hands to his chest, had declaimed, in the best melodramatic tradition,”Alas, what a shame! To see such a promising career cut short — a future in ruins! Such a loss for humanity! SO tragic!” before turning back to his meal without further ado. T. pushed his plate towards Kamel — he had suddenly lost his appetite.

The pieds noirs had just set up the rebel Comités de Salut Publique (Committees for Public Safety) in most of Algeria’s big cities. Their more extremist members were calling for the return of an elderly retired general, called Charles de Gaulle, to manage the worsening situation in Algeria, and wanted those fighting for Algerian independence to be eliminated once and for all — and by any means necessary.

Their term for this was pacification (peacekeeping), a euphemism for military intervention. It was easier to make the general public swallow this escalation of violence when it was used in terms of guaranteeing security rather than those of increasing violent repression. But they had learnt the thrill of the kill, the sick joy that comes with indiscriminate  violence and destruction, and their tactic of pacification would begin its inexorable slide into genocide. Genocide — eight letters to describe more murder and pain than the human mind can comprehend.

T’s mind careered around like a runaway horse, headed in new and terrible directions, and, try as he might, he could not rein it in. Without a deferment, he could no longer stay on at school. The only thing left for him was to choose how he wanted to die. He could go ahead and be conscripted into the French army, but by doing this he would bring not only shame on his family by joining the enemy’s ranks, but risked being killed in the very next ambush of a French army patrol by FLN forces.

Or he could desert, go underground and join the maquis with others from his village. With hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have lasted a month. As a result of la bleuïte, the campaign of whispers and rumours fomented by capitaine Léger, all students joining the maquis were considered as potential traitors and coldly executed as such by the very fighters they had gone to join.

For T, it was as if the world had suddenly ground to a halt. What was even worse — he had nobody to help or advise him. He did not tell anyone when he went back to the bakery that evening – not his mother or brothers and especially not his uncles. He knew full well that they would push him to join the maquis, seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of him for good.

He started desperately searching  for a solution.  How could he go directly to the French military to plead his case when the FLN had a reputation for slitting the throat of anyone they suspected of being a traitor? Strangely enough, it was one of his pied noir classmates who helped him out by telling him about a little-known school office whose officials apparently were there to assist any student with problems relating to their conscription.

So, after classes the very next day, T found himself knocking hesitantly on the door of an office hidden in the bowels of the school building. It opened to reveal the smiling face of a pied noir, who ushered T in with further ceremony. After listening to his story, monsieur Mundweiler, for that was his name, swiftly reassured the frightened teenager. No, it wasn’t too late; yes, he could help him; yes, he knew the people to contact to have T’s case reviewed before his call-up date.

T began to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel that had seemed, a few minutes before, like a black hole waiting to swallow him up.

Monsieur Mundweiler helped T compose letters requesting a new deferment of his call-up on the grounds that he had lost his father and was the sole mainstay of his family. The official also found out the names of the organisations to which they were to be sent, and even aided him in the drafting of his responses. He suggested that T sign up for a military training course — a PME or Préparation Militaire Elémentaire,  giving him a maximum number of points which might sway the members of the Conseil de Révision (Military Service Tribunal) in his favour when making their final decision.

So it was in a Army camp located somewhere between Belfort and Bellevue that T found himself every Thursday, sweating with fear, balancing on a narrow wooden beam placed six metres from the ground. He would crawl on his stomach under camouflage nets fixed close to the ground, clasping a rifle against his chest, and haul himself bodily up ropes dangling from the ceiling. As he was only seventeen and a half years of age, he was in peak physical condition, and had no difficulties in completing the daunting obstacle courses. He also found out that he was an extraordinarily gifted sharpshooter.  If nothing else, a career as a sniper lay ahead of him.

This military training had certain lasting effects, some of which I noted when I came to know him better. He hated heights. He always won the cuddly toy when we went into shooting galleries along the Promenade on visits to my parents in Blackpool. He could pull himself to the top of a climbing rope using only his arms. All this under the admiring gaze of someone who couldn’t even climb up a metre of a climbing rope in school gym lessons, even when using her feet, and would end up twisting and turning forlornly on the end of the rope like a fob on a watchchain.

T earned in this way the maximum three hundred and forty-one points. He finally obtained a response from the French military authorities in November 1960, after a wait of eighteen months, saying that the decision concerning his conscription had been postponed until 1962. By that time, of course, Algeria was independent.

Whatever the circumstances, generalisation is, at best, an inefficient method of judging people and, although most pieds noirs were inherently racist, there is no doubt in my mind at all that T is here today thanks to a sympathetic classmate and a minor school official called Mundweiler.

 

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Les amis : une famille dont on a choisi les membres.

Friends: a family whose members you have chosen.

-Alphonse Karr


“T’as quel âge, dis? Combien de fois t’as redoublé?” (How old are YOU then? How often have you repeated your year?)

T. glanced down at the small fourteen-year-old boy squinting up at him. On his new classmate’s face was an expression of barely repressed glee, his slanting black eyes triumphant and his mouth twitching upwards on the left, dimpling his cheek. He was smartly dressed in tight trousers, shoes polished to within an inch of their life, and a carefully-ironed shirt and tie. His wiry black curls had been plastered down with brilliantine and carefully combed to one side.

There could not have been more of a contrast with T.  One of the unfair things in life is that when a boy reaches a certain height, he is expected to be a man, regardless of his age, and T had simply reached it ahead of his peers. He had that shy look about him teenagers often get when they’ve grown too fast, like they aren’t really sure about being a man just yet. But his recent loss and new responsibilities had made his childhood a thing of the past.

Two years older than his classmates, his shoulders had broadened from working outdoors on the farm, and his face had already begun to lose the rounded contours of childhood, replaced by the defined bone structure of an adult. The beginnings of a downy moustache were visible on his upper lip and his shock of hair had been cropped short. His clothes, although relatively new, were already too small for him, barely reaching his bony wrists and ankles. Towering over his pint-sized interrogator, he didn’t bother answering, but contented himself with a noncommittal shrug.

His calm demeanour, however, belied the grit underneath. By the end of the first term, he had shot to the top of the class, but still felt compelled to revise every evening on his return home. Passing his exams and going on to university was his ticket out of his present situation — counting every penny and depending on his uncle for a tiny monthly pittance, barely enough to feed and clothe his family.

His classmates quickly revised their opinion of him.  Soon they were debating on whether they would keep him in their group of friends after all, as he was a little TOO conscientious for them. He brought down the tone of the whole gang, showing the rest of them up. Finally they opted to keep him – after all, he was useful when they wanted to copy their homework from someone.

 

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Class photo  – Back row, T third from the left, Ali second from the right. Front row, Salah second from the left and Mus second from the right. Henri is on T’s left.

Every school day from then on followed the same pattern. Every morning, T gulped down his bowl of café au lait downstairs in the bakery, breathing in the delicious scents of fresh bread, croissants and pastries. Breaking off the crusty end of a baguette and cramming it into his mouth on his way out, he would then sprint along the street to the Café de la Place, where his friend Kamel was waiting for him, nonchalantly leaning against a pillar and smoking a forbidden cigarette, the lighted end cupped against his palm so that nobody could see.

They would climb up the steep rue Arago together, stopping every now and then to catch their breath. The long winding street was lined with shops, Spanish bodegas and bars, of which the facades, still damp with morning dew, would glisten in the warmth of the sun. Some of the townhouses, festooned with curly wrought-iron balconies and stucco decorations, were covered with purple wisteria or creamy-white jasmine, the blooms adding their scent to the already heady smells of hot coffee and fresh bread seeping out from the numerous pavement cafés along their route.

Laughing and joking together like teenagers everywhere, they would suddenly fall silent when they saw an armed patrol coming towards them, machine guns at the ready. T’s heart would  be hammering in his ears, but he would manage to keep his gait casual with no hint of hesitation. Once the soldiers had passed them, it would take a while for the two boys to feel relaxed enough to start fooling around again.

T would surreptitiously lift the lapel of his jacket, to look at the badge with the FLN emblem — green and white with a red crescent and star in the middle — that he had pinned underneath. This emblem would become Algeria’s national flag after independence. Of course, it goes without saying that, if he had been caught with this badge, his fate would have been sealed.

Every morning, T. hoped to catch sight of one particular young lady, who, walking along the opposite pavement, and under T’s insistent gaze, would wave shyly at him. Of course, Kamel did not hesitate to make fun of him; laughing uproariously at his friend’s blushes and gleefully mocking his timidity. It never went any further than an exchange of glances — T never even knew her name, never spoke to her, but it was the first time since his father’s death that he felt that his life was beginning to return to something approaching normal.

Once they had arrived at the school gates, they would meet up with the rest of their friends. Salah, the jovial onewas the small boy who had impertinently asked T’s age at the beginning of the school year, and would eventually accompany T to Britain seven years later; Ali, the handsome one — as suave and elegant as any Italian, with the knife-edge crease to his trousers and the wavy black hair; and Mustapha – Mus — the fiery one, the cherished only son of a gendarme. Kamel, with his Elvis-style quiff, was the laid-back one of the group, and T. the serious one. They formed a tightly-knit group of friends, always looking out for each other.

They had to, because they were, in fact, the only four arabes in a class of thirty-four pupils. All their other classmates were pied noir, with names like Robert, Henri, Pierre and Noel. Sometimes, in the early years, there were tense discussions between the two sides about the political and social situation in Algeria. They would gather together in the schoolyard and put forward their opposing points of view.

The pied noir students tried to explain that their fathers or grandfathers had arrived in Algeria with barely a sou to their name, and that they had worked hard to clear the land and drain the salt flats to make them suitable for farming. They had then planted orange groves and  vineyards, not forgetting the buildings, blocks of flats and villas that they had constructed— all linked by an extensive road network, every road with its plane or eucalyptus trees standing sentinel on each side.

On the other side, T and his friends protested that their ancestors had been there centuries before the French, only to be relegated now to the status of second-class citizens, treated worse than animals, subjected to abuse, dispossession and deprived of even the most basic of human rights. The war that was being fought in the mountains and the cities of Algeria was being reproduced there in the schoolyard, although the weapons of choice were barbed remarks and not rifles or bombs.

But the situation was gradually deteriorating and the relations between “Arab” and pied noir students became less and less convivial, until the two groups were barely speaking to each other. There was an invisible barrier between them. It had always existed, but had become almost tangible, with the pied noir students even being forced to undergo military training at weekends to learn how to use firearms.

One of T’s classmates, Henri, a good friend until then, had slapped T good-naturedly on the back one Monday morning before class, and, puffing out his chest and with a visible swagger, exclaimed. “It’s a shame I didn’t come across you in the street yesterday, vieux! I would have put a bullet through your brain without a second thought!”

The End of Innocence

(He) wept for the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart….

— William Golding: The Lord of the Flies


If the ruler dies while the heir is too young to take over, the old monarch’s younger brother (i.e. the new monarch’s uncle) would probably become the interim de facto ruler and would be well positioned to take the crown permanently if something unfortunate were to happen.

— TV Tropes


“Come in here,” T’s youngest uncle mumbled, “We need to talk about money.”

As soon as T. had arrived back at the bakery from school that October afternoon, a week or so after his father’s funeral, he had found the latter’s two younger brothers waiting for him. Surprised, he also noted the unwelcome presence of his father’s cousin, S. It all looked very official. Finding nothing to say, he went to stow his schoolbag at the back of the shop, next to the huge stainless steel kneading machines where the batches of crusty baguettes, hot from the ovens, had been set out in preparation for the evening rush. Continue reading

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.