The Lion King

Maman! Maman! It’s Garcia!! Garcia is in the garage!” My son had set off for school a few moments before, but had come rushing back, his face drained of all colour. Garcia? How could that be?

Garcia was one of the abandoned kittens we had taken in the year before. A few months later, we had found him motionless on the front veranda, seemingly close to death. We concluded that he must have been poisoned by a lump of meat covered in rat poison thrown over our wall. The idea had probably been to poison our dog, and thus gain access to the house when we were absent.

So we had given poor Garcia’s limp body to the gardener, with instructions to bury him in a field somewhere. And, yet, almost a year later, here he was — back from the dead. Resurrected. I rushed out to the garage and it was indeed Garcia,  sitting on the roof of the car, seemingly in robust health, miaowing loudly and indignantly as soon as he caught sight of us.

He had become used to life as a free agent, though, and never settled with us again. He would come back to visit us from time to time, deigning to be stroked and spraying the staircase. One day, however, he left and never came back.

We have always had cats in my family. We had been cat owners since the day my mother had gone into our kitchen when I was eighteen months old and found a mouse sitting nonchalantly twitching its whiskers on the draining board. Our first cat, Mickey, had lived until I was fifteen. Going into the kitchen for a drink of water, I found her stretched out dead on the floor. Mickey? Her?  Yes, Mickey was a she-cat. Dad had made a mistake when examining her as a kitten, but later swore she had changed sex just to make him a liar.

We had a couple of cats after that, including one donated by my sixth-form English teacher. He — and it was definitely a tomcat this time — rejoiced in the imposing name of Jonathan. Well, you surely don’t expect an English teacher to call a cat Fluffy or Tiddles, do you?

By this time I had left for university and didn’t give cats a second thought until my third year. T. had to move to Liverpool to study for his Master’s degree and I was left behind in Sheffield, in a small flat, heated only by a two-bar electric heater, to prepare for my Second Part Finals. My heart had quailed at the prospect.

As there were not very many lectures or tutorials during the Third Year, most of my time was spent in revising. So there I was — stuck in the flat — with no television, just a record-player on which I played a pile of mournful French love songs, full of longing and despair. Nothing like a bit of Brel or Aznavour to make you feel worse.

Who, or what, could keep me company during the cold, lonely nights when T wasn’t there? The answer came when we went over to Blackpool to see my parents just before he left. Their cat (I’ve forgotten which one) had produced a litter of adorable kittens. T. looked at me and then back at the kittens as if he’d just discovered the Holy Grail. “Why don’t we take one back to Sheffield to keep you company?” he said.

We had an eventful drive back to Sheffield. The kitten, scared out of its wits, careered around the inside of the car — at one time clinging upside-down, hissing, to the roof upholstery by its claws, its fur standing on end, its tail like a bottle brush  — and crawling all over a friend we had taken along for the ride, even sitting on his head at one point.

During the journey home, I mused aloud about a name for my new pet, trying out a few for size. “Izem,” said T. firmly, trying to concentrate on the road ahead. “Izem?” “It means lion in Kabyle.” “Oh,” I answered feebly, glancing at our friend, also Kabyle, who was nodding vigorously. And so Izem the First was crowned, the first of a dynasty of three.  I only kept him a short while, though, giving him to a neighbour when I moved to Liverpool permanently a few months later.

Just as an aside, I had been taught in my linguistic studies that if a language has a word for an object, animal or utensil, they must have existed in the immediate environment when the language was first evolving. “Izem” is a Kabyle word, not a loan word from Arabic, Spanish or French. So lions must have existed in Kabylie at one time. T. confirmed this later by telling me that his father had once been chased by a lion near their village.

Izem the Second came into our life a few months after our wedding. T. must have realised that I was struggling to adapt to life in Algeria, although we had never discussed it. I think he felt that if he commiserated with me over my difficulties, patting me on the back and murmuring,”There, there,” he would open the floodgates.

So one evening he came home carrying a large cardboard box. On opening the flaps, I found a small kitten curled up inside. Black like his predecessor, Izem the Second soon had the run of the flat, although T balked a little at his litter tray. For him, animals had only one place and that was outside. A bit difficult, though, on the eighth floor of a tower block of flats.

My mother-in-law quite liked cats, but, like her son, thought they should know their place. Outside. Once, looking at me stroking Izem, who was purring on my lap, she said something acerbic to T. in Kabyle. When I gave him an enquiring look, he muttered  sheepishly, “My mother thinks you should be dandling a baby on your knee, not a cat!”

Her wish was granted, and nine months later, Izem the Second went the same way as his predecessor, the day we brought our daughter home from the maternity clinic. I don’t know whether the stories about cats sitting on babies’ faces are just urban legends, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

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Izem the Third was one of the many cats we collected when we moved to the Villa Robineau. The neighbours had found a useful way of getting rid of their unwanted kittens by throwing them over, or shoving them under our double gates. Our German Shepherd dog, Titan, would soon dispatch them the same way as he did rats, that is, throwing them up into the air and breaking their necks. If we managed to get to them first, however, he would then consider them as part of the family, never touching them thereafter, only indulging in a little “play chase” when he got bored.

Izem the Third should really have been named Thasseda or Lioness because, yes, it was another female. We added innumerable other cats to our menagerie, including the three brothers — Grisou, who, suffering from gender identity problems, tried to suckle some other abandoned kittens, Picsou and Garcia, (the Resurrected) named after the sergeant in the Zorro television series because he was vastly greedy, verging on feline obesity.

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The three brothers – Garcia in front

I’m glad that we had a series of pets when the children were small, because their attitude to animals was the complete opposite to that of most Algerians, whose reaction veered from disgust to outright fear, with most Algerian children fleeing in terror or bursting into tears at the mere sight of a dog or cat.

Dracula

Réveille-toi! Réveille-toi!” (Wake up! Wake up!) I shook my husband’s shoulder until he snorted a couple of times and then looked at me through sleepy, half-closed eyes.  “Skiya?” he mumbled – in other words, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” (What’s the matter?)

When he could finally focus, he saw,  to his surprise, that I was sitting bolt upright in bed, massaging my right hand. I had woken up, realising that my hand was completely numb. I wasn’t worried at all at first, merely thinking that I had been sleeping on it and so, still half-asleep, had rubbed it desultorily a couple of times. It was only when the hand remained stubbornly numb and no amount of rubbing brought the feeling back, did I panic and wake T.

Still flat on his back, eyes closed, he obediently started rubbing my hand as well. All to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I lay flat on my stomach, my hand, rubbed red and raw, dangling over the edge of the bed. Gradually and excruciatingly, the feeling returned. It was like a bad case of pins and needles, only ten times worse.

The next day, I thought no more about it. We were still living in the Clos des Poivriers at the time with our daughter, aged two, and our son, who was about five months old. As baby clothes in Algeria were not really to my taste, I had spent a lot of time over the past few months knitting little jumpers, cardigans and trouser suits for my son. There he was, kitted out in knitted flares and trendy waistcoats, like a miniature Sonny Bono.

I had already done this two years before, when I had knitted my daughter’s entire layette – except for her nappies. The shelves in our wardrobe had been full of little, hand-knitted garments in pastel shades. I had carefully avoided pink or blue wool as we had had no idea if the baby I was expecting was a girl or a boy. No scans in Algeria at that time. It was perhaps lucky, in that some people might have thought twice about bringing a pregnancy to term if they had known it was a girl.

After a few days’ respite, the numbness and tingling in my right hand woke me again. This time I knew what to do, and let my hand dangle over the side of the bed again. The pain was awful –  I bit my lip not to groan at the agonising prickling, both of the numbness and of the sensation seeping back.

I soon found that I could not raise my right hand higher than chest level without it losing all feeling.  One day, sitting cross-legged on the floor,  trying to do up the buttons on the back of my daughter’s dress as she stood patiently in front of me, I burst into tears. My hand felt like a block of wood, and was about as much use. How could I continue to live a normal life as a wife and the mother of two small children, if I couldn’t use my hand properly?

Fatiha rushed into the room on hearing my sobs, and fastened my daughter’s dress for me. Off she skipped, not giving a thought as to why her mother had suddenly been  reduced to a gasping, shuddering wreck.

Soon, just dangling my hand over the edge of the bed didn’t work anymore. I had to get out of bed and stand there for what seemed like an age, letting my hand drop to my side. T. would wake from a deep sleep and peer through the shadows in the bedroom to find me looming over the side of the bed, my arms by my sides and trying not to make any noise. He would blink at me and say tentatively, “Wendy?” A loud sob would be the only response I could make. He later confided in me that if I had not answered, he would have been out of the room like a shot.

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Put yourselves in his shoes.  You wake up from a deep sleep, feeling a PRESENCE in the room. You prise open your eyes to see a dark figure standing by the bed, its arms straight down by its sides. It isn’t doing anything – just standing there. The only noise you can hear is a kind of strange, snuffling sound. Visions of blood-soaked fangs and bony fingers reaching for your neck race through your mind. Dracula had nothing on me.

I finally went to see our local doctor, Dr. D. His surgery was just around the corner and along Bethioua’s main road. He had always been our friend, being approximately our age and having worked for Sonatrach at the ammonia plant for a while.

I can remember him walking down our front path for  the first time, fashionable flares and kipper tie flapping in the breeze. His sideburns and moustache were a wonder to behold. Not my idea of a family doctor, having been brought up under the care of our dour, grey-haired GP in Blackpool – he of the bristly eyebrows that had always fascinated me as a child.

Dr. D., however, was to be of inestimable help to our family. He had accompanied T. to Algiers after my husband’s car accident and even after that, we could always count on him. When my son caught measles from his sister a few months later, he would come round to the house every single evening without being asked – just to check on our baby.

Dr. D. was no specialist, though. After scratching his head a bit and stroking his moustache, he decided to give me a course of cortisone injections. Even at the time, I knew that cortisone had bad side effects, but would have done anything, bar chopping off my hand, to take the pain away. The injections had limited success, reducing the agonising prickling, but doing nothing for the numbness.

I learned to manage my condition – no name had yet been put to my mysterious ailment. I learnt to sleep in certain positions, so my hand would not fall prey to the creeping numbness. I learnt not to use the hand for certain tasks. Sometimes, I would forget and have an agonising flare-up, as, for example, when T. brought home a load of pine planks for shelving, and I helped sand them down using just a bit of sandpaper.

It was only many years later, after our return to Britain, that I finally knew what was wrong. It is called carpal tunnel syndrome.  After a series of tests, I was operated on to release the nerve from its inflamed, constricting sheath. That night, lying in bed, I realised that, for the first time in forty years, my hand was completely free from pins and needles.

My habit of knitting for hours on end has been the root cause of the problem, strangely enough aided by the fact that I had just recently given birth.  I had to give up what used to be one of my favourite hobbies, and sadly,  have not knitted again from that day to this.

It Never Rains, But It Pours

When we first moved into the Villa Robineau in 1978, we spent most of our time at first trying to drag it into the modern era. It had been built in the twenties and had remained firmly stuck in that decade. This, of course, was not at all to my taste, as its old-fashioned elegance was completely at odds with the fashionable indoor decor of the brash seventies. So we tried to jazz it up as best we could.

We were able to make purely cosmetic changes, like papering the walls in eye-popping geometric designs and consigning to the outhouses all of the solid wood wardrobes and bedside tables left behind by the original owners, replacing them by white-laquered cubes that had been cobbled together by a local carpenter in the best tradition of IKEA (or Habitat.)

I must admit, though, that I succumbed to the art deco charms of two of the original pieces of furniture – a curved cupboard in shiny dark wood and a glazed display cabinet with a marble inset where we kept our few bottles of alcohol and our wine glasses. My eye was also caught by a beautiful bow-fronted chest of drawers that later found pride of place in our bedroom.

The one part of the house we couldn’t renovate, however, was the roof. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but the original French settler owners had imported slates from the north of France to cover the roof’s steep pitches and gables. It had been a statement roof, meant to underscore the owners’ status and demonstrate their superiority, financial or otherwise, to the other inhabitants of Bethioua – or Saint-Leu, as it was known at the time.

Unfortunately, when it came to repairing the roof, as slates had never been a traditional building material in Algeria, there were none to be found. Terracotta tiles had always been used there as roofing material, but even these became harder to come by in the seventies and eighties.

Most householders simply demolished their tile or slate roofs, replacing them by the dreaded concrete slab. New houses were built with flat roofs. I hated these, thinking they removed all character from the houses. They looked as through they had been subjected to a particularly close buzz-cut by a crazed army barber. The average Algerian family, however, loved a flat roof, as it provided more storage space, somewhere to dry clothes and temporary sleeping quarters during the sweltering summer nights.

If we had removed the slate roof from the Villa Robineau, it would simply have become a featureless, grim block of a building, pierced by long, lugubrious windows and a strange, curly pergola sticking out into the void. So we clung stubbornly to our Hitchcock-style roof, even though it caused many problems. The wind whistling in from the sea on particularly stormy days caused slates to come crashing to the ground, especially as they had simply been hung on nails that had become increasingly corroded by the sea air.

Finally, the uppermost ridge broke off and next time it rained, water came pouring into the loft through the gaps. Rain in Algeria is not a gentle English drizzle, pattering softly on to a canopy of leaves – it is storm-lashed and furious, suiting the Algerian temperament, drumming on roofs and windows and turning dry river beds and streets into swiftly-flowing streams.

Luckily, the original owners of the house had provided for any eventual roof leak by covering the loft floor with a sheet of soft zinc to protect the ceilings below. T. tried his best to plug any leaks, applying some kind of red epoxy resin to the slates from the inside to bond them together and replacing any missing ones by rectangles of rigid linoleum cut to size. But it was an uphill and thankless task.

Algerian cloudbursts also caused problems elsewhere. The  new blocks of flats built in Arzew during the eighties had been designed with no thought given to the natural water courses that flowed from the hills behind the town down to the sea. So Arzew would flood on a regular basis, muddy water flowing through streets and houses alike.

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One day, when the rain was coming down in buckets, we were informed that the streets in Arzew had once again become impassable. Our children were trapped there in school and instead of waiting for T. to send a search party, I set off on my own rescue mission in my unreliable Fiat 128. Clinging to the steering wheel and holding my breath, I could barely see the road through the grey curtain of rain and finally came to a wheezing, stuttering halt in the town centre, the water reaching the top of my wheels and drowning my engine.

Flagging down the nearest car, which was carefully navigating its way through the floodwaters, I was relieved to find that the driver was one of T’s Sonatrach colleagues, who drove me home. On arriving, I found that my son was already there, having cadged a lift from a lorry driver. Of course, like parents everywhere, I subjected him to an irate ear bashing on the importance of  staying put. Our daughter, usually less level-headed than her brother, had done the sensible thing for once and waited for the school bus.

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Heavy rainfall was even worse when it followed a sandstorm in the Sahara, many thousands of miles to the south.  There would be no wind to speak of, but the sky would turn an ominous orange, casting a strange, unreal light on the landscape, as if heralding the end of the world. If it rained afterwards, we would wake up to a scene of devastation. Everything would be coated in red mud – cars, outdoor furniture, garden plants – everything. The rain would have brought down all the sand high up in the atmosphere and dumped it everywhere.

The new ring roads built in the eighties to circumnavigate the villages on the road to Oran had also been built without any provision for drainage, so when it rained heavily, the streams of water from Lion Mountain would flow across the ring road, turning it into a churning, raging torrent.

On one such day, when the rain was pelting down and lightning was strobing the ominous black thunderclouds, T. was due to take a flight to Algiers. Of course, instead of cancelling the trip like any sensible person, he insisted on maintaining his schedule. His driver was busy with some other important task, so we drove to the airport together, inching forward along the flooded ring road, leaving a white, foamy wake behind us like a motorboat.

My husband safely dropped off at the airport, I faced the journey back on my own. Not wanting to brave the ring road again, I decided to take the old colonial road, lined with trees, which wound its way back to Bethioua by a circuitous route.

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Except for one hair-raising moment when I overtook a tanker lorry and the car started aquaplaning, my journey home was remarkably incident-free. The surface of the old road was barely wet, as the pied noir builders had made sure that there was a drainage ditch on each side of the road, ready to catch any surface water running off.

On my arrival home, the phone rang. It was my husband, freshly landed in Algiers, “just checking.” He had obviously been worried, but had given no outward sign of it – as usual.

Keeping Mum

T. turned to me, putting his arm along the back of the carseat and looked at me steadily, never taking his eyes from my face. “It IS leukaemia,” he said.

On that particular day in 1977, we had just drawn up in front of the house on our return from the beach. I had been talking at length about my fears, but T. had not responded to my ramblings, busy putting the car in neutral, turning off the engine and pulling up the handbrake with a decisive tug. When he had finally answered me, I had stared at him in shock. “How do you know?” was all I could stammer out.

He explained that he had received a telegramme at work the day before from Mum, telling him the bad news about my father. He had immediately replied by the same method, assuring my mother of our love and support. All this without saying a word to me until I had brought up the subject myself. His first instinctive reaction had been to shield me from the bad news, but he had soon realised that he would have to inform me. I suppose he had been waiting for the right moment.

I had just returned from a holiday to Blackpool with the children, aged seven and six at the time, where I had found Dad in hospital with a supposedly minor complaint. He was making sure that he was in tip-top condition, as he and Mum were due to fly out to Algeria a fortnight later. I can remember going into his ward in Victoria Hospital and my daughter, gregarious as usual, clambering on to his bed without any bidding, to give him a hug. My son, intimidated by all the hospital paraphernalia, hung back. No amount of coaxing could bring him out from behind my skirts.

On my return to Algeria, I had confided in T. about my worries, convinced that the anaemia the consultant had mentioned in passing was, in fact, something far worse. I had then dared give voice to my deepest, darkest fear – that it was leukaemia. I wasn’t sure as hospital policy at that time was to keep the facts about a patient’s terminal illness from friends and family. As I spoke, tears were already beginning to form in my eyes. So when T confirmed my fears, it was a shock, but not an unexpected one.

My mother and father had been out to Algeria together twice before. Mum had, of course, been present at our wedding, but she and Dad had visited together a couple of times afterwards. Dad enjoyed his holidays with us, pottering around the house in the Clos, even making traditional Lancashire stools for the children from off-cuts of wood. He had done the same  for my sister and me when we were children, and our childish imagination had transformed the stools into boats, cars, cradles for our dolls and magical Cinderella coaches.

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Dad was wonderful at things like that. He was already middle-aged when my sister and I were born and didn’t have the energy to play tag with us. But he would craft the most wonderful toys – a dolls’ house with working lights and a toy theatre with lights and velvet stage curtains that you could open and close with a satisfying swish by pulling a drawstring at the side.

But now, still reeling from the shock, I hardly had time to gather my thoughts when T. had to leave for the States on a business trip. The morning of his departure, a couple of hours after he had set off for the airport, the telephone rang in my office down at the LNG plant. Picking it up with nerveless fingers, I recognised the voice of T’s secretary, announcing that she had received a telegramme  from Britain. My heart pounding, I asked her to read it out for me. It was the news that I had been dreading.

As I had residency status in Algeria, I required an exit visa to leave the country. One of the many documents needed to obtain it from the local authorities was an attestation signed by T. confirming that I lived under his roof – une attestation d’hébergement. It is very difficult to find the equivalent of this in English – I don’t think such a paper exists, or has ever existed in Britain.

It implied so many things – most of them negative. The fact that, even though my name was on the deeds, the house belonged to my husband – I was living under HIS roof. The fact that he had to vouch for me –  a mere woman, a second-class citizen. The fact that I couldn’t leave Algeria without his permission. It also meant that, as he wasn’t there to sign the paper, I couldn’t leave Algeria to attend my own father’s funeral.

A year after my father’s death, Mum had recovered enough to make the trip out to Algeria on her own. She loved being surrounded by family again, enjoying being the centre of attention, and all of T’s brothers and sisters, his mother and uncle made sure that she was, treating her like a queen. They had become, in fact, not only members of my family, but members of hers as well. On her return to Britain, she would wax lyrical about the scenery, the house, the beach, the sun and her wonderful son-in-law and precocious grandchildren.

Fatiha would bend over backwards to cater to Mum’s every whim, tending her lovingly when she felt a little off-colour, putting her to bed like a child and bringing her hot tisane and cakes. My mother-in-law, during her visits, would greet my mother every morning in English, laboriously learning the unfamiliar words at our prompting. She would be so worried about my mother not being fed properly, she would start preparing lunch at around ten o’clock in the morning.

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Mum would be in fits of giggles when I returned home from work, saying that she had just eaten a plateful of stone-cold omelette and chips, my mother-in-law hovering anxiously in the background. Mum would never fail,  however, to end her comic description by adding fondly, “Ah – bless her!” and sending an affectionate glance in my mother-in-law’s direction, which was always reciprocated in full measure.