Surprise, Surprise!

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I have always hated surprises. No, really. I like my life to be planned out, and for me to know exactly what I’m doing, for days, if not for weeks ahead. Call me obsessive, a control freak, what you will – to me, it is the only way I feel safe. I always had a slight tendency to be like that, anyway, but Algeria just magnified this failing, blowing it up to monstrous proportions.

Unfortunately, I have a husband who just loves springing surprises on me. Usually involving his arrivals. Either he arrives early or late, but never when I expect him. He has even refined his torture technique to the point that he will, when the mood takes him, pretend to be stuck somewhere miles away, when he is just about to put his key in the lock of the front door.

When we were at university, he would go back to Algeria during the long summer vacation to spend time with his family. University vacations are seemingly endless – three months in summer – so he’d spend a good four weeks in Algiers. I’d usually fill in the time alone by working at a temporary summer job, usually for pressing financial reasons. Even though I had the maximum grant, it still didn’t stretch through the summer.

The first year, I decided to go down to London to stay with my sister in her Pimlico bedsitter. That juxtaposition of the words “Pimlico” and “bedsitter” seems to be a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But it was still possible, in the sixties, to live in one of the most sought-after central London locations for just a few pounds a week. I soon found a job with Reader’s Digest in their offices near the Old Bailey and would trek back to Pimlico every evening, sometimes stopping off at a mini-supermarket to buy a few things for supper.

T had been gone for a few weeks and although I was receiving letters on a regular basis, I had no idea when he was due back. I had been moping around with a long face for weeks and was becoming seriously tiresome. Thankfully, however, my sister had the patience of a saint.

One evening, clutching my few purchases in a brown paper bag, I trailed up the three flights of stairs to my sister’s bedsitter and heard the sound of the radio on the other side of the closed door. My first thought was that she had been taken ill and had decided to come home to sleep it off. Even when I pushed the door open, finding it unlocked, and saw a large suitcase standing there, I didn’t catch on.  It was only when T leapt out from under the bedcovers where he had been hiding in anticipation of my arrival, did I react, and only then after a few seconds of goggling like a landed fish at the expanse of tanned skin and the wide grin on display.

He did exactly the same thing the following year. I had decided to stay in Sheffield during the summer and had found a job at the Yorkshire Electricity Board offices to pay the rent on my shared flat. One evening, one of the other Algerian students, a Kabyle called Chérif, he of the impossibly beautiful face and the long, curled eyelashes, and his girlfriend, took pity on me, inviting me over to their place for supper. I can still remember the menu. It was garlic veal and potatoes, cooked in the same pot.

All evening, Chérif had been teasing me, pointing at some indeterminate spot behind me when we went for a drink afterwards at the Union, a look of surprise on his face. Of course, I’d think T was standing there behind me and would whip round in my seat. In the street on the way home, he’d suddenly exclaim. “Isn’t that him over there?”

I was at the end of my tether by the time we arrived back at my flat to watch a bit of television and hardly reacted when Chérif said, “I can hear someone at the door! Perhaps it’s him!” Just to prove him wrong, I angrily strode over to the door and, wrenching it open, was confronted with a surprised-looking T, who hadn’t even had time to knock. I was so shocked I didn’t recognize him for a nanosecond, wondering what this handsome stranger wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase was doing on my doorstep. Perhaps a seriously good-looking vacuum tool salesman?

He’d do the same thing when my birthday rolled around, pretending to forget to wish me a happy birthday on the pretext that exams were only a few days away, ignoring me all morning whilst revising, then, after lunch, when I had worked myself into a state of righteous indignation, have all our friends jump out with presents, birthday cards and a cake.

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What began as a joke in Sheffield quickly turned sour once we moved to Algeria. The unpredictability of life over there only added fuel to the bonfire of my anxiety. Besides, in Britain, I hadn’t yet been traumatized by my husband’s serious car accident so soon after the birth of our son. I can fully appreciate the fact that communications were bad, as well as the punctuality of Air Algérie flights, but surely a timetable of “around the twenty-seventh, give or take a few days” would not satisfy the most laid-back of spouses, never mind a worrier like me?

So it was that I’d fret for days, starting at every sound or rattle of the gate, especially when the twenty-seventh had been and gone. Obviously, the “give” was more accurate than the “take.” To be fair, he has since explained that giving me an exact date would have been more worrying for me, so he preferred to give himself a wide margin, as sometimes unforeseen circumstances could crop up. Hmm. There IS a kind of skewed logic in this, as our telephone was often cut off for months on end.

So when my small son would lean excitedly out of the window at nine o’clock at night, shouting, “C’est Papa! C’est Papa!” (It’s Daddy! It’s Daddy!) a few days before his father’s expected arrival, I wouldn’t believe it until I had actually seen – and touched – my husband in the flesh.

He was once away when my parents arrived for a visit. It was only a matter of a few days between their arrival and his, but I was feeling resentful. My parents didn’t mind in the slightest, but I did. He had been due back one evening (give or take a few days) and we had been listening anxiously as various planes droned overhead. We had already been doing this for a couple of nights and the waiting was getting to me. Midnight came and went and still no T.

I finally gave up and took myself off to bed. Lying there, I could feel my stomach churn and hot tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly, I heard my Dad talking to someone, his voice surprised and happy. Then I heard another male voice reply. It was my husband. Leaping out of bed and running down the corridor, I saw him standing there, loaded down with suitcases and duty-free bags, in animated conversation with my father. The children soon woke up when they heard their father’s voice and started excitedly opening the many bags.

I can remember standing there, looking at him, with a feeling of overwhelming relief swelling my heart — yet mixed with anger at the emotional wringer through which he was constantly putting me. To be perfectly fair, I really think he had no idea of the effect it had on me.

I really, REALLY don’t like surprises – even happy ones.

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Sarah Bernhardt

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Maman! Ma-a-a-aman! Il m’a frappeé!” (Mummy! Mu-u-u-ummy! He hit me!”) I could hear  my three-year-old daughter’s wail of indignation as it echoed down the corridor of our house in the Clos. It was quickly followed by the thump of her feet as she ran into the kitchen, flung her arms around my waist, burrowing her head into my stomach. Continue reading

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?) Continue reading

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.