“There has been a serious earthquake near Mexico City. The number of casualties is, as yet, unknown.”
The newscaster’s voice cut into my reverie and my stomach suddenly turned to ice. I had just returned home from dinner at a colleague’s house and was feeling quite relaxed for once. A night out had done me good, as T. was away on business and I had spent the evening enjoying the easy conversation and banter of my American and French colleagues.
Lying in bed, I had decided to switch on the radio alarm by the side of the bed and lull myself to sleep listening to some soothing music. Then a news flash cut into the music programme, banishing my relaxed mood in an instant. Yes – you’ve guessed it. T. was attending meetings – in Mexico City.
He had been due to spend about a week there, before returning home via Britain. We had planned to meet up in Blackpool to spend a few days together before going back to Algeria. What should I do? In 1979, there were no such things as mobile phones and telephone communications inside or outside Algeria were unreliable, to say the least, so a telephone call from him was highly unlikely. There were no twenty-four hour news channels – not even any daytime television in Algeria. No newspapers worthy of the name, just the trusty FLN mouthpiece, El Moudjahid, regurgitating the same old party line. No foreign newspapers at all.
I hardly slept a wink that night, listening to the hourly news bulletins on the radio, but there was still no fresh news on the extent of the disaster or the number of casualties. I went into work next day with bloodshot eyes and an audible tremor in my voice as I informed my colleagues about what had happened. I was working for the American company, El Paso, at the time, and somebody suggested sending a telex message to the hotel where T. and other participants in the meetings were supposed to be staying.
By some minor miracle, I actually had the name of the hotel in question, as my husband was not in the habit of divulging details about work. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say why. I was often kept in the dark about matters regarding T’s job. It was true that he had always wanted to shield me from the often risky and unpleasant side of working as a Sonatrach manager.
Another less charitable way of looking at it was that, although he was usually quite forward-looking in his thinking, the environment in which he worked, the general Algerian attitude towards wives sometimes unconsciously influenced his behaviour. He obviously didn’t want his colleagues to think he was under his wife’s thumb. Informing your wife as to your comings and goings was to show weakness. Besides, European wives had a reputation for wearing the trousers in any mixed marriage and T. was perhaps demonstrating to the world that it wasn’t the case with us.
So I asked permission from my boss to send a message via our new state-of-the-art telex machine. To me, this kind of technology was amazing. I know it seems banal now, in the age of instant messaging and communication, but at the time, to be able to converse in real time with people on the other side of the world by means of a glorified typewriter was a revelation. With the help of my friend, S., who was in charge of the telex room, I contacted the reception desk of the hotel where my husband was supposed to be staying.
The telex machine spluttered a few times then spat out the following message: “Nobody of that name is a guest at this hotel.” My heart sank. I knew exactly what had happened. T. had moved to a cheaper hotel so as to save money on his expenses. Sonatrach was in the habit of handing out the bare minimum in travel expenses, hardly enough to cover hotel and food bills. In order to keep a little money back to buy presents and such, T. and his colleagues had the habit of checking into less expensive accommodation. But, my only link to him had now been severed. I had no idea if he had been injured, or even where he was.
There was complete radio silence from my husband in the days that followed. All my immediate plans were thrown into doubt. Should I just go to Blackpool as if nothing had happened and spend days there fretting about what might, or might not, have happened to him? Should I remain at home in the hope of a phone call – some news, ANY news about him?
In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands as both children came down with chickenpox. There was no way I could travel with them in that state, as they were both highly contagious and I doubt whether I would have even been allowed on the plane with two whingeing, spotty-faced children running a high temperature
A few days later, the phone rang. I answered it and could make out a very faint voice in the midst of crackling static. It sounded as though someone was shouting from the top of a mountain miles away, with an electric storm raging all around them. It was impossible to recognise who was calling and then I suddenly made out the words, “C’est Madame Ouali?” (Is that Mrs. Ouali?). I yelled “OUI!” down the phone and an irate voice came back, “Alors, ici c’est MONSIEUR Ouali!” (Well, this is MR. Ouali!) We obviously could not continue our conversation in those conditions, but it was enough to know that he was safe.
Later, I learned from my mother that he had turned up as planned at her house, and had bounded from the taxi, expecting to see both children rushing towards him in welcome. She had explained the situation to him and impressed on him the urgency of contacting me IMMEDIATELY. His excuse for not contacting me earlier had been that he had not realised that I had heard anything about the earthquake. Hmmm.
He also told me, once safely back in Algeria, that he had been woken by the violent shaking of his hotel room in Mexico and his wardrobe falling over with a loud bang. He had been sleeping without any pyjamas because of the heat, the hotel being so cheap it hadn’t run to air conditioning.
So, after carefully dressing to preserve his modestly, almost overbalancing as he had tried to haul his trousers up, he had opened the door to find that the staircase had detached itself from the landing and that he had had to navigate a gap of over a metre wide before being able to reach the stairs and descend to safety, two floors below.
It was obviously more important to be a well-dressed casualty than a naked survivor. At least that time he got his priorities right.