A New Heaven

No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

-Helen Keller


I leant against the door of our flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc and listened to my husband’s footsteps clattering down the flight of polished granite stairs to the lift on the landing below. The tiny, two-person lift, when it was working, only stopped on floors with odd numbers. It was still dark and the air was still chilly with night, but, on peering earlier through the bedroom window, I had seen a pinkish-yellow glow to the east.

I turned back into the flat with a despondent sigh and looked around. Try as I might, I had not been able to make it homely. It had proved impossible to hammer nails into the earthquake-proof concrete walls, painted a greasy utilitarian cream, reminiscent of Blackpool Corporation bus shelters.  As a result, there were no pictures on the walls, no curtains at the windows, and no rugs on the floor to soften the starkness of my surroundings. Nothing whispered that magic word “home” to me.

The remains of our breakfast lay scattered on the shiny veneered table. Two bowls containing small pools of rapidly-cooling café au lait, a pile of pastry flakes from our croissants and a small chunk of pain blanc smeared with apricot jam. It was seven o’clock on a cold February morning and eleven long empty hours lay in front of me.

Since our wedding in July, I had been battling with mild homesickness, culture shock, surprise family visits and, since September, the unrelenting nausea of early pregnancy. The homesickness had not been too bad and family visits were bearable, at least as far as my brothers-in-law were concerned, as I was able to hold a reasonable conversation with them.

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My mother-in-law was another prospect entirely. Not speaking a word of each other’s languages, we would try to make our intentions clear with smiles, hand gestures and nods. In spite of all this manifest good will, there were still interminable hours during which we would sit staring glumly at each other, waiting for the whine and rattle of the lift and the welcome sound of T’s key turning in the lock. When it came, we would both rush to the door, almost elbowing each other out of the way, relieved that our interpreter had returned home.

The worst battle of all was with my persistent nausea. I felt like strangling the person who had invented the phrase “morning sickness.” Mine lasted all day. How could anything so natural feel so bad? It was worse than a bad bout of food poisoning, as at least with that you knew it would be over in a few days.

I gazed down at my gently swelling stomach. I wanted the baby out of me, into my arms. I hated this state of silent lethargy, this waiting. I felt trapped. I wanted to jump into a time machine and zoom forward to summer and the birth of our child. But before that I would have to go through a world of unimaginable pain. I turned my thoughts hurriedly away from that prospect and decided to take a shower to relax and help pass the time. Perhaps I could even stretch the time spent in the bathroom to a full hour.

Standing in the square bathtub, I felt the water trickling over my shoulders, dripping  from the ends of my long, black hair on to my stomach, which was expanding every day, proof that another being resided within me. Two heartbeats inside one single body. I looked down at my pale skin, glistening with water and marred with the red lines of the stretch marks radiating out around my hips. My back ached and I automatically adopted the classic stance of the pregnant woman – hands pushed into the small of my back and shoulders straightened to counterbalance the extra weight in front.

I climbed out of the shower, towelled myself dry and was just coming out of the steamy bathroom when I thought I heard someone at the door. My heart started thumping so hard I could hear it and the next thing I knew I was lying on the cold floor, opening my eyes to the sight of our cat nosing around my prone body in curiosity. The heat of the bathroom, added to the sudden fright I had experienced, had caused me to drop down in a dead faint.

At that very same moment, T. was happily bowling along the road that led to Arzew and the ammonia plant, as he did every day. The company car he was driving, a Renault 4 with its strange push-and-pull gear lever, its boxy shape and jaunty rear end, had always seemed so quirkily foreign to me. Humming to himself, he was looking forward to the day ahead, brimming with the confidence of youth and sure of the future as only the young can be.

The countryside lay before him like a divine fingerprint, curving and changing, no two parts the same. The dip and sway of the road – the ever-changing sky and wind. Every day was a new snapshot in time, for even this one road could never be exactly the same two days in a row. It was winter now, and the vines in the vineyards on either side of the road had been pruned back, but the branches of the orange trees were hung with fruit, glowing like lanterns amid the dark green foliage. Come spring the gardens would be overflowing with colour and saturated with fragrance; hibiscus and oleander spilling over high white walls, giant bougainvillea bushes curving against the brilliant blue sky in a riot of foaming pink and purple blossom.

Although it had been nearly eight years since independence, some of the villages through which he drove still retained their French names: Arcole, Sainte-Léonie, Saint-Cloud and Renan, and still looked typically French, with their wine depots at one end of the village and their rusting bandstands on the main square. One of the villages even had a pair of mating storks nesting on top of the steeple of the abandoned church.

With the Montagne des Lions still wreathed in mist to his left, he started on the last downhill stretch towards Arzew. In front of him, the coastline lay softly under the early morning light, with the natural harbour, bounded by the headland of Cap Carbon, looking as if hungry gods from aeons ago had taken a bite from the land. This small fishing port was typically mediterranean, with its fishing boats scattered over the shallow, utterly clear water like autumn leaves on the surface of a pond, bobbing on the waves in the cold inshore breeze, turning a little in their chaotic dance.

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T didn’t drive straight on into the centre of Arzew, however, along the palm tree-lined boulevard, past the war memorial, the French school and the police station, but turned right along the coast road, to where the metallic towers of the ammonia plant, steam escaping from its many vents, gleamed in the first pink rays of the sun. He swung into the car park and leaped out of the car, slamming the car door shut behind him and jogged towards the entrance, ready to take on the problems of the day. Life was good.

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Yes, life was good for us then. As the years passed, however, it was very difficult for us to recapture that initial energy, hope and certainty that things could only get better. We became ever more cynical, blasé and disillusioned. What wouldn’t I give just to live one more day filled with such high hopes of a rosy future in a modern, dynamic country and of true independence finally recovered?

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Couscous With Butter And Sugar

Sometimes we survive by forgetting.

-Anon


“Where on earth is he?” I muttered to myself, pacing up and down the house, from the bedroom — where our new-born son was sleeping peacefully in his cot — to the living-room and back again, as if I wanted to wear a path along the tiled corridor. Continue reading