Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

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Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

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Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

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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.

Food, Glorious Food

T. was sitting across the table from me, his dark eyes trained on my face, a slight crease between his eyebrows betraying his uncertainty.  I could detect a certain guarded wariness there. How was I going to react?  “Eh bien,” he said finally with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, “Voilà du couscous.”

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T at table

It was January, 1966 and we had only been together for a couple of months when we were invited to Sunday lunch by another of the Algerian students. D. had promised to prepare couscous, the Algerian national dish, for us. I had heard of couscous before, but had no idea what to expect.

D. was older than the other students, a former boxer already in his thirties and divorced, with two children back in Algeria. So much older, in fact, that T and his friends later became convinced that D. was, in reality, a secret service agent sent to Britain by the Algerian government to spy on the other students.  It sounded completely paranoid to me at the time – all rather cloak-and-dagger – although, with hindsight, they were probably right.

So, on that freezing winter Sunday, we had turned up at D’s digs, two dingy rooms shared with another student, to be ceremoniously seated around a small table covered with newspaper and then served couscous out of a biscuit tin. I looked at the mess in front of me. With a kind of gloopy vegetable stew and lumps of unidentifiable meat ladled on top, it looked like something that had been pre-digested.

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Couscous

I hesitantly picked up my spoon – was that how you ate couscous? There was no fork in sight – dug around a bit, then transferred the contents of the spoon to my mouth. It was like eating lukewarm wallpaper paste. T. was watching me anxiously. “Mmm..” I mumbled, trying to swallow, “It’s delicious.” T’s face cleared and there was suddenly a palpable air of relief in the room. I had passed the test – the first of many.

It was lucky that I didn’t let that first taste of couscous put me off it for life. Later on, of course, I enjoyed real couscous, prepared for us by my mother-in-law.  I also found out that couscous is called taam, literally meaning ‘food’ in Algerian Arabic, or seksu, meaning ‘well-rolled,’ in Kabyle. It is essentially a Berber dish and can be found all over North Africa and even in Sicily. Berbers were preparing couscous as early as 238 to 149 BC, as primitive couscous pots have been found in tombs dating back to the reign of the Berber King Massinissa.

One of the scenes burned on my memory is of my mother-in-law trying to teach me how to roll couscous. Couscous is basically semolina rolled by hand in a large, shallow bowl, with water and salt gradually added  and the result passed through a series of sieves. It ends up looking like tiny balls, about the size of quinoa grains. Unfortunately, rolling couscous involves sitting on the floor, with one leg folded in front of you and the other stretched out at the side of the enormous tharbuth, or couscous bowl. My legs were much too long to fold and I ended up with one leg on each side of the tharbuth, my unorthodox approach reducing my mother-in-law to tears of laughter.

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Even better than couscous with sauce, was themakfoult – Kabyle couscous prepared with steamed seasonal vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil. Later on, when I became aware of the dietary values of certain foods, I realised that themakfoult was, in fact, one of the most perfectly-balanced meals you could ever hope to eat.

Another dish to which I was introduced at university was douara, or tripe. TRIPE? I hear you cry. Yes, tripe. I was no stranger to tripe, having been brought up in the north of England, where we ate cold pre-boiled tripe with vinegar. It was easy to eat tripe when you knew how. You just opened your mouth and let the stuff slither down your throat without actually tasting it. I didn’t even know you could cook tripe.

One of the other Algerian students, B., had prepared douara for us one evening. Married to a Belgian girl, B. was from Laghouat, a city situated on the northern edge of the Sahara, about four hundred kilometres south of Algiers. You must be thinking that we were extremely lucky to have all these friends cook meals for us.  T. wanted to introduce me to Algerian food, but, as he couldn’t cook and didn’t want to learn, could only do so through the culinary efforts of his friends. When homesickness hit hard and they had had their fill of the tasteless English food on offer, they would cook up a nostalgic feast at home.

Anyway, les tripes à l’algérienne (it sounded so much better in French) were a resounding success. Spiced with caraway, paprika, cinnamon and a hint of chilli, with chick peas and garlic added and coriander and flat-leaved parsley scattered on top, they were mouth-watering. It was lucky that I only learnt afterwards that not only was there tripe in there, but bits of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs.

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Douara

I’m joking because, although most people shun offal nowadays, I had actually been brought up on it. My mother would buy slices of cooked cow’s heart in Blackpool’s Abingdon Street Market as a Saturday teatime treat and liver was often on the school dinner menu. Mum would even eat boiled pig’s trotters, but that was a step too far for me.

Once in Algeria, I became familiar with other Algerian dishes. In fact, one of my wedding presents had been an Algerian cook book, full of recipes to be attempted. Although some of them were fairly easy, being tagines, or stews, with ingredients ranging from prunes to preserved lemons, others required hours of preparation and cooking.

Dishes like bourek, mostly eaten during Ramadan, similar to spring rolls, with a meat, cheese, or egg filling wrapped in sheets of filo pastry (diouls in Algeria), seemed easy enough, but filo pastry was not available commercially – in fact, most ingredients weren’t. They had to be prepared at home. The ingredients had to be mixed together and the tissue-thin sheets of pastry cooked painstakingly one by one, a bit like pancakes. Home-made really meant home-made.

I had neither the time nor the energy, nor indeed the skill, to make more complicated Algerian dishes. Luckily, the major part of Algerian cuisine is very similar to that of many Mediterranean countries, based on fresh seasonal vegetables, fruit, seafood and olive oil. The quintessential Mediterranean diet. Were it not for their incorrigible habit of adding sugar to everything and eating enough sugary, syrupy pastries to send them all  into a diabetic coma, Algerians would have one of the healthiest diets in the world.

One thing I found rather strange about restaurants in Algeria was that they never served Algerian food. All the French classics were there; steak and chips, coq au vin, seafood dishes, steak au poivre and so on, but not a tagine to be seen. During the eighties, one hardy soul opened a restaurant in Oran serving authentic Algerian dishes. The tables were traditional round ones, and the meals were served in painted earthenware pottery, accompanied by flatbread and khobz eddar, literally “home-made bread” – a kind of fluffy semolina bread with a soft, dark golden crust.

Unfortunately, as the tourist industry was, and still is, almost non-existent in Algeria, the restaurant closed its doors after a couple of years. The reason, I found out later, was that Algerians do not go out to restaurants to eat their own traditional dishes. They eat them at home.

 

 

 

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

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T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.

 

Three Men in a Flat

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University of Sheffield in the sixties

“Well, what do you think of that, eh, Wendy? I did a good job there, didn’t I?” S, one of T’s flatmates, was standing in the doorway of the living-room, brandishing a kettle and glowing with pride. I  had been sitting on the sofa, reading a book, when he burst in. The work for my English Literature course  at university consisted mainly of reading, reading and more reading, relieved by a little light essay writing. What do you do when your tutor tells you that you have to read and analyse ALL of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, memorise lengthy soliloquies and commit to heart every tiny detail about his sources, his publishing history and his private life? And that was only one subject amongst many.

When, once in a blue moon, T. and I both had a lecture-free afternoon at the same time, we were to be found in his room in the flat he shared with two other Algerian students. He had had first choice of the two bedrooms, as he had been the one to find the flat and sign the contract with the landlady. So he had plumped for the larger of the two, the one with the bay window looking out on to the tree-lined road with its steep incline and the tall dark houses looming over both pavements like rows of prim dowagers at a debutantes’ ball.

I would stretch out on his white candlewick bedspread, and try to make sense of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Sometimes, for a change, I would struggle  through L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, with its barely comprehensible eighteenth-century French text. T. would be seated at his table in front of the window, working on one of his equally incomprehensible maths or thermodynamics calculations.
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It must be said that T.’s help with my French coursework was invaluable. His French was flawless, as the schools he had attended in colonial Algeria had been exactly the same as those on mainland France. So I had happily entrusted him with my thèmes and versions (translations from and to French) and my French lecturer had been duly dazzled by my prowess and flair for the language.

The only hiccup had been once when T, in a particularly poetical turn of phrase, had translated “an empty stretch of sky” by  “un bout de ciel encore vierge,” substituting “virgin” for “empty.” I had been rebuked by the lecturer in a terse scrawl across my paper: “Tout de même, non!” ( For heaven’s sake – no!)

Any previous girlfriends had not had the run of the flat before I had arrived on the scene.  So the three flatmates had established a system, based on shared responsibilities and running, it must be said, like a well-oiled machine. T., used to budgeting, had done all the shopping for his mother and siblings in Algeria, and so was well able to spot a keen bargain. He was put in charge of the food shop.

H, slightly older than the other two, had had some military experience and knew how to cook. It was thanks to him I had had my first taste of Algerian food, as one memorable meal he had prepared was a kind of chicken tagine in a sauce with garlic, tomatoes, paprika and chick peas. Chick peas? I had never heard of them before. Not only that, he had stirred a raw egg into it a few minutes before dishing it up. I can remember us all sitting around the teak dining-table with the extension leaves pulled out, laughing, joking and happily dipping our torn-off chunks of Vienna bread, purchased from the local Polish grocer, into the communal serving platter.

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On a trip to London, Easter, 1966. Left to right: Me, a friend G., my sister and T.

So the final task – cleaning – had fallen, by default, to S. He had stepped up manfully to the task. Hence his pride in the brightly polished kettle. By then he and H. had acquired girlfriends who also seemed to be there for the long haul, one being Helen, the classmate from Blackpool with whom I had gone up to Sheffield. Of course, the three-man domestic team was made redundant once we three girls moved in.

Well, we didn’t exactly move in, as the university administration kept a beady eye on students’ living arrangements, especially those of female students. We had to stay in registered and approved digs or in halls during the first year. Never mind that some of the approved digs were grim – one girl in my year even finding bedbugs in her mattress – those were the rules.

We did spend, however, most of our time in the flat, only leaving reluctantly late in the evening. If we had stayed away overnight from our digs, the landladies were duty bound to report us to the university authorities. Not that we would have been thrown off our courses or anything, but we would have been at the receiving end of a severe reprimand.

We learned how to live together – three couples in one small flat – doing our best not to tread on each other’s toes. We learned not to filch anybody else’s food from the kitchen cupboard and, above all, not to even think about knocking when a bedroom door was firmly closed.

We learned how to cook – Helen and I buying the first of Len Deighton’s cook books, called Où est le Garlic? – to introduce us to the mysteries of “continental” cuisine.  She has since told me that we had read somewhere that the only way to test whether spaghetti was cooked was to throw it at a wall. If it stuck, it was cooked. I have absolutely no recollection of this at all, but the kitchen wall must have been festooned with strands of dried spaghetti.

T. often arrived late from his judo training sessions when all the University refectories were closed for the night. Before he had met me, he would pick up a steak, a tin of baked beans and a tin of tomato soup on his way home. His culinary skills extended as far as frying a steak and opening a couple of tins for his supper.

The first evening he had invited me around to the flat after one of his training sessions, he had bought two steaks for us to share. At the end of the meal, he turned to look at me and raised one dark eyebrow. Entranced, my heart fluttering, I gazed  into his eyes, expecting some sort of romantic declaration. Instead he said, “Well, I cooked for you this time. It was the first and last time. From now on,  you’ll be cooking for me.”