The Taj Mahal

For those who haven’t read my book, an extract.


Bliss it was at that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Wordworth— The Prelude


A week or so after the party, T and I were still warily circling each other, unsure of whether to take our fledgling relationship to the next level. That is, I was the one who was unsure. I found him fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Amongst other things, he had the kind of looks that could, at the best of times, knock me slightly off-balance.

I had spent most of my time since the party more or less avoiding him. I must admit his intensity frightened me a little and I had taken to hiding whenever I saw him. Once he realized that I knew his real name and nationality, he would try to reassure me with statements like, “I’m not Arab; I’m a barbarian.” Of course, this kind of assertion was guaranteed to have the opposite effect, making me want to flee in the opposite direction, visions of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun going through my head. Luckily, I then realised, with relief, that he meant Berber and not barbarian.  It all added to the odd mixture of fear and attraction that I felt.

A few days later, he caught me trying to slip out of the Upper Refectory. A quizzical look on his face, and with one dark eyebrow raised, he listened  patiently, as, staring at my shoes, I tried frantically to fill in the heavy silence between us with a long, rambling monologue about my unwelcoming digs and my dragon landlady. Anything to avoid looking at him. For some strange reason, I found it difficult to hold his gaze.

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Standing unnervingly close to me, he waited until my incoherent mumbling had trailed off into silence, and then casually suggested that I “pop up” to the flat that he shared with two other Algerian students to join him and his friends if I became too bored on Sundays.  I told him that I’d think about it.

It’s true that Sundays then were the most boring days of the week. Twelve seemingly endless hours, the silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of the Sunday newspapers. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Even in Sheffield, it was the same. The shops were shut, the streets stone-cold dead and the Union practically deserted, its refectories and coffee lounges shuttered and silent.

In desperation, I decided to take T up on his offer and so, the following Sunday, a cold, frosty day in the second week in November, I set off to take the two buses up to his flat. I had just consumed a gargantuan Sunday lunch, as it was included in my rental contract and I was determined to get my money’s worth, even though my landlady’s stodgy and unpalatable cooking lay like a leaden weight on my stomach.

Arriving in front of the flat, stamping my feet in the cold, I hesitantly rang the doorbell. The door was thrown open by one of his Algerian flatmates, who, with a knowing grin, ushered me inside. The living-room was a warm fug of Gitane cigarette smoke and lively chatter, with about ten students — Algerian, French and English — lounging around, laughing and joking and listening to a Marie LaForêt record. She was singing Un amour qui s’est éteint and her plaintive lament for a fading love affair was at odds with the bursts of laughter coming from every corner of the room.

A, the beautiful postgraduate student whom we had met at the party was there,  jabbing her cigarette for emphasis as she rammed home her views on the war in Vietnam, American imperialism and the imminent rising-up of the workers of the world against the evils of capitalism.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a double mattress taking up a large part of the floor space in the living room. I later found out that A and her Algerian boyfriend were temporarily homeless and had set up camp in the living room of the flat. Their clothes were folded in neat piles by the side of the bed. It was all so thrillingly bohemian. Blackpool seemed so far away — a different world.

Scan.jpegAs I stood timidly in the doorway, unsure of what to do next, I spotted T sitting at the table in front of the window, chatting to a friend.  He glanced up, saw me standing by the door and came over to me, a gleam in his eye, looking  like the cat that got the cream. I had risen to the bait. Now all he had to do was to reel me in.

Draping a possessive arm around my shoulders, he drew me into the room. I sat there on the sofa, his arm still around me, mesmerised by the web of languages being spun around my head. Everyone seemed to pass from one to the other with such ease. Sentences beginning in English would veer into French and back again, with a sprinkling of Arabic for good measure.

With French pop songs playing softly in the background, we could have been a group of Left Bank intellectuals discussing the finer points of the Absurde in Camus’s writing or Sartre’s existentialist thinking. The sweet, pungent smoke curling from the glowing tips of French cigarettes reinforced the impression. We were even wearing the statutory dark jerseys. Dark clothes, dark hair and eyes and pale winter faces.

After about an hour, suddenly the cry went up. “Allez, les enfants! On va au Taj? (Come on, kids! Shall we go to the Taj?) The Taj? What was that? After a couple of seconds, I realised they were talking about an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal on Ecclesall Road, one of the first in Sheffield. Although there were quite a few Indian restaurants in Britain at that time, I had never eaten an authentic curry.

So a group of us set off downhill towards Ecclesall Road, drawn by the siren song of curry. I found out later that the Algerian students liked curry so much because it was the nearest thing they could get to their own cuisine. Indian food, at least, boasted some kind of flavour in comparison with the bland and overcooked English meals of the time.

Even in the Union refectories, most meals on offer were watery grey stews in which lumps of gristle, potatoes and carrots were doing a slow breaststroke. “A very nice mutton stew, dear,” would say the lady behind the serving counter, trying her best to convince us of the merits of what was pretentiously called a “navarin of lamb.”

Outside, the sky was a clear cobalt blue and the watery winter sun was peeking through the bare branches of the trees lining the roads, its pale rays making the icy pavements glitter as if they had been dusted with crystallised sugar. We made our way downhill, strung out across the road in groups of two or three, still talking and bickering amicably. Bundled up in our coats and faculty scarves, our warm breath hung in the still cold air like smoke.

Suddenly, T set off at a run, pulling me behind him as if I were on water-skis, instead of in my thin-soled shoes. Taken by surprise, slipping and sliding over the ice, I shrieked in fear and excitement. I slammed into his body at the bottom of the hill as he skidded to a halt, catching me in his arms to stop me falling over in an ignominious heap.

I didn’t object as, laughing at my poppy-red cheeks, he dropped a quick kiss on my upturned mouth, still open in mid-scream. For the rest of the way, he kept me close to his side, pulling me against him with one arm wrapped tightly around my waist. Looking back, I realise, with a pang of sadness, just how very young we were.

I would soon became used to being manhandled in this way; sometimes being thrown over his shoulder as he practiced judo manoeuvres in the middle of the street, to the astonishment of passers-by. He would always make sure that my landing was soft, however — never failing to catch me before I hit the ground. I didn’t know it then, but that would be a metaphor for our future life together.

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Tired Of Waiting

It’s hard being left behind. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife


I seem to have spent half my life waiting. Not the kind of waiting that brings a sense of calm, of nature taking its course, of things expected — the kind that is soothing to the mind and balm for the soul. No, for me, it was the kind of waiting during which a rising tide of panic would make me feel as though my insides were being twisted in a vice. Continue reading

The Judoka

Judo teaches us to look for the best possible course of action, whatever the individual circumstances.

-Kano Jigoro


 

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One cold, wet evening in late October, 1965, I was to be found sitting in the spectators’ gallery of the Sheffield University sports hall, situated a few hundred yards from the main campus. Having nothing else to do, I’d accompanied a classmate to his fencing practice. Little did I know that I had a meeting with fate that evening — that a casual glance down would change my life.

Talking about my life, it had been quite challenging over the previous few weeks — settling into my digs, finding my way around the Arts Tower and the Union, and trying to make new friends. It was proving harder than I had thought. A few days into the first term, I had watched the Rag Day floats, full of boisterous students, crawling down Western Bank at a snail’s pace, and felt very much like the new girl in town. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be groups of laughing friends, or, what was even worse, couples with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, gazing into each other’s eyes.

When my schoolfriend, Helen, had returned to her digs, I stood there amongst the broken spars of wood and scraps of painted canvas that were all that was left of the floats, and felt a sense of piercing loneliness. I had never felt lonely before — had never lived alone. At home in Blackpool, I had family and friends. Here there was nobody. Apart from Helen, I didn’t know a soul in Sheffield. There were faces and bodies all around me, but not a single one was familiar. All  I wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about my shoulders. When none came, the world suddenly felt cold and empty.

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But I was only eighteen, after all, and soon cheered up. I had my whole life in front of me. Sitting in the spectators’ gallery, my duffel coat wrapped around my shoulders for warmth, I squinted through the clouds of testosterone wafting up from the judo club members wrestling with each other below my line of sight, and tried to make out what was going on in the fencing class at the other end of the gym.

From time to time, however, I’d look down at the new judo recruits going through their paces on the tatamis spread out on the polished wood floor. Most of them were weedy first-year students, with long, thin legs and knobbly knees. Their exposed chests were hairless and painfully undeveloped, and their skin had the pale translucence of dead fish, occasionally marred with the flaring red of an acne outbreak. My eyes slid over them without interest, then stopped and widened in appreciation.

Their coach, or trainer, or whatever he was, was standing there with his hands on his hips, unsmiling, as he watched them performing shoulder rolls on the tatami. His eyes narrowed as he followed their movements. From time to time he would demonstrate the roll himself, throwing himself forward with practiced ease. His dark hair, wet with sweat, despite the chilly temperature in the gym, flopped over his forehead until, with an impatient gesture, he pushed it back. I gazed admiringly at his broad shoulders, and, although I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes, I was captured by the fringe of long lashes veiling them.

Oblivious to my stare burning a hole in his kimono, he didn’t glance up and continued with his training session. “Too bad,” I murmured to myself, reflecting sadly that I was always attracted to the dark, brooding — and ultimately unobtainable — type. He was most certainly out of my league, as he looked to be in his early twenties, older than the eighteen-year-olds he was coaching. Perhaps a junior lecturer or a postgraduate student? It was with some regret that I tore my eyes away and turned my attention back to the fencing.

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I didn’t recognise T when he approached me in the Union a few days later — he looked different with his clothes on — and it took me a while to put two and two together. The good news was that he seemed just as interested in me as I was in him, but the bad news was that I had to share him with his judo schedule. He’d train for two or three hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and take part in inter-university tournaments at weekends. It was fine if these tournaments were held in Sheffield, but he often had to travel to other venues with his fellow team members.

When we’d been together just over a month, and with the Christmas vacation due to start in a couple of days, he had to go to Swansea to try and obtain his next belt. Our relationship was brand new and I was apprehensive about the looming separation. I was still unsure of my feelings, but there was something about him that had me muddling my words and blushing uncontrollably whenever he was around. Looking at my miserable face, and with his friends waiting impatiently, he leaned against the wall in the Union building and pulled me to him for a long moment, before sauntering off with the rest of the team, sports bag slung over his shoulder.

But not everything about judo was romantic. Usually it meant a succession of bruised shins, broken ribs, sweaty jockstraps and kimonos -— I once dyed them pink by mistake at the launderette — and a strict ban on any kind of physical intimacy the night before a fight. Above all, there was the knot of fear in my stomach whenever I watched him step on to the tatami and bow to his opponent before a fight. I was somewhat reassured at the beginning when I saw him smiling during his fights — it couldn’t be so bad if he were smiling, surely? My confidence took a dive, however, when I learnt that he always smiled when things became really tricky.

He’d started judo soon after independence when he was at the University of Algiers. It wasn’t as well-known then, usually going under the name of ju-jitsu, and it was difficult finding anyone who actually practiced it. Ju-jitsu is the father of judo, but they are, in fact, two completely different types of martial art. T had been attracted to the whole package —  the opportunity to let off steam through sport and the ceremonial precision of it all.  He must be the only Algerian ever born never to have shown the slightest interest in football.

T became captain of the university team in his third year. Sometimes I would accompany him for the away tournaments, including one trip to Birmingham, where we had an Algerian friend, Bibi. He and I made our way up to the spectators’ gallery, and waited for T to appear. Members of each team were supposed to be evenly matched, but the problem was that the captain of the Birmingham team was a black belt. Not only that, he was over six feet tall, a huge bear of a man, with burly shoulders, a neck roped with muscle and hair sprouting everywhere, even on his back. I closed my eyes on seeing T and his opponent bow to each other and heard Bibi muttering, “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” to himself like an incantation.

I was praying fervently to the gods of judo when Bibi let out a loud whoop of triumph. “Il l’a fait tomber! Il l’a fait tomber!” (He threw him! He threw him!) he shouted, and flung his arms around me. I opened my eyes just in time to see the giant flat on his back with T straddling him, trying to put him in an armlock.

T didn’t win his fight, because the giant decided to park his considerable weight on his chest and he was forced to yield. But it was enough that he had been able to throw his opponent, a feat nobody had managed before. T told me later that, as he was waiting for his turn on the tatami, a member of the opposing team had been standing behind him, muttering, “Just you wait and see! He’s going to tear you limb from limb!” Luckily for me — and for T — it didn’t turn out that way.

 

If you want to read more about our university days, more information here

A Winter’s Tale

“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley


“I don’t think it’s coming, do you?”

The snow was falling slowly, but so thickly that it almost obscured the view. Stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together to try and keep the blood circulating in our extremities, Helen, my mother and I, muffled up in duffel coats, woolly hats and scarves, were standing at the rear entrance of Manchester Exchange Station, waiting anxiously for the Sheffield bus to arrive. Continue reading

The Grand Tour

(The Grand Tour) served as an educational rite of passage.

– Wikipedia

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. – St. Augustine


“Tu ne peux pas te taire, oui? Tu commences à me porter sérieusement sur les nerfs!” (Can’t you shut up? You’re really starting to get on my nerves!)

T glowered at his friend, Mus, who was dancing along the pavement, snapping his fingers and singing off-key snatches of the latest American hit. To make things worse, he was slapping his thighs in time to the music in his head, the persistent, maddening thump-thump grating on T’s already frayed nerves.  Mus was a little tipsy, having already consumed a few beers with their frugal lunch, and the alcohol had gone straight to his head. Continue reading

An Algerian in England

Regarde, Étranger, vers cette île
que la lumière bondissante révèle pour ton délice.

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers

-W.H. Auden


“So —  you don’t like mechanical engineering? It’s either that, or you go home. Your choice.”

T. drew his brows together in consternation. He was sitting in a room in the Sheffield University Students’ Union, across the desk from a representative from the British firm, CJB (Constructors John Brown). He glanced at the man sitting opposite him, then out of the window at the dreary day outside. Continue reading