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.”