Surprise, Surprise!

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I have always hated surprises. No, really. I like my life to be planned out, and for me to know exactly what I’m doing, for days, if not for weeks ahead. Call me obsessive, a control freak, what you will – to me, it is the only way I feel safe. I always had a slight tendency to be like that, anyway, but Algeria just magnified this failing, blowing it up to monstrous proportions.

Unfortunately, I have a husband who just loves springing surprises on me. Usually involving his arrivals. Either he arrives early or late, but never when I expect him. He has even refined his torture technique to the point that he will, when the mood takes him, pretend to be stuck somewhere miles away, when he is just about to put his key in the lock of the front door.

When we were at university, he would go back to Algeria during the long summer vacation to spend time with his family. University vacations are seemingly endless – three months in summer – so he’d spend a good four weeks in Algiers. I’d usually fill in the time alone by working at a temporary summer job, usually for pressing financial reasons. Even though I had the maximum grant, it still didn’t stretch through the summer.

The first year, I decided to go down to London to stay with my sister in her Pimlico bedsitter. That juxtaposition of the words “Pimlico” and “bedsitter” seems to be a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But it was still possible, in the sixties, to live in one of the most sought-after central London locations for just a few pounds a week. I soon found a job with Reader’s Digest in their offices near the Old Bailey and would trek back to Pimlico every evening, sometimes stopping off at a mini-supermarket to buy a few things for supper.

T had been gone for a few weeks and although I was receiving letters on a regular basis, I had no idea when he was due back. I had been moping around with a long face for weeks and was becoming seriously tiresome. Thankfully, however, my sister had the patience of a saint.

One evening, clutching my few purchases in a brown paper bag, I trailed up the three flights of stairs to my sister’s bedsitter and heard the sound of the radio on the other side of the closed door. My first thought was that she had been taken ill and had decided to come home to sleep it off. Even when I pushed the door open, finding it unlocked, and saw a large suitcase standing there, I didn’t catch on.  It was only when T leapt out from under the bedcovers where he had been hiding in anticipation of my arrival, did I react, and only then after a few seconds of goggling like a landed fish at the expanse of tanned skin and the wide grin on display.

He did exactly the same thing the following year. I had decided to stay in Sheffield during the summer and had found a job at the Yorkshire Electricity Board offices to pay the rent on my shared flat. One evening, one of the other Algerian students, a Kabyle called Chérif, he of the impossibly beautiful face and the long, curled eyelashes, and his girlfriend, took pity on me, inviting me over to their place for supper. I can still remember the menu. It was garlic veal and potatoes, cooked in the same pot.

All evening, Chérif had been teasing me, pointing at some indeterminate spot behind me when we went for a drink afterwards at the Union, a look of surprise on his face. Of course, I’d think T was standing there behind me and would whip round in my seat. In the street on the way home, he’d suddenly exclaim. “Isn’t that him over there?”

I was at the end of my tether by the time we arrived back at my flat to watch a bit of television and hardly reacted when Chérif said, “I can hear someone at the door! Perhaps it’s him!” Just to prove him wrong, I angrily strode over to the door and, wrenching it open, was confronted with a surprised-looking T, who hadn’t even had time to knock. I was so shocked I didn’t recognize him for a nanosecond, wondering what this handsome stranger wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase was doing on my doorstep. Perhaps a seriously good-looking vacuum tool salesman?

He’d do the same thing when my birthday rolled around, pretending to forget to wish me a happy birthday on the pretext that exams were only a few days away, ignoring me all morning whilst revising, then, after lunch, when I had worked myself into a state of righteous indignation, have all our friends jump out with presents, birthday cards and a cake.

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What began as a joke in Sheffield quickly turned sour once we moved to Algeria. The unpredictability of life over there only added fuel to the bonfire of my anxiety. Besides, in Britain, I hadn’t yet been traumatized by my husband’s serious car accident so soon after the birth of our son. I can fully appreciate the fact that communications were bad, as well as the punctuality of Air Algérie flights, but surely a timetable of “around the twenty-seventh, give or take a few days” would not satisfy the most laid-back of spouses, never mind a worrier like me?

So it was that I’d fret for days, starting at every sound or rattle of the gate, especially when the twenty-seventh had been and gone. Obviously, the “give” was more accurate than the “take.” To be fair, he has since explained that giving me an exact date would have been more worrying for me, so he preferred to give himself a wide margin, as sometimes unforeseen circumstances could crop up. Hmm. There IS a kind of skewed logic in this, as our telephone was often cut off for months on end.

So when my small son would lean excitedly out of the window at nine o’clock at night, shouting, “C’est Papa! C’est Papa!” (It’s Daddy! It’s Daddy!) a few days before his father’s expected arrival, I wouldn’t believe it until I had actually seen – and touched – my husband in the flesh.

He was once away when my parents arrived for a visit. It was only a matter of a few days between their arrival and his, but I was feeling resentful. My parents didn’t mind in the slightest, but I did. He had been due back one evening (give or take a few days) and we had been listening anxiously as various planes droned overhead. We had already been doing this for a couple of nights and the waiting was getting to me. Midnight came and went and still no T.

I finally gave up and took myself off to bed. Lying there, I could feel my stomach churn and hot tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly, I heard my Dad talking to someone, his voice surprised and happy. Then I heard another male voice reply. It was my husband. Leaping out of bed and running down the corridor, I saw him standing there, loaded down with suitcases and duty-free bags, in animated conversation with my father. The children soon woke up when they heard their father’s voice and started excitedly opening the many bags.

I can remember standing there, looking at him, with a feeling of overwhelming relief swelling my heart — yet mixed with anger at the emotional wringer through which he was constantly putting me. To be perfectly fair, I really think he had no idea of the effect it had on me.

I really, REALLY don’t like surprises – even happy ones.

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Comic Book Hero

La bande dessinée c’est l’évasion.
Comics are a form of escape.
– Grzegorz Rizinski

Jeddi! Jeddi! (Grandad! Grandad!) Did you bring my comics?”

T’s father had just finished parking his Citroën in front of the boulangerie on the main square of Maison Carrée, when T, aged eight, hurtled towards it and started pulling frantically at the car door handle. Continue reading

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. Continue reading