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.
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.
As 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.