When we first moved into the Villa Robineau in 1978, we spent most of our time at first trying to drag it into the modern era. It had been built in the twenties and had remained firmly stuck in that decade. This, of course, was not at all to my taste, as its old-fashioned elegance was completely at odds with the fashionable indoor decor of the brash seventies. So we tried to jazz it up as best we could.
We were able to make purely cosmetic changes, like papering the walls in eye-popping geometric designs and consigning to the outhouses all of the solid wood wardrobes and bedside tables left behind by the original owners, replacing them by white-laquered cubes that had been cobbled together by a local carpenter in the best tradition of IKEA (or Habitat.)
I must admit, though, that I succumbed to the art deco charms of two of the original pieces of furniture – a curved cupboard in shiny dark wood and a glazed display cabinet with a marble inset where we kept our few bottles of alcohol and our wine glasses. My eye was also caught by a beautiful bow-fronted chest of drawers that later found pride of place in our bedroom.
The one part of the house we couldn’t renovate, however, was the roof. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but the original French settler owners had imported slates from the north of France to cover the roof’s steep pitches and gables. It had been a statement roof, meant to underscore the owners’ status and demonstrate their superiority, financial or otherwise, to the other inhabitants of Bethioua – or Saint-Leu, as it was known at the time.
Unfortunately, when it came to repairing the roof, as slates had never been a traditional building material in Algeria, there were none to be found. Terracotta tiles had always been used there as roofing material, but even these became harder to come by in the seventies and eighties.
Most householders simply demolished their tile or slate roofs, replacing them by the dreaded concrete slab. New houses were built with flat roofs. I hated these, thinking they removed all character from the houses. They looked as through they had been subjected to a particularly close buzz-cut by a crazed army barber. The average Algerian family, however, loved a flat roof, as it provided more storage space, somewhere to dry clothes and temporary sleeping quarters during the sweltering summer nights.
If we had removed the slate roof from the Villa Robineau, it would simply have become a featureless, grim block of a building, pierced by long, lugubrious windows and a strange, curly pergola sticking out into the void. So we clung stubbornly to our Hitchcock-style roof, even though it caused many problems. The wind whistling in from the sea on particularly stormy days caused slates to come crashing to the ground, especially as they had simply been hung on nails that had become increasingly corroded by the sea air.
Finally, the uppermost ridge broke off and next time it rained, water came pouring into the loft through the gaps. Rain in Algeria is not a gentle English drizzle, pattering softly on to a canopy of leaves – it is storm-lashed and furious, suiting the Algerian temperament, drumming on roofs and windows and turning dry river beds and streets into swiftly-flowing streams.
Luckily, the original owners of the house had provided for any eventual roof leak by covering the loft floor with a sheet of soft zinc to protect the ceilings below. T. tried his best to plug any leaks, applying some kind of red epoxy resin to the slates from the inside to bond them together and replacing any missing ones by rectangles of rigid linoleum cut to size. But it was an uphill and thankless task.
Algerian cloudbursts also caused problems elsewhere. The new blocks of flats built in Arzew during the eighties had been designed with no thought given to the natural water courses that flowed from the hills behind the town down to the sea. So Arzew would flood on a regular basis, muddy water flowing through streets and houses alike.
One day, when the rain was coming down in buckets, we were informed that the streets in Arzew had once again become impassable. Our children were trapped there in school and instead of waiting for T. to send a search party, I set off on my own rescue mission in my unreliable Fiat 128. Clinging to the steering wheel and holding my breath, I could barely see the road through the grey curtain of rain and finally came to a wheezing, stuttering halt in the town centre, the water reaching the top of my wheels and drowning my engine.
Flagging down the nearest car, which was carefully navigating its way through the floodwaters, I was relieved to find that the driver was one of T’s Sonatrach colleagues, who drove me home. On arriving, I found that my son was already there, having cadged a lift from a lorry driver. Of course, like parents everywhere, I subjected him to an irate ear bashing on the importance of staying put. Our daughter, usually less level-headed than her brother, had done the sensible thing for once and waited for the school bus.
Heavy rainfall was even worse when it followed a sandstorm in the Sahara, many thousands of miles to the south. There would be no wind to speak of, but the sky would turn an ominous orange, casting a strange, unreal light on the landscape, as if heralding the end of the world. If it rained afterwards, we would wake up to a scene of devastation. Everything would be coated in red mud – cars, outdoor furniture, garden plants – everything. The rain would have brought down all the sand high up in the atmosphere and dumped it everywhere.
The new ring roads built in the eighties to circumnavigate the villages on the road to Oran had also been built without any provision for drainage, so when it rained heavily, the streams of water from Lion Mountain would flow across the ring road, turning it into a churning, raging torrent.
On one such day, when the rain was pelting down and lightning was strobing the ominous black thunderclouds, T. was due to take a flight to Algiers. Of course, instead of cancelling the trip like any sensible person, he insisted on maintaining his schedule. His driver was busy with some other important task, so we drove to the airport together, inching forward along the flooded ring road, leaving a white, foamy wake behind us like a motorboat.
My husband safely dropped off at the airport, I faced the journey back on my own. Not wanting to brave the ring road again, I decided to take the old colonial road, lined with trees, which wound its way back to Bethioua by a circuitous route.
Except for one hair-raising moment when I overtook a tanker lorry and the car started aquaplaning, my journey home was remarkably incident-free. The surface of the old road was barely wet, as the pied noir builders had made sure that there was a drainage ditch on each side of the road, ready to catch any surface water running off.
On my arrival home, the phone rang. It was my husband, freshly landed in Algiers, “just checking.” He had obviously been worried, but had given no outward sign of it – as usual.