Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

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Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

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Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

Keeping Mum

T. turned to me, putting his arm along the back of the carseat and looked at me steadily, never taking his eyes from my face. “It IS leukaemia,” he said.

On that particular day in 1977, we had just drawn up in front of the house on our return from the beach. I had been talking at length about my fears, but T. had not responded to my ramblings, busy putting the car in neutral, turning off the engine and pulling up the handbrake with a decisive tug. When he had finally answered me, I had stared at him in shock. “How do you know?” was all I could stammer out.

He explained that he had received a telegramme at work the day before from Mum, telling him the bad news about my father. He had immediately replied by the same method, assuring my mother of our love and support. All this without saying a word to me until I had brought up the subject myself. His first instinctive reaction had been to shield me from the bad news, but he had soon realised that he would have to inform me. I suppose he had been waiting for the right moment.

I had just returned from a holiday to Blackpool with the children, aged seven and six at the time, where I had found Dad in hospital with a supposedly minor complaint. He was making sure that he was in tip-top condition, as he and Mum were due to fly out to Algeria a fortnight later. I can remember going into his ward in Victoria Hospital and my daughter, gregarious as usual, clambering on to his bed without any bidding, to give him a hug. My son, intimidated by all the hospital paraphernalia, hung back. No amount of coaxing could bring him out from behind my skirts.

On my return to Algeria, I had confided in T. about my worries, convinced that the anaemia the consultant had mentioned in passing was, in fact, something far worse. I had then dared give voice to my deepest, darkest fear – that it was leukaemia. I wasn’t sure as hospital policy at that time was to keep the facts about a patient’s terminal illness from friends and family. As I spoke, tears were already beginning to form in my eyes. So when T confirmed my fears, it was a shock, but not an unexpected one.

My mother and father had been out to Algeria together twice before. Mum had, of course, been present at our wedding, but she and Dad had visited together a couple of times afterwards. Dad enjoyed his holidays with us, pottering around the house in the Clos, even making traditional Lancashire stools for the children from off-cuts of wood. He had done the same  for my sister and me when we were children, and our childish imagination had transformed the stools into boats, cars, cradles for our dolls and magical Cinderella coaches.

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Dad was wonderful at things like that. He was already middle-aged when my sister and I were born and didn’t have the energy to play tag with us. But he would craft the most wonderful toys – a dolls’ house with working lights and a toy theatre with lights and velvet stage curtains that you could open and close with a satisfying swish by pulling a drawstring at the side.

But now, still reeling from the shock, I hardly had time to gather my thoughts when T. had to leave for the States on a business trip. The morning of his departure, a couple of hours after he had set off for the airport, the telephone rang in my office down at the LNG plant. Picking it up with nerveless fingers, I recognised the voice of T’s secretary, announcing that she had received a telegramme  from Britain. My heart pounding, I asked her to read it out for me. It was the news that I had been dreading.

As I had residency status in Algeria, I required an exit visa to leave the country. One of the many documents needed to obtain it from the local authorities was an attestation signed by T. confirming that I lived under his roof – une attestation d’hébergement. It is very difficult to find the equivalent of this in English – I don’t think such a paper exists, or has ever existed in Britain.

It implied so many things – most of them negative. The fact that, even though my name was on the deeds, the house belonged to my husband – I was living under HIS roof. The fact that he had to vouch for me –  a mere woman, a second-class citizen. The fact that I couldn’t leave Algeria without his permission. It also meant that, as he wasn’t there to sign the paper, I couldn’t leave Algeria to attend my own father’s funeral.

A year after my father’s death, Mum had recovered enough to make the trip out to Algeria on her own. She loved being surrounded by family again, enjoying being the centre of attention, and all of T’s brothers and sisters, his mother and uncle made sure that she was, treating her like a queen. They had become, in fact, not only members of my family, but members of hers as well. On her return to Britain, she would wax lyrical about the scenery, the house, the beach, the sun and her wonderful son-in-law and precocious grandchildren.

Fatiha would bend over backwards to cater to Mum’s every whim, tending her lovingly when she felt a little off-colour, putting her to bed like a child and bringing her hot tisane and cakes. My mother-in-law, during her visits, would greet my mother every morning in English, laboriously learning the unfamiliar words at our prompting. She would be so worried about my mother not being fed properly, she would start preparing lunch at around ten o’clock in the morning.

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Mum would be in fits of giggles when I returned home from work, saying that she had just eaten a plateful of stone-cold omelette and chips, my mother-in-law hovering anxiously in the background. Mum would never fail,  however, to end her comic description by adding fondly, “Ah – bless her!” and sending an affectionate glance in my mother-in-law’s direction, which was always reciprocated in full measure.

Come Fly With Me

C’est complet.” (It’s full).

The statement sounded like a death knell in my ears.  I was in the Air Algérie agency in Oran, sitting on a torn and tattered leatherette seat that was sticking to my thighs in the summer heat, enquiring about a seat on a flight to Paris.  When I asked about a seat on another flight, I was informed, with a certain relish, “Oh, all flights are fully booked for the next six months.” If she said had six years, or six decades, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

L’ordinateur est en panne” (The computer’s not working) was another pronouncement that would send my stomach into spasms and my blood pressure soaring.  The Air Algérie computer system had a habit of breaking down. I heard afterwards that it would be sabotaged deliberately on a regular basis by employees who felt in need of a bit of a rest from those pesky customers who were always asking questions and demanding seats on flights.

Much of the stress linked to air travel in Algeria had to do with the national airline’s chaotic organisation, or rather lack of it.We should have realised that trouble lay ahead when Air Algérie decided to go it alone in the mid-seventies and sever all reservation links with the few foreign carriers flying in and out of Algeria. This was part of the mindset of that time – that  Algeria had no need of advice, input or co-operation from anybody else. Algerians knew better than anyone else. They did everything better.  Smug is the only way of describing the general attitude of Algerian officials, whatever their ilk.

This was, of course, government propaganda. The problem was, people soon began to believe it.  Air Algérie officials were convinced that they knew how to run an airline far better than those amateurs at Air France or British Airways. Not that British Airways flew into Algeria – it was off the radar for them in all senses  of the term – but British Caledonian did for a short while. Ah, the joy of climbing the aircraft stairs to be greeted by smiling faces and tartan uniforms. At that moment we felt as though we were already back in Britain, although we were still physically on the tarmac of Oran Essenia airport.

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Kafka could have learnt a lot from the surreal and labyrinthine methods of the national flag carrier. Air France had always had  an agency in Oran until it closed its doors sometime in the eighties, but from the mid-seventies on there had been no computer link between it and Air Algérie, just down the road. We were reduced to going in person to each agency, queuing up behind other irate customers, and booking each leg of the journey separately. Air Algérie was in a world of its own – exactly like the country it represented.

The mention of computers brings back other painful memories. I once rang the Air Algérie agency in Arzew and was told that yes, there were seats available on the flight I was hoping to take. When I asked whether I could reserve my seat by telephone, my remark was greeted by a stunned silence, followed by a patronising chuckle. Reserving a seat by telephone? Whatever next? No, I would have to go down to the agency in person. When I suggested that perhaps it might be a good idea to start taking bookings by phone, there was a spluttering noise and I was told peremptorily that it would mean putting one of their employees on permanent telephone duty – which would never do.

Once I had my ticket though, my troubles weren’t over.  After arriving at the airport and standing in line at the check-in desk for what seemed like hours, I would finally find myself at the front of the queue. There were no computers at the desk, just a few grubby sheets of paper with the lists of passengers typed on them.I would stand there while the Air Algérie employee ran his pencil slowly down the list, all kinds of possibilities, each more horrific than the last, running through my mind. Was my OK a real OK? Had I made a mistake and the squiggle that I had taken for an OK is really a LA (liste d’attente i.e. waiting list)? Had I been bumped off the flight and my seat given to somebody’s close friend?

Then, of course, I had to pass through immigration and customs control. At immigration, I would often be the subject of scrutiny as I handed over my British passport, with its exit visa taking up one whole page, and my children’s Algerian passports. The immigration official’s eyes would flick from me to the children and back again,  one even asking my daughter in Arabic, “Is she really your mother?”

“Customs control?” I hear you cry. “You were flying OUT of Algeria, weren’t you?” Well, yes – Algeria must be the only country in the world where customs search your luggage both on entering and on leaving the country. Exit visa? Well, yes – as a resident, I needed permission from the Algerian authorities to leave the country. I couldn’t just decide to throw a few things in a bag and fly to Paris on a whim.

Once in the departure lounge, there was usually no information about departure times. The Air Algérie counter shut up shop at 9pm sharp. It didn’t matter whether the aircraft for which I was waiting had not arrived – there was no status update on the board and no employee around to help me, unless, of course, you counted the cleaner slowly smearing her mop across the dirty floor, scattered with cigarette ends and glistening with gobs of spittle.

But the worst air travel experience I had was a year before we left Algeria. T. and our daughter were already in Paris, and our son and I were due to join them. He was due to sit a university  exam the following day so I had booked our seats at least two months earlier – just to be sure. When we arrived at Essenia around three in the afternoon, we joined the long queue of passengers snaking its way to the check-in desk. Suddenly the queue stopped inching forward. What was happening? No – a false alarm – they had just run out of boarding passes. A new pile of boarding passes was dumped on the desk.

Clutching our white boarding passes in our hand, we then took a deep breath before we ran the gauntlet of immigration and customs. Emerging somewhat traumatised, we entered the departure lounge with a sigh of relief. Oh joy! The plane was already on the tarmac. No delays today. We should have known, however, never to take things for granted in Algeria.

Finally the glass door of the departure lounge was opened. Just one door, mind you. Two hundred people stampeded towards the narrow aperture, elbowing and shoving  each other out of the way. When we managed to fight our way on to the tarmac, we handed our boarding passes to the airline official standing there. He glanced at them and told us to stand on one side while he let others through. Finally a small group of us stood there forlornly, watching other passengers climb the aircraft stairs, the cabin doors closing and the plane taking off – without us.

I won’t go into detail about what transpired. We were told that we were to take a later plane and that if we were lucky, we would overtake the earlier one. The plane that was to take us to Paris arrived at nine o’clock that night, and after fighting our way out again through the door, and running towards it, we were blocked again by policeman standing at the bottom of the aircraft stairs. They started leisurely picking out passengers one by one. I saw my son’s hand curl involuntarily into a fist, but finally, after remonstrating with one of the policemen, he managed to haul me up the stairs.

The steward, a blond, blue-eyed Kabyle, tried to make a few feeble jokes but they fell flat  when he saw the passengers’ grim faces. We arrived in Paris at around two o’clock in the morning. It was to be the last time my son returned to Algeria. Not much of a fond farewell.