Dracula

Réveille-toi! Réveille-toi!” (Wake up! Wake up!) I shook my husband’s shoulder until he snorted a couple of times and then looked at me through sleepy, half-closed eyes.  “Skiya?” he mumbled – in other words, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” (What’s the matter?)

When he could finally focus, he saw,  to his surprise, that I was sitting bolt upright in bed, massaging my right hand. I had woken up, realising that my hand was completely numb. I wasn’t worried at all at first, merely thinking that I had been sleeping on it and so, still half-asleep, had rubbed it desultorily a couple of times. It was only when the hand remained stubbornly numb and no amount of rubbing brought the feeling back, did I panic and wake T.

Still flat on his back, eyes closed, he obediently started rubbing my hand as well. All to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I lay flat on my stomach, my hand, rubbed red and raw, dangling over the edge of the bed. Gradually and excruciatingly, the feeling returned. It was like a bad case of pins and needles, only ten times worse.

The next day, I thought no more about it. We were still living in the Clos des Poivriers at the time with our daughter, aged two, and our son, who was about five months old. As baby clothes in Algeria were not really to my taste, I had spent a lot of time over the past few months knitting little jumpers, cardigans and trouser suits for my son. There he was, kitted out in knitted flares and trendy waistcoats, like a miniature Sonny Bono.

I had already done this two years before, when I had knitted my daughter’s entire layette – except for her nappies. The shelves in our wardrobe had been full of little, hand-knitted garments in pastel shades. I had carefully avoided pink or blue wool as we had had no idea if the baby I was expecting was a girl or a boy. No scans in Algeria at that time. It was perhaps lucky, in that some people might have thought twice about bringing a pregnancy to term if they had known it was a girl.

After a few days’ respite, the numbness and tingling in my right hand woke me again. This time I knew what to do, and let my hand dangle over the side of the bed again. The pain was awful –  I bit my lip not to groan at the agonising prickling, both of the numbness and of the sensation seeping back.

I soon found that I could not raise my right hand higher than chest level without it losing all feeling.  One day, sitting cross-legged on the floor,  trying to do up the buttons on the back of my daughter’s dress as she stood patiently in front of me, I burst into tears. My hand felt like a block of wood, and was about as much use. How could I continue to live a normal life as a wife and the mother of two small children, if I couldn’t use my hand properly?

Fatiha rushed into the room on hearing my sobs, and fastened my daughter’s dress for me. Off she skipped, not giving a thought as to why her mother had suddenly been  reduced to a gasping, shuddering wreck.

Soon, just dangling my hand over the edge of the bed didn’t work anymore. I had to get out of bed and stand there for what seemed like an age, letting my hand drop to my side. T. would wake from a deep sleep and peer through the shadows in the bedroom to find me looming over the side of the bed, my arms by my sides and trying not to make any noise. He would blink at me and say tentatively, “Wendy?” A loud sob would be the only response I could make. He later confided in me that if I had not answered, he would have been out of the room like a shot.

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Put yourselves in his shoes.  You wake up from a deep sleep, feeling a PRESENCE in the room. You prise open your eyes to see a dark figure standing by the bed, its arms straight down by its sides. It isn’t doing anything – just standing there. The only noise you can hear is a kind of strange, snuffling sound. Visions of blood-soaked fangs and bony fingers reaching for your neck race through your mind. Dracula had nothing on me.

I finally went to see our local doctor, Dr. D. His surgery was just around the corner and along Bethioua’s main road. He had always been our friend, being approximately our age and having worked for Sonatrach at the ammonia plant for a while.

I can remember him walking down our front path for  the first time, fashionable flares and kipper tie flapping in the breeze. His sideburns and moustache were a wonder to behold. Not my idea of a family doctor, having been brought up under the care of our dour, grey-haired GP in Blackpool – he of the bristly eyebrows that had always fascinated me as a child.

Dr. D., however, was to be of inestimable help to our family. He had accompanied T. to Algiers after my husband’s car accident and even after that, we could always count on him. When my son caught measles from his sister a few months later, he would come round to the house every single evening without being asked – just to check on our baby.

Dr. D. was no specialist, though. After scratching his head a bit and stroking his moustache, he decided to give me a course of cortisone injections. Even at the time, I knew that cortisone had bad side effects, but would have done anything, bar chopping off my hand, to take the pain away. The injections had limited success, reducing the agonising prickling, but doing nothing for the numbness.

I learned to manage my condition – no name had yet been put to my mysterious ailment. I learnt to sleep in certain positions, so my hand would not fall prey to the creeping numbness. I learnt not to use the hand for certain tasks. Sometimes, I would forget and have an agonising flare-up, as, for example, when T. brought home a load of pine planks for shelving, and I helped sand them down using just a bit of sandpaper.

It was only many years later, after our return to Britain, that I finally knew what was wrong. It is called carpal tunnel syndrome.  After a series of tests, I was operated on to release the nerve from its inflamed, constricting sheath. That night, lying in bed, I realised that, for the first time in forty years, my hand was completely free from pins and needles.

My habit of knitting for hours on end has been the root cause of the problem, strangely enough aided by the fact that I had just recently given birth.  I had to give up what used to be one of my favourite hobbies, and sadly,  have not knitted again from that day to this.

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Joan of Arc Estate

The Cité Jeanne d’Arc (the Joan of Arc Estate) was a block of flats that had built by the French on what were then the eastern outskirts of Oran. Apparently,  there had once been a statue of the saint on a plinth on the steps leading up to the entrances, but it had long since gone, removed or smashed after independence, by the time T. was assigned accommodation there following his return to Algeria in November, 1968.

His flat was on the eighth floor of Bâtiment B3, the block taken over by Sonatrach to house its engineers working in the ammonia plant in Arzew. The whole complex was divided vertically into bâtiments, each bâtiment being a single block of flats with its own stairwell and lift.

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It was only after our wedding and T had returned to work, did I have time to look closely at my new home.  I examined with curiosity, and a little apprehension, the strange taps and two-pin electrical outlets. I looked around at the tiled floors, the tiled concrete worktops in the kitchen and the way in which electric wires were encased in steel tubing running across the ceilings and walls instead of being concealed behind the plasterboard.

There was no plasterboard, anyway, as the flats were earthquake-proof, with factory-like walls of reinforced concrete painted in an all-purpose magnolia gloss paint. The windows were curtainless, obscured at night and shaded from the sun during the day by wooden venetian blinds unrolling on the outside.

The flat was neither cosy nor welcoming – no soft furnishings; no wallpaper; no carpet to muffle sounds; no decorations, except for our university textbooks aligned along some wonky shelves and the few ornaments I had brought from Britain to brighten up the place. My patchwork aprons, sewn so lovingly for me by my godmother in preparation for my new life as a married woman, hung sadly on the back of the kitchen door, striking an incongruous note of colour in the sheer utilitarian starkness of my surroundings.

The layout of the flat was peculiar, as well. The main living space was an L-shape, with the original dining-room taking up the lion’s share of the room and a tiny space leading off it constituting the seating area. By the time we had installed our precious radiogram and two mattresses on the floor, there was hardly any room to swing  the proverbial cat.

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T (with beard) pretending to throw himself out of the flat window. I felt like that at times, too

By contrast, the dining-room furniture given to us by Sonatrach made its ponderous and self-important presence felt in the larger half of the living area – to the detriment of everything else. I had to skirt around it on my way to the kitchen or the bedrooms, taking care not to bang against its sharp corners or the high backs of the eight dining chairs, upholstered in sticky green leatherette and aligned around its veneered length like the Apostles at the Last Supper.

There were no less than five doors leading off from the dining room, one to a tiny kitchen with just enough room for a gas cooker, cupboards and sink down one side and a fridge and a small formica kitchen table on the other. A glazed door led out onto a narrow balcony. Balconies were not used in Algeria as a place where to sip an apéritif à deux of an evening, watching the sun go down and the lights of Oran twinkling in the distance. They were used as glorified storage space, full of plastic bowls, stepladders, giant galvanized couscous platters and wet washing hanging from clothes lines.

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Coming out of the kitchen of the flat with apron around the waist

The balcony had, however,  a rubbish chute on one side, connected to all the floors. I brightened up. Here were two things I had never had in Britain – a fridge and a rubbish chute. Only the wealthiest families at home could boast of a fridge. Of course, by contrast, it was absolutely vital in Algeria. The rubbish chute – well, it seemed to be an ingenious solution to the eternal problem of household waste. Of course, a few years later, residents were tipping all kinds of things down the chute. The less said about that, the better.

A small vestibule giving on to the two bedrooms – one large, one small – the bathroom and the toilet, was through one of the other doors. The bathtub was square instead of the more usual rectangular shape. It was neither a proper bathtub in which you could stretch out and relax, or a normal shower tray, as you had to clamber over the edge.  Everything was so unfamiliar – so alien.

Our neighbours in bâtiment B3 were a diverse crowd made up mostly of young engineers, some of them, like T, having studied abroad and brought foreign wives back with them. On the second or third floor lived an engineer with his Hawaiian wife and small son. His wife had difficulty in adjusting to life in Algeria and fled after about twelve months. I think she realised that she and her son were just too different to integrate into ordinary Algerian society. Her husband followed a few weeks later.

On the third or fourth floor lived a Mozabite. The Mozabites, or Aït M’Zab, are Berber, living in the M’Zab valley of the northern Sahara, and belonging to the strict Ibadite sect. I later heard that when his wife was in labour, he would not allow a midwife or doctor anywhere near her, sitting praying by her bedside and peeking under the covers from time to time to see if the baby had been born.

Directly beneath us lived another Kabyle engineer, his wife and their two children. The wife had very pale strawberry blond hair and paper-white skin. Her blue eyes were watery and red-rimmed and her eyelashes so pale they were almost invisible. I looked questioningly at T when he introduced us, thinking that here was yet another foreign wife, brought back perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine.

My assumption was wrong as she was, in fact, pure Kabyle, and her husband had been brought up by her family, in return for which he had married their illiterate daughter. I came to admire her though, as she insisted on wearing modern European clothes, learned to speak French and to drive a car.

Immediately above us lived another young engineer and his new wife. The only thing I can remember was the wife’s habit of wearing high-heeled mules at home.  T. and I would lie in bed, unable to sleep, listening to her tap-tapping her way around the tiled floors of the flat above. That, and her annoying way of saying vacuously, “Ooh la-la!” in time-honoured “French” fashion, in response to any remark made, whether it be on the current international political situation or the weather.

On the top floors lived two other young couples. One couple came from different cities, Tlemcen and Constantine, and their respective families had been vehemently opposed to their marriage. The others were yet another of T’s colleagues and his gum-snapping American wife. She had already been in Algeria a year before I arrived and seemed to know everything and everyone. I looked at her with envy.

We only stayed in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc for about two years, by which time our daughter had been born and I was pregnant with my second child. The rickety lift would often be out of order, either breaking down or being used as a public convenience by vagrants. On one such day, I struggled up the eight flights of stairs, heavily pregnant, with my daughter on one arm and a heavy shopping basket on the other. I felt fat, frazzled and frumpy.

Who should I meet standing in front of our door, impatiently tapping her smartly-shod foot, and drawing testily on the cigarette held in one perfectly-manicured hand? Yes, it was A. – one of our university friends. Her glance swept from my red perspiring face and hair ruffled by my daughter’s sticky fingers down to my dusty feet thrust into flip-flops.

“Where the hell have you been?” was her only greeting. Time and the move to Algeria had not softened her – far from that.  It was later I realised that she was, in fact, struggling to adjust to life in a foreign country as well.