('On-line' text of)
FORTY FIVE IN THE SHADE
The notice above the door reads 'DOUANE', confidently I knock and await a response. The handle turns and a uniformed official strides out, so we dutifully offer up our passports. He withdraws back inside the office, sits down at his desk and performs the ritual application of the rubber stamp. I relish the growing collection of quaint marks that are accumulating within my once unwanted and formerly pristine travel document. I have a quick look at this new one.
Thanking him and bidding 'Au revoir' (for French is apparently still the order of the day) we stroll away. We walk no more than a few paces before the Customs Officer calls out - he appears agitated and wants us to return to his office. Apparently he wishes to look once more at our passports. After stamping the passports again he rises and stands framed in the doorway staring at us. Thrusting our travel documents in front of him he breaks into a stream of abuse directed at Yolanda and myself!
We let him have his say before withdrawing enough distance away from his office to be out of his earshot.
'Wow! That was heavy, very heavy,' I complain.
'Yeh! He's really screwed up! What's wrong with what I'm wearing anyway?' fumes Yolanda. 'What a creep!'
'Mmmm, the guy is nuts but what can we do about it? You do know that he's cancelled our entry stamps? '
'We'd better keep our cool. Oh, do you reckon he understands English?'
'I don't think so but you never know.'
'Strange, he seems to hate Morocco? He really doesn't like my djellaba - how odd!'
We rummage through our rucksack, the contents of which spill over the ground as we dig about trying to in find alternate clothes to wear. I open the door of the washroom and once inside slip on my jeans and a T-shirt, freshen up and brush my hair. Angrily I grit my teeth. 'What a creep! Creep! Fuckin' creep!' I hiss. Now that I have changed my clothes I feel taller, more assertive.
Having shed her embroidered Rumanian blouse and velvet strides and changed into her violet Victorian dress, Yolanda asks; 'How do I look?'
'Pissed off, actually!' I reply rather curtly, 'Fine,' I add, 'You look nice in that dress.'
'He's just on an ego-trip. Wants to have a bit of power. What a pig!'
'You can change out of your dress later, as soon as we're out of sight. Now, let's go see Supercreep!'
Returning to our demented persecutor we half expect another outburst from him, but instead he smiles approvingly. The guy is definitely out of his tree! He asks for our passports and stamps them again. I notice that under the previous stamp which has been crossed with 'ANNULE' is another:-
He changes some English money (although I'm sure he burns us) and he also gives us directions, though all the while he seems to be eyeing Yolanda lasciviously.
With all business finished, we traipse off up the road and out of sight of the customs house commence complaining bitterly to each other about the way we have been treated. As we are grousing we start to notice how scorching hot the weather North Africa can be like. In desperation I turn to look for a vehicle which might be crossing the border and am surprised to discover that my desert boots are sticking to the road. I stand in mute amazement try to move my feet, discovering that the melting tarmac is fusing the melting soles of my shoes. After wrenching them free, I share my discovery with Yolanda, but she merely raises her eyebrows... How annoying she can be sometimes!
'Forty-five degrees in the shade, that's what it is here,' she announces.
'I don't know anything about temperatures. You know that! But I do know it's bloody hot. Anyway who told you that it's forty-five?'
She doesn't answer me. How rude! I cannot understand why she is becoming so offhand with me, so our first hammer and tongs argument since leaving Britain erupts. Soon we are both screaming, swearing, and being as unpleasant as possible to each other. We give each other hell. It is horrible, ghastly and most regrettable. It appears that the heat is frying our brains and so I point this out. With great effort we refrain from further antagonism and the maddening fury is temporarilly quelled, though I doubt that the truce will last. Relieved that our raging madness has left us, we sit apologising to one another. After we tire of saying sorry, we resist any further exchanges in a bid to conserve our energy and prevent any recurrence of the incident. We have been totally out of our minds - a frightening experience - it has left me very shaky.
'We're very near the equator you know?' Yolanda remarks.
No I didn't know that. My boots are still bothering me. One of them has cracked across the sole and has pinches me as I walk along the sand strewn road. They are really quite useless.
'Desert boots,' I snort, 'That's a joke.'
We spring out of the shadow where we have taken refuge, panic stricken that we will miss this first opportunity of a lift so far this day, frantically we wave our arms. Sliding almost soundlessly along a vehicle moves towards us, it is like something out of a gangster movie with blackened windows, flashing chrome fittings and highly polished black paint. The limousine comes to a halt.
I notice the car bears bumper plate proclaiming the legend 'CD' - it is a Diplomatic Corp car. Grappling with our burdens we run to the waiting vehicle. I grasp the handle of the front door but immediately let out a yelp of pain and release it again, vigorously shaking my hand. Although on inspection I can see no sign of injury, it sure feels like I have been burned. The passenger door swings open and sympathetic comments are offered to me as we slide ourselves into the spacious interior. The car moves off at a sedate pace and the two gents strike up conversation with us. Though the car is undoubtedly luxurious and has been built for comfort, in such adverse conditions as these the air conditioning proves quite ineffective. We all swelter in the heat.
After some minutes I notice a wayside café immediately ahead. The sharp suited diplomat sitting with us notices too and whispered a sharp command to his chauffeur. The purr of the engine is silenced and in an atmosphere of great pomp and occasion we are accompanied out of the car and into the building. As we seat ourselves around a circular wooden table bottles of fizzy drink are placed before us. As we sip our chilled refreshments I look about and notice the place is cooled by what look like large rotating helicopter blades, mounted at intervals across the ceiling. I gaze about me and notice the room to be extremely crowded, there is not a vacant table in sight. The faces of the hunched and overheated men sat about us appear set and motionless. No sound proceeds from their lips; in fact nothing stirs in the room other than the flies. On a shelf a television flickers with ghosted fuzzy monochrome images bending out of shape, snapping into focus, disappearing and reappearing. The sound is barely audible. No one appears to be giving it any attention.
'Freaky isn't it?' I whisper to Yolanda. Though my remark was spoken very quietly I am all too aware that now many eyes are homed in on me. The silence challenges. I clear my throat.
'Excuse me, why is everyone so quiet?' I ask one of our companions. Initially he seems to affect deafness but then he asks me to repeat myself. I am unused to diplomatic exchanges, I rephrase my question.
'Is this the custom in Algeria, to stop everything when it gets this hot?'
He nods slowly and mops at his brow with a handkerchief and turns away. At length he resumes eye contact, and after making sure we are both paying him total attention he speaks.
'Where are you travelling to?' he intones in BBC English.
Oh no, how I hate formality! I tug at my uncomfortable braincells and take a sip of Fanta, vainly summoning up a suitable response. 'Mmmm we don't quite know yet, Egypt perhaps if we're lucky, India even.'
Another long wait ensues. With an expressin of utmost seriousness he seems to be weighing up my answer. At last he breaks his silence again.
'Why do you wish to go to these places?'
'I want to know how the people live. Besides, it makes a change from being in London, do you know what I mean?'
Another long pause! I really wonder why he is taking so terribly long to respond to my comments.
At long last he answers me.
'I think so. You are students?'
As it happens I have taken a dislike to the words student and European, since we are asked all too frequently whether we are students and if we come from Europe.
'No we're not students,' is all I say.
The atmosphere in the café is really strange. If a life form from another galaxy were watching us, it might appear that the flow of life energy within us all has been arrested, as if we had been slipped some kind of experimental drug to keep us from intelligent interaction. During the hour or so we sit here things don't get any better. And then I think I hear a voice;
'Are you ready to leave?' the voice says gently. It might as well have added '.. And come back to our galaxy.'
Draining my glass I grin as I think through a variety of answers to this most welcome question. Oblivious of my mischievous mood our host courteously holds firm Yolanda's chair as she gets up.
Our party extricated itself from this experiment in suspended animation and with a flurry of 'after you' and 'no, after you', we resume our seats in the limo. As the tense unnatural quietness back at the cafe has left me exhausted I now close my eyes and daydream myself away, far far away (an old habit acquired to counteract any unwelcome atmospheres).
* * *
We are not ungrateful for the very valuable lift we have had in the limousine but now we sit by the roadside lamenting how wrong, how inaccurate our host had been back in Sidi Kacem.
'This is such a dismal place, not a bit like Morocco,' Yolanda moans.
'How could we have been so misinformed?' I add. 'Everyone seems depressed and boring here. Added to which they all seem to shop at C&A's.'
'What do you mean?' Yolanda asks.
'You know all the same synthetic shirts and trousers with lace-up shoes. It doesn't matter though; they'd be the same however they dressed.'
A car stops and a friendly moustachioed face leans out of the window.
Unfortunately we are back to speaking French again; for apparently, like Morocco, Algeria was a French colony until recently. He asks us our names and where we come from and whether we like Algeria? We arrive at a town which looked pleasant enough, though not as obviously picturesque as the towns of Morocco. The driver asks us if we would like something to eat - not a bad idea, not a bad idea at all! So he parks and disappears into a shopping area, soon returning laden with foodstuffs which he passes through the window for me to look after. His tone now becomes pleading as he asks if we can all go to the local beach for a picnic. After the previous events of the day it all seems too good to be true; things are looking up again. I sit back and enjoy the breeze that plays on my face. Yolanda seems relaxed as she chats in the front chatting happily. With some eagerness I look forward to the meal as we have had nothing to eat all day.
'Merci,' I say, accepting a cigarette from our driver.
Unfortunately it tastes just as harsh as the tobacco in Moroccan cigarettes. What I wouldn't give for a normal cigarette right now, even a roll-your-own.
We pull up to a halt in view of the coast and the driver stalls the car, springs out and opens all the doors wide. We help him carry the food for the picnic a few yards and made camp on the sand dunes. The meal tastes delicious although when he produces fried chicken the topic of the killing jumps back into my mind; I can now better understand my father's aversion to eating meat.
After the main meal we lounge about nibbling on fruit whilst water boils on the stove. He is so thoughtful, it is so nice of him to arrange this picnic. As the light of day slips away I assume we will soon return to the car, but he appears to be in no hurry to rush off anywhere. Instead he gets up and paces over to his car, turns on the interior lights, whacks up the volume of the radio and returning walks directly toward Yolanda. He asks her to dance with him wants to dance with her, but she only frowns. He then pleads with her and as his manner becomes more intense he fair well orders her to do his bidding.
I wonder at Yolanda as it is not as if she does not like dancing. As it happens I first met her at at nightspot and she was dancing then. I ask her what her problem is, but she doesn't answer me. It seems she is being a prima donna, so I reason with her; after all he only wanted a dance. But she doesn't budge. So instead I explain to our friend that Yolanda and I have had no sleep of late and she just isn't in the mood. I try to make it clear to him that no offence is intended but he looks really put out. He stands staring at Yolanda who sits silently smoking a cigarette and staring out to sea; perhaps he feels spurned and rejected. I reason that it would be best for us to break company now. As I share this thought with Yolanda she readilly agrees. Together we explain to him our need and intention to find a place to sleep and to my surprise he readily agrees and goes off towards his car. But soon he returns with a cushion and blankets for himself and explains that he too is tired and plans to sleep on the beach with us. We gently try and discourage him but it is clear his mind is set. So in the circumstances what can we do? Yolanda and I get on and set out our sleeping bags ready for the night.
When we are lying in the near darkness I whisper my plan which is that after a suitable wait to give our driver sufficient time to fall asleep, we will pick up our belongings and make a break for it. But the minutes pass slowly, very slowly. Eventually though, convincing myself that sufficient time has elapsed, I lightly touch Yolanda and motion her to get ready Hearts pumping and adrenaline flowing in quantity, we noiselessly make our escape along the sand. Stooped double and on 'red alert', we cross the dunes; I crane my neck to reassure myself that our movements have not been noticed before hastening my pace. Yolanda shadows my every movement and soon we break into a trot and soon are running across the sands. I become breathless and on the verge of collapse so I slacken my pace and call to Yolanda:-
'I reckon we're safe now. What do you think?'
'I can't go any further,' she groans.
So we lie in a hollow in the sand, fairly close to the waters edge. The need for reassurance and affection soon has us cuddling, caressing each other and making love. It seems so long ago that we last slept on a beach underneath the stars. The sea laps quietly as we lie in each other's arms slowly drift off to sleep.
Of a sudden, I am forced to open my eyes at the sound of an engine revving wildly and beams of light flashing across the sand. It appears that our driver is driving his car furiously about, trying to seek us out. Up and down the beach the car spins about, the headlights bouncing, slicing and slashing the dark night sky. We do not move from where we are, but in panic we clutch each other for what seems an eternity.
* * *
The very first light of day brings me to my senses. On getting to my feet I cast my eyes along the beach only to discover we have slept the night in a little sandy cove. Memories of the tussle with the midnight dancer are fresh in my mind so I am restless to be up and away from the area for I figure he might return. Yolanda needs no persuasion and we are soon well away from the shore and walking briskly along the road. We are hungry with a total absence of shops or cafes there is no possibility of obtaining breakfast. At length we are almost gasping for a drink, so we stand by the gate of what looks like a smallholding or farm. As we catch sight of the inhabitants, Yolanda gains their attention and calls to them in French. Surprisingly, they show no reaction.
'Aqua,' she repeats loudly.
But they just look at each other with confused expressions and wander off away.
'That's ripe. Things have got really bad haven't they?' I mutter.
'They just walked away,' Yolanda groans, 'They don't even have the decency to answer me.'
'I'm going to stand here until they do. I'm not going to put up with that kind of nonsense. I've got my self respect you know.'
'Oh come on let's go,' Yolanda answers, her voice devoid of emotion.
'No, I'm just going to stay put. They can't do anything about it and anyway....'
But as we talk a group of adults emerge from the shack and one of them walks towards us holding a tray upon which he carries a jug of water and two transparent plastic tumblers.
Greedily we fill and refill the tumbers with the cool, cool water. As slake our thirsts the group disappears back into the shack, but soon return with arms full, holding small melons and plums, which they pass to us over the fence. Yolanda's Moroccan straw hat is soon brim full and overflowing with ripe fruits. Our benefactors stand beaming at us. I recognise that these people just want to make us happy. We pour out our thanks as best we can before shuffling off along the road.
'It's great to be alive, isn't it?' I announce eagerly.
'Simple people, you know, I don't think they knew a word of French. Hey! What shall we do with all this fruit?'
Turning a corner in the road we come in sight of a range of verdant low lying mountains.
'Let's climb up there,' I suggest.
'The Atlas Mountains,' Yolanda responds thoughtfully.
How does she know these things? Perhaps she receives communications from the mother ship hovering above us in a cloak of invisibility perhaps, more like though she merely paid attention to her studies.
Climbing the mountain slope is just the job to rid us of the nervous tension caused by the previous night's dramatic episode. The view is impressive, there are endless peaks and dips as far as the eye can see.
'We are not alone!' Yolanda comments somewhat ominously.
I look about me, and some few hundred yards away I see them, kitted out with all the right gear, packs, shorts, knobbly knees and cameras. The hikers hail us in a foreign language. Possibly they are Austrians.
'Hi there,' I shout.
'Good day to you.'
I am impressed at his command of English and at their highly organised approach to hiking. When eventually we wave them off on their way, I turn to Yolanda;
'Quite amazing how well organised they are, God, Yolanda, we don't even have a map, but it's more fun this way, don't you agree?'
'They're Germans! Too efficient by far. Too much for my liking.'
We wander back down the slope and sit by the road eating some more of the fruit whilst we wait for a lift. When we have had our fill of food, we force the remaining fruits, the small melons, into our rucksack.
'Oh come on,' Yolanda moans.
'Something will come along eventually,' I reassure her.
We are just how much patience is sometimes required in order to hitch hike from one place to the next. One way to relieve the monotony is to just start walking and hope for the best that we'll get offered a lift before too long. We stop walking a moment and face each other in order to speak;
'I wonder if he....?' we both say, in unison.
We now look at one another intently as it dawns on us that we have both have been dwelling on the same subject, Mr. Rave-up of the night before. The uncanny coincidence silences us.
'We're both still at it then,' I observe.
'What?' Yolanda asks, rather disproving my assertion. But at one time we had gone through a spell in our relationship where we seemed to empathise so closely that I became convinced that we were telepathically linked. When first it would occur I became enraptured at the possibilities that such a connection might offer but then I discovered that it only happened sometimes. Actually, I there are times I feel resentment when I find my most private thoughts are apparently being traced. Is this love, the supernatural or simply paranoia?
'It's stopped,' Yolanda yells.
The thrill of getting a new lift is always a fresh and welcome experience and this proves no exception. Again, as on the previous day, our driver turns out to be young, friendly and glad of our company. As I listen to Yolanda gabbling eagerly away to him in French, the strain of the previous day is forgotten. We are now on our way to a town called Oran. At our driver's invitation we stop at a roadside restaurant and dine with our new friend. As we eat I watch as Yolanda chats easily with this young man. I pray that no trouble is brewing. I try to push such thoughts from my mind. She turns to me;
'He says we can stay in his flat,' she confides a little nervously.
I stare at her, my thoughts are on open transmission.
'Wait, before you speak! Let me explain. He says he will drop us off at his home for he is going off elsewhere tonight and he won't be returning until tomorrow. We can use his flat until he returns. What do you say?'
'And pigs have wings,' I retort doubtfully, but refrain from further comment.
The shadows have grown long and the mighty heat has become tamed before I catch sight of a city on the distant horizon. But the night is well set before we actually arrive. Opulent grandiose buildings rise on either side of the streets, white stone fronts boasting porticoes and luxurious verandas. I note that all the people here are dressed in European clothes, there is not a djellaba or kaftan in sight. Their faces seem set grimly with no trace of the cheeriness we found to be so abundant in Morocco. In short they look to be an oppressed people. Yolanda mentions that they have only recently been granted their independence, so it is perhaps too early for them to re-discover and re-establish a homespun culture.
Having reached the city we have but two options - to break company with our driver or to take up his offer of letting us stay at his home. Being trusting souls we choose to take him at face value and he is soon dropping us off, having told us the number of the flat and given us the key. We make our way up a flight of stairs and let ourselves in, and after convincing ourselves that we are alone, we help ourselves to cereal and boil the kettle for a hot drink. Apparently, there is no catch to our good fortune so we marvel at the way this compensates us for the tension brought on the previous night by Mr. Rave-up.
We decide to turn in to get ourselves a good nights sleep. It has been some long time since I last lay on a mattress, I have gotten used to the feel of lying on the ground. I lie mulling over recent events, and realise I still feel sore about Yolanda's part in the upsets of last night. I can't rid myself of the feeling that the guy had only good intentions towards us. After all he only became odd with us after Yolanda refused to dance with him. But then again, why should he get so upset about it all? Perhaps he was a weirdo after all and Yolanda had done the best thing in the circumstances. Turning these thoughts backwards and forwards in my mind I slowly became enveloped by sleepiness and soon fall sound asleep.
* * *
Pulling back the sheet I bounce out of bed and let out an enthusiastic 'Whoop'. Yolanda props herself up in bed and I think she looks decidedly sexy with her tousled hair tumbling over her naked breasts. Leaping onto her and gripping her wildly I roll her around the bed in mock frenzy.
'What's wrong with you?' Yolanda gasps as I withdraw my lips from hers; she fights to get her breath back, her chest heaving and her face flushed.
'I can't resist you!' I lie. Again I wrestle with her playfully.
'You're mad Paul. You know something? You're over-sexed or something like that, you're not normal.'
'More than likely, but aren't you the lucky one? Wanna cup of coffee daaarlin'?' I ask, adopting a cockney accent and flashing her a leery grin.
'Yes please. I like you playing the fool.'
'Yeah, I was only joking.... make your own coffee!' I retort.
When she appears in the kitchen she looked relieved to see there are two steaming cups on the sideboard. We breakfast and we loaf about awhile before deciding it must be time to leave. Making sure the place is as tidy as when we arrived we now place the door key on the table and leave the flat, slamming the front door closed behind us.
'Thanks for the flat,' I say out loud, as we made our way down the stairs. 'You really did your country proud,' I add in a pompous upper-crust accent.
From Oran we are fortunate in getting a succession of lifts, bringing us ever closer towards the capital city, Algiers. For the most part of the day we travel in the cab of a lorry, but the journey is unspectacular, even dull. Quite why pipelines are so prevalent here I just can't understand.
We trundle along at speed as the heat intensifies; it becomes really quite intolerable. I reckon the heat and the lack of any obvious water supply must constitute a serious problem for the local inhabitants who use primitive means for irrigating their land. Using either an ox or a camel, a wooden apparatus is turned, which results in a chain of pots or buckets bringing water up from an underground source. As I watch the brightly clad peasant folk at their labours I am transported back to my childhood where I studied a working model of such a mechanism located in the children's section of the Science Museum. Along with the dinosaurs, that model always captured my imagination more than anything else they had at the museums. I had assumed that this process had long since been superseded in all parts of the world.
When any opportunity occurs to stop, we quench our thirsts from the standing taps along the route and find ourselves drinking literally pints of cooling water. On one of the numerous stops we find a stream where I douse myself with water and hold my face under the surface in an attempt to cool myself and slake my insatiable thirst.
It is not really surprising that I start to feel a bit groggy, what with the sudden changes of temperature brought about by alternate cooling and overheating. Before long I have a high temperature and a streaming cold, a real ripsnorter, which soon overwhelms me in full. All I want to do is to go to bed and rest up.
By the time we finally arrive in Algiers I am incapable of anything other than self-pity and I rely on Yolanda to find us a place to stay. The problem is resolved when we meet with a priest who provides accommodation to foreign travellers. Outside in the courtyard of his home is a marbled veranda close by a balustrade where a trellis laced with the sprawling tendrils of a grapevine hangs laden with fruit. Here we lay out our sleeping bags. My congestion is at it's worst and my head pounds and aches. I find I sleep only for short periods, otherwise I stare about me, my brain besieged by confusions brought on by the fever
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