We emerged from the air conditioned terminal into stifling heat. It was barely mid-May and already the air was shimmering with it, the cars in the car park were scorching to the touch. The small crowd of people who had gathered to welcome us were blurry in the distance, smiling bravely under the glare of the sun, standing on tiptoes with expectation. My hand went up in that long-forgotten gesture that mirrored theirs; I pressed my open palm against my forehead to create a visor, squinted at them, recognised maybe half.
I should be able to recall what happened after. Our hurried steps across the car park, and theirs, the pounding of my own heart, and everybody else’s. Who was there exactly and who I greeted first and what was said. What time was it? Where did we go?
What I remember clearly is the wail my mum let out when she fell into her own mother’s arms. I can’t imagine the state of mind and heart that must have produced it, and I didn’t think about that back then; I was nearly sixteen and I thought mostly of the embarrassment she was causing us all with this scene. I also remember that I rode in the back of my uncle Mustapha’s Hyundai, his daughter was at the wheel and her straightened hair was lashing her as we sped down the motorway. Could you pass me that bandanna next to you please? We passed a spot somewhere near the airport, by a bridge, where a city official’s decorative flair had led to the English words ‘welcome to Algiers’ being fashioned out of shrubbery on a bed of grass and flowers. I don’t know if that made me smile or cry, as I had already read enough books to perk up at this, looking for some literary significance, but I was too young to find it.
As The Return took place at the end of the Algerian school year, the dilemma regarding where and in what language we’d do our learning was held off. For now, we had four, piping hot months to get reacquainted with the country we had forgotten was our own, to rediscover old family members and welcome new ones. We had to readjust our tongues to the language, to force out sounds that were gathering dust in the back of our vocal cords, the back of our minds, to pick up on the hip new vocabulary that youngsters our age used. Our learning of the dialect had stopped seven years ago and we spoke like our nine-year-old selves, with a touch of quaintness passed on from our mother.
We had four months to walk streets that had shrunk, meet neighbours who had aged, blink politely at women who claimed to have been our second mothers, and of whom we had not the slightest recollection. We had four months to relish the taste of the fresh eggs, fresh meat, fresh fruit that may not have resembled the magazine cut-out fare we had grown accustomed to but tasted like real food. We caught the local bugs, the stuff our bodies were still too European to handle. I remember four days spent in an agony of fever, vomiting and cramps. Salmonella. They say it comes from under-cooked meats most likely. The idea is laughable; everything here is cooked until it is falling apart in the casserole, until you can’t poke it with your fork. Maybe it was the fruit, maybe it was just me. In any case I caught it at the time when the flow of guests had reached a peak, and I was forced out of bed, dizzy and shaking, to greet and pretend to recognise the nameless crowd of well-wishers. Don’t you remember me, dear? Says the grinning face that has startled me out of my sleep on the worst day of my illness. I’m your aunt Adra. I glower at her and turn over. Leave. Me. Alone.
We had four months to learn that we couldn’t go to the beach by ourselves, exactly because we were grown girls now. Four months to learn to sleep through the persistent whine of mosquitoes and splatter them against the wall without fully waking up.
We had four months to learn how to be proper ladies. This was a growing obsession of our mother’s, who had no control over the taps that ran dry every few days, over salmonella, over my brother’s sulkiness, over the gnawing fear that we would never adjust, that we would be failures at school, that the decision to return had ruined our future. The housework and cooking she could control, and she drove us with a pitilessness that was hard to recognise in someone who cried when she saw an old lady crossing the street with a limp. Tearful arguments became daily life as with mounting despair she tried to instill in us habits that would never be of any use. She had picked them up when she was a young woman, before the machines that have relieved women of their role of beasts of labour had become common things that everybody took for granted. This is how to wash clothes by hand, this is how to wash the wool stuffing of the mattress, this is how to mop the floor without a mop, crouching over, red-faced with the strain. Then came the truly vicious stuff. I remember my twin sister trying to pluck the feathers off a chicken with tweezers, a surgical mask over her face to keep out the smell, sobbing at the injustice of it all. This is how to clean and gut sardines. No, you can’t use gloves.
We had four months to puzzle over our education, and to go from one English language school to another and be told no, sorry, we teach English, we don’t teach in English. One very posh school could offer us the chance to sit our GCSE’s, but we would have had to sell a couple of spare organs first. Everywhere else, they reassured us with ‘hey, you ladies speak perfectly, you are welcome to come and teach here when you’re old enough!’ My mum would thank them and pray for them, her voice hoarse with hope and emotion.
And in the meantime mum, in the meantime?
In the meantime, it took four months for the child’s veil to fall away from my eyes in this city that was once again ours, this country, this people we had never got the chance to know properly. Four months to realise that England was now but a memory, growing blurry, a thing of the past. But there we stood again on the threshold of uncertainty, scared and confused, in the same way that we had clumped together seven years earlier in London with no knowledge of the language, the culture, the future – strange deaf-mutes about to take their first ride on the tube.