© BM 2008
Chapter Seventeen – Episode 25
He awoke feeling sticky and uncomfortable, with sunlight streaming into the room from somewhere on his right, shafting across his vision. He closed his eyes and turned to his left, his right arm automatically reaching for the comfort and security of her body.
She wasn’t there! He opened his eyes and they confirmed the message that his arm had transmitted. And this was not his bed. He groaned, and simply lay there, unmoving as he tried to remember where he was. It was fully a minute before his mind pieced it all together.
“Algeria, you are in Algeria.” He spoke aloud. At least he was pleased that he had remembered. Sometimes his lack of memory was frightening. He had once spent a whole day trying to bring into focus what you called a mountain with smoke and fire and lava coming from the top. Jesus, he had been so relieved when it came to him. Volcano! Of course, a bloody volcano. He had never forgotten it again. There it was, emblazoned on his consciousness, standing out like Big Ben in Parliament Square.
Then again, he had forgotten Terry Venables’ name, but perhaps that had not been an accident. But now, here he was again, in a strange bed, in a strange room, in a strange place, trying to work it out. It was 6.20 in the morning. That was something!
He got out of bed, grabbed a towel and opened the door. The brassy sun hit him straight between the eyes, and he turned away as if he had been physically struck. He retreated into the room, picked up his sunglasses and tried again. It had been dark when he arrived the previous evening, and the opportunity to sightsee had not arisen.
“That was just as well,” he told himself. His ‘room’ was a Portacabin, little bigger than a packing case, and his immediate vision was taken up with a row of identical packing cases to his left and right, and the backs of equally identical items about ten feet to his front. He went back into his packing case, discarded the towel, and had a shower. As the water gurgled down the plughole, he tried to recall whether it should be spiralling to the left or to the right. It was only after he went outside that he saw that the drain had not been connected to anything and the waste water simply spent itself in the sand. He shrugged. “When in Rome….” He tried not to think about the toilet.
Hassi Messauod was the centre of oil and gas exploration and production in Algeria, over 1000 kilometres south of Algiers, and in the dead heart of the Sahara. The rest of the day he spent sampling its non-alcoholic delights. Hassi was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dump. The sand was dirty and scarred with carcasses, carcasses of abandoned pipeline, discarded trucks, rusting metal of uncertain origin and the bloated, stinking bodies of camels, victims of Hassi’s death wish drivers. Above all there was an all-pervading smell of oil.
An article on Algeria’s booming oil economy, a blazing beacon in the midst of an increasingly savage civil war, was his rationale for being in the basement of the world. It was also his objective, as a respected journalist and old Africa hand, to say nothing of supposed military expert, to juxtapose the one against the other, oil and blood, seeping into the sand.
His guide was Nadia, a beautiful, intelligent and highly qualified geologist working for BP. Nadia was thirty-one years of age, and spoke, in equal fluency, English, French, Arabic and Berber, her mother tongue. Nadia was from Algiers and shared his distaste of Hassi, but a job was a job. She was staying at RedMed, an upmarket accommodation complex about two miles away. He had drawn the short straw, as RedMed was full and he was staying at a construction camp.
“It will be good for you,” Nadia had told him. “Now you can see what people have to put up with here.” At least the food was excellent and plentiful.
She arrived at eight, in a large Toyota Land Cruiser, driven by an unshaven Rashid, who spoke no English, little French, and Arabic only when he had to.
“Bonjour, Alex. Did you sleep well?”
“Like a dead man, thank you. It’s very warm already.”
“It will be warmer still. Don’t bring a jacket.”
He laughed, “No jacket required. Could be the title for a record.”
“I think it is, by Phil Collins.”
“Do you know everything?”
“Of course. I am a woman.”
He nodded resignedly. “Tell me about it.”
“OK, Alex. We drive to the airport, and get on the Porter. It is a very fine Swiss aircraft and all the oil companies use them. The driver, I’m sorry, the pilot is a New Zealander called Merry. Bob is his first name. He doesn’t say very much.”
“No, Kiwis don’t say a lot, unless they’re on about Rugby, or if they are drunk. Not much chance of either here, I’d imagine. Though you just get one or two of them to crack on a bit about sheep.” He regretted saying that.
“Sheep?” She looked puzzled.
“Don’t even ask.”
She smiled, without reply.
“OK, we go with Rashid now. He doesn’t say much either.”
They met their pilot at the airport, and exchanged nods. They took off towards the BP rig, about eighty kilometres away to the southeast. All signs of life disappeared within a couple of minutes of flying, and they scudded low over the barren rocks and sand. The thermals caused the little aircraft to rise and fall, sometimes in stomach churning fashion. Alex was beginning to feel sick, when Merry motioned him and Nadia to put on their headsets. It was impossible to hear anything above the engine’s rumble without them.
“Yeah, look, guys, I’m sorry but there is a sandstorm at the rig, and they have closed down landings there for the time being. I’m going back to Hassi, and we’ll give the rig another go a bit later.”
Alex and Nadia gave him a thumbs up, ant the aircraft turned through 180 degrees to head back to Hassi. Ten minutes later the disembodied voice of Bob Merry crackled in their headphones again.
“Sorry, but we can’t go to Hassi either. She’s now closed too. We will have to put down in the desert around here somewhere.””
Alex shouted into his mouthpiece. “Can we go down in the desert?”
“Don’t shout, mate, I can hear you. There are dozens of old French Air Force strips around here. They built them during the 54-62 war. There’s a lot shown on the map. I hope I can find one.”
He did, and the long high winged aircraft bumped down to a surprisingly comfortable and very short landing. They climbed out, blinking in the strong sunlight.
“Right, I’ll need your help. We may get a bit of a blow this way too. Let’s get the old girl ready for it.”
They helped him off load two heavy metal weights, which he attached to the wing tips.
“Don’t want her to be turning over on us. It’s a bloody long walk back to Hassi.”
They covered the engine with a tarpaulin, leaving the propeller sticking out from underneath, like an old woman peering out from her bonnet. They sat down under the shade of the wings to await Bob Merry’s ‘bit of a blow.’ He gave each of them a cotton windcheater, which he indicated that they should wear back to front.
“Pull the hood over your heads when she blows. It may help to keep some of the sand out. Keep your eyes and mouth closed, and cover your nose.”
The storm came suddenly, with a frightening intensity. Alex and Nadia huddled together, their coats over their heads, and they were enveloped by a howling, stinging sea of sand, which despite their best efforts, got into every nook and cranny of their bodies. It was also as hot as hell, and robbed them of their breath. Alex could not be sure how long it had lasted, but it seemed an eternity of heat, noise and disorientation.
Then it was all over, as quickly as it had started. They emerged, blinking and shaking sand from everywhere.
She grinned at him. “Welcome to Algeria, Englishman.”
He was too relieved to dispute her description. “Shoukran, djamila.”
The rest of the day and his visit were anti climatic. It was nearly a year before he met Nadia again, this time at BP’s head office in London.
“Alex!” She hugged him, and they chatted. “You called me ‘djamila’, back in the desert. Did you know what it meant?”
“Oh, yes. It means ‘beautiful’.”
“Well, shoukran to you.”
Life continued to be most satisfactory for Alex, and he thought, for Francesca as well. His work reflected his deep contentment, domestically. He had left Reuters, without rancour, and had joined an independent Press agency, which he believed would give him more scope to take on projects which interested him, and not merely those he was directed to do. The agency was the same one that Neil now also worked for, having followed Harry Sawyer. Neil and Julie had become even firmer friends with Alex and Francesca. Neil sometimes called her ‘Daina’, and Alex ‘Simba’. The latter was an intrusion that Alex frowned on, believing, as he did, that the pet name was just that, something to be shared between himself and Francesca. So Neil reverted to ‘Alex’, but continued to call Francesca ‘Daina’. She did not appear to mind.
Francesca had finished her teacher training, and had a job in Horsham, teaching primary school pupils. She loved the work and was popular with her charges, and highly regarded by her colleagues. With Alex’s encouragement, she decided to branch out into language teaching, and went back to college to pick up the necessary skills. Once or twice they discussed having a baby, but Francesca was never certain, and these broody periods became fewer and fewer. He had stopped asking her to marry him, as she had always declined and changed the subject.
Alex believed that life had never been so good, and he had never been as happy in his life. At work, he had achieved an excellent rapport with everyone in the office, and was well respected by clients. What was particularly gratifying to him was the esteem with which his peers, the journalists who worked for the various press agencies, and those employed by the newspapers, regarded him. As a rookie, he had been viewed with some suspicion, disdain even, by the hard drinking, chain smoking old sweats in the industry. He had been seen as a bit of a glamour boy, coming out of the Army after being wounded in the Falklands. In vain did Alex protest that he had not been wounded, it had only been a scratch. This was dismissed as unbecoming reticence, a downplaying of his achievements. Alex could not alter these perceptions by discussion, or by argument, so he decided to live with what he couldn’t change, and get on with it.
His acceptance by his colleagues had come gradually, as he quietly got on with learning about his new occupation, asking questions when necessary and taking advice frequently when offered. It was increasingly seen that he was serious about his second career, and not simply playing at it. His expertise began to grow, especially in Africa, but also in the Middle East, and increasingly, since the fall of Communism, in the former Soviet Union. By 1994, Alex Millar was recognized as a formidable investigative journalist, and an expert on African matters, especially if they involved war and terrorism.
Alex was not seen as an easy person, even by those who liked and respected him, and his abilities. He could be scathing on occasion, brutal in his criticism, and didn’t, as Neil liked to express it, ‘suffer fools gladly’. But his criticism was never negative, his anger and sarcasm short lived, and he never held a grudge for long. Even those who had felt his tongue accepted that ‘the bastard was usually right.’ He saw himself that he was at the height of his powers, and delighted it the knowledge.
His personal life was deeply, and almost completely, satisfying. There was a connection between the two, his work and his home. Francesca was enjoying teaching, and she had a flair for it. She seemed to be happier in her new calling than she had been in her previous one. She had been a good Press photographer, but had never really warmed to the life ‘on the road’. She had enjoyed the acclaim her pictures from Angola had brought, but she thought that such fame had been bought at too high a price. She was content as a teacher, and her only forays into the photographic world were on holiday. Occasionally she would see fit to offer advice to Alex on his use of the ancient Olympus OM10 which he would not discard. His response was to ask if she thought she was better than David Bailey. It was a belated response to her remark about his singing being better than Neil Diamond, or not, as was the case.
“Fifteen all”, he told her triumphantly.
“Englishman,” she sniffed. So she still had the last word.
In all his life, Alex had never felt so deeply content, so much in love, and so much ‘in sync’ with another human being. He thought that she felt the same, though she rarely said. Before she had started teaching, they had spoken about having a baby, but since she had started teaching, the idea seemed to have less appeal. Alex believed that he could still father a child, and had no cause to think that Francesca could not become a mother. It all became an academic consideration, as her charges at school seemed to provide sufficient outlet for her maternal instincts.
In August they went on holiday to the United States. Being a schoolteacher had some of the advantages of parenthood, and many of the disadvantages, one of which was their inability to have the freedom to travel whenever it suited them, as hitherto.
“Daina,” he grumbled, looking at the invoice for the air tickets. “This is costing an arm and a leg.”
“I can’t help that,” she said primly, “I’m a working girl.”
He chuckled. “No, you’re not. You are a girl who works.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Sure is, a working girl earns more.”
She didn’t understand, and he would not explain until she tickled him into submission.
“Well,” she said, “If that is what you want, I can do that too.” She began unzipping her dress, slowly and provocatively.
“Oh, well,” he said, throwing the invoice over his shoulder. “Let’s forget the bloody bill.”
There was a problem with their aircraft, or with the weather, and the flight was diverted to JFK airport, before staggering off again to land at Atlanta at eleven in the evening, some six hours late. It was midnight before they left the terminal to go and pick up their hire car, and they found themselves in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. By the time they reached their car, they were both soaked to the skin, and very tired and irritated.
“What time is it in England?” she demanded.
“About 5 am.”
“Do you realize that we have been up for nearly twenty-four hours?”
“Tell me about it,” he grumbled, struggling to turn on the windscreen wipers.
Their original plan had been to drive about fifty miles out of Atlanta, find a good motel, have a pleasant dinner, and go to sleep in each other’s arms. No more! The rain was so heavy that the windscreen wipers could not keep pace with it, and they had immense difficulty in even seeing the road in front of them, let alone read the street signs. He was certain that they were driving in circles as neither of them could find the way out of Atlanta. Sometime after one, they saw a motel sign flashing through the ocean in which they were driving. It was a Scotsman in a kilt, grinning inanely. There he was, then he had gone, and then he was back again, and then gone.
“This will do.” He pulled in to the driveway, and leaving Francesca in the car, ran into the reception area. There was a woman at the desk, an armed security guard in the foyer, and three other men sitting in chairs, drinking beer from bottles. They were all black. Alex stood dripping and looked from one to the other.
“Can I help you?’ The woman spoke, without any trace of welcome in her voice.
“Do you have a double room?” Alex was unsure of this, but he could not see any alternative.
“You want to stay here?”
“You sure, mister?”
“We need to stay somewhere, lady.”
The woman shrugged. “It’s up to you mister. That’s thirty dollars, in advance.”
He paid and went to fetch Francesca.
“What’s it like?”
“I have seen better in downtown Kinshasa, but we have no choice. Let’s not take all the cases, just enough for the night.”
They went in, her eyes wide with fright. He picked up the key from the unsmiling woman, and the security man with the shotgun unlocked the metal grille to the corridor, and locked it after them. The room was OK, not the Ritz, but better than they had expected. They piled a heavy armchair against the bedroom door, and checked the window locks. They could not see their car from the window, but could see the rain continuing to pour down.
Despite her protests that she would never sleep, Francesca was away in minutes and he was not far behind her. It was after nine before they woke. The chair was still in place, and the window still locked. The rain had stopped and the sun beamed benignly from an azure sky. The same receptionist and security guard were still on duty, and greeted them with wide smiles and cheerful “Good mornings”. The car was still in the car park, steaming itself dry, and their luggage remained in the boot, or hood, as he reminded himself.
They found a restaurant and pulled in for breakfast. He turned to her as the car stopped. “I told you it would be all right.”
She hit him.
They travelled to Charleston, and to Savannah, and drove in a leisurely fashion up along the South Carolina coast, staying wherever the mood took them, and for as long as they wanted. The sea was warm, the sands white and the people were welcoming and friendly. Alex could not recall a time when they had been closer together, so much at one, or so much in love. At the end of ten days on the coast, they drove across the mountains, and wended their slow way back to Atlanta.
He returned the car, their rain filled arrival a distant and fast fading memory. While waiting for the departure time, he announced that he was going to find a telephone and call Maggie and Richard.
“Why do you want to do that?”
“I’d like to know how they are.”
“Why? Can’t it wait until you get home?”
“Yes, sure it can wait, but I’d like to call them for a couple of minutes. They are my children. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, go ahead, please yourself.” But her face tightened, and she turned her head away.
Alex was disturbed by this, but shrugged it off. However, in the coming days and months he became unable to shrug things off so easily.
Francesca had never had a warm relationship with his children. Alex put it down to her never having had children of her own. But now, since returning from the States, her attitude changed more and more. In their first three years together, she had joined him in visits to Maggie’s and to Richard’s before he had moved to Yorkshire. She would no longer do that, telling him to go on her own. She did not mind, she told him. So he did pay visits on his own, to his discomfort and the puzzlement of Maggie and Richard. Worse was to follow. Richard and his wife Jilly did not visit often, owing to the distance they had to travel, but usually managed about twice a year. Maggie and Danny came more often, perhaps four or five times a year, for dinner. Francesca always enjoyed cooking, but seemed to lose her enthusiasm for cooking for the Connors’ family.
Alex decided to take everyone out to a restaurant on future visits. It made no difference. Francesca found many things to irritate her, especially with Maggie and Danny’s baby boy, Thomas, and she insisted on instantly cleaning up after his normal mishaps. These actions embarrassed Alex and dismayed Danny and Maggie, so much so that they were reluctant to visit Alex and Francesca. The final straw came when Alex invited them to drop in on their way to a London theatre one Saturday for a drink or coffee.
Francesca was angry. “You didn’t ask me if that was OK,” she snapped.
“Why shouldn’t it be OK? They are dropping in for half an hour en route to the bloody theatre. I haven’t seen either of them for a couple of months, and it is not like they are bringing the young fellow with them. In any case, I don’t object when your teaching friends drop in here without notice. What is the problem?”
“I don’t have the problem, you have. It seems as if you cannot live without your children. You are divorced, remember? You are supposed to be making a new life with me.”
“Daina, please listen.”
“Don’t call me that stupid name.”
He was hurt by this, something she had not said before. It had been Daina and Simba for so long, that the names were interchangeable with Francesca and Alex.
“It isn’t a stupid name. It’s a, well, it’s a name made from love.”
“My name is Francesca.”
“All right, Francesca, please listen. I am divorced. I am making a new life with you, and I love you more than anyone I have ever known. But, I did not divorce my kids, and I love them. I need them, too. If you had had a child you would understand. They are always your children, and I need them, and love them in a different way to you. They are not rivals, or competitors to you, I love you above everything, and everybody.”
“If you loved me, you wouldn’t need anyone else. If you need them, you can’t love me.”
He could not believe what he was hearing. This was Francesca, the woman who was so balanced, so wise; the woman upon whom he depended, the woman he loved. It didn’t make sense.
It was a big mistake, and it did not improve the situation. She resolved the situation, at least to her own satisfaction, if to no one else’s, by simply walking out, and not returning until midnight. Where she went, or what she did, he knew not. She did not take the car, and never mentioned it to him. Matters worsened.
Francesca invited friends from Italy to stay, people he had never met, and did not know. The couple was pleasant enough, even if speaking little English. He tried to be sociable, and not get in the way. They stayed for five days. He would not have been concerned in the normal run of events, but when his children dared not visit their father’s home because of her animosity, he was aggrieved and said so, after the visitors had gone.
Naturally she did not agree, and yet another argument followed. He told her that, as she would not welcome his children in his own home, he would not go to her parents’ for Christmas and the New Year, which had been an annual pilgrimage since they met.
After her return, things continued to deteriorate. Maggie and Danny invited her to Thomas’s christening. She refused. Alex gave her an ultimatum.
“Francesca, if you do not come with me, and support me, you, the lady I love, I can’t see how I can continue going with you to Italy.”
“Don’t bloody come then. You only came along for a free holiday anyway.”
They found other things to argue about.
“How long have we lived together now?” she demanded one day.
“Nearly five years. Why do you ask?”
“Don’t you think it is time that we both appeared on the mortgage, as joint owners?”
He was astounded. “I have never thought about it. I have asked you to marry me so many times. If we were married you would be joint owner. Let’s get married and that will resolve it.”
“I do not want to get married. Perhaps after we sort this out. If I am your partner you should want me to share your house.”
“Francesca, I truly do not know what to say. The mortgage payments are nearly seven hundred pounds a month. I pay that. You give me a hundred pounds a month towards the gas, electric, phone etc. If after five years, you still do not want to get married, I wonder about your commitment to us.”
They were not resolving anything, and both sulked for the rest of the day, going to bed with a gulf of angry silence between their naked backs.
The following day he sat down at home while she was at work, and did some household accounts. He estimated that it cost just over twelve hundred pounds a month to run the house, of which Francesca contributed one hundred. He thought about her year at university, not working, and his support for her in that time. When she got home he was making dinner, and as casually as he could he gave her the list.
“You might just glance at that, darling. That is what it costs to keep this place running.”
She looked at the paper briefly, tore it up and threw it into the waste paper bin. She turned on her heel, collected her coat and went out. And still things worsened. They were on a very slippery slope, and Alex did not know why, or how to stop them sliding further. Alex was disturbed by this, but shrugged it off. However, in the coming days and months he became unable to shrug things off so easily.
Francesca had always been a very self contained person, who, even in their five good years had never revealed, let alone discussed, her feelings. Now, in the present difficult times through which they were going, she became even more withdrawn. Alex wanted to talk about their differences, to discuss and find a way out of the problems. She did not, and would not, and any attempts at discussion on his part only led to arguments that became increasingly bitter. In turn, she withdrew further, and refused to speak to him for days at a time. Increasingly too, she took to going out without telling him where, or when she would be back, and on occasions of staying away overnight. Where she went, or who she stayed with, he did not know.
After one bitter argument, he took to sleeping in the spare bedroom, and she let him know that he was not welcome to return. In his own house, for Christ’s sake! This did not stop the arguments, and Alex was shocked at the contorted face of the woman he loved screaming at him. He veered between trying to talk, to make things better, and screaming back. Francesca never seemed to have the least interest in any kind of reconciliation. He suggested that they seek external help, from a friend, or from the marriage guidance group Relate. Her reply was that it was Alex who had the problem, and not her. The original sticking point, about his children, had become lost in the welter of accusation and counter accusation.
A number of their friends were aware of their difficulties, but no one tried to intervene, or offer help. Their slide continued. He was reminded of the time at the start of their relationship when he had called at her house to hear her screaming into the phone, at her ex husband, oblivious to everything else. He was also reminded of Anne, at her worst, in her refusal to speak for long periods. Francesca had said she was going to leave, and she never seemed to alter that objective.
She began moving small items out of the house when he was at work, and he would return to find things, like paintings or ornaments missing, which had been there when he had left in the morning. She began buying her own food, and using that, studiously ignoring what had previously been communal and shared. Once or twice she asked him if she could borrow milk, being careful to make a point of paying back what she had borrowed, not a bottle or a carton, but a cupful, which he poured down the sink in front of her. Alex knew that he was not helping. He was angered by her behaviour, and easily provoked into retaliation, which he always subsequently regretted.
The arguments grew fewer, which was not difficult, as she refused to speak to him, but when they did occur, they were more intense. She took to hitting out at him and using her knees and her feet. He tried, in despair, to restrain her, until one day she attacked him with a sword she had bought before she had known him. They struggled, and in trying to restrain her, he hit her. He regretted it instantly, but there was no way she wanted apologies, and called the police. This occurred at one in the morning, and two weary police officers came and took some notes. They advised the pair of them to seek counseling and left.
Two days later, he received a letter from a solicitor representing her, containing the usual language and the usual threats. He sought legal advice, and his own solicitor served notice on Francesca to quit the house by the end of the month. In turn his solicitor was sent a letter from her solicitor demanding payment of £1500 to leave, as her share of what she had contributed to the shared household. Brokenhearted, Alex listed all the debts he had settled for Francesca, the financial support he had given her at University, the costs of holidays, and last the details of household expenses to which she contributed less that ten per cent.
“I don’t want to do this,” he complained to Michael Jones, his solicitor.
“You must protect yourself,” was the reply.
“I love her, I do not want to protect myself from her.”
“It’s precisely because you love her that you must protect yourself. You are too vulnerable otherwise.”
Alex was silent for a while. “I would give her the money if she asked me for it. I would sooner go to prison before giving her anything this way.”
The upshot of his list was that there was no further mention of the £1500.
He tried talking to Francesca one more time, but she would not listen. How did they come to this? They had loved each other, had they not? They had been special, weren’t they? They had their own private language, and private world, inhabited by lions and deer. How could this have happened? Her mother phoned him and gave him a terrible tongue lashing, but as it was in angry, lightening quick Italian, he could not understand, and simply held the phone away from his ear.
He could not believe how they had arrived at this position, and in such a short time. They had seemed impervious to any such danger. He went to work in a kind of daze and returned each day in the same way. A letter awaited him one evening. It was from Francesca’s solicitor, and said that she would vacate on 29th August 1996. He went into her office where she sat at her computer, and held up the letter.
“Is this what we are reduced to doing, Daina?”
She looked up at him without speaking, and then returned to her screen. Sadly he walked out.
On the 29th he went to work, but did not come home. Alex was a coward, and could not face it at the end.