Algeria stories and legends. The Night Train to Blida by Andrew McIntyre. Enjoy the reading and have a nice Wednesday, Yareah Magazine friends!
A crumpled uniformed man with a long dark moustache slowly swept the floor, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Near a kiosk, a group of soldiers and merchants waited in silence while robed porters climbed aboard shouting, hoisting luggage. We walked along the gray asphalt platform towards the front. The train was filthy, the windows coated with thick black dust. We found an empty carriage near the engine. Inside, hard wooden seats faced each other.
Mohammed lit a cigarette, flicking the match across the aisle. “We’re off to Blida.”
“Yes. At last.”
“Better we stay up the front so we can get some sleep. The late ones come, and there is much noise. And the soldiers.” He jerked his thumb at the culprits.
“Yes. Noisy. Maybe we can get some sleep.”
We smoked, listening to the preparations outside. After several minutes the train pulled into the darkness, picking up speed. A blanket of exhaustion briefly seduced my efforts to stay awake. Cold air streaming from the open window. The cigarette had fallen out of my hand onto the floor where it burned itself out. The pane was jammed, but I banged it shut after a struggle and sat down again wrapped in my jacket. My tongue was glued to the top of my mouth. I tried to create saliva in the stale recesses of my throat.
Mohammed was on the nod, cigarette slipping between his fingers, dozing off, slumping forward jolting up, dozing off, slumping forward jolting up. The cigarette tumbled to the ground sparking as it hit the wooden floor. I stamped it out as it began to smolder on the dry slats. Outside, the air swished by, a cool hint of pine, distant farms, perhaps, the lights far away. Strange to think of families living together in this place.
A station. Robes climbing aboard with bundles of luggage, guttural utterances murmured around us. Pungent local tobacco drifting through the carriage. Dark figures wrapping blankets around their shoulders in the half-light. Where the hell was the fucking dawn? I glanced at my watch. We had been traveling for an hour.
Mohammed still asleep. I studied him in the dim light of the lamps. His nose bent double, broken in some long forgotten street fight. His head oval in profile, slumped sideways, sunken cheeks so deep his face seemed to be carved from wood. Skin light brown. Stained slightly darker from tobacco, his lower lip jutted out defiantly creating the aura of a hungry animal. His hair curled, short, greasy. Further down the train soldiers shouting and laughing. Mixed with the heavy tobacco smoke drifting in waves along the carriage, the sweet odor of hashish. Despite the racket, I slept again, then Mohammed was shaking me.
“Blida. We’re there.”
The train gathering speed. A larger station. Movement, people with luggage. Bells singing by in the night. It was freezing.
“Blida, we nearly missed it,” he said. “Come on, let’s move.”
I peered out the window, and spat a thick gob of phlegm. Looking up the rails, I saw no platform, just a dirt elevation. I followed Mohammed to the door. Bracing our knees for the fall, we jumped onto the gravel lining the tracks, running alongside the moving train. We had to walk back a few hundred yards towards the town, continuing along an unpaved main road. Flapping to keep warm, leaning against the biting wind, we found the bus station.
“Blida! What do you think, eh? That was lucky, we nearly missed it, we were asleep. The next stop is Ain Salah.”
“Let’s get some coffee. Warm up. Maybe eat something.”
“There is a café.”
Another gust of gnawing cold from the white lined shadows of the Atlas, the glowing hint of snow far above the town in the craggy heights. Bent over, blowing our hands, we strode into the dirt expanse. Shacks lined the plaza where dilapidated buses and vehicles waited in the gloom. Drivers slumped in the cabins of the trucks. Still no sign of the sun, just the indigo ridge against the darker sky, the stars in the east marking the beginnings of the vast empty plain that would eventually merge into the remote quarters of the Sahara, way to the south. They were starting to stir in the large building at the end of the road. The old Legion barracks. A bugle sounded. Lights in the windows. On the breeze, the sound of shouted commands, and hundreds of marching feet.
Mohammed pointed, “Service militaire. They are nothing, the sons of the rich. For those with influence. Go into the town. Have fun. Fuck women and drink. In Béchar we only had le cafard.” He spat, “Their time is near. Tout s’arrange.”
In the café, men smoked, hunched over croissants and coffee. Some were playing cards. We ordered rolls, the thick oily coffee served in demitasse cups. People going to work, walking towards the station in overcoats, wrapped in blankets, the same scene the world over. Algerian commuters. I thought of London, not so far away.
“Come on. La petite fille will be waiting.”
“Where does she live?”
“Just up the road, towards the station.”
We finished our coffees, put on our jackets, and ventured into the night. The road was very straight, built by the Romans, refurbished by the French, fought over for centuries, one of the most strategic highways in the region. Now it was cracked and worn, broken into dirt and stones. Beyond, the hint of yellow brown landscape, ragged bushes blowing dryly in the wind. In the dim blue distance, I saw the new stars of dawn shimmering in the heavens. La longue nuit. Dawn had never taken so long. We reached an old colonial red-tiled house. I expected that I would have to wait half an hour while Mohammed fucked her. I checked I had some cigarettes.
“Attends.” Mohammed knocked on the door. No-one. He knocked harder. “Merde.” Knocking again, he called a name in Arabic. A light appeared in the entrance. Someone opened cautiously, I could not see clearly, though it seemed to be an old lady, very old, holding a lamp, hunched over in a sheepskin.
Mohammed spoke some rapid Arabic. The old woman nodded and retreated, shutting the door. Presently, it reopened and a lovely young woman stood staring at us. La petite fille, about twenty, very shy, with rich golden hair, a delicate beautiful face. She watched us closely, protected by the half-open door. Mohammed melted, smiling, shifting nervously, explaining in Arabic, motioning with his hands. She listened, her face like porcelain, replying briefly, single words. They started to speak in French.
She pointed, “Who is this?”
Mohammed indicated, “A Belgian sailor.”
She did not smile. She was clearly unhappy with the situation. They resumed in Arabic. Of course, she had to go to work. She kept looking nervously at her watch. Why had we come? Then finally she insisted. She had to go. She tried to close the door. Mohammed remonstrated with her, but no, she had to go. She would be late for work. He no doubt promised her that he would be back, with gold, with jewels, with the Earth, he would take her to a discotheque. But she shut the door with hardly a goodbye and we were off once again, silently smoking cigarettes, heads lowered into the wind in the purple half-light. Back to the station on the dusty yellow brick road, to catch the 7.00 a.m. to Algiers.
“Ah, la petite fille! Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes. Very beautiful. She is very beautiful. I have not often seen such beauty. Who is she?”
“A local girl. Her father was a Frenchman. She had to go to work.”
“Too bad, eh.”
“Oui. Nevertheless, we will return. We will take her out. We will buy her food. We will go to the discotheque.”
“Tomorrow we’ll return here.”
After a few broken-down adobe farms and buildings, Blida merged into the rolling green ochre of the Tellian Atlas. We waited for the train on the edge of town. The sun rose over the yellow plateau, taking us by surprise, throwing blinding orange rays across the fields. Along the platform, a man in a suit waited patiently with a pleasant smile. The morning clear, sharp, very cold, the sky a deep cloudless blue. A rooster crowed. The railway tracks led into a fathomless distance of bare bleak hills, a landscape of endless rocks and scrawny dry bushes. A battered Coca-Cola sign squeaked in the breeze.
Lighting a cigarette, squinting at the horizon, Mohammed pointed, “Down there is Béchar. About three or four days away.”
“Thus it is.”
“A long way. The trains break down all the time. Or the rebels blow the tracks.”
“At last the night is over,” I said.
“The night is never over.”
“What do you mean?”
“We must always be careful.”
“The night never ends. No matter how much we search. We never find our way. The roads are illusion, like paths in the desert.”