Short Stories. Road Block by Andrew McIntyre. Eventually we got a taxi, standing in the middle of the road so that it was forced to halt. At first the driver refused to negotiate, trying to drive around us, but… “The Night Train to Blida.”
We returned down the stairs to the vaults. Under the vast arches, bathed in the flickering yellow blue light, we waited for a taxi to take us to the center, flapping our arms, shuffling to keep warm. Mohammed smoked, hunched into his jacket against the frigid breeze. There were few cars and the taxis refused to stop. Mohammed yelled as they whizzed by.
“Imbeciles,” I said.
Mohammed shrugged his shoulders, “It is absurd. What are they in their cabs for if they do not stop?”
Eventually we got a taxi, standing in the middle of the road so that it was forced to halt. At first the driver refused to negotiate, trying to drive around us, but Mohammed would not let him pass.
“Hey, hey,” he yelled, calming the man with a blurring wad of blue notes. “We have money.”
We climbed in. Not exchanging a word with us despite Mohammed’s rapid Arabic commentary, the driver raced to the center, took the money, and sped away.
“Un fou,” muttered Mohammed. “What is the matter with these people?”
We wandered by the iron railings and palm trees bordering the port. Far below, the sea lapped against the stone walls. In a cafe, men were drinking coffee beneath yellow fans and cracked ceilings, surrounded by piles of baggage, brooding on this hour of the night. Like a flickering gray memory the colony filtered through time, the ornate arches, fading pictures of reunions, bullfighters, Belle Ēpoque prints, gilt work from the 19th century. An era of gendarmes, legionnaires, beautiful girls in light cotton frocks strolling the promenade in front of the azure sea in spring, the breeze off the Mediterranean taking the heat. Discarded lottery tickets and old newspapers littered the chequered tile floors.
Slumped at a marble table near the counter, we drank oily black coffee out of cracked plastic cups. Men in robes watching the dark, patiently counting the hours, the minutes till dawn, sitting in silence with one another. Beyond the bluish light of the bar, the night was clear. Algiers docks stretched round the bay, crowded with ships, dark shapes hung with twinkling necklaces on the ink block of the sea, a tiara of infinite chained diamonds.
“Algiers? Oh yes, she’s beautiful, but you should see Oran. I’m from Oran. Oraaaaan! You know? We go there in a couple of days?”
“Yes. We docked in Oran on the way here. It is a fine town.”
“Tonight we go to Blida.”
“Ah, yes, Blida.”
“Over in the hills before the mountains. I have une petite fille there.”
“Yes. Blida. That’s where we’ll go.”
“How long to get there?”
“By car? One hour. Two. Depends.”
“Blida? Let’s go.”
“We need a ride. Wait here.”
A battered white taxi was parked outside the bar, the engine running. The young driver leaning out the window, quickly smoking a cigarette, the burning red ash dangling before it fell in a shower of sparks blown away on the breeze. Mohammed watched for a moment, then he stood and walked over. After pointing back to me, Mohammed brought the lad into the bar. We ordered another round of coffees. I was introduced, and we shook hands.
“Ahmed,” he said. “You like my mustache? Recently I grew it. For the ladies.”
I nodded, “It is very fine. A fine mustache.”
They conversed loudly in a hectic mixture of Arabic and French. A decision was reached. We stubbed out our cigarettes, and stood ready to go. We all shook hands, and the deal was solidified.
We drove through the dark streets past sleeping children huddled together for warmth, men squatting around small fires in the squares, red points of cigarettes in the gloom. The suburbs, wealthier districts, the ornate splendor of the British Embassy, as we climbed out of the city into the hills. I looked back. Algiers far below, watery and twinkling. The car struggling slowly into the open country, arid bare landscape all around, silhouettes of pine trees and crags against the stars. I leaned out of the window inhaling the clear crisp air till my face became numb with cold. In the moonless sky, I could distinguish familiar constellations, the Plough, Orion, absurdly reassuring, old friends from long ago when, in the same icy air beneath the occasional shooting star, I smoked with comrades at the end of the night. I smiled at the memory while Mohammed and Ahmed talked non-stop in their strange mélange of languages. Suddenly, as we turned a bend, a figure in the middle of the road, a torch, a rifle, cars parked under trees.
“Merde. Les flics. Une barrage.”
Cops. I thought about the hatchet. A tool? A present for my brother? Ahmed opened the window as instructed and talked calmly. The cop shone the light into the car, over the seats, under the dashboard, into our faces. Mohammed explained my presence pointing back to me. Something about being Belgian. The light strayed into my face again remaining for a long time. I kept a passive expression, trying to appear friendly. Just routine. A road block. They waved us on and we drove away, climbing higher.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked.
“Oh just les flics, une barrage, nothing in particular,” said Mohammed.
“Who are they after?”
“People fighting here so near to Algiers?”
“Some. But pas de problème, OK? Tout s’arrange.”
Wreaths of pale ghost breath drifting, growing thicker in billows, becoming so dense we were forced to stop. Mohammed got out and stared, craning his neck. He urged the car on as though it was a reluctant horse but Ahmed refused.
“No. Too dangerous. Here there are ravines. Très dangereux.”
“Merde. Les flics et alors le brouillard. Merde.” Mohammed kicked at the road and got back into the car.
We turned towards Algiers. Just as suddenly, we were out of the fog. The night clear to the stars once more as we reached the foothills. Ahmed turned off the engine and we coasted down the long slope to the suburbs, weaving round the hills, no-one talking, just the swishing of the breeze, the speed of our free-falling motion through the night.
In the center, we drove searching for a discotheque, somewhere to spend the night in comfort. Mohammed argued with the bouncers to no avail. We were told to go away. Nothing open, everything full, we weren’t dressed correctly, they would allow us in if we could find a woman. Threats, fists raised as the taxi sped off. Ahmed laughing hysterically.
Mohammed cursed every failure, “This filthy, fucking, no good town. Oran. We should go to Oran.”
A crazy scheme to drive to Oran along the coast, or try to get to Blida again to pick up la petite fille so we could get into a discotheque. Ahmed arguing, refusing, becoming angry. A brief fight as Mohammed tried to grab the wheel, the car swerving over the empty boulevard, grazing a lamp-post, skidding back on course, Ahmed yelling, and now Mohammed was laughing, jabbing Ahmed, offering a cigarette. Ahmed veered to a halt and ordered us out. Mohammed pleaded with him, shouting, but it was no use. Ahmed drove away, waving his fist out of the window. Finally we had nothing, ending up where we had begun, near the station.
“We’ll have to go by train,” said Mohammed.
“It won’t be a problem with the fog.”
“That damned fog.”
“Same problem back home with fog, you know.”
“Yes? You have fog too?”
“Lots. Real problem.”
“So we’re going by train?”
“Oui. Let’s go. The station it is. We buy tickets. Try and go now eh? No time to waste.”
Yellow light shone across the concrete from the vast red sandstone building built by French engineers, legionnaires, and criminals, les Bats-d’Af, a century before. The interior painted with a sickly yellow gloss. The platforms packed with people, and livestock, chickens, a cow, glassy eyed goats. I ditched my luggage in a dented coin locker, putting the hatchet into my jacket, while Mohammed elbowed his way to the ticket office. He disappeared into the crowd, reemerging with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, carefully studying two tickets.
“For Blida,” he said. “Four o’clock. There was no other train. Some trouble down the tracks. Maybe someone blew the line. That’s why there are so many people here tonight. Look at it. Algiers. The same every night. Fucking crazy town.”
“Good. What do you want to do till then?”
“Oh we’ll take a stroll around. See what there is. Got to watch out though. You understand?”
“Where’s your luggage?”
“In the locker.”
“Good. So we can move fast. Ha ha. The axe?”
“Here.” I handed him the axe, and he slipped it into his jacket.
“Good. Alors, we are ready. Allons y.”
We emerged into the clean night air. I gave Mohammed a cigarette.
“Merci,” he mumbled, lighting it. He removed the axe, feeling its weight in his hand, skillfully balancing and twisting it around his wrist. He threw it in the air and caught it.
We reached a wide road, following a long neon lit boulevard into a residential area. Everyone asleep. The old towering buildings like Paris, somber, ornate, hinting of absinthe, mistresses, fading glimpses of another era. It was about 3.00 a.m. Nothing for us to do but walk to keep warm. Everywhere deserted except for a couple of men in dark coats, wandering the shadowy streets. Too scrawny to be plainclothes cops. Shapes flitting in and out of the alleys, across the cobbles. Rats. Skittering away, disappearing into the darkness. Mohammed chain-smoked, hunched into his jacket against the wind that blew in icy gusts from the Atlas.
“When they die in your country what do they do?”
“They bury you in the ground,” I replied. “Or they burn your body. Then they spread the ashes.”
“Do they mark the grave?”
“With us they wrap you in a white shroud, and they put you in the earth. No grave. No marker. You turn to dust, and forever live in the red winds that come from the depths of the Sahara. A happy death becoming red dust.”
“You said you had a friend in Blida?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Une petite fille. You will meet her. I wanted to do my military service there, but I had to go to Béchar. No connections. If you have money and connections you can do military service in Algiers, even from your home, or Blida which is near.”
Béchar, where the Legion had its penal colonies, the Zephyrs. The fort with its oasis and palms, the dunes drifting around the town like a sea, the vast wastes of the Sahara beyond, the last settlement of any size before the Moroccan border or Mali. The only companion, le cafard.
“How long did you stay in Béchar?”
“No. Two years in Béchar with no break. Deep in the Sahara. You know where it is?”
“Yes,” I answered.
We stopped to smoke, our backs against the wind. Embers glowing red, then fading. I gazed at the eastern sky, but there was no sign of the dawn. Just the glittering stars. The only movement a piece of newspaper rolling down the street.
“It is good not to be alone,” he said. “Often, I am here alone at this hour. The night can be very long.”
“I think I wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t with you.”
“That is possible, there is much danger.”
“I thank you for watching out for me.”
“It is nothing. Dawn will come soon.” He looked at his watch. “It is time we returned. The time is near.”
We strolled along an alley that ended at a dirty brick wall, continuing down a flight of iron stairs spiraling towards the docks. Women were trudging to work, huddled in blankets, bent over against the wind. Beyond the port, the winter sea spread lapping quietly in the night, forever licking the ancient city walls.
The station was emptier. The people must have caught a train, if they had been there at all. Perhaps we imagined them, a reunion of ghosts from all the ages of Algeria. The wind blowing lonely through the arches of the yellow dusty rooms, a few bodies still slumped on the freezing, dirty red tiles, curled around old newspaper, discarded cigarettes and lottery tickets flitting in the breeze.