Short Stories. Jumping Ship by Andrew McIntyre. Today, enjoy the opening section of The Night Train to Blida, Yareah friends.
I walked in the gloom through the filthy puddles, tripping over the potholes, scaring rats. When the street became too dark, I turned back. They were watching. All the hotels were full. New Year, everyone had come to see their relatives. I remembered the hand slashed across the throat, Jrovnic laughing. As I left the ship. I felt my bowels move. I would be a corpse in the morning gutters. Blood mingling in the dew, congealing with newspapers from the week before. I tensed when a man said, “¿Español, inglés?”
He ran after me, “¿Hablas español?”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Oh. You speak Spanish? But you’re not Spanish, right?”
“Sí, soy inglés, so what the fuck do you want?”
“You are looking for a room?”
“You’re going to get killed if you stay out. They’ll want the bag.”
“There’s nothing in the bag.”
“They’ll want it. They’ve nothing else to do. Nothing to lose.”
“And what do you suggest?”
“I’ll help you get a hotel.”
“Oh no. Free man. I want to help.” He was short, stocky, no signs of malice, “You’re jumpy hey!”
“This is a dangerous place.”
“Sure.” He tried to help me with the bag, “Come on.”
I offered him my cigarette. Tearing off the filter, he inhaled the smoke. Lighting another cigarette, I turned and spat towards a couple of men in fourth-hand suits who had been following us.
“What the fuck happened to this place?” I asked. “It used not to be so bad.”
“There’s going to be a war. Come on let’s get out of this area. We don’t want to be here.”
We walked along narrow lanes past youths waiting in doorways, and wide-eyed children staring like rabbits caught in headlamps. No vacancies. Worried owners shook their heads when we asked. They pointed vaguely up the street. Neither of us knew Arabic so we communicated in French. We left one hotel on a larger street but they called us back.
An urchin was yelling in ridiculous patois making obscene gestures, “Viens ‘ci, viens ‘ci.”
The owner looked decent, the place was clean enough.
“This man needs a place to stay,” said the Spaniard. “He will return tomorrow.”
The owner threw away a cigarette, “Wait here. We might have a room tomorrow, I am not sure, some people did not arrive. Someone is here who will look after the foreigner, a friend of mine, he has things to arrange tonight. Otherwise this man will be killed for sure, there is no other way.” He smiled, “I am Jemel, wait here.” We shook hands, and he walked towards the office, beckoning.
We entered the dark blue-tiled lobby. In a back room I heard Arabic, guttural, hoarse, like someone coughing.
“Thanks.” I said to the Spaniard.
“No problem. I’ve got to go. My friend’s arriving tonight.”
“Maybe see you around.”
“Sure man, anytime. Watch your back in this place. Fucking dangerous.” He waved, then he was striding down the alley into the shadows, round a corner, and gone.
A tall figure peered around the wall of the office, a moist cigarette dangling from brutal down turned lips. He studied me with a quick glance. “We go.”
“You leave the bag?”
“No, I’ll take it along.”
He was lean, about twenty, in a blue denim jacket and jeans. Hard features against the solitary lamp outside the hotel door, hooked broken nose, narrow eyes. Berber. Tribes from the arid grey mountains before the destroying emptiness of the desert. He stood staring into the night puffing on the cigarette. Then he flicked away the filter. “Come on. Let’s go. We get a taxi.”
We wandered through cobbled alleys, the tiny streets like corridors, back to the port near Abune Ramdan. He tugged out a crumpled pack of Winston, and lit one. The city was deserted in the freezing wind.
He hunched over, pulling the collar of his jacket, “Le froid.” He observed me, the numbing breeze flowing over our faces.
“What’s your name?”
“Off a ship.”
We shook hands.
He frowned, “We find something to do, eh? The night will be long.”
A car approached from the blurred distance. He hailed the cab, yelling at the top of his lungs. “At last we go,” he laughed, sliding into the back. “Monument.”
The driver U-turned in the middle of the boulevard and drove in the opposite direction.
“That.” Mohammed leaned forward, pointing. The city glittered, sparkling with lights, rolling over shimmering hills in the clear night air. Beyond the gentle folds of a hill, far away a peak, in the scintillating distance a vast blue stone pillar illuminated from below. “That is Le Monument. We remember the dead from the war.”
The driver turned around. “Who are you? Why are you speaking French?”
“Why you speak French? Eh? Why don’t you speak Arabic?”
“What the fuck is British?”
“He’s Belgian,” Mohammed interrupted. “He’s off a ship.”
The driver relaxed, “Belgian? Then that is all right my friend. I’m sorry, but I don’t like Frenchmen. I fought them in the war.” He pointed towards a dilapidated chateau, “You see, down there, in that garden, there are Algerian corpses from Bigeard, Les Paras, the Battle of Algiers, they used that big house for their torture chambers, that filthy rotting garden. You know what they call Bigeard?”
Leaning over, rolling down the window, he spat in the direction of the building. The remains of the colonial mansion looming dark and empty, collapsing timbers silhouetted against the lights of the docks behind us in the distance.
The taxi struggled up the steep hill, through narrow streets, passing apartment blocks and deserted buildings, until we reached a shopping center. The great obelisk towered above, lit with blue and yellow floodlights, vast concrete legs supporting the structure. We paid the driver, standing beneath the arches as echoing traffic sped by.
Waving, he drove away shouting, “Good luck boys, allez les belges.”
It was becoming extremely cold. We were high above the city, the concrete, the steely blue flickering neon making everything seem bleaker. Men in shabby suits stood watching us, their thin faces pinched like starving wolves.
Mohammed gestured, “Stick with me or you’ll get crunched. Many bad Arabs here.”
We climbed flight after flight of iron stairs. Inside the arcades, we walked until we found a cinema to escape the cold. The feature was a dubbed version of The Exorcist. The audience entirely male, haggard youths in moth-eaten suits passing two hours in the luxury of a warm theatre.
Amid the hysterical screams and croaking demonic voices, Mohammed removed an object from his jacket pocket, “This is for the bad Arabs,” he explained. “Keep it in your bag.”
A steel hatchet with a soft, black rubber handle. I felt the blade on my thumb, “I’ll get an axe tomorrow.”
“You have the axe.”
“No, no. That’s yours. I’ll get an axe.”
“Ah. We’ll see. I give you the axe.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“Non, non . . .”
Someone told us to shut up in hissed Arabic.
Mohammed looked back. He stood up shouting, “There are many more like this in the market. We’ll see in the morning. Let’s get out of here, I have had enough of this rubbish. This place stinks.”