It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport’. – Douglas Adams
“Are you a passenger on this flight, Madame?”
I looked wearily up from the laden luggage cart I was pushing in the direction of the departure gate to see an airport employee looking at me enquiringly. Shaking my head, I turned the cart around and started back up the long incline to the main airport hall.
Why, you might ask, was I plodding down the endless corridors of Orly Airport towards the departure gates, only to turn back as soon as I arrived there? A quick glance at my cart could answer that. My fourteen-month old son was sitting in the basket in front of me, and my three-year-old daughter was balancing precariously on the front of the cart. Walking around and around the airport was the only way to keep them amused during the interminable three-hour wait before my flight to Oran was called.
At that time, there was no direct flight to Britain from Algerian airports and so transiting through Paris had become a necessity. It sounds easy enough, but there were two main problems. Firstly, the Air Algérie flight flew into Orly, but the one to Manchester was from Roissy Charles de Gaulle — on the other side of the city.
A shuttle bus took passengers from one airport to the other, their luggage travelling separately. Many is the time I have travelled on that shuttle bus, trying to calm a querulous child and fretting about whether my bags would arrive in time to be loaded on to the plane bound for Oran. There was no way of knowing, except to peer desperately through the Orly terminal windows to try and spot one of our suitcases being loaded into the hold.
I’m sure many of you have travelled with small children and a large amount of hand luggage. So you know it’s not easy. But for me, things were even worse, compounded by the second problem. We were only allowed to exchange dinars to the tune of three hundred francs — that is, around thirty pounds at the time. This was the maximum amount of foreign currency I was allowed to take with me. I daren’t carry a chequebook for a British bank, as no Algerian, or his wife, regardless of her nationality, was supposed to hold a foreign bank account.
Credit cards and debit cards did not exist at the time. So — if I missed my connecting flight, what was I supposed to do? We had no family or friends in Paris at the time and thirty pounds would not even pay for a night in a hotel. Sleeping on an airport bench might seem an option when you are twenty and single, but not when accompanied by two grumpy, sleepy toddlers.
The journey to Britain was easier than the return to Algeria. Why, you might ask? The simple fact was that there were numerous daily flights from Paris to Manchester, so if my flight from Oran was late — which it usually was — I could easily hop on to the next plane heading for Manchester. On the other hand, there were only about three flights a week from Paris to Oran, so if I arrived late into Paris from Manchester, I was in trouble. And deep trouble at that. Hence the need to arrive in Paris many hours before the Air Algérie flight departure time.
I shall draw a veil over the many mishaps that occurred during my travels, including my son screaming as I carried him up the aircraft steps, his sobs only quietening once I had confirmed that it was indeed Papa who was “driving” the plane. “C’est Papa qui conduit, dis?” Or my daughter losing her precious doll on an escalator in Ringway Airport and trying her best to wrench her hand away from my grip to run down to retrieve it.
Once I was on the final leg of my journey, I could relax. On our approach to Manchester, as the wing sliced through the clouds, the aerial view would sprawl out beneath me, a network of roads and rail, mazes of cul-de-sacs, houses like the tiny models on an architect’s street plan or on a Monopoly board, lakes and ponds shimmering like oval face mirrors, a river meandering slowly along like a trail of spilt mercury, green clumps of woodland with ragged edges, and motorways like canals of tarmac with matchbox cars moving along them.
And, best of all — there was my mother’s rosy face, alight with joy as she spotted us amongst the crowd coming out through the arrivals gate.
Returning to Algeria, there were other problems. Once in Orly Airport again, the large screen displaying departure times often showed the Air Algérie flights as being up to five hours late. Sometimes there was no information at all, leaving the passengers in limbo. Among the sea of irritated and annoyed faces, there were old and young — all eyes fixed on the departure board in the hope of some new information flashing up.
When the plane finally turned up, and after elbowing my way through the crowds of passengers, I could slump in my seat and relax a little, free to start worrying about something else. And that new worry was — would T be at the airport to pick me up? This may sound silly to you, but, at the other end, there were no taxis, no shuttle buses, no public transport, no means of getting home at all.
On the approach to Oran, the plane would come in low, rushing towards a runway hemmed in by office buildings, dusty roads and palm trees, the salt flats gleaming in the afternoon sun. There was a squat control tower and a low-rise terminal made of breeze blocks and concrete, looking more like a large DIY warehouse than a modern airport building. The loading area would be deserted apart from a single solitary plane already on the ground, surrounded by service trucks.
We would often arrive in the middle of the afternoon, the worst time. Climbing down the plane stairs, we could feel the heat reflecting off the tarmac. It would be hard to breathe, with the heavy air smelling of aviation fuel, and I would be drenched in sweat before even reaching the bottom of the steps, especially when I was carrying a heavy, fourteen-month old toddler. The arrivals hall offered no relief, as the air-conditioning had never been installed and we were soon trapped in a confined space with two or three hundred people and no windows.
Waiting in the queue for immigration control, I would be frantically scanning the faces in the waiting crowd for T’s face. Later, they were to install opaque glass doors, so I would only catch a glimpse before they wooshed shut again. I usually ended up at the back of the queue, as passengers behind me were often fast-tracked by contacts in the Customs or the police. Immigration officials would look suspiciously at me and my children, as if wondering how two Algerian children could possibly have a British mother.
And finally, the relief surging through me as I recognised one or more of our suitcases flung carelessly on the carousel by baggage handlers. That relief increased when T was able to blag his way past the police and join me in the customs area, ready to take the children from my arms, manhandle the heavy suitcases and remonstrate with customs officials. They loved to bully a woman travelling on her own, but would back down when faced with a man, especially one with T’s steely gaze.
Why didn’t he go with me, you are probably wondering? Work was often the excuse, as he had the feeling that everything would collapse without him. He did turn up unexpectedly at my mother’s, however, on two occasions. Once was when I saw him strolling down the street, past my mother’s front window, and thought that my longing for him had suddenly conjured him up out of thin air. The second time, he went up to Blackpool from London on the night train, to tap on my mother’s front door at six o’clock in the morning.
He always loved surprises.