May 31, 2011
A little smoke curled from a cigarette sitting on a shallow coffee saucer. It burned slowly, recieving no attention from the smoker himself as he sat before the table. His gaunt frame, clothed only in a pair of striped boxers and ragged undershirt seemed to just press into the worn chair. Bare, hairy legs wrapped around the legs of the chair and his arms lay before him on the table top with his palms upwards. The brass clock on the mantle in the room chimed a short song before resuming a monotonous ticking. His body expanded as he took a deep breath into his lungs, nearly swelling to twice his size. It happened suddenly as he sat meditating, dirty tools strewn around on the table, when the windows rattled suddenly. His attention momentarily shaken, his eyes darted towards the french windows. His blue eyes shaking nervously around showing the effects of caffeine. He stood and walked towards the windows, his feet padding and making a dull "thud" sound as he walked. Peering behind the faded damask curtain, he spotted the cause of the trouble, a small rubber ball with a note tied to it. He examined it through the window, before opening it and stepping out onto the small balcony.
The tile floor of the porch was warm, baking in the sun. He grabbed the black twisted metal railing, picked at a rust spot where the paint peeled before turning his full attention to the ball. It was a cracked old ball, split down the seam with a string run through it and a note tied to the half still in good condition. He picked it up tearing the note from it and tossing the ball off into the street below. He watched as it bounced off the hood of a car below before reentering his apartment. He read the note, looked at the clock and reread the note again. Seemingly satisfied, with it, he crumbled it into a ball and pitched it into the fireplace. He strode over to the bookcase on the other side of the room. It was piled with loose papers, tight bundles of documents held together with dirty string. He pulled down a pile it crashed onto the floor before him. Behind it was a small hole in the case, exposing a small knob and dial. He spun it quickly, a calculated careful mind reciting the numbers by heart before hearing it click and he opened it. A couple bundles of cash lay behind the door, a small album and a thin banking envelope. He grabbed the last item and shut the safe.
The envelope lay on the table surrounded by the tools. He paced back and forth on the worn hearth rug eying the envelope like some sort of bomb. He finally sat down and picked up the envelope and tore open the flap. The single leaf of paper was folded into quarters and as he unfolded it, smells of mold and mildew floated upwards. His eyes scanned the words quickly and once he finished the letter, he took it and lit it on fire. Placing it delicately onto the small hearth, he watched it burn and smolder. Once it finished, he poked it with the tip of his oxford scattering the remains across the tile. He pulled from the attache case on the chair an unfiltered cigarette, and lit it.
The bustling market below the apartment had hardly a hint of what was going on, as a thin wisp of smoke curled from the cracked terra-cotta chimney pots. Below, Marie was buying vegetables. Her thin face, accented by large designer sunglasses and dark hair tied up into a bun hidden from view in a sun hat still showed her youthful beauty. As she picked up an Algerian marrow, she looked up perplexed by the smell of smoke. It had a distinctive smell, compared to the charcoal braziers which market stall owners were cooking various food stuffs, or the heavy coke rich smell of the glaziers down the street working on pottery and glass. She looked up towards the apartment seeing the smoke and a man leaning on the balcony railing above with a cigarette sandwiched between his fingers.
She quickly paid for her purchases, and entered the building. The lobby was dirty, a rusting bicycle leaned against a wall opposite a row of broken post boxes. She stepped into the cage elevator pulling each door shut. When she stepped out, she didn't need to get her keys ready as the door opened before her. The man with the cigarette jerked his head back telling her to come in and she followed willingly. She looked around the small garotte, noting the smoke curling out of the fireplace and the papers scattered around the floor. She placed her shopping on the counter in the kitchen and came back into the room. The man had returned to the balcony for a second cigarette and muttered and pointed to a case in the center of the table. She opened the dusty case and inside revealed a enigma teleprinter. He began to mutter a bunch of codes and numbers, connectors and wheels. As she set them into order, he asked her about her day. She only remarked on the heat and the price of vegetables. She uttered "prêt!"
He slowly and clearly spoke, his voice trailing quietly through the air. The market below still provided an ambient background noise as he spoke. He reentered the room and walked past her, through the arch and into the bedroom. He continued to dictate clearly as he dressed into a pair of slacks and a button shirt. He pulled a drawer in the wardrobe and a flurry of multicolored ties flew out onto the bed. He turned to pick one out and began to tie it. He picked a light colored jacket and returned to the room where she remained at the device. He remarked that he finished and she entered the final codes. Looking at the thin ribbon of type that stuck out of the teleprinter, she ripped the ribbon off and rolled it into a film canister. "Il sera pris en charge, ce soir au consulat." He patted her on the shoulder and from the wall safe, this time he pulled out a second envelope. This time, padded thicker than the first. She tore the flap open revealing about 10,000 francs.
Marie picked up her groceries and tossed the film into the shopping bag with eggs and butter pats. She nodded to him expecting some sort of gesture of approval, but he merely picked up another cigarette from the box on the mantle and lit it. Back on the street, she replaced her hat and sunglasses on her head and continued down the narrow corridor with mopeds and market men shouting at passerbys. She reached the entrance of her own building and entering the front doors, she checked her mail and as she walked up, her land lady popped her head out of her door. "Louer! Vous me devez louer!" She stopped for a moment, pulled the envelope out of her purse and placed 150 francs on the bony hand. "Non non non, vous me devez trois mois." She forked over another hundred franc bill. Seemingly satisfied, the landlady retreated her head back into the door and it shut with a click.
Her apartment was decorated comfortably, a small sitting area with a cabinet and black and white television set sat on top. Low slung armchairs with saggy seats faced the little machine. A small scrubbed painted table sat near the windows overlooking a courtyard. The kitchenette was small with a tiny antique paraffin stove to one side and an ancient looking ice box underneath the window. She placed the vegetables on hooks and hangers and placed the meat and eggs into the box. Glancing into the courtyard, she looked down at the the palm fronds and the broken fountain below. She watched as a bicycle messenger screeched to a halt at the entrance and dismounted and entered her building. She continued putting groceries away and a moment later, a soft rapping came at the door. She opened the door poking her face into the crack. Before her, a smartly dressed, but obviously sweaty messenger stood before her. His brown uniform and askew tie hinted that he didn't care much for his job, but did it for the pay. She placed a 50 centime piece in his hand and he handed her the envelope. She opened it as she closed the door behind her, pulling out the papers.
The message was clear, it was printed on official consulate papers. France was giving up Algeria. Her position at the consulate would remain in place if she moved back to France. She placed the letter on the stove and continued to pull out groceries, lost in a haze. As she pulled out a small marrow, the film canister dropped out. She remembered her transaction with the man with the cigarette. It was a code to resistance members in the country to establish a coup to keep France as the parent country. The pieds-noirs would start a revolution to quell the liberation front. Torn between countries, Marie stared at the sinister little canister. Picking up the letter, it also mentioned a comfortable position and promotion in Nice. She looked at the canister, thinking of her country, growing up in Algiers during the war, living in a villa with her mother and father before they had passed away. She thought of the country the was a part of and loved. Her mind then turned to France. Back to Algeria, then back to France again. Frustrated, she set the two things down on the counter, and flopped onto her bed. She could not betray France, not like her older brother who was 10 years her senior. Hugo had joined the Vichy french and was later shot for being a traitor. She remembered him being dragged out of the house in 1946 when she was only 11, her mother and father on their knees begging for mercy from the French officer. She rose from the bed, looking at the walls down in the courtyard. She saw the bullet holes against the wall of the garage next door where her brother was shot. His last words were "Vive Pétain!" before he slumped over onto the ground. Tears began to form in her eyes, thinking of foolishly going against her country as Hugo had.
She set the canister onto the stove and lit it. As it burned, she watched it intently, imagining the difficulty getting forces together to fight. Algeria was no longer her country. She had to leave it, the people she loved and start new. When it finished burning, she tossed the melted lump into the rubbish heap in the courtyard below watching it fall satisfyingly fall into the garbage. She looked around her, grabbing photographs and packing them into a suitcase with several clothes. Everything else, she didn't need. In another suitcase, she packed her parent's wedding blanket and several other articles. She tossed a jewelry box into it, opening its carved wooden lid and removing 3000 francs from inside. She looked around her one last time before locking the door and leaving the key with the land lady.
The man with the cigarette waited outside the consulate, looking for Marie. He began to sweat nervously as she didn't begin to show. He saw the gendarme at the gate shut and lock the front door. Then, he locked the yard gate. The gendarme in his slender blue uniform shooed him away. Marie saw all this happen as she passed in a taxi bound for the Algiers dockyards. She had a ticket ready and had already called to the foreign office accepting the position immediately. Her ticket was for the SS Flandre which was in port, ready to depart for Nice by seven that evening. As she boarded after passing through customs, she looked back at the towers and minarets along the skyline. She muttered "Vive France."