memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

A Singular Man

While I was at Station C in the Sahara Desert, a permanent feature of the place was a singular man called Christophe. About 50 years old at the time, his provenance was as obscure to me as was his function on the station. He acted as an intermediary between the engineers and the local community and showed a keen interest in all the aspects of the operation. He spoke English with a French accent and French with an accent which I wasn’t experienced enough to place. His father had been French (a doctor?) and his mother Armenian? … Pied Noir? Sometime in his past he had been a medical student and knew a lot about pharmacology. He was comfortable in his neatly-ironed, faded khaki shirt and trousers and actually enjoyed living in the desert and eschewed all leave. John referred to him affectionately as «the silly old fool», and once, for his birthday, the four of us appropriated a jeep and drove through the desert for dinner at the nearest oasis town. We all drank a fair amount of the fiery Algerian red wine and Christophe got rather tipsy.

One day we were discussing lexicography and I told him that my father possessed an early 18th century edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. The great Doctor was a man of inveterate prejudices, one of which was against the Scots: for example the definition of oats: what we feed to our horses, but the Scottish have for their breakfast or the views in Scotland are indifferent, the best of which is the road to England. This dictionary was the first of its kind in English and thus something of a milestone in language analysis. Christophe then showed me his painstaking compilation of a French-English technical dictionary with reference to the petro-chemical industry. I flicked through it: he’d got to CONCURRENCE VITAL which he had translated as THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE.

I was fond of him and when I left the station, I gave him my prized gold fountain-pen. We left him there, a dapper figure standing alone in the middle of the compound, struggling for existence.

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