We had been having problems with securing exit visas for our people in the Field from the obdurate local authorities who seemed determined to frustrate all our efforts with a pedantic and tortuous insistence on a bureaucratic system inherited from the French. In desperation my boss chose the time-honoured method of cutting corners with judicious payments of money: so many Algerian Dinards for such and such a number of passports.
He called me into his office one morning in late spring and instructed me in his soft drawl to fly to Oran the following day with all our US and UK passports and a considerable wedge of cash in my briefcase. Once there I was to rendezvous with an ex-official of the Oranese administration, who would smooth the progress of the whole situation. I soon perceived that I was being set up to be the fall guy.
So there I was the next morning at the airport all psyched up and waiting for the eight-thirty Air-Inter flight to Oran, nervously trying to convince myself that this was all in a day’s work. On board the aircraft all was disorder and confusion as people scrambled their way to their seats. I was sitting beside the only other foreigner, an American engineer with glasses and a baseball cap who, during the short flight, explained to me that the Air-Inter pilots were usually trainees for the Algerian air force completing their training by flying airliners around the country. The sky had been clear in Algiers but Oran was shrouded in thick fog and, as we descended into it, I noticed that none of the other passengers seemed at all concerned, no doubt fatalistically putting their faith into the hands of Allah. Not so me or my companion – we strapped ourselves in and gazed intently out of the window as the big plane, going too fast, bounced on the tarmac and then finally slammed down, the plane bouncing and swaying and the wings dipping from side to side, before the retro-thrust brought the shuddering aircraft back under control. Yes, I thought, those Air-Inter boys could certainly do with some more training. The American, who had also been mesmerized by the dipping wings, hoped that I would have a nice day.
I arrived at the arranged meeting place, a large café in the city centre in front of a sort of mini Place de la Concorde with traffic frenziedly swirling round a little monument. I sat at a table outside and ordered a coffee, paying for it in advance and nervously trying to concentrate on my copy of Newsweek. After a while I noticed a tiny little Fiat detach itself from the surrounding traffic, mount the pavement and, to my horror, head towards my table. The driver who was flamboyantly dressed in a brown leather jacket and long white scarf called out: Monsieur Tom … Monsieur Tom … allez, montez montez! Well so much for discretion I thought as I clambered into the small car beside him. Ali, as I shall call him, was a jovial friendly little chap with grey hair who seemed to know the score. He suggested going to his house for lunch, which was served rather eerily by his wife from behind a lattice screen; every now and then a slim brown arm, covered with bangles, would extend to the table with a new dish of food. Ali chatted away merrily, with me answering in monosyllables. It seemed that he had often done this kind of thing before, always for foreign companies. Apparently some of the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia had been shot here in the desert and he’d done a similar service for the film crew. He proudly showed me a much-creased letter, which he kept in his wallet, signed by the director of the film David Lean thanking him for his cooperation and so on and so forth.
After lunch we went into his office to do the business. I produced the passports and he produced his rubber-stamp and an ink-pad. With a flourish he stamped the precious visas firmly into each passport, one by one, and in less than five minutes voila all our expatriates were authorized to leave the country – nice work if you can get it. He then smoothly spirited away the wad of cash into his desk and I snapped shut my briefcase. We both stood up and shook hands. He offered me a lift to the airport which I politely declined, saying that I’d take a cab back to the city centre to do some sightseeing.
In the cab however I changed my mind and asked the driver to go straight to the airport. There, having time to kill before my evening flight back to Algiers, I headed for the bar to sink a couple of beers and read the little volume of Under the Greenwood Tree that I had in my briefcase. I noticed that the only other inhabitants of the bar were the very same crew, pilots and air hostesses, of the plane that morning; they were evidently crewing the flight back that evening. Oh well, I thought, if you can’t beat them, join them and ordered the first of a couple of whiskeys. Hours later as I was nodding off on the flight back I was thinking of my impending leave which I was going to spend in Paris. I landed at Algiers with my flaps well down and took a cab straight to the hotel. I heard voices from Jonathon’s apartment and went in.
Hi Tom they said how was your day-trip to Oran?
(I thought of the near crash that morning, of lunch at Ali’s house, of his wife’s arm extending from behind the screen, of David Lean’s letter).
Rather unreal, I replied.