by Robin Wrigley
In 1973 I was working on the fringes of the Sahara in Algeria. We were camped less than an hour’s drive south from the small town of Messaad, east of the main provincial town Laghouat. It was necessary to pass through Messaad to access the main road to either Laghouat or Algiers.
It wasn’t long before we discovered that a group from the British charity ‘Save the Children’ were based in an old French fort in the town and we went to visit them and say hello. The manager was a retired army officer and the medical staff comprised of two mid-wives and a lady doctor. We quickly established a friendship and always called in whenever we had occasion to pass by. The staff liked to see fellow countrymen dropping in and we became very useful to the group in being able take mail for them or help out with supplies. For us it was a welcome watering point on journeys out of the desert, especially if it coincided with a meal time.
A few weeks before Christmas that year I was scheduled to make a two weeks break in England. On my way up to Algiers I called in at the charity and collected their Christmas cards and wish lists to buy for them in London. It was arranged I would make various purchases and also contact the doctor’s sister to collect her presents to carry back.
Little did I know what I was letting myself in for with this offer, now becoming purchaser and carrier. Most of the items requested were from Marks and Spenser’s ladies underwear department! The doctor’s sister’s gifts took up a quarter of my suitcase and the various purchase items another quarter. The other half was filled with various Christmas goodies such as mince pies, Christmas cake and pudding. Thankfully I did not need much room for my own personal effects.
The next hurdle was the Algerian custom’s authorities at Algiers airport. The country was still coming to terms with the dreadful and prolonged war of independence and the treatment of foreigners was not very friendly. Baggage searches were very thorough and nit-picking. Magazines zealously scrutinized for any racy photos or anything likely to offend good Moslem conduct. Advertisements for ladies underwear would result in the page being ripped out or the magazine completely confiscated.
The large amount of ladies underwear in my bag caused considerable concern but I lied explaining it was for members of my family. The rest of the presents and Christmas goodies survived the check.
On Christmas day the five of us who were left on the crew arranged a ‘service day’ and finished around midday, washed, changed into our best available clothes and headed north to Messaad. Their manager was not present having arranged to go home to England for the holiday but the doctor and midwives had entered into the spirit with decorations, mince pies and mulled wine.
They had also wrapped presents for each of us and although the gifts were simple and really no more than tokens we made a big scene of opening each one with cries of surprise followed by much applause. My present was a pair of M & S socks. Sad to say it was the sum total of my Christmas presents that year.
We then retired to the dining table where a fine seasonal feast had been laid out; what with that and the local wine we wanted for nothing even though we were far from our homeland.
After the meal we played the usual silly games, sang Christmas carols and generally chatted and reminisced about our lives and our families. Later in the evening after another snacking type meal we bade our hosts farewell and set off into a cold but clear Saharan night on our journey back to our camp.
Our camp life continued much the same as ever until three days before New Year I received instructions from Algiers head office that we should strike camp and head to a new concession further south and then east near the town of Touggourt and on to a camp site in El Oued, a date growing area. The preparations for the move made it impossible to bid farewell to the charity. It wasn’t until after the dust settled and the camp reorganised that I discovered my Christmas present of the socks was missing, presumed stolen.
Not long after this move I became disenchanted with the new area, the company management, the flies in the date growing oasis and life in general and I resigned and returned to London.
Since my time in Algeria I have worked and lived in many countries worldwide but at this time of the year I often reflect on the loss of those socks. Did the thief enjoy them? I consoled myself with the thought that he probably needed them more than I did.
A few weeks before Christmas in 2017 a package arrived for me from a company called ‘Bamboo’ of whom I had never heard of before. Inside the package was a very nice pair of blue-striped socks, just my size.
This year the same thing happened again! God really does move in mysterious ways.