Returning to London

16 April 2014

As she prepares to come over to London for the publication of her debut novel, Life Drawing, at the end of April, Robin Black remembers the first time she visited the city. Photo © Paul Arps, flickr.com.

 

London. It doesn’t matter how often I go, and I have been many times, it always evokes a particular period of my life. London; and it is Autumn, 1970, the dawning days of ‘71; and I am eight years old, the third and youngest child of academic parents, my father a professor on sabbatical for six months, studying race relations in England; and me, a weepy, frightened little girl with long, straight, often unkempt blonde hair, skinny, a book in my hand, more worries on my mind than I can possibly comprehend, more worries than I am wise enough even to know that I have.

Sometimes to tell a story well, you have to give away the end. Those London days make more sense, surely their lifelong resonance does, if you jump forward just a bit to a couple of months after we returned to New Haven, my father now institutionalized, detoxing, receiving treatment for depression, my parents’ marriage hanging in a most unsteady, graceless balance, the illusion long maintained that we were the happiest of all families in this best of all possible worlds, pierced – I would say shattered, except it was an illusion revived again and again, over time.

But in London, of course, I knew nothing of what was to come. Denial is the life’s breath of a family defined by one member’s addiction. Denial is the addiction sustaining the ones who aren’t either drunk, or raging, because they wish they were.

London. And it is childhood again. My mother walks me through chilly air to the local school each morning, waits for me every afternoon. We live just off Sloane Square which means nothing to me at the time, certainly nothing about the economic ease in which our family struggled against its own lethal undertow. I cried at the school – often. I was teased the moment my name emerged. Robin. But then why aren’t you a boy?

I was glad that I wasn’t. I had watched a boy, just caned, sit shaking in the schoolyard, and I suspected that a girl would never be treated in that way. But I wasn’t treated particularly well. I was unkempt – I’ve already said that – and I was also unruly. When I wasn’t weeping for missing my mother, I was calling out in class, a mischief, a cut-up. And I was that most unforgivable of things for a child. I was different.

Why aren’t you a boy? Why do you dress that way? Why don’t you know the hymns? Why are you only here for a few months?

One day, I asked my mother for curly hair because the loveliest, most popular girl at school had curls. My mother washed my hair, twisted it, tied the twists in rags, and sent me off to bed. (You know how the story ends.) Never have I been so mercilessly mocked as I was on the day I bounced my ringlets through the classroom door. Never has a child rushed so quickly to the bathroom, to drench her hair straight, at the ring of the first recess bell.

"Sometimes to tell a story well,
you have to give away the end."

Our apartment, just blocks away, was massive. I believe I would think so even now, that it wasn’t some trick of childhood rendering the modest vast. It was there I first struggled with sleep, reading by the light in the hallway. Enid Blyton. E. Nesbit, Noel Streatfeild - even P.G. Wodehouse, and Lucky Jim – since like most children of academics I had no real sense of what was or wasn’t normal for an eight year old, a blessing in some ways, though not in all, my childhood passing in a blur of precocious understanding and disorienting ignorance.

I was terrified of night and I was terrified of our basement. We were on the ground floor, with empty, barely-used rooms below. The dwellings of all families teetering toward imminent disaster should have basements where the monsters can set up. They need to be behind a door, these beasts, but the door must then easily open, so the chill from their icy eyes, the steam from their fiery breath, are regular presences in every day life, woven into the atmosphere each night.

London. And now I am telling another therapist, a decade later, two decades, three, and on, about the day my father set aside for our “date.” We were to have a day together, always a rarity, always built up, fussed about. Romantic. Little sweetheart, he called me in the confusing way of drunks, of narcissists, the flattery gushing at times too freely around the blockades of self-involvement and addiction.

We were to go to Battersea Amusement Park. My older brother had been, a trip with friends, excluding me. I had been bereft. This was to be the day my father, heroic, would make it all right. We took a cab. We narrated our way through the cab ride. What fun we would have. What fun we would have. . .

But it was November, the park closed, shut down for the season.

As we realized this, the cab had long since left; the universe, from where I stood, had long since left, leaving me there with my father and his disappointment. His disappointment. This is the moment every child of an addict will understand. His disappointment was the crisis, the nerves in my little body taut and straining to fight off tears, to reassure him, to exhale the denial that filled my lungs in the form of words of forgiveness – not even that. Erasure. He had not let me down. He had not let me down. He had not let me down.

London. The city that has started all the therapies over the years, all the late night confessional stories of identity shared with friends, with lovers. The way I have explained to my own children what it was like to be me, why it has been such a battle at times simply to hold on, to know steadiness in my daily life.

“You specialize,” a writing teacher told me early on, “in men who are both damaging and damaged.”

I do indeed.

London. It doesn’t matter how often I go. . . it always evokes a particular period of my life. . .

Though I wonder, this late winter day, as I contemplate the coming spring. I wonder if I have finally spoken enough, disclosed enough, written enough, to break the powerful old spell of the powerful old days.

I couldn’t write a word until my father died, and then began, just weeks after his death. It took another five years for me to put the timing together. Speaking out has always stood in opposition to loving him, or perhaps I mean to being loved by him, that habit of denial ingrained enough to silence me for nearly four decades. But now, he has been gone for thirteen years, and I am far from silent. Essays, short fiction, a novel. In my first book, If I loved you, I would tell you this, not only does that legacy of ambivalence about expression permeate even the title, but there he is, haunting many stories. The institutionalized father in one. The father who abandons his daughter – in London, as it happens – in another.

Life Drawing Discover Life Drawing

And he’s there in my forthcoming novel as well. Life Drawing. I see him lurking, as he will always lurk, I suppose. He is perhaps invisible to others, but I see him, know how he still shapes that part of my unconscious from which the imaginary people spring. But outside the boundaries of the page, my life has been drastically changed, I have been rendered almost unrecognizable by these words and words and words pouring out of me in middle-age.

It’s odd that my debut novel should debut in London. That isn’t how it goes for American authors, usually. It’s a quirk of unexpected schedule changes, a shift of one date, a shift of another. And it’s perfect. Emotionally. Biographically.

One never knows – of course – how “big a deal” any given book will be, to anyone other than oneself. This one is big for me, for many reasons, not the least of which has to do with exorcising the monsters from a city that I have loved dearly, as an adult, even while endlessly experiencing it as haunted, not as much by the monsters in the basement as by the look in my father eyes, begging me to not know what we both knew about how badly he had let me down, as we stood in the cold outside a shuttered, empty amusement park, how badly he had let me down that day, and even before that day, and would forever after, the moment finding its echo backwards and forwards in time.

There’s a point in my novel at which my narrator describes feeling silenced, calls her own speech “a kind of topiary, trimmed and shaped to please.” I tried at eight years old, a tiny bird-like child with no strong center, to give him that. I did it. I’m not upset, Dad. But in the last thirteen years of my life I have scribbled sentences over what he wanted erased, fleshed it out, am scribbling still, even at this moment, telling, telling, and knowing. Knowing that understanding is more powerful than erasure, truth kinder than denial, topiary, however pleasing to the eye, always a little disturbing to the heart that wants to love with some wildness, some abandon.

London. I am returning this year, not to be silent, but because I cannot be. Not to pretend life is simple, but because I have made a career of insisting it is not.

I hope that this is the London that will live on in me now. I believe it is. Not the one defined by my father’s contagious desperation that the truth not be true, nor by my own weeping, nor by the fire and ice of hidden monsters, nor the bleak amusement park that vanished while we all forgot to remember that it might. But a city that has stood, unconcerned with me through the years, as I’ve built a new road back, a road made up of once forbidden words, now spoken out loud. 

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