I came to London, carrying one blue vinyl suitcase, believing it was possible to escape the past. There was history in London but it was not my history. My mother’s parents had lived in England during the Second World War, but in Manchester, not in London, and they weren’t English. Married at 17, they had grown up together on the island of Malta. (A love of islands, my mother said, and a desperation to escape Europe had taken them at war’s end to New Zealand.)
I’d left no note behind me in Toronto. Emptying my bank account, I’d paid for my ticket in cash, lied to the immigration officer and told him I was visiting. In London, there were friends of friends I might have called, but didn’t. I wanted a blank slate. No traces. Terra nullius.
In less than a week, I found a room in a shared flat in Turnham Green, miles west of Central London. Nor was it as hard to find work as I’d feared—the sort of work where you can get paid in cash under the table. I answered an ad propped in the window of a tea shop run by a Polish couple and began making sandwiches, slipping them into little white paper bags and twisting the corners into ears for customers to take away. Through a boy I met at the tea shop, I found a second job in a pub near the law courts, one that barristers frequented, their hair flattened or sticking up in twigs after being squashed by a wig all day. I copied the voices I heard around me. Right, I said. Brilliant. Ring me. I doused my new London A to Ζ in the bathtub to make it look more weatherworn once I’d discovered that everyone, not only tourists, carried about maps of the city. There were times when I could even pass as English, partly because of my name, which here people assumed to be simply a sign of English eccentricity. Standing under the trickle of a cold shower in the cold bathroom of the shared flat, I burned with desire—for transformation, to create a new life.
Yet, like anyone who lives somewhere illegally, I was gripped by the temporary. I could not shake my fear that at any moment the life I’d fashioned could be taken away. I kept my suitcase under the bed, my books in piles on the floor. I avoided the sharp gazes of policemen. I barely left the city and did not leave the country in case I could not get back.
A year and a half after I arrived in London, I met Martin Cale in a basement vegetarian café just off the Tottenham Court Road. As he maneuvered, tray in hand, between tables, his coat, slung over one arm, knocked over my sugar bowl. With our fingers, we scooped the cubes—of raw sugar, naturally—back into the bowl. When I offered him my extra napkin, he sat down across from me: not much older than I was, tall and bony, with a bony face. He crossed his arms over his narrow chest. “Are you all right?” he asked, and leaned forward with such concern and sympathy that something opened wide inside me. This was, at that moment, exactly what I wanted—to be stared at as attentively as he was staring and asked, “Are you all right?”
And again, the first night that we arranged to meet for drinks. In Brixton, not far from Martin’s flat. “Are you all right?” Beneath his coat, he wore an unironed shirt. His dark hair stood up in tufts. I felt as moved by the words as I had the first time, though a frizzle of caution zigzagged through me—as if something had been exposed that I didn’t want to be, some glimpse of disarray, some hint of what I’d abandoned when fleeing Toronto, which simply made me want to hide this all the more, and prove that, yes, indeed, I was right.
Three weeks after we met, I moved in with Martin Cale. Four months after that, I married him.
It was not his Englishness that attracted me. Not exactly. Though he was English. While still a teenager, he’d played bass in a band called the Poisoned Lollies, which had cut two albums and had two singles reach the charts before the group fell apart. Now he wrote freelance reviews for music papers and composed for small dance and theater companies. He toyed with the idea of forming another band.
“Call it Tube Alloys,” I said. “It’s the British version of the Manhattan Project. It was—in the race to build the bomb? Really, the British team called themselves that. I always thought it might make a good name for a band.” Did he stare at me strangely?
Just as, when I asked him if he’d ever been to Sellafield, the nuclear power plant in the north of England, on a school trip, for instance, he peered at me oddly.
Most of Martin’s income came from his work as an electrician, on building sites, on warehouse or flat conversions. And in those days, when everything that could be converted was being converted, there was a great demand for the work he did.
He fixed things. In his small, rattly van, he brought home chairs, a lamp on a wrought iron stand, a discarded chandelier, a section of metal mantelpiece—objects he’d salvaged from tips or building sites. Planks with which to build bookshelves. He seemed ingenious and eager and practical. He comforted me. He would fix me.
When I left my job at the sandwich shop, Martin found me work two days a week helping out a friend of his who cut hair. I learned to cut hair. Sort of. He came home one day with a bag of wigs for me to practice on. Through another friend, I began proofreading two days a week at a magazine on country homes.
We threw dinner parties. Standing at the cooker, shoulders sloped toward the flame, Martin fried fish in butter and sloshed it with white wine so that for days at a time the flat swam with a briny, buttery smell. I bought him flowers and baked a triple chocolate cake. At night, when we slept, he tucked his knees against mine. I drank in his warmth. When he took off his glasses, his eyes had a sly, almost feline cast. He chewed his fingernails, only the tips, and never in front of me.
We got married in April in a registry office. Afterward we piled into the van with friends and drove to Hampstead Heath, where, in blasts of wind, we paraded over the hills and on top of one of them drank champagne out of plastic glasses and ate Moroccan strawberries.
I said yes when Martin asked me to marry him because I wanted to start anew. (And for immigration reasons.) To escape the sense that everything could be taken away from me. The impetuousness of the gesture appealed to us—we were too young (as people kept telling us), we’d known each other for such a short time. Perhaps he thought he was rescuing me. Yet it wasn’t really impetuous on my part. I wanted to prove that grand romantic gestures were still possible. This was calculated. I needed to prove that I believed in them. That love did not have to lead to destruction. It could save me. Or offer safety.
I began to send postcards home. I wrote that I was fine and not to worry. I wrote to say that I had gotten married. I told Martin I’d had a falling-out with my family, which was why I’d run away to London. That my father worked in the nuclear industry, nothing military, but we’d had our differences. (Martin and I had both come of age beneath the cloud of possible nuclear cataclysm, and we’d met soon enough after the Chernobyl reactor fire that people in London still stared dubiously into their milk before they drank it, and radioactive sheep roamed the Welsh hills.)
I never gave a return address and mailed each postcard from the same central post office, and since there was no telephone registered in my name, I assumed it would be difficult for anyone to find me. Should anyone have tried to find me.
Yet at night I still woke out of dreams that I couldn’t shake away. I dreamed a body split open on the ground, blood—the body of a dark-haired boy. I dreamed myself on a rooftop, leaping between the slanted gables from one slope to the next, closing my eyes as I hurled myself across the chasm between them. I grabbed the latticed wood trim that ran along the peaks of the brick houses and when I glanced down, Evan was there staring up at me.
I saw them on the street. My heart raced at the sight of a young man in a brown leather jacket, whose dark hair made a thick dip at the back of his neck, who lurched along with a sharp limp. I shook when a smaller, sand blond figure blazed around a corner ahead of me. I’d be stalled by a body glimpsed entering a bookstore or a blur of lips framed by a black cab’s window.
Out walking by myself, I grew convinced that someone with a gun was following me. He would leap out of a phone box or trail me through the retractable flaps of the ticket turnstiles and into the stations of the underground, onto platforms where smoky winds blew. Walking home by myself at night through the streets of Brixton, I carried fear and a certain fatalism with me—past the boarded up market, reduced now to a jumble of cardboard boxes and shifty incense sellers where during the day an automated loudspeaker blared, Beware of pickpockets; past Beauty Tandoori and the Oh So Keen Chinese Takeaway; past the cheap cosmetics shop on the corner where you gathered what you wanted in a plastic basket and the owner gave you a boiled sweet when you paid. I waited for explosions, to walk around the corner and see our building going up in smoke. No disaster would surprise me.
In the dark, as I pressed my arms around Martin, a little voice—a voice I tried to squelch—went, Look at me. Even as I tried to vanquish the past through touch. An arm. A leg. A nipple.
As Martin’s long-limbed body slept beside me, I felt my father’s hands on my shoulders, my father furiously shaking me. I imagined my mother curled on the sofa in the shaded green living room of the house in Toronto, staring up at the ceiling; skinny Lux, earphones clamped to her ears, bolting from the front door to her room at the top of the stairs. I rolled onto my back, hearing voices: Martin and I in the van, driving north and east out of London, past fields smelling of fog and peat. We were on our way to visit Martin’s parents in Norwich. Martin’s father, a solicitor who worked for the County Council, stepped out of their red brick house to greet us and kissed Martin on the cheek. Are you all right? he asked. Martin’s mother, who taught in a comprehensive, held out both hands. Are you all right? The next day, outside the local chemist’s, we ran into an old high school girlfriend of Martin’s, a girl with a voice as bright and sweet as jam, and I listened as the two of them greeted each other—Are you all right?—the way, where I came from, we ask How are you? and expect only the most cursory answer.
In the dark beside Martin, I swallowed and touched my fingers to the hollow at the base of my throat. I felt like a girl in a fairy tale who has something stuck in her throat and does not know, when she opens her mouth, what will come tumbling out—frogs or stones or pearls. I slipped from the bed and poured myself a glass of water. In front of the bathroom mirror, I stretched my mouth open wide.