Five-minute memoir: My boyfriend's dad
Saturday 06 October 2012
King's Cross, winter 1993: a punch of dirty air, the streak of a taxi-cab, and my cool boyfriend leading me, not by the hand but by the way he walks (always ahead, with a confident but slightly comic bob), to the underground station. We are headed for Notting Hill, a place which has, since meeting him, taken on a mythical status in my imagination as a centre of all things sophisticated and yet radical. He talks about the place, where his father owns a flat which his sister is currently using, with fond reverence, and I can't wait to get there.
He's wearing a leather jacket and black Levi's, over-sized tortoiseshell specs and an impressively high quiff; I'm in my tweed cropped jacket and Mary-Jane shoes. He's of Sri Lankan descent, grew up in Rochdale, and is a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I'm white, grew up in small-town Oxfordshire, and was shocked when he told me he kept a baseball bat under his bed, just in case the racists who used to taunt him at school ever came for him again. We are both 19.
We met in the shared kitchen of our halls of residence. He was singing "My Girl". I clapped. Later he came to my room to say thank you and ended up staying all night. We lay together fully clothed on my single bed and talked. In the morning we kissed and my teeth clashed with his. I was in love.
Within a few weeks I was failing to keep up with my reading lists and buying black underwear. He took me to bars, introduced me to Astrud Gilberto, and didn't once make love to me. But I lived in hope. And so I agreed to go with him to London to visit his sister. She had a spare room, he promised.
I remember climbing the stairs to the place, my breath coming short and sharp with the anticipation of the world that was about to open up for me. And, sure enough, at the door was my boyfriend's sister, a bottle of red in her hand, wearing a silk kimono and moaning about the unmanageability of her beautifully thick black hair. Looking me over, she declared me an English Rose and promptly went about finding me a shorter, tighter dress to wear for our night out.
Afterwards, returning to the flat, my boyfriend's sister saw a car in the street and began to swear. She insisted that, as her father had turned up unannounced, the two of us couldn't be seen. "Come back in the morning," she said. "He'll be gone by 11."
I'd seen photographs of my boyfriend's father. He wore thick glasses – the original of my boyfriend's fashionable version – and looked very serious. He was a GP, well-loved by his patients, my boyfriend said. He was not at all keen on his daughter living alone in London, but he tolerated it for the sake of her education. He was not at all keen on his son studying an arts subject, but he tolerated it as he was at a good university. But what he wouldn't tolerate, not under any circumstances, was either of his children having a relationship with someone not of Tamil descent.
And so we wandered the streets and finally found a cheap hotel. The room was damp and cold, with a stained sink in one corner. My black underwear was not admired that night, but sleep wouldn't come either. This was not how it was supposed to be; but still I imagined myself in some sort of romantic drama, a heroine in a story of love-against-the-odds, about to show a bigot how wrong he was about my triumphantly inter-racial relationship.
In the morning we dawdled back to the flat. My boyfriend was clearly afraid to face his father, but I was itching to get to the high drama. It was past 11 when we arrived, but just as we'd mounted the front steps my boyfriend's father came through the door. He carried a briefcase and wore a smart overcoat. He greeted his son with a formal handshake, said something in a low voice. Behind his thick glasses his eyes were unreadable. My boyfriend looked to the pavement. I waited for him to introduce me, for the fireworks to begin. He did not. As he walked down the steps, my boyfriend's father's gaze rested upon me for a half a moment, as though I was an insect in the corner of his vision. He said no word to me and did not mention my presence to his son.
After he'd gone, neither my boyfriend nor his sister talked about what had happened. It was as if nothing had happened, as if I hadn't existed. I was at once baffled and ashamed. It was a strange and shocking lesson in how it feels to face someone else's absolute prejudice.
'My Policeman' by Bethan Roberts is published by Vintage. Bethan Roberts will be interviewed by Lynne Truss at The Old Market in Brighton tomorrow to conclude this year's Brighton City Reads. See cityreads.co.uk for details
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