The narrow windows had black-leaded panes, you could see the tombstones of the cemetery through them. The sky lowered, and greyed, and the houses huddled with their small chimney pots, crooked; all covered, it seemed to me, in soot, in centuries of old black soot.
It was 1978, and I was a new immigrant with my family in London. I was eighteen years old. Instead of life speeding up and becoming more exciting though, as I had thought and imagined it would, it seemed to be slowing down. Things around me slowed, and seemed to have darkened and closed in, while I felt myself with a centre that grew more and more still.
I felt my perceptions to have altered, so that I saw everything through a grey veil, that nothing, no tossing of my head, no long sleep, could lift or shake. I thought I would go on a tropical holiday to Kenya, to feel better: I leafed through travel brochures about Kenya. Why Kenya? Because it wasn’t South Africa, that deeply loved place we had left: my home, which we had left behind.
Our left-behind home.
So, Kenya. Kenya didn’t have apartheid. Kenya wasn’t my deeply loved, deeply anguished home. I could go to Kenya.
Meanwhile, I lived, perched precariously it seemed to me, with my parents and brothers in a house in a suburb of London. The house overlooked Golders Green cemetery, the white and grey tombstones were visible from our windows, our narrow, old-English windows with leaded glass.
A friend I made was working as an usher at the Young Vic theatre. He said he wanted to be a director, a theatre director, a distant category of person in my mind: an unimaginable ambition to me, at eighteen years old (although he was eighteen years old too). He got me a job ushering at the Young Vic with him. I was happy to have a job: to have something to do I might like, to earn a few pounds for something, I couldn’t imagine for what.
My studies had been proceeding on Frognal Avenue in Hampstead, we waded through Homer’s The Odyssey–such a long, long journey, with no end. Later those studies would falter too. The Odyssey, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, and all the other books I was reading, became too much, too much to read, by far.
My job as a theatre usher began. Each evening my mother drove me to Golders Green tube station, near the end of the black Northern line. There was a wait, always a wait, then I’d get on a train, which travelled, through tunnels and tunnels, south, past stations I soon knew and could anticipate by heart. Hampstead; Belsize Park; Chalk Farm; Camden Town; Mornington Crescent; Euston; Warren Street; Tottenham Court Road; Leicester Square; Charing Cross; Embankment. Waterloo.
That was my stop. Waterloo, grey and gloomy, and tunnels to walk through, twenty minutes of walking, to the theatre, in its unassuming home on the South Bank, dark also and gloomy in my memory.
There was a black-coal overpass, I remember it.
The Young Vic was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s second home (Stratford-on-Avon was its first). That season, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen were starring in Macbeth, with Trevor Nunn directing. I was an usher for the season.
My job was to stand at the doors, take tickets, and direct people to their seats. Then I could stand inside and watch the play, or stand just outside, in the lobby, and talk with the other ushers. When I left each evening, I was paid a few pounds, in cash. I would talk with Michael, my usher friend, for a few minutes, about nothing I now remember, we probably discussed the play, or some gossip about the other ushers. Michael lived in south London, in Dulwich, where I’d never been. I tried to imagine it. There must be an expanse of low chimney pots in Dulwich, narrow houses, windows with leaded panes too. Michael had longish, dark hair, and a pale English skin. I thought he might be gay. Perhaps he suggested having a drink sometime, but I don’t remember.
I’d start on my journey home.
There was the twenty-minute walk again through tunnels: the black turnstyles; the odd people about; the concrete and echoes in the tunnels; sometimes happy theatre-goers going home; other people, even crazy, or homeless ones; and sometimes, in my memory, no-one about at all. Just me, and my thoughts, which seemed very slow, and slowing, then. And then the long train ride home, through all the stations. This time, in reverse, like a familiar song, with its chords rearranged. Embankment; Charing Cross; Leicester Square; Tottenham Court Road; Warren Street; Euston; Mornington Crescent; and onwards, north.
The black Northern line split in two, so sometimes I took the wrong train, and passing through Bank, Moorgate and Angel stations, I’d know it was wrong. I’d imagine the City at those stations, the financial centre of London, deserted now, at night. I’d have to get out and wait again, for the right train, the right Northern line, the one that ended at High Barnet, with Golders Green, my stop, on its way.
The tube stations had machines dispensing Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars, and Bounty bars, and I’d buy one, the twenty-five-pence coins in my palm, so vividly remembered, now. The sweetness of the dense-white coconut in the Bounty bars was a counterweight to the grime and lateness and solitude of the night train.
There would still be the dim night bus from the station, or my mother picking me up, to get home, to our house of the leaded panes, its chimney pot like all the thousands over London: distinctive London chimney pots, dark and small and old.
Nowadays if you Google the 1978 Young Vic production of Macbeth where I worked as an usher, and in which a young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench played the leads, you will read that it was a defining production of the play: a glittering and historic theatrical milestone. There was no scenery, the backdrop just a black curtain, and the set just a few black boxes which were moved around when needed, as chairs, or steps. There were no costumes: the actors wore black, and nothing else, no adornment. There was no time or place reference, so the story of the play could be occurring anywhere, at any time. The only prop was a dagger–the crucial dagger.
Come, let me clutch thee.
The Young Vic was a small, in-the-round theatre. The effect of this and the sparse set was that you felt as though you were in personal communion with Ian McKellen as Macbeth, or Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth. Just a spotlight on their faces as they spoke. The words the most important thing: Shakespeare’s words, alone.
There were perhaps sixteen performances of that play. As the lights went down each evening and my work was done taking tickets and directing people to their seats, I didn’t go out into the lobby to talk to Michael, or do nothing, as I was free to do. I stood inside at the back, and watched the entire play of Macbeth, from beginning to end. Sixteen times, as I said.
I knew Macbeth as I had studied it in high school. I also knew, in my dim awareness–so many things not clear–how rare it was, to watch these actors, this play, in such proximity. So I watched, in darkness. Sixteen times. Ian McKellen’s spotlit face, night after night.
By the end of the run, I knew every breath of every single word that Ian McKellen spoke, every gesture he made, every nuance or quaver in his voice. I could predict in exactly what tenor or tone he would say something, and detect tiny changes he might make. I spent daylight hours, at home, repeating lines to myself, as the music of them gave me so much pleasure. I seem to think my sleeping hours must have been filled with that music, those cadences, too. And I’d repeat words, simple words, as Judi Dench’s voice, her black-garbed figure, carried through my days.
Will all the oceans of Arabia sweeten this little hand?
There was nothing in the dark play of Macbeth that related in an obvious way to the life experience I had had, and my life experiences at that moment were full of other concerns: concerns about being alien and alone in a new and foreign place. My home–as I said–left behind.
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green, one red
Many years later I understood that the darkness I experienced was not only London in winter, a northern European winter that was so alien to me, a South African. It was also a paralysis in myself that had started quite suddenly, then seeped further, and further, almost into my body.
My clearest memory of that time might be the black tale of Macbeth. Standing in a darkened room and hearing Shakespeare’s words was a profound solace to a young person floundering: it was an assurance, I now recognize, that art can offer, an assurance of beauty in darkness, of beauty that might transcend things, of a beauty that might last.
I had lost family and friends, a sense of connection and belonging, and a landscape—strange and wide and sun-drenched— that was mine. There was the injustice in South Africa, and the possibility of doing something about it: the moral clarity of something I could do, even a sense of duty about what I must do. I had lost that, as well.
It was a long time before I took full measure of that loss. It was a long time before the grey veil began to lift, before I found and made a new home, before I found the beginnings of clarity.
I live in a new city now, not an old one. I love leaded glass windows. I also like stained glass, but only old—especially antique—stained glass. Alongside the blackness of the veins, there are the colours: blood-red, or ruby-red, and grass-green, and blue, like the sky. But which sky? Not an African sky, and not a faded English or European one. It is some other sky: a sky that exists only in the window, and is a deeper blue than all the other skies.
Macbeth keeps its hold. I have an idea that its words and music exist in me, like bones. Ineradicable. I have an idea they made me a writer.
Blackness exists and lives alongside colour and beauty–and truth. I intuited that in that long-ago theatre, although I only dimly understood it, then.
Dawn Promislow is the author of the short story collection Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada). Her poem “lemon” was short-listed for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.