Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Basket Full of Cats: How I Got Deported From England

A Basket Full Of Cats

How I Got Deported From London

2: AM, Heathrow Airport, London, 1980.

I disembarked the United Airlines flight from New York. After a disastrous visit home to my family, I’d traveled over 24 hours to get back to my London flat. I waited in line, and handed over my passport to the official. She was in a crisp skirted uniform, fresh despite the late hour. The terminal was brightly lit. It hurt my eyes. I was on one side of a turnstile, the immigration official on the other. There weren’t many other people at this hour, it shouldn’t take long. (Security was much looser in those days.)

“You’re not allowed into the country. You’ve been ordered out.”

“Come on, it’s two in the morning, I want to go home.”

“You’re not officially in England yet.” She pointed to my side of the turnstile. “We could send you back to New York right now. ”

My passport was stamped with the official order that I was being thrown out of England. I had appealed. During the appeal, I’d been told I could come and go as I pleased. So, I went home for Christmas for the first time in several years. Which had been a catastrophic mistake in many ways.
“I’ve appealed the order, I have the papers.” I produced the letter from the Home Office. “Please, can I go back to my flat? I’ve been traveling for hours.”


I waited under the harsh airport lights. When the officer came back, she told me I was to report back to Heathrow the following day at 10 AM. And took my passport.

Exhausted, my head spinning, I returned to my flat. And discovered my flatmate, Dennis, in my bed. With a woman.

I fell out on the couch.

Dammit, caught. My father was expecting me to return to America for good, but I had decided to disappear again.

You see, my father was a college president. I grew up on the campus. He and my mother fully expected me to attend that college. I didn’t see independence as moving across the street. In fact, I didn’t want to go to college at all. Thank God, the head of the college drama department remarked, “have you considered going to drama school in London?”

Yes! Not just leaving home, but leaving the country! I was an Anglophile. I worshiped British comedy. Monty Python, Peter Cook and Spike Milligan were my comic idols. In fact tall, handsome Peter Cook was the only man I would consider to father of my child.

But as it turned out, at 16 I was too young to audition for all of the big schools. A tiny school, the Deleon School of the Drama, accepted me. It was a terrible school, run by two crazy old ladies. I dropped out after one term. Now what? I didn’t want to go back to America and my parents, but I only had a student visa.

So, I disappeared. First, I moved out of my current bed-sitter in Kew Gardens to another in a different part of town. Then again to the then crime-ridden, dangerous neighborhood of Islington. I found a two-story flat at the top of a building that was about to collapse. The stair railing fell out of the wall within weeks of my moving in. I reported my landlady for fraud and overcharging rent on a dilapidated apartment.

I lived there until I got caught several years later. During that time my flatmate, Dennis, moved in. He was a pothead with sallow skin that had never seen the sun, buck teeth and a frizzy yellow Afro. He sold pot and hash to the American expat community. Dennis was a member of the “wake and bake” school, gently blowing pot smoke into his friends’ faces to get them up. He was also friends with a Danish couple who sold the most potent hashish I have ever smoked. Once after smoking, I stood in one place for six hours and had no idea I’d done so.

Once he found out I was still a virgin, he waged a campaign to be my first. It was simply wrong in the eyes of the universe that I still hadn’t fucked anyone. But his insistence on washing his sore-covered dick in the sink while I took a bath made it easy to say “no”. As part of my “liberation”, he took photos of me on the toilet, in bed, in the bath. Being an unattractive 250-lb woman I hadn’t had many offers, but somehow I was able to turn him down. I had no idea why he had sores all over his dick. In hindsight, he probably gave genital herpes to most of the female American expats in London.

As for myself, I scraped by with crappy jobs like typing academic papers, and amused myself with petty crime. My favorite thing was to break into people’s houses while they were away. Because very little crime happened in the better neighborhoods, London house doors were usually closed with flimsy locks or with a thin hook and eye clasp. Throwing myself hard against the door usually burst it open. Or I went around the back, put my jacket around my hand, and broke a window. Once in, I went exploring, looking in closets, opening and closing drawers. That’s as specific as I’m going to get, because I don’t know what the statute of limitations is in England.

My dream was to have a comedy career, like Monty Python or something. What it was, I didn’t know. I met up with another druggie, a comedy writer, and we cobbled together an act. A godawful act. Many times I was told to “gerroff!” by the audience. One night in an East London pub, I spent the entire night talking to a pub owner who’d had half his face nearly burned off. He agreed to have me appear that weekend. But when I turned up, the pub was closed. Nobody there. I was determined to keep going, but the immigration office found me and ordered me out of the country again.

I went back to drama school to get a student visa. This time, I was old enough but the schools I auditioned for all turned me down because of my weight. As the latter from Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts put it, “your severe overweight makes it clear you are not serious about a career as an actress”. The prestigious Drama Studio accepted me, on condition I lose twenty pounds a term. The first months went well. 

But as occasionally happened to me, I became psychotic, hallucinating and not knowing if I knew people from real life or TV. In those days, the English didn’t know from psychiatrists or medications and didn’t tolerate my showing up late, disheveled and disoriented for classes. I dropped out. My student visa was revoked and I was ordered out of the country again. I appealed, and was told I could go back to America and return while my appeal was appending. I hadn’t seen my family since I first left America, so I decided to go home for Christmas.

So I went back home, my appeal pending. I was delighted to show my family back in America I had lost some weight. I lied fluently about being in school, telling funny stories about first-year student plays. They didn’t notice I was psychotic; but then, they had never noticed anything before, no matter how floridly stoned I was.

But then my father called me into his office.

“What do you have to say about this?”

He handed me a letter on blue air-mail stationery from my landlady.

Dear Mr. DeCarlo
I am writing to tell you that your daughter Elisa left her school some months ago. Since then, she has been occupying my flat, working some kinds of odd jobs. Her flatmate is a drug dealer.
Melisande Woodbury-Jones.

It was revenge, pure and simple.

My father’s eyes were cold blue steel. “You are coming home.”

Oh god, coming home. I couldn’t do it. Returning in disgrace, staying with my parents. After I’d dropped out of the first drama school, I wrote to my father about wanting to start a comedy career. He told me to stop these fantasies and get my ass back to America. To me, America meant New York, New York meant my parents, so I couldn’t go back to America. It didn’t occur to me that I might go to California, or Vermont, or even Indiana.

I agreed to come home, but I had no intention of doing so. I’d disappeared before. It could be done again, once I got back.

But the morning after I’d returned from America, the morning after the immigration officers took my passport, I went into a small windowless room where two officials held out an entire dossier on me. At age 20, I had already amassed quite a bit of data. Ads in local papers for my comedy act. Medical papers. Drama school applications, orders to leave the country, including the latest one.

“Your flatmate Dennis Redford is selling drugs, and we know that you are selling drugs as well.”

“I’m not selling drugs, I’m taking drugs!” Probably not the best thing to blurt out.

“You are being flown back to New York a week from today. If you’re not on that plane, we’ll know it.”

The two officers escorted me to the United Airlines ticket desk and watched as I bought a ticket for the following Tuesday.

“Dennis, I’m selling everything, I’m being deported!” I announced when I walked back into my flat. I wasn’t sorry to be leaving Dennis.

I started packing when I remembered my cats. Oh my god, my cats! Peaches and Demented. Demented’s original name was Zoe, but she was prone to seizures from over-excitement, so we began calling her demented little Zoe, and somehow it was shortened to Demented. She was a beautiful tortoiseshell and I loved her more than anything. My other cat, Peaches, was a true English marmalade cat. I knew Dad would say absolutely not if I told him I was bringing home two cats. Screw him, I wasn’t leaving my cats.

With most of my belongings either shipped or left behind, I returned to Heathrow airport, my cats in a wicker basket fastened with leather straps. They were to go in the special baggage. I got good and drunk on the flight home. My father and younger brother met me at JFK. When we went to the baggage claim, I confessed to my father that I had brought my cats back to America. 

To my horror, they weren’t in the special baggage claim! I burst into tears! Peaches and Demented were somewhere lost back at Heathrow Airport! My cats were gone! Or they were in the baggage hold, dead from cold and lack of oxygen. My father kept saying we had to go home, it was too goddamned late, why did I care about the goddamned cats? I refused to budge until the baggage hold was completely empty.

My cats! My beautiful English cats! Alive!

I had to return to my childhood bedroom. Movie posters peeling off the walls, ugly ceramic figures I’d bought when I was a child. My books.

But I had my basket of cats. My reminders of London, and independence.

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