“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.
The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.
RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE
Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
- The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
- There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
- Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
- Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
- Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
- The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
- When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)
So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new. However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).
THE AUTHOR READS
Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’. The publishers were happy to wait for it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”
Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.
His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His weakness is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.
The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.
Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his surface desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.
Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.
Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.
Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.
Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:
On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.
Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.
But the Battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.
This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s Self-revelation — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.
But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Self-revelation is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.
By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.
In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.
Header image by Thomas Tucker