My first bedroom was in England. My mother, brother and I lived in a flat overlooking London. My room was white; my dressers and tables mismatched. Model aeroplanes hung from the ceiling. On my dresser were papier-mâché dioramas of battle scenes. Many of the plastic soldiers were half-melted from previous combat. My brother and I would light matches and toss them across the model, trying to burn each other’s soldiers. Once, he used kerosene to simulate the effects of an atom bomb, and the black smoke forced us from the room. We were quite hysterical. The superintendent banged on the door and demanded to know what was burning. We opened the letter-box slit on the front door and told him that we had burned the eggs.
I had a model train set. I loved trains. I wished that I could see out from inside the passenger cars, as they went past the station. Like most children, I loved being much bigger than things that were in reality much bigger than me. I also loved the first book I wrote my name in, and actually owned. It was a Winnie the Pooh story. I was always sorry for Eeyore, and wanted to give him a hug and make it better.
I was a poor sleeper. At night, my walls were forests of shadows. When a car turned past outside, it was like a windshield-wiper of light across the ceiling. The beams illuminated the aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, and I would pretend to take aim at the German ones, running through a burning city and dodging their bombs. I loved to watch the dark shapes lighten as my eyes adjusted. Before bedtime, for a while, I would turn the light off and on, blinking furiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of the room half in light, half in darkness.
One night, my brother Hugh and I stayed with a woman who took care of us. We were together in a huge four-poster bed, which was far too exciting to sleep in. It was enormous, and very soft. The eiderdown was immense. It was like sleeping in the bedroom of a Victorian novel, and I fantasized about waking up in another house, in a case of mistaken identity, with new parents and a new life. That night, Hugh taught me all about the solar system. There was a bowl of fruit in the room, and he used apples, oranges and grapes to explain the movement of the planets, laying them on the eiderdown and moving them around. We were up very late. My brother fell asleep first. I stayed up, watching the stars in wonder. When the moon rose beyond the latticed window, it looked like a silver fruit.
When I was six, I was sent to boarding school. I slept in a dormitory with about twenty other boys, in long rows of metal beds. Each morning, they had to be made so tightly that you could bounce a penny off of them. When I went to bed, I had to kick at the edges of the tight covers so I could turn over. The mattresses were very creaky, with coiled springs. At night, I would switch ends, peering out from under the metal bar at the foot of the bed, imagining that Nazi soldiers were marching through the room, looking for British children, and my heart would pound in the joy and fear of hiding. Other times, I would lie on my back with my knees up, and simulate the action of an erupting volcano by lifting my spread fingers past the top my knees.
We sometimes whimpered at night, but not much. When it happened, no one made any fun. We were all far from home, and only six or seven years old. We could not comfort each other, but we all understood. I never cried for my mother, but I could make myself cry by repeating the word ‘bubby’ over and over, and imagining another kind of mother. It was vaguely satisfying to cry, but seemed like a lot of work, and rather false, so I stopped for a long time.
Sometimes, when we were all in bed, the Matron used to turn the light switch slowly, delicately, and then, halfway between ‘on’ and ‘off’, the lights would buzz and falter, and we would all squeal.
There were posters on the wall. Manic, colourful animals drawn in thick black lines. There was a dancing hippopotamus with a grass skirt and no genitals. There was an alligator with a green-and-yellow under-jaw, a big smile, and tiny blunt teeth. He was coming out of the water. They looked merry in the day, but manic and slightly dangerous in the dark.
In the morning, we stood at the foot of our beds, and were inspected by the matron, or the headmaster. The other boys seemed to take these rules very seriously, but I did not. I was terrified of transgressing the rules, because we were caned, but I did not respect them. What did it matter how our bed was made? It was sometimes hinted that the British Empire had fallen because of a lack of good bed-making, but that seemed like nonsense to me. I always pictured the men who built the Empire as adventurers, vagabonds, who didn’t care much about bouncing pennies off their blankets.
The morning inspection was always traumatic, because something was always missing. Everything always went missing. If you lost a lace, for instance, it was considered perfectly acceptable to steal another boy’s lace. This caused a domino-effect of petty theft, and created desperate mistrust. Boys would try to mark everything they had, even tying special knots in their laces. The most common problem was missing one half of a pair. A black sock. A garter. A lace. Or something would not be clean. A spot on a tie. Scuffed shoes. It was always something.
We had less sympathy for boys who fell foul of the inspection than those who cried at night, because we were usually punished collectively for missing items. The headmaster would scowl and point. The boy would blush and stammer, and we would all feel angry and fearful. Until it was our turn. Because of the divisive nature of group punishment, we always faced the wrath of authority alone. One morning, when it was my turn, I was missing a garter. One of my socks was up, and the other was down. It was a Sunday morning in 1972. We were going to church. The headmaster told me to adjust my sock. I panicked. I remember what happened to my vision. It was like looking into a pool disturbed by a pebble. The walls and rows of beds seemed to constrict and ripple. The idea of telling him I had only one garter didn’t even cross my mind. I walked between the beds, so he could not see me, and pretended to adjust my sock. Later on, in the evening, I was found out. He towered over me. I stammered that I had lost my garter in gym class. Then I remembered that Sunday was the one day we didn’t have gym class. The headmaster told me to get into bed, then called the matron. They talked for some time, as I lay under my tight covers, and kept glancing at me. I was very frightened. I had been caned before, and it wasn’t pleasant. Not painful, just humiliating. But nothing ever happened. It made no sense. I had lied twice – three times if you count pretending to adjust my garter, which was kind of a silent lie. To the headmaster’s face. But it was never raised again.
The dorm had ceiling fans, which were turned on when it was hot. They seemed too slow to do any good. Daring boys would get out of bed and crank up the speed of the fans. The blades would spin and roar and the air would come alive. We became hysterically exhilarated. It was like being in an aeroplane. The Matron would come and yell at us, but it was worth it. I never had the courage to speed up the fans. I was sure the light would come on the moment my hand would touch the dial, and Matron and the headmaster would be standing there, cane in hand.
One night, the boys in the next dormitory were making a lot of noise. I wanted to sleep, but didn’t know how to complain. So I pretended to have an ear-ache. I kept this up for several days. Matron kept dripping cold liquid into my ear. I learned something from that, because I still had to pretend long after the noise was gone. No one suffered from my lies except me.
Another night, I was suspected of theft, and was summoned to Matron’s room. She had the only known television on the school. As she lectured me about property rights, I looked past her hip. On the small blue screen, I saw tanks rolling through a white village. I was utterly certain that we were all being trained to go to war, and that crouching behind a broken wall in that village was to be our fate.
I stayed at boarding school for two years, and then was sent home because my father – who lived in South Africa – ran out of money. Ever since I can remember, I believed that every exciting thing happened late at night. I had a babysitter who used to let me stay up late and watch the eleven o’clock news. She would position two armchairs facing each other, and put me in the middle, using the back of one of the armchairs to block the television set, but I could see it anyway. I remember the gray voice of a gray man in a gray box talking about conflict and the economy. I got the impression that everyone in authority was monochrome. This woman gave me a ‘Curly-Wurly’ chocolate bar every time I came over. One night, in my mother’s bed, I cried the whole night long, because I was supposed to go to my babysitter’s house, but never did. For many years, I felt bad about this, because I was sure that my mother was distressed about my desire to be taken care of by another woman. I don’t feel bad about it any more.
I loved to read, and loved being ill, because my mother would set me up on the sofa in the living room and I would get all the comics and crackers I wanted. I enjoyed science fiction, and remember lying in bed one sunny afternoon, when I was eight years old, reading Arthur C. Clarke, and eating plate after plate of buttered crackers.
When I would have a fight with my mother, I would have a strong urge to destroy things. One afternoon, after a bad scene, I sat on my bed in tears, looking through my fingers at a small blackboard I had. That morning, using blunt chalks, I had drawn a mountain with a sunset. I imagined that I would protest my treatment by never erasing that picture, and never drawing again. I fantasized that a group of art critics would find it one day and lament and wring their hands that such talent had been destroyed so young. This gave me black satisfaction.
Morning were always terrible. I was forever exhausted. One morning, when I was nine, I dragged myself out of bed and went into the kitchen for Corn Flakes. My mother and brother were there, and they told me that there was no school that week, because it was March break. I went back to bed and curled into a ball under my blue blanket, about as happy as I have ever been in my life. It was the kind of happiness, I imagined, that would be visible to astronauts.
When I was eleven, we came to Canada. We moved a lot, because apartments were hard to find, and we wanted a three-bedroom. Before we left, my brother and I received forty pounds from relatives. We were amazed that we got double the money by coming to Canada, because forty pounds turned into eighty dollars. My mother said that she would keep this money and give it to us in increments. We did not like that, and wrangled a larger chunk out of her for a racing-car set. We were living in a small two-bedroom apartment at the time. The floors were long strips of glossy wood. My brother and I set up the racing-car set and had a fight over who controlled the speed of the car. My brother said something terrible and ran away. I was so angry that I wanted to destroy the car-set, but I knew that I would miss playing with it. So I tore one of the track-sections apart, which could be repaired. I then went to see my mother in her bedroom and asked her: ‘What should I do when I get angry and want to break things?’ I don’t recall her response, but do remember that it was very, very long.
Shortly after coming to Canada, my brother went back to England to finish his education. My mother went back to Germany for an operation. I spent the summer with the grandparents of a school friend. Their apartment was very medicinal. The old woman was ill, and would lie on the carpet in the living room with her legs raised on the plaid sofa. I didn’t sleep much that summer. I became fascinated with UFO’s and astronomy, and would lie in bed with a pair of binoculars, scanning the night sky over Toronto for other-worldly visitors. I loved the idea of being taken to another planet. This was also a time of psychic experimentation. I experimented with telekinesis, but never made anything move. All that my concentration produced was headaches. And itchy eyes, because for some reason I believed that blinking would hamper the development of my psychic powers.
My brother stayed in England for two years. During the time he was away, my mother had a mental breakdown. We were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Don Mills. I slept in the bedroom, and my mother slept in a nook on the far side of the little kitchen. For many weeks, she did not get out of bed. She had always been thin, but now lost so much weight that I could barely discern her flesh under her blanket. I made her tea and soup. I read to her. I wanted to give her the kind of love that would make her better, but couldn’t find any way into her heart.
When my brother returned, we shared a bedroom for a time. A huge square of chipboard separated our beds. We had many fights in that room. He wasn’t happy to be back. He always got up before me. I would lie in bed, loving the sound of his shower, because it meant that I didn’t have to get up yet. One morning, he was upset because I had almost finished the milk the night before. He demanded to know what he was supposed to eat. I suggested that he fry up some Spam, which was all we had in the house. He jerked off my covers and dumped his soggy Corn Flakes into my bed. After he had left the room, I put them in his bed. The Corn Flakes went back and forth for a few days, until I finally threw them out.
This was a time of great stress, and great pleasure. My mother had returned to working as a temp after her depression, but very fitfully. Finally, her doctor committed her to the Clark Institute, where she stayed for quite some time. Hugh and I both took two or three part-time jobs – I was fifteen at this time, he was seventeen – to pay the rent. A friend of ours, whose family life was also a mess, came to live with us and helped out.
I loved life without parents. I slept well. I joined the swim team, and played a lot of tennis. I bought my first computer. I loved to program it – it is the only thing in my life which I ever voluntarily got up early for. I remember getting up at six a.m. one morning to finish a graphics program, and sitting on my sofa-bed in the half-dark, watching it run, feeling the deep, delicious joy of accomplishment.
I turned my back on my experiments with criminal activity, and enjoyed my new friends. Both Hugh and I were quite popular, because we had no parents around, and so our apartment was considered an excellent place to congregate. My mother did return for a while, after she was released from the Institute. She kept talking about going to Vancouver. Both Hugh and I hated having her back with us. She kept postponing her departure date. Finally Hugh and I bought her a Greyhound ticket, and sent her on her way.
Shortly after my mother left for Vancouver, I decorated my bedroom, for the first time in my life. I painted the walls a red-brick desert colour, and nailed bamboo along the corners of the walls and ceiling. I got a rattan ceiling fan, nice bookshelves, and a beautiful Aztec eiderdown cover. I bought a budgie and a wicker cage, and loved lying on my bed reading while the bird flew around the room, chirping merrily. It gave me great pleasure to finally bring beauty to my environment. It was the last bedroom of my childhood.