Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Late summer 1973 found us on a train in the middle of rainy England. My father had been posted, once again, overseas. The countryside was bleary but verdantly green. I was ten and I knew I was going to hate it here. We had left all of our good friends behind on the air force base in Canada to come to this wet boggy country. I was going to hate it.
We finally made it to what would be our new home for the next two years. My father had said he had found an unusual house to rent. We pulled up in front of a grey stone castle. The house was huge, octagonal in shape and over three hundred years old. We raced through the house checking every room. The foyer was a huge room itself and the living room had a great stone hearth that I could lie in comfortably. We each had our own bedroom for the first time in our lives. The upstairs hallway was not a straight line but curved so that you could never see what was around the corner. The best part though was in the back yard. The yard itself covered over an acre and the stone steps leading down to the cellar also led to tunnels that skirted under the lawn and came out several hundred yards later at the end of the yard. The tunnels had been built hundreds of years ago to hide fleeing nuns and priests who were being persecuted. The original tunnels had run all the way to the Abbey, which was miles away but they had been blocked off when rats had become a problem. What a boon this was for a ten-year-old kid. We had to crouch down to walk through the tunnels and they were claustrophobic and smelled moldy. Summer was quickly coming to a close. We had to enroll in school. My parents heard that the local school had its problems so they decided to put me in Catholic school. I wasn’t catholic and had no idea what that meant. We were given the name of a shop where we could buy our school uniforms. We went in and an old man greeted us. My mother told him which schools we were going to and he brought out the appropriate uniforms.
“And for the lad,” he said looking at me.
“But I’m a girl,” I said for the thousandth time in my life.
“Oh,” he said looking embarrassed. He silently went and found the skirt and sweater that I needed. I took it hating the fact that I had to wear a skirt. I wished for the thousandth time that I had been born a boy. Instead of the runners that I always wore we were required to wear proper shoes. For some reason I will never understand I chose platform shoes, they were awkward and I felt like I was walking on stilts.
School started and everything about it was weird. First of all we had to stand every time a teacher came in the room. I was a newly minted catholic so I had to get my own rosary beads and I started learning all the prayers and chants that catholic’s did. The other kids looked at me like I was from Mars. They had never met a Canadian before and they must have been delinquent in Geography because one kid told me when they heard a Canadian was coming to their school, they thought I would be black.
I took an early dislike to the Headmistress. She was a pinched faced old lady; at least she looked old. I heard after I left that she had married the Vicar and had a baby, so she was not as old as I thought. I liked defying the myriad sets of rules the school had. My favourite was to wear my runners instead of my proper shoes. This got me the punishment of having to run laps around the schoolyard in my platform shoes. This may be the genesis of my on-going ankle issues.
  I made a friend called Lizzie Hopgood. She was blond like me but her hair was long and golden like a sheaf of wheat and mine was always short and boyish. She was a rebel too. We would leave school and go into the village and buy cigarettes from the vending machine. Those were the days before you needed four different ID’s and a blood sample to buy a pack of smokes. We would head down to the Avon River and smoke. They tasted like shit but we knew we were super cool so it didn’t matter. On one particular day, we were sitting on the riverbank when we heard splashing. We stood up and peeked through the reeds and saw a naked man walking into the river. It was the first naked man that either of us had ever seen and we were fascinated and horrified at the same time. We were astonished to discover that men had pubic hair too. We thought only women and pubic hair. We always assumed that men’s parts hung down nakedly like a hanged man without any protection. Pubic hair had been on my mind a lot that year. I had grown my own, and although it was sparse and fair, it was a fascination to me. I was what my mother called an early developer. My chest was already sprouting small mounds of flesh, which I hated. My mom kept warning me that it was just about time to get me a bra. It was like I was being summoned to execution. In a way it was a death. It was death to my tomboyness. I didn’t want to give up my undershirts. I did not look forward to that girly rite of passage. Buying a bra was a terrible prospect. Again I wished I had been born a boy. I wanted to pee standing up and wear t-shirts with a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve.
The bra ordeal was nothing though in comparison to the morning I woke up to find the red stain on my underwear. I was just eleven and I had my period. I wadded toilet paper into my underwear and went downstairs for breakfast. I looked at my mother fussing over breakfast and I couldn’t tell her. I sat there trying to choke down my toast with this hideous secret gnawing at me. Finally I summoned the courage. She looked at me and exclaimed in a cheery Mrs. Cleaver voice, “Oh all my girls now.” I followed her morosely up the stairs where she showed me the life raft sized pads and the belt they hooked onto. She asked if I needed help. I shook my head in mortification. I just wanted her out of the damn bathroom. I put the contraption on. I could barely walk properly it was so big. I can’t remember when some genius decided that getting rid of the belt and putting adhesive strips on the pads was a better plan but I do know that most of that school day was a horror of trying to move this thing to pee and trying to walk without looking like I had just dismounted a horse. The worst part was swimming class. I had to tell the teacher and then all the other girls knew. They whispered. I was the first to get my period. I wish I had been born a boy.
In my second year in England the school organized a ski trip to Scotland. I was an avid skier and was missing that part of my Canadian life badly. I wasn’t old enough to go on the trip but somehow my mother convinced them that all my “acting out” was because I missed Canada so much. That wasn’t true at all but if it got me on the ski trip I wouldn’t argue; and it did. We took the train up to Scotland and I reveled in the fact that I was the only one who could ski. I got to go in the advanced class and whiz by my classmates with superiority. I discovered something truly great while I was in the country. I discovered that I could go into the bar and order a shandy. It was beer with lemonade and I could legally order it. We ordered big pints and set about playing pool.
I spent two years in England. I spent most of those two years getting into trouble and then getting away with it. All because my parents thought that it was because I missed Canada. Except for the beer swilling ski trip, that annoyed me. I didn’t want their understanding. I was a rebel.

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