It has now been four months since I left England to study in Ontario. After asking if I have ever met the Queen, I will often be asked ‘so what is the biggest difference between Canada and the UK?’ It is a relatively simple question, yet I am still struggling to pinpoint the biggest difference as I mostly encounter lots of small -albeit merciless- disparities between our countries. Here I present a short list of just some of these differences.
#1 Crossing the Road
Feminists beware: if the thought of a white man telling you when you can and cannot cross the road sends a thousand patriarchal daggers down to the tips of your fingers, Canada might not be the place for you. It turns out our familiar friend the Green Man who has helped you cross the road since you were young enough to think jumping in front of a car might be a good idea; did not make it across the pond! Instead, Canadians rely on a slightly paler incarnation of our friendly road guide.
#2 The Yorkshire Accent becomes the Queen’s English
If you’re tired of being told whatever accent you managed to pick up in your years of living on English soil is unrefined and lacks all promise of sophistication, Canada may be the place for you. It turns out that I only had to travel 3500 miles for my Yorkshire accent to be heard as the Queen’s English and I never stop getting kicks from people telling me, for the first time in my entire life, that I sound elegant. However, from first hand experience I should warn the Brummies that even Canadians can sniff you out as sounding not entirely like the royal family- indeed, you might have to travel a little further before you can hope to fool anyone!
#3 It’s Bloody Expensive
In Canada, shopping for food genuinely feels like you’re purchasing your weekly groceries from an Odeon cinema. As well as that, just as you think six dollars for a bag of crisps was expensive, you are reminded as the bill is handed to you that tax is also added at the checkout. I have learnt to brace myself for the impending total of my groceries at Walmart as though I am about to find out that I have some obscure and incurable disease and one that usually means I wont be able to afford my Diet Coke fix for the next couple of days.
#4 Becoming an Inadvertent Explorer
Ontario may be the only place in the entire world where you can walk from Dublin to Wellington in under five minutes. As far as road signs are concerned it’s almost impossible not to find yourself in places named after all corners of the globe. One memorable journey in particular took me from Pickering to Scarborough and finally to Perth where they were advertising their annual garlic festival. As a result of my ceaseless amusement, I can only be thankful that Canada does not appear to care a great deal when it comes to originality.
#5 You Live in a Petting Zoo
It wasn’t until I arrived in Ontario that I came to realise that black squirrels roamed the Earth- having only previously encountered the red and grey variety. Although my mother is insistent that the fluffy creatures look entirely evil, I think they are impossibly cute. Yet, if black squirrels don’t quite do it for you, there is no doubt that living in Canada will sooner or later enable you to become face to face with a plethora of exotic animals. Just the other week I was cooing over a family of raccoons that were scavenging my friend’s bins as he attempted to shoo them away. Just don’t tell your Canadian friends that you want to go hunting for beaver, however much you want to.
Having survived my first semester at university, albeit somewhat haphazardly, I like to think that I have already learned a great number of things with regards to surviving the ‘outside world’. In what I hope will become something of a ‘how-to’ series, I will share my snippets of advice alongside my first-hand woes that naturally stem from a girl who has yet to master the art of living smoothly.
A lot can rest in first impressions- it is the difference between being ‘that intelligent female who knows a lot about 17th century literature’ and being ‘that girl who parades around with yesterday’s lasagne stuck to her face’. And never are first impressions quite so important than when you start university; when every impression is both first and nightmarishly immortal. It’s not breaking news to reveal that a drunken slobbery kiss the night before is a terribly awkward encounter in Tesco’s the day after.
But even those ‘did I really lick his face last night?’ encounters do not compare to the events of my first day of higher education. It started with the mishap we all dread- walking into the wrong class- complete with a sorry face of pleading embarrassment together with lost eyes longing for a hug and a forgiving cup of tea. The mathematics seminar group looked almost offended when I asked if this was the literature seminar. It wasn’t.
But all hope was not lost.
I turned around to see a young man waiting in the seats opposite the room I had attempted to enter. He was witness to my shortcoming and in a blaze of nervous adrenaline I blurted out my unrefined introductions. ‘Are you waiting for this room?’. I was relieved to learn that he was indeed waiting for the same class as me and- seeing a fine opportunity to start my quest for making friends- I began to chant my pleasantries.
‘Oh! That’s so cool! Where are you from?! That’s awesome! I’m from North Yorkshire! I really like your jumper! Do you have any plans for tonight?! That sounds awesome! Me? Oh! I need a night off, had a bit of a mad one last night that ended in me and my flatmates comparing dolphin impressions in the kitchen! …So, is it American literature you’re studying?’
‘Oh no’ he said.
‘I’m teaching it.’
And that is how not to make a fruitful first impression with your lecturers.
This story was my first submission towards my literature with creative writing degree! For this portfolio we were asked to write 1500 words on any subject matter and in any style. Of course, this led my mind to wander down some questionable paths.
A smile bled from her lips the moment I pushed her. My little sister. Her nimble limbs collapsed before she hit the floating shore. There was a crack and something of a splutter between the screams and the waves that began to claim her body. The air was thick; I imagined her splitting it in half, like Moses and the red sea, when
she fell through it. Like a curtain call, the roaring sun played a spotlight to the show.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen her covered in blood and grasping for life. Her birth was disgusting. When she came out she was as pink and as raw as undercooked chicken; wailing as though entering this world was a punishment beyond all that Hell could muster. Babies are perceptive like that. I would wail too if my first encounter with world included a television screen playing the Sound of Music, as she did. That day was when I became aware of the human tendency to mask what is undeniably hideous for the sake of politeness; a convention for the civilised. I watched my mother writhe and howl for eleven hours only to be handed the consolation prize of a squirming gory infant. Yet, the audience cooed and cackled over the ‘miracle’ that was wrapped in the parcel of my mother’s own shining guts.
I was not supposed to be there. My father was due to arrive in time for the birth of his second child but he was seven hundred and sixty days late. I knew that because I’d been counting down the days to his return from the moment I knew how time worked. I had never met this man but my mum reminded me to call him dad despite this fact. He was a sergeant in the Vietnam War. He’d often send letters telling of his heroic endeavours. One tale, in particular, still clings to my memory. My father was in the jungle, he wasn’t a descriptive writer but in my head this jungle was like the picture books I was given at Christmas, full of wandering shadows and towers of green, teeming with creatures of a child’s nightmares or effervescent fantasies. He was alone until he heard a scream. A mother carrying an infant, not unlike my baby sister, and running. Her clothes were so ripped her naked flesh beamed through the tears of cotton. My father noted the terror on her face; the helplessness of a mother who couldn’t save her baby. For it was only a second or so later that her body turned into a cloud of
burning ash, an explosion so hot my father said he could feel it hit the ends of his own skin. Strips of red flesh fell from the sky. The particular letter ended there.
My grandmother did not want me at the hospital during the recovery of my mother’s own exploding body. She said little boys did not belong in wards where women’s screams bled into a chorus of an unforgiving pitch. She said to my mother, just loud enough for my child’s ears to hear, that I was in the way. I would be better off elsewhere. Her nose sat above a cup of tea as she spat the demands of my leave. But an old hag bound to a wheelchair had no chance of standing in the way of me meeting my father. And so I waited beside my mother’s bed. Her head rested like the moon, cratered and blotched with unfamiliar shades as she cradled the new-born beneath her breath. A vacant air possessed the sadness on her face. An obnoxiously large clock face was floating on the wall, distorting the silence with its regimented ticking.
We had been in the hospital a total of five days when a faceless nurse handed us the letter. The foreign stamps and half-assed handwriting revealed its sender before my mother tore the envelope. The rattling of the paper unleashed a screaming outcry from my little sister who had yet to learn the art of receiving bad news. My grandmother shooed me out of the room with her plastic bag arms. Her sickly-sweet scent was enough to coax me, but I already knew what the foreboding papered rectangle meant. ‘Daddy won’t be coming home for a little while yet darling, but you know our country needs him more than us…’ My mother was fond of this platitude. My father –her husband- was a hero who did heroic things in a country that needed heroes. He was my hero, this man I’d never met, and for almost three more years I carried on waiting.
When my sister became vaguely aware of her own existence, she took a fondness to the park. She gargled at the ducks especially, the curves of her mouth would grow wider as they waddled closer to her outstretched limbs. I did not like the park. It was a breeding ground for pre-digested amusement. It made me wince to watch children greedily run for the swings and bundle down the rusted slides. Some of the boys who did not like the park would protest their boredom in the form of mass slaughter behind the nearby cabin. They would take it in turns to rip worms from the ground and pull at the bright pink ends until they broke in half. Their eyes gleamed like little red sirens watching the worms writhe. Some days it was spiders. They took it in turns to pull out a leg until the winner pulled the leg which finally left the spider unable to walk. But they did not kill the spiders. On her second birthday, after a breakfast of waffles and ice-cream cake, we took my sister to the park. At this point her legs could almost keep her sufficiently balanced to let her play at running around. The sunlight danced between the trees that day. My mother had received a parcel from my father the day before, it was full of little wooden trinkets for my sister, her favourite of which was a little brown duck, and a pack of playing cards for me. My mother still wore the smile that parcel left her as we settled on the park bench. As soon as a chorus of quacks fell from the lake my sister leapt from her diapered behind and hurried towards the birds. On this particular occasion my mother left her to run as she pleased and my little sister chirped like she might too have had a little bird’s beak. The ducks appeared to play with the little girl. They were quite far into the distance when the slaughter boys headed over. Their tall, overshadowing bodies made the ducks scarce. My mother didn’t sense the trouble of these boys and besides, it was too late. The tallest boy plucked one of the frightened ducks from beside my sister and without even a murmur, twisted its neck. Scream.
#1 The person who decided what men should smell like
There was a defining moment in history when man decided that we could no longer rely on our natural ea de toi-sweat to continue our evolutionary progression and thus the cologne was formed. Despite defying the man’s natural scents, the discovery of Lynx as a adolescent male has become a signpost in coming-of-age. With names such as ‘Excite’ and ‘Temptation’, I’m not sure that even the body sprays themselves know exactly what they are supposed to smell of, but whatever it is, my nose quite assuredly agrees.
#2 Laughter during a crisis
Whether it’s a slug in the toaster or finding out that there is no milk for your tea, there is something irresistibly comforting about the hearing of laughter during a crisis. Though I would not encourage hysterical giggling at the news of your deceased great aunt twice-removed, I do believe that, more often than not, life is a badly worded pun where the punchlines make the greatest memories.
I’m not sure if this miraculous concoction exists in all corners of the world, but I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say that this ointment has saved my life on many occasions from all its countless functions. Though I believe the cream is meant for the menial nappy rash, it deletes my spots, cures my cuts and I’m fairly sure it would re-grow a finger should ever I lose one. I trust in the healing powers of Sudo-Crem so much, in fact, that I once even used it to cover my entire face as I believed it would make me beautiful.
I have learned a great many of things during my year as an Art student, not least of which being how to ‘pull-off’ the splodges of paint that stubbornly stick to locks of my hair and refuse to be washed out. Here is a small collection of work that didn’t fall victim to my follicles.
I focussed too much attention towards his premature attempts of family décor to listen entirely to the fodder flowing from his mouth. My wife, on the other hand, appeared to be entirely enthralled by the vaunts of his career. At the time my disgust was targeted exclusively at photographs of grinning toddlers and not my wife’s lewdness. Her lips were a darker shade of red that night.
The following Autumn I was struck by my wife’s infidelity. It was no cause for concern that she had spent a great deal of time helping the Merriweathers move in. Yet, before long she became their reliable babysitter, an occasional dinner guest and a mandatory cog for the family Bridge games. With every one of these frequent jaunts, my wife’s face grew less recognisable as she became more generous with her powders and lipsticks. She was hiding; covering herself and her wrongdoings.
It was a Tuesday when Martin Merriweather lowered our garden fence in order to ‘gather more sunlight for the primroses’; even when the sun was setting. It was my rose which he had his eyes on, though. It wasn’t long before watching them chatter across the splintered wood became a visceral pastime. I imagined the words that escaped her wandering mouth. Words that she no longer had time to spare for me.
On bonfire night the clouds were fresh with bursts of flame as fizzled light danced beyond the darkened sky. A neighbourly celebration was taking place at the Merriweathers’ residence and the invitations were plenty. My wife wore a suitably fitting red dress together with a black satin shawl that caressed the arch of her smooth back. Pearls hung close to her neck and lit up against the fireworks. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to gather her so tightly in my arms that she would forget the outside. I wanted to envelop her entire body like a rapacious clam hides its only riches. I wanted to protect her.
It took only a thought of my wife holding on to a single word of that Martin Merriweather’s for me to torch their house. Red filled my eyes. Screams echoed in the burning. An accident. No one was hurt but the house which fell to the Earth like an unfolding rapture. My wife did not scream at the burning or at the sight of the wreckage. She accepted this fate but turned a shade of pale that I had never seen before.
I did not murder my wife. But I could not save her. Only a single month after the fire, she grew so weak and fragile that a limp beyond her mattress became virtually impossible. Her jaunted face was full of shadows when she finally uncovered the nature of her sickness. Her womb had given birth to tumours that had taken hold of almost every organ in her body. She explained how Martin had accepted her as a patient to a heavy programme of experimental drugs that had a chance of saving her life, if only for a little longer. A sickness tugged at my throat as she delivered a truth I could not swallow. Her love was never questioned and yet I had burned her hope in a fire of jealousy. The medicine had all been lost in the ashes that wrote my name. She crumbled away like the walls of the house next door. My helplessness was my foreboding punishment.
And here I stand, looking at my dead wife. Every inch of my honing gut begs that she might wake up with those blushing eyes that still belong in her skull. But she lays still. I close the coffin lid; covering her body for the final time. She was always mine to protect.
We had always stayed rooted in our home town. My wife and I did not rely upon recycled dreams of travelling the world in order to justify our existence. We enjoyed how our trees arched beyond the hills and how our neighbours never changed and how we always knew exactly what to expect. When there is no future there is no time and nothing to pass you by.
It was autumn when the Merriweathers moved in to the cottage next door. Those walls had been empty for a long while and I greatly enjoyed the company of no-one. I had little care of my own to meet them, though my wife was persistent that we should make a good first impression. That was another flaw with women; they required, almost insatiably, to be liked. When the moving vans and cardboard boxes diluted, we laundered the third best bottle of wine from our pantry and cheerfully arrived at our new neighbour’s new house. As the door opened, so did Mr. Merriweather’s stonking eyes as he observed the beauty of my wife. He was perplexed at our apparent offering of free booze until we unveiled the nature of our arrival. Our adjacent living situation was apparently a cause for celebration. He welcomed us in and we sat a few hours and drank from bubble-wrapped glasses. Of course he was a promising doctor of some sort; his wife was three kids down but not looking too bad on it. Luckily James, Lucy and Michael were spending that afternoon elsewhere but I did not doubt that I would soon be hearing their acquaintance from our unnervingly close radius. My wife could not bear children, but not in the same way that I couldn’t. Hence, my last name has remained, and will remain, my own.
I did not like Martin Merriweather. Nobody, especially that soon after moving into a new house, could present such a fine tray of cakes in the face of unexpected guests. If you have Mr. Kipling on standby, it can only be concluded that you think too highly of yourself or too low and Martin did not have the physique of a man who found comfort in confectioneries.
I was nine years old when I first saw my wife naked, when both her body and maiden name remained intact. It was summer. The outdoor pools were dense with sweating bodies cradling the water’s cool waves. Middle-aged men bobbed up and down beneath the ripples whilst little wet droplets crept down their brows. She was heedless as I was headless; diving so intently and carelessly her swimsuit unravelled, blossoming a naked, virtuous flame from the communal pool. The splashes instantly curtailed and her beautiful, spotless body –ripened from embarrassment- started to cry unto an audience of sorry parents and mocking children. As a premature young boy I had no intention of staring, although my fascination of the human form begged me to, I grabbed a towel from the side and threw it at her. The towel immediately soaked her shame as she galloped from the pool and retreated. I was nine years old when I first fell in love with my wife.
Within the passing decades she no longer relied on me to cover her up. She used make-up to hide the imperfections that I enjoyed. Men would frequently leer in their short bouts of lust. Her cheeks didn’t blush from childish tomfooleries but from pink dusty powders. Her fresh, teary eyes were blackened by heavy-handed mascara. She was a cut-out from a magazine that I had no desire to read. Women try so desperately to conceal the truth. My father did not run out on my mother, for example, he had died in the Second World War but was later discovered- quite alive- in another lady’s bed.