It’s our third winter in Toronto, and our first on Toronto Island. We have rented a modest two-bedroom cottage. We hardly know our neighbours, and our families are far away. Having been a university lecturer in South Africa, I am now a postgraduate student, a junior. Our small income is from my work as a part-time lecturer at the university. She may not work legally, but is studying part-time, struggling with the academic emphasis of the course in drama – she has, after all, already performed as a professional in South Africa. Our son is eleven months old.
It is dark and cold. The cottage is heated by a ‘space heater’ – a large box under the floor, covered by a metal grille. The fuel is oil, pumped into a tank at the back of the cottage from a small tanker custom-built for the Island and run by another Islander.
To light it, you open a flap in the grid and turn a little tap which allows a trickle of oil to spread slowly across the floor of the heater. You have some small crumpled papers ready, and you watch the oil with a torch. When there is just enough oil, you light some paper and drop it, hoping that the oil will start gently burning and sending warm air up through the grille. Too much oil, or too little, and nothing happens.
On this night the heater has gone out and has to be re-started. Unusually, this time it begins to smoke stinky black smoke, so I have to open the windows, which makes the room even colder. I am already jittery and irritable, escaping from the emotional demands and opportunities of a two-year-old marriage into becoming an academic automaton. My ‘Major Field Exam’ is next week. Our child is screaming.
Three months later she packs a small rucksack and walks out.