I laugh at the implication of one childhood room, the same room you spend your whole childhood in. I know that’s the norm for a lot of people, but it isn’t that way for everybody. To me, growing up in one place is exotic. I don’t even know how many houses I lived in. I don’t remember any of the ones I lived in before the age of 6.
At 6, my bedroom was shared with my younger brother. We were living in a house in Pakistan that had three bedrooms, but my mother used the third bedroom as a storage room and somewhere to hang the laundry. So my brother and I shared. I remember that it had no carpet, the floor was smooth stone, the walls were bare and white. Each of the bedrooms had a bathroom connected to it. My strongest memory of that room is my friend L coming over one day and introducing my brother and I to the game of doctors and nurses. Even at that age I knew it was something to be hidden from my parents. Even then, I was already keeping secrets. We lived in that house for 3 or 4 years.
For a few months, when I was around 9, we lived in Srinagar in India. We rented a huge apartment in a building. It was very different from the house in Pakistan. The house in Pakistan, in Rawalpindi, was all on one level, big but felt stark and bare, the walls were white, the floors were bare, there was no colour. Outside there was just a lot of dust. That’s what I remember. In Srinagar, it was completely different. We were in the mountains, there was greenery, flowers, colour. The sky was bluer there, even the light seemed diffused with colour. The apartments of the building we lived in had balconies, the rooms were carpeted and painted. The furniture was ornate and old. Wooden, upholstered. I remember a room painted green, a cabinet of dark wood that I wanted to hide in as soon as I saw it. But I don’t remember the room I slept in or whether I shared it with my brother. We weren’t there long. My memories of that apartment: there were daily power cuts. We used to sleep by candle light and wake up in the morning and blow our noses and it would come out black from the candle flame soot. Also, there was a bookshelf in the living room, a room no one seemed to go into but me. My mother gave me my first novel to read then, Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth. That was the day I turned into a bookworm and a future writer. I also had a Math tutor called Mrs Hitter. She would teach me math then show me how to make bubbles out of soap. She didn’t come for a while and later I learned she’d been in hospital to have a spider removed from her ear. When she came to see me again, she brought the spider along in a small square plastic box with a clear lid, the kind you might put jewellery into, its body resting on a square of cotton wool.
Then we moved to New York. It sounds glamorous but we lived in Long Island and I had to go to an awful Catholic school. I remember our apartment well, I even remember the address. 31D Stephan Oval, Glen Cove. It was compact and had wooden floors. The rooms were all very small. I do remember my bedroom – shared with my brother. We slept on mattresses that were laid on tin trunks. There was hardly any space between our beds. I had Strawberry Shortcake bedding and my brother had Spiderman. We also had a humidifier, a huge pale blue thing that looked like a model for a UFO and used to make a loud humming noise all night while it was on. That year we discovered Toys R Us, Hershey’s chocolate syrup squirted into milk, Ruffles Potato Chips and Atari games. I remember watching bits of Princess Di’s wedding in that apartment. But the only memory I have of that bedroom is going in there one day, when I had the chance to be alone, and writing in my very first diary, a hard backed, five year diary with a pink cover and a drawing of a cartoon girl on the front, all innocent and sweet. It was a gift from my mother – to encourage my writing. For each day, there were 5 squiggly lines for me to write on. I’d had the diary since January but hadn’t been able to write a single thing in it. When I finally did, it was June, the end of the school year, which had been lonely and difficult. There had just been a school trip to Christopher Morley Park where I’d spent most of the day alone, because I hadn’t really made any friends at that school and all the other kids were hanging out together in cliques. But when I got home, I wrote all kinds of lies in my diary about what a great trip it had been. I tore that page out some time later. Thankfully we were only there for one year.
After that we moved to Damascus, Syria. We lived in 2 different houses there over 4 years. If you count the first place we stayed in for a couple of weeks, then we lived in 3. The first place belonged to a Thai couple who were already living and working there. They had a dog that used to do tiny craps all over the floor, which was tiled and speckled and you couldn’t necessarily see the crap before stepping in it. I think all four of us were sleeping in one room until we found our own place. My distinct memory of that place is of being left alone with my brother one afternoon while my parents and their friends went to look at a potential house for us. Before arriving in Damascus, I’d met someone who was going to the school I was about to attend, and she told me that they shot people in the streets there. So when my parents were out and I looked out the window and saw a hole in the back windscreen of our car, I had a complete freak out and meltdown. I screamed and cried and sobbed in absolute terror, convinced that my parents had been shot and killed and that my brother and I were now all alone in the world. I came out of it when I looked up to see my little brother praying over me, the blue plastic rosary from our previous school around his palms. Something in me snapped and I went into my usual detached-coping mode. We didn’t even need to speak of it, it was simply known between us that it was something we would never tell our parents. So they never knew.
Shortly after that, we moved into a house with a garden full of orange trees, and a small swimming pool flanked on one side by a wall covered by a jasmine bush. The bedroom in that house was also shared with my brother. We had bunk beds. I had the top bunk and we had no privacy. You had to walk through our room to get to our parents’. We didn’t have a door to shut. On one side it was open to the rest of the house, on the other, there was a door to my parents’ room, and on a third wall, there was a glass fronted door that went out onto the garden. In that room, I put on a play that I wrote myself. It was acted out with paper dolls that I’d also made myself, with a set that I put together using a cardboard doll’s house. The play was put on for my parents and some of their friends. I think it was a hit. That room was also once turned into a haunted house. When we lived in New York, we spent one of the school vacations there driving to Florida to visit Disneyworld. We visited the Haunted House and we tried to recreate it in our bedroom one Halloween. That was a hit too. And then, the Halloween that I was 12, when my mother dressed me up as Snow White and my friend came to the school parade dressed as a prostitute, and we went off school grounds together after dark while she was still dressed like that, that night, I was silently thrashed by my father with his belt for committing some offence that I had no capacity to fathom at the time.
We moved to another house after a year or two, but I don’t remember much of it. I did have my own room there, with a door that closed. My memories of that room? My father killed a huge cockroach that was crawling up the wall next to my bed and even after its body was cleaned off the wall, the stains from its crushing remained. I also made my first and only attempt to run away from home from that room. I don’t even remember why I did it, but I know that it was during Ramadan. The neighbours were up breaking their fast, there was a lot of noise of feasting. I climbed out the window in the middle of the night with a small bag, determined until I got to the end of my road and heard soldiers firing their guns into the air. We lived near a military base and soldiers firing their guns into the air was how they celebrated. But as soon as I heard the shots, I ran back home. Nobody even knew I was gone.
At 13, we lived in a small apartment in Herzliyya in Israel. We were only there for one year and we were there without my father, who remained behind in Damascus and visited us at weekends. I did have my own room and remember spending a lot of time in there, scribbling furiously into a diary about how much I couldn’t stand my mother. There was a lot of door slamming and shouting that year. My main memory of that place is sitting at the tiny kitchen table when my father told me during one of his weekend visits that we would be moving again. I’d really fallen in love with my new school and was just starting to feel like I belonged. Except this time, instead of accepting news of yet another move quietly and meekly, I cried and got angry and asked him why. He didn’t have much of an answer for me so all I could do was cry and rage about it. It was the first and only time I cried and raged about being moved. Then I just got on with it.
We then moved to Cyprus, where I spent the next 4 years, and finished school. We lived in one apartment there, I had my own room. It had two windows and got a lot of sun. It was next door to a Montessori nursery so I remember always hearing the noise of children playing. I have a lot of memories of that room. It did include letting two boys in when I wasn’t supposed to. The first was when I was 15 and my parents were home. He was one of my best friends but he had a crush on me. We went into my room, turned off the lights and slow danced to a Scorpions song. My Mom twigged, knocked on the door halfway through and told him to leave. The second time I had a boy in there, I was 17, my parents weren’t home and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
And then I left my parents’ life and my parents’ homes and went to University and spent the next years of my life moving from room to room, from flat to flat, to different towns and cities, around different parts of the same city. To this day, the longest I ever lived anywhere was 6 years and that was in a flat in London in my late 20s / early 30s.
My childhood never really had a room. It’s still carrying everything in a bulging suitcase inside me. Every now and then I jostle it and it causes a lump in my throat.