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I never considered myself a bully.
Actually, I don't think any bully considers themselves to be one; they're too tied up in the act of hurting other people to ever consider how other people might feel.
I'm a prime example of that, since I was an inveterate bully of the worst order at school. But I certainly didn't see myself that way; in my mind I was just ‘having fun' – and when my victims cried and faked illness to get away from their schoolyard tormentor, I just saw them as ‘too sensitive' or ‘having no sense of humour'.
On reflection, I'd say this was learned behaviour from my old man, who probably learned the same from his father, who in turn learned it from his father.
But that's still really no excuse for perpetuating it.
Fortunately for me, I was given a hand in breaking that cycle.
The Morozova family lived several blocks away, but I took much the same route to school as their daughter, Eva.
They were your quintessentially weird immigrant family, hailing from some barren, frozen corner of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and they had never completely integrated with the local western population. Their house was a tatty thing, with crumbling gutters and a huge, high wooden fence that hid the yard and windows from the street. Flocks of birds roosted in the massive, overgrown birch trees and local cats would perch atop the heavy fence posts, eyeing the avian population, but never braving the yard.
The neighbours on either side of the house eventually moved out, putting their houses on the market, then, when they didn't sell, rented them out to poorer families.
But it wasn't just because the Morozovas were Russian and their house was in a state of ill repair that people didn't want to live near them; it was the actions of the family patriarch that truly drove them away.
At night, father Morozov – rumoured to be a colossal bear of a man – would stalk the yard on massive, heavy feet, shouting and snarling in Russian. He would beat on the fence with his gargantuan palms, slamming into the six inch timbers until they shuddered and swayed under his weight.
Some people said he was insane. Children whispered that at night he really did turn into a massive, black-furred bear.
Whatever the case, nobody ever voluntarily went near the Morozova house.
In that annoyingly predictable way, my school buddies and I decided to call them the ‘Vladams Family', thinking ourselves amazingly clever. Eva hated it. She would stare at us with a withering intensity, but then simply correct us, saying with a hint of a Russian accent,
"It is not ‘Vladams'. It is Morozova."
On reflection, she was a tough little thing. With bucked teeth, untameable auburn hair and eyes so pale blue they were almost white, she bore the brunt of all the teasing regarding her physical appearance with an indomitable Russian stoicism.
You could almost be fooled into thinking she wasn't human.
However, teasing related to her family was different, I discovered. Children who propagated the rumours about her father were met with more than just set shoulders and a blank stare. She would back such children into a corner, pinioned by the chilly intensity of those inhumanely pale eyes, whisper something to them until they started to cry - then eventually managed to run away.
Being the little monster that I was, I resolved to break her.
But she never cracked like the other kids did. No matter how hard I got on her case or how much I put the boot in about her father, she never skipped a day of school and always met my brown eyes with her unflinching arctic blue and white stare.
"I saw your father," I told her one lunch break – which was a lie, because no one ever saw her father. Only the mother and the daughter left the house, but never at the same time.
She ignored me, as was normal in our nearly ritualistic interactions, her legs swinging idly back-and-forth as she sat on the bars of the jungle-gym, some unknowable Russian book in her lap.
"The men in the white coats were dragging him out of your house, in one of those big coats with buckles all over it," I continued conversationally, watching for any reaction.
She stiffened very slightly, and the rhythm of her swinging legs grew almost imperceptibly slower.
"I bet they're taking him to the funny farm."
No reaction. Her pale fingers simply turned another page – carefully, from the bottom.
"They said they were going to lobotomise him."
Her legs stopped swinging.
Looking up from her book, she spat words at me thickly,
"I know you're lying."
Blood rushed to my face and ears at that accusation, but having finally got a reaction I wasn't going to let up now.
"Oh no, I saw. And so did Freddy Jamieson and Kylie Smith. You can go ask them."
"I don't need to."
The certainty in her voice caused a curious chilly frisson to run the length of my spine.
But I was suddenly angry at myself for letting Eva Vladams get to me. I felt the rush of blood to my head grow hotter, filling my skull with impulsive, aggressive thoughts.
Before I could think about the consequences of my actions, I grabbed her dangling leg and yanked on it as hard as I could.
The book went sideways, and with an indignant squeal, she went forward.
Forward onto the steel bar in front of her.
Her head hit it with a hollow bong, and I laughed as though a favourite cartoon character had run into a telegraph pole. But when she rolled to a stop, blood was streaming from her broken nose – and where her bucked teeth had been, there was only a dark, bloody void.
As she lay bleeding silently in the patchy, dusty grass under the steel bars, I kicked her book once, vengefully, and walked away.
She didn't come to school the next day – and though I had achieved my goal, I felt strangely hollow about it. I'd had to lie and tell everyone it was an accident, so it was her word against mine – the word of the freaky Russian immigrant against the good local boy from a well-to-do local family.
Amongst my little group of ogres though, I was a legend.
As far as they were all concerned, I was the boy who had finally cracked Eva Morozova.
It was on my way home from school, still lost in conflicted thoughts about my strangely pyrrhic victory, that I met her mother.
I didn't even see her until she was already upon me. Thin, white hands grasped my scrawny biceps with a terrifying suddenness, then she started shaking me like a rag-doll, her huge, pale blue eyes burning into mine as she screamed at me in broken English.
"Leave dochka alone! You leave alone or bad thing happen, you hear?"
"Let me go!" I whimpered, trying to squirm out of her grasp.
But she was monstrously strong, her rage far greater than anything I had ever witnessed before.
"DO YOU HEAR?"
I squealed in terror, tears beginning to spill down my face.
"DO YOU HEAR?"
Finally, I managed to choke out an affirmative, nodding as she held me a foot off the ground.
"Good. Be good boy. Leave alone."
The instant that her hands left my arms, my skinny little legs were already moving – and I ran home so fast that anyone watching would have thought I was being chased by the hounds of hell themselves.
My father wasn't having any of it.
As soon as I told him what had happened, he put on his jacket and dragged me down the street to the Morozova house, ranting about ‘filthy reds' touching his son and threatening to shoot every last one of them.
Their enormous gate had a simple brass bolt, which he pulled, then shouldered the huge, heavy wooden portal open.
Up close, the house really wasn't in a good state. The paint was peeling and sagging, some of the blisters filled with stagnant rainwater and ringed with a rime of fungus. Two of the front windows were boarded over with soggy plywood, and the lawn had clearly not been mown for many months – though great sods had been ripped up in places, showing bare, wet earth.
I remember feeling the primitive stirrings of a strange sympathy for Eva. None of us had actually known what the place looked like, as she didn't have any true friends. That her home was so neglected touched an empathetic part of my spirit that was rarely engaged.
As we walked down the slabby stone pathway to the listing house, my father started shouting for the mother to show herself and explain her actions.
A great bellowing answered us from within the house, as though some kind of enormous mammal had been roused from a deep slumber – and was really angry about it.
Even my father looked alarmed for a moment, and my bladder suddenly felt very full.
A trickle of warm urine ran down my leg as the roaring intensified, followed by the crash of thrown furniture, and female voices raised in agitation.
I wanted to leave, but my father was too committed, already hammering on the swollen door with urgent fists, yelling for the mother to come out.
Abruptly, there was silence.
The door opened and Eva's mother stood in front of us, her wild auburn hair neatly coiffed with hundreds of silver pins.
"Leave now," she told my father, her accent so thick that the words were almost unintelligible.
"I'm not scared of your husband," my father cut back, "and if he touches me I'll get the cops involved – and they'll deport your sorry Russian asses back to the gulag you came from."
I don't really remember the rest of the shouted conversation between the two adults. What is fixed in my mind is what I saw behind the mother, inside that poorly lit house.
As accusing fingers were jabbed about, and English shouting merged with Russian swearing, I saw the massive, lumbering shape of a ferociously bearded man being led into another room by Eva.
Then, for a single instant, her fingers slipped from his – and he bellowed like a wounded bear, slamming his head clean through the drywall of the corridor, before she grabbed back his massive digits and he again became docile.
The mother had backed my father down the steps now, where they stood almost nose-to-nose, still shouting imprecations at one another.
"So. You no leave house?"
"No, I won't, not until I get a damn apology."
"Then I make leave," said the tall, Slavic woman with the pale eyes.
From a pocket in her russet gown, she produced a strange object – a delicate snow globe, not much larger than a golf ball.
I remember it being utterly beautiful; startlingly clear glass housing some kind of tiny, wooded hillock, upon which stood a church or an abbey. Precious gold inlay scrolled around the base, incised with unfathomable Russian characters.
As my father stared in confusion, she lifted the globe to his eye level and gave it the tiniest shake.
The flakes inside the glass swirled lazily around the spires of the tiny building.
My father screamed as though he'd been thrown head-first into a cauldron of boiling oil. His fingers raked at the flesh of his face and chest, scratching great weals in his skin. His eyes bulged grotesquely with the raw intensity of his screaming, and every vein on his neck, forehead and arms stood out, starkly purple and distended.
When the last flake of white dust settled inside the globe, my father fell forward, onto his knees, desperately gulping in great lungfuls of air.
The Russian matriarch fixed me with a stare that didn't need any translation.
Grabbing my father's hand, I helped the sobbing man to his feet, and we left the Morozova house.
It was hard for a boy of that age, from that time, to process his father having his ass kicked by a freakish immigrant woman with a retarded husband. At first I remained terrified of them, of Eva and her mother – but every time I caught my father weeping with fear in his armchair, every time I woke up in the middle of the night to his whimpers of abject terror, I felt more and more disgusted with him.
And my anger against the Morozovas grew ever greater.
The impotent rage boiled and coiled inside me, forming a tight, irrational knot that blotted out all reasonable thought.
How dare they do this to my old man, my hero.
Heedless of everything I'd seen – as only a stupid little boy full of vengeance can be – I found Eva when she eventually returned to school, and pushed her down into the dirt of the playground.
"I don't know what your freak mother did my dad, but I'm going to make you pay."
Licking the gap between her teeth, Eva rolled over and lisped at me,
"I don't think tho."
From her pocket came the exquisitely delicate snow globe, the scene within eerily still and serene – even though I'd just knocked her down seconds before.
I recall taking a single step forward, to try and grab it off her.
In response, she gently swirled it in one hand.
Words fail to do the pain justice, but it felt something like a million miniature, razored snowflakes raking across my nerve endings. Each unique fractal of icy needles sliced into the delicate, feathery fronds of my nervous system, and sent raging flash-floods of agony into my unprepared brain.
It seemed to go on and on and on, and when the cresting tide of diabolic, frozen suffering finally ebbed into stinging aftershocks, I found myself lying in a muddy corner of the playground, blood in my mouth, and tears streaming down my face.
I knew then that if I could take the snowglobe from her, I could have my revenge.
I waited for my moment, watching when she methodically packed her bag at the end of the day and stowed the little globe in the side pocket, wrapping it first in a silk kerchief of blue and white.
After the bell rang, I followed her, keeping my distance, head down like a beaten dog.
When we were out of the school yard, near the corner store, I ran up and yanked her schoolbag off her back in one clean movement.
"Give it back," she hissed.
"It's your turn now," I snarled, unzipping the side pocket where the globe rested inside its nest of silk.
I think I vaguely recall Eva barking some word of warning, then desperately shouting for me to stop, but as the strangely cold glass fell into my hand, I felt nothing but the heady surge of power that comes from the anticipation of vengeance.
With a triumphant grin, I held it up and shook it as hard as I could.
But something was wrong, barely registered even as my hand moved. The scene inside the globe had changed; the abbey, the birch forest, all had disappeared. The building within was now small, prosaic and familiar. My own house, lost in the snow.
Unlike last time, it wasn't just icy shards raking over my bare nerves.
This time it felt as though every nerve was being flayed open by a raging blizzard of frozen razorblades; each torn to shreds by a billion tiny scythes, then obliterated in the neverending storm. I didn't even make a sound – I couldn't, since my mind was nothing but a wall of agony – I just fell forward, my hand and the snow globe both shattering as they hit the ground.
When my parents arrived at the hospital, the endless Arctic plain of pain still stretched out endlessly in front of me. I simply lay there, my eyes fixed open, my mouth a rictus of silent screams.
The doctors claimed it was a catatonic state, brought on by stress.
It lasted for three months before it even began to recede, and another six weeks passed before the right combination of painkillers began to work.
Even twenty years on, I can still feel ghostly remnants of it – tiny flurries of microscopic snow that randomly blow through an arm or a leg – and leave me gasping for hours in chronic and unrelenting pain.
I learned a valuable and perverse lesson from the Morozova family. When I was finally fit for school again, two years later, I walked with a heavy limp, and my speech was slurred almost beyond recognition.
The other children made fun of me, called me ‘retard', and mimicked my clumsy movements.
And that taught me exactly how it felt to be on the other side of the bully dynamic.
As for the hand that held the snow globe?
I was never able to use it again.
The doctors said that the tiny flinders of shattered glass did too much nerve damage; but I can still feel the hand through the uselessness. Under the dead fingers, heavy as bergs of brittle pack-ice, lurks a sluggish river of icy pain – just waiting for a chance movement to send it roaring and frothing through my flesh.
And each time it does, it stirs up the quiescent drifts of water-bound snow, and brings all of the original torment back to life, as fresh as the day I smashed the globe and absorbed its frigid madness through my naked flesh.
But I suppose that is my burden – my penance – for being such a thoughtless, evil-minded child.
So please, don't let your children follow in my footsteps – the ice around here is very thin.