This is one I wrote about three years ago, and is entirely autobiographical – perhaps one of my more notable teenage adventures. It was actually pretty hard to write because I still feel terrible about what I put my Mother through during these couple of days, but it felt good to get it out of my system. Obviously, I’ve changed the names of those referenced…
I was fourteen when I first left home. It was a short-lived venture.
I do not fully recall the intensity of emotion that drove me to such an action, but I recall being terrified. I remember eating a bowl of baked beans and some danish pastry, and the dinner my mother cooked for me that night. She had no idea of my plans, even as I packed the holdall that was, ostensibly, for hockey.
I remember being on the verge of tears, nervous, terrified and guilty tears. I was not fleeing my mother. I recall that I was fleeing the boredom, the frustration, the isolation of being fourteen in a small town with few friends and a girlfriend I found stifling. I did not sleep.
The next morning I kissed my mother goodbye when I went out – she was going to work a little later than I was going to school, and I walked into town. I seem to remember I was meeting my friend Lucinda, at a bus stop. She is alien to me now, I have barely, if ever, seen her since this time, or maybe a couple of years later. At the time, we were fast friends, confidantes, and despite her slightly demonic eyes, I found her attractive.
The plan, largely constructed by e-mail and hasty telephone conversations, was to go to London. That was the extent of our plan.
I donned the one tie that I owned at that tender age in order to look more adult, and we walked to the train station. My friend Michael, and his girlfriend, had been due to come with us, but had decided against. It was only years later that I realised that Michael was questioned quite threateningly by the police, and never told them, or anybody, that he knew of our plan. Sometimes, I think Michael deserves more credit than that which I concede.
I can imagine him now, with over-gelled spiked hair and a “Quiksilver” t-shirt. Who among us could know the madness that we would undergo over the next (startlingly long time) nine years?
At the station, Lucinda and I bought a single and a child single – I had the single in order to make it look as though I were her older brother, and give me some credibility were we to be questioned as to why we were not in school. We boarded the train, and I suppose everything sunk in.
I spent many hours throughout my teenage years, and early twenties, waiting at Stratford station. Waiting for trains, waiting for friends, waiting, it seemed, for something that would never come. I have a history of appearing early at train stations. I missed a train once and, for many reasons, that cold Sunday evening has always stayed with me. But that is another story altogether. The point I am making is that I have no idea how I felt on this particular morning at the end of October 2001. I must still have been half-numb with fear, as Lucinda and I fell silent on the train. She began to listen to music, I started back in on my book, a second-hand history of a panzergrenadier division in the second world war. I always look on that book, these days, as uniquely comforting, as it is one of the very few items I still have, that I had with me on that adventure.
I suppose we reached London. This was in the days when the train went to London Paddington, rather than Marylebone, and those arches, those masterworks of Brunel and the industrial age, greeted us as we entered the city of my childhood.
Always, the memories are mixed, blurred, a background of half-remembrances set against a handful of incidents that spike, rising from the dust of my memory to stand clear as day, occasionally keeping me awake at night, or waking me up in a cold sweat and a stammered yell.
I called my mother either from my telephone or from a phone box, I cannot remember which. I had begun to miss calls from her and from the school, from my friends. Something tells me I met her voicemail because she was on the phone, and left her a message promising that I was not running from her, that I would be home, that I needed to live, some such rot. I promised I would be home and there, scant minutes after setting foot in London, we had compromised the root idea with which we had left claustrophobic, incestuous Stratford-upon-Avon. Somewhere at the back of our minds, the plan was never to return home. Whether we had run away to die, or to start new lives, I cannot fully recall, but I cannot believe I would have had the enthusiasm for a new life.
At fourteen, I was nothing if not dramatic.
These streets through which we walked, Lucinda’s voice still echoing through my head as I type, banality and chatter, trying to keep her mind from what we were actually doing, were the streets of my childhood. I had lived in London until the age of twelve. At the age of fourteen, I still felt, in some distant recess of my mind, covered in shadow and strange images, that I belonged here. I suppose I did not feel I was part of the society in which I found myself, a boy’s grammar school, a small town, GCSEs and kids with hooded tops self-harming as a fashion statement. Rich guys and poor guys and girls who didn’t go for any of us. Or girls that did…
I cannot quite remember with the same distinct crispness as I once could, the streets around Paddington. The last time I was there was a couple of years ago, with Carmen. We walked a while, I went to stand outside the flat where my Grandfather once lived, maybe still lives, where I and my mother had lived for the first years of my life of which I have a memory. I told Carmen a little about my family, I talked about those earliest memories which seem surreal and idyllic in their comfort and yet their foreignness. Now, with even Carmen a memory, the past is intrinsically foreign. Where once I would look longingly back at my life, I now look forward. There is only one way to march, and I don’t want to trip and fall because I’m not looking where I’m going.
As usual, I am indulging myself and ambling off at vague tangents. I think it rained on us a little as we walked, and somehow we ended up in a park by the Grand Union canal, near where I had lived as a child, nearer still to the house of my childhood best friend. Another thing I did not know until some time after my return, was that police had visited his house to see if I were seeking refuge. Ashley’s house, again, is a topic for another day.
By the time we reached the park it must have been lunch time, and we were bathed in that cold, sad sun of the end of autumn. I had walked past this park, along the footpath, many times in my youth, with my mother, when we would walk along the canal en route to Sainsbury’s to do the weekly shop. The memory may have made me a little tearful, or certainly melancholy.
Lucinda and I sat, and talked, and ate our packed lunch that, certainly in my case, would have been better consumed in the lecture theatre at my school, sitting on the step-seats and chatting, throwing food and copying homework. As the sun began to sink, a middle aged man approached us. I still recall the brief dialogue…
“You sleeping in the park tonight guys?”
I looked at him
“No, we’re waiting for some friends, we’re staying with them” I lied
“Fair enough” (sceptical look) “well if your friends don’t turn up, I run a shelter just around the corner, cream building, you can’t miss it. Just off Great Western Road”.
“No man, honestly, it’s cool, our mates will be here soon. Cheers though”
And with that he left.
Lucinda asked me why I had lied and, do you know, I didn’t quite know. I suppose it was in order to avoid the gentleman contacting the police to tell him that he had collected two runaways, and have us picked up and taken home. As it was, we sat on our holdalls as the night drew in. I had never so much as been camping before, and I was now going to spend my first night in the open without so much as a sleeping bag, something my comrade had brought. She had, however, only brought one.
Lucinda had thought ahead on several counts, bringing a pack of cigarettes and half a bottle of cheap red wine. I try to remember us drinking and smoking on that windswept bit of raised ground with a sense of poetry, of romance, but I cannot. We talked about music, about school, about friends and life and death and love and madness, and we may have endeavoured to offer each other physical comforts on that dark slab of grass and mud, but it would be ungentlemanly of me to comment.
Lucinda eventually broke out her sleeping bag and crawled in, while I sat up, sentry duty, listening to Nirvana and Greenday on my discman. It began to rain. In my t-shirt and sweater and jeans, I began to feel the cold, but the rain continued, and I was drawn to cover myself with a towel, which was all I had. After a while, with Lucinda finding it difficult to sleep and me, miserable and shattered, we moved from our high ground into a ditch that ran the width of the park, against a tall brick wall which formed the boundary and, fifteen feet above our heads, ran along the edge of the pavement.
The ditch was covered in fallen leaves but it was slightly warmer than the rest of the park, until the wind began to cut in, East-West, and chill me to the very bone. With Lucinda curled up in her sleeping bag, I tried to fit my entire body into my worn black sweater. I recall listening to “Something in the way” from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album about eight or nine times, repeating it until my batteries died. Never has a song fit a situation so well.
The night was quiet. There was a skateboarding area on the other side of the park and a few kids let off firecrackers, but nothing else.
Dawn broke hard. The sky turned, of course, a musky pink before the eggshell-blue of daytime seeped through, making the hazy colours of first light a memory. I have never been as thoroughly exhausted, dejected, broken as I was when my eyes beheld that autumn dawn.
Lucinda was a terminally lapsed Catholic, and when she awoke, under that mournful sky, to see me soaked and haggard, she told me that she wanted to go to pray. Absurdly, this resulted in a decision to go to Whitechapel, on the basis that there was likely to be a chapel there.
Before we left, we took turns to go and wash our faces and relieve ourselves in a public toilet about three minutes away. It was one of the newer types with the electric doors. It was next to a seven-eleven, and I considered using some of my last handful of coins to buy something. But I didn’t.
I returned to the park and found Lucinda sitting back on the raised ground. She had left my bag in the ditch but had moved her own. I suppose I offered some kind of sarcastic commentary. We sat and said little, staring off into space. Each was beginning, I assume, to doubt our reasons for being here, but nobody wanted to be the first to cave in. Lucinda checked her telephone and was met with a stream of missed calls, voicemails and text messages. I left mine off.
Eventually we commenced the journey to East London. The London underground has always had a peculiar smell, for me, which reminds me of my childhood. I do not recall whether we commenced our journey from Paddington, Royal Oak, Maida Vale or Warwick Avenue. It was one of these.
In contrast to the cold, grey day in the land of the living, the train was hot, oppressively dry heat that seems to exist, in my experience, only around machines and vehicles. We sat in silence, rocking, swaying, changing trains, as I recollected my memories of these underground vaults. I would not use the Underground again to any great excess, until I met Carmen. Evening trips from Marylebone to her house, and of course Sunday mornings on the Docklands Light Railway and the Underground, returning at dawn from an insane, surreal evening out at some underground club on the other side of London.
Back in the dying weeks of 2001, however, my memories are not so vivid. Lucinda had bought a large bottle of mineral water which we shared walking down the main street, in search of a chapel, a church. I do not remember if we found a place for her to pray. I remember it was cold, windy and wet, and she spent her last money on a burger in MacDonald’s, one of the first to be done out with the green seating and sickly colours, although this may be an incorrect recollection on my part.
Outside the restaurant we saw a rat. Across the road, in some angular tenements, grim-looking women in strappy tops were hanging out washing on tiny balconies. There was a man sitting on a wall who had only one arm, and a ragged dark beard. He stared at us as we walked past.
I apologise that so much of this day is a blur, a blank. Something tells me we returned to the park in the late afternoon, and resolved to return home the next day. One night away from home would be a failure. Two was, at least, an achievement. I wanted to go back because I felt guilty about leaving my mother, about worrying her. Guilt is always something I have done well, and this guilt is one of my oldest, darkest ones. It does not rear its head so often these days as once it did, but when it does, it shoots such a tragic poignancy and regret through my body, that I am immediately numb and exhausted.
That evening I checked my telephone. Streams of messages. The sound of my father, calling, in fact, from London, and my mother, calling from home, and my teachers, my friends, the police. I only recall one message, from a police officer, the rest, I suppose, I do not want to remember. Even thinking of how shaky my mother’s voice must have been, how helpless my father would have sounded, makes me bite my lip until it bleeds, such is the awkwardness, the guilt, the awful blackness I feel when I think of it.
Lucinda spent some time on the telephone to her boyfriend, a jovial chap in my year called Adrian. In later years I would grow to like him, although we were not particularly close at this time. As the light died in the park, I read my book. Lucinda wanted to go to sleep by about eight in the evening, and I went to avail myself of the facilities before she did.
The toilet was locked, and so I wanted outside, hands in pockets, leaning against the wall of the seven-eleven. After a moment, the doors opened and two men walked out at what was practically a run, immediately going in separate directions without looking back.
I gingerly walked in and got out as quickly as I was able. The atmosphere in the cubicle, that oppressive smell of sex and fear and sweat, devoid of any sense of passion or love, was not one with which I was overly familiar at that time. This would change.
When I returned, Lucinda had moved into the long, wide ditch in which we were living. My bag remained atop the high ground. She was asleep.
I slumped down into the ditch as the rain came again, and the wind bit into me, and I am constantly stunned that I did not weep. That evening, somehow, was harder than the one before, perhaps because of the lack of that tiny portion of wine that had been gifted me on the first night. More kids were letting off firecrackers at the skate park area, there was what sounded like a fight. At about ten o’ clock I peered over the lip of the ditch, like looking over a parapet, but I could see little.
Some of the revellers neared our ditch and were playing with firecrackers, fireworks or something else with sparks and a loud “bang”. They came so close that I could almost feel a firework falling next to me, sparking, crackling and then exploding in a mess of colour and smoke, blowing open an arm or a leg and leaving me paralysed and screaming. But it never happened.
Maybe I even dropped off at some point. Dozing in the rain. My entire body curled up inside a sweater, with Lucinda cocooned in her sleeping bag, zipped up to the top, next to me. I never thought of asking to share. Since we had arrived in London, certainly since the first night, she had looked at me with barely disguised disdain and I knew she blamed me for our predicament. It had been my idea, but she had asked to join me. No sympathy.
At one point I believe I was awoken from a half-sleep as a man ambled over the high ground, jumped lazily into the ditch about five or six yards from where we were huddled, and urinated against the wall. Between us, was a large semicircular grate in the wall, about five feet long and two or three high. Fortunately, I assume anything that wasn’t soaked up by the mud and the leaves, ran into this.
The man eventually walked away.
I never feel lonely or tired anymore, because no loneliness or tiredness I experience can compare to this evening. Fear, maybe. I was too tired to be scared. Hunger, yes, sometimes. I was too tired to be hungry.
So it goes.
We got our stuff ready before dawn, such was our eagerness to get away. Pitching up at Paddington station at 6am is no picnic, but it was better than the park. We didn’t speak much. Our first train was at least a couple of hours away and we had no money, so we sat down on the floor next to a concession, which I think was either Upper Crust or Paperchase, and contemplated the return.
The journey back was a difficult one. Not only did we not have tickets, we were surely going to face a thunderstorm from the people to whom we were returning.
I don’t know. It all seems like a dream now. My mother greeted me with “Oh, so you’re back then” but wasn’t able to maintain the curtness for long and hugged me. For a time, at school, I was a folk hero. I suppose that was the launch of my carving out a niche as the “lovable eccentric”. Maybe I needed to do it. Maybe it was the making of me. Maybe I needed to push myself, just in order to see how far I would go.
I know now that I would not have the courage to repeat my flight. My courage back then was misguided, but I know that I can always draw upon it in times of need.
I am at work now. I feel a million miles away from that park. I feel a million miles away from being fourteen – next week I turn twenty-three. But something, some part of me is always there, looking up at the dawn with a broken spirit and an automatic sigh of grief and shame, but nonetheless there.