By Alan Green
Candy floss, cold coffee and stolen marmalade sandwiches. The sweet taste of freedom, my friends. My very first taste.
The carnival lights were flashing and the rides were spinning round. Lovers walked hand in hand laughing at private jokes. Teenagers clutched their alcopops and sneered at the fairground games. The smell of oil, fast food and spent fireworks hovered in the air. The last parents looked askance at the time and hustled their children towards the car park.
Nobody noticed the small boy marching confidently towards the main caravan. I knew that this rusty tin box on the edge of all that sparkling colour was actually the heart of the beast. I knocked on the door and it swung open in a gratifyingly dramatic way. The carnival manager was surprised to see a child staring up at him. I took advantage of his hesitation. I told him that I wanted to join his carnival. I could do tricks on my bike and I was good with animals. I’d taught my dog to shake hands. The manager nodded without saying a word. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate. It was tasty but not as much fun as the forbidden coffee.
The carnival team tied a huge pair of fake eagle wings to my back and started talking about putting me in a cage and charging people a fiver to see the angel boy.
Then they phoned my parents and sent me back home. I still don’t know how they got the number.
That was the first time I ran away. It wasn’t the last. Every year or so I felt something in the wind. The walls of my house started to close in, the air began to feel stale. My parents’ nagging and moaning grew from a buzzing background noise to an unbearable torrent of demands. School started to feel like a prison camp, a place of petty rules and pointless work. I would find a chance to slip away and head out in search of freedom.
I learnt the lesson of the carnival. A runaway can’t afford to attract attention. Most of the times I escaped I stayed well out of sight. I explored the tunnels of the underground and crawled through sewers. I wandered the back streets and wastelands of the city.
I tried to run away to sea once. That wasn’t as much fun as you’d think. The boat’s hiding places were crawling with rats and it didn’t go anywhere very exciting. All I saw was the rolling greyness of the channel and the noisy concrete nothingness of a port that could have been anywhere. I was hoping for pirates and treasure. A tropical island or a strange city at the very least.
I usually ended up being dragged back home by someone or other. There were times that they didn’t find me and I had to find my own way back. I loved the taste of freedom but I always got hungry for actual food after a while. Stealing and begging was no replacement for the joys of a well-stocked fridge.
My homecomings were always awkward. Mum would cry and tell me how much she loved me. Dad would give me a man to man talk about how worried everyone had been. They both went on about how scared they were and how much they’d missed me. After the second time they started begging me to never do it again. Honestly it was always incredibly embarrassing. All that crying and over the top emotion. Nobody likes to see their parents getting all worked up like that.
They sent me to a psychiatrist after the fifth escape. The briefly world famous skyscraper incident. You might have seen me in the papers. The boy with the rope swing and the water balloons?
All that press attention convinced them that they had to try something new. So they sent me to see a friendly doctor. I pretended to be mad, properly mad. Excrement on the walls, voices in my head, threatening to eat nurses, screaming at invisible monsters, weeping for no reason kind of mad. I gave them a real show.
I wanted to be sent to that special clinic. I enjoyed my stay there. They kept me in for six months but I didn’t mind. It was somewhere new to explore and I wanted a challenge. I didn’t feel the tug of freedom for a long time but when it came I enjoyed escaping from somewhere new.
The furthest I ever got was Spain. I was older by then and more experienced. I had learnt a lot about how to run away from home. Most importantly I had just worked out how to use my dad’s credit card. The flight was easy and I had a great time in the hotel. Sadly they started to get a bit suspicious about my room service bill so I had to turn myself in at the British Embassy.
My final escape didn’t feel different at first. Every time I escaped part of me knew that this time I definitely wasn’t coming back and part of me knew that I’d soon be home again.
It was a lovely day to run away. The sun was shining. I’d taken my bike and I was heading out to some of my leafier haunts. A few days cycling along the river and a few nights sleeping in the calm of the city’s parks. After that? Well who knew. I was free. I could go anywhere and do anything. Nobody could stop me or tell me off. Freedom could lead me anywhere. That was running away at it’s very best. It brought back the sweet taste of candy floss, cold coffee and marmalade.
I made the most of that trip. Looking back it was almost as if on some deep level I knew that this was the end. That said if you’d told me at the time that my running away days were nearly over I would have laughed. Your gloomy prophecy would have seemed so very out of place amongst the sun dappled greenery and simple pleasures of the riverside.
I cycled for miles. I fed ducks with young children. Disappearing just before their parents wondered who I was with. I sung for pennies by the ice cream van and got a free ice cream for agreeing to stop. I slept in a royal park and was woken by a deer licking my face. I borrowed a rowing boat and played pirates with a sightseeing cruise. I drank hot coffee and flirted with the girl at the next table. I ate my freshly made marmalade sandwiches and daydreamed about sharing candy floss with her.
After a week or so the sunny weather started to fade. Heavy grey clouds hung on the horizon. I’d missed a couple of meals and I hadn’t had a wash in a while. It felt like time to go home.
The door was swinging open when I got back. I slipped inside grateful for the chance to avoid a doorstep reunion. I soon realised that I would never run away again. My parents weren’t there. The house was completely bare. Every scrap of furniture was gone. Every sign that anyone had ever lived there had been stripped away. The rooms seemed endless and a cold silence filled the air. I found some marmalade at the back of the kitchen cupboard. It tasted bitter.