by Elizabeth Gardner
The first time I ran away from home I was three maybe four. I was missing my dad. Weekdays he used to get in late, time only enough for me to sit on his lap while he ate his supper. Then I'd be hustled up to bed.
I knew where he was. Cold lonely mornings with my face pressed against a rainy window pane, if I asked my mum, 'Where's Dad?' she'd say, 'Work'. If I saw a neighbour walking down the street and asked, 'Where's next door's Gladys going?' she'd say, 'To work.'
And so I pictured work as a single enormous place that all men and some women walked to each day. It wouldn't be hard to find. One winter's night, while Mum was cooking in the back kitchen with Nan, I tip-toed out the front door, leaving it open, and set off for work.
Arriving at the end of our street, I turned and followed the pavement. Here the wind blew. My nose started running. I wiped it with the sleeve of my cardigan. I should have taken my jacket on the way out, only I couldn't reach it.
The houses on this street were not like the nice new ones in our little cul-de-sac with lawns and flowers at the front. I'd never strayed beyond it before, except with Mum in the car to the shops. But these ones were old and dirty with tall trees and big bushes and long gardens full of cars. Beyond the gateways everything looked dark and scary.
I thrust my hands inside my dungaree pockets and tucked my chin in without looking sideways. A couple of old ladies stopped to ask, 'are you lost, little girl?' I said, 'I'm fine, thank you very much. I'm going to work', and pressed on, uphill now. It couldn't be far.
Just then it started to rain. Little droplets. I could see them in the orange glow under the streetlamps. A car whizzed past and drove through a puddle, splashing my legs. My hair hung over my face and I had to finger it away and rub my eyes to get rid of the water. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
At the top of the hill, the street opened out into a parade of shops, all closed except one with loads of bottles in the window and another selling fish and chips. Mum's Co-op was in the middle. I'd been there. I stood outside the fish shop. A man came out of the bottle shop and approached me to ask if I was OK. I nodded. Inside he asked if anyone knew me. They didn't. I could have told him that.
He came back with three packages, two for him and a small one he gave to me. The chips were hot and salty which was nice, but after a few I'd had enough; so I handed them back at the counter. Outside, the rain was getting heavier but I decided to continue. Then a car with flashing blue lights drew up, and out of it stepped a tall man wearing black clothes and a big stick hanging from a belt around his waist. He walked slowly towards me. I wanted to run but I was fixed to the spot like in a bad dream.
When he got down on one knee to talk to me I felt a bit better. I told him my plan. He said that Mum was awful worried and besides Dad was probably home by now. Perhaps I might have missed him because he was in one of the cars that passed me? Good point. I hadn't thought of that.
Then he asked me to get in his car so he could take me home. I said sorry I couldn't. My mum didn't allow that. So the bottle man came over and said his wife could sit in the back with me. I thought about it for a while and finally agreed. We drove to our house.
Tall Man knocked on the front door a few times, but no-one answered. So I took his hand and led him down the side of the house towards the back-kitchen door. On the way we passed an open window where I could see Mum buried in Dad's shoulder heaving tears all over him. Uh-oh. I was in for it now.
When we arrived at the doorway, Mum exploded into a tearful rage, then calmed down and glared at me. Tall Man said a few words and left. Mum grabbed my wrist and started swinging at the backs of my legs, with a word for each swing: 'Don't… you… ever… do… a… thing… like… that… again…' But I bent my knees and tucked my bottom in and she kept missing. Dad managed to separate us and hoisted me up on to his shoulder, patting my back like he was winding a baby. Now I started to cry, but only a very little bit. He put me down, pulled a towel down from the door and wiped my hair and my face. Nan stood up from her chair in the corner and limped over towards us.
"Do you want a piece of cake?" she asked.
The cake was stood on the edge of the kitchen table, a slice already cut. It was high as the sky with white clouds hanging over it. I'd never been able to take anything from up there before but I reached on tiptoe and tugged at the waiting slice. It was soft and crumbly and still warm. With both hands I pushed it into my mouth. It tasted of marmalade.
Nan was grinning, like she always did when she watched me eat her cakes. Mum had a hankie to her face and let out the occasional sob. Dad kept holding me close, stroking my hair and my cheeks and rubbing my shoulders.
"That girl gets bigger every day," said Mum.