Within The World, Without.
As children, we’d spend most of our time gazing out into imagined landscapes, but little time gazing in at the confines of the restrictive world around us, the boundaries of which were defined and limited by adult fears of unimaginable horrors lurking around every corner of suburbia.
My brother and I would stealthily cross the border, flying high, beyond the grasp of guards who, weighed down with their fearful baggage, couldn’t hope to follow. Imagination – unconstrained, unfettered, limitless – was our passport to freedom within our world, without.
So enticing were these worlds to me as a child that, once there, I never wanted to leave, and, to a large extent, these worlds became more real to me than the physical world to which I was tethered.
Whether I sat in my bedroom, a classroom or at the dining table, I gazed longingly and defiantly outward. What I saw but couldn’t touch were stories, stories full of excitement within which I was fearless, honourable and, quite often, a dab hand at sword play.
Often, but not always, I’d bring my younger brother, Bugsy, along for company. We would enact exploits, full of daring deeds, in the garden, before mother called us in to wash our hands or, in the playground before the clanging of the bell tore us rudely from the battle field. On rainy days the bedroom that we shared became a theatre: our beds were jet planes or ships or cars; the wardrobe a ravine-riddled mountain covered in snow, a time machine or rocket ship about to launch or a craggy cliff face sinking into the sea. The floor of our bedroom was a turbulent, shark infested sea; the mouth of a volcano about to explode, spewing out red-hot lava; a carnivorous squelching mass of sinking sand.
The outside came to us in the form of books. To begin with the books were mainly biblical tales: David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Samson and Delilah. But over time, other books began to jostle for space on the crooked shelves in our bedroom. Dickens, who was deemed suitable and respectable by mother, arrived first in the form of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Then, for whatever reason, came ‘The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes’. Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction gave serious fuel to the fires of the imagination as did, Robin Hood, Dick Turpin and my personal favourite, Tom Sawyer.
All these stories were seeds; seeds that blossomed into new and varied strains until, eventually, they grew to become unrecognisable progeny. The stories were inspiring, they were pathways to new possibilities, they were building blocks from which new characters were formed and new worlds were built.
I was so involved in these fantasies, in these other worlds, that I no longer felt that I belonged anywhere else. The real world, the world of my parents, of my school, of all the other people around me felt harsh and brutal by comparison. In the ‘real’ world I was painfully shy, crippled by self-doubt and as a consequence terribly withdrawn. I had, in fact, pretty much mastered the art of invisibility or so it seemed. No one noticed me because I didn’t want to be noticed.
In the worlds I made for myself I was brave, I was clever, I was charismatic. I fought courageously and died countless noble deaths fighting noble causes, sacrificing my own life to save that of a dear friend or fair maiden.
I don’t remember how or when it happened but at some point, in an effort to combine the worlds (both mine and everyone else’s), I invented a character for myself that could easily step between my two realities. My alter ego was christened ‘David’ after my favourite uncle, whom I deemed to be both a courageous and a handsome solider. Having an alter ego worked out really well for me, so much so that I encouraged Bugsy to invest in his own. My brother decided on Steven, after Steve Austin I believe.
David and Steven could achieve just about anything. If, for example, a fight broke out in the playground that seemed to be unevenly matched or if we spotted a case of unjustified bullying I, as me, could do nothing but watch on in horror. But, if I summoned up David he could, without fear, wade in and help. David became the embodiment of bravado. He transcended play-acting and a new kind of confidence was born so that when faced with difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges I could, quite literally it seemed, step into another skin. David and Steven could travel with ease over the bridge that separated our two worlds – linking fantasy to reality.
It was, as I recall, David’s idea to run away from home.
Bugsy had grown weary of family life, had felt the cruelty of ignorance more acutely than I and wanted to escape the shackles of domesticity. He believed that he was invisible to everyone, unless, that is, he misbehaved and then he miraculously became very visible. Even his misbehaviour was, to him, misunderstood. One person’s opinion, frankly argued, was another’s delinquency. He had become wary of trying to express his thoughts, for, it seemed, this was not something parents encouraged in nine year olds. What he needed was a new beginning. It was foolhardy to wish for a new set of parents, or to be snapped up by the secret service and trained in the art of espionage. No, something all together do-able was called for.
I handed the problem over to David and as always he had the answer…run away from home and start a new life in the forest. Immediately I presented this idea to my brother it became the obvious thing to do! Why hadn’t we thought of this sooner? Neither of us felt that we belonged here, with these people, with this family. We had tried to fit in but it had become more and more obvious to us both that we were not wanted. We were and always would be, misunderstood. We were in no doubt that life would go on without us, that without us the rest of the family would probably prosper. They would be sad for a day or two, but within a very short while our names, like our faces, would be forgotten.
As for surviving in the forest – easy! No need for second thoughts. The forest in question was The New Forest, a place we had on various occasions explored during family camping trips. The forest was miles from anywhere and anyone. We could employ our self-taught skills in deception, travel to civilisation, procure food, comics and other staples and elude recognition or capture. In the forest we would build detection devices to warn us of approaching danger or intrusion and plant traps to catch both food and busybodies!
Over the following weeks the gist of the plan was meticulously fleshed out. In hindsight, I recall now that most of the effort was devoted to the actual escape and not so much to the finer points of actually surviving thereafter, but it was taken for granted by us that these solutions would present themselves as and when needed.
David and Steven thought, with good reason, that Sunday afternoon was the best opportunity to take to one’s heels. The reason for this was simple: Sundays had few variables. On Sunday mornings we would be expected to dress for church, then once washed, combed and polished we would walk the short distance to the Methodist Church on Sedgwick Road. Outside the church, where the congregation gathered prior to their weekly dose of indoctrination, we would leave David and Steven, for they were not church goers, and we’d enter through the doors without them. While David and Steven lingered outside, keeping watch, we would attend Sunday school. For an hour we would receive our lessons in morality, piety, humility, and in the ‘thou shall nots’ along with the ‘thou shalts’ before being released, cleansed and purified, only to be sullied all over again the following week.
After church it was customary to spend our collection money on sweets at the newsagents nearby, but we had, rather craftily, been saving this pittance for the big escape. And so, on the day of the running away we passed by the newsagents, tummies rumbling but with unspent coins jingling in our pockets.
Then came Sunday lunch, whereupon all the family would gather, say grace, and eat to bursting point. Of course, nobody but us knew it was our last supper. Once the dishes had been cleared away, Sunday afternoon entertainment choices were limited. As it was a Holy day we children were not allowed to play, neither indoors nor outside. We were, however, permitted to watch Sunday afternoon matinees along with everyone else, or read in our room as long as we remained quiet, lest God strike us down with fury. On the day of our great escape, we opted for reading quietly in our room and, with great personal sacrifice, passed up the chance of watching ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’, a choice that baffled our parents I’m sure.
Once we were secure in our bedroom, away from prying eyes, we could, as long as we remained quiet, activate ‘operation runaway’.
One masterstroke among many that day was that we had put our ‘church clothes’ on over our regular clothing. This clever tactic was a ruse. Once we were a safe distance from the house we would strip off our outer clothing and ditch them. When we were found to be missing and the alarm went up, the police – because obviously there would be a search party – would be looking for two boys wearing their Sunday Best and not jeans and T-shirts!
Before descending from our bedroom window by aid of a convenient drainpipe, we left a note, something we felt added a certain drama to the proceedings. The note had to have emotional punch and yet be devoid of details. We opted not to write it in lemon juice or our own blood, but to stick to conventional ink. It said…
‘We have run away.
Because we want to be free, and because everything is always our fault.
Don’t come looking for us you will never find us.
When we are grown-ups we will visit you…Maybe.
Signed The Boys.
PS. We have stolen Dad’s car keys just incase he tries to come after us.
PPS. God is probably a bit annoyed with us right now so maybe you should do some prayers.’
Once the note, a subject of much contention, was finally drawn up we grabbed a few essentials. Penknives, catapult, magnifying glass and my best, as yet unbeaten conker from the autumn before. Bugsy wanted to bring his complete spy kit, but had to agree after much wrangling that it would be too cumbersome to carry, and so, with a heavy heart, he made do with a fake moustache and his deerstalker.
Our bikes were waiting for us at the back of the house. Over the past few days we had managed to make them escape-ready, and they were now gleaming, well pumped examples of how a boy’s bike should look. Extra reflectors had been attached to the spokes, horns and tassels to the handlebars, dynamo lights and shorter ‘racing’ mudguards over the wheels.
Now that we were finally on our way David and Steven took control, they steered us along the back streets of our neighbourhood, past all the familiar sights, until we were out of the town and heading strait for the duel carriageway. In this initial stage of the plan we were in a race against time. A mad scientist by the name of Dr. Mourn had set the clock ticking on a bomb ready to go off at any moment, only we could stop him and save the town from complete annihilation. Saving the town and everyone in it was a parting gift, but also a means to put distance between us and home.
After a while we felt sufficiently far enough away to slow down and take in the first stages of our victorious escape. We looked at one another and laughed with delight. Freedom – and on a Sunday too!
That first taste of liberty was incomparable, it was purely sublime, it tasted like nothing had done before. For the first time we were actually living the dream and no longer play-acting; this was actually happening and we – with the help of our alter egos – had made it happen. We had stepped out of a life that was ordered and controlled and into one where we made the rules; we were in charge of our own destinies. What a feeling it is when you realise that the world doesn’t have to be flat and one dimensional that it can be stretched and pulled and moulded in a multitude of ways. That the shackles are not real – they are an illusion – your spirit is made to feel as though there are shackles by constant reminders of how ‘things should be’ according to those that think they know best. And those that think they know best, it seems to me, rarely, if ever, really do.
We boys had always known that excitement and adventure were out there somewhere but until the moment when we tasted our liberty, we had thought it unattainable, thought that it could only be savoured in dreams.
Until now we had relied on play-acting to evoke a sense of ‘living’, of uncertainty and of danger. Until now we had employed factitious characters such as David and Steven through whom we would live our lives, compensating for our own lack of confidence. Confidence, I have learned, is hard earned and can only be obtained by putting oneself in the firing line. Back then I was more than happy to hide behind my stronger more courageous alter ego.
The curious thing is, that when we were confronted that evening with real danger it wasn’t David that rescued us – it was I!
After cycling blindly in a random direction, and for quite a while along a duel carriageway, we found ourselves in an unknown back street of an unknown town that was definitely not a forest. Evening seemed to fall like a curtain around us, ‘Show’s over’ it said.
For the first time that day I began to question the rationality of our plan. The promise of darkness brought new, as yet unconsidered fears. Uneasiness settled in my stomach in the form of a pang and the pang grew as the light faded. The dream, that crazy notion of autonomy, slipped away. I felt as if I’d fallen through a trap door. Once out in the real world, it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back. Reality with all its certitude sunk its teeth into me and held on with grim determination like a mangy, rabid dog.
‘It’s tea time at home,’ Bugsy remarked.
We both thought about what that meant. As it was a Sunday, there would be a lavish spread – Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, trifle, cake and junket laid out with the best china on white table linen. All home-made of course: ‘shop bought’ food was for posh folk, or for our friend Roger whose mum worked at the Mr. Kipling factory and got freebies. Our mum had a full-time job bringing us up, cooking cleaning, washing, scrubbing. Well, there would be less for her to do now we weren’t there.
Here we were, lost and homesick eating chocolate bars acquired, not too honestly, from a Co-op we had passed earlier. It was then, while idling on a street corner, feeling downcast and hungry that the bearded man approached us.
Immediately, I didn’t like him or trust him. His dress was disheveled: nondescript grey trousers, a long trench coat which was, I thought, unnecessary in summer and a cap pulled down over his eyes. His eyes were dark and furtive, switching this way and that without ever resting in one place for more than a second. He looked dishonest, deceitful and a bit like Uncle Freddy, who was, I had overheard my mother say, a ‘pervert’. I wasn’t sure what a pervert was exactly but apparently it had something to do with answering the door to the paperboy wearing nothing but a see through mac!
‘What you boys doing out this time of night?’ he asked, bearing down on us.
‘On our way home from a bike ride,’ I said as Bugsy watched on cautiously.
‘You steal that chocolate?’ he said with a growl.
‘No, we bought it,’ I lied.
‘Got the receipt?’ he asked.
‘Nope, she never gave us a receipt did she?’ I asked my brother.
‘I’m…erm…maybe…I don’t know.’
The man looked at us both fleetingly before saying, ‘You’d better come home with me, so we can sort this out. Might have to call the police on you.’
Imagination can run wild when unchecked. It can be both a force for good and for bad; you have to learn how to apply it in just the right way. Up until that moment, I’d used my imagination like a Gatling gun, firing at will in any direction. It both soothed me and tormented me in equal measure; it was both the cause of my delight and of my terror. In this arena of heightened reality, a place I felt was unaccustomed to flights of fancy, I realised that I was alone without my alter ego. David was nowhere to be seen. Despite feeling exposed and vulnerable, I found that I was both focused and clear headed. I also realised that with a little Imagination and a small amount of nerve I could get us out of this.
‘We never stole anything,’ I said defiantly.
‘You better come home with me and do everything I say or you might end up getting hurt,’ sneered the man behind his shabby beard.
I glanced at Bugsy who stood off to one side with his hands clasped before him and his eyes firmly closed: he was praying for intervention. Sunday School had really got to him today. Most of the time we didn’t bother with God, or he with us but occasionally, in times of mortal danger, one or both of us had been known to drop him a line. Sometimes it actually seemed to work but other times, not so much. But God, I knew, was not going to save us this time. We had committed this act on a Sunday, a day of rest: a day when we were expected to be good children and avoid sin. So far, I counted that we had broken at least four commandments. Maybe five if we had inadvertently coveted a neighbour’s ox but I didn’t think we had. It was up to me to get us out of this situation and, with a heavy heart, I realised, back home.
‘Look sir,’ I said, ‘we are not thieves; my father is a policeman,’ I lied twice, breaking another commandment. I went on, ‘He’d kill us if we did anything like that.’
As I was saying this, I reached into my pocket and clasped my hands around a whistle, one of my essential belongings; it was in fact a seaman’s whistle but I doubted the stranger knew the difference. I produced it.
‘My dad said, if you are ever in danger, just blow the whistle and a policeman will come.’
The stranger cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive Labrador. I put the whistle to my lips and blew with all my might. By the time I’d completed my first blow the man had disappeared. Bugsy, startled by the noise, opened his eyes and on seeing that the spooky man had gone declared that God had come to our rescue…hallelujah.
Somehow we returned home, although I don’t remember how. It was late when we finally arrived at the front door. We were tired, forlorn and in need of a hero’s welcome. Mother was furious, the police had, as predicted, been out looking for us, and, as predicted, we had fooled them with our ruse. The hunt was called off, we were hauled over hot coals and privileges I didn’t even know we had, were denied.
Despite the bruised egos and the oodles of disappointment poured all over us, we were nevertheless, pleased to be back home…at least for a while.
Once the dust had settled we began drawing up a new plan. One in which we would become master thieves, lead a gang of bandits and never be caught. But, as they say, that’s another story.