Five-Minute Memoir: Leaf Fielding on maternal longings and running away from home

 

Mummy's Saturday treat was breakfast in bed. After we'd eaten, my big brother Roger and I went upstairs to bring down her empty tray. "Can we come back up to read, Mummy?" I asked.

She'd taught me to read before I went to school. I was six and my favourite time of all was when I was curled up in bed next to her, my head leaning into her side, her arm around my shoulder, as we slipped into the magic forest of words. This was the new world she'd given me. There was real life where you run around doing things, and there was a separate kingdom of writing with giant stories rolling out of little books.

After supper, we had time for a game of hide-and-seek before bed. The count receded as I tiptoed upstairs. Where could I hide? Roger had already bagged the bedroom. I crept into the airing cupboard. Hearing her on the stairs, I bit my lip not to give myself away. Mummy came to the door of the cupboard.

"Anyone in there?" she asked.

"No," I replied, realising as I spoke that I'd been tricked.

She swung open the door, swept me into her arms and covered my face with kisses. "Right," she laughed, tickling me as we headed towards the bedroom, "I wonder where your brother's hiding..."

The next day, when the bell went, I beat my brother to the door. Uncle Bob and Auntie Con stood on the threshold.

"Where are Mummy and Daddy?" I asked. "Oh, boys," Auntie Con said in a strange voice.

Thinking it was a game, I ran outside, expecting to find Mummy hiding behind the holly tree. She wasn't there. I ran all the way round the house. When I came back to the front, Con was hugging my little sister Judy and crying all over her.

Something was terribly wrong.

Uncle Bob squatted down in front of Roger and me. His thick glasses made his eyes look enormous. With heavy hand, he gripped my upper arm. "You must be brave boys now. There's been a car accident. Your daddy's in hospital. Mummy has gone to Jesus."

"No, it's not true. It's not true!" I screamed and hit out at him. But my crying couldn't bring her back, nor praying to God, pleading with him, nor banging my head against the fireplace. Nothing I could do would bring her back. Nothing. I punched the floor with my fists. No! It just couldn't be true.

Grandparents, aunts and uncles came and went, trailing clouds of misery. Auntie Con stayed on to look after us. Ages later, Daddy arrived home with his head in bandages and the awful smell of whisky on his breath. Emptiness rained down on us all.

Home without our mummy wasn't home any more. Roger and I decided to run away to a desert island. Auntie Con's son Stephen was with her. We told him about our plan and he asked if he could come with us. Stephen was a year older than me. He wore specs and was troubled by warts, but he knew all the ways of getting rid of them, from new pennies, to stolen bacon and things you could only do by moonlight, so we let him come.

The three of us got up before dawn, crept out of the house, crossed the fields to the river Swale and walked along the bank until we came to the place which Roger had chosen as our future home. We walked the plank that linked the island to the rest of the world, then threw it into the river and watched it float away.

Until that moment the excitement of the adventure had made life almost seem worth living. But as the plank disappeared from view, I realised that running away hadn't changed anything – there was no escape from the howling pain inside me.

It grew light enough to see that our island didn't have a lot on it: rocks, gravel, a few thin saplings and some stunted bushes. No coconut palms – in fact, nothing at all to eat and I was getting hungry. We should have remembered to bring some breakfast.

I was glad when the policeman came. He waded across to the island, picked me up and carried me to the shore. I stood shivering on the riverbank while he fetched Stephen and Roger. In frozen silence he took us to the station, locked us in a cell and went off to change his trousers. We were in terrible trouble.

Daddy arrived and took us home. We thought he'd rescued us. Years later he told us what had happened. Finding us gone, he'd alerted the local bobby and told him to put us in a cell. This would give us such a fright that we'd never do anything naughty again. It was a bizarre idea, but it worked for Roger and Stephen.

Leaf Fielding, author of 'To Live Outside the Law' (Serpent's Tail) spent five years in prison, following his arrest as part of Operation Julie, Britain's biggest drugs bust

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