The first time I left home I was about seven years old. I can’t remember now why I felt the need to do so, but the fact remains that I did. I picked up my favourite doll of the time – one of those hideous things with moulded plastic arms, legs and head, but a soft body – and packed all her clothes into a little red vanity case. I didn’t pack anything for myself; maybe the first and last time I’ve ever been so selfless. Then I took my case in one hand, my doll in the other, and set off for the Big Wide World.
The Big Wide World started in the little Somerset village which existed outside the garden. To get there, you had to wend your way down a narrow tarmac path that led to the Green Door. The Green Door was exactly as it sounds – a wooden postern gate in the six-foot wall which surrounded our garden. In later years my three brothers and I would clamber up and sit on top of the wall, hoarding conkers and throwing their prickly shells over the road into the duckpond. On this particular day, however, I had different plans in mind.
The Green Door was, for an adult, maybe a two-minute walk from the front door of the house. To a seven year old lugging a heavy plastic doll and a suitcase, however, it seemed like an endless journey. I was tiring even before I reached the ten feet of scary shrubbery which you had to pass through just before the gate. Even as an adult, coming back from the pub of an evening, this part was spooky. By the time I got to the gate I was shaky with nerves. Reaching up, I tried to slide the door bolt across as I’d seen grown-ups do so often.
I couldn’t budge it.
Old iron and swollen wood were conspiring against me to stiffen the catch, meaning that I wasn’t strong enough to pull it back. I tried hard to be disappointed, but in fact I was relieved. My big adventure had gone on quite long enough. I turned for home, my pace picking up as I got closer to the house, until I was running into the kitchen to throw my arms around my mother, hugging her as if I’d not seen her for years, rather than half an hour.
She hadn’t even noticed that I’d been gone.
Fast forward 25 years and I’m leaving home again. The suitcase is bigger, and it’s a laptop under my arm rather than a doll, but I’m just as terrified as I was when I tried to pull back the bolt on the Green Door all those years ago. This time, however, the catch is giving and the door is opening. Six months before I’d been an unemployed actor, making ends meet pottering along in dull temp jobs. Now, after a whimsical decision to change careers, I’m a qualified EFL teacher, taking up a job in southern Italy which fell into my lap by chance and which I accepted just as casually as it was offered. I don’t speak Italian and I’ve never been abroad alone before. I’m falling apart.
Unlike before, my mother is fully aware that I’m going. In fact, she got up at 5.00 this morning in order to drive me to the airport. I’ve checked in my main suitcase, somehow managing to avoid excess baggage fees despite having packed about a hundred books, and we’re sitting in a coffee shop talking. Well, Mum’s talking. I’m trying to avoid being sick. We finish our drinks and walk together to the security checkpoint. Alitalia is in its final throes at Terminal 3, and it’s early morning, so it’s quiet in the airport. The woman at the checkpoint is chatty and friendly. She and my mum gossip as they decant my make-up into the regulation plastic bag, while I bite my lip and concentrate on not running away. Too soon, it’s all done. Mum turns to me and gives me a hug goodbye. I cling on to her, trying not to let the tears spill out. I fail, of course, but the Englishwoman in my mother refuses to acknowledge the fact. She pulls back and looks at me, smiling her brightest smile. Oh, it’s going to be brilliant! Send me lots of recipes, won’t you? I blink back the teary overspill, fix a smile on my face and nod. Yes. Yes, I promise. She gives me another quick hug and walks away fast.
The Green Door closes behind me.
Two and a half years later. I’m sitting on the balcony of my flat in Sicily, basking in spring sunshine. My brain has melted into grey goo in the heat and my bones are softening under my skin. I’m vaguely listening to my neighbours bickering in Italian, not even surprised any more that I can understand them. My eyes droop closed. From behind me the opening chords of Too Young to Die play from my computer speakers and I’m taken back to that day, sitting on planes crying behind my sunglasses, wondering if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.
In response, the seven year old me grins with admiration.
Image by Thomas Hawk (Creative Commons)
This post was inspired by a combination of the Scintilla Project‘s day three prompt: ‘Talk about a memory triggered by a particular song’ and the bonus prompt: ‘Talk about a time when you left home’.