He first tried to run away when he was five. He can no longer remember how it came about, but occasionally, when he’s not careful about what he’s thinking, his brain flip-flops here-and-there, idling in the lesser off-limits areas, checking to see how aware he really is before shooting off like a comet into these forbidden memories – almost but never quite reaching the root of things before he seizes control again and forces his brain out of the blurred, hidden-away images into sharper, more recent colours, out of echoing sounds melting into each other towards clear memories of who said what and exactly when.
Not that he has a reason he can think of for why he’d rather not look back there – he’d just rather not. So when he catches his brain trying to escape back there in his unguarded moments, he has to concentrate hard on something else. Like his friend from the para, holding the bars and standing outside his window, trying to lure his attention away with lurid commando comic books while he studiously ignores him and does his History homework.
He’s eleven. He doesn’t quite know where he fits in the world. His sister – some years older –constantly closeted in her own room – talking to friends who almost live there, or on the telephone, lives in a world a million miles away from him. When she does speak to him, it’s generally to put him in his place or tell him to do his disappearing trick (though sometimes, just occasionally, she does seem to notice that he’s a real live boy, and run her hand through his hair, or give him a quick hug). His parents – well, they have their own problems. So he comprehends, yet doesn’t quite understand. He might say to the world, “no comprendo”, with everything the term evokes, if only he knew the words. But he doesn’t know them, and for the moment, continues to see the world through strange-coloured glasses.
The trial of his life is that he’s short for his age. However much he stretches – uuuup – however much he hangs from pelmets and windows, he suffers deeply the humiliation of leading the boys in his class, arranged by height from small to tall, to the daily assembly. Scrawny, with twigs for limbs, a shock of hair falling into his eyes no matter how it’s cut, he reminds one of a somewhat forlorn puppy that has learnt to be self-sufficient after years of neglect but still hopes that one day someone will play with it. It isn’t that he isn’t loved – it’s just that he’s squat and different and doesn’t quite belong. At night, curled up in his bed before he drifts off to sleep, he dreams of a day when he’ll be tall and strapping – the way boys are in books – when everyone will laugh at his jokes and hang on every word he says. But somewhere, deep down, he knows that he’ll never be “tall and strapping” like in the books - he just knows that he’ll be short and stocky and pimply (while some of his friends already need to shave), a dwarf among his tall and strapping friends. When the world weighs down on him like this, he wants to run away again.
The first time he tried to run away, he was five. Running to find a stray puppy, so that they could belong to each other. (He got as far as the main road before slinking back, distraught by the thought that perhaps nobody would even notice that he was gone – that they’d forget about him, and go on with their lives, and he would never be able to find his way back, his mind spinning with stories of child-snatchers and wee willy winkie.) As far as he knows, nobody knows about it – nobody noticed him march out through the front gate that afternoon when it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement and the heat was rising from the road in comic-book wisps. And he’ll never let them know – he just knows that they’ll laugh, and if they do, he’ll feel that helpless rage that makes him cry.
So he curls up into an inward facing ball and reads – furiously, as though expecting a summons to run away at any moment and never being able to read again – gobbling up people and places, customs and gods, until they become more real to him than himself. And many years later, when people find the family’s photographs, they can’t understand why he’s not in it; nor why, at the very edge of the sepia toned picture, is a translucent grey boy-shaped blur.