Magazine article The Spectator

My Great Escape

Magazine article The Spectator

My Great Escape

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago this month I ran away from school. I was not quite 15 and had been at boarding school for over five years by the time I left. A turbulent puberty and a delayed recognition that years of searing unhappiness were damaging me - both helped to shape a decision made one lonely night in my dormitory.

The next morning I slipped away in between lessons. The distance involved was nearly 200 miles, but the first 200 yards were the most hazardous. Stonyhurst in 1974 was not Dotheboys Hall, but still a tough proposition, and it was difficult to pass through its extensive grounds undetected. I discarded my school uniform in a dormitory, climbed down a fire-escape and, a few breathless minutes later, found myself on the main road between Clitheroe and Preston.

The next issue was money. My escape fund consisted of 10p - not a lot, even then - and I disbursed half of it on a Cadbury's creme egg. This was good for morale, but did nothing to cat into the miles that lay ahead. By dint of walking and hitch-hiking, I reached Preston after a couple of hours and managed to take £5 out of my bank account. By two o'clock that afternoon, I was in a second-class compartment of a British Rail train pulling out of Preston station, drawing deeply on a fresh packet of Disque Bleu (of course).

As I lurched in an old green United Counties boneshaker bus on the last leg of my journey through the Northamptonshire countryside, I tried to frame an entrance speech appropriate to the occasion. The choices were restricted: anything studiedly casual ('God, Lancashire's depressing'; 'I don't think daily Mass is me somehow') might have sounded good when part of family folklore two or three decades down the line, but that was to look further ahead than was wise. Yet the truth ('I'm pretty comprehensively unpopular. Oh, and by the way I think I'm gay') was terrifying. Anyway, that was then and this is now. Back then, those were thoughts I couldn't bear to frame, even to myself.

I remember the compassion in my mother's eyes as she opened the door to my knock, and the love with which she took me in her arms. I remember catching the profile of my father at the same moment, as he crouched by the telephone in the front hall, and the timbre in his voice as he said to the person on the other end of the line, 'Thank God. He's just walked in through the door this moment.'

So they gathered me in their arms, ran me a hot bath and made me supper. There was no cross-examination. I remember my father saying gently, 'The school may not want you to go back, you know', and me replying, Tm not going back, Dad.' That was all. We watched a lot of television that night - Colditz, Play for Today, and I felt calmer than I had for many months. I went to bed late and slept dreamlessly - unlike, I am sure, my parents. I was aware of murmured conversations in the kitchen and of telephone calls conducted in the privacy of their bedroom, but everything in my world bore a reassuring normality. The next day I helped my father in the garden, and on Monday he asked me to clean my mother's car and sweep the garage. Every evening, we sat and ate together and, an inveterate chatterbox, I talked freely of everything save my immediate circumstances.

My parents were disciplined at concealing their anxiety. …

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