The way home

A game I played by myself as a child was to roam away -- wander off -- deliberately. The ever-open door of the family shop, over which we lived, afforded an easy escape for the fulfillment of this alluring activity: the exploration of the surrounding maze of streets. The really tricky part was memorizing the way back.

A different kind of success was achieved, though, when, pausing to determine direction, I would be quite nonplused and experience that mysterious thrill of being lost.

Then the urgency was to find home again -- to seek until some familiar landmark appeared. Thankfully, I would bound indoors: "I got really lost." My guardians (grandmother, maiden aunt and bachelor uncle) invariably responded with ready, yet differing, concern -- with wisdom, fear and humor.

Strangers escorted me home because I was tiny and alone. One policeman advised my grandmother to treat me like the proverbial cat inclined to stray: "Try putting butter on her paws, Mum."

This policeman and I became pals. I recognised his ginger moustache and side whiskers, and would trot happily beside him holding his extended little finger. Solicitous people glanced from small girl to the alert eyes beneath the chin strap helmet. "Ah . . . ah . . . ," they would trill. This conveyed compassion for me and faith in the police officer. It was all most enjoyable.

I remember one time being left at play in our lumber room -- only to be "discovered missing." The immediate environment yielded no clues. My uncle sought the Ginger Policeman, pacing his beat. Aunt, acting upon erroneous information, dashed to Coldharbor Steps, a cobbled ramp that slithered into a muddy tributary of the Thames. Meanwhile, scouring the lumber room nooks and crannies, Grandmother stooped to move an old sea boot and found it contained a leg. The rest of me was submerged, sleeping, beneath an assortment of materials that had given up trying to be a tent.

Everyone was told how I had been lost and found. Their belief that someone could be found who wasn't even trying to be lost completely baffled me.

Later, I unofficially started school by entering a classroom and occupying a front seat. Older children arrived, and the girl whose desk it was stood in the aisle giggling with embarrassment. By the time the search began (Aunt at her washtub pondered uneasily how I had plagued her about school; how she'd cleverly closed the subject with: "Well . . . go then . . . ."), a stiff- backed teacher was parading me around, asking who knew this infant found in her school.

Good results ensued. When Aunt, still wearing her coarse apron, breathlessly confided that I was orphaned andm an inquisitive wanderer, Teacher was prompted to bestow one of her coveted "early places."

Another time, I went home with Sammy. Not because he had kissed me in the playground, but because he said he lived miles away.m Sammy, as guide, clasped my hand encouragingly.

"She's in my class," he told his startled mother.

"Does anyone know where you are?"

It seemed not to matter that I knew where I was. Fascinated by her strange accent, I shook my head, whereupon Sammy was slapped: "Take her back at once."

I knew a shortcut. Sammy insisted his was the right way, and tried to intimidate me with tales of getting lost. We parted.

Occasionally, I alarmed myself. There were kindly offers to accompany me which sometimes I gratefully accepted; sometimes rejected because of the implied inadequacy. In those close environs, grownups always knew the way to everywhere. In later years, further afield, no one seemed to know the way to anywhere.

So it came about, in those later adult years, feeling entangled in a time-dominated motoring syndrome, quelling a hankering for the teasing byways, promising myself "some other time," that I suddenly, madly, sanely,m decided to get lost.

I shot off the dual carriageway where an unreadable signpost had fallen lopsided in despair. The car nosed gently along the serpentine lanes, detecting gloriously unnamed routes that crisscrossed the chameleon scene.

Soon, only half a red sun remained. Seeking direction, I welcomed a homemade message propped on a blackberry hedge: CAUTION: BUDGIES FLYING.

Getting out of the car, my town-deaf ears became attuned to a conglomeration of sound that spread overhead like an umbrella. My eyes focused. Multihued budgerigars flew into and flew out of numerous boxes attached to slender trees. Some poked out inquisitive heads, while others took wing and were lost to sight.

From a wooden shed a countryman emerged wearing trouserstraps buckled beneath his knees. As he passed he said, "Arrh. . . ." After which, plainly engrossed, he passed and repassed, with and without equipment, vanishing into and emerging from the shed like one of his own birds.

Communication was indicated.

"I'm lost," I said.

"Arrh. . . ." Did I detect a note of sympathy? "You're needing right road, then?"

He escorted me to my car, and for a birdman of few words he was quite lucid. It was all most enjoyable.

"Why don't they fly right away, you ask? 'Cause, they've all they needs 'ere , and which-way they fly, they know their way 'ome."

For me, the charm of these unplanned forays into the unfamiliar lies not so much in maybe losing myself as in the discovery that the rest of the world is still around.

Yet . . . despite all this, I begin to suspect it is, quit e simply, knowing or finding home that remains the essence.

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