My parents caught me getting up to no good when I was 15. I’d been on holiday in Auckland for the Millenium New Year’s Eve and I made the mistake of committing the offense in full view of one of their friends. A couple of weeks later when I was back in Christchurch, that friend decided it was time to call my parents and tell them what he’d seen. They were furious. According to them, I couldn’t be trusted to behave myself if I wasn’t under constant supervision, so the decision was made that I would be grounded, and my trip to Wellington in the upcoming holidays would be cancelled. I was understandably devastated. Growing up in 1990s Christchurch I was surrounded by conservative, white, middle-class bores whose sole religion was rugby, and who frowned upon anything even slightly out of the ordinary like a teenage boy who worked in a hairdressing salon and preferred breakdancing to beer drinking. Wellington was my one escape – a city of free thinkers and individuals and culture. There was no way I was skipping that trip. So I decided to leave a little early.
The next morning, I woke up and told my parents it was mufti day. I stuffed my bag full of clothes and a toothbrush, threw on a pair of jeans and a hoodie and walked out the door to catch my bus. But I didn’t get off the bus when it stopped outside my school. Instead, I kept going all the way into the city.
At the bus station, I walked up to the counter and asked to buy a ticket to Picton. Bear in mind that I was a tiny runt of a 15 year old, standing no taller than 4’10” and weighing about 35 kilograms (75 pounds). The guy looked down at me and frowned. “How old are you?” he asked. “Uhhhhhh,” I replied. “Because if you’re under 12 it’s only seven dollars,” he said. “Uhhhhleven?” I replied, and gave him the cash.
The bus left 45 minutes later, and I was the first person aboard. I was excited but scared – it was all a bit surreal, like I was testing myself to see how far I’d go. I’ve never been a good traveller at the best of times, and all the tension evidently got to me. I spent the seven hour journey vomitting into supermarket bags, kindly passed to me by two Swedish backpackers. By the time I got to Picton, I was high on a mixture of exhaustion and adrenalin.
I called my 18 year old sister from a payphone, laughing as I dialled (this was a couple of years before I got my first cellphone). “You’re never going to guess where I am,” I shouted down the receiver. “What? Where?” she asked. “I’m in Picton! I’m moving to Wellington. Forever!!!” I screamed. There was silence on the other end, then she spoke. “You’re an idiot. You are such an immature little shit. You’re only 15, you’re not legally allowed to live away from Mum and Dad, and they are going to kill you. This isn’t funny, it’s ridiculous. You’re a child.” “Are you kidding me? I thought you’d think this was funny,” I said. “No Isaac, this is not funny,” she said in that withering voice that only older sisters can achieve. “Well I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, and hung up the phone.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. A ferry ticket from Picton to Wellington was about $45 and I had about $100 in my account. If I was going to make a new life for myself in New Zealand’s capital city, I was going to have to watch my pennies. So I took a walk around the terminal building, and got talking to a few people, one of whom just happened to be the first mate on a huge cargo ship that was leaving for Wellington in 30 minutes. I asked him if he’d give me a ride over. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why not?”
So I jumped on board the biggest boat I’ve ever been on and my first mate mate took me down to the gulley for lunch. He made me a chip sandwich and talked to me about life at sea. At no point did he ask me what I was doing or why I was unaccompanied by my parents. He seemed to just accept that I was a man on a mission and he left it at that. (If you’re out there reading this, thank you.)
We landed in Wellington at about 8:00pm and I caught a taxi to my friend’s Mt Victoria flat. Seeing their faces when they saw me walk in was validation that I’d made the right decision. One of them, though, looked concerned. He took me aside. “Dude, I’ve known your parents since I was seven years old. They’re like family to me.” Your sister will kill me if I don’t call them.” “So call them,” I said. “Tell them I say hi. Oh and that I’m never going back to Christchurch ever again.” He shook his head. “Na man, you’ve gotta talk to them too.” I heaved an over-exaggerated sigh and said okay. There was one small problem – they hadn’t paid their phone bill for the past three months, so it had been disconnected. We skated over to our other friend’s house up on The Terrace and made the call from there.
My Mum picked up and she wasn’t impressed when I told her my plans. “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked. “Grow up. How do you think you’re going to make money to live?” I had it all figured out – I’d get a job and sleep on my mate’s couch for thirty bucks per week. “Listen to me very carefully,” she said. “You can stay there for five days, okay? Five days. But if you’re not back in Christchurch on the fifth day, I will call the police and they will arrest you and bring you back to Christchurch themselves. And there will be very real consequences.” My mother is not the type of woman who makes empty threats, and I believed every word she said.
So for the next five days, I lived life large. I stayed up all night, went to parties, ran amok around town and flirted with girls 10 years my senior. On the fifth day, I called up my Aunty who lives in Wellington and asked her to take me to the airport and buy me a plane ticket home.
When I landed at Christchurch Airport, I could see my Mum through the plane window. I had no idea what her reaction was going to be, but I knew that if I could make her laugh, I wouldn’t be in trouble. I got off the plane, walked up the air bridge, through the corridor and down the escalator to the arrival lounge. I saw Mum and grinned. She shook her head and gave me a resigned smile. “So, did you get up to anything exciting this week?” I asked. She laughed.
I later found out that the tale of my runaway adventure was told at my school’s annual teacher conference to an audience of about 300 staff. The principal apparently said that I had gumption. Much to my sister’s disgust, I managed to amuse my parents with stories from the trip and my only punishment was having to pay my Aunty back for the airfare.
About a month later, I bought my own airfare to Wellington for the school holidays. When I told my Dad, I expected a fight. He looked at me for a minute and said, “Well, what’s the point of closing the stable door when the horse has already bolted?”
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