SMOKE: The Boy That Ran Away

Originally published: 15 July 2005

I've often wondered how street kids end up as street kids. Not in a philosophical way - practically speaking.

The real young 'uns I can understand - you can bet your bottom dollar Mum isn't far away, waiting to take the money she forces her child to beg for. But the 10-14 year-olds are a different story - how did they come to actually end up on the streets?

I read a story in the Cape Argus yesterday about just such a case - a 12-year old Belhar boy was reunited with his mother after eloping for a month, and it turns out he simply ran away one day.

He was on his way to school one morning and suddenly decided he'd had enough of the stresses at home (he says he couldn't take the fighting between his mother and landlord anymore, which means that on top of the stress of confrontation his mother was no doubt dealing with looming eviction all the time).

So he hopped onto a train into the city instead and wandered around on the upper parking deck at Cape Town station until evening, when he was asked if he wanted to help a vendor.

He worked at the stall for a month until the vendor spotted his photograph in the newspaper and contacted his mother.

All's well that ends well, supposedly, although I can imagine his life is only more hellish now than it was before he ran away. He reckons he wants to be a policeman when he grows up and I hope he does - at least he'll have been a street kid once and should thus have empathy for and understanding of their plight.

If he gets that far. I wouldn't say things are looking that good.

But can you imagine that? Leaving behind everything you've ever known and wandering around at a train station, where nobody knows you? It takes some kind of guts, let me tell you, although the primary motivation is no doubt desperation.

I tried to run away from home numerous times as a kid, but A. I didn't have enough trauma in my life to give me sufficient motivation (I did have plenty of trauma, but it wasn't primarily directed at my family) and B. I didn't have the balls to do it.

But often I would make my decision, pack some things and go wandering off down the road. I never got further than the BMX track a few blocks down, largely because a vicious cur lived just beyond it and my freedom rested upon getting past it unscathed. Which was an impossibility - nobody got past that brute unscathed.

My dad actually hit it with the car one day - it was sitting by the side of the road and as we drove past it leaned forward to take a chunk out of the car, and we heard a huge bang as the fender hit his head.

We got out and there was a huge dent in the fender, but the dog was just sitting there pleasantly, wagging his tail slightly. There wasn't even any blood on him. We hurriedly got back in the car before his concussion wore off, because he didn't usually sit there wagging his tail. Oh no.

We still saw him regularly after that when driving past, so I know he was definitely alright. The damage to our car was more than a thousand rand, if I recall correctly.

So I guess I have that dog to thank for never allowing me to become a street kid.

I did have one grand escape, however. It was the most serious one ever and it was directed at my mother.

I can't remember what she'd supposedly done, but I remember feeling I couldn't take anymore. I was cut out for drama from a very early age.

I packed up a serious kit of lunch - an apple and a jam sandwich - and I even packed in my favourite Just William book to read when times got lonely. In fact - I think I got the idea from that Just William book, because William was about my age and he also did cool things like run away from home.

I started off down the road, fondly imagining the hysteria that would ensue when Those Who Had Wronged Me discovered their darling little boy had run away, and that they would never see him no more (kinda like Tom Sawyer, I guess, when he pretends to be dead and visits his own funeral).

But I got to my usual nemesis - the BMX track - and despite my earlier resolve I just couldn't bring myself to walk past that dog. By the same token I wasn't prepared to concede defeat and just give up, so I hatched a cunning plan.

I went back home and stealthily crept down the driveway and round the side of the house. It was a house built in the seventies in Pretoria and thus had a standard add-on - a maid's room.

By using the door handle of the maid's room I could get onto the top of the wall surrounding it, and once there I climbed onto the roof, which was flat and covered with grey tiles.

I hid on top of that roof all afternoon, eating my apple and going through a myriad of scenarios in my head as to how the reactions down below were going. Was that weeping I heard? A wailing and a gnashing of teeth? Heartbreak and fear? A mother crying for her child?

It was balm to my troubled young soul. Only problem was - it was getting dark and cold, and I was hungry. The jam had melted through the sandwich and there was no way I was eating that, and I could smell the faint aroma of a delicious chicken curry which wafted out of the kitchen window.

So I decided that the punishment of the trauma I had caused my family should be enough, and fortified with images of red-eyed, tear-stained siblings rushing to greet me, and shocked but relieved parents smiling fondly in the background, I descended from my hiding place and made my way back down.

Once I was in the garden I got some dirt and smeared it on my face and hands to make it look as though I had been through hell and back again, and then I went in through the kitchen door to receive my hero's welcome.

My mother's back was to the door as she slaved over the pot of curry, but she heard me come in. Without even turning around she gaily called out:

"Oh there you are - go and have your bath as supper is ready in 10 minutes."

I looked around wildly, convinced she must be addressing someone else, but there was nobody in that kitchen but my mother and one filthy, skinny, cold kid.

I thought of saying something, realised I didn't have anything to say and slunk off instead to have my bath.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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