I left early on a blustery January morning to catch the early bus. I was seventeen, with sleep still in my eyes, would be eighteen at the end of the month and the morning was miserable with a light, dirty drizzle, the kind that only falls on Belfast. My parents wanted to drive me into the city to the bus station since they could see I was resolved to go; too many young men left their homes to go to work in the early morning in Belfast on days like those and never arrived, turning up later in the day, a hood over their head and a bullet in their brain. But I wasn’t going to work, I was leaving, and if my parents couldn’t dissuade me from leaving then they wanted me to leave safely, but in my mind the journey was starting as soon as I set foot out the front door. It was my journey and I would accept help from no-one as only an arrogant teenager can.
They stood and watched in the cold kitchen as I readied myself and of course it’s only now, years later, with recalcitrant teenagers of my own that I appreciate how trouble was tearing at their hearts. They said nothing to discourage me or to persuade me to wait for better weather, so sparing my pride, allowing me to return without embarrassment if (when) it would all go wrong without feeling like a failure.
I was going to..... well I didn’t have an actual plan or any particular destination in mind, I was just going, and when I reached London I would chose the next stop. The important thing was to be going, to be on the road and to be leaving Belfast behind. The only escape route was through London.
Other than a small bag with a few spare clothes in it all I carried was a passport, a through bus, boat and train ticket to London and an unrealistically meagre amount of cash. That and a heart full of grandiose notions along with the names of several exotic sounding cities ringing in my head were my sole possessions: Beirut, Budapest, Baghdad, Bogotá (the accent was all important, more exotic to my mind). When I wrote them as a list for the first time while I waited in the empty bus station I realised that they all began with the letter B, a letter I dislike intensely and will always associate with starting secondary school in Belfast when I wanted to be back in Africa.
In the vague warmth and dim light of the bus, as it jolted through the wet streets, I scribbled out a new list. I picked the letter P to re-spark my disappointed imagination: Paris, Prague, Pisa, Panama ..... And so it was settled. I would go to Paris first. That was manageable. But I was still on the bus. B was for bus, and I was only a few miles out of Belfast.