What Running Away Taught Me About Finding My Way Home

At eight, I wanted to escape my Ontario town. Decades later, my failed adventure still has a lot to teach me

Photograph by James Baker
Photograph by James Baker

The idea to run away came from the novel we were reading for grade three storytime. Set in 1937, Baby Island concerns two American schoolgirls, Jean and Mary Wallace, who get shipwrecked while on a passenger ship journey to meet their father in Australia.

The girls are cast adrift in a lifeboat on the open sea with four babies, the children of lost passengers. Luckily they have plenty of child-minding experience and, being plucky WASP schoolgirls, cheerfully rise to the challenge. Eventually, the children wash up on a remote tropical island where they manage to find fresh water, build shelter, make a fire, and—most miraculously—discover a small herd of goats, with whose milk they are able to sustain the babies. When their spirits need lifting, they sing rousing folk songs, such as Robbie Burns’s “Scots Wha Hae”:

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave!
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Eventually, as is always the case in such books, the children are rescued and returned to their parents. But we hadn’t got to that part yet when my best friend Amy Morton and I came up with a plan to run away. I forget who suggested it first, but I know exactly where we were: in the woods behind Coverdale Park, not far from Amy’s house. Sean Ireland, the naughtiest boy in class, was there with us too.

Sean was small for his age, with glinting black eyes and a dirty acid-washed denim jacket he wore all year round. Despite his budding deviance, Sean was skeptical of our plan.

Amy and I, however, were fully committed. We would leave our parents and our school and go make a life in another town far away where no one would ever find us. Like Jean and Mary Wallace, all we needed to do was find the courage and will to survive. Scots Wha Hae!

Amy had a sweet, freckle-dusted face, surrounded by a blunt, towheaded bowl cut. She was one of those children adults invariably mistake for being angelic until it’s too late. But the most important thing about her, back then, was that she had the most magnificent rat-tail in our school—a sleek lock of pale hair that hung down to her mid-back even when braided. Something about the length and breadth of Amy’s rat-tail suggested a second self, as if somewhere in a parallel universe lived another version of Amy with a sheath of long princess-blonde hair. Everyone, even the older girls, were in awe of it.

Amy, Sean, and I hung out a lot after school that year, not because we’d chosen each other but because of grim circumstance. The math teacher, Mr. Greathead (who also served as our tiny primary school’s principal and head disciplinarian), had put the three of us on permanent after-class detention for being poor at math. Each school day, after the other kids had departed, Amy, Sean, and I would spent forty-five minutes repeatedly trying and failing to complete a series of timed multiplication memory drills by rote. As the egg timer ticked down and we hunched over our exercise sheets, Mr. Greathead would roam the desk rows with a stack of textbooks clamped in his hands, thumping our heads if we weren’t done by the time the buzzer went off.

Until then, I’d been a pretty good student, so hanging out with the bad kids was a revelation. It was from Amy and Sean that I learned that instead of being shamed by the disapproval of authority, it was possible to affect a different kind of confidence: cool, jaded cynicism. It was from Amy and Sean I learned that breaking the rules was not only occasionally convenient but also fun.

When Sean found his dad’s porn stash, it was me and Amy he called on first. The three of us spent hours poring over those dazzling flesh photos in the long grass behind Amy’s rabbit hutch before Sean took them home to be disassembled with scissors, image by image, and sold on to his older brother’s friends for twenty-five cents apiece.

But despite his despite budding deviance—or perhaps because of it—Sean wasn’t up for running away. “I just like Cobourg,” he said, shrugging and jabbing his pocket knife into the nearest tree. This left Amy and me to scheme on our own. Over days and weeks of recesses and sleepovers, we came up with the following secret operation: on the first night after the last day of school, Amy and I would meet at the stroke of midnight at the top of the slide in the school playground. From there we would carry on to the clearing in the woods behind Coverdale Park and set up camp for the night. The next morning, we would set off at dawn, following the shoreline of Lake Ontario east until we reached the neighbouring town of Brighton, a tiny agricultural community known for its apple orchards. Once there, we would go to the nearest café and get jobs as waitresses. (Because what café wouldn’t want to hire a pair of homeless eight-year-olds?) We’d save up our tip money and buy a small boat and set sail on to our next adventure, farther into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and eventually out to sea.

Iused to think place mattered more than anything, but it doesn’t. At least not in the way most people assume.

It’s true that the biggest decisions we make in life are in some way geographical. But here’s another indisputable fact: wherever you go, there you are. The future happens here, we say. And then we are surprised when it does.

Like most other major events in my life (education, career, marriage, children), moving to England was haphazard, reckless, unplanned. Neither a choice nor an entirely unexpected turn of events, my incremental emigration was one of those major things that happened in a thousand minor ways without my consciously intending or being aware of it until, suddenly, it was undeniable: I was a Canadian expat living in London with my English family and my wholly English life.

The short explanation is this: I left Canada for work, then stayed away for love.

Five years ago, when I accidentally got pregnant with my first son, I cried for weeks. The tears weren’t because of the unexpected fact of him—I knew deep down Rob and I would work it out—but because I understood my temporary adventure as an expat abroad was about to turn into a semi-permanent state of exile. Rob has a son from a previous marriage who, at the time of my pregnancy, was just a toddler. In having a baby of our own I was, effectively and for the first time since childhood, being forced to put down roots. The prospect terrified me. I had been escaping places—and people—for most of my adult life, and now the end was in sight. The future, I realized, was far away from home as I knew it. Cobourg, and even Canada, were now well out of sight.

The night Amy and I ran away was a Friday, smack in the middle of one of those Ontario June heat waves that signal an unofficial end to the school year by suffocating any lingering impulse to learn.

My nightgown was sticky with sweat by the time I’d dragged my bags through the silent streets to the schoolyard, half a mile away. Once there, I dutifully climbed to the top of the slide and kept a lookout for Amy. According to my glow-in-the-dark Swatch watch I was ten minutes early. Half of me was sure she would chicken out, but to my surprise she showed up right on time, wearing a small backpack and a fearless grin.

Her face fell when she saw my enormous pile of gear. Unlike me, Amy had never been to summer camp. “I forgot my sleeping bag,” she said.

I told her not to worry; we could share. Then added, “It’s probably safer that way. If we’re still camping out when the fall comes we won’t get hypothermia.”

“Okay,” said Amy with a look that said it was definitely not okay.

The mood lifted during the walk to Coverdale Park. As we weaved through the humid streets we linked arms and tried to remember the words to “Scots Wha Hae.” We couldn’t, so instead we sang “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” a show tune I’d learned at camp.

Fish gotta swim
Birds gotta fly
I’m gonna love that man ‘til I die
But I can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.

By the time we got to the woods and set up camp it was well past 1 a.m. We snacked on half a pack of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies, and then I suggested collecting kindling for a fire, but Amy complained it was too hot.

“Can’t we just go to sleep?” she asked.

“All right, but you will have to learn how to built a proper campfire at some point,” I said and took a deep, patronizing breath as I’d seen my teenaged counsellors do when one of the campers was about to cry. Amy agreed, and we snuggled down in my sleeping bag, giggling. Then she asked me if I’d written a note.

I remember being stunned by the question. My parents had separated a year earlier and now they were selling the family home. It was a nice house. Big, with a sprawling backyard, a tree house, and a laundry chute. I knew wherever we moved next was going to be a major step down. My mother was already living in an ugly, cramped apartment on the other side of the town. Divorce I could live with, but the decline in living standards seemed to me intolerable, an indignation for which I simply couldn’t forgive my parents.

A note? I wondered contemptuously. For what possible purpose?

I set about grilling Amy on what she’d written. Did she give away our plan? But she assured me that no, she hadn’t mentioned anything specific. Nothing about Brighton or the sailboat or England.

“I even made up a fake name for you,” she said. “I called you ‘Chuck.’”

I moaned. “There’s not even a Chuck in our class. The police will put us together in no time!”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “By the time they do, we’ll be gone.”

The way she said it calmed me. She was still a believer. Soon we would start another life, one that was free from adult meddling and entirely within our control. I closed my eyes and pictured us in the near future: Amy and I tucked up in the V-berth of our sailboat, the lake swells rocking us to sleep. A new life in which we would cease to be children and start being women of the world.

Imust have fallen asleep in the woods, because the next thing I remember is Amy shaking me awake. She was crying. At first, I couldn’t tell what was wrong, but then she put a hand to her ear and said, “Listen.”

In the distance, I heard it: the sound of Amy’s dad calling her name over and over, his voice rising and faltering with emotion. Listening to him, I felt the forest floor suddenly tilt on its axis. Amy stood up and gathered her backpack. She was going home.

“What about our plan?” I hissed, sitting up in my sleeping bag.

“I miss my family,” she said.

“It hasn’t even been one night!”

She staggered back and I decided to take a less hostile tack. I implored Amy to wait, to be strong. But she kept shaking her head and sniffling, throat catching on the occasional sob as I pleaded.

“I promise I won’t tell anyone you’re here,” she said finally, voice muffled through a veil of snot. And now I was crying, too, because I could see how ridiculous our plan had been. As I wept, I could feel it unraveling in my mind like a cheap sweater. There would be no job at a café, no sailboat, no new life in England. There would only be this particular humiliation forever: an obedient response to the call of our imperfect parents. A life circumscribed by the geography and social requirements of the small town we’d both been born in and were desperate to escape.

As Amy turned and began to walk away along the dirt path I was filled with a terrible, churning desperation. I launched myself at her full force and tackled her from behind. We tumbled to the forest floor and wrestled, crying and grunting and pulling at each other’s hair, for maybe half a minute. Afterward, we lay face up, damp and panting, and stared at the stars through the high canopy of late June leaves.

After a while, Amy got up and left. Once she’d gone I noticed something itchy in my hand—a clutch of yellow floss, nearly invisible in the moonlight.

It was Amy’s rat-tail.

Afew months after I moved to England, my sister Meg called from Ottawa to chat. We talked about our parents, my recent engagement, and her new promotion in the civil service. Then she mentioned, in passing, that Amy Morton had died.

Meg said Amy had been driving alone on the old Theatre Road outside of town, and while attempting to pass a combine harvester, her car had become entangled and flipped, killing her instantly. The farmer was fine. It was a freak accident. “No one can figure it out,” she said.

According to the obituary in the local paper, Amy was a single mother, survived by three kids under five—Dallin, Shaylynn, and Jordanna. She’d been through some rough years but was just getting her life back on track. My sister said the night Amy was killed, she’d been driving home from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The sky had been clear. She was just thirty-three.

I sat in a state of detached surprise in the study of the house my then-boyfriend and I were renting in London, scrolling through Amy’s open Facebook page with its tearful tributes. I noticed Sean Ireland was organizing a benefit concert with local bands to raise money for her kids. The funeral home notice of her service requested donations to the Amy Morton Children’s Fund instead of flowers. I thought of messaging Sean, whom I hadn’t spoken to since grade school, to say something, but I couldn’t think what. I debated making a donation. In the end, I’m ashamed to say, I did nothing.

I hadn’t thought about Amy in years, except when telling the story of how we’d run away together that night. It had become one of my go-to anecdotes in a life of professional anecdotalizing—a drunken dinner party staple. It had all the right elements. The complex subterfuge. The half-cocked plan to waitress and sail away on a boat. The whimsical childish hubris of it all. My London friends seemed to especially like the story because of the way it suggested a certain fate—my eventual and perhaps inevitable return to the Motherland. The siren call of home. One year for my birthday, my boyfriend had even hunted down and given me a first edition vintage copy of Baby Island.

Until then, Amy had been fixed in my mind—the little girl with the blonde bowl cut, the companion in my childhood story. On her Facebook page, after her death, I was surprised to find she’d grown from being a scrawny kid to a large woman with round, open face. I looked into her smiling eyes and tried to see the reality of her life now that it was over—all the babies and pain and addiction, disappointment, recovery, and hope. But there was nothing but the deep blue sea between us.

Leah McLaren
Leah McLaren (@leahmclaren) is a London-based political correspondent for Maclean's.