I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
And I can run away from you, I can!- The Gingerbread Boy (St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1875)
A fine drizzle hung like mist around the street lamps along the narrow road between the sea and the steep, washed-out slope of the land, when early on Thursday, 11 September 2008, the boy strolled out of the darkness and walked up to the red-and-white barrier marking the entrance to the marshalling area for the Scrabster-Stromness ferry. He was wearing threadbare Jeans, an olive jumper with a brass zipper over the throat, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, and scuffed and muddy oxblood boots, one of which had a bright neon orange shoelace. He had taken care to pick the hay from his clothes and from the dirty blond hair, and to wash the dust from his face, but there hadn’t been much he could do about the bruised cheek, the black eye, almost swollen shut, or about his angry, closed-off expression.
For a while he loitered at the edge of the darkness and waited for check-in to begin. He tried to light one of his last three cigarettes, but the storm lighter with the tarot motive was out of fuel.
When check-in began, he carefully observed from a distance the procedure. As the signs proclaimed, everybody, whether travelling with a car or on foot had to show a photographic ID. The sign also proclaimed that tickets weren’t issued to unaccompanied minors under 16 years of age. He decided that he would easily get past the controls onto the marshalling area, with the terminal building and the long access road to the pier and the passenger transit building, but probably not through the check points in the passenger transit building and over the walkway.
He enjoyed the problem. It distracted him from unpleasant thoughts and memories. He briefly considered trying to swim to the ferry. The romantic commando style pleased him, but he quickly dismissed the idea as far beyond his abilities – the ferry would simply be much too tall from the surface of the water. He then considered trying to find someone a year or two older than himself with features similar enough to pass the picture check, and steal his ID. But there wasn’t anybody like that visible in the harbour. Also, he thought, such a person could easily notice the theft before the ferry departed and get the authorities to search for him. He didn’t fancy police officers searching the boat, cornering and arresting him. And he had no intentions of going back south to Thurso or some larger town and search for a suitable mark there.
In the end he decided to hide in one of the cars. He slunk undiscovered onto the large car park where the cars waited in neat queues for loading. Most passengers had gotten out in spite of the chilly, damp weather. The sky had begun to grey in the East, and they stretched their limbs, ate sandwiches and drank hot beverages from thermoses, or went to the toilets in the terminal building. The boy walked through the rows of cars as if belonging to one of them, and carefully considered his options.
Finally he settled for a dark blue van. The driver, a burly, bald man with a jingling key ring hanging from his belt loop, locked the van with a remote and left for the terminal building. The boy peered through the windows. There were no other passengers inside, but several cardboard boxes had been stacked in the space behind the back seats. Taking care to appear casual and unselfconscious, he took up position behind the rear doors where he would be unobserved by the returning driver.
When the van beeped once and flashed its lights, and the doors unlocked with am audible clunk, he quickly opened the door, slipped in, closed it and crawled underneath the back seats. There, he figured, he would be invisible from the windows and from the front seat.
His belly cramped with fear and excitement, as always when he had committed himself to a plan, and was now helplessly waiting whether it worked out or whether he would be caught. The van’s engine rumbled to life. The driver turned on the radio. Amy Winehouse’s hoarse, plaintive voice filled the space between them.
“So we are history, your shadow covers me, they sky above, a blaze only that lovers see.”
Then the van got moving, rolled slowly forward, rumbled over the ribbed, metal ramp, and into the belly of the ship. When the driver killed the engine, he was crouched under the seat, feet braced against the struts holding the seat, ready to push him forward. As soon as he heard the door being opened, the boy shot out of his hiding place and to the rear door, opened it. He wasn’t certain if the driver might get something from the back, or check something. Praying that the overall thundering, thrumming noises of the ship and the cars would cover his exit, he opened the door, ducked around the corner of the next car, straightened, and walked away casually.
Nobody shouted after him. No hand fell heavily onto his shoulder.