Tomorrow I'll be in Africa!
At first appearance she was rather a delightful child, with her two golden-brown plaits tied neatly in bows of bright scarlet ribbon. Wearing a smart, sailor-style dress with a sash and spotless white ankle socks, encased in summer sandals, she was everyone's idea of a typical nine-year-old girl.
"Where's the cat, mum?" she demanded, tearing through the front door as she arrived home from school.
"I've taken her to the vet," her mother replied from the kitchen of the small terraced house. "You gave her a dog's life and now she'll get some peace."
On hearing these words, the girl ran straight through the house and out of the back door as quickly as she had come in through the front.
Frances Nelson was playing in the back lane. "Where you off to then?" she called to her friend, wondering why she was in such an almighty hurry. But she was already halfway up the lane by the time Frances had finished.
"I'm running away! I'm running away to Africa!" She shouted back with a determination in her voice which surprised even herself, seeing as the idea had only that minute occurred to her. Rounding the corner at the top of the lane she looked back to see if Frances had followed, but the other girl had disappeared.
"Huh! Bet she's gone and told my mother now, little tell-tale tit and I'll bet she'll tell everyone at school tomorrow when I'm not there," she muttered to herself defiantly. "Well, see if I care, because tomorrow I'll be in Africa."
Then, thinking deeply as she embarked on her intended journey, she decided what she would do once she arrived:
I'll cut these beastly plaits off and I'll get rid of this stupid dress. I'll swap it for one of those loincloth things. Then I can swing through the trees in the jungle just like Tarzan. I've practised it a lot in the school gym. Dead easy - just swing the rope out from the school stage and leap off onto it when it comes back - scares the hell out of the PE teacher. But I'll have to be a bit more careful in the jungle, if there's a river full of crocodiles underneath me instead of just the gym floor.
The child sped off towards the direction of the docks, a few miles distant. She knew she could easily stowaway on a ship bound for Africa. But then she began to feel hungry. It was well past tea time now and the aroma of delicious, warm food wafting from the kitchens of nearby houses as she walked past made her regret she had neglected to bring anything edible with her. All she had was week-old bubble gum which was stuck to the inside of her pocket. Further thoughts of her African adventure coursed through her mind:
I wish I'd brought that half-a-crown I pinched from dad's coat yesterday, at least then I could have bought a few sweets. I was going to use it to go on a picnic with Stephen Everton but he's not bothered about me now he's got his fancy new bike. Last time I nicked a whole ten bob note from mum's purse and she never even noticed. Me and Stephen climbed up the park wall and went for a picnic then we went in the bushes and played mummies and daddies until tea time. But I wouldn't do that with anyone else, not unless they gave me number thirty eight Tarzan card. That's FAB that one, he's diving off the Victoria Falls into the Zambezi River. I'll be able to do that soon too. Brilliant. And I'll have a chimpanzee just like "Cheetah" - better than that stupid cat. Just as well I'm off to Africa because I haven't got any friends any more, except soppy Frances and I'm glad she didn't want to come with me. I'm not allowed to play with Heather Stanton either, it's only 'cos I tied her to the lamppost with her skipping rope and did a Red-Indian war dance around her. Her mum didn't see the funny side, but we're quits now anyway, 'cos Heather got her own back when her gang all got cowboy suits for Christmas.
It was growing cooler by the minute and dusk rapidly began to fall. The girl soon started to wonder whether she should have put more thought into her proposed expedition. She hadn't even brought her warm school cardigan with her.
It was all her mother's fault for doing that to the cat. Poor "Mitzi"; it was true that the child had led the cat a dog's life but that was because she had wanted a dog. She'd even purchased a collar and a lead with a whole week's pocket money and had tried, with infinite patience at first, to take the cat for a walk. But the hapless feline had refused to co-operate, making her objection obvious by planting two front paws firmly on the ground in front of her and refusing to budge. "Mitzi" had soon learned to keep well out of the child's way, choosing not to participate in some of her wilder games. Playing with a ball of wool was one thing for a typical tabby, but being mauled by some weird kid who thought she was Tarzan, was quite another.
The girl, now tired, cold and hungry came up with a slight modification to her plan. Her determined stride had now lapsed into a slower pace, after walking nearly three miles but her mind was racing still:
All the ships for Africa will probably have left by now, so I'll have to stop at aunt Jean's overnight and get on the first boat that leaves tomorrow - one more day won't make any difference. Then I'll be free.
"Hello love, come in, you look like you could do with a nice hot drink, where's your dad?" said aunt Jean as she opened the door to her flat, surprised to see her young niece on her own at such a late hour. It had been a glorious summer evening, but night was now drawing in fast over the Plymouth skyline.
"He's not here and I've run away, 'cos mum's killed the cat and I'm running away to Africa! Mmmm... Those buns smell nice."
"Well, you sit yourself down and rest a while, and you can have some of them. I might even let you take a few with you, to last you the journey, if you're good."
The unsuspecting child sat in the kitchen happily munching her way through a plateful of buns, until she realised that aunt Jean was in the hallway on the phone to her mother. Ten minutes later both aunt and niece were on the bus back home and the girl remained silent, again immersed in her own thoughts:
She's a traitor, aunt Jean, I might have guessed she'd take me home again - she does bake nice buns though.
There was a police car parked outside the house when they arrived and a serious-looking policewoman was talking to the girl's mother.
"Oh no, what's happened now?" the girl exclaimed in amazement. "She's not here to see ME is she?"
The whole family congregated in the lounge, including the cat, which had spent the entire afternoon and evening slumbering peacefully upstairs in the main bedroom.
"Now, listen, Stella, you won't run away again will you?" the policewoman said in a stern voice. "Your mother has been very worried about you. Bad things can happen to little children on dark evenings when they are out on their own. Just where did you think you were going?"
"Oh, nowhere special," the girl replied timidly as she fidgeted nervously with her plaits, looking just like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." Her father sometimes called her "Dorothy" and she hated it.
"Will you promise it won't happen again, Stella?"
"Yes, I promise."
But Stella already had other ideas:
Huh! Next time I won't have to run away 'cos next year they're doing a school cruise to Vigo and Lisbon and Tangier. And guess where Tangier is? Yeah, that's right - AFRICA. I've only got to jump ship, walk across the Sahara, and I'll be in the jungle, just like Tarzan!
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