I was six, or perhaps five, when I fell in love with the sea. It was a Monday morning, before school; and I sat at the breakfast table, staring despondently down at a bowl of soggy cornflakes.
"I'm not going to school today." I announced matter-of-factly to the empty air. On receiving no reply, I wriggled forward on my seat until the tips of my toes just touched the polished wooden floor. I pushed the heavy chair back with difficulty and slid of with a grunt, then padded across to the kitchen door.
Poking my nose round the door frame, I coughed repeatedly. My mother stood making sandwiches at the kitchen counter, Jam and peanut butter, like I always had. I had to cough four times before she looked at me.
"What is it?" She asked.
"You don't need you to make me lunch today." I told her.
"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow. "Why?" I drew in a deep breath and assumed what I'm sure I believed at the time to be grave face. In reality, I only scrunched up my nose like a puppy and my mother turned away and clapped a hand to her mouth to stop herself from laughing.
"I'm not going to school, that's why." I said, with perfect seriousness. "I'm going to sea instead."
"Are you dear?" Asked my mother absently, mentally adding sailor to the list that also contained witch, princess and super hero, all things that in the past I had said I was going to do rather than go to school. Sadly, I had failed to follow all these previous paths. There had been no princes available to marry me, there had been no magic wand shops. Superman had never seen fit to visit me. It had all been very disappointing; but I was sure I would have more success as a sailor. I couldn't understand why my mother seemed to think I wouldn't go and stamped my foot in irritation.
"I'm going today." I told her firmly. "I'll be gone a long time. I might not come back, you never know. There might be a storm and the ship could sink, or I could be swallowed by a whale like Jonah, or perhaps I just won't want to come back, because you're too boring." I smiled smugly, that would teach her not to take me seriously.
"Go and eat your cornflakes Natalie." She said, going back to making the sandwiches. I wrinkled my nose again in disgust and blew a raspberry.
"I don't like cornflakes. I don't think they'll make me eat cornflakes at sea."
"No." My mother told me. "They'll probably feed you porridge instead."
I sniffed in contempt. "No one will eat porridge on my ship. Porridge will be banned." I thought with distaste about the unpleasant texture I remembered only too well. Slimy and cold, like a slug slithering down your throat.
Still, the comment did the trick. I walked back into the dining room again and pulled myself up onto the chair with a creak. Shovelling the now entirely saturated cornflakes into my mouth with reluctance, I thought all the time that anything was better than porridge.
"Can you drive me to the harbour?" I shouted through to the kitchen as I ate. "I'll have to walk otherwise.
"I've got to get to work." My mother told me. "I'm not sure I'll have time. You can't walk though, Natalie. London's much too far from the sea."
"Oh, well it might take a long time then.
My mother came through from the kitchen with a harassed expression and my lunch box in one hand. "Natalie, what have you been doing? Your hair isn't brushed, you haven't finished your cornflakes, you've only got one sock on." Her straight brown hair was tied back perfectly, her blazer was pristine, hugging her willowy frame perfectly, not like mine; but the bags under her eyes light blue eyes were large and dark. She worked too hard, she never slept enough. She didn't need stories of the sea to slow her down. I didn't notice though.
She ran her fingers through my matted blonde hair like a makeshift comb. She tugged at it rapidly, so my scalp stung.
"Mum." I protested, pulling away. "That hurts."
"You're going to be late to school." She snapped back. "Come here."
"I'm not going." I insisted again. I'm going to the harbour to find a ship, even if I do have to walk there."
She looked like she was about to protest, but saw that she wouldn't get me to school without a fight.
"Alright dear. You can go to sea, but put another sock on at least."
At this, I rushed upstairs to my chest of drawers. I considered for a long time which pair to pick. It would probably be cold at sea. I selected the big, thick, woolly, red ones. They were my favourites, though I couldn't wear them often. They were soft to the touch and comfortable if you pressed your face into them. I headed downstairs again, singing happily.
"A sailor went to sea sea sea to see what he could see see see, but all that he could see see see was the bottom of the deep blue sea sea sea."
My mother rolled her eyes when she saw the socks, they weren't right for school, or the sea either really, but it was too late now.
"Right then." She said. Off you go. I hope you find a ship. Don't forget to send us a postcard, when you get to wherever you're going."
I considered for a moment and then took pity."I'll try to find time when we get to Australia."
She stifled another giggle. "You're going to go all the way to Australia are you? Have you thought of digging a hole to get there?"
I scowled. "You can't dig a hole to Australia, that's only a story. I'm going to sail there. I'll be an explorer, like Columbus."
"Columbus went to America, not Australia." My mother told me as she buttoned me into a coat while I was distracted.
"Yes." I told her. "Because he was too scared to go any further. I'm not scared."
"Well that's good." She replied. "We wouldn't want you to be scared at sea. Have you got everything you'll need for the walk to the harbour?"
"I'll only need one thing that I haven't still got." I replied. "I can't reach it, not even standing on a stool, it's too high up."
"Ah." My mother couldn't help laughing this time, though she managed to keep it to a slight snigger. "You want the chocolate digestives."
I nodded. "Yes please."
She handed them to me, then offered me my ready packed lunchbox, but I shook my head.
"Alright then." She said, holding the front door open for me and giving me a little wave. "Bye."
She watched with a small smile as I trudged down the street in my scruffy school uniform, a small slightly chubby figure, frizzy blonde hair unkempt, grey blue eyes fixed resolutely forward, chocolate digestives in hand, determined to go to sea. She closed the door with a click.
She told me fondly when I was older and more sensible that when I was gone, she picked up the phone and called Mrs Brown from down the road.
"Yes, hello, it's Alison. Natalie's running away again. To sea this time. What? Oh, yes, that would be great. Just tell her you'll give her a lift to the harbour. She'll probably be cross when she realises, but she'll have forgotten all about the sea in a week's time."
When I came out of school that afternoon and saw our old red ford parked outside as usual, I tried to hide behind my friend, but it was no use. My mother stepped out of the car and walked up to me.
"Hello Natalie." She said kindly. "Did you have a nice day at school?"
"No I did not." I burst out with a wail. "Mrs Brown is a horrible, mean liar. She said she was going to take me to the harbour, but she brought me here instead and told the teachers not to let me run away, so I couldn't go to sea. Then Tom Richardson stole my chocolate biscuits and ate them all himself. He was sick though." I finished, with a satisfied smile.
"Maybe you can go to the sea another time." My mother told me firmly. "Come on, back to the car."
My dad got back late from work that night. I heard the door bang from my room where I lay in bed, thinking gloomily of my failed expedition and lost biscuits. My parents' little private conversations, which they had when I was in bed were never actually private. There was a hole in the kitchen ceiling, which my dad had never bothered to fix, allowing sound to drift up to my room from the floor below.
"You'll never guess what Natalie tried to do today." My mother giggled. "She wanted to run away to sea. I had to get Mrs Brown to go and pick her up at the corner. She was quite determined to walk all the way to the nearest harbour by herself, when I said I wouldn't drive her, with only a packet of chocolate digestives."
My dad laughed. "That's my girl. Where did she want to sail to?"
"Australia." My mother replied. "I told her she should dig a hole." The two of them started laughing again and I heard a clink as two glasses of wine were poured.
"I don't suppose Mrs Brown will be forgiven for a while." Said my father. My mother only snorted in reply.
"She'll have forgotten it all by this time next week, maybe sooner. She'll find something else she wants to be, she never sticks to anything long."
She was wrong, of course, but neither she, my father or even I knew that then. My dreams of sailing seemed to disappear from my mind within the week, but they didn't. They were waiting for the right moment. Waiting in whichever place in my mind I stashed them, as I lay there fuming in the dark, thinking of the lack of understanding of adults. Hoping I would never become one, never lose a sense of adventure or an ability to dream.
I would never be an accountant or a librarian, like my parents, I thought. You never read about accountants in books. It wouldn't make for interesting reading. I would be something different, I promised myself, when I drifted into sleep. That night I dreamed of a ship with billowing white sails, tossed on grey seas. The ship that had left without me, as I had stared despondently out of that rain spattered window at school. It sailed away, but it would come back.