‘I really don’t know whether I should let you,’ my mum had said, repeatedly.
‘I am going, whether you say yes or no, Mum,’ I’d insisted, and she’d looked at me, in surprise, I think.
‘You’re only eighteen.’
‘Exactly.’ I had spat the words at her, my 34B-chest puffed out in defiance, and that was that.
I had worked seven months to save up for a ticket allowing unlimited access to any train in Europe for an entire month – Interrail it was called back then, but I pronounced it Freedom. By day, I’d gone to school, at night I’d worked behind the bar of the Le Freak, a brand-new discothèque. This was eighties’ Germany – no one asked to see ID. I was expected to turn up on time, in high heels, make up and short skirt, smile at the guests and refrain from actually drinking any of the and get one for yourself's. I’d spent my nights cleaning and refilling glasses, trying desperately to memorise long lists of drinks, no ice for me, thanks, but can I have an olive and …wait…I changed my mind, despite the thumping bass, despite the clouds of cigarette smoke, the laser beams and those young men, who mustered all the Dutch courage they could afford, then scribbled their phone numbers on sweaty Deutschmark notes and pushed them across the counter. At sunrise I would fall into my bed; the deafening sound of birdsong outside my window unable to drown out continuous whispers of drinks orders in my head – until an alarm clock reminded me to drag my barely conscious carcass back to school again.
And here it was, my ticket, hidden in my shoe. My rucksack was crammed full of underwear, toiletries, change of clothes, sleeping bag, first-aid kit and everything else I really needed. When I tried it on, I landed on my back, legs flailing helplessly like a dung beetle’s after tripping on a twig. I managed to strip it down to the items I really really needed. Then my mum gave me a lift to the train station, where I narrowly dodged a hug and lied yes to her sincerely worried Are you sure. Before the doors of the carriage slammed shut, she handed me a can of pepper spray and three tubes of soluble multivitamin tablets. No mobiles in those days, no PayPal, and no email, but sex trafficking and malnutrition had already been invented.
I used the pepper spray only once – in Barcelona, when, after two weeks of sleeping in carriages, that rational voice in my head was exhausted. I followed a young boy who promised cheap hotel room. Too young and polite to change my mind, I followed him into an alley, then another, deep inside the city’s maze, tarmac still warm from the heat of the day, despite the dark. We stopped at a small hotel and the boy led me up the stairs and into a lobby, where a group of Armenian men stopped talking and stared at me, watched me fill in the guest registration form and hand over my passport to the receptionist. In my room, I shoved the back of a chair under the doorknob. I fished out the mace and cracked the plastic safety, then I opened the window and tried the spray, pointing it into the breeze, which blew it back into my eyes. I had to remove the chair again, tears streaming down my face – the bathroom was located on the corridor. Spaghetti-Western-style swing-doors covered only the upper half of the toilet cubicle. I rinsed my face, then, red-eyed, I sat down to pee, my genitals exposed, my head and shoulders modest and immune, listening. I spent that night shivering, waiting for the inevitable abduction, and jumped with fright when the receptionist knocked on my door at six am. He offered me Lavash, flatbread, filled with honey and nuts, a steaming cup of tea and a small jar of murabba, a jam his wife had made that week. Broke, I declined and checked out early.
Around that time, I began the daily habit of collecting stale sweet rolls from bakeries for the discounted price of a big smile and watery puppy eyes, still pink from my misadventure. I filled my water bottle at public drinking fountains and dropped a multivitamin tablet inside, from day twenty-two it was a half tab only. I would bite off a piece of the chewy bread and hold it in my mouth until a sip of fizzy liquid had transformed it back into a slimy dough that could be swallowed. The further south I travelled, the more determined I became – I was not going to return, not now, not ever. Instead, I was going to make my way into Morocco and escape my bourgeois life to live free from oppression.
When I arrived in Ceuta, I joined the queue for the ferry that could take me to Africa in under an hour. The road was lined with carboard boxes. Children, younger than I, lived in them, not as an adventure, not by choice. The sight of a tourist, his money belt strangling a substantial muffin top, made me stumble. Mid-fall, a pair of hands reached out to catch and steady me. Before I looked up, before I saw his sunburned face, I noticed the delicious scent of grilled meat and charred wood on him. He’d pinned a note onto his hat – Señor Pollo. Behind him stood a makeshift rotisserie – a shopping cart filled with glowing embers, succulent chickens, spit-roasting, smothered in olive oil and spices, dripping their juices onto glowing ember, each drop causing a little hiss. I exhaled, emptying myself of all that was there before, and then inhaled, until that hollow place inside my chest was filled up to the brim.
When I came home, days later, I hugged my mother, wordlessly, under a handwritten Welcome Home banner – for much less time than I should have.