When Jonah, my four-year-old son, gets in a bate – usually either because I’ve put cheese on his pasta, or because I haven’t – he is prone to stomp to the front door and announce: “I’m fed up with all of you. I don’t want to be in this family. I’m going to live somewhere else for ever.”
By “somewhere else”, it turns out he means “on the front doorstep in East Finchley”; by “live” he means “stand sulking”; and by “forever” he means “45 seconds”. There’s my little chip off the old block! He really has inherited his father’s rugged individualism, defiance of convention and hunger for distant horizons.
But both of us are put to shame by the unnamed Australian 12-year-old who, when his mum and dad cancelled the family holiday to Bali, thought, “Bugger that for a game of soldiers”, and went anyway. That is, he made free with the parental credit card, booking flights and a nice hotel online, then grabbed his passport and did one.
He was reported missing, but nobody thought to check the airports (why would anyone have thought to check the airports, to be fair?) so it was nine days before it emerged that he had hopped on a plane in Sydney, changed in Perth and smartly checked into the Bali hotel he had booked, saying he was waiting for his sister to arrive.
The report I read did not, regrettably, specify how he was found, but I like to think he was on a sun lounger in some garish board shorts, sporting a large soft drink with an umbrella in it, smiling winningly at the passing ladies. He is quoted as saying of his unaccompanied jaunt: “It was great because I wanted to go on an adventure.”
What a little scamp! This unnamed lad joins a distinguished lineage of literary runaways that includes Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, Frankenstein’s monster (last seen “going on an adventure” on an arctic ice floe), most of Joseph Conrad’s heroes, and Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York – which, unless I miss my guess, is where he learned how to talk his way into a hotel.
As much as our reaction to this story will be to tut-tut about safeguarding procedures and joined-up policing, and how unimaginably awful it would be had our own children absconded like that, there’s a part buried in all of us that just thinks: what a baller! The adult face is a mask of horror; the inner child yelps with envy. How many of us earnestly packed the contents of our piggy banks, a penknife or catapult and some essential provisions into a knotted hanky and ran away from home – only to be scooped up by our parents three-quarters of an hour later, having stopped to eat our Marmite sandwiches at the bottom of the street? In reality, running away from home – really running away from home – more often than not ends badly. Yet that does nothing to quash the romantic fantasy of circuses, a life at sea, or – as in this case – white sands, palm trees and drinks with umbrellas in them.
And the fantasy has a grip on us because the older we get, the less courage we have. We may long to leave our lives and head out on the road like Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and Reacher or The Littlest Hobo, but we won’t. Even when we were younger and less sensible, we didn’t. But we like to imagine we would have. So much so, that sometimes we pretend we did. Do you remember Tony Blair’s claim, soon debunked, that as a child he had tried to stow away on a flight to the Bahamas?
Bali boy really did it, and he did it, in a sense, on behalf of all of us. Next time Jonah heads for the front door, I’m going to clasp him proudly to my bosom, slip my credit card into his pocket and whisper: “Run, Forrest, run!” into his ear. I may catch a certain amount of uphill from my wife, the police and members of the below-the-line commenting community, but it will be worth it. Can you put a price on a dream?
• Sam Leith is an author, journalist and literary editor of the Spectator