The Day My Parents Didn't Pick Me Up From Liverpool Street Station

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman retells the story of being left at Liverpool Street as a child, for a special Life Less Ordinary collaboration between HuffPost UK and The Moth
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I was just sixteen. It was Easter 1977 and it was seven o’clock in the morning. My train had pulled in to Liverpool Street station in the East End of London.

I got off on my own looking for my parents who were going to pick me up and take me home. They weren’t there. And I wasn’t really surprised by this because I had the kind of parents who were always late.

I don’t know how you went to school, but I went to school by getting up and going, “Oh my God, is that the time?” and leaping in the car. My father would say, “We’ll go the quick way.”

The school was about eleven miles away, and we would go “the quick way,” which involved driving down tiny country lanes where only one car could go, around hairpin turns at 70mph, which would get me to school only three or four minutes late.

So it’s seven o’clock in the morning, and my parents are late. And I am at Liverpool Street station, which is a fairly long way away from Sussex, where I lived, in the south. But I’m not worried and I go and I wait.

Every now and then I look up and see if my parents are there. (They’re not.)

We were early for school once. It was a couple of years before, and we drove to the house of Robert Leeson, who lived in the same town. Some weeks I’d take him to school and some weeks he’d take me to school, and so we drove to his house, and he was always waiting impatiently out at the end of the drive.

But he wasn’t there, so we got out and we rang the doorbell and, after a while, somebody leaned out from an upstairs window and told us that it was four o’clock in the morning and please would we go away. It was 1 April, and it turned out that as an April Fool’s joke my sister had put all the clocks in the house four hours early. That was the only time that we were ever actually early.

So I waited on the platform with my suitcase and I read my book.

I had been in Hamburg, in Germany. I had to go as part of a German exchange and I should have come back with lots and lots of friends a week earlier. But I’d been in a Greek play, Antigone, which the headmaster had decided had to be performed once in Greek and once in English. I was a messenger in the English version, and so I’d stayed a week after everybody else and I’d had a really interesting time.

I had a passport, which was kind of exciting. It had a photograph of me looking really nervous in my school tie, but it was my passport.

And I had my first girlfriend – I’d met a girl in Hamburg. She was English; a girls’ school had also gone out there. And I’d been informed by my friend Baggie Wilson that he’d already called dibs on her (his real name was Simon, but his nickname was Baggie, and then very rapidly after that it became Simon ‘Don’t Call Me Baggie’ Wilson, which is actually a worse nickname to have than Baggie). But he hadn’t mentioned this to her and she called dibs on me.

I felt so incredibly grown up.

Liverpool Street station in the late 1970s
Evening Standard via Getty Images
Liverpool Street station in the late 1970s

And now I was sitting at Liverpool Street station and time was ticking away. By then it was lunchtime and I was getting hungry and my parents still weren’t there. And I didn’t have any money because, glorying in my newfound adulthood, I had bought cigarettes – an entire carton of cigarettes – on the ferry home from Hamburg using up the last of my money.

So I sat on a bench and smoked cigarettes. I hadn’t quite got the hang of it, but I did. I thought about phoning home and did. No answer.

Phoned my dad’s office. No answer. Started nervously making collect calls to every phone number I could remember. No answer. I was starting to get worried.

I decided it was probably my own fault because of the problem with the five-pence pieces. We’d all of us kids gone to some little town on the border with East Germany, where they hadn’t seen any English people since 1945. We’d discovered that our English five-pence pieces were the same size as a German mark (but worth four times less) and had used our five-pence coins to buy cigarettes and chocolate from the German vending machines. Two days later, we found ourselves in the English consulate in Hamburg, where they pointed out that, seeing that they hadn’t seen any English people except the liberating English army and us in the last thirty years, the fact that all of their cigarette machines and chocolate machines were now filled with English five-pence pieces meant that they were pretty damn sure it was us. This also meant that I had no English change to use in the chocolate machines at the station.

Now I’m really starting to get nervous, because this is Liverpool Street station. It’s over forty years ago, it was a fairly rough, nasty station back then, and fairly rough, possibly nasty people kept looking at me.

Only a week ago I had been an adult with my own passport and girlfriend and cigarettes and now I was Paddington Bear.

So I’d watch as people would circle me and eye me and move away. A little old man came and sat down next to me, pulled out a packet of Capstan full-strength cigarettes (possibly the scariest cigarettes ever created in the history of the human race), and offered me one.

“You want a cigarette, boy?”

“No, thank you.”

He said, “You want come back to my flat with me?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “I’ve got apples!”

It’s now four o’clock in the afternoon; my parents are the latest they’ve ever been.

It’s still not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that they’re just late. I once had measles, and they took me back to school the day that I recovered and dropped me off and I got out, and the school was locked. Eventually I found a nice groundsman who told me this was half-term. But that time they phoned my parents, who took me away.

I am desperately phoning every number I know and finally one gets answered and it’s my cousin Leigh down in Sussex and I say, “Leigh! I’m at Liverpool Street station!”

She says, “Why are you there?”

I said, “Well I just came back from Germany! I have no money, I don’t know what to do! Where are my mom and dad?”

She said, “Oh, they’ve gone on holiday.” I said, “What?”

She said, “Well, it was Easter; they took your sister on a skiing holiday in Austria. It was a sort of spur-of-the- moment thing.”

I said, “What about me?”

She said, “What about you? Why don’t you come home?”

I said, “I have no money.”

She said, “Why not?”

I said, “I bought cigarettes.”

She said, “It’s your own bloody fault.”

I said, “I have to get home.”

She said, “Stay there.”

I said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Everywhere I went, I had to haul my suitcase with me. I sat down at the station. I had smoked as many cigarettes by now on that one day as I had smoked previously in my entire life.

Liverpool Street station in the late 1970s
Hulton Deutsch via Getty Images
Liverpool Street station in the late 1970s

At five o’clock, there was an announcement over the terminal: “Will Neil Gaiman please come to the stationmaster’s office?”

I went up to the stationmaster’s office, and my Aunt Rhoda, Leigh’s mother, was on the phone. She had come home from work; Leigh had explained my predicament.

She said, “It’s your own stupid fault.”

I said, “What do I do?”

She said, “Hang on. Put the stationmaster back on.”

I gave him the phone back. They talked for a while. She said, “Alright, I’ve paid your ticket from Victoria station, in the south of London, down to Sussex.” I said, “Okay.”

She said, “There’s only one problem.”

I said, “What’s that?”

And then I realise what that was.

I said, “I have to get to Victoria, don’t I?”

Victoria station is in the south of central London. I’m on the east of London, at least half an hour away by tube.

She said, “Yes.”

These days you can buy tickets that will take you from your trains all through the London Underground , but not then. Then the Tube system didn’t talk to the railway services.

I said, “What do I do?”

She said, “Show them your passport.”

I said, “What?”

She said, “Well, what can they say?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

But I had to find out. I got my suitcase, and I marched down to the Underground and I showed the ticket collector my passport. They weren’t used to schoolboys showing them passports instead of tickets.

They didn’t know what to do – they let me on the Tube.

Eventually, I got to Victoria, without a ticket. I showed the ticket collector my passport. They wrote down my name and address, and let me leave the Underground. I got on the train in Victoria and, an hour later, I got off and there was my aunt, waiting rather nervously for me.

And I’d been an adult, and then I’d been a kid, and now I wasn’t sure what I was. But adult or child, I’d made it home, with only my passport.

This story is cross-posted from The Moth’s latest book, Occasional Magic, for a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Neil tell his story live here.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird, wonderful and transformational life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.