Jacob McMullen was a curious child.
He had read every book in the family bookshelf including the A-Z and the Dictionary. He knew the proper names of all the creatures that lived in the garden, from the insects to the flowers, and even the clouds.
Jacob had hundreds of ideas stored in his brain, for rainy days and sunny days and all the days in between. The trouble was, he was not allowed to do any of them.
When he had asked his mother if they could go to the shops, she had said,
“No, there are too many germs.”
When he asked to go to the fireworks, she had said,
“No, there would be too much noise.”
During the summer holidays, Jacob started to investigate the insects in his garden. He gathered a small array of ants, worms, slugs, and beetles and kept them in old cereal boxes under his bed.
One sunny afternoon, the screams of his mother echoed through the walls as she stumbled onto his collection.
“No! Too many bugs!”
A curious child may listen to No once.
A third time if they are particularly compliant. But, after hearing too many No’s in their little lifetimes, curious children will eventually stop listening.
And that is exactly what happened to Jacob McMullen.
A few weeks after the insect incident, a National Geographic magazine arrived in the post. On the second page a colourful poster advertised the wonders of London Zoo.
Brimming with excitement, the boy cut out the picture, neatly with his safety scissors, and folded it into his pocket.
He waited until the weekend to raise the question with his mother. Although he knew she would most likely say No, a small part of him remained hopeful.
As she poured the milk into her bowl, Ms. McMullen looked up at Jacob and smiled. He seized his opportunity.
“Mum...Do you think we could go to the Zoo today?”
His mother sighed, placing her spoon down.
“I’m so sorry honey. You know we can’t. London is very far away, and it would be too dangerous, anything could happen! When you’re a grown up you will understand.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.
“Home is safe. Let’s stay home, okay?”
Jacob gave in and hugged her back.
“Okay. But...can I have pancakes for breakfast then? Pleaaase. Pretty please mum.”
She nodded, ruffled his hair and headed into the kitchen.
Now was his chance.
Jacob tiptoed out of the living room, grabbing the backpack he had hidden behind the shoe rack.
He paused for a second.
Once he could hear the familiar whistling tune in the kitchen, he carefully unlatched the front door and left.
The first part of his journey was easy enough. He had caught the bus many times with his mother and knew that if he stayed on till the end, it would take him to the Station.
The bus driver frowned a little when the boy stepped onboard, but it was not entirely unusual for young children to take the bus alone.
When they arrived at the Station, she tried to speak to Jacob, but he had disappeared amongst the masses of people by the time she exited her booth.
The small boy with the vast mind drifted through the Station following the throng of the crowd. There were so many people and noises and barking dogs and crying babies.
But Jacob was not scared.
He had his books, his map and - most importantly - he had his plan.
That was all he needed.
THE TRAIN NOW APPROACHING PLATFORM 10 IS THE 09:23 TRAIN TO LONDON KINGS CROSS.
Jacob adhered the tannoy’s call, quickly locating platform 10. A ticket barrier stood in the way, but he easily slipped through undetected. He boarded the train, found a seat that was not reserved, closed his eyes and waited.
Eventually, the small boy fell asleep. Although he should have been thinking about his beloved animals in the Zoo, his dreams were plagued with No’s of all shapes and sizes, growing bigger and bigger until —
The train slowed to a stop. Jacob once again became invisible as the crowd came back to life, buzzing towards the doors, spilling out onto the platform.
He exited the train and walked through the station until he found an escalator which led to the Underground. Once he had located a map of the train line, he traced his finger along the black Northern line which led him to the Zoo.
Jacob had studied maps for a long time, so this was a breeze to him. He could not understand why his mother was so scared to leave the house.
And that is when he made his first mistake.
(Or second, if you believe that a young child embarking on such a perilous journey was a mistake in itself.)
Jacob noticed a sign for the restroom and entered. The stall was quite small, so he left his backpack outside of the door whilst he used the toilet.
No more than two minutes later, he left the cubicle and washed his hands in the sink. When Jacob was about to leave the restroom, he noticed his backpack was no longer where he had left it.
A small seed of panic started to grow inside the boy. He looked inside all the stalls - holding his nose at a particularly awful cubicle - but his search led to no avail.
His palms were clammy and when he hurriedly pushed his auburn mop out of his eyes, sweat stained his fringe. Jacob ran out of the stall, frantically searching through the underground ticket station.
It was impossible.
There were too many people and noises and rushing feet. His backpack was long gone.
Although Jacob was a very clever boy, who could tell you the capital of any city or the definition of almost any word, he was still a child. And there was one thing all children did, regardless of their differences.
He sat on the floor and cried.
Oh - how he sobbed! Hot tears matted his wild locks and streaked through the dirt on his cheeks.
His mother was right, he should have stayed home.
It was not too late to turn back. If he got on the train at King’s Cross, he would make it home in time for dinner…
What was he thinking?
He had made it this far; he could not give up now.
Jacob McMullen was not going home until he had seen the Zoo.
Slowly, his tears dried up and he regrouped his thoughts. He did not need his map as almost every wall in London contained some sort of map describing the surrounding area. If he followed the black line, he would eventually make it to the Zoo.
Jacob wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and took in a deep breath. With all the bravado a small child could muster, he stepped down, onto the escalator.
Within a few moments, he was onboard the last train he needed to reach his destination.
His fears were pushed to the back of his mind. Excitement coursed through his body as the boy gripped onto the handrail, swaying with the motion of the train.
Finally, the train conductor called out the stop and Jacob exited the underground train, climbing up the escalator till he saw an opening into the streets. He ran as fast as his little legs could carry him, knowing that the road would lead him to the Zoo.
Finally, he saw the entrance.
A giant sign dominated the street, with colourful balloons waving in the breeze. There was a queue outside, lined with children holding onto their parents with one hand, the other filled with toys or popcorn or sticky globs of candy floss.
Butterflies swarmed in his tummy as the boy joined the queue, unnoticed.
Or so he thought.
However well planned, the fantasies of a small child rarely take into account the role of their parents.
As soon as his mother had finished making pancakes, she walked into the living room still whistling her favourite tune. Her smile quickly disappeared when she noticed Jacob was not there. Upon discovering that the front door was open, Ms. McMullen ran out into the streets screaming for her lost child.
Within moments, the police were called and a nationwide search for the boy began.
And that was why two police officers stood outside the gates of the Zoo looking for a small child with a big plan.
Jacob remained blissfully ignorant. There were many police officers in London, and he paid no attention to them as he attempted to slip behind a large family with several children in tow.
He was so close to the gates. The mouth-watering scents from the food stalls wafted into his nostrils causing his empty tummy to rumble in protest.
The boy took one step forward.
“YOUNG MAN”, a voice shouted in the distance.
Jacob was far from being a man, merely a child on the doorstep of Wonderland. But he knew the voice was speaking to him.
He tried to run inside the gates, but a large burly hand grabbed him by the collar and pulled him away from his dream.
“Young man! I am speaking to you. Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you are in?”
Jacob looked up at the scary faces of the officers. His backpack was lost, and so was his map. But everything would have been okay because he had stuck to the plan – he made it here!
It wasn’t fair!
Jacob curled up into a small ball and, for the second time that day, started to cry.
But this time, he was no longer an invisible soul swept amongst the tides of London.
This time, he was safe.
He felt a soft hand touch his head, followed by a familiar scent.
“Oh, Jacob. How on Earth did you make it to the Zoo?”
The small child uncurled himself and relaxed in the warmth of his mother’s embrace.
“I had a plan, Mum. And a backpack. But someone took that.” He sniffled.
She hugged him tightly.
“Well at least they didn’t take you!”
One of the police officers stepped forwards and asked if she needed help getting back to the station.
Ms. McMullen shook her head, smiling.
“If we were going back, I’m sure Jacob would be able to tell me the way. I have no idea how someone as anxious as me could create such an incredibly brave and clever little boy.”
She lifted Jacob off the ground.
“Thank you for your help Officers. He is safe now; you can go back to your headquarters. We have an important matter to attend to.”
Jacob stared sullenly at the ground as the officers walked away. He knew he deserved a telling off but still did not wish to hear it. Shutting his eyes tightly, he waited for the sharp tones of his mother to pierce through him.
To his surprise, she stepped towards the gates.
“Can I have two tickets to the Zoo please.” She asked, reaching into her purse.
Jacob looked up at his mother, eyes wide in disbelief.
She smiled and ruffled his hair.
“You are a very special child, Jacob McMullen. Thank you for bringing me here.”
And with that, the remarkable boy and his relieved mother embarked on the final stretch of an extraordinary journey.