Appearances can be deceptive. One learns that early in life. Not just by being told, ‘Never judge a book by its cover’. Especially after opening af chemistry text book in year seven, with unbridled enthusiasm, only to find it’s actually written in Greek. Not a single word makes sense and, to this very day, the terms alkali and acid can make me break out in sweat. No, one learns early in life that appearances can be deceptive by interacting with people.
In my early days of schooling (what my brother used to call the days of wearing short pants), we kids got escorted (walked, not driven) to school by a parent. The father of one of my classmates was a man so lugubrious of face that one glance at his features was guaranteed to induce in one a sense of gloom for the rest of the day.
It was the kind of face that one could be forgiven for running away from as soon as one spotted — let’s call him Mr Beale — coming around the bend in the road. But … contrary to all those norms, he attracted people like flies.
By the end of his fifteen-minute act, both youngsters had laughed so much their eyes and cheeks were soaking wet. And to top off this delirious session of utter glee, my good friend Barney decided it was best to inject a moderate dose of realism
All of us youngsters would find ourselves hanging on to his every word. And, believe me, his every word was funny. He was my original introduction to the stand-up comedian: a man who didn’t crack much of a smile but got everybody else to split their sides with laughter. Just the other day, as though someone had hit the refresh button, the long-faded memory of Mr Beale was brought to life once more, albeit in an inverted sort of way.
My prankster mate Barney and I were taking a walk along Sydney harbour. Barney’s two grandchildren were in tow. He was playing the part of a benign grandpa, while the two grandkids were just being normal scamps, no acting required. They kept bounding from one spectacle to another, often running far ahead calling out, ‘Grandpa, look!’
Jugglers, tricksters, seagulls swooping on airborne pieces of bread and catching each morsel in their beak with such consistency, one wondered why they weren’t used as a model to train slip fielders in cricket. Each and every one caught and held their attention briefly.
All this came to a halt, however, when the grandkids ran into Maurice the Clown. By the end of his fifteen-minute act, both youngsters had laughed so much their eyes and cheeks were soaking wet. And to top off this delirious session of utter glee, my good friend Barney decided it was best to inject a moderate dose of realism.
So, holding each of them by the hand while continuing to stroll along, he told them the sad and tragic story of Maurice the clown’s real life. So authentic was it — the loss of his wife in childbirth, the struggle to bring up the surviving baby, being evicted from several homes following an inability to pay rent, eating leftovers, sleeping rough — that even I was moved to a pity that I somehow felt doubtful about. That U-turn only served to make the two grandkids cry even more so that their cheeks went from wet to wetter.
On the way back home, in the train, I whispered to Barney, ‘How could you do this? Spoil their lovely outing with that concocted life story at the end?’ And Barney replied, ‘Every time I get the chance, I never fail to give them a lesson on not judging a book by its cover.
Sometimes it’s a sad lesson. They’ll get over it. But they’ll learn from it.’ I couldn’t tell if I agreed, but I also knew it wasn’t my position to judge. Every parent brings to the parenting table their own unique parental skills. And I left it at that.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.