LONDON BY CAR

LONDON BY CAR

At kind of the last minute, Drew and I have decided to spend our Thanksgiving in London. We’ve been talking about taking a trip there almost since we first met each other, but we’re always too busy and too poor. We’re still too busy and too poor, but given that it’s a holiday week anyway and that we’re putting off buying a house for the near future, it seemed like a good time to take a few days off and spend some money. We bought our tickets on Friday, and we leave this Saturday.

My only previous trip to London was also last-minute, and it was fantastic. I hate to make broad generalizations, but let’s face it: British people are adorable. Only a few hours after we made our plans, Drew and I went to see “Finding Neverland”. And after watching the movie, I announced that when Drew and I have kids, I want them to be four young British boys full of imagination.

The story of the movie concerns “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie and how he was inspired to write his most famous tale by a widow and her sons (the adorable, extremely well-mannered young lads I mentioned above). It’s a good movie, but there were times watching it when I wondered if the script had been written by Michael Jackson. We all know he’s obsessed with “Peter Pan” and not growing up (i.e., his home Neverland). And it’s a movie about a grown man with no sex life who enriches the lives of young boys despite the misgivings of those around him. Hmmm… There’s even one scene where someone tells Barrie that people are gossiping about him being a little too friendly with the boys, and Barrie defends himself by saying that those people have dirty minds, and the love of grown men for young boys is the purest thing there is. Sound familiar?

Well, nobody wants to be mistaken for a pedophile, so I was definitely on guard during my previous trip to London, when I decided to go — alone — to a midweek matinee of the big West End musical adaptation of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. For some reason, until I stepped into the theatre (note the proper English spelling; I’m trying to get ready for my trip), I hadn’t really considered the extent of this show’s appeal to very young children. But finding my seat was like wading through a waist-high river, albeit a river that screeches, giggles and eats toffee. The kids were in impossibly large groups which suggested that they had been brought there with their schools or summer camps. I’d estimate children outnumbered adults roughly 85,000 to 1.

There’s something strange about being a lone adult in such a kiddie crowd. Whenever I’m in this situation, I’m constantly left wondering if other people are looking at me. I can’t help thinking that all the adults who got dragged there as unwilling chaperones and guardians are thinking what I’ll call Thought #1: “What’s that bloke doing here? Dunt he know this is a kiddie show?” Thought #1 is embarrassing enough, but it inevitably leads to Thought #2: “Maybe he do know this is a kiddie show. Better keep an eye on that tosser!”

As I walked down the aisle, there was a girl in front of me who was maybe nine years old and about three times my size. She was prehistoric in her bodily proportions, more mountain than child, and she had short red bangs and huge red freckles. I tried to keep my distance from her, but she saw me. She turned around, stared at me quizzically and said with a growl, “You sittin’ next ta me then?” Her tone suggested that she thought I was one of her classmates, and that she had just claimed me as her husband.

“Um, no, I’m not with your group.”

“All right, then,” she said, disappointed.

Whew. Crisis averted.

Instead, I found myself sitting a few rows from the back. I was right next to the lighting booth, so it was a short row, which was good because it decreased the possibility of Neanderthal British girls sitting next to me. There were five seats in the row. I was on the inside, and sitting next to me were a young British dad and his three wee lads. They hurried in just as the curtain was going up. The kids were about four, five and six years old, and the dad looked rightfully exhausted. Because the seating arrangement will be central to this story, I’ve included a handy illustration below (Fig. 1).

Upon sitting down beside me, the four-year-old gave me quite a long look. He was clearly thinking both Thought #1 and Thought #2. I got the impression this was Dad’s first solo outing with the boys in the Big City, that they had just endured a long, mischief-filled train ride, and that Dad was relieved to finally have the boys in their seats and quiet. I don’t think he gave me a second glance.

The show was a nightmare. That’s not a quality judgment at all. It was just one of those participatory shows where everyone claps along to the songs and boos when the bad guy comes on stage. I definitely didn’t want to be the kind of guy who goes to a show like that by himself and claps and boos with abandon like he’s having the time of his life. So I sat there pretty silently, until the four-year-old turned his judgmental eyes on me, as if to say, “Why aren’t you clapping and booing, you creepy weirdo?” After that, I did my part to join in the fun.

Thankfully, the four year old didn’t make it too far into the show before he fell asleep. If there’s one thing in the world cuter than a four-year-old British child, it’s a four-year-old British child who falls asleep at “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Dad looked over at him at one point and decided it was best to let the kid snooze.

So my neighbor missed out on most of the first act. He missed the big scene when all the dogs run out on stage, and he missed the big scene when the car didn’t fly. In case you don’t know, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is a musical about a flying car, so the flying was pretty central to the story. If I remember correctly, the scene where the car fails to fly went something like this:

All the characters we like in the show are riding in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and they’re being chased in an evil car by all the characters we don’t like. It’s a very tense scene and we’re desperately hoping our heroes can escape. The orchestration becomes dark and urgent, and the clever dialogue does everything it can to ratchet up the tension:

“Oh, no! We’re headed right for a giant cliff!”

“We’re sure to die!”

“However will we get out of this one, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?”

And the audience is watching this, waiting for the inevitable set piece that brought us to the theatre, which is going to make all the kids wet their seats with glee, which we’ve been anticipating for almost an hour. And then…

Nothing.

The music stops, the lights go out, and what looks like a giant life raft inflates under the car. The audience begins to mutter in confusion, and the actors sigh in disappointment as if they’ve been through this a hundred times. Then, three or four men appear from backstage. They’re wearing dark t-shirts and jeans and have walkie-talkies clipped to their belts. They approach the car, kick the life raft away and help the actors down and off-stage. And then, the curtain comes down.

Yes, then then curtain comes down.

Someone made a brief announcement over the loudspeaker about there being some technical difficulties (duh), and we were told that the show would start up again soon. And to my amazement, the audience took it very well. There was no crying or rioting in the aisles or angry parents demanding their money back. Everyone just waited patiently for the show to resume. Those British really are polite. The kid next to me slept through the whole thing. And about five minutes later, the show started up again and the next time the car was supposed to fly, it did. And everyone cheered as if the magic hadn’t just been ruined for them. You have to love kids and their short attention spans. Hooray!

None of that is the point of this story, but I couldn’t mention my trip to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” without noting that the car didn’t fly. It’s one of those details that’s Too Good to Leave Out. The point of the story brings me back to that dad and his three sons, one of whom was sound asleep. A few minutes after the technical difficulties, one of the awake kids nudged his dad and told him that he had to use the toilets. And then, the other kid said he had to use the loo as well.

Now here’s the scary part. The dad stands the two boys up and ushers them quietly to the aisle. Then, he looks back at the third kid — his youngest son, who’s seated in a row with only one other person, the creepy older man who came to a kiddie show all by himself — and decides not to wake him up. He doesn’t say anything to me, doesn’t ask me to keep an eye on him, nothing. He leaves him in my care, without saying a word and heads for the lobby. Here’s what that seating plan looks like now (Fig. 2):

I was stunned. Don’t they have pedophiles in this country? Don’t they have kidnappings? Don’t they have TV movies of the week? In America, kids and parents alike are on constant Pervert Alert. For all this guy knew, I could’ve picked his kid up and walked right out of the theatre with him, and nobody would’ve noticed. And just as I’m contemplating how different things are in England, wondering how a parent could possibly leave a four-year-old child alone for several minutes in a crowded city, something even more disturbing happens.

The kid wakes up.

Obviously, the dad failed to anticipate this turn of events, although as soon as he stood up and left, I knew it was bound to happen. The first thing the kid notices are the three empty seats next to him. He stares at them, wondering what happened to his dad and his brothers. Naturally, the typical four-year-old train of thought would lead him to believe that he’s been abandoned — probably because he did something bad — and he’ll never, ever see them again.

And then he turns to me and looks up at me. If I were J.M. Barrie, I would’ve comforted the kid by telling some imaginative, wonderific story that would’ve kept him happy until his dad came back. But I’m not, so I just kind of sat there. I was petrified, waiting for the boy to burst into tears, at which point I’d have to usher him to the lobby to find dad, and then the dad would see me walking his son out of the theatre crying and I’d have a lot of explaining to do.

So the kid looked at me, and I just smiled. And then the next song started up, and the boy turned to the stage to watch the show. And he sat there quietly and patiently until his dad came back.

And when the dad came back, the kid barely looked over at him. “Oh, you’re awake now, are you?” the dad said, tickling the kid. “I couldn’t believe you fell asleep,” he continued in his charming British accent. “After we’ve come all this way!”

After that, the boy stayed quite awake and seemed to rather enjoy the show. He clapped when the car flew and booed when the bad guy came on stage. It just goes to show how well-mannered, trusting and gosh-darn adorable British kids are. I really do want to have one someday. And it’s hard now, thinking back on it, not to kick myself for how I handled the situation.

Because for a few minutes there, if I really wanted to, I could’ve walked out of that theatre with a British kid of my very own.

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