As children we don’t always perceive the evil intentions of some, seemingly friendly, adults towards us. But it’s equally true that we don’t always recognize genuine concern for our welfare, especially when it’s bestowed upon us by an authoritarian adult.
We can all remember at least one: Perhaps it was a teacher who insisted on sunhats when they were out the fashion. Or maybe it was an angry driver who sprang from his car to enlighten you about the dangers of playing in the road.
There was one such person in my life many years ago in England. “Grumpy old George” we kids called him. I first became acquainted with old George at the children’s Saturday afternoon matinee at the cinema just a couple of blocks from where I lived. I was nine.
There seemed to be a thousand children screaming children there that day, all pushing and shoving in a snake-like queue, which grew ever longer down the narrow footpath beside of the cinema which ran parallel with a busy road.
Along came this man, striding along the edge of the footpath with the stride of a man ready to do battle. He wore a faded blue uniform fastened with tarnished brass buttons. On each lapel clung the frayed remains of once gold silk tassels. Perched precariously on his head, which for some unknown reason always leaned to one side, he wore a peeked cap which wore the words OXFORD, in highly polished metal. To me it was the symbol of authority.
Well old George could have put an Australian sheep dog to shame the way he paced up and down that queue sorting the black sheep from the white, so to speak. The older boys took great delight in mimicking him behind his back and risked a good telling off if caught.
Even inside the cinema we could not escape from him. He would march up and down the isles like a soldier on guard duty, sometimes stopping to shine his torch at a perceived trouble maker. On one occasion he brought Hop-a-long Cassidy and his horse Topper to a halt, refusing to start the film again until we had ‘Settled down”
But on week days old George was different. His uniform was deep blue; the gleaming brass buttons reflected the light from the neon OXFORD sign above the cinema. The shimmering gold tassels adding to the splendour. There he would stand in front of the cinema, his hands clasped behind his back, slowly rocking on the soles of his shiny black shoes.
“Good evening sir. Good Evening madam” He would greet the cinema patrons with a tip of his cap, although he mostly greeted them by name. But when we children arrived alone there was no such friendly greeting, just a stern warning: “Don’t forget. First five rows only”
Once inside we would curse him, but experience had taught us that to try sneaking elsewhere was pointless. He would seek us out and herd us back like escaped convicts.
That was not the only indignity he bestowed upon us. In those days the cinemas had two continuous screenings each night, the second beginning at eight o clock. There was a clock plainly visible and at eight fifteen precisely he would march down the isle and shine his torch on those of us brazen enough to still be sitting there, and signal us get up. He would then humiliate us further by following us outside onto the street. “Now straight home, or else” Oh how we hated him.
Sometimes a film had a classification which meant we had to be accompanied by an adult. But in those days, before television, our parents and neighbours all considered it quite acceptable for us children to wait outside the cinema and ask a neighbour who happened to be going to the cinema that evening if they would “take us in”
Sometimes there would be a whole bunch of us kids competing with each other, each trying to persuade an neighbour to take us in. As time ran out before the main movie was due to start we would increasingly resort to asking complete strangers.
Occasionally my younger sister and I would be the only ones left and old George, who had witnessed the evening’s events, would make a quick glance up and down the street, then usher us inside. “And don’t forget, first five rows”
We had no idea why he would take mercy on us. But once inside it was never long before we were joined by all the other children who had gone in before us. Old George never would let us stay with the people who brought us in. He always made us sit in the first five rows, but no adults were ever allowed to sit with us.
It wasn’t till many years later, after I came to Australia, when I came to send my own children out alone for the first time that suddenly memories of old George come flooding back. Only then did I realize that for years he had endured alienation from us children in exchange for our welfare.
What a terrible burden this man had carried, a burden he could never share with anyone, to have done so would have incited the wrath of many people in the small township where we lived.
Now, whenever I know of children out alone, I hope that there’s another old George out there for them too.
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