I arrived at our local cafe to meet my wife for our weekly session of cross-referencing our calendars. Our respective schedules can change quite drastically from one day to the next (one of the many exciting quirks of a life in the performing arts), so without these sessions our lives would very quickly descend into chaos. Near the top of the list of our biggest fears as parents is to be standing in the kitchen at about 4:30pm on a weekday shouting, “No, YOU were supposed to pick her up!” back and forth as we scramble for car keys and phones and the school’s office number and our self-respect.
With us on this particular morning is our darling three-year-old daughter. Our eldest was at school. On Mondays, there is a yoga class held opposite the cafe in a lovely, glass-fronted room that overlooks the sea. It’s a bit pretty. My three-year-old likes to peer into said room through the glass while the three or four women do their class. The yoga women think she’s adorable; she’s like their little yoga mascot. My wife and I finish our calendar session and say a fond farewell, safe in the knowledge that the next week is mapped out to within a nanosecond. She goes outside, gives our daughter a kiss and leaves. After a moment or two more I finish my coffee, make my way to the counter and pay while exchanging some pleasant small talk with the staff, some of whom babysit for us from time to time. We’re not regulars at this place. We’re part of the furniture.
I walk outside and go and squat beside my daughter who is still gawking at the yoga women, her nose squished against the glass. I tell her we have to go now. She asks if we can go to the park. I tell her that we’ll have to wait until it stops raining. She’s happy with that. So I proffer my hand, she takes it and we wander happily back to the car. We are just arriving at the car when I hear a female voice behind us, “Sweetie. Sweetie?”
I recognise the voice, although the slight quiver in it sounds odd.
I turn around to see a woman I recognise as the yoga instructor approaching us. She looks concerned. She is not looking at me at all. She is bending down and trying to get my daughter’s attention. “Sweetie, where’s your Mum? Where’s Mummy, sweetie?”
Oh dear. The penny drops quickly, like mercury. Oh dearie, dearie me.
I adopt my friendliest smile, “Oh, it’s ok. I’m her dad.”
By this stage I am helping my daughter into the car. The yoga instructor ignores me completely. She is wringing her hands and trying to manoeuvre herself between me and the car door. She speaks again to my daughter, this time with more urgency and insistence, her voice starting to crack, “Princess. Where’s mummy? Where’s your mummy, sweetie?”
Oh dear. At this point I am processing a litany of emotional responses, all of which are making me feel very queezy. For the sake of the situation, I persist. “It’s ok. I really am her dad. You were chatting to my wife before. I’ll call her if you like. Or we could pop back into the café if you like. The girls in there know us really well.” I’m babbling.
The yoga instructor looks me in the eye for the first time. I smile again, trying way too hard to reassure her. She is visibly shaking. She is a small, middle-aged woman with blonde hair and a comfortable gray tracksuit. Her eyes dart back to my daughter, then to me again. She stumbles through her words like Snow White bolting through the forest, “I’m sorry it’s just we see her at our classes every week and we…we’re all very fond of her and… and I… I’ve never… I don’t, I mean I didn’t…”
“It’s ok,” I say again, starting to feel a bit shaky myself, “it’s great to know there are other eyes on her.”
It’s all I could think to say.
We stand there for a moment. My daughter is in her car seat now, slipping her arms into the straps and struggling with the clip that she can never do up. She looks up at me and barks an order in her inimitable way,
The yoga instructor’s shoulders slump a little and she exhales a quick, audible breath. I look at her and say, “It’s ok,” again. It’s sounding like a mantra now. The yoga instructor doesn’t know where to look. She is shaking her head quite fast and her eyebrows are raised and she is breathing quickly. She manages some words.
“It’s ok, really.”
She looks at my daughter one more time and gives her a little wave. Then she turns away very quickly and walks at an awkward pace back towards her yoga class, rubbing her forehead. She is still shaking her head. She doesn’t look back. I know this because I watched her walk away until she was out of sight. I couldn’t move.
And now I’m sitting here writing it all down, and can’t help but think about the whole episode from the yoga instructor’s perspective: a little girl pressing her face against the glass and watching the yoga class, as she always does; the little girl’s mum saying hello and apologising for her daughter’s intrusive behaviour, as she always does; the mum leaving; the little girl smiling in on the women doing their yoga; a man approaching the little girl, squatting down and talking to her, then taking her by the hand and walking away with her.
And in the short time it took me to get to the car, this woman had decided that she must go after the little girl and make sure she’s alright. This small, middle-aged woman scuttled out of her yoga class – and that’s the other thing! Did the yoga class watch it all unfold in horror? Did they all question who I was and what was happening?
“Does anyone recognise him? Anyone?”
“No, I’ve never seen him with her.”
“I haven’t either.”
And she came right up to the man who measures six foot two and weighs 90 kilos and asked the little girl where her mummy was because she felt she had to; because they’re all very fond of this little girl who stares at them through the glass on Monday mornings. The yoga instructor in the comfortable tracksuit didn’t look the other way or let it slide or shake it off or just shrug and presume the best. She chose not only to assume the worst, she chose to do something about it.
On the drive home from the café I was angry. I felt ill. I was frowning and shaking my head and muttering profanities, most probably because I couldn’t shake the thought that somebody actually believed I might have been abducting a child. My child. But once I got home, and with the benefit of a sliver of hindsight, all I could think was, “What a champion.” And I said it out loud to myself. “What a champion.”
We are constantly informed of how much evil exists is in the world. We are bombarded with horrendous stories of child abuse, abduction, murder; you name it. We get it from those who report fact and we get it from those who create fiction. I feel like we’ve never been made more aware of the capacity for people to be horrible creatures.
I can’t presume to know what motivated that yoga instructor to do what she did. Maybe her actions were fuelled by paranoia. Maybe she’s been convinced to believe that a man on his own taking a little girl’s hand has as much chance of being a paedophile as he does of being her father. Maybe it was just blind instinct. I don’t know. I don’t care. I choose to stand and applaud her, because I believe what she chose to do was the right thing; was good.
Next Monday I am going to walk into that yoga class with my daughter in tow and introduce myself properly to the small, middle-aged yoga instructor. I am going to offer her my genuine thanks. I will not accept any embarrassed apology she may offer, because she owes noone an apology, least of all me. And if it feels like it’d be ok, I will give her a hug. And then I will tell her that I think she is a champion.
Mike is best known for his performance as Paul Keating in Keating! The Musical, which had its debut at the 2005 MICF. He will perform with his wife, Fiona Harris, in their upcoming comedy play, Plus One, at the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.