WARNING: Doing the unexpected can seriously improve your health.
Life Is One Big Surprise
A quick, fun story to put a bit of pep into your day.
Don Cloud was on his way to the supermarket. His wife, Rita, had given him a list: bread, butter, long-life milk (the basics); plain flour, self-raising agent (for the scones); chicken thighs; lamb cutlets; chopped tomatoes; a soup of his choosing and a bottle of wine for Sunday’s anniversary. It was the bank holiday weekend and they needed to plan three evening meals in a row in case the shops shut early, which he’d told her they didn’t anymore, but still she persisted: “Get the stuff anyway, Don. You can never be too careful.” So, he was being careful.
The place wasn’t too busy – he always timed it just right – and he picked up every item she’d requested at a reasonably relaxed pace. In the tinned aisle, he deliberated just a touch too long over which soup to go for from two odds-on favourites – Chicken and Mushroom or Pea and Ham – before slotting the one he’d settled on into his increasingly heavy shopping basket (he knew he should have gone ‘trolley’) and moving off with a slant, the basket weighing him down on his right side. He went to a self-service till, but he didn’t stick it out. With a frown, he shook his head and remembered the mess he’d gotten into last time he tried to self-scan a reduced-price bouquet of flowers – the water dripped off the stems into the electronics of the till and short-circuited all eight self-service ‘modules’. He opted to change queues; it was always better to rely on a living person to do the difficult tasks in life, even if the chit-chat was a bit forced.
On his way out of the supermarket, sporting a packet of sliced wholemeal under one arm, the tin of soup in one hand and the plastic carrier bag he’d reluctantly purchased for ten pence in his other (he blamed himself for never remembering their bag-for-life by the side of the sofa), Don edged his way awkwardly outside through a not-fully-functioning electric sliding door and headed for his car, their plain, reliable Ford. Two young men in shiny-grey sales suits with spiky, modern haircuts and, Don was certain, fake orange tans, eyed his progress with amused smiles. The taller man muttered to his short, fat associate, “I bet he couldn’t do it.”
Don carried on walking, weighed down by his heavy bag on the left side. (Where had he read that a confident posture could actually make a man feel more confident?) He stared down at the floor, succumbing to building shame, remembering how old he was and how slow he’d become and how, in his youth, no one would have ever judged him for being either slow or shameful. No one back then would have said he “couldn’t do it”, whatever ‘it’ meant. And he wasn’t even that old – he was only fifty-two! His shoulders slouched downwards even further. As he waddled along, trapped in his thoughts, another salesman of some sort wearing a tatty jumper and strange, big red boots tried to approach him as he passed.
“No, thanks, I already have double-glazing,” he said, automatically.
The smiling man held out a colourful leaflet and said, in a friendly way, “Would you be interested in joining a circus?”
Obviously, Don walked on as he expected he would, ignoring the outstretched hand and the leaflet. A wry smile of disgust mixed with embarrassment lifted onto his lips as he imagined himself – in a brief series of flashes – teetering on a tightrope, swinging from chains bolted to high rafters, getting budgerigars to dance in small wheels and hop about on different perches like he’d seen them do at the circus he’d visited as a boy with his father – then Don stopped. Something had just happened. A shift; a much-needed change of perspective. He’d been so confident, so daring, as a boy. He waited like that for a moment, listening to the shiny suits giggle at him, staring down at the grey tarmac that often seemed to be consuming him when he walked and an unusual, unexpected thought entered his mind. Maybe he could be those things again? The soup he’d chosen almost slipped from his loosening grasp, but he caught it, fast as a flash of insight. He eyed the tin of soup – and realised a bit of the old Don had just come back.
“You lost in thought?” said the man.
Don heard himself whisper, “I always am.”
He turned slowly, with a flurry of nerves and glanced back to see those two young salesmen mocking him and he realised something important: he was living life like a man without a purpose; making safe decisions all the time; fearing the judgements of others no better than himself; opening and closing doors only because they were easy to open and close. But there were many more doors in life the knobs of which he’d never even tried. As the mental image of a strong hand reaching out to a door emblazoned with the fiery painting of a snarling orange tiger came into his mind, he strolled back to the man in the big red boots and said, doubtfully, “Am I allowed to take one of those?”
“Of course you are. There’s no limit on age, ethnicity, height, weight, attractiveness or anything else in the circus. It is the freest place you can hang out in what we’re told is a free society. Training – for whatever skill you think you might develop – is on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and we accept beginners. Jugglin’, play-wrestlin’, low-beam balancin’, magician work, you name it, we can help you try it. You only really need experience if you want to get into elephant-rearing or tiger-taming, and even then it’s only considered desirable. With tigers,” he added, in a helpful aside, “the key is to make sure you haven’t got any sandwiches about your person. They love sandwiches. One guy a few years ago – in another circus, not ours – left a corned beef butty in the lower left-hand pocket of his clown suit and – bam – best not go into the details.”
“So, I might be able to –?” began Don, still disbelieving.
“Join? You’d be very welcome – and you’d get support with travelling costs for the first few months. If you pass your study modules, you’ll even get a basic wage. If you stay for twelve months and do well in your performances – if you choose to perform, that is – you’ll get salary increments depending on your aptitude. Or you can just stay a beginner and enjoy it purely as a voluntary activity. Men your age – if you don’t mind the comparison (Don shook his head) – love working with children. It gives them a real boost, and the kids love people like you, with a friendly face, so you might want to consider clown training or small animal handling. It’s very rewarding.”
Don was nodding, nodding more and more. He looked at the leaflet and the smiling, happy faces of the many untamed circus people he’d meet if he attended a class. “And you’ll be there?” he checked.
The man grinned. “It’s my brother’s circus. I’m there full-time. I’m Jack Flack Wild Crack and my brother is Bonzo The Bear Master.” He winked. “Or just Jack and John if you prefer.”
Don smiled. “If my mother was alive, she’d skin a goose.”
Jack laughed. “You gotta pluck it first!”
Don straightened his shoulders confidently. “Right. See you next week, then.”
“Great. See you there. Oh, and don’t forget to bring ID. You’ll need to have a background check if you do want to try clowning.”
With a salute to the man in the big red boots, Don marched towards the Ford smiling proudly for the first time in months, even years. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Rita’s face – she kept telling him he needed to get out more, make a few friends, do something active. He’d always wanted to do something that would make her proud. Plus, he realised with another surprised smile, he’d probably need her to help him squash any seconds thoughts he might have between now and Tuesday.
(And, by the way, he thoroughly enjoyed his Pea and Ham soup.)
“Surprises are everywhere in life. And they usually come from misjudging people for being less than they appear.” – Brownell Landrum