He had a moustache. That wasn't what initially attracted me to him. It wasn't fully grown; more a smudge of pale hairs across his lip, fringed with foam from his cappuccino. Not a real moustache yet, even if I liked men with moustaches, which I tend not to.

He was interesting, though; more than the middle-aged American tourists gorging on danishes and doughnuts at other tables as they loudly complained about the British weather. I fixed a careful gaze on him, as he sat reading the Guardian and raising the cup to his mouth. A wide mouth, set in a slightly bemused smile, its corners pushing up his tanned, vaguely freckled cheeks. His nose was blunt and broad, his eyes grey-blue; straight brown hair fell down over his brow and half-covered his ears.

He wore an old white jumper, loose, broad-knitted; around his neck was a college scarf. And on the floor beside his chair sat a large, battered sports bag, with a stylised symbol on its side panel: a kangaroo.

I was not the only one taking this in. At about the same time as I noticed her, I saw him look sideways at a curly-haired little girl. She was intently studying both the kangaroo and him.

She acknowledged his attention by adjusting her pink woolly hat, drawing herself to her full height of three or so feet, and confidently proclaiming: "That's a kangaroo."

"Yes," he said, in that falling-rising tone reserved by adults for discussions with intelligent five-year-olds.

"Kangaroos live in Australia," she continued.

"That's right."

"Do you live in Australia?"

"Usually I do. Not right now though." He didn't seem to have much of an accent.

The girl paused for a moment, then spoke with a hint of challenge in her voice: "My Daddy says that in Australia there are kangaroos jumping all around in the street."

The Australian took a sip of his coffee and narrowed his eyes in a smile. Then he replied, matter-of-factly, "That's right. People ride them to work."

Two small eyes widened. "Gosh." A pause, considering this new information. "Don't the cars get in the way?"

"Well, we don't have cars in Australia. Only kangaroos. Or you can catch the bus. Except we don't have buses like you have here, either. We use..."—he thought for a moment—"whales."

"Whales live in the water. They can't go on the road."

"Ah, but they don't go on the roads. They swim up and down special canals."

"What's a canal?"

"Like a river. And these special rivers are called whale-ways. When you want to catch a whale, you park your kangaroo at the whale-way station, and when the whale comes in, it opens its mouth, and everyone walks inside. Then it swims along to your stop, and opens its mouth again, and you get out there."

The girl stood thoughtfully, weighing this story in her mind, and then firmly summed it up: "That's silly."

"Yes, probably," said the Australian, sipping his coffee.

"They should ride on its back."

And he laughed; a surprised, genuine laugh, deep, clear, his whole face smiling. On my side of the café, I smiled too, behind a shielding hand. Watching him. Staring at him.

The girl's mother had finished at the counter, and walked over with a tray of food, bundling the child away: "They'll talk to anyone at this age," she apologised, laughing nervously. "That's okay," he replied, "I don't mind."

He settled back into his chair, opening his newspaper with a straightening flick, and cast his eyes about the room, with a smile to any members of the audience that might have been watching the performance. His eyes met mine; I held his gaze for one second, maybe two, then looked down to my handbag, opening and shutting it for no reason.

When I looked up again, he was still watching me. For an instant. Then, he returned to reading his paper.

I stared at him, daydreaming. Look at me again, I thought. Stop reading the paper, stop whatever you're doing, and look at me...

I'm not really used to making the first move. Never really had to; never particularly wanted to. So I guess my attempt now was pretty unpolished and fairly obvious. But everyone plays these games.

I stood up, scraping my chair backwards over the floor, and slid the strap of my handbag up over my shoulder. I walked, casually, over towards his table, as if heading for the exit; and as I passed I stumbled into it—just as he'd set down his cup. The table jolted and coffee spilled back towards him, running over the edge.

He didn't react at first. I stared and gulped out an "Oh dear, I'm very sorry," and reached over to help; by now he'd started to mop up the coffee with a paper napkin.

"That's okay," he said, "there wasn't much left."

"Please," I burbled, "let me buy you another one."

"Oh, that's okay," he said again, "there's no need."

I pushed. "No, I'd like to, really." He kept mopping as I ran on. "I mean, I want to."

He stopped, and looked up at me. And there was a glimmer, perhaps, of that bemused smile. "Only if you let me buy you one."

"All right."

We bought two cappuccinos, and symbolically swapped them, and went back to his table without a word. I held my long skirt in at my knees as I sat down, and tossed my head slightly, ran my fingers through my hair to draw it back over my shoulders. He watched in silence.

I stirred a single spoon of raw sugar into my coffee, and watched the specks of cocoa blend into the foam. He did the same. Our teaspoons tinkled against white china in a randomly musical way.

He studied me, just short of staring, his eyes glancing away now and then.

Then I bent around over the side of the table and looked down at his rucksack. My eyes pointing to its stylised logo.

"That's a kangaroo," I said.

He stopped his spoon's stirring, and looked at me; now he was staring, the corners of his mouth pushing up his tanned, freckled cheeks.

"Yes," he said, in that falling-rising tone.


This page: 31 January 2000; last modified 16 February 2001.

©2000 Rory Ewins