The forest crackled in the heat. The afternoon sun evaporated aromatic oils from the eucalyptus trees, and the faint haze coloured the distant hillsides blue. A lone man carried a small rucksack along a well-maintained path, crushing paper-dry leaf litter underfoot as he went. The finger-post at the car park had described this as a bush walk, but the wilderness or jungle that he had expected to find had been thoroughly tamed by the provision of this pathway, with steep sections terraced into flights of steps and guide posts at junctions so you couldn't get lost. The walk had been less than a mile, ending at a café jutting out over the edge of the cliff on wooden cantilevers, so that tourists could enjoy their frappé and the breathtaking view in comfort. He had sat for an hour nursing one and then a second coffee, contemplating the spectacular canyon spread out below him, and pondering the oddity of giving the name 'mountain' to a canyon. When he settled the bill, a ludicrously high price for two cups of coffee, the plastic card he proffered identified him as one Brian Foster, with a British bank account. The woman serving him, herself originally from Manchester, eyed him knowingly, his card having confirmed the opinion she had already formed: a middle-aged Englishman abroad. He looked every inch the part: broad-brimmed sun-hat, khaki shorts and lily-white legs which had clearly not seen daylight for a year or more.
Now he was making his way back to his car and the journey back to Sydney, about forty miles away, and his hotel room and a cool shower.
He was enjoying the tourist experience. The faint perfume from the trees, the quiet, the heat, fierce but bearable at this time of year, and... a momentary frown crossed his face as his peace was shattered by the approach of a group of teenage boys, laughing and playing as they walked. They made erratic progress, interrupted by their attempts at piggy-back jousting, one boy on another's back careering into another boy similarly mounted, a few moments of playful attempts to unseat the opponent until the whole edifice collapsed as one or another caught a fit of giggles. The adult stood to one side, smiling indulgently as the youngsters passed him and shortly he was able to continue his walk, the forest's peace restored.
Brian stepped up his pace a little, mindful of the car journey ahead of him and the delays which he might encounter as a result of roadworks, or the city's rush hour. He turned a corner which revealed ahead of him another pair of young men, presumably not attached to the group he had just met since these two were heading in the same direction as he was, but presumably the group must have passed these two a little before they passed him. Perhaps inspired by the high jinks of the passing group, these two were likewise larking about, one jumping on the other's back, being carried a few paces and then falling off, one grasping the other low around the waist and lifting him bodily off the ground while his companion flailed arms and legs until the other lost balance and they both fell over and then got back on their feet, brushed each other off and continued walking until one of them thought of a new game to play.
These two youngsters were clearly unaware that they had an audience. He took the opportunity to observe them as he approached, his pace a little faster than theirs. Something about their interaction gave him pause. When the lad with shorter, brown hair hitched a ride for a few paces on the back of the taller lad, the one with broader shoulders and longer sun-bleached blond hair, he noticed that he stretched his neck forwards over his friend's shoulder and nuzzled the other boy's face cheek to cheek in a very affectionate way. When the blond lad lifted the other off the ground the action began with an arm snaked around the other's waist. Even when they were just walking side by side there was usually an arm across the other's shoulders.
Brian had advanced on them almost to the point of passing them before they realised he was there, and then suddenly all their playfulness stopped, but he was amused to note that although they attempted to hide it, they walked together with their little fingers linked.
He was tempted to make some comment, perhaps a jovial greeting or a little wry humour to indicate that he had noticed their playfulness and appreciated it for what it was, but he couldn't think of anything suitable and couldn't be confident that anything he might say would be welcomed. So he smiled and nodded as he passed them and walked briskly onwards, in order to give them once again the privacy that they had so clearly been enjoying.
The path curved around in a wide U and Brian came to the end of the big loop and stopped at a vantage point where he could see across to where he had just come from. He took a swig from his water bottle and scanned the visible stretch of path in the hope of seeing the two boys, now surely some distance behind him, but there was no sign of them so he continued his walk and very soon found himself back at the car park and absorbed into the crowd of sightseers milling around.
Despite his earlier concern about delays on the journey home, he took some extra time to read the information boards, take photos from the various viewpoints nearby, and join the audience watching a group of traditional dancers giving a very impressive display, punctuated with informative explanation.
When the demonstration was over the crowd dispersed and Brian headed off to make one final necessary stop before returning to his car. Guided by the finger-posts, he found the neat public convenience building and made his way around to the entrance marked with the male stick figure.
Inside, he noted two things: the place was clean and odour-free, and one of the urinals was in use. Complying with the universal etiquette of such places, he took the urinal furthest from the other man, carefully avoiding eye contact. It was perhaps this punctiliousness that prevented him from recognising at first that the other man was one of the two he had observed on the path earlier, but then someone spoke. The voice came not from the occupied urinal but from one of the stalls against the opposite wall. All the stall doors were open, so someone was using one without having closed its door.
“Blow your mind – smoke gunpowder!” called the voice, presumably reading graffiti from the wall.
“Accidents cause children!” this last announcement ended in a giggle.
“I think we're safe on that score.”
As the other urinal user stepped back and zipped up his fly, he coughed loudly and meaningfully. His friend didn't get the hint, though.
“Jamie would you like children? We could adopt?” With this last contribution the speaker emerged and realised that his friend had not been the only audience for his comments, and the two of them stood washing their hands at neighbouring sinks, attempting without much success to suppress their giggles.
Mr Foster zipped up, took his turn at the sink, and left the building in the wake of the two youngsters. Hurrying a little, he caught up with them just before they arrived at their little blue car.
“Excuse me!” he began. They turned, drew together defensively. He tried to reassure, put them at ease. He smiled, held up both hands palms forward.
“I just wanted to say...” he tailed off, unsure how to continue.
“I just wanted to say...” - and then it came to him - “don't assume others disapprove. I saw you together earlier. I saw how happy you are together. It made me smile. You have something special. I hope it lasts. You've brightened my day. I wish... I wish that when I was your age I had someone, who gave me the happiness you two have together.”
He broke off, embarrassed to find he had spoken so much. “Anyway, the sight of you two together made me happy today. Thank you.”
And he walked off, towards his rental car further along the rank of parked vehicles. The blond boy turned to face his friend, raised one eyebrow and the other boy with a small smile stepped forward, raised his arms, wrapped his hands around the other's neck, and stood on tiptoes to kiss Jamie, a kiss that became a hug, a hug that broke only when they turned and with arms over each other's shoulders waved to Brian Foster as he drove past, beginning his journey back to the city, an hour later than he had planned.
© Bruin Fisher November 2012