THE BLOG

The Man in the Airport Cafe

19/01/2015 17:44 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 09:59 GMT

My insistence on taking long, ostensibly romantic journeys via various, uncomfortable modes of transport in the hopes of seeking out a handsome stranger had seemed, as my friend Sally put it, 'an endearing quirk'.

The closest I got to it was when a man started taking my photo on the streets of Paris, like a member of the paparazzi, as I came out of Notre Dame. He turned out to be a professional photographer who liked to find his subjects among the crowds, even if this meant half stalking them. We went for coffee, but it became more of a photoshoot than a conversation as he kept clicking away at me from across the table.

Sally's words echoed in my head as I made my way into Kisumu airport, on the humid shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. The charity I had founded after working as a volunteer teacher 9 years earlier was based here.

I set my bag down on a chair in the airport café, sensing someone's eyes on me. I looked up and straight into the watchful gaze of a man seated on the far side of the cafe, talking into his mobile phone in an accent it was hard to make out. Our eyes locked on one another and I didn't want to be the first to look away. He was dressed like a businessman in black suit trousers and a white, long sleeved shirt that he had rolled back at the elbows.

The waiter interrupted us. I ordered a mango juice, sent a text to my dad and checked the departure board. The clock next to it was 30 minutes slow, another amusing demonstration of African Time, and I wondered if this had confused any passengers yet.

He stood up to light a cigarette and I watched as, silhouetted against the white light and simmering heat pouring in through the open door, he lifted a little boy into his arms to show him the plane coming into land. School children sometimes huddled against the wire fence to wave and cheer them on. It wasn't his child but something about the way he picked the boy up, or maybe the fact that he did this at all, made me think that he probably had one.

The boarding call rang through the tannoy and something inside me shifted as he strode towards me on his way out. Still on the phone, he caught my eye and smiled.

In the largely empty departure lounge, I took a seat by the window. A few minutes later, he was there in my peripheral vision, scanning the room, and in the next moment he was beside me.

His phone rang again.

'I'm fine,' he said dryly into the receiver, 'apart from the fact that my phone is about to die.'

I was needlessly deleting text messages and pretending to be fixated on something that wasn't happening outside when he spoke

'Married? Kids?'

I turned to face him, not sure of when I had become old enough for either.

'No,' I replied. 'And you?

We only had five minutes. He had two little girls. He was South African, older than me. He had a job here in Kisumu. He had once lived in England and knew the town where I had grown-up. I told him I was coming back in three months' time and again the month after that. He handed me his card so that we could meet up.

I wasn't supposed to be on his plane at all. My coach had broken down and I had walked into a travel agent and got the last available seat to Nairobi so that I could make my Midnight flight to London.

As we walked across the tarmac, he with his sunglasses on, me squinting into the sunlight, he joked and said, 'So how can a charity director be sitting in business class while the MD of a private company is slumming it in economy?!'

Taken from the blog Sunset Under the Baobab Tree: My African Life