Authors: Geoffrey Household
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Kangaroo Loves Me
He wore a bowler hat. There was a faded velvet collar on his dark-blue overcoat. His gaily striped tie was worn and greasy with years of constant use. His teeth were decayed. One knew at first sight that he was married to a woman much bigger than himself. He was obviously a Londoner.
He had no part in the New York crowd of the nineteen twenties. A townsman, yet racy of the soil, his place was in some pub of the London suburbs, where the landlord was a dog fancier and the local bookmaker had his sacred corner table and the best chair in the saloon bar. The odour that his memory most lovingly selected was a mixture of beer and iodine; so the pub had smelt whenever a new litter of prize terriers entered the world, and their little tails were being docked on the bar before a choice crowd of the landlord's favourites. He had often held the pup; the dirty hands were very gentle. He had been a favourite of the bookmaker, too. Knew a bit about the gees, he did. His bandy legs suggested an early training as a stableboy, and indeed he had ridden a race or two, but lost his job before he was old enough to know when and how to drink.
He stood before one of the kangaroo enclosures in the Bronx Zoo. A female kangaroo lay on her side close to the wire, listening to him. She reclined in the curious manner of kangaroos: full length and leaning on one elbow, like a Roman lady at a banquet. Her grey underside was luxuriously displayed. With her spare paw she fanned the flies from her nose. She watched him with languorous interest, and waved her ears when he spoke to her.
The crowd, a cross-section of central Europe, loudmouthed, well fed, and feeding as they walked, passed by the kangaroos with little interest; they were bound for the
capybara and the ant-eater, distorted creatures to which they had a certain affinity. When people joined him at the railing, he glanced sidelong at them like a fox. If they belonged to the usual run of visitors, he ducked his peaked head into his dirty butterfly collar and waited resignedly till they moved on; but if the intruder was a man, and alone, and likely to be sympathetic, he motioned to him to be still. He showed uncanny judgement in picking those whom he chose to trust. They seldom let him down, but watched, smiling, while he continued the interrupted conversation.
âAin't yer a lil bleeder?' he would say softly. âLike to be back in Austrylia, wouldn't yer?'
His voice was a caress of curious vowel sounds. The kangaroo fanned herself, and listened with obvious delight.
His name was Breown â so he pronounced it, and his associates, to whom such immigrant names as Szczewc were easy because they never saw them written, took him at his own valuation of it. His wife was a roaring Irish-American, red-faced and bulging. She ran a small hand laundry of her own. He had the reputation of a good-for-nothing little Britisher, who would be on the breadline if not for her. It was true that she supported him; yet he would have willingly slaved for some colourless little woman of his own breed. Kate's overpowering vitality sapped his self-respect. A dog would have been something to live for, even to work for, but he hadn't the heart to bring up a pup in a New York tenement. He hungered for the monotonous rows of small, sordid houses on the outskirts of London, each with its own back garden where a dog could run loose and there was room for a hutch of ferrets or Belgian hares.
Kate was not unkind, but she was no object for tenderness. She was a mother to men; a brazen, foul-mouthed mother who liked them rebellious and hard-fisted. Her husband was neither. She treated him with a good-humoured contempt, and was unfaithful to him on the rare occasions when she aroused a passing desire. He was surrounded by contempt â even at Mike's, where the salted, ethered beer kept up some semblance of a saloon, and he should have been in his element. But Mike's customers
knew little of dogs, and of horses less. Of heavy badinage they knew all there was to know, and he was their butt.
Until he discovered the Bronx Park, and the inner shrine which housed his slender and gentle kangaroo, he had no creature to appreciate the sensitiveness that was his birthright. Twice a week for more than a year he had visited her. On every occasion he risked the three-dollar fine and brought her a carrot. For nine months he threw it over the netting. Then on one triumphant day, and ever since, she had taken it from his hand. Only one carrot he gave her at each visit, for he respected the rights of the zoological society, and did not wish to interfere with her carefully balanced diet.
The kangaroo gave him an ambition. It was very long since he had had one. If you had asked him what he most wanted, he would have answered: âTo get 'ome agyne.' But that was a mere longing, like the hope of the pious to go to Heaven; the difficulties seemed so immense that he never even planned return to England. His ambition was more definite. It might be attained. It was a desire that sweetened the hour in bed before he slept, and took away the bitterness of waking.
One day he overcame his fear of ridicule, and demanded boldly that his desire be granted. He swallowed before speaking, and his scraggy Adam's apple bobbed up and down.
âLemme in the kyge with 'er,' he begged the keeper.
âAgainst the rules,' answered the keeper shortly â he was not a little jealous of Mr Breown's conquest. âAnd don't you kid yourself that you've made friends with her. Those kangaroos are the timidest animals in the gardens.'
âCripes! Timidest animals in the gordens! Yer don't say!' he muttered, deeply impressed.
He slunk away, hurt and disappointed, but his pride in his achievement increased. He did not know he was proud. It took the form of increased pity for the kangaroo.
âShe ain't got no call to be timid,' he murmured indignantly. â'Oo's going to 'urt 'er? That's what I'd like ter know! 'Oo's going to 'urt 'er?'
He understood that he would never persuade the keeper to let him into the cage. The result of his disappointment was an orgy of poisonous whisky that left him whiter and spottier than ever. But the orgy was not bad for him spiritually. It was followed by an intense need to assert himself, which led him to use his brain. His cockney cunning, long unemployed for want of any worthy cause, came back to him.
The municipal elections were not far off. He sat in Mike's, drinking cautiously, and dribbling a nasty stream of cockney irony against the Democrats. His tongue was a keen weapon, but he had ceased to use it on personalities, for the sallies which would have set a London pub rocking with laughter were lost in Mike's. His comments on the public administration found listeners; the style passed unheeded, but the eloquence alone won attention. The district leader, white slip under his waistcoat, gold watch-chain across his ample stomach, was forced to take notice of this attack. He asked Mr Breown what the Democrats could do for him. Mr Breown told him.
âAw, come on now! Talk plainly, can't you?'
âI tell yer that's what I want,' repeated the little man. âGet me into the kangaroo kyge, and I'll shut me 'ead!'
Enough of his race remained in the Jew to enable him to recognise a spiritual need when he saw one. He agreed to do his best.
It wasn't easy; but the district leader, his interest stirred both by the oddness of Mr Breown's ambition and by the difficulty of realising it, went far up in the hierarchy of Tammany Hall to get permission. Eventually he got it.
The Londoner dressed as if for his wedding. He was conscious of the same feeling of excitement. It was purer excitement, for he had been afraid of Kate. His marriage to her was a desperate effort to make the new country liveable â as if by changing his manner of life he could change his tastes. He had no fear at all of this second wedding. He would have liked to buy himself a new suit for the occasion. But the kangaroo knew the smell of his old
suit. She might be nervous of a new smell. Better not risk it.
In the subway he was very still and tense. He hated the subway â chiefly because it wasn't the London tube â and took a perverse pleasure in losing himself on it that he might add fuel to his grievance. He did not lose himself on this journey, though Mott Avenue offered him the only genuine chance in New York to do so.
He had stipulated that the interview was to take place after the public had left the gardens. He slipped through the gates a quarter of an hour before closing time. He walked unseeing past the yaks and the ostriches, but stopped to say a word to the emu. The bird came from Australia, the same country as his beloved.
Waiting for him by the kangaroo paddocks were the district leader, his little boy, and two friends. The district leader had a healthy human curiosity, sometimes offensive in its outward manifestations, but always kindly. Nevertheless, Mr Breown resented his presence. It seemed an intrusion on his privacy that made him flush with unreasoning anger. He comforted himself deliberately with the thought that for once he was the centre of interest.
âTimidest animal in the gordens! Er-r, I'll show 'em!'
But even the fame which he knew he would win did not compensate him. It was like making capital out of the timidity of a bride.
His audience greeted him with the gibes of crude good-fellowship, slapping him on the back, telling him he'd forgotten his whip and uniform, begging him to put his head in the kangaroo's mouth. He stepped jauntily to the cage, acting, acting, with an absurd feeling of disloyalty to his kangaroo.