Thursday, 19 September 2013

Zoo Story

No title for this one just yet, all ideas welcome!

There was never a bridge out, pop you in a boat for pennies and a few slices of Pat the Baker, you’d spend the day handy. One Sunday after mass I went down by the lake and the bird house was closed. Lines of yellow tape blocking the row boats and guards shaking their heads, notebooks and pencils, some chap in handcuffs. Normal face, normal build, his ma could have lost him in a crowd. It wouldn’t shock you in this day and age, but this was the seventies in a little summer village like. Yer man swam out there the night before, knife between the teeth kind of a job and just started slashing. Feathers and blood. They found him shivering knee deep in the water.

And that was the end of the bird house on the lake in Tramore.

I was young at the time, pushing eight maybe, I’d made the communion so according to the Big Fella I knew the difference between right and wrong. I’d heard of murder and robbing and all the rest but here it was right beside the summer amusements. Nowadays there’s lads getting stabbed in cinemas, or scumbags using choke wire behind some poor chap on a bus. It's been three decades but the only thing that puts the heebie-jeebies up me worse then what happened out there in the bird house is when I get a sense of ‘yellow’ off someone. Same as I did from that 'normal' looking man in handcuffs. He was the pus behind a white head and I knew something was infecting him.

A few years later my Grandad died and the mother moved us down to his old house in Wexford. Rosslare to be exact, the same place they opened the wildlife sanctuary last year, on the water with a swell of salt in the air. It’s no joke either the boys have the big cats, giraffes, zebras, if you can find it in Africa they have it down in fucken Wexford. That’s where I wound up anyway, the only town in Ireland with a chip on its shoulder. Ran the pet shop down there off The Bull Ring, selling young lads Australian Redbacks and all sorts. One langered conversation down there in The Funeral Home (a Wexford pub which doubles up as an undertakers, do you a deal on the wake like) and I was the Big Man, Numero Uno, The Sheriff round them parts. Yer man in charge of the whole shindig went ahead and made me the Park Warden.

I’ve read a dose of books on it and they all agree for every one hundred people you’ll find a psychopath. Now they’re not all killers but if they sat beside you on a train you’d have a few palpitations and not be knowing exactly why. Gun to my head I’d bet animals are the same, for every tonne there’s a Bundy or Dahlmer or what have you. To be fair the regular ones are dangerous even if they're not psychos, but most of them will give you a good three minutes before starting with the teeth and claws. A bear clicking its jaw, a lion spreading its paws, palm down and gorilla eyes looking for your pupils. If you don’t cop on sure that’s that. Good luck. But then there was that one lioness, Mandy they called her, and you could tell by her look she wasn’t right. Even the pride kept an eye on her and they never, ever, let her near the cubs. But at some point the pride forgot and she got three cubs before we got her.

A young red haired boy comes through the turnstile in a chequered shirt and blue shorts. The green runners puffy at the bottom of his skinny legs. The adult with him, his da I suppose, brings him over to Chimp Island. They stop against the moat surrounding the monkeys. The chimps ahead of them messing up in the trees. Doing a jig with thumbs in his ears, the young lad has the tongue on him stuck out. Normal old stuff, getting a rise off the monkeys, nothing unusual. And that's why most people would miss it. But I see it there alright in the eyes and the slant on the brow. You can almost smell it on the young lad, like fag butts in half empty cans.

Out here we let a few of the animals go around the park as they like. Most of the un-caged keep a bit of distance from the crowds. Not the geese though, they’d get in the car with a stranger for a few bits of pulled bread. You'd want to be a secret agent to get a drop on the rest of them but that said there’s a wallaby with the initials K.C. carved in behind his ear. That’s the stuff you’ve to be on the lookout for. If any of those animal rights types caught wind of it’d be hello RTE.

Burgers for a tenner and flat 7-Up but sure they pay it and the children screaming milk shake this and chicken nugget that. Jungle Jim’s is the name of the fast food place, across from the fruit bats, opposite the spider monkeys. Trina’s sweating bullets trying to take the orders so I jump in beside her and get on a till.

-Good man Noah, she says wiping her forehead.
-Have I earned a coffee? I ask when the crowds relax.
-G’wan you cur.

Trina used be a nurse up in Wexford general and took the early retirement. She does an odd day here and there for the cash in hand. Sound out she is, and sure we have a bit of the old back and forth.
-Any craic out there today Noah?
-Ah sure ya know yourself. Just keeping a look out for the old yellow fellas.
She frowns and tosses a bit of chicken gristle into the maw.
-Want to be careful with that now Noah, remember what the boss said.
-But he still bursts gaskets if one of the animals winds up taking a few slaps.
-I’m just sayin.

I pour out an Americano and wave to Trina. Families come from as far off as Mayo, on a bad day you’d do a thousand easily. That’s ten psychos, so the eyes have to be peeled. The da of the young red-head is sitting with his back to me, a cap pulled over his eyes. There’s a back pack beside his legs, a bottle inside of whatever has him asleep. The red head’s gone AWOL.

No sign of him down by Chateau du Cheetah, no hint of him by Meerkat Kave and Turtle Tenement is a no go. A few of us questioned the name of the last one, on account of this island's history but the boss shrugged and said c'est ca. Whatever that means.

After the ‘incident’ we’d a talk and he said I had to make sure an animal was in trouble before I started pelting lads out. 'Sure he’d a fist raised', I said and the boss goes 'Yeah but he hadn’t done anything yet.' How’s that for dull? Like the doctor telling you to fuck off with your cold and come back when you’ve a dose of pneumonia.

We can't track an individual animal. The boss said it's too expensive to put chips in the lot of them. There's a kind of a bracelet thing if one of them needs to be monitored. Other than that you've got your eyes and your feet, find them quick you're on the clock. Most of the mara are with the zebras and giraffes behind the fences. They're like a cross between a hare and a tiny deer, mad yokes altogether. As soon as they see you they're gone for dust, if the young lad can catch one of these he'll have a place with the Irish Rangers.

There's a buzzing now inside the chest, little waves of tension washing over me. I can't find the red-head anywhere. The orangutans start screaming, the ducks hold their heads under the water until the very last second, geese spit bran flakes back into open palms. The yellow is out there and the animals can feel it, roots of the jungle recoiling under the soil. I see it then, the work of powerful morons. The boss was showing some investor around the park earlier and all that's left is an open gate. It leads to one of several veterinary stations. This particular one being a maternity unit.

Grass grows high here, relaxing for the mothers-to-be they say. I'm crouched down, the head low behind long strands of grass. The first pen is covered over with thick plexiglass, a lioness' side rising with the breath. I put my hand against the glass and she looks at me with half closed eyes before looking away. I took up Tai Chi for the old head a few years ago. The doctor said that a bit of yoga or what-have-you on top of the medication and I wouldn't know myself at all. The old paranoia would settle. Brushing the grass away reminds me of those movements. I must go back one of these days. The second pen is empty. On the concrete floor someone's after leaving a mess, dry blood and straw. Rotten enough alright.

The grass parts left and then right and I feel as important as Moses.

It sticks against his cheeks, the grass just underneath his red hair. He's looking down at something below him, something small. I could stand up now, give him the boot, send him back to the main park, wake up his drunk da. He's yellow, if I'm sure of anything this young lad's yellow. He doesn't move, just keeps there, eyes to the ground. There's a few licks of fur between the grass, breathing slowly. By the back of it she looks like a wallaby, one of the cageless. They do that sometimes, go the vetinary stations when it's time to give birth, a sense they have maybe. The young lad kneels down beside her and I loose him altogether. Small slits of colour between the grass. There's no noise, no hissing out of the animal.

I stay down and wait.

This chap must be yellow.

-The fuck are you doing here!?
The young lad darts up and I hear the wallaby make a noise. Not a hiss or cry but a sort of shudder. Like something in the air's after changing.
-Look da, it's after having little babies!
Strands of grass moving under the weight of the father. The da towards the boy like a langered cheetah.
-Babies da?
The child saying it like a question.

A blunt sound and then the young lad starts bawling. Another sound, sharper now. And another.
I stay put, the grass cutting into the air above me.


And he pulls him by the arm, drags the little fella through the down trodden grass. The da closes the gate behind him and I'm left there lying on the dirt. I push the grass away until I get to the Wallaby, a joey lying there at her teet. The mother starts hissing at me, teeth under the wet snout like those yokes on the rooves of caves. I see myself mirrored in her black eyes. The teeth waiting to snare, ready for the yellow in the darkness of my reflection.