A Trip to the Zoo

A Trip to the Zoo – winner, Practice To Deceive fiction competition 2007

‘I can’t believe you’ve brought me here,’ you said, twisting the hair over your right ear. ‘I hate zoos. The whole caged animal thing.’

 ‘Oh, Come on,’ I said. ‘You wanted to go to a bullfight when we were in Spain last year. The only reason we didn’t was you got the wrong day.’

‘You got the wrong day. And it’s completely different.’

‘You have got to be kidding me.’

You went quiet, in that way that said the conversation was over.

‘Because the bulls aren’t behind bars?’ I said, knowing there was no point.            

You stood in front of the sunburnt hoarding which informed us in French, English and Arabic that the big cats were down the path to the left.

‘A North African zoo as well,’ you declared. ‘Not exactly Windsor Safari Park.’

‘Do you want to leave?’ I said, as you headed towards the lions.

The air was tarpapered with the solid reek of tom-cat. The beast was collapsed onto its side; a dappled heap of sandy pebbles drooping under the weight of its spots. The tip of its tail tasted the rise and fall of the air. After a lazy moment the pile of golden rocks stirred; without standing up it twisted to face us. Its nose was dry and cracked; a scar scribbled across its right cheek. You muttered something.

‘What?’

‘His stride is wildernesses of freedom.’

‘Uh?’

‘Ted Hughes.’

‘That comedian?’

You shrugged. ‘Mmm.’

‘It’s not striding. It’s not even moving.’

‘You wanted to come here. Why don’t you poke it with a stick?’

It unlocked half of one eye, looked at me: closed it. Opened both eyes and looked at you: held them open. Its teddy bear ears twitched: the tongue of its tail continuing to lick away the filthy afternoon.

‘Cats only move their tails when they’re angry,’ I said.

‘It’s a leopard.’

‘I can see that. You tell me things I know already.’

The animal swiped its nose with a vast pink fist of a tongue; stretched out a lazy foreleg and raked the dust. It yawned, fogging me with dead meat breath. The two of you stared at each other.

‘Smile,’ I said, switching on my new camera.

‘Cats can’t smile,’ you sighed.

‘I know that,’ I sighed back. ‘Stand this way a bit, then I’ll get you both in.’

 ‘It’s cruel,’ you said, twirling the all-inclusive bracelet round your wrist. ‘I’m going back to the hotel.’

We spent the rest of the fortnight drinking local beer. You were in bed next to me every time I woke up. We cut our hotel tags off on the bus to the airport, and I dropped the plastic strip onto the floor between my feet. You folded yours twice and put it in the back pocket of your jeans. I kissed the side of your cheek and you didn’t pull away.

‘It’s always sad, going home,’ I said.

You patted my knee and leaned into my shoulder.

 ‘But we have a lot of happy memories, don’t we?’

OUT OF PRINT