As planned, the first Saturday in May witnessed Katie and Alan heading off to the zoo to try their luck, while Jess and Tom gave car washing a go.
At last, the weather seemed to be in the mood to adjust itself to a more seasonally normal pattern. The April showers, that this year had pushed the definition of the word ‘shower’ to breaking point, had pleased nobody except ducks and umbrella salesmen.
As usual, Katie had called round for Alan. Both preferred this to the alternative, although for different reasons. The less Gran saw of Katie’s friends, the better. The only time Alan had ever called for Katie, Gran had taken an immediate dislike to him and she had made certain that he knew it. Rule 144 took care of liaison schedules thereafter.
Many of Katie’s likes and dislikes were food based, and nearly always, she could find something to eat at Alan’s house. After raiding it, Jade could be relied upon to leave the cake tin lying open on the living room table, or to have abandoned the remains of a wrecked packet of biscuits on the kitchen worktop. Alan never said no to Katie’s requests for food; in fact, he barely seemed to notice her asking. And when she thought about it, Katie couldn’t remember a conversation with Alan about food that she hadn’t started.
With his usual royal hand wave, Alan welcomed Katie into the house. Apart from a dozing cat on the living room sofa, the house appeared to be theirs, for now. She watched as Alan assembled what would be their mid-morning snacks. It no longer occurred to either of them to doubt that he would make enough for two.
Out on the street, the day looked vaguely hopeful. Briefly, the cloud had thinned enough for the sun’s disc to become faintly visible, like a smudge of yellow crayon in a child’s drawing, and as the two friends walked along the sun showed itself intermittently, teasing them into believing that the tantalising cloud breaks might, for once, actually ripen into a warm, sunny day. “Somewhere the sun is shining…” Katie’s gran often bellowed above the din as she ran the hoover round the floor (and over Katie's toes if she wasn’t quick enough to move them). “So honey, don’t you cryee…”
The children stopped outside the zoo entrance. A pair of huge, black-painted iron gates, attached to magnificent stone gateposts, stood permanently open. Anyone with local knowledge would have identified this as the historic main way in to Medgate Park and, along with the surviving outbuildings of Medgate Hall, one of the few recognisable features remaining of the former Cook estate.
At the top of the gateposts, arcing over the gap, sat a garishly painted wooden sign that read MEDGATE ZOO. All the letters had been cleverly painted using snakes and penguins in various poses, except for the ‘A’, which had been delineated using the rear view of an elephant.
The boundary walls circumscribed forty acres of council land previously used as a public golf course (abandoned by the Town Council before the war, due to cost), and then altered during the last war to accommodate a hundred prefabs, built to provide emergency accommodation for bombed-out London families. After the prefabs’ removal in 1956, the park had been used briefly as a traveller site, but this had to be closed after local residents kicked up a fuss.
For the last five years, the park had been the location of Medgate Zoo.
Alan and Katie stopped at the pay kiosk. “Y’ want a map? It’s a shilling,” the woman inside croaked, gesturing towards a pile of folded paper. Without looking up, the stooped figure occupying the entry booth attempted to serve them while still reading her book. The old woman wore a spotted headscarf, tied gypsy style. A bright blue shawl covered her shrivelled frame. Her face was dark-skinned and deeply lined, but most remarkably it was hairy and to a degree that went way off the normal scale of old-lady-hairyfacedness. The booth was a fug of cigarette smoke whose only egress was a semi-circular opening in the glass of the pay window. The smoke quickly began to make Alan’s eyes sting, and he retreated a few steps to let Katie finish the transaction.
“No map thanks, we’ve been before,” Katie replied, coughing.
Without looking up, the woman tore off two tickets from a roll and dropped them into Katie’s outstretched hand. “Then you’ll know you don’t need no map!” she cackled. The cackle quickly turned into a loud and prolonged coughing fit that threatened to blow the stub of a cigarette out of the corner of her thin mouth. Somehow, it stayed in, to jiggle up and down as she spoke. “Then ‘ow about a carrot to give the rabbits, or a bag of cabbage stalks for the tortoises? Two bob.” Without looking up, she pointed at a pile of tied plastic bags sitting at the side of the counter.
The children shook their heads, under the circumstances futile as a method of communication since the woman remained focused on her book, and Alan added a muffled, “No thanks” from behind an improvised handkerchief smog mask.
“Ten bob, then.” The woman held out a claw-like hand and snatched Katie’s proffered ten-shilling note. The hand shot back inside the booth and popped the note under a clip in a cash box. As the children turned to go, she briefly broke eye contact with her book and regarded them sourly. “Kids. Think you know everything. I remember the days when ten bob would buy you a good night out.”
“And enough left over for a packet of razor blades,” Katie said, under her breath, as soon as she thought they were out of earshot.
“When was the last time she had a good night out? The Crimean War?” Alan added, before both of them erupted into giggles that got louder every time they glanced at one another.
It was still early. There were few other visitors about at that time of day, a situation not helped by the fact that once again it had begun to drizzle. The children strolled on, chatting and taking little notice either of the rain or the animal exhibits. Where the small birds’ enclosures ended, the Africa paddock began. The children ceased chatting and instead crept along, peering intently through the chain link fence at a field of mud. Over the winter, the traipsing hooves of sundry herds of African ungulates had obliterated almost all traces of vegetation. Apart from the absence of trenches or bomb craters, it looked to Alan rather like photographs of a First World War battlefield he’d seen in a history book at school.
A solitary wildebeest, brown and shiny in the drizzle, stood by a water trough, steaming gently and looking very sorry for itself. The giraffes, zebras and camels obviously had better sense and had stayed inside, to munch hay or whatever else they were fed for breakfast.
In the end, the children decided it would be more fun to jump the puddles. They zigzagged their way past two wet goats (whose horns were magnificent, to be fair) and a family of pigs rolling in the mud who, seemingly untroubled by any misgivings about stereotyping, looked to be having a great time.
At the end of the path they paused by the round seat with its multi-armed signpost. “Where shall we go now?” Alan said, wiping his glasses on an untucked shirttail.
“The hippos, then the monkeys,” Katie replied decisively. “We’ll get the worst stink over with first, and maybe by then the orang-utans will be awake. They’re usually a laugh.”
“Yeh, Kano is a hoot, some of the things he gets up to. He’s my favourite; reminds me a bit of Cleggy.”
Katie scoffed at Alan’s comparison. “Cleggy? You must be joking. Kano’s far too cheerful for that.”
Cleggy, Mr Clegson, was the children’s form teacher at Reed Park Secondary School – always very earnest and enthusiastic but with a volcanic temper and zero tolerance for backchat or messing about. Nevertheless, despite his dour tendencies, most children liked him. He taught chemistry and, because his northern accent was thick as treacle, very easy to imitate. When out of earshot, the children amused one other by referring to ‘roober boongs’ and ‘boobles’ and ‘copper soolfate’. Not everyone got on with Mr Clegson, although Katie did, and he could probably take the credit for her recently acquired ambition to become a scientist when she left school.
The hippos lived in what could only be described as a concrete-lined hole, half-filled at one end with a murky broth of foul-smelling water. The children looked over the lip of the pit but recoiled quickly, driven back by the pong. Hankies deployed over noses, they dared one another to look again. “On a count of three,” Alan began, “one, two, three, look!”
There below them, up to their bellies in the greenish-brown liquid, stood the two hippos: three tons of flesh made stupid. On seeing the children, one hippo slowly opened its huge maw and emitted a sound that lay somewhere between a roar and a massive belch. A noxious guff of exhaled breath wafted up and the children once again shrank back and held their noses. “Phoo!” Alan winced, sliding down to sit with his back against the parapet.
Katie joined him. “Did you see that stuff in its mouth?” she said.
“It’s a he, I think,” Alan corrected. “The male is the larger one. Dunno. Looked like half a ton of seaweed.”
“Do hippos live on the coast, then?”
“Not sure where they live; rivers, I think. But I bet they don’t do a lot of kissing!”
The children laughed and stood once more to observe the animals as they did their hippo thing. Now the other one’s turn to open its mouth, it yawned an opening so wide that that for a moment it seemed likely that the top of its head would come off. Alan reached into his shoulder bag and rummaged around. “Here, have these!” he shouted, and tossed an unopened bag of crisps down into the pit, where it disappeared without trace into the female hippo’s cavernous face.
Katie covered her mouth with her hands. “Good shot!” she squealed. “I don’t believe you just did that, Alan Cooper.” She glanced behind her; an adult was approaching. She pulled at Alan’s sleeve. “We need to go,” she hissed.
“That was funny,” Alan said once they were moving.
“A bit of a waste if you ask me,” Katie tutted. “Perfectly good bag of crisps.”
“Nah. They were cheese and onion, and I hate cheese and onion. Now, if they’d been smoky bacon…”
“Or salt and vinegar…”
Talk of food had made them both peckish and they made their way back to the round seat, where they explored the contents of their snack bags.
“I wouldn’t want to be the hippo keeper even if it was decent money,” Katie mused through a mouthful of bread and jam. “They’re so unbelievably stupid I don’t see the point of them even existing. I mean, what are they for?”
“Being thick doesn’t seem to hold them back though, does it?” Alan countered as he struggled to open a carton of orange drink without getting it all over his coat.
“A bit like some humans,” Katie added.
Alan chuckled. “Well said. Now just try to picture for a minute what a clever hippo would be like. For starters, I can’t imagine it would want to eat more of that seaweed, now would it? It would probably start demanding real meals, like egg and chips, and Fanta to wash it down. In Hippo-ese, of course.”
Alan had launched into one of his journeys of the imagination that he knew amused Katie no end. She joined in. “Hippo-ese: isn’t that a language composed mainly of roars, belches and farts?”
“That’s right,” Alan continued, getting into his stride, “I can’t imagine any self-respecting hippo would want to stand around in that stinking pit for very long, can you? Where all it gets to eat is weeds, day after stinking day, and simply because nobody understands Hippo-ese. Pretty soon, it’d start trying to escape.”
“And, because it’s clever, it would work out how to undo the padlocks.”
“Or eat them, and then it would go off on a rampage around the zoo looking for egg and chips. You know how bad tempered they are. Basically, it could do anything it wanted. Who’s going to try and argue with two tons of rampaging hippo?”
“Probably just as well they’re massively thick, then,” Katie concluded.
“Here’s a brain joke for you,” Alan said, as they walked away. “If a hippopotamus went to university, it would live on the hippocampus. D’you get it?”
“Oh, ha ha.” Katie shoved her bag at Alan and performed several cartwheels as they made their way towards the apes, briefly pausing by the penguins to watch them waddle and dive or just stand around in random groups.
A squeak, squeak, squeak from behind alerted the children to the arrival of company. They turned to see a short, balding man, wearing chest waders and, apparently, nothing else, trudging towards them pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with some variety of animal ordure. His skin was the colour of wet cheese, his long corkscrew curls hanging limply about his ears in soaking clumps. He did not seem unduly bothered by the weather and pursed his lips as if about to begin whistling but without actually producing any sound. He took absolutely no notice of the children and plodded on grimly.
“They say the zoo’s entire staff were circus performers, years ago,” Katie said when the man had passed by. “Wonder what he did?”
“He looked miserable as sin, so I’m guessing a clown,” Alan replied. “You know what they say about clowns. And he had that squashed face all clowns have.”
“My gran says I’m a clown sometimes,” Katie said, and looked back to watch the man take a left turn and disappear from sight.
” Well, I wouldn’t disagree with that. What a job, though, cleaning out smelly cages all day long. I wouldn’t want to do it.”
“We’ve already ruled ourselves out of two jobs and we haven’t even asked anyone yet what’s going. Do you think dung shovelling is well paid? I think I’d give it a shot.”
“Well you’d never be out of work, I suppose,” Alan reflected. “But imagine trying to explain your Saturday job back at school. It’s not like having a paper round, is it?” He assumed his mock-posh voice. “Oh, and what do you do for pocket money, Alan? Me, oh I’m a dung-shoveller, don’t you know? You meet such a fascinating assortment of people in my line of work…”
Katie punched his arm lightly. “Oh stop it, will you? It needn’t have to be like that. I think I just wouldn’t tell people. I’d just say I worked at the zoo. That sounds pretty glamorous, don’t you think?”
“It sounds pretty glamorous I grant you. But these things have a way of becoming known, don’t they?” Alan said darkly. “Things would be bound to go wrong at some point. Somebody would spot you with a shovelful, and then the game would be up.”
“Someone like your sister, you mean?”
Alan nodded gloomily. “Exactly.”
The children continued past the penguin pool and the pelicans. At the zoo boundary, the path went left and led past cages of owls and other birds of prey. Ahead, a pair of sorry-looking wooden gates that bore in red letters the notice STAFF ONLY blocked the way. A door, with a keyhole and a piece of rope attached to pull it closed, was inset into one of the gates. It stood firmly shut. The children stopped in front of the gates, which stood slightly ajar. For a while, neither spoke. Eventually, Alan said, “Well, are we going in?”
Katie squirmed. Usually, out of the two of them, she was the one who took the initiative, but not this time. “You go first,” she pleaded. “Go on, be a sport.”
Alan groaned. He hadn’t been expecting this. “Oh, what? Why me?” he pleaded to no one in particular. Perhaps some invisible magical force will look down, take pity and rescue me from this particular pit of hell, he said to himself. “This was your bright idea, remember?”
Katie smiled sweetly and waited. Alan closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Oh, all right, OK then, I’ll lead,” he said finally, and stepped forward.
There was no way to open the door; they would have to try to squeeze in through the big gates. The old gate needed lifting to move it but with some effort the children managed to wriggle through the narrow gap – Katie quite easily and Alan only after holding in his stomach and grunting.
The yard was muddy and untidy – and deserted. Where was everyone? Surely, a zoo needed staff. It couldn’t be everyone’s day off, could it? On the other hand, maybe everybody really was out on dung-shovelling duty. Several cigarette ends floated in a nearby puddle. A row of upturned brooms leaned their heads against a shed wall. Above them, screwed to the soffit, a tarnished metal wind chime clanked dully as it rotated slowly in the damp air. Beyond the sheds lay a widely spaced row of residential caravans and prefabricated houses, with wooden fences and narrow gardens, and just visible behind them could be glimpsed the tops of some ancient-looking lorries. “Let’s try down there,” Katie suggested, pointing to the right.
When they reached the end of the first caravan, they paused, wondering what to do next. Without warning, a booming male voice from behind them shattered the peace, startling both children. “What do you kids want?”
Like a nervous tortoise, Alan’s neck retreated into his shoulders and his face screwed up, as if expecting a slap. The booming voice had quite literally made Katie jump in the air, and she now clung tightly to Alan’s arm. Fighting the urge to run, both children turned slowly.
The man, tall and improbably broad-shouldered, stood, arms akimbo, blocking their path of retreat. He was dressed in a white, collarless shirt and pinstripe trousers held up by red braces. Long, black leather boots, polished to a high shine, encased his lower legs. His full head of jet-black hair had been slicked back, Teddy boy style, and his face sported a no less luxuriant waxed moustache. His slightly pop-eyed expression betrayed curiosity but otherwise his face was a neutral mask, neither unfriendly nor particularly annoyed, as if suspending judgement pending further evidence. This was man was no dung shoveller, that much seemed certain.
Katie spoke first. She cleared her throat. “We’re looking for work,” she said in an exaggeratedly stagey voice she hoped would get full marks for ‘confidently and brightly’. “Do you have any?”
For a moment, nothing happened and the man’s countenance, showing neither welcome nor displeasure, remained impassive. The children watched nervously as he pinched his lips together and stared down at them, his large black moustache transformed into an upturned V, his eyes growing ever more saucer-like. Then, quite unexpectedly, he tipped his head back and began a rumbling chuckle, a reeling barrel laugh that rolled on and on, with his face tilted upwards towards the sky as if he had spotted something vastly funny flying past overhead. Alan even glanced up to have a look himself but saw nothing but scudding nimbus clouds and the odd gull, zigzagging by as it was flipped around in the wind.
Eventually, the laughter dwindled to nothing and the man snapped upright, to stare at them once more. “The name’s Bob Leno,” he barked. “I’m the boss here, so I guess you’ve come to the right man. Work, you say. There’s always work here, laddie. What’s in short supply is money.”
“Actually, I’m a girl,” Katie replied. “What kind of work is it?”
Alan had taken up a position to the rear of Katie and seemed to be using her as some kind of human shield. “Could we… feed something?” he asked hopefully.
The man’s head tipped back once more and, just for a moment, it looked as if they might have to endure another bout of mirth-filled hysteria. But almost immediately, his head snapped forward, and this time he gave the children his serious face. “Tell you what,” he said, and pulled out his braces to release them with a loud thwack. He swivelled a half-turn on one foot, marched over to the first caravan, crossed its narrow front garden and disappeared through a front door that bore a small brass nameplate – B Leno MANAGER.
A moment later, he emerged clutching a fistful of leaflets. “See these?” he said, waving them in front of the children. “Just printed. Got ten thousand of ‘em in boxes. Want to earn some cash? Give ‘em out along the sea front. Easy money. What do you say?”
“Yes, please!” the children chorused. Alan stepped out from behind Katie. “May I see one?”
The man handed over a leaflet and Alan studied it carefully. It looked high quality, glossy and colourful but not overdone. It showed the zoo at its best – sunny, busy and not a drop of mud anywhere in sight. Even the lions looked magnificent and quite unlike the bedraggled, moth-eaten creatures they had passed a minute ago.
“So, Mr Leno, how much will you pay us for giving these out?” Alan said, his voice filled with caution bordering on outright suspicion.
The man grinned, his waxed moustache curling again into a V. “Absolutely nothing!” he bellowed, and folded his arms across his huge chest, in direct contrast to Alan, whose arms fell to his sides and dangled. The leaflet slipped from his fingers and fell into the mud. Katie quickly retrieved it and wiped it on her jeans before offering it back.
The man looked disappointed. “Cheer up, laddie! You don’t really think I want you to work for nothing, do you? Open the leaflet and look.”
Katie did so. Under a photo of a group of children holding rabbits she saw a small panel entitled OFFER. She read the panel’s contents.
“Clever lad, that’s it. Do you get it? It’s a discount voucher; every time someone uses a voucher, you’ll be paid a shilling. Sound fair?”
“So the more we give out, the more will get used,” Alan said, catching on.
“And the more we’ll get paid. That’s brilliant,” Katie added. “And it stops us chucking the leaflets in the canal as soon as we’ve left here.”
“My idea,” the man said proudly. “And see that little circle? You can stamp it with a number so we know which ones are yours. Call me Bob, by the way. Everyone does.”
“So, are there many others doing this, Mr Leno?” Katie asked cautiously, still looking for a catch. It just seemed far too easy.
Not so far, son, but I’m sure it will catch on. Yes, catch on.”
“I would call that a success, wouldn’t you?” Katie said as they squeezed back through the gap in the big gates.
“Of sorts,” Alan replied. “It isn’t what I expected, though. I mean we aren’t exactly working in the zoo, are we?”
Katie wrinkled her nose. “To be honest I’m not all that bothered, having seen behind the scenes, as it were. It wasn’t very glamorous, was it?”
“And what did you make of Bob Leno?”
“Bit weird. Definitely a showman, though. Wonder what he did in the old circus?”
“I could guess. Did you clock those arm muscles?”
Katie had clocked those arm muscles. Vaguely, she tried to guess his age. They reached the front gate. “You’re out with your dad tomorrow, aren’t you?” she said.
Alan nodded. “Nan’s birthday. We’re going over for dinner. I wish you could come instead of Jade.”
Katie wished that, too. They had reached her front gate. Over Alan’s shoulder, she could see her own gran scowling down at them from her bedroom window. Her Sunday dinner was most likely to be bread and something, added to whatever she could manage to scrounge from the lodgers. Hopefully, Uncle Phil had been out in his boat today and made a decent catch. Then it would be wonderful, fried fish.
“OK, most probably see you at school, then.” Alan held out his fist and they touched knuckles. “Partner.”