“We’re here to see Bob,” Katie said quickly through the pay window, then dodged back to avoid the escaping fag smoke. A swarthy face loomed close to the glass and fixed Katie with a suspicious eye. “You on the list?” she croaked. Katie nodded. “Names?” With their names checked on her list the woman wasted no further smoking or reading time, and waved them through with a, “Have this.” She pushed a bag of cabbage stalks and carrot slices out of the hole. “Fer the tortoise.”
“I think she’s warming to us,” Alan remarked as they made their way across the zoo. As usual, Katie found it hard to tell if he intended irony, but she rather liked that. Alan Cooper, man of mystery.
The morning held the promise of summer. The grass paddocks had begun to recover after the winter, and more of the larger animals were on the go. They made a detour to feed Cedric, the Galapagos tortoise, who had the distinction of being even older than Katie’s gran.
Down to their last fifty leaflets, a resupply headed their to-do list. No, actually, top of the list remained finding out how much they had earned. They had talked endlessly about what they might get, and what would be enough for them to want to continue. It had been three weeks and they had given out nearly five hundred leaflets, including eighty that morning. They’d be happy with five pounds, they decided. A fiver would beat Tom’s paper round, about the only yardstick they could think of. Much less and they would need to review whether it had been worth the time they’d spent earning it.
The other item on the agenda was The Medgate Centre. Tricky, that one.
They found the gate marked STAFF ONLY ajar, as usual and, having already discussed what they wanted to say, the children stepped through the gap with confidence. Now they were in the yard the children weren’t sure what to do next. However, what they saw certainly wasn’t what they were expecting. For a start, the yard was dry. The mud pools had dried up to dust. The narrow gardens of the caravans had burst into life, giving the scene some much-needed colour. And not only that – this time there were people out and about, none of whom took the slightest notice of them.
Over by the first row of caravans, next to a sign that read STRICTLY NO ANIMALS BEYOND THIS POINT, they watched a man and woman juggling with Indian clubs. For a time, they practised individually, but periodically the couple faced one another and began passing the clubs back and forth before returning to their individual routine. It was a very skilful display and the children watched, mesmerised.
Then straight towards them came a man pedalling a unicycle, riding it along the apex of the prefab roofs. When he reached the end of one roof he somersaulted, bike and all, and landed without a pause at the start of the next. The man noticed the children watching his act and, as he reached the end of the last roof, he winked at Katie and performed a handstand, bike and all, before setting off once more on the return journey. What next, Katie thought. A fire-eater, perhaps?
“You kids shouldn’t be in here.” The spell had been broken. The children looked round to see a squashed-faced man who had emerged from a door marked MALES, walking towards them while hitching his braces onto his shoulders. A cigarette dangled from his flabby lips and jiggled up and down as he spoke. “It’s private, OK?”
You look different without your barrowful of animal dung, would have been a good response, if either child had had the nerve to say it. Instead, Katie replied with, “Is Mr Leno around? Bob?”
“Oh, Bob, is it?” the man said sourly.
“We need to see him about getting some more of these.” She fished in her pocket and pulled out a leaflet.
“He’s out,” the man said, over his shoulder, as he pushed his wheelbarrow and shovel out through the gate.
“Now what?” Alan sighed.
“We wait, I suppose. Let’s go and sit by his office; that way, we can’t miss him.”
Alan checked his watch. “It’s quarter to one. Let’s wait until two and if he isn’t back by then we’ll give it up for today.”
Katie nodded. “We can leave a note instead.”
They sat down on the bench under the office window in the caravan’s slender garden. Katie pulled a book out of her bag and settled down to read. Alan had come less well prepared. He looked over Katie’s shoulder as she let her book fall open at the bookmark. “Black Beauty, I might’ve known.”
“Third time,” she said. “It’s a good story; you should try it. If you like, I’ll read you some.”
Alan declined the offer. Talking horses? No thanks. He decided to explore the tiny garden, not that it would take very long. It was a mess but he could tell it had once been cared for. A pile of house bricks had been dumped over the fence at the far end and he set himself the task of piling them neatly. First, he had to move every brick onto the lawn area. This took a while, as he needed to remove each one carefully, just to make sure there were no spiders lurking beneath. Katie glanced up occasionally to observe the painstaking care with which he lined the bricks up exactly, one on top of another until, after about half an hour, he had created a perfect cuboid, with four odd bricks placed on top like a chimneystack.
Clearly satisfied with his handiwork, Alan then set up a flowerpot on top of the stack and shied bits of gravel at it.
If Katie was at all bothered by Alan’s leaping about, and the sharp clacks as a stone hit the flowerpot, she did not show it. Tilting her straw hat forward to shield the book from direct sunlight, she continued with her reading.
After ten minutes of target practice, again Alan felt bored. He returned to the bench, slumped down and rested his head on Katie’s shoulder while whimpering softly.
Katie looked up from her book and smiled. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Half one.” He held his wrist to his forehead. “Bob, where are you?” he wailed in mock agony.
“Do you want to go?”
To entertain Katie, as much as anything, Alan clutched his head and wailed, “No, don’t make me leave!” He dropped to his knees, rolled on the lawn and flailed his arms, adding cries of, “No way are we leaving! Don’t make me!” Katie smiled again and returned to her book.
Alan sat up and looked around, and then he came over, stood on the bench beside Katie, and peered in through the caravan window. The glass was none too clean but, through the grime, he could make out a desk and behind it a high-backed captain’s chair. Against the wall sat a couple of ordinary-looking dining room chairs. Some cardboard boxes had been stacked against the end wall – the leaflets, no doubt. Apart from a black and white poster-sized photograph pinned on the wall above the desk and an advertising poster for JD Baxter’s Circus, summer 1954, the walls were bare.
Alan looked more closely at the photograph. It showed a man and woman, posing with a rectangular wooden backboard on which had been painted the life-sized outline of a human figure. A semi-circular headpiece announced presumably, the name of the act: ANA BOBANA.
The man, dressed in a dark, sleeveless vest and tight shorts, stood to the left of the board, fastened around his waist the thick leather belt typical of a circus strongman. Clearly, this was a younger Bob. The woman, dressed in a sequinned leotard, held five throwing knives fanned out in each hand. Including her elaborately piled hair, she looked not much shorter than Bob himself, and together they struck the viewer as a formidable couple: confident, shiny and successful.
Alan pressed his nose against the window. Despite her copious, theatrical makeup, the woman looked oddly familiar. Then it struck him, and a jolt of excitement ripped through his insides like an electric shock.
“Oh, lordy, lordy,” he said quietly, his nose pressing even harder to the glass. “You will not believe what I’m looking at.” The children couldn’t leave now, not without at least trying to get some answers.
They heard Bob before they saw him, his guffawing laugh unmistakable and loud enough for him still to be just about anywhere within the zoo boundary. Eventually, he turned the corner and marched towards the gate but, much to the children’s alarm, he was not alone.
At his side padded a large, black feline, restrained on a short lead and obviously very powerful, as even Bob had to work hard to keep the animal from dragging him along. Now close enough to identify who waited by his door, he hailed them immediately with a loud, “Ah!”
As the pair entered the garden, both children jumped onto the bench, although what good that would have done if the animal had taken a dislike to them is anybody’s guess.
Bob looked slightly puzzled at the children’s behaviour, and then dived sideways to latch the gate, as if there might have been a need to catch it in case it suddenly decided to fly away.
“My two best salesmen,” he thundered, as if they were standing at the opposite end of a football pitch. Then he registered the children’s alarm and the direction of their gaze. This caused mirthful apoplexy for about ten seconds, before he said, “Don’t worry about Saba. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Door’s open, go on in.”
With Saba leading the way, the children followed Bob through the door. Inside it seemed quite dark and it took a moment to adjust to the gloom. He opened the door to a second room and, much to the children’s alarm, let go of the animal’s lead.
Saba took a wary pace forward, sniffing first Katie and then Alan. Satisfied, the animal turned and entered the room, managing a tight U-turn before reappearing in the doorway where he sat on his hindquarters and proceeded to groom himself.
The children stood in the centre of the room while Bob went into the kitchenette. Katie could hear him filling a kettle and realised that she hadn’t taken a breath for more than a minute. “You’ll want payment, no doubt,” he yelled through the wall. He lit the gas stove under the kettle and appeared in the doorway, peeling off his jacket and throwing it in the corner as he crossed to his desk. “A nice cup of tea, yes?”
With a nod, both children accepted the offer, Alan because he was thirsty and Katie because she knew there was a chance it would be accompanied by a biscuit. By this time, Saba had finished his ablutions and had hunkered down, with his enormous paws stretched out in front of him and, after a few moments more, he had rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. “Is Saba a panther, Mr Leno, or a puma?” Alan asked.
“He’s a leopard, actually. He’s also a panther. Panther just means big black cat. I got him when he was about a year old. He’d been badly treated and was very nervous around humans. But I didn’t give up on him. He’s about twelve, now – an old man in cat years.”
“Was he in your circus act?” Katie asked.
“Never,” Bob replied. “Too nervous around the other cats. Likes humans, though. I’ve never seen him aggressive towards people, which is surprising I suppose; well only a couple of times, and even then there wasn’t any blood.”
“What happened?” Alan asked, watching the resting animal twitch in his sleep.
“Cigars,” Bob said. “I worked it out. The smell sends him a bit mental. Both of the times he came at me I was smoking a cigar. He jumped up at me and knocked me to the ground, and then stood over me. Cured me of smoking, though.”
“Maybe somebody who was bad to him smoked cigars,” Katie suggested.
Bob pointed at her and winked. “Spot on,” he said. “That’s my theory, too.”
The refreshments underway, Bob plonked himself down heavily in his chair and swivelled it until he could rest his feet on the corner of the desk. “Now, what did we talk about outside? Ah, yes!”
Abruptly, he flung himself sideways and pulled open a desk drawer. A cash box appeared, accompanied by a blue cashbook. “Let’s see, you’re number six, right?” The children nodded. He fumbled with the empty coin tray, reached underneath and pulled out a bundle of banknotes. He dealt out the amount he needed and put the rest away.
Katie and Alan leaned forward in anticipation. This looked quite promising – very promising in fact. He checked the amount, scribbled something in the cashbook and then pushed the notes towards them. “Eight pounds and seven shillings, which I’ve rounded to eight pounds ten since I don’t have any change handy. Well done, boys! You’re my best sales team. More leaflets? There’s plenty left.”
“Yes please, Mr Leno.” Katie picked up the money and handed it to Alan. “Here, you can keep it in your wallet,” she said.
A rising whistle alerted Bob to his next task. Like a poorly controlled marionette, he dived from his seat and strode across to the kitchen. The tea was hot and drinkable – Gran’s tea was always too strong for Katie’s liking – and there were biscuits.
When about to sit back in his chair, Bob leapt up again and made a dive for the pile of boxes. “Here, take this lot,” he said, and dumped the open box by their feet. Back in his chair, he lunged for his cup and at last sat back and was still.
Alan felt exhausted just being in the same room, Katie too. Bob watched them as they sat drinking their tea and Katie wondered what he might be thinking. Being in charge of a zoo, there must be a hundred things on his mind.
With the tea finished, and having helped herself to as many biscuits as she dared, she put her cup on Bob’s desk. The zoo’s busy today,” she said, just to make conversation.
“Zoo attendance figures are up twenty percent so far this season,” Bob replied cheerfully. Despite trying not to stare at it, both the children’s eyes kept coming back to rest on the photograph on the wall behind Bob. From this distance, they could see it was definitely her, no doubt about it.
Bob must have noticed their interest and glanced up over his shoulder. “That’s a few years ago, now,” he chuckled.
“Where was it taken?” Alan asked. He could think of a hundred questions that were more interesting but this one at least had the merit of being inoffensive.
Bob swivelled round and studied the image, almost as if he was seeing it for the first time. He sighed. “That would be Scarborough, summer season 1955. Before things changed.” His eyes dimmed slightly and he looked thoughtfully into his teacup.
Katie thought it was probably time they went. She began packing leaflets into her bag and gave an empty shopping bag to Alan, who should have taken the hint and begun to do the same. Instead, she heard him say, “What changed Mr Leno, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Bob continued to look broodily into his cup and for a second, she thought that Alan had overstepped the mark. Then, once more Bob began to speak.
“There was an accident. Shortly after that picture was taken, as it happens. That’s one reason I remember the time and place so well. Ana, that’s the woman in the picture, well we were a double act – Ana Bobana. She threw knives, with me as her ‘target’. She was very good, in fact one of the best around. We’d been doing this act for over a year after Sean died, that’s her husband. His main jobs were as a horse trainer and trapeze artist, but also as her partner in the act.”
Katie rushed her hands to her mouth. “Did she…?”
Bob regarded her with beady, pop eyes, his lips pursed, his forehead creased in puzzlement. Then he tipped his head back violently to let out a window-rattling guffaw that lasted for maybe ten seconds before ending abruptly as he sat back upright and eyeballed Katie once more. “No, son, she didn’t knife him, if that’s what you’re thinking. An elephant stood on his chest. His own fault, he was drunk and showing off. No matter.”
“Did you have lots of jobs in the circus, Mr Leno?” Alan asked. “What was your favourite?”
“Everybody had lots of jobs. We all mucked in; that’s how the circus works. It’s just like a huge family. I was lion tamer, strongman and sometimes I got to be ringmaster, if old man Baxter wasn’t up to cracking the whip that night. Sometimes, all three in the same show!
“After the accident, I couldn’t do any of them. See here?” He pointed to a line of raised, white flesh just above the crook of his right arm. “She insisted on using these broad-bladed throwing knives, said they flew straighter. The one that did this completely severed my bicep muscle.”
Both children winced, and even Bob looked to be in some pain as he rubbed the scar. The children looked at the photograph and then returned their eyes to Bob. “What happened after that? What did you do?”
“Do? There wasn’t a lot I could do. Without a right arm, I was useless. It was six months before I could even push a broom, a year before I could lift a bale of straw. It meant I was finished as a strong man. Who’s ever heard of a one-armed weight lifter? Not only that, I was finished with the whip; I was just hopeless. I even tried using it left handed but couldn’t get the hang of it. So for me it meant the end of lion taming and ringmastering. Can you imagine doing either of those without a whip in your hand?”
Katie glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping leopard. It was remarkable how quickly they had become used to the presence of an animal that could easily have killed them, had it wished to. Although, if Bob said it was OK…
“So the old circus boss, J D Baxter, took me on as an office boy. As Baxter’s health started to go downhill I shouldered more of the administration, actually found I had a talent for it.” He opened his arms expansively. “And here I am,” he grinned.
“And what happened to…?” Katie couldn’t remember the name Bob had used.
Bob looked round again at the photograph. “Ana? She wouldn’t stay. I tried to persuade her, believe me. She left in the spring and I never saw her again. I’ve often wondered what became of her. She blamed herself for the arm, you see. I told her not to. I could easily have moved, and it wouldn’t have been the first time.”
That Katie could easily believe, having witnessed Bob’s erratic habits of movement and, as if to prove his point, he put a foot up on the desk and pulled up his left trouser leg to reveal a long, white scar on his calf muscle. “That one was certainly down to me. I can be a bit twitchy sometimes.” He looked into the distance, his voice trailing off into silence.
Only sometimes? Alan and Katie looked at one another. “We’d better get going if we’re going to give out some of these this afternoon,” Alan said, starting to put the rest of the leaflets into the shopping bag. On the subject of the Medgate Centre development, they had obviously reached a silent understanding; this was definitely not the occasion to mention it.
“Well, thanks for the tea, Mr Leno,” Katie said. “We’ll be going now.” Saba stretched and stood. He came over and nuzzled Katie’s hand, then rubbed himself against Alan, who looked distinctly nervous, yet thrilled. Katie ran her hand along Saba’s back and the animal responded by looking directly at her. His eyes were friendly, she could tell. “Do you have other tame animals?” she asked.
Bob looked at her as if she had just stumbled onto a deeply held and slightly embarrassing family secret. Then he smiled. “Most of the animals here are what you might call human-friendly, certainly the ones from the old circus days or ones we’ve reared ourselves. I bet your dog-walking friends could put leads on our wolf pack and take them walkies on the sea front without any problem at all,” he chuckled. “If you respect them then they’ll respect you, plus it helps if you keep them well-fed.”
Bob showed the children out. “Well, visit again soon,” he thundered after them as they closed the gate. “And please, call me Bob.”
Katie waved. “OK, Bob, as long as you call me Katie,” she called.
Hands on hips, Bob did his saucer-eyed puzzlement thing again, and followed it with a massive laugh. “Katie!” they heard him bellow as they walked away, and another huge laugh followed them to the front gate.