“David’s deer, where are they, mate?”
A man in a dark green top and blue trousers stopped his work, brushing the floor of an animal enclosure. He eyed the young man – clad in dirty jeans and a grey hoodie – disapprovingly, “Père David’s deer, oh, they’re on loan for a few days.”
“Well, they weren’t here last week neither. The bloke on duty said they were sleeping.”
The zoo keeper sighed. “Well, animals have to sleep!”
A girl with blonde hair in a ponytail joined them, linking arms with the young man. “Well, I went to see the giraffes and there was only one, in a smelly building. None out in the paddock.”
The keeper began to brush the floor once more. “Well, what do expect me to do about it?”
The girl continued. “And I went to see the lions, just one, lying down, it might as well have been stuffed! What do you say, Steve?”
The young man looked around at the paddocks, pavilions and thinly-populated walkways. “Well, I don’t see a whole lot of animals, mate. I thought this was supposed to be one of the top zoos in the country. I reckon I saw more animals in that musical, Cats!”
The keeper stopped brushing and leant his broom against a wall. He approached the young couple. Glancing around to make sure none of the paltry crowd of visitors was within earshot, he lowered his voice. “Look, the truth is, this zoo’s going downhill – and fast. Time was when we had herds of Père David’s Deer, a dozen lions, polar bears, even a herd of Euclid’s gazelle. But people are funny, kind of gone off zoos, ‘cruel to animals’ you hear them say, all this ‘political correctness’ gone mad. So, they don’t bring their kiddies so much nowadays. There used to be throngs of the little buggers in the old days, all shouting and screaming at the animals. Now it’s all about getting visitors into the gift shop and cinema and museum.”
“Well, we came to see animals,” exclaimed the young woman. “You know, furry things that move around on their own!”
The keeper sighed. “Look, I understand. Do you think I want to spend my time brushing an empty paddock, putting out imported dung to make it look like animals were here?”
Steve turned to the girl. “Come on, Sue, I’m going to blow the whistle on this lot.” He turned to the keeper, “So where do I find the general manager, I’d like a little word with him first.”
Behind the refectory, gift shop, museum and cinema, was a small drab building. It housed the manager of the Royal Park Zoo. A sign on the door said ‘Hugo Charles,’ followed by a long string of initials, in which the letter Z was prominent. Mr Charles himself sat behind an expansive mahogany desk, a desk that matched his appearance – overweight and red-faced. “Look, I’m sorry, Steve and er, … Sue. It seems you’ve been ‘had.’ That fellow you spoke to was an imposter.”
Steve and Sue exchanged glances. “Whaddya mean, an imposter!” Steve exclaimed, “He was wearing a uniform.”
The manager sighed, “Well, did it have any lettering on it? RPZ for example?”
“Well, no it never, come to think of it,” said Sue.
“Precisely! This fellow, Wentworth Biggins, is, well, not to put it too finely, a looney, someone who comes here solely to spread malicious rumours. On account of his objection to keeping animals in captivity. As if the precious work we do –”
“He said you put down fake dung,” interrupted Sue.
“Ah, yes, he says all kinds of things. That the crocodiles and hippos are just mechanical heads on sticks that bob up and down at random intervals, that the lions are stuffed, and that the zebras are just ponies with stripes painted on them! All kinds of nonsense. I can assure you we have hundreds of real live animals.”
Steve stood up, pulling his hood over his head. “Come on, Sue, seems we were wrong.”
Mr Charles stood up, likewise, smiling and brandishing two tickets. “Look, I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding. Here are two annual tickets. Free entry to the zoo, museum, gift shop and cinema, with my compliments. I can promise plenty of animals!”
Once the couple had left, Mr Charles picked up the phone. “Hello, James, it’s Hugo. Look, Perkins has been talking out of turn again, that man is a positive menace, just cannot keep a secret. Get him to clean out the tigers, will you? … Yes, and is there some way you can fix it so they can get back in when he’s cleaning … ah, excellent!” Satisfied, Mr Charles took a magazine, Zoo Supplies Weekly, down from a shelf and turned to the ‘dung for sale’ pages.
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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