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Encounter at the Zoo.

by David Watmough
  

Nancy Molesworth, ninety-three and arthritic notwithstanding, couldn’t resist a smirk as her great nephew drove her 1956 Olds off the Trans-Canada after an hour’s drive east from the city and, seconds later, drew up in the parking lot of the prominently posted THE GREATER VANCOUVER ZOO.

Greater Vancouver,” she remarked. “We’re fifty kilometers from town! They might just have well called it the The Greater Calgary Zoo!”

Desmond Molesworth returned her grin. “Watch us grow!” he said. “In ten years from now this may well be part of downtown.”

They have a little train, Aunty. It goes to various parts of the zoo and we don't have to get off if we don't want to.“Well thank goodness I shan’t hang around to see such a monstrosity,” she retorted. “It was bad enough to see so much building going on as we drove out here. I think it an insult to the mountains—all that white suburban splatter littering their slopes.”

With that she hauled herself out of the car—and immediately shivered as the cool valley air hit her. She’d been nice and warm with the car’s heater on and as it was still only late September she was taken off guard. That wasn’t her only discomfort. She noticed that her finger tips were rapidly turning white and that—more frequent this—her feet had started to ache.

“Circulation,” she mumbled. But there were more words in her old head that went unsaid. She remembered—did she ever forget?—her years as a history professor at UBC when she had made her specialty a study in urban conurbations, not least in her later years, of her native city. In the green of girlhood she had made that same journey eastward on a narrow, winding road serving single lines of traffic (and that sparse enough) but continuing all the way to Penticton and the Okanagan for summers with her parents and siblings—now all dead, every single one of them. In fact this young man who’d acted as her chauffeur was the only flesh and blood she was now linked to. But she didn’t linger on that; the isolation of old age was too commonplace a thought running below her thinning white hair for her to dally on it. Nor did she spend overlong on the spoliation of the landscape by urbanization. She knew that each generation entertained comparable thoughts about its own time, the past, and what the future might hold. She recalled as comfort the words of her old tutor when she attended Girton College, Cambridge, that everything was relative and one should never, ever forget it!

Watching her as she rubbed her fingers, gently pawing her feet on the cement of the carpark, Desmond did his own bit of thinking. All through his childhood, indeed up to her death, his mother had always emphasized her maiden aunt’s great age. Indeed, she had taken every opportunity to see that he treat Aunt Nancy as someone very special and not with the brusque indifference that he and his adolescent coevals tended to treat all older persons as the century wound down. Indeed, he now wondered whether that had been yet another example of his Mom’s prescience, not only over her own premature death from breast cancer but to ensure her one surviving aunt would have at least one younger person to serve her needs and generally accord her due familial concern and attention.

He offered her his arm. “Would you like to go inside now, Aunty Nancy?” Although he didn’t feel cold himself he interpreted her physical actions. “Bit chilly out here, isn’t it? After rolling along in your comfortable auto.”

She smiled and took his hand and squeezed it, rather than holding onto his arm.
“If we walk along slowly I think I’ll warm up. But I warned you before we started, Desmond, that these stupid legs aren’t up to an enormous hike, even with all those exciting animals to spur us along.”

He didn’t answer. Long ago she’d taught him that lots of her comments didn’t need answers. That in fact she was irritated by responses as they weren’t part of any conversation but a special kind of speech that sometimes enjoyed an audience but not a reply.

When they had finally covered the few sloping yards down to the ticket office and she was reading a brochure on the zoo that she’d picked up, he had a brainwave. They were alone at the wicket and after reading the tariff of various entrance prices, he turned back to her. “They have a little train, Aunty. It goes to various parts of the zoo and we don’t have to get off if we don’t want to. It only takes just over twenty minutes but you see most of the zoo. What do you say?”

Nancy said yes very quickly. She turned her attention from the zoo’s latest acquisition of a pregnant grizzly to miniature trains. She also skipped back eighty years.

I abominate menageries. But the right kind of zoo is absolutely essential to teach humans how to love and respect the rest of life that shares the planet with them.When she was thirteen and they were visiting England (she for the first time) her father had taken her to visit his cousins who lived in a spacious house in Rye and a special treat had been a trip over Romney Marsh on a miniature train belonging to what she still recalled distinctly was called The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. It had been for her the crowning delight of a three-week sojourn, mainly spent in rural Cornwall, but also in places where her Cornish relatives had subsequently scattered such as Rye, where the hours had been filled with the talk of adults competing with what they remembered of shared experiences and a little girl was either left sitting there uncomprehending or being thrust with distant cousins who regarded her Vancouver clothes with disdain and her Canadian accent with outright hostility.

But the little train had blotted out all that and in its gleaming brass, bright green paint, and chugging movement (punctuated every so often with a loud hoot from its merry whistle) across the flat, sheep-dotted Marsh and visions of scattered and now ruined Martello towers. Later she had decided it was the latter stout stone fortifications, thrown up to meet the possibility of invasion from France by Napoleon, that had sparked her initial interest in history and determined her subsequent career as an academic.

There had been another attraction issuing from the miniature locomotive and its windowless carriages crammed with passengers, mainly children. At several of the smaller, more rural stops (she thought that they had been called “Halts”) she would alight with her father and they would walk along the footpaths above the low banks of reed-filled canals: another heirloom of that perilous past when Bonaparte threatened to invade that vulnerably flat Kentish soil.

As was her invariable custom then, as a child, she had sought to break away from even the smallest group and enjoy the company of her father alone. It was this which ensured that for the greater part of their walks on the Marsh they were alone and silent as Papa was indisposed to respond to her chatter. His aloof silence had tended to upset her back in Vancouver—walking along the deserted beaches of Jericho and Locarno, for instance—but now she suddenly became glad of her father’s stubborn refusal to speak. For it was in the quiet of their procession, observed only by shaggy sheep, that Nancy saw her first grass snakes, their gray-green bodies coiled as they basked on the large leaves of water lilies, their chocolate brown heads made prominent by the bright yellow collars encircling them. It seemed to the excited little girl that around every corner hove yet another beautiful small serpent, some of which—in spite of the human silence—slipped smoothly into the still waters of the canal, causing hardly a ripple as they gracefully curved their coils away from the threat of the land.

“I wonder what snakes they have here?” she suddenly asked her great nephew. “ I hope some rattlers and perhaps some garters. I judge zoos very much by the quantity of native species they exhibit.”

“We’ll ask the staff on the train,” Desmond said, “but remember Aunty, this isn’t a place with a lot of cages. It’s more like the San Diego or that place in England.”

“Whipsnade,” the old lady supplied promptly. “And if it wasn’t that kind of open-spaced zoo I certainly wouldn’t have asked you to bring me here. I abominate menageries. But the right kind of zoo is absolutely essential to teach humans how to love and respect the rest of life that shares the planet with them. That’s why those idiot boneheads who are anti-zoo are so horribly wrong!”

Desmond was silent. He’s heard her on the topic before—could almost quote her by heart. They walked for a few more paces, until he was able to touch her arm, jerk his unshaven chin to indicate the scaled down railway platform just ahead of them.

“Good,” she said. “The damn legs are just about to give up. I can’t see anything like the Romney, Hythe& Dymchurch but there is a nice little bench over there for me to have a sit on.”

He hadn’t a clue what she was talking about with the place names but he was too old a hand as her traveling companion to enquire. He helped her sit down at the dry end of the wooden bench, placed her stick and handbag at her side (a space for him he decided prudently, if a wait for the train was entailed) and went off to gather some pertinent information.

This one, she reckoned, if not exactly a teenager, was probably twelve or so. Althought it was hard to tell nowadays, as they grew so inordinately and acted grotesquely beyond their years.She hardly had time to arrange her thoughts—they were chiefly about creating a hierarchy of favorite creatures she’d like to see—when she was joined on the bench by a good-looking woman, devoid of makeup and with a rather severe expression. She was wearing what Nancy thought a rather incongruously smart wool suit for a zoo outing. She was accompanied by a boy in the standard teen-age uniform of a slogan-covered T-shirt that was illegible to her from that distance and beige and bulky cargo pants. He sported a mop of blond curly hair from under which he kept flashing her curious glances.

He was not as small as Nancy would have liked for she’d hoped that as Labor Day had passed there would now be only pre-schoolers. This one, she reckoned, if not exactly a teenager, was probably twelve or so. Although it was hard to tell nowadays, as they grew so inordinately and acted grotesquely beyond their years.

Not to seem unduly curious, she affected especial interest in the contents of her large, patent leather black handbag that signified she was traveling on a special expedition. Though when she grew conscious that the kid was now staring at her more sustainedly, she returned his look with a practiced glower.

She was about to deal with him verbally when his mouth opened slightly and his eyebrows went up. A question she determined she’d brusquely parry. But Desmond turned up at that moment and any possibility of communication between the two extreme generations was dissolved.

“The train is coming in now and they told me at the station office that as we’re the first we can choose seats wherever we please.”

He knew she would be fussy about that. It was the same if he took her to a movie theatre where she’d change seats, embarrassingly three or four times, before finally settling down to watch the film.

“Let’s sit at the head of the train,” she suggested. “Right behind the engine but facing it. I get sick if I’m looking backwards,” she added. She did not add that was where she’d been seated with her father on the train in England all those years ago. But she didn’t like to leave an impression of frailty of any kind. “If it’s all open I shall enjoy watching the engineer and seeing him at work in his cab.”

As it turned out, the little zoo train was as precise a replica of the earlier one as her memory allowed. Perhaps, she mused, they well all built by the same manufacturer.

It also turned out there was exactly the right seat in the first little compartment which actually overlooked the driver’s space but for some perverse reason it had several wooden containers filling up the desired space. They were thus forced to occupy the next bench facing front in the bright red passenger car. This didn’t please her but she refrained from saying so. As she suppressed comment when the two she’d left on the station bench, sat down right opposite them. The boy occupied the wooden seat across from her.

The four of them took up the whole of the two seats but the glassless window space on either side afforded a balancing sense of freedom. Moreover, the child was currently preoccupied with asking his companion he constantly referred to as Judy, about what animals and birds they would shortly be seeing. The woman, whom Nancy estimated was around thirty or so, naturally had no specific answers but instead of counseling patience until they were under way, offered all sorts of ridiculous suggestions that convinced the nonagenarian that she had never been to that kind of ‘open’ zoo before. It also persuaded her that the woman was no experienced mother or, come to that, any sort of teacher accustomed to dealing sensibly with the incessant questionings of the young. This caused Nancy to speculate on what role the woman might play in the kid’s life. As she wasn’t about to ask and find out she settled on the owner being some kind of ‘honorary’ aunt or even a maiden one—a term familiar when Nancy had been around the same age.

As it happened, she didn’t even face the temptation of opening up conversation with the couple; the boy did it for her. “You know much about this zoo?” he asked. “Where all the animals are?”

“You mustn’t bother strangers, Miles. You really shouldn’t pester people.”

Nancy thought how pathetic that sounded. The woman was really as weak as dishwater. Miles obviously thought likewise. He simply ignored “Judy” and returned to addressing the old lady opposite him—only with an even broader barrage of questions.

“Do you know where the Hippos are likely to be? Did you know they drag people underwater until they drown? And on the land they can chase you at forty miles an hour? What would you rather meet—a hippo or a croc? Do they have crocodiles out here as well?”

Nancy had no intention of responding specifically to his questions and addressed instead his obvious impatience to receive information. “I presume you can read,” she began firmly, and thrust in his direction one of the brochures that Desmond had handed to her at the entrance. “You’ll probably find your answers in there and if not there are bound to be keepers you can ask.” She paused fractionally before adding “I think that’s what zoos are really about.”

He afforded her sarcasm a scowl of remarkable intensity for such young features. It so startled Desmond that he decided that he, too, should intervene. “They told me when I got the train tickets that the driver would be providing us with all the data we’ll need. I’m surprised he didn’t tell your mother the same. They feature it as a major part of the zoo train’s attractions.”

The boy transferred his attention to Nancy’s great-nephew but though he was still frowning he had obviously relaxed somewhat. “She’s not my mother. She’s only my Dad’s girlfriend and she brought me out here just to get in more with him.”

Neither Desmond nor Nancy were disposed to follow that route. And Judy made no effort to exculpate herself. In any case, Miles was patently not yet finished. “Let’s hope he knows his stuff, then. Those guys like to tell stupid jokes and act like you were only in the First Grade.”

“You sound as if you’ve had plenty of experience. I’m surprised you need the train conductor or engineer for more.” She relented a tiny bit. “I felt from your knowledge of hippopotami that you had done your reading.”

“I’ve read up a lot and I been to lots of zoos, too. Seattle, Portland, The Fleishacker in San Francisco and San Diego. And my Mom took me to one in the Bronx in New York, and another one outside Toronto. That’s six. What I was asking is where the animals lived here. That’s what I wanted to know. I wanna know which we’re going to see first.”

“Well, here’s the guy who’s going to provide you with all the dope you need, I hope,” said Desmond referring to the man in dungarees and a peaked cap who now swung aboard the train into the squat cabin where he towered above gleaming instruments and above the length of the little locomotive with its shiny brass fittings.

As if in response the tall figure grabbed a microphone and addressed the now rapidly filling train. It wasn’t until then that Nancy became aware of the loudspeakers inserted in the upper reaches of each compartment and concealed in the fairly ornate whorls and curves of the woodwork. The fellow explained he was their driver and sole official on the train. He also told them with great emphasis of the folly of leaning out when they were in motion and the proscription of standing up and moving about when they had left the platform.

It was all very “schoolteacherly” and Nancy feared there might be juvenile rebellion from opposite her as Miles squirmed on the wooden planks of the seat and refused the bag of candies that his companion vainly offered all three of them. But as soon as they picked up the little speed the engineer allowed, his demeanor quite changed and he began to inform his passengers of what lay immediately in store in terms of the zoo’s inhabitants, followed by their Latin nomenclature and details of their feral lifestyles. Nancy was both pleased and impressed at the professional level with which this detailed knowledge was vouchsafed. More so than Miles, it appeared, who every now and then informed his immediate companions that the man was wrong and provided alternative data to prove his point.

Maybe you, me and the rhinos have something in common. Except the horns, of course. And the sight.The train’s electric motor was quite noisy, especially in the forward vicinity but as they glided round the curves of the narrow gage track, hooting warning to pedestrians every now and then, the front passengers gradually became accustomed to it, and even began to distinguish the low swell of conversation from the rest of the train.

At first they passed stockyards of asses and wild horses, one of giraffes and zebra, and then a compound of wolves and a second of wild boar. Up to this point there was little specific reaction from the various compartments, save the odd outbreak of laughter when someone attempted a wisecrack—usually comparing some zoo animals with one of their companions on the train.

After some ten minutes chugging steadily along the meandering track a pair of rhinos were seen by some, their armor plated bulwarks brandishing massive horns hostilely confronting the train as they stood as far away as they could get and were almost camouflaged against the remoter gray rocks.

It was at that point a change came over young Miles. It was not that he made specific reference to them, as Nancy was expecting, but that he began to respond in an almost physical manner. He started to breathe heavily and he ran a shaking hand several times through his already unruly hair. Judy gingerly touched his arm and asked him if anything was the matter. But he turned his back to her and muttered something about why she should shut up.

The old lady had held no grief for the boy’s companion since first setting eyes upon her but she was not minded to let such rude behavior go un-remarked. “I think it possible for humans to admire other creatures without letting go of their own civility,” she announced, staring straight at him. And then, as if “civility” was beyond his compass, added: “We can see what virtues these primitive animals have without denying our species its own special attractions.”

Desmond felt he should make a contribution. If for no other reason than to impress his great-aunt. “In other words,” he said with a smile. “Just be polite, kiddo!”

Over the PA system came: “Look carefully, folks! You might see our two African rhinos, Peggy and Sam. Those horns on their snouts are made of matted hair and are sometimes single, sometimes a pair. These animals are almost extinct in the wild, having been hunted for those horns which are sold as aphrodisiacs.”

“Yet another good reason for zoos,” commented Nancy, more to gain the boy’s attention than to once more state her credo. But Miles was somewhere else.

“My book says they are solitary and unpredictable. I like that. They don’t see too well but they can hear and smell an enemy a mile off.” He made it sound like a challenge—which was precisely how Nancy chose to take it. She caught his eye.

“Maybe you, me and the rhinos have something in common. Except the horns, of course. And the sight. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes and ears. But unlike them I don’t smell too well!”

For the very first time she made him smile and she knew immediately that she had found his place—at least a part of it that wasn’t readily or often displayed. It encouraged her. “Then it looks as if you’ve got a lot of rhino, too.”

His smiled broadened rather than went away. “Don’t forget the ‘solitary and unpredictable’ bit. Maybe I can’t help looking like other kids but I sure don’t have to act like ‘em.”

That, of course, won her heart.

That means their gate must be open. I think we can just go through and climb that little patch of ground if it isn't too much for you.At the next point the little train chugged to a halt, the driver announced the presence of tigers. Two in fact. After a pause he added that that day they couldn’t be seen from the train.

Two of the occupants of the front compartment prepared to wait, to listen to the engineer’s further spiel about Panthera tigris and the Asian forests in which the striped red-yellow carnivore dwell. But not the eldest and youngest who, even before the train had jerked to a halt, exchanged glances.

It was Miles who spoke first: “If they’re Siberian I bet they’re from Seattle. They have a great breeding program down there.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Siberian tiger. Are they very different?”

There was a fractional pause before he replied. “Let—let me show you.”

As if in alliance the engineer then added, “The zoo train will stop here for a few minutes if anyone wishes to dismount and have a closer look at Pyramus and Thisbe. Thisbe is pregnant and we look forward to her having cubs in November. Incidentally, Siberian tigers are the largest living cats in the world. They are also very rare and The Greater Vancouver Zoo is very fortunate to have them.”

Nancy didn’t hesitate when Miles said, “Come on.” In fact their descent was so quick that neither Desmond nor Judy had time to do more than expostulate and start to follow suit before the oddly assorted couple were moving up the gentle incline to the low wall and deep moat beyond in search of their goal.

At first neither could see any living creature in the enclosure before them, so they started to walk towards the far corner of the area where poplar trees formed the border with the next setting. They were both perhaps aware that they were putting more distance between them and their companions, and that the small knot of people who had emulated their disembarking from the train formed a concealing screen.

It was then that Miles tugged lightly at the old lady’s sleeve. “There’s one of them right at the top of the hill. See? I wonder if we can get closer.”

“I imagine they don’t want us to get closer,” said Nancy—not specifying whether she was referring to the tigers or the zoo’s officials.

Miles was impervious to that. “That’s the emus’ pen beyond, and you can see those emus wandering outside. That means their gate must be open. I think we can just go through and climb that little patch of ground if it isn’t too much for you.”

No question as to whether she wanted to—only a courteous concern with her capability. All hesitation vanished for Nancy. “Why not?” she said, suddenly stirred with excitement. “The train man said ten minutes and we can be there and back by then.”

They clambered very slowly up the rocky terrain. It was both rougher and steeper than she’d anticipated but she wasn’t telling him. At first there was only a mild buzzing in her ears—a familiar sound which she was willing to dismiss. But it grew more insistent as they climbed higher and the ground beneath them grew rougher.

She forgot all that though, when Miles suddenly hissed: “Look over there. And it’s a Siberian. Jesus, that’s one big cat!”

Padding silently towards them was a huge tiger, its striped head partially haloed by white fur. The creature wasn’t only larger but paler in color than any tigers Nancy had previously seen. As it approached within a few paces of a rickety wire fence—that could be easily jumped, thought Nancy—she grew ever more aware of its furious facial expression : a look of predatory enquiry which seemed frozen there. She quelled a pang of disquiet by addressing the boy. “I believe they’re from the Armur-Ussuri region of Siberia. That coat would be much paler in winter. At least in their winter.”

Miles took an extra hard look. “That’s Pyramus,” he announced. He’d stopped climbing. “He doesn’t look all that pleased to see us, does he? I wonder where Thisbe is?”

Nancy sensed the nervousness there, even though his actual words didn’t betray it.

“If he was born in Seattle, as you thought, I bet he’s pretty lazy as a hunter. Food always brought to him and probably at regular times.”

As if to prove her remark, Pyramus paused only fractionally to glance at the old and young humans over the fence, then with a flick of the black tip of his massive tail, moved purposively past them and on up the hill.

In spite of the returned clamor to her ears she could hear him shouting at her, asking her if she were alright, telling her to grab his arm and he would lift her.If Miles had known a moment’s apprehension it was now rapidly dispersed. “Notice how he looked at us? He knew we were here all right. But he knew we meant no harm. That’s why he came so close. We’d never have had such a good look if we’d stayed down there where we were supposed to.”

That reminded Nancy of their arduous climb. “Time we were getting back,” she said shortly. “They’ll be getting hysterical if we don’t show up soon.” She didn’t wait for the boy’s response but started to retreat down the stony slope, sending scattered slivers of slate skittering in front of her.

Miles had almost caught up with her when she fell. One moment he was eyeing her bent form, even wondering whether she was a hunchback, the next he was clutching feverishly at the pile of dusty tweed clothes, a thick woolen jumper and yellowish white hair, freed of its pins, flowing in all directions.

In spite of the returned clamor to her ears she could hear him shouting at her, asking her if she were alright, telling her to grab his arm and he would lift her. But it was her old legs that remained obdurate to his entreaties and her will. She tried to nod her head and mumble a response but all he saw was her body twitch and strange, unintelligible noises come from beneath it. He thought the old lady had had a heart attack and was dying. He already saw himself surrounded by hostile passengers from the train accusing him of leading her to her death in a foolhardy pursuit of Siberian tigers.

The crazy thoughts prompted him to further effort—just as his shouts of protest mixed with appeals for her to get up, stimulated Nancy to conquer her wobbly legs. Whether his youthful vim or her ancient willpower was the source of success it was never for either to know, but somehow the crumpled shape on the sloping rock found equilibrium again.

He was all over her; frantic with relief and disordered with his gestures. He stretched several feet to retrieve her black patent handbag from under a sapling fir where it had been flung by her fall, dusted her bony body down before stooping to recover her knitted beige beret. She slammed the latter over her cascading hair but refused his scampering hands. “Just give me your arm, boy,” she muttered through clenched dentures that she realized at that moment had mercifully not fallen out. “If I can lean on you, lad, I’ll be all right.”

Miles threw himself into his mission of physical support. He would have carried her if he’d been older, taller, stronger. But being none of these things he did as he was told and welcomed her taloned grip of his arm which he held firm to his side as he carefully adjusted his pace alongside hers and led her to the smoothest ground and least steep as they processed to the bottom of the paddock and the open gate.

When they got there both noticed a bench that they hadn’t in their excitement to find the Siberian tigers at close quarters. Nancy sat down with a thump and he did likewise, still brushing what was now largely imaginary bits of dirt from her person.

Miles actually smiled. An invitation to conspiracy with this game old girl whose life he'd just saved was a foretaste of heaven!Already her ears had quieted and apart from a distinct ache in her rump, Nancy was feeling better. She was sure there were no brittle bones broken and all her long life she had never placed too much importance on her sartorial component. It was this which led her to tell Miles very gently that her clothes were alright and that her body had happily escaped lasting injury. When something like calm had smoothed his youthfully anxious features she followed up her remarks by what she considered more pressing ones.

“Now about when we get back—which we must very soon. I think when we talk to your Judy and my Desmond we skip the climbing part, all right? They’ll blame us both for what we did and it has nothing to do with either of them!”

Miles actually smiled. An invitation to conspiracy with this game old girl whose life he’d just saved was a foretaste of heaven! “Gosh, I think you’re right, Ma’am.”

She wasn’t having any of that. “After what we have been through, I think we deserve to be Nancy and Miles, don’t you?”

He certainly did. “We can tell ‘em, Nancy, that we went to take a closer look at the emus. They don’t know anything about Siberian tigers in any case. We can say we went to see the emus and maybe photo them because my Dad says they’re offering emu meat now in his favorite restaurant. That’s Le Petit Sourire on Denman. Judy knows that’s true because when he offered to take her there she said yes but only if she could refuse to order emu. Which is odd, considering she told me she likes buffalo steak.”

This was wasting time, thought Nancy. “So we stick to photographing emu and if they notice my hair is out of place we can say I tripped and nearly fell into a clump of elder. I’ll say that you helped me from falling but in doing so dislodged my bobby pins.”

Secretly, Miles thought that a miserably tame version of the truth but then what really happened was their secret. It was something they could share whenever they wanted on their own—but it was not meant to be ever known by strangers like that Desmond who had the cheek to tell him off on the train, or Judy who thought she could squeeze herself in between him and his Dad.

“That’s okay by me, Nancy,” he said warmly. “We’ll just talk about seeing several emus on the side of the road. How big and muddy brown they were and how we noticed that they have three large toes—which we wouldn’t have seen unless we’d gotten close up to them.”

The old lady grinned at her eager young liar, delighting in their conspiracy. “We can also say,” she added, “that we actually heard the male bird hiss and the females make a kind of booming noise. I know that’s true because it’s in my Wild Life Fact File—but they won’t, of course.”

Nancy felt the seat getting very hard under her. “Time to go,” she said. “But when we’re all back in Vancouver would you like to come to tea or something?”

He looked at her, taking in yet again, her disheveled hair, the claw-like hands with their prominent veins and her bent body which made her not that much taller than himself. “I’d like that,” he said slowly. “Yes, that would be very nice. You see I don’t much go in for friends—and I’ve never had a real old one. And we both like zoos, including now this one where we met, so we’d always have something to talk about.”

She didn’t answer but just nodded vaguely, in fact, hiding her suddenly moist eyes from him. For most of the way back to the waiting train which was now replete, she noticed, with the other passengers who’d disembarked, she allowed him to tend his arm as she shuffled slowly along. But once she realized she was in full sight, she quickly removed her hand. When they were closer enough to board, though, she dismissed Desmond’s efforts to help her up and turned to her new friend instead.

  

David Watmough is the author of a cycle of fiction that features gay "everyman" Davey Bryant, who has now appeared in eight volumes, including No More into the Garden (1978), Unruly Skeletons (1982), The Year of Fears (1978), The Time of Kingfishers (1994) and Hunting with Diana (1996). Watmough is also a playwright, short story writer, critic, broadcaster and the author of nine other books. His novel Thy Mother's Glass (1992) was nominated in 2002 for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Canada Reads. He lives in Vancouver.
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