As I rebuild my website, I’m digging through stuff that is ten, twelve years old. There was a brief period around 2000 when my mind exploded and I could write short fiction really easily for about six months. This is probably my favourite story from that period.
A Helping Hand
There’s something undeniably wrong about patting a kangaroo in the middle of a rolling English green.
Cricket St Thomas. A zoo. Much better than London Zoo, and one of my favourite places in the whole country. Or at least, one of my favourites that I could get to and back from in a day, and without having to climb any cliffs, break any laws or kill anybody in particular.
It’s better than the London Zoo because the vast majority of it is open. Only a few animals roam free, but the others at least aren’t in cages or pools. It’s not quite swampland or jungle, but at least it smells of nature instead of chlorine.
The kangaroo was ignoring me, chewing jadedly and staring into space. He knew the deal. Let the strange bipeds scratch your head ineffectually for a few minutes and they’ll give you some corn. I was sweetening the deal by picking out the odd flea here and there when I was interrupted by Jason Dickhead.
I knew his name was Jason because it said it in puffy day-glo yellow letters on his jumper. Assuming of course, he hadn’t beaten up someone and nicked it, which seemed quite likely given his flabby but all-too-large frame and his stupid, glassy eyes. I imagined his room at home with fifty of the jumpers, all different names, hanging on the walls like trophies. Then I amused myself with thoughts that perhaps everything Jason owned had Jason on it, on account of the fact that he was too stupid to recognise his own clothes from his mother’s pantyhose.
Dickhead wasn’t written on his jumper but it was so blatantly obvious that he was one that it might as well have been. Again, I amused myself pondering whether at some time his mother would crack and sew Dickhead onto a few jumpers, just to see if he – or indeed anyone – would notice.
All this speculation was very important because it effectively blocked out most of what Jason was saying. It was an exterior monologue covering what this one’s name is (Skippy, Skip and Joey were considered deeply), whether he had a joey (the large phallus not being conclusive evidence for young Jason) and whether it was from Australia (again, Jason was nothing if not determined to look beyond the obvious). While this all went on, he kept gingerly patting the back of my kangaroo like he expected me to move over and make more room for him. Not a chance. I am not a man who shares his kangaroos with anyone.
Finally he said something which was actually a question, and I realised I had to do more than just smile politely and constrain myself from belting him. “What?” I said.
“Is’t true these things can box? I saw that on TV once.”
“No, not really. They can however, kick you so hard in the stomach your intestines would shoot out from your arse.”
I cursed myself for making such an obvious mistake. Little Dickheads like Jason are not intimidated by violence. In fact, they enjoy it, and I’d probably just made a friend for life. Which meant I had to end one of our lives very quickly. After fairly and rationally weighing up all the alternatives, I decided it would be his.
Jason was now babbling to his new-found fellow violence-aphile about the other animals he’d seen fighting and killing. Once again I phased him out, hoping he’d get bored and go annoy another person, or better still, a kangaroo less sleepy and more belligerent than mine. So once again I missed that tiny second when Jason managed to say something interesting.
“I said, the snakes were total rubbish, I hate them. But the crocs were really psycho, ‘s so cool”
“Yeah. One of them, some boys had like stuck this stick through the bars and poked him, and the started chewing on it, and then it splintered and this bit went into his eye!” Jason was warming up to his favourite topic. “And then it was like rolling around and snapping and growling, it was so cool. And it tried to scratch at its eye and get it out but the fence was in the way so it was just scratching his arm back and forth like this.” At this point Jason moved his flabby arms up and down in a horrific spasmodic jerking to impersonate the agonised reptile, his face puckering up with the effort until it was nothing more than a squint, two nostirls and two horrible bucked teeth protruding from a dribbling orifice. It was a moment of indescribable horror, and at that point I decided I had really had enough. Keeping my kangaroo wasn’t worth that.
Besides, I had a crocodile to talk to.
By the time I got back down to the pit, the show had run out of steam and most of the crowd had moved on. The croc was still at the fence and a long, thin bit of bark was stabbed painfully into his right eye. The other end of the bark was leaning on the fence and if he moved away, it would fall down and the leverage would hurt him far more than the cut was already. So he was stuck there, as the remaining few brats hung onto the top of the wire fence and hurled peanuts at his head. Occasionally they sighed at the unbelievable unfairness in the fact that he’d stopped growling and snapping at them, no matter how many peanuts they threw or how close to his head their shots landed. Hello, I thought, it’s more of the Dickhead clubhouse.
I got the kids to fuck off by scowling at them like an authority figure and shouting “Fuck off” at them quite loudly. They suddenly remembered their mothers were calling them and I was able to get crouch down close to the animal, and find a place to get my hands near him.
He tensed up when he saw me move in. He was in a lot of pain, and very afraid that he couldn’t seem to move away from it. He wanted to run from me too, or even snap, but he couldn’t. Bubbles of blood and pus were pooling in the corner of his eyelid, and some drool had formed between his lips. His eyes glazed over, playing dead. Neat trick. I prayed he was running the “pretend to be dead until this moron goes away” gag, not the other one, the “pretend to be dead until this moron gets a little closer and then ripping his head off” thigh-slapper. That one’s not really funny at all, unless you’re the croc.
So I touched the fence, and hoped it would be enough, because I wasn’t getting any closer. Pained as he was, I couldn’t ever let myself forget he was a massive, deadly beast, as strong as an ox and fast as a cobra, and one who was quite firmly on the predator side of our relationship. But despite the distance, and the metal between us, and the fact that I hadn’t done this since, since…well, despite all that, I got him pretty quickly. As he felt me make contact and start talking to him, he opened his eyes slightly, warily, and the sudden likeness to London almost made me burst into tears. God, I missed him.
I bit my tongue instead and dosed his mind with calm, and stood up. His eyes followed me slowly, not yet trusting anything. I poured on the juice, and kept my hands well back. Nothing scary about me. I’m small, I’m tiny, and I definitely won’t hurt you. Not at all. Just trust me. Good boy. And then in one smooth moment I shot my hand down over the fence and pulled up the bark.
The croc roared and rolled and tore wildly at the ground and the fence. OK, so I lied about the not hurting you bit, I thought, as I lay very still where I’d fallen backwards on my ass. I waited a few minutes until my body was completely convinced that both my hands were still where I had left them, and then decided to get out of there. I didn’t want to be around if any of the Dickhead brigade had thought to summon a parent, who would most likely have me castrated for the heinous crime of Saying Naughty Words. The croc looked OK – he was still blinking constantly and walking gingerly, unsure if the pain would come back – but he seemed to be a lot happier. As I turned to leave, he caught my eye and somewhere in the lost echo of the connection, there was gratitude. And I had a thought, so I remade the connection and gave him one last message.
I walked up the hill again, and found a toilet. Then I headed for the exit. Spending a day with animals to make me forget about humans hadn’t exactly panned out, so I figured I might as well head back to the jungle. As I neared the front kiosk, I saw the Dickhead brigade heading back down past me, now armed with ice-creams. With them again was Jason, and when he saw me, he waggled the stick in his right hand at me triumphantly.. “What are you doing with that?” I said, angrily, but he didn’t notice the tone.
“Summ’un took the stick out of the croc’s eye, so we’re gonna try and put it back again!” he explained, proud as punch. I just smiled and nodded and waved him on down the path with his friends. After all, there was no risk. Crocs are scent-based creatures; they can’t find weak points in fences because they all smell the same. The only way he could find it, break through it and rip the arms of a pesky little kid was if someone sight-based had told him about it. Which would be impossible.