The creamy, lace-edged parasol sways in time with Nanny’s languid gait. The gentle creak of the perambulator springs beneath my nest of cotton summer blankets, lulls me to a state resembling a coma. Overhead, the occasional puff of cloud or cluster of leaves on a branch glitters in the sunlight against the aventurine blue sky. This is all that marks our slow passage along some promenade in the Zoological and Botanic Gardens of the town Pappa had set us in that year.
I am at that age where the extensions of my own body amuse me. A pink, dimpled foot poking out from the froth of my dress extracts a charming chuckle, my leg kicking at the air creates merry mirth, and my pudgy arms collaborating in some melodramatic minuet before my face, invite hales of laughter. Then in an instant, my world goes dark. As unease lightly treads my skin, I can hear Pappa’s voice somewhere off, and the chocolate brown aroma of pipe tobacco, that evermore induces me to sickness, tints the air.
I can feel something pressing against my leg as a wall of grey, wrinkled flesh obliterates my small horizon. A beady, amber coloured eye set in layers of charcoal ruches, sweeps across my vista. The stench of mud and off hay and a rough grunting sound. The flash of an ivory cutlass, and a rubbery snake like a gnarled limb torn from the trees, pushes against my thigh, snuffles my stomach, tries to nip my chest with its two-fingered tip. Screams rent the air. I am locked in a breathless paroxysm of fear. I am a stiff doll as Pappa wrenches me free of the invading monster, and men appear as if from nowhere to beat it away with sticks. An enraged trumpeting slashes the hysterical cacophony of women, followed by a low trilling, a rumbling, as the outraged animal lumbers off and picks up to a canter with another great roar, as it charges for the canopy of the arboretum.
Dorothy, my Nanny, is a quivering wreck needing comfort herself, not least for the summary and public dismissal that swiftly follows this shock to her usually sturdy constitution, and Mamma, a spitting hydra, lobs balls of venom at anyone within earshot. As the veritable victim of the piece I am thankfully lauded for still being alive, although now a blubbering, slippery concoction of mucous and salt water, barely able to snatch a breath between my piteous wails. I am stroked and comforted, crushed and cuddled, then snatched away to nuzzle in Mamma’s unfamiliar breast as my beloved Nanny is taken away never to be spoken of again.
My father’s singular desire was to own one of every animal that walked the Earth. As a self-styled naturalist, one of a growing number in England at the turn of the century, I often wondered if he valued them more than his own family. Surely we wouldn’t have been pursued to shame and penury, nor Mamma to an early grave, had he been driven by a less indulgent pursuit. But driven he was, and the story of that fateful day, whose details were supplied to me regularly for some time thereafter, remains imprinted on my memory as cleanly as the copperplate enclosure plaque bearing the name of its proboscidean protagonist; Kim.
Animals fill my earliest memories, many of them stuffed and set in extravagant mahogany boxes with dreamy scenarios painted inside to give the illusion of an airy outdoors. In any of our houses there are always layers of shiny, carapaced insects and jewel-coloured butterflies pinned to boards, which slide into large mahogany chests of drawers. Outside, there are outhouses filled with cawing tropical birds, that never survive our dour winters, only to provide feathers for ladies’ hats or macabre trophies for Pappa’s cronies.
When I first met Kim, we lived in a house on the Great Western Terrace not far from Kibble Crystal Art Palace in Glasgow. She was kept by a Negro gentleman called John Aaron. I was under the illusion that the great glass houses belonged to my father, at least that’s what he told me, his dreams of grandeur being so effluent. Until that day my young life was sheltered under its huge glass parasol and my dreams were peopled by alabaster statues against a backdrop of huge exotic ferns and rubber leafed flora.
It was many years later that I learnt that my father was no good with money, and it was that which inspired our many moves in his pursuit of his zoological dream alongside flight from his creditors. We removed to Thorner near Leeds not long after my first encounter with Kim, to a lovely house called Ashfield Lodge, this time kept thankfully free of stuffed and pinned creatures as Mamma finally put her expensively shod foot down about the interior decor. Pappa would still hold forth to any who would listen on such topics as The Plight of the Invertebrate in Industrial Britain, or How to Cultivate an Effective Herbarium, although I was beginning to feel a little sorry for the animals, never more beautiful in stapled and pinned decay than in life. It must have been some ten years between the heated discussions with Mamma and the many flights to diverse hostelries in the area that the idea was borne for his own Zoological gardens in nearby Halifax.
Our residence was thankfully at a safe distance from the proposed site of the venture; a gothic mansion called Chevinedge House. It was sufficiently elevated in Exley from the sooty clusters of chimneys reaching up for the sky like desperate shoots groping for sunlight. Shielded, as it was, by vast tracts of woods, it was a sunny playground for Pappa as his vision grew.
It was such for me too as Pappa’s quaint ideas about the world in general also applied to my learning. Of course he could do a better job than anything instigated by that damned idiot Balfour so I was exposed not only to his books, his friends and his wisdom, but also the birth of what shall be ‘the most up to date amusement park in England.’ I was free to roam the site as I pleased as it was developed in order to furnish me with an education befitting the next generation of zoologists. But Pappa himself, I rarely saw.
A frequent visitor to the tearooms in Chevinedge House, I sit near the tall windows at the front watching the men building the white glazed brick enclosures with their red tiled roofs. As usual, armed with a crust from Mary the cook, and a pot of jam to dip it in, I am transfixed by the bandstand like a merry-go-round sans horses. There is the twinkling water of the boating lake just beyond it, then the ramshackle, wooden-framed roller-coaster near the woods. The plans are mind-boggling, many of which are laid out in the library. Here, there are pictures of the lake with tropical plants, and black and white swans imported from India. There is a drawing of the gates with a searchlight shining out over the hills to show people apparently as far away as York where to find these thrilling encounters. My young mind is filled with the romance of it; gondolas gliding along the canals with ladies trailing their gloves in the gently lapping water, bridges where whispering lovers can hear the music from the brass bands. But even then, I have burgeoning doubts about the animals, having the good fortune as I do to see more than the average paying guest.
Smaller animals have been arriving in crates and rickety cages on the back of steam lorries and Mary has been full of the best one yet, due today. By all accounts it will be big, from the jungle, and will certainly draw the crowds.
‘Nigger,’ she says, ‘will fetch ‘em in good and proper. They’ll be pickin’ it up today from the station.’ I shudder at the name, imagining some towering ape with hands instead of feet. I wonder what irks Mary as she snatches away my tea things and bustles along flapping her apron.
‘Gerrawee wi’ yersen now, lass,’ she says, ‘Evn’t y’got summat as y’can be doin’ instead o’ gerrin’ under a body’s feyt?’ I spend the rest of the day reading from The Origin of Species until my irritation with her diffuses.
People are gathering as news of the arrival has leaked; caps and corsets
alike assemble in the dusty street, and the strains of the Black Dyke Mills Band can be heard some distance away. There is an air of babbling excitement which suggests a great spectacle is due to arrive.
Soon, a sizeable throng appears escorting a great grey beast up the road. It trudges sadly, its large head pointing to the floor, while atop, in a red and gold fakir costume, is Mr Aaron. The band strikes up a jolly chord as they approach the gates, and Kim, for it is she, raises her head slightly as the quadrille becomes more spirited. She tosses her head back, ears flapping like sails in a fresh breeze, then her head goes down and she lunges forward. Mr Aaron rolls backwards and down her rear quarters but is luckily caught by several of the men trailing behind, suffering little more than a few scrapes. But Kim is off, and something in me awakens.
I take off as if possessed, rushing towards the gates as if the danger is behind not before me. Men follow her with sticks and ropes, calling her grim new name, which in two syllables conveys all the ignorance they have amassed, as they plunder the world’s gardens for their own gain and glory. This is my father’s vainglorious triumph; a wild boar teased by flat-capped boys in its enclosure till it bounds over the fence to sink its teeth into Mrs Midgely’s thigh as she tries to fend it off with her umbrella; Whaler, the grizzly bear, making off down Exley bank to seek sanctuary in Elland Woods while the fools chase with lassos, finally dragging his exhausted bulk over a wall some three hours later, and now, this! Magnificent Kim, belittled with some joke of a name, whose righteous
home is in the sweet savannah of West Africa to be housed in a glorified tram-shed in the depths of urban Yorkshire.
Mary has seen me bolt and pursues me with a gaggle of house-maids, skirts clutched round their knees as if I am heading for certain death. My heart pounds as I scream at the men to lay down their sticks. I have my eyes fixed on Kim as she turns towards me and I stop dead, her thundering bulk some twenty yards away. I swear I see a change in her amber eye and she falters. Out of the corner of my own I see Pappa, sternly marching up from the bandstand, moustache fluttering on his trembling lip, and it is then that Kim stumbles. This proud animal kneels before me, a mighty rumble shivering through her dusty grey bulk as she groans in the sunshine and dust. I step up to her slowly, my hands open before her huge face, and that gentle trunk tip-toes its way to my palm, exploring my skin, its velvet tip lightly nudging my hand, remembering.
As Pappa arrives, breathless and bristling, Kim lets me cradle her giant head. The men await instruction but it is I who hold the floor.
‘Pappa, you must never allow anyone here to mistreat this or any other animal again. These animals are our guests, snatched away from their homes. Is it any wonder they are enraged? Tell the men to put away their sticks.’
Kim blinks as she stirs ready to rise up and walk. The men stare expectantly.
‘You heard the lass,’ he says. ‘We’ll use kindness here. Kindness, I say. This is Halifax Zoo.’