Stripes the tiger narrates the mystery of the missing gorilla in Andrew Flynn's offbeat comedy.
'We've all got to look out for each other,' says Carlos. 'You don't want to wake up halfway to Mars or wherever with some extraterrestrial probing you, do you?'
'Haven't you heard, Carlos,' I tell him, 'there's people right here on Mother Earth who will do that for you and call it progress.' It's true, you know. You hear the stories. 'Any how,' I say, 'there's no way this cat is sitting up all night waiting for aliens. But if ever they do come, just let them try it on with this tiger's fluffy butt.'
I give him a flash of the spikes and my winning smile and he gets the idea.
'Suit yourself,' he says, 'you suit yourself.'
I will. I do. Not all of us are born to be team players.
It's a good one, though. A real mystery. To state it directly: just how does three quarters of a ton of angry monkey vanish without a trace from a place like this? Like I say, plenty of theories. By the way, try to avoid using the 'M' word around them, certainly not to their face. Not unless you've got a strong fence in front of you or an unusually relaxed attitude to a long and healthy life. 'We're goddam apes, chimp breath. Great Apes, GAs, evolution's finest,' they tell you. Now, I know what you're thinking, they're calling each other monkey-this and monkey-that all the time, so, you might reasonably wonder, what's the problem? 'When we do it,' they say, 'it's an ironic construction that's symbolic of our shared cultural experience as a repressed and disenfranchised species; when you do it, it's your ripped off head on a stick, is that clear enough for you?' Whatever, I say. You're all still lunch to me.
So, what exactly did happen? How did this thing go down? Where, oh where, is Bollongo at?
Bollongo. Bollongo? Really? I remember thinking at the time how the name sounded kind of off, a little too, I don't know, made up, a shade too faux-ethnic for my taste. But that's what they were calling him and I'm just a dumb tiger so what do I know, right? Anyway, he, Bollongo, turned up here about six months ago. You could tell right away there was something a bit special about him. For one thing, he arrives with a small army of keepers in this special, reinforced crate. The keepers are unusually sweaty and nervous, too; jumpy you might say. A couple of them have those electric prod things pointed at him and one's got a rifle (and not one of those tranquiliser jobs either) raised up to his shoulder while another - the vet I'm guessing - goes in to do a check. From where I am, up on my rock here, Bollongo looks sound asleep, all curled up, snoozing like a giant baby. Cute even, if you are sentimental in that sort of way. Can you believe it? All this anxiety over a sleeping gorilla.
So, vet guy is crouching down giving him the once over, listening to his chest and such, when our friend moves; not much, just his arm, like he's having a little stretch or something. But, man, you should have seen the vet scramble out of there, almost falling backwards as he goes, fear pouring off him like monsoon rain off a banyan tree. Humans do fear like no other species, full of complex flavours, tantalising undertones and intriguing top notes. And for a flimsy-looking bunch they can sure move when they want to. But it's all a false alarm and a few minutes later he's changed his pants so to speak and is back in to give Bollongo an injection. Then he's out again and they're all standing there, lighting up cigarettes, backslapping, waiting for something to happen. And that's the other thing, this enclosure is just for the new guy and, being just across from me, well away from Mangan and his silverback goons in the primate zone. In point of fact, it's actually Percival's old place, but I guess they reason what works for a grizzly bear will work for a gorilla too. After a little while Bollongo struggles to his feet, swaying like he's been on the too-ripe mangoes all day. Then he gets down on his knuckles the way they do and half shuffles, half crawls off behind the eucalyptus tree Percival used to scratch up against.
Percival loved that damned tree. I can see him now, rubbing himself up and down on it, humming some dumb tune, going on about what a great day it was and my weren't the flowers pretty this morning. One of life's optimists, he was here even before me and I've been here a long time. 'You and me, Stripes, what would they do without us?' he used to say. Tiger's aren't famous for their sentimental tendencies but I do miss him. What can I say, he got sick, they came for him and took him off and, well, he didn't make it back. 'Hey, Stripes, mind my tree for me, will ya?' he said just before he went. Comes to us all in the end, no doubt. Even me. Maybe it'll be me next.
There's always a buzz here when we get someone new. This is usually fuelled by Carlos who, for obvious reasons connected with shortness of stature and the secret hole in back of his pen, is the one who gets out and about most. He could be out and about anywhere for that matter. I asked him one time why he sticks around, doesn't just take himself off somewhere else, maybe even get himself back home, to the meerkat mother country, wherever that is. 'You've got to be joking,' he says. 'That place is dangerous not to mention hard work. Finding your own food, digging your own tunnels, dodging the eagles, avoiding the snakes. Sod that for a laugh. And there's Phyllis and the kids to think of too these days, you know.'
Carlos is a meerkat with a lot of responsibilities. He feels them very deeply.
'So no long walks to freedom for you then, Carlos?'
'Let me tell you,' he says, 'freedom is a warm bed, security, children saying how cute you all are and three square meals a day. Not to mention the pleasure of socialising with the likes of you, you self-centred git.'
'You're not wrong there, my friend.'
Freedom. I've lived a few places in my time and that damned word keeps coming up. There's some go crazy with the thought of it. I like to think I speak with knowledge of the subject, from personal experience as it were. Years ago, before I came here, I got myself put in one of those special projects. Some genius with a clipboard and a big idea picks me out for a return to my so-called natural habitat. Why I get selected for special treatment I don't know but this fanatic with his eat-me-now face seemed to have very high hopes. I was to be his tiger prodigy, I suppose. That said, a few regrettable - though not, I hasten to add, immediately fatal - incidents with the staff might have had me slated for resettlement, too. Maybe they thought I lacked fulfillment. To cut a long story short, I find myself dumped in the forest without so much as a butchered goat to see me through. I have a few very vague memories of trees and blood from cubhood to keep me warm and that's it. And I'm not even sure now if those were real. Otherwise it's off you go, Stripes, be lucky, have a nice life, send us a postcard.
Now let me tell you, the jungle is a wet, thankless and hungry place. And even for a solitary species like your tiger, it is damned lonely. It didn't help either that I fell out with the locals at an early stage. It was clear after about an hour that I had lost the knack. Or probably I never had the knack. Either way, knackless in the jungle, that was me. A sobering thought and not one I like to dwell on. The first time I go near a village, sad bag of bones I was by then, what happens? I get the spear-in-the-butt treatment from some frightened kid is what happens. Lucky for me there is some wildlife preservation project going on in the area - humans love this sort of crazy stuff, killing you one minute, saving you the next - and some sympathetic enthusiast rescues my endangered derriere and gets me back in the system. And I was one of the lucky ones. Stories get back about the guys who end up as rugs or with their balls used for Chinese love potions. So, speaking personally, freedom is seriously prejudicial to your health. But for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, be my guest, give it a try, it might work for you. These days I toe the line. I roar for the crowds, prowl the fence for the cameras and rip up my goat carcasses with enthusiasm. I even had this thing going with Percival where I would roar at him and he would go bellowing back at me. The tourists go mad for that kind of thing. Hey, I'm a star. Freedom? Go figure. But for a while I wondered if it was the freedom thing that had got to Bollongo.
'So, what's the story with the new bloke?' Carlos asks a few days later.
'You mean you don't know?' I say. 'Something happens in this place and you don't know?'
Carlos usually knows everything. Sometimes he even knows about stuff that hasn't properly happened yet. He was the first to know that Tang Tang was finally pregnant, for example, which came as news to Tang Tang at the time. 'I just got a nose for these things,' he says. He hates it when he's out of the loop, though. You can tell by the way his whiskers go stiff and his front paws twitch up and down.
They were sure twitching now. We are both watching when Bollongo comes out of the cave that works as a shelter in his enclosure. Till now the guy has been keeping a low profile. The keepers check on him regularly, always in a group, always one with a rifle and a couple with the prods. They still fear him, though from what I've seen so far I can't tell why. They look and confer and shake their heads like they are at a loss, like they were stuck trying to answer question they didn't ask in the first place. They mutter stuff about maybe this not being such a clever idea after all. The food they leave for him is hardly touched. Being off your food is never a good sign.
Bollongo's not looking quite so cuddly this time. Aside from his sheer hugeness he has a scowl on him that makes it look like his face couldn't pull any other expression if it tried. It's like the scowl muscles have eaten the other ones for breakfast. He climbs up on his rock, the same one where Percival used to sun himself, and starts sniffing the air. Full height he's almost as tall as me when I'm up on my haunches. His fur is jet black but we can see patches where it is missing, where the skin underneath is torn and puckered by scar tissue. He looks like he has been in a hell of a fight and isn't happy about the outcome. There won't be many toys of him in the gift shop if you get my meaning. Then he looks up to the sky and lets out this roar like you would not believe. It is more of a wail than a roar, one long note, it sounds like it's being pulled out of the ground and it's aimed straight up at the sky. Carlos ducks behind a bush and starts digging when he hears it and even I take a step back. But for all the thunder and fury it is somehow the saddest sound you have ever heard. Then he stops and stares me in the face, stands there, on Percival's rock, staring across at me, into me, through me, not blinking, breathing in loud snorts, and my mouth dries up and only pride stops me turning tail and joining Carlos under the bush.
'Did you see that?' says Carlos when he comes out of the hole he's made. He is stiff and trembling and you could hang coconuts off his whiskers. The air around him him is sour with fright.
'You mean my new neighbour?'
'I don't think I've ever...'
'No, Carlos, I don't think I ever have either.'
'I'll go and make some enquiries,' he whispers. 'Discreet ones.'
'You do that, Carlos.'
There's irony for you. Carlos is in and out of here all the time and has never so much as flinched in front of me. Then monkey-mountain turns up next door and he's freaked half stupid. Says something about one of us anyway.
They hit Bollongo with a tranquilliser. Then another one. It takes a whole bunch more before they can take him down. The vet is in there all morning examining him, collecting the little bits of poo they can find. They must think he is sick but I don't think they can work it out. He has hardly eaten anything in a month, maybe just enough to stay alive but that's it. They load him onto the truck, the same truck that took Percival away, and take him to the hospital. It is a few days before he is back. He doesn't look much different. Less of him but otherwise the same miserable, scowling animal he left as. They close the path that leads visitors past his fence. I guess they think the quiet will do him good. Not that he had so many visitors anyway. The keepers still come, they still look puzzled and worried and, increasingly, grave. They don't have the rifles or the prods anymore and don't seem so wary about going in. The beast is gone from Bollongo. Maybe Bollongo is on the way out, too.
'Any developments, Stripes?'
It's been a quiet day, the visitors have been thinning out the way they do every year as the air gets cooler and the nights creep in earlier. Carlos is up on the rock with me, the pair of us looking across at Bollongo's enclosure.
'He came without a name so they're calling him Bollongo and he's some sort of rescue case,' Carlos says.
'I was a rescue case, Carlos.'
'No disrespect, Stripes, but not like this you weren't. The word in the staff canteen is he's over from a zoo somewhere I've never heard of where there is a war going on. The place gets hit, and I mean really hit. Almost total destruction, animals, the keepers who haven't left already, the lot. Somehow, don't ask me how, they get our giant friend over there out to safety. He's quite rare, you know. They say of all of them, his variety is the closest to human.'
'No kidding. I pity him.' Mangan will be so pissed when he finds this out, though. I can't wait for the sparks to start flying.
'There's more. Get this. The first place they take him he goes berserk, off his rocker, trashes the place, puts half a dozen keepers in hospital. Man, arms are pulled off. Total nut job. Anyway, our place says it will take him here and see if he can be settled down.'
Our place, as Carlos calls it, prides itself on its progressive values. Getting the mood music right for Tang Tang to get pregnant did a lot for the reputation not to mention the visitor numbers. With Bollongo, management is clearly making a pitch for the complex needs market.
'Well, he's settled down all right.'
'They say it's rare for these ones to get so aggressive.'
'When you're that size I suppose everyone just can't help agreeing with you.'
She is young, a waif, small and thin, not even enough for a light snack. She is dressed in shabby, baggy, patched clothes that look borrowed or stolen.The path to Bollongo's enclosure is still closed but she makes her way up it and parks herself in front of the fence. She takes a look around to see no one (other than me, of course, I'm always here) is watching and then leans over the wooden rail that keeps visitors back from the wire and calls out. Softly to start with like she doesn't want to attract attention, then louder. It sounds like a name she's calling but it isn't Bollongo. Her voice is thin like her and doesn't carry too well. At first nothing happens but then this black face appears followed by this great black body. It's the first time he's been out in days. He looks in a bad way. Fur is missing in clumps, those great muscles are deflated like forgotten party balloons. He looks more like an empty gorilla suit on a coat hanger. Bollongo, if that's really his name, approaches the fence, comes right up to it, starts sniffing the air and quietly looks the girl in the face, his head tilted to one side and then the other like he's figuring her out. Something is definitely dawning on him, though. The girl says some more stuff which I can't make out and then he makes these noises like he's talking back. If it's words it's in some tongue I don't recognise. But still, and if I didn't know better, it's like they are having a little conversation. Then there's voices approaching up the path and she pulls a hood over her head and disappears in the other direction.
A few days later the girl is back and this time she has someone with her. A crumpled old man, dark-skinned and thin like the girl, a cap pulled down tight over his head. His left leg is missing below the knee and he holds himself up with a wooden crutch tucked into the armpit of his long coat. There is something wrong with one side of his face, the skin bubbled and twisted out of shape and fused over where the eye should be. The man comes up to the railings and waits while the girl calls out again. Bollongo is out quicker this time. He's not looking quite so awful either, like he's taken at least half a step back from the long drop to oblivion. His shoulders are rolling more, his back doesn't look so broken. He's up at the fence and the man is talking to him and Bollongo is listening, like he's following every word, like there is some special understanding going on there between them. Then the man steps back from the railing and gives this little bow and, get this, Bollongo does the same. Unbelievable! This would kill Carlos if he was here to see it, only he's not because he is back undercover in the staff canteen on some more pressing case.
There's a change in Bollongo in the days after that. He starts to eat for one thing. The keepers go in to see him and seem pleased with what they are finding. They are still careful but not so scared. No one gets their limbs torn off. The program is working. "If he keeps picking up like this he's going to be great for this place," I hear one of them say to his friend. 'Do you think we should move him over to the main primate area, start getting him socialized?' says the other. "Not for a while. Let's wait and see," says the first.
The evening before it happens Bollongo is out and up on his own rock. He is almost level with me and looks all keyed up, scanning the path, sniffing the air, curling his lip as he sucks the air in over his teeth. "You're looking better these days, fella," I call across.
He stops what he's doing and looks at me. His face softens and he nods, the first acknowledgement he's given since he got here. Not one of life's conversationalists but maybe in the right paws there's hope for him yet.
Night falls and I turn in. There is no moon, just the stars, bright pinpricks of light in the vault above. They all have names, they say. It is quiet. The animal chatter has long stopped. I am dreaming of wounded water buffalo when there is a sound, a faint clinking and scraping of metal on metal. I come out to look, keeping low to the ground as I go. I am good at this. I can make it so not even the air moves as I pass through it. In the forest the last thing they see are the glowing lights of my eyes. And tiger eyes, even ageing ones, can see the darkest of things in the blackest of nights. There are two people there, a tall and a short one, the short one stooping to work the lock, the other standing behind. The huge shape of a third emerges on the other side of the gate. The gate is open and the giant passes through. The gate is closed again, more clinking and scraping and the lock is restored. They all three turn to leave, moving soundlessly onto the path. They stop in front of me. It is the old man and the girl. Bollongo is holding the girl's hand like he is the child.
The man turns and says to me, 'Salaam, Mr Tiger. We are going far from this place. Do you wish to join us?' The good eye, that is to say the one that still remains in the unruined half of his face, twinkles like one of the stars.
His voice is soft, gentle, but it has a weird power to it, like you can't separate it from a dream. Just for a moment I imagine slipping out with them, disappearing to wherever it is they are headed, one more chance at freedom before I die, just in case I'd got it all wrong. But then I think of Carlos and Percival and the rest, and the oohs and aahs of the little kids when they see me, and the keepers who do their best for you, not to mention the butchered goat deliveries. My place is here now. If I belong anywhere it is here.
'No,' I say. Or do I say? Maybe I just think it. 'I'm good here.'
"Yes, Mr Tiger," he says, "I can see that you are." He sees me looking at the girl, her tiny hand lost in Bollongo's massive fist. 'My niece,' he says. 'She is much stronger than she looks, in all sorts of ways. She has the gift, too, don't you think?'
She has the gift all right.
'This is a fine zoo,' he goes on, pivoting on his crutch to look about him. 'Maybe not quite as fine as the one that stood once in my city but still very fine. Oh, and do not worry about Nulesh. He is with his friends. You know, he came to me when he was only this big.' He chuckles and holds his hands a short distance apart. 'How they grow, eh, Mr Tiger? How they do grow.'
So I was right about the Bollongo thing. But then, just like that, they are gone, all three of them vanished into the night. Tomorrow the bewilderment and vain searching and fevered speculation will begin. But like I said, not a trace. Incredible. Proper mystery. For now, though, silence and darkness and peace return to our safe little world.
I have no idea why they locked the gate again, either. Didn't think to ask. Just being tidy, I guess; a professional job and it all adds to the intrigue at the end of the day. But that's what the tiger saw. Believe it or don't believe it, I'm happy either way. If your taste is for stories about aliens or travelling circuses then go right ahead. Hey, I'm just a tiger, right? Should you really be taking my word for it?