Friday, May 1, 2020

The Audience Adventure - Day 11

The trip had not got off to a brilliant start. Emma felt like she was on a school trip, but one where an annoying nobhead called Norman had come along and was ruining it for everyone. She’d tried not to let her preconceptions of Norman cloud her judgement of him, but if she was honest with herself she really hadn’t tried that hard.

Norman seemed to have something to say about absolutely everything, which would have been fine if everything he was saying was fabulously interesting… but it wasn’t. Norman was like a walking price tag - he couldn’t help himself. The cost of everything to install, the price of the animals originally, the ongoing bills to feed, or heat, or inoculate… blah blah blah blah blah. Emma was so grateful she’d stumbled round the majority of her life without it occurring to her to wonder what anything cost. It wasn’t that she was humble, or brilliant in any way; it had just never occurred to her that something so tedious could be a hobby.

Standing by the meerkats, which usually Emma would find adorable, she had a vivid daydream about having a snooze button installed in her own head. Every time Norman started bleating on about stocks or bitcoin she could just whack herself on the forehead and black out for seven minutes. Right now he’d used these chittering little creatures to launch into a severe lecture about comparison websites and free offers - apparently the country was full of supplicant idiots who cheerfully spent more than they should on insurance just to have cinema tickets. Emma gave him a middle finger in her mind and thought about how much she’d enjoyed seeing Inside Out for “free”. Twice.

She couldn’t help but think about how much better the day would be if Norman wasn’t here… if it was Jack, Fiona, herself… and Theo. Theo would be full of interesting facts about all the animals and would probably know a keeper or two who’d be able to give them a backstage look at some of the goings on that the normal people didn’t get to see. Theo certainly wouldn’t be banging on about the ratio costs of keeping a herbivore alive compared to a carnivore.

She sighed out loud and then caught Fiona’s furious glare and straightened herself up. From the corner of her eye she thought she caught a slight smirk on Jack’s face. He seemed to be finding Norman just as unbearable as she was. What did Fiona see in him?

She watched Fiona as they made their way to the next enclosure, which seemed mainly to be housing plants and the promise of something that almost definitely wasn’t in there. Fiona was so placatory to Norman; everything he said elicited an ‘ooh’ or a ‘wow’ from her. Emma was absolutely baffled as to how Fiona could have convinced herself there was so much to Norman when he was plainly such a boor. Fiona was smart wasn’t she? How had she let herself get so carried away with a fantasy based on nothing?

She felt a hand on her elbow and turned to look at Jack, “Can you see it?” He asked. Emma shook her head. “There,” he whispered, leaning in to match her eyeline and pointing up into the leaves. “Up on that branch.”

His beard grazed against her cheek and she felt a tingle run down her skin. Despite the warmth of the day she felt goosebumps on her arms and neck. How long was it since she’d been this close to a man? She didn’t want to think about that; that was a thought could only lead to her having the recurring nightmare about her vagina being a museum and, on the day it was supposed to have a Grand Reopening, the council swooped in and declared it unfit for purpose. She hated that nightmare. Bringing herself hastily back into the present she focused her eyes in the direction Jack was pointing and spotted a blur of orange fur in the leaves. It looked peaceful, nestled down and snoozing in the shade. She smiled and as her cheeks pushed out they grazed against Jack’s stubble again.

“It’s a red panda.” Came Norman’s booming voice from behind her and the blur of orange fur startled up and disappeared through a square hatch in the wooden structure that was its home. “Himalayan bastard.” Norman continued and Emma rolled her eyes waiting for what value would be attached to either the concept of pandas or the entire Himalayas.

“Bloody pricey mountains the Himalayas. If they went at auction I reckon it’d be well over a mill a square foot.”

It wasn’t Norman though; it was Jack. In a louder than normal, and semi-obnoxious but not so obvious as to be rude, voice Jack had declared his thoughts on the Himalayas and then turned and strode off. Emma snorted and shot a quick glance at Fiona who looked distraught. Norman looked baffled and Emma briefly worried that he was going to be offended but then he scurried after Jack…

“Hang on a minute… a mill a square foot for the top - maybe, but surely there’d be a scale price working it down as it got to base?”

Oh god he was taking it seriously! Emma laughed and took Fiona’s hand and followed Jack and Norman.

“Ooh fancy an ice cream?” Emma said to Fiona.

“Definitely. It’s hot isn’t it?”

They joined the queue for the ice cream stall and Emma decided a Twister seemed like the perfect blend of refreshing and delicious. Fiona thought she’d want a 99.

“With two flakes.” She giggled, “Why not eh?”

Norman was ostentatiously counting £20 notes in his wallet, which seemed ridiculous to Emma because the ice creams were at best £3 - and that was only if you were having a Magnum (which only he was - of course).

They ordered their ice creams - Jack throwing a Solero into the mix at the last minute and surprising everyone - and waited for the cashier to place them on the counter.

“I’ll pay for the Magnum and the 99 please.” Said Norman and pulled out a crisp £50. Emma gaped at him. Firstly - was he really going to use a £50 note? Secondly - who pays with a £50 note for frigging ice creams and then doesn’t get the entire round?

“Shall we get the ice creams for Jack and Emma too?” Said Fiona timidly, at Norman’s elbow.

“Ostentatious use of ‘we’ there darling,” Norman honked, “It’s not your money is it?”

Fiona almost turned purple with embarrassment.

“It’s alright,” said Emma hurriedly, “Fiona - that’s very sweet of you but I’ll get mine and Jack’s.” Jack looked like he was going to protest but Emma butted in, “No - you paid for the fuel. It’s only an ice cream.”

This was feeling more and more like a school trip with every passing second, she thought hotly. Norman was tapping his fingers on the counter while the cashier called through to a manager to ask for more change for the till. “Sorry chaps,” he said to Emma and Jack, “I didn’t realise you’d want me to get yours too - some people get ever so chippy about borrowing money so I didn’t want to suppose.”

“It’s not borrowing money if you’re buying a friend an ice cream.” Fiona snapped, and shoved an entire flake into her mouth. Emma was extremely impressed with both the temper and the mouth capacity.

They drifted off; all grateful for the ice creams as an excuse to cover the silence in the little group. They turned a corner and immediately smelt something new on the air; paint and fresh wood, warm hay and hot animal bodies. There was what looked like a new enclosure in front of them.

‘Don’t say it. Don’t say it.’ Emma prayed inwardly - hoping that Norman’s Magnum was keeping him too busy to financially assess the new enclosure.

“What an investment!”

Emma’s prayers went unanswered as she watched Norman’s inner cash register totting up the cost of fencing and plant life. They wandered over and saw that there were giraffes behind the new fences.

“I love giraffes.” Said Fiona, “They’re so peaceful.”

“I love them too.” A head popped up from behind the fence, startling Fiona who then laughed to try and cover her surprise. “Sorry! Didn’t realise you couldn’t see me before. I love giraffes too. So glad we’ve got some here now - not had them before. Well, not in my time anyway.” The keeper was dressed in a sandy beige uniform and was carrying a large bag of pellets.

“Oh they’re so graceful,” Fiona gushed, “I love their eyes and how polite they look.”

“Polite?” Scoffed Norman.

“I know what you mean,” said the keeper, “Would you like to feed them?”

Emma looked in amazement at the keeper, did he really mean it? They might be able to feed them?

“Really?” Asked Fiona, eyes wide. The keeper looked around.

“Yeah, why not? It’s supposed to be reserved for the VIP guests but as we don’t have any of those booked in today I can’t see why anyone could object to you giving them a few pellets. The giraffes certainly won’t mind.”

“I didn’t see a VIP option on the website?” Norman tried to join in the conversation but Jack, Emma and Fiona were all hurriedly washing their hands at the sink station and listening carefully to what the keeper was saying.

“My name’s Simon, by the way,” said the keeper - and Emma noticed he really aimed it as directly at Fiona as he could get away with without being rude. “Now, just come on into this bit here - there we go. They’ll be over as soon as they see me. Now just put a few pellets on your hand and hold your palms out flat. You’ll feel their tongues.”

“Would anyone like another ice cream? I could get a nice ice cream?” Norman tried in vain to direct Fiona’s attention back on to himself but they ignored him.

The three of them did as Simon instructed, stood behind the fence in the VIP enclosure. Emma had never been a VIP before. She smiled up at Jack. She would have smiled at Fiona too but Fiona was buried in conversation with Simon about what sort of human jobs giraffes would have if they were people. Norman was sulking back on the path. He’d muttered something about feeling like it was unfair to the poor buggers who did shell out for the VIP experience if they did it for free. Emma couldn’t have thought less of him if she’d tried.

The giraffes came over gracefully and bent their extraordinary necks down to the open palms of the little group. Emma laughed delightedly as the rough tongue and lips scraped the pellets off her hand. The big brown eyes shone out at her through long eyelashes. She could smell the dusty, wholesome scent of the huge animal, feel the heat pulsing off its skin. She felt so happy she could burst all of a sudden.

Maybe moving to Bath had been crazy… maybe she was an absolute nutter? Maybe she’d never meet up with Theo or get her moment with him? But wasn’t this just the happiest she’d been in a long time? She was at a zoo - a zoo?! With friends - plural. Feeding giraffes from her open palm. Even if she left Bath tomorrow and headed back to London, she didn’t think she’d be able to convince herself it had been a mistake.

“You look happy.” Said Jack, intruding welcomingly on her thoughts.

“I am. I’m having a really nice day. I don’t do things like this very often.” She murmured, not wanting to break eye contact with the giraffe in front of her.

“I normally feed a grateful animal, but nothing this big! Thanks for inviting me. I don’t get out much either.”

Emma wondered why. Jack was clearly a very nice, friendly man - she couldn’t even begin to think what would stop him having friends and a family. Perhaps he was wondering the same thing about her though?

They thanked Simon profusely and washed their hands before strolling away to carry on perusing the animals that Bristol had to offer.

Emma was extremely grateful to Simon for being so friendly and for letting them feed the giraffes, but mainly for being so nice to Fiona which seemed to have put Norman into the most almighty misery that he couldn’t even bring himself to value things.

Jack looked at his watch, “We should head back. I’ve got a dog who will be just desperate for some company by now.”

“Yeah - mine probably!” Said Emma.

Jack laughed, “I’ve got him trained to seek out beautiful women and bring them into contact with me. If only he didn’t do it using his arse though.”

Emma’s scalp burst into flames the second the word beautiful was out of his mouth and she was so grateful to her hair for covering it up. She laughed at his joke to try to cover the sudden maelstrom of thoughts she was having but she suspected the laugh came out a bit mangey and awkward.

The group headed up to the exit and as they reached the turnstiles Norman stopped walking abruptly.

“I’m going to take this special little one to the gift shop.” He rubbed Fiona’s shoulders. Emma yipped inwardly. 

‘Special little one? She’s a grown woman. Eugh.’

“I’ll drive her home afterwards, too. I expect you’d like a run in a car with a real engine wouldn’t you girl?”

Fiona giggled and Emma felt her stores of respect for Fiona deplete sharply. Emma turned round to Jack but was surprised to see him not stood at her shoulder as she’s expected but hurrying up from a little distance away.

“You alright?” She called to him.

“Yeah, sorry - I got distracted.”

“Fiona and Norman are going to make their own way home.” She said.

“Ok.” Said Jack, “I’m sure I can cope with just you in a car.”

They said their goodbyes and Norman and Fiona headed off to the menagerie of plushies and shatterproof rulers while Emma and Jack argued good-naturedly all the way out of the zoo about where exactly they’d parked the car.

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