LATEST - The Zoo
CHRIS WILSON
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Excerpt - THE ZOO
Excerpt - BALLAD OF LEE COTTON
Excerpt - NOOKIE
Excerpt - MISCHIEF
Excerpt - BLUEGLASS
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MISCHIEF



One

It’s an unlikely story, I concede. We have this much in common, at least - our lives have not been easy. It’s the secret bond between us.
You look a sorry skinfull. Forgive my mentioning that, but the shimmer of your youth has dulled like tarnished silver.
Ecstasy disdains your call, despite your heavy breathing. Out of tact, I say no more. Least said soonest ended.
Little changes. But your glance in the mirror surprises and saddens. A. weariness betrays you, skulking behind your forced, transparent smile.Perhaps you need some fun - to take you out of yourself. It gets so cramped and claustrophobic, when you're stitched up so tight in a skin.
I’m sorry. I seldom mean to cause offence. It’s just I’ve an unfortunate appearance, and mischievous manners. They're a wilful lot - my manners - and take liberties when I’m not watching. My personality is just as bad. He's got a mind of his own.
I have this habit of imitating people. It can cause annoyance, that habit. Please do your best to ignore it. Don't assume I’m laughing at you. So sniffle away to your heart's content. Scratch it, if you fancy. But don't mind me if I copy. I’m just a fool and a simpleton. You'll find I try your patience.
Forgive my language. I’m not at home with words. You're so clever with your ifs and buts, shoulds and woulds, your possessive case, your past perfect and future simple, notwithstanding and hereinafters. Left to my own devices, I’d merely grunt and gibber.
My life has been a struggle to understand you, to fathom the human heart. Mischief has been a special interest of mine. Oh, mischief! Wilful child of rhetoric and desire.
It’s a difficult tale to swallow. I don't suppose you'll believe me. There's a lot of suspicion about, have you noticed?
Here goes.
My father had no part or pleasure in my creation. I was found, not conceived, by my parents.
I was the small, improbable discovery of Dr Robert jay Duckworth, a zoologist. He found me by the Cobija river, near Guajara Mirim, in the Province of Abuna, in Brazil, close to the Bolivian border, on the afternoon of I6th August I949. This is as he told it.
He was collecting specimens. I was lying on my back, in the steamy shade of a rubber tree, swaddled in matted banana leaves, gurgling moistly, fixing him relentlessly with my sulphur-yellow eyes.
Dr Duckworth's specialism was amphibians. But he sensed no alternative to collecting me - though I lay beyond the narrow cul-de-sac of his competence. Clearly, I was abandoned. He'd been pottering close by my hiding place for several hours, and had seen no one but his botanist companion - David Wright-Moms, also of the Department of Biology, University College, London.
He stooped down. Tentatively he fingered me, grazing my lips. I commenced to suck upon his finger with a desperate passion, then howled against his dryness.
Hope leaves a lot to be desired.
He unpacked his rucksack and mashed for me a mixture of banana and condensed milk, which he spooned into my voracious mouth. He and Wright-Morris waited in vain for my mother's return. At dusk, they rode back to their camp at San Antonio do Boa. Dr Duckworth tucked me into his shirt-front and buttoned me tight to his chest. It smiled contentedly up at him, he reports, whilst leaking into his lap.
The Mayor of San Antonio do Boa, and its only householder, was affronted by the very sight of me, and probably by my smell,
He denied paternity with huffy plausibility. I was not a human child, he explained, but a baby Indian — Xique Xique, he thought from the colour of my eyes, or perhaps an Azul, judging by my swaddling. But more likely a Xique Xique, considering my hue and smell.
The Major advised I be returned whence I came, and left on my former spot. He cautioned against peeling an Indian from its rind of place. These Indians were another species, he said. Shiftless wanderers who perched in trees, innocent of roofs and culture. But they were possessed of memory and would retrace their steps and find me, in the fullness of their time.
At Principe da Beira the chief of police, the doctor, and the rubber planter disowned any kinship, or concern for my fate. They were appalled that a civilised man should carry such a thing as me in his luggage. The store owner volunteered to dispose of me discretely, without pain to himself or to me.
Dr Duckworth appealed to higher authority by sending a letter by messenger to the Provincial Governor at Corun.
Was it appropriate, Dr Duckworth enquired, for foreign visitors to have to foster local foundlings? Did the Governor suppose that he could care for this child forever?
Irony doesn't travel well in translation. The Governor obligingly returned a certificate of adoption naming himself as god-father and the good Dr Duckworth as my legal guardian. The Chief of Police delivered the document to my new father, levying a fee of fifty escudos. He meant to make Dad pay heavily for causing such heedless trouble over a small unnecessary animal.
If possession were nine tenths of the law, Dr Duckworth had inadvertently gained the missing tenth. He had the complete portion of my paternity. And I was his — a humid, howling package of life. So, I became a human being.
There I lay burping in the balance of his motives, oblivious of the tussle between convenience and humanity. He could have lost me no doubt, as my natural parents had done. He might have passed the parcel on. But he knew my dismal fate without him. He had seen ranchers in Juruena hunt Indians on horseback, and burn their huts by night to clear the land. It was expecting too much of me to take care of myself. The locals could not see me as a human. To cast me from his life would be to despatch me from mine.
'I think he's yours, Duckworth,' observed David Wright-Morris.
'Ours, don't you mean?'
'Oh, no,' said Wright-Morris. 'You bagged the bugger. You can keep him. Besides, I’m only the botanist. Mammals are your concern . . . but God knows what the Dean will say when he sees what you've collected.'
At the orphanage at Queimadas, the Jesuit missionaries flap and flutter about me, curious as magpies. They smile with rapt delight as my father tells his story. There is sighing, loud exclamation, and the laying of hands on brows. They marvel at God's handicraft. It was miraculous and ordained, they declare, that in the depth of the rain forest a man in want of a son should chance upon such a boy in need of a father. It is indeed fortunate, they observe, that the plump Dr Duckworth is blessed by the Lord with the means and money to care for me. And I was now no longer an orphan they observe, pointedly, since he is now my legal guardian.
Nor could Dr Duckworth find anyone else to take me off his hands.
So I gained a kind but reluctant father and, on reaching England, a perplexed mother. Mrs Mary Duckworth was forty-five. She must have been bemused to be delivered a first child so late in life, and with less that nature's customary warning. Father had sent a telegram as he embarked at Recife —
'Due Portsmouth November I8th on SS Joao Pessoa. Collected much. Five new species. Three Frogs. Two toads. And one child.
Congratulations. You now mother. Expect arrival of baby son.
Sorry short notice. Suggest call him Charles after Darwin.. Please make arrangements. Wright-Morris sends regards. Me well. How you.? Love etc. Robert.'
I should introduce my name — though it is a misleading label. I was christened Charles Xique Xique Duckworth, on 3rd December, at St Mary's, Upper Street, Islington. It is an item of our family lore that the vicar remarked upon my duplicated middle name — suspecting some satire on the participants, gathered together in the eyes of God.
I learned all this much later in life. Despite the contrary evidence of appearances, I believed until the age of eleven that Robert and Mary Duckworth (bless them!) were my natural parents.
My appearance, a tirelessly indiscreet companion, is extrovert — unlike my character — and always insists on provoking remark. People always stared at me.
They still do. Children are often hushed to awed silence at the very sight of me. It’s not that I frighten them. I’m more a surprise than a scare.
Now, in my prime, I slouch six feet nine inches tall, It used to please me, being three full inches short of the freakish.
My arms and legs look long in proportion to a compact, barrelled trunk. My fingers and toes are long and pencil fine. My elegance has been favourably likened to that of a gibbon.
A broad high forehead is accentuated by the paucity of my hair. All I 'nave is a sparse cover of wispy black down — as though I’ve suffered a radical crew-cut.
Offsetting this harshness, I’ve a wide-eyed amiable gaze; made curiously compelling by my crocus-coloured eyes. My nose is delicate if snubbed, with flared almond nostrils. Thin lips guard a tight porcelain smile. The effect is of youthful distinction. People often flatter that I look much younger than my years, for I’ve a hairless face, unruffled by wrinkles.
I’ve been blessed with a good complexion. My skin has a translucent pearly sheen, betraying a map of veins beneath.
Doctors often suppose I’m jaundiced, for I’ve that hennaed hue people from hepatitis or by buying a fake suntan from a bottle. But my liver's fine. Orange-brown is my natural colour.
Whilst I’m not conventionally handsome, my looks are extreme and striking. I interest women, turning many a head in the street.
I’m best in motion, for then I’ve got the lithe, liquid pad of a puma.
I’ve got a rare agility. Even now, approaching my fortieth year, I can bound a pillar box from a standing jump. It’s a natural skill.
At school, I broke the high jump record by three and a half feet. The Xique Xique would have thought nothing of it — being an athletic sort — but at Stoneham School it caused a stir. I’d have competed seriously, but I learned early to evade attention as best I could.
I cannot claim to be an expert historian of my infancy. I was asleep for much of the time and my mind was then untutored. This much has been reported to me by my parents, perhaps muffled by their diplomacy to avoid abrading my rawest feelings.
'What’s this?' asks mother, when she first spies me. I am an irregular item of hand-luggage; lying in the makeshift cot of father's leather holdall. I am wrapped in a stained sheet and sucking on a leather strap. The taste is thick and salty.
'A baby,' says Dr Duckworth, dogmatic in his diagnosis.
'An orange one.’ she chuckles. 'So it is.'
'It’s your son,' says Dr Duckworth. 'Don't you like it?'
'My son?'
'Goodness gracious, woman . . .' Dr Duckworth chides, 'surely you got my telegram. This is our child.'
Mother lays her chill hand on my brow. It is our first touch.
'He's got a fever,' she sighs, shaking her head till her cheeks quiver, 'and a very sickly colour.'
My eyelids flutter open. I regard her with my calm yellow gaze.
'But he's a darling, isn't he!’ She clutches me up and rocks me in her fat freckled arms. I inhale her savour of hot garlic butter.
The family doctor examines me. He expresses bemused concern.
'He's running a temperature. He's underweight. He's jaundiced. The pulse and blood pressure are way too high. Yet he does seem a happy crappie... '
He is surprised that my placid facade belies such a turbulent metabolism. He examined all my nooks and crannies, reporting certain irregularities — including my hairlessness, the colouring of my pupils, the length and flexibility of my limbs, the position of my Foramen Magnum, the wide sutures to by bulbous cranium, my weak brow ridge, my small jaws and cartilaginous cheek bones. Oh, yes, and the high location of my unlikely penis.
'He's an unusual little . . .' the doctor pauses '. . . baby,' he declares. 'It’s hard to know what to make of him. If he reminds me of anything, It’s of a seven-month foetus. It’s as though he's come into the world a couple of months too soon. . . .' He looks at Dr Duckworth with wry pity. 'He's your son, is he?'
'Yes,' concedes Dad, 'and no.' Already, he's started apologising for me. 'I adopted him in Brazil,'
'Ah. . . .' the doctor's brow smoothes at a puzzle solved. 'A foreign body? A native, eh?'
There are many monochrome photographs of my childhood, for Dr Duckworth was a keen amateur photographer. The earliest snap is of me lying, eyes closed, knees drawn up to my belly like a trussed duck, displaying myself on the fireside rug. A foot rule lies before me to show the scale of my tiny being. You can see every interval on the ruler, while I lie blurred beyond the focus.
I was a slow developer. I’m told that I did little worthy of remark in my first two years of life. Indeed, I can't recall doing anything at all. But I was known as a paragon of lethargy. As though possessed of a blissful secret, I lay on my back, snuffled and smiled.
'We thought you were retarded,' said mother. 'You were like a jaundiced slug,' said father. 'Sickly, yellow, fat, sticky and slow. And tacky to the touch.' Having delayed my development, like a hibernating animal awaiting a propitious season, I woke brisk and eager at the age of two. I began to speak for myself and plead my special case.
If I’ve often felt fully Duckworth, I’ve never considered myself entirely English, I don't like to carp. This country has been my home for four decades. It's provided me language, education and home. But if the English have a foible — as I believe they do — it is an intolerance of difference, an expectation that others should match their mould.
I am tall. I am orange-skinned. My eyes are yellow. This has earned me disdain and distrust.
Dogs, despite their lack of cultural achievement, offer us lessons in affability. And I’d always prefer a friend to a man who can compose a string quartet — however skilful his counterpoint.
To look at them, you'd suppose a bishop and a pimp have more in common than a Doberman and a Yorkshire Terrier. But you just can't get them to mix. The dogs at least would pause for a yelp or a sniff.
And if you were to offer me a choice of companion between cocker spaniel and professor of moral philosophy, I should, without a second's hesitation, select the spaniel — and find him the more amiable, accepting and open-minded companion.
Never mind if I always had to buy the dinner. It's the company that counts. This isn't empty banter; I’ve spent my time with both.
I admire enthusiasm and spontaneity. I find both in plenty in dogs. Dogs have played a large part in my life. There's empathy to it too. Like me, they've been thrown into the deep end of human affairs they cannot fathom. We have strayed, dogs and I, from our kin.
My mother and father contrived to overlook or ignore my oddness. I was their only child. They were late and innocent parents. And Dr Duckworth, as a zoologist, was accustomed to the dizzy quirkiness of life. Compared to that species of Nematode worm that needs to wriggle inside a German felt beer mat before it feels at home, a two-toed sloth or magnetotactic bacterium, I must have seemed a dully orthodox item. It takes a lot to startle a biologist.
Early in life, I displayed strong enthusiasms. I was besotted by the dark, by holes, by hiding things and watching people.
Left to my own devices, I’d sidle into the shade — furtively discreet as a mole. Mother would find me under the sofa, in the cupboard beneath the stairs, in the oven, stowed in a cardboard box. I’d be there in the dark, watching life through a crack or crevice, on the outside looking in, observing my adoptive family.
Holes entranced me. I’d clamber into the sink or bath, lower an eye to the plug-hole, and gaze endlessly into the dark, dank, gurgling tubes. Or I’d hoist myself into the chimney and perch precariously within. Neither of my parents were followers of Freud, and I was left to feed my whims. Dragging a chair behind me, for use as a ladder, I’d patrol the home, switching off all the bulbs, tugging the curtains closed, at war with the dazing glare of light.
In the morning, I’d listen for the postman's step in the street. Scampering to the hall I’d watch the mysterious slit in the door blink open, and witness, enthralled, the birth of letters — which I’d seize, to hide in dark places, beneath pillows and under mats. Till I was found out and forbidden.
Also, I was fond of climbing — to the top of cupboards, above doors, up curtains or drain pipes, inadvertently causing consternation or damage. Frequent falls and breakages did not dissuade me, until Dr Duckworth did — by explaining I made him unhappy.
His frown would pierce me with shafts of sorrow. His glare raked me with miseries. Cross words made me vomit.
Sympathy has been my Achilles' heel. I can't abide another's discomforts and pains. They become my very own.
It is a physical affliction that became apparent early. I share in the suffering and injury of any other being I like.
When the grocer's dachshund broke a leg, I developed a sympathetic limp. Once It’s aw a child kick an unwary cat on the rump. Promptly I developed a bruise on my buttocks and we made a dismal din together, what with the caterwauling and my wails. I could not sit with any comfort for two days after.
I found myself particularly prone to the pains of my parents, who were the beasts I loved the best. If either Dr or Mrs Duckworth contracted a cold, then so would I. In the evening in the sitting room, we'd sniffle and snuffle in concert, bound together by mucus.
As mother entered the menopause, I quickly followed, as far as I could with masculine tubes. It’s hard for men fully to under-stand the discomfort and disorientation in being ambushed by attacks of hot flushes, dizziness, headaches and melancholia.
With my father, I shared chronic low back pain, prostate trouble, and impairment of my short-term memory.
I must have seemed a delicate and sickly child. Dr Foster soon railed against my frequent visits to his surgery, slandering me as a precocious hypochondriac. Once, I remember, he bellowed at me, shaking a stern finger. So, I burst into tears and retched in his enamel tray of surgical bandages.
To this day, the sight or scent of a doctor makes me queasy. I’ve always been a sensitive soul, you see.
I believe I know your secret.