|A Day at the Zoo|
Issue #55 (March 1986)
We were married in 1954 near Liverpool, in England. Madeleine had recently immigrated from France, lured by the English education authorities to teach French to children in secondary schools. We set up home in Liverpool.
[quoteright]I did not speak French. Every husband has occasions when he doesn't understand what his wife has just said, and vice versa. We frequently baffled each other in both languages, so set out to remedy the deficiency. I registered as an evening student in the beginners' French class at the Liverpool College of Commerce. My Tuesday night class was taught by an elderly Scottish lady named MacPherson, whom we addressed as "Miss MacPherson" in recognition of the vows of perpetual chastity sworn by teachers in former unenlightened times.
I shared my desk with a shy young Irishman named Seamus; carrot-red hair in disarray, steel-rimmed glasses on a freckled face. He was shabbily dressed, and radiated a pungent odour. I think he came to class directly from work. I assumed he was a stable hand and was surprised to learn from his business card one evening that he was a qualified chemical engineer with a responsible job in the Liverpool municipal gas works. He spoke in a soft voice with a thick Irish accent: you could have cut it with a knife. He was almost as difficult to understand as my wife, and I often had to ask him to repeat things two or three times. I suspect he was more at home in the Gaelic.
During tea breaks I came to know and like him. I have no recollection of why he was learning French, but he was determined to do so. Perhaps it was the stranger's way of passing away lonely evenings in a large industrial city. He certainly persevered against all the odds.
We all looked forward to that part of the evening when Miss MacPherson asked each of us in turn to read aloud, in particular when it was Seamus's turn. There is no way that I can convey in print what Seamus did to the French language. We buried our noses in our text books. What we saw there and what we heard from Seamus bore only the most tenuous relationship. We couldn't in all decency laugh out loud; on the other hand we strained in sympathy as he stumbled along, pausing to stare at each word before he softly mangled it.
Miss MacPherson recognized the impossibility of her task; nevertheless she made token efforts to correct the accent. She would gently interrupt a particularly atrocious convolution and carefully pronounce the word or phrase as an example to us all.
Miss MacPherson came to us from the Highlands of Scotland. We listened gleefully as she would say something in Scottish French and Seamus would manfully try to imitate her. Sometimes the Scottish version came from the Irish lips to amaze us, but the flowery French phrases usually rose as a miasma from the bog and presented themselves as unrecognizable caricatures of the text. In retrospect I suppose we derived comfort from comparing to Seamus to our own bad performances. I now see how our insecurity and embarrassment was assuaged; we felt superior by comparison. In such ways is prejudice born and nurtured. But Seamus persevered, he never missed a class, and he carefully did more homework than anyone else.
One evening I mentioned to Seamus that I had a motorcycle. He asked if I ever went to Southport, a seaside town some miles north of Liverpool, as he had business there and was planning to take the bus. I wound up offering to give him a ride; so the following Saturday morning he came round to my house.
It was a fine day as we went up the coast. Our destination was a privately owned zoo near the seafront. On arrival we paid to get in and spent a little time walking about looking at the animals. Seamus asked to see the owner and that gentleman came to greet us. Seamus presented a business card (which he carefully retrieved). Then, realizing I had not seen it, passed it to me. With great surprise I read "Irish News Agency." I learned later that Seamus looked for news items in the Liverpool papers. He would go to interview people he thought might be of interest to the newspapers back home. He was sometimes paid for such items, which they printed under some credit line like "From our own correspondent in England."
Seamus, the shy and unassuming Irishman, was turning out to have more depths than I had given him credit for. He had no hesitation in seeking out total strangers. I learned that the people whose doorbells he rang in the guise of journalistic endeavour were not at all disturbed at the interruption but would welcome him with smiles and answer his hesitant questions for hours.
The item which brought us to Southport was the news that a rare snow leopard had been seen somewhere in India and the owner of the Zoo was about to go to try and capture it. He was delighted to tell us all about it and proudly conducted the interview in front of the cage of the one normal leopard he had. In answer to Seamus's question "What's different about the snow leopard?" the owner mentioned paler coloring plus some other minor points.
To better illustrate said "minor points" he slid back the door of the leopard's cage and gestured for us to enter. The cage was a rectangle of three cement walls, the front being made of iron bars. Around the three cement walls was a low ledge with some straw on which the leopard lay somnolently sprawled in bored indifference to the crowds.
With the door of the cage open before me I felt like a Christian in Ancient Rome standing at the entrance to the arena. A hush fell upon the assemblage. I realized I had to do something before the leopard took it into his head to come out for a stroll. I stepped inside, followed by the now very quiet Seamus, then the owner.
To this day I am unable to remember the finer points of the lecture we received on the differences between a snow leopard and this ordinary common or garden variety of felis pardus, with which I found myself sharing a space of some six feet by ten feet.
The instant we entered the cage, the leopard underwent a dramatic change in behaviour. Life must have been interminably dull for him until then, enlivened only by his meals. We brought excitement into his life. He now had visitors, and it affected him like catnip. He began bounding around like a ball in an indoor court. He took off from the bench at forty-five degrees upwards toward a cement corner, ricocheted off the angle onto the next wall, down to the bench on the long side, did it again with the next corner, down to the floor, past the bars with a single bound and back onto the bench. He did it again. And again. And again. He hardly stopped.
Seamus was distinctly unnerved, but I am made of sterner stuff. I do, after all, have the advantages of an English Public School education. One reacts to such situations with aplomb (sometimes mistaken for paralysis). Training begins on the cricket field. One stands mere feet away from the batsman; when the solid cork cricket ball come hurtling off the bat, one is expected to catch it with bare hands without letting the side down. If successful, a murmur of "Good show old chap!" at one's bedside is reward enough. In class one learns the place of the Englishman in the proper order of things. The Empire depends upon us.
The beast accelerated until it was a yellow blur. It would have been bad form of course to have actually looked at it, so I stood fixed upon the owner's every word, nodding wisely from time to time, and occasionally interjecting a question as if deeply interested in what he was saying. I found myself in charge of the interview. Seamus was speechless.
Then I felt a heavy pressure on my shoulders. My knees, already weak, sagged slightly. The leopard had ceased his acrobatic gyrations, come round behind me, and was standing erect with a paw each side of my neck. He was the same height as me and weighed about a hundred pounds, quite a lot of which I was supporting. This was a sticky wicket if ever I saw one.
The leopard began licking the back of my neck, from the short hairs up to the top. The tongue of a domestic cat is scant introduction to the powerful stroke of a tongue five times the size. No barber's ministrations can equal the feeling. He almost stripped the skin off my skull, and gave new meaning to the phrase "I felt 'is 'ot breath in me ear 'ole." Both of my ears felt a fiery blast. For some reason the leopard was very happy, which gave me a crumb of comfort. I could tell he was happy because he was purring. In case you have ever wondered what it's like to have a leopard purr lovingly in your ear at short range I am in a position to report that it sounds very much like an unsilenced motorbike.
Stiff upper lip, and all that sort of thing. I braced myself against the weight, put my hands casually in my pockets, ignored the leopard (which I couldn't see anyway), and continued the conversation although it was hard to hear anything over the enthusiastic purrs of delight. I had to ignore him. You don't lightly consider whacking a playful leopard; you could lose an ear or a finger from a loving nip.
Somehow we ended the interview and left with dignity. Seamus later reported that the Irish Press had declined his story. However, the bounder had taken a photograph of the leopard licking my neck, which they used as a filler. They sent him a money order for ten shillings, half of which he offered to me. I declined, naturally. A mere "Good show, old chap!" would have sufficed.
Paul is one of those wonderful story-tellers who has a vast range of personal experiences that he draws upon for his humorous vignettes about his life. He and his wife Madeleine lived in Placerville until his death in 2006.