Thirty-Seven Photographs of a Sleeping Lion
1. The Zoo
Rachel’s leaning against the penguin enclosure wall, and you say, “What do you mean I pay you too much attention? You’re my girlfriend.”
“Listen,” she says. “How can I put this? All good photographers know that the subject doesn’t always have to be in the centre of the frame.”
You’re looking at the penguins behind her. One has a fish in its beak and it’s walking around in little circles looking pleased with itself. “But I don’t take photographs anymore,” you say. “You told me I’m an awful photographer, remember? I even sold my camera.”
She sighs. “It’s an analogy.”
You smile as you point at the little sign on the fence. “It’s an Emperor, actually.”
“Listen,” she sighs. “How about, I need space. Or, It’s not you, it’s me. What about, Maybe we can still be friends…? I mean, if you don’t like analogies, how about clichés?”
“At least let’s go and look at the lions,” you say.
“They’ll be asleep,” she says, and she walks away.
2. The driveway
“I think she’s really leaving me,” you say into the phone. “I mean, she’s inside now, packing.”
Your mother sighs her phone-sigh. “And where are you?”
“In the car. In the driveway.”
“While your life is falling apart?”
It’s hard to look at the house, so you look out at the wall which separates your driveway from The Wilkinsons’ next door. You look at the hole in the wall where one single brick has been removed. In its place is a tiny vase with a tiny daisy in it. You remember how Rachel reacted when she saw it last week, how she told you to go round and find out why the hell they’d taken a bloody brick out of the wall and put a vase in its place. At least that’s something you won’t have to do now.
“Are you still there?” says your mother. “Is she still leaving you?”
“I think it’s for the best, Mum,” you say.
“Nothing is ever, ever for the best,” says your mother. “And you’d do well to remember that, young man.”
- With Bell
“You know what they did today?” he’s saying. “They hung a huge Union Jack over the front of the building. They’d cut a hole in it for the door, but not for the windows, so all day we worked in the office with the sun filtered blue through one of the diagonal stripes.”
You take a sip of your lager. “What’s the flag for?”
Bell looks at you in that way he has which is a poor substitute for slapping you. “The Olympics,” he says. “It’s for the Olympics.”
“Oh,” you say. “Are we winning?”
“It starts tomorrow. And anyway, I’m not sure it’s necessarily about winning…”
“We went to the zoo,” you say. “That was the last thing we did together.”
“Look,” says Bell. “Would it make it easier for you if I told you she was sleeping with Arnold?”
“Floor manager at work.”
“Bell,” you say. “Rachel was not sleeping with the floor manager at your bloody work.”
“No, but what I’m asking is, would it make it any easier if I told you…”
“What’s the next storm going to be called, Bell?”
You sip more lager. “What’s the next tropical storm going to be called? You said the last one was…”
“Brenda,” he says.
“And the next?”
Bell looks at you for a long time, and then he says, “Cyril. It’s going to be called Cyril, alright?”
You stand up and take your jacket from the chair. “Thanks, man,” you say. “It really helps.”
“You know I make that stuff up, right? About the storms?”
“I know, Bell,” you say. “I know.”
- Buying the cactus
She’s got black hair and blue eyes. Her nametag, which is upside down, says Eloise. She hands you the card machine. “You’re single, right?” she says.
You look at your watch. “Three days, two hours, seventeen minutes. How did you know?”
She takes the machine back, frowns at it, then smiles. “A cactus takes almost no looking after. It takes very little in the way of nurturing. If you forget to water it for a year, who’s going to know? But a cactus is still a plant. It still says, look, this bloke has a soul. Should anyone care, of course.” The machine does its receipt-thing, and she pulls out the card, hands it back to you.
“You’re saying single men buy cactuses because they can’t keep more demanding plants? And that a single man, bringing home a lady-friend, might be wanting to communicate - subliminally, through the cactus - his inherent humanity?”
“Bloke-plus-plant equals not-a-weirdo. Simple algebra.”
“I have a question,” you say.
“Cactuses or cacti?”
“Well,” she says, “the hip-young-thing part of me wants to say, Whatever.”
“But the less-hip, actual-age you?”
“Cacti. Every time.”
You put the card back in your wallet. “So how come you didn’t correct me when I said cactuses?”
“Because,” she says, “I like to know a man before I set about destroying his sense of self-worth.”
- The driveway (part two)
The daisy in the vase in the hole in the wall is dead. Or, at least, it’s even more dead now than when it was picked. You put the cactus down on the doorstep and you look at the lawn. There are at least twenty daisies scattered around in clumps of threes and fours. You pick three of the bigger ones and you take them over to the wall. You take the dead daisy out of the little vase and you put the three newly-dead daisies in its place. Then you pick up the cactus and go into the house. You take a water bottle from the fridge, bring it outside, and you fill the tiny vase almost to the brim.
As you turn to go back into the house, you see the Wilkinsons’ daughter - whose name is Lizzie or Leslie or Laura - watching you from the upstairs bedroom window. She isn’t smiling, but you give a little wave, and as you do so you hear your mother’s voice in your head as the little girl seems to mouth the words, Nothing is ever, ever for the best.
- With Bell (part two)
Your bed-sheets are wet with sweat, the curtains are closed, the light is off, and Bell is a silhouetted figure in the darkness.
“Anyway,” he says, “it turns out he was a hoarder. You know? Copies of the Echo going back thirty-five years. Every bit of junk mail he’d ever been sent. Food packaging, all neatly stacked and labelled.” He holds out a bottle of lager to you, but you shake your head, so he pops the top with his hands, takes a swig. “You see, for a hoarder, he was pretty meticulous. Your common-or-garden hoarder, well, they’re a slob, right? Stuff everywhere. But Arnold, he was a different kettle of…”
“This is the same Arnold who wasn’t sleeping with Rachel?”
“The very same.”
“And you found out he was a hoarder how?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying! What’s the matter with you?”
“Bell, I’ve been running a fever of one-hundred-and-four for the past two days. Like I told you, I think a tropical cactus tried to kill me. So, if I haven’t caught every last nuance of what you’ve been saying, well…”
“But you’re better now, right?”
“Getting there, mate. Getting there. So, Arnold’s a hoarder, and…”
“Was a hoarder. Past tense. They had to kick the door down. Bloke was dead in the bath. Heart, apparently. They only found him because the neighbours complained. Said the television was left on all hours, blaring out, no one could sleep…”
“Bell,” you say, “Do they name storms more than one in advance, or do they just always know the next one along?”
Bell looks at you. It takes a moment, but he smiles. “All planned out, mate, from now until Judgement Day. But the list is top secret. You’re only lucky I have ways and means of finding these things out…”
“Is there a storm Eloise?”
“Eloise? Eloise? Of course there’s a bloody Eloise! In fact she’s the next but one.”
“Thought so,” you say. “Listen, do you know the garden centre on Windsor Road?”
- A letter (the first one)
Dear Eloise (stop) Very sick (stop) Allergic to cactuses (stop) Or cacti (stop) I think (stop) Anyway, getting better (stop) Wanted to come into shop to see you (stop) But sick (stop) Like I said (stop) Hopefully idiot mate delivers this safely (stop) Would like to see you (stop) Single-but-not-weird (stop) As you and cactus know (stop) Will be better soon (stop) Wanted to discuss alternative plant-choices (stop) Combine business with pleasure? (stop) Number 01173 667656 (stop) PS Nineteen-twenties telegram parody stupid idea (stop) Sorry (stop) Yours, Cal (stop) Remember? (stop) PPS If you don’t remember, forget about this too (stop)
- The zoo (part two)
You’re leaning against the penguin enclosure wall, and she says, “Look at that penguin. The one with the fish in its beak.”
You know that it can’t be the same penguin as last time, that there are at least fifty penguins in this enclosure, most with fish in their beaks, and they all look exactly alike to the untrained, non-penguin eye, but all the same you smile at this one, and you give it a little wink.
Of course, it winks back.
She gets her camera out of her bag, and you straighten up a little, pull a stupid grin.
“Not you, idiot. I hardly know you. I want a picture of the penguin.”
“You hardly know the penguin either,” you say, but she just smiles and takes the shot.
“How do we get to the lions?” she says. “I haven’t been here for years.”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t bother. They’re always asleep.”
“Have you ever been in love with someone?” she says.
“Once or twice.”
“And did you ever wake up next to the object of your affections and just watch them sleeping?”
“Once or twice.”
“Let’s go find these lions, then,” she says.
- The driveway (part three), with Bell (part three), and a letter (the second one)
“Say hello to Mrs H from me”,” says Bell.
“Bell says hi,” you say to you mother.
“Why are you still spending time with that idiot?” she says.
“Mum says hi,” you say to Bell.
“What’s that in the wall?” says Bell, pointing at the vase of dead daisies in the hole in the wall.
“It’s a vase of dead daisies in a hole in the wall,” you say.
“What on Earth are you going on about now?” says you mother.
“I’m talking to Bell,” you say
“Well, why are you on the phone to me?”
“Good question,” you say, but quietly.
“Have you told her about storm-girl?” says Bell.
“Don’t call her that,” you say.
“What did he call me?” says your mother.
“Not you, Mum,” you say.
“Look,” says Bell, and he gets out of the car. Lizzie/Leslie/Laura - or at least a part of Lizzie/Leslie/Laura’s face - is peering through the hole in the wall behind the vase of dead daisies.
“Listen, Mum. I’ve got to go,” you say.
“What’s happening with Rachel?” she says.
“It’s really over, Mum,” you say. “I think it’ll be good for me to just spend some time with friends.
“For God’s sake, you don’t have any friends. Apart from Bell, and he’s barely a functioning human being.”
“Mum, I’ve got lots of friends.”
“Names,” she says. “Give me names.”
You’re still looking out of the window of the car, so you say, “Lizzie, Leslie, Laura.”There’s a pause, and then you say. “Daisy.” Another pause. “And Eloise.”
“Eloise?” she says. “Eloise who?”
“They named a storm after her,” you say. “Listen, Mum. I’m busy. I’ve got to go.”
You hang up, and you get out of the car. Bell is holding a letter, and he hands it to you.
“Abigail here was putting this in the hole,” he says.
“Abigail?” you say, looking over the wall at the girl. “Your name’s Abigail?”
The girl nods. You half-expect her to start mouthing words at you in your mother’s voice - you don’t have any friends - something like that, but she doesn’t say anything.
“Aren’t you going to read her letter?” says Bell.
You look at the girl. She’s not smiling. You unfold the paper and you start to read.
Dear Mr Dick-next-door,
We don’t have any daisies in our garden, because it’s not a garden. It’s a kind of car-park.
I stole a daisy from your garden to put in my vase in my hole in the wall. My Daddy said I could have a hole in the wall if I really, really wanted one, and I did.
But I didn’t have any daisies.
I felt bad about stealing the daisy.
So I’m asking this time.
“Dick-next-door?” you say.
“That’s what my Daddy calls you,” she says.
Bell smiles. “Quite right too,” he says.
You look at the garden. There are at least thirty daisies now, all in clumps of twos and threes. “Bell, why don’t you take Abigail here to pick a daisy or two?”
“Right you are,” says Bell, and he takes her hand. “Did you know there’s a storm called Abigail? It caused tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage on Haiti a couple of years ago…”
Your phone rings, and you grab it. “Mum, please. I told you I’m busy,”
“No you didn’t,” says Eloise.
“Oh, hi,” you say. “I thought you were someone else.”
“Well, at least you don’t sound disappointed,” she says.
“I’m in the driveway,” you say. “With Bell. And Abigail.”
“Sounds like a party,” she says. “Should I know these people?”
“Yeah,” you say, smiling. “Maybe you should.”
“So, how single are you today?” says Eloise
Instinctively, you look at your watch. “Ten days, three hours, twenty-four minutes,” you say.
“That’s pretty bloody single.”
“How single do I have to be?” you say.
“How single do you have to be for what?” says Eloise.
You think about this for a second, and then you say, “To not be single anymore.”
“Do you want to see a photograph of a sleeping lion?” says Eloise. “Actually, do you want to see thirty-seven photographs of a sleeping lion?”
“I’d love to,” you say.
“Good,” she says. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
“Why? Where are you going now?”
“Nowhere,” she says. “But you’re busy, remember?” and she hangs up before you can say anything else at all.