Get rid of the word and there’ll be another one…
THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE
The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.
I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.
We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.
The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.
The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.
So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.
“You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”
Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.
“So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.
“The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”
“So why would you tell me?” I wondered.
“Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.
“Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?”
“It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.
“But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.
“I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”
“So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”
“But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”
“Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”
“No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”
“Someone started it deliberately?”
“We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”
“Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.
“No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”
“A keeper dropped a lighter?”
“Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.
“So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”
“All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”
“So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”
“This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”
“And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”
“Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”
Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.
“What the actual…” I didn’t finish.
“Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.
I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.
It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:
THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?
© Steve Laker, 2018
Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.