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Closer

A short story by James Brown

One day, while at the zoo with our child, I was staring absentmindedly at the lions when, all of a sudden, there was Lottie inside the enclosure. Don't ask me how she'd got in, but there she was, playing next to a pile of tyres that had been put there for the lions to chew on. "Enrichment" the zoo people call it. Sitting in the dust as she was, the lions, lounging on rocks some distance away, hadn't noticed her, but the gouges on those tyres made for grim viewing, I can tell you. A fanfare of cause and effect scenarios went through my mind, momentarily jamming it, but as the most immediate need was not to alert the lions, my inaction was okay.

"Lottie," I finally blurted, "don't move." I looked around for help, but it was a weekday and the zoo was quiet. Lottie began to play pat-a-cake against the tyres. "Lottie, please be quiet, love," I hissed urgently. She looked up. "Hello, Daddy. I'm hungry." "How did you get in there?" I whispered. "In where?" she said. "Where you are now," I said. She looked at me puzzled. "You brought me," she said. One of the lions sat up and turned lazily toward the tyres. "I'm hungry," she said again, her voice almost whiny. How had she got in? If she could just somehow make her way out again ... except that by moving she would almost certainly draw attention to herself. So long as she and the lions stayed where they were she had a chance.

Out the corner of my eye I saw a movement by the chimp enclosure - a keeper. I made up my mind. "Stay there, Lottie. Don't move. Daddy's just going to get you a sandwich. Don't move."

I can't have been gone more than a few minutes, but when the keeper and I returned there was no Lottie by the tyres. The lions were still on their rocks. "Could they have eaten her?" I said. The keeper thought it unlikely, given the lions' apparent lack of excitement. "Boo!" cried Lottie from behind us. The keeper gave me a look and went back to the chimps. "Did you get me a sandwich?" Lottie asked. "No," I said. "You moved." I determined not to let her out of my sight again, but it just isn't possible, is it, to keep an eye on your child every second and be on the look out for toilets and drink fountains as well as all the potential hazards to children, such as backing vehicles and weird people offering sweets. Do you know what the world's number one killer actually is? Motor vehicles. And most of the victims are children.

During the rest of our zoo visit, Lottie disappeared on four more occasions, and on three of those it was the sound of a motor vehicle that distracted me. She turned up with the giraffes, the tigers, the Barbary sheep, and finally the lemurs. I have to say that of all the arboreal primates, the lemurs are probably my least favourite. But Lottie loved the lemurs. In fact, she declared that she wanted to stay and live with them; that she really was, and always had been, a lemur. I tried reasoning with her, but how can you reason with a five-year-old lemur? Eventually, I squeezed the remains of our food and drink into the enclosure for her, and made my solitary way to the exit, which was how our zoo visits always ended.

At home, I recounted the day's turbulent events to my wife. "You did your best, we're both doing our best," she said, embracing me. "I was a terrible dad," I said, my voice almost whiny. "I made all the wrong decisions." "No," she said. "You were a good dad, maybe even a great one, and you will be again. You just need to steer clear of the lemurs." She's right, visiting the arboreal primates won't bring Lottie back. But I can't help thinking that if I can just grip the bars tightly enough and push my face against them hard enough, they'll start to bend, and maybe we'll be a family again. z

James Brown is a poet whose collections include, most recently, The Year of the Bicycle.