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A Lion in the University

© Barry Kavanagh 2000

The first time my father and I entered this battered basement, a gang of young students were comfortably reclining upon the strewn refuse, having a few drinks and smokes. When they saw the eminent university lecturer and his clear-eyed son (for my eyes are clear), they rose sheepishly, like string-puppets being tugged into life. My father laughed as they trooped out, taking the wine bottles they used as candlesticks with them.

The university authorities had decided that every nook and cranny on the campus must - absolutely must - have a function. All the concealed chambers and recesses had now to be put to use. It naturally followed that some of these would house residents. One member of staff even
volunteered to move into one of the most neglected spaces with his family. That man was my father.

We're fixing the place up. We've got hammers and nails, paint and glue, screwdrivers and drills. I'm scraping hardened dirt off the floor, trying to find the floorboards beneath. I hate doing this. My father is of course enthusiastic. He's standing on a stool with a hammer, pulling out the nails that are keeping a window boarded up. All the windows are boarded up. My little sister is sealing up the mirror at the end of the room. We found that it's a false door, opening into a narrow passageway with rough bricks jutting out from its uneven walls. We shined a torch in but could see only as far as a corner turn. My sister was the only one of us small enough to crawl in, so she took the torch and did so. She told us that beyond the corner it went on for another twenty feet, then stopped at some thick bars, which didn't seem to have anything on the other side of them. We decided to seal up the mirror and forget about it. My sister is doing this now, putting plaster around the sides. Later, we'll wallpaper over it.

There's a loud crack and now a clatter as my father pulls the board off the first window. Sunlight comes to our basement. I flick the grimy switch to turn off the electric light and approach the glass. My father is wiping it with a wet cloth. I can make out the library building and three seagulls who have flown out this way for some lunchtime crumbs. I can see further: as far as the service gates of the nearby zoological gardens. There's something going on there. I can see maybe four men, in white uniforms lined with red. Two of them are wearing protective headgear. The other two are opening the gates. Then they climb into the cab of a lorry which the helmeted men proceed to guide through. It's moving very slowly. The lorry is carrying a cage.

I drop my scraper, leave my family and run to the curious scene at the zoo gates. I now see that they're transporting a lion. Perhaps the lorry is backing out this slowly in order not to confuse him. He paces the cage. He's of quite substantial size. I watch his legs as he paces and I can
almost extrasensorily feel the strength and power they contain. Now I look at the paws, more specifically the claws. The gloved hand of one of the uniformed guards stretches out at my face, warning me to keep away.
His companion is at the other side of the vehicle but while they tell students to clear off, three tramps sidle up to the cage and leer in. Yeah, they're actually leering. Apart from that, they look like every other tramp I've seen, I think: dark greyish coats with holes; wild, thinning hair; stubble; whiskey red noses and bloodshot eyes. One of them reaches out to the cage and turns a key or something - I can't see exactly what he's doing. As the lorry's rear wheels reach the centre of the road, the cage door begins to slide open. The guard near me turns around and says "Hey, what - " and suddenly I see the lion's golden mane. I see the lion in the air, leaping. He's coming at me. He fills my whole vision, my world... He lands on the concrete. I'm transfixed. He doesn't move, he simply watches me. The lorry has braked. It's facing the zoo gates and is blocking the road. The cage door has slid open as far as it will go. The tramps stare in at the empty container. The two helmeted men are shouting at me. I can see them but can't hear. The lion's legs are tensed. Will he pounce?

I hear words now. "Walk away, walk away." Right. The guards are probably saying that. I slowly turn from the lion's stare and walk along the pedestrian crossing to the campus. One step, two steps - and the lion is trotting beside me. I hear his heavy feet pat the ground.

"Okay," says a voice. "Take him into the university. Get him into a classroom and close the door. We'll keep people out of your way." I presume the uniformed guard is telling me this, so I nod at him and keep walking, the lion at my side with every step.

Did I say the lion was male? With a big mane? No, it's a female lion, I see that now. She has prominent ears. I see her teeth: white, sharp and long. And her claws. I better not make a false move or - I see the sunshine, the blue sky, the green treetops and the students on the ground but I'm thinking of the lion only. The nearest building to me is a temporary prefab by the library. It's for some mathematical project, I think. There are steps up to the main door and there's also a ramp, for wheelchair-bound students. The ramp feels more suitable - the steps are narrow and the lion might feel I'm bringing her into another cage. I step onto the ramp and stop. I feel her brush against me and my nerves jolt. I move ahead, through the door.

We're on the corridor, now. The walls, ceilings and floors are all in shades of light blue. It's like a nursery for a baby boy. Light blue is also a peaceful colour, I think. There's one classroom door open: at the other end of the corridor. This is the test, live or die... The lion bares her teeth as she follows me down, her head low at her shoulders. We pass one locked door, then another. When will she realize that this is a trap? Does she see through that open door ahead of us? Does she realize that it's a dead end? Why is she walking with me? Any second she might see. She is strong and does not fear me. She has power. One thought flashes in her mind and she could lacerate my skin, tear my throat out. Though I'm not able to think about death. It seems too abstract. There's something more vital happening here in my mind. We pass a window and I don't look out. My arms are at my sides. I feel the lion's breath on my right hand.

I stop at the doorway. So does my companion. She won't go in! She merely looks at me. I step inside and only then does she follow. In the middle of the room I turn to face her. She is between me and the door. I hear the sound of boots on the hollow prefab floor. The zoo guards are
running. I hear a sigh of disappointment. An angry face shows itself in the doorway. "You've done it wrong. We can't shut the door with you in there." He looks at me in disgust. The lion sniffs around. I can't predict her next move. I say "I'm coming out." The guard backs away. I
edge towards the door and towards my lion. She spins around now and runs headlong down the corridor at the startled guards, who instinctively hug the walls to let her pass. She is gone. "Get out of here," a furious guard shouts at me as they depart. I stand still for a few moments, between the four blue walls. My feet take me now into the nearby library building.

I have come in the entrance, just a few feet, when I notice a TV screen. I see that it's a news channel. The sound is muted. On the screen I see once more the lion leaping from the cage at the instigation of the tramps - and I can see clearly, despite the grainy footage, that the lion is male. I look up at the balcony. I see the back of a friend up there. I know her by her long curled dark hair and her black woollen coat. I go up the steps, past the glass cases, crests and insignia on the walls. My friend stands with a male student on either side of her. They're looking out the big window. What holds their attention? From the
window I see the security men rushing around the concourse, seeking my lion.

"Did you see me down there?" I ask.

"Yes," is the answer. Now she says, "You know, this isn't the first time this has happened. Years ago, a lion was released by students. Political extremists."

"Fancy that," I say.

"The lion attacked people when an attempt was made to lock it into a lecture theatre." She turns back to the window.

I wonder if it was the previous escape I saw on the TV. "Was it male or female?" I ask.

"Male," she tells me but I'm still unsure.

She points. I see that a guard is at long last passing out tranquilizer guns to his colleagues. They're standing around a jeep. Another guard holds a leash, attached to a harnessed monkey. The monkey is a small, grey little thing with a curly tail. It wears a turquoise waistcoat and
a very tall hat the same colour. It looks like it should be performing in a circus.

Leaving my friend, I run down the steps and out of the library. A crowd is being kept at bay by additional security men.

"What's this monkey?" I ask a bystander.

He says it was a companion to the lion in its pen. "The
monkey is friend of his, if you like."

It is now released from its harness and it scampers off around the corner. Some men follow and some
wait here. I force my way through the crowd and ignore a warning to keep back. I'm among the security men now.

The monkey returns alone. It starts to wave its paws at the man holding the empty harness. They must have taught it some sign language, as is done with chimpanzees sometimes. I see the monkey gesture around its
eyes. The guard translates for the others. "No more tears..."

Perplexed, he turns away from the monkey to his comrades and gives the full translation.

"No more tears today."

"Farewell to the Hotel"

"Trouble in a Café"