A Lion in the University
© Barry Kavanagh 2000
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
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
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
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
"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
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
It is now released
from its harness and it scampers off around the corner. Some men follow
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
Perplexed, he turns away from the monkey to his comrades and gives the full translation.
"No more tears today."