S is for Saffron
For three weeks now Anna had donned her mask and fought her way through the smoke to see Saffron.
All around her cages lay shattered and open to the acrid sky but Saffron remained there on her branch, circling and curling around the stripped bark and staring with moist eyes beyond the zoo to the dim outlines of the hills where she had lived so many years ago.
Saffron was the last of the orangutans, small, scruffy and muted compared to those who had gone before her, but she had somehow clung to life as the provisions and visitors had dwindled at the zoo, as the storms, floods, and wildfires had waxed and waned.
As soon as she saw the last members of staff clearing out of the zoo, Anna broke in. Every day she hung by the bars and fed Saffron with all she could beg, borrow and steal.
One day she was startled by a voice behind her.
It was raspy now, but unmistakably French.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Anna swing around to see Marcel. It had been a year, but he was transformed from their previous meeting. His face had a gaunt, grey pallor and his eyes had retreated into his skull. Anna felt pity but also an odd sense of empowerment that they were equal again.
“Marcel. You look..”
“Ah yes. Terrible. Merde. I know. It’s respiratory…”
“Oh.” Anna felt like she had been angry with him for half a lifetime but now she was just bewildered.
“Well, we all have respiratory. To a lesser or greater extent,” she said, waving her arms like windmills against the stained sky.
“Well I have greater, I fear,” said Marcel. “I’m sorry about your house.”
“Oh you know about that do you? Were you involved? Just as well I was out at the time.”
Marcel shook his head slowly. “The fire was accidental Anna. They had lost interest in the highway. Nowhere to go, apart from somewhere else that’s in trouble. Travel used to be such fun, but that was another lifetime ago. Where are you living now anyway?”
“With a family in Balikpapan. I was sleeping on the sofa but after the floods, they got out. They didn’t want to live anywhere by the coast anymore. I didn’t care. It was close to the zoo. She’s all I have now. I have a bed too.”
Marcel muttered and looked at his feet. “Anna. They are evacuating the town tomorrow, and you won’t be able to get to the zoo.”
“Oh crap Marcel. You are always full of it.”
“I know people Anna. I know this to be true.”
“And what will you do?”
“I know some people in a wild place in the hills. It’s a rough place, but it’s amazing what you can do with rat meat if you have the right spices. You have to weave your way through forest fires, but there’s a bit of foliage up there still. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to our old jungles. Maybe you can come.”
Anna’s jaw shut like a trap. “I’m leaving her over my dead body.”
“Try these,” said Marcel.
He went over to an outbuilding and grabbed some wire cutters. Together they cut a gaping hole in the mesh cage. Marcel was wheezing, but he was almost child-like and giddy in his excitement.
“We can play families. Just for a day or two,” he said.
“How about the rest of our lives,” said Anna.
“Like I said – a day or two.”
It had been a long time since any visitor had set foot in the zoo. The squeals of children were a distant memory, and the smoke drifted in relentless waves behind the broken aviaries. But had there been a visitor on that humid afternoon, he would have been treated to a rare sight, that of an elderly couple, walking slowly hand-in-hand through the wrecked precincts of the zoo, a shaggy ape bounding along at the old woman’s side.
See B is for Borneo.