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Zebra and Other Stories

By Debra Adelaide
Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Despite having the best anti-spam filters available on her personal email account, the PM still received a number of letters that she presumed were hoaxes and was prepared to trash. These arrived along with the requests from Nigerian sources for her bank account details and offers to enlarge her sexual organs that still eluded the software. However, she noticed these letters were, first, all correctly spelled, and they were addressed to her personally not only as Prime Miniser of the country, but also as custodian of the house. A Mr Austin Beamish of a place called Lincolnville, Arizona, USA, was the owner of a private zoo that had lately fallen upon hard times (the spelling might have been correct, but the PM noted the euphemistic and old-fashioned phrasing). Consequently and regrettably Mr Beamish was obliged to relocate all his animals, or risk confiscation by the local authorities, specifically the Feral and Introduced Species Board. Possible euthanasia of many animals would ensue, while others would be sent to different zoos already overcrowded and/or inexperienced with the care of many of the species in his collection. He had undertaken to write to specially targeted prominent citizens around the world to offer animals that he believed would be uniquely suited to them. Testimonials would follow, but already he could reveal that he had secured acceptances from the President of South Africa, who was generously taking three lion cubs whose mother was unfit to travel and who would be remaining as Mr Beamish’s house companion; and the Queen of England herself, whose two new hyena pups would be excellent companions for the corgis. And, although they represented a priority on his list, he was not only approaching world leaders. Others included Madonna, for whom he had reserved an endangered spotted serval; Bill Gates, who was adopting a family of rare red rattle- snakes; Angelina Jolie, three black-faced chimpanzees from the lower Congo River, recently orphaned; Ben Elton, a breeding pair of King vultures; and for Richard Branson, two rare white bison.

Mr Austin Beamish somehow knew that the PM was improving the grounds of her property and extending the gardens, and he understood her facility ticked all the right boxes. The animal was available at a time convenient to them both, i.e. now. He would await instructions regarding shipping of the as yet unspecified animal, and the exact street address, at her earliest convenience.

She had ignored the first two emails, and responded with brief and polite refusals for the third and fourth time. All Mr Beamish’s letters were similar. By the fifth email, in which he finally specified the animal earmarked for her special care, she was intrigued enough to make a few enquiries, and after the seventh she was prepared to consider the idea. And then the emails stopped. Two weeks passed and she was almost missing Mr Austin Beamish’s quaint epistolary style. She contacted him, twice, but with no response. Clearly it was a hoax after all. Thank god she had not provided any of her personal details. Had she? Of course it was a hoax. Imagine the Queen of England accepting hyena pups from an oddly named man in an obscure American town. Imagine her even falling for the story of a private zoo forced to divest its animal assets around the world.

A month or so afterwards, she had been summoned early on a Friday morning. It was just after seven o’clock, and she was awake though not yet up, reading instead of walking for a change. Hazel, just winding up her evening shift at the front gates, phoned through to tell her a delivery was on its way. She went to the window to see a battered Toyota Hilux utility pulling up in the front driveway. It was towing a horse float.

‘Special delivery for the PM,’ the driver called up, walking around to the back of the vehicle to unfasten the tow bolt.

‘What’s this? What’s going on?’

‘As I said, special delivery.’ He drew the bolt free and lowered the tow bar, releasing the float from the utility. From inside came the sound of thumping and skidding as the float settled at an angle.

‘Careful! There must be a horse in there!’

The driver shrugged. ‘Assume so. I’m just the driver. You are the PM, aren’t you? Coming down to sign this or what?’ He waved the paperwork up at her but she was already flying out the bedroom and down the stairs, flinging on a dressing-gown.

‘Where’s this from? And what is it?’

‘Dunno. Subcontract job. I just took possession in Port Kembla. Sign here please.’

‘Port Kembla!’ She scribbled her name and handed the clipboard back.

‘Yeah. Ship docked late last night, I collected it soon after. Made good time, didn’t I?’

If that was a hint for a tip, she ignored it. More thumping noises were coming from the float. It was an old-fashioned one with a small window that revealed nothing.

‘We’d better have a look, then.’ She held the dressing- gown together more firmly at the front and tried the handle on the float, but the driver had already returned to the cab of the utility and started the engine. Several metres down the driveway he stopped, jumped out and reached into the back tray.

‘Nearly forgot. They said you might need this.’ He tossed out two bales of hay onto the gravel, jumped back in the cab and drove away.

They said. Who were they? And what was this? But of course she knew.

The door to the float was heavy. The latch securing it was rusty and ill-fitting. By the time she opened it the PM wondered if she should have asked the driver to stay, rather than facing alone the animal that was both strange and familiar. But it was too late, she stood staring at it, Equus grevyi, a Grévy’s zebra – if her strange correspondent had been correct – one of creation’s more beautiful and ridiculous beasts. The animal snorted, tossed her head, then stepped forward. Mr Beamish had also said she was tame. The PM stretched out a hand. The black and white head extended, and as the zebra walked down the ramp and into the morning, her first in her new land, and a particularly bright morning as well, the PM realised that Mr Beamish was a marvel, a genius. A stranger, half a world, a continent, away and yet he knew that the zebra was exactly what she wanted and needed.

 

This extract is from Zebra and Other Stories by Debra Adelaide (Picador; $29.99), published in February.

Debra Adelaide
Debra Adelaide is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her books include The Hotel Albatross, Serpent Dust and The Household Guide to Dying.

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