Maggie took two fluorescent drinks, served in hollowed out pineapples by a girl in a hula outfit, and sucked on all eight protruding straws at once. She could see, from where she stood, behind a large waxed plant at the end of the bar, that no one else had taken the dress code literally.
Maggie cursed herself, in language too foul to repeat. It was the sort of mistake she was making a lot, just lately, and she did not know why.
‘Oh dear, you’ve taken things a little far, haven’t you?’ said a woman in a little black cocktail dress, a zebra mask over her eyes.
Maggie turned and sighed. ‘How was I to know, when told to dress as my favourite beast, for a party at the zoo, that no one else would dress up properly? I suppose I’ll just have to drink my way through the embarrassment.’
‘I shouldn’t if I were you,’ said the zebra, lowering her voice, conspiratorially. ‘You know what you’re like when you’re drunk. You’d mount anything. You tart.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Maggie, all of a sudden struggling to breathe. But the zebra woman sprang off and disappeared into the crowd.
So her reputation had preceded her, Maggie thought: nothing wrong with that, not necessarily, for it had taken many years to build. But she did wonder briefly what she had done to upset the zebra before abandoning the thought as unnecessarily reckless. She finished her drink and started to search for someone she knew.
It was a rare event, escaping the office at such a reasonable hour. It was important to enjoy herself. Lately, her life was no fun at all. For four evenings in five she sat at her desk as the night slid away from her, because she had reached such a position that they expected her to do so for hours on end, waiting on decisions that might never come.
She had gone without a man so long, there was such a sharp and pressing hunger in her heart, that, she feared, if left unsatisfied, she might well burst
After eleven hours of work there was next to nothing to do but the editor, who set out to wreck her daily, never wanted to go home. So the whole department was forced to sit there proving itself indispensable. Agreeing that lunch is for wimps. And dinner is for wimps. Weekends are for wimps. Sleep – also for wimps. Admitting to an interest in anything outside the building at all – a wimpish thing to do.
Maggie sat there, filing her nails, applying and reapplying her lipstick, and thought that she could understand this attitude if she were working on a cure for cancer. But she wasn’t. She just sat there, with all the rest of them, spending hours, countless hours, trawling the internet, waiting to be torn apart. Not that any other job would be better, Maggie knew. Jobs are all the same.
She had been so excited, leaving on time, telling everyone about this crucial networking event. But now she was in two minds as to whether she ought to stay. On the one hand, she looked and felt ridiculous. On the other hand, she had gone without a man so long, there was such a sharp and pressing hunger in her heart, that, she feared, if left unsatisfied, she might well burst. Maggie finished her pineapple drink and returned it to the girl in the hula outfit, who replaced it with a new drink, in the form of a plant pot bursting with equatorial flowers.
Maggie tried to engage the waitress in conversation, but the girl just frowned at her and looked perplexed. She stood in silence at the end of the bar, her embarrassment concealed by lolling palm trees and rich green overhanging ferns, trying to summon up courage. The air was hot and tropical and the more Maggie drank, the more she came to notice her beautiful surroundings.
For it was a fine summer evening, the sun still bright in the sky, its fierce blaze reflected in the streams and pools and rivulets that spread out across the zoo like a maze of gold. Maggie abandoned her drink, moved away from the bar and went to examine the pond. She peered at the luminous insects skating across, and put her face too close to the water, to look at the coloured fish darting underneath the surface. She inhaled a fly and started spluttering, returned to her drink, trying to swallow it, held out her glass for more drink, and stumbled back, away from the bugs and into a glasshouse, which proved to be stiflingly hot, and full of orchids.
Outside, she could hear the popping of champagne corks and gusts of laughter, so she wandered back out, into the crowd, trying to find a good-looking man. Finding none, she attempted conversation with several people who happened to be standing on their own, but they just glanced up and down at her dress, with startled expressions, as if she were talking a foreign language.
Maggie tried, very hard, not to take these failures to heart. She knew this evening was just going in the same direction as everything else. It was all symptomatic of her luck. Just the latest instance of this year’s luck. And last year’s luck. And, yes, Maggie thought, the luck she’d had the year before that. ‘When one falls into such a dismal luck rut as I’ve had,’ Maggie said to herself, ‘it’s very hard to get oneself out of it . . . ’
In her youth, her recent youth, this dress had had that effect on men a great dress will have. It dragged them to her, inexorably, as the moon creates the tides. But the men at this party weren’t even looking
So she sat down by the bar, and tried, once more, to admire the trees and the fish and the flowers. And when that didn’t work, she dug one perfect leopard-print talon hard into her wrist. It was awful to think how, just an hour ago, she had been so pleased, so very pleased and proud. Delighted – yes, delighted even – to have got herself into this infamous dress.
In her youth, her recent youth, this dress had had that effect on men a great dress will have. It dragged them to her, inexorably, as the moon creates the tides. But the men at this party weren’t even looking. They were too busy talking to women in outfits you could wear to any old party, with tasteful and dull animal accessories. These men sweated profusely into their standard-issue suits, until their shirts were wet through and their faces melted like waxworks left near a fire. They seemed unaware of the heady atmosphere here at the zoo, with all its potential for wild romance.
Maggie pressed her face into her leopard-print thighs and stared hard at her leopard-print shoes. She put both hands on her little leopard-skin hat, with the tiny leopard-print ears she’d sewn on that morning. How gleeful she had been in her bedroom, stuffing her body into leopard-print hosiery. The dress itself had slid down, just so. And then she’d wriggled and grappled with the zip and a coat hanger.
Wrestling with herself in the two-way mirror, she realised how hard it would be to extract herself without assistance. And she had imagined meeting some sort of manly bear – or a lion or a leopard – who would race off with her, into the night, to tear the whole outfit off with his teeth. But none of these men looked the least bit carnivorous. None of them were baring fangs at her.
But, while it failed on the men, Maggie’s dress was having its usual effect on the women. Other women rarely appreciated her sartorial adventures, and tended to sneer at her in a manner most deflating. Maggie smiled at a trio who came near, and they drifted past without acknowledging her, trailing an odour of mothballs and Chanel. One of them started to talk knowledgeably – and at top volume – about how zebra print was the only chic thing this season.
‘It makes leopard print,’ the woman shouted, without looking behind her, ‘look vulgar. As leopard print, of course, is . . . ’ Then, a lady in a monochrome dress, with a discreet little badger mask, sat down next to her, so Maggie stood up.
‘Christ,’ said the woman, as if suddenly alerted to Maggie’s presence. ‘What are you wearing?’
Maggie felt something pop, looked down at her dress, and found that her stomach had triumphed in the war with her underwear. She stared down, miserably, as the great protuberance overcame her leopard-print tights.
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ asked the badger.
Maggie could not say that she did.
‘That’ll be because you’re an awful slut,’ spat the badger, before flouncing off, towards the exit.
For a terrible moment, Maggie thought she might cry. But, if that happened, she knew it would be the end. That her tears would finally confirm what she must never admit, that her life had gone wrong, and irredeemably so, many, many years before. So she sniffed and pulled herself together. First, she would take a tour of the animals. She would get her money’s worth. That would show she was not defeated. She would look at the animals that interested her, and then go home, have an early night.
She had only been to a zoo once before, when she was small, and she hadn’t liked it. She had been mad keen on big cats – tigers and leopards and jaguars and lions – animals that roared. But when her parents took her to the zoo, on her seventh birthday, the animals had all looked so depressed, like inmates in a jail. The lion, so lackadaisical in his fake savannah. The tiger, so lethargic, bedraggled on a heap of rock. The jaguar had died, apparently, the day before. And the leopard lay purring in the sun, like a pampered, overgrown housecat. So Maggie set off, walking erratically, trying to follow the signs to the dangerous-animal enclosure, until her head began to ache with the booze and the fumes rising off the tropical plants, and she ended up at the very end of the zoo, clinging to a set of railings, staring at a pair of – what the sign said – were Visayan warty pigs, grunting aggressively.
Maggie attempted to retrace her steps, hoping to stumble across a more thrilling beast, only to get lost following a labyrinthine water feature, which the sign said was full of otters. Maggie stared hard, trying to spot an otter, before deciding she wasn’t really interested, and after a great deal of wandering this way and that, Maggie found herself in a vast ice-blue igloo, in which the temperature had plunged below freezing. Hugging herself, Maggie tried to walk out again only to find herself staring at a despondent penguin.
A waiter appeared, from nowhere, to offer her a drink served in a plastic rhinoceros, and it was while trying to take leave of the kidnapped Emperor of the South Pole, while also attempting to get at the alcohol in the rhinoceros, that Maggie happened upon a tall, sharp-shouldered woman, who was draped over a bench. A woman very obviously drunk, and already staring at Maggie in a hostile fashion.
‘I do like your dress,’ Maggie said, hoping to ward off any hostility with a compliment while frankly admiring the lady’s dress of tight, sea-green silk, which made her look – Maggie thoroughly approved – like an indecent mermaid.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman. ‘I’m supposed to be a grass snake.’
‘You look exactly like one. I’m a leopardess.’
‘Yes, that’s what I thought you were,’ the woman said, squinting at Maggie as if the sun were in her eyes, which it wasn’t. The woman then fell off the bench and Maggie got her back onto it, and helped her to sit up straight.
‘You know, I thought this party would be fun,’ the woman confided. ‘But it isn’t fun at all. “Come as your favourite beast,” he said. “For a party at the zoo,” he said. Well I don’t count wrapping some mangy old ferret round your neck as sticking to the theme, do you?’ ‘
No,’ said Maggie. ‘I do not . . . ’ ‘Or digging up some snakeskin thing that someone died in, that should have been buried with the corpse. Or carrying around the remains of some crocodile killed just to perper— perper—’ the woman sneezed, ‘perpetrate a crime against fashion. You know, usually I don’t come to these sorts of things. They’re so full of bitches . . . ’
The woman blinked at her, as if expecting some sort of response. Maggie tried to think of something to say, but her head ached, worse and worse.
‘But Lord Pabham happens to be a personal friend of mine,’ the woman continued. ‘The sort with benefits if you know what I mean . . . so I assumed he’d be here, only he’s not, and of course, I know this place very well so . . . it’s really not my fault that I made this . . . mistake.’
‘Something should be done,’ said Maggie, with conviction. ‘Maybe, if we took a good look, there might be some place to dance, later, or maybe there will be some sort of after-party?’
‘Oh, later,’ said the woman. ‘Always later . . . and why would you think I wish to dance? It’s impossible to move in this damned thing. No. No. I didn’t come here to dance. And I’m not waiting. No, I’m not putting up with it. A bloody insult, that’s what I call it . . . and so now, yes, you’ve got it right . . . I will get this party started. Or die in the attempt.’
Maggie felt a surge of hope, which promptly dissipated, as she watched the woman stagger in the wrong direction, away from the party, making tiny steps, very quickly, so that her tight, sea-green sheath shivered and shone as she went. Maggie was just thinking that if she ran, she might catch her, and steer the woman back in the right direction, when she saw the woman haul herself up the side of a tall gate and slither over the top with remarkable agility. The woman had either ignored, or not noticed, a sign which said: ‘Do Not Enter – Control Centre – Dangerous Animals’. And Maggie was not going to follow her there, so she sat down on the bench that the woman had vacated and closed her eyes for a second.
… single women, these days, are so hard to please. They are fanatics. Who want it all and are determined to get it. And if they don’t, they won’t settle
The cocktails overcame her. The moist air made her feel sick. She rested her head against the back of the bench and found that, if she copied exactly the same pose that the woman had adopted, she felt almost comfortable. Indeed, Maggie may have drifted off into a prolonged and restorative nap, had she not, sometime later, been seized awake by bloodcurdling screams and a crowd of terrified women running past the bench on which she sat, pursued by roaring bears.
Maggie stayed, petrified to the spot, as the bears passed and, when they were gone, turned around, only to be accosted by the penguin, made furious by the intolerable heat, flapping his wings very violently at her. Maggie did her damnedest not to scream. She kicked off her shoes – in which it would be impossible to run – and hurried, as unobtrusively as she could manage, back through the party. She saw monkeys wrench the fur hats off the elegantly dressed ladies trailing the odour of mothballs and Chanel; the hats were launched into the air as the monkeys swung violently from lamppost to lamppost. A llama was sniffing a waiter, with evident approval, as the waiter tried to disappear under a tablecloth. A lion was roaring arrogantly at three men in black tie, who were scrabbling on top of one another, trying to keep the beast away with a picnic umbrella.
An elderly couple were being groomed by apes. Lizards, snakes and spiders were crawling across the ground, scaling up trembling legs, causing squeals and hysterical yelps. A hippopotamus was charging the bar, knocking down the pineapple and pot-plant drinks like so many skittles. The girls in hula outfits were hugging each other and wailing.
The catastrophe only seemed likely to escalate, and Maggie’s head cleared with the adrenaline. Time slowed, and she crouched down flat, to begin crawling, on her elbows, as quickly as she could, towards the exit. Silent and nimble, kicking away snakes and spiders, she could just see the great white stone lions that marked the arch through which she could escape when she felt a powerful tug at her foot.
The Leopard, who soon had his paws all over Maggie, was very taken by her, this voluptuous, great leopardess, who had spent all this time wiggling her behind at him seductively to show off her delectable spots. Never in his life had the Leopard seen such graceful colourings, nor such a fine, healthy specimen of the opposite sex. Her coat alone was irresistible, not to mention her form, and her strange, powerful scent. He had never found anything like it.
Several leopardesses had been paraded before him by the zookeepers over the years, hoping he’d be tempted . . . the zookeepers had worried that their Leopard was not quite as other males. But the Leopard was a thoughtful, and deeply passionate, animal. As it was, the Leopard had his standards. In the desert, in his days of freedom, he’d anticipated having his pick; he would not settle for some pre-arranged sham romance, he wanted the real thing. He knew he could settle for nothing less than a coup de foudre. And this had now struck him down.
Maggie looked behind her and screamed. She should, of course, have been pleased that her dress was finally delivering her the powerful male for which she had so fervently prayed throughout the evening. But single women, these days, are so hard to please. They are fanatics. Who want it all and are determined to get it. And if they don’t, they won’t settle. So Maggie continued to scream and wail, in a manner wholly contradictory, not to mention hypocritical.
The Leopard, of course, interpreted this noise as a positive invitation to pounce. Maggie’s timid little mews were so alluring to him. And he was halfway through his seduction when a deafening burst of laughter was heard above. The woman in the zebra mask was crouched on top of the large, ornamental lion, shrieking uncontrollably.
‘Oh dear, oh dear, Maggie, what did I tell you? Bestiality, now! BESTIALITY! I knew it! Just you wait until I tell . . . ’
And Maggie, feeling quite desperate, and utterly unable to help herself, started to cry. Since it was the end, anyway, she pushed the Leopard away forcefully and scrambled to her feet. She turned, dashed forward, and hit her head so violently on the stone statue, she passed out. So she did not see the Leopard attack. Nor what was left of the zebra afterwards.
But as she came around, in the back of an ambulance, to the ministrations of a very handsome paramedic, Maggie found, somehow, that her faith was restored. For she was dimly aware in the great gloom of her head: that other dresses came and went, but leopard print had never failed her.
Bad Romance, a collection of short stories by Emily Hill, is published by Unbound