HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Carnival Carnivore

Sharon lives in East Lothian and writes around her part-time job and family life. She has had short stories and flash pieces published on-line and in magazines, including Writers’ Forum, Ink Tears, The Moth and Sentinel Literary, but is waiting for the day she can throw her P45 to the wind and write full time. She is currently studying an OU creative writing course.


Cecile stared at her father. The answer to his question was no, she did not know how to behave like a normal eight-year-old girl. But then, she didn’t want to, not when she could be a Siberian stoat hunting hares in the depths of a crusty white wilderness.
‘I mean, look at what you’re wearing, Cecile.’ Pause of confusion. ‘What are you wearing?’ Pause of disbelief. ‘Christ, is that your mother’s sable?’
‘She never wears it.’
‘You’ve actually cut up her best coat?’
‘To make my costume.’
Pre-hashing, the fur coat had cost a few thousand pounds and many hours of furrier time, including the salting, carroting and sewing of forty two pelts ripped from the backs of caged sables.

‘The sewing isn’t that good,’ Cecile admitted, modelling the post-hashing mangy looking gloves and the exaggerated stitches in the flaccid tail and mismatched ears. ‘But I’ll get better after more lessons.’
‘Yes, won’t Mummy be glad she insisted you take that afterschool craft class?’
Cecile knew her father’s voice carried the opposite-meaning tone. ‘I think I make a brilliant stoat.’ She carried through with a spot of deflection: ‘Here’s a fascinating fact – do you know a stoat has scent glands on its bottom?’
‘No, I did not. Excuse me for thinking they were just vermin.’ Her father’s stance deflated. ‘Look, Cecile, Mummy and I want you to stop dressing as animals. And, if you wouldn’t mind, we’d like you to stop growling through the letterbox at the postman who thinks you are not quite right and has told the neighbours so. You are a little girl who should be playing with...little girl things.’

Tom left the room before his lecture upgraded to a spitting rant. The fur coat – ruined! He and Gloria should have known this would happen when they saw Cecile’s first method of walking. Mesmerised by the pet rabbit, Randolph, Cecile had bypassed staccato baby paces in favour of hopping. When Randolph died and Tom and Gloria thanked God for it, Cecile’s lamentations had been so earnest they were forced to bring in Tigger, who, although a quadruped, at least walked in a forward propelling motion. But soon they watched with trap-door hearts as a three-year old Cecile tried to commune with Tigger by mimicking his purring and trying to decipher his sole expression of blandness.
The shared guilty desire for a different child had spooled round their minds.

‘I’d like to go on safari for my birthday.’
Gloria sipped her gin. ‘What about a trampoline party with some nice girls from your class?’
‘No, thank you. Safari.’
‘We’ve done that safari park to death. If I see another king of the jungle doing bugger all after the fortune we paid to get in, I’ll scream.’
‘I meant the real safari. In Kenya.’
Gloria found this hilarious. ‘I think we picked up the wrong baby in hospital. Somewhere out there is an animal-loving-freak of a mother bringing up my Barbie-playing daughter.’
Cecile’s shoulders slumped and her head bowed before she puffed new air back into her tubes and trotted out the back door as Stoat.
Stoat crept into the dense Siberian forest of rowan trees and creosote fencing to stalk rabbits and mice.
‘For unlike humans, Stoat is a car-ni-vore,’ she said aloud. ‘Stoat can climb trees and hunt at night, but Hyena says no and tells Stoat to get to bloody bed.’
Stoat saw a shadow at the window. It was Hyena, watching with a shut-down face and folded arms.

‘Mummy, are you wearing those high-heeled shoes to the safari park?’
Gloria twisted round from the front seat of the car. ‘And who are you to quiz anyone on safari wear? What are you today? Doesn’t look very let’s-wreck-Mummy’s-one-and-only heirloom.’
‘I said I was sorry,’ Cecile mumbled.
‘You look bloody frightful, sweetheart, birthday or no.’
‘I’m a mandrill,’ said Cecile. Then turning to Gran, ‘that’s a monkey.’
‘Oh,’ smiled Gran. ‘I thought you’d come as something out of a circus.’
Gloria gave a one syllable laugh. ‘Why did I get excited when you asked for make-up?’
Cecile’s face from underneath her eyes down to her mouth was bright blue and the bridge of her nose had been robustly rouged. She wore a tan-coloured, pom-pom hat and completing the look were re-stitched mittens borrowed from the stoat outfit.
‘I don’t want to hear any of your usual animal noises,’ puffed Gloria with a suspicious roll to her words. ‘No monkey screeching.’
‘Have you been drinking?’ asked Tom from the driver’s seat.
‘Ab-sol-u-tly,’ winked Gloria, tapping her pocket where Cecile guessed was the hip flask.

‘And so the family of mandrills enters the forest on the lookout for –’
‘No.’ The alpha male put up a hand from the front. ‘No David Attenborough commentary. And do not utter the phrase ‘here is a fascinating fact’, d’you hear?’
The young mandrill nodded, although as it was her birthday she felt the odd peppering of facts should be overlooked. After a minute’s sulk she turned to the old mandrill and whispered, ‘Gran, do you know the male mandrill is the absolute largest of all monkeys?’
The ancient female made an ‘O’ mouth and winked.
The alpha male groaned. ‘Was that a fascinating fact, just not prefaced with the words, ‘here is a fascinating fact’? Cecile, the reason your ninth birthday consists of you, me, your mother and your gran is because other children do not share your enthusiasm –’
‘Lunacy,’ interjected Hyena.
‘...your enthusiasm for the animal kingdom.’
The young mandrill pulled down her eyebrows, thinking she had no intention of seeking out human playmates, especially the type who wore pink dresses that would provide little or no camouflage in the plains.
‘Now, I fully support your love of animals if you want to be a vet or something,’ continued the alpha male.
‘But not your actual turning into one,’ sniffed Hyena.
‘Leave her alone,’ chipped the ancient mandrill. ‘If you had had more than one child you wouldn’t be so wrapped up in everything she does and says.’
‘Thank you, Mother. Helpful as always,’ said Alpha. ‘Right, we’re here. Time to be fleeced. Perhaps Cecile, the monkeys’ll take you for one of them and steal you away.’ He brayed like an asthmatic donkey.
Hyena wrinkled her nose. ‘Fat chance.’
The young mandrill flubbered out a sigh and concurred.

It seemed as if every animal had been tranquilised or gassed, such was their torpor (Cecile ignored her mother’s suggestion they all needed a bullet up the arse). Even the monkeys sat in untidy groups showing their backs. Cecile wanted her father to drive closer but he refused, threatening to rev the engine if any of the ‘window screen swipers’ (another bout of self-appreciative laughter) ventured too near.
‘There were no mandrills,’ she moped as they drove under a sign headed Land of the Lions.
‘Yeh, well, these lions better be on an all-singing, all dancing rota,’ said Gloria. ‘Toot your horn, Tom.’
‘I’ll do nothing of the sort. I don’t want those scabby beasts anywhere near my car. God, would you look at them? Like moth-eaten 3D rugs.’
‘Gran, what are you doing?’ Cecile asked.
‘What does it look like?’ Gran was fiddling with the window control. ‘I’m getting a bit of air.’
There were instant shuffles from the front.
‘Get the window up!’ screamed Gloria while Tom drummed the main controls at his elbow.
But Gran had jammed a finger on her button. ‘I’m trying to. Oh, look.’ She pointed with her other hand to a shaggy necked lion who, with a debonair shrug, had risen and was lolloping toward them.
‘Get the feckin’ window up!’ Gloria.
‘Get your finger off the control, Mother!’ Tom.
The battle of the window resulted in it sticking half way.
Cecile felt a warm, musky draught of air, so thick she could taste it. Then the lion was there, at Gran’s side of the car in all his heavy reeked hulking muscle of wonder. Cecile gasped at the size of the paws he placed on the window – each one was bigger than her face! She decided at that moment she would never again dilly dally with the wisping fragility of a rabbit or the snuffling cringe of a stoat or even the noble painted savagery of a mandrill. This was it for her – the groaning, growling maw and the majestic head of knotted hair. This was a proper A for awesome carnivore.
One of those great paws flicked in and swished at Gran’s cheek. Mini fountains spurted forth causing Gran to screech and lurch back towards the rear window.
Tom’s continued drilling at the controls caused the window to rubber upwards staccato-esque, puzzling the lion who wrenched free his paw and dropped down. Gran’s whimpering was harmonised with Gloria’s yelling, but Cecile’s nerves were singing with lust at the high savagery and her heart quickened to the beat of the rocking as the lion put two paws on the car and listed it to one side.
‘He’s trying to turn us over!’ hollered Gloria and then perhaps owing to a febrile disbelief at the situation, or a warped survival instinct, or the hip flask having been emptied, she scrabbled at the door when the car was next up-righted and fled, arms outstretched as if welcoming the finishing post of a race, her screaming trailing after her like a banner flapping in the wind.
‘Gloria!’ yelled Tom, flinging himself across the passenger seat to pull the door closed.
A lioness was on her legs, staring in that feline way Tigger gave all and sundry: a look of sheer vacuity. Animals were great on the expression-front, thought Cecile: they’d stare and stare, giving nothing away, until suddenly they let you know exactly how they felt with a switch of a tail or a barring of the teeth or just like this lioness, a great belting roar that meant, Hold it, you with the unseemly heels, just where do you think you’re going?
‘The lioness will eat her if she carries on like that,’ nodded Cecile.
Tom swung round with a glare, then swung back and battered into his mobile phone. ‘No bloody signal,’ he wept, flinging it aside. He honked the horn. The car behind joined in and Cecile turned to see white, unblinking faces pressed against windows. She turned back to witness Gloria skittering on her three-inchers till falling in the path of the roaring lioness. Gloria flapped her hands (not good, thought Cecile) and inched back on her bottom, screaming an unbroken scream. Then, when the screaming faded away there was quiet. The horns stilled. Tom, Gran and Cecile waited. The lioness too was content to stare at Gloria who lay blubbering on the ground. But then something caught her feline eye.
‘Oh God, no.’ Tom was removing his top and opening the door.
The lion who had slashed Gran’s cheek had started to trot over toward Gloria. He ignored Tom who was shouting and waving his t-shirt skywards, and, on reaching Gloria, he nosed around, as if wondering how to assert his underserved claim, Cecile thought. Then, remembering he was actually king of the beasts and that included the two-footers, he stopped fussing and took a gutsy chomp of Gloria’s thigh area. The yelling recommenced – from everyone.
‘Jesus Christ, look away!’ sopranoed Tom, returning to his seat. ‘We’ll all look away. Cecile, stop staring! Your mother is being eaten alive.’
‘Do you think the lion will eat her shoes, Daddy?’ Cecile yelped as a hard slap whipped her head toward her gran’s teary Phantom of the Opera face.
The blue blare of the emergency services hurtled over the grass.
‘Perhaps they can save her.’ Tom kept swallowing and gasping.
Gran sat with tightly closed eyes and a folded-in mouth as if trying to hide her gouged cheek from her own face.
I didn’t open the window, thought Cecile. And I didn’t open the door. She was outraged at the unfairness of her father’s slap.
A sharp shot cracked out. They jolted. The male lion slumped. Not a delicate swooning or a gentle crumpling – he swung over like a cardboard cut-out and hit the ground hard, causing the dust to spin and flit and the other lions to rear and scatter. Gran and Tom screeched in unison at the revealed sight of Gloria. Cecile screwed up her face. There would be no saving of her mother. There was blood everywhere – the lions' muzzles were covered in the stuff: bright, blazing, tandoori red.
A cry filled the car and Cecile was surprised to find it was her.
‘Darling, oh my darling,’ crooned Tom, squeezing through to the back seat. ‘Everything will be all right. Well, not all right, but... better.’
How can it be? thought Cecile. Because of Mummy I won’t be allowed a lion costume and I bet Kenya won’t happen either.
Under her father’s petting, Cecile thought back to her great loss: Randolph. She remembered the grief endured and what had happened afterwards. She managed a half-smile. It had come to her that an opportunity had arisen – an opportunity for a different mother.
Somewhere out there, in the vastness of the human jungle, was a mother freakish enough to support her animal-loving, safari-visiting ways. Her smile doubled. Now that was a fascinating fact.