To Dad’s disgust, his family didn’t even seem to notice the bison as they drove past them slowly. “Come on now. It cost £25 each for you two kids, and Grandma, your ticket was £30. So for goodness’ sake, start enjoying yourselves.”
“£25 each? You got the tickets on Nectar vouchers – they didn’t cost you anything,” smarted Lucy.
“Yeah, and anyway, Dad, don’t call us kids. We’re teenagers,” said Ben.
“That’s right… Dad,” agreed Grandma. At 86, her faculties may have been fading, but she was never one to miss out on any opportunity for confrontation.
Dad ignored her and addressed his children with due sarcasm, “Both teenagers, eh? Holy cow – there’s something in this world you two don’t fight over.”
This was the kind of line that Grandma was finding hard to process these days. “Holy cow? Like in a church? Bleedin’ ridiculous.”
“It’s true, Grandma. A holy cow with a halo and everything. Didn’t you see it on the news?”
“Lucy! For the thousandth time, stop teasing Grandma,” said Dad. “You want to be treated like a grown up, then start acting like one.”
“You mean get drunk like Ben did?”
Ben rose to the bait as he always did. “Stop her Dad.”
Dad stretched over to glare at his daughter in the back seat. “Yes, Lucy. You know your brother is sensitive about that.”
“Shouldn’t have done it then,” harrumphed Lucy.
Grandma’s face screwed as she tried to make some sense of the words that she understood, but no longer behaved together in her mind. “The cow was drunk? In church?”
“Yeah, it drank the holy water,” teased Lucy further. Dad let this one go. Sometimes it was just easier.
The car went quiet for a while before Grandma exclaimed, “I remember that cow. I think. During the war. It was a cardigan.”
“ Jersey,” Dad corrected.
Ben sighed,“Not the war again. If I hear any more stories about Grandad in the air raid shelter …”
Lucy grinned, “I like it – she’s rude. Tell us again, Grandma.”
Grandma’s face twinkled. “Your grandfather in the war. A bugger he was. Always wanting me to drop my…”
“You’ve been to Jersey haven’t you Grandma,” Dad butted in, though he’d long given up trying to keep what remained of his 14-year old daughter’s innocence intact. “And what about Cardigan Bay?”
This had the desired effect of breaking Grandma’s rusted chain of thoughts.
“Look Grandma, a camel,” said Ben, pointing at the dromedary through the side window, before she could resume any of the awful stories about Grandad’s lecherous tendencies.
“Oh my godfathers. It’s that drunken cow. It’s got enormous knockers.” The tension always broke when Grandma came out with one of her classics.
“It’s a camel, Mum. They’re its humps.”
“Then what on earth is a camel doing here, in this field. Having sex? Reminds me of your grandfather in the air raid shelter always…”
“It’s not a field, Mum. We’re in a safari park, remember? We’re meant to be enjoying seeing the animals.”
“Beasts, all of ‘em,” said Grandma. “Of the field. Dirty bleedin’ buggers, all of ‘em. Sex, sex, sex.”
Ben cringed again, “Why did she have to come?”
“She,” said Dad, “is your grandmother. Let’s have some respect.”
“OK, why did my grandmother have to come then?”
“It was cheaper to bring her than putting her in the Home for a week, wasn’t it, Dad,” smirked Lucy.
Ben thrust himself deeper in to his seat. “You’re so tight, Dad.”
“I smoked Camels once,” said Grandma, who hadn’t seemed to have heard any of the other conversation. Neither Ben nor Lucy were aware of camels as a brand of cigarettes – it just seemed like something nasty Grandad might have made her do on some kind of barbecue. “Tasted bloody ‘orrible.”
“I’m bored,” grumped Ben.
Everyone ignored him.
“I need a piss,” announced Grandma. The kids laughed. She could be so funny. She never used words like this back when she was Nice Grandma. “Don’t know what you lot find so funny. Stop the car.”
“Sorry, we can’t just get out here,” said Dad. “It’s too dangerous – that camel might have you for lunch. You’ll just have to hold on until we’re out of the park.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said. “We never held on in the war,” and she pushed her hands down to lift her bottom off the front car seat.
Dad realised what she was about to do, but was powerless to stop her. “Mum, NO.” But it was too late. Grandma was not holding on.
When they realised what Grandma was doing, Lucy swore loudly and Ben burst into tears. Both opened their windows before the smell of urine inevitably reached them.
“You can’t open them here,” barked Dad, trying to find if the car had a driver’s switch for controlling the back windows. It hadn’t. “Didn’t you read the signs?”
When Grandma complained that her seat was wet, Ben opened the door and ran. Dad called out after him. He could have chased after him, or course, but the advice they give you is always to stay with the car in an emergency safari park scenario.
Ben ran faster than he’d ever run before. He ran from the water buffalo and zebra that he’d seen earlier in their slow drive around the enclosure. He ran from his demented Grandma, who he felt should be locked up where she was safe, and they were safe from her. He ran from the meanness of his father and his mule of a car that everyone else’s Dad would have condemned to the scrap heap years ago. He ran from his tormentor of a sister. He ran from the stench of urine that would now be overpowering the car. He ran towards the Mum he’d never known. He just ran.
Dad mumbled, “Good shot, Mum,” as she passed the rifle back to him. He shut it back in the boot, having first taken out a tartan blanket to fold and place between her and the wet seat. It would have to do. Grandma may have had her faults, but being a bad shot wasn’t one of them. The tranquilizer dart had struck Ben down before he had reached the tree line.
Ben had grown that much larger since he was last bagged at the Safari Park 2 years ago, and Dad estimated that at 5mg per kilo body weight, the dose of Sodium Thiopental would keep Ben laid out for a good 15 minutes – time enough for the Gamekeepers to arrive in their jeep and recover him before any predator moved in. He knew the Safari Park would not relish the adverse publicity of a shooting and rescue scenario, however, it was caused, and would aim to keep the family sweet with free hot drinks (into which he could sneak the amnesia pills to ensure his family remembered nothing of the incident) while their veterinary staff checked that Ben was free of any lingering effects of the anaesthetic. Grandma was so away with the fairies, that this year Dad felt he could save the expense of giving her a tablet, as even in the unlikely event of her remembering anything, no one ever listened to her garblings. He wondered if maybe he could get the Park to stretch to a flapjack each as well this time. It’s the least they could do, and cakes were so expensive in the Safari Park café.
At the Travel Lodge that night, the amnesia drugs seemed to have worked as the kids moaned about nothing worse than all having to share a room, and how come Grandma’s car seat was so wet when Dad made them clean it. Grandma herself seemed to have forgotten about urine-gate, and only once mentioned her shooting of Ben and then that flamingo, on the way out of the Park, that now lay wrapped in the boot. Dad reckoned it would serve just as well as any turkey for Christmas lunch. As predicted, Ben took no notice of Grandma’s nonsense witterings while his head throbbed like that time he’d got drunk on her home made wine gums. When he mentioned the bruised scratch on his arm, Ben seemed to accept Dad’s explanation that it must have been a sting from a hornet.
“Stung by a hairnet?” quizzed Grandma.
“Oh yes,” said Lucy. “Ben was trying to perm the hairs on his arm when it bit him.”
“Shut up, Lucy,” Ben rubbed the spot, even though this made it hurt even more.
“We had hairnets in the war,” offered Grandma, “though I don’t think they were the biting ones.”
“The biting ones would have been German hairnets,” even Dad was joining in the Grandma-baiting now.
“Hairnet Hitler!” saluted Ben, whose pride in his own joke cheered him up for a moment.
“Little bleeder,” said Grandma, no one quite sure whether she meant Ben or Hitler. “In the war…”
“Not again, Grandma,” said Ben, the pride in his joke now worn off. “We’re sick of the war.”
“In the war,” Grandma repeated, “…Your Grandad. He killed a man.” This was a shock to all of them.
“What? Actually In the war?” Dad was horrified.
“Nah, in Southend.”
“What do you mean, Mum?”
“I forget now.” And she had. Or maybe she had seen a way of getting the attention and was being plain naughty. Either way, their line of questioning had to stop as she wouldn’t be drawn on the subject, deviating to Grandad’s deviant behaviour in the air raid shelter, and no more.
Dad conceded and changed the subject. “Hey, we’re on holiday, the rain’s stopped and I’ve got money-off vouchers for the zoo tomorrow.” He’d been thinking about the boot and reckoned there was space to squeeze in a muntjac, though probably not an okapi for those who didn’t favour turkey – if Grandma was still shooting straight come the morning, that is.