As the yellow traffic light at the corner of Marrowbone Lane turns red, the driver speeds up only to change his mind and brake suddenly. Yvonne’s head jerks forward.
“Take it easy, will you?” She raps on the partition, her knuckles bulging against the thin latex of her glove. Turning to Bernice, her voice still loud, she adds: “Fecker did that on purpose”.
Fumbling inside her handbag, Bernice nods. This sort of thing makes her uncomfortable. Yvonne is right though; he’s in a huff because she insisted he put on a mask. Threatening to call the guards on him was a bit much all the same, but Yvonne can be like that. Bernice doesn’t blame her. Whatever that is, she wishes she had a bit of it herself.
“Yvonne, love?” She looks across at her friend. “You need to straighten your wig. It’s after going arseways at the side.”
The air freshener, more toilet cleaner than pine forest, is overpowering. Bernice lets her window down a few inches and the high, sharp stink of roasting barley rushes in. She’s lived her life in the smell of the Guinness brewery. She takes a deep breath, glad of the air because her wool coat is roasting. She has come straight from a funeral and feels overdressed, but it was hard to find an outfit that would do for a funeral followed by an afternoon at the zoo. “Leopard print?” Yvonne had suggested. “The mourners will think you were Ritchie’s fancy woman and the animals will welcome you home.” Bernice didn’t know Ritchie well, but she’s glad she went all the same. “Poor man,” she says. “Barely a dozen there.” She frowns as she tells Yvonne about the lukewarm tea, the cling-wrapped ham-or-cheese sandwiches on a trestle table in the crematorium car park.
“A far cry from the lovely carvery we had for Trevor’s afters,” she adds. Her words summon a memory from three years earlier, just as she knows they will. Some thoughts of Trevor appear from nowhere, as demanding and aggressive as a mugger, but not this one. It stays quietly in the background until something happens to make her feel unmoored, or alone and invisible to the world, and then it slips softly forward and embraces her, enveloping her in sadness.
She pictures herself at the carvery, in the queue for the hot counter. The girls had both offered to go up for her, but she had always preferred to get her own. Trevor’s too, even though there wasn’t a tray invented that could comfortably hold two dinners. He would get the drinks and find a nice table while she queued; it was their system. Standing there, her feet cold and stiff after an hour in the graveyard, her arms throbbing from the hugging and hand-shaking, she had looked at the single empty plate in the middle of the tray and the most awful dizzying sensation had blindsided her. A horrible lopsided shove, like she’d been slapped. He was dead. Dead-dead. She’d never choose Trevor’s dinner again, he’d never choose her seat. Bernice dabs her eyes. She takes a breath and gently tucks the memory away. “I want a carvery when I go. People are always happy with a carvery, aren’t they?”
Yvonne looks curiously at her, then smiles softly. “For sure. Chips and mash, what’s not to like?”
Bernie lets her window down fully. On the pavement nearby, two lads shuffle backwards and forwards. “Take my bag, will yeh,” the shorter one whines, “I can’t carry it, I’m full of tablets.” A black face mask with a motif of an open mouth baring blood-stained fangs dangles from his ear. The grubby fabric twitches in the breeze, brushing his neck. Bernice turns her head away. She hates that heroin drawl. Her own three might be scattered to the winds, but they’ve all turned out good. Aileen in Brisbane, Ann in Sunderland and Seanie — her baby, and him all of 41! — finally settled in Tralee with Hazel and the kids, and that great job in the call centre.
No more than anyone else with children abroad, she hasn’t seen the girls since last Christmas when they were both home, which was lovely, but almost too much to go from being alone to having both of them there at the same time. She’ll phone all three later to say Happy New Year and tell them about her outing.
“They say it’ll snow later,” Yvonne says and Bernice checks her bag for her scarf. She’d never be churlish about a gift, but she can’t wear the mohair one Seanie sent her for Christmas. He must have forgotten about her allergy. The taxi pulls up outside the zoo. The driver doesn’t switch off the engine, which always makes Bernice feel rushed. She knows she’ll spend the next few minutes worried she’s left her umbrella or tissues or whatever behind. Yvonne has already paid. She got the tickets online too. A Christmas present, she insists. She’s reclaiming New Year’s Eve, whatever that means.
“If the Christmas holidays are a box of chocolates, then the afternoon of New Year’s Eve is the squashed-up Coffee Crème that nobody wants,” Yvonne says. There weren’t any Coffee Crèmes in the little box of Lir chocolates that Seanie sent with the scarf, but Bernice understands. “I’ve had enough Coffee Crème days,” Yvonne adds.
Bernice says she’ll get the taxi home to even the costs out a bit. It’s best to keep things neat between neighbours. Bernice divvies her neighbours into categories. ‘Type Threes’ are new and secretly afraid the estate is too rough, and install metal window bars and flashy, excitable alarms. ‘Type Twos’ like Yvonne are also new, but confident the area is on the up. They buy wooden shutters and paint their front doors chalky blues and greys. Bernice herself is a ‘Type One’; the increasingly rare breed who has lived there for decades with nothing stronger than net curtains on the windows. The ‘Type Twos’ went great guns for a couple of years, but recently, the metal bar brigade have been winning again.
Yvonne often knocks in with her cup of tea in the early evening and they chat or watch the news. The poor love has been at a loose end, what with the treatment and then extended leave because she’s too high-risk to go back teaching yet. It might seem a shabby comradeship to some, but not to Bernice. That she is twice Yvonne’s age doesn’t matter. It’s good, when you live alone, to have someone to do nothing with. “Season’s greetings to my dear bubble!” Yvonne had written in her Christmas card.
A cold wind whips across the Phoenix Park, tugging the scrawny trees lining Chesterfield Avenue. The car park is empty. A poster tied to the gate has a photograph of a huge grey elephant with “Thanks a Million for the Million!” in a speech bubble over his head.
“Isn’t this exciting? Or are we mental?” Yvonne says as the turnstiles clunk behind them. So many of her sentences include a question then stop short, as if she wasn’t sure why she was asking to begin with. Her eyes are bright, like a child with a fever. “Will we head for the Asian Forests or Fringes of the Arctic first?’
Bernice shivers, buttoning her coat tight under her chin. “I’ve got Arctic Fringes myself!”
Yvonne laughs. “Oh, and the Gorilla Rainforest. I don’t want to miss that.”
“Will we have enough time? It’ll be getting dark soon. I’m sorry — if it wasn’t for the funeral, you could’ve got tickets for earlier.”
Yvonne tugs black woollen mittens over her latex gloves. “Sure what harm? It’s only three o’clock.”
They walk towards a water enclosure where a few folded white blurs are barely visible on a small island. “Swans, maybe?” Yvonne says.
“In the zoo? Sure we could see them in the canal!”
But Bernice was right and it’s after four by the time they reach the Rainforest. Daylight is a pale stripe slipping behind the horizon and the temperature is falling. It’s quieter than they expected. People are worn down, is Bernice’s theory. “Everyone’s got confused about what’s open and what isn’t, so they’ve stopped bothering and stay home.” They’ve passed a half-dozen people at most: a woman with a clatter of kids; a bedraggled man pushing a buggy with one forearm while drinking from a takeaway cup. The woman had a cup clutched in her paw too, and was cajoling her kids into leaving with promises of sweets and hot chocolate. Bernice tuts. “As if a trip to the zoo isn’t a treat in itself!”
Yvonne glances back. “I think she reads the news on Virgin.” She shrugs. “Looked like her, anyway.”
“Why does everyone carry a hot drink around nowadays?” Bernice asks.
The edge of the Rainforest has a white haw on it that puts Bernice in mind of the icing on a Christmas cake. She doesn’t make a cake any more, there’s no point without Trevor. She bought a small one on impulse in Tesco’s on Christmas Eve when it was down to half price, but she’s only had two slices. The cake is sitting on the dresser, on her fancy plate. When Yvonne calls in later, she’ll be sure to cut her a piece. A large one, with lots of icing.
They stare into the greenish shadows of the Rainforest. The undergrowth is solid and still, but leaves quiver on higher bushes. Unseen animals move and call to each other. It’s just us and them, Bernice thinks; we are all creatures together. “Yvonne?” Bernice isn’t sure why she’s whispering. “Do you remember the KitKat ad? The one with the pandas? The photographer goes on his break and...”
“Look!” Yvonne interrupts, tapping Bernice’s arm with the map and gesturing towards a brown shape moving in the distance. Bernice stares across the fence, across the water, and into the Rainforest.
As it approaches, she realises it’s not a single large gorilla, but an adult with two little ones. Their unmoving faces look like they’d be hard as Halloween masks to touch, but they can’t be, Bernice thinks. They must be soft, the hair downy rather than wiry.
The mother holds her baby tight into her chest and neck, while an older child jumps about, tugging her arm. They stand close together, blurring into each other’s fur, eyes muddy as winter puddles. They are, Bernice decides, happy. A happy family.
“Wouldn’t you just love to give the baby a cuddle?”
“Lila would take your head off if you did,” Yvonne says. She reads aloud, angling the leaflet under a yellow pool of lamplight: “Lila has two children. Kentika was born in March 2019 and Cara in August 2020. Lila kept each infant so close to her chest after the birth that our keepers were unable to determine its sex for 10 days.” A sudden sound reverberates from behind Lila, an echoing crunch and crush. Bernice jumps. “Holy Mother of God, Yvonne, someone’s there!”
A massive silverback appears from behind a clump of trees. “It’s Georgie!” Yvonne laughs, delighted. “He’s the leader.”
Bernice pats her heart, feeling foolish. “Putting him behind railings didn’t put manners on him, now did it?”
Georgie turns around, and Lila and the children immediately follow him into the blackening undergrowth. The Rainforest swallows the family up. Bernice and Yvonne continue down the lakeside path leading to the Elephant House. Faint shrieks and cries like those of a newborn baby flit through the air. Snowflakes begin to drift down, uneven and spare. Bernice licks one from her glove. It tastes of nothing.
“Time for a call of nature,” Bernice says as they reach a toilet block. “That’s a good one, isn’t it? Don’t wait in the cold, I’ll catch you up.”
Yvonne is alone. She walks on, her footsteps thin and reedy without the bass accompaniment of Bernice’s boots. In the Elephant House, she stands in front of the glass wall, staring at dense blocks of shifting, barely visible shadows.
“Are you there, Yvonne?” she whispers, looking at her reflection and then past herself, at nothing. “Are you even here?” A man strides through the entrance on the far side of the hangar, followed by a woman and two chunky, bored-looking children.
The light catches the sheen of their identical black puffer jackets. The woman’s hair is thick and glossy, the colour of warm honey. Yvonne always notices hair.
“Seanie,” the woman hisses, a battle fought and won in a single word. “I’m after calling you! We won’t get home for the bells at this rate.” Noticing her Kerry accent, Yvonne regards the newcomers more carefully. Bernice has never invited Yvonne to call in during one of Seanie’s rare visits, but she’d recognise him anywhere from the photos on top of Bernice’s tv. The gap in his teeth is so wide, he must floss with a sock.
“But we’ve not done the reptile house yet!” he says.
“Can we, like, go?” the girl rolls her eyes, “I’m so cold I’m going to die. I never wanted to come in the first place.”
“Your children are freezing, are you happy now?” Seanie’s wife is triumphant. “I said it was thick going all the way here and back in a day, but you always know better, don’t you?”
The family are no more than 20ft away, yet not one acknowledges Yvonne’s presence. Perhaps she doesn’t exist or has been forgotten, a ghost condemned to haunt Dublin Zoo in a cheap wig, an angry circle like a target scratched on her scalp. Please, she begs silently, suddenly hot and furious. Please Seanie, don’t take this day away from me. “Keep your hair on, Yvonne,” she whispers. “Ha, ha.”
Seanie’s wife stomps away, the children behind her. The boy didn’t look up from his phone once. Seanie sighs and follows. Silence falls again, but differently. Stirred. It smells of animal feed and shit, and the synthetic tuberose of perfume.
Every year, no matter what class she’s teaching, Yvonne has noticed that some children always shoot their hand up, “Miss Byrne! Miss Byrne!”, when she asks a question, despite never having an answer. They don’t even pretend to know, they just want to be chosen. To experience the momentary bliss of being selected. But life is unfair to the picked and unpicked alike, Yvonne thinks. Existence is a long, slow closing of the heart.
She stares at herself in the glass until a second reflection appears in the doorway behind her. This woman has smiling eyes and tight grey curls permed into immobility. Yvonne watches her friend’s face move closer until they are side by side. She realises she’s been holding her breath and exhales.
“Am I going to die, Bernice?” Yvonne immediately wonders did she say it aloud. “Is this...” she points to where her left breast used to be and pictures it being scooped out, a wobbly helping of trifle, fatty cream and blood-pink jelly “...what will kill me?”
Yvonne plucks her wig from her head, holding it high for a few seconds, taa-daa! like a conjuror, before dropping it to the ground. “My face starts too far down,” she whispers. “I’m Humpty Dumpty.”
Bernice’s hands tremble as she crouches down. Jesus, her knees! The wig is soft in her hand and warm, like a little pet. It’s real hair, she remembers Yvonne telling her when she first got it. Bernice shouldn’t be this close, she knows she shouldn’t, but she’s just washed her hands and she’s wearing her visor.
Bernice stretches one arm out and gently touches Yvonne’s head. It is warm, yet papery and dry, and her fingertips flutter at the unexpected sensation. Her scalp is smooth and pale except for the crown, where the skin looks red and angry. Bernice spreads her hand carefully, feeling the hardness underneath. “You have a beautiful shape to your head. I hope you know that.”
She puts the wig into Yvonne’s palm, gently covering it with her other hand. She steps back. “Now get wrapped up again before you take a chill.”
Later, as the taxi goes over James Joyce Bridge, Yvonne says she’ll lie down for half an hour before she knocks in with her cup of tea.
“Right you are, love.” Bernice says, thinking of the small cake. She’ll make brandy cream to go with it, she decides. Yvonne will love that. She’ll ring the kids while she’s waiting too. Seanie first. He always loved the zoo. She used to bring him every summer when he was little. Just the two of them, no matter how much the girls complained.
Yvonne’s wig has slipped again, she notices, leaving her neck pale and exposed. Bernice’s fingers twitch at the memory of unfamiliar skin touching her own and the shapeless warmth of the hair in her palm. Whose hair was it, Bernice wonders. Whose life and secret heart did it once witness?
The car rattles over the cobblestones by the back of the brewery, where the bar at the top of the Storehouse shines like a stack of coins suspended in the air.
Snow is falling again, heavier now. A mile away, animals are locked in their enclosures, alive only to each other and the darkness. Many, many miles distant, sunlight has edged above foreign horizons. Far cities are already bright, their new year begun.
Bernice makes a silent wish that January will bring Yvonne fresh, hopeful things. As she opens her window and breathes in, a moon as creamy and soft as the head of a pint of Guinness appears from behind a cloud, lighting up the last sky of the year.