Click here for Chapter 1
Chapter Two: Luke Walker A.W.O.L.
Joe’s sixteenth funny face was not easy to maintain as it was beginning to hurt. With eyes wide, tongue sticking out and skin pulled tight around his cheek bones by his fingers, it was difficult to speak.
“I’m sorry!” Luke said, “It’s not working. I pressed the button four times but it didn’t take a picture.”
Joe retracted his tongue and massaged his face.
“Gis a look.”
Luke handed him the camera.
“It says MEMORY FULL,” Joe explained, “how many pictures have you taken?”
“I dunno,” said Luke as he put Dad’s camera back in his bag, “are we nearly there yet?”
They wouldn’t be there for another half an hour but the boys had already finished their packed lunches. Joe had suggested they save some for later but Luke thought it wisest to eat everything now so they’d have less to carry.
“How much longer ’til we get there?” Luke asked no one in particular.
It really was too much to expect people to sit still for two whole hours. And Mrs Tebbut’s insistence that the coach would not be making any stops along the way did not allow for the fact that some people’s need to quench their thirst with a lot of lemonade might lead to other needs. He tried to think of something else.
At 11.03 the coach pulled in to Parking Zone B at Dillingsgate Zoo.
“Ok, class 4, pay attention!” Mrs Tebbut called everyone to order. “You may leave whatever you don’t need on the coach but remember that once you’ve left it you won’t see it again until home time. So, if you think you might want it at any time during the day, take it with you now. You must stay in your allotted group, with your allotted adult, at all times. You must be back at the coach by 4.45 so that we can leave promptly at 5pm. Ok, have a nice day everybody.”
Glad that his teacher had finally finished her speech, Luke hurried to the front of the coach. He was in Mr Eden’s group, with Joe, but he couldn’t line up yet because he had urgent business to attend to. He told Joe to tell their group to wait for him and then ran towards the zoo entrance, looking for the toilets. When he returned, six minutes later, Mr Eden’s group was not there. Mrs Tebbut’s group was. Mrs Tebbut’s arms were folded.
“Luke Walker. What did I tell you not ten minutes ago?”
“Erm, something about if you leave it you can’t have it ’til you go home.”
“I told you to stay in your allotted group with your allotted adult at all times.”
“Oh yeah, I know but I jus’ had …”
“But nothing. If I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it.”
Luke looked at his shoes. There was no point trying to explain about the lemonade. He knew that the less he said, the sooner he’d be able to catch up with Joe. His mind started to wander. He wondered if he’d be able to play with the monkeys; and swim with the polar bears; he wondered where the gift shop was and whether he’d be able to get a souvenir pack of cards, or badges with animals on. He could certainly do with a few more badges.
“Luke! Did you hear what I said? You will be in my group instead of Mr Eden’s so that I can keep an eye on you.”
Luke’s eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. He was supposed to be in the same group as Joe. They’d been looking forward to going round the zoo together. This was a very annoying turn of events.
But, it was nice weather, and anything was better than being stuck in a classroom. Luke decided he might as well try to make the best of it.
Mrs Tebbut pointed at two big tigers.
“What can you tell me about the tigers in this enclosure?” she asked the group.
Luke was shocked. He put up his hand.
“Are they criminals?” he suggested.
“Don’t be silly Luke, of course they’re not criminals.”
“Well it don’t seem fair to put innocent animals in prison.”
“Can anyone give me a sensible answer?”
Simon Butler read aloud from the board on the fence.
“They’re Bengal tigers; well known for their power and strength; one of the most feared predators in nature. In the wild they scent mark large areas of up to 100 square kilometres to keep their rivals away.”
“Very good Simon,” Mrs Tebbut smiled.
Luke didn’t think there was much to smile about.
“The wild ones live in massive places, prob’ly bigger ‘n Bournemouth, and this cage is smaller ‘n my back garden. No wonder they look fed up,” he thought.
They moved on. Luke lagged behind with diminishing enthusiasm. Mrs Tebbut drew everyone’s attention to another enclosure.
“Can anyone tell me what these guys are?”
“They’re penguins,” said Anna.
“That’s right. Does anyone know what type?”
“They’re bored penguins.” He knew the moment he said it that he’d said it too loud.
“Luke Walker! I am tired of your attitude! If you can’t enter into the spirit of things with a smile on your face and some genuine effort then kindly do not participate at all.”
That was fine by Luke.
“Why do teachers ask you what you think if all they really want you to tell ’em is what they think?” he grumbled to himself.
When Mrs Tebbut was distracted by Katia getting a splinter, Luke decided to take her at her word and ‘not participate at all’. He was better off on his own anyway. He wandered around the zoo, looking at the animals and feeling sorry for them.
“Don’t seem right to lock animals up when they ‘aven’t done nothin’. It’s like the Sheriff of Nottin’am all over again.”
He noticed an empty bench in front of a line of trees, away from the busier zoo paths, and decided to have a sit down.
“It’s a shame about zoos,” he thought, disappointed.
While he sat there he looked around. Over his left shoulder, behind the trees, he saw another enclosure. It was off the beaten track and smaller than the others. It was concrete and contained nothing of beauty or interest except its occupant. There stood the biggest, most breath-taking, awe-inspiring individual Luke had ever encountered. An elephant. All on her own.
“All on your own,” Luke sympathised, as he made his way to her, “another damson in distress.”
He climbed up on the fence so that he could talk to her over the top of it and she walked towards him to get a closer look.
“I’m on me own too,” he continued, “not stayin’ with the group if I’m not wanted!”
Then he had an idea.
“Would you like to come out an’ play with me?”
The elephant seemed interested so he went on.
“ok, listen, we’ll have to be a bit sneaky. You wait here while I find a key; then I’ll open this gate and you can slip out before anyone sees.”
It was a brilliant plan!
It didn’t take long for Luke to work out where he might find what he was looking for.
“Somebody what works here will have keys!”
It never occurred to him that he would need a particular key for the particular lock he wanted to open but, as it happened, that wasn’t going to be a problem. When the zoo was built over thirty years earlier, it boasted the largest number of animal enclosures in the country. It was deemed impractical to have hundreds of different keys so the same three locks were fitted to everything: one for animal enclosures; one for outer gates; and one for buildings. Each key-holder carried the same three keys. That was all anyone needed. It was all Luke needed.
Back in the hubbub of the zoo, Luke kept a low profile. It felt good to be outlawing again. He saw plenty of zoo workers but there was no way of knowing whether they had keys without asking them. Then he heard a familiar jangle.
“I know what that means,” he thought, triumphant, “that man’s got keys on his belt!”
The man was alone. At a grassy, low-fenced enclosure inhabited by small, furry animals Luke didn’t know the name of, he caught up with him. The man seemed engrossed in what he was doing, or perhaps lost in his own thoughts. Luke could see the keys dangling against his hip and crept up so close behind him he could almost reach them through the wire fence. Just as he was about to touch them a loud voice, crackling from the man’s walkie talkie, startled his hand back. The voice sounded impatient.
“Brinley! Can you hear me? I need you to open the Goods Entrance – the delivery’s just arrived.”
“I heard you! I’m on my way.”
The man, and the keys, hurried out of the enclosure. Luke followed him at a discreet distance. He went past a sign which said ‘STAFF ONLY’ and up to a big gate. No one else was around. The walkie talkie shouted at the man again.
“HURRY UP BRINLEY! It’s that bad tempered lorry driver!”
“I’m coming! I’m coming!” said Brinley.
In his rush he left the keys in the gate after unlocking it and hurried up the track. He would probably only be gone for a moment or two. But that was enough.
Luke ran as fast as he could to get back to the elephant. It was easier to go unnoticed than it had been on the way out because there was some kind of commotion on the other side of the zebra enclosure. He overheard something as he passed through which assured him it was nothing to concern him. The elephant was waiting right where he’d left her.
“I got it! I got the key! Sorry it took so long.”
He unlocked the gate and led her out.
“That’s it, out you come,” he encouraged her, “I don’t know your name so if you don’t mind I think I’ll call you ……… Emma.”
Emma seemed as happy as he was about her outing and she trumpeted with joy.
“Shhh shhh,” Luke looked up into her big, dark eyes, “we’ve got to be sneaky, remember?”
He pointed to a gate behind Emma’s enclosure beyond which he could see a wide open space – a meadow bordered with woodlands.
“Let’s go this way,” he suggested, “don’t worry, no one’ll see. They’re too busy lookin’ for a lost little boy. Hope they find ‘im.”
In a few short minutes Luke and Emma were crossing the meadow side by side, heading for the woods. Luke chatted away non-stop while Emma swished her tail and listened contentedly.
“Truth is Emma,” he explained, “I’d love to take you home with me but I really don’t think me dad’d let me. Honestly, you should ‘ave ‘eard the fuss ‘e made over a couple o’ rabbits.”
On the other side of the wood was another meadow, even more beautiful, with trees here and there and, to Luke’s delight, something else.
“Ooh quick Emma, over here! It looks like a lake or somethin’!”
Luke rushed ahead laughing and calling her to follow. Cautiously, she did. It was such a lovely hot day that Luke couldn’t resist getting into the clear, cool water.
“Come on, it’s ok, it’s not deep,” he called, “come in with me, it’s fun!”
Emma tentatively dipped her trunk into the water and had a good long drink. Luke grinned.
“Yeah, that’s it! Now come all the way in and play with me.”
He laughed and sloshed about and splashed her so that soon she wanted to join in. She reached out her trunk to him and he put his hand out to her and she trod heavily, slowly, down into the lake. She drew up a big trunk full of water and showered it all over herself, and Luke. She splashed and she played and felt free. And so did Luke. It was just the best afternoon.
When they got out of the water Emma laid down on the warm grass to be dried by the sun, and Luke sat with her, leaning against her chest. Eventually, reluctantly, he looked at his watch. 4.32.
“I have to go now,” he told her sadly, “but I will come back if I can.”
He didn’t know when that might be.
“You do like it here don’t you?”
He knew she must and was satisfied his outlawing had paid off again – she’d be much happier here than in that concrete enclosure. She’d have freedom; she’d have space; he only wished she wouldn’t be on her own.
“There’s prob’ly rabbits here,” he told her, “rabbits make good friends. The thing with rabbits is, you ‘ave to be patient. They might seem a bit stand-offish at first but once they get to know you they’re very friendly.”
He stood up and said goodbye, confident she’d understood.
He slipped back in to the zoo and locked the gate so that everything, well, almost everything, was as he’d found it. He decided it would be a good idea to hang on to the keys – he’d need them next time he visited Emma.
It was 4.57 when he arrived at the coach so he was in good time for Mrs Tebbut’s prompt 5pm departure, but for some reason she was crosser than he’d ever seen her.
“Luke Walker! Do you have any idea what you’ve put us through? You have disrupted the day for the whole class! You are a selfish, thoughtless child and I will be sending a letter home to your parents!”
“For what?” thought Luke.
Seven months later: