Elijah grasped his fork tentatively and aimed it at his plate. Instead it scraped a jagged line in the varnish of the table top.
‘Oh Christ,’ he said. The joints in his chair groaned beneath his substantial bottom as he squirmed with humiliation.
‘Don’t worry, it could have happened to any of us,’ Ravi murmured reassuringly.
‘But it doesn’t happen to you,’ Elijah insisted . He peered mournfully at the tip of his trunk as though it had betrayed him. ‘Those opposable thumbs might just as well have been designed for a knife and fork. Proboscides have had millennia to develop fine motor skills, and frankly we aren’t up to it.’
‘We all have our challenges,’ Ravi said wearily. Suddenly his eyes showed only dismay. ‘At this very moment I can hardly restrain myself from shinning up that lamp stand and picking out the light bulb. And the cameras caught me last time so I’m on my final warning. I tried to explain that my ancestors had been doing much the same thing since before recorded history, but they said that was irrelevant.’
‘I realise it’s hard for everyone,’ said Elijah, ‘but no-one enjoys my table manners. The other day I got over-excited at a bowl of lettuce and sucked up the entire table cloth. On my first work placement too. I knew it was over in that instant. You must admit that an elephant’s trunk is poorly designed for most domestic applications.’
‘I can see it must be frustrating,’ Ravi conceded. ‘And I can see that as primates we’re rather more like them than most animals. But that in itself can create confusion. To be honest I think Darwin muddied the waters, and then the whole DNA thing made it worse.’ He reached absently for a banana, but forgot to peel it before taking a bite.
They all lapsed into silence with the exception of Abeo, a tiger just out of cubhood, who was purring involuntarily over the thought of cream with his pudding. He stopped when Johnson the wallaby gave him a gentle dig in the ribs.
‘Thanks, friend,’ he said. ‘It’s a difficult habit to break.’
They had all made strenuous efforts to get here, trotting, leaping or flying over hundreds of dusty or snow-frozen miles before braving seas in the flimsiest of vessels. For most of them this had been the worst part, although Olaf the polar bear had managed to stow himself in the rear of a refrigeration lorry, and so found the ferry crossing rather to his taste. But now, collectively, they asked themselves if it had been worth the effort.
Most of them had heard of the Species Assimilation Unit, but few had anticipated any particular problem in passing through. Elijah, for instance, possessed an advanced diploma in industrial haulage, as well as a proven record of delivery to inaccessible areas. Despite the climate, he’d expected to be a hit in the Western Isles. Ravi simply knew he could do better than most picking fruit in Kent. After all, he’d built a career from pretty well identical activities. Admittedly it might be tricky not to nibble a percentage, but surely his speed and agility would make up for that? Olaf, meanwhile, had envisaged a secure future as a lifeguard in Cornwall. Who else, he reasoned, would want the winter shift?
None of them, however, had reckoned on the criteria. The six-phase English grammar test was proving particularly humiliating. Before leaving their birthplace not a soul amongst them had felt prompted to learn parts of speech, let alone gerunds: why bother when often as not a roar or a bark or even a grunt would suffice? And as for the ‘evidence of allegiance’, neither had they thought to brush up on Tudor history, or nuances of characterisation in The Old Curiosity Shop. It was one stumbling block after another.
‘The inquisitors have no empathy,’ said Johnson bitterly. ‘Marsupials bounce. That’s what we do. No-one back home called it hyperactive attention disorder.’
‘You’re right,’ Elijah agreed. ‘They’re no more than speciphobes.’
There was a moody silence, then Ayo the zebra spoke up. ‘Still guys, we just have to face it – it’s one size fits all here. We’ll only be allowed to stay if we give them what they want.’
The silence became resentful. Ayo had proved a hit with the children in the nearby llama sanctuary and was confident a contract would follow. And it didn’t help that he kept banging on about how delicious he found the grass there.
Nocturnus, a western screech owl, kept his own counsel. For one thing everyone cringed visibly at the sound of his voice. For another, he had more or less been guaranteed a permanent position after a night security placement, having inadvertently foiled a burglary simply by exercising his vocal chords. He was pleased, naturally, but sensitive to the feelings of those still jumping through ever diminishing hoops.
The Unit was an implacable building, designed as if its whole purpose was to confound. Cameras perched everywhere, with ineligibility lurking in even the most mundane activity. Table manners, toilet habits, sleeping arrangements, even the viability with which you negotiated the stairs: all were under surveillance; all could be your downfall.
And, they unanimously agreed, the dress code stank. ‘Who needs a bloody onesie when you’ve been dressed in fur from birth?’ Olaf, referring to the standard compulsory issue overall, asked no-one in particular. He missed the Arctic air, and the muggy climate of Kent tended to inflame his rhetoric.
‘Or indeed feathers,’ murmured Nocturnus.
‘Or a decent hide,’ put in Johnson.
It wasn’t the same for everyone, though. Racehorses seeking entry met no hurdles, at least metaphorically. But then they were thoroughbreds. Not only that, they were actively encouraged to propagate – as if there weren’t enough of them already.
It just wasn’t fair.
They were forced to admit, though, that the south-east coast was getting uncomfortably crowded. Everyone seemed to head for it now. It existed in one of the few strips of climate that could still support multiple life forms, and had managed to remain neutral while wars broke out all around. And so the unit came into being. Someone, somewhere, had eventually recognised that every diaspora needs a destination. And now there were diasporas everywhere.
But there had to be terms and conditions. After all, these animals were aliens: they brought their own culture, their own way of doing things. Indigenous liberals argued that they could fit in by doing the jobs no-one else wanted, and, as refugees, they bought into this willingly. The problem was getting to grips with the mechanics of ‘fitting in’.
And the mentality of the inquisitors was contagious. It was difficult not to become critical of one another. More than once Elijah sensed a raised eyebrow as he squeezed his bulk in stages through an internal door frame. And Johnson’s habit of hopping around upstairs provoked overt criticism when the impact of his lower limbs made items fall off tables and shelves. Bickering had begun to break out, and open displays of disapproval grew more frequent.
Eventually Olaf spoke up. ‘Guys,’ he said, laying a huge paw on the table. ‘We’ve got to stop this. If we don’t we’ll be lost – I mean, who else is going to support us through the process? And if we don’t get through how can our wives and children hope to follow us?’
At that every animal began to weep silently.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Olaf said, wiping a tear of his own. ‘I know the whole thing’s emotive. But I have an idea I’d like to put before you.’
‘Please do,’ Nocturnus sniffed. ‘I think we all feel in need of inspiration.’
‘Well,’ Olaf said, smoothing the fur on his chest, ‘it’s this. I’ve been doing some unofficial research at my placement, and I’ve overheard some interesting snippets. As a result I think I’m beginning to get a feel for how they do things here.’
The animals leaned forward attentively.
‘To make our position stronger I propose we form a cartel – apparently that’s what it’s called. I heard them talking about it yesterday. It works this way: first you compile a ‘skill package’ – and think of all the specialist skills we have between us – then you aim it a specific market, then you develop a thing called a “tender”, which just means a quote for a specified contract, and finally you quote lower than anyone else, and then you’re in. If it goes well it will mean we all get accepted at the same time.’
‘But mightn’t that make us a tad unpopular with the locals?’ Elijah asked. As an elephant his basic nature was conciliatory, at least where humans were concerned.
‘What choice do we have?’ Olaf asked. ‘It’s obvious their tactic is to pick us off one by one. But if we stand together and offer them something they realise they want, surely they’ll grab our paws off?’
‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.
Olaf inclined his head graciously. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘The best strategy, I’ve come to realise, is to appeal to their baser instincts. God knows there’s enough of them.’
‘What would we call ourselves?’ Johnson asked.
‘I’ve been giving that some thought too. It seems they like something vaguely positive, as long as it doesn’t actually mean anything. I propose “Beastly Solutions”. We can set up a training agency.’
Elijah waved his trunk triumphantly. ‘You’re a genius,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly what we’re designed to provide.’
There was a general clamour of approval.
Olaf had studied the speech patterns of the managers at his placement. ‘At the end of the day the reality is I think we’ve agreed a way forward,’ he concluded.
After that, each evening when they returned from their placements they sat together at the table and brainstormed. Olaf acted as chair, and between them they listed a formidable range of training modules they could feel confident of delivering:
hardcore fishing (‘seal methodology and beyond’), unmechanised lifting and handling (‘polar and equatorial applications available on request’), voice training for the timid (‘roar your way to confidence’), flight for beginners (‘including altitude reconnaissance and freestyle perching – no equipment needed’), and finally diet and terrain (‘addressing the vegan/carnivore debate – is it you or the landscape?’).
‘God knows, I feel empowered,’ breathed Johnson when Olaf read this back to them. ‘You’re right – when they hear this they’ll snatch our paws off.’
‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.
Olaf beamed at them. ‘There’s a very approachable personal assistant at my placement,’ he said. ‘She’s taken to stroking my fur. I’m sure she’ll type this up for us. After that all we have to do is submit it to the inquisitors.’
The following day, as hoped, he brought back to the Unit a neatly typed sheaf of A4 in a ring binder. The animals examined it and glowed with a sense of achievement. They all agreed that Olaf should have the honour of presenting it.
‘We enter this as equal partners, but you should be first amongst us,’ said Nocturnus.
‘Hear! Hear!’ the others concurred warmly.
They slept soundly that night, but were woken abruptly in the early hours by loud and repetitive thuds against the reinforced glass of their bedroom windows. Johnson, with a single bound, was first to check what was happening.
‘Christ, mates,’ he said, ‘it’s bloody vigilantes chucking things!’
Outside stood a spiteful-looking mob in dark anoraks and hoods. They held banners saying ‘Human Rights, Animal Wrongs’ and ‘Jobs for the Boys – and we mean Boys’.
Olaf came to the window. He put his paw on Johnson’s sloping shoulder and peered out over his head. ‘You have to wonder who monitors these cameras,’ he said. ‘Someone’s trying to stop us before we even get started.’
‘Best stay out of sight,’ said Elijah. ‘If they see you it will only inflame them.’
So they huddled together by the far wall waiting for the angry sounds to abate. After about an hour they heard the wail of police sirens.
‘Thank God, they’ve come to save us,’ said Nocturnus. Within a minute they heard a series of violent thumps and then the rending of wood, followed by heavy footfall up the stairs. A large police officer, with a face like a slab of steak, burst into the room.
‘Here they are,’ he shouted behind him, and quickly the room filled with his clones.
Olaf stood to address them. He clasped his paws together and spoke from the heart. ‘Thank you so much for coming to help us officers,’ he said. ‘We are in your debt.’
‘Help you?’ Steak-face exclaimed. ‘We’ve come to arrest you. Bloody agitators.’
The stunned animals hadn’t foreseen this. Their time in the unit had made them placatory, and as the police rushed towards them they put up no fight. They were handcuffed and chained and led through the protesters, who spat and swore at them, while the police looked only towards their vehicles. Within half an hour they found themselves in locked cages through which, at least, they were able to see one another.
‘This must be a mistake,’ said Nocturnus. ‘They can’t realise what’s really happened.’
Olaf looked deeply crestfallen. ‘I’m so sorry, my brothers,’ he said. ‘I led you into this. The whole thing is down to my folly.’
‘Don’t be…..’ Johnson began, but at that moment a tranquiliser dart whistled into Olaf’s side. His eyes clouded and he collapsed to the ground. More police appeared with a hoist, and he was loaded onto a cart. He managed to lift a weakened paw in farewell as he was hauled away.
Nocturnus began to weep in heartrending screeches, and quickly the others joined him. But one by one they fell silent as their captors returned, shot them with darts from close range, and dragged their bodies off.
They woke sometime later on a concrete loading bay by the sea, in what smelled like morning air, slumped together again in one enormous cage. A cargo boat stood alongside, and before they could gather themselves an official of some sort thrust a rough bundle of papers through the bars.
‘These are your deportation orders,’ he said. ‘You’re going to Bremerhaven – perhaps they’ll like you better there.’
As they were taking this in, the jib of a huge crane lowered towards the cage. A small group of dock workers came forward to attach it, and the animals were lifted onto the deck of the boat. Almost immediately the vessel raised anchor, and as it started to pull away Olaf looked back at the shore and began to sing quietly. It was a song he had learnt as a cub from his mother. The others, who knew the song because they had learnt it from their own mothers, gradually joined him, until they were all singing.
The dock workers stood silently at the quayside, looking out and listening to these strangely affecting cadences as they faded slowly into the sea. They realised something in those disparate voices, lifting in unison, was unusual, and found themselves leaning towards the water, as if to make sense of the dying notes. But, though they strained forward as the boat shrank into the horizon, the only sound that reached them from the far and growing distance, was the keening call of wild animals.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart and Footnote. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk