Waiting for Hippo
Derick Bannantyne had spent his life waiting for a hippo. The fact that there used to be a hippo at Chester Zoo is not surprising in itself but that Bannantyne waited for it is. It makes perfect sense if I tell you that Derrick Bannantyne was a taxidermist, a frustrated one, but a taxidermist by profession all the same.
Bannantyne had been employed by the Liverpool Civic Museum twenty years before I went to work there. He spent his years sitting in an airless, subterranean office surrounded by large freezers and several long-dead animals, all of which he was re-stuffing while the public could watch him work through a small window. Socially the museum was fairly restricted. Bannantyne would meet people in the lift and engage in light-hearted banter and, on occasion, join the Egyptologists for coffee and cakes. Of all his colleagues he was drawn to them the most, undoubtedly because they, like him, had an interest in the moribund. In addition to Egyptologists, Bannantyne liked young women and all of us were at some point subjected to his slightly unsettling remarks which were invariably in bad taste. We felt sorry for Bannantyne, he had little to recommend him and as he was always accompanied by a clewing odour of chemical preservatives – few sought him out. Other than that I know very little about him and less about the elderly hippo in Chester zoo.
I don’t know when Bannantyne had first laid eyes on the unfortunate hippo or when the idea came to him. I always imagine he had an epiphany but it might have occurred to him gradually, at first as whim and then as a consuming ambition. However it happened, Bannantyne started to make preparations for the arrival of the deceased hippo. I suppose that he had originally expected the hippo would pass away within the year. It was old and probably senile but it would stuff well.
There was a brief interlude during his preparations when a guinea pig called Pigsie arrived in his office. Tom, an Egyptologist who worked down the corridor, had been given his daughter’s guinea pig to look after while she went away with her mother for a week’ s holiday. Sadly, Tom was not up to the job and the poor creature perished. Tom decided that the best thing to do was to deliver Pigsie to Bannentyne, more as an act of compassion for Bannantyne than any real desire to see it stuffed. The job was done adequately and with great relish but the end result was disturbing: Bannantyne had mounted Pigsie on a plinth, not in its usual round, contented position but in frozen animation, neck extended, two feet in mid-air. Needless to say Tom’s daughter was horrified when, on coming home, she found Pigsie stuffed and mounted in mid-leap on her mantelpiece. Despite the contention, Pigsie was the nearest Bannantyne had been to the touch of warm flesh and it seemed to heighten his expectation about the hippo. The hippo however, blessed apparently by longevity or merely a desire not to be immortalised leaping – continued stubbornly to live.
I’m not too certain why anyone would voluntarily become a taxidermist. It has never been the ambition of any child that I have ever met and certainly, one assumes, anyone who wishes to spend their lives stuffing animals with straw or sawdust, or whatever they use nowadays, must have a sinister side to their character. I’m not saying that Bannatyne was sinister, don’t imagine some white-coated man with bloodstained hands and Frankenstein laugh. In truth he was rather unmemorable and prone to bouts of depression. These became more acute with every month the hippo continued to flourish.
Eventually Bannantyne was driven to extreme measures – and he increasingly engaged his colleagues in discussions about the best way to dispatch a large mammal. No one really took him seriously – being cooped up in such a strange office surrounded by corpses would drive any man to such incoherent babbling. At the very point that Bannantyne decided on administering strychnine an Egyptologist took the bull by the horns – or the hippo by the ears – and rang the zoo to warn the zookeeper about the impending attempt on the hippo’s life.
When Bannantyne arrived at the zoo, clutching his bottle of strychnine, several zookeepers followed him at a distance. I always imagine them armed with pitchforks but perhaps this would have been a little melodramatic. Bannantyne, contrary to expectations, paused a while and looked at the hippo, half submerged, as it chewed listlessly on a frond of vegetation and, after several minutes, he turned and walked away. I am told that Bannatyne handed in his notice to the museum the same day.
It was always a bit of a mystery but Tom, who had Pigsie sitting on his office bookshelf beside his ushabtis and steles, had a theory. Apparently Bannantyne realised, as he gazed at the hippo, that it was happy and content whilst he had never been. People gazed on it in much the same way as they gazed in on him in his claustrophobic office. It would have been cruel to kill the hippo. Bannantyne was the one who had been pickled and preserved, he had died from the inside out – years before.
I suppose that conversation with Tom helped me to hand in my notice and walk away from the museum in just the same way Bannantyne had done. I had never been happy there. I had been waiting for a hippo too, not literally like Bannantyne but metaphorically. It is easy to wait for hippos but infinitely better to realise the futility of it – before it is too late.
Kristy Kerruish is from Edinburgh and currently living in Europe. She writes fiction and poetry and has had work published in online and printed magazines, books and literary annuals