‘This way, please. And wipe your feet on the rug before proceeding, thank you.’
We dutifully wiped our shoes on the rug underfoot. It wasn’t a standard ‘Welcome’ mat. Although trampled flat by constant use, you could still make out the distinctive rosettes and hues of tawny, black and grey. What had once been a recognisable corporeal outline had now taken on the frayed qualities of a well-worn & threadbare rag. Like old roadkill.
We followed him into the darkened corridor as he strode a few paces ahead, not turning to look at us but speaking in clipped, rehearsed fashion.
‘Stay with me at all times. Don’t go through any of the other doorways. Make sure your mobiles are switched off. No photographs. No note-taking or recording. Speak only in low tones. No sudden movements. Any questions, you can ask just prior to leaving, although I can’t guarantee specific answers.’
As it so happened, we had more than a few questions, but for that time we just looked at each other with silent giggles & rolled eyes, & Kirsty pulled a couple of mock goose-steps as we walked briskly behind him, further & further down the long corridor.
Kirsty had been driving, I’d been creatively directing. We’d brought local area maps & had some AA Routefinder pages printed off, but we’d been content to meander through the dales & past the becks, turning onto roads with rotting wooden signposts displaying names like ‘Aikrigg’ & ‘Maasgill’, plotting our own little personal directory on the countryside, snapping randomly when the notion took our fancy. A solitary Herdwick ram on a slope, a row of dead crows strung along a rusting barbed wire fence, a buzzard atop a post, a small copse of trees like a merkin on miles of barren hillside. We weren’t due at the hotel until 4, & headed zigzag towards Keswick, looking for nothing in particular yet finding occasional somethings which made the landscape our own for a short time. We were past the B-road stage, pottering around what Kirsty liked to call ‘M-roads’. As in ‘Em, I wonder what’s down this one?’ Our navigational curiosity had brought us to hidden, dark mansions with ‘KEEP OUT’ signs, little valleys with rubble tracks for roads, dead-ends in farmyards surrounded by snarling sheepdogs, precipitous lanes snaking up & down mountainsides. And then this.
The sign was prominent, if you happened to see it. If I’d been driving, I’d never have noticed it, & Kirsty asked, a few seconds later, if I was sure. On reversing a few yards, she said ‘Oh yeah, how did I miss that?’ & we got out of the car to have a look.
The sign stood at the bottom of a tree-lined track running up the slope & curving after a few yards into a wood. Atop a post was a four-foot square polished wooden board, on which was neatly displayed, in individual bronze lettering, the words
VISITS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
No pets, children, wheelchairs or coach parties
After reading it, & giving each other that shall-we?-we-will look, we returned to the car, & Kirsty turned it onto the track, driving us past the sign & up through the trees.
‘What do you think, some museum or petting farm, a private zoo maybe?’
‘Don’t know. You don’t see private zoos nowadays, I think all the rights & regulations took care of that. It’s all about conservation. Menagerie sounds a bit old-fashioned, more like a museum. The only way to find out’s by knocking on. Worst that’ll happen is they’re closed or insist we make an appointment.’
‘It’s only just gone 1, we’ve got plenty of time & petrol. We can’t be more than 10 or 15 miles off of Keswick.’
‘Absolutely. Something & nothing. Probably nothing.’
‘This is right up your street, eh? A menagerie, animals. Might give you something to write about in that blog of yours.’
She wasn’t being disparaging, but Kirsty was constantly amused by what she called my ‘lunatic fringe interests’. She always said there was more chance of finding an honest bookie than there was of finding an unknown animal. I always retorted with the fact of her belief in democracy. There’s more chance of finding a yeti than there is of finding an honest politician. And so it went, little games played out happily in the early habits of marriage. It hadn’t yet got to the dismissive stage, but it would. It always does.
The ‘driveway’ ended at a lawn & a hillside. There was no building. Puzzled, we got out & strode around the glade. Maybe it had been demolished, but the sign had looked quite new, cared for. Then Kirsty pointed at the steep hillside. There was a doorway built into the rock, & above it a small sign. We walked up to it, read the sign.
Ring for attention
There was a buzzer point. I pressed it. No sound. I waited ten seconds, pressed it again. Nothing. Sighing, I turned round to walk away, as Kirsty had started to do, & then the door opened & a figure walked out to meet us.
Non-descript, average height, short grey hair, his only distinguishing feature was a trimmed &, quite frankly, ridiculous-looking goatee. Like the merkin on the hillside miles back, it seemed unnatural & out of place, as black as his crew-cut was grey.
We introduced ourselves, explained our presence, & said, apologetically, that we didn’t have an appointment & would understand if we couldn’t come in. This seemed more important, at that point, than asking what & where the place actually was. He radiated an officiousness that rendered you polite, like an expectant maître d' or impatient inspector of works.
He stared at us for a few seconds, seeming to weigh us up.
‘I’m John Hunter.’
Then he turned briskly on his heel & walked through the open doorway. We followed.
Now, walking down the corridor, I wondered when we were supposed to pay, & how much it was going to cost. And what exactly it was that we’d be paying for. His list of conditions precluded all questions & besides, we were curious enough to leave all that until later. Curiosity has that effect.
After a few more yards, passing many unmarked, closed doors, the corridor ended at a standard steel door. Hunter produced a key to unlock it & the door swung inwards. Without a word, he walked through & waited on the other side, clearly expecting us to follow, which we did, like kids on a museum tour.
He locked the door & flicked a light switch. We were in a long room of white, at least a hundred feet long & about twenty feet broad. There was no door at the far end, just a black curtain covering the expanse of the facing wall. All the way down, on either side, at intervals of fifteen feet or so, similar black curtains were hung, ceiling to floor. Drawstrings snaked down their sides. The room was completely quiet.
‘Stay behind me & don’t react too obviously. Some people don’t control themselves very well. Which is understandable, but I’ll tell you now. There are things here you won’t see anywhere else. Is either of you prone to seizures or have heart problems?’
‘No.’ I answered for both of us.
‘Good. Now can we begin?’
Hunter moved towards the first curtain on the left, but before he could pull the drawstring, I spoke up.
‘Mr. Hunter, I know you said no questions, but I just want to know what it is you have here. Is it a museum, a viewing gallery, a zoo?’
Hunter’s languid eyes flashed an unexpected amusement as he turned to face me.
‘All of those, sir, all of those. And so much more,’ & he turned and pulled the drawstring on the long black curtain, which slid noiselessly back to reveal a full wall-high window.
At first, we weren’t quite sure what we were meant to be looking at. Dimly lit space, no features, no markers, like looking into a blank TV screen. Hunter stepped back towards us, looking straight ahead, motioning us to his side. We joined him, looking on.
Kirsty didn’t scream, but her sharp intake of breath & her clutching at my hand betrayed sudden shock. I could feel her nails digging into my wrist, but no pain registered.
A huge head had drifted toward us from nowhere, peering out, a snout as big as a human body nudging the glass, mouth slightly agape but still revealing row upon row of enormous, sharp teeth. Reptilian eyes squinted lazily, then closed, & the head turned round to drift to the right. A massive armoured bulk followed as it turned, & continued to turn, & turn. After what seemed like minutes, it disappeared into the mire again, long serpentine tail flowing from side to side & steering the animal off into the gloom. It had looked like a crocodile, in the same way as a Husky resembles a wolf, but at least twice the size.
‘Mahambo. Caught him in the Congo just last year. Fine specimen, isn’t he? Of course, he’ll grow much larger, he’s still approaching maturity. Devil of a job feeding him. I sometimes think that if it wasn’t for me, all these local farmers would be out of business! Oh & don’t worry, the glass is one-way, they can’t see you.’
His rush of words & paternal smile were almost as unexpected as the appearance of the animal beyond the glass. I didn’t even latch on to ‘they’. My jaw was still hanging open. I looked at Kirsty & was greeted with a silent, wide-eyed ‘oh’.
Without pause, Hunter strode across the room to the facing curtain & drew it open. Following, we saw, beyond the glass, several trees growing from a carpet of thick shrubbery. Lounging around the middle branches of one tree was a man-sized figure, covered in russet fur, bulky head resting on one, outstretched arm, apparently asleep. The arm ended in long claws, the head was round but blunt towards the muzzle from which protruded, slightly, sharp fangs.
‘Lovely chap, the Mapinguari. Spends most of his time asleep, hates water. Here, I’ve installed an extra feature , shall we try it out?’
Hunter leaned forward & pressed a small button beside the glass. Underneath the button, what appeared to be a vent opened an inch or so. Suddenly we were overcome by the most noxious odour, like a mixture of rotting flesh & month-old sweat. Kirsty & I gagged, unable to stop ourselves coughing. Hunter glared at us, seemingly ready to say something, & at that point the animal on the branch raised its head slowly, opened an impossibly wide mouth full of daggers & let loose a wail of such piercing intensity that our hands moved automatically from our mouths to our ears. Hunter snapped shut the vent.
‘Well, can’t say I blame you. Once smelled never forgotten eh? You’ll never moan about morning-after breath again.’
He was right. We never did.
We were quiet after that, all desire for talk or enquiry silenced by the sights before us.
An enormous frog-like thing, at least five feet long, which alternated between hopping laboriously around a shallow, lily-covered pond & occasionally raising itself on its hind legs to sniff the air.
A whiskered, segmented invertebrate coiled endlessly around a house-sized boulder.
A pair of white lupines big as sheep (‘My first breeding programme. Wish me luck!’).
A bat roosting under an impressive man-made waterfall, furry, with a simian head – it lazily unfurled its wings at one point to reveal a span the length of a van.
A bird like an ostrich, twice the height, with a beak like a razor & shag pile feathers.
A charcoal-coloured feline the size of a horse & with brindled fur, methodically picking at the carcass of a deer.
Hunter led & we followed, never thinking to ask, stunned into silence as if we had been hypnotised. A parade of the unreal, The X Creatures in 3D.
Finally, we approached the black curtain on the end wall. Hunter turned & spoke. He did so with an air of rehearsal similar to that shown by a travelling sideshow impresario.
‘And here, my prize specimens. Please, take a moment to consider what you think of as real. Discount any preconceived notions you may have of how our world is & how it became. This wipes away all of that.’
Hunter drew the curtain open.
We talked about it for years. We still talk about it occasionally, late at night after a glass or five of rioja, like kids telling ghost stories while camping. Kirsty was adamant it was all done with automated puppetry, that Hunter was some hotshot special effects designer hiding out in the Lakeland hills & experimenting with new creatures for features. She’d trawled movie bases endlessly on the net but John Hunter’s name was nowhere to be found amongst the Stan Winstons, John Dykstras & Ray Harryhausens of the film world. Today, we’ll still, sometimes, wait for the film credits to finish in the cinema, the last out, scanning for a ‘Hunter’ amongst the endless gaggle of CGI & SFX artists listed. She says that he must be using a pseudonym & that Hunter’s Menagerie was his workshop.
We agreed that we were almost taken in, nearly fooled by his bestiary of the fantastic.
And I invariably turn to Kirsty at the end of the night, amongst the warm safety of the bed covers, & put it all to rest, by saying something along the lines of
‘He almost had me until he showed us the dinosaurs.’
And Kirsty laughs, pulls my face towards hers &, just before kissing me as if for the very first time all over again, says something about there being no such thing as cryptids, anyway.