Crocodile Dreaming - Part One
The teacher took Joseph Miller to the zoo. In fact she took the whole class, including Joe, who was the second smallest student. It would have been better to be the smallest, but that position was filled by Martha Eggleton, who was not only short, but also blond and dimpled. Everyone felt protective towards Martha. Joe had red hair, and more freckles than ‘you could shake a stick at’ as Granny Miller liked to say. Joe didn’t get how a shaking stick was a way to measure anything but Granny used it quite a lot. He also had teeth that refused to sit neatly in a straight row, and wore glasses because otherwise the words on the board looked like wet weetbix. His classmates found all these things impossible to ignore. Maybe if Joe played sports, things would be different. But he didn’t, and they weren’t. He wasn’t really the right shape for sports.
Joe liked the idea of going to the zoo. Animals seemed much less complicated than people. His Mum and Dad took him once but they were busy people and hadn’t managed to fit in another visit yet. He tried to hide his excitement in the week leading up to the visit. The other boys in his class found other people’s excitement annoying. At least that’s how they found Joe’s excitement.
It was cloudy the day of the trip. Ms Terry said this was perfect zoo visiting weather. Sunshine made animals sleepy and want to hide away in their dens in the shade. Joe stayed on the bus till all the other students were off as he often tripped over other peoples legs. But when he finally emerged he sniffed the earthy combination of animal fragrances and smiled.
“Hurry up Joseph,” Ms Terry called. “Stop dawdling.”
The animals didn’t disappoint.
“Miss, aren’t flamingos meant to be pink?” Harry Tanner asked as he hung over the railing at their enclosure.
“They’re grey because of the food they eat,” Joe said. “When they’ve eaten enough shrimps and stuff they’ll change colour and be pink.”
“Quite so, Joseph,” Ms Terry said tartly.
“Yes Joseph, quite so,” Harry parroted.
It was a small mistake, laughing at Harry when the llama spit at him. Everyone laughed at Joe when Harry spat at him at school, and frankly Joe didn’t see the difference. But apparently there was one because Harry let him have it while no one was looking during morning tea break beside the band rotunda. Harry’s friends egged him on.
Joe tried not to cry, but his nose hurt.
“What’s all this?” asked Ms Terry when she finally noticed.
“They’re crocodile tears Miss. They’re not real. I didn’t do anything,” Harry said in his own defence, out of habit, even though Joe had said nothing.
Joe didn’t bother mentioning that crocodiles did actually cry real tears. And that it had nothing to do with pretending they felt sad when they didn’t.
The crack in the left hand lens of his glasses made the animals look mysterious; especially the crocodile, already a little sinister, eyeing Joe from under half closed lids, through the vapour of the climate-controlled Reptile House. Half submerged in murky water, the animal floated perfectly still. Its knobbly, patterned hide made Joe think of dragons, and the knights who fought them. Magnificent teeth, curving and pointed and long, sat outside the crocodile’s lips in a predatory grin. Who could really tell what simmered below the calm and silent surface? Only a low railing separated the pond and its grassy surrounds from the visitors.
“This is boring,” Harry declared. “Crocodiles never do anything. And they’re ugly.” He smiled at Martha who flashed a dimple back. “Let’s go see the lions.” Everyone was slowly filing out, students pushing and shoving in their impatience. It might have been an accident. Who could tell in the end? But Harry’s elbow caught Joe in the back as he leaned over the fence. Joe found himself falling forward, watched closely by those crocodile eyes. He landed on the edge of the pond, his hands in the water. What was that beneath his hand? He grasped at it.
Laughter erupted behind him. Joe wasn’t quite sure how being in danger was funny.
As quickly as he’d fallen in, the crocodile keeper yanked him out, pulling him up by the back of his shirt. The crocodile had not moved. Even though that’s what they usually did when food fell down right in front of them. How odd.
“You should never climb into an enclosure,” the keeper warned. “Crocodiles are killers.”
There seemed little point in Joe saying he’d been pushed.
“Yes,” he said instead. And, “Thank you.” But already the keeper was moving off to attend to his next task. The room had emptied. Joe opened his palm out and looked down at the crocodile tooth, large and hard and yellowed. He popped it in his pocket and glanced at the crocodile.
“Thanks for not eating me,” he said.
The crocodile blinked, a slow single tear sliding down its cheek. Joe said, “Bye,” and hurried off to find Ms Terry and the others.