WORDS & PICTURES: Kit Caless
One gentle morning the post arrived when I was working from home. I opened an envelope that had something flat, rectangular and solid inside.
It was a wedding invitation from an old school friend.
Please arrive at PORT LYMPNE WILD ANIMAL PARK at 1PM.
That’s right, a wildlife park. But not any old wildlife park. This was in a wildlife park in the old country. I was heading home, back to the wilds of Kent. The green grass of the home garden county.
Kent has been home to many anti-Christs: David Starkey, Paul Hollywood, Lord Kitchener, Edward Heath, Fat Boy Slim. Some big bastards live or have lived in Kent. We can keep naming them if you like; frogman Nigel Farage, violent founder of Phoenix, Arizona, Darrel Duppa, tax avoiding cultural appropriator Mick Jagger, one man wrong ’un Pete Tong, multiple fraudster and Ramasees-level pyramid schemer Kevin Foster, wheelie bin bowler, James ‘Tredders’ Tredwell. The list goes on.
But there is one massive bastard who ruled a part of Kent, south east of Ashford, with the sort of primordial dominance usually associated with great apes: a gambler, quasi-fascist and friend of Lord Lucan, the irrepressible rogue; John ‘Aspers’ Aspinall.
Aspers created and owned Port Lympne Wildlife Park. The wedding took place at his former residence in the grounds. In the Daily Telegraph, a paper not known for any left wing lean, Aspinall’s obituary was fairly damning: “There was something to be said, Aspinall felt, for Hitler’s ideas about eugenics. “Broadly speaking,” he said, “the high income groups tend to have a better genetic inheritance.””
Now, this is tantamount to having a wedding at Mussolini’s swanky deer park in Tuscany. It’s like having a massive canine shindig at Ezra’s Dog Pound. It’s basically the same as throwing the biggest party ever in Oswald Moseley’s duck pond at Orsay.
I got a taxi there from Ashford station, day dreaming of Nicola Barker’s Darkman’s to the sounds of Invicta FM and the cabbie’s recollections of visiting the zoo with his kids a number of years ago. Driving out of Ashford – a bone fide dump – to the countryside didn’t take too long. Before I knew it, the taxi was following a very long driveway towards the wildlife park. I thought of Aspinall’s Bentley rolling down the same road, John leaning out the window smoking a fat Cuban, listening to Ray Charles’s ‘Losing Hand’.
Following a short and sweet ceremony where the beloved betrothed, we had some drinks and whatever. Now, I love the happy couple, and thought having a wedding in Aspers’s house would look great. But I wasn’t prepared for the paintings.
Frescos adorned every wall of every room. The homeless-man-chalk-on-the-ground-style naturescapes induced a negative vertigo, an antipode to the feeling of wonder you get in the Sistine Chapel. The wolf-howling-at-the-moon-on-a-mountain type wall paintings inspired jaw drops and talking points for aunties and school-mates alike.
People talk about Nazi plunder and fascists hoarding great works of art, but if Aspinall is anything to go by, the boys from the far right have terrible taste. I can’t speak for all the commies, but Diego Rivera’s watercolours certainly trump any of Venanzo Crocetti’s papier maché busts.
I stared at these paintings like they were Magic Eye pictures, hoping something better would come out of them, but nothing did. Only the faint sense that Aspers hated humanity because he didn’t understand art. I ambled around the rest of the ground floor and found cabinets full of ivory, hippo teeth and beaks. For a conservationist, Apsinall had acquired quite a number of dead animal trinkets.
Outside, the view of his land – spreading down towards the English Channel over the Romney marsh – would have been quite breathtaking, were it not interrupted by the sight of a baboon conducting what we call a ‘freelancer’s lie down’. It felt quite apt; a primate cracking one out as I thought about the art Aspinall had commissioned. I stubbed out a cigarette on a monkey-faced ashtray, a bell rang and we gathered at the front entrance of the grand house.
Before the reception, the MC announced, everyone who wanted to go on safari should head out of the drive way to the convoy of 4x4s. They would take us around the park to stare at African animals set deeply outside of their context. Most of us duly obliged and piled into the vehicles in wedding attire. I sat in the near the front of the rear vehicle.
As soon as we were settled and started moving, some joker [me] hummed the Jurassic Park theme. Der ner nerrr nerrr nerrr, der ner nerrr nerrr nerrr. How we laughed as we rumbled along rutted dirt tracks away from the house and into the park.
The first thing we passed was a cheetah, sat high on a mound looking more bored than a child during Eucharist, ignoring us completely as we shoved iPhones out of the side of the elongated jeep and tried to capture its woeful magnificence. Then came a rhino on the right, solitary, sitting down. Then a lion. Then a series of antelopes. Then a gathering of giraffes.
An older man behind me had a quip for every animal we saw:
“Look at him, lion around!”
“A load of giraffes? You’re having a laugh!”
“Antelope away with me, let’s tie the knot!”
The fact no one laughed did not discourage him.
We trundled on, passing water buffalo and ostrich. The convoy took a turn up a hill. It started to rain. Then shit got weird.
Half way up the hill our part of the convoy stopped. The rain beat down on the canvas roof and slipped in through the open sides. A thump hit the back of the car, flinging us forward. A man screamed and then giggled at his scaredy-cat reaction. We adjusted ourselves and sat back in our seats. I put my full glass of beer on the floor pretending that we were in that scene from Spielberg’s classic, hoping the beer would shake with vibrations and everyone would act like a T-Rex was coming.
The pun-master picked it up and drank the whole lot in one go. I turned to him to ask why he was being a prick. When I saw his face, I swallowed my anger.
Drained of his earlier joie de vivre, his hands gripped the back of my seat like he was on Nemesis at Alton Towers. He stared through me. The tannoy that had been announcing the animals as we drove past them, crackled and spat. Then cut out. The driver’s door up the front opened and slammed shut.
I leant out of the side to see the driver running away from us, into the wild.
It sounded like he was saying, ‘Save yourself, run for your lives!’
The car shook again. The beer glass fell out of the old man’s hands and smashed on the floor.
“Why are you so afraid, Jeremy?” said his wife, sat next to him.
“I’m not, I’m… haha, I’m not,” Jeremy verbally fumbled.
“Oh my god… Did you…?”
“I thought it was…” he replied, shaking.
“You DID? I thought you were joking when we discussed this!”
“I felt we were due some change.”
“But you knew this wedding was going happen months before the election!”
“I forgot… I genuinely…”
“Get away from me!”
The car shook again, this time harder. Something clamped onto the rear, metal on metal. My elbow knocked on the empty seat in front, making my funny bone laugh.
The old man’s wife pushed him hard. He lost his balance on the seat and spilled half way out of the open side. She stood up and shoved his arse over. He tumbled, wedding suit forward, onto the mud below. Slipping as he tried to stand up, he clutched the side rail.
“I’m not going to die for your stupid whims. The Green Party? I mean, honestly.”
Something grabbed his leg and tugged him. He held on tightly. Something snarled, growled. Margot, in her wedding hat and pink dress, reached out and prised the old man’s fingers off the rail.
“No… please no…”
“I’ve had it with you. First you vote for those socialist hemp lovers and then you spend all this wedding making god awful jokes about animals and the punch bowl.”
“They weren’t that bad!”
“There are no good jokes about Lennox Lewis and punch bowls. Goodbye Jeremy.”
A scream curdled, and the man was ripped away from my sight, to the back of the vehicle. To oblivion.
The wedding seemed to have taken an interesting turn.
Margot stayed behind me. She fumbled with her handbag, pulled out her phone and scrolled through her photos until she stopped on one, checked it over and deleted it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I was bricking it. But I’d also had quite a lot of Prosecco by this point and wasn’t sure if this was ‘part of the safari experience’ or if there really was something evil outside trying to kill us. Everyone else in the vehicle looked relaxed.
“What’s going on?” I asked Margot.
“Nothing you need to worry about. Can you drive?”
“No, I’m from London.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t drive.”
“I’m from Hackney.”
She paused. And then elongated her vowels, “Oooooh. So you cycle?”
A pause, a collective intake of breath from the rest of the guests in the vehicle.
“Get away from me,” she said calmly.
“Wait, you’re from Hackney, or you just live in Hackney?”
“Live. I’m originally from Canterbury.”
She turned to the rest of the guests.
“Do you think he should go?”
Someone at the back who I made small talk with about the flower arrangements said, “Maybe, he seems okay to me? Canterbury’s voted Julian Brazier for twenty-five years now. It’s a strong hold.”
A man I had shared a smoke break and a chat about the Arsenal with said, “but he voluntarily moved to Hackney. He made a choice to live there.”
Someone else said, “I think I heard him talk about Corbyn.”
Margot said, “Positively or negatively?”
It was true, I’d said I liked the fact he was a Gooner.
All nine guests stood up and started towards shuffle to me. I inched backwards to front of the vehicle. I felt the cold metal of the cabin wall on my back.
“Kick him out!” a woman in a black wedding hat shouted gleeful.
They approached in rhythm, like a pool of synchronised swimmers.
“Expel the bastard!” another yelled.
I looked out of the vehicle at the mud, the rain, the wild Kent pampas. It was pathetic, just grass and a few lazy shrubs. I won the 100 meters at my Kent school in year 9. I’m quick. I looked back at the mob, teeth bared, conservative rosettes pumping blue blood where their hearts should be.
Taking a risk with whatever was outside, would be better than dying at the hands of the Monday Club.
Just as I launched myself out of the vehicle, one of them bellowed, “Feed him to Lucan!”
I landed on the mud, slipping down the hill fast.
Lying on my front, I saw Margot calmly walk out of the back and into the front cabin. She started the engine. A plume of diesel exhaust, a wheel spin, and the last part of the wedding convoy drove off without me.
Behind I could make out Jeremy’s mangled body. It was headless, his Waitrose loyalty card stuck in the carotid artery, like a calling sign. I couldn’t see anything else around me. I tried to get up but slipped in the mud again, so I crawled up the hill on my hands and knees. The rain lashed painful drops onto my face. My glasses needed windscreen wipers.
I reached the top of the hill. The view was magnificent. Birds were gathering around a small pond, overlooking the whole estate. To the right were lodges that guests could stay in. Waking up to this scene would be amazing. As I stared at the cabins, picturing a weekend retreat here in the summer, a body smashed into my side, winding me, knocking me down.
Now, I’ve played rugby. I’m from Kent. Rugby and cricket are the sporting staples of this county. I’ve played enough to recognise a technically good rugby tackle. Stars flickered on the back of my eyelids. I shook my head and got up, like a prize-fighter, hands up in guar position.
A fist connected with my jaw from the left. A boney, cracking fist.
I don’t go down. I’m better than that.
But I swung at nothing. A fist hit me in the arm.
Fuck this. I might know rugby but the last time I was in a fight was at The Bizz Nightclub in Canterbury and it didn’t end well.
I ran in the direction the convoy went. I heard something running after me. I didn’t want to look back. I ran past an elephant, trunk swaying. I ran past zebras. Past springbok, gazelles, gnus. I could hear the thumping footsteps behind me get closer. Closer still.
An electric fence appeared in front of me. As I slammed on the leg breaks, I slipped again, upended, flat on my back. The sky filled my vision.
The body of my pursuer flew over me, over the fence. It thudded on impact with the ground.
The rain stopped abruptly.
I got up, slowly.
There was a sign on the fence: Spotted Hyenas, Kenya.
The body on the other side of the fence didn’t move. Clad in a safari suit, and a face covered in mud, it was possible to make out a large moustache on the top lip. It groaned.
I considered stepping over the fence for a better look. Then I remembered that time my sister electrocuted herself at Howlette’s Zoo, and was hospitalised. A laugh came from behind a tree. Two laughs. Three. Not human ones.
Hyenas emerged, skulking towards the body. They approached him in a v-shape.
I stood, transfixed by what was about to happen. In slow motion they prowled closer and closer to the body. I hesitated. Took a step forward to help, then took a step back.
The middle hyena ploughed its teeth into the man.
I walked away.
I arrived back at the wedding reception just in time for the speeches. I couldn’t find my name on the table plan, so with everyone listening to the bride’s father, I slipped out and ordered a taxi to Canterbury.
At my mother’s house the next day I read on the BBC that Lord Lucan, the famous missing aristocrat, had finally been declared dead a full four decades after he disappeared.
I ate a croissant and sipped from my favourite coffee mug.
Mum said, “How was the wedding then? I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Oh you know,” I replied, “the usual.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kit is a writer, editor and broadcaster. He co-founded Influx Press, a small indie that publishes ‘site-specific’ literature. He writes for the likes of VICE and The Quietus and hosts Mapping the Metropolis on Resonance 104.4FM. He also curates the hashtag #LossLit on Twitter with poet Aki Schilz.