Etta is simply in love with the zoo. There're four tigers, and one of them likes to sing after lunch. The sound is low, velvet, and rumbly; and the polite considerate Canadians are standing at a respectful distance from the tiger’s giant enclosure, behind a glass wall, their faces soppy and phones in their pockets not to disturb the stripy Pavarotti.
There're red pandas. They frolic on an elaborate play structure, and a fit zookeeper - in sexy shorts and with teeth unnaturally white - tells mawkishly sighing visitors that the zoo is the world’s third best red panda breeding facility. If they took such good care of Etta, she would consider making cute ginger babies too.
Polar bears are just as spectacular as the guide book promises. There are four of them, and their enclosure is built so smartly that it seems it has no end. One of the walls of it is once again made of glass, and serves as the wall of the zoo canteen as well. So, Etta has to be constantly be reminded to chew her ‘chicken fingers combo,’ since she freezes with her mouth full, incapable to tear her eyes off a giant polar bear playing with an empty plastic barrel like a puppy with a ball.
“Miss Ryan, you aren’t eating,” Farmer Thorne softly rumbles yet again. Etta would like to say she doesn’t tingle head to toe every time he does, but Rassilon help her, he sounds exactly like the tiger! And it does things to her!
The problem is that he doesn’t sound irritated. The tone is, of course, a bit grumpy, but warm and somewhat even affectionate. Maybe because five minutes after that he needs to say, “Jamie, you aren’t eating,” and after another five, “Nick, you aren’t eating.” Apparently, Etta is somewhere there, in the same category as his two nephews - six and eight years old - and Etta is feeling all warm and fuzzy inside from this new manner of his.
Has Etta mentioned she’s in love with the nephews even more than with the zoo? Her nieces - as much as Etta adores them - are a bit moody, complicated, and never pleased. These two are balls of sunshine. One blonde, one dark haired, both displaying a large degree of semblance to their uncle - the boys are ‘awesome,’ the word that they use towards 60% of their experiences. Peacocks - freely wandering around the zoo - are awesome. Some little critters whose burrows run underground all through the territory - Farmer Thorne suddenly enlightens Etta that they are Richardson’s ground squirrels and prefer peanut butter to any other food, which causes Etta to gawk at him in shocked silence for at least fifteen minutes - are awesome. Pronghorns are awesome. Axolotls are awesome.
Etta - with her ‘cool accent’ and ‘the red, two floor buses’ - is awesome. Etta just wants to grab them and cuddle them until they beg for mercy. She breaks down when Nick - the younger one, dark brown ringlets, adoration splashing in his eyes of the colour of Tim’s coffee - asks her if she will stay with them ‘for long, long, long.’ She hugs him, although she’s a cold blooded Brit; and the blonde one is immediately hanging on her as well. Canadians are huggers, clearly. She can tell by the zoo crowd. She expects Farmer Thorne to tell the boy to knock it off; instead he’s standing, giving her a strange intense look. It’s not hostile though, and Etta isn’t sure what she’s feeling.
Etta gives in and admits that she might be in love with Farmer Thorne - she’s not serious, of course! - after he suddenly explains to her in sentences longer than five words - still less than ten, though - that a dessert they sell around the zoo called a Screamer is the previously discussed Slurpee with a glob of soft serve ice cream in it. It sounds horrible, and looks only worse, with its ghoulish blue colour; and Etta is frantically shaking her head, when he suddenly buys one for her in a small kiosk and pushes the cup under her nose.
“Um… I’d rather not… It’s just sugar and colouring, and...” She loudly chokes on her mumbling, when he nonchalantly lifts the dessert to his mouth, and his lips close around a merry stripy straw. The cheeks move under the thick black beard, and then he licks his lips. Etta is staring. She might be drooling.
“Sure?” he asks, and the left eyebrow jumps up. Etta takes it back - he can be bloody expressive! She makes a croaky noise. He shrugs and takes another sip. It’s more of a suck, and Etta’s head swims. “You look like you might want it.”
He lowers the cup to her again, and shakes it, the straw knocking on the sides, as if luring a small animal. Etta grabs it and stuffs the straw into her mouth to stop this torture. She’s clearly imagining that he’s flirting! He’s just being nice, and she's getting all these daft ideas, and it’s beginning to be more than just her admiring his physique, and she’s not an imbecile! He’s just being… Canadian; and she’s thirty four, and knows that reading too much into a man’s behaviour is the most common and the deadliest of mistakes a woman can make.
At two thirty the zookeepers feed pelicans. The birds are local and are all rescuees. Some are missing pieces of wings; one has only one eye. Nick suddenly starts sniffling; and Etta and the zookeeper rush to reassure him that the birds are doing great; and that they have this immense pond, and their own island, and a small wooden house on it. The boy’s eyes are still red, and he’s asking again and again whether the zookeeper is sure that the one eyed bird will get his fair share of food, since he can’t catch a fish properly.
And then Farmer Thorne goes on one knee in front of the boy, and his large hands lie on the shaking bony shoulders. Etta is close to tears herself, and she’s going to grab a slimy dead fish from the bucket and will smack the man to the head with it if he tells the boy to ‘man up’ or ‘that’s life!’
“Listen, buddy. That’s what zoos are for. To help them. We live on the same land, and it’s our job. We're all doing what we can. Feed them. Protect them. Use only paper straws, right?” He shows the Screamer cup to the boy. The straw is indeed made of paper.
“Because plastic ones kill whales?” Nick asks in a trembling voice.
“Exactly. And we recycle. And don’t throw garbage on the ground. And we all use the lakes. We get water and electricity. The pelicans live on the damb, where there’s lots of fish. And if they get sick, we are here to help.”
“It’s called symbiosis,” the other boy suddenly announces, and his brother finally smiles.
“So, we are neighbours?” he asks, and Farmer Thorne smiles back and ruffles the boy’s silky curls.
“Yeah, we are neighbours. And we take care of each other.”
“Like when Mum gets groceries for Mrs. Dain next door?”
Farmer Thorne nods, and the boy - again in high spirits - runs away with his brother to see how the pelicans are playing in the fountain in the middle of their pond. The man rises, patting his knee, shaking off sand.
“What?” he asks Etta, who’s staring at him. If he looked like Danny de Vito, she’d be just as loved up with him right now.
She properly needs to say something, or at least look elsewhere, but she’s completely mesmerised; and he takes a step forward and looks down at her. And here he is! So close… The long nose, the fluffy lashes worthy of a romance novel cover, the tanned skin of a cheekbone, bright blue irises, and if Etta moved just a bit closer, she could catch the smell of his skin, warmed up in the hot prairie Sun - and is he actually looking at her lips?
“Uncle John, Nick stepped into goose poop!”
Farmer Thorne blinks - and the magic is gone. That is if there had been magic, and not just Etta’s thirty four year old spinster imagination. He leaves to take care of the goose poop conundrum - it’s everywhere by the way, like walking on a minefield! - and Etta turns away from her companions and stares at the tall white tent of the Shirley Richardson butterfly garden.
While they're waiting for the cab that will take Etta back to her hotel and the boys are hanging on her legs, switching between asking her hundreds of questions, and asking her to come visit them and try their Mum’s peach pie, Etta is avoiding any eye contact with Farmer Thorne.
After promising to the boys that she will try, she says goodbye, receiving two tight hugs - hot, sweaty, and a bit sticky from the sugary treats - and climbs into the car. Farmer Thorne bends down, and before closing the door, he looks directly into her eyes, and mutters, “Have a good one.”
That’s a typical Canadian goodbye. In most cases, Etta finds it very funny. A good one what? She guesses the answer is ‘whatever you’re having.’ Following this logic Farmer Thorne has just wished her to have a good moping marathon, since that’s what she’s planning for herself this evening. She’s planning to take a long bath, with some of her favourite lilacs scented salts and a generous serving of self-pity.
“See you tomorrow, Etta,” he adds, and smacks the door closed. Etta and her shocked facial expression are driving away from the three figures on the sidewalk, two small ones waving to her, one big one standing with his hands stuffed deep into the denim pockets.
The next day, after a touristy morning and a lunch in a cozy Indian restaurant suggested by her guide book, Etta returns to the hotel, takes a shower, and is industriously putting mascara, dressed only in her knickers and bra, when Officer Thorne manifests in the fully lit room. Etta squeals and escapes to the bathroom, her dress - hastily grabbed from the bed - is flailing behind her like a finish line ribbon behind an Olympic champion.
“I beg your pardon, Ms. Ryan. I assure you I have not looked thoroughly!” he calls to her from behind the slammed door, and Etta isn’t sure whether she should be relieved, or insulted. After all, he’s a tall, blue-eyed, and devilishly handsome naval officer. On the other hand, he’s sort of like a Grandpa to her.
That reminds her. She weasels into the dress and plods back.
“Officer Thorne, I have to talk to you about something,” she mumbles, and he gives her a polite smile. “John… I mean, your descendant John told me… That he wasn’t my biological relative.” Thank all gods and deities. The officer is giving her a confused look. “Apparently, his grandfather was… will be… is your son, but not my great grandmother’s. So, I assume you either have fathered an illegitimate child already, or you will. Would have. Will have.” Etta is now so tangled in tenses that she heavily lowers her backside on the bed.
Officer Thorne is wrinkling his attractive high forehead. Clearly, the intellect in the family has accumulated in the generations following Officer Thorne’s. Farmer John had shown much more acumen on everyday basis than this gorgeous specimen.
“I can hardly imagine getting involved in any sort of… dalliances after I meet my Linnet.” There’s an annoying self-righteousness in his tone. Firstly, Etta would like to say ‘never say never.’ People aren’t machines, and life isn’t perfect. Secondly, there’s a possibility that the child had already been conceived. She properly needs to have a look at those letters.
Etta promises the now distraught officer to investigate further, and with a nod he dissolves in the air like sugar in Tim’s coffee.