The animals are running for their lives. The back door has led them through the kitchen into the catacombs of London. Nothing can stop them. There is a persistent smell of death in the air (although there is no denying the possibility that the unbearable odour of the sewers might be the true cause). A gazelle is leading the pack with a flashlight clamped between its horns. Lush is bringing up the rear, half-running, half-stumbling, trying to get his breathing under control. A frightened lemur clings to his shoulder. Lush tries to recall the last time he tried to run this fast. “It must have been during the most recent Turndown & Asshair sale, when I heard that they were almost out of lilac ties.” Olivier jogs next to Lush lightly, the tommy gun (Lush hopes the safety is on) slung over his shoulder, doing his best not to overtake him. “Take a right at the next intersection!”, orders our ocelot hero sharply. From his position at the back of the peloton, Lush can only just see a ray of light take a right turn. He hears a loud crash and someone rather sheepishly (although unmistakeably gazelle-ishly) shout “Door is open!”.
As Lush reaches the intersection, the lemur slides down his arm and runs for the door. “Thanks for the ride, chief”. Olivier holds the door for Lush. Lush stops, completely out of breath, and, after steadying himself against an indescribably disgusting wall, dares to take a peek inside. To his surprise, all of the animals are already sitting in a large circle of chairs around a billiards table. The room is filled with an air of excitement and expectation that Lush recognises from old films (although not from his own sex life). Olivier jumps up onto the felt and begins setting up the balls. As soon as Lush enters the room, four leopards close the door and barricade it with every piece of furniture not currently in use. Suddenly, Lush is full of a nameless dread.
After a few seconds, his emotions get the better of him and he screams: “Will someone please tell me what is going on?!” All eyes turn to Olivier. He sighs, asks for a cigarette, and lights it with his Funhill in an inimitably slow and deliberate manner. He takes a deep drag and begins blowing smoke rings. He straightens his officer’s cap. “Lush, Big L, Lushmeister… I have not, strictly speaking, been entirely honest with you. I had hoped we wouldn’t have to have this conversation quite yet, but circumstances have forced my hand. There is a game afoot. A game of life and death. If you play, we may live. If you don’t, we die.” Lush is confused and feels betrayed somehow. Just as his frustration begins to get the better of him, Kiki puts a hoof on his shoulder. “Come on, Big L, look at the big picture.” Lush considers his situation. He has neither the experience nor the courage for this. He takes a deep breath and, gathering all of his strength, says “If everyone agrees to stop making up nicknames for me, I’ll help.” The animals give this some thought, then begin to clap in unison. “What do you mean by a game, though?” “Billiards. It helps me think.” Kuku whispers: “I play next”, before being shushed by her sister.
Two leopards hand Lush and Olivier their implements. Both begin to gently chalk the tips of their inexplicably pink cues. Olivier stands on his hind legs on the edge of the table and breaks, immediately sinking three or four balls. He taps his ashes into a small crystal ash tray before setting up his next shot. He, inevitably, sinks another ball. “Who or what are you?”, asks Lush in astonishment. “I am not who you think I am.” “And, what in the name of the Lord does that mean?” Olivier picks up his cigarette while potting another ball with his other hand and says, “At this point, I’m a rebel, a runaway. However, I was supposed to be something else. I worked for the forces of evil. I was a soldier, but I deserted.” Lush cannot believe his human ears. Of all the questions whirling around in his head, the only one that he manages to vocalise is “Were you also one of Mahto’s animals?” Olivier falls silent, pretending to concentrate on his next shot. “It was horrible. I don’t even know exactly what they were training us for. Maybe I was only an experiment. Maybe they wanted to use me to breed. I simply don’t know.”
He pockets another ball. “I just about managed to survive. Some of my best friends were not so lucky. They were shot in front of me because they couldn’t handle the tasks. I apologise, but I cannot go on. I try not to think too much about those times.” Flavio Flamingo flies over and offers him a sip from his hip flask. “I broke out in the middle of the night. I was chased by humans, animals, everything in between… Somehow, I managed to escape. After a few days on the run, I determined that blending in would be the safest option for me. I ingratiated myself with the first person that seemed kind; that lady you met in Soho. I put on a leash and gave up my freedom. The only thing I could do to escape this fresh hell was to start drinking.” As he says this, he pots another ball, much to the delight of the audience. Tears are streaming down Lush’s cheeks (only partially because he is losing). He has never seen his friend like this before. So sad, so vulnerable. “Helps us, Lush. You’re our only hope!” “But how can I help you?” “We can train you and you’ll free us.”
Olivier pots another ball. Lush still hasn’t had a single turn. Olivier sets up for the eight ball, then, deciding against it, turns to Lush and hands him his cat-sized cue. “Are you with us?” Lush takes it, breathes, aims briefly, and (much to his own surprise) sinks the eight ball. “Of course, Lil’ O. Anything for you. Now, how about another game?” As Kuku begins to protest, Kiki wrestles her to the ground. Lush doesn’t seem to notice. “Oh, and what about a cigarette?” MM/DC