Terminal Transit, Book III ‘The Free State of Phoenix’
With the Papal visit rapidly upon us this weekend, I thought I would share the section of Terminal Transit where Dublin’s Phoenix Park is taken over by a group of cosmically-inspired malcontents and declared a free state.
Terminal Transit, Book III ‘The Free State of Phoenix’
It all began with the plumes of black smoke that started to be seen in the vicinity of the zoo, plumes of black smoke bearing pink feathers that caught on the evening breeze and fell gracefully to earth across the puzzled city. A delegation of city officials and armed officers were despatched to investigate and discovered that the zoo was now under the control of an army of squatters, refugees, the homeless, the curious and anyone else who had gained entrance.
‘Welcome to the Free State of Phoenix’ said a badly painted sign on the front gate. ‘Trespassers will be fed to the animals.’ A huge berm had been raised around the perimeter with freight containers and cars stolen from the surrounding car parks used to further strengthen the perimeter. Occupiers armed with a huge array of weapons including shotguns, pistols, crossbows, swords and hunting knives manned the barricades. The road that led to the main entrance was now lined with tour coaches parked end to end on either side with a series of roadblocks leading up the gate. These roadblocks were busy night and day as more and more refugees sough to gain entry to the Free Republic and violence was a regular occurrence as anyone deemed suspicious by the guards would be savagely beaten or shot. The bodies of the dead were shoved beneath the coaches to fill in the gaps.
Mac watched in horror as television images from a traffic helicopter showed the zoo ablaze at night, with huge bonfires roaring upwards and hundreds of people dancing and chanting with an abandon that seemed perfectly in keeping with the times that they were now living in.
It was the domestic animals in the petting farm that were the first to go because people were far more familiar with how to butcher a cow or a sheep than they were a gorilla or lion. Each animal was killed by a spike being driven through its head and then slaughtered the Republic’s team of resident butchers. Huge fire pits were dug in the grounds of the farm and the smell of meat being cook over open flames was noticeable for miles around. In many ways, this initial slaughter was a logical response to the need for a new state to marshal its available resources in order to feed itself but needless to say the national media was up in arms about what it tagged to be ‘an army of militant malingerers callously working its way through your children’s’ favourite petting farm.’ ‘Who are the real animals?’ asked the headlines. All of this outcry belied the fact that the zoo was originally created so that members of the medical profession could get access to primate corpses with having to rob graves. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of Phoenix became a very emotive subject.
An early television interview with the anonymous leader of the occupation revealed to the watching world that the zoo was now a separate state from the rest of the country. The man used the nom de plume Jodocus Meaddowcraft.
‘This country sprang from the loins of a declaration and today is no different from then.’ Jodocus looked into the camera. He wore the skull of a hornbill as a helmet. ‘The time is right for those who care to stand up again and make new choices for themselves and their families.’
‘But what about the animals?’ asked the concerned interviewer looking at the hornbill helmet. ‘What is happening to them?’
‘They are safe with us,’ lied Jodocus. ‘With there being no need for them to be on public display anymore we will put them to good use. They will feed and clothe us and we can trade livestock for other necessities with anyone interested.’
The interviewer was mortified.
‘But you can’t do that,’ he spluttered. ‘These animals belong to all of us. They are not yours to eat and skin.’
‘They are now,’ said Jodocus. ‘There is always blood to be shed in the founding days of any new state and things are no different here. We might call the denizens of this fine zoo casualties of war but I prefer to think that they are to be feted for the sacrifices they are making on behalf of us.’ Jodocus smiled at the camera.
‘Look at my beautiful crown,’ he said. ‘You can’t tell me that the death of a single bird wasn’t worth it for this. I look regal and magnificent.’ Jodocus stopped smiling.
‘Now get you and your cameras out of my sight before I feed you all to the lions.’
Over the coming days endless reports of the ill treatment and slaughter of animals kept appearing on all available news platforms. Armed units of the Garda surrounded the perimeter of the zoo and the stand off began. Mac had always a particular fondness for the zoo, having visited it as a child and then returned to it years later as a graduate student. He spent six months combing local newsletters, pamphlets, footnotes, tracts, brochures, opuscules, bulletins, lexicons, monographs, periodicals, and ecclesiastical circulars for references to the Royal Zoological Society of Dublin. Mac wasn’t particularly interested in the establishing of the society itself in May 1830. He was more interested in the rumour that some of the anatomists who helped found the society, and hence the zoo, were involved in occult practices related to animal sacrifice and saw the zoo as the perfect place to practice their particular predilection.
One anatomist in particular, Aurelius Hamson, had long been surrounded by rumours of depravity and had been thrown out of his local branch of the Hellfire Club as a result of unsubstantiated stories of pelts and bones being found in his lodgings. Everyone knew about the hunting lodge built on the site of a Stone Age tomb but Mac was more interested in another subterranean lodge that had allegedly been built beneath the zoo’s entrance lodge in 1833. Following his banishment, Hamson set up his own breakaway club for evictees like himself and this rumoured lodge was where the members of corpus delecti met regularly.
In 1844 the zoo received its first giraffe but three weeks after its arrival the poor creature vanished overnight and though it could never be confirmed, Hamson and his followers were immediately suspected. In 1897 when preliminary work on Haughton House began, workmen uncovered a partially collapsed tunnel and were stunned to find a small box covered with richly melanised hide containing three cervical vertebrae and an ossicone. Hamson had died penniless and drunk in 1873 and though the box became an object of intense fascination for many people it was never formally connected to the anatomist.
An intense debate began to rage about the Free State of Phoenix. In keeping with the rebellious spirit that underpinned the country’s original constitution, many people saw the zoo’s occupation as a radical response to the intense overcrowding and homelessness on the streets of the city. Previously, buildings standing empty due to bankruptcy had been claimed by activists and used as emergency accommodation for the homeless but these were sporadic and short-lasting acts that could never be properly sustained. Now, the occupation of the entire zoo was a different prospect altogether.
For many other people the Free State of Phoenix represented the collapse of law and order and signalled society’s descent into total chaos. The arrival of the NotBeSpeak had thrown the country into a new kind of socio-political orbit and previous democratic traditions were rapidly disappearing as the innate hucksterism and land-grabbing that lay just beneath the society’s surface began to make its reappearance. It was simple greed that created the climate suitable for the initial incursion from beyond and this greed now began to flow free and fast again like the sewage that ran beneath the streets.
Scheme after scheme after scheme was announced to allegedly tackle the current housing crisis and every available space in the city was soon became a construction site for apartments. All planning permissions and regulations were effectively suspended and the developers who had helped cripple the country previously were now given free reign to have another go. With so many people on the streets manpower was not an issue and, indeed, became the answer to the country’s rapidly rising unemployment figures, and so it was that shoddy, unsafe tower blocks and other unregulated buildings sprang up everywhere, sporing like a new crop of architectural fungus. There was serious money to be made in this new chapter in the city’s history and so the usual speculators and regulators and government officials and non-governmental agencies and bailiffs and tallymen and civil servants and agents and reeves and procurators and middlemen and lobbyists got rich. Once more. Again. Even richer.
On the thirty-fourth day of the zoo’s occupation an interview with one of the zoo’s staff was aired. A young girl had managed to escape by climbing over one of the fences and, visibly shaken by her experience, tearfully told her story live on national television. This is the transcript of the interview as published in all the papers the same day.
‘My name is Eleanor Nolan and I am seventeen years old. I come from Drimnagh and still live at home with my ma and four younger brothers. I left school last year and after months of looking I finally got a part-time job in the zoo’s shop stacking shelves and helping out at the till when things got busy. It isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life but with everything getting more and more expensive the money is handy at home.
It was a Thursday afternoon just as the zoo was closing that I suddenly heard shouting and loud bangs in the street outside. At first I thought it was kids letting of fireworks but when I heard people screaming I realised that it was something more serious. My manager looked really worried and told me to wait in the back room while she went to find out what was going on. I crouched down behind some boxes and heard her speaking to someone over her radio. I heard her shout ‘No’ and ‘You can’t do this!’ I also heard another bang, this time much louder, and my manager screamed. I peeped out the window and saw her on the ground with a pool of blood beside her head. A large group of angry looking men and women were shouting and cheering. I was petrified and crawled inside a stationary cupboard. I heard lots of people run into the shop and start grabbing things. I heard things being hit and broken. Someone came into the room where I was hiding and I thought they were going to kill me. They were snooping around but left in a hurry when someone started shouting. I was so frightened that I wet myself.
I hid in the cupboard all night but I couldn’t get any sleep as all I could hear was shouting and screaming. I could also hear the animals howling and crying. I also heard loads of vehicles outside revving their engines. It was terrifying. I finally found the courage to crawl out of the cupboard and tried the phone on the desk but the line was dead. I crept into the shop and saw that everything had been broken or stolen. The front door was off its hinges and there were loads of people gathered around big bonfires in front of the lake. No one paid me any attention and I started to look around for anyone I knew.
I saw two lads I knew from the maintenance team sitting to one side and went over to join them. One of them had a black eye and the other had a ripped shirt. I smiled but they were too frightened to smile back. We didn’t speak. Just then a crazy looking man wearing a hat made from one of our dead hornbills came down from where the tigers live, dragging another man behind him. ‘A spy,’ he started shouting. ‘A bloody, bastard spy.’ The man being dragged was terrified and was looking around desperately for someone to help him but no one did. We all just sat still and tried not to look. The crazy man forced his victim to kneel down and then pulled a pistol from his belt.
‘On behalf of the Free State of Phoenix,’ yelled the man, ‘I sentence you to death for the crime of treason.’ He put the pistol to the poor man’s head and I heard a bang and then the man fell forward onto his face.
‘The days that followed just got worse and worse and worse. Anyone who wasn’t part of the security team manning the barricades was forced to work during the day. I was lucky. I ended up cleaning the places where everyone lived. It was filthy, dirty work and I hated every minute of it but it was far better than looking after the animals. See, what had happened was that all the keepers and other experts had been killed in the takeover. They had all tried to protect the animals from the intruders but couldn’t fight off the mob and so they were killed. This meant that the animals still needed to be looked after, even if only to feed everyone, but there was no one left qualified to manage them. It was fine with the flamingos and that’s why they were the first to be killed and eaten but gorillas and tigers and elephants are a different thing altogether. In the time I spent there the bigger animals killed six people; two were crushed by the same hippopotamus as they tried to move one of its young, one was strangled by the big silverback and another three were severely mauled by the lions when they went into the Asian Forests section.
The night times were even worse because every evening at ten o’ clock nine prisoners being held in the Reptile House would be forced to fight with the animals.
‘Just like the games of old,’ Jodocus roared. ‘You can win your freedom or die trying.’ The gathered citizens of Phoenix cheered and jeered as the petrified prisoners prepared to meet their fate.
‘Tonight, for your absolute pleasure,’ yelled Jodocus, ‘we present a streak of nine hungry Asian tigers.’ He raised his arms above his head. The crowd fell silent.
‘Prepare the gladiators.’
Each terrified prisoner was handed a litter spike and dustbin lid and one by one were dropped into the enclosure. The tigers pounced straightaway and tore into the first four prisoners, ripping and rending them apart. The next five were lucky in as much as the tigers were preoccupied with their existing catch to begin with as they gorged on the corpses. This gave the rest of the prisoners at least enough time to orient themselves within the enclosure. It wasn’t long before an inquisitive cub whose blood was up began to walk towards the cowering prisoners and started to menace them. To begin with they were able to fend the tiger off with their litter spikes but sensing that one of their young was in danger the rest of the streak advanced on the prisoners. The crowd roared its approval as the tigers attacked again. Jodocus turned to the assembled audience. ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ he began to chant and the crowd followed him.
The prisoners were no match for the blood-frenzied tigers and the screams of agony rang out in the dreadful night. During the melee one badly mauled prisoner managed to drag her wounded self up the nearest tree where she clung precariously for the next forty minutes before her blood loss became too much and she lost her grip and fell onto the ground. The tigers engulfed her with a roar.
The testimony of Eleanor Nolan and the public outcry it caused finally forced the authorities to act and the Army was mobilised. Two battalions from the 2nd Brigade supported by the 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron advanced on the zoo and threw a cordon around it. The country’s media joined them as the battle lines were drawn. To begin with, the Army sent an expert team of negotiators to try and resolve the siege peacefully but fourteen hours of tense discussion were abruptly ended when buckets of dead rare birds were hurled over the fence by impatient occupiers. Jodocus Meaddowcraft smiled at the negotiators.
‘My apologies, everyone. It appears that you have your answer.’
Under cover of two armoured cars, elements of the 2nd Brigade got themselves into position by the old entrance. A fire support team commandeered three of the houses that overlooked the zoo and two sniper units set themselves up with a clear view of the central area. They were ordered to hold fire. Fourteen armoured cars and a bulldozer from the Cavalry Squadron moved up through Phoenix Park and took up a position in the car park. Six mortars were set up behind barricades in front of the Tea Rooms and at 5.48am precisely began to launch 60mm Red Phosphorus mortar rounds over the fence. At the same time the bulldozer ploughed its way through the fencing south of the African Savanna, followed by the armoured cars. The sniper units were told the fire at will and the assault began.
Attacked on all sides at once, the defenders of the Free State initially sought to block the assault by burning the huge piles of tires that they had assembled at key entry points. However, the thick black smoke combined with the smoke rounds and made it impossible for anyone without the proper training and equipment to fight. As the troops advanced and the shots rang out, the defenders resolved to make their last stand on Chimpanzee Island that had been specially fortified for the purpose.
The Free State’s ragtag army was no match for the regular soldiers and their assault weapons and very soon it was only Jodocus and a dozen of his most fanatical followers left to fight for their independence. Despite various entreaties and promises of amnesties the final battle was ended quickly when a salvo of high explosive mortar rounds decimated the defenders. Perhaps angered by the destruction of such an emotive landmark or inspired by the cosmic evil that now clearly permeated all aspects of this island the first units to reach Chimpanzee Island proceeded to violate the bodies of the dead defenders. One of the solders removed Jodocus’s head with their combat knife and placed it on a fencepost.
‘See how you like it!’ shouted the enraged soldier.