The little boy on the aeroplane looks out of his window. ‘I can see our holiday!’ he says. For a moment, I miss my own children. Mournful at not being invited on this 40th birthday trip, they’ve requested a souvenir. I ponder the Jersey new potatoes on sale at the airport, imagining them coated with chives and butter, but I doubt they’re what the children have in mind.
In St Helier, we walk along the esplanade to the bus stop. Blue agapanthus grows liberally on World War II fortifications. If anything can beautify concrete pill boxes, it’s these flowers.
Continuing the theme, the bus has a fake grass floor. An orang-utan swings above the driver’s seat while a kaleidoscope of tropical birds perch in the luggage racks. Birdsong and the call of howler monkeys accompany us on the journey inland. Outside, plump Jersey cows, brown as caramelised sugar, graze in small fields, roadside honesty boxes invite passers-by to have potatoes for dinner again and the garden of almost every house is alive with spikes of yet more agapanthus.
The bus deposits us at our destination: 32 acres of green loveliness celebrating and preserving Gerald Durrell’s “little brown jobs”. Durrell is an unusual zoo, not only because of its exhibits, which tend towards the less glamorous end of the zoological spectrum, but also because of its founder’s aspiration that, one day, it will no longer be needed.
Not all the animals are small. The gorillas aren’t. Everything about them is large, including their smell – like a locker room no-one’s cleaned. Even so, they attract a crowd that would thrill many sports teams.
After lunch, we browse the shop but I can’t see anything beyond the usual soft toys and plastic dinosaurs for the children so we adjourn to the aye-ayes. With their bright orange eyes and strange, elongated fingers – to winkle grubs out of bark – these lemurs are feared as omens of death in their native Madagascar. In Durrell, they’re housed in two mellow stone buildings. A woman shoves through the swinging door. ‘Can’t see anything,’ she says. ‘What’s the point of that?’
Inside, the darkness drops like a sack. It’s almost threatening – or would be without the musky smell and a dim red light I don’t at first notice. Silent, we wait, pressing our noses to the glass. There’s a shuffle and a scuffle, and then an animal with gremlin ears and a tail like a terrified cat’s passes in front of our faces. It’s only a shadow but it’s enough. It’s enough. It’s there.
Out again in the daylight, I spot a wooden collection box with a slot for coins and, beneath, what looks like a pile of sticks. There’s a notice: Bamboo chewed by an aye-aye. £1. It’s just the thing! I pick through the pile and, choice made, wrap two lengths of bamboo in a scarf and drop money into the box. I hope the children appreciate them more than they would the potatoes.