small ceramic hippo in tree knot

How to Gift Hippos and Emulate Becca

It’s hard to put into words what makes my friend Becca so special. Perhaps it’s easier to describe what it’s like to spend time in her company.

Almost instantly, you are infected with her enthusiasm and positivity. The normal you, with your hangups and cynicism, disappears. Somehow, you’re granted permission to be a different, freer version of yourself. You are lighter, happier, more daft – your inclination is to say yes and see what happens.

Since we first met as teenagers, Becca has been the catalyst for many of my favourite, and often silliest, adventures. She has an uncanny ability to take my life on interesting tangents and make the world seem alive with possibilities, if even for an afternoon.

If I’ve done Becca any justice, it should make sense that one day she gifted me nine ceramic hippopotamuses. Wide-jawed, antique, less than a couple of inches in size, a beautiful bloat of hippos. They were not a sludgy grey but a rich brown with bright pink gullets, flirty eyes, undeniably happy, and more than a little cheeky. If you let a hippo sit for a while in your hand, turn it over a few times, you notice how pleasingly heavy and solid it is, and how, after a while, it starts to reflect the warmth of your palm back to you. It feels magical.

hippo close up

The gift wasn’t completely random. Becca knew all about my special zoo. For years, I’ve been rescuing deformed and disfigured animals from charity shop shelves and car boot boxes. Often plastic, frequently hideous, I love and care for these poor twisted freaks because no-one else will. Their oddness brings me joy. I have no doubt that I am in possession of the ugliest pride of plastic lions on the face of the earth. At home, my every movement is watched by devil-red eyes, in every nook dislocated jaws hang horribly in anticipation of my next folly.

China globalisation toy animal manufacture

My malformed menagerie is just one facet of my collecting. In recent years, it has become something of a problem. Quite simply, the house is at capacity. It’s become impossible to ignore the fact that nine near-identical ceramic hippos is too many. After a decade of care and display, I needed to set them free, seizing on this rare impulse to downsize.

Of course, I needed to keep some of the hippos. They were a gift from Becca and part of my zoo and, as such, I felt connected and responsible for them.

nine hippos on side

The first decision was exactly how many to keep. There was something inherently special in the sheer quantity of hippos – it was part of their charm. Nine ceramic hippos is a lot!

I can imagine someone purchasing a single ceramic hippo, or perhaps two – a matching pair for a mantelpiece. Three hippos was stretching it. Nine was borderline insane. No-one was buying nine hippos.

After some deliberation, I decided to keep four – one for each member of our family. It was still a sufficient number of hippos, enough to raise an eyebrow but not enough to force someone to back slowly away.

With that decision made, my thoughts shifted to the other five. What should become of them?

I asked myself, what would Becca do?

It didn’t take long for the perfect opportunity to present itself to me. We’d made plans to visit Willsbridge Mill with pals who just so happened to be mutual friends with Becca. We were going to take our respective kids to the woods, a chance for them to let off steam and for us to blow some of January’s cloying cobwebs away.

five hippos on edge of pond

I knew straight away that I would gift our friends’ two kids a hippo each. It seemed right. That left just three. I wanted fate and randomness to play a role; something that Becca would appreciate.

I decided to task my daughter and the two new hippo owners a mission: find somewhere in the woods to release the hippos.

It didn’t take long.

Two hippos found perfect places to rest awhile until their new owners discovered them. One ended up atop the stone pillar of an ancient stile, the other perched on a fence near to a white paint warning: Horses Loose.

hippo resting on old stile

ceramic hippo on fence

My daughter couldn’t do it though. Deep in her pocket amongst treasures and fluff, she had been squeezing and stroking the hippo. She had felt the magic and a bond had formed.

No tree knot or stone cranny or fern glade was good enough. The rip of separation just too much to bear on a Sunday morning. This hippo’s story wasn’t finished yet.

ceramic hippo riding a pink frisbee

Safely back at home, the hippo was treated to pride of place in her bedroom. Another would need to be set free.

My wife, who just so happens to have enjoyed many adventures with Becca in school and beyond, inherited the mission. She found an ideal spot in St. Andrew’s park, somewhere the hippo could hear kids laughing in the play park, the d ‘n’ b blared by the balloon-huffing teenagers, and the old ladies swapping memories in the cafe.

vintage hippopotamus in park foliage

And so it was that nine became four. If you’re lucky, somewhere near you there’s a little bit of Becca waiting to be discovered.


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Tom Spooner

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