“She looked young, delicate, still untouched by the filth of life. Who knows what she saw when she looked at me? But I knew she was special.”
I’m not sure how it ended up like this but it wasn’t my fault.
I don’t think so, anyway.
The last thing I remember is holding Billy’s hand at the zoo. He’d just spilled his popcorn everywhere 30 seconds after I’d bought it and, I’ll admit, I didn’t make any attempt to hide how I felt. I may have used a word that only grown-ups should hear. I regretted it afterwards, of course, I’m not a monster, and the wet red face with wails bursting from the hole in the middle definitely filled me with regret about something. Parents and grandparents with their non-crying children stopped what they were doing to stare, gripping each other’s hands a little tighter. Billy’s eyesight always became hyper-alert when he was upset, fuelled by saltwater, and he honed in on the growing audience. His eyes closed, his mouth widened further, and his wails grew loud enough for the wolves to join in. I grabbed him, mostly feeling the smooth polyester of his jacket as I reached to embrace him, and felt a jolt as my jaw banged into the top of his head. His face was squashed into the front of my own jacket, snot and saliva absorbed by the old denim, and his cries muffled, slowed, then stopped.
And now I’m here.
I had taken Billy to the zoo before. He had watched a programme about chimpanzees – a proper one with a narrator, not a cartoon. It had sparked his interest and his mother, a true believer in encouraging children’s interests, had bookmarked “educational” videos online of chimps and bought him lots of books with pictures. After a few beers I asked her if she would also support his interests in stepping on snails and gluing small bits of paper onto larger bits of paper, but she not-very-respectfully declined to answer. I wasn’t too drunk to realise that I probably shouldn’t have said that, especially after the last time I’d commented on her parenting. So I offered to sacrifice the next Saturday afternoon and take Billy to the zoo. She hesitated, although I’m pretty sure it was just to make a point, and then agreed. I knew she would. She was never one to pass up an opportunity to spend time with herself.
Saturday came around quicker than expected and I was regretting my feeble bid for Uncle of the Year before we’d even got there. My mind was sluggish and prickly, the roads were clogged with people desperate to get somewhere else, it took half an hour to reach the front of the queue, and the tickets cost more than I’d spent in the pub the night before. By the time we made it through the gates and Billy had narrowly avoided wetting himself, I was ready to buy an overpriced goggly-eyed toy chimp from the gift shop and just go home. Billy was determined though, in a way only five-year-olds could be, so we followed the signs to the chimp enclosure.
That was the first time I saw her. Lola. She was sitting on a branch, quiet and still, while her family and friends swung and climbed and chattered. Our eyes met. She looked young, delicate, still untouched by the filth of life. Who knows what she saw when she looked at me? But I knew she was special.
glass. She preferred apples over bananas, carrots over cabbage. She sometimes tickled and chased another female, slightly paler than her, but she turned her back on the young males when they approached or threw sticks at her. She moved lightly, precisely, never placing any part of her body anywhere but exactly where she wanted it to be. I took photos and videos on my phone and watched them at home, noting details I’d missed earlier and imagining she was in my dusty one-bedroom flat. I wondered if the other chimps had noticed us. Could they sense our growing bond? I talked to her whenever I could. I told her about Sue and Billy, my never-ending days in the office, my favourite foods and books and my dream of going into space one day. Not once did she laugh. She sat on a flat rock, legs sometimes crossed, head always tilted to the left, and listened. Clearly, she wanted to know about my life as much as I wanted to know about hers. I showed her videos of chimps in the wild and she leaned closer, mouth open, sometimes mimicking their calls. I learned her sign language. Scratching her belly meant she was happy, patting her leg meant she wanted more, and slapping her forehead meant “stop”, although sometimes she teased me and used one gesture when she meant something else. She was so clever.
The zookeepers got used to seeing me and waved. One morning one of them, a young woman with a blonde ponytail, came over and stood next to me.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Debbie.”
“Hi,” I said. “George.”
“Nice to meet you, George. I’ve seen you here a lot.”
“You’re interested in chimps?”
I hesitated, then nodded again.
She smiled, her teeth startlingly white and even. “I thought so. Me too.”
We stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the chimps laze about as birds called in the distance.
“Well, I’ve got to go and give them their breakfast. Wanna come?”
“Yes!” I said. Debbie’s hair shone in the sunlight. I swear there was a faint golden haze above her head.
I wasn’t expecting the uncomfortable smell of overripe fruit and the deep, musky tang that filled the air. Debbie didn’t seem to notice, whistling and busying herself with replenishing the buffet. The chimps were out of sight, still easing into the new day. Debbie shook a bag and brown pellets tumbled into a bowl, mixing with the salad like croutons.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Hmm? Oh, protein pellets. Gotta make sure the little guys have a balanced diet, just like us.”
“I wondered if the other chimps had noticed us. Could they sense our growing bond? I talked to her whenever I could.”
I could see black fur, then an eyebrow ridge, and then there they were, those beautiful brown eyes. I stopped listening to Debbie.
“Lola!” I said.
“Who?” Debbie looked behind her. “Oh, you mean Daisy. Hey, girl, how’s it going?”
Lola looked at her, a disdainful set to her jaw, then walked towards me. She stopped in front of my battered leather shoes and touched the laces. Then she looked up at me.
My legs wobbled as I slowly crouched down, careful not to breathe too hard. I smelled that tang again but it was sweeter, an exotic pink lemonade cocktail. I reached out and gently stroked the top of her head, the wiry hair leaving a light oil on my fingers.
“Careful,” said Debbie. “Chimps bite.”
Lola scratched her belly. I removed my hand and she patted her leg, but Debbie was watching.
“Okay, all done. Let’s go.”
I looked back just before I went through the door. Lola was watching me. She smacked her lips together and hooted softly. Her friend sat down next to her and patted Lola’s back.
The next few visits were more intense. I slowly moved along the fence, testing each section until I found a weak spot against a pole. I took the wire cutters out of my bag, checked that no one was watching, then sliced through the barbed wire near the ground while I pretended to watch the chimps. Lola was watching me from her branch and I beckoned her over with my hand. I sat on my stool, bent the free bit of fence towards me, and slid my hand through the gap up to the wrist. Then I waited.
Lola looked at my hand, at my face, then back at my hand. Slowly, she reached out and touched my palm with one finger. I closed my hand around her finger, feeling the warmth and roughness cocooned by my soft white paw. We sat like this for several minutes, silent, glancing at each other and then looking away. Eventually, Lola’s friend called to her and she withdrew her finger and knuckle-walked away.
From that point on, we met by that spot in the fence. I shared my ham sandwiches and sweet, milky tea with her. She passed me pieces of banana, which I usually put in my bag. I brought her things to explore, mostly toys I snuck out of Billy’s room. She figured out how they worked in no time, faster than Billy, for sure. She liked to show me how intelligent she was, smiling a full-tooth grin and holding the toy aloft when she was finished. Sometimes she felt my sleeve or my watch, then touched her own arm, but I never touched her again.
We didn’t have many meetings at the fence like this before I ended up here. I’ve been lying in this bed, not my own bed, every day. I could move, could explore the building, but I have neither the energy nor the inclination. Food comes on trays three times a day, finger food mostly, and the plates and cups and cutlery are plastic. There is a plastic chain around my wrist with words and numbers. There are white coats, clipboards, soporific voices, pens rubbing against paper. When I close my eyes I am back at the fence with Lola, until the smells of disinfectant and disappointment bring me back.
“Uncle George!” Billy runs into the room and grabs my hand.
“Gently,” says Sue, following him in. “Be gentle.”
“Where am I?” I say, although I have a pretty good idea. “I want to go home.”
“Shh,” says Sue. “You need to stay here for a while. Let the doctors take care of you. Get some rest and get well. Look, I’ve brought you some clothes.” Sue holds up a black sports bag that usually lives at the back of my wardrobe.
“What happened?” I say.
“The chimp jumped and you fell on top of me. But it’s all right now. I didn’t get hurt. I got to ride in an ambulance and it was fun!” Billy smiles at me.
Sue looks at Billy, then at me. “That’s enough, Billy. Let Uncle George get some rest. We’ll visit him again soon.”
Later, when my eyes are closed, I hear Sue’s voice talking to a man’s voice. I make out the words “loner”, “intelligent”, “harmless”, and “infatuation” from Sue. The man’s voice is too quiet for words, but the tone is gentle and reassuring, hot chocolate on a cold evening.
The white coats and earth-toned cardigans want information, their pens and clipboards listening. Tell me about the photos on your phone. Tell me about your journal. Tell me about your interest in chimps. Tell me about the wire cutters in your bag.
I stare at the ceiling, the wall, the floor. The words are safely locked away in my mind. I slap my forehead with the palm of my hand. The pens jump into action.
I piece together what happened. I find an old newspaper, “borrow” someone’s phone and do a search. I see pictures of Lola, of Billy, of the chimp enclosure. I read that Lola started screaming when Billy was crying. She picked up a rock, hit the weak spot in the fence, and squeezed through. She ran towards the back of me while I was absorbed in stopping Billy’s wails. The crowd tried to run away, adults clutching children who were now screaming too, and Lola screamed even louder and bared her teeth. She picked up another rock and ran at them, distracted from her original path. A man slipped, possibly on a puddle of buttered popcorn, and knocked me over, Billy still in my arms. I hit my head on the pavement, Lola was tranquilised, and Billy stopped crying.
A female voice comes in, a white coat scented with gardenias. It’s a new voice, low-pitched, slight foreign accent.
“Where’s Lola?” My voice rasps from lack of use, my lips and tongue struggle to find their positions.
“Who?” says the voice. Rustling. “Oh, the chimpanzee you were studying. She’s in a sanctuary with other chimpanzees. She’ll be well taken care of. They know how to look after chimpanzees that are disturbed.”
I open my eyes and look at the bars on the window. I hear scraping on the floor. The smell of gardenias grows stronger.
“Tell me about Lola.”