“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.