Brit’s claim to be ‘on nodding terms with most of the monkeys’ at Bristol Zoo provides Frank with a Proustian moment of recollection…
For a long time, I used to go to bed early. Often, it was still light as I shut my bedroom door and drew the curtains and buried myself under my blankets. My home-made soundproofing, hundreds of corks glued to the bedroom walls, worked remarkably well, and I treasured the peace and quiet. In the rest of the chalet, the monkeys could do as they pleased. I was safe in my bed, and undisturbed.
Ever since I could remember I had wanted to live surrounded by monkeys. As a tiny tot, I made toy monkeys out of pipe-cleaners and pin-cushions. I begged my parents to buy me a real monkey from a monkey shop, not knowing that there were no such shops in our Alpine fastness. As an evil nine-year-old, I planned to abduct a monkey or two from a zoo, but I was an inept little criminal and won myself only a fortnight in a Blunkett Camp For Miscreant Hobbledehoys. During a fractious adolescence I was diverted by brandy and floozies and high-tar Peruvian cigarettes, and it was only when I gained my majority and was installed in my own chalet courtesy of a wealthy uncle that my monkey mania reasserted itself.
Uncle Arpad was himself fond of monkeys, though not, as in my case, to the point of unreason. He had made his fortune in the windmill and plankton trades, and had retired to a chalet just up the mountain from the one he bought for me. Every day, I took the funicular railway up to visit him for breakfast, and over a dish of brisket and jugged partridge he told stories of his past, and of other people’s pasts, and of invented pasts, and he invariably ended these sometimes tedious monologues by encouraging me to live my dreams. He was, I think, a bitter man who regretted that he had devoted his life to windmills and plankton, and he wanted better for me. Descending the mountain after breakfast each day, tramping slowly in my snowshoes, I had time to ponder what I really wanted in life, and I knew in the very depths of my soul that my greatest desire was to live surrounded by monkeys.
Sometimes I carried on down the mountain past my own chalet until I reached the village in the foothills, where I called in to the Blue Bat tavern for a chat with Popsie Von Straubenzee. Popsie was one of the floozies I had dallied with in my debauched teenage years, and now she was older and wiser and ran a stamp collecting club in one of the mountain’s many sanatoria, where weaklings lay slowly perishing on balconies. These days, my tipple was aerated lettucewater, but Popsie could still knock back the brandy like a rough tough matelot, and she did so, day in day out, seemingly with no ill effects. It was to Popsie that I confided my dreams and desires, and it was Popsie who helped them come true.
She, too, had a wealthy uncle, also called Arpad, and he was a monkey hunter. All I had to do, she explained, was to tell her how many monkeys I wanted, of what types, and she would arrange for Uncle Arpad to hunt them down, stun them with darts, put them into comas and into crates, and have them delivered to my door. And it would not cost me a penny, she added, because Uncle Arpad liked nothing better than monkey hunting, he hunted monkeys with childish glee, and he was both generous and unhinged.
So I drew up a list and gave it to Popsie, and one bright March morning the skiing post office person bashed his tippy stick on my chalet door and I opened it to find several crates containing sleeping monkeys, addressed to me. Popsie’s Uncle Arpad was as good as his word.
I had grown used to living alone, the silence broken only by an occasional yodelling wayfarer or an avalanche. And so, for some weeks, things continued, for each of my monkeys had been placed into an induced coma for the long journey from their jungle domains, and I had absolutely no idea how to snap them out of it. On one of my post-breakfast trips to the Blue Bat I asked Popsie to find out from her uncle how to awaken my monkeys, but she told me, with tears in her eyes, that Arpad had been blown to bits in the Hindenburg airship disaster. I went up to the counter to buy her another brandy to comfort her, and while I waited to be served, I browsed through a copy of the Readers’ Digest that someone had discarded. How fortunate that I did so! For there, in between articles such as “I Am John’s Ear” and “Forty Years Of Hell In A Bauxite Mine” was a piece entitled “Six Easy Steps To Awaken A Monkey From A Medically Induced Coma”. I tore the pages out of the magazine, got Popsie her brandy, kissed her goodbye, and, too impatient to wait for the funicular railway, clambered panting up the mountain to my chalet and my sleeping monkeys.
There were six simple steps, and I had six monkeys. Even before the crates were delivered, I had chosen names for them. My other great enthusiasm, apart from monkeys, was the Merovingian kings, so the squirrel monkey was called Clovis, the two howler monkeys were Dagobert and Clotaire, the owl monkey was Pepin The Middle, the capuchin was Theuderic, and the spider monkey was Guntram. I followed the instructions in the Readers’ Digest with the utmost diligence, disinfecting my pliers, rinsing out the retort with boiling hot soapy water, and even donning a white lab coat to give myself an air of boffinhood. In truth, I did not actually have a lab coat, so I stitched together a couple of Popsie’s capes that I found in my wardrobe and steeped them in bleach.
One by one, my monkeys woke from their slumbers and began to caper about the chalet. They were excessively rowdy, quite uncontrollable, and fantastically destructive. Shortly afterwards, I glued hundreds of corks to my bedroom wall, and began to go to bed early. My monkeys have never stopped their antics. I love them so.