The Woman who slept with a Monkey
Barbara Lorna Hudson
Where do we come from and where are we going? – our Quaker discussion group was never afraid to tackle the Big Questions. But taking on evolution and the life after death in a single two-hour session (including a comfort and coffee break) did seem over-ambitious, even to me.
Sitting next to me was a stout woman with faded red hair streaked with grey, at least ten years older than anyone else in the room. She seemed shy – overawed, perhaps, for we were an assertive, articulate lot, perhaps as a reaction to all the long silences during the Quaker meeting that preceded our discussion. After someone mentioned a recent wildlife documentary, the red-haired woman made a tentative contribution: “I once met David Attenborough. I had come to clean his office…”
Everyone looked at her expectantly. She flushed. “At the time I’m afraid I didn’t realise how important he was, but I’d seen him on the telly. And I knew he was a wildlife expert, so I asked him for some information. But he just said, “Why don’t you write to me?” and when I did, I’m afraid he didn’t reply. I expect he was too busy.”
Nobody troubled to enquire what she had asked David Attenborough about and I felt sorry for her because she obviously thought she had a big story and it had cost her a great deal to speak out.
The discussion continued and changed direction. What should be done with our bodies after death? Some favoured traditional burial; some urged ‘green’ burial in woodland; others wanted to be cremated and scattered about the place. There were even advocates of burial at sea and of exposure on a tower of silence to the ministrations of vultures. A few, like me, simply didn’t care, but we joined in just as loudly as those who did care. My neighbour tried once to say something, but someone else talked over her.
“I’m Charles Barton,” I said afterwards. “I think you’re a new member?”
“I’m not really a member. I came because the topic interests me. Discussion groups aren’t my thing – I either get tongue-tied or all muddled up. My name’s Jenny Jones.”
Since she lived in my part of London, I offered her a lift. I wanted to make her feel a bit more welcome and, besides, I was a proud new driver, and the owner of a red second-hand Mini Cooper; at that age I enjoyed giving people lifts.
Away from the large group, Mrs Jones became more talkative. “Myself, I’d prefer to be cremated,” she began. “But I do want a headstone. Will they let you have one just for ashes?”
“Oh, anybody can have a headstone,” I replied, though I really didn’t know. I was aiming for an academic career and in those days I thought one ought never to admit to ignorance. “Forgive my asking – why is a headstone important to you?”
“I’ve found a stonemason who could do a carving of an orang-utan for my headstone. I’ve priced it and everything and I want to put it in my will.”
I jerked my head round. “Why a carving of an orang-utan?” She must be some kind of nutter.
“Please do tell me.” I was hoping that at least she would provide me with a humorous story to tell my mates at college.
“I’ve had a thing about them pretty well all my life. I think it began with a monkey I slept with when I was young.”
The Mini Cooper swerved. I wasn’t used to such confidences from an older lady, especially on first acquaintance. I glanced at Mrs Jones. She looked deadly serious, and not at all embarrassed. She was dressed like my mother – discreet, old-fashioned skirt and jacket, sensible shoes. Nothing to suggest – well, what exactly? Surely not…
“How do you mean – you slept with a monkey?” Only animal behaviourists out in the wild would have the opportunity for that. And then it would only be ‘sleep’ in the sense of ‘take one’s rest’. I took my eyes off the road and glanced at her again.
“Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. Oh dear, I keep saying the wrong thing. I just mean I used to take my stuffed toy monkey to bed.”
I was disappointed; not much of a story there. “And after you grew up?”
“I came across a photo of an orang-utan in a magazine and I sort of fell in love; he – I think it was a he – looked so very like my little stuffed Bimbo. I visit them at the Zoo whenever I can, and collect pictures of them. It’s my dream to go and see them in the wild, but I’ll have to win the lottery for that.”
“Was it orang-utans you asked David Attenborough about?”
“Yes, how did you guess? I enquired if he had any contact with orang-utans. But immediately I’d posted my letter to him I realised I had expressed it badly. What I meant to say was, did he know any experts on orang-utans? Anyway, that came to nothing.”
I tried to keep sarcasm out of my voice. “What a pity! You must have been dreadfully disappointed.” David Attenborough probably couldn’t think how to respond, I thought. Poor man! he probably gets sackloads of loony letters every day.
“I don’t really understand evolution,” she went on. “But they say we’re descended from the apes, don’t they? And all this new stuff about genes and DNA – we didn’t do it at school. Will scientists really be able to prove that people are fifty per cent the same as apes?”
“Or fifty per cent the same as bananas – or rhubarb,” I replied in my superior ‘I’m a science graduate’ voice.
“Surely that can’t be right? People don’t look at all like bananas or rhubarb. And nor do apes.”
Jenny turned away, and I realised I’d hurt her feelings. But before I could apologise or try to explain, she continued, speaking fast and sounding emotional. “I look into their eyes and they look into mine and I just know we’re family. I believe I’ve got more of their DNA than other people. A sort of spiritual bond. I’m proud of it. I think they’re better than us and…”
“But would they share their dinner with you?” This was my stock question when people got too anthropomorphic for my liking.
“Of course they would.”
That was me told. Becoming impatient, I tried to take our conversation in a different direction. “Have you a family?”
“I’m divorced. I’ve two daughters, and three grandchildren. I adore them all, but I must admit I have a favourite: my daughter Coral’s baby. Coral and Rufus have lived with me since the father ran off with a floozy he met in the King’s Arms. Rufus is bright as a button, and so cute! Lovely auburn hair, a squashed little nose, and a big forehead like in that famous picture of William Shakespeare. He looks just like a baby orang-utan. Not Shakespeare – Rufus, I mean.”
“Does Rufus’ mother share your opinion of him?”
“Oh yes, but she has no interest in orang-utans and I’m afraid she keeps calling the poor mite an ugly little b–. But I’m going to make sure he has the best of everything. I’m saving up for school fees. He’ll be the first of our family to go to a private school and you never know – perhaps he’ll get into Oxford or Cambridge. And if his mother doesn’t love him enough, I’ll always be there to make up for it.”
We reached her street in a run-down council estate somewhere between Southwark and Greenwich, and I dropped her off. I waited till she was safely inside the block of graffiti-covered flats.
I never saw Jenny Jones again. The memory of that unusual conversation made me chuckle, and I enjoyed repeating it in the students’ bar. I did not appreciate Jenny’s devotion to the ill-favoured, fatherless baby, nor did I take seriously her ambitions for poor little Rufus; I felt these details made my story even funnier.
That was forty years ago.
Although I’ve been a Green Party member for many years, I’m thinking of voting Labour in the General Election because I can’t help admiring our Prime Minister. It’s true, his looks are against him: his hair is a peculiar reddish-brown, and he has a large head, deep-set eyes, long arms and short legs. But what really matters is that he’s concerned about poor people, single-parent families and animal welfare. He doesn’t seem to mind being dubbed the Ugliest Prime Minister in Europe.
There’s a photo of the Prime Minister on the front page of today’s Independent. He’s laying flowers at his beloved grandmother’s grave. (Those insensitive paparazzi will follow him anywhere). The headstone is in shot. Carved upon it is an orang-utan.
I loved this story. So poignant and beautifully told, engaging with a hugely satisfying ending.