HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

HC 22014

Ruth Corkill has given us a hugely affecting story that explores friendship, and the nature of how that friendship can move and grow and then subside again, once faced with the ultimate odds.


When Monkey was very small and lean and tan she lived in a large-lawned house where there were always aunts and friends and foreigners who came to visit her. Everybody loved Monkey, she was uniformly adored and clambered confidently onto laps helped by gentle hands. I, eleven, was not very interesting. She liked my friend Michael Parker who was bold enough to chase her and make her squeal. Conversations about the threat of the Euro evaporated when Monkey entered the room. My mother shushed me when Monkey began to speak.
When Monkey was four she developed a slight frown and sudden frustrated tears. She identified the paediatrician as being a witch, whispering conspiratorially that she wouldn’t tell anyone. Needles left Monkey in a trust-betrayed but silent huff. She was resistant to sleep, lying listless under the cotton blanket for hours staring at her mother as her hair was stroked.
Monkey grew up and came to find me, found an excuse to take summer school at my university. I was enjoying my last reprieve before submerging myself in a doctorate. I helped her find an apartment back and forth across email. When she arrived she surveyed the tiny kitchen with its tarnished sink and the large desk in the bay window with delight.
We went to a bar and got each other drunk. Michael, who had become tall and charismatic, told her about his whirlwind romances. She laughed and explained that the Russian Oligarchy had effectively been destroyed after Putin had taken the recession as an opportunity to consolidate his power. She talked with strange incessant gestures, tracing out her own phrases with long pallid hands.
Monkey had always loved hands. She took other people’s hands impulsively. As a toddler she would remove rings and watches, maybe play with them a little. The neat mechanical fit of the clasp on her uncle’s metal-link watch strap, heavy and satisfying, the watch itself lain firmly across her thin thigh. People gave her their hands willingly. Her fluffy hair hung forward as she measured her hand against theirs.
Some American guy in the bar gave an enraged drunken ramble against Kanye wearing the confederate flag in a music video. I was short sightly drunk at this stage; I don’t remember what I rambled about. I lost focus and said I was going out for a smoke. Monkey demanded that I walk her down to the river and then to her apartment. Come away she said, Americans don’t like it when you bring up genocide and slavery. I said, what are you talking about? They love it. Everybody loves it.
Our hands came together so easily in the warm night. She was buoyant and walking along with quick careless movements saying oh remember Peter when. Wouldn’t you rather get with Michael? I asked and she laughed. Our mouths and bodies together by the river till we noticed that people were still wandering along the path occasionally even this late. It’s the heat during the day, Monkey said.
Let’s put this back on I said, dressing her like a child.
Let me take you home, I’ll show you things.
I was drowned in the whiskey and her. I promised I’d drive her home in the morning.
That night we only shared a bed and our sedation. Although she woke several times, murmuring and twisting her hips saying God I can’t sleep for the smell of you. In the morning she woke reluctant me up and went down on me like a kid going after an ice cream. Memphis meltdown adds work for a reason as Monkey would say. She clambered over me. Sharp eyes glancing at me, clever monkey hands working. And then her mouth again. Her warm soft and excruciating mouth. I tried to touch her too but she stopped to shake her head impatiently. We only have time for you. I had to get her to class on time. I’m sorry I said. I just want to fuck you so badly.
The following night we had wine in my grotty kitchen. She told me that when she had started at university she had taken her new and expensive calculus text book to show her grandmother. Babushka had held the heavy thing in her lap, reading though each page of indecipherable symbols and diagrams. They sat in the little hospital room with the magnolia through the window for the whole of Monkey’s lunch break. I said it was a good story. Monkey nodded. Hereditary illnesses are good she said. You get a grandmother who knows what you’re talking about. We moved together, undressed, tasted our skin, I tasted her soft belly and the concave slope between her cutting hips, licked the ribbed length of her chest and the impossible bulging breasts that had ripened on her emaciated frame.
Peter, I haven’t been this far with anyone. I stopped.
You mean you’ve never had sex? She nodded.
Why? Because you deserve more. You should be in love. You should be loved. She said that was her decision to make. We struggled over each other in the bed, me continually trying to pull away but unable to stop caressing. Look she said ‘’I’m under no illusions.’’ I went to the bathroom and ripped open a condom. She was stiff and breathing shallow, said it was almost too much and then we rolled together. I tried to give her every angle of pleasure but came too early. We sat entwined with our heads on each other’s shoulders like yin and yang. I’m sorry kid. I walked her home and she was buzzing along the footpath, talking happily. Asked me to carry her bag and said ‘’oh you poor guilty little boy’’ and was right.

I remember what a pain she used to be on holiday. How everyone had to stop so that she could eat or sit in the shade. Japanese tourists took photos of her in public places, especially church squares or by fountains. At the zoo in Rome we saw a troupe of capuchin monkeys. The keeper was doing a feeding, telling us how every member of the group takes responsibility for the infants. They keep the juveniles in their place with nips while the baby monkey steels the pulp from their auntie’s dark little hand. I’m a baby monkey said Monkey. My mother thought that was the funniest thing she had ever heard. My mother was the one who made sure the nickname stuck.
We had three months together in that hot abandoned student town. Monkey was driven by a madness that drained the strength from her arms. She lost weight. Once I picked her up from the clinic, her arms all bruised from tubes, and took her to bed. It’s my cubital fossa she said. Monkey trying to kiss me, sitting up and grabbing at me, then falling back down against my shoulder saying ‘’I’m just so tired’’. I could feel the hunger radiating from her aching worn out little body, our desperate slow kisses that she could hardly raise her head for. I’m sorry kid. So I held her head in my hands and kissed her structured face, her slender neck with its rash of burst blood vessels, I kissed her collar bones and her inflamed and aching breast bone and ribs. Monkey looked as though she might cry.
But she didn’t because she never does and as she says, there is nothing beautiful or tragic about sick people. Those movies never show the clammy blemished skin or the grizzly frustration. They don’t show you mounting your lover and then resignedly rolling onto your back when you can’t get any momentum. They don’t show night after night of dissatisfied fidgeting about in bed, trying to listen to music at 3am to distract yourself from the crushing and wrenching of your limbs. They don’t show the mouth ulcers. It wasn’t a beautiful thing. And of course, there was the fact that it was never going to kill her. She wouldn’t smile, stroke my cheek and close her eyes forever oh my poor sweet Monkey.
My mother was always buying primate themed gifts for Monkey. Whenever we went away, even for a weekend, she had to buy a plush toy or a magnet or a pencil case. Monkey must have a room somewhere filled with monkeys. Before every birthday and Christmas I’d be dragged over to the girls section in Paul Frank and asked what colour I thought Monkey would like. Then my mother would argue with me about it. Invariably she would see something else in the shop Monkey would probably like as well. My mother didn’t have a daughter. There had never been a child as brave and delightful as Monkey.
When Monkey moved into her apartment I was supposed to take her to Wal-Mart. I showed up and wandered into the bedroom with her trailing, pulled her into me, ploughed her relentlessly on the naked mattress and then went home to work. There was nothing in her house. She texted to ask if I could bring her a blanket. After dark I arrived, peering over the worn quilt bulging in my arms. We touched each other until we were drenched with wet breathlessness and I thought I would burst. Monkey had me take her from behind, her arms braced against the headboard. At 2am we drove to Wall-Mart. She wasn’t particularly impressed. Monkey hated shopping. Monkey choosing a slice of pizza in the dim eatery. I’m not really supposed to eat pizza she said. But I’m going to because it’s amazing.
She had hallucinations of music. And lines from movies being said over and over again. And once she thought cicadas were dropping down onto our headboard and dying their rattling deaths like they did in the conservatory at her family’s summer house.
Monkey swinging back and forth in the funny plastic swing seat on her porch. I put out my cigarette and went to sit next to her.he shifted her silky legs obligingly and then rested them back on my lap. What are you thinking?’’ I asked her. On good days like that we fucked ourselves blind.
If it had been up to her we would have seen each other every day. But I was busy living my life. I had my work and my friends. I knew that I didn’t love her. And that thought berated me, followed me around the streets like a long coated old man smoking endless cigarettes and never saying anything. You’re perfect all over she said. I could feel her writhing inside me, making little bites and scratches. When she took my face in her hands I held her hollow fluttering ribcage and knew that I could crush her like a fortune cookie. I was always saying I’m sorry kid. ‘’I don’t know about that’’ she said. Sometimes it makes me think of Humphrey Bogart and sometimes The Reader . Summer was always a good time for monkey and she did well in her course.

That little always adored girl fondling my big hand in hers. Thinking my silences and absences were about her. I tell you, she had an ego. She thought everything she said was enchanting and worth taking down. She tolerated my neglect knowingly. She just bobbed along to Cole Porter in her kitchen, struggling with her clumsy hands that wouldn’t grasp the peeler or pop open the jars. Monkey, the long suffering shape changing witch. She was untouchable. ‘’I’m always smoking near you’’ I said guiltily. Monkey looked irritated. ‘’That hardly matters. You taste like cigarettes anyway, ‘’ my cigarette smoke drifting over her in a fine lethargic cloud. Monkey’s hollow cough, Monkey waving away my concerns.
Baby Monkey stealing my too-big Ray-Bans. Monkey with white tendrils of ice cream dripping to her elbow. Monkey in an ill-fitting shuffling school play. Monkey’s arm slithering across the dank mattress to touch me. Monkey wearing glitter lip gloss. Monkey cackling in the car next to me when I stole it on my learners licence. Monkey jolting on the other end of a seesaw. Monkey at New Years when Michael Parker and I went off through the midge speckled evening to the park to mess about, and left her behind swallowing and smiling, shrugging casually when my father asked where I had gone. Monkey naked on the bed laughing. Monkey lying limply while I fetch toilet paper to wipe my cum from her pelvis. Monkey’s breath on my eyelids, kissing my hair, arching her back to me. Monkey riding her tricycle off the end of my parent’s patio and the whole dinner party lurching into fear for one sickening, unifying moment. Monkey standing up and laughing at us.
I moved to my new town with a few weeks to spare. Near my new place was a park with green iron fences that didn’t let bicycles through. It was pretty scungy but it was a good place to jog and see joggers, with their curved flesh held taunt by tight athletic fabric, long gleaming brush strokes of hair swinging side to side or beating absentmindedly against their shoulder blades. Their movements were easy, smooth and repetitive. Pumping their way along the gravel. I saw a woman there and met her later in a bar. She worked in admin at the school of chemistry. I told her that I thought the American economy was relatively stable and that that was no small thing. There was no Northern League or DPP before the recession. I asked her if she had read any Zora Neale Hurston. She hadn’t. In a way I was relieved because I wasn’t too sure where that line of thought linked up to anything.
There was an awful cemetery that I had to walk past to get to work. The really tacky kind with shiny slabs of granite and plastic flowers and little flags. Some of the gravestones even had photos stuck on the front. Not much of a memorial if in ten years the plastic is bleached, the varnish is chipped and the photo is peeling. There were angels in that cemetery that the concrete or plaster was breaking off in chunks. I don’t know why, because her mother would never do this, but I thought about Monkey being buried in that place. With some stupid novelty grave stone. I bet every nurse she ever made laugh would visit it. But I wouldn’t know where it was, and I wouldn’t want to ask in the office. Because of course, Monkey would be written in inverted commas under the photograph, but she would be in the register under her legal name. And I, worrying with the buttons of my long coat, wouldn’t be able to remember what her other name was, and they would look at me like I was insane and it would be no good saying you don’t understand. She was called Monkey.