When I finally plucked up the courage to tell my father I was going to view a house in Margate, he rolled his eyes in that condescending way of his and shook his head.
“I’m warning you,” he said, pointing his cautionary finger stump at me, “nothing good will come of it. You’ll be selling yourself for crack by the end of the year, or worse.” His eyes widened in admonition. “You’ll be a soya-swigging self-professing artist with a one-eyed rescue cat and a lifetime subscription to the Guardian.” He shuddered.
I stifled a laugh with the most deferential cough I could muster. It was just like my father. He had been disappointed enough when I’d chosen to work in the charity sector instead of going to Cambridge to study law. But at least there was the scent of altruistic smugness to be gained from it. This though? It was probably the second worst disappointment I’d ever given him. I could almost see the cogs going around in his head. What would become of me if I moved to the other end of the county where I no longer had his corrective oversight to hinder my more “unrefined” impulses? Supposing it were discovered that I had been shopping in bargain stores or using public transport? He wouldn’t dare show his face at the polo club ever again.
“Look,” I asserted as collectedly as I could, “if you think about it logically, you’ll know there’s no real danger I could ever come to that.”
He jutted out his large front teeth and folded his arms. “You’ve always been mortifyingly impressionable by the more vulgar classes Tabitha. That’s why you dole out tinned apricots to wastrels instead of taking the bar. So, explain to me how I can rest assured that this…situation… isn’t going to ruin you for good.”
“Well,” I replied, “I look too much like a horse to ever make enough money selling my body to support anything more expensive that a moderately respectable addiction to alcohol, and I’m allergic to soy if you recall, so there really is no need to worry.”
He glowered at me, clearly unamused. “I do wish you wouldn’t be so bumptious, Tabitha. You know how it upsets me.”
I managed to force a filial smile. “In all seriousness I have given this a lot of thought. It would save me over an hour in travel time every day and the house prices are very reasonable. There’s a high-speed train to London, beautiful beaches and the economy is up and coming. What’s not to like?”
His answer was more akin to a growl than an intelligible response.
“If it makes you feel better there is another house that I’d like to view,” I said tentatively.
He gave a sigh of acquiescence. “If you have set your heart on moving out of my loving home,” he grumbled, “I suppose there is nothing I can do to stop you, though I can’t help but think you are being somewhat rash. Could you not wait until you are a little more mature?”
“I’m thirty-eight, father.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “Yes, yes, and I suppose you consider that quite grown up, don’t you? Well if you must move away, I assume that you will be viewing the house my brother Edwin mentioned in Tunbridge Wells?”
“Oh,” I stuttered. “No. No, I’m afraid that one was much too expensive…and not really any closer to my work either. No, the other house I’m viewing is in…” I swallowed, “…Ramsgate.”
He sat up stiffly and shot me a wide-eyed look of what I can only describe as utter terror. “No! Oh no, you can’t!”
I had feared a response like this. My estranged uncle Brian lived in Ramsgate – my late mother’s less privileged half-brother. He was a rough voiced labourer in a plastic factory and always had to be fobbed off when there was a family function of any significance. I was about to protest against his snobbery when his next ejaculation threw me entirely off guard.
“The monkeys! The monkeys! Oh the horror!” Then he leapt out of his chair with an agility I had no idea he possessed and ran out of the room with a blood-curdling scream.
For a moment I stood in a stunned stupor, wondering what I had just witnessed. Then it came to me. This had all been too much for the old sod. I’d finally driven him into a full-blown mental breakdown. I hastened upstairs to find him quivering in his bed with his head buried beneath the mound of velvet cushions.
He lay shaking like he’d accidentally swallowed his jewel encrusted Arist-O-Matic toothbrush.
“Father?” I pulled off the cushions and his eyes were wide and vacant. He made no response to my attempts to help, except to cry out intermittently, “the monkeys!”
I called an ambulance.
I have to say that the emergency service workers were wonderful. They were very kind and patient with him, and after some deliberation decided to take him to a specialised unit where he would be well cared for.
He was sent home after six weeks with the strictest instructions that no one was to mention the town of Ramsgate or any kind of non-humanoid primates in his presence for at least six months. Fortunately, by that time I was too far away to cause him any more trouble. After some deliberation I decided to leave a note to say that I was taking some time to travel before settling down. He didn’t need to know where I was – not yet at least.
The house in Ramsgate was beautiful and the instant I saw it I knew that it was the one. It was like a dream – a beautiful Victorian house with a large garden and a public park and nature garden just over the road, and it was ready to be moved into as soon as the papers were signed. I must confess that I felt bad leaving my father at a time when he was so fragile, but my sister Beatrice assured me that I had done quite enough, and that she would take it from there. So I took her at her word and I went.
On arriving at my new home, I quickly made acquaintance with my sexagenarian next-door neighbours. The husband, John, was a retired solicitor who had worked in Hampstead before they chose to take their retirement on the coastal town where they had honeymooned forty years previously. The wife, Millicent, had been the CEO of the company he had worked for. If my father had been in better health, I would have enjoyed parrying his pomposity with this nugget of information, but alas it was not to be. He was never to know, as it turned out.
The house was everything I could have hoped for and more. It was very stylishly finished and needed no work before I could move in. I had a guest bedroom for Beatrice, if she ever condescended to visit me, and another for her son Theodore. I didn’t delude myself that my father would ever see it in person, but it would be pleasant to have my sister to stay occasionally – as long as she did not stay too long, of course.
There was one thing, however, that threw me off balance. It turned out that the previous owners, despite cleaning the house immaculately before the move, seemed to have forgotten one single item. It was an ornament, about the size of my outstretched hand, that sat on the mantle above the open fireplace. I noticed it as soon as I entered the room, and I must say it gave me an infernal fright. There, as though mocking me, were three grinning monkeys, one covering its eyes, one its ears and one its mouth. Much as I was otherwise pleased with my new situation, I must admit that I needed a stiff glass of port to settle my nerves that night.
The commute the next morning only took me half an hour, instead of the hour and fifteen it had taken from my father’s estate. My colleges were excited to hear about my new house, and I promised to invite them to a house-warming party in the near future. There was something refreshing about being able to do that. I could never have invited any of these people to my father’s house. He would probably have keeled over and died of shock.
That evening as I considered these things, I took a stroll along the seafront and admired the beauty of my new surroundings. It was strange to think that my father had had such a strong reaction against this place. As I sat on the beach and watched the sun go down over the ocean I was struck with awe as the lapping sea turned as gold as straw, and the only doubt that remained in my mind was why I had waited so many years to come here. I truly felt at home for the first time in my life.
As I came back to the house, I happened upon my neighbour John taking out his bin. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him what Ramsgate had been like in its hay-day.
“Oh,” he sighed. “It was marvellous. I used to come here as a child, you know, long before I met Millicent. I thought there was nowhere better in all the world. We would bathe in the sea every day and ride the Scenic Railway to Dumpton and back just for the view. We would explore the model village and watch a pantomime and go to the boating pool and the amusement park in Margate. A lot of these things are still here today in some form or another, and I’m sure you will discover them for yourself soon enough. It has changed over time of course, and I suppose it is a shame that it is no longer the resort it once was, but I really couldn’t have chosen a better place for my retirement.”
I smiled. “I think I’m starting to come under the spell myself.”
He looked wistfully back at me with a glimmer in his eye. “But you know, as a boy my favourite thing of all was seeing the monkeys.”
My heart skipped a beat. “What did you just say?” I gasped.
The man laughed. “You heard me right. They used to have monkeys by the main sands near the artificial pool. My mother would buy me a strawberry ice cream and I would sit and watch the monkeys. Sometimes they would let me hold them, but every year someone or other would warn me not to be rough, unless I wanted to end up like the spoilt little boy.”
“What little boy?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “it was just a story they used to tell to make sure children were gentle with them. They said a little boy once came here with his family. Spoilt as a sausage in a sauna. I beg your pardon, you’re not a vegan are you?”
I shook my head.
“Thank goodness. You can’t be too careful nowadays. So many people with such high and mighty moral standards.” He practically spat the last two words and I was taken aback for a moment, but then recalled that he had been a lawyer. “Anyway,” he went on, “supposedly the brat wanted to take one of the monkeys home with him. His father got out his check-book and asked the keeper how much he wanted, but the man said they weren’t for sale. They got into a heated argument and while the man had his back turned the little brat tried to run off with it. He was far too rough with the poor thing, squeezing it to make sure it couldn’t escape, no doubt. Next thing they knew there was this infernal scream. They turned around to see what was happening and the little monkey was running back to them with the bloody remains of the boy’s index finger hanging out of its mouth.”
“Goodness,” I said. “Can they do that?”
He shrugged. “Probably not. I expect it was just a cautionary tale.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “Do you know what’s funny though? It just happens that my father’s missing an index.”
“What a strange coincidence,” said John. “What happened to him?”
“It’s a funny story actually,” I said. “Believe it or not, it was actually bitten off by a great white shark.”
I nodded gravely.
“Where did that happen?”
“It was during a family holiday to Venice when he was a boy.”
“I know it’s peculiar, but…you see he used to swim competitively, and when he saw that creature heading for those orphans he couldn’t just stand by and watch.”
The man looked thoughtfully at me for a while. “What a brave child he must have been,” he said at last. “Though I must say, I didn’t know there were sharks in Venice.”
I smiled. “I didn’t know there were monkeys in Ramsgate.”
“Funny old world, isn’t it?”
That night I lay awake a long time, puzzling over what John had told me, and my father’s strange outbursts about the monkeys. Could there be a connection? I was just beginning to doze off to sleep when it hit me. My uncle Brian in Ramsgate! Perhaps he had told my father the story. And having been through the trauma of an animal attack resulting in the misfortune of a missing index, it had brought back old memories, painful ones. He had always been a sensitive soul. No wonder he had reacted the way he had. Perhaps that was why he always avoided Uncle Brian. Being around him just brought back too many painful memories.
I felt a warmth towards my father that had been lacking for many years, ever since the time when I had…but I didn’t want to think about that. Much as I disagreed with the old man, I could not bear to recall the look on his face on that occasion. I shuddered. Then I slowly drifted into a fitful sleep and dreamt I was being chased by a finger-eating beast with the body of the monkey and the head of a great white shark. I called out for help, but no one could hear me, because all the people were covering their eyes, their ears and their mouths. Thinking about it, I suppose they must have all had six arms. Strange.
I woke up drenched in sweat with my hands clenched tightly into balls. I had to count my digits to make sure, but thankfully they were still all there.
That day Beatrice called.
“You will be pleased to hear that father is coming home,” she snorted. “Though it’s no thanks to you of course. What will I tell him? You know I hate to lie. Oh, goodness Tabitha, this has got to be the second worst shock you’ve ever given him. It’s worse even than the time you almost married that Bolivian fire-eater to stop him from being deported. If it hadn’t been for that tragic accident, God rest his soul and all of that, heavens, we’d have had to welcome a circus performer into the family! You really are hopeless Tabitha. It’s a wonder you didn’t send the old codger over the edge much sooner. All of this talk about monkeys. I can’t imagine where it’s come from. He’s been completely delirious. Not that this is even the worst thing you’ve ever done to him, of course. I can’t begin to imagine how he got over the time when you…”
“Please,” I pleaded, “let’s not talk about that.”
“Why ever not?” she went on. “Of course, it was to be expected that you would do something ridiculous when you turned eighteen. So many of your type do, but generally they do something comparatively innocuous like get their forehead tattooed or their eyeball pierced. You, on the other hand, had to take it to a whole new level, as you do with everything.”
“Stop!” I protested. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“Mother and father gave you a perfectly good name!” she screeched. “Tabitha Alexis Cecilia Winifred Olens-Divés. Why did you have to go and change it?”
“It was only a joke! I changed it back!”
“No you didn’t, you rotten liar! I’ve been hiding your post from father for the last twenty years. ‘Miss Anna Vocado of Olensa Manor’. Do you have any idea the pain it would cause him if he saw it in writing? Why, Tabitha? You know how much he hates to be embarrassed. Public face is everything to him! He had to beg, lie, bribe and threaten to stop that story getting into the press. Imagine how he would have felt if it had got out. He’s been through enough in his life, what with mother’s death and him losing his finger to that wild bear in Andorra. Why would you do this to him?”
Poor Beatrice. She was so upset she was getting confused. Imagine thinking father had been attacked by a bear in Andorra. I didn’t point it out to her. She clearly wasn’t in the mood to be corrected. She was right about one thing though. I really should have changed my name back by now, but somehow I could never quite bring myself to do it. It was my first significant act of rebellion, and much as I shuddered when I thought of the hurt expression on his face, I could not quite give it up. It was stupid, of course, like Alonzo (God rest his soul) performing his routine so close to that petrol station. But at least I had learned something from it. Not that it was any consolation to my family, of course. They have always had a very low threshold for stupid.
“I…just really like avocados,” I stammered.
“Oh, you are hopeless!” she yelled. “Though I suppose it’s fitting that you named yourself after a piece of fruit that symbolises everything ridiculous about our generation. It has an awful taste, it’s ugly, thin skinned and all mushy in the centre.”
“It has a stone, Beatrice.”
“Oh, shut up Tabitha!” she yelled. “And do you know the worst thing? It’s…it’s not even British!”
I heard the thwack of the receiver being slammed down. That had gone reasonably well for a conversation with my sister.
She did apologise to me a week later, amid floods of tears and declarations of sisterly love, after our father suffered a lethal stroke in his sleep. It turned out that there had been a cyst on his brain that had likely caused delirium. So what had happened wasn’t my fault after all.
It was a sad affair, being at his funeral. So many friends and family gathered around the burial, but for some reason I felt very alone. Uncle Brian came over to me after the service and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Good to see you, little lady,” he said. “I must come and visit you one day, now that we’re neighbours.”
I forced a smile. “That would be lovely,” I said.
“By the way, did you get my present? I’m afraid I got muddled with my dates and ended up taking it over before the old people had moved out. They were very kind though, and said they’d leave it for you.”
I thought for a moment. “Do you mean the monkeys? Was that you?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, I thought you would have known. It was your mother’s after all. She left it with me for safekeeping when she married your father. For some reason he wouldn’t allow it in the house. I figured it belonged to you.”
“I can’t believe he’s really gone,” I sniffed.
“Me neither,” he said. “Seems like only yesterday we were eating cornets together on Ramsgate beach, but that must have been, goodness, fifty years ago.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “I beg your pardon,” I said. “I didn’t know my father ever visited Ramsgate.”
“Of course,” said Brian in amazement. “That’s where he met your mother, didn’t you know? His family used to visit every summer.”
“My mother lived with you in Ramsgate? But I thought…”
He snorted, “No, of course not. She was always the lucky one. She had the big house in Wellington Crescent, while I grew up with my mother in Tunbridge Wells. I used to stay there in the summer sometimes. Only moved to Ramsgate when I was eighteen. So many fond memories, you know.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Why had my father had such a strong disliking for the place he had met his beloved wife?
“Uncle Brian, did you ever hear a story about a boy being attacked by a monkey in Ramsgate?”
Brian twitched, almost imperceptibly, then his forehead creased in deep thought. “No, no I can’t say that I ever did. And that’s the kind of thing I’m not likely to have forgotten. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Did you say they visited Ramsgate every year?”
“They did for a while. Then they started taking foreign holidays instead.”
“Do you know why that was?”
“I…suppose it must have been because of the…bomb.” He seemed to wince as he said the last word.
My ears pricked up. “What bomb?”
“Oh, you know, the…bomb that your father found on the beach. A relic of the second world war, they said. He was trying to clear the area, to make sure everyone got away, but it went off unexpectedly and…that was when he lost his finger.”
I must have looked as confused as I felt, as his brow furrowed and he asked, “Did he not tell you that?”
I shook my head. “Everyone knows he lost his finger in Venice…in a shark attack.”
Uncle Brian looked at me stupefied. “A shark attack, you say?” He glanced around wildly at the grieving relatives that glowered at him from all directions. “Well perhaps I got my stories mixed up. Never been the sharpest of blokes, I must admit. Must have got confused. I do beg your pardon.” He made a hasty retreat after that. I think he must have been embarrassed. Poor Uncle Brian. He never really was accepted by the family, but it isn’t his fault if he is a bit simple and unassuming.
It was good to see everyone, but I confess it was a relief to come home that evening. As I lay in bed that night, I chewed over the things I had heard. I took comfort in knowing that my father’s delirium was brought on by illness and that I was not to blame, though I still couldn’t help but wonder if there was some reason why he had said what he had. Did the last words I ever heard from him have some meaning, or had he entirely lost his mind at that point? And why had Beatrice and Uncle Brian both been so confused about father’s accident? Could it be that they too were suffering from some kind of delirium?
I shrugged it off as I lay in my bed that night. My family never had made much sense to me, and I suppose if there was an explanation to my father’s eccentric outbursts, it has gone to the grave with him. The last thing I saw before I drifted off to sleep was the figure of the three wise monkeys on my dresser, grinning their knowing smiles at me, and I reconciled myself to the fact that this was just one of those strange mysteries in life that will never be solved.
© 2020 Rachel Jones
An aspiring writer since she was old enough to hold a pen, but just starting to tread the water of writing for an outside audience.