'Day of the Monkey'

by Dan O'Neill


I picked this moment from many equally strong memories because no matter how often I recall it, the images are still as fresh as the day they happened. Perhaps it was all the laughter, or the close bond between my father, my brother and I, or maybe it was just because no one ever forgets a monkey.

                                                                                                               A true story by Dan O'Neill

For a long time, my brother and I calculated events in our house chronologically from the 'Day of the Monkey'. It was our very own 'Anno Domini'. We still use it sometimes, when we forget how old we are.

The Day of the Monkey was a warm Sunday in August. Sundays were more a day of struggle than rest in our house. The struggle began the same way every week, with Dad dragging my brother and I to mass. We were raised Catholics, but by the time we had reached our late teens we had decided to gamble our eternal souls for the sake of a little earthly pleasure and to say we were reluctant soldiers of Christ was an understatement. By then, we had abandoned our posts and were fully committed deserters. Dad was made of sterner stuff. His faith was forged in the white heat of 1930's Ireland. A time of unquestioning loyalty to mother church and her priests. When his theological entreaty to the mortal danger to our spiritual well being was met with no more than a grunt from the depths of a warm bed, he resorted to more draconian measures. He would burst into the room with a vacuum cleaner and run it round and round the tiny room until the noise became too much and sleep was impossible. We staggered downstairs lured by the smell of bacon and sausages to be told,

"Well you aren't going to mass dressed like that!, gesturing at our jeans or rugby shirt, "go back up and put on something decent"

We ate our breakfast to the sound of Radio Eireann, the Irish equivalent of the BBC. A selection of reels and jigs, barely audible over the crackle and hiss of the old long wave valve radio in the corner of the kitchen. The pungent smell of Dad's shoe polish mixed with his Brylcreem was the incense to our morning ritual. Then, dragging our feet and grumbling inwardly we were off to mass. Dad in the lead, impeccably dressed in a sharp suit, shirt and tie, his head tall, shoulders back and arms swinging better than any sergeant major. Mike and I shuffling along in his wake, alternately vowing to put our foot down next Sunday and refuse to go, then resigning ourselves to the fact that we both knew that wasn't going to happen.

Sunday mass did have one redeeming feature for us. When it was over and the 'meet and greet' at the church gates began, all the news and gossip of the parish was freely exchanged (an activity beloved of the Irish wherever they are) the decision would be made which pub to go to and who we would be going with. Our usual haunt was a particularly seedy establishment on Northfields Avenue. An Irish drinking club known as 'McGee's'. Irish clubs were very popular in the sixties and seventies due to the large population of Irish in Ealing who, attracted by the opportunities in the building industry, had arrived in the fifties and stayed on to marry and raise a family as had our father. Irish clubs were a place to feel at home for these transplants. They knew they would not be going back to Ireland and the clubs gave them an opportunity to be with 'their own'

The clubs also served as a useful community centre for newly arrived Irish who could often find a job on a building site with a couple of words in the right ear. McGee's was dark and gloomy, with almost no natural light penetrating further than three feet past the front door. The gloom was further accentuated by the dark heavily varnished mahogany everywhere, roughly upholstered stools and chairs, the inevitable beer stained pictures of Ireland bought from an airport tourist shop as a last minute interior decorating idea, and a remarkable carpet that continually soaked up the dirt from construction boots, spilt pints, dropped cigarettes, blood from fist fights...everything. That carpet was a legend in the drinking community. Just walking on its thick surface alternately oozing and crunching your way to and from the bar was an unreal experience. If Steven Hawking wanted a model to demonstrate the properties of a 'black hole' in some far distant galaxy, the carpet in McGee's would have been perfect.

The Sunday struggle continued as we tried to down as many pints as we could before Dad called 'time' and we were forced to lurch the two hundred yards to our house from the deep, dark comforts of McGee's.

Eventually, we returned home and the Sunday rituals continued. My Father was in the kitchen wrestling with Sunday dinner, and Mike and I were sprawled on the two oversize armchairs in the living room drifting in and out of consciousness surfacing only to answer when Dad asked if we wanted two or three spuds with our steak.

My favorite smell, onions fried in butter, rose me from my slumber as a trout to a fly. I looked around the room. Mike was fast asleep and Dad was in the kitchen laying the table for dinner.

My mother had abandoned us to our collective fate some years earlier, and my Father raised us alone. While we missed having a mother, the lack of feminine common sense combined with my father's unique approach to childcare gave us a bohemian existence other kids could only dream of. We had grown up as relatively free spirits. Dad's justice could be harsh but it wasn't stifling and we lived free from the normal civilized conventions a female would have imposed on the household.

I stood up, stretched and then decided to answer the somewhat urgent call of nature imposed by six pints of Harp lager in relatively quick succession.

"Where are you off to? Dinner is almost ready" came from the kitchen.

"I know", I replied lazily as I stepped over my brothers legs and headed for the antiquated outdoor toilet, thankful for the convenience of not having to drag my six pints up the steep staircase to the bathroom at the top of the stairs.

I emerged into the small back yard, momentarily blinking at the bright summer sun. I swung open the door to the outdoor toilet, stepped inside and took aim. I was interrupted in mid flow by an unearthly shrieking coming from behind me and I turned towards the source. What I saw defied belief. Sat on the ridgeline of the houses behind ours was a large primate. It was a male baboon of some kind, the type with a bright red backside. Rubbing my beer stained eyes, I looked again...still there. I called in the open back door to Mike and after several attempts to ignore me he finally came outside.

"Can you see that?" I asked.

Mike confirmed I wasn't hallucinating and we stood in stunned silence as the ape eyed us casually from his lofty perch, one arm draped around the chimneystack, the other picking idly at his chest hair.

"DAD!" we yelled simultaneously, "There's a gorilla on the Kelly's roof"

"Of course there is", came the chuckling reply from the kitchen, "That'll be Benny Kelly fixing the TV aerial again"

"No, really Dad, come and look"

My father stepped into the yard wiping his hands on the dishcloth. Before he could say anything, the skylight in the Kelly's roof opened slowly, and a cautious, but determined Benny Kelly appeared in the opening. Benny was a tall, wild-eyed Irishman from Galway, and a very good friend of my father. He had been drinking with us earlier in McGee's and was in no fit state to be up on a roof. As Benny edged his way along the ridge the startled baboon gave an ear splitting scream. He bared his long yellow fangs and thumped his hands on the roof shattering several slates in a clear warning not to come any closer. Benny wobbled dangerously as he waved his arms in a desperate attempt to keep his footing and shouted at the disgruntled creature. Each time he wobbled, we groaned, like a circus audience praying for the trapeze artist to screw up. He eventually regained his balance, but alas none of his dignity, and we tried hard to muffle our laughter.

"Benny, don't annoy him any more or he'll go for you" Dad shouted up, but by now Benny had reversed course and was backing into the attic.

He disappeared into the house and the baboon resumed his lonely vigil across the west London skyline.

"Where the hell did he come from?" said Dad, to no one in particular.

"Do you think he's Benny's?" Mike asked.

"Maybe" said Dad, "Benny told me one time he had a brother...could that be him?"

We collapsed into helpless giggles, and then the skylight opened again. Benny re-emerged onto the roof, speaking softly to the baboon, this time with a banana in his outstretched hand.

I could barely stop the laughter now and shook with mirth. I looked at my Father who had turned his back on the whole scene in a vain attempt to keep his composure. My brother abandoned all pretense and just laughed uncontrollably. Benny stopped halfway to the baboon and glared down at us.

"That's right," he snapped in his broad west of Ireland accent, "Laugh away lads. He's after rippin' up all the sheets on the clothesline. Bernie (his wife) is hoppin' mad so she is, and she wants him off the roof now."

"God, that's terrible Benny" said Dad. His face was twisted with suppressed laughter, and tears streamed down his cheeks as Benny resumed his entreaties to the creature on his roof.

He waved the banana first one way, then the other, even demonstrating how to eat it, in case the poor creature had forgotten what a banana was for. It was painful to watch, our sides were sore from laughing and we had no idea what was coming next. Dad finally turned away and headed back to the kitchen saying,

"come on lads, or the dinner will be burnt."

Mike vanished into the house too, but reappeared bearing his air rifle with a purposeful look on his face.

'I reckon if I hit it with a couple of pellets it might be inclined to move off the roof." He said squinting down the barrel.

"It might," I said. "Or it could turn nasty and attack Benny, or you could hit Benny and knock him off the roof"

I could see none of those dire prospects were going to deny Mike his first opportunity for big game hunting in the heart of London and he settled down to take his first shot. It went wide, pinging off the chimney stack about three feet from Benny. So did the second and the third.

"Too far...he's just out of range" he grumbled.

"Jaysus! is someone fucking shooting at me now?" came the high pitched squeal from a distinctly agitated Benny Kelly as Mike quietly took the rifle back in the house.

As if on cue, a terrific noise started up in the alleyway between Benny's house and ours. We rushed out through the back gate and up the alley to find a white van with a small crowd of neighbors gathered around it. To our delight the driver was removing cages from the rear. Each cage contained a different variety of monkey and he was setting them out in a line at the end of Benny's garden. He explained to us that the baboon was the last of a group of pet monkeys that had escaped from a house a mile away earlier that morning. The owners were away on holiday and the neighbor who was feeding them had left their cages unlocked. The only way to retrieve him was to lure him back to his friends. The din from the screeching primates increased as the baboon recognized his companions. Pausing only to deliver a final, pitying, up and down look to Benny and his banana, the ape scampered effortlessly off the roof and in a matter of seconds was sitting quietly in his cage.

Later, as we sat around the table still giggling, and eating the by now hopelessly overcooked remains of Dad's dinner he paused for a moment, looked at us both sternly and said,

"You know what boys, It's true what they say, it really is a feckin' jungle out there"

We never saw the monkeys again but when the story reached McGee's that night, Benny Kelly became known amongst the small Irish community as'Tarzan' a name that stuck with him right up until the day he died.

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