It really was a very brief affair. Jimmy and I met only three times and were never alone together. But our love remains forever in my heart.
Let me describe him. Standing tall, his head reached my waist. His face was wise, yet his eyes sparkled with mischief. His hands and feet were long and beautiful with tiny, perfect nails, like a babies, but so dextrous and strong. A fine pelt of soft brown velvet covered him from head to tail tip… Oh, that tail! It was at least a yard long, and so thick at its base that I could not encompass it with my hand. At the other end there was a smooth black ‘palm’ that could wrap itself firmly round a branch, high above the ground, holding the whole of Jimmy’s weight as he reached with hands and feet to catch the grapes thrown by excited visitors.
He was no more than a teenager, a juvenile monkey approaching maturity in a natural colony on the Cornish coast, so far from his native South America. There were cages – a vast complex of rooms, corridors and gymnasia, with rope walkways leading to the treetops and the freedom of Cornwall. The bars were there to keep us humans out, not the monkeys in. They would not run away. Where would they go? This was home.
The family structure was strong and sharply defined. The relationships were clearly visible and Jojo, the leader, ruled his clan with gentle understanding. The emotional health of this colony had just been demonstrated by the birth of the very first Woolly monkey outside the rainforest.
Visitors were welcome, and I arrived, not knowing what to expect, with my husband and a group of five friends. I was in my early twenties; still very naïve and not yet knowing myself at all. We joined a crowd of other guests, sitting in the meeting room, and some of the colony were invited to join us. We were given strict instructions on how to behave when a wild monkey deigned to sit on a lap, demanding help to open a tightly closed jam jar that contained a coveted grape. There is a protocol to observe when a mother monkey allows her new baby to climb up your hair; facial expressions to learn; sounds and signs to imitate; greetings to exchange. It was a wonderful meeting.
We went out onto the lawn, to sit in the sunshine and watch all the monkeys. Soon Jimmy came bustling out to see who was visiting today. He moved steadily around the crowd until he came to me. I must confess that it was cupboard-love at first. He immediately detected the bag of tiny tomatoes hidden in my pocket and claimed them as his own. As he ate, I made the proper greeting sounds and gestures, and offered to groom his shoulder. He graciously accepted and stretched his arm towards me so that I could inspect it more efficiently. Then he looked into my eyes.
Suddenly he left me. He walked straight across the circle to my husband, climbed onto his shoulder, removed his glasses and gently tweaked his nose, as if to say, ‘I know you. I rank higher than you. Keep away. This woman is mine.’
Then he found each of my five friends in turn, and each was informed, by a nibbled ear, bitten ankle or pulled hair, ‘You have been noticed. She is my woman, not yours.’ Then he returned to me and we played. His favourite game was to offer me his hand to bite. Then he would take my hand and bite it hard. Then he offered me his hand again and I bit it harder – and he bit mine harder – and so on, never breaking the skin or doing any damage, but getting quite painful, until, at last, I remembered the submission sign we had learnt in our meeting-room lesson. I raised both my hands to cover my nose and mouth, and bowed my head.
Immediately Jimmy stopped biting. He placed a tiny black paw on my shoulder and gazed deep into my eyes. For fully five minutes he was gentle and attentive, until the mischief got into him and the biting game started again.
These monkeys are not pets and I had been warned not to attempt to restrain him by force. He was much smaller than me, but immensely strong and quite capable of killing me if he should so choose. But that he would never do. As a female, I was no threat to his position. He might chastise me fiercely if I misbehaved, and hurt my pride by grabbing hold of my ears and shaking my head ’til I cried, but he would not damage me at all, unless I attacked a child. Even human children were sacred in these monkeys’ eyes.
Men might get hurt if they were foolish enough to challenge a senior male. Len, the founding father and guiding spirit of this sanctuary, had learnt the hard way the folly of getting too near a leading female while turning his back on her mate. He was lucky to escape.
The monkey leapt onto his shoulders; the strong, prehensile tail grabbed his throat; legs and feet clamped his arms; hands dug into his eyes; and teeth, capable of cracking nuts, crashed into his scalp. And this was a monkey who loved him! That love made the monkey pause in confusion, and Len managed to ‘submit’ – escaping with long lacerations to his head and such serious damage to his hand that his career as a guitarist was effectively ended.
Very reluctantly I bade farewell to my new-found love. It was a week before I was able to return. Every day the sanctuary would have had several hundred visitors. I had no hope that Jimmy would remember me.
We arrived at the gate and rang the old ship’s bell for admission. As I entered the gardens, there was Jimmy, in the nearest enclosure, leaping for joy and tugging at the wire mesh, inviting me to join him at once. I felt somewhat embarrassed. All these visitors had come to see the monkeys, and Jimmy was ignoring everyone else, He only had eyes for me!
A week later we returned once more. This time I did not go in the main gate but crept down the cliff-side to enter far away from house, enclosures and lawns, where I could hear the laughter of the crowd as Jimmy played his acrobatic tricks. Slowly I meandered amongst the ponds and shrubbery, waiting for the crowd to disperse. But, suddenly, something warm and soft wound itself round my wrist – it was the lovely black palm of Jimmy’s tail. His hand slipped into mine and he pulled me up the hill towards the lawn, and the waiting crowd, shouting out his joy and pride, ‘She’s here! She’s here!’ And, together, we tumbled and romped on the lawn.
It was three years before I was able to return to Cornwall. By now Jimmy was a leader of the colony and had three wives. He had responsibilities and his juvenile crush was long forgotten. But not by me. I will never forget.
© Jill Lamede 1998