The Monkey's Song to the Traveller

Jenny Jackson

Email: jjfiction@yahoo.co.uk


I was new to the city, new to the country, and the first thing I saw as I stepped off the train was a monkey, sitting on a small electronic piano in the middle of the crowded station. It was the kind of thing David would've dragged me away from - David with his guide books, and his safety-first, and his list of things-to-see - but I'd left David silent and seething in another town, another country, eight hours ago, and I was on my own now, so I headed towards the monkey and his piano, and when I was close enough I reached out a hand.

'Hello,' I said, but the monkey only looked at me, and deep in its black eyes I saw a sadness, as if there were things in the world that would never be fixed. 'Don't worry, little monkey. Everything's okay,' I whispered, but even as I spoke them, I recognised the words as the kind of platitude that David would use whenever there was a problem. Well, I'd left him now, and everything would not be fine. At least not for a while. And to lie - even if only to a monkey - felt wrong.

'Monkey speaks no English, lady,' said a voice and I turned to see a man approaching. He was small, dirty, ragged, his face was cut by old scars, and his neck like a turtle's, peeping out of his heavy coat. He sat down at the chair behind the small piano and rested his dirty hands on the plastic keys, not moving his fingers at all. He didn't quite look at me, but his black eyes seemed to hold the same sadness.

'Hello,' I said, and when he didn't reply, 'What's his name?'

'Monkey has many names,' he said, coughing as he spoke. ‘Today, Togo.'

I turned back to the monkey, who had been paying no attention whatsoever to the exchange. Togo,' I said, 'Why so sad?'

'His sister dead,' said the man. 'Jumped from bridge. Water.' He coughed again. 'Dead.'

The lights of the station reflected in the black of his pupils and for a second it seemed that he had his monkey's eyes rather than his own.

'It's a hard thing, to lose someone,' I said, not really knowing where the words came from. I was concentrating on the man's eyes, his monkey-eyes, and looking back and forth between the two of them - monkey and man - to see if the resemblance was just a trick of the station lights.

'Hard?' snapped the man.

'You're right,' I said quickly. 'I wouldn't know.' I didn't want to discuss my own sadness. Not with some monkey-man.

'You don't know death?' he asked, and there was a smile now, tight and cruel.

'No, ' I said quietly. 'But not only death causes sadness.' But he wasn't listening.

David would have dragged me away from this man and his monkey. If he'd been with me we would've been en route to some comfortable room in a mid-range hotel by now, checking out the list of things-to-see for the next day.

But David was waiting for me in another city, waiting for me to come to my senses and come back. He was waiting, perhaps full of regret, of apologies, of won't-happen-agains, and I was here with a mad old man and a monkey.

The man coughed again. He was flexing his grubby fingers, the knuckles cracking, and suddenly he looked at me with eager eyes. 'Togo sings,' he said quickly, as if death, drowning and Togo's sister were forgotten about.

I laughed at the absurdity of the whole situation. 'Really?'

'Big world. Many things,' said the man, 'Death. Monkeys sing. Many things.' And for the first time his voice had some warmth to it.

I took a step closer to the piano.

'Poor,' said the man, prodding himself in the chest. He coughed again and held out a tiny, grubby hand. ‘Togo's song is good song.'

'Some things are worth paying for,' I said.

I could see that the plastic keys of the piano were grubby from his fingers, but only certain keys were marked, while others were white, almost gleaming.

'You only know one song?’

'No,' said the man. 'Many songs. Togo, only one song.' And with that, he began to play.

I didn't recognise it. The notes came slowly, in waltz-time, and the man closed his eyes as he played. For long periods, Togo sat, staring at a space beside him, utterly still, utterly silent, but there was one refrain that the man played repeatedly, and each time that point of the song was reached, Togo began to sing.

It was a sound almost entirely like a human's singing voice, only Togo used no words, and the sound he made was stretched out over three descending notes, repeated three times in sequence - so-re-siii, so-re-siii, so-re-siii.

I stood still as the man played and Togo sang. People all around rushed for their trains, and no one seemed to be taking any notice of the man and his piano, or Togo and his sad song. But I couldn't take my eyes away from what was happening in front of me.

As Togo sang, the little man seemed about to cry, but his hands busied themselves with the keys, and no tears came. I was hardly breathing; I knew that to move would be to stop the song, and the sound was much too fragile, much too precious for that.

Eventually, as the pace of the song slowed, and the volume decreased, both the man and Togo looked up, as if for approval.

‘That was beautiful.'

'Beautiful. True,' said the man.

‘Tell me,' I said, taking out my purse. 'Why does Togo only sing part of the song?'

'For two,' said the man, and for the first time, he reached out a hand and stroked the monkey on its head, slowly, gently. 'A song for two monkeys.'

'It must have been incredible when Togo and his sister sang together.'

'Incredible,' said the man, savouring the syllables. 'But also beautiful today?'

'Yes,' I said. 'It was. Beautiful.'

'I know,' said the man, caressing Togo's head as if he was trying to convince him. 'Beautiful.'

I handed over some money - David would've baulked at the amount - but the man didn't count it. He didn't even look at it. I reached out a hand again, and touched Togo gently on the head, but he didn't react. He was watching the people rushing past, and when I looked at the man, he too was looking away, waiting for the next person who might want to hear a monkey sing.

‘Thank you,' I said, and I walked away

Suddenly, I was alone again in a city I knew nothing about, and David was left with his guidebook and his itinerary, miles away. The monkey had lost its sister, and the man just wanted another customer, but I was lucky: I had heard the song of a monkey, and that had to be worth something.

©2007 Jenny Jackson

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