Edward and Marcia had got into the habit of walking along the cliff-top at dusk. What, here on Auskerry, Edward was tempted to call the gloaming. The sultry day was much cooler now and, indeed, would soon be cold. At this latitude the summer sky was still pale, but the first stars could already be made out. Marcia had something she wanted to tell Edward and Edward did not want to hear it.
They ambled hand in hand towards the remains of the chapel, not really intending to reach them. Marcia said she would show him the whirlpool she had been observing that afternoon, a new and an especially large one. Her red hair looked almost purple in this light. She was lustrous, thought Edward. She was certainly pregnant, he could tell that, and she knew it, and she was very happy. Despite everything, Marcia had always wanted a child.
She couldn’t leave her telescope unattended on the cliff, but Edward had his binoculars and he stood and looked out at the whirlpool while Marcia sat on a rock, brushed the small stones out of her sandals and explained it to him. She had noted it a week before, but it must be much older, unless it had grown unusually quickly. It was as though the water were being slowly stirred by the invisible spoon of a giant cook. Marcia would film it if they could charge the battery for the camera. Edward nodded. If she liked. The seals were gone from the beach. Luckily, there were no pups at this time of the year.
Edward wondered who the father of his wife’s child might be. He could not be absolutely sure that it was not himself, but he was almost so. That’s what Marcia did not know. The extent to which Edward was sterile. He had kept that from her. She thought that they had just been unlucky so far.
- There’s a chance we will see a meteor tonight. It is the Perseid season. It will be easier after midnight, when it gets really dark, he said.
He knew they wouldn’t be out so late.
So, who was the father? He couldn’t believe it was that old goat Jack, let alone Denny, and there was literally no one else on the island. It could have been one of the visitors. There had been none for months now and he couldn’t recall any of their faces. None of them had ever spent a night on Auskerry. That would have been quick work even by Marcia’s standards. Maybe Edward had got lucky, if that was the word for it. Of course, from the gene-spreading point of view, a random tourist could be a good idea, setting aside the barbarity of it.
Marcia started to talk about what fun it might have been to be on an island like this when you were a child and she might have told him then, but they were both stopped by Monboddo’s stentorian roar. A sound they had heard many times. The eeriest sound they had ever heard certainly and not alarming, nor unexpected, even, but every time they heard it it moved them. It could not be heard without emotion.
Monboddo was the leader, at the moment, of the orangutan clan that had taken control of the chapel ruins and the area around the lighthouse. The roar was not directed at the humans, or probably not. The ape might have been moved by the churring whirlpool, or he might have seen a comet.
Edward and Marcia saw a group of the apes now a few hundred yards ahead of them, sitting, relaxed, chins on chests, like so many boulders or standing stones. The husband and wife knew these particular animals and could have approached them, but they had no wish to disturb and so turned around and began to walk slowly back towards the compound.
- Apes of idleness is Shakespeare, you know, said Marcia. I read that today.
- Apes and monkeys are known for mischief, cheek and lust.
Edward pointed out the late blossom on the brambles. There were still buttercups in spring and blackberries in autumn. That made the island seem normal, although normal, he supposed, was just what you got used to.
Behind them, Monboddo raised his long arm and pointed far into the galaxy.
Edward wandered around the compound to see about the fences. It was nonsense of course to build fences to keep out orangutans, but he felt it provided some kind of discouragement, although it could prevent no determined animal. There was an ape on the roof now. He thought he recognized the young male, Conrad, who had learned to spin a teetotum and who had then exhausted his interest in that, or his understanding of it, and could not be persuaded to pick it up again. But Edward couldn’t be sure it was Conrad at all. The light was against him.
His interest in the fencing was motivated by the fact that someone or something was breaking it regularly. The staples were pulled out of the posts and wires prised apart. It would take some strength, but who was doing it? Jack and Denny Norton, the stockmen, did not bother fencing their own house and they viewed Edward’s arrangements with some disdain, but he did not think that they would take the trouble to break his fence.
Jack had said that the fence made it look as though Edward and Marcia were in a cage while the apes roamed free. Beasts, Jack called them.
When he went inside, Edward was careful to shut the door properly behind him. Conrad could stay on the roof if he wanted to. There was an ape skull on the shelf where Edward threw his hat. That had never met with any attention. There had been a stuffed orangutan, on which coats had been hung, in the hall, but he had had that burned as soon as they had moved in.
The distressing gurgling in the pipes meant Marcia was in the shower. He hoped she had bolted the door. The orangutans loved being squirted with the shower hose. Unless the bolt was thrown, they always, at least one of them, appeared in the doorway for a spray. Then they would run away grunting indignantly and happily, their faces puckered with delight, only to reappear within a minute for another go.
Udo was sitting in the armchair listening to music. Or at least he was wearing the headphones, which he liked to do. He was leafing through the photograph album, another favourite pastime, and he ignored Edward. Udo turned over the cardboard pages of the book with that meticulousness and apparent hauteur that animals have. This kind of behaviour was an indulgence that Edward was barely prepared to allow. Was he being ignored? Was it appropriate to say that of an ape? Well, when he and Udo sat in this room together and Marcia came in, the ape did not ignore her, he could tell you that. Edward took the album from Udo and looked at the page. A much younger Marcia in a bathing costume. He wondered if Udo could recognize her. What did an animal, who lived so much in the present, make of a photograph? He closed the album and replaced it on the shelf. These were not scientific questions. Udo removed the headphones and folded his hands across his great belly.
- Very well, he seemed to be saying, I am listening. What is it you want?
Udo had picked up some kind of stress injury to his right arm. They had seen him favouring it. He allowed Edward to examine him now. Some swelling, but healing was in progress.
As soon as the door from the bedroom clicked open and Marcia walked in, Udo broke away from Edward and waddled over to the woman. The apes walked awkwardly on the ground like great damaged spiders, appearing to have longer and more limbs than they do. Marcia kissed and tickled the ape, while Udo feigned, or felt, hilarity. She gave Udo the jug of pens and he scuttled off to find paper as if eager to please her.
- If apes are capable of nostalgia, said Edward, does that mean it is a mistake to say that animals never feel that, or should we say that the apes are no longer animals?
Now Marcia ignored him. Edward was annoyed with her for meddling with his experiments, muddling their purity, and she could tell that. Udo should really be in a cage outside with the other subjects Jack and Denny brought in for weighing, measuring and blood testing.
- You shouldn’t kiss the apes, you know. We had one go blind last month and we don’t know why.
Edward had finally agreed to let Jack shoot the blind orangutan, an elderly female, but the creature had gone missing before Jack could catch up with her.
- I think you’re jealous, Edward.
Marcia now tried to kiss Edward, but he shied away, not wanting to put his lips where Udo’s had been.
Jack Norton walked in, followed by his son, Denny, having no more notion of knocking on the door than an ape, perhaps hoping to surprise Edward and Marcia in just such a situation.
Old Jack’s stone face spoke a one-word vocabulary; scorn. His son was simple-minded and therefore friendlier looking. Nonetheless, they were clearly father and son.
- What’s he listening to? asked Denny.
Udo had the headphones on again.
- Benjamin Britten, said Edward.
- I’d rather listen to a blackbird, said Denny.
- Oh, Denny, said Marcia, smiling.
- Shut up, Denny, said his father.
Jack thought Edward and Marcia, equally, were too soft with the apes, too intimate with them and at the same time too squeamish. Jack would not give the apes names, though Denny would. Edward looked at Denny’s filthy T-shirt, which he wore almost all of the time that he wasn’t bare-chested. It had the words Spit Car printed on it, which he supposed was a band, or had been once.
Edward was not surprised, but he was dismayed, to see that the Nortons had a brace of rabbits almost certainly intended as a gift for them, but actually a torment. Neither Edward nor Marcia could skin and gut a rabbit. When they had first been given such a gift, they should have confessed this, but Edward, at least, had been too ashamed and now, many rabbits later, it was too late. They would have appreciated the fresh meat. Edward buried the gifts behind the compound and had to bury them deep in case an ape dug them up and humiliated him. There was a rabbit cemetery back there now. Sometimes they were given a haunch of seal meat, strictly speaking, contraband. That was vile. Either they didn’t know how to cook it, or it was always vile.
Edward looked at Jack and Denny with helpless disgust. They were very hairy men, with hairy wrists even, while Edward was fair and balding. Even Udo was going a little thin on top. The apes were slowly becoming Scottish people while the stockmen devolved. There were always males hanging around this house, hanging around Marcia really.
Marcia gave their guests a small glass of wine each and Edward took the rabbits without thanking. Jack would leave his wine untasted somewhere discreetly before he left while Denny tossed his back and made an extraordinary face at what he found to be the appalling sourness of the drink. Marcia stood close to Denny during this performance, partly because she found it so amusing and also because it prevented Denny from staring so candidly at her breasts, which he would otherwise do throughout the visit. Denny’s potential excitement at the chance of overlooking Marcia’s sunbathing antics was easily imagined by Edward.
Udo wanted a glass of wine, but Edward would not allow that. Jack snorted. Edward felt closer to Udo than he did to Jack or Denny.
A small female orangutan, Grace, now appeared from the bedroom, where she had been rummaging absolutely without permission, wearing Marcia’s bra on her head, in imitation of Udo’s headphones. Denny was overjoyed, pointed at Marcia’s chest and choked on the dregs of his wine. Edward blushed, somewhat to his own amazement.
After the stockmen had left, Edward asked Marcia if she was alright. She was surprised and guessed that he wanted to be asked the same question, but she wouldn’t ask it.
- Denny, he said.
- Well, naturally, I do feel very slightly eaten alive.
He put his arm around her shoulders and smoothed the palm of his hand proprietorially across her breasts. Udo stared and Marcia gave a soft chuckle which could have meant anything, Edward thought.
At the quay where the tourists used to disembark, there was a signboard giving the history of the Auskerry experiment in some detail. No one ever read it. It had been erected in the wrong place so that you had to shuffle past it too quickly, to get out of the way of the people behind you. Besides, everyone already knew what it said and most of the visitors were more interested in the birds, or even the plants.
The signboard reminded everyone of Lord Monboddo’s famous declaration, the orangutan is an animal of human form, inside as well as outside...the dispositions and affection of his mind, gentle and humane, is sufficient to demonstrate him a man. He had also said that the orangutan is like a man because he can feel shame, but that was not on the board. Strange man Monboddo, after whom, by tradition, an orangutan was always named; he was important in the history of nudism, being a champion of what he called the air bath, which he practised in the privacy of his bedroom.
None of the orangutans now on this island had ever been to Borneo or Sumatra. It had been some generations since those places had become no longer habitable by apes and some ten years now since the last human had left, so far as anyone knew. The Laird of Auskerry, coincidentally, Marcia’s great-great-grandfather, had paid for the capture and transport to Orkney of as many of Indonesia’s orangutans as was practicable. The cost had been extraordinary, but far from crippling for a man of such wealth.
The project had attracted some criticism. Some thought that these funds might have been more sensibly expended in aid of the many millions of humans displaced at that time. Others suggested that Orkney was a wholly unsuitable habitat for orangutans. These people simply failed to understand the nature of the experiment, thought Edward.
The apes had taken time to even begin to get used to the new environment. Some of them, dominant males, had become unduly aggressive, exhibiting signs of what it would not be wrong to call mental illness. A number had been destroyed. Jack would have loved that. A few young apes had been born with egregious deformities and these creatures had also been destroyed. The first births of healthy orangutans had been greeted with joyful excitement. Since then there had been more than one instance of twins, unheard of in Southeast Asia.
The climate of Orkney had been a challenge to the apes, an inspiration to their renowned intelligence. Of course the island was now warmer and much more humid than it had once been. That suited the apes better. Air quality had deteriorated in some respects. Humans often suffered asthma-like symptoms, which had yet to be observed in the orangutan. Edward had once found an asthmatic ape, but further investigation had shown that the animal had been imitating the symptoms, perhaps mocking a sufferer and was perfectly free from respiratory difficulties.
It could not be denied that the Auskerry experiment was compromised. It was not being conducted according to the purest principles. The two species of orangutan had been intermingled unavoidably, for a start. The world was stricken and this was the best that could be managed. No one was pretending that this was a really good idea; the world was out of really good ideas. Much of the southern hemisphere was inarguably in crisis and Scotland was fortunate to enjoy even this level of normality.
The apes were now prospering. Predictions were being confounded. Truth to tell, there were perhaps already too many orangutans on Auskerry. It was yet to become clear how such a dense population, in itself a success, would affect the apes, and what the man in charge of the experiment, effectively Edward, would do about it, if anything.
Edward considered that the apes represented something very old and something new; a starting again. How would human beings adapt to a world of ecological disaster? They might need to become less civilized in order to survive. Which was the most endangered species on Auskerry?
What Edward thought that he had observed among the island’s inhabitants was the development of a system of segregation, even Apartheid.
The arrival of a boat was always good news, but Jack complained about the unloading, although it was definitely one of his jobs.
- I’ll have arms like a fucking orangutan if I have to do this much longer.
Edward made a note to speak to Jack about his agricultural language in front of the tourists, and Marcia. He had never got round to that and he didn’t need to now, because there had been no tourists and very little contact with the mainland for some months.
When there had been visitors, Edward had done his best to intercept them before they could ask Jack and Denny any questions about the apes. They were both actually quite knowledgeable about birds.
- What do the apes eat?
- What I give them, Jack generally said, as though he was used to feeding them gravel.
- Hungry enough, they’ll eat it.
If they asked Denny, he would reply, cheerfully,
- Same as me.
That was close to being true, but as Denny was often eating a choc-ice, and spreading a great deal of it over his face, when he offered this answer, it did not give a good impression of the project. Although it was a fact that Grace would crawl through fire for a lick of Denny’s choc-ice.
Edward evaded the other favourite question, which was how many apes were there. He did not know. How was he meant to carry out a census with only Jack and Denny to help him and Jack more or less refusing to do it?
The apes ought to have been an attraction to tourists, but their behaviour was problematical. Certainly, Edward did not believe that the disappearance of the tourists could be attributed to anything the apes had done.
The orangutans had taken to occupying the stone structures on the island and they could be territorial about them. The visitors had to be warned off. But then the apes were curious about the tourists and were inclined to imitate them, following them about; looking at birds, pointing at seals, crowding round to listen to Marcia’s flirtatious conversation. When he saw the apes pretending to be human, Edward sometimes wondered whether they were only pretending to be apes.
They could be embarrassing. Occasionally, some of the young male orangutans became very interested in the sheep. Denny drew everyone’s attention to this whenever possible. Edward wondered what the apes thought about Jack killing the sheep. The young males would also masturbate in front of the visitors, and that was not something that anyone wanted to see on their holidays. Edward had once seen an ape hunched over in fervid concentration as he guided a party past the outskirts of the chambered cairn and had quickly ushered the group towards the cliff-top. In the poor light, Edward had not been sure that the figure had not been Denny. Denny learned from the apes.
Edward tried to keep the Nortons busy with rat extermination. This was a difficult task as the poison was a temptation to the animals. And he got the stockmen to show visitors the various plants that may have been brought over with the orangutans and which had made their own desperate adaptation to the changing Orcadian climate. Jack liked plants and was usefully succinct in the telling of his careful observation. Denny was good at finding the plants and sometimes at remembering where he had found them.
The truly disturbing thing had been the time when the visitor had been attacked. Against all advice, indeed instruction, she had stepped away from the main party near the chapel, what was now unwisely referred to as the ape village, and she had been knocked down from behind. Clothing had been torn and a bag taken, which, it turns out, had contained only sandwiches. She had been badly rattled and threatened to make a fuss back on the mainland, but she hadn’t, or, at least, if she had, no one had taken any notice. Edward had got that group off the island as quickly as he could. The assailant must have been one of the apes. Orangutans had once been famous for their gentleness, but they were animals and would behave instinctively under the right stimulus. Even so, Edward could not dismiss the suggestion, also not dismissed by Marcia, that the assailant had been Denny.
That had not been the last party of visitors, but one of the last. No tourists for a while now. No tourists and no supplies. If the food ran low there were the sheep, the rabbits, the seals, fish. Edward and Marcia would need Jack and Denny for that. No point in making enemies of them. It was not clear that they could easily leave the island. They had no seaworthy boat. Those were the arrangements.
Edward warned himself against paranoia. He had told Marcia how he had stepped out of the compound and seen two apes with their heads together and how they had pulled apart when they saw him, as though they had been talking about him. Marcia had laughed. She was too carelessly brave, Edward thought.
The four people were trapped on the island as though the subject of an experiment conducted by an unknown hand.
The summer heat was sweltering, but their thick-walled old stone house was quite cool. Edward did not think that it was necessary for Marcia to wear so little.
- What if Denny comes in? You know he never knocks. Or Jack?
- Oh, fuck Jack and Denny. I’m not living my life to suit them. It’s bad enough being trapped on this island at all.
She pulled Edward towards her by his orange tie, which he wore, loosened, despite the heat. She let it run through her hand. Grace and Charity pulled his tie too.
Once or twice, Edward and Marcia had made love outside, outside of the compound, when they had been almost certain that the Nortons were busy with their poison on the other coast of the island. Like animals.
Edward’s opinion of Marcia as a scientist, as an oceanographer of a sort, was that she was bold, unpredictable and unorthodox. Sporadic in her efforts and that perhaps because she was suffering from a depression. What he most wished to speak to her about right now was sunbathing. Edward did not really know this, but he thought, indeed he feared, that Marcia was sunbathing naked or almost so, on the beach. He very much wanted to tell her not to do this.
- The Nortons might see you. Denny might, and the apes.
- What does it really matter if it is only them?
- I think it would matter very much to Denny. To the apes, not so much. Then there’s the visitors.
- I don’t sunbathe anywhere where anyone might see me. And I think you underestimate the Nortons. Even Denny.
- I don’t know how you can be so naïve.
Marcia did not answer him.
- They’ll see you, he said.
- The apes and seals are always naked.
While Marcia was out, Edward went into the bedroom and found the photograph album upset on the floor. The snaps were everywhere. He did not look very hard, but he did not see that photograph of the youthful Marcia in her bathing costume.
Marcia was by no means inclined to obey Edward, but along with her towel she took her telescope and folder. She made her way not to the beach near where the seals lay, but to the cliff-top above it. She wanted to look at the whirlpool in this tide and to sketch it. Such an old-fashioned technique, but the only way with whirlpools. Some of her watercolours were quite beautiful and they fascinated Denny. He even tore his eyes away from her chest to look at them. She might give him a sketch. It was hard to tell what was kindest; to encourage him, as Edward put it, or not. Marcia was well aware that the island was a lonely place, a place of longing and that she was the only woman on it.
Sometimes a handful of orangutans would sit on the cliff-top and, apparently, watch the seals. They were not there today. She set up her equipment, which involved taking a number of light readings, a procedure which required some precision. She scanned through the seals with the telescope. She counted them. She admired the great variety of shades and leprous speckles. The animals themselves were a whole beach of colours. It was here that she had found Denny’s dog, the one that had bitten the young orangutan. It must have fallen off the cliff, the edge of which was treacherously friable, although Jack would not believe that. They were lovely. All of the animals were so beautiful. She knew that she and Edward lied to themselves all of the time and to one another now and then, but the animals were always themselves, unless they could learn to deceive.
She was distracted from the seals and from the whirlpool by three orangutans, all females, on the beach where she most usually sunbathed. That large flat stone where she luxuriated like a seal. She thought she recognized Grace and Charity, but the other ape she did not know. She watched them making their spidery progress over the rocky beach. They stirred pools with their long arms and scampered in that four-legged way from the sudden surf. It was a while before she could make up her mind that she knew what they were doing, but she could see them quite clearly through the telescope. They were gathering shellfish. They were eating as they gathered, as all gatherers do, and they also made a little pile of mussels and cockles to take away with them, Marcia supposed. She was sure that Edward had never noted this behaviour and she was pleased to have such a thing to tell him. Would they make themselves sick? Shellfish could be difficult for anyone.
Edward was wondering about the interest that the apes had in Marcia. They could become obviously sexually excited in the house, something that Denny invariably pointed out with glee. He had the mad idea that the sparring orangutan clans might compete for Marcia. He did not even know for sure that the clans were a real thing.
When Marcia told Edward what she had seen Grace and Charity doing, he clearly doubted her, even if he did not say as much. Marcia was upset and Edward did not bring up the sunbathing again. But he did notice that when she undressed, she did so in the dark so that he could not see if she had been wearing her costume, as he had intended.
Edward thought he might go for a swim. Not in the sea, which made him nervous, but in that stretch of peat-dark water they called a tarn, without really knowing what a tarn was. He wanted to walk and to have a think. He felt he had plenty to think about.
He had been watching the apes groom. He had been amused at the way Grace would graze her own forearm, nibbling at the midges and flies caught in the web of her long red hairs. The apes loved to groom one another and sometimes tried to demand this attention of Marcia and himself. Of course, Marcia gave in to them. He had watched her grooming Charity, and whenever she found a fly, a flea or a grub, she had popped it into the orangutan’s mouth, very much as it was expected she should. Then Charity groomed Marcia, running her gentle leathery fingers through the woman’s auburn hair and feeling through the folds and creases of her clothes. Charity found something and offered it to Marcia to eat and after only a moment’s hesitation, Marcia had eaten it. This had disgusted Edward and he had said so. Marcia had told him that it was only a seed, but he did not believe her. He knew that she lied.
He walked over a rise and the little group of tarpans cantered away from him. He had ambitions to ride one of them one day. He knew that Marcia and Jack did too. The people competed for expertise in these things.
He thought the apes were consciously copying the humans. He had also noted that the animals to whom he had given names, who visited the compound most often and got talked to, were behaving differently to those wilder creatures, identified by codes if at all, who had to be captured to be brought in for measuring and tests.
Edward was afraid he was being ganged up on. His paranoia again. Jack and Denny seemed to have a stronger bond than he and Marcia, and he could no longer be sure of his wife’s loyalty. He could command these people, push them around, but he had no faith in his own superiority, less than they had probably.
He looked around him. The sky was so blue and the new heather gave a sheen to the world. Marcia’s colour, almost, he thought. This island could be an Eden were it not for Jack and Denny. Or should that be, were it not for Edward?
He reached the tarn and started to undress and fold his clothes neatly on the dry sand. He had brought his swimming trunks, the badge of his Fall, he noted, wryly. He felt a rock, smooth and hard like a large pebble, with his toes. This was not the place for pebbles. He dug at it with his toe and then his fingers, almost sure that it would be that common thing, the shallow brain pan of a sheep. But it was too round and clever for that. He pulled out the skull of a man from the reluctant sand but then weighed the lichen-stained head of an ape in his relieved palm.
He recalled a dream, one he had not recalled before. He had been cleaning the bath, spraying it with the shower attachment and the drain had been gathering hair, in a hirsute maelstrom. Hair is disgusting when you see it like that. The dirty soapy water being sucked thirstily, chokingly through all of that hair. More and more hair. Long red hair and then that metallic red which was Marcia’s in the heather light, and he had a vision of Marcia and a powerful ape in the bath together, soaping one another with cheerful erotic abandon. Marcia ran her fingers through the thick pelt of Monboddo’s muscular back and Edward knew it was not Monboddo but Denny even though he always remained an orangutan. Then he woke up.
Edward pulled up his trunks and stood with the brown water round his ankles. He could tell that the presence behind him was not a dream. For all of their caution he had detected their quiet bestial breathing. He could hear the coarse fluctuation of the cheek flaps of a large ape. He had conjured Monboddo from his dream. He did not know what to do. Perhaps he ought to face the apes, the little group that he was sure waited behind him, but he could not summon his courage. They would throw him from the cliff like Denny’s dog. He did not think that they would follow him into the water. He trod forward carefully, feeling his feet sink into the soft sand. He tried not to disturb the water as though that were the consciousness of the apes.
They did not follow him as he had supposed they would not. Nor did they begin to skirt the shore of the tarn as he had feared they would. He risked a glance behind him. The apes were picking through his clothes and draping them about themselves. His shirt was thrown into the water where it sank hopelessly.
To his left, just for a moment, he saw a figure slip below the hill he thought was Denny. He had raised a hand, but the figure was gone. Surely Denny would have helped him.
Edward walked slowly across the tarn. It was never necessary to swim, but he stroked the water aside with his arms as he waded up to his chest. Monboddo and his apes had not moved. Edward continued to look behind him, almost defiantly now, as he reached the further shore. This is why he did not see the second group of apes awaiting him there and which suddenly rose to meet his white dripping nakedness as he stepped into the air again. There were several apes here, all females. An elderly creature he did not know shuffled over to him, standing as upright as a man and reached out her hand with its crooked wrist to touch his pale face. He dashed this away before she reached him and ran through the apes, painfully, breathlessly among the spiky heather in his silly swimming trunks. A shameful bleat might have escaped him. Again he was not followed, not even by a call.
Jack said it was Denny’s birthday. Would they like to go over for a drink and some stew? Such an invitation was not turndownable. What might they say? They were busy? They had been asked elsewhere? The promise of stew was delightful. Edward put on a dark jacket and Marcia a tight but high-necked protective jumper. She had decided to give Denny a whirlpool sketch as a birthday gift.
Obviously, Denny’s party was going to take place outside of the Norton’s house, inside which neither Edward nor Marcia had ever been. It was a barbecue, but with stew. There was music; loud and barbaric. There were many apes, some of which were more or less always there as though they regarded Jack and Denny’s house as their own and some of which perhaps had been invited to the party. Much drink had already been taken. Also by the orangutans. Both Jack and Denny had taken off their shirts. Jack looked younger the more naked he was. Edward felt frail beside him.
The Dayaks have a story which says that the gods made the orangutan the day after they made men, but they had been celebrating and were still drunk. Some of the apes seemed to be playing with a ball. Others had umbrellas. They loved umbrellas. Denny was thrilled with his picture and took it immediately into the house. He went in to have a look at it several times during the party. Marcia, of course, could not be flattered and had half an idea that she should regret the gift.
Denny wanted to dance with Marcia and they did dance in a manner of speaking. But the music was horrible, and Denny did not know how to dance and was already a little too drunk. He reached out his hands in the hope that Marcia would take them, but she did not. His fingers wove the air like a magician’s.
Jack and Edward looked on at them unhappily. Edward thought, for the first time, that he knew why Jack did not like him. It was because Edward was the purveyor of this useless and dangerous knowledge, this science. It was Edward’s fault what had happened to Denny and to the world, and yet for all his cleverness he could not catch a fish, gut a rabbit nor even make a fire with that miraculous ease that Denny could manage.
Denny had stopped dancing and was now showing Marcia how he was trying to teach the apes to make a fire, in which they did seem to be very interested, but at which they had evidently made no progress. The apes might have done better if they were not drunk. Jack found their drunkenness funny. Edward thought the Nortons both too intimate with the apes and too brutal towards them. Jack called them beasts, but he drank from the same cup as them.
He went over to look at Jack’s generator, powered by petrol. They had little enough of that left, but little enough use for it. Jack’s contraption was ingenious. He wondered where he had learned of such things. He didn’t really know anything about him. A young ape came over, sent by Denny, for some of the bundle of newspapers, to help light the fire. Then he became curious about the papers and began sorting through them, turning the pages and getting frustrated by how difficult it was for him to do that without tearing them. Various advertising inserts fell out promoting impossible goods and services. Among these Edward found the photograph of Marcia in the bathing costume. He gave it to the ape to put on the fire.
From his corner by the stinking machine, conscious that he was already a little tipsy himself, he had his vantage. Edward and Marcia thought the apes essentially beautiful. Jack and Denny took it for granted that they were very ugly. Looking like an ape meant being ugly. Edward told himself he must not hate people and must not say that he did to Marcia. He no longer knew what counted as normal behaviour, for apes or humans. The answer was changing.
Jack was teasing Conrad, offering him a cup and then snatching it away from him, splashing him with the hot stew and flicking at his youthful cheek flaps as though in mockery. Jack had had too much. Edward could have stepped over and distracted Conrad, or Jack, but he decided to watch. The ape must finally have lost its temper, but in a way that Edward had not seen before. He reached out for Jack’s hand and quietly crushed it, not brutally, not breaking anything, but from the new expression on Jack’s face, very painfully. Then he let him go and Jack got up and left Conrad to sip punch and stew straight from the cauldrons.
That had seemed a very human punishment to Edward. That was not how the apes were with one another. He wondered if he would ever get off this island, over the abysmal sea.
Edward found himself thinking about Denny. He felt he had to go to see him, to talk to him about Marcia. He wanted to punish Denny but did not know that he would be able to do that. Jack had been down at the quay all that morning and Edward knew that he would find Denny alone at his house, if he could find him at all. He made his way across the heather with empty hands.
In the ape world, to have three men competing for one woman would be a disaster. Who would win that competition if it were allowed to run its course? Who would Marcia choose if she were allowed to choose? A huge beetle zoomed past his ear.
Would it be a good thing if Denny were cleverer? More like Jack and less like the apes. The difference between himself and Denny was not a matter of education. It was more to do with language, or education made clear through language. It was not what Edward knew, because Denny knew a lot. But both Denny and Jack had a predictable lack of mental agility. If Denny were the father of Marcia’s child, then it might be born an idiot.
He noted the tarn over to the left and became more aware of his surroundings. He was surprised he had not seen more orangutans. There were so many now it was unusual to see none on even a short walk and Edward had initially been on his guard against a large group. Jack had once joked, if it was a joke, that they might invite hunters to the island, as a way of raising revenue they did not need. He saw the smoke from the Nortons’ fire. You could smell it even from here in this clear air. He might get a plate of stew before he had to speak harshly to this hairy boy.
He could see things were not right before he could see clearly how wrong they were. He had never known Denny the worse for drink except at his party and only a very drunk man would lie like that, and he was too close to the fire. The fire smelled bad. There were no apes around at all.
Denny was dead and his shoulder and one side of his face were burned or at least blistered. On the way to being meat. One arm was twisted under him unnaturally. He had been thrown or dragged there. He had not fallen like that. Where was Jack? Where were the apes? Edward could see Denny’s rifle propped by the door. He got the boy out of the fire. One side of him smouldered but the other side of his face was largely undamaged by the flames. The fire had not been fierce. Denny’s body must have put it out. The unburned profile was the wrong colour. Red, even purple, but not because of the fire. He might have been poisoned, Edward thought.
Edward knew Jack was down by the quay, but he felt sure he would never see him again. This part of the island was for the apes now.
Edward had been running as best he could until his legs would not carry him through the heather any farther. He had fallen more than once and his face stung with the cuts from the unforgiving woody stems. He had wanted to get to the quay but did not really know the best way from Jack’s house and he had not wanted to go via the compound because that was too far and perhaps for fear of what he might find there. Marcia had gone to the cliff-top or the seal beach.
He stumbled again. When he raised his head, that old female orangutan was looking into his watery eyes or off to the side of him as though she were blind. Her averted gaze allowed him to stare at her. She was beautiful. It was natural to love the apes, because they were beautiful. If this creature would come back to the compound with him, he would give her a nun’s name as he had with Grace and Charity and others. What would that be? This is what was happening, so he knew that it was what was meant to happen, what had been hoped for. He reached for her face, the moustacheless chin beard a little grey. He stroked the really beautiful muzzle. He hoped he had been forgiven for slapping at her hand after his swim in the tarn. She touched his sharp cuts with the tips of her tough fingers, tenderly.