[This short story was first published in Dr Mukti And Other Tales Of Woe]
Then he was back, suddenly and savagely. Not that he knew he was back, he simply found himself in a room full of monsters, lanky, pasty giants clad in disgusting nether garments, who, rather than beat him compassionately into stability, kept their distance and moaned. Their vocalisations were so low and febrile, so ghostly. They made no signs that he could comprehend and when he could bear it no longer he attacked.
They sedated him – that much he knew. When he came to again he was in a padded cell on the psychiatric ward of a hospital. While he had no clear memory of what lay either side of this nasty null space, he grasped that he’d been in a similar one before, for it felt familiar to him.
The monsters came and pressed their sharp muzzles against the tiny panel of toughened glass in the door. Periodically they entered the cell so as to inject him with drugs and he sprayed them. Once he was docile they wiped away the shit and piss. They told him that he had a history of this kind of thing, so they weren’t inclined to pay any attention to his panicky vocalisations or frantic signing.
Fearing he was mad – for they were animals – he found that he could understand them, even though their long, thin, hairless fingers were so flaccid and insignificant. One of them took an interest in him, coming to sit beside him on the wipeable surface, pen and notebook in its static hand. When he tried to impart the whole story of what had happened to him with the intensity that it required, this creature reared back from his agitating fingers. If he managed to touch it, it hit a button and others came to restrain him, then probed him with the fat needle. But if he could keep back from the white-robed animal, while it watched him warily all the time, it grunted assent and feigned sympathy.
He told it that it and its kind were monstrous aliens to him, that they should have fur all over their bodies, not just on their tubular heads. He told it that to him their eyebrow ridges were grotesquely nude, while their exposed skin was repulsively soft. He told it that because their fingers were so still and their toes were sheathed in leather he could not fully believe in anything they tried to communicate. He told it that unless he could see their anal scrags and genital swellings he could not be sure they were like him in any meaningful way. He told it that their very odour was offensive to him, a thin stench blanketed with toxic chemicals which rasped his nostrils and made him gag.
When, in turn, it asked him what the dominant creatures were like where he came from, he told it chimpanzees, we are chimps. Chimpanzees inhabit the whole earth, chimps knuckle-walking in the streets, chimps displaying in the government buildings and brachiating through the trees in the public parks. The most vivid expression of social life was, he told it, a crowd of chimps mating and fighting, their fur erect. Then he implored it to touch him, to caress him, to groom him thoroughly as any caring chimpanzee would do, but still it remained aloof.
Instead of grooming him it told him that he was deluded, that his vision of a chimpanzee society was only that, a fantasy built up out of satirical books and science-fiction films. It told him that chimpanzees were animals, nothing more. That only a few tens of thousands remained alive in the wild, and their numbers were declining rapidly as they were hunted for food by the poor people who dwelled in the equatorial jungle.
Who were these ‘pee-pul’? he asked. The vocalisation, so unfamiliar, so infantile, yet came to him unbidden. These people, it said, were humans, benighted humans but humans all the same. And like all other humans they could walk erect and speak many different languages. Humans possessed the most advanced technologies and performed great feats of construction. Humans had been to the moon and sent their machines still further into space. It was humans who ruled this earth and all other creatures were subordinate to them, mere gammas and deltas in the evolutionary hierarchy. Hearing these absurdities he yammered and howled and gnashed and threw himself about the cell in a frenzied display until the others came and they sheathed their fat needle in his scrawny, quaking flesh.
When they’d all gone he dragged himself upright and staggered to the door. In the glass panel he saw his own pitiful muzzle reflected. But could it be his, because like theirs it was scarcely lined. He had a tuft of fine hair on top of his head and sparse tufts sprouted on his muzzle, but apart from more thin patches around his hidden scrag and exposed penis his body was bare under his dirty robe. He felt weak, unbearably weak, and his awareness of the space about him was awfully hazy. His peripheral vision was almost non-existent and, even after this long period in this one room, he still couldn’t grasp the positions of the few things allowed to him, the cardboard table and chair, the plastic piss pot. Often, moving backwards, he knocked the piss pot over and sprayed his own urine into his frightened muzzle.
The humans told him that his weakness was good. They told him that the low cries he increasingly uttered were a sign he was recovering. They encouraged him to take the pills they gave him rather than waiting for the needle, and respectful – as all apes must be – of the hierarchy in which he found himself, he obeyed. As a reward they allowed him out of the cell and on to a ward of others who they assured him were like himself.
They were, in part at least. They gurned and howled like chimpanzees, and like chimps they tried to get their fingers in his fur. They yammered and fought like chimps, and on several occasions he even saw them attempt to mount one another, although this was frustrated by their absurd nether garments. Then the attendants came, as languorous as ever, limping on their rigid legs, and dragged them apart.
At first he couldn’t tell which creatures were female because he couldn’t see their sexual swellings or if they were in oestrus. But after a while he realised that the smaller ones with the longer, finer head fur tended to be females, and by thrusting his muzzle close to their crotches he could tell when they were ovulating. This behaviour, far from being appreciated, was met with bass cries of horror on the part of his captors, so he learnt not to do it and to cower away from the females.
After what must have been weeks on the ward he was allowed to visit the hospital cafeteria with one of the nurses. He was led out into the public areas of the building. Here he saw still more humans, buttoned up tight in their stupid clothing, ignoring each other and staring straight ahead with their oddly monocular gazes. The throngs on the stairways and in the corridors parted instinctively to allow the passage of the throngs coming in the opposite direction. The humans’ movements were at once abrupt and languid as they wafted past.
He sat with the nurse in the cafeteria and ate their awful carbohydrate mush and rotten carrion. The only fruit available looked injection-moulded and stank of chemicals. Heading back to the ward they passed by the revolving door in the main hall. Slices of the outside world were cut up and flung at him: a red bus, a black cab, an orange milk float. Across the road he could make out a terrace of red-brick houses, and on one of them a street sign he recognised. It read ‘Fulham Palace Road’. He didn’t screech, he didn’t cachinnate, he didn’t lash out, but in the numb core of him something gave way and he was forced to acknowledge that it was true, that this was the world he’d always known, but now it was dominated by the loathsome animals. It was the planet of the humans.
After this day what his captors chose to call his recovery rapidly progressed. While his movements still felt stilted, crippled even, to them they were only side effects of the medication. He took very little interest in their world but he stopped spraying them when they brought him food. They told him that since he was getting better he should know that he was a person of some standing, that he had a family, friends and a career. They brought two infants to see him and told him that they were his. He sat on the far side of a Formica-topped table from the two sub-adult males and the female who they told him had once been his consort, but he felt no affection for them, or kinship. They looked like all the rest, with their brutish muzzles, their staring eyes, their jerky yet slow gestures. He managed to display a few signs of interest in them, but was glad when they went. They didn’t return.
It was the same with the other humans they told him were his friends and colleagues. He stared at them, they stared back at him. They groaned their pathetic reassurances, he groaned back his excruciating sense of total dislocation. To one or two of them he attempted an explanation of the other world he’d lived in, its exhilarating vigour and violent intimacy, its rank scents and sensual smells, its cathartic fighting and speedy mating. However, they looked either shocked, bored, or repelled, and sometimes all three. He was glad when these visits began to decline, and still more pleased when they ceased altogether.
They told him that he had to leave the hospital, that he was well enough now to manage by himself in what they called sheltered accommodation. He hoped this would be a great grove of trees, their branches cunningly interleaved, which he could disappear into and where he could build his nest, high above the threatening ground with its legions of bipedal ghosts. It turned out to be a mean little block of bedsitting rooms, single-storeyed and set around a square of dirty grass, smeared with dog shit and glittering with broken glass. The dogs frightened him; where he’d come from they hadn’t been domesticated. The world outside his room frightened him as well. It was exactly the same as the city he remembered but a third larger to match the scale of its current lofty inhabitants. When he had to go outside, he preferred not to look up at the tops of the buildings, their vast size made him dizzy. He inched along the inside of the pavement, occasionally, despite himself, dropping to his knuckles and scuttling on all fours.
The nether garments he had to wear made him feel constricted, breathless. When he was certain he couldn’t be observed – usually as he skulked on a patch of waste ground near the block – he’d loosen them and let his genitals flop out into the cool air. Fortunately he didn’t have to go out that often. A human came to clean his room and would also shop for the plastic fruit he hated but still desired. The same human helped him to fill out the forms he needed to get money from the post office. These were the only interactions he could tolerate, for if he spent too long with any individual human – no matter how palsied and strange he still found them – he’d be compelled to grasp for their shoulder, thrust his muzzle close to theirs, while entreating them with agitated fingers to bury their fingers in his head fur, or mock-mate him, or hit him so as to convince him that he was still alive, still chimp.
Doctors came every week to give him injections. He obeyed them when they told him to take his other medication with unfailing regularity, for he found that if he didn’t the world became a still more terrifying place, as his energy level rose and his perception widened, until he had an irrepressible urge to scamper up the façades of buildings, or force the humans he encountered to acknowledge his dominance by kissing his hairless arse.
The creature who’d first listened to him in the Charing Cross Hospital still came to see him from time to time, and at her suggestion he began to attend an art therapy group held in the community centre attached to his sheltered accommodation. She told him, this doctor, that she’d met him years before after his first breakdown. She told him that he’d once been a very famous and successful artist, and that she was sure the way forward for him – if not to total recovery at least towards some acceptance of his condition – lay through his art. Although he thought she was stupid this did make a peculiar kind of sense, for the world he found himself in was so grindingly itself that he could find no way of describing it in any other terms. A chair was a chair, a car a car, a house a house. If he wanted the other world back – the planet of the apes to which he hearkened with every fibre of his being – then he would have to paint it into life. Perhaps in the process he would discover an idiom which would make it bearable to speak of being human.
He went to the art therapy sessions and sat with the other sick beings. The brushes, charcoals and pencils felt familiar, but his own fingers remained alien to him, too long and bony, too weak for him to manage the fine muscle control necessary to render the depictions he envisaged. He wanted to make small canvases, thickly layered, which would portray the teeming world he’d lost, with its bristly figures so closely meshed that they’d appear as a single, heaving rug of warm connectivity. But when he tried to execute them his brushstrokes were too clumsy and the paintings turned out as muddy daubs.
The human who supervised the group tried to encourage him, saying that the paintings were different, a little unsettling perhaps, but definitely worth continuing with. He brought another human to see them, a female who said that she ran a small gallery of outsider art and she’d like to have two or three of them to exhibit. Outsider art. The expression made him howl with derision. How far outside she had no way of comprehending. Outside of time, outside of space, outside of this whole miserable world with its sexless, peg-legged, slick-skinned, feeble-fingered inhabitants.
Yet he went to see the gallery and met some of the people associated with it. He could tell how peculiar they found him, and often after he’d turned away his acute hearing picked up the things they said behind his back.
“Simon Dykes, y’know …” they said.
“What, the painter?”
“But he was so well known at one time, there’s stuff of his in the Tate, isn’t there?”
“That’s right, but he had a breakdown, two in fact, very severe as you can see. He’s little more than a shell of a man, hardly anything left in him that’s human.”
“Odd, most peculiar, and these mucky little things are his?”
“I’m afraid so, I think she only shows them for their curiosity value. Even compared to the work of other mentally ill painters they have no discernible merit. If they bear comparison with anything it’s those paintings done by chimpanzees under the tutelage of animal psychologists.”
It was a time of war and oppression. From what he heard at the gallery millions of humans were being starved, tortured and murdered by their own species. How the gallery goers made him laugh with their talk of ‘humanity’ and ‘human rights’. They thought themselves the very lords of creation as they supped their alcoholic grape juice with their fat wet lips. Standing there in their sagging bags of skin, never touching, never hugging, never – that he could see – mating, their very perception of the world a single cone of certainty, which projected out from their ugly muzzles, only to dip down to the ground within a few feet.
At one of these gatherings a female approached him and made signs indicating that she was interested in something else besides disparaging him. The odours were, as ever, masked with tight garments and smelly water, but he could tell she was in oestrus. When she suggested he accompany her back to her home and then encouraged him to join her in her nest, the thought of finally getting to grips with another – even another of another species – was too much for him to resist.
But oh the revulsion of the soft stroking and feeble palping she forced upon him! There was no intimate force or erotic vigour to this encounter. When she made it clear through her guttural groans that he should mate her, he found himself lapsing into more natural and cohering behaviour. He grabbed her head fur tightly, rammed into her tiny swelling deeply, then cuffed her with true affection. She moaned pathetically, dragged herself from under him, and backed into the corner of the nest with the insane look of a half-broken animal on her muzzle.
“It’s my fault …” she whimpered. “It’s my fault.”
He returned to his sheltered accommodation, expecting the doctors to come for him, to net him and stab him with their poison-tipped spears. But they never did.
He gathered other things about his past from the female doctor who still came to see him. Apparently, after his last breakdown, he’d been treated by a very eminent, very well-known doctor. The doctor – a former colleague of the female’s – had even taken him into his own group in an attempt to heal him.
He discovered where the doctor lived and went there. It was a hilltop suburb, where the windows of the large houses looked out over a stretch of open heathland to the grey city below. Crossing the heath to reach the doctor’s house, he allowed himself to believe he was back in the world he loved, reunited with his tough and hairy body. He leapt for low-hanging branches and swung from them, he beat his chest and waa-barked in the gathering darkness, he tore at his nether garments and exposed himself to the night air. The few humans he encountered ran away from him, screaming in a most satisfying fashion.
When he arrived at the doctor’s house his clothes were in tatters and he was bleeding in several places. He leapt over the garden gate and knuckle-walked up to the front door which he banged on with both fists. After a while the door swung open to reveal a fat male with sparse white head fur. The famous doctor looked at him with that expression – at once blank and meaninglessly quizzical – which he’d come to understand was typical of the species. The doctor uttered no vocalisation, nor did his twisted old digits make any sign. After a while he shut the door again.
He sat there on his haunches and his large ears picked up the sound of a telephone being dialled inside the house, then low mutters. Isn’t it strange, he reflected, how when I had the delusion that I was human they couldn’t do enough to help me, but now that they’re certain I am one they don’t care at all.
Then squatting down still further he readied himself for the arrival of the ambulance, the siren of which he could already hear, screeching its way through the alien jungle.