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Excerpt: 'The People on Privilege Hill'

'The People on Privilege Hill'

From the story "Pangbourne"

I sit at my computer. It is my first. It is a present from the parish, and generous; for I am old and mad, and I do not look a natural for technology. I am not very friendly. My e-mail address is pangbourne.

This melancholy word has nothing to do with a place, or surname. It is the name of the great gorilla at our local zoo: the ape that has been the love of my life.

Pangbourne and I met soon after my marriage, when I moved down here to the blossoms and hops of Kent. I had married a Bounder, very late in life. He was after my money. There were terrible quarrels and, a creaking and distracted bride, I was soon to be seen trudging down Bekesbourne lane to Patrixbourne village, weeping.

Along the lane stands the zoo and one day at its gates appeared a huge banner: a four-times-life-size poster of a great gorilla. I was transfixed. It was love at first sight. I paid my five pounds and went in. And found him.

At once I knew that I must see him every day of my life and I arranged to donate almost every penny of my money to the zoo in return for free entry until my death.

The Bounder left me, shouting back at the house in the village street, "You're unnatural, that's what you are. You are the gorilla. You've gorilla's hands." That evening someone from the church brought me some flowers.

The Bounder was actually right. I have the hands of a gorilla. My fingers are thick as sausages and purple in cold weather. My nails are broad as postage stamps, my fingertips square, my knuckles an inch thick. I have read that the developing foetus passes through all the stages of God's creation. There is the insect, the reptile, the fish, the bird, the ape. You can see in many a human being the dominant stage of this development. The Bounder missed being a reptile by scarcely a hundred million years.

Something more extraordinary must have happened to my embryo, however, for though I am a small-boned little woman with a delicately shaped nose, and genteel and shapely feet, my hands seem to belong to somebody else. As a child I was not allowed piano lessons, I expect because they were embarrassed by my hands.

This day, the day of my great sadness, I have locked the door on myself and my computer (which inadvertently I manage deftly, swinging the mouse, flipping the paragraphs); I have locked myself in against watchers of my simian hands.

But it is strange that in all my eighty years nobody has ever said anything about my hands, except the Bounder.

The years have gone by. Every afternoon in all weathers, through sultry Augusts to black Kent Januaries when most of the animals kept to their lairs, I have walked the lane, carrying my little canvas stool. I have set it down outside the cage of Pangbourne.

The cage is vast. He shares it with his powerful extended family and also with some chimps who hurl themselves about above him, swing and drop at his feet or creep up from behind. Talking their heads off. He brushes them away with his iron hand and stares at something far beyond the zoo.

The crowds gather at the thirty-foot-high wire mesh and steel barrier, nose to nose with the notices that say "These Animals Are Dangerous." They say, "Look! That's 'im. In 'e big? That's 'im on the poster. I wun like them fingers raan me neck."

Pangbourne broods.

One of the things I've learned in the years we've been together: one does not look into a gorilla's eyes. I know his hot terrifying eyes only from an occasional sidelong glance. I have never caught him looking into mine.

Yet we are one.

It was many months before I addressed Pangbourne. It was on a bitter afternoon. Only the snow leopard and the wolves were out of doors. Not ape or monkey was to be seen, for even those born in captivity, like Pangbourne, hate the cold, and this was the coldest snap for years. I was so surprised and delighted to see Pangbourne wrapped loosely about with straw, in his usual place by the wire, the glorious inky core of him like a rock in a harvest field—his dear head that goes up to a point, his tongue and bald patch, his working jaw—that I cried out, "Pangbourne! You are here!"

He was busy helping himself to sugar. A solution is kept filled up in a narrow pot hung inside upon the wire. All the apes take twigs and dip them in these pots, take out the twig and lick it. They are expert and dexterous, and the crowds love it. Pangbourne began to clean his yellow teeth with the twig, then nonchalantly threw it away. He yawned.

"I'm glad the sugar pot's not frozen," I said.

He sighed, hugely, and looked away over my head at the jungles and shimmering mountains and the tropical flowers, the glitter of suggested snakes, the stirrings in the underscrub and the silence above in the steaming forest canopy. His nostrils flared, searching for the sweet stench of rotting fern and the spice bushes. His eyes blinked at the metallic purple wings of butterflies the size of swallows that lived in his head.

"I've never seen any of that, either," I said. "I've not been out of England, myself."

For a very odd moment Pangbourne looked at me and I knew he had the gist of it. He had no words, but he understood, and for months to come we conversed silently, paddling the two separate mulches of ideas that lurk wordless in the recesses of the brain, the mulch behind the word skills, drawn from the primeval soup. Once I wondered if Pangbourne was looking at my hands.

So the years passed.

I became almost an inmate of the zoo, sitting with my thermos of tea on my camp stool. As Pangbourne performed his party trick with the twig, he watched me at mine, unscrewing the top of the thermos and transforming it into a cup. The chimps provided the chorus, flinging themselves against the wire, trying to grab and tear, screaming like bad children. The gorillas sat about, unmoved. A blow from Pangbourne could easily kill. One snarling bite and the chimps would scatter, shrieking. And yet I knew him for a gentle beast and could have slept quietly in his arms.

Except when the public was near, I talked to my love all the time. The public did not often bother me, though they sometimes took photographs. I suppose I was rather a show for I had long ceased to care how I looked, except that, when not alone with Pangbourne, I always wore gloves.

One day Pangbourne wasn't there.

I waited an hour before I asked a keeper, who told me that the great ape had bronchitis. "I must see him," I said, and because I had given so much money to the zoo and expected one day to be commemorated on a plaque upon the gorillarium (like the poor keepers who over the years have been eaten by tigers and whose names are carved on a little cenotaph— with a space for more) he said that he would ask permission.

The next day—oh, what an agonised night!—he took me to Pangbourne's private chamber and there the great gorilla lay on a shelf with his face to the wall, his back (I now saw) silvery with age. He had a flannel blanket clutched round him like my old gran. I wanted to hug him and rock him and give him a peppermint. "Pangbourne!"

"No. No closer," said the keeper, but I knew that the gorilla had heard my voice.

He was out in the cage again by the spring, in the pale sunshine, but he had failed. He blinked a lot and swung his head—when he lifted it and tried to peruse the sky, soon he bowed down. He took no interest in the syrup supply.

I could not see for weeping.

Suddenly I thought to sing to him and, oblivious to the public and the chimps, I raised my voice in a hymn. "We are travelling home to God," I sang, "in the way our fathers trod."

I silenced the zoo! Pangbourne rolled forward in the straw and lay in a large loose heap. I never had a tuneful voice.

I drew on my gloves and went home.

I didn't attend the zoo after that for a full week. I had caught a nasty chest myself. I kept to my bed and missed church on Sunday. On the Monday morning someone called and said I was wanted up at the zoo and should she take me when I felt better. "Please take me now," I said.

"Yes," they said at the zoo. "Come this way please. The owner would like to speak to you," and they took me to the owner's house up the curved white steps and under the spun-sugar portico.

He was the soul of kindness (well, I'd given him my everything) and said he wanted to tell me himself that Pangbourne was now very ill and must be "put out of his misery." He seemed sad. He took my hands—I had forgotten the gloves—and looked at them. "What pretty hands."

Together we walked to the gorillarium and Pangbourne still sat in the cage. "I'll leave you together," said the owner. It was early in the morning, the public not yet admitted. The zoo lay still.

I had not my canvas stool with me and so I had to lean against the barrier fence as we are not meant to do. I took a very quick glance at Pangbourne, who was gazing as usual at the sky. A revelation came to me.

I bore him, I thought. All these years I have bored him. I have literally bored him to death.

But then the gorilla sighed and heaved himself together somewhat. Still without looking at me he felt around for a twig. After a pause he made a stab or two at the syrup bottle and fell back exhausted. Then he passed the twig to me through the bars.

Excerpted from The People On Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam. Copyright (C) 2007 by Jane Gardam. Reprinted with permission from Europa Editions. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Gardam