1990, Riga, Latvia
The piercing phone ring interrupts my sacred morning drift between the sleep and awakening. With blurry eyes I try to focus on the alarm clock, while reaching for the receiver.
‘Good morning, Rasa. Do you still have Angelica?’
Angelica is our pet grass snake. Only my dearest friend Yvonne would call so early in the morning with such an urgent enquiry.
‘She is doing fine.’ I hope she can feel the venom in my voice. Even my children don’t dare to wake me up before the alarm goes off, especially over wellbeing enquiries about a snake. ‘What do you want?’
‘I wonder if you would agree to lend her.’
‘See, we are putting an exhibition together in the big hall, Alexander and I, and a guy from Belarus with some cool stuff will be joining, but we still have some cages empty.’
‘I see.’ Since Soviet citizens have been allowed to start little private enterprises in the spirit of Gorbachev’s perestroika, many people try to do something, and salaries at the state Zoo never had been great. ‘Just a moment; I’ll grab my coffee mug.’ I put the receiver on the pillow, search for my slippers and wander out to the kitchen.
While I sip my coffee, we discuss in detail Angelica’s feeding schedule, the latest political events and different apple cake recipes. At the end we reach an agreement – Roland, her current boyfriend, will collect Angelica who will be well cared for during the exhibition and then returned. All I need to do is to prepare a clean pillow case and a cosy cardboard box.
But two days later Yvonne calls again. ‘Angelica is a monster.’
‘What? What do you mean? She has always been such a sweetheart.’
‘Well, she is definitely not anymore, whatever you mean by that “sweetheart”. She is a vicious monster, attacking everybody who goes close to her cage. This morning I tried to offer her a nice, fresh, and very alive frog, and she nearly snapped my finger off.’
‘Are you serious? Our Angelica?’
‘Sorry. She needs to go back home or she’ll die from the stress. Listen, I have an idea. Why don’t you bring the children here for an afternoon, and then later Roland can drive you lot back home?’
My children do not need a second invitation. For five year-old Karl, four year-old Rob and our youngest, three-old Julia, the Zoo is their favourite destination, and an exhibition is even better. If our Zoo is very serious about international agreements, captivity breeding programmes and safety rules, providing rather limited entertainment for Homo vulgaris, this exhibition is the very opposite. It offers everything our Zoo detests – there are parrots to feed and a domesticated raccoon with several tricks to keep people amused.
‘Where is the freak show? Bearded woman, etcetera?’ I mutter over Yvonne’s shoulder, assessing the atmosphere in the exhibition hall. ‘No wonder Angelica hates this circus.’
Somebody walks past us with a huge python, offering everyone to take a picture with the snake and Yvonne introduces Alexander to me.
‘His specialty is reptiles and spiders.’ We shake hands and I realise that this is a freak show, indeed.
‘You know, he was bitten by a scorpion,’ Yvonne laughs. ‘Guess what happened?’
I look at Alexander, carefully wrapping the python on the shoulder of a big, bossy bloke for a photo shot. ‘Nothing, I presume?’
‘Wrong. Poor scorpion died. Alcohol poisoning.’ Yvonne giggles. ‘Andrei is not much better, but well worth it. Look at them.’ She points at a guy surrounded by the largest crowd. He is in his late twenties, dark curly hair and a beaming smile. A dark haired baby leans against his shoulder in a tight grip. ‘Andrei!’
The guy turns around and I see he’s holding, not a human baby, but a monkey. A chimpanzee. That is something special. Our Zoo has no primates, and this is the first one I have seen in person.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘This is our Regina.’ The little creature in his hands, dressed in a pink cardigan and nappies, leans forward and offers her hand to me for a kiss.
‘Wow. That’s a neat trick. How did you manage to teach her that?’
‘Well, no, actually it’s not a trick.’ Andrei smiles. ‘It’s natural in chimpanzee society. That way she just shows submission.’
‘Hey, hey! So all that hand kissing gallantry of the Victorian era is nothing more than a simple act of natural submission, coming from the depths of the evolution chain?’
‘Exactly,’ Andrei grins.
‘I know some feminists who would strangle you for such revelations.’ I wink and smile.
‘Natural laws are not my fault.’ Andrei pushes Regina into my arms. ‘Can you hold her for a second? I desperately need a fag.’ He waves and disappears towards the staff exit.
I feel as fascinated by her as my children are. Regina has long rough, dark, neatly parted hair, long arms with narrow palms and long fingers. Her ears are big and her nose flat in comparison with a human, but her dark brown eyes… They are definitely the eyes of a human being. It feels weird, as though the boundary between a human and an animal had vanished, leaving this cute, puzzled creature in my arms. In admiration Rob squeezes the baby in a tight hug. And the baby hugs him back.
‘Where did you get her?’ I ask when Andrei returns.
‘In Moscow. I was just looking around the Bird Market, when this black bloke offered her to me. She was just two months old and didn’t look very promising. How he smuggled her in the plane, I have no idea, but it mustn’t have been the best trip. So I paid only five thousand bucks for her.’
‘Cheap? Sorry, I have no clue about the discount prices on monkeys.’
‘For a baby – yes. It’s Africa, after all. And brutally illegal, of course. The bloke said that her mother was served at his departure party when he left for the university in Moscow. It might not be true, of course, but that’s how the reality is, despite all the CITES lists and other crap which only looks good on paper.’ Andrei sounds genuinely concerned.
‘Poor baby.’ I feel sorry for this little orphan, whatever she is – a human or an animal. ‘At least now I can understand where Darwin got his evolution theory.’
‘Yeah! At nine months, she’s still so small that I suspect she might be a bonobo, the smaller variety of chimpanzees. The bloke at least told that he was from the Congo. If it works out like that, I will be in deep shit.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Bonobos are rare and valuable. It’s not so much about money; it’s about gene pool. Finding her a right partner later on will be a serious responsibility. And right now she has started to cough in this draft.’
‘Oh, I see. She has cold feet as well as hands. Why didn’t you get her some socks?’
‘She hates them. She takes them off faster than I can pull them back on.’ Andrei takes baby back and lightly bites her shoulder. ‘You, naughty girl.’
‘Have you considered a baby sleepsuit? You know, these footed one-piece things.’
‘That’s an idea.’
A new group of visitors appears and we drift apart. Karl wants to see the raccoon “washing” his dinner in a bowl and then some of Alexander’s fluffy spiders while Rob sticks with Yvonne, who carries around a friendly pet ferret. Julia holds onto my hand, still looking back at the fascinating baby with human eyes.
A few days later, when I hopelessly gaze into our fridge, considering the limited dinner options, my thoughts are interrupted by the phone. ‘Listen.’ It’s Yvonne again. ‘We’re a bit in a tangle right now. We’ll be going to Lithuania with the whole show tomorrow and Regina is coughing badly. Can you help?’
‘We thought you could babysit her for a while, till she gets better.’
‘I don’t know. I’m fairly busy right now.’ Am I?
‘Please!’ Karl already has overheard the conversation. ‘Mum, agree! One more baby won’t make a big difference, I’m sure.’
Julia and Rob join in, eyes sparkling. ‘Mum, please!’
‘Okay then! Tell Andrei I will take her.’ I shout in the receiver and slam it down. ‘Now, everybody! We’ll have Regina for a while but it will be hard work.
‘Who is Regina?’ John, my darling husband asks absently, head deep in the newspaper.
‘A chimp, John. A monkey.’
‘Oh, that’s nice. What we are having for din… what?’
‘Sometimes it’s worth paying attention to what your wife has to say,’ I point out, turning to the children. ‘She’s a baby. A very silly baby. So please, quickly, pack away all the small toys, tools, and everything dangerous. Remember – exactly like we prepared for the puppy’s arrival. You can leave only soft toys out.’ When the excited children run away to their room, I turn back to John. ‘Yes, dear, did you say something?’
John is sitting in the armchair; newspaper dropped on the floor. Seems he is struggling for breath. ‘A chimpanzee? In our house? You think it’s wise?’
‘Well, I think we still have some space here,’ I grin. ‘We don’t have much.’
John gasps in bewilderment. ‘Not much? One Keggy is enough.’
John has grounds for concern here. Keggy is our St. Bernard dog, and he takes a lot of floor space. Well, to be honest, most of the space – on the floor, on the sofa, in our bed.
‘But think about Rob,’ I say. ‘It’s such an opportunity for him.’ Rob, our four year-old is a devoted animal lover, but muscular atrophy ties him indoors where he struggles from one step to another.
‘Rob is my first worry, chimpanzees can be really dangerous.’
‘Okay, John, I don’t like the idea either, but she is just a baby. And she is ill. So you better check things out as well – our life is going to change for a while.’
An hour later Regina arrives, tightly wrapped in a blanket. She looks exactly like a tiny, ugly baby in Andrei’s arms.
‘Here are diapers,’ Andrei says to me. ‘Her pink jacket. Some hazelnuts – she loves them.’
I unwrap the bundle and hold her while Andrei sorts out Regina’s bag. And then, reluctantly, I let her loose to explore the room.
‘Listen, treat her like any two year-old human.’ Andrei laughs, noticing my worried look. ‘The only thing – if she is naughty, there is no point in punishing her other than biting her on a shoulder. Seriously! It’s what chimp mothers do.’
‘Right! Now I’ll be walking around biting monkeys… Fun-tastic! You are a true friend, Andrei!’ Still grumpy I rush across the room and pull Regina up in my arms when our dog slowly approaches, sniffing the new guest. ‘Keggy, careful, it’s a baby!’
‘Don’t worry. She’s much stronger than a human baby, and Keggy won’t harm her at all. Feel her muscles!’
Indeed. The little creature in my arms feels made of steel. ‘Okay then.’ I slowly put her back on the floor and watch how carefully Regina investigates her new environment. She lets Keggy sniff her hand. Then she slowly touches his shoulder. Keggy, as usual, has no objections. Maybe for him she is just another baby. I relax. ‘What does she eat?’
‘Oh… in general, everything a child would eat.’ Andrei shrugs. ‘Nothing too spicy or too salty. She is off baby food already, so no burden with that.’
‘You sound like a terrible father, Andrei!’ I tease. ‘Poor neglected baby!’
‘Well, that’s settled then. I must rush, the rest of animals need their dinner. We’re leaving early.’ Andrei waves and disappears while Regina slowly walks around, cautiously touching everything, followed by all three children.
‘She is such a fascinating creature.’ John finally nods. ‘It wasn’t such a bad idea of yours, after all. The children will have a blast.’
‘Mum, why we can’t have a monkey?’ Karl offers a toy to the shy newcomer.
‘Don’t even ask.’ I shudder. ‘Let’s have this discussion later. Now she needs food and sleep. And some of your cough syrup.’
Tonight we’re having mushrooms in cream sauce. With boiled potatoes and some salad – that should fit Regina perfectly, especially salad. I spread out plates on the table. Do I need to feed her or does she eat by herself? My dilemma is sorted out quickly as Regina jumps on the chair, ready for the meal.
‘Seems like she knows it all,’ John smiles while we watch Regina reaching for the fork.
‘What a waste of a nice mushroom sauce,’ I grumble while my family silently admire each morsel Regina carefully places in her mouth. ‘I’d serve you rocks and you wouldn’t even notice.’ But I’m mesmerized as well by Regina’s table manners. She eats graciously with the fork, no fingers involved at all. During the whole meal only one little tiny bit of potato escapes and falls on the floor. Regina like a hawk jumps off the chair, grabs the escaped bit and jumps back on the chair.
‘I wish you all would have such table manners.’ I sigh,
At the end of the meal when I offer Regina a mug of warm milk with some honey, we learn she has one bad habit after all. Regina carefully takes the mug, drinks the milk, checks if there is any left and when the last drop is gone, she turns and drops the empty mug on the floor.
‘Minus one,’ John smirks while I collect the broken china. ‘So what’s next?’
‘I’m sorry; she’ll sleep with us tonight, John. Tomorrow I’ll arrange a cot or something for her.’
‘Can she sleep with me?’ Julia pleadingly pulls my arm.
‘You know, I don’t think it’s the best idea, at least for tonight. Remember, she is an animal after all, with strong teeth.’ Julia seems disappointed but I want to be sure this baby is safe. With us and for us.
Blurp! The easy recognisable smell drifts across the room.
‘Here we go. Shit alert!’ John laughs when I jump up. ‘Baby on board!’
Regina is faster. She runs to her bag, grabs a fresh pamper and runs back right to me.
‘Wow! That’s smart.’ Even John is impressed. ‘At least we do know exactly who’s the monkey mother in this house.’
‘Shut up.’ I must remember how to wash a baby’s bum. And these diapers… A bit of a new art for me. ‘So much easier, just peel them off and toss right into the rubbish bin…’ I mumble, carrying Regina into the bathroom. Shit. Folding a diaper with one hand while holding a monkey in the other isn’t as easy as I expected. Well, I’ll clean that later… But on the other hand… This little monster is so much easier to handle. She holds on my arm without any problem, like she’s been glued to it. Now the towel and the new diaper… Which is front and which is back?
‘Julia, I need your help! Hold her a bit while I check this system!’ I unfold the new one in hope of understanding the design. ‘I see,’ I check the sides twice until I’m sure, then wash my hands. ‘Let’s try it again.’
With Julia’s help finally everything is in the right place and Regina is ready for bed.
‘John, hold her while I make the bed!’ I put her on John’s lap. Regina freezes.
‘Why she is so scared?’ John notices it as well.
‘I presume it’s a pack thing, hierarchy, something like that. She worked out already that you are the biggest monkey in this pack!’
‘Sweet girl! At least this one shows some respect here!’ John pats the chimpanzee’s head. ‘I like her hair.’
‘She’ll sleep on my side, I put the oilcloth there and another sheet. She must be comfortable there, and hopefully we will be too.’ I collect Regina from John’s lap and lift her in the bed. ‘Time to sleep, baby!’
Nope, Regina has a different opinion, exactly like a child. Screaming her guts out with long and devastating uh-uhs she wraps her long arms around my neck and holds on tight. I mean really tight. Her little arms are like iron clamps and I simply can’t remove her. ‘Okay, honey, this is an old trick. But we’ll do it different for tonight.’
I lie down on the bed with Regina still holding tightly to my neck. Seeing that I’m not determined to push her away, she relaxes and cuddles under my arm, holding onto me with only one hand now.
‘And now a fairy tale and a lullaby.’ John teases, looking at us. ‘Do you know any chimp ones?’
‘Seriously, John, it feels so weird. Like having another baby. When you look at these eyes… ’
A few minutes later John gently slides one finger over her head. ‘Poor little mite. She’s asleep now, you can leave her.’
We tiptoe together out of the room and carefully close the door. ‘Now,’ I rub my hands, ‘time for baby calls.’ I quickly organize coffee, light a cigarette and flick through my phone book.
‘Vita? Hi! I remember that your cousin had a baby. Must be a year old now, right? Incidentally – does she have any baby stuff left? … Yes, something between three to six months… Girl actually, but can be for boys as well…. No, no, I’ m not pregnant again, it’s a bit different, but I really need some stuff right now.’
The next call.
‘Rudy, listen, do you have Ilze’s number? She has a baby, right? … No, I’m just interested to see if she might have some baby stuff left…. Will you? That’s really nice of you, thanks! Roland will collect it tomorrow.’
The next. And the next. Finally I have my list sorted out. ‘John, that’s done. Now… No point taking her to the ordinary vet. I bet ours has never seen a live chimp. She needs a paediatrician.’
John dives into his phone book. ‘I can give a call to my aunt, the professor. She works on the cancer research but she might know someone suitable.’
‘Tell her that it’s nothing too serious, that we don’t need a top specialist. Our only problem is the baby itself – a bit extraordinary.’
We peek into the bedroom. Regina is sleeping on her side, both palms neatly under her cheek. I cover her with a baby blanket and tuck the sides in a bit. ‘I agree,’ John whispers, ‘it really feels like we have a baby again.’
‘It’s so easy to forget that she is an animal, after all. The boundary is gone. Look at her fingers. Wrinkly as they are, they are human.’
‘Okay then,’ John chuckles. ‘She can be our half baby. Our three-and-a-half baby family.’
The next morning I learn the hard way that waking up with the roosters isn’t an option anymore; from now on I must get up with the monkeys.
‘Oh my God,’ John lifts his head with a groan, looking around. ‘Did they provide the search warrant?
‘Go back to sleep. It’s just our half baby.’
Regina innocently sits in John’s chair, nibbling hazelnuts. Then she notices I’m awake and with a big, happy “Ech – ech’ jumps back in the bed and puts her arms around my neck. So sweet. Then, very businesslike, she grabs my hand and drags me into the dining room, right to her bag.
‘A fresh pamper?’
‘U-u-u! Ech! Ech!’
Our baby happily jumps up and down enjoying that she has been understood.
‘You can talk, do you? Good girl!’
‘Is she working for the KGB or something?’ With a big sigh John collects the ruined film rolls and pushes them in the bin while I try to arrange books back in the shelves. Regina watches us for a while, confused, then grabs a book and pushes it in the rubbish bin.
‘Yeah, I agree, that’s not the best author,’ John giggles, taking the book back out, ‘but throwing it out might upset our mummy and I can assure you that you’ll regret it if she goes ape.’
‘I’m ape-shit already.’ I grab Regina and carry her to the bathroom, leaving behind a little cloud of smell. This time it goes easier – there are skills you simply don’t forget overnight.
When Roland, Yvonne’s boyfriend, delivers the bag, I spread out Regina’s new layette. The best thing is the pink winter overalls with a hood. In that she’ll be cosy and warm even in the coldest weather. Two really nice knitted cardigans. A dozen sleepsuits. A few bonnets.
‘Everything we needed, really. Did you call your aunt?’
‘Yes, and she gave me the address. You can take her in right now.’
Introducing Regina to her new clothes goes easily. An old stretched sleepsuit fits perfectly – Regina’s body is bulky but her legs are way shorter than of a human baby.
The bonnet is not Regina’s favourite, but isn’t pulled off either. Then the pink overalls go on over everything. I tie the strings of the hood and now only Regina’s flat nose and wrinkly, wide mouth peek out.
‘Hold her!’ I push the pink bundle in John’s arms, grabbing my own jacket. One thing I still remember – when baby is dressed for the cold outside, you must leave the indoor heat as fast as possible. ‘Karl, my handbag! Now you all, don’t kill dad before I return. Ta-ra.’
November is an ugly month. City streets are covered in black ice and the first snow piles are crammed on the pavements. Winter endurance time, I think, climbing over the piles of icy snow, juggling my pink bundle in my arms. I jump into the tram and soon somebody politely offers the seat to ‘the lady with a baby’.
People, standing by, occasionally look at the baby and their expressions change from inadvertent curiosity into pity and pure horror. Regina, like a good human baby, has fallen asleep and has no idea about the effect she creates on fellow passengers. One lady even crosses herself and quickly moves farther back in the carriage, desperate to get away from us. I try to swallow the giggles.
The professor paediatrician has the opposite reaction. When I peel her new patient out of all the layers, she claps her hands and bursts out in admiring laughter. ‘Oh my God! That is some surprise. When my colleague called about a monkey baby I didn’t realise that she meant it literally. A chimpanzee?’ She offers baby a finger first, then a squeaky toy.
‘And what are we complaining about?’ The doctor takes the baby under the armpits and lifts her up. Regina hangs there quite comfortably, sucking one of her toes undisturbed. ‘She is so fit.’ Doctor admits with a surprise in her voice.
‘True Iron Maiden,’ I nod. ‘She has a nasty cough.’
‘Lungs are clear.’ The doctor takes the stethoscope away after a careful check up. ‘Heartbeat strong. Nothing to worry about so far. And we don’t want worries, do we?’ She gently tickles Regina’s tummy. Regina’s lips part, revealing full set of teeth in a weird grimace. She tosses her little feet up in the air and then a loud mixture of grunts and her happy ‘U-u-u!’ rolls out from the depths of her little body. Regina is ticklish.
‘This new herbal syrup works well, and plenty of camomile tea,’ the doctor tells me, scribbling recipes. ‘Do you mind if I’ll call in some of my colleagues?’
Within a minute about ten ladies burst into room, overexcited. ‘What’s her name?’ ‘She is tiny!’ ‘Darling, look at me.’ ‘Fantastic baby.’
Regina takes it all in like a pro. She travels from arm to arm, smiles, offers her hand for kisses and enjoys watching the bunch of academics going bonkers. At least I will be able report to Andrei that the whole paediatric department has checked his darling.
Next morning I take my three children and half baby for a walk to the nearest pharmacy. As I only have two hands and the streets are slippery, I create a harness, kind of a kangaroo bag for Regina so I can carry her on my front. And so we go – in one hand Julia, in the other Rob’s hand, and Karl, as the oldest and strongest, holds Rob’s other hand. And then Regina, harnessed, happily holding on my neck, excitedly clamouring her ech-ech’s and uh-uh’s.
As soon as we enter the pharmacy, the woman behind the counter calls out in outrage. ‘Mum! What are you doing?! In such a harness you’ll ruin the baby’s back. She is too young to be carried like that!’
Well, the lady means well but I truly do not like to be shouted at in pharmacies. ‘Really?’ I casually ask, removing Regina’s hand from my shoulder, and turn the harness around for the lady to see Regina’s face in the hood. Then I quickly turn her back again.
The scream of true horror departs the pharmacist’s lips. It looks as though she’ll faint. The assistant, a bottle still in her hand, runs out from the back and quickly assesses the situation. I can see the scene through her eyes. The pharmacy is empty, only a young mother with four little children standing there. No druggies, no drunken sods – no reason to scream at all. ‘What’s the matter? Have you seen a mouse?’ The assistant, quite annoyed, looks around.
The pharmacist behind the counter is still unable to speak. She just points a finger at us, gasping for air.
‘Ba-ba-bah-by!’ She finally manages to produce some kind of an answer.
‘You know, it’s not very polite to point fingers at other people’s children…’ I tease with a big grin, ‘…including these who are not children in the actual meaning of the word.’
‘What?’ Now the assistant is looking confused.
‘It’s a monkey!’ I turn Regina around again. ‘See, it’s not a child.’
Now both of them gaze in shock at the dark, wrinkled face in the pink hood.
‘Whatever, we need some cough medicine.’ I hand over my prescriptions. The lady slowly reaches for them, suspiciously reads and then, noticeably relieved, scans the shelves, looking for the right bottles. At least this is something she fully understands.
Regina settles in quickly and a few days later it feels like we’ve had her forever – our household is in complete havoc. I believed three children have trained my instincts well enough, but Regina beats me every time. She is curious, she is agile and she is fast.
‘Rasa? Do we have any mugs left?’ John asks, spreading jam on bread for the children.
‘None with handles, sorry. All off.’ I smile, laying out the table. ‘Get Regina off the curtains, please. Julia, can you play with Regina or something till I make breakfast?’
Julia now is Regina’s big sister and both my girls do play together. The little sister with the big one. Well, in nature they probably do not have dolls to play with, but the idea is there.
‘Mum, can Regina have my Raggedy Ann?’ Julia asked me seriously a few days ago. ’She prefers it from all my dolls.’
‘Yes, sure, Anny is baby safe, washable and we always can repair her.’
Since then Regina and Anny are inseparable. It seems as though chimpanzee girls really are not much different from human girls. The doll is carried around, sometimes head up, sometimes down, but Regina is blissfully happy with it. She holds Anny in her arms like a baby, takes her into bed, and when Regina is having a tantrum, Anny flies all over the room.
Oh, and if thought Karl at his tantrum phase was bad, Regina is a hundred times worse. Some of her tantrums are hard to understand, but some are clear. And the major one is over the separation. If Regina has decided that she needs her mummy right now, that’s it. That’s her “must have”. The drama she manages to create if I need to wash dishes or go shopping without her is truly impressive. So to save neighbours calling the child protection agencies I give up my freedom for now.
‘Are you comfortable?’ John asks, watching Regina climb up my leg and settle on my hip as I stand at the basin washing dishes.
‘Sure, it’s perfect to feel these steel fingers dug into my flesh. My bruises will never go away after this ordeal.’ I push Regina’s hand out of the frothy dish water. ‘I can’t fight over the tea towel all the time, John, so it will be your job to dry these dishes.’
We can’t accuse Regina for not trying. She truly tries her best to do the right thing. Accidents do happen even with the best of us, I think one evening, watching Regina sipping her late night milk. This time her concentration slips away, so when the cup is dropped on floor, there is still some milk in it, slowly seeping out and creating a near little puddle on the floor. With a worried ‘uh-uh’ Regina jumps down on the floor and access the drama. Then she looks around and, very businesslike, runs to the hall, returning with one of Julia’s red mittens. She bends down and rubs the wet spot, and finally, with another thought, pushes the dirty mitten in the bin.
‘Wow! That was impressive.’ John gives a round of applause. ‘If she keeps copying you like this, she can apply for a cleaner’s position soon.’
‘It’s more than that, John.’ I try to understand what just happened. ‘She didn’t use the mop. I hope you do not suspect me of using mittens instead of mop in your absence.’
John laughs at first, but then the penny drops. ‘So she made the link between the mop and any other piece of cloth?’
‘Yep. It’s not mirroring, it’s an impressive chain of logic. After that she realized that the poor mitten looks disgusting, so she got rid of it – to the bin where all the disgusting things go.’
Regina comes to me, jumps on my lap and puts her arms around my neck.
‘Clever monkey, what a clever monkey you are.’ I cuddle my little half baby. ‘This is such a confusing experience. Is she really an animal?’
Clever Regina has also figured out our family. I’m the mum of all babies. Changing nappies, feeding, and singing lullabies while tucking in bed. And a safety net in danger. If I’m not available, it’s Julia’s job to take care of the little sister.
Karl is the suspicious young male in our pack, sometimes suitable for rough play but better to be respectfully avoided. Rob is the weak one and Regina has worked that out as well. Each time when Rob tries to cross the room, balancing hard on his unsteady legs, Regina with the grip of a rugby player jumps at his knees and knocks him down – a rough sense of humour. To protect Rob’s dignity, I scoop Regina up in my arms every time Rob moves around.
According to Regina, the adult males of our pack – Keggy and John – must be respected and avoided at all times. It took Regina some time to recognize who has the highest rank, but one morning, when John was still running around naked, she got her chance. We giggled watching how carefully the little chimpanzee approached Keggy’s backside. She sat for a while assessing and then carefully, with absolute admiration in her face, with one finger gently touched that important part of the male dog’s anatomy.
‘At least she shows some respect.’ John was laughing nervously watching Regina approaching. ‘Seems like it’s my turn now.’
After careful assessment and comparing, it is absolutely clear for the monkey who has the final say here. So now John is approached only in extreme situations – like when I’m completely ballistic. In such cases with a panicky scream Regina hides behind John; if he is not available, then behind Keggy.
‘It’s really good to know that I’m behind the dog on the hierarchy ladder in this family!’ I mock.
‘Look, what has Regina got now?’ John quizzically points over the paper. We watch our half baby happily bouncing in the room, holding lovingly something in her arms. ‘Which toy is that?’
‘It’s not a toy, it’s our Fred…. Actually… was.’ Karl takes the limp kitten out of Regina’s arms. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Talk about deadly love,’ John makes a feeble attempt at a joke but the children are furious.
‘Mum, she killed our kitten!’ Julia wipes away the tears running down her face.
‘I’m so sorry, honey! But it was an accident, only an accident. She didn’t do it on purpose. You know how strong she is. Who left the door open?’
Since Regina’s arrival, our mum cat and her kitten Fred have been kept in the safety of veranda.
‘Not me. I came out last and I closed the door.’ Julia broadens her shoulders. ‘Properly.’
Julia is reliable. I can trust her statement. ‘Ah, well. It means she has mastered the handle finally. We need to put a latch on the door then.’ Our life with Regina is has been exciting but now I’m getting tired.
‘No point.’ Karl angrily sits on the chair and reaches for his plate. ‘No more kittens left there. And no Christmas. The whole world will be celebrating while we’ll have a bare tree, decorated by a monkey only.’
‘You were the one who wanted the monkey, remember? Then accept the dire consequences.’ Because of Regina we must restrict our Christmas this year, indeed. ‘We’ll have a Christmas. And a tree. Only it’ll not be decorated. No baubles or tinsel this year.’
Regina is not coughing anymore and would happily return to Andrei and the exhibition, but there is a new problem. Yvonne and Andrei are sitting in Lithuania with the exhibition, and Regina’s paperwork is tied up with the exhibition. And there is no legal way of transporting her out of the country without papers.
I’m desperate. The problem is – I tried. I visited many offices at the veterinary services but everywhere they just shrugged their shoulders. There are regulations for dogs, cats, even cage birds, but not for monkeys, and nobody can tell me one way or another. ‘Sorry, we’re swamped with work,’ they tell me, ‘what with the new laws and regulations to be made for all livestock. Pets are left a bit behind.’
Yes, I feel for them. It’s a lot of work for a new county. But I can’t sit with a monkey on my hands until they manage.
‘I have an idea!’ Finally, after an unsuccessful brainstorming evening, Roland announces. ‘We can transport her as a child.’
We sit in silence, considering the possibilities. We still carry the Soviet passports, and there are no individual ones for children yet. A child is just a line in a mother’s passport.
‘Hey, that might work. All we need is a mother with a baby in her passport?’ I like the idea.
‘That’s easy.’ Seems Roland has thought it out. ‘Rudy’s girl is nearly six months old now.’
‘Will she agree?’
‘Let’s ask!’ Roland reaches for the phone. I suspect, he feels a bit guilty about the whole situation, since it was Yvonne’s idea in the first place.
So the big plan is born. Roland will drive at night. That way Regina most likely will be sleeping and will not jump up and down with her loud ech’s and uuh’s. The inside of the car will be dark so the border guards hopefully won’t notice the baby is a bit too ugly.
‘And even if they do, tell me, who has the audacity to tell a young, stunning girl that her little baby girl looks too much like a monkey?’ Roland giggles. ‘Really, this is a solution.’
‘If there’ll be any border guards at all. I know we now have posts on the Belorussian border but on Lithuanian? Do you know?’ John sounds a bit worried.
‘With the current fuel supply? I’m not going there to check it out beforehand. Let’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best. They can’t charge us for child trafficking, it’s not a child.’
‘After all, we are not doing anything bad.’ I really believe it. Yes, that’s kind of illegal. But it’s not our fault that there is no legal way.
I pack Regina’s bag. All her clothes and even her Raggedy Ann. And then it’s time to say good bye. ‘Grow big and clever.’
‘Don’t crush more mugs, will you?’ John blows a kiss to a bundle in the pink overalls.
‘Now you understand why I would never agree to have a pet monkey?’ I ask Karl when the car disappears in the darkness. After a moment of thoughtful silence he finally nods. ‘Yes, she was fun. But too much of a fun.’
‘Now we can have a full tree, right?’ Julia asks, wiping a single tear way.
‘Definitely! We’ll be celebrating in full. No more monkeying around!’ I embrace both my youngest in a big hug. ‘One thing I learned from Regina, John. We all need many more hugs. Many more. All of us.’