His mother had a choice between keeping the monkey or having the baby. She told the story often, in company, with a roll of her eyes and a helpless grin, as if this was the sore spot, the branching crossroads where her life had gone wrong. 

The story morphed a little over the years, but kept the same approximate shape, like the course of a flood-prone river. She had been twenty-nine, volunteering in a wildlife sanctuary and staying in a Quechua community on the border of the Amazon. Her job, among a handful of other dislocated young Americans, had been to feed, bathe and socialise the orphaned primates. 

One particular monkey had latched on to her so tightly that it followed her all around the complex, hanging from her shoulders like a furry backpack. They had been inseparable; devising a system of hand signals to communicate, sleeping together in her narrow hammock. Once, the young monkey woke screeching in the night, and she flicked on a light to find a Brazilian wandering spider perched on her hiking boots, its front legs raised in a defensive arch. 

At first, his mother hadn’t realised she was pregnant, and had worked at the sanctuary for a few more months until the problem became impossible to ignore. Then came a bouncing trip in the back of a jeep to the embassy in Quito—more of a closet than an embassy at that point, really—and a hastily arranged ticket for a flight home to a pair of disapproving parents in Indiana. But she had changed her mind in the airport and had instead hopped on a chartered Cessna to detour to Atlanta—you could do that type of thing in the seventies, she claimed—so her son Marc had been born in a Fulton County hospital, in the great state of Georgia, USA. Or was it DeKalb? She couldn’t be sure. 

When he was small, Marc asked her why she hadn’t brought the monkey back with her. They could have dressed it up in his old clothes and sent it to school as his brother. They had moved about so much that whenever they stopped for a couple of years, Marc was always the weird kid with the American accent, so it wouldn’t have made much difference to his social standing. He and the monkey could have held hands at zebra crossings and dominated the trapeze bars at the playground. Marc would draw wistful pictures of them together; himself with long, awkward limbs and corkscrew curls, the monkey with a white bandit mask around its eyes and a striped tail that stretched around the little crayon boy’s shoulders. 

In his mother’s retellings, the exact species of the orphaned monkey changed too, from capuchin to squirrel to macaque. At a particularly wine-soaked dinner party when Marc was fifteen, he had challenged her on the contradictions. She had waved her arms at him in tight circles, as if she was washing two portholes on a cruise ship, and insisted it didn’t matter; it was all the same monkey. Anyway, she went on, what she remembered most was its heart-wrenching howl as she left the compound for the last time. And, to the laughter of the red and shiny guests, the story’s punchline was brought out again: it was the monkey or the baby; the rolling eyes and the smile. 

He tells the story to Francine in his London apartment one night, as she slides her underwear back over her legs. ‘And she would say this in front of you?’ She huffs downwards through her nose. ‘That’s a bit cruel.’ 

He tries to explain that his mother didn’t have an intentionally cruel bone in her body—rather, it was a problem of depth perception, a misunderstanding of scale—but Francine isn’t listening. She has pulled out her phone and is reading about animal sanctuaries in Ecuador, and soon disappears into a deep-dive article on the links between private zoos and the drug trade in the Americas. 

‘Did you know that Pablo Escobar had four pet hippos that went wild after he was killed?’ The light of the phone on her face makes her look furious. ‘Now there’re hundreds of them. People think they’re lucky.’ 

As soon as Marc heard the American accent on the phone, he felt a sense of resignation settle over him like a freshly cracked egg. The police officer was very sorry to inform him that his mother had had a massive stroke in a Walmart in western Virginia. The attending doctor said that her death was instantaneous and painless, if that gave him any solace. 

It didn’t. Marc looked around his London apartment, and everything seemed unfamiliar and strange. On the top of the stove, a silvery coffee pot was grumbling its way to the boil. The slightly curved screen of his laptop blinked at him in disbelief. Outside, on the street, two people were shouting at each other in a flat and bored way, as if from a great distance. 

His mother was dead. He knew she would be furious that she hadn’t gone out in a blaze of glory, giving her life to some great cause, like blocking the construction of an oil pipeline or reporting on an anti-imperialist guerrilla war. 

But that had always been the problem. She had a heart as big and billowing as a rainbow spinnaker, but she couldn’t fold it up enough to care about the little causes. The cause of buying new runners instead of stapling the old ones back together again. The cause of using the detergent that didn’t trigger embarrassing rashes. The cause of remembering your son’s girlfriends’ names. The cause of making soft noises at all the right times. 

On the phone, the officer continued to speak about arrangements and procedures, the practical trappings of death. But all Marc could see was his mother in a supermarket aisle, deliberating over ready meals, eyes darting from label to label, frozen for eternity in indecision. He cut the officer off to ask what had been in her shopping basket when she died. The cop said he would check, in a kind voice he probably saved up for grief-mad strangers. 

In the loft of her digs, Nina tells him about a scientist called Harry Harlow who had done experiments on monkeys and mothers, while she circles her fingers through his chest hair. Did he feel he always had to act up, to entertain his mother, to make up for the loss of her freedom? 

Nina is in her second year of a sociology PhD and the crudeness of the analysis annoys him. ‘Obviously it’s a complex,’ he tells her angrily, ‘and a stupidly lazy one. It’s like dreaming that you’re falling before you get on a long plane journey. Your subconscious should have to put in a bit of effort.’ 

She pulls a handful of his hair tight around her fingers, but he barely notices the sting. ‘Abuse or alcoholism or psychosis—I could deal with those. But how do you therapise this out of yourself? The shrink doesn’t need to do any damn work—the monkey represents a literal fucking monkey.’ 

He flew over to collect his mother’s ashes from Virginia on an airline that went into liquidation soon afterwards. He heard the news on the radio while waiting in the coroner’s office for the few belongings she had on her when she died. He wasn’t surprised; there had been a tension coming from the airline staff, the feeling of a half-hour before closing time on a rowdy week-night, when drinks were still being poured but the countdown to last orders had begun. 

The small, tall house she had rented outside Roanoke only had three rooms, two below and one above, and everything downstairs seemed to have gravitated towards that natural state of being, the heap. The landlord had a lot to say on the topic of his mother, seeming to think that they were two co-conspirators in cataloguing her life. But Marc felt oddly protective of her things, at least until they reached their final resting place. He shut the door on the grinning man’s face and got to work, filling his rental car with black plastic bags in order to make the ten-mile round trip to the municipal dump. 

He was as ruthless and unsentimental with her belongings as he knew she would have been. A hairdresser had once presented her with an envelope of dark curls from his very first salon haircut at the age of six. She had put them in the compost heap when they got home and asked him to consider leaving his hair to grow long, so he could donate it to cancer survivors. 

In a hotel bed in Soho, Artur just laughs and tells him he’ll look good with a tail; that he knows an exclusive club they could go to if he wants to try it out. 

He uses his index fingers to draw large circles around Marc’s eyes and pulls his top and bottom eyelids apart to make them bulge. ‘I can see you as a sexy lemur,’ he grins.

When Marc settled in London at the age of twenty-two to take up a horribly boring business degree, his mother had moved back to the States, as if to make a point. He felt he almost knew what she was trying to prove by moving away from him, but he didn’t want to poke too hard at her reasoning, in case it resolved into a shape he was expected to do something with. 

Marc had gotten on with his life, wandering on a gentle incline from one dull, well-paid job to another, trying to dilute any hereditary flightiness with spreadsheets and data files. He bought an apartment on the edge of Soho for a ridiculous amount of money, stripped it back to sharp lines and exposed wood, and then went about spending as little time as possible in it. A decade passed, punctuated by trips each way across the Atlantic once or twice a year. He and his mother usually only lasted a few days in each other’s company, before wild, accusatory cries went up from both parties and flights were inevitably rebooked and brought forward. 

But then she had gone quiet for a few years. It wasn’t an angry silence—the occasional postcards he received seemed cheerful, detailing an energy healing practice in Baltimore; shifts on an organic dairy farm; an adopted husky that hated the Jacksonville heat; evening classes at Richmond Engineering. Later, my alligator, she wrote at the end of each postcard. 

Then there had been the email. It had sat in his spam folder for twenty-four days, until, in desperation, waiting to hear back about a managerial job, he clicked into his junk folder to make sure he hadn’t missed out on an offer. 

If he had waited six more days, the message would have been deleted, and he could have had the bittersweet experience of not knowing what his mother’s last words to him had been. He could have imagined a revocation of a hundred tiny hurts; an admission that the monkey was a phantom born of internalised guilt; a stand-in for an older sibling his conservative grandparents had forced up for adoption; or even that it never existed in the first place. At least—and above everything and all—that she had bigger regrets than him. 

But her final email had been caught by his spam filter because it was just a forwarded link to a recipe for refried beans. Quite a good recipe, he had to admit, when he cooked it for Artur a few weeks later. The secret ingredient was bacon lard. 

Rakhee wants to know about his father, straining to show post-coital interest after too many drinks at a book launch in Paris. 

‘And that’s a whole other problem,’ Marc says. ‘You know, a normal person would be wondering about their father, daydreaming about some Latino guitar player or soccer star or even an extra from Cannibal Holocaust. Hey, did you fuck a blonde American woman in 1978? But I don’t, because it doesn’t matter, when there’s a damn monkey on my back.’ Rakhee squints at him as she rolls a cigarette. ‘Psychologically,’ he adds, taking a drag and coughing. 

In his mother’s Roanoke house, Marc sorted through oceans of books, assorted gardening supplies, old editions of the New Yorker, a badly folded tent, three antique fur coats, an incomplete set of billiard balls, troupes of ceramic ornaments, and boxes and boxes of photographs. 

In one box, he found faded Polaroids of his mother in the rainforest—long, loose hair; a swollen belly peeping out from under a cropped top; an ocelot cub at her feet, a parrot on her shoulder and a baby monkey slung around her hip—so that much of the story was true. But whether this was the monkey, he would never know. 

In another photo, Kodak this time and yellow-hued, his middle-aged mother was holding up both hands, splayed out, with rings on each finger. One for each lost love was written on the back. Although considering her penchant for dramatics, it was as likely to be true that the rings were tin and glass, or were scavenged from an upturned gumball machine. None of the men in her life could be counted as loves, he considered, or even lost. More mislaid, like a useful but inessential trolley token. 

At least the ones he knew about. There had been some men that she had cried over, and others who were chased out of the house, including, on one memorable occasion, a lover who escaped just ahead of the wild swings of a replica didgeridoo. A good-natured ‘friend’ had even lived with them in Barcelona for a year when Marc was thirteen. The man had painted his own fingernails blue at the kitchen table every Sunday morning, filling the house with the sharp scent of acetone. His mother had fancied herself a journalist that year and had disappeared for large chunks of time, always returning home with a token for him—a colourful bus ticket, an unfamiliar candy brand, a straw figurine. 

He forced himself to stop looking through the photographs after an hour. He couldn’t understand how much of her was compressed into each one. They were angry, caged things, even though she was smiling in most of them. 

On a roof in Lisbon, María-Rosa tells him to shut up, that she hates monkeys because their long fingers look like spoons. He can’t argue with that, so he goes down on her instead, spelling out the alphabet with his tongue and stopping on the letters she likes best. 

His mother couldn’t remember the monkey’s name. That’s what annoyed him the most. 

He found very little trace of himself while clearing the house in Roanoke, which made him feel equal parts wounded and smug. He revised and reworked what he would tell Artur when he was back in his bare London flat; how he would say it, what stance he would take, if he would let his eyes dampen or just lift his chin stoically in the face of such maternal neglect.

But then, in the kitchen, he came across a photograph of himself resting on the top of the fridge, blown up on a canvas frame as wide as his outstretched arm. He was about six, standing on a table, blowing a huge snot bubble out of his nostril while his mother lifted her fists in the background to cheer him on. She looked wild, ecstatic, with a mane of permed white-blonde hair, and he, in his checked shorts and baggy jumper, he looked like the king of the world. He had no memory of the scene, or of who might have taken the photograph, but the warmth of it almost singed his fingers. He stood on the canvas frame until it snapped under his weight, feeling like she had set these traps on purpose, raising a hidden stick each time he attempted to wallow in her neglect. 

In a bar on the outskirts of Roanoke, a waitress gives him a free Old-Fashioned when he tells her that his mother has died. 

‘So sad, hun.’ She pats him on the back. ‘Try the buffalo sliders.’ 

He leaves her a large tip and waits half an hour, but she doesn’t come to collect it. 

On the evening of his second-last day in Virginia, he decided to finally tackle his mother’s bedroom, a loft above the sitting room. He had intentionally left it for last, expecting a djinn’s bottle of her thoughts and smells; one last chance for him to raise an emotion other than exasperation at her untidiness. 

But the room was frustratingly bare. The wooden floorboards were splintering in places, and cobwebs infested the ceiling—as a child, Marc wasn’t allowed to clear them for fear of disturbing the spiders, and had bashfully imported that habit to London—but besides that, the loft was tidy and stale. 

Her bed was neatly made on a raised stack of pallets, and the walls were grey stucco. A single lightbulb was looped around a beam in the rafters, which were low and heavy. A mirrored, full-length wardrobe sat in the furthest corner, and an uncomfortable-looking stool was arranged in front of a small window. On the roof outside, a bat box crouched under the eaves. 

He sat down on his mother’s stool as dusk settled on the room. From it, he could see for a short distance across the darkening city; over apartment blocks and factories and, on the horizon, the frosty peaking of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Traffic sounds filtered up through the still air, under the soft twilight flittering of bats setting out to hunt.

He stood up again after a few minutes, rubbing invisible dust off his hands, looking around the room for something to do; something, anything to dismantle and throw away. Finally, he heaved the mattress off the pallets and wrestled it through the door, letting it slide down the stairs like a bobsleigh. The exertion left him panting, but he felt slightly better. 

He opened the door of the wardrobe and swung aside layers of bedsheets that hung like theatre curtains. In the back, there was a huddle of shapes and lines that caught in his fingers when he reached in to clear them. Something clanked and shifted in the dark. Marc stood back, sneezed a shower of dislodged dust into his elbow, and flicked on the dangling lamp. 

He pulled the sheets aside again and the swaying light illuminated a set of jagged, gnashing jaws on a square metal head; a furred torso with limbs looped together on long, fine threads, still twitching at the elbows and knees where he had disturbed it. A stiff stick pierced the bottom of the mouth and made a hinge of the jaw, and a red felt tongue had been sewn into place. The terrible puppet had lightbulbs for eyes, with big red Xs instead of pupils, and a tail that curled up and around its own neck.

It was a crude, inelegant thing, cobbled together from tin cans, carpet swatches and lengths of wood, and he couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t an accidental arrangement, an optical illusion; that if he moved his head the angle of the light would change and the simian face would return to being a collection of trash and old strips of fabric. 

A length of string dangled from the monkey’s shoulders, and a piece of scruffy cardboard sat against its wire-hanger ribs. Marc stared at the piece of card, curled and aged at the corners. Then he began to laugh and laugh, startling a flurry of bats from under the eaves and out towards the mountains, because on the card was written his name.

Sheila Armstrong

Sheila Armstrong is a writer and editor from the northwest of Ireland. ‘Harlow’ appears in her debut story collection, How To Gut A Fish, which will be published by Bloomsbury in February 2022. She is working on a novel. www.armstrongsheila.com

About Harlow: Harry Harlow was famous for his work with rhesus monkeys in the 1960s. In one experiment, he would introduce something—a clanking, flashing, gnashing, primitive robot—and observe how the baby monkeys reacted. He found they ran to the soft, ‘cloth mother’ for comfort, rather than the ‘wire mother’ that provided food.

The image of the robot stuck with me (you might recognise its cousin in the story) and I don’t blame the baby monkeys for being frightened: the whole situation is disturbing. But there’s something visceral about this work—and other psychological experiments, like Pavlov’s dogs or Stanford Prison—that breaks down relationships into digestible chunks that we can easily understand. You hear a bell, you get a treat. Authority makes people evil. Wire for sustenance, cloth for comfort.

The first complete draft of this story ended with the words: “and on the card was written its name”. I submitted it to a workshop and got into the shower. I felt I had done something vaguely satisfying, like finding the right lid for a Tupperware container. The monkey’s name would stay hidden, it would be a mystery for the reader, they could make their own meaning… etc. Then I had one of those lightbulb moments and had to grab a towel and reboot my laptop. I changed one word of the story and re-sent it—with my apologies—to the workshop. I had found the right lid, but I hadn’t clicked the handles down.

That one change—swapping the word “its” with “his”—pivoted the whole story around in my mind. Marc has gone through his life, selfishly obsessed with the idea of his mother’s neglect, finding other ways to live, other people to be around. And then he discovers that she has died and has left him with no clear answers—just a horrible puppet made from scrap hidden in her bedroom closet.

But why? Has his mother done this to make amends to the animal she left behind? Did she name Marc after the monkey in the first place? Was she trying to improve their relationship, to exorcise this ghost that had haunted them both? Or—and I think I like this idea best—is the whole thing just a collection of random items that Marc is trying to pull meaning out of?

Whatever the reason, love is not a simple equation. And Marc’s mother is neither cloth nor wire—she’s human. Like all of us.