The dream drives the action and Jimmy knew that better than any guy. Ever since as a boy in London he’d seen his first Renaissance painting, a Garofalo depicting a pagan sacrifice, he’d known that he wanted a job in the arts.
Of course, the way his life started, achieving any ambition had been an uphill struggle. At his mother’s place on a council estate in Lewisham you’d be more likely to find a bottle of three-quid-a-litre cider than an actual book. And then there were the men. Some of them were inoffensive enough, but even the best of them brought their shouting matches and dramas into his life and the worst of them—well, he never thought about the worst of them.
It had all been over for so long by now that he hardly even thought about those days. The dream drives the action and his dream, having no real talent, had been to work in the galleries. He’d left home at sixteen; found a place at college and worked at Waitrose, and Oddbins and a few fast food chains to boot so he could pay off his tuition. Now, less than twenty years on, his career had flourished to what he expected would be its natural zenith.
He was the buyer for a reasonably respectable and not unpopular little gallery in the Westminster area and at around three times the salary that his mother or any of her partners could have hoped for he reckoned he’d done okay for himself financially.
Still though, Jimmy was something of a resident alien among the polite wine bar culture of his middle-class friends. For them the degree and the money, the Westminster flat and the weekly cocktail parties were things to be taken for granted. For Jimmy they had been the golden hoard he’d wrestled from the bloody dragon of his upbringing.
Friends had asked him repeatedly why he’d never settled down with a woman for more than three-months. Several disastrous attempts to set him up with this or that girl had gone down like a lead balloon and after a time no one even tried anymore. Jimmy just wasn’t good with women.
He wasn’t sure what precipitated it but as soon as it was clear that his professional life at the gallery had plateaued and he’d pretty much settled with how far he’d come in life he’d decided to take the bull by the horns and solve his romantic problems himself.
It was around then he’d met Alice. She was career oriented like him and, as a nurse, she worked shifts at the hospital he could only wince at. On their first date they’d both been refreshingly candid with each other. Neither had time or energy for a long drawn out courtship but both had decided it was time to have a steady partner.
It was on these almost businesslike grounds that they’d started sleeping together. Firstly at Jimmy’s place because Alice— being around forty now— had an added complication that sent most prospective lays running for the hills. She had two kids from a previous marriage. One little girl, only five years old, and one older boy who’d be eighteen that May.
Truthfully the incumbrance of dealing with some other guy’s children never discouraged Jimmy in the slightest. He was younger than Alice, but only by around five years, and he felt that a readymade family would almost make recompense for all his years as a workaholic and a bachelor.
Within three months— and people did comment that he was moving fast— he’d started renting out his own flat in Westminster and he’d moved in with Alice in Greenwich. Life became quiet and steady and over time he warmed to little Susie, Alice’s daughter.
The only slightly weird thing about their relationship was the older son, Zack, but only in as much as Jimmy had never gotten to meet the kid. Zack had taken a gap year between high school and teacher training. Alice just knew Jimmy would love him. When they’d first met, her and Jimmy, Zack was volunteering at a school in Uganda; getting some travel and some classroom experience under his belt at the same time.
It wasn’t until the kid returned to Britain for his eighteenth that Jimmy started having the dreams. But now he lived to sleep because only in his dreams did he meet with Wise Monkey and only Wise Monkey could tell him how to deal with Alice and Susie and Zack. Only Wise Monkey could navigate him smoothly through all the hidden obstacles this new life presented.
The first time he’d entered the dream had been about a week after the party.
He still remembered how much that night had made him feel like an outsider. Everyone was fawning around Zack. It was only natural. The boy had been gone half-a-year and it was obvious he was loved. Aunts held and kissed him. Uncles offered a steady handshake. He hugged his mum at one point and she teared up and he gave his baby sister a twirl on the floor of the hall they’d booked to see him home.
Through all this Jimmy had kept a low profile and he could count the number of times he was spoken to on his left hand. He wasn’t resentful. It was the boy’s night and Jimmy remembered thinking that it would be hard not to love a son, or nephew, or brother like that. He was such a good looking lad.
A week later and the tension in the household hadn’t increased or decreased. Zack and Jimmy— two men living under the same roof for the first time— ghosted past each other in silence most days. Jimmy had tried to joke with the kid a few times about this or that but every attempt bombed and, in the end, Jimmy abandoned the nice guy routine. Above all he didn’t want to subject Zack to the shit he’d had to deal with while growing up. He could still remember the troop of men that traipsed in and out of that small flat in Lewisham. He remembered their unfamiliar voices and smells and their stranger’s clothes slung over his mother’s furniture.
On the night he first met Wise Monkey, he’d had sex with Alice before falling asleep. In many ways he guessed it was that stilted lovemaking that first brought the dream about. He’d learned by now that he wasn’t attracted to Alice physically. The years between them showed and, as far as Jimmy was concerned, the closer you got to a woman past her prime the more you saw what no honest guy could stomach. It was like that line from Eliot: Arms that are braceleted and white and bare (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
He remembered that night: slapping away at her so that the little spare tyre of her belly wobbled backwards and forwards. Lights off was a prerequisite to sex because her skin was a little oily and the stretch marks on her body wouldn’t fade no matter how much bio-oil she used after bathing.
When he’d came and rolled off of her Alice rose at once and went to the ensuite to wash up. Jimmy was already asleep before she returned.
It was as though she’d followed him into the dream. The spectral room he found himself in was dark and made of some kind of subterranean stone. It reminded Jimmy faintly of those underground prisons in the novels of Dumas. And, there in the corner, naked and sitting on some massive stool, was the image of a huge, fat woman. Her neck was twisted and her head was resting against the stone wall behind her. Her flabby, stretch mark covered legs were open and the dark stain of her motherly genitals gaped like a gunshot wound or a dead thing’s maw.
Jimmy tried to block out the hideous noise of the giantess’s drunken snoring. It was his mother, plastered on three-quid-a-litre cider. It was Alice, lying naked next to him having inexpertly cleaned his sperm from her vulva.
And down at the feet of that hulking monstrosity: that was where he first laid eyes on Wise Monkey.
It was an adult black-and-white colobus and the long falls of snowy hair that fringed its head and arms, together with its pinched, almost skull-like face, gave it the appearance of being a tiny though venerable old man. It was clear if you studied its small, yellow eyes that it too had grown tired of the swinish snorting of the obese giantess he was forced to share his captivity with.
Hello Jimmy, the animal signed with its spidery hand and, by some dream logic, Jimmy understood the meaning of every nuanced gesture it made. I’ve been waiting for you a long time.
For me? Jimmy signed back.
Yes, the monkey twisted its fingers. I’ve got so much to tell you. About Alice. About Susie. About Zack.
It was only then that Jimmy noticed the iron collar that some cruel jailer had clamped around the animal’s neck and the short iron chain that attached Wise Monkey to the wall by the sleeping woman’s feet.
The smell of fajita spices and the sizzle from the hob filled the kitchen. Alice was just browning off the chicken and Jimmy sat at the breakfast table across from Susie.
He held up the card so his step-daughter (as he thought of her now) could see the picture on the obverse side. It showed a small human figure in short trousers kicking a ball.
“B O Y,” Susie spelled. “Boy.”
“Good girl, sweetheart,” Jimmy said, then he reached into the pile and found the next card.
He held it up: a small human figure in a gingham dress and pigtails, holding a doll.
“G I R L,” Susie said.
She put on a little smug face at the thought that she both was and could spell the card. Really there was no point in the whole exercise. Susie could spell all these words before the end of nursery. That’s what a proper start in life does for you, Jimmy thought, and then he grabbed the next card.
A figure with a briefcase.
“M A N,” Susie said.
A figure wearing an apron.
“W O M A N.”
Christ, Jimmy thought, looking at that last picture. These cards are some sexist shit.
It was around then that Zack— drawn down by the smell of cooking— wandered into the kitchen, having come down from upstairs.
He crossed directly to his mother and kissed her cheek; utterly ignoring Jimmy and, by association, his sister.
“What’s for lunch?” the kid said, then he looked over Alice’s shoulder; answering his own question.
Jimmy’s attention was broken for a moment as he watched Zack turn and open the fridge; searching the shelves for something to drink.
“Jimmy!” Susie said, she was colouring so only half noticed his absent mindedness, “I’ve already spelled that one!”
Jimmy looked at the aproned woman he was still holding in his hand.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “sorry sweetheart.”
A picture of a rubber sphere.
“B A L L.”
A picture of a girl with buttons for eyes.
“D O L L.”
A picture of a wheeled box.
“C A R.”
Zack lifted the milk from the fridge tray and pressed the rim of the bottle against his lips.
Jimmy fumbled in the pack.
“P I G. Pig.”
“D U C K. Duck.”
“M O N C… M O N… Jimmy! How do you spell that one again?”
Jimmy looked down dreamily at the card.
“M O N K E Y. Monkey.”
Wise Monkey had told Jimmy that this would happen: the tension between himself and Zack would build to such a flashpoint that neither could be safely in the same room as the other. They’d never spoken— not ten words in all the weeks since Zack arrived home from Africa— and yet Jimmy knew every time they made eye contact that there was something between them that just didn’t exist between him and Susie or even between him and Alice.
Women were different to Jimmy. Maybe it was a lifetime of being overworked and undersexed but really women didn’t mean that much to him. The worst a woman could become was repulsive but a guy, a guy could become intense. Things could even get physical if there were high emotions involved.
Wise Monkey had told him that such a relationship existed between himself and Zack and that if he didn’t manage it, it was liable to explode. Wise Monkey said that Jimmy shouldn’t worry about Zack’s coldness towards him. It was all a front. The kid felt something; fear, resentment, anger, but something, and it was Jimmy’s duty— as a father you might say— to iron out these speed bumps in the kid’s adjustment to their new shared life.
He didn’t want to be a bully like his mother’s partners had almost invariably been. More than anything he wanted Wise Monkey to be right and for all this silence and bravado from Zack to be the tough-guy mask he thought he had to wear over more tender feelings.
It was on a Tuesday that Jimmy decided to finally have it out with his young step-son. Wise Monkey had told him that, with Alice being on nightshift at the hospital that night, it would be the best time to have a man-to-man talk; no women would get in the way with all their asinine comments that never seemed to have anything to do with the subject at hand.
When Wise Monkey had said this in the dream he’d rolled his eyes up to look disgustedly at the dribbling face, undulating stomach and cavernous sex of the giantess.
Pretty sight isn’t she? he’d signed with one black hand. Do you have any idea what it’s like being shackled to her?
The animal dug its little fingers under the iron collar and Jimmy could see where the metal had cut into the furry skin, causing bleeding lesions to form which had now become infected.
Have you given thought to that little proposition I made? Wise Monkey asked.
Jimmy ignored the question and did his best to wake up before it was asked again.
He was still selective about the influences he allowed Wise Monkey to have on his daily affairs. But, having said that, he followed his suggestion about Tuesday night to the letter.
He got Susie bathed and in bed by nine and, after reading her a story from her Dora the Explorer book, she was in dreamland by half-past. As he switched off the light Jimmy looked at her peaceful little face. If she was dreaming the dream was innocent. No vulvas slick with sperm in there. No black-and-white colobus with festering scabs around its fettered neck.
Dear Christ, how he envied her.
When Zack returned that evening it had just begun to rain and the kid ducked in through the back door and made straight for the stairs to his room. He’d been out on Greenwich Park where he’d taken to having a kick around once a week with friends.
Jimmy cornered him in the hallway.
“Hey, mate!” he said, though his voice was forced. “What was the score?”
Zack looked at his mother’s boyfriend like he was a thing from another planet.
“It was just a friendly,” he muttered. “We didn’t keep score.”
“Cool,” Jimmy nodded, even more forced. “Hey listen, have you got a minute to talk?”
Jimmy gestured to the spare room nearest the stairs where he’d set himself up a little study for his gallery business. Zack looked down uncomfortably at his grass stained tee and shorts.
“I should shower,” he said.
“It won’t take a minute,” Jimmy sounded almost desperate. “We just haven’t had time to work a few things out you and me, since you got back from Africa. I thought we could take the time now.”
Zack breathed out frustratedly.
“Fine,” he relented, then he gestured himself to Jimmy’s study.
They backtracked away from the stairs and Jimmy snapped on the light as they entered the nearby room.
Zack had avoided that place with everything he had. It even smelled of Jimmy and Jimmy’s clothes. All the wall-space was covered in his art books and the walls were hung with reproductions from the Renaissance masters. Right behind his desk was hung some weird picture of a nude woman holding a horn and a seminude boy pouring wine from an urn onto a goat’s decapitated head.
Zack shuddered. What a creepy bastard, he thought.
Jimmy reached under the desk to the little four can fridge he kept down there.
“You want a beer?” he asked.
“Not really,” Zack answered.
Jimmy shrugged and let the fridge door close. It was impolite to drink alone. He sat behind his desk and found he couldn’t remember what he’d wanted to say.
“So, what do you want to talk about?” Zack cut to the chase.
Jimmy stared at him. “Listen,” he said, “I know you must be feeling… I don’t know… resentment, or something, about me being here. But I want you to know I’m not trying to replace your dad or anything like that—”
“Jesus,” Zack scoffed, “is that what this is about!? Man, I don’t give a rat’s arse. I’m not some little kid. When I get tired of this arrangement I’m out of here. That’s all there is to it.”
“Come on, Zack,” Jimmy shook his head, “I think it can be better than that. We can be mates.”
Zack laughed. “Okay, you finished? ‘cause I need to go shower.”
“Now listen here—” Jimmy pointed a finger.
“What!?” Zack’s eyes went fiery “Young man. Is that what you were gonna say? Now listen here young man. Don’t give me that tone. Is that it?”
Jimmy was shellshocked at the attack. He wasn’t made for this kind of altercation. He found himself wishing that Wise Monkey was there to tell him what to do.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna make this so bloody easy for you, mate!” Now it was Zack pointing his finger at Jimmy. “I’m leaving here. I’m going to Northampton to train and then I’m off again— Africa, anywhere— just so long as I can put distance between myself and this bloody place.”
“Zack,” Jimmy was embarrassed to admit it but there were tears starting in his eyes. “Zack, what’ve I done?”
“You really want me to get into this?”
Jimmy felt a slither of coldness run down his back and for a moment he wasn’t so sure.
“What’ve you done?” Zack said. “What? Apart from being here even though you don’t give a shit about my mum? And don’t think I don’t know the rest. You fucking turn my stomach.”
Jimmy’s head was spinning. What was the kid talking about? What rest? Did he know about the dreams? Had he heard what Jimmy had told Wise Monkey like a penitent confides in his confessor? Had he heard what Jimmy had been saying about him in the deep privacy of that imagined cell, and what Wise Monkey had told him to do about it?
Jimmy’s eyes trailed across Zack’s sweaty clothes. He looked so close he could see the small, individual hairs standing on the boy’s legs.
Zack made a disgusted sound. “I’ll be out of your house by the end of the week,” he promised. “You can go on playing daddy after I’m gone.”
And then Zack was gone. The boy turned and left the room and for the rest of the night Jimmy heard nothing from anywhere in the house; just the rain falling on the windows and the propositions Wise Monkey had made turning over and over again in his brain.
He knew Zack was no more asleep than himself. After checking on Susie one last time, and finding that she hadn’t woken even when the adults began to shout, he decided to try to get some sleep himself. He was emotionally exhausted by the short argument but more so by the months of coldness that had preceded it.
He stripped down and got into bed. He would dream tonight, he knew, of the cell under the earth and the fat snoring woman and his strange chained totem would tell him how to proceed; how to convince Alice to convince Zack to stay.
His mind was too active and so unconsciousness eluded him.
He just kept thinking what life would be like there without Zack. What was he without Zack? A nursemaid for little Susie and a mindless, sexless plough that Alice would use to stir up her furrow a few times a week.
Until Zack threatened to leave Jimmy hadn’t known how dead and how bound he was here. In his head a thousand chained monkeys stared out from the glossy surfaces of the thousands of oil-on-canvases he’d studied in his long career. Chained monkeys in the works of Russian expressionists. 19th century Italian chained monkeys. The chained monkeys of Dutch animaliers and of the Netherlandish Renaissance reaching all the way back to the nameless mural artists of ancient Greece and Rome.
Holding the Christ child, a double-chinned Madonna sleeps by a monkey tethered to a fence in an engraving by Dürer. Its face is black and its eyes slant inward at demonic angles.
In La Grande Jatte Seurat connects a gentle woman’s hand by way of a leash of painted dots to the back of a pet monkey.
You have to look at Frida Kahlo’s self portrait for a few moments before you notice the tiny animal with the face of an infant and eyes like black marbles and for a few moments more before you notice the green strand of lace she’d wound around its throat.
Then, worst of all, there’s that late piece by Gauguin where, sitting by the naked breasted tribeswoman, we can’t even tell if the monkey’s tied there or not; the creature is so very black that it may be just an absence cut in space and all that stares out from that abysmal form are two yellow eyes shining like an owl’s shine when something moves in the night.
Women. All through history women holding chains that chain monkeys to the ground. And now in Jimmy’s dreams Wise Monkey, begging him every night to use his superior strength to break the band of metal that the giantess used to keep him a prisoner.
Jimmy was sleeping now. The great odious bitch that was his mother and Alice rolled in one was slobbering on her naked chest. The tiny black-and-white colobus turned its ancient head up when it heard him coming and its eyes were as yellow as that black figure’s in Gauguin.
It touched its slender fingers to the collar around its neck.
Have you given thought to my little proposition? the dream animal asked.
Some time nearing morning Jimmy half-sensed it as Alice entered the room, stripped off to her briefs and climbed into bed beside him. Jimmy might have changed his mind about what he was planning to do but by then he’d already reached down inside his brain and snapped the band of iron that kept Wise Monkey in his place.
When he woke from the dream Alice was sleeping. A soft wheeze whistled in her nostrils. The sound was the same one Wise Monkey had had to suffer now for far too long and as Jimmy’s hand lightly touched Alice’s throat his eyes seemed almost to burn yellow in the dark room.
After Alice he’d have to deal with little Susie and, as for Zack— he wasn’t going anywhere.
B.T. Joy is a British horror writer whose short fiction has appeared within the printed pages, internet presences and podcasts of markets such as Horrified Press, Surreal Grotesque, James Ward Kirk Fiction, Human Echoes, MircoHorror, Flashes In The Dark, SQ Magazine, Forgotten Tomb Press and Chilling Tales For Dark Nights, among others. He is also a practicing poet and his poetry can be found in magazines and anthologies produced worldwide. He is currently working as a high school English teacher in Heilongjiang, China. He can be reached through his website: http://btj0005uk.wix.com/btjoypoet or on tumblr: http://btj0005uk.tumblr.com/