Here’s the first chapter of my novel, Monkey Arkwright.
The sides of the path were overgrown with nettles and weeds, the path itself strewn with the various by-products of the nearby takeaway. I pressed on beyond the neglected scene, arriving at a patch of grass that sloped gently down to the river. A weeping willow leaned wearily over, leaves barely touching the surface of the water, standing watch like some giant fisherman waiting for a final catch of the day before heading home.
The edge of the sun touched the horizon, painting the city skyline across the river in vivid colours, a dazzling flower of light and steel. On the water itself, a cruiser had set off on one of the nightly tours that operated during the summer months, the sound of boisterous laughter coming from the passengers crammed onto the top deck.
I wished that I could share their enthusiasm, but my thoughts occupied a darker place.
Turning away from this placid scene, the first twinges of electricity fizzed through my stomach as the large stone pillars of the cemetery came into view. Between them, rusted gates stood locked for the evening, a wall of dirty teeth set in a permanent grimace.
The cemetery wall was low enough such that after tossing my small bag over, I had little difficulty scaling its craggy surface and dropping down to the grass on the other side. From the river, the sound of a motor launch speeding past faded away. I picked up my bag, slung its strap over my shoulder and made my way into the cemetery.
Years of wind and rain had done their best to erase the markings on the graves, many of which were more than a century old. The earth had staked a similar claim; long grass and weeds growing unfettered over the old stones, no family members left alive to fight nature on behalf of their relatives who were buried here.
When the familiar sight of the Grayson mausoleum came into view, the uneasy feeling in my guts ratcheted up a notch further, but now as always, I stood for a few moments, taking in its grandeur. I remembered my first visit, being awestruck at this impressive block of stone and the shrine that it encompassed, its large Roman-style columns and wrought-iron gate seeming out of place in the otherwise simple graveyard. Walking past its grand facade, I had often wondered who was entombed within. Alice Grayson, but who was she? What had she done to deserve such an elegant memorial?
As the sun slipped further into tomorrow, the last beams of light revealed a spider’s web between one of the mausoleum’s columns and its stone roof. It always struck me as ironic that such beauty came alive in a place that was built to house the dead.
I approached some newer graves, my breathing becoming laboured. Struggling to hold back the tears, I sank to my knees in the cool grass.
“Hi, Dad,” was all I could manage before the sobs came, my body convulsing uncontrollably as my tears watered the freshly cut flowers that lay at my father’s grave.
How long I sat there, I couldn’t say, my fingers tracing the letters of his name where they had been freshly carved in the black marble of the headstone. People were continually telling me that things would get easier, but it was hard to imagine a time when my grief would lessen enough to enjoy life again.
Pulling the torch from my bag, I flicked the switch and set it on the stone surround alongside the grave, my dad’s name bathed in its cool light. I grabbed my notebook and was soon lost in the soothing sound of pen scraping across paper, my head alive with thoughts and memories as the words poured onto the page.
Behind me, a different type of scrape.
Shocked from my reverie, I turned around, looking for the source of the noise. Maybe I’d imagined it. The sound of a distant car rumbling by on the main road came and faded to nothing.
I returned to my writing, but before my heart had resumed its regular rhythm, there was another scraping sound; this time it was accompanied by a grunt. The sudden disturbance caused me to drop my book. I stood and turned in the direction of the river, the Grayson mausoleum staring back out of the inky blackness.
“Who’s there?” My voice sounded reed-thin in the open space of the cemetery. Scanning the elaborate tomb in front of me, I took a short step backwards, convinced that this was the origin of the sound. Another scraping sound, but instead of the ghostly figure sweeping down the steps that the worst recess of my imagination had conjured up, a small face peered down from the roof of the mausoleum.
“Err, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” The voice was a lot higher in pitch than I’d have expected. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what I’d expected, but this certainly wasn’t it. The apologetic figure on the roof stood up. He was a good deal shorter than me, and the imagined scenario of some dangerous creep wanting to inflict unspeakable terror on me was removed from the list of possibilities; it appeared that my would-be attacker was a small boy, slightly built at that. Recovering my composure, anger immediately replaced any fear that I’d felt.
“What the hell are you doing sneaking around a cemetery at this time of night?” I demanded.
“I’m not sneaking around, I’m just up on the roof,” came the indignant reply.
“Have you no respect for the dead?” I don’t know where that came from, it sounded more like something my great aunt would say.
The boy turned his back to me, put one foot over the edge of the mausoleum’s roof and began to climb down one of the pillars. I stood transfixed as his hands and feet nimbly sought out the cracks in the stonework. He methodically descended the three or four metres with ease, his graceful movements delivering him to the safety of the top step within seconds. Dusting some crumbs of loose plaster from his black trousers, he made his way down the steps as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Look, I’m really sorry, I hope I didn’t upset you,” he offered.
“Upset me? Sneaking up on me in the dark, why should I be upset? I’m angry. This is a cemetery, you know. You should have more consideration!” Only a few weeks ago, a gang of youths had been caught spraying graffiti on some graves, and I wasn’t about to let this punk do anything to my dad. “Can’t think why you’d want to hang around here at this time of night. What are you up to?”
He gave me a puzzled look, his delicate skin smooth in the light of my torch. Atop his head was an unruly mop of brown hair, and some of his teeth were crooked. It was laughable that I’d been scared of this diminutive character.
“I could ask you the same,” he replied, looking at my torch and then at my notebook, which had fallen onto the soil in front of my dad’s grave. Finally, he looked back at me, his blue eyes sparkling.
“I asked first. Come to desecrate a few more graves?” I pressed.
“I know your type: spray paint-wielding thugs who make a mess and get a few laughs, upsetting everybody else into the bargain.” He seemed genuinely taken aback at this. Good. I hoped that I was getting through to him now. He turned around and pointed in the direction of the mausoleum.
“Look, I was up on that roof, minding my own business, and I saw your light, so I was going to come over and have a look, but I slipped. I’m really sorry that I scared you.”
As I looked at his little face in the torchlight, his slight arms held out in a gesture of apology, the thought occurred that I might have misjudged the situation horribly. After all, he hadn’t been the least bit threatening, and he’d apologised, twice, for startling me.
“I was surprised to find a girl in the graveyard at this time of night,” he added.
“I’ve got a good reason,” I mumbled, trying not to sound too aggressive this time. “It’s my dad, he’s…” I turned and looked at the headstone.
“Ah, I see.” His eyes swept quickly across the engraving on the headstone. Here lies Daniel Joseph Bryson, beloved husband of Kathleen and loving father of… “So, you’d be Lorna then?”
“Don’t be, you don’t know me.”
He appeared lost for words at this juncture. Like everybody else, he was sorry, but I couldn’t hold that against him; what would I say if I was in his shoes? For what seemed like a long time, we both stood in silence, looking at the grave, me thinking of all the times that I’d said sorry to my dad for this or that, him probably wracking his brains trying to decide what he should say next. Not for the first time, when he did speak, he surprised me.
“I’m Monkey.” He held out his hand, and I looked dumbly at it. Now it was me who was not sure what to say.
“Monkey? As in ooh ooh banana?”
“That’s right, Monkey Arkwright.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“A nickname. I’ve got a real name, obviously, but I don’t use it these days.”
“So, people call you Monkey?” I asked, fighting the urge to giggle.
“Well, it’s more what I call myself. Not too many people call me anything, to be honest.” He shuffled awkwardly on the spot, his small feet on the end of his twig-like legs scuffing loose stones on the ground.
“Okay,” I said slowly, warming to this strange character, “why should I call you Monkey then?”
“Why do you think?”
“Because you eat fruit and live in a cage?”
“Not really!” He almost sounded offended. I recalled the image of his spider-like frame making its dextrous descent from the roof of the mausoleum, arms and legs working in tandem, making the whole exercise look simplicity itself. It’s not something that I could have accomplished, and I figured that it would take at least as much skill, if not more, to have got up there in the first place.
“You like to climb.” More of a statement than a question.
“Nearly,” he responded, and before I had the chance to ask for further clarification, “I love to climb!”
“I see, and how old are you?”
“Thirteen and a quarter. And you?”
“Why do you come here at night? Wouldn’t it be better in the day? Safer, I mean?”
“I like coming when it’s quieter. Gives me time to think. Besides, unless you believe in ghosts and vampires, there’s not really much to be scared of.”
He nodded in agreement.
“Other than people who sneak up behind you in the dark that is,” I added with a smirk.
“Or spray paint-welding thugs?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Spray paint-wielding thugs,” I corrected. We both laughed at that. His eyes shifted to my notebook.
“What’s with the notebook?”
“Oh, nothing much, I like to write a bit.”
“In a graveyard?” He sat down on the stone path, taking noticeable care not to sit on the grave itself.
“Well, you came here to climb,” I countered.
“True enough,” he conceded. “What do you write about?”
“When I’m here, my dad mainly. My counsellor says it might help to express my grief or anger or whatever.” I sat down, facing him in the torchlight. Monkey Arkwright nodded sympathetically, and I sensed that he felt awkward again. “But I like to write stories as well,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
“I’ve never been any good at writing. I do enough of that at school, but I wouldn’t want to do it in my free time.”
“It makes me feel calmer, takes my mind off things. Well, most of the time anyway,” I added, glancing again at Dad’s headstone.
“I know what you mean. When I climb, it makes me feel the same way.”
“Aren’t you scared that you’ll fall?” I asked.
“Nah. Don’t really think about it. Put one hand over the other, one foot over the other. Just think about the next move, and the climb will take care of itself.”
“A right little philosopher!”
“Nothing. Just take it as a compliment.”
We sat there for a while, talking about nothing in particular. He didn’t mention his climbing again, and I was careful to steer the conversation away from my dad. I didn’t make friends very easily, and since Dad had died, I didn’t really care. But over the past ten minutes or so, I had felt something shift in me ever so slightly. I’d warmed quickly to Monkey’s easy-going personality, and despite my initial hostility, which I’m sure would have driven much lesser people away, he seemed happy to share my company.
Glancing at my watch, I was surprised to see that it was after ten. I collected my notebook, pen and torch and stuffed them into my bag. Monkey rose to his feet at the same time.
“Well, it’s been nice meeting you, Monkey Arkwright.”
“And you, Lorna,” he responded, seeming like he was about to say something, but instead turned to leave. I watched him go as his feet crunched on the gravel path that threaded its way between the graves. I stood dumbstruck, feeling as if I was losing a friend, an idea that seemed silly as I’d only met him less than half an hour ago. But what could I say? I could hardly ask a thirteen-year-old out on a date.
He’d gone no further than ten paces before he turned around. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked.
“Tomorrow, I… err…”
“I’ve got an idea. You like to write?” Something in his eyes suggested mischief.
“And I like to climb.”
“So, why don’t you write about me climbing?”
“Well, I suppose, I…”
Monkey was probably looking for something more positive than my hesitant response, the slope of his shoulders suggesting a sense of disappointment on his part. However, he was not to be defeated. “Tell you what. Meet me tomorrow; I’ve got another idea.”
“What kind of idea?”
“Something worth writing about,” he replied.
So, we arranged a meeting time and place for tomorrow and went our separate ways for the evening. He was off up the path at a fair pace, and I followed at a distance, making my own way down the path back towards the locked gate that backed onto the river. I could just about make out his slender form through the darkness as he vaulted the gate in a single movement, dropping safely to the other side. Just for a moment, I wondered why he’d chosen to make his exit over a gate that was at least twice his height when he could, like me, have scrambled over the significantly smaller wall to either the left or the right.
That was before I reminded myself that Monkey Arkwright loved to climb, and then his theatrical exit made far more sense.