Most authors like to write and talk about the people, events and things that influenced or still affect their writing. Being somewhat vain, most of us choose to discuss aspects of life which made our work better, or which gave it its special atmosphere, or colour. Inevitably, we steer a bit clear of those personal tensions which may have embittered us, or given our writing a sour edge. But I don’t want to discuss such fundamental influences here. It involved me accompanying a dead ape, in Toronto, in high summer, in a taxi …
This short tale will also be about the circumstances that gave rise to the creation of one of the key scenes in my crime/thriller, The Lifers’ Club. As you will discover, sometimes the reality behind fiction can be stranger than anything your imagination can create. So our story starts in a low-key fashion, as most things did in those email-free, text-less days of 1969, with a phone call:
‘Hi,’ short pause: ‘Are you Francis?’
The voice was Canadian, as one might expect in Toronto, and although I was still relatively new to the country I knew better than to make a smart-arse reply. I had just enjoyed a good breakfast and was feeling relaxed. Soon my wife and I planned to walk downtown to one of the then fashionable ‘underground’ markets where one could buy tie-dyed t-shirts, expensive hookah pipes, water-beds and spicy food. The Vietnam War was at its height and Toronto had a huge population of US draft-dodgers. We had some good friends in that community. But I soon realised that our trip downtown was not to be.
‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.
‘My name is Englebert Humperdinck, and I’m a Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology. I was given your name by Doug. He said you were the kind of guy who wouldn’t mind doing something unusual.’
I should mention here that he was called neither Humperdinck nor Englebert, in fact I can’t even remember his voice, but I did hear that my name had been mentioned by my boss, the Chief Archaeologist of The Royal Ontario Museum, the late Doug Tushingham. I had just joined Doug’s department, the Office of the Chief Archaeologist, as a lowly technician and was keen to climb the ladder towards a full academic, or curatorial job. So if Doug had said ‘fly’ I would have flapped by arms.
The man on the phone went on to explain that he had just been told by a contact at Toronto Zoo, that when they had done the final inspection, late last night, they had discovered a female orangutan had died, probably of a heart-attack. They had taken her to the mortuary, where she was ready for collection. He then went on to explain that he had a few practical problems: they were short of staff; it was a weekend and Monday was a Public Holiday. To make matters worse, the Zoo’s chiller had broken-down and it was going to be yet another baking hot day in August. For a brief moment I couldn’t think why on earth he was telling me all this and then I suddenly realised: Vertebrate Palaeontology wanted her bones for their reference collections. He had been reading my mind:
‘You’ve gotta understand, Francis, she’s rare and we need her bones for our Reference Collection.’
I was about to reply along the lines of ‘Yes, orangutans don’t grow on trees,’ but thankfully thought better of it. He then arranged to meet me at his Department’s Biological Cleansing Facility, where he wanted me to deliver the ape and gave me the entire contents of the Facility’s Petty Cash box. His final words were succinct:
‘So I don’t care how you do it. Just get her here by Tuesday. And have a couple beers on us, when you’ve done.’
I watched as he strode out of the small courtyard, then I headed into the street. A few minutes earlier we had collected the Petty Cash box from the secretary’s office, where a calendar above her desk showed a tasteful picture of An Ape a Month. By some strange coincidence, August was Orangutan Month and we were treated to a close-up of an orange-haired female cradling an infant. It was very touching. Of course I knew a little bit about the Great Apes from my physical anthropology courses at Cambridge, but their bones gave me no idea they could be so charming. That calendar also taught me that the name orangutan derives from two Malay words meaning ‘person’ and ‘forest’. As I headed out in search of a taxi, I had visions of nimble, youthful orangutans swinging nimbly from branch to branch, like so many playful red squirrels.
There was only one yellow cab in the taxi-rank. The driver, who was in his later middle-age and enormously fat, was leaning back in his seat, snoozing. The windows were wide open and a newspaper lay across the steering-wheel. I coughed to gain his attention. He woke-up, shook his head and said in a North American voice, but with a strong hint of London’s East End:
‘Sorry, mate. Dozed-off in this ‘eat.’
He immediately recognised me as English and then mentioned that he grew up in Bethnal Green and had come to Canada after the war. The important stuff over, he asked me where I wanted to go. I explained my mission, fully expecting him to refuse, as it was more than a little outrageous. By rights, of course, I should have hired a small van, but life was too short and I hadn’t bothered to get a Canadian driving licence, as we didn’t yet own a car. Little did I then realise what a big mistake that short-sighted decision was to prove. He paused when I’d finished explaining.
‘Blimey, mate, got to hand it to you for cheek. Collect a dead ape, you’re saying?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, trying to sound as reassuring as I could, ‘She only died last night. So there won’t be any smell…’
He gave me a look which said that he’d seen and smelled things far more unpleasant in the War. Then he took a deep breath.
I produced the wadge of notes I’d been given from the Petty Cash box.
His eyes grew round. At last he smiled.
‘OK,’ he said, ‘But not on this.’ He reached up and switched off the meter. ‘A hundred bucks?’
That was a big sum in those days. Quickly I leafed through the notes. I could just do it.
‘OK,’ I replied.
‘And in advance.’
This was said with what he hoped was a disarming smile. I felt neither charmed nor won-over, but I had no alternative. So I paid-up. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Toronto’s world-renowned Zoo sits on the edge of the great city, which sprawls along the northern shores of Lake Ontario. As we drove away from the lake along Yonge (pronounced ‘Young’) Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare, one could occasionally catch glimpses of gleaming water through the shimmering damp heat-haze of high summer. In Britain we think of Canada as cold, but in actual fact Toronto is 500 miles south of London and their summers are a great deal warmer – and steamier – than ours. I hadn’t been this far from the city centre before, and the taller buildings of the downtown banking area looked magnificent – a miniature New York set on the edge of what seemed like an inland Atlantic Ocean.
I think I must have drifted off – it had been a frantic and rather tense-making morning – when I was rudely awoken by a sharp tap on the window. It was a uniformed security guard. I read him the details of the man we were to meet at the Mortuary. He went back into his booth and I could see him pick up a phone. The he reappeared and gave the driver instructions. By now I was feeling so relieved: we were nearly there. Soon it would all be over. But little did I know.
We followed his instructions and when we got there, the Zoo’s Mortuary turned out to be a surprisingly unimpressive building. Admittedly it was on a weekend, but there were no scurrying vet-nurses in green head-to-toe overalls, as one might expect today. Instead there was a bell, which the driver managed to push – I had never seen such a long, fat arm – without leaving the cab. Then we waited. And waited. In the distance we could hear unusual shrieks and catcalls which sounded more like a school for the kids of hyper-active comedians than a zoo. Or maybe I’m being unfair. But it was odd, disarming and a little creepy, given where we were parked. After what seemed like an eternity, during which time my driver successfully ignored all my attempts at small-talk to lighten the mood, a door to the left of the one we were waiting by, opened, and a man in ordinary workman’s overalls beckoned us over. Slowly we drove the few yards to meet him. Just around the corner of the building was a pair of double-doors, which were then opened from the inside. We drew-up alongside them.
I don’t make a habit of visiting mortuaries, but like everyone else, I do have certain expectations. I wasn’t anticipating somewhere evil at all, but I had hoped for a slight element of fear, regret or sadness; a cool-to-cold atmosphere; sympathetic, if silent, staff and everywhere the powerful aroma of disinfectants.
But this place more resembled the delivery bay of a small engineering works in one of the new industrial suburbs that were then springing up around most of the cities of the western world. In the background I could hear a radio, tuned-in to CHUM-FM, a popular local acid rock station, and two men were sitting at a table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, surrounded by fuse boxes and the usual paraphernalia of a workshop. I began to doubt whether we had been shown the right place at all. It wasn’t remotely like a mortuary, although come to think of it, there was a strong smell of disinfectant. Rather hesitantly I gave one of the two men the piece of paper with the reference number I had been given at the Museum. He glanced down at it. Then took a sip from his coffee. A puff on his cigarette. All the time in the world. I could feel my palms starting to sweat – and it wasn’t just the heat.
‘You from the Museum?’
This was asked in a Scottish Canadian voice.
‘Yes, I’ve, I’ve come to collect…’ I couldn’t think of the right word, ‘to collect a specimen. It’s for the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology.’
In my experience long words could often open closed doors. But not today. He said nothing.
There was a further long pause while he finished his coffee. Eventually he looked up:
‘You’ll have to give me a hand.’
I glanced at the other man who was reading the sports pages of the newspaper. He studiously ignored me and remained sitting at the table.
We walked across to the double doors and my taciturn companion looked right and left. Then he turned to me:
‘Where’s the truck?’
‘There isn’t one.’
For an instant a look of incredulity flashed across his otherwise inscrutable face. But sadly it didn’t set me thinking.
‘So it’s the cab?’
I detected a faint exhalation and a slight upwards glance. By now I realised he was acting oddly. He didn’t think it was going to work. But I was still quietly confident. For a moment I could see orangutans swinging nimbly through the trees. Everything was going to be fine. Of course it was.
We went back into the building, where the second man was still reading his newspaper, but this time we crossed to the opposite corner and entered a smaller pair of more hospital-like double doors, which swung shut behind us. He turned on the lights to reveal a featureless corridor with another pair of swing-doors at the end. Just in front of the far set of doors was a stainless-steel, heavy-duty trolley, whose blankets concealed something the size of a small cow. Maybe a young moose or an antelope, I speculated as I walked past. For a moment I waited in front of the second double-doors, for my companion to open them. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned round, suddenly with a feeling of cold foreboding. As I watched, he pulled the blanket off the trolley to reveal a vast expanse of dark brown skin and orange hair. I was stunned. Far from swinging through the trees, this female could have uprooted them.
As a sheep-farmer I’ve long been aware that animals have a certain dignity in death. OK, the Church may say that they don’t have souls, but then it’s not unusual to hear rubbish from a pulpit. And if anyone had a soul, this poor dead orangutan had one. Her dark eyes, which were wide open, if somewhat clouded, seemed to look at one in a strangely disengaged fashion. It was as if she was observing me: she was now the anthropologist and I was the ape. I hadn’t appreciated until then how high an ape’s eyes were set in the skull and there was – or did I imagine it? – a distinct change between the hair on her head and the rest of her body. Like many middle-aged and elderly humans today, she was generously proportioned, but there was nothing unfit about her. Her muscles were massive and had plainly been used. I don’t think she’d have looked odd pushing a vast supermarket trolley in some simian Sainsbury’s. And I’m absolutely certain she would never have worn tight leggings and horizontal stripes. But she was vast. Could we fit her in the taxi? And if not, what on earth was I to do?
The two of us pushed the trolley out onto the forecourt and up to the taxi. The driver had the window down. He lowered his newspaper – still on the same sports’ page – and stubbed out his cigarette. But did he open the door? Did he, Hell!
We pulled off the blanket and as we did so, I glanced across at the driver, who showed no emotion whatsoever. We could have revealed a trolley-load of spark-plugs and spanners for all he was concerned. Eventually he offered advice:
‘It’s a big’un. You’ll have to lift out the back seat. Then stick it in the trunk.’
How that ‘it’ irritated me! I also remember thinking he’d been in Canada long enough to say ‘trunk’ for ‘boot’. But he didn’t offer to help us. I thought for one awful moment that my only practical assistant was going to return to his companion at the table. But he decided against it. In hindsight, I think he was beginning to enjoy himself.
Together we removed the rear seat and squeezed it into the boot. Then, rather ingeniously, by partially lowering the shelf of the trolley, which was secured by butterfly-bolts, we slid the dead ape into the cab, which tilted quite dramatically at the impact. At that, the driver must have turned on the ignition, because an internal alarm sounded. He poked his head out of the window and announced:
‘Uneven load. The cab won’t start unless you shift it.’
That ‘it’ again. I was beginning to get annoyed.
But the driver didn’t care. He was reading the damn newspaper.
After much straining we managed to man-handle the poor creature across to the cab’s nearside. When we had wedged her upright, I shut the door. Sitting so very low down in the vehicle, her huge head was at the same height as a human’s. Standing on the outside looking in, I found it spookily strange. To make matters worse, she was staring out of the window. This made my companion smile. I could see he had the Scots’ dry sense of humour, but I suddenly became very aware that her vast and unearthly gaze would terrify any passing pedestrians, especially when we drove through the crowded streets downtown. So I went round to the other side, reached in, and gently angled her head towards the front. Somehow that looked a little less odd.
The driver didn’t want her to or roll over, as that would set-off the Uneven Load alarm again. And in those days cabs weren’t fitted with seat-belts. So I sat next to her on a pile of collapsed cardboard boxes that we had to fish out of the garbage skip. For some reason they smelled strongly of garlic, which I didn’t object to (a) because I’m very partial to it and (b) because all the manipulation had caused our dead companion to release the preliminary gasses of putrefaction – which were neither pleasant, nor unexpected, given the heat and humidity of the day.
I slipped the helpful Zoo assistant enough money for a few beers and we set off back to the Museum. And then something very odd happened. The driver suddenly started to act like a cabby: all cheerful questions and banter about local politics, beer and the Toronto Maple Leafs. I fully expected him to say something chirpily sexist to our dead companion. But strangely, he didn’t. I’ve never been much good at small talk, but in this instance it helped keep my mind off the problems at hand – which were about to get critical.
We came off the fast freeways that skirt the metropolitan area and joined Yonge Street, which in its uptown stretches is dual-carriageway. As we bowled along I found I was thinking about that rather strange name: Yonge. I’d just learnt from a friend in the Department of Canadiana that Sir George Yonge was an expert in Roman Roads and was a friend of John Graves Simcoe, the first colonial administrator of Ontario, who named the street after him in the 1790s. Anything to keep my mind off the dead ape beside me – and the increasingly dreadful smell. I’d always been led to believe that after a few minutes your nose gets used to powerful odours, and they vanish. But that hadn’t happened to me. Not even slightly.
By now, the buildings we were passing by were becoming older, larger and closer together. There were more people on the sidewalks. But still the happy cabby continued the brainless chatter. I’d completely given up trying to respond. It was pointless: he was on a looped tape. At the mid-town junction of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, we paused briefly to allow a tram, complete with ringing bell, to pass in front of us. Then we headed down the hill, presumably the Ice Age shoreline, towards the lake, the Museum and downtown. At this point the burble from the front started to break-up and fade. He’d remembered something. I could see him glance at his watch. Then rapidly he reached across and switched on the radio. He’d nearly missed it: the big game. Toronto Maple Leafs, I think. Or were they ice hockey? Doesn’t matter.
My driver was obviously a big football fan and the sound of the radio in the background wouldn’t normally have intruded – in fact I’d have welcomed it, as it did signal an end to the chatter. Unfortunately, however, along with the chatter seemed to go his concentration. His mind plainly wasn’t on the job at hand. Up until just south of the second major mid-town junction at Yonge and Dundas his driving had been smooth. He had seemed to be aware that he was carrying a huge and unstable deadweight; so he made allowances: no swerving, no rapid braking, nor acceleration. Then that bloody game began in earnest.
I was also becoming aware that two other factors were about to compound my problems. The first was geographical. We were now on the fringes of the late 19th Century city. From here on, Yonge Street was two-way, albeit with two lanes in each direction, and there were traffic lights at roughly every other block. The second was chronological. It was August, and the blanket of anonymous darkness was still several hours away. We could be clearly seen from the sidewalks. To make matters even worse, it was now early Saturday evening and people were heading out for the pubs, restaurants and night-clubs of downtown. It was only too apparent that many young men had already enjoyed several beers, doubtless in the knowledge that tomorrow was ‘dry’: pubs closed and churches opened in the quest to reap the Sunday dollar. I must add that today onetime prim and proper ‘Tory Toronto’ is very different – in fact it’s the gay-scene capital of the Eastern Seaboard. But not in 1969: in those days you made the most of your Saturday nights.
By now we were in the heart of downtown, but at least traffic was moving. Once or twice, when we had to slow down, I think I might have spotted the odd nudge or pointing finger, as people on the sidewalk caught glimpses of our cargo. But they probably thought we were heading out for a fancy-dress party. Then I noticed the driver’s head twitch: the quarterback was making a break. The crowd roared. He threw a thirty yard pass. Wild cheering from the crowd – and the driver. A few seconds later: touchdown! The stadium went wild, The driver punched the ceiling with both hands and the cab lurched across into the fast lane. But the lights were red. So we squealed to a standstill. The ape had collapsed forward, over the front passenger seat. And there was something slightly unpleasant drooling from her mouth.
Why is it that when you want a car of deaf-blind pensioners to draw-up in the nearside lane, you get a bus-load of eager students? Because that’s what appeared alongside us, just as I was pulling the poor ape back from over the front passenger seat. And as we had discovered back at the zoo, her head lolled naturally towards the window, where the bus-full of students were treated to a clear view of her huge face, cloudy eyes and drooling mouth. I’m pretty sure it was too much for them, because for a brief instant I thought we had got away with it – as there was silence. But it was very short-lived. Suddenly all hell broke loose. It was a hot day, the bus windows were open and you could have heard the screams right across Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York State. In those days most cars didn’t have air-conditioning, so everyone’s windows were open. After a few second I glanced in the mirror: several cars back, people were opening their doors. And getting out. Horns were blaring and the screams were getting worse and worse. But my driver was blissfully unaware. One or two people had started to head towards us from the sidewalks And they were looking menacing. Things were beginning to turn nasty. Then, mercifully, the lights changed. I held my breath – but we didn’t budge. The driver’s brain was still with the Maple Leafs in that bloody stadium.
In desperation, I politely nudged his shoulder – again, desperate times call for desperate measure – and thank God: it worked. He drove away, as if nothing had happened. No roaring engine; no squealing tyres. But we had escaped. Out of the back window I could see the pandemonium we had left behind us. All vehicles had stopped. Pedestrians were everywhere. A few people looked and pointed in our direction, but no cars followed. It had been a close-run thing.
I sat back and closed my eyes. My body had relaxed, but my mind was still in a whirl. Then I found myself wondering how many future students would know anything about the colourful post-mortem history of the bones they were handling in the Reference Collection? To them, they’d just be yet more dry, white specimens, this time of the female orangutan, Pongo abelii. I smiled at the memory of her name as I looked down at the collapsed and festering bulk of my vast companion. Poor Pongo. At least she was about to find a certain odourless immortality in the Museum. And me, how did I feel about it all? To be quite honest I was completely knackered. Forgive the weak pun, but I couldn’t have given a monkey’s.