Pantry Prose: Monkey Business by Andrew Williams


“Lemons. Lemons everywhere. Yellow, curved, with those odd little nubs on either end. Nothing but lemons, an endless sea of them stretching from here to eternity. To be honest, I’m starting to get a bit sick of them. Now and again, just once, I’d like to see something different. Like an apple, or a banana. But no, it’s just lemons. That’s all we ever get around here.”

Malcolm stared at the words he’d just typed. Gibberish, absolute gibberish. As if the Bard would ever deign to come up with such trash. He tore the paper from the typewriter, fed a new sheet behind the ribbon and started again.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was one of those times somewhere in the middle that could be better but could be worse, like a rainy Tuesday afternoon.”

No, that still wasn’t right. Malcolm glanced over at his neighbour, an elderly chimp with the odd patch of grey in his fur, whose page was already overflowing with references to ghosts, daggers and witches. Still, his spelling was pretty atrocious. Malcolm took pride in his spelling.

But if he didn’t start channelling some Shakespeare soon, there’d be no peanuts for him tonight.

Malcolm concentrated, meditating on the collective sound of a thousand typewriter keys tapping out their staccato rhythms. His fingers flexed.

“Maria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria. And suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be…”

Oh no. Not again. Even the lemons were better than this second rate musical.

Why was he struggling so? Just the other week he’d dashed off three scenes from Coriolanus without a second thought. He tore out the defiled paper, screwing it into a ball and tossing it amongst the growing pile of rejects around his desk.

“Jim, I’m taking a break.”

The greying chimp didn’t reply, lost in the flow of dialogue and dreaming up arcane spells for his three witches. Malcolm didn’t try for witches any more. The last one had ended up with red shoes, green skin and an army of dogs with wings that she set on innocent Kansas farm girls.

He headed to the kitchen for a cup of tea. It was stone cold. He didn’t care. Anything to get away from the stench of failure emanating from his desk – unless that was the banana sandwich he’d lost last month, of course. The cleaners certainly weren’t that thorough these days.

“Hey, Malcolm. How’s it going?”

Malcolm looked up. “Hey, Cyril,” he said. “Could be worse, you know.”

Cyril, a spider monkey from Accounting, was the sort to remember everything you said and repeat it later in the annual budget meeting. All the typists in this section were terrified of him – there were rumours of more cutbacks. Once there were supposed to have been a million monkeys in the typing pool – now less than a tenth of that number remained, though they were told they were the best in the company. Malcolm wondered if the best had merely taken the opportunity to join the space program. NASA were always looking for new test pilots.

“Isn’t your PDR due soon, Malcolm?”

The dratted performance development review. Malcolm suppressed a shudder. He was dreading this – a meeting with his line manager to discuss his output. A few months ago he’d been producing a page of prose a day. Lately he hadn’t managed much more than a few stage directions in weeks, Coriolanus aside. But he was damned if he’d give those accountancy bastards the satisfaction of watching him squirm.

“This afternoon, actually,” he breezed, trying to sound casual.

“Best be off,” Cyril grinned, showing more teeth than pleasure. “I’m stocktaking the peanuts again. After all, we can’t let our hard workers go unpaid, can we?”

Malcolm smiled, dropped the empty teacup back in the sink and headed back to his desk.

“The PDR’s the thing,” he typed, “to prick the conscience of the king.”

Damned performance reviews. They were all he could think of now. He added another ball of screwed up paper to the pile below and started again.

“To be, or not to be, that is not really a question. My kingdom for a hearse! Cry havoc, and let dogs bring the slippers of war. To sleep, purchase a dream. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards. A plaque on both your houses, stating Roy Waz Ere! Bill Stickers is innocent! I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas…”

Gibberish! Sheer gibberish! Malcolm shivered at the thought of meeting his boss, a four hundred pound gorilla in a suit slightly too small for him. Approximately half a pound of that weight was made up of brain, and that might be overestimating it. But that was how the company worked – put the good workers at the bottom, and promote the bad ones to management, where they couldn’t get in the way too much.

Malcolm returned to the typewriter, dashing out a quick sonnet that seemed determined to focus on a young girl from Nantucket. The Bard was being particularly unhelpful today. It was a relief to escape from work for a half hour at lunch time.

Bananas again. And not fresh ones. More budget cutbacks.

As Malcolm threw aside the final bruised banana skin, he felt a large hand upon his shoulder. “It’s time, Malcolm.”

“Yes, boss. Coming, boss.”

They headed for the trees. Lowly typists such as Malcolm had to make do with cubicles, but management had their own trees, a miniature jungle of foliage in which to work. Malcolm found it strange that sunlight and greenery were considered essential for the upper echelons but a distraction for their underlings. Still, this was no time to philosophise about business management. He had the dreaded review to survive.

The gorilla took up home on a sturdy spot near the trunk and gestured to a nearby branch. “Let’s get right to the point. Malcolm, I’ve been looking at your output for the last month or so. I’m very disappointed. There was a time once when we could afford to slack off; a million monkeys all typing for eternity, how could we not get the job done? But with all these cutbacks – I’m going to have to let some of you go. Tell me why it shouldn’t be you.”

Malcolm decided not to mention the wife and six children back home. That wasn’t really what the boss meant, after all. “I’m just going through a dry spell, sir. You know I’ve always been a top worker in the past. I can do it again.”

“Malcolm, Malcolm. I’m worried about you.” The gorilla’s cold, dark eyes suggested otherwise. “I’m afraid you might have burned out. Sure, you’ve managed some great stuff. That page of Titus Andronicus – brilliant work. You’ve inserted long-missing lines into six different scenes of Romeo and Juliet. But lately – I think something’s cracked.”

To his horror, Malcolm saw the gorilla smooth out a crumbled piece of paper.

“Yes, we’ve been checking your reject pile. Paper’s valuable stuff, Malcolm. It doesn’t grow on trees. Now what’s all this about lemons?”

“Sorry, sir.”

The gorilla growled. “I don’t want apologies, grunt. I want explanations. Why lemons? What work of Shakespeare ever mentioned lemons?”

“Uh… sonnet number 56 mentions pomegranates… I think…”

“Shall I compare thee to a fruitcake, Malcolm? Lemons and pomegranates! Next you’ll be wittering on about rainy Tuesdays. Oh, wait. You did.” He unrolled another sheet. Malcolm looked down at the ground and wondered whether a fall from this height could be fatal. Perhaps if he aimed carefully and landed head first…

“Truth is, though, Malcolm, I’m short staffed. When the company first started this project we had all the funds you could want. Now no-one is interested in Shakespeare. Look… you’re a good worker. I think you just need a change of scenery. I’m transferring you to the Meyer department.”

Malcolm gasped. “Not the Twilight series!” he wailed. “It’s utter dross!”

The gorilla smiled evilly. “I know. Keep on writing this codswallop, Malcolm, and no-one will ever notice. You might even improve it.”

Malcolm headed back to his desk, collected his few possessions, and headed off down the corridor. It felt like a punishment. Perhaps it was a punishment. But if a million monkeys on a million typewriters couldn’t produce the works of Shakespeare, perhaps something a little easier might be worth a try.

He sat at a new typewriter, threaded a new ribbon, and fed in a new sheet of paper.

“Vampire Edward and his bride Bella sat at the abacus, flicking beads back and forth. ‘One! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ chortled Edward. ‘Two! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ joined in Bella. And there were no lemons or pomegranates in the room. No, sir.”

Malcolm sighed. Utter, utter dross. He carefully took the paper out and added it to the out tray for the printers. He could only hope it would pass as good enough.

“And if, by chance, I have offended,” he thought to himself, “who gives a monkey’s?”



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