James stood immobile, despite the biting wind. His eyes stung, which was all the better. He could blame any leaking from the sockets as caused by the inclement conditions. Around him people eddied and swirled. Over and over again he heard the same type of conversations; ‘They put those flats up after this was built.’ ‘Is that a coffee table, that doughnut thing…?’ ‘They’re probably just weekend houses…’ In all their voices he heard an element of sneer. A sense of triumph that they, the meek of the earth, had carte blanche to snoop at the rich. The super-rich millionaires, whose view of the Thames came with a side order of gawp from the tenth floor viewing gallery of the Tate Modern only a matter of metres away.
James was meek. Literally, that WAS his surname. His meekness was a quality that had first attracted, then subsequently repelled Natasha, his lost love. Well, he had loved her. He doubted if she had loved him as much as her causes. She had given him the usual, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech, but they both knew that was bullshit. It was him. He was a pale moth caught in her flame. Natasha was a passionate animal rights activist, forever on demos and campaigns. He had tried to muster up the same fire, but he just didn’t care as much. In fact….he ferreted about in his pocket, finding the last snicket of sausage roll in a screw of paper. That was better.
As he munched, he listened to the voices again. ‘I think that’s the CBeebies house with the brio mat.’ ‘That one’s Alan Sugar’s isn’t it?’ ‘Ooh look, he shops at Boss.’ Boss. Why couldn’t he have been Boss, not Meek? Or, to appeal to his tornado ex-girlfriend, something animalistic like Fox. Or Wolf? Or….monkey…? James started. He was sure he had just seen a small monkey crawling out of the Boss bag. He looked round to see if anyone next to him had noticed, but the gallery was rapidly divesting of people as the light drizzle started to turn heavy. He looked back to the flat. There was a monkey. It had crawled to the edge of the triangular window and put its small paws up on the glass. He recognised the breed – it was a slow loris, native to South America, not a flat in London. Natasha had been part of a team of volunteers in Indonesia that had rescued a whole bunch of them about three years back. She had a picture on her fridge of her cradling one of the impossibly cute, russet coloured, large-eyed beasts looking down at it with extreme tenderness (in a way she never looked at me, he couldn’t help thinking bitterly).
Whipping his phone out of his pocket, he brought up the camera and zoomed in as far as it would go. The monkey had a distinct air of agitation, twitching its limbs, banging the glass and moving its jaws. Scanning around the room through the screen, James saw a bowl of food, another of water and a scratching tree intended for a cat that had been carelessly placed as if to imply the monkey could climb these two branches instead of the enormous jungle of trees it was used to. Next to that was a discarded bag with a random glove, a ski pole and some thick socks spilling out and on the counter what looked to be paperwork and a luggage label. He was no Sherlock, but it looked as if the owners had buggered off on a Christmas break leaving the monkey to fend for itself.
James felt a surge of rage. How bloody irresponsible some people could be. This monkey would probably be dead before the owners came back, no doubt the food they’d put down for it was all wrong, not to mention the loneliness of the alien environment and lack of freedom. How they’d managed to smuggle the animal into the country in the first place was a mystery, but multi-millionaire flat owners probably could pull strings. He looked at the phone in his hand. Who to call? The RSPCA or the International Aid Rescue? It was nearly dark, one of the shortest days of the year. Would they be able to get there in time? No doubt they would be short staffed, as impulsive last minute purchasers of fluffy kittens and winsome puppies suddenly realised the enormity of their responsibilities.
He looked back at the flat. The monkey was jumping up trying to reach an open window right at the top, its paws scrabbling wildly on the glass. If it made the gap it would be out in a flash and face certain death. James suddenly noticed the fire escape running up the side of the building, the balcony outside the flat that he might be able to reach, the table on the balcony that could be employed for him to stand on to reach the window…. Before the idea had settled, he was off, darting inside and charging down ten flights of stairs, ducking impatiently round dawdling tourists, muttering ‘excuse me, please’ in a tone meant to convey he was a Man. On. A. Mission. Bursting out onto the street below, he ran to the Neo Bankside building.
Jumping up, he managed to catch the bottom of the fire escape on this third attempt and haul himself up. It would be best if he didn’t look down, he thought, as he started to climb up the flimsy metal structure. As he ascended, he heard a couple of shouts below him. ‘What’s he doing..?!’ ‘Should we call the police…?’ Well, all the better if they did, James thought. The police could no doubt get in touch with the right people. He didn’t allow himself to speculate too long on the likelihood of the monkey escaping before he reached it, leaving him looking like the most bumbling burglar possible. Or maybe even a terrorist. Seventh floor, he remembered. He had been transfixed by this building for the past hour imagining himself living there with a thousand Natashas at his beck and call. He felt he knew it inside out. Reaching the right floor, he strained to reach his foot to the balcony, sweat pouring down his back. An agonising pull across the gap, his heart thumping wildly, before he collapsed in a shaking heap on the balcony. No time to lose. He got to his feet and looked down, noticing there was indeed quite a crowd forming on the street below. He caught the flash of phones going off. The loris had seen him and was jumping up and down frenziedly, causing the crowd below to call out encouragement. Dragging the tiny metal table right to the window, James mounted it and pulled himself through, clutching desperately at the blind to break his fall as he crashed onto the floor, thankfully onto a large cushion. He closed the window, then bent down and held out his hands to the loris, which jumped in. He stood by the window to show the crowd the beast was safe, then sat down on the cushion. He was sure the security would be arriving very shortly and his main concern was calming the frightened animal.
Fifteen minutes later, James was being led through the crowd handcuffed to a policeman, the loris peeping out over his jacket. Two other policemen tried to disperse the excitable rabble that demanded the release of the heroic rescuer, to be rebuffed by claims of procedure. By the time the police car reached Southwark police station, a news team had assembled. James sat in an interview room waiting for the International Aid Rescue worker to arrive. He supposed he would have to appear in court. Would he go to prison? Surely they’d see he was trying to do a good thing. The door opened, revealing the aid worker, a vet and the duty sergeant, who flipped on a TV in the corner. ‘Looks like you made the news mate.’ The six o’clock news showed the footage of his arrival at the station with the caption ‘James Meek – a real life action man’, then a cutaway to grainy phone footage of his ascent up the building.
‘The owners won’t be pressing charges,’ remarked the sergeant drily after they’d all watched in stunned silence. ‘In fact they’ll be wanting to lie low for a while to avoid a lynch mob. There’ll be some questions asked about how that monkey thing got here in the first place.’ He jabbed a stout finger at the loris which was now being placed tenderly in a cage by the vet. ‘Best get outside son. Meet yer fans.’ He smirked. ‘Especially the pretty young ones. You’ll be having a good Christmas, yer lucky bastard.’ His eyes returned to the screen, flipping to another channel showing the arrival, craning to see if he could see himself in the footage. James walked out, slightly dazed, to cheers and the dazzle of yet more flashbulbs. People were rushing up to shake his hand and pat him on the back, dragging him this way and that for selfies. Accepting a beer gratefully, James thought perhaps it was true, the meek did inherit the earth.