'The Primatarium' by Joseph Darlington



“Just a few more steps…”


Florian guided the elderly Mrs Margaret down the stairs, her legs rattling like a gate in a storm. As she reached the pavement, Florian patted her lightly on the shoulders, “So you’re going to be alright now, yes?”

Mrs Margaret nodded, bundled herself up in her coat and stumbled off into the night. She left behind her the Avon Murray cinema, it’s lights flicking off, one by one, leaving the street in darkness.


“I don’t know why we bother with these films…” It was Sean, Florian’s partner, locking up.


“What do you mean?”


“Well how many did we have tonight?” Sean slammed down the shutter, “Six? Seven? And on opening night for the so-called blockbuster hit of the summer?”


“It’s a Friday night,” Florian sighed, “You know most of them won’t come out on a Friday. It’s not safe for them with all the teenagers around.” He went to take Sean’s hand, “We’ll do much better on Sunday matinee, I promise.”


Sean shook the hand off and took out his cigarettes. Florian hated to see him smoking, especially when he was in a mood. And Sean seemed always to be in a mood these days.


Sean and Florian Kesey had left the bright lights of Manchester for the dream of a small town idyll. They had been getting too old for life in the scene. Florian was in his early thirties and Sean was even older, although he never told anyone his actual age, not even Florian. He’s spent years in the scene lying about the real number, until now he’d nearly forgotten it himself. They had been working in bars, living in separate, depressing flats, and going nowhere fast.


That was when Florian came across a listing for an old cinema in the village of Avon Murray. Two hours away by public transport, it was in the middle of nowhere. One screen, art deco furnishings. Going for a song. Florian had proposed it to Sean one night as they watched Brief Encounter. Sean did love his old black-and-whites.


Sean had taken it personally, a snub on their way of living. Then he’d grumbled over the technicalities for a while. Eventually, three months of wheedling later, Florian won him over and they’d left for Avon Murray.


“That was, what? Twelve years ago?” Sean chided, sat in front of the TV with a glass of red. Whenever the money was running out Florian would go all sappy and nostalgic. Sean couldn’t abide it.


“I’m just saying…”


Sean snapped back, “Don’t say anything, Florian! I’ve had enough of you for one day!” and he hammered the volume button with his thumb, filling the room with the sounds of Hellzapoppin’.


“Fine,” Florian sighed. Traipsing upstairs to bed, he passed the cat on its way down to sit in Sean’s lap. Florian hoped that this, at least, would cheer him up. He clearly didn’t know how to lift the man’s mood anymore.


The fact was that the cinema was losing money by the day. Their only attendees were seniors, and so any attempt to lift the price beyond five pounds resulted in zero attendance. They’d been threatened with closure three times. The first was within the first couple of months. They’d moved to town just as all the fuss about gay marriage was in the news. They’d been married in the cinema, on opening night, and once their city friends left they found that no one from the village would go near them. It’d taken a few months of fundraising for the British Legion, drinking in the Conservative Club, attending neighbourhood watch meetings and dressing in tweed before the townspeople finally started coming.


The second time they’d tried to get some Arts Council funding. Ticket sales were dying off. To be eligible for the grant they had to have at least one screening of a European or independent film every week. Sean had run his ill-fated Fellini Fridays. The films, now nearly fifty-years-old, still cause a panic in the local papers. Convinced the couple were now screening hardcore pornography, the seniors left again. Sean and Florian gave up on the funding and donned the tweeds again.


The third near-bankruptcy was a non-event. The cinema was simply unaffordable. Nobody went, nobody would pay. Florian wrote begging letters to distributors and somehow — Sean never asked how he’d managed it — he convinced the distributors to give them the films for free.


“And now,” Florian thought to himself, wrapped up in bed, “we can’t even make money on those…”


“Haggard old biddies!” Sean grumbled to himself as he staggered into the bedroom. He’d polished off the bottle, Florian could tell, and perhaps even opened another. “I tell you,” he burped, “it’s all crap! Harry Pappers and Transf’ – hiccup – mers… just crap. We deserve to go under, showing that crap…”


Florian turned away. He hated Sean in these moods.


“All’re crap… Crapcrapcrap…” he mumbled to himself, stripping off his pants and crawling under the covers. He curled himself around Florian, kissing the back of his neck and whispering in his ear, “But’so kay though… I’ve gorra plan!”


“A plan?” Florian asked, feeling Sean’s arms pulling him closer.


“Mmm-hmm,” Sean mumbled, “Plan…”


*


The next afternoon, Florian sauntered down the high street towards the cinema. Sean had disappeared in the early hours, but that wasn’t unusual for him, so Florian hadn’t worried. He waved to Stodge the Butcher as he walked by, Stodge tipping his hat and leaving a bloody mark on the brim.


As he walked up the cobbles, Florian spotted a lorry parked up just over the brow of the hill. It was outside the cinema. As he walked, a nervous sensation jangled in his belly. Something was going on. He strode a little quicker now, with purpose.


“Sean!” he shouted, as he got close and saw the men in overalls moving in and out of the cinema. “Sean! Are you here?”


Sean, eyes ringed with dark bags and slightly manic, stumbled out of the main entrance as two workmen lifted in a giant polystyrene rock.


“Sean!” Florian exclaimed, uncertain if he was angry or worried, “What is all this?”


A workman pushed past them with his arms full of ferns.


“I told you I had a plan!” Sean laughed, “I told you! I’ve been working on this one for weeks!”


“Weeks?”


“Come in! Come in!” Sean grabbed Florian’s thin arm and dragged him into the building.


Inside, what had once been a pristine art deco entrance was a mess of plywood signage and palm trees. The signs were painted with various apes — orange, black, and brown — all peeping out from piled up foliage. Sean kept tugging at Florian, and led him through into the cinema itself.


. . . except it wasn’t a cinema. Not anymore. Where the seats had once been arranged into neat rows on the left, right and centre, now there was a loose arrangement in the centre, and on the left and right were twelve-foot high cages. The screen itself was showing looping footage of King Kong and beneath it were ferns and the giant polystyrene rock that the workmen had just brought in. A team of painters were busy turning the deep maroon walls into jungle camouflage. The speakers played rainforest noises and there seemed to be a humidifier and hidden smoke machines turning the air into a humid rainforest haze.


“What is…” Florian gawped, “What is going on?!”


“Primatarium!” Sean shouted, his arms spreading wide in triumph.


“Prima-what?”


Sean pulled Florian close to him and they span around. On the rear wall, below the projector, was a huge, glowing sign: THE KESEY’S PATENTED PRIMATARIUM!


“Is that…” Florian dreaded to ask, “Is that us? Painted as monkeys?”


“People have been trying to make a monkey out of us our whole lives,” Sean grinned, “Well, now they’ve finally succeeded! I’ve realised, Florian, I know now, what it is that the people want. They want crap! They love it! Any old pointless pap. Something they can take a selfie in front of, that’s what the kids want… and the seniors? Well, we’ll do cups of tea for them or something. If they’ll watch a Marvel film, they’ll watch a bunch of apes running about, sure thing.”


Florian crossed his arms around himself. Had Sean gone mad, or did he really mean this? Was this what all the struggling to find an audience had finally brought them to?


“But I don’t understand,” Florian finally spoke, quietly. He’d been stood in silence for about five minutes, watching workmen erecting a tree where he used to serve ice creams in the interval. “I mean… what apes? Are there really going to be monkeys?”


“They’re coming tomorrow,” Sean smiled, lifting a pile of two-by-fours, “now, give me a hand. We need to build a store for the bananas down where we keep the back-up reels.”


*


The van that arrived next day was like a beached whale. It hummed and sighed, bloated and black with hydraulics, straining to hold its own weight. Florian hid behind Sean’s shoulder as it pulled to a stop and a man dressed in a safari suit stepped out of the cab. Sean signed a series of forms and, before they knew it, the gleaming rear door of the truck was pulled open and a ramp was lowered. Down this ramp rolled three cages, one by one.


The first, huge, with bars as thick as loaves of bread and carrying a vast silverback gorilla. He sat in there, frowning. For a silverback, a notoriously territorial animal, he seemed remarkably relaxed about the whole thing.


“That’s Maximo,” Sean told Florian, who was hiding behind him and squeezing his arm, “He’s the main attraction. Eight-foot tall he is, but placid as anything. They had to move him out of the zoo because he was so bad at defending himself. The little girl gorillas would be pushing him over and challenging him for dominance and he just didn’t care.”


Maximo was rolled through the cinema entrance, the cage only just squeezing under the double doors.


The next cage was double-length, with hinges articulating it in the middle. As it rolled down the ramp, Florian saw that there were two apes in there, fiery yellow, their arms wrapped around each other.


“These are the Oranga twins,” Sean pointed, “Two females who would gang up on any male who came near them. They tore the arms off a bonobo at Chester zoo. If you let them stay together they’re harmless though. They have a dance routine they do sometimes, so I hear.”


The Orangas stared at the Keseys as their cage was rolled past. Their eyes were soft and hopeful. Florian felt his heart flutter at the brave pair. He stepped out from behind Sean and waved. To his delight, the pair waved back.


“Hey!” Sean was suddenly yelling. Florian turned to see him running for the truck. An empty cage had rolled down the ramp, falling over at the bottom to reveal a series of loosened bars. As Sean got to the foot of the ramp, Florian saw him gasp. A workman slipped and rolled down at him, Sean leaping aside. As he did a grey shape bounced past him, threw a collection of nuts and bolts in his face and screeched. To Florian’s horror, it then bounded towards him.


Florian panicked, he was rooted to the ground. In his anxiety, all he could do was cover his face and double up. As he did so, he felt a huge weight crash into him, swing off his belt and bounce off his shoulders. Florian screamed.


As he fell to the floor he heard a scream from above him. The scream then quietened to a set of uh-uh-uhs, and something resembling a chuckle.


“That’s Nairobi,” Sean gasped through heavy breaths. All the running around had reminded him how unhealthy he was. “He’s a chimpanzee,” Sean started, before shaking his head, “and he’s got a screwdriver”.


Sure enough, Florian opened his eyes and looked up. There, squatting on the streetlamp above him, Nairobi the chimp was chuckling to himself and picking his teeth with a Philips.


“I was warned about him,” Sean tutted, “he’s the smartest chimp in Europe, apparently. They said no cage could hold him. I thought they were just trying to scare me off…”


Florian picked himself up and met eyes with the grinning chimp. Nairobi’s deep brown irises matched with Florian’s, and something about Florian’s shaggy little body seemed to ape the ape’s. Florian smiled at him. Nairobi smiled back.


As Sean scratched at his head, trying to formulate a plan to get the ape down from the lamppost, Florian held out his arms and Nairobi leapt into them. The weight sent Florian rolling to the floor, but, laughing uh-uh-uh, Nairobi soon picked him back up and took his hand.


“Come on then,” Florian said to a drop-jawed Sean, “show us where the apes are staying!”


*


The word had spread about the Kesey’s Primatarium. All of Avon Murray was talking about it. It helped that some enterprising young man skiving school had videoed the incident with Nairobi and posted it on a local Facebook group. Florian barely had to give out flyers; once they’d decided on a date for the grand opening, it announced itself. Everyone told everyone else, on the tills, in the laundrette, in the queue at Stodge the Butcher’s.


The grand opening was at 5pm. The shops in Avon Murray closed early that day, everyone wanting to be first in line to see the apes. As it was, the line was around the block by three. Feeling sorry for them all, Florian donned his ice cream carrying tray and went down the line selling pots for 50p each. Inside, Sean was furiously taking stock.


“Okay, Maximo,” he checked the big gorilla off his list, “if you’re going to just sit around moping like that can you at least face the front, please? People aren’t paying premium prices to see your fat arse just sitting there.”


Maximo, lifting his huge shoulders up and down with a sigh, dragged himself around on his bum to look out from the bars.


“Alright, and you two,” he ticked the Oranga twins off on his list, “I want to you to play nice tonight, okay? There’ll be a lot of people here. Music. Maybe some dancing. You can join in if you want. Just make sure, and let me be 100% clear here, just make sure that you leave – people’s – arms – alone! Okay? By the end of the night I want to see every humerus sat in the very same shoulder socket it came in, alright?”


The Oranga twins — doing each other’s hair — blew synchronised raspberries in Sean’s direction.


“Charming,” Sean shook his head, “and now… Nairobi?”


The chimp appeared at his side, arms full of peanut bags. He was wearing a red-and-white striped hat, formerly Florian’s, and looked up at Sean, pushing a bag of peanuts in his direction.


“Nairobi, no!” Sean took the bag of peanuts from the chimp and placed it back on the refreshments table, now labelled APE FOOD £8.99. The ape scratched at his head and picked up three more bags of peanuts to cradle in his extra-long arms.


“Nairobi,” Sean quickly ticked the peanuts off his list before continuing, “If we’re going to trust you with the peanuts then you have to do it properly, okay? You only give them the peanuts if they give you the money, alright?”


The chimp looked confused.


“And only the ones with the lady on,” Sean pointed to the picture of Jane Austen on the ten-pound note, “Not the man!” and he pointed to Churchill on a fiver.


Uh-uh-uh, Nairobi confirmed, picking up a note with his free hand and looking at the picture of the Queen. Uh-uh-uh, he nodded.


“God’s sake,” Sean grumbled under his breath.


Just then, Florian skidded in at the door. His tray was empty, all the ice cream gone. It was quarter to five and the line was getting restless. “There’s hundreds out there!” he announced, pulling his white server’s jacket off and pulling on his tuxedo. Nairobi wandered over and thumped him in the chest with a bag of peanuts.


“Alright,” Sean ticked off the last thing on his checklist, Florian, and gave the place a last look, “Okay, I guess this is it… Everybody, let’s go!”


“Wait,” Florian zipped up his fly and walked over to Sean. He straightened his bowtie and kissed him, “That’s better.”


And with that, they announced the Primatarium open.


*


The opening night was madness. Crowds flooded through the doors. Sean was on the ticket desk, taking in fistfuls of cash. Within half an hour the till was overflowing and he had to start piling notes in the old sawdust bucket.


In the main room, the former cinema itself, Florian was guiding groups around, telling them the ape’s stories and background and facts about rainforest deforestation and primate social behaviours… things he’d seen on David Attenborough. Nairobi had soon run out of peanuts and had put all the pictures of ladies that people had given him up in the projector room. He liked it in there. He liked all the moving parts. The projector was playing 1949’s Mighty Joe Young and the speakers were playing a funk, soul and R&B playlist. Sean had initially put on one entitled “The Best of Jungle”, but decided it wasn’t the atmosphere he was looking for. The room was packed. People were coming for the apes and staying for the party. Between tickets, Sean served glasses of wine and beers from the fridge. He was glad to be rid of them. Some bottles had sat unopened since they’d moved in. The seniors never drank much beyond the occasional earl grey or orange squash. They too were here tonight, and Mrs Margaret was even on her second glass of pinot grigio.


They were rushed off their feet for hours. Seven o’clock came up in a flash, then suddenly it was eight, then nine. At half nine, Florian helped the shaky-legged Mrs Margaret down the stairs and send her tottering off home humming Jungle Book tunes. He came back in to see Sean smoking — happy but exhausted — and Nairobi swinging from a light fitting. The main room had only a few people left now, and they were gawping at the apes still pulling faces and laughing. In their cages, Maximo and the Oranga twins had gone from enjoying the night to cowering in their respective corners.


“Alright,” Sean announced to the room, “You’ve had your laughs. We’re closing up for the night.”


Awwww, came the collective groan, but eventually they cleared out. The Hatters down the road had announced, “monkey night madness”: a post-primatarium lock-in. The mob seemed content to head there. Soon, the Keseys were left alone in the now trashed cinema with the apes.


“Well, that was pretty successful,” Sean grinned, “we made a lot of money tonight. Maybe more than we did all of last quarter.”


“Mmm,” Florian hummed. He was looking at Maximo, the great ape reduced to hunching up in a corner, and the Oranga twins wrapped up in each other’s arms. Nairobi, so happy earlier on, was now up in the projector room, sulking.


“Everyone’s tired,” Florian sighed, “it was a stressful night.”


“Right,” Sean agreed, “So what do we do now?”


On the screen the title cards rolled. Mighty Joe Young had been playing on the screen all night but none of them had had time to really watch it.


“How about a movie?” Florian suggested.


Sean smiled. Then, as if he’d been thinking the same all along, he lifted the keys from his pocket and threw them to Florian.


“Alright,” he grinned, “you let the apes out. Nairobi!” he yelled up to the projection room. The ape’s quizzical face peeped out of the window, “Roll it again!” and sure enough, he span the reel around and set it going, his long fingers as nimble as a pro’s.


As the apes and Florian sat themselves down to watch the movie, Sean appeared with an armful of banana splits. He passed them around and turned out the lights. In the stark black-and-white glow from the screen he whispered to Florian, “You know, I think I’ve a better idea for tomorrow.”


“Oh yes?” Florian wanted to know more but one of the Oranga twins slapped him in the chest. He turned to see them both holding their fingers to their lips. Shhhh!


*


The next evening the crowds who turned up at the Primatarium found that the old advertising boards had been put back up. NOW SHOWING, they announced, BUSTER KEATON’S “THE GENERAL”. They scratched at their heads, uncertain as to what was happening, but willing to wait in line and find out.


As the doors opened they were met inside by Maximo — still huge and imposing but now wearing cufflinks and a cummerbund. He let out a deep-voiced sigh of welcome and waved them through to the ticket office.


“Hello there,” Sean smiled, “Come to see some proper movies for a change, have you? We’ve got Buster Keaton on tonight, Chaplin tomorrow and then an Eisenstein special on the weekend: Ivan the Terrible, parts one and two. That’ll teach you something about good cinema, no doubt about it.”


He took their money and passed them along to the expanded refreshments stand. Here the Oranga twins were decked out in hairnets and rubber gloves, one ladling popcorn into peanut bags and the other swilling wine into overflowing glasses. The audience handed over their pictures of Adam Smith and carried their snacks through to the cinema.


They were led to their seats by Florian — neat and trim in his white uniform and striped hat. Up in the projection room, Nairobi juggled a wrench in one hand while twirling a screwdriver around the fingers of the other. He was waiting for the thumbs-up from Florian so he could start the reel.


Once the movie was starting, Sean locked up the front door and they all came in to a row of seats at the back. There, Maximo, the Oranga twins, Florian and Sean Kesey would sit in silence night after night watching their favourite movies. Nairobi too would sometimes join them, although, usually, he preferred to watch the reel spin around and the parts of the machine whirring.


The Kesey’s Primatarium and black-and-white cinema soon became just another staple of Avon Murray life; as much a fixture as the war memorial, the library, or Stodge the Butcher’s shop. Soon, few in the town could imagine what the cinema was like before the apes came. And they certainly didn’t miss Transformers.





Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, UK. His short stories are largely set in a fictional countryside town on the brink of multiple dimensions. His poetry is largely about instant noodles. For a selection of his work, including his latest novel Spare the Glass Picnic (Nowt Press, 2018), visit www.josefadarlington.co.uk. You can also find him on Twitter @Joe_Darlo.



Photograph of The Regent Cinema in Marple, Greater Manchester; the cinema that inspired this story.

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