“I swear to you, I’ve discovered the origin of clapping.”
Mike delivered this sentence with his usual awkward solemnity. His every word was vetted before he spoke, each syllable careful, precise. “After months of research, I’ve found it,” he continued. “History in the making.”
Jen glanced at her car, its red bonnet gleaming in the sunlight, then back to Mike. His tall, skinny frame filled the doorway. Sunglasses shrouded his eyes, and the black trilby perched on the back of his head added an element of geeky rakishness.
Maybe she should call off this social visit. She felt guilty, sure, but she’d expected to find Mike heartbroken and despondent, not completely off the rails.
For old time’s sake, she thought. Then, before she lost her courage: “Are you going to invite me in?”
“Of course!” He stepped back, beckoned her through. As Jen crossed the threshold, her nose wrinkled. The house smelled stale and earthy. The floor was littered with crumbs, and a trail of cashews led down the hallway towards the lounge.
Mike shut the door, shrugged self-consciously. “That’s Cal’s doing.” From his voice to his movements, every mannerism was fastidious — which made the state of his home all the more incongruous.
“Your new house mate?”
“Come meet him.”
Jen picked her way down the hallway towards the lounge, sidestepping food wrappers and a pile of unidentifiable brown pellets. She accidentally kicked a paper bag on the floor and almost gagged when a cloud of fruit flies drifted into the air. The smell was growing stronger with every step.
“Are you… okay, Mike?”
“I am MORE than okay.” He ushered her into the lounge, and pointed at a monkey curled up on the sofa the size of her forearm. The monkey was dark grey, and had a wrinkled, pink face surrounded by cotton white tufts of fur. His dark tail curved down the side of the sofa in a question mark.
“Meet Cal,” Mike said. “Short for Caligula.” He was grinning, shifting his weight side to side. In his excitment he’d forgotten that he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. Jen had never seen his eyes before – not this closely, anyway. They were the pale, murky eyes of someone who spent far too much time in tiny science labs researching inane issues.
“He clapped,” Mike said. “Or does clap. Can clap. Not on command, but it’s a start. After months of research I’ve figured it out.”
Jen looked between Cal and Mike, didn’t know which was worse. How the animal spent so much time with Mike, she never knew. Clapping Cal the monkey. It had a ring to it, anyway.
“All my life,” Mike continued, “I’ve wondered why people clapped. When it started. It’s such a long-standing cross-cultural phenomenon and we know SO little about it! This could be important, Jen! History, made in this room!”
“Clapping. Important.” She nodded slowly. “Right.” A quick glance over at the monkey, whose mouth was hanging open. Sound asleep. Not in the least noteworthy.
She’d come here because she felt bad. Mike was a friend; or had been a friend until research had consumed his life. He’d been a socially well-adjusted (albeit geeky) guy, dating a beautiful woman who happened to be her other best friend. Until said girl best friend dumped guy friend, and she was left caught in the middle like melted cheese in a sandwich.
Her tummy grumbled. Well, not exactly like melted cheese. But she was hungry so the simile would have to do.
Mike had found his sunglasses and put them back on. He had the thin, contented smile of one who has found a secret treasure. He sat on the sofa beside Cal and beamed at Jen, waiting for her verdict.
“You’re not photophobic, are you?” Jen asked, all of a sudden. She nodded at the glasses. “You know…”
The lower half of Mike’s face looked confused. “I tell you about my ground breaking discovery and you ask that?”
She shrugged. “I’ve always wondered. You didn’t use to wear them all the time, before…”
Mike turned away, grabbing a small blanket from the sofa and lovingly tucking it around Cal. “They protect me,” he said. “It’s an extra layer between me and the world.” He turned his head to her but she couldn’t see anything past the dark glass. “Besides, it means I can spy on people. When I wear these no one knows where I’m looking.”
Jen looked at the v-neck of her top. “You’re not… perving on me, are you?”
“There’s more to life than THAT, Jen. Like, at least ten percent more.”
“And that ten percent includes monkeys clapping?”
Mike nodded. “This could be proof that we not only evolved genetically from monkeys – but also kept or developed their cultural traditions. Cal here could be recreating those first few moments in the history of clapping. He’s never met another monkey to learn that behaviour from, and has never seen a human clap. This is a brand new development… but what’s most important is that he does it with PURPOSE. A single, strong clap.”
He sensed her disinterest, his fingers flittering against his jeans. “I’ll show you, then you’ll know what I mean.” The monkey was stirring, his big dark eyes boring into Jen. He crawled into Mike’s lap, staring at Jen with the blatant curiosity of a child.
“Go on then,” Jen said. “Make him clap.”
“Do you just clap for no reason?” Mike shook his head. I can’t MAKE him clap. He has to be impressed by something.” He picked Cal up, swinging him onto his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “So far Cal has done 100% of his clapping in the kitchen.”
Mike didn’t answer.
Jen followed Mike through the lounge and into the kitchen. Mike set Cal down on the counter, accidentally kicking the recycling bin as he did so. A few fruit flies danced into the air, swirling like dark dust motes.
“Well?” Jen said. “I haven’t got all day you know.”
“It won’t take long. I think.”
Jen put her hands on her hips. “How many times has he clapped?”
Mike looked sheepish now. “Once. Two days ago. I haven’t been able to get him to repeat it since. I’ve tried recreating the exact circumstances, creating new circumstances… anything. But I can’t seem to impress Cal anymore. See, the first time he clapped I had successfully flipped an omelette for the first time. But when I did it a second time, Cal didn’t think it was interesting anymore.”
The silence stretched between them. Everything Jen had wanted to say was burning within her: the condolences, the sympathy, even the reassurances that his ex-girlfriend was either heartbroken or doing just fine (she wasn’t quite sure which he wanted to hear). But when she looked at the monkey sitting on the counter, all the words dried up.
Mike kicked the recycling bin. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
A single, purposeful clap.
He looked at Jen and Mike for a single moment of silence, then studied his hands.
“Did you SEE that?” Mike exclaimed with a woop. “I’m on to something, I told you! I’m on to something!”
Or maybe, Jen thought as she forced a smile and agreed, your monkey’s just killing fruit flies.
Cal lifted his head, looked straight at her, and clapped again.