When I was about six or seven, my father came back from a business trip to Paraguay. At the time, the business was doing well, whatever it might have been. You don’t ask a lot of business questions at that age, though you are very grateful for the presents that came with all the travelling, however much you might have missed him.
The gifts varied in quality, quantity and usefulness, but they were very well received no matter what. One had manners in those days. I came to love this particular gift in about three minutes.
Father had brought with him a monkey this time. Known as a Tití, its large variety of subspecies range from the jungles of Central America to the Lower Amazon rain forest, from where this charmer had been extracted. They were popular as pets among the tribes in the region. Also popular as a main course.
Being of a creative nature, I named him Tití, to which he responded adequately when he responded at all, which was not often.
Tití had a mind of his own. He was obliged to spend a significant part of his short life on a perch that I think had been purchased for a macaw that had failed to appear. Life near the pantry was tedious, no doubt, so Tití learned to unbuckle his lead after a while. This did not do much good for the internal relations of the household staff, or for the contents of the pantry. He had wonderful aim and often threw chunks of things at people shrieking his self-congratulations, to the shock and irritation of the victims.
The household variously consisted of Mother, Father, Nanny (not a grandmother, but a Miss Amor, properly trained at Norlands and whom I adored), Madame Camille (teacher of Parisian French), Frau Hitler (my name for the German governess, this being in the mid-1950s), Madame Plzwk (pronounced Pook the Cook) and her husband, Plzwk (her husband, the chauffeur and occasional butler, whose name I never heard either of my parents pronounce). It was from Pook the Cook from whom I learned my very first word in Spanish, but that’s another story, not least because she was Polish. There were also a series of ‘maids’ in their black dresses and white aprons, whose names I have forgotten – except one, but that’s yet another story.
Back to Tití. No, back to Father’s business. As I mentioned before, I was never clear on what exactly my father did for the comfortable living we were able to lead in those days. He was away often, and he went to bed late and rose late, which means I saw very little of him. Weekends, he was either working at his office downtown, was travelling, or was playing tennis with his friends, matches in which I was decidedly not included not being good enough to compete with grown men. Then, too, he was the President of the posh tennis club, and so was busy in committees. Much later, years after he died, my mother told me that he also spent a lot of time being busy with several of the female tennis players. This did not come as a complete surprise when it was revealed, there having appeared at his funeral a young boy sharing our surname but about whose parentage he, or anyone else, would refuse to speak. This young chap, about a year younger than me (I was ten at the time), eventually became a famous football commentator, without having revealed anything further, at least to me or any of the ‘true’ family members. I tried, but could never track him down even in his heyday. His choice of profession was disdainful: football was a ‘common’ sport. In a way, this confirmed the fellow’s dodgy heritage.
As you can see, there is more monkey business to this item than meets the eye. (If I use any more cliches like this, please groan in private.)
Now back to Tití. No, hang on. My father’s business, whatever it was, obliged him to hold dinner and cocktail parties, at which my mother was brilliant in conjuring up, often at a moment’s notice. The dining table always looked splendid: stifly pristine white damask tablecloth and matching napkins, glistening silverware, gleaming cut crystal, fresh flowers … I used to eat in the kitchen when there was a party on. When there was not, the table looked less glamorous but still very elegant and always, always a silver bowl of fresh cut roses in the centre.
Under the table, near my mother’s place (she always sat there) was a foot bell that sounded only in the kitchen. One ring for ‘take away the plates’, two rings ‘bring the next course in’, three rings ‘get in here quick’. What happened when more wine was required, I don’t recall. This system was used exclusively for the grander occasions. For ordinary family business, a silver hand bell was used; I think I still have it somewhere.
Among the guests at these gatherings, there was a ‘proper’ mix of business people, diplomats, government ministers and their wives. I do remember one time hearing about the effrontery of one of my father’s five brothers, a prominent lawyer and recent Minister of Finance, who turned up not with his wife but with his mistress, a leading stage actress (they weren’t called ‘actors’ in those days). Everyone knew about her, but it was considered detrôt for them to make an appearance in public. Father was livid, but could do nothing about it.
And now we come to the dénouement (oh, what a show off!) of the story.
A warm summer’s eve. Cocktails in the garden, the aroma of gardenias wafting above the chatter, the French windows wide open to reveal yet another magnificent table setting indoors. The women wore cocktail dresses, elegant and cool despite the heat; long before ‘the little black dress’. The men were in their summer white dinner jackets (actually, off-white, cream, the very white being dismissed as ‘common’), black cummerbunds (coloured ones, however dark, were also deemed ‘common’), black trousers with an intricately embroidered black satin stripe down the side (unless there was a regiment involved, in which case it was red, the only concession to a military presence in those days). And patent leather lace-up shoes or perhaps elegant slip-ons with a family crest.
Among the diplomats that evening was the Ambassador from Sweden (I think he was), a very tall man with a completely shaven, very shiny head. All the rage now, but unusual then, which made him stand out among the guests. He was chatting to a small man, bald but not quite so furiously, who might have been a functionary of some self-important grade, to whom my father probably owed a favour.
Nobody noticed any movement behind the dining room curtains, which hung elegantly from the ceiling to the floor and were crowned by a matching padded valance. I remember them as pale gray with shades of delicate pink and white flowers. Chintz, I think.
Directly below, looking for his place card, and standing slightly bent over, the Swedish Ambassador suddenly felt something hit him just above his neckline. It was warm.
The room went silent when everyone heard the ambassador hissing as he swatted at the nape of his neck.
The brown stain melted slowly down the back of the ambassadorial cream-coloured dinner jacket. Then everyone knew.
At the top of the curtains, hiding behind the valance, his head just visible, was Tití, a toothy smile of satisfaction on his little face, squealing and clapping in delight at the accuracy of his shot.
My mother tried furiously to swat him with a napkin, with no success, while the ambassador’s wife tried to wipe the brown stain with another one, in another futile gesture. Her face told the gathering that this was not a pleasant occupation, but she was an ambassador’s wife and this was not about to faze her.
The ambassador, however, was deeply fazed. He carried his furiously red face and his stinking brown stain with dignity towards the door, from whence he was presumed to have departed to his embassy. The party soon broke up in turmoil. The carefully planned courses, prepared with care and curses by Pook the Cook, remained uneaten. The scheduled dessert was home-made ice-cream, which went down very well with this six year old over a couple of days and remains my preponderant memory of the event.
Another memory was of my father’s face when he stormed into the kitchen, loudly demanding to know how Tití had escaped. It was not a pleasant expression.
What nobody had told my father when he acquired Tití was that many species of monkey have a defensive habit of shitting in their hands and flinging it with great accuracy at the enemy. This is true of the Tití, but why the Swedish Ambassador was taken to be an enemy, we never fathomed out; in any case, he was not to be seen in my home again. Nor was I privy to the consequences of the incident regarding my father’s business, whatever that was. He may well have failed to achieve some lucrative deal. Who knows?
As for Tití, I began to miss him the very next day. He was not in any of his usual hiding places and there was nothing being ejected at speed from the pantry. His name was never mentioned again until some fifteen years ago, before my mother died, when she told me the whole story. I took hers to be the true one, although I did hear various versions of it from some of the staff closer to the event, some of whose embellishments I have borrowed here.
© Alberto Bullrich 2015