Another Life by Sue Rickard was one of twelve short stories shortlisted for the 2018 Life Writing Prize. Here she tells us a bit about what life writing means to her, and explains the story.
Life writing can be many things: a catharsis, a reinvention of self, social history, or a key to activate the imagination and be taken into new realms of thought and feeling. For me it is a ‘daring to be honest’, with myself primarily, and may be the only way to truly connect with others who also seek to express authentic human experience.
My story is called Another Life and is about a commune that was formed in the 1960s. What made it unusual, (even by the standards of that decade), was that it was also a monkey sanctuary and was run by a group of musicians.
It was established in and around an old Victorian mansion on a cliff in Cornwall, where we lived as a human community alongside our primate cousins. We cared for the monkeys during the day and made music in the evening and the project was led by a charismatic, but very controlling man with his own ideas about group living. It was here that I lived for twenty two years and, although the sanctuary was open to the public, we were semi-isolated, in that we almost never went out.
At age forty I left the commune and began a very different life, and much of my earlier experience was suppressed and lay in the back of my mind for many years. Only recently have memories resurfaced, some light, some dark, but all impelling me to write them down.
Today I am going to meet some people from another life, one that I lived long ago. We shared a house beside the sea with a troupe of monkeys and an extraordinary man: egotistical, (that type always is), charming, clever and a bit rough around the edges, a dangerous creature in many ways, to whom May, one of the people I will meet, was married. The man, Jack, captivated me when I was a rather damaged, lonely teenager in need of some attention, any attention. He gave me that all right but I gave him too much in return. I was in his power intellectually, emotionally and physically; my mind was his toy. I was disturbingly naïve.
It doesn’t matter now; you’ve been dead for twenty-five years. You said sorry – a deathbed apology that’s not worth having. I held your hand with its long, bony fingers and dark veins – rivers of barely flowing blood about to silt up. Death stood behind the curtains waiting for me to go, – you knew that it was your time; you were scared of what was to come.
You didn’t say what you were sorry for, but we both knew.
Later, your coffin was laid out on the lawn overlooking the sea, and all the people you’d known came and talked about you.
‘He was a character – a bit of a rogue – but by God he was clever.’Diabolically clever is what you were. The origins of music, primate evolution, philosophy, politics, you could talk about anything and you could make us laugh, laugh until we had to crawl away and nurse our aching ribs.
So, today I am to see your wife.
She gets out of the car. She’s older and is wearing a colourful sun hat. The skin on her face is wrinkled but I would know her anywhere. She hasn’t changed that much.
Despite everything we embrace, tentatively. It feels OK. There’s a strong sense of shared history. We’re like estranged sisters with lots of baggage and experiences in common. We won’t touch the really painful places today. The sudden shock of it could send us off again circling in long orbits for another twenty five years. This is tentative – an experiment. But so far it’s ok.Two other people get out of the car. I haven’t seen John for thirty years. He was thirty two when I saw him last. His son, James, is beside him; a beautiful child, now a stunningly good-looking man. I embrace each of them. I see them as they are now but feel them as they were then, the child and the friend of thirty years ago.
The four of us drive for an hour to the scene of our shared past. We walk around feeling like ghosts revisiting a previous life. For twenty-two years this was my home, place of work and the centre of my social, spiritual and intellectual life. I arrived at seventeen and left, burnt out and exhausted at forty.
This place is too poignant. Bits of it are just the same and other things have changed.
The people running the sanctuary now are young and clever. We meet an education officer called Max. He hasn’t much time – he’s very busy. The room where once we celebrated Christmas with music and party games is now a shop full of ethically screened books on conservation.
The monkey lounge where once we played with the monkeys, hiding treats for them to find, is now an information centre, and Donkey Cottage houses a bat colony.
But there are still monkeys here. They are beautiful, as always, but no longer a breeding colony. Now the emphasis is on conservation in the wild, not in captivity.
I suddenly see my life, our lives, not in linear, stretched out time, but as an eternity, a moment in which then and now are one and the some thing. The vividness of all that living feels contained in this place and our presence has awoken it. It was wonderful, painful and unique.
Read all of the stories longlisted for the prize here.