I must have been just shy of four years old. We lived in a modest apartment, in a very working class neighbourhood. You could tell a Dutch working class neighbourhood because the buildings were devoid of any character. Built just post war to quickly house the citizenry made homeless by the second world war. The nation was still poor from putting all collective resources into rebuilding it’s cities and infrastructure. Wen by then, a decade or so after the war, certain goods were rationed. I would stand in line with my mother while she haggled with other women exchanging tobacco and sugar for coffee etc. It was nothing I was an part of. It was often cold, it rains a lot where I came from.
We lived in a polder. Disconcertingly below sea level. Ours was one of the older apartment block, Bahrain Street. Much of this outlying area of Rotterdam was built in partnership with Shell Oil one of the larger employers. My father worked for Shell, first as a bottle washer in the labs, and at this time as a lab technician. He attended classes in Leiden. My dad was a tall lanky Dutchman. He suffered from baldness. This was not a natural baldness but one he had as a result of a refinery explosion at Shell. I did not know that or need to when I was only four. I thought that all fathers were bald, that how you could tell fathers from other men.
Other than Robbie Ringeling, the little boy who lived downstairs I had no contact with other kids. I lived my own little life close by the adults, I observed. I suppose I always felt removed. My dog was my good close friend. Cerbie was half chow, half wolf. He was noble and fiercely loyal. My father most especially loved animals, he was a farm boy and stayed a farm boy at heart. After the war he had maintained a volunteer status at the Rotterdam Zoo. The zoo was bed and needed foster homes for some of their inhabitants as well as the manual labour and fund raising. Dad occasionally brought one exotic creature or another home and I had almost limitless access to visits (as determined by my parents). I’d played with animals most kids only read about. Large tortoises, strange birds, meerkats (love those).
It must have been early spring or late winter. I was wearing a new pair of mittens. Red mittens with kittens on them and real bells that made a lovely cling-ting sound as I walked. My mother had put them on an idiot chord. She was phenomenal when it came to sewing, her stitches could hold a battleship together. My mother had handcrafted bras from old clothes at the end of the war, for herself and sold some others for food money. You have to admire the resourcefulness. My dad was always in charge of sewing on buttons, something he became very adept at while in the army, he’d done a two year stint as an army medic.
My father had talked excitedly about this zoo trip, the ape exhibit was opening and the zoo now had a resident Mandril. He had shown me pictures. I understood that these “apes” were very large and came from the jungle, in Africa. I was happy to hear that these awfully large fearsome looking beasts were not native to where I lived, otherwise I doubt I’d have been able to sleep, ever again.
It was one of those guided tours, the insider gala to open the exhibit. It all looked very barren, painted freshly white not at all like a jungle. It smelled a lot like my grandmother’s chicken coop. I wondered naively if anyone every cleaned the place. I buried my face in mother’s coat.
“Kijk Aletta (Look Aletta)”, my father pointed at a very large cage on the right hand side. I sighed, this meant I had to look, even though I’d rather stay looking at the five or six meerkats playing “now you see me” behind a pane of glass. I thought I recognize one of them as a house guest we’d had.
It was hideous, I’d no idea why my parents would be so damn thrilled to see this big, albeit colourful beast. Its nostrils flared, it paced about nervously, knuckle dragging. Occasionally it would storm towards the cage wall and glare at the VIP crowd. The crowd was thrilled, nervous laughter, and big pompous men giving explanation. I was utterly bored. I hopped at bit foot to foot. Standing still is very hard on little children. I could have stood still, if I had meerkats to watch, but I’d as soon not look at the mandrill. My mind was quite made up that all such animals should stay in Africa and for my side of the bargain I intended never to venture into a jungle.
I’d made no note of the cage next to the mandrill. Many of the cages were still empty or animals were back in the private rooms at the back where they were fed, out of the public eye. So it neither came to my notice or anyone else’s. The large red ape had sidled right up to the cage wall virtually next to the small crowd, still sharply focused on the noisy, larger than life antics of the mandril. It says something that it did not set off my fear alarm at all. My face was buried in my mother’s coat, it filtered out the stink, and the mandril could not see me. My little fingers played with the bells on my mitten, I found the sound soothing, helped tune out the snarling ape.
There was the moment I was safely tucked into the coat, and then the next moment where I found myself righting myself, by myself, in the cage. The dirty stinking rotten ape had hold of my mitten, and managed with great force to pull me into the cage. I reached back. The crowd was gasping and shouting. My mom had managed to reach my hand, she held onto it firmly. She was brilliant. “She likes your mitten”, she told me. Here you see the value of growing up in the midst of a war. She knew there was no ignoring this, and it was counter productive to raise my fear above what it already was.
I could see, looking at the great ape’s eyes, that she did, in fact, want the mitten and not me. Unlike the mandril, this primate had kind eyes, and except for harshly pulling me into the cage with her, she meant no harm. lovely mitten.
“It is my mitten”, the ape tilted it’s head, trying I suppose, to understand. It stopped for a second. Then gave the mitten another tug. My mother was ready, she had my arm up high enough that the mitten could fly straight through, idiot chord and all. It was a good plan, but I was not having it. It was my damn mitten and she could not have it. My mother pleaded with “She wants it for her babies”. Well, I could see she might have babies, she had breasts alright, so she was a mommy ape. With all my might I held on to the second mitten, the ape was walking away with the first one. Finally the chord snapped. I jumped back to my footing. I can quite recall exactly how it felt. My feet firmly planted, my little hands on my hips. I now yelled “that’s my mitten, I want it back….NOW!”
I think I could have got the beast to comply, I was absolutely certain of it. I could have, but a zoo keeper cam in and snapped me off my feet and carried me out. Just one mitten left. I spent some considerable time in front of the orangutan cage, a safer distance away, both parents trying to make me feel safe. Actually I was not feeling unsafe at all. This ape was a sweet animal, a mommy, who wanted something nice. I’d noticed none of the zoo animals had toys and thought that was sad. The Orangutan was contentedly taking apart my mitten.
My mom couldn’t find another mitten with bells on it. Mom also never put idiot chords on my mittens. I always have bells in my sewing kit. Every once in a while, some child dear to my heart receives a pair of mittens at Christmas, with little bells securely sewn on. I love the sound they make.