Life on Earth

At night when I can’t sleep, his voice is in my head, cloaking each word in that halting refined rasp. On the back of my bedroom door is a picture from his early days at the BBC. In the photograph he’s feeding a can of condensed milk to a chimp on a boat in the Pacific. He looks young, maybe in his late twenties, with firm boyish ears and sun-bleached hair. His lower lip pouts in concentration as he gazes down at the chimp puckering into the liquid. A TV executive once said his teeth were ‘too big’ for television. But he is beautiful, movie-star beautiful. Gazing at his profile, my hand often wanders down under the duvet.
      Before leaving for work, I slot my latest drawing, Rwanda, Gorilla III, into a recycled envelope to send off; David has complained about the plastic film he gets in fan mail. I resisted signing my name with a kiss this time and wrote, Warm Wishes, Your Friend, Sophie. I’ve been worrying about my last letter – I had dropped a rat key-ring into the package. He hates rats. It was only an affectionate joke to lighten things up, but perhaps he took it the wrong way? It’s been quiet for a while. Perhaps I’ve sent a few more packages than usual but it’s not like him. There’s more fatigue in his voice lately I’ve noticed; in interviews the vocal muscles show signs of strain, following his great intellect more slowly, like the sound lapse in an old classic film. I worry about this as I slip on my jeans and hoodie and wind my satchel over my head.

From the flat, I walk down Cromwell road in St Andrews, passing houses with dusty windows and grey nets, broken paths and gates, parched yellow lawns and bins spilling their plastic innards. Crossing the high road I make my way up through Kingsdown, posting David’s letter on the way, taking in the refined air, the bluer sky, weaving though groups of ya-ya students outside the university buildings to Clifton’s borders with its narrow terraces and sandy Georgians. Ten minutes later I’ve broken into a sweat and finally reach the bookshop on Park Street.
      Before I get through the door, there’s a light tug at the sleeve of my cagoule.
‘Hey you.’ It’s John. I try not to show too much pleasure.
‘Hey.’
‘How was your sleep?’
‘Hmm, got the heart beat thing again.’
‘Did you do the breathing?’
‘Yeah . . .’ We enter through the interior’s blast of hot air.
      John began working at the shop six months ago. I liked his face, it had a fawn-like aspect – sensitive nose, slightly moist at the end, widely set eyes behind glasses. He’s much younger than me, at least a decade I think, but seems older. We barely spoke to each other for a while until one day he was unpacking a box of DVDs near the till area and I spotted the box set of Life on Earth which had just been re-released. John paused, looking at the bright green frog on the cover spreading apart the fronds of a leaf with its sticky digits.
      ‘The new docs are nothing compared to this,’ he said quietly, ‘they feel like advertorials . . .’ I stopped idling at the till and looked at him.
‘So, you’ve seen it . . . ?’
‘Yeah . . .’ He seemed slightly offended.
‘I just thought, maybe your generation . . . ?’
‘My generation . . . ?’ He smiled.
I blushed. ‘Anyway . . . yes! It’s amazing . . . ,’ I said.
      We spent some pleasurable minutes swapping our favourite scenes (so I could check he really did know his stuff). Then we drifted back to dismay at the new nature series and the visual production clichés we’d noticed: plants curling up at high speed out of soil like telephone wire, clouds back-lit by the sun and racing hysterically across the sky, sunsets whisking up and down above the horizon impatiently as if on speed.
      ‘The new presenters just don’t have the know-how,’ I said, ‘they just poke their fingers into things to see if they move or jump or spit or something . . .’ I began an impression of one of them, ‘Wow, it’s so . . . er . . . fantastic! Just amazing . . . you feel connected somehow to . . . to what exactly? Come on, fucking spit it out . . . try to describe what you can really see and intuit something with your bland good looks – there’s just no fucking gravitas anymore . . . !’
      John looked at me. Perhaps I’d gone too far.
‘None of them can hold a light to Attenborough,’ he said. ‘You know he’s coming here to do a signing . . . ?’
‘Yeah. I’m doing the front desk.’
     Of course I knew. I’d known for months, but I hid my tremor of agitation.
‘Are you in XR?’ he asked. I shook my head. He looked surprised for a moment. But I found myself asking if he wanted to come over to watch some Life On Earth episodes with me.

                                      *


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Giovanna Iozzi is completing a creative writing PhD at Goldsmiths University. Her first novel, House with Pool is currently on submission.