Five-minute memoir: Jonathan Grimwood recalls monkeying around on an island paradise

'Suddenly feeling myself watched, I looked up into the eyes of a baboon'

The island off the coast of Malaysia where we spent summer holidays was where interesting things happened. My younger sister hooked a shark that immediately smashed her rod and would have dragged her into the sea if shouting adults hadn't insisted she let go. It was her rod, why should she let go? She could be stubborn even then. It was where my father trod on a scorpion. The bite resulted in a blood clot and I was warned, in a serious conversation with my mother – so serious she pushed a drink into my hands first – that if he died I'd have to be brave, since I was 12 and the others were only nine and seven.

It was also where I met the baboon…

We, the children, were less than a dozen, not yet in our teens, the product of three or four families; and suddenly we had huts with palm roofs to live in, miles of deserted beach to wander, jungle coming down to the sea, coral reefs with bright fish and huge clams we convinced each other would close on our ankles and hold us under for ever if we went too near.

The great advantage of the islands, for us, was that the adults were far too busy doing nothing to keep track of what we were up to. We decided they were another species, slightly slow and with strange habits. They would wake late, although the sun rose early. Go to bed late when darkness had fallen hours before. And at noon, like some strange herd, they would wander into the sea and stand there, with gins in their hands, buried to their waists in the water like Easter Island statues; only lumbering out to refill the gins before returning to the self-same spots. Looking back on what was the last days of the last echo of the last ghosts of the Raj, I wonder if the grown-ups weren't so much numbed by alcohol as history and ennui.

We had blue sea to swim in, miles of reefs for fish, coral and collecting shells, a stream running down from the jungle for cold water when our feet got too hot. We had parrots in the trees and monkeys to howl us to sleep at night. As far as we knew, there wasn't a single other person on the island. The island was ours. It was our island. It was absurdly privileged and, for the children at least, close to paradise.

The day I discovered not everyone agreed, I was walking out along the beach towards a spit of sand in the very early morning, with the adults still asleep, and the others busy enough for me to slip away.

The sea was a ridiculous blue, the sky still pale, the sand warm but not yet hot under my feet. I kept my eyes out for scorpions, spiders and snakes as I'd been ordered. Perhaps I was too busy watching my feet, and maybe I was lost in daydreams, both equally likely. Suddenly feeling myself watched, I looked up into the eyes of what I thought then was a baboon (probably a pig-tailed macaque). He had shoulders like an American quarterback. His eyes were bright and watchful, as shocked to see me as I was to see him.

This was my beach.

This was his beach.

In the sleepy early dawn of a perfect morning, his world and my world came face to face, and neither of us knew the next move. We stood, directly opposite each other, in absolute silence. He was absolutely, utterly awake. The most awake thing I'd seen on the island. He hummed with awakeness. Vibrated the air. For a second I desperately wanted to be him.

Then he decided I might think it was my beach but it was his island, and he reared back and roared in outrage, opening his mouth to display fierce canines. Not the howl heard at night from the tree monkeys but something fiercer, deeper, more primal. Later, when I discovered macaque were vegetarian, I was stunned. I'm not sure anyone had told him.

Shocked, I roared back and then turned and ran. He did the same. We stopped a little way down the beach and turned to look at each other. Then he wandered back into the jungle, as casually as I wandered away along the beach. The moment I knew I was alone, I sat on the sand and shook and shook. I knew beyond doubt that this wasn't my island and never had been.

It was a couple of years before I realised that even if it hadn't been his island, it still wasn't mine. It wasn't ours. It wasn't our beach and it wasn't our island and it wasn't our country. We were a mistake of history and, like him, history was waiting for us to be gone.

Jonathan Grimwood is the author of 'The Last Banquet', out now, published by Canongate

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