On cold winter evenings I’d drape one of my mum’s headscarves over my bedside lamp and, picking up my Arthur Mee volume six, try to make the hand shadow animals I saw illustrated there.
The butterfly was easy and with a little manipulation I could shape it into a passable bird. I managed the elephant, and then the llama was only a few finger-flexes away, as were the goat, the devil dog, and once I’d contorted the rabbit the kitten was easy… it was only the monkey that really got the better of me. The monkey was hard; a twist of the hand too far, the chatter of his teeth, his fez, all a little beyond the dexterity of my fumblesome fingers. I must have spent half the winter trying to get him to materialise on my wall, but with no luck.
For a while I lived and breathed that monkey, once dislocating my middle finger and popping it back in place myself, so as not to upset my mum - but he remained elusive; a hand shadow challenge I couldn’t seem to meet.
And then one wet night, three days before Christmas Eve I think it was, I awoke in my moonlit flooded room to find the monkey climbing up my wall alone. I watched, wide open-eyed, as it disappeared into the darkest corner of the ceiling, then rushed down to point and chatter, ridiculing me, mocking me for the useless boy I was. Shadow spittle flew from its filthy mouth, covering me with dry shadow droplets. I backed up and up until my shivering spine was hard and firm against the corner of my bedroom wall and sat hugging at my knees, flaying my head from side to side as he flew all around my room. Never once did he leave the surface of the walls and ceiling and floor. He was clever that shade, keeping to the margins, never once appearing in the solidity of the inner space of the bright and moonlit room.
I watched as he thrashed and soundlessly screeched, flew and silently jabbered, and then he was gone; vanished - my room a moonlit world of projected raindrop ripple, the shadow of the branches from the old cherry tree outside stark against the cheap wallpaper. It was the lack of sound that unnerved me most I think, the soundless movement, the unheard cries. I sighed a relief. But then, a nagging voice inside my head whispered: “He’s behind you!” like an echoed premonition of the pantomime my dad had promised after Christmas.
I slowly turned and as I stared at the wall where my shoulders had uncomfortably rested a moment before; there he was, as I knew he would be; his shadow hands resting weightlessly upon the thin fabric of my pyjama shoulders. I didn’t shiver; I was far too cold for that – a blue ice boy with his keeper.
He’s been here ever since, my monkey, clinging soundlessly to my back. Sometimes, I try to manipulate my hands, hoping to conjure him in the hope of forcing him from my back and bring him around to face me. Once, when I almost had him, I stopped when I heard my little finger crack, the bone fracturing in an attempt to make his chattering mouth appear from the shadow. But I couldn’t manage it, so I gave up: he’s still here, soundlessly clinging on.
Shadows; yes, that’s all they are really; quiet smoke where no smoke should be - and only sometimes do I dare to ask… whose hands are making them?