The Elephant in the Room
While they wait for animal welfare to arrive, she looks for something to do. She finds a puzzle book in the sideboard drawer, flips the pages standing with her back to the room. When she finds a crossword that hasn’t already been partly filled in, she returns to her armchair by the window. She fills out the easier clues first. Actor’s surnames. Events tied to dates. Countries. Mammals. Cities. She needs as many letters as she can find to decipher the more general words. She’s always had trouble finding the right words.
She tries to focus. Upturning the pencil, she uses the eraser at the end to rub out the word
leaving the second T to write STEPHEN FRY.
She reads the clue again:
Unventilated, inhibiting (8),
Stagnant conjures up an image of still water, an unpleasant odour. Something doesn’t fit. She turns to the front cover. Looks at the image of an attractive young woman, smiling and holding a pen, as though she might have the answer. She taps the pencil against her front teeth. The room suddenly feels too warm, but she resists the urge to remove her cardigan. Then she realises she’s been confusing ‘inhibiting’ for ‘immobile’.
“Ah,” she says to herself, “it’s stifling.”
In the grid, she writes
“Mm?” George, her husband, from behind his newspaper. The first sound he’s made since she asked him to please stop talking twenty minutes ago. To George, twenty minutes silence is a life sentence. For her, it’s a reprieve.
“Nothing,” she says.
“No, you’re right,” he says. “It is getting a bit stuffy, isn’t it?” He pushes himself up from his place on the sofa, folds his newspaper and taps it against his thigh. “I’ll turn the thermostat down. Just a notch.”
She didn’t mean to speak out loud, not wanting to attract attention onto herself. She wishes he’d vanish. If he vanished, she’d sing out the answers to the clues.
“Or should I open a window?” he says. “Try and shift the smell a bit.”
“Do what you want.”
“I’ll open a window.”
He walks around her cautiously, as though she might strike at any moment. He opens the window behind her head. Without turning to look at him, she knows he’s making faces at the neighbours who’ve gathered on the front lawn. She’s shooed them away twice already, but they keep drifting back. The first time she told them to go away, they took their time leaving, chatting amongst themselves, then gradually slowing to a stop as they reached the end of the driveway. Once she was back inside, they moved back quietly, clumped together like a herd of wilder beast returning to a watering hole once the threat had passed. George offered to try and disperse them, but when they faced him, all he did was boast about how his pet was bigger than everybody else’s. They laughed, and he warmed up, started telling the children some of his best elephant jokes. For one sickening moment, she thought he was going to invite them all inside for a closer look.
He sits back down on the sofa and lets out a long sigh. Unfolds his newspaper and hides behind the headlines. The open window draws the smell in from the dining room. It drifts up the hall, through the living-room and escapes into the open air. Even the smell is allowed to breathe. Cool air strokes the back of her neck. She’s glad she didn’t take off her cardigan. Something breaks in the dining room. Another one of her glass ballerinas? A commemorative wall plate? While she reads the next clue, she tries to blink away the nerve trapped in her eyelid:
Cast, no life (3),
The nib on her pencil breaks on the letter E. The elephant trumpets and the neighbours cheer.
George sneaks a look at his watch over a corner of the newspaper.
“I’d have thought they would’ve been here by now.”
She’s rummaging in the sideboard drawers again.
“What are you after this time?” he asks.
“Sharpener,” she says.
“Here,” he says, starting to rise, “I think there’s one in the kitchen drawer.”
“I’ll get it,” she says.
He lowers himself onto the sofa, pulling a cushion out from underneath him. On her way to the kitchen she passes the door to the dining room. The smell is stronger in the hall. It reminds her of drives out to the country and cow dung. Didn’t she read somewhere that male elephants are called bulls?
George has left a plate of mackerel on the middle shelf of the fridge. She recalls to memory the time he hid a piece of haddock at the bottom of her handbag. She discovered it paying for shoes at Debenhams. While she looked for her purse, the assistant rubbed her nostrils with the back of a finger. She could have told the assistant where the smell was coming from. But did the world really need to know she’d married a complete idiot? She closes the door on the fridge, forgetting what she opened it for in the first place. She finds the pencil sharpener in a drawer next to a plastic dog turd. Walking into the hall, she hears George closing the bathroom door upstairs. Mid-afternoon, he’s prone to dozing off, and he’ll go up to wash his face, shave and revive himself. She’d rather he slept. She sharpens the pencil over the wastebasket next to the sofa, relieved that he’s out of the room. She turns her attention back to the crossword, but the sound of George washing himself breaks her concentration. He’s noisy as he lathers his face, sounding more like a sensei admonishing one of his students than a man preparing for a shave.
On their first date proper, she’d told George how she was tired of feeling ordinary.
“I like you because you’re ordinary,” he said. “I need a woman like you to keep me balanced.”
She was flattered. He could have had his pick, but he chose her normal looks, her prosaic mind that never had anything interesting to say, and her sense of style that looked like a frigid, tentative stance against daring. George, on the other hand, was flamboyant. He dressed loudly, talked loudly, laughed loudly. He forced himself on everyone and most everyone embraced him. He was everybody’s friend. Fun to be around. A man who could surprise you at any moment with a boo, with a gift, with a goose.
She dog-ears the page and closes the puzzle book. Picks up the phone off the side table. On her screensaver, she’s replaced George’s smiling face with a picture of a windmill. She’d like to visit Amsterdam, see Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht, but she dreads the thought of George coming with her. Maybe after all this is over, she’ll take the plunge. She selects the Facebook app and finds Eddie Wilson’s profile page. He doesn’t look anything like she remembers him. Gone are the quiff and toothy grin, replaced with a crop of neatly cut hair ringing a bald crown and a closed-mouth smile that can only be described as nice. Gone too is Eddie Cosmo, who George took her to see perform an Elvis set in the Cutlass on their fourth date. She’d mentioned how handsome Eddie was to gauge George’s reaction, see if he had a jealous streak. George surprised her by arranging a date with Eddie and her alone. George trusted Eddie, who he’d known intermittently for most of his life.
Predictably, compared with George a drink with Eddie Cosmo turned out to be a bit disappointing. He seemed preoccupied with his hair and desperate to keep up his on-stage persona. The effort had dissipated his energy, leaving him spent and flat. She told George this, and he said, “Even the brightest stars can appear quite dim when faced with the beauty of the universe.”
He could be quite poetic at times. She might have fallen a little bit in love with him then. They were married soon after. Eddie sang at their wedding, glowing up there on stage before he faded back into the smoky air of the pub circuit.
She hears George descending the stairs. The board on the third stair creaks. As he enters the room, she knows what he’s going to say before he says it.
“I’d get that board seen to, but it alerts me to prowlers.”
She dares a glance at her husband. There’s a tiny square of tissue paper on his upper lip, held fast with drying blood. He casts his eyes to the ceiling while he searches for something funny to say. If he finds it, she’ll kill it with silence. Or maybe he’s thinking of something else to surprise her with, something to make things right. She feels a certain amount of guilt at having all but extinguished such a bright flame. But also a sense of triumph. George drops down onto the sofa and she looks away before he notices her watching him. She turns her attention to the large photo-frame hanging over the mantlepiece. Inside the frame are three smaller, irregularly shaped frames running vertically one on top of the other. Each one displays a photograph of a pug throughout its five short years of life.
George once said how funny looking pugs were, and she’d defended them as though she were their appointed protector. Said she might even like to own one herself one day. It could be a bit of extra company for when she retired from her job at the care home. When she opened another one of George’s presents the following morning, she thought the pug inside was having trouble breathing. George hadn’t punctured air holes in the box, and she wondered how long the pup had been in there. George said pugs always looked like they were struggling to breathe, due to their breeding. She lifted it out and it looked like a soft toy, its face pressed and squashed between her hands. She named the dog Pogo. One day, unprovoked, it bit George on the ankle. She misses Pogo. Where the hell have animal welfare got to?
She sits and remembers a fake eyeball floating in her soup, a whoopee cushion on a church pew, an advert in the free local paper offering personal services with her phone number attached. She remembers the time he left her tied to the bed blindfolded, giggling, anticipating. He’d put on a CD of songs he knew she hated. Left her there for two hours while it played on repeat. After, he promised not to tell anyone what he’d done. From the looks the neighbours gave her she knew he already had. He eventually came clean and apologised. Handed her a gift-wrapped box. When she opened it a pop-up streamer hit her in the forehead. He apologised again and said he couldn’t help himself. The second box he gave her had a necklace inside with a locket attached. The photograph inside the locket was of him wearing the sombrero he’d bought in Malaga twelve months before. All these unmentionable incidents. Embarrassments. Elephants, each and every one. George breaks the silence with a cough like a bark. Her insides jump.
‘Gordon or Alan (7)’
She must have missed that one. Writes BENNETT in the grid. Then, with a flush of satisfaction, uses the fourth N to complete the adjoining word going down: ANNUAL.
Her phone buzzes. Eddie’s accepted her friend request. She taps out a reply and presses send. The sound of brakes whine outside as heavy wheels grind to a halt. Engines shut off and doors slam. The neighbours jeer and boo.
The thing that rankles her most, more than George even, is that she was the one who’d planted the seed in the first place. He’d surprised her with a trip to the circus to make up for the marbles he’d left on the front step. She’d dared to imagine out loud what it would be like to rescue an elephant. Did they still treat them badly, like the mother in Dumbo? Stupid, stupid! She should have learned by now that it was best to keep her thoughts to herself. Too late, the seed she’d planted was already growing into some kind of deadly, absurd Triffid.
It was an audacious plan worthy of a strip in a children’s comic. Four men drunk on brandy and a van with its plates removed. Under the cloak of darkness they probably felt like bandits, with George as their leader. When she’d arrived home from her nightshift, George was waiting for her at the gate, hushing the snickering neighbours who’d formed a line on the pavement. He covered her eyes and led her around the side of the house. She heard the elephant before she saw it chained to a post in the garden. It was an infant with a clump of downy black fur on top of its head. George was explaining how they’d gotten away with it. Even if she were listening it would have been beyond her reasoning. She’d gone inside and looked up the number for animal welfare. She’d spent fifteen minutes trying to convince them it wasn’t a joke. After the man at the other end of the line checked for reports on missing elephants, he told her they’d be there as soon as possible. If they’d have arrived sooner, the elephant might not have found its way through the patio doors and into the dining room.
She listens to George answering the front door. On sight of him, the neighbours cheer as though he were a returning hero. The front door closes behind him as he leads the authorities, two from animal welfare and a policeman, into the dining room. There’s muffled talk and George keeps laughing at something he’s said. She doesn’t hear anyone else laughing. Suspecting she has allies in the next room she decides to join them. She needs to explain that she had nothing to do with this, to put a wedge between her and George once and for all, but when she enters the room, her voice has gone.
A woman from animal welfare comforts the elephant while her companion prepares a large hypodermic needle. George is standing in the back garden, his face red. The policeman’s writing in a notepad. The man with the needle looks up at her as he flicks air bubbles out of the syringe. She smiles what she hopes is seen as an apology, but his face remains stern, and he looks as though he’d like to stab her with the needle instead of the elephant. Nobody seems to have paid much attention to the huge pile of elephant shit in the corner. If they knew Pogo lay dead underneath it, maybe they’d have some sympathy for her.
Her phone buzzes and she leaves the room. Standing in the hall, she checks the message from Eddie, reads it twice, then goes upstairs to collect the case she’s already packed.
Christopher Witty: Since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University with an MA in Creative Writing, Chris has relocated to France, where he raises his family and continues to write short stories. The former owner of a used bookshop in Manchester, he keeps himself afloat by working online as a used book seller, creative writing instructor, and proof-reader/editor. His stories have been published or are due to be published by Northodox Press and Confingo in the UK, and Rock and a Hard Place in the US. He is currently working on his first novel, a revenge story set in the murky world of the Hollywood film industry during the 1980s. His ramblings can be found on Instagram @bookfolkfrance