The elephant in the room


I was sat in the armchair directly facing the elephant. I hated this chair. I always felt so self-conscious sitting there with its trunk slightly swaying from side to side a few inches from my face, trying to go along with the pretense by Mariam that it wasn’t there.

But I had gone along with the charade on the first day, and the time after that, and the one after that, until it was too late to say “What’s this elephant doing in the middle of your living-room?” Mariam would push its trunk to one side as she prattled on at me, or as she brought in the tray with biscuits and tea. She even leaned against it once when she was feeling tired. But she never spoke to it, never referred to it, and acted as if there was no reason why anybody else ever would either. It stood there silently, resigned to being left out.

My shame grew every time I participated in this farce. And they seemed to perversely insist of bringing guests into that room, instead of staying in the kitchen, where there were no living, breathing obstructions. Some people enjoyed being able to denigrate something as being so worthless it didn’t even deserve an acknowledgement; others, like me, were too polite to shatter their host’s facade. I know I found myself avoiding visiting them as much as possible. I wonder how many friends had stopped coming to the house since the elephant appeared.

I had stayed away for a while and had forgotten how excruciating the experience was, so I found myself squirming in the armchair in front of the elephant once again. Mariam went into the kitchen to prepare the tea and I bowed my head to hide my embarrassment until she returned.

Then I saw a tear splash on the floor under the trunk, quickly followed by another. I looked up. The elephant was crying silently, and I could feel waves of hopelessness and misery radiate outwards from it. I found myself on my feet, hugging it by the trunk and wiping away its tears with my scarf, which was soon sopping wet.

“Help me”, it whispered. Its voice was deep, gravelly, resonant. I would have loved to have heard it sing ‘Ol’ Man River’. But I didn’t say that. Instead I said “What?”

“You have to help me,” it said. “They are going to eat me.”

“Eat you?”

“I heard them talking. About how to get rid of an elephant piece by piece.”

I wondered if they planned to eat it alive or kill it first. Whatever about sitting in a room with an elephant in the middle you weren’t supposed to acknowledge, sitting in a room with a decomposing elephant corpse that couldn’t be mentioned would be worse.

Or would they throw a dinner party and make all of us eat a piece of it, without speaking about what we were doing?

“Why don’t you get out of here?” I asked it.

“How? They will never let me go free.”

“Don’t wait for permission. Just get the hell out of here while you still can.”

“The door is too small,” it said, eyeing it sadly.

“You are big and strong,” I said. “You could knock it through easily. Just put your head down and break on through to the other side. And then run… and don’t look back.”

The clatter of delft against mugs and cutlery could be heard from the kitchen. Footsteps began to approach. Our eyes locked in horror.

“Now!” I hissed, wheeling it around until it faced the door.

The elephant put its head down, pawed the ground once and then once more. Its muscles rippled along its flanks. The sheer strength beneath that rough skin was breathtaking – I knew I would never be so close to such power in a living creature again. It launched itself at the door. With a tremendous thud that shook the whole house, it made contact. The door flew outwards and landed ten feet away. The walls stood firm momentarily, but cracks spread swiftly across the walls and ceiling. The elephant strained forward into freedom, and the brick walls could not resist its force. They crumpled outwards, and the elephant was free. It stood in the bright spring day for a few seconds, shook the debris from its shoulders and trundled away over the fields, scattering crows and cows before it.

Mariam stood beside me, gripping the tea tray in shock. She watched in silence until the elephant disappeared over the horizon. Then she said in a small voice: “Look how big the room is…”

The sound of her own voice seemed to bring her back to reality. She glanced quickly at me out of the corner of her eye. “Look at the view out that doorway, wouldn’t a pair of French doors be fantastic there? Ready for your tea?”

She put the tea down on the coffee table and sat down on the couch. I sat back down on the armchair, draping my elephant-tear-soaked scarf across the arm. We sat drinking tea and gossiping about our friends and acquaintances, ignoring the dust drifting down from the cracks in the ceiling and the breeze coming through the massive hole in the wall.


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