She stands at the foot of the bed, folding bedsheets. Stripes of red and blue and animals. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my), and rows of thumb-sized elephants, concertinaing their cotton trunks into a neatly laundered pile. The animals march in two by two, hurrah, as she stands at the bed’s end and folds, her hands deftly turning crumples into a linen origami.
He sits on the bed, turning a small jade elephant round in his hands.
They live in a house packed with pachyderms: elephants on the sheets, walls, seats. A pair of zoologists, perhaps it’s not surprising. Houël’s prints of Hans and Marguerite in the Jardin des Plantes here, cushions embroidered in Periyar there. Elephants prance round the lips of crockery. A troupe in silver plod across her dressing table; their cousins ride bicycles up and down his ties. Children weaned on Babar, Dumbo, Attenborough. The house a composite of every trip they’ve ever taken. Smiling faces tucked into the bathroom mirror’s rosewood, opposite the other mirror lugged back from Dar, reflecting their faces, and the Serengeti, into infinite distance.
Books and maps and prints and toys. The thick bric-a-brac of happy ever after. Love elephantine in size as well as focus.
It is June and warm as she stands at the foot of the bed, folding. Not sheets now, but tiny explorers’ outfits, hats and shirts and shorts in miniature. The voices of their own explorers drift in, high-pitched, through the open window. He turns and turns that elephant in his hands until she cannot look. Her lips twitch and she wants to laugh, because actually, beyond the bedsheets and the knickknacks and the paintings and the footstall, the Victorian ivories that dance in her ears and the black one inked inside his wrist, the only elephant in this room, she wants to say, darling one, is that you’re going to leave me.
Ancient tusk, wrought filigree fine, she catches an earring between thumb and forefinger. Found in a jumble sale, in Cambridge, in the rain. Elephants never forget, he said. Not the grey-green damp of summer storm, wet and leaf and grass in their noses. His kiss in the orchard where fat blossoms fell among the raindrops.
He is going, and she knows it, and he knows, but his tongue is tied, there’s a knot in his trunk. So they wait, in their darkened room on a Saturday in June, curtains drawn against the sun, barely moving in the thick air. Outside the noise of play, a distant lawnmower, the smack of footballs against fences, the gleeful shriek of garden sprinklers. How boring this must seem to you, she thinks. How interminable, this surburbia stretching on forever, family cars, rust warranties, bathtimes. In the half-light, bands of plaited leather dance along his forearm. So many places he’s explored, they’ve explored. But I thought this was exploring too, she breathes. I thought this adventure also. In the corner, the baby starts grizzling. He leaps up to take her soft, pink, tiny form in hands almost as big as she is, rough and battered as elephant’s skin.
And so another day passes and perhaps, she thinks, I can wait this out. Perhaps they can sleep, with backs turned, folding themselves onto separate sides of the bed. Dreaming of the days when they used to ride elephants, and she of when he loved her.