Last year, I signed up for ‘Like The Prose’, a challenge which involved writing a story based on a given prompt every day in June. It stretched me in so many ways – not just by making me sit down and write something substantial (usually between 1-2,000 words) every day whilst teaching full time, but by making me step outside my comfort zone and attempt genres I wouldn’t normally try. I learnt about writing haibun, and I also had one challenge which involved using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person in the same piece of writing.
The first prompt for this year was delivered last night at 10pm – I’m normally asleep by then as I get up at 4.30am (!) and fall into bed around 9-9.30pm. I’m not allowed to share the exact challenge, but what I will say is that the route I decided to take involves ending lockdown (so a fresh start) as well as a literal interpretation of the phrase “the elephant in the room”. (As a side note, I googled the origin of the phrase and discovered it was first used by a Russian writer, Ivan Krylov (1769-1844), in a fable entitled ‘The Inquisitive Man’ – Krylov was a fascinating character who wrote many fables – look him up on Wikipedia.)
My offering is below:
Sidney was the only one who could see the elephant in the room.
All around him, people sipped wine or nibbled hors d’oeuvres, grateful for their first opportunity to mingle in a social gathering (whilst retaining a 2 metres distance from anyone else of course). Conversation ranged from the usual banalities concerning the weather (“So hot … Marvellous for the strawberries … Could do with a bit of rain now, though”), family life (“Of course, the kids are completely feral by now after missing so much school – every day, I feel us getting closer and closer to a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario in which they start hunting me or their mother and then sacrifice us to the God of the PS4”) and those snippets of personal information that really shouldn’t be shared anywhere (“Took me ages to find my bra this morning – it’s the first time I’ve worn one in months!”). In fact, everything was being discussed apart from the very obvious elephant that was standing by the food table and surreptitiously hoovering up all the crab cakes.
“Have you seen that elephant over there?” he asked a Yummy Mummy who was obviously relishing the opportunity to escape the house now that Portia and Tarquin were back in school.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied, tossing her head so that her immaculately straightened, highlighted locks bounced engagingly. “What would an elephant be doing at an event like this? It’s not the London Zoo!”
For a couple of minutes, Sidney observed the other guests. No one was taking the slightest bit of notice of the apparently uninvited guest. He felt a sudden affinity with the creature: after all, wasn’t this how he, Sidney, felt at most of the parties he went to? He seemed to have spent a lifetime of standing on his own in a corner, desperately wishing that someone would talk to him.
“Why’s everyone ignoring you?” Sidney asked as he wandered across to the food table to investigate a dip in a suspicious shade of yellow.
The elephant regarded him pityingly.
“I’m not a real elephant, you know,” it said gently.
“Oh?” said Sidney.
“For one thing,” explained the elephant, “I’m pink; but the real reason is because I’m a metaphor.”
“I see,” said Sidney – although he didn’t. He searched his mind frantically, trying to remember what a metaphor was.
“Although,” the elephant sounded thoughtful, “I suppose you could say I’m really more of an idiomatic phrase.”
Sidney was none the wiser.
“When people talk about ‘the elephant in the room’,” the pachyderm continued, “they normally mean something that’s obvious but remains untalked about – usually because social etiquette demands that we don’t mention anything embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory or dangerous.”
“So what are you a symbol of, then?” Sidney wanted to know.
The elephant lowered his voice confidentially. “Have you noticed,” he murmured, “how much wine people are drinking?”
“It’s a party,” Sidney said, puzzled. “An official End of Lockdown Party, to be precise.”
“Yes,” agreed the elephant, “but don’t you think everyone’s knocking back a lot more booze than they used to? Let’s face it: pubs and restaurants have been closed for months; people have been confined to barracks, as it were, for just as long; all social activities have had to cease – what else has there been for people to do?”
“Lots of people have taken up new hobbies,” Sidney suggested.
The elephant snorted derisively. “For most of them,” it said darkly, “that involves studying the effects of alcohol at 9 am.”
“I think you’re being a bit unfair,” Sidney protested.
“Look at it this way,” the elephant continued. “If you were stuck at home with your children all day, every day, day in, day out – without being able to take them to Soft Play or let them go paintballing or go-karting, don’t you think you’d find yourself reaching for a bottle a lot more frequently – just to take the edge off?”
Sidney had to admit that the elephant was right.
“And that’s why I’m here now,” the creature said with a sigh. “Every single one of them has probably consumed more alcohol in the past three months than they did in the previous three years – but is anyone going to admit that? Of course not! It’s like the way people lie on their CVs and claim to have a First in Classics from Oxford when really all they got was a Third in Parks and Recreation from Huddersfield University. Or the way that parents try to outdo each other when they boast about little Jonquil walking at seven months or painting the Sistine Chapel when she was still in her pram – and then you look at the child when she’s in the park one day and realise she’s the one eating bogies and running into trees like a complete lunatic.”
“Okay,” Sidney shrugged, “so we’re all a bit economical with the truth from time to time – but I don’t see why that should cause an imaginary elephant to appear at a party.”
“Haven’t you wondered,” mused the elephant, “why you can see me but no one else can?”
Sidney took a few minutes to contemplate this question and had to admit he was stumped.
“The answer,” said the elephant impressively, “is that you’re the only one who’s being honest. They could all see me if they wanted to – but then they’d have to admit they’re a bunch of shallow dipsomaniacs who have a rather volatile relationship with the truth. You, on the other hand, are just as shallow and just as much of an alcoholic – but at least you’re up front about it.”
“Thanks,” said Sidney, trying to work out whether or not this was a compliment.
“Anyway,” the elephant said, demolishing the last of the sausages on sticks and turning its nose up at the coleslaw, “I suppose I’d better go.”
And with that, he disappeared in a puff of green smoke.
“Did nobody see that elephant?” Sidney appealed to the room in general. Despite what the creature had told him, he felt sure that there must be another person in the room who would confess to having seen it.
His question was met with averted eyes and silence.
Sidney sighed and helped himself to another glass of wine, wondering if anyone would talk to him at all now he’d said that. He looked at his watch. Perhaps it was time for him to leave too.
“Mad as a box of frogs, that one,” he heard someone say as he headed for the door, “-only we don’t like to talk about it.”