Too Many Ele­phants

This pow­er­ful short story by Teresa Ashby wel­comes you to a brand-new Spe­cial.

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

When Lil­ian showed up at my door, I knew she needed help – and she wasn’t the only one . . .

THE door­bell rings and rings again be­fore I’m even out of my chair. I only know one per­son that im­pa­tient and I al­most trip over my feet in my hurry to an­swer the door.

“Aun­tie Emmy,” she says as she steps in­side. “I’m mov­ing in with you. I’ve left home. I’ve got my tooth­brush and py­ja­mas and clean knick­ers.”

She bangs a stuffed back­pack down on the floor and looks up at me, the de­ter­mi­na­tion in her bright blue eyes re­mind­ing me so much of her mother that it takes my breath away.

“Does your dad know you’re here?”

“No. Don’t tell him.” “Sweetie, I have to. He’ll be wor­ried.”

“No, he won’t. He doesn’t care about me.”

“Of course he does,” I say, al­though I’m no longer sure I re­ally be­lieve it.

“He’ll be glad I’ve gone. I left him a note.”

Her eyes glim­mer with tears and I gather her to me in a hug. She smells of co­conut sham­poo and choco­late bis­cuits.

Lil­ian’s only nine. She shouldn’t feel unloved and un­wanted. It’s bad enough she lost her mother a cou­ple of years ago.

Two years and four months to be pre­cise and yes, I’m count­ing, be­cause Yvonne was my best friend and not a day passes that I don’t miss her.

Hon­estly, I could shake Nick. But I can’t for­get how strong he was through­out Yvonne’s ill­ness and be­fore.

“He’s my rock,” she told me when I was sit­ting with her at the hospice. “I couldn’t have got this far with­out him, but I worry about what will hap­pen to him when I’ve gone.”

I wanted to tell her not to talk like that. To say she wasn’t go­ing any­where, but we both knew that wasn’t true and that she would never come home.

Be­sides, Nick didn’t need look­ing after. He was a fire­fighter, brave and strong, in­jured more than once in the line of duty. He had a con­fi­dent swag­ger when he walked and it seemed that noth­ing would ever floor him.

“You will look after him, won’t you, Emmy? Both of them? He’ll need help with Lil­ian. She’s still so young.” “Of course I will.”

“And he’ll look after you,” she said as she set­tled back into her pil­lows and closed her eyes.

I al­most laughed at that. The last thing Nick would ever want to do was look after me. He couldn’t stand the sight of me.

“I know you’re laugh­ing,” she whis­pered. “But Nick’s never had a friend like you. If any­one can teach him to laugh again, you can. I know he’s putting on a front.”

She opened her eyes and clasped my hand.

“You are, too.”

Nick went around in a daze after Yvonne died, as if he hadn’t been ex­pect­ing it at all and didn’t know what to do next. I ar­ranged

her funeral and looked after Lil­ian and made sure that Nick ate.

Grad­u­ally he started to func­tion again, but that’s all it was, func­tion­ing. He got up, got Lil­ian up, took her to school and went to work.

It was as if he was liv­ing his life in a trance.

****

Lil­ian is look­ing up at me. Those eyes! It’s as if Yvonne is look­ing at me.

“Sort it out,” her voice says in my head. “Sort it out once and for all.”

“Take your bag up to my spare bed­room,” I say. “I’ll speak to your dad. Per­haps you can stay here tonight for a sleep­over.”

“Yes!” She lifts her arms in the air tri­umphantly.

“Not for ever, Lil­ian.”

I try to sound stern, but she flings her arms round me and holds on tight and what else can I do but hug her back?

I won­der if Nick ever hugs her. I won­der if he ever tells her he loves her.

I won­der what Yvonne would think of the way I’ve stood by and watched while her fam­ily crum­bles . . .

I’ve kept my dis­tance since Nick snapped at me to stop in­ter­fer­ing.

“I was try­ing to help,” I snapped back.

“We don’t need your help.”

That was me told, but he couldn’t stop me see­ing my god­daugh­ter; she wouldn’t let him.

Be­sides, there are times when he needs me to pick her up from school. But even then it’s a curt phone call.

“I won’t make it back in time so would you mind pick­ing Lil­ian up?”

“You know I don’t mind, Nick.”

Then he calls round to col­lect her on his way home. He never comes in, but in­sists on stand­ing out­side even if it’s rain­ing.

One day he stood there, an­kle-deep in snow with big flakes swirling round his head, hands in his pock­ets.

“Don’t be silly, Nick,” I said. “Come in­side be­fore you turn into a snow­man.”

“I’m all right, thanks,” he mut­tered im­pa­tiently.

“I’ll just get a car­rot for your nose, then.”

He stared at me.

“Is Lil­ian ready or not?” I don’t know why Yvonne ever thought I could make him laugh. I can’t even get a smile out of him.

There’s not just one ele­phant in the room when­ever Nick and I meet up – we find our­selves stand­ing in the midst of a whole herd.

The big­gest one of all is Yvonne. We don’t say her name. It’s as if she never ex­isted.

An­other is his job.

Yvonne made him prom­ise not to give it up, but it was one of the first things he did after she died.

I told him he was wrong and he told me to mind my own busi­ness.

He reck­ons he can jug­gle his time bet­ter driv­ing taxis than he could when he was a fire­fighter.

Yvonne was so proud of him and the work he did, but I felt he’d let her down.

There are smaller ele­phants – Lil­ian’s clothes; Lil­ian’s hair; Lil­ian’s de­sire to learn to ride ponies. I have tried to help with all these things, but Nick tells me to keep out.

Smaller ele­phants still are Nick’s lack of care of him­self; his scruffy jumpers with frayed cuffs and jeans with holes.

And don’t get me started on his hair! Since Yvonne died it’s gone wild and un­ruly. I as­sume this is some new look he’s go­ing for, but if it is, he’s miss­ing the mark.

If he’s not ruf­fling his hair with his hands, he’s rasp­ing his fingers over the fuzz on his face that passes for a beard.

It would kill Yvonne if she could see him.

****

“I was just about to come over,” he says when I call. “Is she OK?”

“Yes. She asked if she could stay over, but I said not with­out ask­ing you.” “Yeah,” he mut­ters.

“She can?”

“If it’s OK with you. I’ll come and get her in the morn­ing. Call if you have any prob­lems.”

He hangs up, leav­ing me star­ing in shock at my phone. He said yes!

I won’t cel­e­brate yet. He might come to­mor­row and for­bid me from ever see­ing Lil­ian again.

Lil­ian is over­joyed. She puts her py­ja­mas on the spare bed and her hair­brush on the dress­ingtable. She used to come for sleep­overs be­fore Yvonne got ill.

Some­times I stayed at their house, sleep­ing on a fold-out bed on the floor in Lil­ian’s room.

I was part of their lit­tle fam­ily. Or so I thought. I felt I be­longed, but maybe I was just kid­ding my­self.

Nick only tol­er­ated me for Yvonne’s ben­e­fit. Now I’d been cut adrift.

We have tea, then watch a film with a bowl of pop­corn be­tween us.

But I’m wor­ried. I have to talk to her at some point. It’s not far to my house from hers and she doesn’t have to cross any roads, but she’s only nine. And where was Nick when she walked here?

She snug­gles un­der the cov­ers at bed­time and asks for the story of how her mum and I met.

Then she wants to know about the time we got caught scrump­ing Mr Tot­teridge’s goose­ber­ries and he chased us down the lane, wav­ing his stick at us.

By the time we get to the story about when I was her mum’s brides­maid her eyes are grow­ing heavy.

I slow my words and she drifts off just as I’m about to fall off my shoe and land on Un­cle Bert’s lap.

Yvonne’s un­cle Bert made a grab for me to save me, and her aun­tie Irene hit him with her hand­bag.

“Put that girl down at once, Bert!” she yelled.

Yvonne didn’t look round, but I could see her shoul­ders shak­ing with laugh­ter as she joined Nick at the front of the church.

I righted my­self, kicked my stupid shoes into a pew and was there at the right mo­ment to grab Yvonne’s bou­quet, just as a thick strand of hair came out and fell down over my face, tak­ing my tiara with it.

That was when Nick’s eye caught mine and a look passed be­tween us. He pressed his lips to­gether and shook his head.

I with­ered un­der his dis­ap­proval, but he had a point. I could have ru­ined their big day.

I kiss my god­daugh­ter’s fore­head and turn out the light, leav­ing her room

Lil­ian was de­ter­mined that she was mov­ing in with me

bathed in the light from the land­ing. She’s afraid of the dark. I won­der if Nick leaves a light on for her.

****

As I reach the bot­tom of the stairs a shape looms out­side the front door and fingers tap lightly on the glass. It’s Nick.

“I thought you said she could stay?” I whis­per, fu­ri­ous. “She’s asleep.”

“I know. I’ve been sit­ting out there on your front wall, wait­ing for the bed­room light to go out.”

“Go through.” I push him into the front room. “Do you want a cof­fee?”

“Got any­thing stronger?” He sits down while I grab a beer from the fridge. His hands shake as he cracks open the can.

Don’t say he’s de­vel­oped a drink prob­lem on top of ev­ery­thing else.

“Don’t look at me like that, Emmy,” he says.

“Like what?”

“Like you al­ways do. Judge­men­tal, as if you hate me.”

I’m shocked. Do I look at him like that?

Of course I don’t hate him. Where on earth did he get that idea?

We need to get the sub­ject off me and on to Lil­ian. She’s the im­por­tant one here.

“Lil­ian was up­set.” “I know.” He pulls a note from his pocket.

Dear Dad, I’m

leav­ing home. I know you don’t love me, but I love you. Lil­ian.

“Oh, Nick.”

“Why does she think I don’t love her? She’s my whole world! Have you said some­thing to her?”

“Of course not. Why would I do that?”

“You’ve never ap­proved of me.” He shrugs.

“What? Where did you get an idea like that?”

He looks at me steadily and my in­sides quiver.

He’s right. I couldn’t be­lieve it when Yvonne started dat­ing him. I thought he was far too fond of him­self to love any­one else, but I was wrong. No-one could have loved Yvonne more.

But Yvonne’s gone and there’s a lit­tle girl up­stairs who needs to be loved.

“Maybe not at first,” I con­cede. “But you’ve never liked me, ei­ther.”

He chokes out a laugh. “Can you blame me? You were a bad in­flu­ence.” “What?” I say, in­dig­nant. But he’s right.

Through­out our lives, if there was trou­ble I was usu­ally at the bot­tom of it. “Ir­re­spon­si­ble, then.” “Says the guy who let a nine-year-old walk round here on her own.”

All colour leaves his face. “I was in the gar­den, dig­ging. I’m al­ways dig­ging. It helps. I thought she was in her bed­room play­ing on her tablet.

“I came in, called up to ask what she wanted for tea and found the note.”

He looks bro­ken, like some­one’s shaken him to bits and put him back to­gether wrong.

“Had you had a row?” “She wants to get her ears pierced,” he says with a brit­tle laugh. “All her friends have pierced ears, ap­par­ently. I said no.”

I think back to the early days, when Nick tried to plait Lil­ian’s hair and it ended up lop­sided, with all three of the strands dif­fer­ent thick­nesses.

It was a morn­ing I was to take Lil­ian to school. I of­fered to do the plait.

“No,” he said. “I’ll never learn to do any­thing if you do it for me.”

Yvonne would al­ways ask for help if she needed it. But Nick sees it as a weak­ness. He learned how to do plaits by watch­ing videos on YouTube.

“Why didn’t you have her in the gar­den with you?” I ask. “She could have done some dig­ging, too.”

“I didn’t want her get­ting mucky.”

He’s been so busy strug­gling to be the per­fect fa­ther and to raise the per­fect daugh­ter that he’s lost the fun fa­ther he used to be.

With­out Yvonne, he’s just adrift, like me.

“She’s not some lit­tle be­ing you have to mould and shape into the ideal child,” I tell him. “She’ll do that on her own.”

“I might have known you’d have an opin­ion about it.”

“Isn’t that why you’re here, Nick?”

He looks at me and his eyes are red.

“I don’t know what to do, Emmy. I feel like I’ve come up against a brick wall, and it’s only go­ing to get worse, isn’t it? I’m go­ing to lose her, just like I lost Yvonne.”

He swigs back the beer and puts the empty can on the cof­fee ta­ble.

I’m not a coun­sel­lor, but I think I see what’s hap­pen­ing here. He’s try­ing to make Lil­ian as self­suf­fi­cient as pos­si­ble so that she doesn’t need any­one else.

But she’s only nine! She needs her dad!

“I’m here to help,” I say. “You know I’d do any­thing for Lil­ian. And you.”

“I know, and I’m grate­ful, but we can’t rely on any­one. I lost my par­ents when I was Lil­ian’s age.”

The truth be­hind his change of job fi­nally dawns.

“So you left the fire ser­vice be­cause you were afraid Lil­ian would lose you, too!”

Poor Nick. He was strong for so long, putting up this ca­pa­ble front.

Yvonne had been right about that, and all the time he was slowly fall­ing apart be­hind it.

This brave man has let fear in and it’s taken over.

“You need help, Nick, and not just from me. Let me in, let me help you. I’m not go­ing any­where, I prom­ise.”

“You can’t know that. None of us can.”

“It’s not just los­ing Yvonne, is it? It’s your whole life catch­ing up with you and over­whelm­ing you. Please see your doc­tor and get help, and let me help, too.”

“I don’t want Lil­ian to think I don’t love her and be­fore you ask, yes, I do hug her and tell her I love her. Ev­ery day. But I need to do more. I have to show her, don’t I?”

I’m glad he’s reached that con­clu­sion on his own.

I reach out and squeeze his hand.

“Any par­tic­u­lar rea­son you don’t want her to have her ears pierced?”

All this up­set over pierced ears. It seems so triv­ial, but so was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And it won’t be triv­ial to Lil­ian.

“She’s nine.”

“Yvonne and I got ours done when we were eleven in the sum­mer hol­i­days be­fore we went to high school. It seemed like a good time.”

“Yvonne.” He whis­pers her name, then mulls over what I said.

A com­pro­mise. He would give her what she wanted, but on his terms . . .

“Sounds good,” he says at last.

“It’ll be a long two years for her,” I say. “But she’ll look for­ward to it.”

I get him an­other beer and one for my­self, too.

“I’ve let Yvonne down,” he says.

He’s said her name again. “No, you haven’t. You’re still the man she mar­ried. She’d un­der­stand why you gave up your job. Yvonne was fear­less, but she un­der­stood that we’re not all made that way.”

“Look at me. I’m a mess. Yvonne would be ashamed.”

“Never,” I say. “But yeah, you could tidy your­self up a bit.”

He laughs at my un­der­state­ment. A proper laugh. Maybe Lil­ian leav­ing him that note was the wake-up call he needed.

He’s not self-ab­sorbed. He’s just lost.

There are foot­steps on the stairs, com­ing down slowly.

“She al­ways does this,” Nick says. “She goes to bed then keeps com­ing down to check I’m still here.”

****

She comes into the liv­ing-room, her floppy toy ele­phant un­der her arm. That’s one ele­phant I don’t mind be­ing in the room.

Some­times she looks old for her age, but right now, stand­ing there flushed from sleep and rub­bing her eyes, she looks ex­actly what she is, a lost lit­tle girl.

“Daddy?”

He hugs her.

“It’s OK, I haven’t come to take you home, but I want you to come home to­mor­row. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” she says and holds him tight. “But I miss Emmy as well.”

“I know.” He kisses the top of her head. “We’ll have to see more of Emmy, won’t we? Per­haps we could go out to­gether some time, to the zoo or . . .”

He doesn’t get to fin­ish. Lil­ian is cry­ing so hard and try­ing to talk and I end up cry­ing, too, be­cause whether he re­alises it or not, he’s just opened the door and let us in.

“Happy tears!” she man­ages to shout when she fi­nally catches her breath.

She lets him go and holds both our hands.

“We’re like a fam­ily again.”

Nick catches my eye over her head and I ex­pect his lips to form a straight line, but they don’t.

They curl into a smile and his brown eyes soften as he pulls us both into a hug.

Oh, I’ve missed Yvonne so much, and needed a hug for so long.

“We are,” he says, and I know we can be friends just like Yvonne wanted.

Tonight he’ll sleep on my sofa and in the morn­ing we’ll all have break­fast to­gether.

It’s a new be­gin­ning. The ele­phants are mov­ing on.

The End.

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