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