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Elephant heights

by amandajane 

Posted: 22 February 2006
Word Count: 5001
Summary: Woman stuck in rut with bullying gambling son finds way out

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Elephant Heights

The high rise sways and creaks in the wind. It was built to withstand the storms from the North Sea, and today isn’t as bad as some, but still the howling disturbs Anna, makes her feel uneasy up on the tenth floor.
Four envelopes slam through her letter box and onto the Welcome mat; the dog from next door barks. Anna looks through the kitchen window at the dark clouds and the streak of a white trail left in a scrap of blue sky. A gull sits on a sill and preens itself. Its eyes roll towards her, before it flies off, screeching.
She unplugs the kettle, drapes the fraying lead over her mug tree and pours boiling water into a teapot. She settles into her chair, picks the mail up, reads every page, every offer, the thousands of pounds as prize money, the rewards of fabulous holidays, new kitchens. Always searching, checking for a Swindon post mark to slip under her magnifying glass. She places some ham on a piece of bread, smears it with mustard, takes a bite, then sneezes.
‘Bless me’ she says and sips her tea.
She re-checks the opened letters. Nothing from Swindon, she is sure now, and she wipes a tear away with a chequered handkerchief and slips the folded cotton back underneath her cardigan sleeve. A letter has fallen on to the floor. She picks it up, examines the illustration of a red telephone. It looks very smart, very modern.
Are you missing your phone calls? it reads.
Anna pours herself another cup of tea.
Get our hands free telephone FREE and never miss a phone call from friends or family again. 10 metre range.
Anna turns round and stares at her phone in the hall. When was the last time it had rung? She watches a plane steer into the clouds, then takes a rolled up tape measure out of a drawer, and finds the metre mark on the tape. She continues reading:
Your first purchase with our low interest credit card.
She secures the letter under a paper weight her husband had bought her one Christmas. The snow settles on the village, crystallized inside a Perspex dome.
It takes one phone call, one call to a woman who speaks against a background of ringing phones and other women’s voices. One phone call and three days later the form drops through Anna’s letter box. She slips it under the paper weight, leaves it there until the early evening, then opens it, a cup of tea at her side, a freshly cut cold beef and radish sandwich on a matching plate. The light is pink now, tinged with grey, the lowering sun unseen, blocked out by the other sky-rises looming opposite Anna’s kitchen window, their windows reflecting the darkening sky. The dog next door barks incessantly.
‘Shut up!’ a man shouts. The dog continues to bark.
The form is easy; name, address, telephone number, income. Anna gets up, opens the window, watches the changing hues of the sky, and hears the wailing sirens down below. She puts the sealed envelope in the hall next to the old black phone on the table.
It’s the copper wire that finally persuades her. It pokes out of the flex and drew blood yesterday as she caught her wrist on the sharp end. The frayed flex is bad enough, but she might get an electric shock; the thought had frightened her. What if the kettle flex had become live in her hand, given her a shock? She had heard of such stories. Nobody would know she was in her kitchen. She might lie there for days unable to move, might die even. Unforgivable, just for the sake of a new kettle. And it’s about time she used her new credit card.
She studies it, turns it over and over, examines the bright green background, the embossed numbers in silver. She worries, re-reads the letter, double checks her signature. Will they believe it’s hers? Will they look suspicious; maybe call the bank to be sure it’s her?
Three days later she ties her scarf under her chin, powders her face, paints her lips and takes to the stairs down the ten flights.
A group of children are clinging together at the bottom of the stairwell. Anna puts her head down and keeps her pace.
‘Can I borrow your scarf, Granny?’ They all laugh.
‘You should be at school.’ The words come out quickly.
A boy kicks a can towards her.
‘Yeah and you should be in an old people’s home.’
She hurries away, their jeers fading as she nears the bus stop.
The electrical shop is near the butchers, she had looked into the window nearly every day since she’d decided to replace her kettle; stared at the wires, the flashing strobes, the illuminated light bulbs.
Inside the shop the man at the desk looks up at her, shifts his focus to a spot to her side, then returns to his paper.
‘I’d like to buy a kettle,’ she says.
He looks at her briefly without interest.
‘Back of the shop.’ His hand waves to his left and he continues to read.
Yellow kettles, blue kettles, large bossy ones, dainty travellers’ companions; they sit on the shelf with their flexes locked together, strung out like oversized beads on a string. She looks back towards the man. He has his head bent. There’s no one else in the shop.
‘I’d like to buy this one.’ She points up at a green kettle, cordless like the phone in the picture.
The man slams his paper down. ‘What’s the code?’
She stands on tiptoe, cranes her neck, then falls back on her heels.
‘I can’t see a number.’ She walks to the desk and stands facing him. Her eyes are level with the image on his T shirt: a woman’s face, moistened lips apart, eyes half closed.
‘You’re taller than me, can’t you find the code?’
He looks up, takes a breath, hand on hip. ‘Right,’ he says. ‘What was it you wanted?’
He doesn’t even check her signature, ask for ID. She has her pension book ready and places it carefully on the desk. He pushes it away; doesn’t even glance at it, doesn’t lift his head from the till. He hands her back the credit card and the kettle in its shiny bag, and goes back to his paper.

A week later the phone arrives in a box, like a Christmas present wrapped in paper which crinkles and pops. It’s cordless as promised, but it’s white, she was looking forward to the red, like the lipstick she used to wear. Anna caresses the curve of the hand piece. She unhooks her black phone and tries to plug in her new one; her fingers can’t grip the tiny plug. She tries again, can’t do it, can’t pinch and hold as directed on the leaflet.
The dog barks when she rings the bell. A man in a sleeveless white vest opens the door.
‘I live next door and I was wondering…’
The man leans against the door frame and smiles, his chins extending down his neck. ‘Mmm?’ he asks.
‘The thing is, well I’ve got a new cordless phone and I’m finding it a little
difficult to…’
‘Fiddly things,’ he says and cocks his head to one side.
‘Can you help me plug it in please? I mean the base, as I said, it’s cordless.’ She smiles at him, touches her hair.
‘Hang on,’ he says
He closes the door, Anna takes a step back. The dog barks.
He plugs it in easily. She watches as he pinches the plug and slots it in.
‘You’re so kind, thanks, thanks,’ she says. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Got anything else needs fixing?’ He looks down the hall; at the picture of a Scottie dog near the front door, the white metal shelf with an oval mirror above, the cuckoo clock. Anna smells last night’s lamb cutlets.
She follows his eyes and shakes her head. ‘Oh I don’t think so.’
‘Well I’ll be off then.’ He closes the door, the dog barks.

Anna sits on her bed and smoothes the candlewick bedspread. It had been a birthday present from her sister ten years before. She thought it a lovely present. It was only after her sister’s death, when she was going through the house that Anna had discovered five more yellow candlewick bedcovers still in their cellophane wraps, the price tickets peeled off.
She’s carried the phone into her bedroom and she sits for a while looking at it, willing it to ring. If he’d phoned before, when she had her old black phone, and she’d been in here, or in the bathroom, or even the kitchen when the door was closed, she might not have heard it ring.
She tidies her hair in the dressing table mirror, retouches her lipstick, and dials the Swindon number. It rings four times before it is picked up. Anna counts, ready to press the blue button after seven, she’d already decided on this.
‘Hello dear, it’s your mother.’
‘I’ve asked you not to phone me when I’m working.’ His voice is impatient, his tone clipped.
‘Sorry dear, but you keep such strange hours. Have you tried to ring me
before? Only I wondered whether I hadn’t heard the phone.’
He interrupts her. ‘I rang you the other day, don’t you remember?’
She hears him saying something to someone else, something she can’t quite catch.
‘That was a few weeks ago wasn’t it dear? It was September; I remember I’d just
bought some apples; I always buy apples in September.’ She hesitates, picks at a yellow thread. ‘How are you dear?’
‘I’m all right at the moment though,…’ A man calls him. She hears his muffled
voice, as if his hand is over the mouthpiece. ‘Look can I phone you later?’ he says.
‘What time dear? I’ve got a cordless phone now; can take it round the flat with me,
I’m sure I must have missed a few phone calls, my other one was so old, and my hearing...’
He interrupts her again. ‘Look Mum, got to go, I’ll phone you this evening. Promise’
The phone clicks.
In the kitchen, she puts on her apron, places the phone on the table next to the mustard and opens the fridge door. Onions and pork chops are fried; she steals a look at the phone. Carrots are chopped. Potatoes are peeled, water is boiled in her new kettle, which she stand back and admires, her hand stroking her chin. She lifts the phone off the table, pushes the button for the dialling tone, starts to dial the Swindon number; puts her hand to her mouth, stops dialling, replaces the phone.
Dinner eaten and plates washed, Anna carries the phone through to her living room and sits in a red and brown wing backed chair and cradles the phone in her hand, then puts it by the framed photo of her husband.
In the photo, her husband’s wearing a dark suit with a watch chain poking out from his breast pocket. His hair is greased back and the corners of his mouth hide a smile and he’s holding a certificate out to his left side. The writing can’t be read but Anna knows what it says. Butcher of the Year 1968. She picks the photo up and wipes the glass with a handkerchief.
She watches television, a holiday programme, and at nine o’ clock she takes the phone to her lap, slides a Daily Gazette under it. She bites her lip, dials the Swindon number. Her son speaks in a monotone followed by two beeps. She doesn’t leave a message. The holiday programme continues.
‘Thailand,’ the reporter says. ‘A country of beauty and variety.’ The woman is wearing a low cut blouse, and her hair is blonde, tied up in a chignon. Gold earrings brush her shoulders as she moves her head.
A Thai woman comes on screen. Her face has deep lines which run down her high cheek bones.
The woman’s voice continues. ‘Older members of the family are respected for their wisdom and many still wear traditional dresses.’
Anna stares at the hat, at its red and black embroidery and long tassels covering the woman’s ears.
The picture changes to an elephant on a palm fringed beach. The same presenter, this time wearing tight shorts and a red top, climbs up onto the elephant.
‘Ride through the waves,’ she says. ‘Or ride through the jungle; lap up the sun in this magical country.’ She laughs with the young man who’s leading the elephant, he pats the elephant on the trunk, looks up at the woman, at her bare midriff, the sparkling stud in her belly button.
The television screen shifts ‘Arts and crafts are a real bargain’ the woman continues. A street market; a tiny woman in jeans and pink T shirt who picks up an open fan. She smiles at the presenter whose wisps of hair move in the breeze of the cooling punkah.
Anna gets up and walks to her window ledge. She lifts the net curtain which hides the passageway outside her front door, the railings, and beyond. She picks up a fan leaning on a vase of paper poppies. It was bought in Blackpool, bought for her on holiday, by her husband in the summer of 1976 when the grass in the park near their house was as parched and brown as a thirsty oasis. She remembers the heat, the near faint at the matinee show. And the calamity, the fuss and attention when she felt herself keeling over in her seat during the final scenes of A Sound of Music. She recalls how Bert had bought her the fan in a souvenir shop; how he’d opened it out for her and fanned her cool, his other arm touching her shoulder, an impish grin on his face.
She opens her fan out until it is a semi circle. The sky is purple and rose coloured, and a thick green jungle circles a blue pool where two elephants stand opposite each other; their heads raised, their trunks held high. She stretches her arm out and fans herself slowly, just flicking her wrist as she’d just seen on the TV. She turns the fan over, looks on the back. A label stuck on the bamboo reads Made in Thailand.
She dreams of elephants in Blackpool waltzing down the pier to The Hills are Alive to the Sound of Music, and is woken by the ringing of her new telephone. It rings like a cat purring and for a second she lies bewildered under her yellow bedspread.
‘Mum, you weren’t asleep were you?’ It’s her son again, his tone is lucid, a little plaintive, she can hear him smiling into the phone. She looks at her bedside clock.
‘Yes dear, I was. It is half past twelve.’
‘In a spot of trouble, Mum. Can you help me out?’
Anna can hear laughter, then a cheer.
‘Where are you dear?’
‘At home of course’
Another cheer.
‘Lost some money have you dear?’
‘Just need a bit, got some problems, I’ll pay you back?’
‘But you always say that,’ she says.
He hesitates for a minute.’ Look please just one more time, I’m going to lose every thing.’
She interrupts him ‘Yes dear, you’ll lose everything if I don’t help out.’
‘Just one more time Mum.’
She hears a man’s voice, gruff, threatening.
‘Will you?’ her son asks. She remembers him aged six, pleading for an ice cream.
‘How much dear?’ she asks.
The business done, she puts the phone back in its cradle and makes a pot of tea. She takes it to the window and looks out. Lights like wakeful insomniacs flick on and off in the flats opposite.
In the morning, the cold wind brings tears to her eyes as Anna opens her front door. The gulls shriek and cackle.
‘Hello there. How’s your phone? Working is it?’ Her neighbour’s dog stretches on its lead and pants; its yellowing teeth visible inside the crimson mouth, its tongue, huge and soggy. Anna moves back.
‘Oh hello there.’ She smiles, watching the dog. ‘Yes yes it works wonderfully,
thank you, er.’ She closes her eyes for just a moment. ‘I don’t suppose, well I wondered, oh no I feel stupid.’ She doesn’t move.
He pats the dogs head. ‘Anything I can do to help, it’ll be my pleasure,’ he says.
She blurts out ‘Do you have any family, any children, I mean?’ then covers her mouth with her hand.
He rolls his eyes. ‘Yeah, got a son. Thirty he is. Never grow up do they?’
She shakes her head. ‘Come in for a cup of tea later, why don’t you? Just for a chat, and, she looks down, puts her hand to her chin. ‘And to thank you for putting in my telephone.’
‘Thanks, lovely, thanks,’ he says. The dog whines, saliva hangs from its open jaw.
He nods towards the dog. ‘Better go. See you later.’
‘Wonderful. About four, then.’ She pushes her shopping trolley towards the lift. As the doors open, she pinches her nose, holds her breath and wraps her coat tight around her. But she can still smell urine, unwashed bodies; the odour creeps in through her nostrils, making her retch. The lift shudders at the ground floor. Some children are skateboarding around the entrance.
‘There’s granny,’ one of them shouts. Another boy sniggers, pulls at his baseball cap.
‘I’m not your granny,’ Anna says.
The boy sniffs and spits. Anna doesn’t wait, but she hears him say,
‘Silly old bag.’
In the high street her hair is blown about as her scarf loosens in the gale. She looks in a shop window, and sees a woman sitting behind a desk. Her profile is regular and her nails long and shaped. . A newspaper page lifts in a gust and twists along the road before wrapping itself around a litter bin
Anna wonders how the woman can type with such long nails. She looks down at her own unpolished, cut to the quick nails and remembers the time, another life when she sat in a room with thirty other women, all typing, hands blue with the stain of carbon.
The woman in the shop is talking to a customer, showing her something on a computer screen. Thunder crashes. Anna looks up at the sky, at the dark clouds about to empty; to dispel the myth that today will be dry. It starts to rain.
She pushes the Travel Agent door, and sits near a shelf of brochures. Most have glossy photographs in primary blues and yellows, sun, sea, and sand. She picks one up, ‘Adventures in Thailand.’ There’s an elephant on the front being ridden by a smiling women, her skin golden. A yellow bikini top and a crimson sarong show off her tanned, long body. Anna undoes the top two buttons of her raincoat, and opens the brochure. With her finger, she traces round the curve of the swimming pool; a double spread on the first page. She turns the page to a huge hall; a man behind a long reception desk is talking into a phone, the glitter of chandeliers reflecting on the marble floor. She turns to the next page. A huge Buddha watches her, its thick lips stretched in a smile, she turns to the next page; people in boats wearing triangular hats carry armfuls of flowers.
The customer leaves clutching a number of brochures under her arm. Anna waits to be called over. She watches as the woman behind the desk taps on the keyboard, shuffles papers, and makes a phone call. There are two other cleared desks; they look forlorn, nobody there to bring life to the computer, to try to sell a week on a beach, a week of burning in the sun, romancing by the moon.
‘Can I help you,’ the woman says and looks up at Anna.
Anna shows the woman the brochure. ‘I’d like to go to Thailand.’
‘Sorry, where?’ the woman leans over. ‘Oh yes. Thailand. Just a hotel or a tour?’
Anna blushes. ‘I think a tour dear’ she says.
The woman starts tapping at the keyboard.
‘Thailand’s nice,’ she says. She studies a nail on her left hand.
‘I’d like to stay somewhere like this.’ Anna’s turned the page to another picture of a swimming pool. An artificial waterfall runs into one end of the pool, where people lie, their tanned skins glowing, their faces turned towards the sun. ‘And ride an elephant; I don’t often go abroad, in fact the last time I went was to Spain and that was, well, it must be at least fifteen years ago with Bert.’ She takes off her coat, folds it, and puts it on her lap. ‘I want to travel a bit you know before. Before I’m too old.’
The woman behind the desk opens a drawer, picks up a nail file and works on her broken nail.
‘Sorry, right. When do you want to go?’ The tapping starts again.
‘Well anytime really.’ Anna gets her diary out, flicks through the empty pages.
‘So will you be travelling alone? She pauses. ‘Or, with your husband?’ The tapping stops, the woman looks at Anna, at her wedding ring.
‘Oh no,’ Anna says, ‘my husband long passed away, bless his soul, had a butcher’s shop you know, you’re too young to remember it, Challand Road, it's all flats now.’
The shop door opens and a man wearing dirty jeans and an open necked navy shirt walks in. He sits at the desk next to Anna and starts to read a racing car magazine.
‘Be with you in a tick’ the woman serving Anna says to him.
‘So there’s one leaving in three weeks time.’
Anna delves in her bag, fishes out her red purse and undoes the clip. ‘Here it is, look, a letter came with it, though the post the other day, it said I can spend up to seven thousand pounds.’
The woman looks at the credit card then up at Anna’s face. Anna wishes she’d bought a new lipstick, to replace the old-fashioned mandarin colour. She feels her face burn.
The woman shows her the list of hotels and tours. Anna turns to a page showing women with rings on their necks holding their children to their breasts.
‘Not like us are they?’ she says.
The woman shrugs. ‘Shall I book it for you then?’ She stares at the screen, starts tapping.
‘Excuse me.’ Anna.
The woman looks up.
‘Can I take this home to look at? She’s already folded the brochure and slipped it into her trolley. ‘I’ll phone you tomorrow,’ she says.
Outside the shop Anna picks up speed and steers her trolley through the crowds. She dodges a roller-skater. The rain has stopped and a yellow light seeps through grey clouds. The brochure shifts position in her trolley bag as she edges past a woman with twins in a double pram. They screw their faces up and scream. Anna shops in a hurry, forgets the potatoes, has to go back to the shop.
‘Here you are dearie.’ The shop assistant holds up the bag of potatoes. ‘Shall I help you put them in your bag, don’t want to forget them again do we?’ She exchanges a look with the other shop keeper, a large woman in a purple shell suit.
‘I can manage thanks.’ Anna tucks a stray hair back into her curls and opens her shopper. She touches the glossiness of the brochure, smiles to herself, leaves the shop.

Anna’s in the bathroom when the phone rings. It makes her jump, makes her spill the water from her tooth mug.
‘It’s Kerry here.’
‘Sorry dear?’
‘Kerry from Sun Kiss Holidays.’
‘Oh yes, how are you, sorry, I was expecting my son to phone.’ Anna feels her face flush.
‘Have you given some thought to Thailand, you know you, just wondered?’ She pauses. ‘Only they get booked up, wouldn’t want you to miss out.’
‘Oh yes, I’ll pop in this afternoon, will that be all right?’
‘Lovely, see you later.’
Anna takes a small dance step to the second bedroom which is decorated in navy and gold. She would like it painted a sunset pink or a warm rose. One day, she says to herself. A filing cabinet pushed up against the single bed holds the secrets of double entry book keeping, the inner knowledge of the PAYE system and the curses of the tax returns. A picture of a butcher’s shop hangs on the wall. Her husband and his two assistants stand outside the shop, arms folded, the black and white photo showing grey the red blood on their aprons. Her building society book and bank statements are bound together in an elastic band. She glances up at Bert, at the bold letters on the shop front, then down at the withdrawal column in her building society book, and remembers the pleading phone calls, the noises of the betting shop in the background. And her son’s reasoning, his broken promises, his unshakeable belief that just one more time and his number will come up.
If only he’d joined the family business. But it’s her turn now to take a chance, a risk, a respite. She lifts up her skirt to her stocking top and slides the book down the forty denier fabric.

Kerry yawns. ‘Roll on five o’ clock,’ she says. ‘I’m so bored.’
Anna was already in the shop. She smiles at Kerry; her eyes sparkle.
‘Good afternoon, Kerry isn’t it?’ She pats the top of her thigh. ‘I’d like to book
that holiday please.’ Her smile is wide, her lipstick bright.
Says Kerry ‘I knew you would, you’ll have a wonderful time.’
Anna pulls out an envelope, from the top of her stocking.’ There are so many untrustworthy people around. Better safe than sorry, don’t you agree?’
She hands the three thousand pounds to Kerry who opens it, blinks, then looks up at Anna.
Kerry asks and starts counting the bank notes.
The printer whirs and pages spew out, Kerry catching them before they spill onto the floor. She checks them through. Anna leans over the desk; her Lily of the Valley perfume fills the small space she shares with Kerry.
Kerry sniffs and hands Anna a plastic wallet.
‘My grandmother used to wear that perfume,’ she says.
Anna takes the papers out one at a time, spends minutes reading each side of each printed paper.
‘Everything OK?’ she says and glances at Anna, then reads something on the computer; a smile in her dimples.
Anna is humming and tapping a finger in time to her song. ‘So where do I sign?’
Kerry chuckles to herself, clicks with her mouse.
‘Excuse me,’ Anna repeats the question.
Kerry jerks her head back and looks up.
‘So sorry.’ She coughs. ‘Everything’s there, you’ve signed everything.’ She hands the receipt to Anna who stands up, fastens her coat, ties the belt.
‘Well I’ll be off, thank you very much dear,’ she says and opens the door to the street.
The memory of her smile hovers in the shop.

Anna cuts five thin slices of cold turkey, layers some extra mustard onto the meat and slices a tomato into four. Her tea is strong and sweet and she has two cups before she checks the mail then she fetches her cordless phone.
The flat voice ends with a beep.
‘Hello dear, it’s your mother.’ She pauses.
‘I’ve been thinking… well I’m...’ Anna takes a breath.
‘You know I’ve been helping you out with money haven’t I? Oh I do hate these answer things.’ She waits again.
‘I’ve decided dear to…’
‘Ten more seconds’ a voice interrupts her.
‘Are you there dear?’
A long beep.
‘Oh dear.’
She redials.
‘Hello dear it’s me again, I’m afraid I can’t help you out this time dear.’
She fingers her Itinerary:
Day 1 at Leisure in the Elephant Heights Hotel it reads.
‘Why don’t you ring me, I’ll explain? She says. Bye for now.’
She presses the blue button and watches silhouetted birds as they swoop and dive against the setting sun.

Anna doesn’t mind the dog licking her neck from behind, she doesn’t mind at all. She’d thoroughly enjoyed having her cases carried and a car door opened for her. Her neighbour had donned a blue check shirt for the three hour journey.
‘I’m looking forward to that Thai diner,’ he says. ‘I’ll buy some chop sticks shall I?’ He smiles at her. ‘And some wine?’
She says yes that’d be lovely, she glances at him now and again, at the stray grey hairs poking through his open shirt, at the creases round his eyes.
He parks; she gets out but refuses his offer of help to check in.
‘Well if you’re really sure,’ he says.
Yes she tells him, she’s sure. He watches her walk towards the Departure building sees her hesitate at the revolving door. It swings back empty and he returns her wave through the glass wall.
She queues in Terminal Three. She’s wearing a new safari suit, and has filled the pockets with three pens, two notebooks, a Thai guide, a diary, a comb and lipstick. Her panama hat was bought mail order and can be folded and packed but she couldn’t resist wearing it today. A paisley scarf is tied round it and secured with a black tipped hat pin. The red and green scarf hangs down her back and switches from side to side like a pony’s tail as she turns and watches the pushing and shoving, the trolleys piled high with cases and the excited children.
The phone rings and rings in her flat for the third time that day.

Amanda Williams

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