Apparently the trick with elephants is that you must gently but firmly lean into them. Using your shoulder, you need to apply a gentle pressure against the tops of their forelegs. Of course you have to press quite hard with big bull elephants because they are so large. This lets them know that you are there and that you won’t harm them. They’ll then look down at you as if to say, “Hello, who are you?” After that, they’ll walk beside you without any bother.
He puts down his binoculars on the windowsill next to the mug of tea that is slowly cooling from tepid to un-drinkable. A pigeon lands on top of the telegraph pole across the street. It squats like a vegetarian vulture. He points to the house across the street. "They're a funny lot who live there." He smiles. "They're ok, but they're a funny lot. They love red cars. It has always got to be red with them. Look!" He points to the car parked by the hedge. It is red. "It's always red." he laughs. He looks at the pigeon and then back to the house. "People are funny aren't they?" It is where we live.
I carefully move a stack of newspapers. He likes newspapers. He has four copies of today’s Daily Mail – all neatly folded, pristine, unopened and unread. The owner of the village shop will take them back at the end of the day and refund his money – the shopkeeper also knows the importance of standing in a queue with strangers and friends, smiling, saying ‘hello’, carefully counting out a pocket full of coins; the importance of simple human interaction. A sandwich plate bearing a selection of fancy cakes and biscuits sits on the little footstool beside him. It lies untouched. It is always untouched. Whenever I bring our dog around (whom he loves), I have to negotiate her past that plate. That plate holds untold told delights for her.
“There was this one male elephant,” he says, “that the local people wouldn’t go near. But we just did this and then we did a bit of that and we put this here so that it was just-so...” his hands chop the air with the decisive moves of a general who has seen it all before and his voice trails away; there are times when his hands express those spiralling, slippery thoughts better than words, “... and he had everything just right. You see, there was nothing nasty about him. He even followed us into this shop and everyone said, ‘Hello, what’s going on here?' Sort of like they were saying to us, ‘you’ve got a right one here, have't you!’”
He stops and laughs. His eyes twinkle and glow with the fire of African suns. He describes how he used to spend months over there. He and a few of his friends became so well known, the local people used to ring them up in England and ask for their help with rogue elephants.
“Everyone knew what they were doing, you see. Everything was just right... in the right place... and they said, ‘how did you do that?’ And we would said, ‘With a little a bit of mischief!’" He roars with laughter, "Oh how they loved that! They used to laugh at that! You see, with them, there was no nastiness or anything like that. And they’d say, “Oh that’s alright then!’ And elephants would just come in and go... and no one would worry. There was never any trouble or problems. We’d walk along and the baby elephants would run up to us and we’d all walk along together.”
He looks down the road and falls silent in his memories. His world is filled with elephants. Ornaments and models of them cram the shelves and tables. They all belonged to his wife. He has never met a wild elephant. He has never ever seen a wild elephant nor walked under an African sky. The closest he has been to one was when he visited a zoo. But when I look across at him, I see that he has the mark of a man who has walked with elephants.
On the wall behind him hang photographs pegged to a looped piece of string. His favourite picture is the one of him taken on a cruise. He is standing between two cabaret dancers. They wear sequined basques and feathers and confident smiles, and they have legs as achingly long as midnight heart break. He stands with them, arms linked, with that same smile that he gives to me now; his body a little awkward - trying to look at ease, but remaining unsure - a little out of his depth, like he doesn’t really belong. It is how I would feel too. I would smile just like that and I too would stand just like that; James Bond in the wrong body, with the wrong heart.
He points to the picture of him standing with his late wife.
“That’s going back a bit.” he says. His finger rests on each of the figures, “That is my mother and my father.” It is not surprising he no longer recognises the people in the photograph. His wife is now forever young and his world is filled with the laughter of his father and half-remembered escapades and the landlord who flew his aeroplane from the field behind his pub (scaring his neighbours half to death) and the garden of his boyhood with its stacks of rabbit hutches and washing and all the neighbourhood dogs. His father was a miner who worked the seams under the North Sea miles out from the coast. Conversation always returns to either elephants or his father. When I once said, “I think you take after him.” He abruptly stopped talking and sat silently for a long time and then he quietly said, “I hope so.”