The Elephant At The Table
11 October 2019
Last weekend I had a short story printed in the Sunday Express. I attempted to get a quid pro quo; I'd give them the story, and in return they'd renounce Boris Johnson, call for another Brexit vote, and demand Farage be sent back to the pits of Isengard from whence he came.
I didn't manage to pull that off.
It happened through my publisher, so originally I wrote a DI Westphall short story, which the Express didn't want. Too Westphall-y, or something. Fair enough, I suppose. One day that Westphall story will see the light of day. But not today. So, instead, I wrote a short, melancholic romantic story. And this is it. Text beneath the image.
Erin had planned it for a few weeks, but when she finally brought the third cup of coffee to the breakfast table, and made the joke, she got the line wrong.
“This is for the elephant in the room,” she meant to say. Instead, it came out as, “This is for the elephant at the table,” which allowed Jon to laugh at her. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know what she meant, and later she Googled it, and plenty of people said ‘the elephant at the table’ in any case.
But that was how the elephant was first mentioned, and that was how Jon managed to pivot away from why the elephant was actually there.
“Nothing for the elephant?” he said at breakfast the next morning with a smile. This time, at least, the smile vanished when he saw the look on her face.
Some day, Erin knew, they would have to have the conversation. They’d been living together for three years, and after the initial romance there had followed the sad, slow decline.
That day she had lunch at the small café just off Leicester Square where she and Molly met every Tuesday.
“Did you do the elephant line yet?” asked Molly.
Erin nodded, then shook her head, indicating it hadn’t worked.
“Wait,” said Molly, “seriously? You said there’s this huge thing we’re not talking about, we can’t ignore it, and you still didn’t talk about it?”
“The news was on,” said Erin, weakly.
Molly rolled her eyes, not at all surprised.
“You don’t think he’s having an affair?”
“It’s not that,” said Erin. “We don’t want to be together anymore, but neither of us knows how to start the conversation.”
“You’re going to have to come out with it!”
“Maybe you could prepare the spare room for the elephant,” said Molly, “that might get Jon’s attention.”
“Maybe if I had an affair with the elephant,” said Erin, and they laughed.
That evening at dinner, Erin set the table for three. She stopped short of making a third plate of spaghetti, but she did pour a glass of wine for the new addition to their relationship.
When Jon came downstairs he stopped, then quickly realised what she’d done, and smiled. Over dinner he talked about his day at work, and got Erin to talk about the theatre project she was working on, the one with the Irish playwright everyone was excited about.
When she was clearing up, Erin didn’t bother removing the third setting.
That night, lying in bed, she thought about that place setting, deciding it really oughtn’t to be for an elephant, but for the next man in her life.
Yes, she had her work, and she didn’t want to be defined as the kind of woman who needed a man to justify her existence, but it would be so nice to have someone to whom she could talk, that was all.
The idea of the third place setting was quickly absorbed into their lives, and was no longer commented upon. Similarly, the idea they were sharing their relationship with another man, one with whom Erin could have long, meaningful conversations, soon became part of Erin’s fantasy life. The other man was there when she needed him, long conversations in her head, a make-believe romance she could take to bed.
One day Jon came into the kitchen unexpectedly, catching her talking out loud. Erin had an awkward moment, wondered how much he’d heard her say, and then, typically, Jon acted as though it hadn’t happened. He poured them both a glass of wine, and asked how long it was until dinner.
That evening Erin knew things were a little different. It seemed at last that Jon was ready. Getting caught talking to herself had been embarrassing, but perhaps it was the catalyst they needed.
Eating in silence, that Norah Jones CD playing softly, she could see Jon turning the words over in his head. If they stalled on his lips, would she herself be able to force them out?
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to say,” said Jon, his voice quietly finding its way out into the world.
Thank goodness, thought Erin. The word freedom appeared in her head.
“Sorry I’ve seemed distant recently,” said Jon, “just had a lot on my mind at work.”
He hesitated, and she wondered for a moment if he was finished, then he nodded to himself as he reached into his pocket.
The shock of what was about to happen hit Erin like a thunderbolt, as Jon lifted his hand and placed a small box on the table.
A black, leatherette ring box.
He held her gaze, swallowing loudly.
“Erin… ” he began.
“I’m leaving!” she blurted out.
The words remained in the air for a while, bouncing off the walls, colliding with the couple as they sat at the table briefly suspended in hopeless impotence.
“What?” said Jon, finally.
“I’m sorry,” said Erin. “This thing… I can’t do it anymore.”
They held each other’s gaze for a few more moments, but at last the words had been spoken. Erin instinctively took another mouthful of food, but it was like eating dirt.
She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, then pushed her chair away.
“I’m sorry, Jon,” she said, and this time she couldn’t even look at him. And then she was up and out the room.
Jon watched her go, looking at the space where he’d last seen her, as though she had left something of herself behind, and then he turned sadly to the empty place setting.
He turned the small box towards it, and opened it. The box was empty.
“Sometimes you just have to force these things,” said Jon to the elephant, his voice heavy with regret. “And now we know.”
The elephant had nothing to say. The elephant, in fact, was no longer there. Jon lifted his fork and took another mouthful of food.