Sarah bought Michael an elephant. It was meant to be a surprise.
She had spent a whole week wrapping it; a task that proved next to impossible because the elephant kept moving and trying to free itself from the constraints of its packaging. She had left the trunk till last, leaving a small space in the shifting mass of brown paper to enable the animal to breathe.
Sarah hoped that Michael would not question her absence during the hours she spent gift-wrapping it. She need not have worried; he had been sat on their sofa, oblivious, his two red eyes staring into a space beyond the flickering of their television screen.
The day of the elephant’s unveiling arrived and Sarah could not contain herself as Michael cautiously approached the large writhing gift.
“I bet you can’t guess what it is!” she said.
“It looks like an elephant,” he said without a hint of gratitude. It made Sarah want to slap him, and not for the first time.
Michael used a stepladder to climb onto the elephant’s back so he could untie the large ribbon that garnished the gift. The elephant occasionally rustled in its paper cocoon but on the whole remained docile throughout the ceremony.
It took Michael half an hour to successfully unwrap the beast. He stood, exhausted, wiping the sweat from his brow. “It is an elephant,” he said in between breathless gasps. “What would I want with an elephant?”
“It’s one of those new Grudge Elephants,” said Sarah. “I saw them advertised. I thought it might help cheer you up.”
Michael was still catching his breath; by way of thanks he smiled warmly back and Sarah noted that it was the first time he had smiled in a long while. Her annoyance with him evaporated.
She handed him a large book with words written on the cover in a solid and authoritative font: BARBAR Industries Model S-12: How To Get The Most Out Of Your Grudge Elephant In 73 Easy Steps.
“Is it electric?” asked Michael. “Do we have to plug it in somewhere?”
The elephant shifted uneasily.
Sarah went to look for the box of attachments and she returned with what looked like an oversized cycling helmet connected to a much smaller one by a length of vacuum hose.
“I saw it in the advert. You put these on- you and the elephant,” she said. “The larger one is for him”
“Obviously” said Michael instantly regretting slipping back into his usual sarcasm. He began flicking though the elephant’s manual:
Congratulations on purchasing your very own Grudge Elephant™. It has been genetically created to absorb any user’s ill feelings of anger and regret. Depressed? Frustrated? Elephants never forget, but you can! Why not let your wrinkly friend carry the load? Scientific studies have proved that just half an hour of Grudge Elephant™ use every day improves life quality by sixty-seven percent, leaving you free to be happy and enjoy a carefree life.
Michael was overcome with gratitude and he felt a small pang of shame at not realising how bad things had been. He decided he would have to make it up to Sarah somehow. He reached for her hand and a laminated quick-start guide fell out of the manual and onto the floor.
“Let’s try it now!” said Michael as he eagerly grasped his helmet.
Sarah scanned the guide and summarised for him; “Simply attach the brain wave transmitter to your head, check the emoting pipe for obstructions and attach the other end to the elephant’s patented Grief-Receptor-Helmet™.”
Michael strapped his helmet on. He was nervous, but found it comfortable and reassuring. Sarah stood on the stepladder and performed the tricky process of attaching the Grudge Elephant’s own headpiece. Satisfied, she checked the connection and told Michael that they were ready to begin.
“It’s important you concentrate hard on what’s troubling you,” Sarah continued. Michael was spoilt for choice; the restless daily grind of depression had settled firmly in his stomach like a sack of billiard balls. He tried to think of where all his problems began and his sadness began to bubble away inside him; as soon as it began to boil over he hold Sarah that she could switch the machine on.
The helmet throbbed and lit up brightly as it gently read Michael’s brainwaves and vacuumed the regret from his body. It oozed down the hose and began to transfer everything into the Grudge Elephant’s helmet. Michael felt the subtle hum of the electrodes massaging his temples. He pictured the office; countless missed deadlines, shortfalls in figures, pointless appraisals and unwarranted tellings off. He felt the mist slowly ebb away as he exorcised all his negative feelings, regrets over things not said and opportunities he had missed.
The elephant experienced a brief moment of confusion before his genetic engineering kicked in and its brain placidly accepted all the bad parts of Michael’s CV.
Just when the elephant thought he had assimilated everything, there remained one final image; it was Michael as a small boy, running around in the family garden with an upturned goldfish bowl on his head imagining that he would be a space explorer when he grew up.
Sarah turned the machine off and asked how he felt. There were tears falling down his face, but they tasted less bitter than usual, sweeter, like relief.
“I feel… better,” he said, “let’s try it again.”
The next phase of the conditioning began. The elephant suddenly grunted as it began to flush Michael’s memories from its system; it reared up, trumpeted and promptly expelled them onto the shag pile in a steaming heap of dung.
Sarah had noticed a distinct improvement in Michael’s outlook on life since the arrival of the Grudge Elephant. He was less tired, the furrows of his forehead had smoothed and the murky aura that followed his every move was dissipating with each therapy session. He was slowly turning back into the man she had fallen in love with- youthful, optimistic and full of hope.
Michael would begin the day with light elephant usage, dispelling any restless night-time dreams before the day ahead. When he returned from work, there would be more vigorous use of the pachyderm.
Sarah had only one rule; tidying the elephant shit was Michael’s problem. He accepted this as a fair price to pay for the return of something approaching happiness and the couple’s garden gradually became heavily manured with mountains of droppings that went on to form valleys and canyons of safely excreted angst.
Michael began to look at the world as if it was brand new and it was only then that he realised that Sarah had also been desperately unhappy. Michael felt guilty at the burden his sadness had placed upon her and by way of thanks he proposed that she should give the elephant a try herself. And so, after an initial reluctance she too became a fervent user, and their social lives became spent whiling away the hours connected to the gift. Their friends were turned away and appointments were missed in favour of transferring their cares over to the beast.
Having spent weeks plugging themselves into their large house guest, Michael and Sarah had began to regard themselves as experts on the use of Grudge Elephants. Michael eventually threw the bulky manual away with the re-cycling
Had either of them bothered to read it the instructions in any detail they would have found the section marked “Care and Maintenance of Your Grudge Elephant” particularly useful. They were in such a state of renewed bliss that they failed to observe that the elephant was beginning to visibly ail; its in-built docility had given way to lethargy and finally apathy. As well as its regular bowel movements the elephant also needed further cleaning and without the right kind of attention residue memories built up in its mind like lint clogging a clothes drier. It would lie in the corner of the room, morosely staring out of the window, its sighs of frustration misinterpreted by the couple as nothing more than a natural trumpet call. The elephant’s brain was turning into a misshapen stew of Michael and Sarah’s half remembered neuroses and anxieties; it wanted to be far away from the petty problems of humans. In the elephant kingdom there is no fragile love, no disappointment and no want.
Michael and Sarah also began to deteriorate. Since there was only one headset they would squabble over whose turn it was to be treated. They became impatient with each other, snapping constantly and without realising it they had become trapped; the more they used they elephant the more they argued, the more they argued the more they used the elephant.
Meanwhile the elephant in the room trumpeted its blues while no one cared to listen.
Michael had begun to leave work earlier so he could race Sarah home and upload his woeful working day into the elephant straight away. Sarah had the same idea and when Michael burst through the door he would be dismayed to see her already there, laying on the sofa, pleasantly tranquillised. The elephant would slowly turn to look at Michael. The pleading look in its eyes was misread by its owner; what Michael understood as “I know-she’s on it again. Can you believe the cheek of it?” was really “I can’t go on anymore. I am dirty. Please clean my mind.”
On one day Michael made it home before Sarah, and with only seconds to spare. He heard her key in the door as he was putting on the helmet. He grabbed the switch as she was crossing the threshold and turned it sharply to maximum upload. He had only been exporting his grievances for a few seconds when he felt Sarah’s hands try to shake him from his clam stupor.
“It’s my turn. It’s always my turn first after work!” she pleaded as she tried to undo the straps around the helmet.
Michael began to squirm wildly in an attempt to shrug her off but Sarah’s fingers danced around his head trying to grab the straps and wrench them away. He tried his best to curl up into a ball to avoid her nimble hands while firmly clasping the helmet down on his head. The force caused the electrodes to press down upon the veins in his temples. The sensitive connection was amplified, both by the proximity to Michael’s synapses and the simultaneous challenge he faced uploading the day’s events while fending off an angry partner.
The elephant began to scream, but this did little to dissuade the fighting couple. They were locked together and wrestling as if for dear life.
Sarah tried a different tactic; she couldn’t wrench the helmet away from Michael but she could start to pull at the wires and connections to see if she could tap into the machine herself.
Michael’s wrestling was losing momentum as he gave himself over to feeding the elephant. Sarah saw her chance and yanked hard at a wire protruding from Michael’s receptor. It came free and he groaned. Sarah had removed half of the mechanism, plunging him suddenly into both past and present. His body was still in their living room but by the bookcase his mind’s eye had conjured the office; the violent gurgling of a water cooler and a photocopier menacingly vomiting forth hot steam and sheets of A4 paper.
Sarah eagerly grasped at the wire; at one end was a small electrode that she stuck onto her head. Her brainwaves instantly mingled with Michael’s and a strange sensation overtook them both; their thoughts conjoined and they could both see what the other had been sharing with the elephant. They shuddered and jolted at the sensations seizing their bodies; grief, anger, loss and disappointment crashed over them in waves; this was what elephant had seen all along- two scared people, falling apart, lost together and with no-one to talk to but an elephant.
The elephant itself could no longer cope. Its system was clogged with their collective anxieties and the input from two sources began to cause what it knew would be a fatal overload. It began to creak, its grey hide slowly expanded, stretched tight, and then without further warning the elephant burst.
Michael and Sarah were showered in a violent explosion of blood, shit and meat.
The couple sat dazed on the floor. Lumps of pachyderm blubber fell down their faces and into their laps. The smell was excruciating.
They both looked at each other dumbfounded. There was nothing to say.
Michael reached out towards Sarah and they both held each other tightly as the mess began to congeal around them.
The last thing the Grudge Elephant saw before it combusted was an image retained from that very first day; it was a small boy playing in a garden on a hot summer afternoon, a goldfish bowl on his head, racing around, arms flailing, living the spaceman’s dream as he fought off imaginary aliens and the gradually approaching darkness.
This story is reprinted courtesy of Open Pen and features in their recently published Anthology, available here. The Open Pen Anthology is a collection of short stories old and new, celebrating the first five years of Open Pen magazine. Open Pen is a free short fiction magazine stocked in independent bookshops across the country. Its aim is to give a voice to fiction writers with something to say, willing to take a risk. Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug declared the collection, “More like a shot of absinthe than a pint of boring lager.”