CREATIVE Tristan HughesNWR Issue 107
An Elephant in Aberaeron
There was, apparently, an elephant buried somewhere in Aberaeron. And they were thinking quite seriously about excavating it (or was that exhuming it? I wasn’t sure what duration of time turned the one activity into the other.) Or so Mike Griffiths told me one afternoon in the corridor outside my office. How we had arrived at this topic in our conversation escapes me. I had no particular interest, personal or professional, in either elephants or Aberaeron.
‘But why would you do that?’ I asked.
‘Dig it up.’
‘Well,’ he said, touching his beard with his fingers, ‘there are a number of fairly valid historical reasons.’ Mike explained how the elephant had been a gift to Queen Victoria from her Indian subjects. It was one of a pair that had arrived in the last year of her reign. ‘Something to cheer up the Black Widow,’ he said. I smiled. I often smiled at things Mike said, in case he was being witty and ironical. It was sometimes hard to tell. ‘They kept them together for a few weeks in the royal zoo,’ he said. ‘And then they had the grand idea of taking one of them out on a tour of the isles, to spread the cheer. And of course as soon as it got to Wales it began to get sick.’ I smiled again.
Mike said that in one of those twists of history (a phrase I’ve never trusted – as if history was no more than the unfolding of a plot-line) the deterioration of its health had begun to mirror, almost precisely, that of its monarch. It was meant to end up back in the royal zoo. ‘But by the time it reached Aberaeron,’ he told me, ‘it was too sick to move any further.’ And so they had kept it in a tent on the village green, until at last – on a cold January day, one day after the Queen – it died.
There had been, Mike added, several articles written about it at the time in a local newspaper. These articles had made the connection between the ailing elephant and the queen. In that anthropomorphic and sentimental fashion so characteristic of the era, they’d intimated that the animal’s illness had been somehow sympathetic; that it had died of grief for its empress. And then they’d dug a big hole in the green and thrown it in there and forgotten all about it.
‘We’re thinking of using the skeleton in an exhibition on Victorian Wales,’ Mike said. ‘We already have a title – Flotsam and Wrexham: Wales in the Era of Empire.’
And I was about to smile once again but before I had the chance, Mike was swept down the corridor by a wave of students pouring out of various lecture halls and seminar rooms, towards where he and the other archaeologists had their offices (or – as several of my colleagues in the history department rather unkindly referred to them – their lairs.)
Later that afternoon, as I made my way home from the university, I was surprised to find my thoughts returning repeatedly to this unfortunate animal. Perhaps it was the mountains behind me – it was early in March and there was a particularly grey and weathered baldness about them. Or maybe it was the island in front of me, which beneath a haze of mist appeared to have been dropped abruptly into the sea, like a gigantic pile of dung.
Although the university was on the mainland, I had chosen from the very start of my career there to live on the nearby island. I liked crossing the bridge every morning and afternoon. It made me feel – in a much attenuated way – that thrill of new beginnings which I’d felt when I’d first arrived in this country six... no, seven years before. And then there was the separateness, which on good days I imagined myself liking. And, of course, I was an expatriate. Islands are where we often start out; though in my case it appeared, as the years went by, that it was actually where I’d ended up.
All night I thought about that elephant. And Aberaeron too.
The next morning I cornered Mike in the humanities staff room. He looked somewhat disconcerted. Outside of the corridors we usually stuck closely within the tribal groupings of our subjects. We all made a great show of being inter-this and cross-that in our studies, but in the end the historians usually gathered in one corner, the archaeologists in another. And I regret to admit there was no little looking down of noses on both sides. On behalf of the historians, I can only say that some of them regarded archaeology slightly sniffily and snootily in the light (which in an historian’s eyes takes an awful long time to fade) of its amateur origins; picturing eccentric, tweed-suited ramblers ransacking gardens and burial sites for coins and bones. They were antiquarians, glorified antiquers, collectors of things and objects, which naturally we historians saw as inferior to the elegant patterns we weaved from archives and parliamentary papers and census forms. For all their carbon dating and DNA analysis, we still secretly considered them grave-robbers.
‘Where exactly is it buried?’ I asked.
‘Where is what buried?’ Mike replied.
‘Oh, that,’ he said. ‘We’re not sure precisely... a lot has changed since then. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s all just an idea at the moment. And quite a fanciful one at that. We haven’t given it much serious thought.’
‘But you must have a rough idea where it is.’
‘From what I remember from the newspaper articles there was a beech tree on the green. It was buried close to that. The tree was draped with black flags, you see – in memory of the queen.
“As if nature herself was in mourning”, as one of the articles put it.’
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I’d driven to Aberaeron once before, but that had been three years ago, on a sunny day in June. The landscape was entirely different this time. The bulging green of summer had thinned and faded and left everything drearily exposed: the fields were a pale, bronze-green – a damp, sickly colour, like the patina on an old slab of meat; while above them you could see electricity lines everywhere, as stark and stringy as tendons. The farmers were burning dead bracken on the hills and the smoke sunk down into the valleys below, filling the air with a bitter scent. And then there were the many other dead things – pheasants, crows, a badger, at least three foxes – strewn here and there on the tarmac: wretched, shapeless bundles of fur and feather. I could only guess the winter had left them desperate and hungry, forcing them onto the dangerous verges and then beyond. In searching for it they had become carrion themselves. The further I drove, the more sad and disheartening the spectacle became. When I spotted the third of the foxes I stopped the car, went back to find it, then carried its corpse off the road and placed it carefully beneath a hawthorn tree in the quiet corner of a field. As I’d walked along the road with it a car had gone past and its driver had stared at me through the window, a look of troubled curiosity and disgust on his face, as though I was collecting it for some unusual and disturbing purpose.
And then I drove on, until the mountains were far behind me and the road began to hug the coast, tightly at first and then almost precariously. Here I began to recognise something more familiar from that first journey: a slightly oppressive sense of being slowly pushed off the land and into the sea.
When I arrived I parked near the harbour and went to sit for a while on a bench on the quay. It was the only part of the town of which I had any clear memory. I was grateful for the solidity of its thick stones.
There was an ice-cream place and a cheese shop at the end of the quay. Without consciously making a decision, I chose the cheese shop to ask for information about the village green. The teenage girl at the counter looked at me blankly for a few seconds (I think she may have thought I was asking for a rare and peculiar type of cheese) before disappearing into a room in the back. When she returned there was an older woman following her (she was forty or so, a similar age to me.) She informed me politely that she wasn’t sure where the old green was or had been, but perhaps it was possible I’d confused it with the town square. She happened to live in a house quite close to it, the same house she’d grown up in. She told me she remembered that when she was a young child they’d tethered donkeys and horses there, beneath the trees... and then, pausing abruptly in the midst of her recollections as if she had just then heard my accent, she inquired about the reasons for my curiosity. Why would an American be interested in a village green? I didn’t correct her. Instead, I told her I was an historian, with a special interest in coastal trade routes and harbour towns (all of which was entirely true). I was careful not to mention the elephant, which would have only confused matters, or at the least required a more lengthy explanation. But she seemed pleased enough by the one I’d offered her. In my experience, most people are pleased to find the places they live, or have once lived, the subject of an historian’s interest: it makes them happy to think of themselves as having been part of something that will endure.
And so I set off to find it, along streets I’d paid no attention to the first time I’d walked them, having been much distracted by other matters.
The only reason I’d been here that first time was down to a simple twist of geography... and nostalgia too, I suppose, though not mine. It was the result of a brief affair I’d once had with a fellow historian. We’d met abroad at an academic conference in Tallinn. It was based on historical trade routes and associations; the golden years of the Hanseatic League. As it happened, we were the only delegates from universities in Wales – her from the south, me from the north – and on the basis of this initial connection, and in that way of being thrown together in exotic places, of being unmoored from your usual surroundings, we’d become lovers for a few hectic and breathless days. The whole thing was unexpected and, though we were careful not to think about it during those days, problematic. She was engaged to be married.
On our last afternoon we’d walked down to the seafront. We’d found a bench near the docks and sat there, holding hands, the white towers and black spires of the city behind us, looking out across the dark and chilly blue of the Baltic. We’d talked about where we lived, her in the capital, me on the island – which, it turned out, was where she’d grown up. ‘God,’ she’d said, smiling ruefully, ‘it’s such a Welsh thing, you know. Wherever you go, whoever you meet, all routes lead back home – whether you want them to or not.’ I’d smiled too, though in my case it wasn’t the same. Those routes would have taken me back to another place entirely – all the way to Toronto. We’d promised to meet up when we got back. We’d checked our timetables and looked at a map on her phone. Aberaeron was near enough half-way. And besides, she’d worked there one summer as a teenager, in an ice-cream shop. ‘I’d really quite like to see the place again,’ she said. I, obviously, had never been there. I was more concerned with seeing her again.
When I reached the square there was little sign of what I’d imagined the green to be like. Instead, there was a small park with a football field in its centre, surrounded by elegant houses in various pastel shades, a post office, several hotels and some coffee houses. A couple of schoolboys were loitering by the goal posts, smoking and casting aggressively bored glances at whoever passed by. It was hard to picture donkeys and horses tethered here, let alone an elephant. There were a few sycamores around its edges but no beech tree. I walked around it a few times to make sure and then began exploring the adjacent streets and drives and cul-de-sacs. I was determined to locate it and had begun to form various (and probably historically unsound) theories; for instance, that the green had once been much larger, and that the field enclosed by the square was merely a remnant of this original space. At last, I came across a house with a long garden, enclosed by a high wooden fence. In the middle of this garden was a beech tree – the beech tree, I supposed. It appeared incongruously large, dwarfing the nearby houses even without its leaves. From the size of its trunk alone – which was covered in a grey, weathered bark, striated with venerable cracks and creases – I guessed it to be of some considerable age. I stopped for a while and then continued walking. Eventually, I came to a narrow wooded park, which followed the course of a river. This place I did remember.
Our meeting back in Wales had been a strange and fraught occasion. Here on familiar soil – familiar to her, in any case – everything had seemed different. All of the easy intimacy from before was gone. The cold blue of a northern sea, the bright white towers, the eager, happy thumping of an exhilarated heart – they weren’t here. The nostalgia she’d felt about Aberaeron in Tallinn was now troublesome to her. She was worried the owner of the ice-cream shop might recognise her somehow (even after over a decade) and so we retreated guiltily through the town into a narrow park with iron gates, some willows, a river.
‘What do you want from this?’ she asked as we stood on the bank of the river.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, and tried to kiss her – to make the awkwardness go away, to make things feel as natural as they’d felt back in Tallinn. That is what I wanted from it. I knew that.
‘No, no,’ she said, moving away. ‘This doesn’t seem fair – not for anyone.’
And even though I didn’t know who that ‘anyone’ was – I’d never even seen a picture of him – I was filled with a disconcerting sense of belatedness, as though an invisible cast were crowding impatiently around the edges of a stage, ushering us away. After a few more uncomfortable minutes we walked back towards the harbour.
Back at the quay there was a glitter of sunlight on the water and it seemed as though we both felt instantly better; hopeful and at ease – like we had before, on that last afternoon. There was no one else in sight and so we walked hand in hand towards the jetty. We made no plans or promises. We spoke very little, in fact. It just felt good to know what we’d felt before had been no illusion – the mirage of a holiday attraction, a shallow trick of emotion.
On the way out of town I followed her. I’d assumed, though we hadn’t explicitly discussed it, that we’d pull over in some spot near the edge of town to say goodbye, but there weren’t any obvious places to pull over, and there was another car close behind me, and before I knew it we were joining the main road, which forked to the north in one direction and to the south in the other. So we never did stop. Just as she turned, I caught a brief glimpse of the upper half of her face in her rear-view mirror. And that was the last time I saw her. I’d not known it – though in retrospect it seemed obvious – but a decision had been made that afternoon. She was married to her fiancé within the year. And I was happy for her. I was relieved we’d been spared the uncertainty and mess that might have arisen; I was glad everything had worked out as it probably should have. We had had those days together, and that was something to be grateful for.
Two years later I heard she’d had her first child. She had chosen the right life, I thought, in the right place.
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I dawdled at the entrance to the park for about an hour, near the same iron gates, but in the end I didn’t pass through them. There seemed little point in going over such old and settled ground. Instead, I went back to the house with the garden and the tree. The fence had seen better days. It was easy enough to slip through it. I crouched beneath the tree for a long time; there was no movement in the windows of the house, nobody came or went. And once I’d reassured myself it was empty, I went to buy myself a shovel.
I’d dug no more than a foot down when a gate clicked open at the other end of the garden. It was the woman from the cheese shop. A girl of about seven or eight followed her through the gate. I assumed it must be her daughter. She was the one who spotted me first.
‘There’s a man in our garden,’ she said, apparently not overly concerned.
The same couldn’t be said for her mother. She was carrying a bag of groceries, which she dropped to the ground. Several apples rolled out onto the flag stones of the path. And a cauliflower too.
Pushing her daughter behind her and edging closer to the door, she steadied her voice.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Please,’ I said, ‘there’s really no need to be alarmed. I didn’t know this was your house. We met before – in the shop.’
‘I can see who you are. What the hell are you doing here?’
‘I really should have explained things better in the shop,’ I said. And then, for no reason I could work out – except that it was clearly an awkward and potentially shameful situation – I told her, ‘I’m an archaeologist.’
By now she was easing a key into the lock of the door, careful all the while not to turn her back to me.
‘You were an historian before!’
‘Well,’ I said, embarrassed to be caught out in this small lie, ‘they’re much the same thing really. And I can assure you there’s a quite valid historical reason for this....’
‘For this what?’ By now she’d got the door unlocked and was pushing her daughter inside.
‘For this excavation... for digging here. There’s an elephant,’ I said, ‘and I’m pretty sure it’s buried right here beneath...’
But before I could finish she was inside and the door had slammed loudly shut. The click of the key in the lock was audible. Then there was a jangling of what I assumed were other keys in other locks.
I carried on digging. If I could uncover at least something, I reasoned, than I’d be better able to explain what I was doing and why it was necessary. I’d been digging for about five minutes when I heard the sound of a window being opened. Up above, on the second floor, the girl was looking out at me.
‘Is there really an elephant in our garden?’ she asked.
‘I think there may well be. From the information I’ve been given...’
‘How did it get here? Is it one of those old elephants with red fur on it?’
‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘It’s not that old. It was from India.’
‘There’s a boy in my class from India. He’s my friend. His name’s Ranjit. He says his mother gets sad sometimes because she misses being there, with her sisters and mother. Was the elephant sad like her?’
‘I think it probably was.’
‘Was there another elephant with it?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not at the end. There was only the one...’
‘Is that why it died? Because it was sad and lonely?’
‘I couldn’t say for sure,’ I said. ‘They say it got sick. But I’m sure it was very sad and lonely, and that couldn’t have helped.’
‘Is that why you’re crying?’
‘I’m not crying.’
But I was crying. When I went to feel my face it was already wet.
‘My mum says you’re crazy,’ the girl said. ‘She’s phoning the police right now.’
‘I can see how she might think that,’ I said. ‘I don’t blame her. In fact, there’s no point in blaming anybody. It’s nobody’s fault. It was a gift.’
‘You mean the elephant.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I meant that too.’
I was still crying fifteen or so minutes later when the police arrived. And I hadn’t found anything yet. Not a single bone.
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