Minding the Elephant

Another very short story






It’s half past midnight
I am walking along the beach in Brighton.
It’s January.
It’s snowing.
I am minding the elephant.

He’s an Asian elephant.
He stands a little bit taller than me.
His name is Max and he likes to get out.
He’s four years old.

Things are not good with me.
I have effectively lost everything.

At my drama school there was a girl called Liza. She paid her way through college by performing sex acts in front of a businessman once a week. Then she got a job in a circus, in Italy, as an elephant rider. She wore long needle-like spurs. Her legs were concealed behind the elephant’s ears. When she finished her act and got off the elephant, outside of the tent, leaving the amazed children and charmed adults behind, her legs were slick with blood. She used to wipe them down with a towel.

Nobody uses spurs on Max.
His trainer seems to treat him gently.
They have a good relationship.
Mutual respect.
It is wonderful to walk along the shingle at midnight with them, to watch Max wade with care through the surf.

The first historically recorded elephant in Northern Europe was brought to the British capital of Colchester, by the emperor Claudius, during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.

I am destitute.
I live in the abandoned flat of an acquaintance.
I am forty.

I work on the night crew at an exhibition centre.
Max is part of an ice show that is resident there, at the moment.
The supervisor of the night crew gives me more responsible jobs.
Minding the elephant is one of those.

We are a small group.
We hang on to the edge of life by our fingertips.
We no longer belong to the day.

The ice show crew lay down a black plastic pond liner which they fill with a network of pipes. They connect the pipes to the chillers. When the pipes become covered in frost they spray a thin film of water about every fifteen minutes until they build up a three inch layer of ice. The chillers are mounted on lorries and sit in the loading bay. They have two Portacabins with their offices. They tour all over the world. In South America parents bring their children not to see the show but to see the ice. They open the auditorium an hour early so the children can touch the ice.
In 1876 a mechanically frozen ice rink was opened by John Gamgee at 379 Kings Road, Chelsea.


The rink was based on a concrete surface, with layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks. On these were laid oval copper pipes carrying a solution of glycerine with ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. The pipes were covered by water and the solution was pumped through, freezing the water into ice. The rink initially proved a success; however, the process was expensive, and mists rising from the ice deterred customers, forcing it to close by the end of the year.

I like to think of the ladies in their long dresses being gradually overwhelmed by the mist as they describe elegant circles on the ice.

When I go back to the flat in the hours just before dawn I am sometimes seized by a physical manifestation of despair that leaves me cruciform face down on the filthy carpet.
I find it curious how an emotion can manifest itself in such an entirely physical way.
There are no thoughts in my head at those times.

The elephant is beautiful
He is impossible.
He cannot be.

I do not understand how I have come to be here.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore trains elephants using an operant conditioning system.  Operant conditioning is a process used to positively reinforce behaviours that are desired and to decrease behaviours that are not desired by training the animal away from those behaviours.  Punishment is never used.  The animal is given a variety of cues for a specific behaviour in the form of either an audible, tactile, or visual stimulus.  Depending on how the elephant responds, a positive reinforcement usually is given in the form of a food item, verbal praise, or an enrichment item.  Conditioning occurs when the elephant’s correct behaviour is achieved and reinforced consistently through repetition over an extended amount of time.

This was not how it was supposed to be.

We build things.
Layer on layer on layer until they form a skin.
Then one day the chillers get turned off.
The ice begins to melt and the men come in with sledge hammers.

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