It was the coughing that woke him. It usually did, but this morning was a particularly bad round and it took him several moments to recover.
Once he was sure another attack wouldn’t come, he straightened himself up, wiped his eyes and pushed himself out of the tatty armchair that had served as last night’s bed. A dagger of daylight pierced through the curtains and momentarily blinded the man.
Shit, he thought, overslept again.
Another cough rattled through his chest as he plucked up an apple from the near-empty bowl. The sharp juice coursed through his beard and onto his sweat-stained shirt as he took a greedy bite.
He paused chewing as his eyes noticed the picture on the floor. He sighed wearily. It must have fallen when he’d stood up. Ignoring the protest from his knees and back, he bent down and snatched up the picture.
He briefly glanced at the faded image before stuffing it into his breast-pocket.
Throwing the curtains open revealed that it was even later than the man had first realised. There was no time to waste. He snatched up his keys, and then a pre-packed, ancient-looking rucksack. From its depths he retrieved a beaten-up canteen. He sluggishly wiggled it beside his ear before unscrewing the cap and steadily refilling it with fresh brandy, occasionally taking sips. Only to wash out the taste of apple; at least, that’s what he told himself.
After its lid was screwed back on, the canteen was thrown back into the bag. The man shot a quick glance around the room before pouring the few remaining apples into the backpack. He didn’t usually get hungry, but it didn’t hurt to have at least something spare.
Another bout of coughing made him pause in the hallway; this time he had to lean against the wall before his breathing became regular. As he bent forward to pick up the two vegetable-laden buckets waiting for him, the clasp of his rucksack suddenly snapped open.
The canteen rolled down his neck and bounced off his head, followed the half-dozen apples. Each one landed with a thud on the wooden floor, followed by a curse from the man.
He shrugged the rucksack off his shoulders and then retrieved the runaway canteen. He took a long swig from its contents before returning it. With the bag back on and the buckets in hand, he kicked the front door open and stomped out into the punishing heat of day.
The hungry bleating of the chained-up goat was ignored as the man approached the rusty, crooked body of his jeep. He yanked open the back door, carefully placed the buckets on the back seats, and then paused. He didn’t yet feel drunk enough to face the day, but at the same time he didn’t want to drag the canteen out again.
He cursed himself as the familiar urge swelled in his chest. It clawed his lungs and crept up his dry throat. He ran through the numerous exercises he had tried teaching himself; the ones he had hoped would help curb his drinking. But they didn’t nothing but make his headache worse.
He slammed his fist down on the roof and then glared at goat. It watched him with a critical, unimpressed glare.
“What are you looking at?” the man growled.
The man standing beside the jeep was a tall, haggard-looking man. His thick, auburn beard was speckled with strands of grey. His blood-shot eyes were tucked beneath a large brow, painted red by the sun.
The khaki-coloured shorts were torn and caked with dust and grime, whilst his shirt was far too small for his muscular torso. His hunched shoulders seemed to conceal vast swathes of strength, but his sluggish nature denied it any outlet.
The goat continued to stare at him, as if taking note of every flaw it found in this lethargic specimen. Finally, knowing he’d never win, the man snatched a cabbage from the depths of one of the buckets. He hurled it towards the goat, hoping to elicit some sort of reaction. He was disappointed as the cabbage landed lamely beside the creature’s front hooves.
The goat stared at the cabbage, and then back at the man. It was evidently unimpressed.
“Screw you then,” the man declared. He shut the back door and then climbed into the front.
As the jeeps spluttered into life and began moving away, the man stared into the rear-view mirror. The goat had abandoned its vigil and had begun nibbling on the cabbage.
He’d bought it not long after he’d moved out here, but for the life of him he had no idea how long the damned things lived for. Despite it’s sinewy frame and its often-prominent look of lethargy, it had a hardiness that the man couldn’t help but admire. Sometimes he wondered whether, twenty years from now, that goat would still be there. Still tethered to the makeshift shack. The only indication that life had ever called that rickety old building home.
The man turned away from the mirror and, instead, fixed his stinging eyes onto the long, empty plain in front of him.
The sun was beating down on the burnt orange ground of the savannah. Brittle-looking shrubs sat dotted along the landscape, thirsting for water. Wispy yellow grass wafted in the light breeze. This had once been an idyllic scene of nature reigning supreme
But now, on the horizon and shrouded in its own manufactured filth, were the vague shadows of an ever-growing city. It hadn’t been there ten years ago. Not even the idea of the city had existed back then. But the man knew that, given another decade, what remained of this savannah would be mercilessly swallowed by the blind expansion of that same city.
It took him a few hours to find her again on this day. She moved constantly, always on the look-out for fresh food. But, eventually, and much later than he had hoped, he found himself cautiously approaching the grazing elephant.
The creature turned her enormous head, the tiny black eyes focusing on the approaching figure.
The man fell still. Even after all these years, he still couldn’t trust her temperament. She was a towering, twelve-foot beast, and, in her prime, had weighed nearly fourteen-thousand pounds. He still remembered vividly the time she had totalled the last jeep he owned. He was just lucky he hadn’t been in it.
He couldn’t afford for something like that to happen. There was no-one left to sell him a replacement.
Fortunately, today, the beast seemed indifferent to his company. She flapped her heavy ears weakly, almost as if greeting the man, and then turned back to the withered tree that had occupied her attention.
He guessed he wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
The elephant paid no further attention to the man. He carefully placed one of the buckets down beside her wavering trunk, and then backed away towards the tree that had taken up so much of the creature’s focus.
He put down the second bucket and then let himself slide to the ground, folding his legs up with a pained grunt. The rucksack rested by his side.
Still the elephant didn’t so much as glance towards him.
The broad, flat forehead that differentiated her species from her Asian cousins was under a lazy assault from several flies. Her eyelids drooped over her mournful-looking eyes, nearly consuming them entirely.
The man noticed a collection of small, crudely dug holes scattered around the elephant. Good luck, he thought to himself. Not going to find much water out here.
Feeling his own thirst, the man foraged the canteen from his bag. The heat had gotten to the brandy almost as much as it had gotten to him. As such, the relief he gained from the drink was even less than usual.
A momentary breeze cradled the man, lulling him into letting his eyes flutter closed. But, before he could slip back into sleep, he felt the elephant’s groping trunk sniff around his open canteen.
His eyes snapped open and he glared up at the creature. It had finally taken notice of his presence, but only enough to gain an interest in his booze.
“No,” he muttered, slapping her away. “This isn’t for you!”
The elephant snorted like a scorned teen. She backed slowly away from the man and then turned her attention towards a leafless branch of the bleached tree. He watched carefully as the trunk snaked around one of the limbs, and then, with a gentle tug, snapped the branch free.
“What are you -?”
The man yelped as the elephant began swatting him with the branch, grunting and snorting as she did so.
“Piss off!” the man snarled, trying to wrestle the weapon out of her grasp. But it was no good. The beast was far stronger than he could ever be, even in her present condition. As she continued to whip and smack the man struggled to his feet. The canteen was held out before him. “Fine!” he declared, defeated.
The girl trumpeted victoriously and threw the branch away. She immediately snatched the canteen away, almost lifting the man off the ground with it. He watched with horror as a steady stream of amber poured into the elephant’s mouth.
“Oi!” he yelled. “Save some of it for me, will you? That was bloody expensive!”
Ignoring him, the elephant shook the canteen until the very last drop landed on her red tongue and rolled down her throat. She trumpeted again before flicking the canteen back towards the man. The flask landed with an empty clatter at his feet.
He watched the elephant saunter smugly away and shook his head. It was hard to think that it had already been six years since he had first seen that beast.
He had been at home – his real home – back then, and had come across her by chance on the television. Oblivious to the camera crew, she had been standing over the corpse of another elephant. Her trunk had been slowly groping the body, as if trying to rouse it from a slumber. The low rumbles had been low and agonising, there had been something almost human about them.
She had been like that for almost a week, the only one left to remember and mourn her fallen sibling. From that moment he had been captivated. He couldn’t explain it, but seeing that creature finally sent a spark of purpose burning inside him. He had something to focus on, something to care for.
It, of course, hadn’t been easy at the beginning. The group already in charge of looking after the creature hadn’t been ecstatic when he’d first turned up and announced his desire to help. But soon after his arrival, interest in the creature had waned and then evaporated entirely.
Funding dribbled to a stop, coverage became non-existent, and the keepers dropped away one-by-one. Finally, there remained only this one man and his goat. The world had decided that it was easier to believe the species already gone, rather than suffer the pain of watching the final one waste away, knowing that the blame belonged on one doorstep alone.
The elephant began snuffling around the first of the buckets, her trunk groping shyly amongst the vegetables. Even the man had to admit that she had survived longer than anyone expected.
Female elephants were well known for travelling amongst large groups, and, being robbed of that company, the man had assumed the final elephant would be killed by the loneliness.
But it seemed she was more than able to survive without a family, and maybe that was why he liked her so much. The man snorted. If she could do it, then why couldn’t he? It had taken him nearly fifty years, but he had finally found something close to a kindred spirit. The girl was feisty, stubborn, liked a drink, and suffered from a foul temper, all traits of his that had helped drive so many people away.
Unconsciously, his fingers slowly drew the picture out of his pocket and placed it in his lap. It was an old, faded photograph. A picture of a life lived long ago. The man was in it, though you’d have difficulty recognising him. Wrapped around him was a woman, maybe in her early thirties. She had brunette hair and a smile that still made the man weak. In front of the supposedly happy pair were two boys, one seven and the other thirteen. He hadn’t seen either of them since the day she’d walked out, taking them with her.
He asked himself everyday why he was here. Why he’d waste his days sitting in the blistering heat, watching a half-dead elephant and making sure no harm came to her. Was he trying to prove something? That he was responsible now? But, if that was the case, who was he proving it to? The elephant? She didn’t care. Did he? Six years he’d spent out here, yet he hadn’t even given his ward a name.
She was just The Elephant.
Occasionally he’d think about giving her one. But then he’d bat the notion aside. What would be the point? He’d ask, taking a draught of brandy each time. He might name her one day, and then wake up to find her gone the next. Naming something only made you attached, and he’d learned long ago what a mistake that was.
But the names kept on presenting themselves. It took him back to when the pair had first been expecting. They’d stay up all night making lists of possible names.
There was Melissa, the girl he used to date back in secondary school. Or maybe Tracey, after his mother. And, of course, Ellie. Not the most inspired name, he knew. But he was never the most imaginative guy.
He shook his head. “Maybe tomorrow,” he murmured. He watched the elephant munch a stem of broccoli for a moment, then took an apple out of his bag. He examined her pale and dry skin, the way she avoided putting weight on the rear left leg, and the fact that her right ear dangled further forward than its partner.
If she’s still here tomorrow, he thought, I’ll name her then.
He was far from being an expert – all the experts had given up long ago. Hell, he doubted any expert even knew she was still alive. But, in his layman’s opinion, the girl was finished. She had only lasted this long out of sheer stubbornness. If she’d had one, he was sure she’d be holding a middle-finger up towards life.
This one animal, forgotten by experts, by predators, by the world entire. Forgotten by everyone but the sad, old man sat beneath the tree.
He leaned forward and grabbed the canteen. A sad shake beside his ear confirmed his fear. He threw the empty flask back into his bag and murmured a curse or two. He sat back, took another bite of the apple, and stared towards the horizon. The shadow of the city stared back at him, as if daring him to try returning. But there was no way that would happen, not now.
He was just as forgotten as his charge, and he didn’t mind. That was the way things worked. Soon they’d all be gone. And, when that happened, who’d be there to remember?