At the Sacred Elephant Thai restaurant in a small Middlesex town near Heathrow, four people take their regular seats at a corner table by the window. It’s an early Saturday evening in December and the restaurant is half full.
‘This is good, we will be served quicker,’ says Krystiana, a blonde woman in her late twenties with a prominent pregnancy-bump swelling her white lace top. She shifts in her seat, and pushes the table away from her. ‘It is not comfortable. I need room, the baby needs room.’
With a loud sigh, she swaps places with a cadaverous, slump-shouldered man in his early forties. He says nothing and drops into his new chair. He now sits opposite his frail, grey haired Dad, whilst she opposes Mother, her aggressively neat, coiffured mother-in-law.
‘We are having starter food, yes?’ asks Krystiana.
‘Yes, dear,’ replies Mother, and Dad clears his throat in agreement.
A young Thai waiter shows Dad the wine list, and he in turn passes it across the table to Krystiana.
‘I will have Coca-Cola. Mother, will you and Dad be drinking tonight?’
‘A little wine, yes.’
Krystiana points out a glass of House Red and House White to the waiter. ‘A lager half-pint for my husband,’ she adds.
‘Sorry, only bottles. Pump faulty.’
‘One small bottle and one small glass, thank you.’
‘Tiger or Singha?’
‘Tiger,’ she replies.
When the waiter leaves, Krystiana is incensed: ‘Their pump is always faulty. Why they don’t fix it?’
‘What’s Tiger, dear?’ asks Mother.
‘Tiger is Thai lager, Mother; more expensive than Carling.’
A tall Eastern European girl in traditional, ornate Thai costume arrives beside Krystiana to take their food order.
‘Mother and I will share vegetable spring rolls twice. Please no prawns, I have a baby,’ she says stroking the bump. ‘Dad, will you be having your crabs?’
Dad clears his throat.
Mother asks her son if he wants anything.
‘No, no, Mother. His stomach is bad. He will have boiled chicken later.’
Mother looks at her son and then at her daughter-in-law. ‘If you’re both sure?’
‘Yes, Mother, we’re both sure,’ replies Krystiana.
When the waitress is out of ear shot, Krystiana begins, ‘this new tall one is Lithuanian, I’m sure of it. They will take the jobs from here, you see.’
‘From the Thais?’ asks Dad.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ says Mother.
‘It’s true, Mother,’ says Krystiana. ‘Dad, they are after all jobs, not just from the Thais.’
‘Who are?’ asks Dad.
‘The Lithuanians,’ says Mother.
‘And all those wanting our Euro,’ adds Krystiana. ‘Gypsies and Turks will be taking over everywhere soon.’
‘Gypsies are taking over here?’ asks Dad, confused.
‘Dad is worse today, Mother. Is he more trouble at home?’
‘He’s just upset about all the coloureds,’ replies Mother.
‘Yes, Gypsies are big trouble, Dad,’ says Krystiana, as the waitress returns with their starters.
‘The spring rolls are smaller than before,’ she whispers to Mother as the waitress puts down their plates.
Dad’s teeth tear a string of white meat from a crab claw.
Krystiana looks at him with a sad smile. ‘Dad loves his food, this is something we must all give thanks for, no?’
Mother nods, Dad clears his throat, and their son looks round to see where his Tiger has got to.
When the drinks arrive, Krystiana takes each wine in turn and sniffs them. ‘They smell good, but not a drop has passed my lips since conception,’ she says.
At the mention of the ‘c’ word her husband drains his Tiger and looks at the next table where a young couple are leaving. The young woman is more heavily pregnant than Krystiana.
Krystiana surveys their vacated table with a grimace. ‘She was drinking wine.’
‘I’m sure a little drop wouldn’t have hurt,’ says Mother.
‘Not a drop has passed my lips since conception,’ Krystiana says stroking her stomach. ‘This is a discipline. The woman who sat there had none, she is typically English,’ she continues.
‘Steady on, girl,’ says Dad.
‘No, Dad, it is a trait I have observed in English women of a certain class.’
‘I hope you don’t mean . . . ,’ says Mother.
‘Mother, you are not of this class, I promise you.’
‘They seemed like a nice couple,’ replies Mother.
‘Nice but stupid; English women can drink well as fishes but they are not fishes.’
‘That’s silly, I don’t think …,’ starts Mother.
‘Yes, you don’t think, and you are silly’, shouts Krystiana, who then lets out a scream causing Dad to drop a crab claw from his mouth.
Krystiana runs sobbing to the Ladies, and Mother follows.
When they’re out of view, the son beckons over the tall waitress. When she arrives at the table he points at his empty glass.
‘Tiger?’ she asks.
‘Three,’ he replies.
The waitress returns immediately with the bottles and he upturns one into his glass, and starts drinking. Dad watches his son and the desperate speed with which he attacks his drink. He remembers a time long ago when he took him to the Bluebell steam railway. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon and his son was so excited and happy that he’d felt inspired to ask the driver of the train if they might look at the driver’s cabin. To his surprise the driver suggested they ride up front with him to the next station. Holding his son, inhaling the delicious burnt coals, and looking ahead through plumes of clearing steam to the green Sussex hills rolling in and out of view, it was the closest he had ever felt to him, and it was the happiest he had known his son be. Dad moves his hand across the table towards his son who eyes it suspiciously. Dad then withdraws the hand and attempts a smile; miserably failing to express what he’d like to be able to say.
Meanwhile in the Ladies, Mother is offering advice.
‘My dear, this has to stop.’
‘Mother, I cannot. My soul is heavy. In my country I had no voice; my words fell on hard stones.’
‘Well, you’re making up for it now.’
Krystiana laughs despite her sadness. ‘Oh, I know I can talk, but I was unloved by all my family.’
Mother looks blank.
‘I was left to take love where I could find it. And now I feel its absence again.’
‘Now look, my dear, we’re doing our best. You ought to be grateful.’
‘Grateful? To whom should I be grateful? I am not asylum seeker.’
‘You’re being selfish, Krystiana.’
‘No, Mother. It is your son who is selfish. He is the one with no love; he is the one who will not touch.’
‘Krystiana, stop! We do not talk like this here.’
‘Then I am dead, and my death will be slow.’
‘You are making such a meal of things. Pull yourself together or people will wonder what is going on.’
‘What people? No-one cares. I could be on fire here and no-one would spit water from their glass to put me out.’
Mother opens the door to leave.
‘I will not let him take his love from our beautiful baby. I will not have his hate filling our home!’
Mother closes the door and slaps Krystiana hard on the cheek.
Krystiana slowly strokes where she has been hit. ‘Thank you, Mother, you have shown me what I already knew.’
Mother shakes her head and leaves.
Krystiana comes out a few minutes later. She walks past the bar where the Lithuanian waitress is standing, and goes outside to get some air.
The waitress follows with Krystiana’s coat. ‘Are you okay? It’s cold out here,’ the waitress says.
‘You are kind but it is not your concern,’ Krystiana replies.
The waitress nods, and drapes the coat over Krystiana’s shoulders. They stand still together and look through the window at a tableau of Krystiana’s family seated at the table. Dad is busy breaking into a crab claw. His son nurses the last of his beer; four empty Tigers secreted by his ankle at the foot of the table, whilst Mother looks sternly down at her untouched plate.
‘I know life is not as the films,’ says Krystiana with a shrug, ‘but in my country a meal is a celebration, not a funeral.’
As they look through the window, another jet above them lowers its wheels and begins its slow descent towards Heathrow.
The Sacred Elephant won the inaugural InterAct Short Story Competition judged by Ruth Rendell, who wrote that (it) ‘had an atmosphere both contemporaneous and cosmopolitan. I saw in it the hand of an author who could one day be a master of this form.’
It was published in my book with Jonny Voss, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, and in the anthology, InterActions. It was also published in the Sunday Express Magazine.
The story was performed at the Liars’ League and by wonderful InterAct actress, Sasha Waddell , at the the book launch of Dogsbodies and Scumsters, at Number 68 Project in Dalston, and at a showcase of my short fiction at Kingston’s Rose Theatre.