Benjamin Black was bundled out of his sleep one cold and frosty February morning by a noise that sounded, at least to his freshly awoken ears, like a parade of partying elephants beneath him. All he could hear was a mismatched collaboration of noises, sounded, songs and dins that were forcefully squeezed into the same airspace, creating a sound somewhat akin to that of a marching band during an earthquake. The floorboards under his bed trembled, vibrating the water in the glass he’d laid down next to his bed before falling asleep the previous night. Even forcing his pillows to become emergency earmuffs didn’t seem to make the slightest difference. The tune being sounded out below was still so clear that, if the mood took him, he could have tapped his foot along to the beat and maybe even sung a harmony or two to himself.
This isn’t right, he thought to himself, it’s... oh God! It’s half six in the morning. What’s going on? He wrapped his blanket around his shoulders like the bun of a hot dog, and tiptoed out of his room to investigate.
It wasn’t unusual for his family to wake Ben up. In fact, the more he thought about it, it would be unusual for them to not to. No matter how many times he asked, shouted, moaned, complained, or groaned, they never seemed to get the message. The message being: STOP WAKING ME UP!
Sarah. It would be Sarah, he was sure of it. She was the one, the ‘teenager’, with her friends that pretended to smoke weed and steal drinks from the local off-licence. She was the one who’d flutter her eyelashes at boys, and colour her face in to try and make herself look pretty. If anyone was stupid enough to be making this kind of noise, even in this family, it would be her.
Or perhaps it was Tina, Ben’s mum. She had a reputation – one she vigorously denied both having and deserving – as an odd-ball, or, as one of the neighbours put it, ‘a goose one gullet short of a gander’. Some of her friends, back from when she was younger and had a life, loved to party well into the early morning. Maybe they just got carried away? It had happened before. Twice.
There was something different about it this time, though, something a finger just couldn’t be put on. They banged with extra thwack and crashed with added wallop, like playing the drums with sledgehammers.
There was no need for Ben to be quiet as he made his way downstairs. He could barely hear the patter of his feet on the carpet over the raucous rumpus, there was no doubt in his mind that he was silent to his cacophonous subjects. He stood poised in front of the living room door, shadowed by the light that stole out through the grooves.
Whoosh! He threw the door open.
Ben had been itching to tell somebody at school about what he’d seen earlier that morning, but he wasn’t bumping into the right people. He’d gotten there half an hour earlier than normal – normal being about half a minute before the bell rang and everyone was ushered inside – and had fully expected to see someone worthy of a good natter if he lurked around long enough.
He did not. The playground remained a ghost town, a bitter wind taking the place of the tumbleweed of the Wild West. Frozen puddles covered the ground, a patchwork ice rink surrounded by leafless trees, and the children stayed away like ostriches to the sky. After another two laps of the playground, (laps which reaped no rewards and in which he nearly slipped over four times, despite dragging his feet along the ground) Ben had had enough of waiting around. His fingers were turning blue and his breath was much too visible for his general liking. If he couldn’t find anyone worth talking to, he would wait, and bring them to him.
Inside was much warmer. The school caretaker – Barry? Harry? Larry! – sprinkled granules of salt along the corridor, soaking up the frost that had melted off coats and boots and was now forming splashes on the floor. The coat pegs were mostly empty. There was a pink raincoat four pegs down that belonged to one of the girls, Ben didn’t know exactly which, that gathered in a small group and giggled about boys at lunchtime, and there were a few pairs of Wellington boots lying at various angles on the floor. Other than that, the school might have seemed closed to the unobservant passer-by.
Ben took his seat in class – fifth row back, third from the left (which also happened to be third from the right) – and waited for a spillage of other children. And he waited. And he waited. Fifteen long minutes, until now he was no longer expecting other children but was also a tad quizzical about the whereabouts of his teacher, or, for that matter, that one teacher that always snuck into the classroom like a shy cat and told him when his actual teacher was ill or ill-disposed. Still, no one came.
And that’s when he heard it; the rumbling grumble of this morning had followed him to school and, apparently, stolen his teacher and his class-mates. It got louder and louder, and Ben could feel the desk in front of his tremble and began to feel his knees chatter as well. The door flew open.
‘You have got to come see this!’ At first, Ben couldn’t believe what was happening. Everything seems so implausible that even dreaming couldn’t explain things, but there, stood in the doorway like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, was Ben’s sister, Sarah.
‘Wha... t?’ Ben was confused. So many questions were bouncing around like power balls inside his head. What was his sister doing here? What was the noise? Where was everybody? Just, plain and simple, what?
He jumped out of his chair, pushing his desk forward and sliding his chair back like a tiny explosion surrounded him, and was out of the door before he had time to really think about what he was doing.
At the end of the corridor, where normally there would be a set of double doors to let the children come and go and play, was an elephant, curled up asleep on the floor. It’s gigantic torso throbbed as it slowly breathed, in and out, and it’s ears softly flapped.
‘She’s tired,’ his sister said, placing a hand on her brother’s shoulder. ‘And so she should be, she’d had a long day, and she’s still got to make Dad’s tea tonight.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘Oh, yeah. Our Mum’s an elephant.’