The Girl at the Next Bench
Davron stuffs toy elephants for a living. He stuffs them with
filler through a hole in their stomachs, closes them solicitously
with a stapler, finishes the job. But to him itís more than a job.
Sometimes he tries to stuff too many and he knows this is wrong.
This is when the shadows creep in from the walls, and when the music
starts to play. This is when he is glad he has taken his tablet in
the morning, and the other ones during the rest of the day.
Davron loves the elephants with an ache in his heart. Each one he
stuffs, he brings life to it, and he gives it a name. He has run out
of names, much to his shame, and repeats the ones he knows. He just
hopes these same named elephants do not meet each other. Whatever
would happen then?
Davron always works past clocking off time, until the foreman
leaves. Itís because of the elephants, who need him as fiercely as
fierce can be.
He stands in front of his wooden bench with its work-polished
top. On his right side is a tub of filler. On the left a tub with
unstuffed elephants, which he knows are not elephants yet. He picks
up a floppy carcass, places it on his bench, and prises the hole in
the stomach apart with his fingers. He scoops up the filler. The
filler is white and soft and of the consistency of cotton wool but
it is not that material because Davron knows cotton wool does not
smell like this.
Davron is heartened to give life to the elephants but there are
things he cannot stand. The smell and the consistency of the filler
reminds him of his mother who is long dead. There is no reason for
this. His mother did not smell like the filler, nor did she feel
like it to him. She was hard, inside and out, and quite the opposite
of what the elephants become in his hands.
Something else he finds it difficult to take. They expect him to
toss the elephants into the bin that stands beyond the bench. He
thinks this is a callous thing to do. So he walks around his bench
to place each one carefully on top of the others. It is during this
walk that he gives them names, the names of people he has known, the
names of people in films. Never does he use the name Dumbo. He
regards it as unfitting and cruel to think of elephants in such a
way. They are graceful, they are sensitive. They do not deserve to
be treated like that.
Another thing. The girl who stands at the next bench. He does not
like the sullen way she stuffs her giraffes through their stomachs
and callously flings them into her bin. It is just a job to her.
Maria is her name but he does not consider that he should speak to
her when she behaves as she does.
Not a single one of her giraffes has a name. He knows. Giraffes
are fragile creatures with long, distended limbs and necks. A throw
can easily damage such delicacy, such perfection. And when she
fastens their bellies he knows she has no feeling for the job.
Davron walks home each evening, up the road and around the
corner, past the pub thatís raucous even at six oíclock. He stops at
the newsagentís and buys a paper and tries to read it, including the
classified ads. He knows thereís something heís missing and canít
begin to say what it is. He knows that everything in this life is
connected, one thing to another. The woman in the doorway he walks
past each night, the cat that curls up on the windowsill outside his
room, the noise from upstairs in the middle of the night. Things
touching each other in ways he can never comprehend.
After tea Davron switches on the television and tries to watch
it, but the pixels do not coalesce into images he can understand. He
knows other people watch television with a passion. Perhaps there is
something he fails to do that would put it right. Not even the
tablets help him here.
Davron goes early to bed and reads the newspaper again, scans the
small ads from the top of the first column to the bottom of the
last. It saddens him to see these things for sale, a childís bike, a
lawnmower, a damaged garden shed. Each of these objects should have
a life of its own in the world. Instead they drift in limbo,
disconnected, perhaps never to become attached again. Davron wants
to believe that this is just how things used to be, before, but he
suspects that it is also how they are now.
He is woken in the middle of the night by the noises from
upstairs. They are curious and undefined, neither human nor
mechanical. He covers his ears, covers his head with his pillow, but
they will not go away.
He gets up while night still fingers the city, plugging each and
every crack. He shaves, takes his time to get it right, to peer as
close as he can at himself in the mirror. His eyes look back at him
as if they know something he does not. He rubs the mirror hard with
his towel but this changes nothing. He pours cold milk onto
cornflakes and slowly eats them up. Sips at, but does not finish, a
cup of tea.
The woman is not in the doorway as he walks past. The pub is
unnaturally quiet, as if it waits, seething, for something to
happen. Nor is it yet time for the newsagent to write the numbers of
houses in pencil on newspapers on the counter, to peer squint-eyed
through the smoke of a cigarette. The shop is dark.
Davron stands in the deserted street outside the closed gates of
the factory. Beyond the building orange lights presage a false dawn.
He thinks of the elephants inside, waiting unstuffed in their tub.
It is up to him to give each one of these elephants the power to
live in the world, give each one a life of its own.
Davron climbs the gate, forces a toilet window that has been
carelessly closed, and tumbles into the building. The workshop
creaks with cold, the benches shine, the concrete floor rasps under
his shoes. He stands by his bench and waits to feel what he needs to
feel in order to do the job in a fitting way. As always,
reassuringly so, the unstuffed carcasses are in the left hand tub,
the filler in the right. How wonderful that things can be like this.
It is a holy time.
He waits but he cannot get on because the giraffes are calling to
him from the next bench, a suppressed sound that wants to become a
scream. He knows giraffes are dumb but he is only too aware that
many things are possible. His elephants will be all right. They have
him. Pity the poor giraffes. He looks at their distended carcasses
in the tub, soft, tangled limbs that predicate no life at all.
Stupid Maria has no regard for what they can be, these gentle,
awkwardly graceful, creatures.
Davron takes the bottle from his pocket, the bottle that is with
him wherever he goes, the bottle with the label which instructs him
to take five tablets a day. Can giraffes cry? If so, he knows they
are crying in their tub.
In the half-light he unscrews the top of the bottle and pours the
tablets onto Mariaís workbench. Bending down he extracts a carcass
from the tub and picking up a tablet he inserts it carefully into
the floppy lifeless thing, shakes it as gently as he can so that the
tablet lodges deep inside. Hard to do in the gloom, his eyes
prickling him, but he manages. Then he lowers the carcass back into
the tub, places it mindfully and picks up another. Does the same
thing until the tablets are gone.
What does he know? He knows that his tablets have changed his
life. He knows that every creature that ever lived and that ever
will live, deserves the best. He knows he cannot save the world, but
he also knows that we each do the best we can in our own lives.
Later, when they all come in, he watches as Maria stuffs the
giraffes. He hates the way she does it with her fat fingers, her
glazed eyes, her stiff mouth. But now he is sure in the knowledge,
as his doctor tells him, that whatever happens to them, the tablets
He watches Maria but also he takes extra care with his elephants.
He knows what distraction can do. Outside the sun plays games with
the day. It dodges the windows, throws shadows where least expected.
And inside his head the music starts, an organ plays, falters,
belches, plays again, faster than it should.
Davron stuffs his elephants and watches out for the giraffes. The
tablets did not go as far as he would have liked. By mid morning he
knows the giraffes that emerge from the tub, that are carelessly
thrown into the bin by the stupid girl, have no protection at all.
He wants to take a tablet himself, but he knows it was a sacrifice
he had to make.
Davron hates the stupid sun for what it does and the music for
playing too fast. Why does no one else notice these things? He stops
what he is doing and watches the girl. He listens carefully. He can
hear the giraffes crying, he really can. Why does the girl not hear
it as well?
Davron leaves his bench. He has to do what he has to do. The
giraffes are in agony by the time she flings them into the bin. He
pushes her away, pushes her so hard she stumbles against the bench
and falls to the floor. Davron sees blood in her hair but this could
be a trick. He knows there are shops where you can buy things like
that, all sorts of things that undermine how life is supposed to be.
Davron goes to the bin to look at the giraffes. He stands and
reaches down to stroke them. How gentle they are, how painfully
sensitive. But the girl comes up behind him and puts her arm around
his neck. She screams, pulls at his hair. He elbows her, turns to
shout. She scratches his face, kicks him. He knew it. He knew right
from the start she was like this. He knocks her down again, hits
her, and she lies still. He thinks it could be a trick.
He takes the blade that he keeps to cut the cotton in the
elphants when the hole has been stitched up too far to do the
stuffing. Always he cuts in the most careful way that he can,
mindful that elephants are the most sensitive of creatures. He uses
the blade to cut a hole in the girlís belly, slices as deeply as he
can. He does not do it sensitively at all. He knows it is all right
to do it like this. Blood seeps out and something else. But he knows
that if he pushes hard enough the tablet will go in. It is only at
this point that he remembers there are no tablets left. Not a single
one to make it all right. It is a sacrifice she will have to make.
Davron does not go home that night. Instead he lays in bed under
the sheets in the room they put him in, and listens to the noises
that come from all around. He does not know what they are and now he
does not care. There is no pattern. One thing does not follow
another in orderly fashion. It was all a trick.
He wants the noises to continue, likes the way they repeat.
Besides, and best of all, it covers other noises he does not want to
hear. The squeaking of the giraffes, that small sound that has such
a long way to travel, up their long necks from their lungs, such a
long journey and at the end of it so little sound at all.