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Richard Madelin

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 will help.

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.

Richard Madelin has a novel Careful published by Ig of Brooklyn. His short stories have appeared in The Guardian, London Magazine, Heinemann's Best Short Stories, Night Train, Lit Pot, Pif, a number of other magazines and broadcast on BBC Radio Four .

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