© David Llewellyn
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n.b. (English) English : grandad / (American) English : granddad
Chapter 1 – There’s good eating on an elephant
“Grandad, why do you have an elephant?”
“Because I’m very, very hungry.”
Anabel had been dangling her bare feet in the stream at the bottom of the paddock when her grandad had sneaked an elephant up behind her. In her defence, the sloshing of the stream had drowned out some of the more obvious sounds of a sneaking elephant but, with hindsight, she should have seen it coming. The clues were there:
a) Grandad had disappeared very early that morning,
b) He’d taken the big trailer with him, and
c) Grandad was usually up to something or other.
The elephant, it has to be said, was unexpected.
And there it was, standing right behind her.
From Anabel’s point of view, it would have been better if it was standing in front of her, mostly so she could get a better look.
If this story is about anything it is about making changes so that is what Annabel set out to achieve, in a small way to begin with.
Getting a good view of the elephant wasn’t quite as easy as Anabel had expected. Rather than ask the elephant to move across the stream it seemed more sensible to simply stand herself up and turn herself around. Now she found herself nose to nose with an elephant which, given the size of an elephant’s nose, was just about all she could see.
“Hang on a sec,” she said, and took two steps sideways, turned right, took three more steps, checked the scale again, and moved another few feet to the elephant’s left. The elephant, in turn, turned to face her. Now they could see each other clearly.
“She’s very small,” said the elephant, or at least she would have done if elephants could speak.
Instead, Anabel offered her perspective. “It’s massive,” she said.
“She,” said Grandad.
“What?” said Anabel.
“She’s not an it, she’s a she. She’s called Minerva.”
“She’s massive,” said Anabel, because some things need to be said twice.
Anabel measured herself often. The last time she looked she was 132cm tall, tip to toes. In horse terms this was thirteen hands which meant she was four hands smaller than Lennon, the larger of Grandad’s Clydesdales who was, until now, the biggest animal Anabel had ever seen. The reason she was thinking this was because Lennon and McCartney had wandered over to see what the fuss was about. The two shire horses studied the elephant from a safe distance across the stream. Even Lennon was tiny by comparison.
“Is she an African elephant or an Asian elephant?” asked Anabel, using the only thing she knew about elephants to try to sound intelligent.
“She’s from Dudley,” said Grandad, “in the West Midlands.”
This wasn’t as helpful as it could have been.
“So she’s one of those rare European elephants?” said Anabel.
“I think her mother was from Sri Lanka.”
“An island to the south of India.”
She’d check it out later but Anabel was pretty sure that this meant Minerva was an Asian elephant. They were smaller than African elephants but when you’re standing in a field next to an Asian elephant they are still pretty big.
The other thing Anabel had figured out was that it was very hard to look at a whole elephant in one go. There was just too much elephant to go around. Part of the problem was the trunk. The trunk was bigger than she was and it was swishing gently from side to side, brushing up against her grandfather’s leg as it did so. Its ears lay flat against the sides of its massive head. And she couldn’t decide whether it was grey or brown. Some bits were obviously grey and some bit were clearly brown but they merged in and out so she didn’t know if it was a grey elephant with brown bits or a brown elephant with grey bits but some of it could have been mud and some of it could have been dust.
But the hardest thing about describing this particular elephant was that it was looking at Anabel too. No matter which bit of the elephant she tried to concentrate on, Anabel was constantly drawn back to Minerva’s big, brown eyes. They were the oldest, wisest and kindest eyes Anabel had ever seen and yet Minerva didn’t strike Anabel as being an old elephant. More than this, there was something unsettlingly sad and yet joyously playful sparkling deep within those knowing eyes.
Interrupting her observations, and nagging away at the back or her mind, was another question: one she had already asked and one that had yet to be answered.
“Grandad, just out of interest you understand, but why do we have an elephant?”
Anabel knew this could take some time.
“Because there’s good eating on an ele¬-“
“You already said that.”
“Because they didn’t have any rhinos.”
“They make good sheepdogs.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Tell the truth.”
“I’m looking after it for a friend.”
“Her. She’s a she, not an it.”
“Fair enough. You know Jimmy; Jimmy’s the one with the elephant. Anyway, Jimmy’s gone to Spain for a couple of months and he’s asked me to keep an eye on her.”
Anabel had never heard of Jimmy. If she had, she felt sure she would have remembered.
“Why did he ask you?”
“Why do you think?”
“Because you’ve got a farm and you can’t keep an elephant in a flat.”
Grandad smiled. “Clever girl.”
“And again, just out of interest, but why does Jimmy have an elephant?”
“Show business. Minerva used to be a star. She had her name in lights, toured the country and performed to thousands.”
“In a circus?”
“With the ballet … Okay, she was in a circus. She was the acrobat.”
Anabel shook her head.
“She sold tickets in the kiosk and gave rides to children.”
There it was. That was the one the girl had been waiting for. When you’re about to ride an elephant nothing else matters. Not now, not before, and possibly never again. Minerva gave rides and Anabel was about to ride an elephant. All the thoughts she’d been thinking as she’d dangled her feet in the stream, all the anger and upset, all the plans of righteous vengeance, all disappeared in one final puff of elephant.
“Can I? Can I really? Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, Grandad!” She’d probably never felt so excited and she was looking for the smile from her grandad, the one that said, ‘Yep, she’s all yours.’
And there it was. “Up you go then,” said Grandad.
Anabel looked at Grandad. Anabel looked at Minerva. Minerva looked at Anabel.
It has been said before, more than once, that this was a very big elephant and Anabel was quite a small girl. Quite how a nine-year-old was supposed to get on an elephant was a problem that Anabel was quickly trying to solve without having to ask her grandfather. He’d have dreamed up a whole load of answers without ever quite coming up with anything sensible. She could imagine his list.
1. Parachute down from above
2. Be fired from a canon
3. Dig a very deep hole, put the elephant in it, and step onboard
5. Get on another elephant and slide across to this one
7. Flood the field to the depth of one elephant and row to the top
8. Get a ladder
… A ladder! A ladder would do the trick. Grandad kept his ladders in the barn. Not the big barn with all the hay but the little barn with all the tools and the chickens.
“Shall I get a ladder?” she asked.
“I don’t think elephants can climb ladders,” said Grandad, “but I’ve got something that might help.” He reached into the pocket of his old green jacket and brought out a potato.
“What am I supposed to do with that,” asked Anabel, “stand on it?”
Maybe the answer lay with the elephant. She looked at it closely. If they were friends, she was sure Minerva would give her a ride. Maybe she’d pick her up with her trunk and pop her on her back.
“She needs to know I’m her friend,” said Anabel.
Grandad held out the potato. Minerva eyed it hungrily but didn’t take it. Anabel picked up on the cue and approached her grandfather and the elephant.
She now held the potato out at arm’s length. “Why doesn’t she take it,” asked Anabel.
“Because your average elephant is far more polite than your average child. Now you have to lift your right arm … right arm … and say, ‘Minerva – food’.”
Anabel watched as Grandad demonstrated the arm raise and followed suit. She held the potato in her left hand, close to the elephant’s mouth. She said the magic words and waited for her hand to be bitten off along with the potato. Instead, a trunk that was taller than she was lifted effortlessly above her head and delicately plucked the potato out of her hand with what felt like a pair of heavy lips on the end of great big, thick and sturdy, grey and wrinkled trunk. The tip of the trunk disappeared inside the elephant’s mouth and came out without the potato.
“She didn’t even chew,” said Anabel.
“Okay, let’s try her with something bigger.” This time Grandad produced a turnip. It was quite a big turnip. It never failed to amaze Anabel what Grandad kept hidden away in the pockets of his coat. He once came out with a ferret. For all she knew, it was still in there.
Anabel took the turnip and repeated the trick. This time she heard a brief crunch before the elephant swallowed whatever was left.
“That should do it,” said Grandad. “Right, stage two. Raise your right arm again – right arm – and this time say ‘Minerva – down’.”
The arm went up and “Minerva – down,” she said.
She looked at Grandad.
Nothing happened again.
Grandad shook his head. “She might be broken.”
A thought crossed Anabel’s mind. This time she raised her hand and said in a loud, clear and friendly voice, “Minerva – down – please.”
With barely a second’s hesitation, the elephant bent both front legs at the knee and lowered her head, keeping her trunk just a few inches above the ground.
And Anabel was up. She’d put one foot on Minerva’s outstretched leg, pushed herself forward, then, as gently as she could, she steadied herself with a hand at the back of an enormous ear and hauled and scrambled as Grandad pushed her as high as he could until she dragged herself to the middle of Minerva’s great wide shoulders. And then she’d hung on as best as she was able while the elephant lurched to its feet.
“I can see for miles!” she cried, swivelling around and looking in all directions. “I can see the tents in the field behind the barn … and there’s the sheep ... I can see the road at the bottom of the drive... I can see Mrs B. coming over the style … and I don’t think she’s very happy. Grandad, how can she not be happy when we’ve got an elephant!”
“I might have an idea about that,” said Grandad.
It turned out he was right.
“Get that little girl off that great bit elephant right now!” demanded Mrs B as she hurried across the paddock. “Now! Right this minute! Oh, you foolish old man, and you’re not much better, sitting up there like the Queen of Sheba.”
“Hiya Mrs B,” said Anabel. Do you want to ride, too? There’s plenty of room. She’s –”
“Anabel Mary Brown, you get down right now!”
“Hmm,” said Grandad.
Mrs B knew Grandad quite well. They’d lived together for more years than he could remember but she was keeping count. She knew exactly what “Hmm” meant.
“You foolish, foolish man,” she repeated and punched him on the arm. “You put her up there, a little girl like that, without the slightest thought about how to get her down. It’s like the ostriches all over again.”
For her part, Anabel was going nowhere. She’d waited all her life to get aboard an elephant and she wasn’t going down without a fight. Besides, there was plenty of room on Minerva’s back. She could spend the whole of the summer holidays up there if she liked, and she’d even ride her into school if they ever made her go back.
“I think I’ll stay up here if that’s alright. Look, there’s plenty of space to lie down.” She showed them but only for a moment. An elephant’s back might be pretty big but it’s not that flat and she wasn’t ready to slide off, not just now and not from that height. She knelt on the elephant instead and peered down. “I could eat all my meals up here. I might need a bucket later but I’m okay for now. Can I Grandad? Can I Mrs B?”
“For your information, I know exactly how to get a small girl off an elephant,” said Grandad to his wife. “We just need a big stick.” Grandad had great faith in gravity and a pointy stick.
As they made their way to the big barn where there was a pitchfork and plenty of straw for a soft landing it crossed Anabel’s mind that Minerva could be shortened Mini.
“I wonder what she’s giggling about,” said Grandad to Mrs B.
“Who knows,” said Mrs B, “it’s just nice to hear her laughing again.”
Mini became Minnie, mostly because Minnie is a name while mini is a description, and a joke to be told only once. To tell the truth, Grandad had told Anabel about twenty times that he got it, and it just wasn’t funny any more. He solved the problem once and for all by carving “MINNIE” into a plank of wood and nailing it above the middle barn.
The middle barn – the one that used to house the tractor and the trailers – was now home to a very large Indian elephant. Well, maybe it wasn’t very large by Indian elephant standards but if you put her next to a sheep, well, you could spot the difference straight away. Even when you put her next to a dozen or more sheep, there still seemed to be a lot more elephant than wool.
The funny thing was, the sheep loved Minnie. Wherever she was, there they were. They flocked around her like, well, sheep, I suppose.
As a rule, the sheep on Spring Bank Farm were allowed to go wherever they wanted, as long as they wanted to stay in the fields. They could stay in the high field with the trees at the top and the fishing lake at the bottom. They could stay in the middle field with the campers and the tents and the small shower block at the side, or they could graze the lush grass in the meadow below the farmhouse, all the way down past the stream and on to the hawthorn hedges that marked the lower boundary of Grandad’s land. Okay, they were actively discouraged from straying into the planted fields of beetroot, strawberries, alfalfa and turnips but any sheep who wanted to was free to wander into Mrs B’s kitchen, help itself to snack from the fridge and lie on the sofa in front of the television. As far as Grandad was concerned, they could take a shower, use the downstairs loo, or log onto his wifi. He wouldn’t have minded at all as long as they cleaned up after themselves. All they had to do in return was give up their wool in the summer, produce a few little lambs in the spring and, every once in a while, make a meaningful contribution to Sunday lunch. He’d said it before and he’d say it again, Grandad was perfectly happy with a mushroom bake or a lentil curry and if any of the sheep were to turn up with a veggie casserole then he would be happy again. “Their choice entirely,” whispered Grandad who felt that he was doing them a favour with the haircuts not to mention the whole baby-sheep-making business.
“Sheep don’t have a choice,” said Anabel, but very quietly. “That’s why they’re sheep.”
“Everyone has a choice,” said Grandad.
“Don’t be silly, dear,” said Mrs B, in hushed tones.
It was first thing in the morning and they were in the barn. Of course, first thing in the morning is a whole lot earlier on a farm than it is anywhere else. For most of us it would be the middle of the night. Even in the summer, first thing in the morning for your average farmer was the time between the stars beginning to fade and the sun peeking its head above the horizon.
They were whispering about sheep because just in front of them a small flock of a dozen or so ewes and a couple of rams were dreaming peacefully. Anabel knew exactly what they were dreaming about. They were dreaming about elephants. And they were dreaming about elephants because right in the middle of the sleeping flock an elephant was snoring quietly.
“I’m going back to bed,” said Grandad, who was not your average farmer. If he’d wanted to get up in the middle of night he’d have kept cows. He didn’t keep cows, he kept turnips. Turnips were known to lie in until almost lunch time.
“Me too,” said Mrs B. “And so should you, young lady.”
“She’s not standing up,” said Anabel. “She should be standing up. Elephants sleep standing up. And they only sleep for two hours a night and sometimes not at all. I thought she’d be lonely.” As she looked at Minnie surrounded by a living woolly blanket, Anabel knew that whatever Minnie was, she wasn’t lonely.
“I think it’s fair to say, she’s not your average elephant,” said Grandad, who knew about these things.
By the time Anabel fell out of bed for the second time Mrs B was already baking croissants while Grandad was out somewhere on the farm feeding something. He usually was in the morning, only not first thing.
“Can I have some?” asked Anabel, looking greedily at a bowl of chocolate chips on the long wooden kitchen table.
“Would you like the long answer or the short answer?”
Anabel already knew the long answer. It was like the short answer with the word “chance” added to the end.
“I’ll do you an egg in a minute,” said Mrs B. “We’re just waiting for … speak of the devil.”
“How’s Minnie?” asked Anabel, before the door was fully open.
“Just a sec,” called Grandad, pulling his muddy boots off and leaving them on the step. “Now how’s who?” he said, a moment later, closing the back door behind him.
“Minnie,” said Anabel. “The elephant. Last seen in the middle barn, fast asleep, blanket of sheep.”
“Ah, one of the elephants. Speaking of which, the rhinos arrive today … just joking!” he added quickly. “Rhinos, I ask you, on a farm. Ridiculous.”
“But they lay the biggest eggs,” said Anabel.
“I expect they do,” agreed Grandad, while Mrs B pushed him out of the way to reach for one of the smaller pans that hung from the ceiling.
We’ll not spend too long describing the farmhouse because in a few chapters this story is going to be heading in another direction altogether. Having said that, there were cupboards in Mrs B’s kitchen, but what was in the them was anybody’s guess. Everything Mrs B needed was out in plain view, hanging from the ceiling like the pots, pans, colanders and cauldrons; or lining the endless shelves under the herbs that hung from the lintels over the windows. There were solid wooden chopping boards on solid wooden worktops and banks of knives and cleavers under the plate racks on the dressers. There was the small fridge in the corner with the basket full of eggs on top but Mrs B kept most of the fresh produce in the pantry at the back of the kitchen, along with the other fridge and a chest freezer big enough to hold a whole pig, properly butchered.
Grandad added a handful of eggs to the basket only for Mrs B to take them out again and pop them into the pan of water that was coming to the boil on the big black range that was the real focal point of the kitchen.
“Before I forget to mention it,” said Mrs B, “your dad phoned while you were still in bed.” It wasn’t like Anabel had forgotten her father. He was a difficult man to forget, and for many reasons, but for the best part of the last twenty-four hours her head had been full of elephant. “You were supposed to call him yesterday.”
“And did you call your mum?”
“I’m not talking to my mum.”
“I know that, but she’s talking to you. Do you want to call her now?”
“Not really. Anyway, she’ll be at work.”
“I expect she will. Later then, and don’t you forget. Anyway, your dad’s going to call in this afternoon, if he gets the chance,” said Mrs B.
Anabel and Grandad exchanged a look.
“We’ve got an elephant,” said Grandad. “He might.”
“You want to bet?” she said, although in her heart she knew that her Grandad might be right. Okay, he hadn’t turned up on Sunday like he’d promised but things had changed since then. Her dad liked things that were unusual, exotic and even a little bit dangerous. He used to ride a motorbike, even when Anabel was very young and her mum and dad still lived together. He didn’t have the motorbike any more but he had a sports car. He’d bought it a year ago, not long after he’d moved in with Doris. Doris wasn’t her real name. Her real name was Tiffany or Chantelle or Brandie-Anne or something stupid like that and she had two kids called Thing 1 and Thing 2. Now her dad and Brandie-Anne were going to have a baby of their own. This was ridiculous, Anabel knew that. How could her father be trusted with a baby? The last time he’d had one he’d lost it. She knew. She was that baby.
But it wasn’t as simple as that.
Chapter 3 – the one with all the swearing
At first Anabel couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. This was surprising because it was quite a loud and insistent voice and reminiscent of the kind of voice that says things like, “I-wanna-sweetie,” and “I-don-wanna-gota-bed.”
Anabel lowered her gaze. A voice like that was usually about three feet from the ground.
And there it was, peering through the five-bar gate that separated the big barn from the middle barn. It was maybe four years old, with a mess of unbrushed mousy hair. It had a dirty face and a crusty nose with a finger in it. It was wearing Disney pyjamas, soiled at the knees and a pair of muddy red wellies.
If there was one thing Anabel didn’t like it was …
Actually, there were quite a few things Anabel didn’t like and several of them were happening at once.
1. She didn’t like four-year olds. In fact, she wasn’t keen on anyone in the three-to-seven year age range and she wasn’t that thrilled about toddlers. Babies were okay as long as they were asleep and the less said about teenagers the better.
2. She didn’t like being watched, especially when she was working. People who watched tended to criticise. In Anabel’s experience this was particularly true of teachers.
3. She didn’t like statements of the bleeding obvious. This included questions such as “wothcha doing?” when it was clear to anyone with eyes in their head that she was washing an elephant.
The gnome-like creature pulled itself up the gate so it could stand on the third bar to be able to see over the top. It spoke again. “My name’s Ginny. What’s your name called? Is that an elephant? I’ve got an elephant but it’s only a little one. Wotcha doin’?”
“I’m Anabel,” said Anabel, “and this is Minnie. Are you camping in the field?”
“We gotta tent,” said Ginny. “Iss blue. I gotta Sleeping Beauty sleeping bag cos of I’m a princess.”
“Cool,” said Anabel, who knew it was best to agree with princesses.
Anabel put down the sweeping brush and picked up the hose that was dribbling on the cobbles in the middle of the farmyard.
“Wotcha doin’?” said Ginny again.
“I’m giving her a bath,” said Anabel, who twisted the nozzle of the hose to let the water spray out. She turned the hose on the elephant, starting with a swoosh into Minnie’s open and expectant mouth.
This made Ginny giggle. “She’s thirsty. Is she thirsty?”
“She’s a very greedy elephant,” said Anabel. “She likes eating and drinking.” Anabel knew this for a fact because most of yesterday had been spent shovelling food in at one end and droppings from the other. Droppings were too small a word for what came out of Minnie. Grandad had another name for it. “Gold,” he called it. “Elephant gold. After unicorn shit, it’s probably the best manure in the world,” he’d said, and then he’d received another clout from Mrs B and a terrible warning to watch his language in front of sensitive ears.
Anabel’s ears weren’t sensitive any more. She’d heard a lot of language in her time and not all of it was fit for a princess.
“Where are your mum and dad?” asked Anabel. “Are they in the tent?”
“Mummy is,” said Ginny. “She’s with Bobby.”
“Is Bobby your mummy’s boyfriend?” asked Anabel, who was familiar with this sort of thing.
“No, silly. Bobby’s my baby brudder.”
“So where’s your daddy?”
“Looking for me,” said Ginny, and she giggled again.
Anabel sighed. Nothing makes a person sigh so much as having to do a good thing. She’d have to abandon Minnie in the middle of the bath to return the wretched child to its idiot parents up in the camping field. How could they possibly have been so stupid as to let a four-year old wander off alone?
“There you are!” said a voice, spotting the little girl as it rounded the corner of the big barn. “I told you to wait outside the toilets …
Holy crap, it‘s an elephant!”
“What was the give away?” said Anabel, but only to herself. She knew better to than to be sarcastic to people she’d only just met. “Was it the trunk? I bet it was the trunk.” Still to herself.
“S’elephant,” confirmed Ginny.
Anabel could tell it was Ginny’s dad by the pyjamas and wellies. It seemed to be a family trait.
“So what’s your name?” said Ginny’s dad.
Anabel knew well enough that he was asking about Minnie. “This is Minerva,” she said, “or Minnie for short.”
“Mini,” said Ginny’s dad. “That’s very funny.” He’d taken a position beside his daughter at the gate. “And have you got just the one elephant?”
Anabel wasn’t sure how to answer. Of course they only had one elephant. How many were they supposed to have, a herd? How could you keep a herd of elephants on a farm? It was ridiculous! Unless … … She’d talk to Grandad about this later. Could you have too many elephants, really?
Just in time, she remembered she’d been asked a question. “Yes, just the one.”
“But lots of sheep.” Ginny’s dad had spotted the sheep who were watching from under the kitchen window. “Are you going to wash them as well?” A strange smile crossed the man’s face. “Maybe you know the answer to this,” he said. “If a woolly jumper shrinks in the wash, how come sheep don’t shrink in the rain?”
“Damn it,” thought Anabel, “that’s a very good question,” but she didn’t want to say it out loud. If she said it out loud he might ask another one. Instead she said, “I don’t know,” even though she knew it made her look stupid. Then there was a silence.
Anabel wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. The plan had been simple: hose the elephant; brush the elephant. Start at one end and work her way along. Minnie had seemed to be happy with the plan and stood in the middle of the farmyard expectantly, occasionally picking up a turnip from a small pile and popping it in her mouth. There had been a bit of a discussion with Mrs B over whether or not to use hot water but Mrs B wasn’t one for backing down so Anabel was using the outside tap beside the big barn. But now she had an audience. They might be wondering why she wasn’t using hot water. They might be wondering why she was starting low and working her way up or why she was using a thick bristled outdoor brush rather that the soft brush Grandad used for sweeping the kitchen floor. She certainly didn’t want to clean an elephant’s bum when there were people watching.
And now there was an awkward silence and followed by an awkward pause as no-one did anything.
And then Ginny’s dad said to his daughter, “Come on, young girl. Better get you back and get dressed. Maybe we can come and see Mini again later?”
The last was said as much to Anabel.
“You can see her anytime,” said Anabel, “from a distance, and as long as she isn’t in the barn.” She didn’t say the “distance” thing out loud. That would have been rude. But the barn was for Minnie and no-one else. Just Minnie and Anabel.
Kids on the farm were an occupational hazard, or at least this was what Grandad called them, and Anabel was pretty sure she knew what he meant. They turned up with their parents or scout troop or whoever and made too much noise. Usually they complained about being bored or cold or wet or hungry until they found something better to do. For the bright ones, this didn’t take too long. For the most part, Anabel ignored them. Sometimes there weren’t any kids on the farm which made ignoring them even harder but sometimes, only sometimes, Anabel would make friends with one of them. One of them was never going to be Ginny and for the moment she was the only kid on the farm.
Most of the campers came for the walking or the fishing. From Grandad’s farm they could get straight up into the Pennines. The Foothills of the Peak District was what grandad called it and what it said in the brochure. The other thing the brochure said was that the fish were so big you’d better bring a harpoon.
She had just finished brushing the long black hairs at the end of Minnie’s tail when Grandad came out to make his inspection.
“You missed a bit,” he said, because he was always going to. “Did you do the ears?”
“What ears?” said Anabel.
Grandad laughed because it’s hard to miss an elephant’s ears.
“You’ve done a mighty fine job,” said Grandad. “Now how about taking the sheep up to the top field. There’s some windfall there and Minnie can help herself.”
There were fruit trees in the top field – mostly apples and pears – and windfall was anything that came down before Grandad could pick it.
“Grandad,” said Anabel, because the question had been playing on her mind, “how come sheep don’t shrink in the rain?”
If there was one single difference between Grandad and Mrs Fossa-Mensa it was that Grandad was an old white farmer while Mrs F-M was a young black teacher: Anabel’s class teacher to be more precise. If there was another difference, and Anabel suspected there was, it was that Mrs F-M said things like, “There are no stupid questions,” while Grandad could recognise a stupid question at thirty paces, in the dark, with his eyes shut.
“Good question,” said Grandad, while Anabel could clearly hear Mrs F-M saying, “What are you talking about now, Anabel Brown?” She said this quite a lot. It had taken Anabel most of the year to realise that Mrs Fossa-Brown said it whenever she didn’t know the answer to one of Anabel’s stupid questions.
“Why don’t sheep shrink in the rain?” said Grandad. “Hmm … Why don’t sheep shrink in the … I mean, woolly jumpers shrink in the wash, so how come – Got it!” He shouted happily. “Woolly jumpers don’t shrink in cold water and rain is cold so that’s why sheep don’t shrink. Yep, that sounds about right.”
“So if we put a sheep in the shower …?” began Anabel.
“It has to be worth a go,” said Grandad, and maybe they would have done it if Mrs B hadn’t happened to pop outside right at that moment.
It turned out that sheep are pre-shrunk. When they told her what they were going to do, Mrs B explained that, like all mammals, baby sheep develop inside their mother’s womb. This was filled with something called amniotic fluid and it was the amniotic fluid that made sheep shrink to their proper size, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get out.
Anabel was up in the top field with Minnie when she heard her dad’s car hurtling up the lane. More specifically, she was fighting a losing battle trying to stop the elephant from picking fruit directly from the branches of the trees.
“There!” she’d shout, pointing at a pear lying on the ground just waiting for a passing pachyderm to pick it up. “There!” she shouted again, “And there! Look, there’s loads of them … No, put it back!”
She’d even tried picking them up herself and pushing them into to Minnie’s great big mouth but Minnie was having none of it. The pear would be popped in and then the biggest, pinkest tongue Anabel had ever seen would be stuck out, with a pear sitting in the middle of it, and then the pear would roll off to join all the others on the grassy carpet of Grandad’s little orchard. And then the stupid, stubborn elephant would spy an apple in the upper branches and that was that. A stretch of a trunk, a curl of a wrinkly grey nostril and another apple snaffled.
Anabel was in the hopeless process of pushing, shoving and heaving Minnie away from the trees when the unmistakable roar of the little red sportscar caught her attention. There was something about the noise that caught Minnie’s ear as well and her massive head turned from the trees to see where the sound was coming from.
When she was a younger girl, Anabel would have been tearing down the hill to throw herself into the arms of her father. Even a year ago and she would have been waiting at the farmyard gates, and she would have been there since breakfast. But that was a year ago. She’d lost count of how many times she’d waited in vain since then. Long hours spent sitting on her own. Oh, it was a waste of time, she knew that. He’d text to say he wasn’t coming and she’d phone to say he’d promised and he’d say he was sorry and she’d say he promised and he’d say he’d try and she’d be waiting and sometimes he’d come but more often than not he didn’t. It had got worse just lately, it really had, and it wasn’t just her imagination. Sure, there were times when she was younger when he hadn’t turned up but then there were other times when he showed up unannounced. She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.
The trouble was, when he was there he was really there. Her mum could be in the same room, watching the same film or playing the same game, only she’d be somewhere else entirely.
“It’s your go,” said Anabel, the Monopoly board spread out between them.
“Hmm?” said her mother, looking up from a text that had just come through.
“You need to roll an eight,” said Anabel, because then her mum would land on Vine Street with two houses. “Or a six.” Marlborough had a house as well.
“Sorry,” said mum. “It’s Mel.” Mel was the head teacher at mum’s school. “I’ve got to give a presentation tomorrow.”
“Good for you,” said Anabel. “Today you’ve got to roll a six … or an eight.”
“Sorry, Annie. I’ve really got to prepare. Maybe we can finish this after you’ve had your bath.”
Perhaps if she’d looked up, her mother would have noticed that Anabel was in her dressing gown with her hair wrapped in a towel. She’d had a bath while her mum was doing her marking.
Her dad wasn’t like that at all. He’d be telling her to buy more houses on Vine Street and ignore the yellows. “Buy cheap, build fast,” was his rule for Monopoly, which meant Anabel being Anabel would go for Mayfair and Park Lane. She loved it when he had half the property on the board, no cash left, and then he landed on Mayfair with a hotel on it.
“Two grand!” she said, pushing the card under his nose. “Read it and weep.”
Of course, he usually won, and then they’d play again.
When she played her mum, she used her dad’s tactics. Brown’s, blues and oranges, though she had a soft spot for the yellows. She knew it didn’t make sense but not everything does.
And now he was really here.
This time she was prepared. She had an elephant and she knew how to use it.
“Minerva – down – please!” she said with her right arm in the air.
Minerva looked at the little girl. Minerva spied a pear in the branches just above the little girl’s head. Minerva took a distant look at the little red car that was slowing down as it turned into the farmyard, and Minerva reached for the pear, plucked it in the instant, and popped it in her mouth. Then she dropped down onto her front knees and laid her head and trunk flat to the ground so Anabel could climb aboard.
“So where’s this elephant I’ve heard so much about,” said her dad as Anabel rode Minerva across the cattle grid and into the farm yard.
On any other day, Anabel might have replied, “Elephant? What elephant?” or “I don’t suppose you’ve seen an elephant around here somewhere?” Instead she was eyeing the seven-year old boy who was holding her father’s hand.
“What’s he doing here?” she wanted to say, not as a question but as an accusation. The alternative was raising a hand and saying in a loud, clear and commanding voice, “Minerva – stomp – please!” The outcome would be pleasing.
Instead she said nothing.