A chronic form of filariasis, due to lymphatic obstruction,
characterised by enormous enlargement of the
My cousin Meredith has elephantiasis. To say this is
not to imply that she is fat, though, coincidentally,
she is. Not just a little overweight, but quite fat.
Meredith has the kind of body that means shopping for clothes
in the Big is Beautiful section; that entails judging carefully the
width of chairs with arms. Hers is the kind of flesh that feels,
sliding over it in supermarkets, in doctors' waiting rooms or
worse, the Family Planning Clinic, the averting glances of
whip-thin girls with blonde ponytails and long necks with
which to flick them.
It's not only Meredith that has elephantiasis. Her villa unit
-- one of a set of brick and tile triplets nestled on a landscaped
block -- has elephantiasis also. In the lounge room, the suite is
piled with plump cushions embroidered, cross-stitched, latch-hooked, printed and painted with elephants. Others are simply
in the shape of elephants. Sentinel to the hearth are two
mahogany elephants, which, by virtue of timber that is unrefined
and almost hairy, bears a family resemblance to their
ancestor, the woolly mammoth. The mantelpiece holds a passing
parade of jade, serpentine, onyx, ebony and marble elephants.
Elephants have even made it into the bathroom, where
the plastic bodies of Babar and Celeste are filled with bubble
bath. In the kitchen, the fridge door flutters with no fewer than
six fliers (the one that arrived by chance in Meredith's own post
augmented by five others passed on by thoughtful friends), all
seeking donations to help an unfortunate Thai elephant, the
victim of a landmine explosion, in need of a prosthetic foot.
Each of the fliers is attached to the fridge with a separate elephant-
shaped fridge magnet.
Meredith wonders at how quickly the elephant effect
gained momentum. The first elephant, a palm-sized figurine
carved in ivory-pale wood, was from no-one of particular consequence.
The giver had sat next to Meredith in a personal
development seminar, perhaps five years ago. She was a woman
with raspy greying hair and a long crooked body which she was
always shifting in her chair, as if simply sitting caused her pain
in her bones. The woman mentioned she was planning a holiday
to Africa, and Meredith -- outside in the car park after the
seminar was over -- gave her a blow-up neck pillow for the plane
journey. Meredith had found the pillow uncomfortable, and so it
had been lying, deflated, in the boot of her car for months.
The second elephant was a soft toy, pale grey and plush. It
was also a thankyou gift, this time from a neighbour whose
plumes of agapanthus Meredith watered while the neighbour
was away nursing her sick mother. To this day Meredith does
not know whether the neighbour chose the soft toy in response
to the wooden African elephant on the (then relatively uncluttered)
mantelpiece, or whether it was a purely coincidental
choice. In any case, after that the elephantiasis spread like a virus
to birthdays and Christmases, even to Easter, as friends, family
and colleagues were seized by the thematic simplicity of it all.
An annoyingly useless possession
The truth is that Meredith does not even like elephants, and
never did particularly. Before they took over her life, Meredith
had for elephants no special feelings. Now that the elephantiasis
is advanced, her house a shrine to the order Proboscidea, she
resents them. Perhaps, she thinks sometimes, the elephantiasis
was a punishment for an act of bad faith: giving away a travel
pillow that she already knew to be uncomfortable. She feels,
however, that the punishment has gone far enough, since it is
now her entire existence that is stretched out of shape, swollen
up and distorted with elephants.
Could she have halted the stampede? Yes, almost certainly.
She could, at some point, have mentioned that she would prefer
to collect butterflies. Or springboks. In her most soul-bare
moments she knows why she did not, does not. And it's not
only because she is naturally conciliatory, and polite in a style
that is grateful for a gift, no matter how awful. It's because she
knows that her friends, family and colleagues see this (imagined)
fondness of hers for elephants as proof of her jolliness. It
is evidence of her good-natured acceptance of her fatness. A
huge joke against herself. There she is, an elephantine woman
surrounding herself with familiars. And a jolly fat woman without
jolliness is left, she understands, with only one adjective.
A Word from Rosie Little
ON TOTEMIC WORSHIP
Gift shops thrive on people who have chosen
-- or, as in the case of Meredith, have had
chosen for them -- an animal totem. Perhaps
it is a desire of the domesticated human to
connect with an inner wildness that makes
African safari animals such popular choices.
Giraffes, lions and elephants are usually
available as small carved wooden idols,
keyrings, pencil cases with zippers down their
backs, erasers, blown-glass trinkets and
stuffed toys. Elephants, considered lucky, are
more likely than the others to be found as tiny
silver charms for a bracelet, tinkling against
hearts, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, money
bags, and wishbones.
The Howards, who reside at Castle
Howard of Brideshead Revisited fame, collect
hippopotamuses. I once saw the hippos displayed
in the castle's entrance portico, a frippery
amid the ancient Greek statues, the
overarching frescos, the great, heavy gilt of it
all. In a glass cabinet are comic china hippopotamuses
decked out for golfing, an elaborate
Fabergé hippopotamus, and a group of
serene grazing hippopotamuses etched into
glass by a leading London artisan. Some of
the hippopotamuses were given by the
Howards to one another as anniversary gifts,
while others have come from well-wishers
who know the couple's proclivity for the animals
and have no doubt thought of the couple
when they've stumbled across an unusual
one. The Howards are pleased to say that one
of their favourite hippos -- a wooden carving
with large ears -- was purchased for one
pound and fifty pence at an Oxfam store. But
they regret that they cannot have on display,
due to its limited shelf-life, the charming
carved-potato hippopotamus that was once
sent to them by an admirer.
THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT
For Meredith, the single worst thing about being a primary
schoolteacher is the last day of the school year. On that day the
children arrive, all glowing with the joy of giving, presents for
teacher in hand. Even the grottiest boys are coy and sweet with
gift-wrapped anticipation. Among the presents Meredith
receives there is always a mug with an elephant's trunk as its
handle. Some of these mugs are slip-cast with Dumbo-type elephants
that have fat, pale-grey curves and pink inner ears.
Others are of bone china, and bear more serious elephants with
trunks finely ridged and delicate pale slivers for tusks. Usually,
too, there is a cushion cover, lately in Indian-sari style with
small circular mirrors blanket-stitched to the elephants' pink
and orange saddles.
Meredith teaches at a private school, and there are newly
moneyed parents who like to make expansive gestures of their
gratitude. As a result her courtyard water feature (placed
according to feng shui principles) is ringed by a conference of
solemn pachyderms of plaster and sandstone, soapstone and
When Meredith was nine years old, the same age as the
children she now teaches, her mother Rhona took her to the
hospital to visit her Auntie Pat, who had just given birth to the
baby Rosemary (yes, that would be me). On the way to the
hospital Meredith and her mother stopped at a newsagency to
buy a card. Meredith, a tall child without ankles and with dimples
for knees, was allowed to choose. She was drawn to a small
square card with a marshmallow-pink pig surrounded by tufts
of green grass, sporting a green polka-dot bow between its
peaked ears. It was a happy-looking pig, and Meredith thought
that the arrival of a cousin was a happy sort of occasion. She
picked out the card and gave it happily to her mother, who
crossly shoved it back down into the card rack, dog-earing a
corner of it.
'You can't give a woman a card like that, Meredith! You
might as well call her a pig!'
This was one of a number of psychic slaps that Rhona was
unwittingly to give her daughter. Meredith has never forgotten
that incident in the newsagency, and as a result of it is always
careful not to buy greeting cards with images that might be
considered, even in any obscure or tangential way, inappropriate.
And every year on the last day of school, after defeating the
pit-deep dread that makes her want to vomit or at least call in
sick, she takes herself reluctantly to work. She smiles and thanks
sincerely each exuberant gift-giver. But she thinks, as she
unwraps each parcel, 'you might as well call me an elephant'.
Elephants do not mate for life
--Elephant Information Repository
For a time, Meredith had a boyfriend called Adrian Purdy. He
was an information technology teacher at a high school adjacent
to her primary school, and it is my strong suspicion that he never
entirely discarded his teenage fascination with role-playing
games. The internet filled the hole in his life which had opened
when his old university mates moved on from Dungeons &
Dragons to golf. Although he and Meredith were together for
many years, Adrian continued to live with his mother. This was
largely because his mother took the view that couples who lived
together before they were married did not deserve wedding
presents. They had not, she said, sacrificed anything.
Jean Purdy had the long torso, short legs and lopsided gait
that were, Adrian told Meredith, characteristic of female trolls.
(Who were, Adrian told Meredith, the original 'trollops'.)
Meredith found it hard not to picture Jean -- especially when
she delivered her doubt-free treatises on everything from the
sanctity of smacking children to the benefits of fibre, the cure
for leaf-curl in lemon trees and the cheek of indigenous people
expecting apologies for things done in their best interests --
standing beneath a bridge, her skull knobbled with horns.
Jean was as hard and defined as a stone, and she left
Meredith feeling bruised. Jean was loud, while Meredith spoke
as if she might diminish her size by keeping her voice small.
Jean began dieting discussions with the prefix, 'Now I hope
you won't mind me saying, but…' And behind those words
Meredith heard the tearing of fabric, the ripping away of her
veil of invisibility. Jean might as well have been saying: Of
course they notice, Meredith…rip…Do you really think anybody
could be looking at you…rip…and not be thinking…fat…
After a while Meredith learned that when she heard 'Now
I hope you won't mind me saying, but…' it was time to go. Her
body remained there -- monumentally there -- in Jean's fussy
Laura Ashley living room. But her mind departed the scene,
leaving the soft flesh of the body to absorb the blows.