Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lolita and me

Are you one of those people who’s never ridden an elephant? I’m not.
Did I say, she’s called Lolita? Although, she’s probably answering to “Omigod!” now, because that’s all I can say for the first ten minutes. If you have the chance, you must get nose to trunk with an elephant, it’s the best best thing. I can’t look Lolita in the eyes, not because my house is brimming with shameful artefacts in ivory, but because I can only see one of her eyes at a time, I’m so close. I try each eye, in turn, hoping to pierce the mystery of her speechlessness, but she just blinks back at me, unfathomable. I give up. She’s probably thinking, “Another squealing pasty-face. I wonder how much she weighs?” so it’s perhaps as well we don’t do the mind-meld thing.
Her skin’s Brillo-pad tough, deeply corrugated and bristly, so it surprises me that her trunk’s more flexible than wet spaghetti. She curls the end of it round my hand – she’s got quite a grip, for a girl - and I wonder in passing if she’s going to eat me, but she’s just being as curious about me as I am about her. This is how distracted I am: I forget to ask her keeper his name. Let’s call him Bernard. He tells me Lolita’s 25 years old, and that she eats 250 kilos of food a day, which makes me feel better about that second slice of toast this morning. She won’t have her first calf until she is 30 or 35. Quite the modern woman, then, establishing a career before starting a family. To regulate her temperature, she waves her translucent ears back and forth, back and forth. Bernard says it also helps with her breathing. He should know.
And then it’s time. In front of me, a flight of brick stairs, like a slice of ziggurat. I climb, as fast as my wibbly knees will allow, and stand at the top, waiting for Lolita to shuffle herself into position. At a syllable from Bernard, she offers him her curled trunk. He steps onto it, as if it were an elevator, and she lifts him into the air, setting him down lightly on her own head. (Fancy that being an ordinary part of your every working day...) With a guiding hand from Bernard’s sidekick, I step onto Lolita’s back, and sit on the cane-and-sisal contraption strapped to her. This isn’t something you should do, wearing a skirt. Before you get dressed each morning, consider whether elephant rides are potentially on the agenda, so you can select your day’s ensemble accordingly. It’s also an advantage, if you’re slightly double-jointed at the hip. Have you seen how wide an elephant’s back is?

We set off. I’m so paralysed by joy, not only can I not speak, I can barely breathe. Perhaps I should try waggling my ears. The ride’s very much as you think it would be, slow, lumbering – Lolita’s not built for speed, thankfully – but you’re never not aware of her sheer mass and strength. When we reach the park gates, she seems inclined to take to the high road. I’m well up for it, but Bernard gives her a poke on the back of the head, with what looks very much like a crow-bar. She turns back to the park, huffing.
How much is an elephant?” I want to know. Bernard says, “One elephant, one million rupees.” I wonder what my portfolio’s worth, then remember I don’t have one, so I start calculating what’s in the sock under our mattress. Roland says it’s just an unreachable figure, as far as Bernard’s concerned. Still, £12,500. Does anyone want to go halves with me?
Too soon, too soon, we make it back to the landing-stage. There’s no-one waiting. Bernard asks if I want another lap, and I’m so overwhelmed, I nearly say no. I don’t though. We go for a second turn. I almost can’t wait to get off, so I can start thinking about it. Dismounting, my legs are as bendy as Lolita’s trunk. Bernard makes her lift that selfsame trunk, in a goodbye salute, and I hear my heart crack. I think I’m in love.