by Sonia Trickey
I found the tusk by accident at about midnight on the Tuesday of that week you went to Shanghai.
It was ironic really because, as you like to observe, I never clean under the bed. After the kids had fallen asleep, I had taken a bottle of the single estate Californian Zinfandel we both like upstairs with me, then knocked it over. The wine seeped under the bed so I had to move it to mop up the spill. I guess if you’d been home, you might have cleaned it up and I would never have found it. But then again, if you’d been home I wouldn’t have been having wine in bed.
I kept moving the bed because the wine kept trickling further underneath. I knew that if I didn’t wipe it all away, you would take note, immediately leading to several potential arguments: there’s the one about the ‘exorbitant’ cost of the limed oak flooring; there’s the one where I ask you to clean the floor because I need to control you; there’s the one about how I never complete tasks properly because I always need you to ‘save me’; and there are a host of others too, nine-tenths of them below the surface.
It’s funny what you can find under a bed, isn’t it? One minute I’m mopping up the Zinfandel that’s pooling on the bedroom floor and the next I’m contemplating a loose floorboard. Who can resist the promise of a loose floorboard? I prised it up to reveal your secret lurking under the conjugal couch.
I screamed out loud. I know that sounds dramatic but I had literally found a body part under the floorboards: it was so big, so organic, so utterly in the wrong place and at first I had no idea what it was. It looked like an ancient bald tree trunk or a horn ripped off the head of a giant cow. I tried to skype you, but you didn’t pick up so I started googling my way through a labyrinth of searches until I reached a page filled with images of elephants’ tusks.
I was comparing the images on the iPad to the tusk, which was mostly still in shadow, when I decided to pull up a second floorboard to get a better view. That revealed the brown envelope tucked just out of sight, filled with spreadsheets, and notes in your small, even handwriting. I especially enjoyed the index – so like you, always keeping it all pinned down, everything in its proper place. Except there was this monstrous incongruity under our bed.
I was consulting Google like it was the Delphic Oracle. I was struggling to breathe, surfing the ‘family’ iPad in our Dorset Cream bedroom (not Churned Butter, not Dark White), with the children sleeping in their Scandi-designer duvet sets in the rooms next door, aware that underneath us all you have buried this relic from a time when the mountains were new and huge ice sheets covered the earth. My brain was making scattergun connections – as you put it – and I concluded that the couple we’d bought the house from had been ivory smugglers, which seemed really improbable thinking back to Mr and Mrs White with their coving, Clarks shoes and carefully hoovered corners, but I guess you never can tell. None of it made any sense: you’re so ordered, so law abiding, you’re such a germophobe. How did you get hold of it and why are you hiding it? Are you a collector? Maybe it’s a new hobby? Maybe you’ve been training as a shaman? Maybe it’s a fitness thing? Or a sex thing? Are you an undercover paleontologist? Were you even in Shanghai?
Of course, there was nothing to do but replace the floorboards, push the bed back into the middle of the room, turn out the light and pretend to myself that everything was normal.
You came back from Shanghai jet-lagged and, for once, happy to be home. I didn’t want to raise a mammoth tusk that first evening while you were helping Alfie read, or the following day when you were coaching Flo to improve her backhand, or the next weekend when you complimented my new haircut. Besides, so long as I didn’t think about the mammoth tusk suspended between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor of our family home, life carried on as before. We ate our dinners under it. We had the requisite sex on top of it. I tried to think of it as a benign relic sanctifying our home, delivering us from evil.
Except it was all I thought about, like a compulsive extra marital affair. Every Thursday, when you went to your running club, I’d put the kids to bed, pour a glass of wine, raise the floorboards and learn about mammoth tusks. First, I read the documents I found inside your brown envelope cover to cover, and then I did research of my own. I learnt how to read the rings in the tusk and what it told us about the mammoth’s life. Do you know that she was about 50 years old when she died? That’s a good life for a mammoth. Most of the rings are thick which tells us that she was well nourished but there are some gaps. That’s when she had a pregnancy. She had ten pregnancies, almost one every four years. Sometimes it felt like we were collaborating separately but together. There was so much that I wanted to share with you but I could never find the right way.
I began sketching it – its brown speckled smoothness, its firm ellipse. I wanted to capture something about its ancientness, release the history suspended in its calcified bands. I grew fascinated by the visual detail and I filled page after page of a sketchbook with drawings of the thing, ever closer, ever more magnified. It began to permeate my designs at work. How could you fail to recognise those spiralling ochre cracks on that cover I did for the poetry book? Or the uneven cream circles on that jacket design for the book about Iceland? Couldn’t you see?
The tusk seeped into the whole family. It can’t be a coincidence that Alfie is so obsessed with dinosaurs and that Flo has decided on a career in archaeology. We’ve visited every dinosaur bone and prehistoric site within a two hour radius of our home and I keep hoping you’ll say something, make the first move. I’ve tried to help; I know you find it hard to open up. Do you remember that conversation we had in the Natural History Museum about woolly mammoths? You do realise I engineered that entire day just to stand you in front of a reconstructed mammoth’s skeleton so you could talk to me about mammoths without it being weird. And this is what we said:
Me: I’ve always found mammoths fascinating, haven’t you?
You: I suppose.
Me: I was slightly obsessed with them as a kid. Did you know that you can learn all about their lives from their tusks?
You: Like elephants, I suppose?
Me: Yes, exactly like elephants. In fact some people think that using ivory from mammoth tusks is more ethical than using ivory from elephant tusks.
You turned and looked at me then, subjecting me to that searching scrutiny you now normally reserve for technical drawings of complex machines or the costings of a new project at work. As I held your attention, I was transported back to when we first met – a time when some offhand observation I made about the slant of the light or a facetious quip about the composition of an advert could effortlessly command that focus from you.
I’m convinced that you were about to say something urgent but then Flo tore up to us, demanding an ice cream, forcing us to retreat into our hidey roles – Mum, Dad.
I’ve speculated on that unspoken utterance a lot, the whole conversation in fact – the way you rubbed the back of your head before you mentioned elephants, the inflection in your voice, the hesitation before the “Oh”, the green in your eyes. I’ve thought about it so much that the memory has become frayed and unreliable. Sometimes it feels like it was a moment of understanding; a movement towards communion but maybe it was just more misreading, another glancing collision in the dark. Or maybe it was nothing. Do you even remember it?
The chasm between my obsession with the tusk and your refusal to acknowledge it terrified me. Your dark silence was so impenetrable that I even started to doubt that the tusk was there or that you knew anything about it.
So this evening, when you made that joke about Alfie needing his tusks sorting out by the dentist, it was a provocation, wasn’t it? You were taunting me, you were deliberately goading me. You wanted me to say something.
Me: Why have you got a mammoth’s tusk under the bed?
I’d been on the cusp of saying it so many times that I couldn’t quite believe I’d finally uttered the words. Your face immediately flushed: you were angry and that’s what made the kids fall silent. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned your secret.
You: Sweetheart, there’s no tusk under the bed.
Me: There is a tusk under the bed.
I was shaking now. Flo looked at me, appalled
You: There’s no tusk under the bed. Mummy’s joking.
Tusk, tusk, tusk. There was something faintly scurrilous about the whole idea of tusks and beds. Once it would have made us laugh.
Your flat denial made me furious. I wanted to disrupt your composure, for you to share my terrifying uncertainty. I had a wicked idea:
Me: There’s no tusk, is there?
You began to look slightly less composed, a bit grey. That was better.
I led the whole family upstairs like a gorgon pied-piper, you trailing limply behind, caught up in a maelstrom you could no longer contain.
We arrived at the bed. I heaved it aside and ripped up the floorboard.
There was nothing there.
You paused and looked down into the empty space, your breathing got slightly heavier and you frowned, like you were trying to puzzle something out. Then you bobbed, as if you were going to look properly, nearly revealing that you were expecting to find something after all but Flo interrupted.
Flo: Daddy’s right. There’s no tusk.
You straightened up and looked at me, your jaw tense. I thought you wanted to confront me but the kids were there. It seemed prudent for me to leave at that point.
I’d moved the tusk and your brown envelope earlier, of course – they were in the car. Surprising you with the emptiness was malicious but I’m tired of being the one in the dark. I wanted to be one step ahead for once.
I’d done some snooping on your computer, looking for more clues about your connection to the tusk, and I found the file you named Tusk3. It took me a while to understand what I was looking at – all the colour-coded columns and sums, the neat headings: alcohol consumed; hours slept; spending; tusk movement; menstrual cycle; mood. I hardly recognised myself. Incidentally, you shouldn’t have used Times New Roman, I’m more Gill Sans.
It was like the evening I found the tusk all over again. I was trying to connect this document to all the other documents we’ve created: the household budget; the will; the trust funds; Alfie’s birth certificate; Flo’s birth certificate; the joint current account statements; the mortgage; the title deeds for the house; the marriage certificate; the scrapbooks; the love letters.
The dawn is a steely meniscus on the horizon and my plan is to have jettisoned the tusk before daybreak. Maybe I’m liberating it; maybe I’m liberating us – who knows? I park the car up at the top of the cliffs. I’ve chosen that place we love – you know, where we used to picnic on cheap wine, breadsticks and rapture. It’s warm but the wind hits me in taut sheets with a spit of rain in it. I drag the tusk to the edge of the cliff.
It seesaws down the hard-rock crags and splinters, lost in the spray forced out from a blow-hole. It feels right to leave it in the ocean where it might be dragged by tides and currents to a distant shore. For a while I indulge in philosophical musings about how nothing on this earth is new, how we are all continually eroded and reshaped by the passage of time, how decay leads to regeneration – what you call Buddhism-lite. If you were here, you would tell me these kinds of thoughts are ten-a-penny on clifftops at dawn.
I wish you were here with me now to be part of this end or this new beginning. But someone has to look after the kids and it’s a long time since we’ve done crazy-impulsive things together.
In a way you are here though, I always carry you inside my head. The tusk movement column on your Tusk3 spreadsheet nags at me. It occurs to me that you were monitoring my activity with the tusk and trying to understand my fascination to it. Maybe you planted it under the floorboards to test me. Or maybe you didn’t put it there at all. Maybe it was there when we moved in after all, or maybe it was there before Mr and Mrs White moved in. Maybe it was built into the house at the very beginning. And maybe you think that I put it there, that you were surveilling and protecting my secret as I believed I was surveilling and protecting yours.
Maybe I did put it there.
Sonia Trickey writes from her home in Cambridge around teaching English to wonderful, exuberant and inspiring teenagers at a local comprehensive school. This story came out much darkness and the Cambridge University creative writing summer programme, which provided illumination.
She blogs erratically here : http://themadwomanoutoftheattic.blogspot.com.