The Loxodonta in the Room by JP Relph
CW: Alcoholism, swear words
Shirley gulped the exorbitant Domain Leflaiven from Harvey Nic’s. Dinner parties had once provided an opportunity to show off to colleagues and friends. Now they were excruciating facsimiles of past sparkling evenings, and barely attended. She blamed Royston, and his irritating, embarrassing quirk.
She’d married him 26yrs ago: Professor Royston G Bellingham, eminent zoologist and academic. A studious, socially awkward man, prone to melancholy, but she’d spied the potential for financial and social climbing. She was his exotic bird; bedazzling at functions. He was her bank. When Royston travelled for work, discovering and recording creatures in hot, humid places, Shirley stayed in swish hotels and spent long, torpid days on beaches – far removed from musk and mud.
Then, two years ago, she’d found him in underpants in his study, weeping amidst zoology journals, eating Nutella with a teaspoon. His psychiatrist diagnosed a major depressive episode and medicated him; everyone being told “he’s travelling” to avoid embarrassment. Once he’d recovered somewhat, Shirley hosted a huge ‘welcome home’ dinner. That was the first time it happened.
Their guests were amused at first but before long, it was all fake smiles and pained laughter. Later there’d be outright invite rejections. Only two couples were attending tonight; Shirley’s friends Hazel and Clive, and Royston’s academic colleague Tim with wife, Loretta. Dinner started in an hour so Shirley slugged Leflaiven and put the lamb in the oven.
With the starters served, Shirley asked how everyone’s day had been. Hazel grimaced, said that school event planning had her rushing around like a blue arsed fly all day.
There was a collective gasp, a stilling of silverware. Tim said “Fuck”, quietly.
Royston roused, as if suddenly spotlighted, shouted ‘Calliphora vicina!’
It went downhill from there.
Over salmon, Loretta said she’d opened a can of worms by criticising a co-worker.
Royston hollered, ‘Lumbricina terrestris!’
as Tim was remarking that a leopard never changes its spots,
making Royston yell, ‘Panthera pardus!’ around his asparagus.
During the lamb, Clive stated he longed to escape the rat race (earning a sneaky kick from Hazel).
Royston raised his fork, sang, ‘Rattus rattus’ quite operatically.
Prodding the pannacotta, Shirley, now heavily intoxicated, inadvisably mentioned her father was going blind as a bat.
Royston beaming, stood and bellowed, ‘Nyctalus noctula, Pipistrellus pipistrellus, Myotis daubentonii….’ until Shirley drunkenly screamed ‘ENOUGH!’.
He bloody loved bats.
Nightcaps were declined, faux-apologetically. Smiling tightly, Tim sheepish behind her, Loretta said they couldn’t come for a while, she was busy as a bee with work. Shirley didn’t even argue.
From the den, Royston called, ‘Apis melliferra!’
‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Shirley slurred. ‘Go stay with Gwendoline for a while, ‘til we sort…. things.’ An ugly laugh, ‘What did she call me again, your delightful mother?’
‘A horrible Bos taurus, as I recall.’
Shirley burped, ‘Which is what exactly?’
‘Far too kind.’ Royston smiled, ‘I’ll leave tomorrow.’
Royston had longed for this day, planned for it in fact. No more pretentious dinner parties, or Shirley’s costly inebriation. After the divorce, she’d be drinking Asda’s £2.49 Chardonnay. His mother welcomed him warmly. She’d aired his old room; a simple, warm space wallpapered with faded zoology posters. That afternoon, his mother dug out one of her National Geographic DVD’s – it was the special on bats. Gwen stood up straight and declared,
Royston laughed, ‘Good one!’
His mother bloody loved bats.
Royston finally felt like his old self again, certainly for the first time in years. Tomorrow he would meet with his solicitor, but for tonight, he was as contented as a Sus scrofa domesticus in shit.
JP Relph is a Cumbrian who grew up just across the Scottish border. She loves cats, microbes and zombies. Knowledge from a forensic science degree, a passion for bugs and botany, and a dogged determination to make people laugh, all weave themselves into her words. JP has flash published on the NFFD 2021 Write-In. Twitter - @RelphJp