Thanephant: An Elephantasy

Dan and Natalie were only expecting their friend Josh for the weekend, but he had bigger ideas.

Josh looked at the black and white photos that explained why this Wetherspoons pub boasted such a name. He smiled to himself, he had arrived at Margate railway station only fifteen minutes ago and already he had his new big idea. He looked at his phone, his friends would be here in ten minutes. When Dan and Natalie emailed You must come down, they probably imagined him staying for a weekend to admire their rescued Victorian villa.

‘Hey Josh, long time no see,’ said Dan.

‘What’s with the wheelie suitcase?’ said Natalie. ‘You haven’t thrown out the old rucksack at last?’

‘New suitcase, new rucksack, new life,’ said Josh. ‘I’m going to be an entrepreneur, you did say Margate was where it was all happening?’

Dan and Natalie squeezed past the suitcase, dodged an escaped toddler and sat down with their friend.

‘Well…for arty types and property developers…we’ll be commuting up to London for the foreseeable future,’ said Natalie. ‘Me at least, until I start my maternity leave.’

This clue to their latest news was missed by Josh, whose head was still in the entrepreneurial clouds.

‘You haven’t actually given up your job, have you?’ said Dan.

‘Which one? There have been a few since you last saw me. Anyway, what are you eating and drinking, my treat, the least I can do…lemonade Natalie, that’s not like you? We’re supposed to be celebrating.’

While Josh was at the bar ordering, Natalie and Dan looked at each other and the large suitcase. Josh was the antidote to some of the more boring friends in their eclectic group so they had no idea what to expect from the weekend.

‘So did you say you have a sea view?’

‘Not exactly, unless you climb on the chimney pot, but we’re quite close to everything: the beach, Dreamland, Turner Gallery.’

After their meal they strolled across the road to see low tide sunset on the beach, then past the Turner Contemporary and along to the end of the harbour wall. Josh knew he was going to love it here.

‘You still haven’t told us your big idea,’ said Natalie.

‘A jumbo idea inspired by Wetherspoons, haven’t you guessed?’

‘You want to open a pub?’ said Dan.

‘Nope, been there done that, we’ve just been sitting in The Mechanical Elephant…’

‘Yes, but what idea did that give you?’ asked Natalie.

‘The return of the Mechanical Elephant, a robotic pachyderm for the Twenty First Century, an animatronic mammoth for Margate.’

‘Is someone going to do that?’ said Natalie.

‘Yes, me.’

‘How come no one else has had the idea, no one at Dreamland…I don’t think I’ve heard or read of anyone suggesting it,’ said Dan. ‘Too expensive no doubt.’

‘Have you inherited some money?’ asked Natalie.

‘I should be so lucky…’

‘…and you always said technology was the only GCSE you failed…’ added Dan.

‘You’re missing the point here,’ grinned Josh, ‘entrepreneurs neither pay nor make, they just come up with the ideas.’

On the walk back home Josh elaborated on his plans. ‘Win win situation, I get local historians interested. I mean, what happened to the original elephant?’

‘How long ago are we talking about?’ said Natalie.

‘1949, the fifties.’

‘That is a long time ago, poor old Jumbo long ago rusted away on a scrap heap,’ Dan laughed, ‘and the idea obviously didn’t catch on.’

‘But it will now; no animal welfare problems like donkeys on the beach so animal charities interested, drawing attention to the plight of real elephants, conservationists keen. Probably have to have seat belts on the howdah these days. Wetherspoons are bound to invest.’

‘Aren’t they only interested in buying more pubs?’ said Dan.

‘The money I spend in Wetherspoons I think they would happily divert some of their profits to me. Dreamland and the council should also be interested.’

‘…and big boys who love toys,’ said Natalie. ‘Men who’ve got more money than sense, perhaps it could work?’

Josh was taken aback with the house and the work his friends had taken on; from his brief experience of property development it was obvious they would have no money to invest in his project, but the house was so big he was unlikely to get in their way. The kitchen was larger than the flat he had just given up and Dan, a keen cook, proudly showed all the new kitchen gadgets they had never had room for before. Josh looked forward to some good meals.

Dan and Natalie thought Josh would be impressed with the historical research they had done on their house and the proposed games room in the cellar, but he was far more interested in the history of petrol driven elephants.

The young couple went up to St. Pancras each morning and returned each evening to be greeted by more elephant news and contacts made. Josh seemed to have everything sorted except where the elephant would be made and from what. The council promised grants if local schools were involved. An artist, who specialised in covering large items in swathes of patchwork fabric, was getting an Arts Council grant if she got community groups involved; a call had gone out to scour charity shops for grey fabrics. Knit and natter groups pledged to knit a blanket fit for a royal elephant. But Josh still had to find a group of mad scientists.

Somehow he fixed an appearance on News South East, followed by a slot on The One Show in which he pleaded for the need to get children interested in science. Cue for pictures of cute Margate infant school children with papier-mâché elephants and mammoth murals.

Meanwhile, Natalie and Dan’s online food shopping bill was growing and so was Natalie’s stomach. Their home was stashed with furniture and stuff well-meaning relatives had given them, now baby paraphernalia was beginning to appear. The sitting room, artistically decorated by Natalie, was the only haven of calm. There was no sign of Josh finding a place of his own to rent, even though they pointedly referred to the room where he slept as the spare room and refused to move any junk out of it. The future nursery had become an operations room for project pachyderm, with drawings of mechanical skeletons instead of cute teddies on the walls. Josh assured them of their share in the profits from the jumbo enterprise.

Mutual friends came down from London and elsewhere, keen to see what they were crowd-funding. Natalie and Dan were equally keen for Josh to succeed, they could not contemplate the consequences of failure.

The construction work was top secret, the scientists and mechanics anonymous. No one knew what was going on in an empty hangar under 24-hour guard at the closed Manston Airport.

Josh made another appearance on News South East explaining how the huge tusks would be made from recycled plastic bottles.

‘But how is the elephant actually going to work?’ asked the presenter.

‘That must remain a secret until after the test run, but I can announce the winner of the schools’ competition to name the elephant.’

A shy child edged into camera view and after some Oscar-style drama turned a huge card towards the camera. THANEPHANT.

‘Oh,’ twittered the presenter, ‘is that a boy or a girl’s name?’

‘It’s non…b…byrony,’ stuttered the child.

‘The elephant is non-binary,’ corrected Josh. ‘Genderless, makes things easier.’

The hangar doors opened to reveal Thanephant in all its glory. The huge ears flapped and it lifted its head to show off the long curving tusks adorned with flowers made by the children. When the animatronic mammoth trumpeted triumphantly, windows a mile away vibrated and locals called the police. It was the proudest moment of Josh’s life and he shook hands with the six creators. Like a child with a new toy he urged them to demonstrate a few steps. Scientist A touched the screen of his state-of-the-art iPad; a huge foot lifted and returned to the ground. Thanephant took a few paces, faster than they anticipated. The controller hurriedly swiped the screen and Thanephant stood motionless.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve done it!’ said Josh. ‘Now to get Big T to the seafront. A low loader is not the style for such a magnificent beast, it should walk there!’

‘But we have to do the test run first,’ said Scientist B.

‘Of course,’ said Josh. ‘A test run to the sea front will gain the publicity we need, but can it walk that far, how many miles before its batteries need recharging?’

‘Thanephant is one hundred percent solar powered; if it’s a sunny day he could walk hundreds of miles.’

‘Can it find the way?’

‘It has next generation sat-nav.’

Team Thanephant were enthralled as they furtively put the creature through its paces round the back of the hangar; the whole was so much greater than the sum of the parts, physically and figuratively.

Saturday Test Day came. The team had reluctantly agreed with Josh that telling the authorities would spoil the surprise element and lead to red tape; he had assured them that no licence or MOT was needed. They were of one accord that Scientist A would be the mahout and Josh would be among the four passengers for the maiden voyage. The creature moved obediently to the mounting block. Josh had never met a real elephant and was not sure how large a fully grown one would be, but now he was up close up, Thanephant was far bigger than the creature he had imagined. They all clambered inelegantly onto the howdah.

In hindsight, Scientist A realised he should not have programmed the most direct route into the sat-nav. Luckily there were few observers around to see Thanephant trampling over the cabbage fields, bu,t as they approached the town and the mahout accidentally swiped sound effects on the iPad screen, people began to come out of their houses and stop their cars. From a distance Thanephant looked real. A police helicopter appeared overhead.

Josh tweeted Kent Police to reassure them, but suggested crowd control might be needed. Now seemed a good moment to tweet all the supporters of the project; by the time they reached the sea front, crowd control was definitely needed.

At the Turner Contemporary, Natalie and Dan sat in the cafe enjoying the view of the sunny harbour and Josh-free-time to discuss Natalie’s birth plan.

‘Is there something on today? Looks very busy out there,’ said Dan.

‘What’s that just in the distance, near Wetherspoons?’

A huge graceful shape, like a ship in full sail, colours glinting in the sunlight. Suddenly a prehistoric roar made the windows shudder and the customers jump up in alarm. Outside, the crowds seemed to roll in waves.

‘Oh God, he’s done it.’ Natalie knocked the coffee off the table of the next customer as she struggled to rise up out of her seat.

Some customers rushed outside, while others fled for the inner sanctuary of the gallery. Dan urged Natalie to stay inside, but she did not intend to miss the spectacle, which was still safely in the distance.

Horns were beeping, police sirens wailing, and an old man turned to them.

‘He’s come back, I knew he would, and this time he’s real.’

Josh had planned that the procession would halt outside The Mechanical Elephant, where excited customers and staff were already crowding the balcony for a better view. It was at that moment that Scientist A, already feeling very queasy, having not factored in the possibility of motion sickness, dropped his iPad. A helpful member of the public picked it up, but the mahout was far too high for him to hand it back and Scientist A could only climb down if Thanephant halted. The iPad was designed to only respond to the fingerprint touch of Scientist A and he had accidentally swiped speed increase as he tried to save it. The four legs were gathering pace. The passer-by handed it to a policeman. Crowd control was no longer needed; the crowds were fleeing, but those on the beach looked up in alarm. Thanephant’s engineering was well-designed and it descended the harbour steps gracefully, with only one passenger falling off. Josh clung on with a mixture of terror and exhilaration. It was low tide, the sand slowed Thanephant down only a little.

‘What’s plan B?’ Josh asked the mahout. ‘This would be a good place to stop.’

They crossed the beach and had nearly reached the end of the harbour wall, and were aware of a police car racing along the harbour arm. As they passed the end of the harbour wall the policeman was frantically waving the iPad, then started to climb down the ladder.

Thanephant waded on, undeterred. The team were relieved to see a lifeboat out at sea, but the crew’s loud hailer was drowned out by frantic trumpeting. Those on board Thanephant—strange how Josh was already thinking in maritime terms—were dismayed to see the lifeboat heading inland while they were heading out to sea. They should try to swim to shore before it was too late, but Josh knew they must not desert a sinking elephant.

The tide was too low for the lifeboat to make direct contact with the policeman. The officer, faced with an iPad screen that would not respond, wondered if he could do something useful with a long rope and waterproof bag.

The skipper of the lifeboat hoped he had understood the policeman’s radio message correctly: the strange mechanical elephant was heading further out and the tide was coming in. The bag landed in the water, but they hooked it out and were soon alongside the Thanephant. The sea lapped at the feet of those on the howdah and was round the waist of the mahout. Crowds had now gathered on the harbour wall, figuring that the safest place to be and a good spot to observe the strange scene. The bag was passed up to the mahout; shakily he took the iPad out and within seconds Thanephant halted. The lifeboat crew urged everyone to clamber on board the boat, when two of them were safe Josh reached out his arm to stop Scientist A sliding down.

‘No, we must ride back in triumph to the beach. This publicity is fantastic! Thanephant, the Amphibiousanimatronic Mammoth of Margate!’

Janet loves writing novels, short stories and blogging. Her favourite theme is how ordinary people cope when strange things happen to them.

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