Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
Sept. 4, 2022

Milky tea and four sugars (Walking with elephants)


There’s a warm welcome awaiting you under the heavy night skies of summer’s hinterlands. Tonight we meet a very special person with a lop-sided smile and who might be able to teach us to walk with elephants.   

Journal entry:

30th August, Tuesday.

“Day’s end. I stand up here and try to see what is Infront of me. But the future is just a confused blur of uncertainty. When I look back, I can so easily draw-out the most intricate constellations that map the chaos of my footsteps of the paths that I have walked. In them I begin to see order and meaning. Why can’t I do the same for my futures? 

But now, all I see is the hunch of the owl-chapelled oak, in its small bowl of nettles and the sheep whose shadows stretch long across the sunny curve of the hill. Perhaps one day, looking back from some future vantage point, I too will be able to find lines of connection and clarity. The clear path that was taken through my future uncertainty.”

Episode Information:

cup of milky teaPhotographer unknown
Image source:
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/the-benefits-of-tea-with-milk

Autumn tints of willowherb
A wash of new greens along the bankside

Willowherb and water
Autumn tints

This episode is dedicated to Angela Oliver who, with her husband Roger, through extraordinary sacrifice enabled an unlikely man to continue to walk carefree and tall with elephants.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

30th August, Tuesday.

“Day’s end. I stand up here and try to see what is Infront of me. But the future is just a confused blur of uncertainty. When I look back, I can so easily draw-out the most intricate constellations that map the chaos of my footsteps of the paths that I have walked. In them I begin to see order and meaning. Why can’t I do the same for my futures? 

But now, all I see is the hunch of the owl-chapelled oak, in its small bowl of nettles and the sheep whose shadows stretch long across the sunny curve of the hill. Perhaps one day, looking back from some future vantage point, I too will be able to find lines of connection and clarity. The clear path that was taken through my future uncertainty.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the darkness under a sullen sky heavy with cloud and the promise of rain. It's really good to see you, I was hoping you'd be here. Come on board. We're warm, we're dry, the kettle is hot, the biscuit barrel is full, there's a seat here waiting especially for you. It is so good to have you aboard.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The last few days have been welcomed with rain. The good sort of rain; gentle, healing, a soft wash on the flailing coat tails of a sometimes-blustery wind. The sort of rain that allows the ground to drink deeply and does not break the plant stems parched brittle by the summer. It is the type of rain that we have needed for a long time. And now, the soil drinks its fill. 

For so long, the only splashes of green, even along the bankside have been the young alder growth. Deep green, troughed with a herring-bone of veins, slightly V-ed, perfect for channelling water. And the heart of browning sedges. But now, greens are returning. New growth of loosestrife, the delicate white trumpets of gypsywort, nestled among the peppermint green of their sharp, wolf-toothed leaves, the rich claret and mauve beehives of selfheal, standing proud amid their swards of green. Only the teasels resolutely retain their tawny browns. Green is also returning to the nameless hill and surrounding pasturelands. The sheep are happy. 

I know that, in some areas, people are getting a bit fed up with all the rain. But, here, this is still a welcome event. We’ve quite a lot of overcast, grey (often quite humid) days, with crag-like skies, but very little rain. For us, it is a beautiful sight to watch the rain rings dance and mingle on the water, and the loose grey veils sweep up the valley, making the canal hiss and sigh. The ducks coast along the sides – although, usually there is one or two, striking out into centre waters, they’re the ones with things that are needed to get done and they mean to do it. I watch a couple. The rain sweeps down, whispering on the awning, tadpoling down the cabin windows. The water is dappled and alive with pebbling. One stops to scratch behind her ear, with a large, clumsy, orange foot. The other joins her. He dips his head right under the water, so that it purls down his neck and onto his mantle. Water off a duck’s back. For a tiny moment, it sits there, like an entrancing, globe of quicksilver and then rolls of his wing. He raises himself out of the water, flaps his wings, shakes himself all the way from the tip of his tail up to his head and bill. She joins in. It’s a rain dance, of sorts. Not to ask for rain, but to respond to it. More and more ducks join them; swimming, drifting. The rain becomes a little heavier. The cob swan – dad – glides passed. I can’t see the rest of the family. They’ll be around, somewhere. Like always, a dispute among the ducks. Outcries of outrage, accompanied with thrashed water and beating wings. With the shortening of the days, the ducks are beginning to regather in larger groups, swelling out the numbers. Ducks are like theologians and philosophers. Wherever two or three are gathered, disagreement, argument and high dudgeon are sure to follow. But, with ducks, it never lasts long. An outburst of aggrieved quacks, a wag of the tail followed by the body shake and the shake of the head - or flap of the wings. The disgruntled ripples soon subside, the waters once more still. The rain continues to gently fall.   

On a number of occasions, this past week, it has been remarked how autumnal the days are beginning to feel. Some of the mornings, when the mist wreaths have risen from the water and the boat and grass are silvered with dew it has felt distinctly like autumn. But the oak and the ash and the alders are still deep green, but the shadows are lengthening at midday and the dusk has been filled with the song of wild geese - an anserine evensong, five or so minutes earlier each evening. Swallows and martins still flock. Filling the air with their vibrancy and chittering tweets so that the ash beside us sounds like it is filled with tiny monkeys. Sometimes I watch them skimming the water to drink. It can be heart-stopping, how many mistime it, get pulled into the water? It is an incredible sight, dropping their heads, mid-flight, to scoop up a beak full of water. Each time, I wonder if this will be the last I will see of them for the year. A few years ago, I remember walking with Penny through some fields thronged with martins. The whole sky flickered with the dazzle of their flight. Three days later they had all gone.  

For we are now in the hinterlands of Summer. Those disputed territories of the seasons. Autumn rides the night, but the sun not ready to give up summer's warmth neither the oak its green. Neither one nor the other. Meteorologically this is autumn. Astronomically, this is summer. This is the blurred and ragged edge of transition. Summer is still very much with us. The sun rich and buttery in its warmth. The midday skies still falling, if not completely silent, at least the quiet of siesta. But the geese are sensitive to the subtle changes. The shortening days, changing colours of the hedgerows lit with berry lamps of scarlet and crimson. So do the gathering rooks, fishing the sheep pasture, and wheeling above the oaks and ash. It is as if a great sigh has gone up over the land and the colours wheel from the riot of petals to nut browns and berry reds. 

We spent a hard winter waiting and longing for the summer. It's not surprising that some are finding it difficult to say goodbye to it. Particularly as I know so many are anxious and worried about this coming winter. But, the slow exit of summer shouldn't really make us sad. The land is ready for the healing only autumn can bring - and so too with us. 

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

MILKY TEA AND FOUR SUGARS

Apparently, the trick with elephants is to lean into them. With your shoulder, you apply a gentle pressure against the tops of their forelegs. Of course, you have to press quite hard with big bull elephants because they are so large. This lets them know that you are there and that you won’t harm them. They’ll then look down at you as if to say, “Hello, who are you?” After that, they’ll walk beside you without any bother.  

He puts down his binoculars on the window sill next to the cup of tea that sitting neatly in its saucer. It is nearly cold now. It's milky, almost white, the way he likes it - and sweet. Four sugars. It catches his eye and he spoons another heap of sugar into it, just to make sure. A pigeon lands on top of the telegraph pole across the street. He squats like a vegetarian vulture. I carefully move a stack of newspapers that are laid out newsagent style on one of the chairs. He likes newspapers. He has four copies of today’s Daily Mail – all neatly folded, pristine, unopened, unread (the owner of the village shop will refund his money and take them back at the end of the day – all the shop staff know the social importance of the standing in the queue, the smiling, the saying ‘hello’, the slow methodical counting out coins into someone's hand; the significance of simple human interaction). A sandwich plate bearing a selection of fancy cakes and biscuits sits on the little footstool beside him. It lies untouched. It is always untouched. Whenever I would bring Penny around (whom he loved), I have to negotiate her past that plate. That plate held untold told delights for her.  

“There was this one male elephant,” he says, “that the local people wouldn’t go near. He kept coming into the village and causing problems. They knew me, the villagers, and so they felw me out. It wasn't a problem when you know elephants - I have this feel, you see. We just did this and then we did sort of that and we put this here...” his hands chop the air with the decisive moves of a general who has seen it all before and his voice trails away; there are times when his hands express those spiralling thoughts better than words, “... and he had everything just right. You've got to get it right, you see."

"Everything has got to be right." is a recurring phrase with him. Whether it is his tea, or his proficiency with mechanics, or when the Queen came down the road. "Everything has got to be just right." Elephants above all.

He continues, "You see, there was nothing nasty about him. He even followed us back to the village and into this shop and everyone said, ‘hello, what’s going on here?' Sort of like, ‘you’ve got a right one here!’”

He stops and laughs. His eyes twinkle and glow with the fire of African suns. He describes how he used to spend months over there. He and a few of his friends became so well known, people used to ring them and ask for their help with rogue elephants. Then he'd fly over and ensure everything was done just right.

“Everyone knew what they were doing, you see. Everything was just right... in the right place... and they said, ‘how did you do that?’ And we said, ‘With a little a bit of mischief!’ Oh, how they loved that! They used to laugh at that! You see, with them, there was no nastiness or anything like that. And they’d say, “Oh that’s alright then!’ And elephants would just come in and go... and no one would worry. There was never any trouble or problems. We’d walk along and the baby elephants would run up to us and we’d all walk along together.”

He looks down the road and falls silent in his memories. His world is filled with elephants. Ornaments and models of them cram the shelves and tables. They all belonged to his wife. He has never ever seen a wild elephant. The only live elephant he has ever seen was in the zoo.

But when I look across at him, I see that he has the mark of a man who has walked with elephants. I never really knew him before his world began to shift and his mind close in on him, but I am seeing the man beneath all those layers accrued through a lifetime of work and social interaction. There's a boyish innocence and a gentle spirit. All the qualities needed to walk with elephants. 

On the wall behind him hang photographs pegged to a piece of string like Christmas cards. His favourite is the one of him taken on a cruise. He is standing in a natty suit between two cabaret dancers. They wear sequined basques and feathers. Their smiles are broad and dazzling and they have legs as achingly long as lonely nights. He stands, arms linked, with that same lopsided smile that he gives to me now; his body a little awkward - trying to look at ease, but unsure - a little out of his depth, like he doesn’t really belong. It is how I would feel too, if I was there. I would try to smile just like that and I too would stand just like that; James Bond in the wrong body, with the wrong heart. 

He and his wife loved cruises. The captain always knew exactly what to do. You see, there was no nastiness at all, everything was done just right. He would always come and say to them, “Are you having a bit of trouble here?” He would then say, “Well if you do this here and put that over there...”

Most of his stories end like that, with his hands semaphoring patterns in the air; forming briefing notes and printed protocols and flow charts and assembly lines smelling of hot metal and oil; peopled with faces whose names have withered through time so that only the warmth of their friendship remains and of those he disliked, though even the scars have forgotten the battles fought. 

He points to the picture of him standing beside his late wife.

“That’s going back a bit.” he says. His finger rests on each of the figures, “That is my mother and my father.” It is not surprising he no longer recognises the people in the photograph. His wife is now forever young, not the elderly woman who gazes back at him across a fractured void of time. His world is filled with the laughter of his father and half-remembered escapades. The landlord who flew his aeroplane from the field behind his pub and once flew slow low the wheels almost touched the chimney pots (scaring his neighbours half to death), and the garden of his boyhood with its stacks of rabbit hutches, one on top of the other, and the washing on the line and all the neighbourhood dogs. The Americans who came over during the war and flew bombers from the airfield above the village. The time the Queen came. She stayed at the village pub and said 'hello' to him over her breakfast. It is one of his proudest memories, that and, of course, the elephants. Constructed memories, as real as real, that are filling the torn jagged gaps; healing a troubled mind. Finding the 'just right' in a not right world, and one in which there is no nastiness. The mind is not always as kind as that. I am glad it was kind for him.

His father was a miner who worked the seams under the North Sea miles out from the coast. He has walked every inch of those dark wet tunnels with his father. He can walk them without the need of a lamp. Conversation always returns to either elephants or his father. When I once said, “I think you take after him.” He abruptly stopped talking and sat silently for a long time and then he quietly said, “I hope so.”    

.............

This episode is dedicated to Angela Oliver who gave up so much to make sure the man who walked with elephants could continue to do so even when it was no longer possible to look after him in his home. She fought like a tiger to protect his world so that right until the end, as much as possible, his was a world that was 'just right' and 'with nothing nasty, no nastiness at all.'

She would not thank me for describing her as a saint or an angel. But that's because, for some reason, the saints and angels we imagine aren't funny, feisty, who meet the world head on, with a twinkle in the eye and the filthiest of laughs. And you know what? Our worlds are the poorer and sadder because of it.

Angela, bodies are annoying things. I know that, recently, yours has not been behaving itself as it should. Bodies can be wonderful and magnificent things, but they can also be recalcitrant pains! Please, just know this - you have always been - and will always continue to be - so much bigger than just your body; more colourful, more beautiful, funnier, more mercurial, more filled with the stuff of life. 

As frustrating and, no doubt at times as frightening as this might be, remember that there has never been a body born on earth that could contain you. You have always been so much more than the body you inhabit. Because of that, you allowed a man who faced a lonely scary world to walk tall with elephants - and who knows how many others in the village you have enabled to find the healing and the comfort they needed. You cannot be contained by your body, you have always been much, much, too full of life for that.

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very peaceful, restful, night. Good night.

WEATHER LOG