We had an extension; by that I mean the front door – we made it bigger. You see, I am expecting some very important and some very large guests; so large that we have set up the dinner table in the courtyard… yes, the black-cobbled, little uneven courtyard. It is all arranged, the ants have done me a massive favour and moved it for me into the courtyard and then will favour me again by moving it back after our dinner party has concluded. I have promised them any leftovers in return – I did try to invite them but they said they were too busy.
This table is gorgeous, it was made by my great-great-grandfather’s best friend as a gift; a symbol of their strong friendship and it is grand; quite low, and made of dark oak, polished until, like glass, you can see your reflection aging in its ripples. I don’t think it will grow old if we keep looking after it.
The scent of roast dinner is rising from the kitchens.
There is the knock.
“Hello Mr Elephant, come right in, though I’m afraid you may have to help me open the door because as you see, I am very small and this door is Elephant sized – installed specially for your visit and any other visits you may have. Was your journey splendid? I, myself, love journeys; there is so much to see and so much to admire. The views are my favourite bit because you never know what might live there – that is why when you don’t know the destination it is all the better because there is something new at the end and something new all the way. Here let me pull out that chair for you.”
Mr Elephant sat down with a thump.
His cheeks flushed between his newly-polished ivory tusks and he stammered: “I’m awfully sorry miss, I am very tired from that journey, I did not expect to crash land.”
I chuckled. “That is quite alright Mr Elephant.”
“Now,” (with a smile) “My journey thank you was increasingly pleasant, just as you say it is lovely when you don’t know what awaits you at the other end, but I think it is much, much more fun when you know what the destination is to hold, it brings all the more excitement and a good warmth to my grey skin.”
“Yes, if you know the thing waiting at the other end is pleasant.”
“And what do you say little miss? – is this a pleasant destination?”
“Dear! I should hope so; after all I have arranged everything perfectly.”
Another knock on the grand door.
“Be with you a moment Mr Elephant, that is my second guest arriving, and from the speed of the knock I should hope to expect Old Tortoise’s face.” I opened the door. “Oh dear, I’m sorry Tortoise, I didn’t mean to frighten you, it is only me and you can come out of your shell now. Mr Elephant is at the table and you may pick any seat you like, though I’d rather it be the one with your name by it so that the waiters will know where to place your food.”
“Very good, very good.” Remarked Old Tortoise slowly and proceeded to make his way to the table.
“Cheetah! Chameleon! What a delight to see you here!” I then couldn’t fit in any more words.
“Of course, delightful to see you too little miss. I hope you don’t mind I arrived a little earlier than expected, and I saw Chameleon making his way here but he got a little distracted so I thought I’d help him along, I didn’t know whether I should at first because we might arrive at the wrong times however, I thought since I’ve known Chameleon for so long I might as well than not. Though I must say he hasn’t the most conversation in the world, even now he just licks his glasses clean and occasionally remarks on how annoying the weather was. See I thought it rather nice actually, the cool of the evening is a jolly contrast to the hot we feel in the day, but Chameleon here prefers the warm – even then he is complaining it is too hot and he often questions me as to why with all this fur I do not find the day so hot, but I never thought I had that thick fur, it’s just my spots that sometimes get a bit hot, but it is necessary for my camouflage. Oy! Lizard, don’t lick me on the head like that, you know how it hurts. Okay miss, where did you say my seat was. Ah, here next to good old tortoise.”
And so I smiled his talking away and watched him pick up the conversation speedily with poor tortoise who, not generally inclined to extensive talking, and not enjoying the noise like Chameleon did (despite him often complaining the contrary), missed half the words in the sentences he began.
In the last three places, Miss Swan and her age old friend Ma’am Owl, swooped into seat, Owl a little less gracefully than Miss Swan, with sly Master Fox slipping in almost unnoticed whilst they made their graceful entrance.
“Good evening Little Miss, thank you very much for the invite, it is just splendid.”
“You are very welcome Ma’am...”
(whispering) “Please say you have not put Miss Swan next to Master Fox, you know how those two detest each other.” (louder) “but your dress! That duck-blue silk really suits you. Duck-blue is Miss Swan’s favourite colour though she won’t admit it…”
“Of course!” Piped in Cheetah, clearly fed up of Old Tortoise’s slow discourse. “She hasn’t said a word since her Handsome died. I’ve heard his final song was beautiful though. How did it happen again – was it poach...”
He was stopped short. “Mr Cheetah! Mind your tongue, do you not see that some topics are off limits!” Was Ma’am owl’s reply. “And Master Fox…” She rotated her head and Chameleon assumed a grotesque expression. “If these are your rumours, I would ask you to kindly stop them this instant.”
“Well, well, all the same.” Said Master Fox in reply. “Little Miss, I have not said anything as of yet but I wouldn’t mind thanking you for your hospitality.”
“You are very welcome.” (addressing everybody) “Now, since we are all here, I think it is time we served dinner.”
A murmur of agreeance came in return each with their usual tone and manner. And there it was. The little flock of sparrows, that had prepared this beautiful meal, bought in a table cloth between their crowd of claws, and once their little groups were hovering perfectly over the recipient, the meal crashed to the table, covering the polished oak in a patchwork tablecloth of vibrant and vivid colours and adorning it with much food and all sorts of cutlery.
“Thank you Sparrows’! Make sure you take the bird seed bags I left for you in the pantry… they are all yours, eat – and have a little feast all of your own! You are more than deserving of it.” I looked up. “Look with me friends, isn’t my Father good? He has decorated our feast with his tablecloth dyed with the ink used to write our names in his palm, then adorned it with little cities all lit up with street lamps; he is wonderful. Now – eat and enjoy.”
And so they each took up their cutlery: Master Fox between his ginger paws; Ma’am Owl and Miss Swan between their wing feathers; Lizard (after adjusting his glasses and complaining there was far too much colour on the table) in his green, scaly hands – which ironically turned multicoloured after the first mouthful, depending on the tastes he tasted – he rather liked his food; Cheetah in his paws, though the food rarely reached his mouth; Old Tortoise between the claws on his hands; and Elephant…well…
There was a snort and a stutter, a giant and very blocked sneeze that had formed. The culprit of the noise only could be Mr Elephant. He commanded the astonished attention of all within the room. Silence had fallen. And then he began to turn red – as red as the excess tablecloth that he had tucked into his bowtie.
“Quick, Little Miss, call the doctor!”
“Hurry up tortoise and get here, help dislodge the roast potato from Mr Elephant’s trunk!”
“Cheetah, stop talking your making this worse.”
SQUARK! Screamed Miss Swan in a violent and dramatic protest to Master Fox’s thievery of her broccoli.
“She spoke! She spoke!”
“Cheetah, quit your panicking and help already.”
“Fox what did you do that for!”
Mr Elephant was still red.
“Cheetah you are seriously no use.”
“How long does it take you tortoise!”
The noise was growing, and growing; cymbals clanged in my mind, pain thwarted my thoughts: I need cla, clarity. Shush everybody, compose, keep, think straight, out, out, thoughts stop, don’t, sensible, do.
“Are you going to do something?” prompted Chameleon quietly.
“Yes… yes, yes.”
I rushed to Mr Elephant, grabbed his flailing trunk between my little hands, and squeezed.
And the silence was restored.
Mr Elephant, after being purple for so long, became pink and hung his head; Miss Swan left Master Fox indignantly and plonked herself back in her seat, whilst Master Fox crawled to his chair; Ma’am Owl perched on the back of her chair, a little nervous; Cheetah, ran to his chair, banging his head on the table as he did so, then slowing down; Old Tortoise had only just made it to the other side of the table where Mr Elephant still sat in shame; And Chameleon, Chameleon carried on eating as he had done whilst the disaster was in motion.
I picked up Tortoise and carried him back to his place - murmuring apologies for the indecency of it all. Then I sat down and carried on eating for a few moments in silence. Just as Chameleon did. Nobody else moved.
“Little Miss?” questioned Ma’am Owl gingerly.
I put down my cutlery and looked up. “I do not know where to begin. Some of you have behaved appallingly… never in my home has a dinner party gone quite so horrifically, even the chimps can behave themselves – in fact, the chimps actually come in their suits. I know you are all better than this, and you’re all friends. Mr Elephant, stop trying to eat small morsels of food with your trunk; Ma’am Owl, barking orders will not solve a situation, no matter how wise the sentiment; Chameleon, maybe try and say something optimistic once in a while, like you did when prompting me to help; Cheetah, calm down; Tortoise – you can’t help being slow, maybe try and use what your good at rather than choosing to chase your weaknesses; Miss Swan, your rage is far exaggerated, learn to control your anger; and Master Fox, you do know there is such thing as being a fox without being sly surely? – learn it; and for myself, that I would learn to keep calm, stop worrying and do something actually helpful rather than stand there and let things get out of hand.”
“You have an excuse – you are small.” Spoke Ma’am Owl.
“No Ma’am Owl. Being small does not excuse faults, just like me being slow doesn’t excuse my tardiness, no I just have to leave earlier.” Chirped in Tortoise.
“I am very sorry Little Miss.” Apologised Elephant.
“It is quite alright.”
The silence from the rest was enough to portray their remorse… even indignant Miss Swan’s expression softened and she and Master Fox were caught exchanging apologies.
“Now, we shall try again with pudding don’t you think? I think this event may have bought us all a little closer… after all, now our faults are all exposed we can all love finding the good things in each other so much better.”
And that is what I was waiting for; the unity of my favourite group of animals.