The Elephant's Ears

Updated: May 24

[June 2019]

Being an abnormally shy and awkward man, it was not extraordinary that the first Mr George Ellis Duncan knew of the closure of his favourite café was when he passed it on his way to work one Monday morning and found it dark and empty.

George had visited the The Glasshouse Café every working day for just over four years and was a familiar face to the entire staff, but in all his visits had said barely a hundred inessential words to any one of them. Initial efforts at familiarity had been made by the staff, and then, when his visits became more reliable, slightly more concerted efforts by the owners, but when none succeeded all readily mistook George’s timidity for coldness and adopted a cool professional manner towards him.

The strict regularity of his visits helped ingrain this attitude. George would arrive every day at five minutes to midday, having left his desk eight minutes earlier, before anyone else in his office had left for lunch. He would order soup, except on the infrequent occasions that it contained dairy, which he could not stomach; on these says he would order an egg mayonnaise sandwich, eating the sandwich and the crisps but leaving untouched the coleslaw. He would sit in the same corner seat by the big plant and eat every crumb (except the coleslaw) over fifteen minutes. George did not visit The Glasshouse in the morning. He never had done.

He did, however, pass it every morning, as it sat about halfway up the road which he walked from his tram stop to his office, so he knew that at that time in the morning the café was usually flush with bleary-eyed office workers and abuzz with the hustle of waitresses and the screams of milk steamers.

This morning, however, it was desolate.

George’s steady pace slowed to a stop outside the front window as he looked inside. Beyond the reach of the cool grey daylight the café stood in cold shadow. Much of the furniture had been removed, and in the space cleared on the floor lay a mess of papers and rubbish. Three lightbulbs, freed from their shades, swung gently from the ceiling in some invisible breeze.

In the very back of The Glasshouse, in the darkest corner furthest from the light, he could see his seat, the breakfast bar and tall stool he had always occupied having escaped, for now, the removal men. Next to it, in a large terracotta pot, stood a tall healthy plant, its huge, velvet-green leaves riddled with thick white veins. Colocasia esculenta, George knew it to be; elephant’s ear.

George hovered, unsure, for several long moments, staring through the glass into his favourite café, until he realised that to linger any longer would upset his commute. He picked up his pace slightly and headed on.

George Duncan’s office was a stocky, unimposing sandstone building which matched him well in its old-fashioned neatness. Arriving just one minute behind his usual schedule, George filed through the turnstiles in reception and, avoiding the lift, took the stairs up to the fifth floor where he worked as an accounting clerk for a medium-sized firm catering to the city’s larger and more successful businesses.

Passing through the doorway into the office, he was greeted from behind a desk by a short, grey haired woman in a bright blue business dress with matching hairpin and earrings. Ms Sturridge, the receptionist; a pleasant, frumpy woman of middle age whose genuine smile and deeply furrowed brow balanced out into a comforting neutrality. She was the only person in the office that George spoke to with any kind of regularity.

‘Morning, George,’ she said brightly as he walked in.

‘Good morning, Ms Sturridge,’ George responded.

‘Ready for another one?’ she asked with a confidential smirk.

‘I’m sorry?’ George asked blankly. ‘Another what?’

‘Another week, George!’ Ms Sturridge said with good-natured exasperation, ‘Another week in this place. Are you ready for it?’

As often happened, George still did not understand Ms Sturridge’s meaning. He rarely got through their short conversations without confusion.

‘Of course.’ he said bluntly after several moments. ‘Of course I am.’

She looked at him curiously, then broke into a smile.

‘Well that’s great. Go get ‘em!’ She said, turning her head back to the stack of papers in her hands as George carried on past her.

At his desk in the far corner of the office, George worked through his Monday morning with his regular diligence and efficiency, creating a detailed plan of all his tasks for the week and allocating each a time slot. Then for each of the week’s meetings, whether group or one-to-one, George set several reminders for himself in the hours running up to them. This carried him up to 10.30 am, when George turned to the first task on his rota; sifting through a particularly disorganised client’s old statements and records to ascertain how, when and to where their assets had disappeared.

The absorbing work carried him quickly through the first few hours of his week, and soon enough 11.47 came around. Out of a firmly ingrained habit, George left his desk and walked down his usual route until he found, as he had always expected, The Glasshouse as dark and empty as it had been in the morning. He turned around and walked through the crowds straight back to his office, where he spent his lunch hour sat at his desk, looking out the window at the car park and empty lot beside the building.

The café was equally dark and empty at 17.08 that evening, when George passed it again on his way back to the tram stop.

Thirty minutes later he arrived home to the almost tastefully decorated, immaculately clean flat where he lived alone. Like his office, George’s home and was of an appropriately antiquated style, sitting on the middle floor of a large old terraced townhouse with high ceilings and grand bay windows. Although no single item of furniture was particularly fashionable, the sparseness of the décor and the impeccable order in which it was kept inadvertently gave the flat something close to the sort of simplistic Scandinavian style many of George’s younger colleagues strived earnestly to achieve. George left his shoes and briefcase neatly by the door and set a pan of water boiling on the stove in preparation for dinner.

George had lived alone for over twenty years, practically his entire adult life. For a large portion of that he had enjoyed the company of an African grey parrot he had inherited from his mother upon her death, and which he had kept with exact care and a fulfilling affection. Eventually, however, five years before, and through no fault of George’s, that parrot had succumbed to its greatly extended age and George was left alone.

Very quickly afterwards, George had made the considered decision to replace the lost company of the parrot with a variety of houseplants. With great enjoyment he then set about researching what plants might flourish best in his small home and how he might care for them, drawing up long- and shortlists and, as the population grew, highly detailed care schedules.

Pride of that collection, and the company for which he cared the most, was a large and perfectly maintained elephant’s ear standing between his dining table and the window. He had deliberated for a long time over its selection, the longlist of contenders running into the dozens, before making his decision. When he finally purchased the elephant’s ear, only half the size it now was, he had, quite uncharacteristically, had an extended conversation with the relaxed and pleasantly spoken young woman in the shop, taking several pages of notes as he did.

As several small potatoes boiled on the stove, George set about that evening’s care tasks. His young lime tree received a small amount of feeder; a few smaller and more sensitive palms and spiders were moved away from the windows in readiness for the increasingly cold nights; and all succulents received their fortnightly watering.

At the end of the schedule was the elephant’s ear. As George patiently and affectionately sprayed a light mist over its flush green leaves, his thoughts moved directly to the plant of the same species standing in the cold and dark next to his stool in the shell of his favourite café.

On Tuesday morning The Glasshouse remained abandoned. Just before noon, when George arrived once again, it was the same. Not restricted so tightly by schedule, he spent a little longer this time watching through the great glass window. The mess and remaining furniture had not moved since Monday morning but, George thought, the tips of the elephant’s ear leaves were now drooping a little closer to the floor.

After several minutes contemplating the café, George determined that he should get some more information. He turned abruptly back towards his work and hurried up the road to a larger bar-restaurant which he had never entered before. It was much busier and louder than The Glasshouse and he had never before wanted to enter it, but he passed it several times every day and had seen, on multiple occasions, members of the staff of his café inside.

George arrived at almost exactly noon, just as the lunch rush was beginning. At the counter stood a young girl, maybe sixteen, while behind her a woman of about forty rushed about making coffee.

‘Y’alright, love?’ the girl asked when George approached the counter, her jaw bouncing up and down around a piece of gum.

‘Hello,’ stammered George, avoiding eye contact, ‘I was hoping you might be able to help me with something.’

The girl looked at George with slight concern, as if she saw him properly for the first time. Her chewing slowed for a moment, then resumed its steady pace.

‘Yeah, if I can.’ she said.

‘I was w..w…w…wondering if you knew anything about the café up there?’

‘You what?’ she asked, blankly.

‘The Glasshouse Café up the road, just there.’ George twisted his body around to point precisely in the correct direction, ‘It hasn’t been open today or yesterday. Do you know anything about it?’

‘Nah,’ said the girl, having clearly lost interest. She turned her head slightly towards the woman behind her. ‘Do you know anything, Linda?’

‘What’s that?’ asked the older woman without turning around.

‘The café up the road, this fella says it’s closed down. Asked if we know anything.’

The woman turned around with a look of slight annoyance, her hands continuing to work as she did, but as her eyes reached George her face softened, and her frustration turned quickly into a slightly strained patience.

‘Oh, yeah…’ she said, her body twisted around from her feet to speak, ‘yeah, they’ve gone I’m afraid?’

‘Do you know where?’ asked George.

‘Yeah,’ said the older woman, turning her feet round properly to talk to George directly, ‘Ruby came in and said they’re moving back to the countryside. Said their kids are getting a bit bigger and they want the space and want to be close to her parents. Simon’s going back to work as a teacher.’

‘Will they be coming back?’ asked George innocently. The woman stared at him for a moment with a look he did not recognise.

‘I don’t think so, Love. I think they’re gone…’

‘Will they be coming back for the elephant’s ear?’

Concern flashed across the woman’s face as her eyes made a double take over George. At the counter the girl gawked at him quite openly.

‘Excuse me?’ asked the woman tentatively.

‘The large elephant’s ear plant in the back of the café. Will they be coming back for it? It will die if they don’t.’

‘A plant?’

‘Yes,’ said George bluntly.

‘Oh,’ said the woman, relieved, ‘ermm… I don’t know I’m afraid. I wouldn’t expect they’ll come back for a plant. Maybe someone else will…’

‘Ok,’ said George, and he turned to leave.

‘Hey, wait a moment.’ said the older woman, ‘You used to eat there a lot, didn’t you? I see you passing by here all the time.’

‘Yes,’ said George, ‘I did.’

Why don’t you try ours instead?’ asked the woman. ‘First one’s on the house.’ She smiled brightly at George, who did not return it.

But he did order the soup of the day, and found a small, cramped table in a corner where he ate it. He did not enjoy it. The soup was not hot enough for his liking, and its slightly chunkier texture made him nauseous. But he dutifully ate the entire bowl before heading back to his office.

On Wednesday and Thursday, George did not eat lunch. He did not even move from his desk. He stopped working at his usual time and just sat, lost and uncertain, looking at the car park outside his office window. But on both days, as he had for years, he passed The Glasshouse twice, once in the morning and once on the way home, and saw his seat in the dark, and saw the tips of the elephant’s ears drooping further and further towards the cold concrete floor.

In the evenings of both days, as according to his schedule, he attended to his own elephant’s ear in the various ways it demanded, moving it nearer and further from the windows, feeding it and spraying it ever so lightly. As he did, he thought, with increasing focus and concern, of the plant slowly dying in the lonely dark of the café.

On Friday, Ms Sturridge arrived at George’s desk with purpose at 11.40 am. She watched him working intently for a couple of moments before she disturbed him.

‘Hi, George.’ she said.

George looked around slightly startled.

‘Hi, Ms Sturridge.’ he replied after a moment.

‘Got plans for the weekend?’ she asked with a slight and kind smile.

‘Nothing unusual.’ George said, slightly confused, ‘I’ll be watering my plants and doing laundry. And watching a film on Saturday night.’

‘What are you watching this week, George?’ Ms Sturridge asked.

‘Alien.’ he said with assurance, ‘it’s quite unusual that I haven’t yet seen it.’

‘Oh really? Well isn’t that strange.’ She replied. ‘Films like that are too scary for me.’

George said nothing and looked at her until the silence had hung too long in the air.

‘Listen, George,’ Ms Sturridge began, ‘I noticed that your café that you always go to closed down.’

She hesitated slightly, as if she expected George might say something. He didn’t.

‘And I noticed that for the past couple days you haven’t been going anywhere.’ she continued. ‘Well, I thought maybe you might want some company for lunch today, or you might want to try out somewhere new… Thought maybe you might be shy about going somewhere on your own…’

Ms Sturridge trailed off, but George did not pick up the cue. He looked at her blankly for a long time until she spoke again more directly.

‘Would you like to come for lunch with me, George?’ Ms Sturridge asked.

‘Oh!’ said George, surprised. ‘Oh, I see… That’s very… kind of you, Ms Sturridge. But I have somewhere to be this lunchtime.’

‘Oh, do you?’ she said, relieved for both George and herself, ‘Oh, well that’s good. Maybe on Monday, then?’

‘Yes, Ms Sturridge’ said George. ‘On Monday’

‘Ok, great. Perfect. Monday it is, then.’ Said Ms Sturridge, and she smiled warmly at George before returning to her desk by the door.

A few minutes later, George passed her on his way out of the office. She smiled at him as he did, and she did not notice that, in quite a departure from usually strictly ordered dress, he was wearing his overcoat but carrying his suit jacket folded over his left arm.

George walked purposefully not quite directly towards The Glasshouse. Instead, he crossed over the road to take him past a building site he had observed recently on his walks to and from work. On the pavement outside the gutted building stood a pallet of red bricks. The workmen were all away, it being nearly noon, and with a casualness and surety which aroused no suspicion even from a dog walker looking directly at him, George scooped up a brick and slipped it into the hand covered by his jacket. He continued on his way to the café, waiting patiently for the green man before crossing the road.

When he reached his destination, George stood on the far edge of the pavement in the exact middle of the large front window. Then, with huge force, he launched the brick through the front of The Glasshouse cafe, sparking an explosion of diamond shards scattering in every direction and setting screaming the piercing siren of the alarm.

Serenely, George stepped with care through the broken window and walked directly to his favourite old corner. With remarkable strength and ease he picked up the elephant’s ear and its large and heavy pot and carried it back through the shop.

George stepped carefully through the broken window once more, turned to the right and headed for the tram stop.