“It just doesn’t look right,” Iris said, wringing her hands.
Meghan couldn’t take her eyes off those hands. She didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone actually wring their hands before. It was a gesture that belonged in novels featuring mothers with too many nerves and too many daughters.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She reviewed the table. A cut glass vase for a single stem. A china statuette clearly phone-ordered from the back page of a Mail on Sunday supplement. Two budget-superstore photo frames, one in dark wood, one in twisted metal. A Yankee Candle that promised to smell like Christmas, if Christmas smelled like a car air freshener. A Baylis & Harding sweet mandarin and grapefruit soap set.
Iris picked up the china statuette. The dancing woman invitingly lifted her wide skirts, a coy smile crudely painted on her lips.
“It’s really not fine.” Her forced laugh was one of amused exasperation. “You’d think no one got shit gifts for Christmas anymore.”
“Maybe they don’t,” Meghan said. “Maybe people get Amazon vouchers or something now.” She sniffed the candle. “Fewer candles and socks, more M&S gift cards.”
Iris glared at her with the stare she recognised from when they used to sit next to each other in sociology: come on Meghan, don’t be so naive. Iris had always treated her like some kind of useful idiot.
“You used to get bath pearls, didn’t you,” Meghan said. “You remember, sometimes they’d be in the shape of dolphins? Or stars. When did you last see a bath pearl?’
“Hmm.” Iris drummed her fingers on an empty patch of tabletop. Her hands looked old in this light. The yellow nail polish didn’t suit her.
Still, nail polish or not, Meghan had to admit Iris was right. The stall looked pretty bleak amid the Cath-Kidston florals and Union Jack bunting hanging over artfully placed hay bales. The cake stand rivalled a Bake Off Semi-Final, piled high with over-iced cupcakes in lurid colours, biscuits with an enviable snap, and some kind of choux-pastry creme-pat concoction which, realistically, no one would be able to eat with paper plates and fingers. Not a rice krispie treat in sight.
Next to the cakes, a mum had knitted a clown doll and a rag doll, rabbits and bears in striped jumpers, headbands and hats, even a cardigan — just looking at all that cheap wool in the May Bank Holiday heat made Meghan’s forearms itch. Some were for sale, some were for the raffle. All of them, she figured, would be returning to the fete on next year’s white elephant stall.
Iris’s crafts table topped them all. It wouldn’t have been out of place in some fancy artisan marketplace. That in itself raised a few overly-plucked eyebrows.
There was a bar, too, welcoming customers with one of those wooden painted signs that confused liking gin with a personality. They were serving Pimms with all the trimmings, and bottles of craft ale for the dads. Leftover lemonade for the kids. Iris had arranged for the sixth form boys to play their guitars later. They’d sneak in their own cans of cheap lager, bought with a fake ID.
“You can have the white elephant stall,” Iris had said. “That’s an easy one to manage.”
“I mean…” Iris picked up a squat lamp-stand, a hole carved in the veneered wood. It was missing both the shade and the bulb.
“I wonder why it’s called a white elephant stall,” Meghan tried to change the subject. Memory latched on to a phrase — from where? Hills like white elephants. The name felt too grand to explain this hodge-podge of supermarket-bought soap and discarded candles and — what even was Iris holding up now?
White elephants gleaming between green leaves. Sparkling Spanish mountains cut out against a blue sky. You would spot them anywhere, those white elephants. So bright in the sunshine.
Perhaps it did fit, as a name. Her sparsely-populated stall stood out in the school field.
Sometimes she couldn’t remember ever agreeing to move back here.
“What?” Iris said.
“I was just wondering…” she trailed off. “White elephant. It’s a strange name that’s all. To describe what is just, well…” she burst out laughing. It was ridiculous really. And what was she going to do with all this stuff when it didn’t sell? What did she need with a lamp stand minus a shade? At least the ornament you could take to the charity shop. She’d have to get Neil to take her to the tip. That would mean a conversation, and an annoyed pointing out of how she should never have volunteered in the first place.
Neil had never met Iris. He didn’t see it was never a case of having volunteered in the first place.
“Are you sure you’ve got nothing at home?” Iris was pleading now. Meghan noticed her lipstick creasing in the side of the mouth. There was a growing dark patch under the arms of her cotton shift dress.
It was quite a thrill to have undone her so quickly. All it took was the force of her passive incompetence.
“Look, it’s another hour until we open,” she carried on. “You’ve got time, just pop home and see if you can rustle up some odds and ends.” She trilled her exasperated laugh. “You probably won’t sell any of it you know. So it’s not like you’d lose out.”
Except I’ll have to lug it all the way here to lug it all the way home again, Meghan sulked, heading out the field. It was twenty years now since her sullen shape in bulky blue cotton had stomped out the field towards home, every day at 3.30pm. The school had been more fags and Archers than fete-with-hay-bales back then.
In a kitchen cupboard she foraged a box of organic chocolates she’d been saving for a night off from Neil and Ava. It would do. A selection of bath bombs tight with repressed excitement in the bathroom. The aftershave gift-set her aunt had chosen for Neil’s Christmas stocking, now stuffed in the sock drawer — why there? Ava’s pirate costume that she’d rejected on sight.
This had to be enough, surely, for Iris?
What would I put on my own white elephant stall, she thought, slotting the additional merch into a conference-branded tote bag. That badly-fitting dress with the dodgy zip she’d worn to Neil’s best friend’s wedding, the night they met. The experimental dye that made her hair snap at the edges. All the furtive cigarettes, scabbed of friends and strangers first in pubs corners and then shivering under beer garden umbrellas. The tequila shots thrown up in a stinking club toilet.
The wasn’t-very-nice-to-me-boyfriend and the rebound one night stand who came after. The first dinner with dad after Ava was born, when the rice was crunchy and the chicken was too dry. The holiday in Barcelona when everything had gone wrong, except the day on the beach when a national strike meant peace and quiet.
This house, she added, turning the key in the door. With its garden and garage and the decisions that came with it. Every side-eye glance from Iris, back when she too was squeezed into bulky blue cotton. Her angry laughs delivered in cotton dresses with secret stains under the arms. The now-inevitable trip to the tip, the shake of Neil’s head, his smile so satisfied with his driveway.
The flowers that die. The nights spent awake, listening to Neil breathe through his mouth. The projects mouldering in drawers, as surely as that final lime in the bottom shelf of the fridge. It could all go, labelled with neat handwriting on brown paper price tags tied with “rustic” string.
She looked back down into the tote bag banged against her hip. Too late now.
What does it mean, anyway? White elephant. She took her phone out her handbag, typed in the question.
The term white elephant refers to an extravagant, impractical gift that cannot be easily disposed of. The phrase is said to come from the historic practice of the King of Siam (now Thailand) giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.
In the distance, Meghan could hear the strains of adolescent guitars tuning up.
Sian Norris is a writer, novelist,and journalist. Her fiction has been published in 3am magazine, Halcyon Lit Mag, and the Wales Arts Review. She is a regular contributor to the i, Guardian, openDemocracy, politics.co.uk and Prospect UK and is the founder of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. She’s currently working on a novel, soon to be on submission via her agent. Find her on Twitter @sianushka.