Hilary Fannin: Ignoring the elephant in the room – and its enormous erection

With kind words, the lady left, taking the elephant with her

I had a fitful night; anxious, I suppose, about the new work I’ve taken on. When I did fall asleep, I dreamt there was a hungry baby elephant in my kitchen.

I quite liked the elephant, who appeared unbothered about ending up in the suburbs rather than a leafy savannah and who was affably jumping up and down next to the dishwasher in the expectation that it would soon be fed. I was worried, however, as all I had to offer it was a plate of neatly cut cucumber sandwiches and some thinly sliced Battenberg. I’d need to source bamboo and wild bananas, and bales of hay for it to sleep on. And where in the name of God was it going to urinate? In the cat lit?

I woke up exhausted at 6am and, instead of going back to sleep for an hour, found myself remembering a trip to Dublin Zoo late last year with a young friend of mine, not yet a teenager, who was visiting my home.

A keen photographer, he was delighted when a couple of young Asian elephants, tired of gambolling around their habitat of grasslands and dry thorn forest, took up position, centre stage, in front of their plunge pool and attempted, in what can be described only as a playfully vigorous fashion, to have sex with each other.


“Brilliant,” said my young friend, camera poised.

Much to the amusement of the now sizeable herd of humanoids gathered to watch the spectacle, the pubescent mammoths, awash with adolescent enthusiasm, enacted a brief Greek drama of ardour, rejection, violent recrimination and silly biting.

“Jeepers,” said the man standing next to us as one of the frisky tuskers (the more impassioned of the two) produced an enormous erection, which, to my zoologically untrained eye, looked rather like the patchy trunk of a eucalyptus tree.

“Brilliant,” my young friend repeated, snapping away like a pro while, around us, parents ushered young children along to look at the light show.

I don’t think elephants had erections in Dublin Zoo (or anywhere else, for that matter) when I was a child in 1960s Ireland. Or if they did, it was under a very big candlewick bedspread with the lights out and strictly for pachyderm procreation only.

So anyway, if I’ve learned anything since that faraway decade, it’s that it’s easier to face the day than to keep putting it off – and so I got up, got dressed, and prepared to go and teach my first class.

I read somewhere that some Hollywood A-listers and creatives, a cohort who can afford to engage in quality distraction, are dedicated to something called dreamwork. These successful folk employ coaches who, using exercises and drawing, interpret the meaning of their clients’ dreams and thus help to unlock their power and creative potential. Apparently, encouraging dreamers to embrace free-flowing, untrammelled expression positively impacts on their artistic practice.

The proverbial elephant in the room was, I think, an old unease around educational environments

The alternative is to do what I did and Google “dreams about elephants” on the bus, only to discover that they indicate a very big problem in one’s life that is being ignored.

In the case of my dream, the proverbial elephant in the room was, I think, an old unease around educational environments. My childhood experience, like that of many others, was that the classroom was a place to fail and be belittled in. When I was five, I straightened my school tie and adjusted my Alice band before pushing open the classroom door; now, preparing to go into a light-filled room to meet a group of writers, I took a few deep breaths, polished my glasses and went in search of coffee.

I was in the kitchen boiling the kettle when I fell into conversation with a woman whose job it was to clean the college building. We were of an age, she and I, children of that other harsh country which existed before this entirely more confident one evolved.

She began work most days at 5am, she told me. The hours suited her, as she finished early enough to call the rest of the day her own.

I told her that this was my first day’s teaching and I was nervous. Refusing my offer of a cup of coffee, she reassured me that everything was going to be fine. Gathering up her equipment, she gently maintained that there was nothing at all to be worried about.

I thanked her, sincerely, and said goodbye.

It was only when she was gone that I realised she’d kindly taken the elephant away with her.