The Elephant in the Room by Frankie McMillan


My husband is a choker. Every now and again, he’ll cough then suddenly rise, the dinner plate flung to the floor. Food thrown everywhere. He runs outside, leans over the balcony. His body shudders as he tries to clear his airway. Sometimes he grasps an overhanging tree fern to steady himself.

We thought living at the edge of a forest might help his airways. We thought all that greenery would be good for him.


He explains to visitors why he can’t eat certain foods … the flap in his throat is faulty.

When I think of the throat I don’t think of there being a flap in there. Or two passageways, one for food, one for air. The mechanisms of swallowing are a mystery to me. ‘Can’t you eat more slowly?’ I say. ‘Can’t you count to ten before you swallow?’

One friend, who I suspect has a crush on him, always jumps up to offer water. Rub his back in little circular motions. ‘I hope you know the Helmlich’s maneuver,’ she says.

It’s hard to resume the conversation after a choking fit.

Usually the conversation that follows is about his flap.


I’m on my hands and knees poking out a pea from under the leather sofa. My mind is not so much on the pea but the way a sofa seems to swallow objects. If I ever lose something, say my cell phone it’s bound to be wedged into the back. Under the sofa it smells like elephant. I’ve never smelt an elephant up close but I think, this is how it would smell. This is the sort of thing I find interesting but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere in a conversation.


My husband lurches inside. ‘Helmlichs,’ he gasps. He points dumbly to his back.

He’s never asked for this before.

I jump up. I put my arms around his middle, my fingers search blindly for the bony ridge …the diaphragm. But he is a big man and my arms scarcely go around him. We stagger around the floor, my face pressed to his warm back.

In desperation I hit him. I pound his back. My hands, my fists raining down on his sweat soaked shirt.

We haven’t made love for years. Now we are involved in a terrible struggle.


Outside, wind ploughs through the flaxes, the tree ferns wave and as we lie there in a sweet tangle I imagine he is thinking of the latest story he will tell about his flap. But instead he turns to me, ‘We are so lucky’ he says, ‘so very, very lucky.’

Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best NZ fiction books of 2019. She co edited Bonsai: best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. (CUP, 2018) Her flash fiction appears in national and international journals and anthologies, notably, Flash Fiction International, 2015 (WWW Norton) Best Small Fictions, 2017 (Braddock Books) and Best Microfictions, 2019 (Sonder Press). In 2014 she held the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University and in 2017 the University of Auckland/Michael King writing residency. In 2019 she was the recipient of the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship.

Elephant hiding behind trees
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