‘I can’t understand how it happens, Master,’ said Chulak. Mind you, the traffic’s awful. I’ve got to watch those rickshaw-drivers like a hawk. I can’t look out for graffiti artists as well – they just slap it up and run.’
‘But Chang loves Lotus Blossom True must have taken a good ten minutes on a stepladder!’
‘Yes, it’s a mystery to me, Master. Shall I clean it off?’
‘All of it! There’s a job coming up in a day or two, and I want this animal clean.’
And the Elephant Master stormed off, leaving Chulak and Lila with the Elephant.
‘Hello, Hamlet,’ said Lila.
‘Hello, Lila,’ said the Elephant. ‘Look what this obnoxious brat has reduced me to! A walking billboard!’
‘Stop fussing,’ said Chulak. ‘Look, we’ve got eighteen rupees already – and ten annas from the Tandoori House – and Chang gave me a whole rupee for letting him write that on the top. We’re nearly there, Hamlet!’
‘The shame!’ said Hamlet, shaking his great head.
‘You mean you charge people money to write on him?’ said Lila.
‘Course!’ said Chulak. ‘It’s dead lucky to write your name on a White Elephant. When we’ve got enough, we’re going to run away. Trouble is, he’s in love with a lady elephant at the Zoo. You ought to see him blush when we go past – like a ton of strawberry ice cream!’
‘She’s called Frangipani,’ said Hamlet mournfully. ‘But she won’t even look at me. And now there’s another job coming up – another poor man to bankrupt. Oh, I hate Turkish Delight! I detest silk sheets! And I loathe gold leaf on my tusks! I wish I was a normal dull grey elephant!’
‘No, you don’t,’ said Chulak. ‘We’ve got plans, Hamlet, remember? I’m teaching him to sing, Lila. We’ll change his name to Luciano Elephanti, and the world’ll be our oyster.’
‘But why are you looking so sad, Lila?’ said Hamlet, as Chulak began to scrub him down.
‘My father won’t tell me the final secret of Firework-Making,’ said Lila. ‘I’ve learned all there is to know about fly-away powder and thunder-grains, and scorpion oil and spark repellent, and glimmer-juice and salts-of-shadow, but there’s something else I need to know, and he won’t tell me.’
‘Tricky,’ said Chulak. ‘Shall I ask him for you?’
‘If he won’t tell me, he certainly won’t tell you,’ said Lila.
‘He won’t know he’s doing it,’ said Chulak. ‘You leave it to me.’
So that evening, after he’d settled Hamlet down for the night, Chulak called at the Firework-Maker’s workshop. It lay down a little winding alley full of crackling smells and pungent noises, between the fried-prawn stall and the batik-painter’s. He found Lalchand in the courtyard under the warm stars, mixing up some red glow-paste.
‘Hello, Chulak,’ said Lalchand. ‘I hear the White Elephant’s going to be presented to Lord Parakit tomorrow. How long d’you think his money’ll last?’
‘A week, I reckon,’ said Chulak. ‘Though you never know – we might run away before then. I’ve nearly enough to get us to India. I thought I might take up Firework-Making when we got there. Nice trade.’
‘Nice trade, my foot!’ said Lalchand. ‘Firework-Making is a sacred art! You need talent and dedication and the favour of the gods before you can become a Firework-Maker. The only thing you’re dedicated to is idleness, you scamp.’
‘How did you become a Firework-Maker, then?’
‘I was apprenticed to my father. And then I had to be tested to see whether I had the Three Gifts.’
‘Oh, the Three Gifts, eh,’ said Chulak, who had no idea what the Three Gifts were. Probably Lila did, he thought. ‘And did you have them?’