A Penguin Comes to Tea

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A Weakness

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Some might say it is a weakness, and Sadie calls it her hobby, but to Howard the collection of garden gnomes that surrounds him is an obsession. There are gnomes along the path, on the front steps, in the flower beds, on the window ledges, in the pond; there is even a gnome umbrella stand in the hall. At first Howard thought it was amusing when Sadie bought a new gnome but when she had over a dozen and showed no signs of stopping he no longer saw the funny side.
“But I like the gnomes, Howard, they add character to the place.”
Howard was not so sure about that, but it was easier to tolerate the gnomes than to cross swords with his wife, so he came to an arrangement: Sadie could have as many gnomes as she wanted, provided none were placed in his vegetable patch, and none obstructed him when he wanted to cut the grass.
So when Howard finds a brightly painted gnome sitting under a rhubarb bush he is not very happy.
“Sadie, damn it, how many times do I have to tell you to keep those creatures out of the vegetables?” he says, heaving the gnome onto the grass at his wife’s feet.
“How did he get there?” she asks, taking the dead heads off the roses, “he should be on that stone over by the pond. It must be those kids again, coming in and moving my little people in the night.”
“Well, if we didn’t have so many of them, perhaps the youth would find something else to do,” puffs Howard, picking up the smiling gnome and shuffling over to the pond. Sadie follows Howard, stopping to pull up a weed between two flowering heathers before repositioning a small gnome holding a hunting rifle.
When he reaches the stone overhanging the pond, Howard sees an identical gnome, although it appears somewhat weather worn, and he lowers the new gnome onto the rock next to the old one.
“Surely we don’t need two the same,” he mutters, “can’t we call a halt to it if you have the whole collection?”
“Oh, my goodness! There’s two of him!” Sadie says, “I wonder how that happened?”
Howard has a good idea how that could have happened. Somebody probably received a gnome for a present and wanted to get rid of it without causing offence; it is not the first time they have found other people’s gnomes added to their collection.
“Well, we don’t want two, do we, so I’ll just take this one away,” says Howard, bending down to pick up the new arrival, his face turning pink from the strain. “They must be making them out of concrete now, instead of plaster; this weighs a ton.”
Howard carries the gnome around to the side of the house, intending to dump it, but with both hands full he cannot get the lid off the garbage bin so he takes it into the garage instead and puts it on his worktable.
Howard has his own weakness: he enjoys the occasional cigar, a habit he began in his teens and which he has not been able to shake. Sadie won’t allow him to smoke in the house so he usually paces up and down the porch, inhaling the warm smoke and enjoying the brief feeling of calm. When it is raining he retreats into the garage and cleans his tools, which is almost as relaxing as the smoking.
Howard lights a cigar now and looks at the gnome. The red paint on the pointed hat looks brand new, and the black boots are just as shiny, as if the little man himself had polished them. Howard puts the end of his lighted cigar against the toe of one boot and watches the paint blister and peel off, then he shakes his head and stops himself. Although he hates the gnomes, if somehow feels like torture, and Sadie would be upset if she saw him. As he puts out his cigar, saving the rest for another day he notices that the gnome’s toe is visible under the paint and it is not white, but a shiny yellow colour.
Howard takes a match from the shelf and uses it to carefully scrape away some more of the paint, revealing a distinct golden boot. His heart thumping wildly, Howard scrapes the paint from the gnome’s white beard, and discovers gold underneath there too. He picks at several other places on the gnome and each time discovers gold under the paint, then he stands back and looks at the little creature. ‘Worth its weight in gold’ suddenly has a new meaning.
Howard imagines all the possibilities: he and Sadie could go on holiday or build that second bathroom or maybe get a newer car or-
Just as suddenly, it dawns on Howard that somebody put the gnome in his garden and therefore it is likely that somebody will want it back. What if the gnome is not under the rhubarb when the owner comes back? Would they break into the house, tie him and Sadie up and demand their gnome back? Could Howard claim it was now his gnome as it was on his land?
Howard does not know how criminals operate, but he has seen enough TV to be worried, so he pulls down his box of paints and carefully touches up the paint on the gnome, covering all signs of the gold, then he carries the gnome back out to the vegetable patch.
“What are you doing?” Sadie asks, looking up from her weeding, “I thought you didn’t want any gnomes in your part of the garden?”
“I kind of like this one,” Howard says, and places it under the rhubarb again, making sure that it is visible, but not too obvious. He does not want to give the impression that he knows what it is.
Howard walks back to the house, goes to the computer and types ‘gold’ into the Google search. Pages and pages of gold prices and gold merchants come up and he spends some time navigating around the sites, reading up about gold and discovering that the worth is all determined by weight, so he goes upstairs and fetches the bathroom scales.
At the door he pauses. Should he take the scales out to the gnome, or bring the thing into the house? Either way, Sadie will think he is mad, but perhaps he can hide the scales better than the gnome.
Howard goes into the garage and puts the scales into a garden bag, along with a trowel and a pair of gloves. He walks back to the rhubarb, kneels down and carefully places the gnome on the scales, making sure to keep it level.
“What are you doing with the scales?”
Howard jumps, as if shot, and the gnome falls back into the earth.
“Gee, Sadie, don’t creep up on me like that,” he says, pushing the basket between the gnome and the scales. “I’m trying to work out how dense this soil is, and whether it is right for the rhubarb.” He knows this sounds ridiculous but Sadie just shakes her head and moves back to her weeding, so Howard quickly weighs the gnome then goes back inside to the computer.
After a bit more research Howard discovers that he needs to know if the gnome is solid gold, or just gold plate on something else. It feels heavy enough, but perhaps the gold is covering another metal. He looks out of the window and sees that Sadie is talking to the neighbour over the fence.
Howard finds a large bucket and takes it over to the rhubarb; it is too small for the gnome to fit inside entirely, so he goes into the garage and empties out one of his storage bins and brings that over to the rhubarb. When lying on its side the gnome fits inside this bin, so Howard drags the garden hose over and fills the storage bin with water, up to the brim.
“Whatever are you doing now, Howard? Are you washing that gnome?”
Howard nearly drops the hose in surprise, but he points it at the rhubarb and sprays the plant all over.
“I’m just watering the rhubarb, and that damn thing fell into my box of stuff.”
“You don’t have to keep the gnome there, you know; if you like it we can move it somewhere else.”
“No, I like it; I mean it’s fine here,” says Howard, turning off the hose and moving around to the other side of the rhubarb bed, while he keeps a close eye on the gnome in case the water has washed off the paint.
Once Sadie moves away Howard tops up the water in the tub, then takes the gnome out of the container and sets it back in the earth. Howard marks the water level on the side of the bin with a piece of tape, then he scoops out the water, one cup at a time and dribbles it onto the rhubarb.
“I say, Howard, that’s an odd way to water plants – new technique is it?”
Howard looks up to see Mrs. Fitch from next door staring at him. Sadie is nowhere in sight, probably she has had enough of chatting.
“Er, yes, I’m making sure they each get the same quantity of water. It’s part of an experiment, and now I need to go and record my data in the garden manual.”
Howard gathers up the bin and the hose, nods to Mrs. Fitch and hurries back inside, wondering if she will tell Sadie about Howard’s garden manual. This whole thing is becoming too much; perhaps he should have thrown the gnome out after all. He puts the bin back in the garage and relights his cigar, inhaling deeply until clouds of smoke swirl around his head and he feels himself relaxing.
All afternoon Howard walks back and forth, inspecting the gnome, moving it into and out of view, measuring it, feeling it, and in between, dashing back to the computer to read up about gold. After a while he becomes fairly certain that the gnome is solid gold, and a feeling of worry starts to grow inside him.
“Whatever has got into you, Howard?” Sadie asks as they sit down to dinner. “I’ve never seen you so interested in your vegetables. Are you entering a competition or something?”
“Yeah,” mumbles Howard, “it’s a new project.”
“You don’t have to keep the gnome there just for me; I know you don’t like them, and it is your patch of garden.”
“No, no, really, it’s fine. He’s going to be my scarecrow.”
Sadie looks at Howard as if he has become unhinged and Howard quickly changes the subject, asking about her sister’s health, a topic that is guaranteed to last the rest of the meal.
After supper, Howard takes a stroll around the garden, enjoying his final smoke, and making sure that the gnome is still in place, although he is not sure what he would do it if were gone. He checks on it again from the window before going to bed and wonders whether he should tell anybody about the golden gnome. Perhaps he should report it to the police, but then, there is no proof it is stolen property.
In the morning, after collecting the newspaper from the front porch, Howard checks that the gnome is still lodged under the rhubarb then opens the paper to the Classifieds section. He has no idea what he expects to find, but in movies secret messages are always sent this way so he reads through several pages of ‘help wanted’, ‘for sale’ and ‘companion sought’ notices before he gives up and sits, staring into space, munching on his cold toast.
“Howard!”
Howard jumps, knocking over his teacup.
“What is it, dear?” he asks, noticing that Sadie is frowning at him.
“I said, are you quite well? You’re behaving very strangely today. Perhaps you had too much sun yesterday, with all the work you did on your rhubarb?”
Sadie sniffs, as if she does not think the rhubarb merited such attention and Howard opens out the paper to the financial section and gives it a loud thwack to straighten it, and to indicate that he is busy contemplating important matters. He looks at the paper and really tries to concentrate but it is no good; all he can think of is that gnome and how it came to be in his garden. Finally, he decides to go and speak to the local police: they will know what he should do.
“I’m going out,” Howard says, putting on his hat and striding down the front path.
All the way to the police station he rehearses what he is going to say. ‘I have a golden gnome,’ sounds like a line from a movie; ‘somebody left some gold in my vegetables,’ sounds rude, and ‘my garden gnome is valuable,’ sounds ridiculous, so by the time he reaches the station he has no idea what he will say.
Howard need not have worried as the constable on duty is out and the receptionist gives him a form to fill out to record his complaint.
“In triplicate,” she says, paying no more attention to Howard.
Howard considers the form. He has not been burgled, assaulted, murdered, hit from behind or had his human rights violated so he ticks the box marked ‘other’ and writes, ‘I have a garden gnome which may belong to somebody else,’ signs his name and gives the form back to the receptionist who nods and adds it to a pile of papers in front of her.
As he walks home Howard worries that he should not have left Sadie alone with the gnome. What if the real owners show up and she does not know what they want? What if somebody else knows about the gold and steals it? He wishes he could smoke but he does not have his cigars with him. Instead he quickens his pace until he is almost running and nearly knocks into Mrs. Fitch coming out of her driveway.
“I’m back!” he calls into the house, “is everything alright?”
Without waiting for a reply Howard runs into the garden and over to the rhubarb patch where a depression in the soil marks the spot where the gnome had been. He looks all around the rhubarb but cannot see the gnome; there are not even any footprints in the soil.
“Sadie! Where are you?” Howard bellows and runs into the house, but he cannot find her anywhere, not even in the bathroom where she usually spends her mornings.
Howard can see the conspiracy now. The gnome was planted as bait and now Sadie has been kidnapped. He grabs the phone and dials the emergency number.
“Hello, Police? I was just down there with you reporting a gnome but now it’s gone and so’s my wife. Yes, I did fill out the form, in triplicate. I think they took her because the gnome is solid gold, but she doesn’t know that.”
As Howard speaks he looks wildly around, trying to see if anything else is gone, but he is too flustered to think. What if they demand a ransom for Sadie? What will he do?
Howard puts the phone down, hoping the police will come soon, and goes into the garage to find his cigar. He really needs a smoke after that shock; not only losing the gnome, but Sadie too. He puts the cigar in his mouth but does not light it, thinking instead of the little gnome’s shiny boot and the way the paint peeled off it.
Howard does not know how long he has been in the garage when he hears Sadie calling for him.
“Howard? Come in here and take your medicines. I returned that gnome to the Martins; their lad admitted to leaving it here for a prank. And the police said you were down there bothering them again. Don’t you know I always pop out in the mornings?”
Howard sighs. He remembers all the plans he had for spending the gold. Now he’ll have to come up with a new plan to escape from Sadie and the gnomes.

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