A Penguin Comes to Tea

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“What does the colour red make you think of?” asked the teacher, looking around the class.
Several short stubby hands shot up in the air.
“My Dad’s car,” said a little boy in the front row, “it goes really fast but I’m not allowed to sit in the front because it has a hair bag.”
“Air bag, silly!” said another little boy.
“Why?” asked a child at the far end of the group.
“Because it will chop off your head,” said the second little boy, making a chopping motion across his throat with his hand.
“Okay, that’s enough now,” said the teacher, “let’s hear from somebody else. She pointed to a girl on her left.
“Valentines,” the little girl giggled.
“Valentines, yes,” agreed the teacher, “any more?”
“Lisa’s boots!”
Suggestions and comments came from all over the room.
“Apples are green!”
“Not red ones.”
“John’s sweater!”
“The table in the corner!”
“The box in my bedroom!”
“What about you Liam?” The teacher turned to a boy sitting on the edge of the group who had not said anything yet, “what does the colour red make you think of?”
The class giggled.
“I’m sorry Liam,” said the teacher, “what did you say?”
“Thursday,” Liam repeated, even more quietly. He hugged his knees and looked down at his shoe laces. They were brown and curly, special elastic ones that were easy to do up and hard to lose, but they did not match his shoes, which were a lighter brown, and that bothered him. He could hear the class laughing around him; rather, at him, but he did not care.
Liam closed his eyes and thought of red. The soft, gentle, almost rose like red that was Thursday. The harsh, brash red that was A, the deeper red that represented 4, or 40, or 400, and sometimes 4,000 except that because 4,000 had so many zeros it sometimes came out as whitish, like the zero itself.
White. That was January, the cold month. Mrs Hadman had put up a big yellow poster on the wall with January at the top. Liam could not bear to look at it. Yellow was wrong. Yellow was for June, and July, warm summer months, and for Wednesday, and for –
Mrs. Hadman’s voice brought him back to earth. She was standing next to him with some paper in her hand.
“Liam, please pay attention. We’re starting the colour journal and I would like you to draw some pictures of things you know are red. Real things, things you can touch and see.”
Liam sighed. Thursday was real, wasn’t it? He had to come to school on Thursdays so it must be real. He picked up his red pencil and looked at it. Yup, it was real. Carefully he drew a big line on his paper, then another, and another and another. Underneath, he wrote a big, red “4”.
Poor Mrs. Hadman, he thought, she just can’t see properly.


The jellyfish drifted in the darkness, pulled by the tide, pushed by the flutterings of the otters who splashed in the waters in front of the rock. In, out, in out, up, down, up, down. Sometimes a piece of food brushed past its mouth; the jellyfish curled its mouthparts around the tasty treat and drew it deep inside to its stomach.
The child peered over the side of the boat into the green water. He could see translucent white blobs, suspended in the dark, like stars in an inverted sky; only these stars moved, forming unknown constellations, a mysterious, momentary zodiac before they broke up, torn apart by the slice of the oar.
The woman pulled on the oars with a steady rhythm: forward, up, in, back, down, out. The fluidity of the motion spoke of years of practice. She did not speak, just stared ahead, her eyes fixed on the shore. Occasionally she glanced over her shoulder and adjusted their course with a stronger pull on one side or the other.
Overhead an eagle circled, soaring effortlessly through the trees.
“Oh look, Mum, look at all the jellyfish! Look at them moving! Don’t hurt them with the oars!”
The boy reached out into the water to touch one of the fragile creatures. The woman, halted in mid stroke, positioned one of the oars under the jellyfish and slowly lifted it up to the surface, where it slithered off the wood and plunged back into the watery grotto.
The jellyfish did not know it had been moved; it just resumed its pulsing, drifting back among its throbbing family.
“What do you call that Mum?” asked the boy, “what’s the jellyfish doing?”
“Womphling,” murmured the woman.
“Oh,” said the child, and turned back to stare into the depths.
Womphling. Her mother had invented that word, years ago, to describe the lolloping movements of a puppy; a long-haired bundle of energy that undulated across the room, falling over its own paws. The puppy was long gone, grown and given to a good home, passed on and mourned many years ago. Her mother was gone too, passed away before her son was born.
The woman brushed away a tear, took a deep breath and resumed her rowing. She wanted to pull against the years, to get back to the time when she was a young girl, when her mother took her to the shore to explore tide pools and look for sea creatures.
“Womphling,” repeated the child, trailing his fingers in the water, “look, the jellyfish is womphling again.”
He looked up at his mother. “I like that word.”
The woman smiled.
“Yes,” she said, “I like it too.”

This was inspired by the afternoon I rowed my daughter around Grace Harbour in Desolation Sound, British Columbia. The word, ‘womphling’, which is pronounced ‘wum-fel-ling’ was indeed invented by my mother and applied to our boisterous, short-staying puppy. My mother did see her first grandchild before she died, but only by a matter of months.

Seven Minutes After Midnight

A few years ago I visited a crocodile farm in the Philippines, and after wondering what would happen if the crocs were to escape, I wrote this story. A few days ago I read a news report about crocodiles escaping from a farm in South Africa, so my account is maybe not as fictional as I had thought!

It was seven minutes after midnight. The last of the fireworks were sputtering into the sky: showers of red, yellow and pink sparks silhouetting the palm trees and banana branches and Alfonso was eager to go and join the party in the town. He remembered other New Year’s Eve nights, when, as a young student, he had drunk himself silly on coconut wine, flirting with the girls in the house next door. Then there was the time uncle Pedro had wanted to roast the pig and Alfonso had spent all afternoon digging the pit and sharpening the poles but when the time came to kill the pig the creature got away and was not found until three days later so they had eaten rice and beans instead.
This year, however, Alfonso had a job and was not allowed off duty until the farm was locked down properly so he rushed around the sheds, closing down tanks, shutting off the lights, except where they were needed for incubating the eggs, and generally making sure the place was secure. He had already checked the hatchling tanks, or had he?
Alfonso stopped and scratched his head. Of course he had; that was where he was headed when the fireworks started. They had been good fireworks, for a small town: lots of the big coloured ones, shooting up high then drifting back down like twirling umbrellas and not so many of the bangers. Bangers were only fun when you lit them yourself, creeping up behind somebody and letting them off so that the poor person jumped out of their skin.
Alfonso pulled off his uniform and threw it in the guard house; he would retrieve it in the morning. Everon was on duty; he had already had a couple of beers and he wished Alfonso a slurred Happy New Year. Alfonso replied, feeling sorry for Everon. Who wanted to be stuck out on the edge of a field guarding a crocodile farm on New Year’s Eve? Did they think the goats were going to rush across the road and storm the place?
Walking out of the gate he quickened his pace, past the goats, still nibbling at the lush, green grass drenched in moonlight. A stray rooster darted out of the shadows and strutted beside him, fluffing up his feathers in preparation for the dawn – the fireworks had probably put the bird out of sorts. Alfonso strode across the bridge, pausing briefly to see if Gisella had laid out her washing as usual on the river bank. Something white caught his eye and he grinned. One of these days Gisella’s washing would be borne downstream on the current, past all the children playing games and the women drawing water and the whole town would see her laundry. There were plenty of pools and logs for the pants and dresses to snag on and then she would be a laughing stock.
Alfonso thought again about his plan for stringing a net across the river, just above the farm. He could catch fish, perhaps, in his lunch breaks, but it would also stop all the debris from the stores up the hillside from floating down the river and ending up outside the school where the kids played with it. And of course, it would catch Giselle’s laundry too. He smiled as he thought of her squatting by the river every morning, hair tied back out of the way, scrubbing hard at the sheets, waving to him on his way to work. Then the sounds of the New Year celebration rang out louder and he hurried along the road to join in the festivities.

Inside the dark hatchling shed the year-old crocodiles clambered over each other, scaling leathery skins, competing to be on the top of the pile with their snouts out of the manky water. The unlucky ones bided their time underwater, slowing their metabolism to a mere heartbeat, waiting for their turn on top. Some had been in these tanks for almost a year, others were recent arrivals, relocated while their shed was being repainted. The loud bangs earlier in the evening had unsettled some of the young reptiles and they moved around the tanks, trying to settle, opening and closing their long jaws, displaying rows of sharp teeth.
One tank at the end of the row contained several restless crocodiles who had all gathered at the same end of the tank, pawing at the smooth sides. A bout of leap-frog caused the tank to lurch to one side and the crocodiles paused briefly in their mountings but soon resumed their climbing. The sudden shift of weight unbalanced the tank and with a crash it fell on its side, spilling water and young crocodiles onto the concrete floor. The water soon drained away down the channels but the crocodiles remained, crawling slowly, testing the limits of their new confinement.
The hatchling shed was not particularly large and the immature crocodiles soon found the open door which Alfonso had forgotten to secure. A shaft of moonlight pointed the way to freedom. Poking their snouts through the opening they sensed earth and water and vegetation and ventured out. Nearby, barred gates and fences secured the open-air tanks of the larger crocodiles. The young ones slithered past their slumbering fathers, mothers, uncles and grandfathers and headed, like homing pigeons, for the river which rippled along the edge of the farm like a silvery snake.
Ah, the cool feel of wet sand and mud against the skin, the satisfying sensation of sinking into the water, without a brother or neighbour standing on one’s nose.
The young crocodiles slithered into the river. Some stayed at the bank, burying themselves in the sand like sticks. Some submerged themselves completely, revelling in the dark depths; some floated like logs, their eyes barely breaking the surface. Others followed the tug of the current and drifted downstream, twirling and spinning in the eddies, coming to rest in the shallow pools where a myriad footprints nearby told tales of the many visitors to the river. A few of the hardier beasts swam upstream, the powerful kicks from their legs propelling them against the current until they too flopped down in a crevice, exhausted from the evening’s excitement.
Gisella’s washing stone, the toddlers’ paddling pool, the youngsters’ swim hole and the unofficial village well all gained lodgers overnight. The new arrivals gulped the fresh, river air, closed their translucent eyelids and settled down in the shallows to wait for breakfast. They were in no hurry; the pale pink of dawn was barely showing through the trees and the roosters were just beginning to stir, announcing the arrival of a new day. Something good was bound to come along soon.

The Advent Wreath

One Christmas I resolved to start a new and memorable tradition for our children. I picked the Advent Wreath as being a simple project that everybody could participate in.
“Can we come with you to buy the wreath?” the children all asked enthusiastically.
“A wreath has to be made,” I explained, “we’ll build it together.”
We cannibalized a large wire frame from a hanging basket that I never remembered to water, and I sent the children out to cut some green branches from our trees. The offerings brought back inside would have thatched our roof several times over, so the next task was to cut them down to a handful of fronds.
“Why are you using more of her branch than mine?” somebody wailed.
“Because your branch is full of prickles,” somebody else replied.
The branches were all stripped down equally and the resultant boughs wound tightly around the frame and fastened in place with those little ties that you get from the bulk foods section. This added a homely touch: little flags advertising ‘peanuts’, ‘barley’, ‘rice’ and such like. The whole thing was far too wobbly to hold a candle so I found some candleholders that could be clamped on the side and arranged the four candles, three purple and one pink.
The girls were so excited about the new wreath that they could hardly wait until supper. Everybody wanted to light the pink candle.
“No, the pink candle is the third to be lit,” I explained, “we light a purple one first.”
“Because that’s the way the Advent Wreath works.”
“Can I light the pink one when it is time?” asked one child.
“No, I want to. Please, Mum, can I?” asked another.
I explained to them that the candles on the wreath should only be lit once a week. Five faces drooped with disappointment. So we started a new tradition: we would light the candles every night during Advent.
For the first week, with only one candle, it was easy to take turns at lighting it and blowing it out, but as Advent progressed we accumulated more and more candles at dinner. It started when the middle two children each made a table decoration at school containing three candles.
“Can we have these at the table please Mum?” they pleaded, “that’s what our teacher said we should do with them.”
Never undermine the teacher’s authority, I thought, brimming with goodwill, so I agreed.
The next night eldest daughter, not wanting to be outdone, rooted around in her bedroom and produced a couple of candles, which she put by her own place. A few days later, eldest son found some candles to put in front of his plate, and even youngest child discovered a lump of misshapen wax at the bottom of a long forgotten goodie bag. Soon we had sixteen candles to light at each meal.
“Where are we going to put the food?” husband asked, lifting up the Advent Wreath, “do we really need this old thing?”
There were howls from the assembled family; how could he suggest such a thing? This was a tradition in the making!
The two eldest children, who were the only ones allowed to use matches, lit all the candles. Eldest daughter used one match per candle, littering the table with spent matches, like the debris from a fireworks display. Eldest son tried to light all the candles with the same match, burning his fingers, which he then plunged into his neighbour’s drink.
“Hey, you lit more than me, it’s not fair,” one of them would cry, blowing out the other’s lit candles to ensure equality, then quickly lighting more candles to gain the upper hand. The table resembled a small bonfire, and the sulphurous smell of matches mingled with the crackling of the dry leaves erupting in flames from the wreath, and the sizzling singeing of eldest daughter’s long hair.
“Why is there only one pink candle?” they asked, when the day finally came to light their favourite one.
“Because it is supposed to represent relief in the middle of Advent,” I explained.
Relief? For whom? Not me surely. By now I was reduced to cooking in the dark, because the children had turned out the lights to maximize the effect of their pre-Christmas conflagration.
After each candle-lit meal was finished the ritual of the blowing out began. It was like a daily birthday party attended by five big bad wolves, who huffed and puffed, sending smoke signals heavenwards, and spraying molten wax over the micro-sized plates and the macro-sized portions of left-over food. Eldest son repeated the burning trick: dipping his fingers into someone’s drink, he extinguished the glowing wicks before middle child could blow them into life again. Eldest daughter scooped the warm wax out of the candles and fashioned it into shapes. Youngest child rearranged the candles closer to her place and husband scavenged for dinner among the debris.
When Christmas Day came it was a day for celebration. The Wreath, with all its symbolism, was put away for another year. The table was now free of clutter, and we could eat drink and be merry, happy in the knowledge that we had created our own, unique, family tradition.