A Penguin Comes to Tea

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What if … ?

In February 2017, I read in the paper that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was heading off on a state visit for which he was expected to bring 459 tonnes of cargo with him, including two Mercedes-Benz s600 limousines and two electric elevators. Two days later, when he arrived at his destination (Indonesia), I saw a headline stating, “1,500 people, two Mercedes Benzes, 459 tonnes of luggage and a golden escalator: how the Saudi King travels,” and I wondered what would happen if somebody mistook an escalator for an elevator.

“Look,” said Jean-Paul Petain, head of security of Hotel Le Meuriel, waving a sheaf of papers in front of his face then slamming them onto the conference room table. “It says here, on the list of luggage that the king is bringing with him, that he will have two elevators.”
“Elevators?” asked Martin Le Blanc, the chief operating officer of the hotel group. “What does he want elevators for?”
“To get to his hotel room, presumably,” said Petain.
“Does he think we don’t have elevators in France?” scoffed Alain Blanchard, the general manger, flicking a speck of dust off his cuff. “What are we supposed to do—rip out our own elevators and install his, between when his luggage arrives and when he wants to go to his room for a nap?”
“Rip out the elevator?” said Philippe Sousiel, the architect, his eyebrows shooting up his forehead, as if demonstrating the function of an elevator. “Does he even know that our elevator is a copy of the sedan chair used by Marie Antoinette?”
The other people in the room muttered and frowned.
“I don’t know,” said Petain taking off his glasses and polishing them with a handkerchief, “I called the embassy to check if they really meant it, and the person I spoke to said that everything on the list will be coming with the king.”
“Did you ask specifically about the elevators?” asked Blanchard.
“Yes, and they said he always travels with his own elevators, and staff to operate them.”
“So our lift operators will be out of a job then,” said Blanchard. “The union won’t like it.”
A low muttering from the back of the room confirmed that fact.
“Did they say how big the elevators are?” asked a manager from marketing.
“Apparently they stretch about seven metres.”
“Is that all?” said the manager of guest services, who was supposed to be taking notes, but was flirting with the manager of the front desk staff. “So why did he choose to stay at this hotel, with seven floors, if his elevators will only reach the second floor?”
“Because we’re the best hotel in Paris, probably,” said Petain, “but the point is, he’s booked our entire hotel for the visit, and he expects to use his elevators, so we’ll have to find somewhere to put them and make them work.”
“I’m not ripping out my hotel for the sake of a one week visit, king or no king,” said Le Blanc, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and tapping it on the table until a single cigarette slid out.
“I agree, but on the other hand, imagine what it will do for business,” said Blanchard. “We can rent out the rooms he used to other Arab visitors for triple the price; whereas, if we refuse, everybody will know we turned down the Saudi king, and that definitely won’t be good for business.”
“Can we put the elevators around the back, where the fire escapes are?” asked somebody from the housekeeping department.
“What, and have the king step around the delivery vans in the loading dock?” said the manager from the advertising department. “That would get us publicity all right, but of the worst kind.”
“Well, we can’t put the elevators in the front without knocking down some of the arches,” said Blanchard.
Le Blanc took a deep breath from his cigarette and exhaled a dense cloud of smoke that hovered over the table. He waved his hand at Petain. “So where do we put this elevator?”
“I was hoping that we could build a new access way through the patio bar,” said Petain, unrolling a drawing of the building. He pointed to the plan of the bar, located at the side of the hotel, next to the two-star Michelin restaurant. “The king doesn’t drink, so the bar won’t be used during his stay, and we can close off this section and install his elevators here.”
Le Blanc and Blanchard studied the drawing then looked over at the architect, who was shaking his head and wringing his hands.
“Can you do all this in time?” asked Le Blanc.
“I’ll try,” said Sousiel, “but it will mean your bar will be closed to guests once the work starts, and I’ll have to take out the wood panelling.”
“We’ll serve drinks on the roof-top patio,” said Blanchard, “and let’s hope it doesn’t rain in the coming weeks.”
And so the staff of Hotel Le Meuriel threw themselves into the alterations with a fervour not seen in Paris since the days of the revolution. The builders shortened their lunch breaks to just one hour and even volunteered to work overtime, which the unions approved—although the unions insisted that all staff connected to the hotel should get overtime pay, whether they were working on the elevator or not—and the bar staff demanded extra pay for having to carry drinks up to the roof. Blanchard took to standing outside the hotel every afternoon, wringing his hands and begging the builders to work faster.
“How are you going to test it without the king’s elevator?” asked Le Blanc, gazing at the big mound of rubble where the patio used to be, when he came to see what had been done to his hotel.
“We’re using a similar elevator,” said Petain, pointing to a glass-fronted box that was blocking the entrance to the restaurant.
“So you’re going to test it with that thing, then rip your elevator out and install the Saudi elevator once it arrives?”
“Yes, we’re timing ourselves on the installation; right now we can do it in two and a half hours,” said Petain.Le Blanc shook his head as he looked at the side of the building where a gaping hole revealed the landing of the second floor, with the lace curtains floating gently in the breeze and the plaster moulding hanging down from the ceiling.
“Could we not have asked them to send the elevator in advance?”
“I tried that,” said Petain, “but I was told the king needs the elevator for the plane.”
Le Blanc rolled his eyes and took one last puff of his cigarette before stamping it under his foot. “This had better all be worth it,” he muttered.
On the first day of the royal visit, while Sousiel and the engineers removed the trial elevator for the last time, the hotel staff stood in the foyer in their crisp new uniforms, watching the TV screen which showed the royal jet taxi to a stop on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport. Several service trucks headed out to the plane and one manoeuvred itself close to a hatch at the back of the plane. After a few moments the hatch opened, and a long package emerged and was loaded onto the service truck, which drove slowly to the front of the plane. A set of steps unfolded from the back hatch, and several men clattered down to the tarmac and followed the service truck to the front of the plane.
The hotel staff watched in amazement as the long package was unwrapped, revealing a golden staircase which was positioned at the front door of the plane. When everything was in place, the service truck drove off, and one of the Saudi men spoke into his radio.
The door of the plane opened, and two men in suits stepped out and stood one to each side of the staircase. A moment later, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stepped forward onto the top of the golden staircase. He looked around him and nodded briefly at the dignitaries and crowds of press photographers standing a little way off on the tarmac, flanked by rows of security personal. Then one of the suited men touched a box at the top of the staircase, and the golden stairs began to move, conveying the king and his attendants down to ground level in a ripple of warm, deep yellow. More people followed off the plane, some wearing the same flowing white robes as the king, which they gathered around them before stepping onto the golden escalator and riding down to the ground.
When the last person had exited the plane, the service truck drove around the plane again, and, with the help of some French baggage handlers, the same men disconnected the escalator and loaded the contraption onto the back of the truck.
At Hotel Le Meuriel, Blanchard looked over at Petain and fixed him with a cold stare. “Monsieur Petain, did that luggage list say the king was bringing an elevator or an escalator?”

One Thing I’ll Never Forget

One thing I will never forget is the day we blew up the neighbours’ house. We didn’t mean to do it, and by rights it should have been our own house that took the blast, but our home just lost a few windows while theirs was shorn in two, the walls collapsing like blancmange, and the rooms left open for all to see, like a giant doll’s house.
Of course they sued us, and the insurance people took forever to work out the details. In the end they got a big cheque and a new house somewhere in the newer part of town, and we were left with a big hole next to us and hostile faces from other people on the street.
My husband says it was the fault of the man operating the digger, and the plumber says it was the city’s fault for giving us inaccurate maps, but I blame the cat.
It all started when our water pipe burst, sending a spray of water across the front of the house like one of those fancy fountains at deluxe resorts. The cat was very displeased and darted up a tree, from where it spat and hissed at the foolish people who tried to climb up and rescue it.
“It would take me too long to break through that concrete,” the plumber said, indicating the rock garden which was now a rock spring, with water gushing out by the gallon. “The best thing is to dig a trench and lay a new water line to the house, so I’ll need you to ask the city for a plan of the utilities under your property.”
My husband duly contacted the city who sent us an ancient-looking diagram showing our property to be crisscrossed by all sorts of underground symbols, and we passed this on to the plumber.
“Cool! Do you think if we did deep enough we’ll find some ancient artefacts?” asked my son, who was hoping to be allowed to operate the digger.
“I think these are ley lines, you know, lines of power,” said my daughter, who survives on a diet of fantasy books. “We’ll probably disturb some sleeping spirit and be cursed for five hundred years.”
“Can we just get the water fixed,” I begged, tired of living with a lake outside my front door and a cat which spent each day in the tree.
One week later, with all of us fed up with having to drink and wash from bottled water, the plumber turned up with a friend who owned a small digger, and the two of them proceeded to turn our front yard into a scene from the Great War.
“I think you need to dig along here,” the plumber said, consulting the city plan. “We’d better go right to the edge of the property, to be on the safe side.”
While the digger piled up the earth, making more and more trenches and a deeper and deeper hole, the cat raced up its favourite tree and sat mewling on a branch just above the jaws of the machine.
“Here, cat,” said the plumber, reaching up to grab the creature, but it just hissed at him and shuffled backwards on the branch.
“I think I can get it if I climb onto the digger bucket,” said the plumber, grabbing the digger arm and standing up on the bucket to reach into the tree.
“Just leave the cat,” said my husband, peering into the hole. “What’s that blue stuff down there?”
The plumber turned to look down at the same time as the digger operator moved the bucket up towards the cat. The plumber fell off the bucket, and his tool belt landed on the blue-clad pipe with a clang. A moment later we all clamped our hands to our noses as a smell like rotten eggs hit us.
“Gas!” yelled the digger man.
“Shit!” yelled the plumber.
“Eew!” yelled my daughter, who had been watching the plumber try to rescue the cat.
“Phone the gas company!” yelled the digger man, climbing out of the cab to examine the damage. It looked like a very small hole in a very small pipe, but the smell was awful. The plumber and the digger man were both talking into their phones and the rest of us stood as far away as we could, holding our noses. The cat scampered along the branch of the tree, upset by either the smell or the commotion, climbed higher up the tree trunk and launched itself at the side of the house, scrabbling to get a foothold on my daughter’s window ledge. It clawed its way inside, knocking over some of my daughter’s lotion bottles which fell to the ground, and then meowed loudly which sent my daughter running inside to comfort it.
We all turned back to the plumber and the digger man, who were both relating their conversations with the gas company and telling us that the repair crew would be here within ten minutes, and nobody paid any attention to my son, who was moving towards the digger.
“Can I sit in it?” he asked the driver.
“No,” I said.
“Later, maybe,” said the digger man, and he pulled the keys out of the ignition.
A few seconds later a loud bang nearly lifted us off our feet. My husband described the sound like a plane crashing on the ground, but it was more like a boom followed by a cascade of rattles. Our ears rang, dust filled the air and our throats, and everybody began yelling at once.
When we realised we weren’t dead, we looked around and saw our front window glass scattered all over the ground, sparkling like beads of rain. At first we thought that was the only damage, then we heard the screams from the neighbours’ house. We peered through the dividing hedge and saw a heap of rubble where their car normally sat; behind it, the side of their house gaped open, with a chair half hanging over the edge of what had once been their second floor.
Somebody said it was the lotion bottle that did it, acting like a magnifying glass and setting some dry grass alight. Somebody said it was the driver pulling the digger keys out of the ignition, but I still say it was the cat.

Wolves in the Wilderness

Caroline hopped out of the small dinghy and pulled it up over the barnacle encrusted rocks on to the small patch of beach. She held the boat steady while Robert and Linda got out then wrapped the rope around a thick log.
“Wolves have been sighted on the island,” said Linda, pointing to a tattered piece of paper pinned to the post at the start of the trail, “do you think it’s OK to walk here?”
“Wolves?” Caroline looked up and peered into the trees but all she could see were branches dangling down in the few patches of sunlight. “What’s the date on the notice? Is it from this year?”
“I can’t tell,” said Robert, “that bit’s torn but the paper looks quite worn, so it’s probably from a few years back.”
As the three of them set off on the trail, Caroline tried to remember what she had learned about wolves. Be quiet and move away backwards. Or maybe climb a tree. Or is that what you do for a bear? No, that’s wrong; make yourself tall and be noisy, she thought. And do you look them in the eye or not?
She wished she had paid more attention to the dangerous wildlife section in the guide book, but she had been too busy reading about plants. The others had moved on up the trail and she hurried to catch up with them, looking over her shoulder so much that she bumped into an overhanging tree and grunted.
“Are you OK?” Linda called back without turning round or slowing her pace.
So much for keeping a look out for wolves, thought Caroline. If she’d been eaten they wouldn’t have even noticed. Linda and Robert were discussing hikes they wanted to do, trading tales, and laughing loudly, paying no attention to the woods.
Caroline felt her heart rate increasing, even though they were still walking on the level so she took several deep breaths and looked around her. The trees were mostly bare of branches until about ten feet above her, where the fronds formed a giant dome. Strips of bark lay on the ground beneath naked tree limbs and several species of fungi sprouted among the rotting wood. The path felt springy underfoot, from a mix of moss and fallen pine needles and Caroline enjoyed bouncing as she walked. It must be like this on the moon, she thought.
The air felt cool, even thought it had not rained for weeks, and the patches of sunlight offered a warm glow. Caroline counted eleven different shades of green, and had started cataloguing the browns when she felt a pricking on the back of her neck.
She turned and looked behind her but could see nothing except trees. Not wanting to stand still she hurried after the others, now a long way ahead, her breath wheezing as she pumped her arms and willed her legs to move faster. She kept looking back but the forest appeared just the same, although it felt more menacing, and now the various shades of green resembled lurking creatures rather than rooted vegetation.
Caroline stepped onto an old boardwalk over a stream and as she turned her head around her foot sank through one of the rotten planks and she lost her footing; she pulled her foot loose and when she looked up she saw a pair of golden eyes staring at her from under a fern.
She gasped, then screamed, fighting the urge to run, as that would mark her as prey.
“A wolf! A wolf!” she called out to the others, “do something, scare it off! Don’t leave me here!”
She waved one arm above her head while with her other she unslung her backpack then swung that around in a big arc, trying to make it look like it was part of her. She could not remember if wolves were clever creatures – did they know the difference between a chewy backpack and a tasty human? And for that matter, was this a lone wolf or did it have friends?
She could hear herself moaning with each exhaled breath, and her legs began to quaver, wanting to run yet awaiting instructions from her dazed brain. The golden eyes looked at her and blinked, directing her gaze to a long pointed nose; she knew there would be teeth below that nose but her brain refused to process any more information and was rapidly switching to panic mode.
“Caroline? What’s wrong?”
Linda and Robert came running down the trail, crashing through the bushes and in an instant the eyes were gone. Caroline sank down onto the damp ground and began to sob.
“It was right there,” she said, pointing. “Two huge yellow eyes, just staring at me.”
“All the better to see you with,” said Robert and Caroline kicked him.
“Are you sure it wasn’t this fungus; it’s a sort of orangey colour,” said Linda, pulling aside a branch to reveal two fungus spheres growing on a trunk right in the place where Caroline had seen the wolf.
Caroline sniffed and shrugged. It had been a wolf; she was sure of that, but she did not want to make a scene. She struggled to her feet and brushed the pine needles off her clothes, then shouldered her backpack once more. They continued on the trail, with Caroline walking between Linda and Robert, her heart still beating wildly while they teased her about yellow eyes and big white teeth. She did not say anything; she knew what she had seen and the sooner they got out of the trees the happier she would be.
The trail led gently uphill and eventually came out in a clearing with an abandoned fish farm and an information board describing the history of the area. There was another notice pinned to the board warning of wolves in the area, and this one did have a date on it, of the week before.
“I told you so,” said Caroline, feeling a hollow comfort, knowing that they still had to retrace their path through the woods to return to their boat.
Linda and Robert continued to be dismissive of the wolf story but agreed to wait by the trail head until other hikers showed up so that they would be a larger group for the return trip. Even so, Caroline stared at every bush and log as they tramped back through the trees, wondering where the wolf was hiding. She did not relax until they were safely in the dinghy, motoring back to their boat.
Later that evening, once the sun had gone down and the half moon was high in the sky, Caroline lay on her bunk, looking out of the window at the stars speckled across the sky. They looked to her like a million pairs of wolf eyes boring into her. She shivered and snuggled down in her sleeping bag, listening to the gentle slap of the water against the side of the boat. She was almost asleep when she heard a long, drawn out mournful howl. The wolf was calling to her.

Barn Stomping

The inspiration for this story came from a newspaper article in the Telegraph newspaper.The situation is real; the solution is from my imagination.

“I should have lied, when the council came round to measure the barn,” I told my friend Lucy, who was visiting us from America, “and then none of this would have happened, but now we have to pay a fine every year or else we’ll be sent to prison.”
“I can’t believe I am hearing this,” said Lucy’s husband, Martin. “You mean the council will fine you for having a building that’s the wrong size, but if you take it down they will send you to jail?”
“Yes, something like that. We built the barn a couple of years ago, to incubate the chicks, but George got the measurements wrong – you know how he is with his dyslexia. Anyway, it’s two feet longer and two feet wider than the planning permission – you’d think they’d have told us when we laid out the foundations, but no, they waited until the roof was on to come round and serve the notice and then it was too late.”
“Why can’t you just knock the building down and start again?” asked Lucy.
“Because of the bloody bats, that’s why,” said George, taking a swig of his wine. “The brown long eared bats moved in and the European Union won’t let us move them out without a licence. They’re protected or endangered or something. Anyway, they won’t give us a licence to move them, they won’t give us planning permission for a new shed for the bats, and they won’t let us tear down the existing barn, so every year the council people come round, with a big smirk on their faces and fine us for having an illegal building. It’s costing us a fortune and if it goes on much longer we’ll be ruined.”
George reached for the bottle and poured out more wine; if he continued drinking at this rate his liver and our marriage would also be ruined but I gritted my teeth and smiled at Lucy and Martin. They were only visiting us for two weeks, so there was no sense in burdening them with all our troubles.
“Why don’t you just fix the size of the building?” Martin asked.
“What do you mean? We’re not allowed to take it down,” I said.
“You don’t have to take it down; you just move each of the walls in by two feet and bingo, your barn is the right size.”
“How would we ever do that without the whole thing falling down?” asked George, “and we’d have to get builders in – the council would come round and fine us for disturbing the bats.”
“You could have a barn raising,” said Martin.
George and I looked blankly at him, wondering what he meant, and it was Kevin, our fifteen year old son who spoke up.
“Cool, do you mean one of those hillbilly events where everybody wears a straw hat and blue overalls and they build a barn in a day?”
Martin laughed and gave Kevin a thumbs up.
“Something like that, only you don’t have to wear overalls, or a hat, and I don’t imagine your neighbours are hillbillies.”
George snorted, no doubt at the idea of old Mrs Nash being taken for a hillbilly, but he stopped drinking and looked at Martin.
“How would it work then?” he asked.
“Well, you would need to ask all your neighbours to come and help one day, or better still, at night, as we’d be less likely to be seen-”
“That would be good for the bats, too,” said Kevin, “as they go out at night so you wouldn’t be disturbing them.”
“Right. So you have a team of people and you build a wall two feet in from one of the existing walls. Then you take off all the sidings and move them to the new wall and take down the old one. Do that for all four walls and presto, you have a smaller barn.”
George thought about this, twirling his wine glass around and around, the red merlot almost spilling onto the tablecloth, while Kevin bounced up and down with enthusiasm and I mentally reviewed the list of neighbours who we could count on, and more importantly, who would keep this secret.
“What do we tell the council?” George asked, “how do we account for the barn changing size?”
“You make it sound like it was their fault they got it wrong,” said Martin, “and with any luck you can sue them and get some of your money back. Tell them you got all confused with your dyslexia and you gave them the wrong plans, or tell them you used a bogus tape measure – heck, you can say it was one that I gave you, from Texas, and everybody knows that things are bigger in Texas. It won’t matter, the point is, by then the barn will meet the planning regulations, the bats will be back asleep and they’ll have no reason to fine you.”
And so it was decided. Martin took charge of the arrangements as if he were planning a military campaign. George made a list of who had the necessary tools we could borrow and I took photos of the barn from every angle, to be sure that we could make the new sides look just like the old. Lucy posed in all the photos, so that anybody watching would think we were just taking holiday pictures, and I took her to visit all the families we engaged to help us, using the pretext of showing my friend around the neighbourhood. Everybody we asked was more than willing to help, in fact they would do anything to get one over the council.
“What about old Mrs Nash,” I asked, nodding towards the house at the end of the field which belonged to our closest neighbour, “she’s the one who snitched on us in the first place.”
“I thought of that,” said Kevin, “I asked Jimmy to host a party on the night of the barn raising. You know how she hates noise and young people having fun, so if a bunch of us hang round at Jimmy’s place with the music on and pretend to drink and smoke she’ll be so busy spying on us that she won’t notice anything else.”
I had my doubts about how much pretend drinking and smoking would be going on, as opposed to the real thing, but I had to admit that it was a good idea for distracting Mrs. Nash, so I reluctantly agreed to let Kevin go to the party.
On the night of the barn raising, our friends turned up quietly, in ones or twos, some of them using the excuse of dropping their kids at Jimmy’s house to sneak up the back lane to our place, while others drove up and hid their cars behind the barn. George had assembled the tools during the week and they all got to work, following Martin’s plan. I had been doubtful about their being able to build and reposition four walls in one night, not to mention keep the roof from falling in, but after a couple of hours I had to admit that Martin had it all under control.
“Wow, I never thought this would work!” I said to Lucy, as we stacked the siding boards carefully in the right order on the ground, as George pulled them off the side.
“Martin loves big projects,” said Lucy, “and he especially loves fighting authority.”
Slowly the first new wall went up. As soon as Martin had tested that it was bearing the weight of the roof, some people began to remove the original, outer wall while another group started building the second new wall. Lucy and I passed the siding boards over to George, who positioned them back in the same order on the outside of the new wall. A few bats swooped down over our heads, no doubt curious as to what we were up to, but they soon flitted off into the night.
At midnight Sarah Stiles brought us all steaming mugs of hot chocolate and fresh rolls which we devoured like savages. She reported that Jimmy’s party was in full swing, with the kids gladly playing their part and their music at maximum volume. The local constable, one of George’s oldest friends, who knew what we were up to, had obliged by turning up in a squad car with the light flashing, and had given the kids a stern warning, while winking at Jimmy’s mother, who had seen Old Mrs. Nash’s curtain twitch. By then we had done the wall facing her house, so we were confident that we could get the rest of the job done without being seen.
I was surprised at how quickly we got into a rhythm, completing each wall in less and less time, and by the time the dawn began to break and the bats had returned to their relocated nests we were down to the cosmetic touches. Lucy transplanted the bushes that had grown around the base of the barn, while Sarah Stiles and Tommy Lewis painted new streaks of bat droppings on the walls, to coincide with the new position of the bat nests.
“Ugh, gross,” said Kevin, who had come back from the party reeking of beer, which he assured me was all from a spill, and that he had not been drinking, really. I sent him inside to change, but just as we were putting our tools away, and our neighbours were getting ready to leave he came rushing into the barn.
“She’s coming! Old Mrs. Nash! I can see her car at the gate!”
“Quick, everybody, hide the tools,” I said. “George, you take everybody round the back, and Martin, you and Lucy go out by the raspberries and look as if you are enjoying a stroll before breakfast.”
“We can’t let her come up here,” said George, “there’s still too much evidence, and she’ll report us to the council again.”
“I’ll stop her,” said Kevin and he ran off through the field, taking the short cut to the road.
I crept back to the house, put on my pyjamas and turned on the lights and the radio, popping some bread into the toaster so as to make it look like I had just got up, then I went outside carrying an armful of dirty washing just as old Mrs Nash drove up, in a great state of agitation.
“Oh, please, come quickly, it’s your boy,” she said, wringing her hands and pointing back down the lane.
“He fell out of a tree right in front of me and he’s lying in the lane clutching his leg and crying terribly. I didn’t want to move him in case I injured him, you know how they say about not moving people in case you hurt their backs, but it looks serious, so you had better come.”
I jumped into old Mrs Nash’s car, which smelled of cats and shoe leather, and she drove back down the lane at two miles an hour – her idea of going quickly – until we came upon Kevin, who was lying in the road, just at the bend by the big oak tree, clutching his leg and moaning.
“What happened?” I cried, jumping out of the car and rushing over to him.
“It’s my leg; I think it’s broken,” he moaned, “I heard a crack when I landed.”
“That’s what comes from climbing trees,” said Mrs Nash, who had come up beside me, but she must have got a whiff of Kevin for she stepped back. “You’re drunk, boy; no wonder!”
“We should call a doctor,” I said, wondering if it was safe to go back to the house, and whether Mrs. Nash would follow me, but Kevin moaned again.
“No, take me to the hospital, it will be faster.”
I was about to protest when I saw him wink at me, and he pointed to Mrs. Nash and her car, and only then did I realise what he was up to. It took some persuading for Mrs. Nash to allow Kevin into her car and even then we had to drive with all the windows open to blow away the smell of beer, so I hoped that the smell of cat would also be blown away. By the time we had carried Kevin into the emergency department it was mid morning, and I was sure that George and Martin would have finished the barn resizing, so I thanked Mrs. Nash for her trouble and invited her to come by later to see how Kevin was doing, but she gave one last sniff in his direction and said she would be on her way.
“Well that gets rid of the old baggage,” Kevin said, hopping off the bed. “Let’s call Dad and ask him to pick up us.”
By the time we got back home the neighbours had all gone and George and Martin were asleep on the couch, in front of the TV, while Lucy was cleaning up in the kitchen. We were all exhausted after the night’s work, so I was glad to just flop in a chair for the rest of the day.
Two days later George called the council and complained yet again about the fine, telling them that they had made a mistake measuring our barn, and that if they did not come out and re-do the assessment he would take the matter up with our Member of Parliament. It was not much of a threat but the council sent out another inspector to measure our barn and, to everybody’s surprise, it was found to be within the permitted size.
“I don’t know how that could have happened,” said the inspector, shuffling his papers and recalculating his figures. “It appears there has been a mistake.”
“I told you so,” said George rolling his eyes.
A week later, after Martin and Lucy had returned to America, we received an official letter from the council, apologising for the error and saying that the fines would be annulled, once the paperwork had all been sent to the finance department.
“You know what we do in America, after a barn-raising?” said Martin, when I called to tell them the good news, “we celebrate with a barn dance.”
“Just don’t disturb the bats,” said Lucy.

Colours

“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!”
“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?”
“Thursday.”
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 –
“Liam!”
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.

Desolation

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.

A Misunderstanding

The tree was magnificent. It stood over 80 feet tall on the edge of the bluff and could be seen for miles. Eagles nested in the topmost branches, squirrels scurried around on the lower limbs and children built forts at its base. The locals used it as a landmark when they drove far away from the village and a picture of the tree, taken over fifty years previously, before the hotel burned down, hung in the library.
The tree had survived the fire that destroyed the hotel. It had also survived storms, lightning strikes and floods. The tree was invincible. Everybody expected that the tree would live forever so it was a surprise to the mayor and the council to receive a report one day on a fungus infestation in the area.
“Mycelium? What’s that? We don’t have any mycelium here!”
“I’m sorry, Mr Mayor,” said the ecologist who had presented the report, “we’ve studied the bark and taken our measurements and we’re certain that there’s infection among your trees. You’re fortunate that not all trees are affected so there will be minimal removal but we must start right away before it spreads any farther.”
“But you can’t cut down our trees!” said the horrified mayor. He would never be re-elected if he allowed trees to be cut down.
“I’m afraid that’s the only way to stop the spread of the fungus,” said the ecologist. “Here, my department has drawn up a chart showing the infected trees and those with a watch on them.”
He passed a plan of the area to the mayor and the council members gathered around eagerly to study it. The plan showed the park areas shaded in blue with red and green dots splattered all over it, as if a young child had held a dripping paint brush over the paper.
“What do these spots mean?” asked a councillor.
“The red ones are the trees that have to be removed and the green ones indicate trees where the results were ambiguous, so we’ll test them again in another month.”
The mayor and the councillors pored over the map, muttering to each other.
“Look, the rows of silver birch trees on Main Street are marked as having to come down.”
“At least the cedars in the park are spared.”
“Hey, look, if these trees over here are removed we could extend the playground and maybe add another exit to the east end of the park.”
“My neighbour’s not going to like this.”
Nobody liked it. Letters were written to the newspapers, meetings were held, coffee shops came alive with chatter but there was nothing to be done. The ecologists had been sent by the government and the law was the law. However, once it was discovered that the tall tree on the bluff was among the doomed trees some citizens decided to take action.
Over the course of a weekend they erected a makeshift campground at the base of the tree, and then stood around in groups, chanting slogans and spilling coffee on the surrounding streets.
“Save our tree!” proclaimed the banners.
“Take your fungus and put it elsewhere!” read another poster.
The local pharmacist vowed he would treat the tree with anti-fungal creams from his store and some members of a women’s group set up a sanitising station to ensure that everybody who touched the tree washed their hands before and after.
Soon the protest spread from the single landmark tree to the condemned row of birch trees and every other tree marked by a red spot. When the tree-cutting crew arrived the following week they were met by a mob of angry townsfolk and a barricade across the road.
“You can’t come through,” said the spokesman, a large red-faced man who had been elected more for his physical appearance than for his negotiating skills.
The tree-cutters, good union members who knew a picket line when they saw one, parked their tree chipper and sat down to have their lunch. They would be paid for their time whether they cut down trees or not. The townspeople declared a victory and gave a big cheer for the spokesman, clapping him on the back so much that his face turned from red to purple.
After a couple of hours, and following a telephone call from the ecologist, a car arrived at the barricade.
“Make way for the Minister of the Environment,” said a rather pompous voice from the driver’s side.
The crowd hesitated, mumbled to themselves and decided that a Minister would not cause too much of a problem so they pulled the barrier away. The car drove up to the town hall and the Minister, a tall, thin lady stepped out.
The ecologist, the mayor, several councillors and the spokesman, who had arrived at a run and was panting heavily, gathered around the Minister and all began speaking at once.
“The report clearly says-”
“You can’t take our trees!”
“I won’t let them through!”
“Minister, we can contain this fungus if you’ll only-“
“One moment please!” The Minister’s clear voice carried above the hubbub and everybody fell silent.
“I’ve come to review the conservation and preservation order that was placed on the trees of this area, as it has been drawn to my attention that there has been some confusion between the reports issued by the Conservation Department and the Natural Resources Bureau.”
The Minister frowned at the ecologist, who looked rather taken aback; the other people just stared at the Minister, not really sure what was going on.
“Please, come inside,” said the mayor, remembering his manners.
The whole assemblage, including most of the protest group who had come up to hear what was going on trooped into the town hall. The donuts and coffee cups were hastily removed from the council table and the Mayor offered the Minister a seat in his own chair.
The Minister opened her briefcase and withdrew a plan of the area identical to the first one, only with red and green spots in different places.
“This is the report of the fungus inspection,” she explained, while the council members and the spokesman looked back and forth between the Minister and the ecologist. The ecologist in turn glared at the Minister.
“The plan that you’ve been looking at is the preservation order – all these trees marked here in red and green have special heritage significance and cannot be cut down without a permit.”
“What do you mean? You were going to cut down our trees! How dare you!”
The ecologist was in danger of being lynched. Everyone in the room was standing now, waving their arms around and shouting at him. The Mayor banged on the table to ask for order but the room was too full of people for it to do any good.
The Minister sat quietly in her chair and after some time the noise died down and faces turned to her expectantly.
“So, Minister,” said the Mayor, “what does the real fungal report have to say?”
The Minister unrolled the chart again and asked two councillors to hold it up.
“Here, here and here,” she said, indicating three red spots on the outer edges of the town, “a severe case of fungal infection has been found. These three trees and several others farther along this field will have to go.”
The Minister pointed to the green dots closer to the town centre.
“These trees will be treated with a chemical solution and their progress monitored.”
There was a collective sigh of relief in the room while the councillors and townspeople digested the information on the chart and realised that their trees were saved.
“But I don’t understand,” said the Mayor, “how could this mistake happen?”
“I’m so sorry,” said the ecologist, “there must have been a misunderstanding in the department that prepares the charts; that’s the only explanation I can think of.”
“Sorry! Sorry! You nearly caused us to lose our oldest trees, our heritage! How can you just say it was a misunderstanding?”
The noise level rose again as everybody spoke out at once, most accusing the ecologist, some thanking the Minister, some demanding the Mayor’s resignation for not investigating the matter thoroughly.
Outside, the tree cutters finished their sandwiches and, seeing the barricades removed and nobody opposing them, got on with the work they had been contracted to do. The big tree shuddered under the impact of the chainsaw, swayed once towards the town it had stood over for almost a century then plummeted over the bluff to the beach below.
“Hey Jim,” said one of the men, “reckon we’ll get overtime for this job, eh?”

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.

Disaster

Many years ago I saw a picture in a newspaper of a small boy in some distant country, standing in the middle of a road wearing only a ragged t-shirt. I never knew anything about him but that picture haunted me, so when I saw the writing topic “Natural Disaster” I decided to write about him.

The small boy stands in the pool of water in the middle of the road, oblivious to his surroundings, his fingers in his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut as his mud streaked face contorts into an infant wail. His only piece of clothing, a tattered t-shirt, reaches almost to his knees. He does not know that a typhoon has stuck his country, that his village has been wiped out and that thousands of people are dead or missing. He is not thinking about food or shelter or what will happen to his family. He just wants to be comforted, to have somebody familiar pick him up and hug him.
The journalist leans against an uprooted tree: all that is left of the village. He bends his head and talks quietly into the microphone inside his shirt, recording all that he sees, trying to get as much information as he can before he is discovered and removed. It is too dangerous for a camera man so he snaps stills from a small digital camera hidden in his top pocket: a woman wailing near a pile of bricks, a man moving tree branches, one by one, from a corner of a field; the small boy crying in the road.
A truck lurches into view along what was once the road. The man and the woman turn, move towards the truck and hold their arms extended, hoping to receive something, anything, for their anguish. But the soldiers sitting in the back of the truck do not look around them as they are jolted past the scenes of misery. Soon the truck is gone, along with the small spark of hope it had ignited.
The small boy still stands in the middle of the road. He no longer cries, probably through exhaustion. He takes a couple of steps forward, through the mud, falters and falls down on his bottom. His mouth opens once more in a small cry of helplessness.
The journalist snaps one more image then turns away.

The Little Turtle

The little turtle scrabbled with its flippers, pushed with its hind legs and heaved itself out of the hole in the sand. It could sense a loud thrum somewhere in the distance while nearby other turtles scrambled out of their holes, clambering all over each other in their eagerness to be free. The little turtle paused and smelled the air, then turned towards the source of the noise. He noticed that other turtles were going the same way and he hoped there would be room enough for all of them.
Home.
That was where he thought he was heading, although he was not sure what home meant, just that he was supposed to be there. He dug in with his flippers, pushing against the cool sand and scuttled towards the commotion.
After a little while he was suddenly pushed backwards then flipped upside down. He paddled frantically and felt himself recover, but he was sure he was back where he had been a short while ago. With renewed effort he pushed against the sand, propelling his way forward, following the other turtles he could now see ahead of him. Twice more the force pushed at him, and took him away from his path, and twice more he pulled with his front feet, dragging himself forward. The third time he flipped he felt himself floating, and the force pushed him to the side, not backwards. He barely had time to adjust before the force overwhelmed him again, and he felt himself being sucked away, faster than he could run.
Water. The ocean. This must be his home.
The little turtle flipped his feet and righted himself on the wave, then, with his head held high he paddled faster and faster, feeling the water rush over his shell and the undulations of the waves as they strove to push him farther and farther out to sea. Around him he could see the dark shapes of his brothers and sisters swimming easily through the water; there was nothing to stop them now.
The turtle looked up, lifting his head out of the water and found that above him was a vast emptiness, like the water, only different. There were dark shapes there too and the turtle wondered briefly if some of his siblings had taken a wrong turn and gone up instead of out to sea. The next time he lifted his head for air he noticed that the shapes were larger, and there were more of them. He felt uneasy about these shapes. Something inside him warned him that these were not good. He took a deep breath, dived down and swam, urging his legs to take him farther out to sea, closer to home where he would be safe.
When he could wait no longer he raised his head for another breath and saw the dark shape come hurtling out of the sky, heading straight towards him. It was the last thing he saw.

The pelican dived down into the sea, plunging its beak into the waves, scooping up a mouthful of water and a crunchy treat of turtle. Life was good.