|Illustration by Finbah Neill|
Today’s random fiction interlude is bought to you by a mild head-cold and a total lack of inspiration. This story originally appeared in Voiceworks issue #74 (Beat).
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Alarm clock penguin (#508) vibrates to the floor at 07:08. Edmund’s alarm is set to 07:08 because he was born on the seventh of August, and so he remembers to wake up. It also rings at 13:37 and 14:53 to mark the beginning and end of the Hundred Years War and the beginning and end of lunchtime. He replaces alarm clock penguin and tucks in night and day penguins (#104 and #105 respectively). He gets dressed, carefully slipping on yesterday’s socks. He bounds down the stairs looking as though he is held together with string.
Over the meniscus of his milk and cereal Edmund gazes at the little place he has cleared on the mantle piece. Unlike the house it is dust and penguin free. Right in the middle is a small wooden pedestal. He stares at the pedestal until he puts his elbow in a lump of congealed muesli. The combination of slightly off milk and the empty pedestal has made him feel out of sorts. It is, undoubtedly, time for shopping.
Shopping was a bad idea. The looming vertical column of the dairy section, with its alien phosphorescence, has chosen today to impart a startling revelation about cheese. Shopping penguin (#7) in hand Edmund is confronted with the greatest question life has posed him thus far: how can there be so many varieties of cheese and only one variety of him? His mind boggles in his skull; the dairy section hums rhythmically. He decides on the only possible course of action: he seizes a six-pack of yoghurt and runs for his life.
Yoghurt comes in a mercifully small selection of believable flavours. Triple raspberry cheesecake swirl is, after all, only strawberry in disguise. The panicked hand of fate has chosen six little tubs of vanilla on his behalf. Fate made a good choice; the snapping noise they make as you crack the tubs apart is his favourite noise in the world. Edmund hums opera all the way home.
He steps over the threshold of his little house at the same moment the train skids past him on its track. He glances at his watch. He’s late. His is the only train that is never a moment behind schedule. The beat of its tiny wheels upon the tracks dictates the time in his little house. Penguins are very fussy passengers. A train carrying five hundred and four of them (#176 to #383, #509 to #981) would want to be on time. He puts the yoghurt away in the fridge next to the penguins in the pickle jar (#168 thru #175), careful to leave the fridge penguin (#19) with a whole shelf to himself.
It must have been the cheese. He has never been late before. Those extra moments spent contemplating the dairy section have done his day serious damage. He tells his story to the phone penguin (#20) and spends the remainder of his afternoon reordering the stair penguins (#384 thru #405). Everything about his life is small, quaint and slightly grubby. It occurs to Edmund that maybe the cheese has a point.
He started collecting the penguins after a particularly nasty incident when he was seventeen. It wasn’t until the bruises had turned yellow that a friend of his mother’s thought to give him advice worth listening to. A youngish man with chocolate coloured hair and mint coloured eyes, he sat next to Edmund’s bed in the wickerwork chair and told him a story from another country. It was about a girl and some birds. He said that if you collected a thousand of those birds then your wish would come true.
Years later he remembered the story about the birds. He didn’t really have a wish, but it was such a nice story he decided to give it a go anyway. However the Panadol he had taken at the time had stolen away some of his memory. He couldn’t remember what type of bird he needed one thousand of. He picked penguins. They seemed nice enough.
He has had nine hundred and ninety nine penguins for three and a half years now. More than anything Edmund wants to find the thousandth penguin. He has cleared a little space on his mantle piece. This is where Thousandth Penguin will sit. He will not have a job or a place like all the others. He will simply be Thousandth Penguin.
But what would happen if he never found Thousandth Penguin? Would his life never be complete? What if he did find Thousandth Penguin? What then? What if collecting had become his purpose? And if that was true … why had he stopped?
Monday Edmund goes shopping. He takes two extra penguins (#33 and #450) for support. Returning home Edmund ignores his watch as he steps over the train. He places his three new varieties of cheese on their shelf. Behind them are sixteen newly reassigned cheese penguins (#106 to #122). He is going to try a new cheese every week. Today he opens the door to variety.