Tom Michell is single, free-spirited and seeking adventure. He has a plane ticket to South America, a teaching position in a prestigious Argentine boarding school, and endless summer holidays. What he doesn’t need is a pet. What he really doesn’t need is a pet penguin. The Penguin Lessons is the heart-warming story of Juan Salvador the penguin, rescued by Tom from an oil slick in Uruguay just days before a new term.
I stood on the beach feeling the chill as the wind rose and caused my wet clothes to flap. I looked down at my soaking shoes, my jeans sticking to my legs. I felt the arm of my jacket cling to me as the water drained down my sleeve, streaming from the cuff, and I watched as it cascaded on to the sand below. That was when I became conscious of a pair of feet standing next to mine.
I raised my eyes and realized I was being studied in my discomfort.
‘Water’s cold, isn’t it?’
‘Look! I’m soaking wet thanks to you!’ I said to the penguin who was now standing beside me, looking me up and down.
‘And your waterproofing doesn’t work either, does it?’ he implied.
I demanded that he get back to his own kind and, walking rapidly back up the beach with water squirting from my shoes, I hoped sincerely that the concierge would still be away. Preventing visitors from trailing seaweed and sand through the building was exactly what she was paid to do.
The retaining wall at the edge of the road was about three feet above the beach and, although there were no steps at that point, an outcrop of rocks provided me with a convenient exit.
What exactly did I feel as I looked back and saw that the bird was now running up the beach after me? I was too wet and cold and the salt water was stinging the cuts on my hand
too much for me to feel pleased by the persistence of the penguin. However, the sea wall was too high for him to scale so once he understood that he couldn’t follow me I was sure he’d have no option but to find his own way back to the sea. I would have to force myself to adopt the impartiality of wildlife photographers and resist interfering further – there was simply nothing more I could do for him.
Pausing only to allow a car to pass, I crossed the road and turned towards my apartment block. I glanced back. There, on the opposite side, was a penguin scaling the rocks and walking towards me.
‘Stop!’ I yelled, at both the penguin and a speeding van as it hurtled down the road towards us, but the driver didn’t hear me or see the penguin. I dreaded a bump as it passed. None came. Once the vehicle had gone by, there was the bird, walking across the road. Without wasting another second, I rushed over and picked him up. He was soaking wet and felt very cold.
‘What am I going to do with you?’ I asked.
I was reprimanded by that nagging voice in my head again: ‘I told you, seabirds can’t survive in the water if you wash them with detergent!’ Why did it sound so like my mother?
Carefully, I put him into the bag, folded the top over and, holding him against my chest for warmth, walked through the glass doors into the building.
‘Oh! Señor, whatever has happened to you? Are you all right?’ asked the concierge, who seemed genuinely concerned as she came out from behind her desk, looking at my wet clothes and the blood dripping to the floor from my hand.
‘I’m afraid I slipped by the sea and fell in. I’m fine, really, no bones broken. I just need to have a hot shower before I catch my death of cold.’
‘Did you fall from the rocks? They are slippery. Are you sure you didn’t hurt yourself badly?’
‘No, I’m fine, thank you, really! Absolutely fine. I just need to change,’ I said as I manoeuvred round her. My shoes squelched and left sandy puddles where I stepped. I was anxious to get away quickly before she came fussing around me and discovered the penguin. ‘Oh, I’m sorry about the mess! I’ll clean it all up just as soon as I’ve changed.’ Without waiting for a reply, I rushed up the stairs.
‘Leave it to me, señor,’ she called after me. ‘You go and have a hot shower!’ Of course, it was a different concierge on duty. Perhaps not all the fates were against me.
Back in the flat, I returned the penguin to the bath and dried him off once again with paper towels, took a quick shower and put my things on the radiators to dry. Then I busied myself trying to remove any shred of evidence that might betray the fact I had allowed a penguin into the Bellamys’ bathroom, a task which took just as long as the cleaning of the bird. When all was done, I checked my packing, the hydrofoil reservation and timetable, and began to think about dinner. I’d eaten everything in the fridge but the apple and the penguin’s sardines, neither of which seemed adequate for the last night of my holiday. I had planned to eat out, but that was before I had a penguin to look after. Making sure he was thoroughly dry, I returned the bird to the bath, for there was nothing more I could do for him. I picked up my book and decided it would be safe to go out for dinner.
I was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I would have to try to take him back to Argentina with me. My timetable was too tight to allow me to look for a zoo in Montevideo and deposit him there and, besides, if I took him to the zoo in Buenos Aires I’d be able to see him from time to time. Relieved that I had hit upon a sensible solution to the problem, I set out with my mind at ease.
There was an atmospheric little restaurant a few hundred yards from the flat and I decided to go there for my last meal in Uruguay. I ordered some olives to be followed by the usual steak and chips with salad, and a bottle of my favourite health-promoting Argentine Malbec from the glorious province of Mendoza to wash it all down.
It was still early and with no other diners to talk to I finally relaxed and opened my book. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a very popular novella in the early 1970s and I had been reading the Spanish edition, Juan Salvador Gaviota. But, despite my best efforts, I found I could not focus my attention on seagulls at all. I was thinking about a certain penguin in a bath. In all probability he would be dead when I got back. It was a certainty, I thought. The wretched creature must have swallowed significant quantities of oil and would soon die of poisoning. It was inevitable. It just didn’t seem possible that one and only one penguin should be able to live through the toxins and trauma that had killed every other bird on that beach. He would be dead in the bath when I got back, I concluded, and all I had done was make his final hours more miserable. I kept looking at the book, but the words just danced on the page in front of me: Juan Salvador, Juan Salvador . . .
All of a sudden I found I was hoping against hope that the penguin would survive because, as of that instant, he had a name and his name was Juan Salvador Pingüino, and with his name came a surge of hope and the beginning of a bond that would last a lifetime. That was the moment at which he became my penguin, and whatever the future held, we’d face it together.
I ate my meal with undue haste, settled the bill and raced back to the flat, anticipating the worst. But on opening the front door I knew all was well because I could hear him running up and down in the bath and flapping his wings in welcome. As I entered the bathroom he looked at me in his inimitable way:
‘I’m so glad you’re back! You’ve been an awfully long time,’ he seemed to be saying and I found I was smiling at him – or, rather more precisely, I was grinning from ear to ear, relief flooding through me.
‘Yes, Juan Salvador, I’m back, and I’m so glad to see you looking so well!’
Extract taken from The Penguin Lessons, Tom Michell (Michael Joseph) which is out now.