Important Note: while you are most welcome to print and share these stories, the copyright remains with Jenny Heap.
Do You Believe in Pink Nosed Penguins?
(a Christmas story for 8-10 year olds)
by Jenny Heap
Polly hadn’t seen Dad since the spring. Sometimes she wondered if she really remembered what he looked like. Of course there were photographs – lots of photographs in every room. Mum saw to that. Sometimes Polly felt that what she remembered were actually the photographs and not Dad at all.
Her younger brother Freddy was finding it even harder to remember Dad. After all, he was only five – four whole years younger than Polly. She thought it was just the photographs that kept Dad in his mind. That and Mum’s stories.
Mum had a story for every photograph: how Dad held the new born baby Polly in one of his big hands; how Polly and Dad had looked after Freddy when Mum was in hospital; how all four of them found a fossil on the beach one wet and windy August day on the Isle of Wight.
And there were photographs from before Polly was born. When Mum and Dad, who were just called Jo and Dan in those days, set off to explore the world. Photographs of them having adventures: Dad holding an anaconda in Brazil; Mum holding a colourful baby bird called a takahe on a nature reserve in New Zealand; Dad and Mum on a boat amongst icebergs, their faces barely visible behind hoods and scarves, a whale spouting in the background.
‘We had so many adventures together,’ Mum said. ‘We wanted to see the whole world and all its wildlife.’ She smiled, ‘then we settled down and had babies instead.’
‘So no more adventures,’ said Freddy.
‘Not so,’ Mum replied, ‘babies were the biggest adventure of all.’
If that was the case, Polly wondered, why wasn’t Dad here with them, sharing the adventure?
‘Pink nosed penguins,’ said Mum. ‘He’s always wanted to see one. Ever since he was a child.’ She sighed, ‘so we agreed that when the children were old enough he would take a few months off and go adventuring one more time. He promised that whatever happens he’ll be home by Christmas.’
And always when she reached this point in the story, Mum would stop talking and ruffle Polly’s hair and hug Freddy until he wriggled free.
Polly and Freddy knew that Dad had taken a sabbatical from his job at the Natural History Museum; that he’d filled an enormous backpack with essential clothing, camping and survival gear; and he had set off early one morning in search of the pink nosed penguins. Mum said he’d kissed his babies, Polly and Freddy, as they lay sleeping. Sometimes Polly almost believed she remembered that kiss. Freddy insisted he had woken up and Dad had promised to bring him back a penguin.
Mum smiled. ‘I don’t think he would be able to bring a real penguin. That would be cruel – to take it away from home and all the other penguins. But I expect he’ll bring back lots of pictures.’
Then she began planning their summer holiday and thinking of special things to do so that when Dad came home they could tell him all about it and show him the photographs.
When school started again in September, the kids in Freddy’s class found out Dad had gone so Freddy told them about the pink nosed penguins. The other kids laughed and said he was stupid; there were no such things as pink nosed penguins.
‘I’m not stupid,’ Freddy shrugged. ‘I’m getting a pink nosed penguin for Christmas.’
The kids in Freddy’s class told their older brothers and sisters in Polly’s class. They laughed and said Dad just left home. Some said he’d gone because he didn’t love Mum anymore and he was probably going to start a new family and forget about Polly and Freddy. Some said he was a criminal and he’d been sent to prison for stealing from old ladies.
Polly cried that night. And the next and the next. Eventually, she told Mum what the kids had said. Mum got out the photograph albums and showed Polly pictures of Dad: holding baby Polly in his big strong hand, laughing with two year old Polly on his lap while they watched silly cartoons together, teaching four year old Polly her to ride her bike. There were pictures of Dad and seven year old Polly teaching Freddy to ride his bike; of Dad and Mum, their arms around each other as Polly blew out her birthday candles on a variety of birthday cakes.
Then she took out a newspaper cutting with a picture of Dad and an old lady who was smiling and shaking his hand. Polly remembered how Dad had stopped a thief at the museum who had tried to steal the old lady’s purse.
‘Your Dad,’ Mum said, ‘is kind and honest and good. And he loves us more than anything in the world.’
Even more than pink nosed penguins? Polly wondered.
‘And,’ Mum added, ‘he promised me. Whatever happens, he’ll be home for Christmas.’
But as the autumn wore on and Christmas grew nearer, Polly found it harder and harder to keep faith. She helped Mum and Freddy to decorate the Christmas tree, but when Freddy asked if Santa would bring Daddy or if he’d drive himself home Polly left the room so she wouldn’t have to hear Mum’s answer.
Freddy told everyone at school that Dad was coming home and bringing him a pink nosed penguin. All the kids laughed at him and said he was stupid – there were no such things as pink nosed penguins. Their brothers and sisters said Polly was stupid too and kept on saying it – until, in the last week of term, Polly could stand it no longer and she slapped Eleanor Parsons’ right across her nasty sneering face.
Mum came into school and Polly was told to wait outside. She could hear their grown up voices through the door, but could only make out a few words.
‘… unacceptable behaviour …’
‘… verbal bullying is unacceptable too …’
‘… face the reality of the situation …’
‘… whose reality? … small mindedness … spirit of adventure …’
The Head told Mum to keep Polly off school for the rest of the term, and bring her back with an improved attitude in January. As they walked home, Mum told Polly that it wasn’t OK to slap someone, but she could understand why you might. Instead of telling her off, Mum made hot chocolate with marsh mallows and they watched a girly film until it was time to fetch Freddy from school.
‘How many sleeps till Christmas?’ Freddy asked.
‘Five,’ said Mum.
‘Five sleeps till Dad comes home! Five sleeps till Dad comes home!’ Freddy sang dancing around the kitchen.
Polly looked at Mum and Mum looked away.
Later Polly found Mum looking through the photograph albums. ‘He promised he’d be home by Christmas,’ she said.
On Christmas Eve, Mum and Polly ran out of ideas to keep Freddy out of mischief. So they took him on a bus up to Oxford Street to see Santa in one of the big department stores.
‘It mightn’t be the real Santa,’ Mum told Freddy. ‘ He’s very busy at this time of year getting ready for tonight, so sometimes he chooses special people, very nice, kind people to help him.’
‘So don’t pull his beard off,’ said Polly. ‘Or they might throw us out of the store!’
Polly didn’t want to see Santa. She didn’t want to think about Christmas, about what should happen, and might not happen, and what would happen if it didn’t. So Polly stood in the queue that wound through Santa’s grotto, her shoulders hunched, eyes staring down at her own feet while Freddy jumped up and down with excitement at the winter wonderland of fake snow and snowmen and polar bears and penguins and toys.
‘Of course,’ Polly heard him say, ‘you wouldn’t get polar bears and penguins together, would you, Mum? Polar bears live at the North Pole and penguins at the South Pole. Dad told me.’
Something that had been niggling in the corners of Polly’s brain for weeks, maybe even months, suddenly came out into the light. She looked up and said to Mum, ‘then why did Dad set off in the spring? If he was going to Antarctica it would have been winter there!’
‘Not now, Polly,’ Mum whispered. ‘Let’s talk about it when we get home.’
‘And penguins don’t even have noses, they have beaks!’
‘Look, it’s our turn to see Santa. Let’s not spoil it for Freddy.’
‘I don’t want to see Santa,’ Polly hissed. ‘It isn’t the real Santa and there are no such things as pink nosed penguins and I’m waiting outside.’
Head down to hide her tears, Polly pushed her way back past the long queue of children waiting with their mums and dads. She hung around the toy department, looking intently at displays she wasn’t interested in, moving on when the shop assistants seemed about to speak to her. After what seemed a very long time, Mum and Freddy came out. Freddy was skipping along clutching two identical parcels wrapped in red Santa paper.
‘Look, Polly. Don’t be sad, Santa gave me a present for you too. He was the real Santa, Polly. He really was – I know it.’
Polly opened her mouth to speak, but saw Mum’s face first. And although Mum didn’t even open her mouth, Polly read the message in her eyes: Don’t spoil it for him.
She smiled. ‘Wow. Thanks, Freddy. I’m not sad – not really.’
Polly looked at Mum and knew that Mum could read the message in her eyes too when she said, ‘let’s go home.’
As soon as they got in, Freddy put the presents from Santa under the Christmas tree and went to sit by the window.
‘I’m waiting for Dad,’ he said.
Mum coaxed him into the kitchen with pink milk and gingerbread, but as soon as the snack was finished, he returned to his lookout.
Polly tried not to say what she was thinking, but when Freddy went back to the window again after tea, she couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.
‘Tell him,’ she pleaded. ‘Tell him, Mum. Tell Freddy that Dad’s not coming home.’
Mum’s eyes filled with tears. ‘He promised he’d be home for Christmas, Polly. Your Dad’s never let me down before.’
Freddy was standing in the kitchen doorway looking at his mother and his sister. He came over and hugged them both – Polly around the waist, Mum around the legs.
‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘Dad’ll be home soon, I know he will.’
Mum lifted him up. ‘Freddy,’ she said, looking at Polly as she spoke, ‘I’m really sorry but…’
‘It’s all right, Mum. I know he’s coming home. Santa told me.’
‘Santa at the store? But, Freddy, he wasn’t the real Santa. I told you – ’
Freddy wriggled free. ‘But he was, Mum. His beard was real and everything. And he knew all about Dad. When Polly ran off, he asked if she was sad because of Dad and said not to worry, he’d definitely be home before Christmas Day. He’s just been stuck in the snow at the North Pole. It’s the only place in the world you can find pink nosed penguins. That’s why they’re hardly ever seen – people don’t think of looking there.’ Freddy ran to the Christmas tree and picked up Santa’s presents. ‘And he gave me these to help Polly believe again. But you said we mustn’t open presents until Christmas Day.’
And suddenly what Polly wanted most in the world was her present from Santa. ‘Can we open them, Mum? Please?’
Mum sighed, ‘OK, if you want to.’
The children tore off the paper, Polly even more eager than Freddy, and held up two toy penguins, black and white and velvety with shiny little black eyes and soft pink beaks that looked just like little noses. As Polly and Mum stared open mouthed at each other, they heard a key in the front door.
Freddy ran to look out of the window.
‘Daddy!’ he shouted.