Ben Fletcher

Chapter Two(“That Penguin Had a Business Card?”)

Almost a decade had passed since the cold November morning on which Mr and Mrs Moustache had been shocked to wake up and find their baby nephew, Billy Smith, curled up inside a bundle of blankets on their doorstep, but little had changed on the street outside. The sun still shined upon the same neat front gardens that stood tidily side by side, divided only by the equally well-kept and bright green hedgerows that separated them. It still shined, too, upon the highly polished door number Mr Moustache had screwed onto the wall next to their Beware of the Bulldog sign. The Moustaches didn’t actually have a bulldog — Mrs Moustache had allergies which made that impossible — but they had seen the sign while out shopping one morning and decided it would make their household appear much more patriotic to anyone passing by.

Inside the house, the same sun that shined brightly outside also shone through the same flowery curtains that had been there on the night Mr Moustache had sat down in his comfortable armchair by the window and watched that fateful weather report informing him there were to be freak hailstones that night due to climate change. To those people who, like Mr Moustache, were incredibly stupid, it felt as though the sun was somehow much brighter now than it had been back then. But to anyone who had even the most basic and simplistic understanding of scientific concepts — or the ability to listen to those who knew more than they did — the reality was no one had ever cared enough about the issue of global warming to actually do anything which might have avoided the continued rise in global temperatures.

Ten years ago, the mantelpiece and walls had been adorned with photo frames exhibiting photographs of what at first glance appeared to be a giant inflatable toy wearing outfits of various bright colours — but Yate Moustache was no longer the small boy he had been back then.

Taking after his father, Yate was also now very fat. Of course, he was fat. Yate was set to grow up as such an unpleasant child, he simply couldn’t not be fat in a story such as this, could he? While Yate’s yet to be mentioned campaign of bullying against others is something to be strongly condemned, in this world, for some reason it’s as though children should be taught that bullying is only ever a problem when it is perpetuated by those deemed less attractive — or fat — by a judgmental society, and never when those same people are victims themselves. Because of this, Yate himself was apparently fair game, and this is why he wasn’t only fat, but rather he was a giant hippopotamus of a child.

Mr and Mrs Moustache were both very proud of their hippopotamus-sized son, and so the photographs spread around the room now showed the giant boy getting into his first fist fight at school, getting stuck in a swing at the local playground, illegally hacking into a supposedly secure government computer system with his father before forwarding what they found to WikiLeaks, and being hugged and kissed by every member of his family so often that anyone else could only presume none of them were aware of the risks of such close contact were there ever to be a global pandemic.

None of the photographs in this room, or indeed any other room in the house, showed any sign there was another boy living there as well.

But Billy Smith was still a member of the Moustache household, and at that moment, he was still asleep.

The first noise of the day came from his aunt as she picked up the morning post from the doormat and screamed shrilly with the upmost disgust.

“Oh, my goodness,” said Mrs Moustache in a panicked voice. “MICHAEL!” she shouted up the stairs. “MICHAEL, COME QUICKLY.”

There was movement from above, as a short sequence of thuds preceded the appearance of a half-dressed Mr Moustache at the top of the stairs, and then more thuds as he attempted not to trip over his own trousers as he walked down the stairs with them still around his ankles.

“What have I told you about calling me by my first name outside the bedroom, Jennifer?”

“But Michael, they’ve used… they’ve used a second class stamp on this letter.”

The thuds stopped.

“WHAT?”

“Look at it. It’s all blue and there’s a little number two, followed by a tiny letter N and a tiny letter D. I’ve seen the neighbours using them before. It’s definitely authentic.”

The thuds resumed, though they were lighter than before, as Mr Moustache made his way towards a scene which he hoped no one he knew would ever witness him being a part of; much like when the more respectable staff at a major publishing house are asked to attend a meeting to discuss the release of a new book by one of the country’s former most-popular authors… allegedly.

“They must…” began Mrs Moustache as her husband took the letter from her.

“…think we are second class citizens,” Mr Moustache finished for her. “Where did this letter come from, Jennifer?”

“It’s from the television licensing people.”

“DAMN IT!” bellowed Mr Moustache. What is it these communists don’t understand? I will not pay for their left-wing liberal hacks to disgrace our great nation on the public airwaves. No, I won’t do it. And now they have the… the AUDACITY to send us a communication in the same way poorer people buy household goods from the back of newspapers. I will not stand for it. I just won’t.”

“But what do we do about it, Michael?”

“Well, first, we must burn this letter in protest. And then after you’ve calmed yourself down over a cup of tea, made my breakfast, and done all the washing up, you should write a stern letter to our Member of Parliament to tell him exactly what I think about the matter. Yes, that will do it.”

“I don’t think I can even concentrate on making breakfast right now,” said Mrs Moustache, her voice shaking.

“Get the boy to make it.”

There were more thuds as Mr Moustache pulled his trousers up from around his ankles and then made his way along the hall towards the kitchen door. He stopped just short of the cupboard under the stairs, cleared his throat, and then slammed his fist so hard on the cupboard door that the wood might have splintered.

“BOY!”

Inside the cupboard, Billy woke with a start.

“Up! Get up and out of bed and stop being so lazy!” It was his aunt who spoke this time, as she too began banging her own hands on the door. “Right this instant!”

Billy sat up in bed.

“UP!” screamed Mrs Moustache again. Billy listened in silence as he heard her go into the kitchen and the door close behind her. He rubbed his eyes as he tried to remember the dream he had just woken up from. It had been a good dream. There had been love and acceptance for all people regardless of how they chose to identify or live their lives. He had a strange feeling he’d had the same dream before. He shook his head and laughed to himself about how ludicrous such a concept was in this universe.

His aunt was back outside the door.

“Have you got up yet?” she screeched as she began scratching at the wood as though she was a possum attempting to launch a daring escape from an animal testing facility run by one of the many immoral cosmetics companies.

“I’m getting up now,” Billy replied through a yawn.

“Well, move quicker. I want you to make breakfast. And don’t you dare ruin any of it. Everything must be perfect today for Yate’s birthday.”

Billy sighed.

“What did you just say?” demanded Mrs Moustache as she peered through the small air hole Mr Moustache had drilled into the door.

“Nothing. I didn’t say anything…”

Yate’s eleventh birthday. How had he forgotten about it? It was all his cousin had gone on about for weeks.

Billy got out of bed, slowed by the heavy feeling of dread he felt for the day ahead, and started to look for a clean pair of socks. He found a pair in the corner of the cupboard and, after pulling a venomous and deadly black widow spider off one of them, he put them on. Billy was used to black widow spiders because his aunt and uncle kept releasing them into the tiny cupboard where they forced him to sleep in the hope he’d get bitten one night and die, so they could claim on the life insurance policy they had set up in his name.

After pulling on an old t-shirt and pair of jeans, he left the cupboard and went into the kitchen. Mr Moustache was sitting at the table reading a piece in the Daily Mail about how something bad was all the fault of that young couple from Eastern Europe who had recently moved in down the street, though much of both he and the table were hidden from view by the mountain of colourfully wrapped boxes and packages that were Yate’s birthday presents.

It looked to Billy as though Yate had been given many of the things he wanted: a new gaming computer, which he referred to as a set-up, a switchblade to replace the one he’d had confiscated at school the week before, a mountain bike, and a big cuddly toy to go to sleep with. Exactly why Yate wanted a mountain bike was a mystery to Billy, because again, Yate was a wayward child who was therefore very fat and hated exercise — unless, of course, that exercise was pinning Billy to the ground and repeatedly punching him in the head as though role paying a member of the Metropolitan Police in a situation where they faced no threat at all. Yate’s favourite punching bag had always been Billy, but it was often difficult to catch him. He didn’t look it, but Billy was very fast.

Perhaps it had something to do with years of being abused by his aunt and uncle by being forced to live in the dark, damp and cramped cupboard under the stairs for most of his life, but Billy had always been generic, small, and on the skinny side for his age. It was almost as if he was supposed to be the heroically deliberate contrast to his fat cousin and other fat characters who are yet to be introduced, but will inevitably be just as bad. The clothes he wore made Billy look even smaller still, because all the Moustaches ever gave him to wear were Yate’s old hand-me-downs, and Yate was, and this really can’t be emphasised enough for some reason, really very fat.

Billy wasn’t fat. Having been starved by his aunt and uncle on a semi-regular basis as a form of torture for him and entertainment for themselves, he was very thin. He had a thin face and thin knees. In fact, everything about him was thin, except for the paycheques he proved for those using him as cover while abusing their influence and power, and the thick black and messy hair that sat atop his head, giving him just enough fringe to reach the top of his bright blue eyes. In front of his eyes, Billy wore an old pair of glasses held together by tape after the time Mr Moustache had thrown a cricket ball at his face during a school sports day event he was about to come ahead of Yate in.

The only thing Billy liked about the way he looked was the dollar-shaped trademark on his forehead. He’d had the trademark for as long as he could remember, and the first question he could remember asking Mrs Moustache was how he had gotten it.

“From the angry swan that attacked, killed, and gobbled up your parents,” she said sharply. “You’re quite lucky it was full up by the time it had gotten to you. Now, don’t ask me any more questions.”

Not asking questions was the second rule for anyone who wanted a quiet life living with the Moustaches. The first rule was always to ensure Mrs Moustache never ran out of her edibles.

Mr Moustache put down his newspaper and looked over at Billy.

“Use a brush on that hair boy. You look as though the Prime Minister has stuck his hair into a tub of lard and gone outside on a windy day,” said Mr Moustache by way of a passively aggressive morning greeting. He laughed to himself for what he felt was a witty line.

Billy was used to this. It happened at least once a week that Mr Moustache would put down his newspaper and say something about the way Billy’s hair looked. The Moustaches had tried to fix what they considered a major problem by dragging Billy to the hairdressers and demanding of the person cutting his hair, that they stick to one of a limited number of Mr Moustache-approved styles, as though they were living in North Korea, but it made no difference. After all, no matter how much they might have wished they could control how others lived, Mr and Mrs Moustache didn’t actually live under an authoritarian regime which punished individuality and free spirit — at least not yet, anyway. Billy’s hair simply grew messy and ruffled looking, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

Billy was coughing up phlegm into Mr Moustache’s morning coffee when Yate entered the kitchen. Yate was the spitting image of a young Mr Moustache, which, as a reminder, meant he was very fat. To complete the image of Yate being unintelligent, he also had a bowl of blonde hair which sat atop his round, fat head. Mrs Moustache would often comment that Yate was the most handsome boy she had ever seen. Billy often commented that Yate was so fat each of his legs were in different postcodes, which, while actually a callous thing to say to anyone, was okay here because Billy was the thin hero triumphing over his evil cousin.

Billy brushed a little of the dandruff from his hair into his uncle’s coffee to make up for a shortage of sugar, gave it a quick stir, then placed the mug down on the table in front of Mr Moustache as Yate began counting his birthday presents.

Yate’s face fell.

“There’s only thirty-four presents,” he said, his eyes starting to fill with tears. “You got me more presents last year,” he began to howl. “Why don’t you love me anymore?”

“What about this one here?” said Mrs Moustache as she picked up one of the presents. “It’s from your aunt. You didn’t count this one.”

“It’s still less than last year. You’ve ruined my whole birthday and my whole year. I don’t like having you as parents. Why did I have to have you as my mother?”

Billy, sensing some shit was about to go down, ducked just in time as Yate grabbed the nearest present and threw it across the room towards the spot where Billy’s head had been a moment earlier.

“Now I’ve only got thirty-four presents.”

Mrs Moustache, obviously remembering how sharp the switchblade they had bought Yate was, decided it would be best to try and calm the situation. “How about we buy you some more presents while we’re out today? We’ll buy you four more and then you’ll have more than last year, won’t you? How’s that?”

Yate scrunched his face into a painful expression as he tried to work out what this would mean for him. “Okay then,” he said after a moment.

“And we’ll even buy you a frame for your ASBO. We know how proud you are to show off your certificates.”

“Just like his father,” said Mr Moustache as he finished his coffee and began choking on an especially large piece of dandruff from the bottom of the mug. “Always getting recognition for his achievements. So proud.”

In the hall, the telephone ran and Mrs Moustache left the room to answer it, while Billy and Mr Moustache sat and watched Yate unwrap his presents. Alongside his mountain bike, switchblade, and big cuddly toy, Yate had also been given a remote control car, a mobile telephone, and a box set of The Lord of The Rings trilogy in paperback. Yate couldn’t actually read that well yet, but everyone knew that The Lord of The Rings was the fantasy series to introduce young people to the wonders of reading. He was unwrapping a large bar of chocolate when Mrs Moustache came back into the room wearing an angry expression.

“It’s not good, Michael,” she said. “Mrs Young has broken her leg and can’t look after it.” She gazed over at Billy here.

Yate put down his bar of chocolate and looked at each of his parents in turn as his eyes once again began to water. Billy, meanwhile, felt a sudden uplift in his mood. Every year, Mr and Mrs Moustache would take Yate and one of his friends out for the day to celebrate his birthday, and every year, Billy was left behind with Mrs Young, a bitter old woman who lived on the next street. Billy hated it there. Her whole house smelt of bigotry, and whenever he was forced to go, Mrs Young would spend the entire time talking about how she believed people who she would refer to as “real women” were being cheated out of great sporting achievements by “men who are only pretending to be women.

“What do we do with it?” Mrs Moustache asked Mr Moustache as she gave Billy an expression that lay the blame entirely on him. Billy knew he should be feeling sorry for Mrs Young, but it wasn’t so easy when he remembered all the hurtful things she had said about others over the years.

“We could always phone my sister?” Mr Moustache put forward as a suggestion.

“Don’t be an idiot, Michael. She hates the boy so much she wanted to drive him to Switzerland and have him euthanized.”

This was exactly how Mr and Mrs Moustache always spoke about Billy: as though he was beneath them, and they were always superior, even if he was in the room at the time, and could hear every word they were saying.

“What about your friend, you know, the one you used to go for nights out with — Andrea?”

“Currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in the Philippines for attempting to smuggle proscribed medication into their country,” replied Mrs Moustache.

“Why don’t you just leave me here instead?” Billy suggested with vague hope in his voice. He’d never been allowed to stay home on his own before. He’d be able to eat whatever he wanted from the fridge, use Yate’s toothbrush to clean the inside of the toilet bowl before putting it back again, and maybe even use the vacuum cleaner on his face because it never stops being unexplainably fun no matter how old you get.

Mrs Moustache looked as though someone had pointed out to her that trans women were indeed real women.

“And come back to find everything we have ever worked for has been destroyed?” Mrs Moustache snarled back at Billy.

“I’m not going to set your house on fire,” Billy attempted to reassure them, but they weren’t listening.

“What about…” began Mrs Moustache cautiously, “if we took it with us? We could always just leave it in the car…”

“Absolutely not, Jennifer!” Mr Moustache asserted. “I’ve worked damned hard for that car. It wasn’t easy letting those people with young families go just before Christmas, so the company would have the money to pay my annual bonus, you know! But I did it. I earned that car and I will not give it the opportunity to mess up the inside.”

By now, Yate was wailing loudly. He often wailed loudly whenever things weren’t going the way he wanted. Side by side, he was fast approaching the nation of Japan in terms of who did the most wailing. Unlike Japan, however, Yate’s wailing wasn’t for research purposes, but instead because he’d always been so spoiled by his mother and father, that he’d never learnt the difference between something childish and an actual real world problem, such as the rising rate of racial hate crime across all regions of the country.

“Yatey Yeti Yates, don’t cry. Mummy won’t let big bad Billy ruin your special day,” Mrs Moustache said, flinging her arms around him as she began crying herself at the sight of Yate being so upset.

“But… I… don’t… want…” Yate yelled through his sobs. “He… can’t… come… He always ruins everything.”

Yate stopped crying almost immediately as the doorbell rang — “Oh, goodness,” said Mrs Moustache as she stood up in a fluster. “They’re here already.”

Mrs Moustache went through into the hall and a moment later returned behind Yate’s best friend from school, a short and plain looking boy called Matthew. Matthew was smaller than Yate, though that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to achieve, because, in case you’ve forgotten, Yate was fat. Most often, Matthew was the one who looked out for teachers, while Yate was busy punching one of the other children.

A short while later, Billy, amazed Mr Moustache hadn’t just decided to lock him out of the house for the day, was sitting in the back of his uncle’s new Volkswagen with Yate and Matthew, on the way to the zoo for the first time in his life. Before he’d gotten in the car, however, Mr Moustache had taken him aside.

“This is your only warning, boy,” he had said, leaning in so close his breath steamed up the outside of Billy’s glasses. “If I see anything I don’t like today, or hear anybody saying anything that makes me feel uncomfortable — even one thing — and I will call so many lawyers, you’ll be wishing you were as brave as the boys I am proud to call our armed forces.”

“I’m not going to do or say anything,” said Billy. “But I can’t stop other people. It’s wrong to try and control what others do with their lives.”

Mr Moustache didn’t agree with Billy. He seemed to think he’d somehow earned the right to control exactly what others did with their lives, and to be the final arbitrator on what was right and what was wrong.

It didn’t help Billy’s case, also, that things which made Mr Moustache feel uncomfortable often happened around him, and it was always a waste of time trying to explain to his uncle that he himself was the problem.

One evening, Billy had been working on a piece of homework from school about colonisation when Mr Moustache had come into the front room and turned on the television to find a programme on that very subject had just started in a primetime slot. Mr Moustache had come to the conclusion that the school must have conspired with the BBC to install a doctrine of cancel culture towards the traditions of the Empire that had, as he put it, “Made Britain the greatest nation in the history of the world.”

Yate had spent the hour laughing as Mr Moustache made comment after comment about how being invaded by Britain was the best thing that ever happened to any of those countries. Billy, meanwhile, didn’t think killing millions of innocent people while enslaving millions more was such a funny thing, and so once the programme had finished, Mr Moustache had sent Yate out of the room before turning to Billy and telling him he should have more pride in his heritage.

On another occasion, Billy had gotten into terrible trouble when he and Yate returned from a school trip to the British Museum, and their teacher had told Mr Moustache that Billy had been asking how many of the exhibits had been stolen from other countries. But all Billy had been trying to do (as he explained to Mr Moustache as he screamed at him in front of the rest of the class) was point out it might be time to give some of the things back to the people they were taken from. Billy supposed everyone must have been okay with stealing, so long as it was rooted in racism and justified by patriotism. Mr Moustache, on the other hand, thought it was time Billy began acting more like Yate, who believed everything in the museum had been made in Coventry and was an excellent example of British engineering.

But today, nothing was going to go wrong. After all, the hippos at the zoo hadn’t been stolen, and Billy was quite sure none of the tigers had fought on the front lines in World War Two — although Mr Moustache often said he “didn’t fight in the war to see all this happening to our glorious country now,” and he wasn’t born until sixteen years after the war ended, so Billy couldn’t rule out his uncle claiming Tigger had been his commanding officer.

As he drove, Mr Moustache complained out loud for everyone else to hear. He enjoyed complaining about things: the way people parked on the road near junctions, Billy, the supermarket substituting an item on his home delivery order, Billy, mistakes he blamed on others even though he’d made them himself, Billy, anyone who ever voiced there was a need to do something about an injustice in the world, Billy, and the way Volkswagen had lied about the emissions of his new car, which he thought were too low for him to “prove a point to those hippies.” On this particular morning, he was complaining about members of the LGBTQI+ community after a minibus full of people overtook them on their way to a Pride event.

“…pathetic, all of them. They should just grow out of it,” he said in anger as he sped up to try and overtake the minibus — he didn’t want Mrs Moustache thinking he was prepared to give way to people like that.

“I had a dream about a pride event once,” said Billy, remembering something from the week before. “Love was love, and everybody was free to be who they wanted to be.”

Mr Moustache slammed his fist onto the horn and nearly crashed the car as he swung around in his seat to scream into Billy’s face. “LOVE IS NOT LOVE, AND PEOPLE ARE NOT BORN IN THE WRONG BODY!”

“It was only a dream,” said Billy. “But knowing that transgender people exist and can be happy isn’t going to affect any of our lives in any way.”

Billy wished he hadn’t said anything. If there was one thing the Moustaches hated even more than immigrants, it was members of the LGBTQI+ community expressing themselves or making their own choices about how to live their lives, no matter if it was nothing to do with them or even if it was in a dream — they all seemed to believe it would destroy their own identities somehow.

It was an especially warm morning, and by the time they arrived at the zoo, the carpark was nearly full. Mr Moustache parked the car in an empty disabled parking bay close to the entrance. As another family gazed disapprovingly over at him as they passed, he began walking with a sudden limp as he led the family over to the gates. Mr Moustache dropped his act as they walked by the scene of a commotion between the zoo’s security team and a small number of animal rights protesters.

Mr Moustache didn’t like protesters and often voiced support for proposals by the government to introduce new laws granting a single partisan politician the power to declare any protest they disliked as illegal. Mr Moustache especially didn’t like animal rights protesters. It was his belief it was the animals own fault they were born as a non-superior species, and he went over to where the protesters were stood to tell them so.

Half an hour later, after the zoo’s security team had repeatedly assured Mr Moustache they were perfectly capable of handling the situation on their own, they were walking by the lion enclosure when Billy started to wonder if this might have been the best day he’d ever had. His good mood was punctured, however, after listening to one of the zookeepers explain the plight of the endangered sea turtle.

Billy had been careful to walk a little behind the Moustaches to reduce the risk of anyone realising he was with them. When Mr Moustache led the family off to look at a couple of elephants, so he could tell them about how he thought an ivory stature might make a nice addition to the front garden, Billy stayed behind and slipped into the aquarium building.

A small group of tourists were gathered around one of the zookeepers who had a small baby sea turtle in his hands. Billy joined the group and listened with interest as the zookeeper explained how human actions were affecting the natural habitats of the species right across the world. When they came to the question and answer session, Billy was the first to put up his hand and ask what ordinary people like him could do to ensure the continued survival of the sea turtle.

“Well,” the zookeeper had begun, “even something as simple as reducing your carbon footprint by walking instead of driving short distances, or eating a little less meat in your diet could go someway to slowing the rate at which their habitat is being destroyed.”

Billy regrouped with the Moustaches for lunch, but soon wished he hadn’t. Mr Moustache had shouted at him so loud for asking the waiter if they had a vegetarian menu — Billy felt if he was going to aid the plight of the endangered sea turtle he should begin right away — that everyone in the restaurant turned around to stare over at their table.

After lunch, they went to watch a live show in the penguin enclosure. It was entertaining, thought Billy, though afterwards he felt he should have known it was all going too well to last.

It was as they watched a trio of perfectly choreographed penguins jump out of the water, through a hoop held by their trainers, and then back into the water with a graceful splash, that things started to go wrong. All of a sudden, the cheers of the crowd were drowned out by chanting coming from somewhere nearby. As everyone looked around wondering what was going on, the group of animal rights protesters from that morning — now tripled in size and having found their way past security — crashed through a wooden gate and into the performance area.

The protesters’ chants grew in intensity as security arrived, and began ushering the audience away from the area, so as not to give the protesters an audience, but Mr Moustache had had enough. He pushed past the security guard closest to them and made his way over to where a few protesters were now chaining themselves to some metal railings.

“NOW LISTEN HERE, ALL OF YOU…” were the last words Billy heard Mr Moustache say with any clarity before a three-way argument broke out between Mr Moustache, the protesters, and the zoo’s head of security, during which everyone said a lot, but no one heard anything.

Billy stood a little back from Mrs Moustache, Yate and Matthew, who themselves were stood a little back from Mr Moustache and watching on with embarrassment. He felt something touch his hand. He looked down to see one of the penguins from the show standing by his side.

“Hello,” he said, as the penguin tapped at his hand with his flipper as though shaking it. “I’m sorry your performance was ruined. I thought it was very good, though.”

The penguin jumped up and down on the spot.

“Do you enjoy performing?” asked Billy, somehow not even for a moment stopping to wonder why he was talking to a penguin.

The penguin jumped up and down again.

The other two penguins from the show swam over and climbed onto the small ledge by the water’s edge where Billy and the first penguin were stood.

The first penguin appeared to confer with the other two before looking back at Billy. It used its flipper to point at Mr Moustache, then to the rest of the Moustaches, and finally to its forehead in a gesture that said quite clearly: “This happens all the time.

“It must be really annoying,” said Billy.

All three of the penguins jumped up and down on the spot.

“Where do you all come from anyway?”

The first penguin ruffled its flipper by its side, then held it out to hand Billy a card. Skipping the penguin’s Equity number at the top, he read aloud: “Emperor penguin. Antartica.”

“Was it nice there?”

The penguin took the card, flipped it over, and then handed it back. Billy read on: “This specimen was bred in captivity.”

“Oh, I see — so none of you have ever seen Antartica?”

All three of the penguins made a sad sounding noise that a moment later was downed out by shouting.

“YATE! MRS MOUSTACHE! HAVE YOU SEEN THESE PENGUINS? LOOK AT WHAT THEY’RE DOING!”

Yate came waddling — not because he was a penguin, but because he was fat — over to where Billy and the penguins were stood.

“Out of the way, you,” he said, pushing Billy to one side. Caught by surprise, Billy was knocked to the ground. What came next was so unexpected that Billy wouldn’t have believed it had happened if he hadn’t witnessed it first hand. As Yate took a closer look at the penguins, the one which had given Billy his card swung its flipper and knocked Yate into the water with a dull plop.

There was a shrill scream from Mrs Moustache as she rushed over to help her son, but she ended up joining him in the water, slipping on a wet patch by the pool’s edge and tumbling in head first.

“WHAT THE — ” came the roar of Mr Moustache as he turned his focus away from the protesters.

Mr Moustache didn’t slip on the wet patch, but as he knelt down by the water to help Mrs Moustache, one of the penguins, obviously disappointed that he hadn’t also fallen in, turned to give Billy what he was certain was a wink before jumping onto its front and sliding into the back of Mr Moustache as though he was a giant bowling pin. “I was in Mary Poppins, don’t you know?” said the penguin, ducking out of the way of Mr Moustache.

At the other side of the enclosure, a large sea lion which had also taken part in the performance, began clapping and making a noise that sounded a lot like laughter.

The trainers of the three penguins were hopeful the Moustaches would see the funny side of what had happened. “Our penguins do have a mischievous side,” one of them had said as they made Mrs Moustache a cup of tea. “That’s why we tell everybody to stay in their seats and never get too close to the water.”

Damp and ruffled looking, Mr Moustache didn’t see the funny side. Instead, he repeatedly demanded the zoo put all three of the penguins and the sea lion to sleep, and whenever anyone told him he was being unreasonable, he threatened to sue.

The car journey home wasn’t fun. Mr Moustache was so angry with the protesters, everyone running “that mad house,” and “those bloody penguins,” that he even forgot to complain about Billy. That was until Billy said something he instantly regretted.

“I think they’re making a good point,” Billy had said after Mr Moustache voiced his opinion that every single one of the protesters should be sent to prison for fifty years.

Mr Moustache waited until Matthew had been picked up by his mother before rounding on Billy. He mustered just enough strength to say under his breath, “How dare you waste time… caring about animals when… there are patriotic and heroic veterans… sleeping on our streets…” before pushing Billy into his cupboard.

Billy tried to point out to Mr Moustache that he never did anything to help homeless veterans himself, but it was no use. Mr Moustache slammed the cupboard door shut and then went into the kitchen to pour himself a strong drink.

Billy had lived with the Moustaches almost ten years. Ten long and miserable years, ever since he’d been a baby, and his parents had died at the beak of that particularly angry swan. He couldn’t remember being there when his parents had died. Though sometimes, when he strained his memory during long hours in his cupboard, he came up with a strange vision: a giant swan, a deafening honk, and a large man with a beard. This, he supposed, was the swan that killed his parents, and it must have just looked giant to him because he was only a baby. He couldn’t imagine where the bearded man had come from, though. He couldn’t remember his parents. The Moustaches never spoke of them, and they always got angry if he dared ask a question. There also wasn’t a single photograph of them anywhere in the house.

When he had been younger, Billy had dreamt and wished someone might notice how badly he was being treated by the Moustaches and call the appropriate authorities, but it never happened. There had been so many cuts to local services, there simply weren’t enough people looking out for the warning signs of child abuse. It wasn’t as though his school ever noticed he often went hungry either. In fact, ever since they had introduced a new, and very cruel policy of refusing meals to any child with a lunch debt, his school was part of the problem.

Occasionally, thought Billy, or perhaps he was just imagining it, strangers seemed to know who he was. Very strange strangers they were too. One time a short man wearing a turquoise bow tie had bowed to him while he was out shopping with Yate and Mrs Moustache. As Billy pointed at the man and began shouting “stranger danger” as loud as he could, the man seemed to disappear on the spot. The weirdest thing about all these people, though, was the way they all seemed to be wearing long dressing gowns out in public and in the middle of the day.

At school, everyone knew who Billy was, but he didn’t have any friends. Billy Smith was the unusual and unpopular kid who everyone laughed at for fear of being laughed at themselves.

Late that night, as Billy lay in bed half asleep, something suddenly occurred to him, and he sat up straight with purpose. “That penguin had a business card?”

________________________________________________________________

A Small Ask

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Writer, comedian, actor, producer, publisher and former failed politician | part Jewish | bensfletcher.com |