Call of the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Fiercely resilient and impeccably dressed, Veronica McCreedy has lived an incredible 87 years. Most of them alone, in her huge house by the sea. But Veronica has recently discovered a late-life love for family and friendship, adventure and wildlife. More specifically, a love for penguins! And when Veronica is promised one more adventure, she can't resist!


The Ballahays, Ayrshire, Scotland

‘I have asked Eileen to find us some penguins in Scotland.’ Daisy gives a small shriek of delight and springs up from the sofa. I do worry that all her bouncing is not good for it, and I always ensure it is me who is seated in the more valuable Queen Anne chair whenever we are in the snug, the smaller of the two sitting rooms at The Ballahays. Daisy’s fervour borders on vandalism at times.

‘You don’t need to ask Eileen,’ she proclaims, her voice imbued with cheekiness which, as she is not a healthy child, I decide to let go. ‘I can find the Scottish penguins on my phone.’ She rummages inside her dizzyingly multi-coloured bag, pulls out her phone and waves it around. The phone is no more than a small, flat rectangle, but I know she can she operate it with ferocious efficiency.

‘Put that thing away,’ I tell her. ‘It is an abomination to see a nine-year-old frittering her life away on such pointless gizmos.’

'Penguins,’ I remind her, ‘are not only a source of endless entertainment; they are an example to us all.'

‘A bomination? That sounds fun!’
‘It isn’t, believe me.’
She tosses the phone back into her bag. We seem to have wandered away from the subject already, which is a little dangerous as far as I’m concerned. This is not because my memory is at fault (it is, as ever, in tip-top condition), but one often loses track when one is in conversation with Daisy, whose young mind darts about all over the place. I return to the topic with haste, before we lose the thread altogether.

‘Penguins,’ I remind her, ‘are not only a source of endless entertainment; they are an example to us all. They are well worth seeking out.’

‘I know,’ she says. ‘Remember the penguins!

This was the little mantra I often cited to cheer her along when she was undergoing chemotherapy before Christ- mas. Penguins, as well as being quite charming, have for me come to represent bravery, determination and resilience. With their daily challenges of long treks across snowy wasteland, swimming in icy waters and trying to avoid becoming meals for seals, they are paragons of good cheer in the face of hardship. I’m pleased that Daisy has fully grasped this concept.

She scrambles back on to the sofa and kneels up, looking over the arm and out of the bay window, as if she might see one of her favourite birds waddling about on the lawn. The Ballahays garden boasts several sweeping herbaceous borders, a fountain and a fine collection of rhododendron bushes, all lovingly tended by Mr Perkins, but alas, there is a complete dearth of penguins.

‘Perhaps I will commission a penguin statue to be made,’ I muse. ‘It might look rather splendid in the shrubbery.’

Daisy is overexcited at the very idea of it. Her eyes have lit up. They are unusually big and blue. She has a scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, which, although she is growing at an alarming rate, is still the small, button-ish nose of childhood. Her mouth, when not busy, settles into the shape that is commonly described as ‘rosebud’. She is a pretty girl in spite of her hair loss. The orange scarf wrapped around her head does her no favours, however. I have offered to buy her a wig, but she won’t have it. A very determined young lady is Daisy.

It was, I am proud to relate, her first wish to come and visit as soon as she was out of hospital and well enough to do so. Her parents and brother accompanied her here for the first few days, but they have now returned to Bolton. Although she must still rest every day and take various medications, Daisy asserts that she feels less tired when she is here. I, on the other hand, feel more tired. It is absolutely worth it though.

‘I’m going to go to Antarctica one day, just like you did, Veronica,’ Daisy proclaims. ‘And I’m going to see Pip.’

It is gratifying that the McCreedy charm is still intact, but the ramshackle Jacobean elegance of The Ballahays may also have played its part in seducing Daisy here. As well as the three acres of formal gardens, it has much that appeals to her vivid imagination: oak panelling, ingle-nook fireplaces, several staircases, and twelve bedrooms filled with assorted antiques and objets d’art. She is particularly smitten with my padded footstool that is shaped like a donkey, my carriage clock, my pianola and my globe on legs. Not to mention the special photograph which hangs in my hall.

‘I’m going to go to Antarctica one day, just like you did, Veronica,’ Daisy proclaims. ‘And I’m going to see Pip.’

She rushes to fetch the photograph now. I do wish she wouldn’t do that, as it resides in a large, heavy frame and I worry that she will drop it. It is a particular favourite of mine, having been gifted to me by the magnificent television presenter Robert Saddlebow, whose wildlife documentaries inspired me to go on my epic voyage. I must proudly now refer to him as Sir Robert, since the New Year’s honours list was announced last week, when 2013 quietly slipped into 2014.

In the photo, Pip’s outline is crisp against the snow. When I knew him, he was a teacup-sized grey fluff-ball with big feet. He is quite grown up now, with the typical Adélie penguin snow-white frontage and sleek black every- where else. He has clearly been caught mid-waddle because one foot is lifted slightly higher than the other. His flippers are outstretched. His head is cocked forward, his beak is open, and there is a bright, inquisitive look on his face.

I would give anything to see again those sparkling landscapes and wander amongst that vast, rowdy congregation of black-and-white birds.

‘He’s saying, “Hello, Daisy and Veronica,” isn’t he?’ Daisy decides.

‘Yes, Daisy, I’m sure he is,’ I reply. Lies tend to be so much simpler and kinder than reality.

I wonder what is really going on in Pip’s head. In the background you can see a blurry mosaic composed of other penguins going about their daily lives. The picture always has the power to take me back. I would give anything to see again those sparkling landscapes and wander amongst that vast, rowdy congregation of black-and-white birds. Daily life here is humdrum in comparison: eating, sleeping, reading, litter-picking; decisions as to whether to take tea in the Wedgwood, Royal Crown Derby or Coalport china; Eileen bustling in and out with a vacuum cleaner or tin of beeswax polish . . .

I am grateful that I am able to live in comfort. There remains, however, a kind of grief in my heart. Never again will I have such an adventure. Travelling across the globe is bad for the planet and in any case, my eighty- seven-year-old body would find it hard to tolerate. The longings are there, nonetheless.

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