Unlike many boys his age, Fergus loved water. When they went on holiday, his father would regularly have to wade out into the sea to fetch him back up onto the beach to join the family for their picnic tea; sometimes he stayed in the water so long that he shivered uncontrollably when he got back into the cool air. When his school took him for swimming lessons, he would go in wearing his trunks under his uniform so that he could reach the pool quicker, and he would always be the last one out and back into the changing rooms.
At home, he would stay in the bath for hours if he could, often lying under the water holding his breath as long as possible and imagining what it would be like to stay there forever.
“Come out now,” his mother would say, “before your skin wrinkles all away.”
He would look at the skin on his feet and his hands where it had gone all wrinkly and wonder what would happen if it did wrinkle all away. What would be underneath?
Torn from the bathroom and bundled up in a big fluffy dressing gown, he asked his sister that very question.
“Your skeleton, of course,” she said, barely glancing up from her book. “Bones and muscles and that.”
He sighed. He had hoped for something more interesting. Although, come to think of it, bones and muscle would be quite interesting- they weren’t something he saw uncovered every day, after all.
“Do you think it really could happen? That you could stay in the water so long your skin wrinkles right off?”
She put her book down and looked at him over the top of her glasses. It was a gesture that she had copied from their father, reserved only for answering the most silly of questions.
“Of course not. Where do you think it would come off from? You don’t exactly have seams. It would just get wrinklier and wrinklier forever. Until you drowned, of course.”
His face dropped, and her expression softened a little. She pushed her glasses up her nose and picked up her book again.
“Mother just said that to get you out of the bath. You spend so long in there I’m surprised you haven’t grown flippers.”
Flippers? Now that was a wonderful idea. Fergus sat back and daydreamed; what would it be like to have flippers? He would be able to swoop through the water like the penguins at the big zoo; he would be able to swim forever and ever and make friends with all the fish. He smiled as he drifted off to sleep.
He dreamt that there was a penguin in the big fishpond in the garden. It honked and hooted and jumped up and down until he went out to talk to it.
“Hurry up,” said the penguin. “Don’t dawdle. Follow me.”
The penguin dove into the pond with barely a splash. Fergus paused for just a moment before deciding that it was obviously fine to follow a talking penguin because it obviously wasn’t real. He jumped in to the water after him.
“There,” said the penguin under the water, gesturing with a flipper towards one of the big rocks in the bottom of the pond. “They’re under there. Hurry up, now. Don’t dawdle.”
Fergus was a little puzzled about what exactly was under there, but the penguin pointed again impatiently, and he didn’t think it wise to argue, so he swam over and heaved at the rock. It was very big, however, and his big fluffy dressing gown was rather heavy and getting in the way.
“I can’t shift it,” he told the penguin. “It’s too heavy!”
“Nonsense,” said the penguin. “It just requires the sensible application of the correct force. Take the belt off that thing and tie it round the rock.”
Fergus did as he was told, discarding his dressing gown and looping the belt underneath one of the lumpy bits of the rock so that it wouldn’t slip off. The penguin took the other end in its beak.
“Now,” it said, it’s voice slightly distorted by trying to speak around the cloth, “You push and I pull.”
Together they heaved and heaved, and finally the rock tipped over.
Underneath it, there were four shiny, pinkish flippers.
“Go on then,” said the penguin. “Put them on.”
Fergus slipped the bigger ones onto his feet, and the smaller ones onto his hands, marvelling as the edges seemed to flow into his skin.
“There you go,” said the penguin as he swam off. “All fixed up, good as new. Glad I kept them for you!”
Fergus swam after the penguin, but he disappeared into the murkier part of the fishpond.
“Where did you go,” he called through the water. “Mister penguin? I have a question for you!”
He swam up and down the fishpond several times, but he couldn’t find the penguin. Eventually, he swam up to the surface to see if the penguin had jumped out of the water.
He blinked and stared. His mother and father were kneeling on the banks of the fishpond, clutching his sodden dressing gown.
“Oh thank God,” his mother cried, holding out her arms to him. “We thought you had drowned!”
His father waded out into the pond to lift him out. As Fergus raised his arms to put them around his father’s neck, his mother screamed.
“What’s happened to his hands? And his feet? Oh dear lord!”
“It’s alright, mama,” Fergus said. “I found my flippers. Now my hands and feet won’t go wrinkly in the bath.”
© Kari Fay