by Aliya Whiteley
I was only a baby when she first told me about Geoffrey.
The story goes that, two weeks after my father left, I dropped my dummy on to the kitchen floor. When I reached down for it and attempted to put it back between my lips, Mother slapped my hand away and delivered to me these words, the words that would become the soundtrack of my morality.
'Geoffrey says only bad boys put dirty things in their mouths.'
I cried the first time she ticked me off that way in her sharp style, one finger pointing directly into my right eye. I was too young to understand the words; only the emotion would have penetrated my baby brain. Only the disapproval from the woman who I wanted to smile more than anything else in the world.
It took a few years before I realised it wasn't her disapproval I was dealing with, but Geoffrey's. And it took another year after that before I realised who Geoffrey is.
Geoffrey is the emerald green penguin who lives in my head.
Mother may have created him, but she never understood him. It was inevitable that my desire to please her would be subverted into the desire to make Geoffrey clap his sparkling flippers together with glee. My penguin friend was the better part of me and, whenever he spoke, firstly through Mother and later directly to me, I stopped whatever I was doing and listened.
I became known during my school years as the quiet child, the daydreamer. In fact I was being told the answers to mathematical puzzles or instructed on how to get free chocolate out of the vending machine. Geoffrey said many things, all of them interesting. I kept my head down and bore the brunt of my unpopularity with the other children, achieving good academic results and biding my time. My internal penguin told me my wonderful future would come.
And then, just as I was giving up on the hope of achieving happiness, something amazing occurred. Mother and Geoffrey disagreed.
There were two weeks to go to my exams, and I was invited to a party. It was my first invitation I had ever received.
'Geoffrey says wise boys stay in and study,' Mother told me when she emerged from the kitchen to find me shrugging into my orange cagoul, a bottle of sweet sherry clutched in one clammy hand. Usually I would have accepted this with equanimity, believing she was party to Geoffrey's wisdom in this matter having known him for longer than myself, but at that moment my green mentor decided to intervene.
I saw him clearly in my head; he was wearing a baseball cap back to front and had slung a badge from one of those curvy little Beetle cars around his neck. There was a certain nonchalance in the way he rearranged his groin with one flipper.
'Geoffrey says go to the party.'
I heard him distinctly. If there was anything odd about a penguin referring to himself in the third person and contradicting my mother in the same breath, it didn't occur to me and I needed no further command. I walked out of the house without a glance at Mother and when I returned at three o'clock in the morning, exultant with sherry and goose-pimpled from leaving my cagoul in a public litter bin, she had already retired for the night. She never mentioned the incident, or Geoffrey, again.
From then on I belonged, body and soul, to that penguin.
Geoffrey says get your head shaved.
Geoffrey says screw the A Levels.
Geoffrey says apply for benefits and spend the money on beer, pot and porn mags.
Geoffrey had promised me happiness, and he was delivering. It was only Mother who was attempting to hold me back now; Mother, with her tutting and crying and poking finger. When I smoked pot in the house she played her Tom Jones Sings Gospel tape at top volume. When I went out to the pub on the corner, skulking past the ever-present glares of the disapproving neighbours, she retrieved my porn stash from the bottom of the wardrobe and set fire to it in the back garden. When I retreated to my bed with a monster hangover she opened the curtains and insisted on hoovering. The house just wasn't big enough for the both of us.
Geoffrey, as always, provided the solution. He appeared to me, dressed in an open necked shirt in a silky material and with a selection of what is commonly known as bling hanging around his neck.
'Geoffrey says buy more porn.'
That may not sound like much of a solution, but it was all in the delivery. I knew something huge was coming up.
There were many stages to the plan, and it took two months to get everything organised to Geoffrey's satisfaction. When the big day finally arrived, I had mentally rehearsed our timetable so often that I hardly had to think at all.
Step One: The Hook. Twenty-six copies of Razzle, Asian Babes and Big Jugs amongst others lay at the bottom of my wardrobe after being specially prepared as per my instructions. They were ripe for discovery.
Step Two: The Timing. Weather reports became crucial. Finally the atmospheric conditions were correct; grey, yet dry. Cold, yet frost-free. Perfect.
Step Three: The Alibi. I made sure to observe my usual routine. I stayed in bed until after twelve. I moaned and groaned and made noises about being bored in the house. Those noises grew in volume until 3.08 that afternoon, at which point I left under the pretence of going to the corner pub whilst making sure that I had attracted the attention of the neighbours. The fat man with a bushy black moustache who has lived opposite for as long as I can remember was particularly observant. He eyeballed me as I left, and for once it did not irritate, fitting in exactly with the plan.
Step Four: The Stay-Away. I waited in that pub for hours. I made small talk with the homeless bloke who collects the glasses and ate crisps in a carefree fashion whilst my penguin soothed my mind with his reassurances and provided a running commentary as to exactly what should be happening back at the house.
Step Five: The Collection. Geoffrey says Mother is rooting around in the bottom of my wardrobe, wearing her rubber gloves so that she will not be defiled by my filthy habits. Now she's tutting under her breath as she flicks through the pages of my magazines. Now she's gathering them up—there are so many this time she can't see her feet as she descends the stairs. She misses one of the stairs; her foot flails; she makes contact once more; she takes a breath of relief; she makes it to the bottom of the stairs, her arms still piled high with magazines. Geoffrey says it was never going to be that easy.
Step Six: The Garden. Geoffrey says Mother is dropping the magazines on to the burnt patch of grass at the bottom of the back garden. She is bending low, a can of lighter fluid in one hand and a lit match in the other. She is putting the match to the magazines—they whoosh into blue life, having been coated liberally in hairspray and deodorant. They produce fierce and jumping flames that take her by surprise. She drops the can of lighter fluid as the fire leaps on to her rubber gloves, which have been given the same treatment as the magazines. Mother claps her hands together in an attempt to extinguish the fire in the second before the lighter fluid explodes.
Step Seven: The Crisp. Mother burns. The last sound she hears is that of her rubber gloves clapping together; she has applauded herself to death, becoming the first victim of murder by porn.
Step Eight: Discovery. Geoffrey says the nosy neighbour sees the flames and calls the fire brigade. The fire engine, siren shouting, will have to pass by the corner pub. And that means its time to go home and find the charred remains and opt for the cheapest coffin available and move into the bigger bedroom.
Eight steps to happiness. Who would have thought it could be so simple?
I gave the fire engine a half hour head start and then sauntered home. Sure enough, they were running around in the back garden, and the fat neighbour tried to stop me from going through, but I pushed past him and looked at the scene of the tragedy.
The fire was out. I squinted against the greasy smoke and saw one blackened rubber glove lying at the bottom of the garden. It poked out from under an unfamiliar pile which coalesced into the remains of Mother. The more I stared at it, the more I could see of her—the stick thin legs, the patch of hair which remained untouched and immaculate in its permanent wave, the wedding ring sitting on the hand which had come free of the glove. The index finger of the same hand, extended outwards, rigid in death, pointing, pointing directly at me.
It seemed to me that something monumental was being shown to me in the stiff accusation she threw from beyond her own mortality. Even when a fireman covered her over with a blanket, that statement remained, protruding and demanding. But demanding what? I knew there was a point to it. That finger always made a point. Mentally I reached for my penguin friend, and found him, sitting on a child's swing, contemplating his six toes.
Geoffrey said nothing.
I pressed him for an answer, for any kind of help. Eventually, after much internal pleading on my part, he gave a faint, puzzled kind of caw. I didn't even know penguins could caw.
We didn't speak the same language any more.
That was the lowest point of my life. Every day Geoffrey faded from his emerald green into a more traditional black and white. Every day he seemed to grow more distant from me. He got smaller, and stopped wearing clothes or chewing gum. He wouldn't even answer to his name. Eventually, on the day before the reading of the will, he simply waddled away and dived into an icy pool that I had never seen before in my imagination. He was gone. I did not imagine he would return.
It was a desolate and heartbroken young man who attended the solicitor's office the next day. I was barely listening as the reading of the will took place. It was only when the phrase, 'thirty days to vacate the property' filtered through my understanding that I began to feel uneasy.
'Hold on,' I interrupted. 'Say that again.'
'You have thirty days as from today in which to remove yourself and all possessions, including those bequeathed to you by your mother, from the property unless a mutually agreeable solution can be arranged with the new owner.'
'The new owner?' I said. This was a situation I had not envisaged. I wished fervently to feel Geoffrey's reassuring flipper on my mind.
'He's waiting for you in the lounge area. Now, if you'll allow me to conclude the reading. . .?'
The dining table and chairs. The settee. The single bed. The watercolour of Clacton she painted in 1958. I had nothing and a man I eventually recognised only by virtue of his bushy black moustache had everything. He was cracking his knuckles, his ill fitting trousers cutting his round belly into two segments as he heaved himself to his feet upon my entrance.
'I'm so sorry,' he said, before I had a chance to speak. 'I always said she should tell you. But she said it would only upset you. . .that at first you were still missing your dad and then later, you were too unruly to accept another man in the house. But I never imagined she had put me in the will. Honestly. Never.'
The man I only knew as a nosy neighbour stuck out his hand and I took it. 'Its grand to finally meet you properly,' he said. 'I know so much about you, and to think, you know nothing about me, even though I was friends with your mum even before you were born.'
'Were you. . ..?' I asked, not knowing where the question could go. He mistook my tone for an enquiry. 'Are you. . .?'
'Geoffrey,' he supplied helpfully. 'My name's Geoffrey.'
Funnily enough, we get on like a house on fire. He lets me live in the house, and comes over now and again for a chat. He says he feels close to me; that he spent so many years watching over me and that there is a special bond between us. He's helping me to find a job.
Still, I can't help wishing that one day he'll turn into a gigantic emerald penguin and incite me to smoke pot and get laid. If only life could be that simple once more.
Story Copyright © 2004 by Aliya Whiteley. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Geoffrey Says was originally published by Shred of Evidence, and reprinted in The Adventure of the Missing Detective and 19 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories.
Light Reading, Aliya's second novel from Macmillan, is released this month.
Her website site is http://www.aliyawhiteley.com.