Troy (…or How to get to Penguin Island)
It’s been eleven months since it all went wrong. Since I found myself lying on a cold bathroom floor, unable to get up and quite convinced that to do so would be nothing more than a waste of everyone’s time.
It’s been three months since my big sister said that I could ‘borrow’ Troy. I haven’t really been a very good Uncle to him over the years. Not that he’s accrued many, he’s only five. But I would’ve liked to have seen him more.
One of the things about trying unsuccessfully to have a child of your own, for a long time, is that eventually you stop wanting to be around other people’s. It’s just too difficult. You develop a tendency to frame their every action as a significant moment in a parallel version of your own life, the one which you are not living.
Troy is autistic. At least he might be. People are always saying that he might be and my sister says that he might be. My sister and her husband intend to have Troy tested in some way but they’ve not been very clear on what that may entail. I don’t think they actually know.
Personally I’ve always been very fond of Troy, that’s why my sister suggested that I borrow him. He seems to have a unique way of looking at things - usually a surefire way to get yourself labelled as requiring of ‘analysis’. He gets words slightly back to front, perfectly normal for a kid. He doesn’t really understand plurals, also not a big deal.
He’ll say things like, ‘Can I have a crisp please?’ My sister will patiently correct him, ‘Troy you say can I have some crisps, or a packet of crisps.’ When for all she knows he might just’ve wanted the one.
He’ll say, ‘Mommy can you cut my hairs please?’ and she’ll say, ‘you just say hair sweetie, not hairs.’ Of course this makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever so it’s no wonder the poor kid is slightly confused.
Troy likes music, and I play the guitar and sing in a band, or at least I used to. My band has never officially broken up but we haven’t played together for a long time and I think we all know that those days are over. Mainly because all of the members are now parents, except for me.
You know how it goes I suppose, the first person in the group has a baby and it’s all really fun and exciting. The mom turns up at band practice with the kid in a little baby Ramones t-shirt and it’s great - like you’re three uncles to this new kid who’s joined the gang. Then it starts getting a bit harder for that one guy to do stuff but you can’t object, it is his baby after all. Then one by one the others have babies too and then they each have a second baby and so they’re now part of a club whose agenda takes precedence over everything else in life. Then you’ve got no one to play guitar with and it’s just not as much fun on your own.
That’s why I like to play to Troy - he appreciates it. Once I was sitting in my sister’s kitchen, playing a guitar belonging to her husband which he keeps saying he’s going to learn to play (so far he never has) and Troy had got some homework to do. That’s right - actual fucking homework! The kid’s only 5 and pre-ordained autistic and he's got to do homework. It’s just some simple sums 2+2=4 and my sister says, ‘Hey sweetie why don’t you ask your uncle _?’ and Troy says ‘Uncle _ , will you sing it so it means me something?’ Now my sister thought, and you might agree, that Troy had mixed up his words there but I don’t. I think he meant what he meant and so I made up a little melody on the guitar and sung the sums to him a few times until he started to join in. We made a little refrain out of ,
‘2 plus 1 is 3
3 minus 1 is 2
2 plus 2 is 4 and takeaway 2 and that’s still 2’
God knows if he remembered it but hopefully it meant him something.
One day he’ll probably start singing in class and get sent straight to the headshrinker, the poor kid.
Troy has never been a big fan of wearing clothes. For some reason he tries to strip off at every available opportunity and can get quite agitated when my sister tries to make him put trousers on. This is not without it’s inconveniences - once you’ve had to capture a five year old kid running round a cafe in his pants you tend to stick to eating at home.
I know how he feels - sometimes you just want to feel free. Plus he seems to prefer the cold, and I kind of get that in a way. Just the right amount of cold is peaceful. Maybe that’s what he likes.
So I made sure that the first time I borrowed Troy it was a cold day - and I took him to the zoo to see the penguins. It was a razor-blade of a November day - bright and sunny. The sky was an endless blue horizon and the frost twinkled like memories.
I remembered lying on my bathroom floor, freezing and unable to move. For some reason I thought about penguins then, as the alcohol and barbiturates really began to take hold. I thought of how those plucky, flightless birds huddle together for warmth while the icy winds batter them. I thought of how I no longer had another penguin to keep me warm.
‘Where are the penguin Uncle _?’ Troy had asked as we looked at the still blue pool in the middle of the frosty zoo enclosure with it’s two intertwining slides traversing above the water. What is the plural of penguin? I thought to myself. Is it just the same, as in sheep? Could be.
‘I don’t know bud - think they might be having their lunch.’
Just as we were about to abandon the penguins, all of a sudden, music started to play. Chugging power chords over a 4/4 backbeat. It was hard to tell exactly where it was coming from. Then Joey Ramone started to sing ‘Twenty, twenty, twenty four hours to go-oh-oh…I wanna be sedated.’ Troy’s little round face stared up at me, his eyes wide beneath his bowl haircut as he searched mine for an answer as to what was going on. I just stared back ‘cos I didn’t know.
As the Ramones blared out of unseen speakers, one by one the penguins started to emerge. They came from either side of the pool, out of small hatches built in to the walls. They shuffled along close to one another almost perfectly in time to Tommy Ramone’s drumbeat. There were different kinds of penguin. Some big, some small, some had little tufts of feathers on their heads that looked like ears. After they marched out they all started to jump in the water and swim across the pool. Once they popped up on the other side their keeper would throw them a fish from a bucket. They came careening down the slide, splashing and sluicing in the water as Troy and I watched on, the sun shining down on us and our collective breath pluming like ghosts in the air.
‘Just put me in a wheelchair, get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane
I can't control my fingers, I can't control my brain
Oh no oh oh oh oh…’
It was my sister who’d pulled me off of the bathroom floor. Got me to the hospital. Sat with me once I woke up. Once the cold had started to leave my bones. It’s still there though, I don’t think it will ever go away but when it gets really cold that’s when you need your other penguins around you. As well as some classic 1970’s punk rock bands to listen to.
Today me and Troy are in a flower shop, looking for some flowers to take back to my sister. We’ve been to this one a few times - Troy likes the flower shop because it’s cold. I like it when he asks me the names of all the flowers and I just make them up.
‘What’s this one?’
‘What’s this one?’
‘What’s this one?’
‘What’s this one?’
This will go on for some time. The girl behind the counter smiles. I like making up the names, I don’t think it really matters to Troy what I say.
Just as long as it means him something.
Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Honest Ulsterman and Vice Magazine and is currently working on his first novel which he hopes to finish before he expires. Rick is 34 years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry. @ricketywhite
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