In his sleep he shrugs a penguin shrug. He is huddled on the ice floe with a thousand other shivering males, all balancing eggs on their thick feet like footballers playing a year-long game of keepy-uppy. The sea is grey. The sky is white. He is hungry and bored, waiting for his mate to return.
The tent they are lying in is small and humid and smells of sweat and dead grass. It was Jessie and Adam's idea to go camping. Colin hates camping, but Adam's father, Jessie ex-husband, used to be a maniac for it. Jessie suggested Spain. In vain Colin protested that nobody camps in Spain. France, maybe, but Spain's too hot. But she wanted to go, so they went: two weeks in the Algarve.
On the second day Adam broke his tent-pole, and had to move his camp-bed into Colin and Jessie's tent. Like the fat everywhere, Adam snores. He snores like a walrus in rut. Colin has learned to go for long walks to exhaust himself just so he can sleep through the din. Jessie doesn't seem to notice. They haven't had sex for ten days. They can't, not with Adam there. And Adam's always there.
A shiver spreads through the flock as the far-off foghorn of a walrus echoes off the ice. Colin shuffles backwards, deeper into the huddle, burrowing towards the warm centre, trying to keep the precious egg on his toes. Walruses usually leave penguins alone, but this is the hungry season. But as he pokes his orange bill back over his shoulder to see what's coming, Colin is surprised. It isn't a walrus that lollops into view, but a polar bear.
A lot of people – his stepson Adam for example – don't know that polar bears and penguins live at opposite ends of the earth. But Colin, who likes crosswords and Sudoku and goes to the pub quiz every Tuesday, does. He is disappointed at this inaccuracy of his dreaming brain. Even asleep, he knows that polar bears and penguins couldn't possibly be on the same continent, let alone the same ice floe.
The bear lopes closer to the alarmed flock, which has clenched itself together now like a fist. It opens its loose black jaws and roars. Squawks fly up from the group like a skein of starlings. The bear shambles closer; Colin feels its weight shake the ice. The egg trembles in the nest of his feet as the others start to fluster and push. He tries to speak to them in Penguin, tell them that the bear's not real, that it's only a dream, but they are terrified, panicking, not listening. Colin is left on the edge of the flock as it shuffles backwards, a moving mass of black.
Adam is not a clever boy. This would be all right, if only he weren't both short-sighted and overweight and therefore rubbish at sports – even rugby. Adam catches himself in the gym hall mirror sometimes, a blobby blur of pink and white, shining with sweat in the overhead fluorescents, twice the size of any normal boy. He always wished he'd been born into a world where his size was an advantage – a sign of strength. He lies in bed at night thinking about the other lives he could have led. He could have been a Japanese Sumo. Or an American gangster. Or a Vietnamese water-buffalo. Or a Polar bear.
Adam is very hungry, but he takes his time approaching the clutch of penguins. They have never seen anything like him before, but they can smell a predator; they know exactly what he's there for. They can't outrun or outswim him. The only question is how many he can eat before he's full. They are such odd-looking creatures – what must they taste like? Fishy and rubbery, probably, like the squid in seafood paella. He sights on one of them – it looks familiar somehow. That beaky, prissy face. Those sharp little black eyes.
The bear tilts its huge head to one side and looks directly at Colin. Colin imagines the swing of its enormous arm, its thorn-tipped paws. It must weigh over a ton. The bear yawns and its teeth are massive and yellow.
Adam yawns and groans in his sleep, and turns over heavily on his suffering camp bed. Colin, across the tent, board-stiff and sweating, twitches and twitters. Jessie, lying next to him, sleeps deeply and quietly. Sometimes she talks in her sleep, but Colin never remembers what she says.
Colin flaps his stubby wings in warning – whether to the bear, or the others, he's not sure. It just happens. Instinct. Perhaps he's trying to make himself look bigger. The movement seems to interest the bear, so Colin stops at once and keeps stock still. Do polar bears have good eyesight? He supposes they must. The bear ambles nearer. He can smell its musk, the blood of its last meal. It throws its head back and bellows.
The penguin is trying to fly! Adam's never seen anything so funny in his life. He laughs out loud. Very loud: more of a roar, actually. It's waggling its pathetic wings like a clockwork toy, like the penguins in that stupid film his Mum and stepdad took him to over Christmas. What was the point of a film about the Pole without a single Polar bear?
Colin knows that he must save the egg. The bear is going to kill him for sure, but the egg might survive. If he drops it – if some other, eggless father picks it up and nurtures it, it might be all right. And that's all that matters. He shuffles his toes out from under his stomach. The egg is warm, snow-white against the leathery black of his feet. The bear is only feet away now. Colin leans forward and tips the egg off very gently. It wobbles drunkenly over the ice. He and the bear watch its progress in fascination.
Adam raises a huge white paw and bats the egg like a ball, sending it spinning back towards its father. The penguin waddles desperately to save it, but Adam gets there first, ignoring the bird's frantic pecking as he picks up the egg in his jaws. It's warm. He thinks of soft-boiled eggs and soldiers, and his stomach rumbles.
Jessie screams. Colin and Adam are both wide-awake inside a second, wild-eyed in the black tent, hearts racing.