Issue 1, 2019

Birthday Bob (part one)

story by Geoffrey McSkimming , illustrated by Douglas Holgate

1. Something to celebrate

BOB-OTTER, BOB-OTTER, BOB-OTTER chugged the boat’s engine.

Captain Ahab, that bold and salty captain of the SS Webweaver, was sitting up in the wheelhouse, sailing his faithful old boat westwards on the calm, sparkling seas.

He turned the big steering wheel with his eight strong spider's legs, and he scanned the bright blue horizon with his five alert spider's eyes. 'Ah,' he murmured in his deep voice, 'what a fine day to be sailing to a new island. Upon my word, I never thought I'd ever get to Fondue Island. But now that Shasta wants us to go there, I'm mighty pleased we'll get the chance.'

Ahab was especially delighted about visiting Fondue Island because, ever since he had been a very young spider, he had heard tales about it from his grandfather, who had also been a sea captain. This island was very remote, and was often shrouded in heavy mists and fogs. It was so misty and foggy, in fact, that most sailors and ships sailed right by it, never realising that Fondue Island was close to their routes.

Ahab kept steering the Webweaver steadily as he thought back to the days of being dangled on his grandpa’s knee, hearing the tales about this mysterious place. There was something else about Fondue Island that his grandpa had told him, something that had been very unusual. But, with all the time that had passed since being a young arachnid, Ahab couldn’t remember this unusual fact. Ah well, he thought, I’m just glad that Shasta needs us to visit there. It will be a spider’s dream come true …

Down in the boat’s galley, surrounded by her pots and pans and cookery books, Shasta the brolga was making a list of things she needed for her special surprise.

‘Ooh, upon my word, I seem to have everything I need to make this special cake. Everything except that one special ingredient.’ She clacked her beak open and shut as she wrote down the ingredients she had and checked them on the pantry shelves: ‘Flour. Butter. Eggs. Licorice. Gherkins. Apricots. Passionfruits. Curried onions. Jelly powder.’

When she’d finished jotting down all these things, she wrote, at the top of her list, the one missing ingredient: Gruyère cheese.

‘And that,’ she squawked softly to herself, ‘is why we’re heading off to Fondue Island. It’s known by chefs and cooks and cheese lovers the world over that the very best Gruyère cheese comes from there.’ She shut the pantry door and fluttered her feathers happily. ‘If there’s one thing I like, it’s getting the best and the most special ingredients for my cooking. Oh, and spoiling the crew with my recipes. Why, I’ll bet that Bob won’t forget his special day in a hurry … ’

Up on deck, Bob the odd-job otter, First Mate and Fixer of All Things Broken and Wonky, was busy tinkering with the crankshaft in the engine hatch. He was half in and half out of the hatch, and his big tail was flumping up and down on the deck gently as he was getting on with his work.

‘Now, let me see,’ he muttered as he peered at the machinery. ‘I know I replaced those spregnockits only a little while back. And the flartydirvler is almost new, so that won’t need replacing for a few full moons to come. And the choof-choof-splartle manifold is showing no wear and tear.’ He withdrew from the hatch and sat back on the deck. ‘Well, it appears that all is shipshape where all should be shipshape.’

He gave a big contented sigh and squinted up at the sun. ‘And all is otter-acious where all should be otter-acious.’ A soft breeze ruffled his whiskers. ‘And that,’ he said happily, ‘is fine and dandy by me. Ooh, yes indeedy it is.’

He relaxed as he basked in the sunlight, totally unaware that tomorrow would be a special day for him. It was a day that Shasta and Ahab were going to celebrate with him, for they had decided that it was going to be Bob’s birthday. Bob had no idea about this; in fact, he had no idea it was his birthday. And it probably wasn’t. He had no idea when his birthday really was. When, some years ago, he had floated along on the ocean and had been picked up by Ahab and Shasta in the Webweaver, he had had nothing with him: no luggage, no possessions, not even a name. And certainly no birth certificate.

But for a hardworking and happy-at-heart otter like Bob, ignorance was bliss. And so was eating sweeties and cakes (although—and he would never say this to anyone, especially not to Shasta—he found Shasta’s cakes a bit tummy-churning at times). Not knowing when his birthday was had never bothered him.

But it had bothered Shasta, and that’s why she arranged with Captain Ahab to sail to find the Gruyère cheese she needed to make Bob’s surprise birthday cake. Little did any of them know, the quest for cheese would lead them into a most sinister and dangerous place …

2. On the menu

‘Land ahoy!’ bellowed Ahab, peering through his telescope.

Shasta came fluttering up from below decks. Bob sprang to his paws and looked out across the bow.

There, in the bright distance, a golden, sandy beach was growing larger and larger as the Webweaver sailed closer and closer.

‘Fondue Island,’ Shasta announced. ‘We’re almost there, Bob.’

‘That we be, Miss Shasta,’ Bob rejoined.

‘Tell me something.’

‘What would you like to know?’

‘Why are we visiting this place?’

‘Oh, you just wait and see, Bob. You just wait and see.’

‘Aye, I will. I be good at waitin’ and seein’. It’s a special talent I have, waitin’ and seein’. That, and playing the accordion with a pineapple balanced on me head.’

‘Yes, you really are a clever otter.’

Soon the Webweaver was gliding into the small harbour of the island. Bob dropped anchor and Ahab secured the vessel. Then Ahab scuttled up onto Shasta’s back and held onto the straps of her backpack and she soared off the boat, across the water and onto the golden sands.

Bob took a last look around the deck, making sure everything was in order. With a graceful dive he leapt into the water and paddled his way to the shore.

‘Right,’ boomed Ahab when Bob had joined them. ‘Which way, Shasta?’

Shasta, who had researched the island’s Gruyère cheese locations on the internet, whipped out a compass. She held it up and waited till the needle pointed north. ‘This way, my friends,’ she said, leading the way into the sand hills.

Ahab scuttled after her, and Bob, his fur dripping, brought up the rear.

As they disappeared over the crest of a hill they were unaware of the glinting, greenish-yellow eyes watching their every move.

The glinting, greenish-yellow eyes belonging to the fearsome Komodo gang, the most ravenous gang of lizards east of Pago-Pago.

The most ravenous gang of lizards east of Pago-Pago who had an all-conquering appetite for fresh otters …


Look out, Bob! Will the crew be able to avoid the Komodo gang?
Find out in part two for the heart-stopping conclusion!



Worksheet: Use the text, use your head!