Rubbing One Out - Susan Mac Nicol

Chapter 1

Ten minutes I’ve been doing this. Ten fucking minutes.

Ben shivered as he stood on the edge of the rock pool in the penguin enclosure at Windward Zoo in Winchester. In a cartoon world, steam would be puffing through his ears together with the all-too-real vapour trail from his breath. It was early March and still chilly.

He’d been trying to coax one of the animals over to him to give her medication—an anti-malarial pill contained in a silvery sprat. The recalcitrant bird eyed him balefully as yet another floating herring found its way into her greedy gullet.

Ben took a deep, calming breath, trying to contain his urge to commit birdie murder. Or was it called birdiecide?

“Honey, for the last time, get the fuck into the water and come over here before I make a penguin pie out of you. How do you fancy being covered in nice, warm pastry?”

Threatening her didn’t help. Honey wasn’t having any of it. The Humboldt penguin blinked at him innocently and stayed in the middle of the large rock perch immersed in the pool. If a penguin could bat eyelashes at a man in a fuck you gesture, Ben was watching the bird do it.

He was sure the other penguins gathered beside him on the beach were enjoying his predicament. He thought he’d heard a couple of them snicker. Comments were also forthcoming from the peanut gallery where the visitors stood. One young kid, he couldn’t have been more than fourteen, had shouted, “I hope you don’t have the same trouble with your women, mate.”

He wanted to growl at the little sod and correct him. Men, not women, thank you very much. He didn’t have trouble in that area, but he manfully held off.

“Honey, come on over. Now.” His growl didn’t have the desired effect. He huffed then changed his strategy.

“If you come on out, I’ll give you an extra anchovy for supper,” he coaxed. The penguin didn’t think much of that reward. She looked at him, seeming to consider the options. Then Honey dipped her head and dove into the depths of the water—on the far side of the enclosure.

“Fuck,” Ben said, then looked around guiltily. Up on the observation deck, several eager toddlers and parents were watching, but he didn’t think anyone had heard him.

“Fine,” he called across the expanse of shimmering water. “I’m leaving now, and I’ll make sure at feeding time later you get the smallest fishes. The bigger ones can go to Dolly because, unlike you, she does as she’s told.”

The crowd above laughed, no doubt enjoying the battle of wills. Ben huffed and turned away, hearing the splashes of wings in the water behind him. He didn’t turn around. Instead, he pretended to open the gate to leave, and fiddled with the latch in the hope Honey would see sense.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the penguin jump out of the water and waddle off towards her fellow penguins. He smiled in triumph as she eyed him with suspicion. Eddie, one of the smaller of the penguins, squawked beside him, his wings flapping wildly.

“I know, buddy,” Ben said soothingly. “She’s a real pain in the arse, isn’t she? Imagine if she was your mother.”

Honey was mom to a cuter, smaller version of herself, a young male the zoo had named Taffy. He was adorable, and way more good-natured than his parent.

Whatever Eddie had said to Honey worked. She trundled over to Ben, and he took the opportunity to feed her the sprat. The troublemaker swallowed it down and looked at him expectantly.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Ben grumbled. “There’s no more for you. You’re still getting the smallest fishes later.” He stuck out his tongue at the birds staring at him and then looked around to check no one had seen the infantile gesture. Being seen to threaten penguins with promises of lesser fish and resorting to childish tactics at the ripe age of thirty-two wouldn’t do his professional credentials much good.

He had an MSci in zoology, and several years’ experience in field studies around the world, yet being senior keeper for the penguins, and often the seals, was a job he loved. He had a special affinity for the cheeky birds.

Even if they do make me curse at them now and then.


When his workday was over, Ben decided to pop into one of his favourite places: Craxton Mill in Winchester. The old site held many memories for him. When he was a child, his antique-hunting,