Mr. Choli used his paw to wipe away the moisture on the inside of the car window. He still couldn’t see anything, as the outside of the glass was completely frozen leaving delicate white patterns where once there was a view of the old cottage where Mr. Vinegar lived.
“I think it’s snowed again,” commented Mr. Choli in the direction of the shivering lump beneath a blanket on the passenger seat of the broken car. Mr. Ginger’s stomach growled from somewhere beneath the blanket, by way of reply. Mr. Choli studied the frosted pattern on the window with his magnifying glass. He began to consider the current predicament which Mr. Ginger’s stomach had so aptly summed up.
Mr. Choli decided that the predicament could be divided into three parts. The first was the regular challenge of how two small cats would get out of a car which had it doors frozen shut. This was a daily problem these days and was usually solved by someone coming over and opening the door for them. So vaguely solvable, but it was all very inconvenient.
Second was the problem of leaving the blankets behind in the car and making a dash for somewhere warm, and where a meal of roast fish was available. This journey into the freezing outdoors was even more of an issue when they had to get back to the car, as the incentive for the return trip was certainly not very high.
The final problem that Mr. Choli idly contemplated was the much more worrying issue of the ever-dwindling fish supplies.
This is the first chapter of 'Mr. Vinegar and the frozen sea'.
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Mrs. Tinfish the penguin, who was in charge of the fish-roast, gathered up the cooked fish and handed it out. She looked guiltily at Mr. Ginger’s disappointed face as she passed a small fish for him and Mr. Choli to share.
“That’s all there is I’m afraid,” she explained.
Mr. Ginger tried to turn his expression of disappointment into one of gratitude but his stomach wouldn’t let him.
Mr. Choli took his half of the fish and smiled at Mrs. Tinfish.
“We are very grateful,” he said. “If it were not for your family and Daphne I don’t know what we would do.”
“Quite right, well said,” muttered Mr. Vinegar as he chomped at a small mouthful of his ration and tried to make the meal last as long as he could without it going too cold.
“The ice is growing everyday, and the days are getting very short,” contributed Mr. Tinfish. “This is all we could bring back today.”
Inside the cottage Mr. Vinegar the walrus already had a good coal fire going in the hearth. There were a number of fish roasting on it which gave the room a wonderful aroma of all things that cats like best. Mr. Ginger was already in front of the fire, taking his mind off the cold by examining the fish. Along side Mr. Vinegar was Mr. Denzel the mole, the three penguins who made up the Tinfish family, Mrs. Cat-biscuit the goat, and various other members of the colony who needed somewhere warm to shelter from the harsh and bitter winter.
“Evening Mr. Choli!” boomed Mr. Vinegar from the other side of the room. “Another cold night!”
“Indeed,” replied Mr. Choli as he greeted his old friend. “That car’s getting way too cold to sleep in, and a bit difficult to get out of as well in this weather. We may have to migrate to your fireside for a while.”
“Always welcome Mr. Choli, always welcome,” was Mr. Vinegar’s generous reply.
It was the coldest winter yet. Few of the animals had known cold like this before. Mr. Tinfish had reminisced that he could remember a similar winter from when he was a chick, before the ice sheets melted and his family had moved north. Daphne the polar bear was too young to remember this kind of cold. However, she didn’t mind it, and in fact found it a little invigorating.
Mr. and Mrs. Slicer the beavers were once again staying in the cottage. Last year there had been panic over the river drying up in the cold weather as the upper-reaches had frozen. The river at Daphne Wood had eventually frozen for a few weeks. However, this year the whole river had quickly frozen up, making their dam totally unliveable for months.
As Mr. Choli pondered over the last of these problems the icy glaze, which he was still scrutinizing from behind his magnifying glass, gradually dissolved to leave a round hole in the middle of the frozen window. Further inspection revealed the presence of a polar bear which had just used her warm breath to clear the ice.
“Good Evening Mr. Choli,” was the cheery greeting from Daphne the polar bear.
“Evening,” replied Mr. Choli as he lowered his magnifying glass and wondered what was good about it. How Daphne seemed to get more cheerful in this ridiculous weather was always beyond him.
“There’s a fish roast on at Mr. Vinegar’s. Would you like me to try to get your car door open so you can come and join us?”
Mr. Ginger clearly felt this was sufficient reason to be cheerful, as he had sat bolt upright in the passenger seat with a distinct look of enthusiasm about him.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Mr. Choli replied absently, and he pulled his blanket around him in readiness for the shock of cold air that was about to hit him.
Daphne temporarily disappeared from view as she pushed the previous fall of snow from against the door, and then gradually eased it open despite the frozen ice in the cracks of the doorframe. Finally the car door swung forward and a gust of frosty wind whipped through the car, dusting the two cats in a thin layer of crisp snow.
“Come on then,” Daphne grinned. “The fish will all be gone if you’re going to dawdle about all day.”
Mr. Ginger didn’t need asking twice. He had already dived across Mr. Choli, in a rather undignified way in Mr. Choli’s opinion, and had covered half of the short distance to the front door of the cottage, leaving a pattern of cold tiptoes in his wake. Mr. Choli carefully lowered himself from the car trying to sink as little as possible into the freezing white snow. Having done so he rapidly decided Mr. Ginger’s approach had a lot to be said for it and made a similar dash for the front door.
In the summer months the penguins and Daphne would fish near to the shore, making numerous short trips to the sea. They would then pile up the fish they caught on the shore until there was more than enough to be given out to the fish-eating animals of the colony. Now that winter had arrived, not only had the river frozen but the edge of the sea had frozen as well. Each morning their fishing team would make their way across the ice to where they could access the water. This was not an easy task. The frozen sea was not a smooth glassy surface like that of a frozen pond or even the river. As the ice had formed the sea was still undulating with waves and tides. The result was an icy surface which had been regularly broken and moved as it formed. Now it presented a barrier between the land and the sea with slabs of angular ice pushed up and fused together making it much more difficult to cross. Each day at first light the fishing team would make their way across to the frozen sea to find the edge of the ice shelf and begin fishing. After that they would bring back what they could carry. However, with each bitingly cold day the ice grew further away from the colony, the journey got longer, the days got shorter, and after each trip the amount of fish they could manage to carry back between them got less and less.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” continued Mr. Tinfish. “We only get a small amount of time to fish once we reach the water, and then the effort of bringing the fish back that we can carry to here is quite exhausting.”
“Maybe the weather will improve soon and the problem will go away,” commented Mrs. Cat-biscuit the goat in an effort to sound encouraging.
“I don’t think so,” chirped in William the Penguin. “The distance to the water has been increasing every day for more than a month now. Even if it stopped tomorrow it will take a long time for all that ice to melt away. We just have to accept that these are extreme times.”
The animals all stared sadly at the flickering of the fire as the flames danced between the coals. William was right. Times were ‘extreme’.
“Well I think that you need to adjust how you are organizing your fishing trips,” stated Mr. Denzel the mole with the usual practical tone to his voice.
This contribution to the conversation got Mr. Vinegar’s attention. Mr. Denzel’s inventiveness had been the brains behind many solutions to the problems of the colony in the past. A solution usually meant a plan, and a plan would certainly enliven their current existence which was reduced to trying to keep warm and surviving on limited food.
“What’s your suggestion, Mr. Denzel” beamed a revitalized Mr. Vinegar.
“Well it seems that the fishing team is spending most of their time walking to the end of the ice and then carrying the fish back again,” Mr. Denzel began, holding the attention of all in the room. “What you need to do is make sure that they spend most of their time fishing to maximize the catch of fish. To achieve this, the non-fishing animals need to do the fetching and carrying.”
“So if the fishing party spends more of their time fishing, they will get more fish, which will mean that there is more fish to eat,” pointed out Mrs. Chutney the Wallaby whose reputation for stating the obvious and then explaining it was legendary.
“That’s not bad,” replied Mr. Vinegar as he stroked the end of his chin with his flipper. “Not bad at all.”
“Further more,” continued an emboldened Mr. Denzel, “if the ice is stable enough you could make a base near to the water’s edge to store the fish that is caught and then transport it in bulk, maybe pulling it on sledges. This would mean that the fishing would take place independently of the carrying, and so the fishing team would not have to wait for the transporting animals to return each time.”
“What do you think Mr. Tinfish?” enquired Mr. Vinegar. “Could it be done? Would it be safe to build a base on the ice for you to fish from and for others to gather the fish you catch?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Mr. Tinfish thoughtfully. “We are out there everyday anyway. It would be a lot easier to have a week or so just fishing and then come back for a rest.”
“Well that’s settled then!” concluded Mr. Vinegar. “Trust Mr. Denzel to come up with a simple solution to solve all our problems. I don’t know where we’d be without you,” he added, nodding approvingly at Mr. Denzel who was looking slightly embarrassed.
“If I may comment,” Mr. Choli added, once the initial excitement had died down a little. “It’s an interesting plan Mr. Vinegar, but with one major flaw. Who on earth of the non-polar animals will be foolish enough to go traipsing across a freezing pack-ice with nothing but ocean beneath it, and then live in an igloo?!”