I’ve been asked more than once whether the events in the book, when Mister King arrives on the beach and thereafter, really happened. The story combines elements of experience, fact and fiction.
My grandfather passed away in 2009, he was the last remaining link I had to Cape St Francis, a small village on South Africa’s east coast. A flood of memories followed, the most vivid being of my grandmother and her love for the sea.
She told me that, early one morning, she came upon an albatross sitting on the beach, it wasn’t afraid of her, she recalled that it had the most beautiful eyes. The phone would then start ringing at the Port Elizabeth aquarium and she passed the information on. She believed such events were significant.
The lighthouse at Cape St Francis.
As a child our family spent summer holidays at Cape St Francis. The lighthouse fascinated me and I’d roam about the rocks at its foot for hours. Cape St Francis is renowned for rough seas and storms regularly carry debris from boats and the deep onto the rocks, including exhausted penguins clinging on to life. Frequent visitors were African Penguins from Cape Town, but one day I came upon a tall penguin with distinctive orange markings at the side of its head.
I told my grandmother about this and she in turn spoke to the other locals, a number of theories developed in an attempt to explain how the stranger arrived at the lighthouse. The one I liked best ran like this: fishermen capture penguins on remote islands and take them onto their boats, and when they grow tired of them the penguins are thrown overboard (that is if they don’t end up as lunch).
The Penguin Sanctuary at Cape St Francis in 2007. A King Penguin (far left) standing in the shade with his back towards a fan.
On my last visit to Cape St Francis in 2007 I walked out to the lighthouse where a penguin sanctuary had recently been built. In the shadows, at the side of the pool, a lone King Penguin stood motionless under a fan to keep cool. My grandmother had already passed away at that time which is probably the reason why the memories surfaced with such poignancy years later when I was living in London.
King Penguins are still arriving at Cape St Francis, the story continues …