Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Fortunately, the Milk

Neil Gaiman


  For my late father, David, who would have told the tale with delight, and for my son, Michael, who would never have believed a word of it.

  With love.


  For my dad, who was a teller of stories and a maker of laughs. I miss you like crazy.




  Begin Reading

  Back Ad

  About the Author and Illustrator

  Books by Neil Gaiman



  About the Publisher

  Begin Reading

  There was only orange juice in the fridge. Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toastios, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate.*

  “No milk,” said my sister.

  “Nope,” I said, looking behind the jam in the fridge, just in case. “None at all.”

  Our mum had gone off to a conference. She was presenting a paper on lizards. Before she went, she reminded us of the important things that had to happen while she was away.

  My dad was reading the paper. I do not think he pays a lot of attention to the world while he is reading his paper.

  “Did you hear me?” asked my mum, who is suspicious. “What did I say?”

  “Do not forget to take the kids to Orchestra Practice on Saturday; it’s Violin on Wednesday night; you’ve frozen a dinner for each night you’re away and labeled them; the spare house-key is with the Nicolsons; the plumber will be here on Monday morning and do not use or flush the upstairs toilet until he’s been; feed the goldfish; you love us and you’ll be back on Thursday,” said my father.

  I think my mum was surprised. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. She kissed us all. Then she said, “Oh, and we’re almost out of milk. You’ll need to pick some up.”

  After she went away, my dad had a cup of tea. There was still some milk left.

  We defrosted Meal Number One, but we made a bit of a mess of things, so we went to the Indian restaurant. Before we went to sleep, Dad made us mugs of hot chocolate to make up for the whole Missing of Mum.

  That was last night.

  Now Dad came in. “Eat your cereal,” he said. “Remember, it’s Orchestra Practice this afternoon.”

  “We can’t eat our cereal,” said my sister, sadly.

  “I don’t see why not,” said my father. “We’ve got plenty of cereal. There’s Toastios and there’s muesli. We have bowls. We have spoons. Spoons are excellent. Sort of like forks, only not as stabby.”

  “No milk,” I said.

  “No milk,” said my sister.

  I watched my dad think about this. He looked like he was going to suggest that we have something for breakfast that you do not need milk for, like sausages, but then he looked like he remembered that, without milk, he couldn’t have his tea. He had his “no tea” face.

  “You poor children,” he said. “I will walk down to the shop on the corner. I will get milk.”

  “Thank you,” said my sister.

  “Not the fat-free kind,” I told him. “That stuff tastes like water.”

  “Right,” said my dad. “Not the fat-free kind.”

  He went out.

  I poured some Toastios into a bowl. I stared at them.

  I waited.

  “How long has he been?” asked my sister.

  “Ages,” I said.

  “I thought so,” said my little sister.

  We drank orange juice. My sister practiced her violin. I suggested that she stop playing her violin, and she did.

  My sister made faces at me.

  “How long has it been now?” she asked.

  “Ages and ages,” I told her.

  “What happens if he never comes back?” she asked.

  “I suppose we eat the pickles,” I said.

  “You can’t eat pickles for breakfast,” said my sister. “And I don’t like pickles at any time. What if something awful has happened to him? Mum would blame us.”

  “I expect he just ran into one of his friends at the corner shop,” I said, “and they got talking and he lost track of time.”

  I ate a dry Toastio as an experiment. It was sort of okay, but not as good as in milk.

  There was a thump and a bang at the front door, and my father came in.

  “Where have you been all this time?” asked my sister.

  “Ah,” said my father. “Um. Yes. Well, funny you should ask me that.”

  “You ran into someone you knew,” I said, “and you lost track of time.”

  “I bought the milk,” said my father. “And I did indeed say a brief hello to Mister Ronson from over the road, who was buying a paper. I walked out of the corner shop, and heard something odd that seemed to be coming from above me. It was a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

  “Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

  “That wasn’t odd?” I asked.

  “Well, something ODDER,” said my father. “The odd thing was the beam of light that came out of the disc—a glittery, shimmery beam of light that was visible even in the daylight. And the next thing I knew, I was being sucked up into the disc. Fortunately, I had put the milk into my coat pocket.

  “The deck of the disc was metal. It was as big as a playing field, or BIGGER.”

  “We have come to your planet from a world very far away,” said the people in the disc.

  I call them people, but they were a bit green and rather globby and they looked very grumpy indeed.

  “Now, as a representative of your species, we demand that you give us ownership of the whole planet. We are going to remodel it.”

  “I jolly well won’t,” I said.

  “Then,” it said, “we will bring all your enemies here and have them make you miserable until you agree to sign the planet over to us.”

  I was going to point out to them that I didn’t have any enemies when I noticed a large metal door with




  on it. I opened the door.

  “Don’t do that,” said a green, globby person. “You’ll let the space-time continuum in.”

  But it was too late; I had already pushed open the door.


  I was FALLING.

  Fortunately, I had kept tight hold of the milk, so when I splashed into the sea I didn’t lose it.

  “What was that?” said a woman’s voice. “A big fish? A mermaid? Or was it a spy?”

  I wanted to say that I wasn’t any of those things, but my mouth was full of seawater. I felt myself being hauled up onto the deck of a little ship. There were a number of men and a woman on the deck, and they all looked very cross.

  “Who be ye, landlubber?” said the woman, who had a big hat on her head and a parrot on her shoulder.

  “He’s a spy! A walrus in a coat! A new kind of mermaid with legs!” said the men.

  “What are you doing here?” asked the woman.

  “Well,” I said. “I just set out to the corner shop for some milk for my children’s breakfast and for my tea, and the next thing I knew—”

  “He’s lying, Your Majesty!”

  She pulled out her cutlass. “You dare lie to the Queen of the Pirates?”

  Fortunately, I had kept tight hold of the milk, and now I pointed to it.

  “If I did not go to the corner shop to fetch the milk,” I asked them,
“then where did this milk come from?”

  At this, the pirates were completely speechless. “Now,” I said, “if you could let me off somewhere near to my destination, I would be much obliged to you.”

  “And where would that happen to be?” said the Queen of the Pirates.

  “On the corner of Marshall Road and Fletcher Lane,” I said. “My children are waiting there for their breakfast.”

  “You’re on a pirate ship now, my fine bucko,” said the Pirate Queen. “And you don’t get dropped off anywhere. There are only two choices—you can join my pirate crew, or refuse to join and we will slit your cowardly throat and you will go to the bottom of the sea, where you will feed the fishes.”

  “What about walking the plank?” I asked.

  “NEVER heard of it!” said the pirates.

  “Walking the plank!” I said. “It’s what proper pirates do! Look, I’ll show you. Do you have a plank anywhere?”

  It took some looking, but we found a plank, and I showed the pirates where to put it. We discussed nailing it down, but the Pirate Queen decided it was safer just to have the two fattest pirates sit on the end of it.

  “Why exactly do you want to walk the plank?” asked the Pirate Queen.

  I edged out onto the plank. The blue Caribbean water splashed gently beneath me.

  “Well,” I said, “I’ve seen lots of stories with pirates in them, and it seems to me that if I’m going to be rescued—”

  At this, the pirates started to laugh so hard their stomachs wobbled, and the parrot took off into the air in amazement. “Rescue?” they said. “There’s no rescue out here. We’re in the middle of the sea.”

  “Nevertheless,” I told them. “If you are going to be rescued, it will always be while walking the plank.”

  “Which we don’t do,” said the Pirate Queen. “Here. Have a SPANISH DOUBLOON and come and join us in our piratical adventures. It’s the eighteenth century,” she added, “and there’s always room for a bright, enthusiastic pirate.”

  I caught the doubloon. “I almost wish that I could,” I told her. “But I have children. And they need their breakfast.”

  “Then you must die!

  Walk the plank!”

  I edged out to the end of the plank. Sharks were circling. So were piranhas—

  And this was where

  I interrupted my dad for


  “Hang on,” I said. “Piranhas are a freshwater fish. What were they doing in the sea?”

  “You’re right,” said my father. “The piranhas were later. Right. So . . .”

  I was out at the end of the plank, facing certain death, when a rope ladder hit my shoulder and a deep, booming voice shouted,


  I needed no more encouragement than this, and I grabbed the rope ladder with both hands. Fortunately, the milk was pushed deep into the pocket of my coat. The pirates hurled insults at me, and even discharged pistols, but neither insults nor pistol-shot found their targets and I soon made it to the top of the rope ladder.

  I’d never been in the basket of a hot air balloon before. It was very peaceful up there.

  The person in the balloon basket said, “I hope you don’t mind me helping, but it looked like you were having problems down there.”

  I said, “You’re a stegosaurus!”

  “I am an inventor,” he said. “I have invented the thing we are traveling in, which I call Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier.”

  “I call it a balloon,” I said.

  “Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier is the original name,” he said. “And right now we are one hundred and fifty million years in the future.”

  “Actually,” I said, “we are about three hundred years in the past.”

  “Do you like hard-hairy-wet-white-crunchers?” he asked.

  “Coconuts?” I guessed.

  “I named them first,” said Professor Steg. He picked up a coconut from a basket and ate it, shell and all, just as you or I might crunch toast.

  He showed me his Time Machine. He was very proud of it. It was a large cardboard box with several pebbles on it, and stones stuck to the side. There was also a large, red button. I looked at the stones. “Hang on,” I said. “Those are diamonds. And sapphires. And rubies.”

  “Actually,” he said, “I call them special-shiny-clear-stones, special-shiny-bluey-stones, and, um—”

  “Special-shiny-red-stones?” I suggested.

  “Indeed,” he said. “I called them that when I was inventing my Really Good Moves Around in Time Machine, one hundred and fifty million years ago.”

  “Well,” I told him, “it was very lucky for me that you turned up when you did and rescued me. I am slightly lost in space and time right now and need to get home in order to make sure my children get milk for their breakfast.” I showed it to him. “This is the milk. Although I expect that one hundred and fifty million years ago you called it ‘wet-white-drinky-stuff.’”

  “Dinosaurs are reptiles, sir,” said Professor Steg. “We do not go in for milk.”

  “Do you go in for breakfast cereal?” I asked.

  “Of course!” he said. “Dinosaurs LOVE breakfast cereal. Especially the kind with nuts in.”

  “What do you have on your cereal?” I asked.

  “Orange juice, mostly. Or we just eat it dry. But I shall put this in my book: In the distant future, small mammals put milk on their breakfast cereal. I shall write a wonderful book, when I return to the present.”

  “Actually,” I said, “I think this is definitely the past. It has pirates in it.”

  “It’s the future,” he said. “All the dinosaurs have gone off into the stars, leaving the world to mammals.”

  “I wondered where you all went,” I said.

  “The stars,” he told me. “That is where we will have gone.”

  “So,” I said. “Can you take me home?”

  “Well,” he said. “Yes and no.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Yes, I would love to take you home. Nothing would make me happier. No, I cannot take you home. In all honesty, I do not believe that I can take me home. My Time Machine is being temperamental. I need a special-shiny-greeny-stone. I have pressed that button many times but nothing happens.”

  “Button? Don’t you mean ‘big-red-flat-pressy-thing’?” I asked.

  “I most certainly do not. It is a button. I named it after my Aunt Button.”

  “Can I press it?”

  “If you wish.”

  I pressed the button. The sun shot around the sky, and the sky started to flicker in nights and in days, and the balloon began to rock and lurch and zoom around like an angry fly.

  I held on to the ropes as hard as I could. Fortunately, I was still keeping tight hold of the milk in my right hand.

  When we stopped being blown all across the sky, it was night and, according to Professor Steg, we had only gone back about a thousand years. The moon was nearly full.

  “I am even further from my children and our breakfast,” I said.

  “You have your milk,” he said. “Where there is milk, there is hope. Ah, over there. That looks like a perfect landing platform for time-traveling scientists in Floaty-Ball-Person-Carriers.”

  We landed on the platform and got out. The platform stuck up out of the jungle and had flaming torches on each side. There were people standing on it with very black hair and sharp stone knives.

  “Is this a balloon-landing platform?” I asked the people.

  “It is not,” said a fat man. “It is our temple. We had a very bad harvest last year and we had just asked the gods to send us a sacrifice, to make sure that this year’s harvest is better, when you floated down in that thing, with your monster.”

  “Thank you, by the way,” said a little thin man. “I was going to be the sacrifice if no one else turned up. Much obliged.”

  “So now we will sacrifice you and yo
ur monster.”

  “But my children are waiting for their breakfast,” I said. “Look!” I held up the milk.

  “Why did they all just fall to their knees?” asked Professor Steg. “Is this usual hairless mammal behavior? Perhaps I should hold up some hard-hairy-wet-white-crunchers and see what happens.”

  “Coconuts!” I told him. “They are called coconuts!”

  “What is that you are holding?” the fat man asked.

  “Milk,” I said.

  “MILK!” they exclaimed, and they prostrated themselves on the ground.

  “We have a prophecy,” said the fat man, “that when a man and a spiny-backed monster descend from the skies on a round floaty thing—”

  “Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier,” said the little thin man.

  “Yes. One of those. We were told that when that happened, if the man held up milk then we were not to sacrifice them, but we were meant to take them to the volcano, and give them, as a present, the green jewel that is the Eye of Splod.”


  “He is the god of people with short, funny names.”

  “It is,” I said, “a remarkably specific sort of a prophecy. When did you receive it?”

  “Last Wednesday,” said the fat man, proudly. “The priest of Splod was woken in the night by a voice whispering from the heavens. And when he went to look and see who it was, there was nobody there. Also, he was sleeping on the top of the temple, and nobody else could have been up there with him. So it must have either been Splod himself talking, or one of his angelic messengers.”

  We walked together down a jungle path. Professor Steg carried the rope in his mouth that led up to the balloon, and he dragged the balloon along. After half an hour we reached the volcano.

  It was not a very big volcano. There were wisps of smoke coming from the top of it.