a counter. He counted everything. He’d even count the freckles
on your face if you’d let him.
When he woke up in the morning the first
thing he counted was the number of daffodils on his bedroom wallpaper:
six-hundred-and-sixteen on each of two walls, five-hundred-and-thirty
one on the door wall and two-hundred-and-ninety on the window
wall (it was a big window). In all, two-thousand-and-fifty-three
daffodils. Next, the cracks on the ceiling: only twelve of those.
It was always the same. Nothing ever changed. But every morning
he’d count them, just to be sure.
At breakfast he counted his rice bubbles.
In batches of twenty. He always ate them dry because milk made
them stick together and more difficult to count. There had to
be twenty rice bubbles to every spoonful. Then he counted the
number of spoonfuls as he ate them. This wasn’t the same
every morning, due to the varying number of rice bubbles in the
bowl. Keith didn’t mind this. He didn’t need everything
to be the same all the time. He just had to know how
many things there were. Otherwise the whole day would go wrong
for him. Keith was really weird.
This particular morning, though, he woke
up and didn’t even think about the wallpaper. Hurriedly
he tossed off the doona and stared at his feet. Last night he’d
had the oddest dream. He counted his toes, left foot first, starting
at the big toe. One, two, three, four, five. Okay. Now the right
foot. One, two – oh no. Do it again: big toe ... second
toe ... gap ... gap ... little toe. Where had the middle ones
Two of his toes were missing. He had only
eight toes. But he’d gone to bed last night with all ten.
After recovering from the initial shock
of finding himself two toes short, he lay down and slipped back
into the old pattern of counting. Six-hundred-and-sixteen wallpaper
daffodils on the first wall. Six-hundred-and-sixteen on the second.
Two-hundred-and-ninety on the wall with the window. Five-hundred-and-twenty-five
on the wall with the door.
Five-hundred and twenty-five? Keith sat
up. Yesterday there had been five-hundred and thirty-one delightful
floral emblems on the wall around his bedroom door. Above the
door was blank space on the wallpaper, as if someone had rubbed
the flowers out with a …well … a rubber. What had
happened to them? Had someone stolen six of his daffodils?
Toes and daffodils. Things were getting
hairier by the minute. Keith looked nervously up at the ceiling.
But the twelve cracks were all there.
He decided to get up. He was hungry and
wanted rice bubbles. He got out of bed and promptly fell over.
With the two middle toes missing off his right foot, he was off
balance. He had to practise standing for a while. Then walking.
Once he’d got used to the odd feeling, he pulled on his
socks. At least that looked better. You couldn’t see the
unnerving gap in his toes now.
In the kitchen Mum was cooking scrambled
eggs for herself. Keith always cooked his own later, on account
of he took so long to work his way through the bowl of rice bubbles.
Keith tilted the rice bubble box into his bowl. Nothing came out.
‘Mum, where are all the rice bubbles?’
‘You tell me,’ said Mum. ‘The
box was empty when I wanted them too. And I only opened it yesterday.
Are you sure you didn’t get hungry during the night, and
come downstairs and scoff them all?’
‘No,’ said Keith. ‘I
don’t think so.’
‘You could have, you know,’
Mum insisted. ‘I know you sleep-walk sometimes.’
Keith didn’t think he had sleep-walked.
Now all his rice bubbles were missing. How was he going to start
his day off right?
‘What other cereal have we got?’
‘WeetBix,’ said Mum. ‘How
many do you want? One, two or three?’
planning to study Accountancy in a couple of years. As soon as
he had saved enough money to pay for the course. In the meantime
he worked in the Men’s Wear Department at Grace Brothers.
It was his very first job. Job Number One.
He was so disturbed by his missing toes,
daffodils and rice bubbles that this morning he forgot to count
the customers who came to the cash register. He neglected to count
the spots on the new silk ties. Or the numbers of underpants on
the display stand. He didn’t even count how many chews it
took to get down his lunchtime sandwiches. He was really out of
The dream he’d had last night kept
popping back into his head. How many times, he didn’t know.
He’d lost count by the afternoon. It was very distracting.
After dinner that night he slumped in
front of the TV. He watched the two-thousand-three hundred-and-twenty-fifth
repeat of The Simpsons, followed by his favourite crime
drama, When Will Your Number
Come Up? But it was no good … he just couldn’t
Suddenly he had an idea. I know what I’ll
do, he thought. When I go to bed I won’t switch off the
bedside lamp. I won’t go to sleep; I’ll keep an eye
on those ceiling cracks. All night, if I have to. I bet that,
if anything else is going to get stolen, it’ll happen tonight.
This is going to be an experiment in investigation.
To make it properly scientific, Keith
counted the cracks. Yep. Still twelve. He settled into the pillows.
To keep from nodding off, he counted the paper daffodils, although
he’d already re-counted them and his toes as soon as he
arrived home from work. When he’d finished that, he turned
his attention to something new – the knots in the pine wood
This was very difficult. Pine knots aren’t
spread around neatly and uniformly. They don’t know what
neat and uniform means. They were everywhere.
I’ll take them board by board, Keith
decided. That way I can count the boards first then multiply.
It was impossible. There were too many
and he couldn’t keep the numbers in his head. Besides, the
counting all but exhausted him, and, without realising, he dropped
off to sleep.
A noise woke
Keith. He looked at the clock. It was midnight. He stared upwards.
A little man was standing upside-down on the ceiling.
The little man had a strange looking object
in his hand. Keith thought it looked like one of those portable
car vacuum cleaners. The little man pointed the object at one
of the cracks, and there was a whirring sound. The crack was sucked
off the ceiling. It vanished inside the vacuum.
‘Hey, you,’ Keith shouted.
‘Leave my ceiling alone.’
‘Yipes!’ The little man jumped
then stared down at Keith.
Keith stared back. He had never seen anything
so odd in his life. This tiny upside-down man, though smaller
than a two-year-old child, was obviously middle-aged. His bald
head looked polished, and wire-rimmed spectacles balanced on the
end of a crooked nose. He wore a grey pin-striped suit, white
shirt, blue tie and very shiny black shoes. He also had a long
white beard. The beard was the oddest thing, though: it didn’t
hang down towards the floor, as you would expect; it stayed neatly
in place against his chest.
How come gravity wasn’t working?
Gravity aside, it was obvious to Keith
that this peculiar man was responsible for all the recent losses.
‘Get off my ceiling, you thief,’ he ordered.
‘I’m not a thief,’ said
the little man indignantly. He went red in the face and hopped
from one foot to the other.
‘You’re stealing the ceiling
cracks,’ Keith insisted. ‘And you stole my toes, didn’t
you? And my flowers and rice bubbles. That makes you a thief.’
The little man did a spin on one foot.
Then, in a flash, he was down. He stood on Keith’s rug.
He waved the vacuum cleaner at Keith.
‘Don’t point that thing at
me,’ said Keith. He was starting to feel nervous, but he
didn’t want the man to guess. ‘You give me back everything
you took, right now.’
‘Can’t,’ said the little
man. ‘Got a job to do.’
‘What job?’ Keith sneered.
‘You call stealing people’s toes a job?’
The little man ignored the sneer. He aimed
the vacuum cleaner at one of the knots on the floor. ‘Job’s
the most important thing. Got to get done by Tuesday. Tuesday’s
Tuesday was tomorrow. ‘The deadline
for what?’ said Keith, as his nervousness started running
‘My Annual Return. The Department
wants it in by Tuesday.’ The little man pressed something
on the vacuum cleaner, and a pine knot vanished.
‘Stop doing that,’ yelled
Keith. ‘What department? And what are you, anyway?’
The little man put the vacuum cleaner
on the rug. He crossed his arms and looked important. ‘I’m
an accountant, by profession.’
‘Oh, yeah, sure,’
Keith scoffed. ‘The accountants I know aren’t very
good at defying gravity. They don’t stand upside-down on
ceilings. And they don’t suck up people’s belongings
with vacuum cleaners.’
‘You must know the wrong accountants,’
said the little man. He picked up the vacuum cleaner and pointed
it at the floor. ‘I still need another knot. I’m short
‘Oh, no you don’t!’
said Keith, leaping from the bed.
He snatched the vacuum cleaner out of
the little man’s hands. ‘You’re not getting
anything else until you tell me the truth. And until you give
me back my toes. You can’t keep them, you know. They’re
not yours, and I need them.’
‘All right,’ the little man
yelled. He jumped up and down on the rug. ‘I can see I’ve
made a mistake coming here. I should have gone next door instead.
I told you, I’m an accountant. A tax-accountant. And that’s
‘What company do you work for then?
One of the Big Four?’ Keith mocked. He didn’t believe
‘Don’t be ridiculous; I wouldn’t
work for them,’ said the man. ‘I’m a Fairyland
The little man sighed. ‘You’re
an ignorant boy; but I suppose you’ve heard of the Tooth
Fairy, haven’t you?’
‘Yeah.’ Keith shrugged. ‘So?’
‘So, I’m the Accounting Fairy.
I collect the tax owed by humans to Fairyland. Just like the Tooth
Fairy collects teeth.’
I must be going mad, thought Keith. ‘I’ve
never heard of the Accounting Fairy. You’re making it up,’
he accused. ‘Anyway, who says we owe you anything?’
‘It’s the rules,’ said
the little man. ‘You humans owe us a lot. You expect a great
deal of us fairies. You want the Tooth Fairy to cart away your
teeth and pay you for the privilege. And some of those teeth aren’t
nice, I assure you. Some of them are nasty and rotten. Then there’s
E B –’
‘E B? What’s that?’
‘E B is Easter Bunny.’
Keith sniggered. ‘The Easter Bunny
isn’t a fairy.’
‘Yes, it is. How else could it manage
to hop all over the world, dropping off Easter eggs, if it wasn’t
a fairy? An ordinary rabbit couldn’t do it. And then there’s
Keith gaped. ‘Santa Claus is a fairy,
‘Of course. And all you want from
him ... and E B ... is lots of presents and mountains of chocolate
eggs. All you humans do is want … want … want. You
ask and ask … all the time, and you never stop.’
For a moment Keith was speechless. He
took a deep breath. ‘Right. OK. So how come you collect
your ... tax ... and people don’t know about it, like they
do the Tooth Fairy or Santa? How come they don’t notice
that some of their things have gone missing?’
‘They do, sometimes,’ the
Accounting Fairy replied. ‘But they think they’ve
just lost their stuff. Like on the train or somewhere.’
Keith folded his arms. ‘You can’t
lose wallpaper daffodils on a train.’
The Accounting Fairy stared at him oddly.
‘Well, most people don’t count their wallpaper daffodils
usually. Most people aren’t that strange.’
Keith felt himself blushing. Me –
strange? This is rich, coming from someone who claims
to be an accountant from Fairyland!
‘All right,’ he said. ‘But
you took all our rice bubbles, and my mother wondered where they’d
gone. People miss things like that. They notice. They’re
bound to realise something fishy’s going on if their rice
bubbles just disappear overnight. That’d make them suspicious.’
‘Not of us.’ The Accounting
Fairy shook his head. ‘They always think up reasons. They’ll
make up a reason, if they can’t think of one. Because
if there’s anything you humans are good at, it’s inventing
explanations for things you know nothing about.’
Keith remembered that Mum had said he
must have eaten all the rice bubbles in his sleep. Oh, well. But
what about the missing toes? That was definitely another kettle
of fish. One kettle of one fish, at least.
‘But you don’t usually take
people’s toes, do you?’ he said. ‘Things like
that get noticed for sure. Why did you take my toes? Do I owe
them to you or something?’
‘Not particularly.’ The Accounting
Fairy stared quickly at the rug and drew a circle on it with his
shiny shoe. ‘Admin hiccup, I’m afraid. Misread my
collection list. Department clerk’s handwriting is dreadful.
She wrote toys, but it looked like toes to me.
I should have realised it was wrong, because there’s plenty
of toys lying about, uncared for by spoiled children who’ll
never know they’re gone.’
‘You took my toes because of an
Admin hiccup?’ said Keith. ‘I lost my toes because
you made a mistake?’
‘No need to get hysterical,’
said the Accounting Fairy.
‘Give them back,’ yelled Keith.
‘Give them back right now.’ He lunged at the Accounting
Fairy, who backed off in a hurry.
‘Easy now. You have to understand,
there’s regulations for returning stuff. You know: official
channels … correct procedures … forms to be filled
out … permission slips. I have to obey the rules –’
‘Rules!’ screeched Keith.
‘I don’t care about stupid rules! You give me back
my toes!’ He waved the vacuum cleaner threateningly.
The Accounting Fairy ducked. ‘Please,
don’t fool around with that thing. Give it to me …it’s
‘Oho … is it?’ Keith
chortled. I have the advantage at last, he thought. ‘Return
my toes, and I will. Otherwise, I’ll ... I’ll ...’
he thought quickly, ‘I’ll suck you up with
Horror filled the Accounting Fairy’s eyes. ‘No …
‘I will.’ Keith looked
down at the instrument in his hand. He hadn’t studied it
before. What he wanted was an ON button, but there were two buttons,
one red and one green. Neither button had instructions. Which
one did you press?
‘I’m waiting.’ Keith
aimed the vacuum cleaner nozzle right at the Fairy’s chest.
‘Return my toes now, and we’re even. I’ll forget
about everything else you took.’
‘Can’t,’ moaned the
Accounting Fairy. ‘Department won’t let me. So complicated.
You don’t understand.’
‘Oh, yes, I do,’ shrieked
Keith. ‘You just don’t want to give them
back, do you?’ His finger descended on the green button,
and he pressed it as hard as he could.
morning Keith woke up and stretched wearily. He had a headache.
He didn’t feel like eating breakfast. He didn’t even
want to get up. He thought he’d take a sickie from work
Letting out a long despairing sigh, he
stared at the ceiling. Only eleven cracks up there. The twelfth
crack ran along the centre of his floor. Amongst the ceiling cracks
were two pine knots and a daffodil. Three more daffodils decorated
the floor rug, looking as if they were impressed into the wool
for all eternity. Scattered over all four walls of wallpaper,
like raindrops on a roof, were rice bubbles. Keith didn’t
want to count how many there were. He didn’t think he’d
ever count anything again.
He pulled off the doona and sadly studied
his right foot. He stared at the wall above the door. Besides
the dancing rice bubbles, two toes sported like fat little frolicking
I’ll have to buy new shoes, he thought.
He wriggled the two new additions to his foot. He wished they
weren’t so yellow or so big. But at least their petals were
soft enough to fold under, and the daffodil trumpets were firm
enough to walk on. Then he made the biggest decision of his life.
He wasn’t going to study Accountancy now; he’d stick
with the retail trade instead.