Just outside the Norfolk village of Puddleham-St-Mary, there is a tiny car park, a wide path that winds down to the windy sea and a circle of grass where an old pub, the Unicorn, stands and where the pink-and-grey Broadlands bus turns round and begins its return journey, through eleven villages, back to Norwich. One summer morning, two children, Ginny and George, had come to meet their dad from the bus.
Their dad had gone to Norwich to “talk to the bank” and to the family lawyer, Miss Jones, and money was on their minds because everyone was worrying about it. Ginny was imagining their dad coming home with a huge cheque, as seen on television shows, big as a person, George was hoping for treasure, or gold coins in sacks, like the olden days, but as their dad, Simon, stepped off the bus he was carrying nothing but a very confused expression.
They did not ask any questions but followed him through the gates of Puddleham St Mary’s greatest tourist attraction, the Puddleham Petting Zoo.
Puddleham Petting Zoo was owned by their Uncle Peter and was one of the best petting zoos in the country, award-winning for its roomy enclosures and open spaces, its well-trained cheerful staff, the on-site vet (the children’s mum, Mina), but mostly its friendly animals. Recently, a bigger zoo, with tigers, rhinos and an exotic reptile house, had opened near Cromer. Puddleham Petting Zoo became quieter and quieter. As their mum said, a little sadly, some people preferred fierce-in-a-cage animals to friendly-and-free animals.
Uncle Peter was a wild, wandering character, like David Attenborough with a hint of Bear Grills and a sprinkling of Brian Cox. He was brilliant as an uncle, loving adventures and telling amazing tales, but a bit unpredictable. As soon as the zoo was in trouble, Peter left Simon to look after it and was off on a trip to Costa Rica via France to make a film which would hopefully make money. He sent a message to Simon, saying help was on its way and he’d be back by the end of August. Mina and Simon were doing their best, paying the staff from their own money, making sure the trickle of summer visitors had a brilliant time and keeping the animals happy. The children saw from his face that their dad’s visit to Norwich had probably not sorted out any money problems but he looked more baffled than sad.
Simon called a briefing meeting for all the staff. “We all hoped Peter was sending money but Miss Jones informs me Peter has sent something else to help us which is arriving tomorrow.” The keepers, students and other workers were excited and curious. Who could it be? Simon waited for quiet and said, “It’s a pig.”
The pig, a white Yorkshire, born in England but brought up in France, arrived, fresh from quarantine, in a rickety van the next morning. It was typical of Uncle Peter to send them a well-travelled pig but he had not sent her name, the only clue being PP-BB-TH-1 stamped in her ear. Simon rang Miss Jones who did not know but said the paperwork was on its way. Peter had told her the pig was invaluable but he’d not said why.
The children were delighted to have a pig at last, even one without a name. Puddleham Petting Zoo currently had 10 rabbits, 9 chickens, 8 goats (4 were pygmy goats, for extra cuteness), 7 sheep, 6 cows, 5 ducks, 4 cats, 3 ponies, 2 dogs and an accidental owl called Hugh-Hugh (who was not part of the zoo’s collection but had nested in the stable). They felt the pig was quite beautiful enough to attract many visitors. The grown-ups were not convinced.
“The pig’s a puzzler,” said Nan, the lady who worked in the office, as she watched them stroking the pig’s hairy forehead over the gate of her new home. “But she only looks invaluable when I see her as a sausage sizzler.”
“Nan!” shrieked Ginny, horrified.
Nan told them there had been three phone calls about the pig already, one from their neighbour, Farmer Trent, one from a local pig farmer and a mysterious one from France. “The farmers probably want to buy her for meat. The strange Frenchman spoke so quickly I could not understand him so Henri is on standby to translate if he rings again.” Henri was a zoology student from France on work experience at the zoo. Nan’s broad Norfolk voice softened as she looked at their anxious faces. “Now, don’t you worry. Mr Peter must have sent the pig for a reason. If he said she’s invaluable, the puzzle is to find out why.”
“Let’s call her Puzzler until we know her real name, “ said Ginny. It fitted perfectly.
The children took Nan’s challenge seriously. Nan had said Mr Peter must have sent the pig for a reason. What could he mean?
“We need to find out more about valuable pigs,” said Ginny. George volunteered to go to the library. George loved the library in Norwich; the beautiful glassy Forum was one of his favourite places. He rang his friend Taj arranged to meet him at the library the next day.
That night George and Ginny gathered some pig facts from the internet. They learned, then wished they hadn’t, that the Yorkshire breed was great for bacon, also that pigs were very intelligent. When they typed in pig, puzzle, they got many adverts for pig-jigsaw-puzzles. When they tried valuable pigs, it was all about buying the meat. Just for fun, Ginny tried pigs, treasure. After several Peppa Pig books, other possibilities came up. Apparently, pigs could be treasure-hunters. What was their treasure? Truffles.
Chocolate truffles are usually round, often dipped in nuts to give a bumpy outside, with a richly chocolatey inside. ‘Real’ truffles are bumpy but rarely simply round. Found in the ground they are related, distantly, to mushrooms. They are very hard to find. Everyone agrees that they smell terrible but many think they taste delicious, and things that taste delicious and are hard to find are often VERY VALUABLE.
George met Taj at the library in the Forum. Taj went to read up on truffles while George went to the Science section, looking for books on pigs. A tall man, looking at the same shelves, offered George some suggestions and seemed to know a lot about pigs. He was interested to hear George had a new pig. The man’s voice, like Henri’s, revealed he too came from France. He explained, proudly, that his uncle, a chef in Paris, specialised in pork dishes with truffles. George felt squirmy to think of poor Puzzler as a pork dish. Later, when George went find Taj, he felt the eyes of the tall Frenchman following him, which was a bit strange. The man started talking in a quiet library voice on his phone, still looking at George, which was more strange, but then, thankfully, he disappeared down the library stairs.
George and Taj compared notes. George had learned that pigs were the best animals at finding truffles but were so strong and loved the truffles so much it was difficult to stop them eating any truffles they found. Dogs were quicker, smaller, cheaper, easier to train and more obedient. Truffle-hunting pigs were now rare.
Taj had learned how expensive truffles were. Fragments of ‘real’ truffle and truffle oil and truffle dust could be bought online. Real whole truffles, especially the rarer kinds, could cost thousands of pounds. In posh restaurants, a shaving of just one or two wafer-thin slices of fresh truffle was described as “elevating” the dish, making it extra special.
They learned the truffle smell is strong so animals will smell truffles from above-ground and dig them up. That’s how truffles spread themselves. Bits of truffle, called spores, get scattered across the forest floor and new truffles grow in new places. One writer compared a truffle’s smell to old cheese, rotten meat and used socks, which didn’t sound tasty. They looked horrible. “Like wrinkled dead potatoes,” said Taj. “More like mud-covered brains,” said George.
On the long bus journey home with Taj, who was coming to stay, George rang Ginny to tell her Puzzler might be a truffle-hunter. She said she knew! There’d been another phone call from France. Henri took it this time. It was a Monsieur Soufflé, who had looked after the pig in France, asking about her. “Our pig is officially wonderful! She once found a white truffle worth more than £10,000!”
When George and Taj got off the bus, Ginny was waiting. She rushed towards them. Before they had time to wonder what was wrong, she was dragging them towards the zoo. “Terrible news!” she said. “Puzzler’s been stolen!”
The police were on the way and an emergency meeting had begun in the staffroom. Everyone was watching the PowerPoint screen: Henri was showing recent CCTV* from Puzzler’s enclosure. A tall male figure, dressed in dark grey, wearing a covid mask and a hoodie so it was difficult to see his features, approached the pen cautiously, taking a huge cabbage and a rope from his backpack. Once Puzzler was happily munching the cabbage, the man slipped the rope round her neck, opened her gate and, glancing round, led her out.
Next came footage from the back-gate cameras. They could see Puzzler was now trotting fast and pulling at her rope and the man was struggling. Taking wire-cutters from his bag, the man cut the padlock and chains on the back gate. Puzzler seemed to be tangling herself around his legs. As he tried to put the wire-cutters away, open the gate and untangle the rope, all at the same time, Puzzler pulled him over. Giving a great shake of her neck, she slipped from the rope and ran through the open gate to the shelter of trees. Everyone watching cheered, then booed as the man escaped from the rope, grabbed his things and took off in pursuit.
Simon was calm and focused. “The police will take time to arrive. I hope they’ll send a helicopter. Puzzler’s been gone for only 45 minutes. She could easily still be close by in the woods. The thief might not have caught her. Let’s search the woods from the zoo side and from the beach. Also, presumably he must have transport. We should ask in the village if anyone noticed any strangers or an unexpected car or van.”
Ginny joined Simon, setting off from the back of the zoo. George and Taj went with Henri’s group, searching the woods from the side of the sea. Mina went to the village and Nan stayed to be the coordinator and meet the police. The hunt for Puzzler had begun.
By ten, the sun had set, though the police helicopter floodlit the woods while they searched. They startled deer, foxes and a badger but did not find Puzzler. The searchers from the sea and the searchers from the zoo met in the middle of the forest then walked gloomily back to the village. How had they missed the pig and the pig-napper?
Outside the Unicorn they found Mina, grinning broadly. Dan, the owner of the pub, had noticed an unfamiliar blue van. He and Mina staked it out and when a dishevelled figure in grey stumbled through some bushes towards it, everyone from the Unicorn rushed out to catch him. They tied the man up with his own rope and put him in the cellar. He was handed over to the police but not before George had recognized him as the Frenchman from the library. The man refused to speak, even in French to Henri, and was taken off to the police station.
After some pub sandwiches, everyone gathered in the staffroom for more orders. Henri had contacted Monsieur Soufflé to see if he there had been any French attempts to steal Puzzler in the past. Monsieur Soufflé, on Facetime on the screen, could be seen sobbing into a large white handkerchief, talking in broken English. He was confused by Puzzler’s name. “Why is called by you the pig Puzzleur? It is not her name.”
Simon explained that they only had the letters and numbers in her ear PP-BB-TH-1 as a clue, and that Ginny had chosen the name.
Monsieur Soufflé smiled. “Puzzleur,” he said, stretching the word in his French way. “I like it. But you should know the pig is named by pedigree rules. Her official name tells of her owner, her qualities, her purpose. She is Peter Paston-Boutique Beauty-Truffle Hunter 1. Of course, you could not buy a pig like her in any, how-you-say, boutique? Shop? Not in any shop in the world. In France we say ‘boutique’ for shop, for the highest fashion, but also for the most special, the vey best of anything and she is the best, the Fabergé** of pigs. And of course, such a beauty… this is what I always called her, Beauty.”
Monsieur Soufflé wished them well in the search and said goodbye from faraway France. Everyone checked their torches, ready to start searching again under police guidance when a shout came from outside. “Found!”
Everyone ran to see. Nan had been checking the other animals were safely settled, when she saw the open gate and a tiny movement in Puzzler’s enclosure. Underneath the breathing straw she found Puzzler herself, fast asleep, and snoring.
The children wanted to hug her but were told to leave her snoozing. The police wanted to interview her but of course that was impossible. Everyone was amazed that she had successfully evaded capture and found her way home in the dark. Fortunately, they could verify her identity for the police by the markings on her ear. Outside the entrance, local camera crews were arriving. The Press*** had heard of the adventure and wanted to take pictures of Puzzler and interview anyone they could find. Simon sent the keepers quietly home through the back gate, after thanking them a thousand times for all their help, but locked the front gates firmly on The Press, promising to talk in the morning. Henri texted Monsieur Soufflé the good news. Then they all went to bed, relieved that Puzzler was now under the watchful eye of two policemen, keeping guard.
With help from Monsieur Soufflé and the French authorities, it was discovered that the man from the library, Victor Voleur, did indeed have an uncle who was a chef and owned the famous truffle restaurant in Paris, La Bouche. Victor had heard that Puzzler, famous in France as Boutique Beauty, was coming to England and had followed her, hoping to capture her and use her for truffle-hunting or hold her for ransom. His meeting with George was quite by chance but gave him a clue about where the pig might be. Victor had now confessed everything and was off to prison for some time. The story of Puzzler, a fearless pig who had skillfully rescued herself from an evil pig-napper had spread far and wide. She was a star on YouTube. Not surprisingly, hundreds of people wanted to come to see her. Coach after coach now joined the pink and grey buses, bringing many happy children to the Petting Zoo. The Petting Zoo and its famous pig were currently even more popular for children’s parties in Norfolk than Frozen II-at-the-cinema, followed by pizza-at-Zizzi’s. Once again Puddleham Petting Zoo was full of visitors.
With perfect timing, on the last day of August, with two days to go before school began, Uncle Peter arrived home, having made a series of films on toucans in Costa Rica, which had been bought by the BBC and seemed set to become award-winning documentaries. When Peter heard all the adventures they had had without him, he insisted that they should have at least one day off before school while he took care of everything. So it was that on the last day of the holidays, if you looked carefully, very early, on Ringford Downs, you could see a family of four, strolling under the beech, oak and hazel trees. They were not looking up at the sunrise, which broke, rose and gold, over the sea, but were all gazing down towards the chalky ground where a Yorkshire pig was truffle-hunting, hopefully and happily, in the bright Norfolk morning.
© JSS forL2L2Read, August 2022
CCTV* This stands for Close Circuit Television. It refers to cameras which are installed in places which need to be safe, to keep an eye on what is happening. The Petting Zoo had cameras to watch each animal to see they were safe and to ‘catch’ any threats, such as the pig-napper.
Fabergé** The Faberge family, headed by Gustav, were a firm of jewellers in Russia, famous for designing beautiful and detailed pieces, often covered in jewels. Gustav’s grandsons opened up a business in Paris later, also making beautiful jewels.
The Press*** A phrase to describe journalists and newspapers and news programmes generally. This may be used because they pressure people to give them information and stories and love to be the first with any news.
If you would like to hear the story read aloud by the author please use the links below.