TSP069: Heart of Duckness

August 20, 2013

“What do you mean you’re leaving?!”

“Exactly that – I’m leaving.  Going.  Disappearing.  Exiting this house.  Walking over to the door, turning the handle, opening it, stepping outside and not looking back.”

“But I need you Frances – we need you.  Don’t go.”

“I’m sorry Bert, I really am.  But I’m calling time on this enterprise as of… now.”

“But who will tell the visitors about the portraits of former owners of the property?  Or point out the boring trinkets on the mantelpiece?”

“To be perfectly frank Bert – that’s not my problem.  The National Trust can just go and find another volunteer.”

The split was far from amicable.  After forty years of loyal service to Hacknell Hall in Herefordshire, Frances had decided to leave behind the cut and national thrust of life as a room attendant in the stately home, to pursue a career as a duck handler on the International Space Station.  Many reasons had influenced her decision – the money for one (it looked set to be a lucrative endeavour indeed) and the travel for two.  And the ducks for three.

Ah, the ducks.  Those lovely, fluffy ducks.  Ever since the age of four, when she received her first egg wrapped in a ribbon beneath the Christmas tree, Frances was hooked on hatching and rearing ducklings.  Sadly the first ribbon-wrapped egg had turned out to be hard-boiled so she got off to a false start, but after that – some time in the Spring – a competent relative went out to purchase a viable replacement and within weeks Frances proudly held in her hands a pair of conjoined twin ducklings, whom she named Tobias and Feral.  Sadly her pastor father had immediately shipped them off to Guatemala for an exorcism and she never saw them again, but she vowed to find them one day, and then stumbled across them completely by accident before she’d even raised the finances to head for the Americas whilst walking round Grimsby town centre one afternoon.  Scooping them up in her arms, she secretly cared for them in a shoebox in the shed at the bottom of the garden, visiting them every day before and after (and sometimes even during) school, bringing them the eucalyptus leaves they had grown accustomed to in the North and topping up their water dish (a big upturned hat, possibly a naval commander’s).

Tobias and Feral were the first in a long line of duck pets for Frances.  When Spring came again, it brought with it Meryl, Taboo and Yaya Toure.  Then Vincent, Amy and Condensed Milk.  And then Faulkner, Octavius, Chablis and X.  And then a whole load of others that she just didn’t have time to name, and so never really grew that attached to.

The family’s neighbours soon grew accustomed to the sight of little Frances walking all of her ducks (some sixty odd) down the street, each of them on its own little leash, and then equally the sight of a tearful Frances rushing home alone to her father, and then an agitated parent with his daughter hotfooting it to the alleyway where the ducks had taken fright and got all tangled up in their reins and were now suspended in a great big ball of twine and ducks some eight feet off the ground in a sycamore sapling that somebody should really have removed when it was much smaller and more manageable.  Everywhere that Frances went her ducks were sure to go – college, university, holiday apartments, the aeroplane to get there (that was fun), Disneyland once, a Lady Gaga concert (where she fitted right in), Debenhams…

But not Hacknell Hall.

The National Trust had made it very clear to Frances that her ducks (by now several generations along and numbering some four thousand two hundred and fifty) were not welcome on the estate.  For one thing, the staff members on the gate were unsure which pricing category they came under (‘concessions’?) and for another they were bound to make an awful mess on the antique furnishings and immaculate lawns.  Also they didn’t have pockets for membership cards.  So it was that with a heavy heart, a young woman full of enthusiasm for preserving the nation’s social history had to part temporarily with the creatures that had given her so much joy in life.  Every Saturday, Amy would drive her duck lorry into the car park, kiss all of the ducks farewell individually and scatter a few mealworms through a slat in the side of the vehicle, and every Saturday four thousand two hundred and fifty quacking birds would fall quiet and wait in silence for their owner to return.

The reunion was always a happy one.  The sound of Frances’ ducks rejoicing at her reappearance could be heard for miles around – often as far away as Portugal.  And Frances would hug them all one by one and then once that was done, at around midnight, drive home and lead them all back into their beds in the shed (now substantially modified thanks to a Lottery grant, enabling Frances and her father to build a stylish extension and a glass-domed penthouse).  Pretty much all of her Saturdays were just hellos and goodbyes, with a few bits of “This is actually an original shoehorn” in between.

But the routine had got too much for Frances, and the ducks had got too many for the extended shed, now numbering some five and a half million.  And so Frances set about on her next big dream – colonising a planet with ducks.  It was a case of taking baby steps – one thing at a time.  And this work experience on the International Space Station was going to be just perfect.  Six astronauts, two tourists, one hate cleric who nobody would accept into their country and a duck wrangler.  And five and a half million ducks.

Bert couldn’t understand.  “But you love the National Trust, Frances.”  She wanted to let him down gently but it was hard to see how.  Instead she was brutally blunt.

“I did love the National Trust, Bert.  Once.”  A pause to allow that to sink in.  “But I also love ducks.  And I mean really love.”  And with that, she confidently strode down the steps of Hacknell Hall one final time, without glancing back to see the bemused and sad expression on her colleague’s face, and turned the corner to her train to be met with a cacophony of excited quacking so loud that they could only have been quacks of sheer joy.

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He walks along the dusty road, inspecting every stone he meets.  Out of the corner of his eye he spots a stream running alongside him, full to the brim with bears.  This is a surprise because it has been many years since fish have been found in any of the rivers for miles around.  It reminds him of Robinson Crusoe.

Shaking his head to free his mind of the images that constantly assail him on this journey, a passing lorry mistakes his gesture for an attempt at hitchhiking, slowing down some way ahead of him and opening the passenger door with a shout of “Where to, buddy?”  The truck is emblazoned with the name of a well known brand of beer.  Inside the cab empty crisp packets lie strewn about, like the debris of a fishing village after a typhoon.  The aroma of cigarettes conjures up images of his grandparents dancing in that picture upon the mantelpiece in his childhood home.  It reminds him of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The driver’s name is Alan; his family hail from Johannesburg although he himself was brought up in Cape Town.  His South African accent grates against the rasping noise of the engine, the pistons turning in a rhythm reminiscent of many of the poets he studied at university – Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Milligan.  The trucker asks him where he’s heading, but he cannot give an answer.  Only once before in his life has he felt uncertainty, and that some years back when his parents were still living.  He wipes a tear from his eye, stifling its motion before it wets his cheek and betrays his inner emotions.  It reminds him of Gulliver’s Travels.

The truck’s horn whistles a parting salute and he turns to walk up the mountain pass.  The cabin is here, somewhere behind these trees, hidden amongst the foliage, lost to time but not lost to him.  Parting the ferns he sees a snake.  He ignores it – it’s not important to the narrative but it merits a mention nonetheless.  Feeling the crunch of the bark beneath his feet he is sent back in his mind to the misspent years of his youth, here among the bracken, aiming an imaginary pistol at the imaginary Indians encircling his treetop fortress.  He and Sally, together.  It has been thirty-five years since they last met.  She is a full-grown woman now, with two children.  He remembers their first embrace, the soft skin of her eyelids fluttering on his cheek, the way the hairs on his back stood on end as if electrified.  It reminds him of Brideshead Revisited.

The door creaks open at his touch.  Three decades of dust adorn the aged furnishings.  He scans the room, taking in the woodworm holes that perforate his grandfather’s old rocking chair.  The log fire has not been made since the day the convoy rolled into town, only rolling out again once crude ‘justice’ had been carried out on fourteen men and women.  The windowpanes show signs of the battle that raged in the lanes and fields, forever infused with the rough smoke of burning thatch and smouldering hair.  A cool breeze draws his attention to the bathroom.  A wall is missing in its entirety.  In the basin lies an empty nest.  It reminds him of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The sun sets and his thoughts turn to tomorrow.  The embers of a barbecue glow as he picks his teeth with one of the rabbit’s ribs.  It is obvious that this area holds nothing for him now.  The cabin is a shell, a ghostly relic of the past; if he is not careful the past will consume him.  The sound of a tree being felled echoes across the valley.  A murder of crows rises up into the air, looking for a new home.  It reminds him of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

Rinsing off a week’s events in the stillness of the lake, he towels off using his torn shirt.  Beyond a swathe of reeds an old watermill lies abandoned.  He examines the damage, devising a means to repair it.  It reminds him of Round Ireland with a Fridge.

He lies on the grass, chewing on a sheaf of corn purloined from a farmer’s field.  Among the shapes in the clouds he can make out a dragonfly chasing a sea captain.  It reminds him of Little Miss Twins.

He reflects on his position in life.  It has been a long road to get here.  It’s an even longer road back.