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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Barney opened his eyes and looked up at the azure blue sky.  The lofty white clouds edged slowly across his field of vision while the sound of young seagulls drifted down from the cliff tops.  The sea air tickled his nostrils, sending wafts of salty spray up his nose and into his brain.  The inrush of sodium ions sent water flooding into his skull by osmosis (FACT OF SCIENCE), jolting him wide awake and causing him to sit up and knock the water back into his bloodstream through violent means.  He was definitely awake now, and he was definitely on a rock outside a lighthouse.  Considering that he’d begun the day on the International Space Station this came as somewhat of a surprise.

Looking down at his torso Barney noticed that his spacesuit was rather absent.  So absent, in fact, that he was now dressed as one of the Three Musketeers – probably Dartagnan.  Casting around for his rapier his gaze finally alighted on a length of rubber piping and an old fluorescent strip light.  Instantly he recognised the piping as that belonging to the Bunsen burner in his grandma’s kitchen; the strip light’s origins remained a baffling mystery for now…  Before he could piece together this part of the puzzle, a noise rather like an old wooden door opening with difficulty caused him to turn around and take in the lighthouse for the first time.  The old wooden door had opened with difficulty and a wizened old sea dog stood there, beckoning him in.  “I haven’t got all day,” he said, “I’m expected back at the funeral parlour by 6.”

Barney spluttered.  “Am I dead?” he asked, tentatively.  “Of course you’re not dead, you idiot – now hurry inside or the penguins will get you.”  The old man gestured towards the shore and Barney suddenly noticed about two hundred thousand penguins, all squawking furiously and foaming at the beak, gazing across at him.  With a yelp, Barney sprinted into the lighthouse, hotly pursued by the ravenous birds; as the aged sailor forced the door shut, the noise of hundreds of feathered bodies piling against it smothered the piercing beeping of the slot machines.  “Up here,” sighed the sea dog, scratching his ear with his left foot.  “My name’s Martin, by the way,” he added, extending a withered hand for Barney to shake.  “I know,” said Barney, truly believing he did.  Martin raised a swarthy eyebrow: “Ah, so you realise what’s going on now, do you?”  “I do,” said Barney.  “Good – you may now kiss the bride,” joked Martin, puckering up for a kiss; Barney obliged.  The pair separated with a slight sense of awkwardness, but figured the best way to overcome it was to kiss again.  The second time around, they missed.

At the top of the lighthouse staircase Martin paused to catch his breath and put it in a cage.  Barney took the opportunity to gaze around him, taking in Scotland’s largest collection of Smurf memorabilia and three of the finest midwives money could buy.  Barney greeted them all in turn.  “Don’t waste your breath, son,” Martin whispered, “They can’t hear you.”  “Are they dead?” Barney inquired.  Martin frowned.  “Seriously mate, what is your problem?!  Where’s this obsession with death come from?  No they’re not dead – the microwave is very noisy, that’s all.”  With a ding, the defrosting sausages announced the completion of the thawing process, and all at once the trio of midwives gabbled together.  “My name’s Julie.”  “I’m Pam.”  “I’m Margaret.”  “I’ve delivered 4000 babies.”  “I’ve seen four cases of hyperbilirubinaemia just today.”  “I wet the bed until I was eight.”  “Six times I told them we were ex-directory.”  “But Boris never does listen to my bowel movements.”  “I definitely closed the vortex after the last passage through time, so the dimensional paradox really isn’t my fault.”

“Ignore them,” urged Martin, “They’re on a break.”  “I see,” said Barney, but didn’t really.  His stomach rumbled loudly, proclaiming that it must be nearly time for brunch – somewhere in the world at least.  A loud crash at one of the tower’s windows caught Barney’s attention, but it was nothing.  Turning back, he saw Martin holding open a cupboard door and pointing into it.  “Crouch down and get in,” he ordered.  “Why?” Barney asked, but Martin just shook his head.  “Now is not the time for explanations.  Now is the winter of our discontent.”  Barney nodded, squatted down and perched on a shelf next to a steamer set and a stuffed budgerigar; Martin closed the door after him, turned the key and bent down to the lock.  “Everything will become clear shortly,” he said, patting the cabinet reassuringly.  The cabinet looked relieved.