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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