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Ducklings

A dirty cardboard box was standing next to the Aga. Sam dumped his rucksack on the floorboards and peered inside.

     He jerked backwards from the earthy smell. He looked again, and the seven yellow balls of fluff inside the box turned their beaks to him and demanded attention.

     'Vi!' he shouted. She sauntered through the back door and threw her coat over the empty umbrella stand.

     'What?' She came to stand beside him. 'Oh yeah. Dad said about them.'

     'They're so cute,' Sam crooned.

     Vi reached into the box and grasped the duckling which stood in the water trough. 'They fucking smell,' she said. 'Still, at least it's not chicks this time. You can't keep chicks together in a box. Chicks gang up on one and peck it to death. We need to keep topping up the feed and changing the newspaper every other day.'

     She held out the duckling and Sam took it, cradling it in both hands, feeling the wet webbed feet press against his palms. It put its beak against his thumb and peeped - a small sound that Sam took as a hello.

     Vi counted on her work-roughened fingers. 'Weed the garden, keep an eye on the potatoes, feed the ducklings, the beans should be ready before Mum and Dad get back... so much for sunbathing or studying.'

     He looked at her, standing in her parents' house and listing chores. He wondered if she was about to produce some well worn dungarees from her childhood closet and put her hair in pigtails. The idea was interesting. 'Just tell me what to do and I'll do it,' he said to the duckling.

     'You won't last a day, city boy,' Vi teased, extending her foot to brush against his kneecap. 'You'll see your first cow and run all the way back to your Hall of Residence.'

     The duckling peeped again and delivered a grey-green splat, copious and warm, into Sam's hands. 'Shit,' he said, and Vi took the duckling from his palms, dropping it back into the box.

<  2  >

     'Yes,' Vi agreed. 'That happens in the country.'

     'Does this happen in the country?' he asked her, jerking his cupped hands towards her face. She contorted her face in mock outrage and ran, grinning, from the room. He followed her shrieks and giggles through the unfamiliar farmhouse to end up in the mould covered bathroom, where she had already turned on the dribbling shower and was pulling her yellow T-shirt up over her head.

*

Every few inches Sam had to stop and ask Vi whether the green spider he had found was a plant or a weed. She had inexhaustible patience with stupid questions; it was a quality he had first noticed in history seminars, before he had plucked up the courage to talk to her. She was always the one who explained things to the slow student in a cheery voice, whilst the others sat in silence, too disdainful to reply, or perhaps, like him, too scared in case he got the answer wrong.

     'What do you fancy for lunch?' she asked him, straightening up and wiping her hands on her cut-off jeans. She had forced her hair into a plait that glowed orange under the sun. 'Roast duckling?'

     'Don't be so horrible,' he said.

     'You are getting far too attached,' she warned him, scooping up a double handful of weeds and carrying them out of the vegetable patch to the compost heap. 'They're being reared to be eaten. And the last thing they need is a suntan.' She looked pointedly at the cardboard box next to her feet.

     'It can't do them any harm,' Sam defended. 'And why can't they have a nice life until they get eaten? I don't see why they have to stay in the box. Aren't free range ducks meant to taste better anyway?'

     'What a brilliant idea! Why didn't I ever think of that? Oh, that's right - I know why -' Vi reached out with one foot and kicked over the box. The ducklings peeped and scattered in a moment, their stubbed wings flapping against their rugby ball shaped bodies.

<  3  >

     'Fly my pretties! Fly!' Vi called. She looked at Sam, her head tilted to one side. 'Now you can pick them up while I put on some pasta.' She marched for the kitchen, not looking where she put her feet.

     The ducklings stood a little way from the overturned box. A few returned to the spilt seed and put their feet in it as they pecked. They did not seem to mind when Sam picked them up and lowered them back into their righted home one at a time. They were comforting to hold; their bodies had a warm weight, almost as if they were living bags of the seed they ate.

     The smallest duckling did not have that quality. As Sam cupped it he noticed it did not fill his hands like the others. It didn't try to stand tall on its webbed feet. The fluff of its belly was feathery against his palms, and it looked content to fall asleep there.

     The cloudy darkness of its eyes worried him. He took it in to the kitchen.

     Vi was unscrewing the pasta jar, leaning against the rail of the Aga. The ancient kettle was on one of the hobs and Sam could hear it working its way up to a whistle. 'That one's too small to eat yet,' she said.

     'I think something's wrong with it.'

     Vi frowned and put down the pasta jar. Sam offered her the duckling, but she just looked hard at it in his hands. Then she stroked it with the back of her index finger and lifted its beak. It didn't resist her. 'Yeah,' she said.

     'What?'

     'Don't know.' She turned back to the pasta jar. The kettle struggling to boiling point. She poured the water into a pan and added a stream of oil. 'I can't remember if you like olives.'

     'Yeah. What do we do?'

<  4  >

     'What do you mean?'

     He held the duckling out to her and she half-shrugged. 'Put it with the others for now.'

     'But what if its contagious?'

     She turned a fraction and eyeballed the duckling again. 'I don't think it's that.'

     'Are you sure?'

     'I'd say something's wrong with its insides. It'll either sort itself out or it'll die. Usually they die.'

     Sam cupped the duckling and brought it back to his chest. 'Why?'

     'Wait a minute.'

     They stood, watching the duckling pay no attention to them. After a while Vi fixed him with her patient, cheerful gaze. 'See? Haven't you noticed? It doesn't shit.'

     Sam looked down into his clean palms. The duckling cocked its head and looked up at him. Then it crouched back down and pulled its head back into its body. It looked comfortable.

     'Don't get attached to it,' Vi warned, grabbing two handfuls of pasta and dropped them into the boiling water.

     'I won't,' Sam promised. He watched it go to sleep as Vi made lunch.

*

He fed the healthy ducklings first. They had grown too big for the box so Vi had dragged out a rusted chicken run from behind one of the sheds and put them next to the vegetable patch. The yellow fluff was fast giving way to the sharp, pushing tips of white and brown feathers, and their feet and beaks were darkening from orange to brown.

     Donald lived alone in the cardboard box. He was unchanged; still yellow, still peeping rather than working on a quack. The only difference was that Sam was sure Donald recognised him when he picked him up. He would stand up in the box and look eagerly upwards; Sam thought it was the only time now that he bothered to move.

<  5  >

     Vi was eating muesli by the back door. 'We should pick the beans today,' she said. 'How's it doing?'

     Sam shook his head. 'There were three huge black flies on him this morning. But he still got up when he saw me, and they flew off him. Its weird how they can smell illness, I mean, how they're on him...'

     'I thought of something that might help,' she said, dropping her empty bowl into the sink. 'Something my Dad did when one of the chicks got ill last year, but it probably won't work.'

     'Worth a shot,' Sam said, turning to the box and retrieving Donald, who snuggled into his palms like he belonged there. 'What is it?'

     She opened one of the pine cabinets and retrieved a quarter full bottle of sherry. She poured a small amount into the cap. 'Put him down on the table,' she said.

     Sam watched Vi offer the cap to Donald. He put his beak into the liquid and shook his head from side to side. Vi took him in her hand and pried opened his beak with one thumb and forefinger. 'Pour it down,' she said.

     Sam did as he was told.

     'That should do.' She dropped the duckling back in the box. 'Right. Let's get on with the beans.' Sam pulled on her father's boots as she struggled into her mother's. 'And if we do a good job I don't see why we shouldn't treat ourselves to a night out in Bristol - what do you say, city lover? A curry and a trip to the pictures on me?'

     His eyes flickered to the box, but he knew better than to say anything to Vi. And, besides, she was right. He was becoming far too attached. 'You're on.'

*

Sitting in Vi's favourite Indian restaurant, Sam talked, grateful that for once she had to listen. She was always running around, dealing with things. Sometimes he felt she saw his attempts at meaningful conversation as another problem to be solved.

<  6  >

     'So did you always live on a farm?'

     She smacked her hand down on the poppadoms and dipped one of the broken sections in lime pickle. 'Yup.'

     'Wow. That must be a great place to be a child.' He knew, even as he said it, that it would annoy her. Vi ate her poppadom and looked him in the eye.

     'I know where you're going with this,' she said.

     'What?' he said, trying to cover his tracks, fiddling with his fork.

     'You always have to treat everything as a big tragedy.'

     'I'm just saying that farms are great.'

     'Like you know!'

     'Well, it's better than growing up in a tower block!' he defended, falling into a whisper as the waiter set down their beers. When they were alone again he continued, 'I don't want to have an argument. I just want you to open up a bit. Is that so bad?'

     'I've been here before,' she said in a tired voice. 'You just want to do the mutual sympathy thing. You want me to share my troubles and then listen to your sob stories and tell you everything will be okay, but I just think that it won't, Sam. If there's one thing growing up on a farm does teach you, it's how to be a realist.'

     She was so strong. He admired that; he was drawn to it. He wanted take a sledgehammer and knock her strength into a million pieces. Then he could search the rubble and find the real her underneath.

*

They got back late. Sam was unused to the blackness of the night without street lights; Vi had to lead the way into the house, taking his hand and telling him where to put his feet. She opened the back door and sprinted for the loo, leaving Sam to make his way, still in darkness, to the box next to the Aga.

<  7  >

     He put one hand inside and slipped his fingers under Donald's body. There was a sound like the crackle of dead leaves. The feathers were cold on his hand. It was as if he touched paper - there was nothing recognisable there any more.

     Sam shook it off and stepped back.

     The toilet flushed. Vi appeared. 'What's up?'

     He couldn't speak. He wasn't feeling anything he could identify and tell to Vi.

     She switched on the kitchen light.

     He turned away from the box, discovering that he didn't want to look at what used to be Donald. Vi came and stood next to him. She looked into the box and tutted. 'Oh shit. Ah well.'

     She picked up the box and went to the back door. 'Why don't you go to bed? I'll come up in a bit.'

     He obeyed.

     When Sam had cleaned his teeth and climbed under the duvet, he put his face into the pillow and thought of Donald. Part of him knew he wanted to see what Vi would do when she found him crying.

     She came into the bedroom and undressed before sliding in beside him. 'I told you not to get attached,' she said in a loud, annoyed voice, over his sobs. She touched the back of his head and he turned into her, into the heat of her breasts.

     'Did you -?'

     'I buried it. In the vegetable patch.'

     'Thank you.'

     She sighed and stroked his hair rhythmically. 'He had a pretty nice life. You looked after him.' He couldn't decide if she was irritated or amused; maybe a bit of both, he decided.

     'Yes. I did try.' He snuggled into her, as close as he could get. Her hands moved to his lips. They smelled of the earth. There was a growing feeling inside him; finality, settling in his stomach.

<  8  >

     'You softie,' she told him. 'City boy.'

     He realised that he loved her. He told her so.

     She pushed him away and got out of bed. 'Fucking hell,' she said. 'You know how to ruin everything.'

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