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Short Story Club – 10 August

Read the story being discussed onJesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 10 August 2017

Paradise Ducks

by Fiona Farrell

There was this man: Maurice.
      See?
      Rumpled hair, grey-and-tobacco-yellow. Rumpled shirt, rumpled trousers, rumpled sweater, odd socks and shoes with scuffed all-leather uppers. Rumpled skin like old brown paper. Drove a panel-beaten Sierra and lived in a bungalow in Balaclava. KittyKat tins open and crusty on the bench, pizza boxes studded with dried pepper and pineapple bits stuffed beneath the bench. Ashtray by the sink, by the TV, by the toilet and always a shirt hung to drip-dry by the heater in the lounge. Bathroom smelling of damp earth, bed like a burrow.
      That was Maurice.
      See?
      Clever enough. Worked for thirty years in Rates Enquiries at the City Council. Just a backroom boy. He avoided the histrionics at the front desk. But what he didn’t know about birds you could fit on a quarterly receipt. Ducks were his special passion. He had always liked ducks. When he was a boy (grey shorts, grey shirt, hair a slick crest and shoes buffed to chestnut gleam), his mother (perm, frock and faux pigskin handbag pursed tight around housekeys, small change and ironed handkerchief) and his father (brushed and pressed and pinned in place by a shiny RSA badge) used to walk each Sunday afternoon to the Botanic Gardens where the other children whooped and squealed on the roundabout and seesaws, but Maurice fed the ducks.
      They were teal and mallard mostly, with the occasional exotic interloper: a Canada goose, a pair of white swans, pure as cloud but glowering and unpredictable. A boy, his mother said, a boy like Maurice had been dragged into a pond like this pond by just such a swan and held there among the duckweed till he drowned. Maurice kept a wary eye out and tossed the swans the biggest crusts while at his feet the water erupted into a frothing mêleé of wings and beaks, the strongest shoving to the front, the weakest thrust aside. He loved the ducks’ limpid world, the calm ripple of an arrow wake converging at the point that was a swimming bird, and the way the decorous Sunday afternoon could degenerate in an instant to chaos.
      As he grew older he became more selective. He began carrying a notebook in which to record his observations. He noted a drake circling its chosen duck head down flat to the water, and then the nip at the neck, the thrash and bloody blunder of coupling. He noted an Aylesbury duck tucking her eggs beneath her white breast over on the rough ground beyond the willows. He noted the jostle each year as the wild birds flew in at the shooting season from the swamps and river and wondered how they recognised sanctuary. He watched even in winter, when the water grew oily then set solid and the birds stood about on cold rubber feet waiting for the world to become properly penetrable once more. On such a day, the midpoint of a hard winter, he experienced utter stillness. The sun clotted in a milky sky, the sound of cars inching their way down from Opoho on black ice faded to silence and through sunlight on slanting bars between the trees, a deer stepped across the frozen lawn and nibbled at the bread Maurice had spread for the birds. Then a peacock over in the aviary shrilled its silly Look at me! Look at me! and the deer fled. A dotted line of hoofprints marked its going, off up into the pines.
      When Maurice married Margaret, it was because of the deer. He watched her for days behind the glass panels around the typing pool before he managed to speak to her. She was light and pale and her eyes were magnified by a pair of black-rimmed glasses too big by far for such delicate flesh and muscle to bear. She frowned over her typing, the skin on her forehead crumpled like tissue, and when he circled her to reach the photocopier he tried not to startle her with his big feet, his huge body. He circled her head down and as flat as he could manage. And when he finally slept with her, a week after their wedding because Margaret had broken out in a psoriatic rash with nerves and could not bear to be touched sooner, when he finally lifted himself over her and looked down at that body like bone china on the sheets supplied to Unit 5 at the Avon View Motel, he forced all his weight onto hands and knees, terrified of crushing such beauty. Margaret mewed as he entered her but otherwise made no sound or motion.
      ‘Was it all right?’ he said afterward.
      ‘Of course,’ she said. And she slid away from him and out to the ensuite where she poured a bath and shut the door. He could hear the slipslup of water and the room filled with the smell of Ashes of Roses. He was asleep by the time she returned and did not feel her slide in beside him.
      That was how it always was. In Margaret’s presence, Maurice felt himself grow clumsy. When they returned from work she shed her skirt and blouse like pale skins, put on jeans and a T-shirt and cooked some pale food: plain boiled rice, cauliflower, fish. She could not digest fat, was allergic to dairy products, broke into a rash at the whiff of a strawberry. And ten years after they married, she died: complained one morning of a headache — but then she often had headaches. Of nausea — but then she was often nauseous. Became delirious, lay still and white beneath hospital sheets for twenty-three hours, and then gave a little gurgling sigh and died. Slid away.
      Her mother wept copiously and noisily.
      ‘My poor baby,’ she said, over and over. ‘Oh, my poor baby.’
      Maurice patted Frieda’s shoulder awkwardly, his big paw on her heaving flesh. She clutched at his arm and the diamond cluster on her fourth finger dug into his wrist.
      ‘Ah, well,’ she said, ‘at least she died happy. At least she knew the love of a good man.’
      Frieda had not been so lucky. Margaret’s father had been a ballroom dancer who had passed on his lightness of foot and upright stance to his daughter before executing a deft triple chassé, twinkle and running finish right out of the marriage and off to join Chantal at the Impetus Dance Academy in Petone. Frieda hadn’t had the heart to try again. It simply wasn’t worth the aggravation. Now she patted her son-in-law’s arm and said, ‘You’re a good man, Maurice. Better than others I could mention. And you made my Margaret happy.’
      Maurice looked down at his wife lying there like a broken cup, as cool to the touch in death as she had been in life. Had she been happy?
      He had asked her once or twice, at the beginning.
      ‘Are you happy?’
      She’d stood in some pale summer dress, one foot already on the step, half in, half out of the room and jingling the keys.
      ‘Are you happy?’ he’d said, looking up from his breakfast toast and seeing the sun catch the side of her head, turning her hair to feathery down.
      ‘Of course,’ she’d said. And she’d turned back, seeing the worry in him, and come and kissed him on the temple, a kiss like the slightest breath. Her hand fluttered at his shoulder. ‘Hurry up. We’ll be late.’ Her feet tapped off across the lino. He swallowed the toast, the last gulp of coffee and followed. He did not ask her again. He was always on the lookout, though, for signs: did she wear the earrings he gave her for her thirtieth birthday? (Not often: they were gold and made her earlobes swell.) Did she enjoy the holiday in Queenstown, the dinner at Pizzazz, the Kiri Te Kanawa CD? Did she approve of the bookshelves he built either side of the fireplace? He brought his gifts to her. He lifted all the carpets because the wool set her sneezing uncontrollably and he sanded the floor himself and he sat opposite her in restaurants and hotel rooms and on launch trips and he watched for the gesture that signified acceptance and a happy conclusion. Now, in the hospital room with Frieda snuffling noisily behind him, he looked down at the white shell of his wife and thought with some amazement that she had, he supposed, been happy. Her mother, after all, would know.
      So he came home and hung Margaret’s dressing gown in the bedroom cupboard because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else for it, and he settled to living alone. He smoked indoors without bothering to open a window. He ate fat and carbohydrate without restraint and at irregular hours. He watched TV with a bottle of Wilson’s Matured Blend at his elbow. At weekends he drove to Harper’s Lagoon and watched the birds.
      Then there was this other woman: Pammy.
      Looked as if she had been poured into her clothes with a generous hand, filling every inch of her fitted top and lycra leggings. Toenails ten red dots in strappy sandals. She filled in all the spaces. She was Queen of the Comps. That’s what they called her in the Advertiser when she won the Honda. She’d done and won them all: solved the clues for a dinner set and a lawnmower and a complete set of Frangipani Beauty Products. Filled in the word square for the video and the microwave. In twenty words said why she preferred New World for the year’s supply of groceries. Unscrambled the letters for the Honda Civic. There wasn’t a thing you could not win with a bit of skill and lots of application. Luck had nothing to do with it. Not for Pammy the Lotto ticket, the Scratch ’n’ Win, the bingo card. She despised chance, reserving her attention for games of skill: proper competitions where you had to make a bit of an effort. She was a machinist, sewing skirts and tracksuits for Flirty Fashions, and she liked that. Sitting in her corner by the radio, all threaded up and ready to go, or better still, on the fuser, where you could stand all day, nice and warm, doing the collars and cuffs and giving Phil the cutter a hard time. But best of all was the return home, 5 pm Monday to Thursday, 2.30 pm on Fridays, with whole hours spread before her, uncut, when she could make a cup of tea, double strength, and sit at the kitchen table, with Tiggy purring on her lap, to do the competitions. Unscrambling, solving, filling the gaps, finding the mystery object.
      One of these days she would win the Big One: her dream, as reported in the Advertiser, was a tropical holiday for two, but in the meantime she was happy with groceries and appliances. And, of course, the Honda Civic. And one Saturday, there she was, twelve free driving lessons down and her licence newly printed in the glovebox and she was taking her new car for a drive.
      Maurice was watching a pair of paradise ducks standing side by side on the branch of a rotten tree. The female’s white head bobbed in and out of view in a crevice at the top, and from the base he could hear the male’s kraak kraak. He’d never seen ducklings actually leave the nest, never been there for that precise moment when they hurtled down ten metres or more to muddy earth and off on wheeled feet, following the heavy perfume of water to the nearest pond. Today, he thought, he might be lucky. He had been waiting for an hour at least, his feet icy in their odd socks, when he became aware of an alien scent: some tropical blend of scarlet flowers coiling on the thin cold air. (Frangipani. Pammy was feeling indiscreet this afternoon, an especially apt slogan off by fastpost to Paua Promotions and a complete set of Louis Vuitton luggage a distinct possibility.)
      A duckling had appeared at the tree top. Paused at the brink. Maurice was reluctant to lower the binoculars. A few seconds and it would all be over and he could note it down in the latest of his observation books.
      ‘What are you looking at?’ said the scented one.
      ‘Birds,’ said Maurice, stepping aside to let her past on the narrow track to the lagoon.
      But the woman did not pass. The duckling retreated, back into the known universe of darkness and down. Kraak called the male from some fern.
      ‘Oh yeah?’ said the woman. ‘What kind of birds?’
      ‘Ducks,’ said Maurice.
      ‘Ducks?’ said the woman. ‘I thought they lived in ponds and that.’
      ‘These ones nest in trees,’ said Maurice.
      The duckling reappeared, leapt and plummeted earthward.
      ‘Ah,’ said Maurice. He had seen it at last. ‘Would you like to get past?’ he said to the woman. Another duckling hovered in the high crevice.
      ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘It’s all mud and it’s bloody freezing. I mean, I thought it’d be nice. It sounds nice: a lagoon. You know — like on an island . . .’ There was a fiddling noise from his right elbow, some feminine rummaging going on, the rattle of keys and coins. The duckling leapt out, trusting the air. ‘. . . I’ve got this fantasy about lagoons,’ said the woman. ‘Ever since I was a kid. Ever since The Road to Bali and Dorothy Lamour . . .’
      The rattling of cellophane, the flick flick of a cigarette lighter.
      ‘. . . My mother was mad about Bing Crosby. Took us to all his movies. But me, I liked Dorothy Lamour. And in The Road to Bali . . . do you know it?’
      ‘No,’ said Maurice. Blue smoke drifted across the lens of the binoculars, obscuring the third duckling’s first flight.
      ‘Well, she’s wearing this sarong and her hair’s all spread out and she’s standing in this lagoon . . .’
      A fourth duckling, a fifth and then the female stood alone at the opening in the crevice. She spread her wings, and Maurice saw the flash of white as she flew down and followed her brood to the water.
      ‘It’s a nice word, isn’t it?’ said the woman, blue smoke drifting. ‘Lagoooon . . .’
      Maurice lowered the binoculars.
      And don’t you wish he could say, surprising himself, ‘Yes, it is. It’s a very nice word.’ And they’d begin talking. Just chat, as they walk back to the carpark, about the lagoon, the mud, the ducks.
      And then, don’t you wish Pammy might say, because he never would, ‘Would you like a drink to warm up?’ And they’d go to the pub across the road and sit in the Lounge Bar where she’d order a brandy and ginger or maybe a Pimms, something sweet and sticky, and he’d have a whisky, but it’s a different whisky sitting here talking while the rain spatters at the pub window, from the solitary glass at home with the TV on for a bit of company.
      And don’t you wish she could cross her plump little legs and say, thinking herself cheeky but there: you’ve got to make an effort and he’s nice in his rumpled jersey and trousers and he’s on his own, isn’t he? Just a poor old bugger standing out there in the rain, looking at a lot of bloody ducks in a tree. ‘Look, if you’re not doing anything else tonight, would you like to go out dancing? I won this dinner and dance for two at La Scala and I’ve no one to go with. What do you say?’
      Maurice has never been a dancer.
      Margaret and he had danced rarely, and when they did she was a neat performer, the inheritor of perfect balance and light on the arm, while he could never catch the rhythm. He fumbled. She became impatient. But Pammy takes his hand tonight and says, ‘Come on: what have you got to lose?’ So he lets her lead him to a dark warm place where the band is playing soft jazz and a singer with a catch in her throat is singing ‘Love Me Tender’, her lips pink satin on the mike, and he’s never been anywhere like this before, but Pammy has her arms around him and her cheek against his shirt and he can feel her move against him, so he rocks as best he can from foot to foot and walks slowly forward, careful that she is not jostled by the crowd, and her skin and hair smell of tropical flowers.
      And he feels his body plumping up against her and, well, don’t you wish they could make love? And she’d be like silk cushions, she’d be like falling into fresh bread, and he is being careful but she grabs him and says, ‘Hey, I’m not bone china. I won’t break, you know.’ And they rock together, pink and happy, and in the morning he cooks her up bacon and eggs and a tomato and takes it to her in bed, and there are swallows nesting in the garage next door, and as they eat, warm egg yolk running down their chins, the birds nip about on the morning air.
      Don’t you wish this for him after that long winter?
      Don’t you wish she could fill in all the gaps?
      Don’t you wish they could fly together, he with his deep call, she with her higher cry, the female brilliant white and chestnut, the male in his darker eclipse: the two of them in their different plumage, their different voices, wheeling into a tall tree, together, and wing tip to wing tip?

 

‘Paradise Ducks’ © Fiona Farrell
First published as ‘P_R_D_S_ D_CKS’ in Light Readings, Vintage, 2001.
Fiona Farrell’s most recent publication is the novel Decline and Fall on Savage Street, 2017

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