Feeding the ducks
He'd always imagined that he would be on the barricades. He was unsure what the cause would be exactly, but he would be on the barricades. On the side of whoever were the revolutionaries, but the side that would eventually win. Perhaps he would be injured. Not a serious injury. There would be blood, and bandages, and perhaps a short stay in hospital, or a field hospital. Yes, a field hospital and a dark eyed nurse.
Cara's eyes were blue, a blue that was sometimes cheerful but more often than not were worried. Lately her eyes had been worried as she packed his lunch every morning and then filled the bucket with barley and corn.
'Be careful. If there's any danger don't go. They're just ducks.'
And he would try and explain that they were not just ducks. The park ducks were not ordinary ducks. There were Pekin ducks, and Mandarins, and Aylesburys and two Rouens. Though it was easy to mistake the Rouens for an ordinary Mallard. And there were Muscovys, that are neither duck nor goose. And geese, three kinds of geese. And one of the swans was still alive, and to his surprise the heron still visited occasionally, though he of course did not eat the corn. The heron would fly, low and clumsy, above the guns when there was not too much fighting and catch fish in the pond as it used to do and then return to the outskirts of the town to roost.
Conor could hear the guns as he approached the park and he looked at his watch, worried that he was early. But the lieutenant, the one with red hair, saw him approaching and signalled to his men. His platoon, that were defending their temporary stronghold in the park, ceased firing, and then the soldiers who were shooting at them from the classically beautiful buildings opposite ceased firing.
Conor walked up the barricades.
'Ten minutes, no more,' warned the ginger lieutenant as he did every morning and then stepped aside to let Conor slip past with his bucket. The lieutenant lit a cigarette and watched the little man as he walked across the trampled grass towards the pond. He listened to him calling the birds.
'Come girls, girls, girls. Come, girls. Come, girls.'
Hearing the familiar chant the ducks and geese ventured from their hiding places in the reeds and in the shrubs. They gathered around Conor as he distributed the barley and the corn, scattering it widely so that each one, even the shy water hen, had their share. He smiled as he saw that Cara had put a few crusts in the bottom of the bucket, and then frowned as he noticed the unmoving whiteness under the azaleas. Quickly he walked across to the shrubs, his ten minutes were almost over, picked up the body and dropped it unceremoniously into the bucket leaving a few white feathers amongst the yellow primroses.
The lieutenant noticed the contents of the bucket. 'I'm sorry,' he said as Conor squeezed back past him. He wished he'd noticed the duck before the little man had arrived, it would have made a meal for some of the men. But perhaps the little man and his family had more need for it. A shot rang out from one of the windows of the hotel opposite as the government soldiers noticed that Conor had left and was safely walking away along Gravel Street. There was no need for the ginger lieutenant to tell his men that they were now free to return fire.
Conor listened to the guns and looked at the body in the bucket and wondered which side had killed the duck. If one of his ducks, one of the Council's ducks to be precise, but they were his ducks, if one of them had been killed by a government soldier firing into the park he also could be a hero by association. If the duck had been killed by one of the revolutionaries, well, such was war.
He called in the office on the way home. He had to report that he had done as much work as was possible that day, as he had done every day since the trouble had started. If he did not do so there would be no pay at the end of the week. And they needed the money. There had been no overtime, no double time on a Sunday, since the day the trouble had started. He stayed in the office to eat his lunch with some of the others and then left, picking up the bucket he had placed by the door.
As he walked home, past the brewery and the church and the canal, the white feathered body reproached him from the bottom of the bucket.
'You didn't save us,' said the dead duck.
And then it started to taunt him about other things.
'You didn't climb to the top of the tree like the other boys.'
'You were offered a college place weren't you?'
He ignored it. He wished he had a lid for the bucket. Or at least a piece of sack to put over it. But it's voice would pass through sacking, it was that sort of voice.
'And that time when the butcher put his hand on your wife's arse. You should have said something.'
He quickened his pace and swung his arm backwards and forward in the hope that that would make her shut her beak.
'Look at me will you. You've seen the wound and the blood haven't you? You should have done something to prevent this.'
He was on the street where he lived by now, and his house, his and Cara's house, was at the far end, but he could see it. He was almost running. But he didn't reach the door in time.
'And your mother? You should have protected your mother. If you had...'
'Shut up! Shut your bloody mouth!'
Two small children on their bikes stared in surprise at the man shouting at a bucket.
'Sorry,' said Conor.
He opened the door and stepped inside. Cara looked at his pale face and looked at the body in the bucket.
'It's just a duck, Conor.'
And then regretted it and put her arms around him.
'Do you want to bury her in the garden?'
He didn't answer.
'Do you want to bury her in the garden with the others?'
Conor passed the bucket bier to his wife.
'Pluck her, roast her, make soup with the bones.'
That night the skin on the breast was crispy, the meat was surprisingly tender and they both ate in companionable silence. By morning there was nothing left of the duck only a few bones simmering with an onion and a piece of carrot and a sprig of rosemary. The smell spread through the house, Cara filled the bucket with food for the birds, and Conor left for the park. After he had gone she wished that she'd washed the trace of blood from the bottom of the bucket.
Conor went through the barricades as usual and called as usual.
'Come, girls, girls. Come.'
And then after feeding them he walked back to the barricades and put the bucket down on the floor. He looked the ginger lieutenant in the eye.
'Do you have a gun for me?'
The soldier looked at the little man. He was frail. He was as old as his grandfather. Possibly older.
'And who would feed the ducks?' he asked.
Conor shrugged. He didn't know who would feed the ducks if he fought, if he was killed.
'It's important to feed the ducks,' said the soldier. 'We'll see you in the morning.'