Ducks

Daniel Nazer
Fiction


Duck 2

Photo Credit: Michael Phillips/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We moved to Castle Cottage in late August 1979, the final days of the first summer of the Thatcher government. It seemed like the right moment to escape. The cottage looked out over Loughrigg Tarn, a mirror-still mountain lake at the foot of the Langdale Range. Our first morning we stood outside with our tea and watched mist swirl around the distant ridge. Alison, her dreadlocks tied back in a bun, looked at me with a smile. Here we are.

Despite the grand name, the cottage was a dump. The National Trust rented it to tourists during the summer but did little upkeep. Drafts whistled through the loose windows, mice left droppings every night, and the floors sloped like the rolling hills outside. I could only imagine the shock of the weekenders up from London when they first opened the door. But we didn’t mind. It was practically free to live there during the off-season. We planned to stay through the academic year, commuting a few days a week to our classes at Lancaster University’s sterile suburban campus in Bailrigg.

My parents protested when they learned I was moving in with Alison. “You don’t mean that girl with the purple hair?” my mother said.

“She doesn’t have purple hair anymore,” I responded, failing to add that she now had dreadlocks or that we were more than just roommates.

When Alison told her parents, they said since she would one day learn how difficult it is to live with someone, there was no harm learning it early in life.

For six short weeks, we lived the Lake District life we’d hoped for. We took walks around the tarn, shopping trips to town, and spent long mornings together in bed enjoying the peace that comes from the certainty that you won’t be disturbed. Though our parents worried we would abandon university, the utter lack of distraction helped our studies. As the days grew shorter, we camped on the rug by the pot-bellied stove, our work scattered on the floor. Inevitably, Alison’s science notes got mixed up with my draft term papers to form new subjects like Organic Chemistry of the Russian Revolution or the Linear Algebra of Romantic Poetry.

*

When the trouble came, it arrived late at night. We woke to a loud crash, followed by repeated clattering. It sounded like someone knocking at every window and door. Was it the cops? I placed our small pouch of weed in the sock drawer and stumbled to the front door, Alison following right behind.

“Who is it?”

No answer. But we could hear something brushing against the outer surface. Alison reached for the handle and opened the door before I could stop her. A single duck flew in. Alison screamed with surprise as it flapped past us into the kitchen, settling on the counter where it shuffled and quacked. The bird had a dark brown chest and an iridescent green head.

“Let’s get it back outside.”

“Be careful not to hurt it.”

I approached slowly, trying to get in prime shooing position behind the drake. It kept at least one small eye trained on me as I approached. With all my attention on the bird, I tripped as I rounded the kitchen counter.

“Fuck! Another one.”

The new duck squawked as it dodged my feet. Where had this other bird come from? We’d closed the door the moment the drake had flown inside. Hearing more quacking in the second bedroom, I investigated to find the window smashed. Several ducks wandered the floor, crushing glass into the carpet with their webbed feet. More birds nestled in the blankets on our spare bed. The smell of wet feathers sent me into a sneezing fit. Alison half-laughed, half-whimpered beside me.

“Oh dear. So many.”

I grabbed a pillow and swung at the ducks. Rather than sending them out the window, it simply stirred them into a swirling panic. Feathers, beaks, and bird poop filled the tight airspace. Alison and I retreated. I closed the door, figuring we could clean up once the ducks left on their own accord. Back in the main room, we faced the more manageable challenge of two ducks. The drake remained on the counter while his friend (with the plain brown feathers of a female) sat in the sink. I stood, pillow in hand, and pondered how we might evict them. Before I could try anything, a new bird smashed through the living room window. This duck twitched on the floor, a triangular shard of glass lodged in its chest. Alison ran to it and scooped it up. She stood in the centre of the room, holding the bleeding bird, as more and more ducks flew in through the window, until I could barely see her through the mess of feathers. I followed the sound of her screams, which could only just be heard over the quacks and flapping, then led her to our bedroom and slammed the door.

We were alone. That is, unless you counted the dead duck cradled in Alison’s arms. Blood dripped from her fingers. I pried the duck away from her and inspected her arms and hands. She’d cut her forearm on the shard of glass that had been wedged in the duck’s chest. I dabbed at the wound with a dirty T-shirt I picked up from the floor.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

The depth of Alison’s shock unsettled me. She was usually so attuned to the natural world. When we hiked the nearby hills, she would name the flowers and identify animals by their burrow. So if the behaviour and density of ducks made no sense to her, then it likely made no sense at all. The bedroom window shook, but fortunately did not break, as another bird collided with the glass. I lifted the mattress from the bed and placed it up against window. I shifted the dresser against the mattress to hold it in place. No birds would get in this room. But we could hear chaos in the rest of the cottage. Alison sat with her back against the door, crying.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They’ll go away eventually, right?”

Alison nodded, though didn’t appear entirely certain.

“What kind of birds are they?” I asked.

“They just look like normal ducks to me. Mallards.”

“Why are they trying to get in?”

“I don’t think they are. The flock outside must be so dense that they are colliding with the house. Once they end up inside they don’t know what to do. They freak out. Like if we suddenly fell in a lake, I guess.”

She smiled a little. Thinking through the problem had calmed her down. With the mattress against the window and the door shut we seemed safe from further invasion. The worst seemed to have passed. We would wait them out.

*

Barricaded in our room, we held onto each other while wrapped in a blanket on the floor. Around dawn, as we were finally falling into a half-sleep, shotgun blasts rang out. Each blast was followed by an explosion of squawking. I had hoped the ducks would leave by morning. But the near constant honking told me otherwise. I got up slowly, achy from having slept on the floor, and moved to the window. I shifted the mattress aside so I could look out. Repeated impact from the birds had shattered the glass into a spider-web of cracks. I thought I could make out a council van but couldn’t be sure.

“I’m going outside,” I said.

“Not while they are shooting.”

“I’ll wear my cycling jacket.”

Alison looked on, worried, while I donned my florescent orange jacket and a pair of boots. On the way out, I tiptoed through the main room and kitchen. The ducks in there had settled down. They sat on couches and the floor as if they were waiting for an overdue train. I made it to the door without disturbing them and poked my head outside. A man leant against our wall, smoking a pipe with a shotgun in his lap. Our yard was duck-free, but I could see hundreds on the narrow road beyond. They flowed along the road like a river. The man yelled to his companion.

“Look here, John! There be people in the cottage.”

“You don’t say.”

I approached the men.

“You all right?” asked the one with the gun.

It took me a moment to decipher the dense Cumbrian accent (“all right” was more like “alreet”).

“Yes,” I answered. “But we had a rough night. What the hell is happening?”

“Don’t really know. Lot more ducks than usual this season. That’s fair to say. They’re thick all over the District and your tarn here seems to be the worst. Ducks on it like mosquitos.”

“Can you get rid of them?”

“Aye. Eventually. But you can’t stay here. It’s not hygienic.”

By then, Alison had joined us outside, pale, dreadlocks askew. She wore her thick trench coat over her pink nightie. After a night sleeping on the floor, she looked wild.

“What if we clean up?” she asked.

“Well, you can try. But I think you should come with us to town.”

We didn’t want to abandon our new home, especially if town (or “toon” in local dialect) meant Bowness, the plastic tourist trap on Lake Windermere. So we got to work trying to clean the cottage while the men went to the tarn to shoot. The ducks seemed calmer in the daylight. We were able to shoo most of them outside. Every now and then a new bird would fly in through one of the smashed windows. But we paid them little mind as we swept up glass and scrubbed the floors and counters. Pulling up the sheets in the spare bed, I almost retched from the smell. And every time I wiped a surface clean, feathers seemed to find their way back. At noon, we took a short break for crackers and cheese. Alison stopped after only a couple of bites.

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t feel so well.”

“Let me look at your arm.”

I remembered her injury as a small cut. But she pulled up her sleeve to reveal a deep gash. Even worse, the wound oozed a mustard-yellow pus.

“Oh God, Alison. We need someone to look at this.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“This looks infected. You need to see a doctor.”

While we argued, the council workers returned from the tarn shore. Their shooting appeared to have scattered the ducks a little, though the ducks continued to waddle along the road in massive groups.

“So will you be coming to town with us?”

“Yes/No,” we answered simultaneously.

Alison needed immediate medical attention. And she had to know it. But she also seemed to understand that, if we left, we would never return. She refused to accept what had happened.

“You need to treat that cut,” I pleaded. “And it will be so cold at night with the windows out. Let’s go to town.”

She nodded, finally. We each packed a duffel bag and met the council men at their van (too afraid to drive our own car on the infested roads). But before we could get in, another van came racing up the road, a large satellite on its roof. Birds scattered before it like a bow wave. Many ducks could not get airborne in time and went under the tires. The murderous vehicle skidded to a halt in front of our cottage and a camera crew jumped out the back.

“Wow! This is the best spot yet,” the reporter yelled as they began filming. He ran into a group of ducks so the cameraman could film them in flight. After a few minutes taping the thick flock, they turned to us. The reporter shoved a microphone in Alison’s face.

“Why do you think the birds attacked your cottage?”

“The birds are not attacking us. They don’t mean any harm…”

At that moment, a duck flew full tilt into Alison’s head.

*

It became an iconic image. Between the duck’s perfect comedic timing and Alison’s fall onto her backside with dreadlocks flying, it made for great TV. The clip quickly went from the evening newscast, to the late-night talk shows. Even today, along with footage of the miners’ strike, the Falklands War, and the poll tax riots, it still appears in montages designed to evoke the Thatcher years. At the time, Tories loved it: the naïve hippy calling for peace while malevolent forces picked their moment to attack. Months later, in the run up to the Falklands War, it became a mocking slogan directed at British peaceniks: “Oh, the Argies don’t mean any harm… Bang!” Anyone who heard the taunt would immediately picture Alison getting whacked by the duck.

We didn’t know any of this as we rode the van to Windermere. Unlike the TV crew, the workers tried not to kill any ducks, so we crept along the road. By the time we reached Bowness it was getting dark. The council set us up on cots in the local primary school gym. About twenty others had been turfed out of their homes by the duck infestation. Our fellow refugees were a strange mix of bourgeois retirees and rough farmers. Regardless of their background, no one wanted to be there and folks kept to themselves. When we’d settled in, a doctor came by to clean Alison’s wound. Deciding stitches weren’t needed, he settled on a bandage and antibiotics, and gave her a stern talk about finishing the full cycle.

We set off to find dinner. There were plenty of ducks around, sitting on fences, waddling on the sidewalks, and flying overhead, but it was nothing compared to the plague by our cottage. With Alison’s treatment, and fewer birds around, I began to relax. As we walked around town, a few people gave Alison funny looks. But we thought nothing of it. We settled on the pub for dinner and found a quiet table in the corner. I tucked into fish and chips and a Guinness while Alison, still queasy, sipped ginger ale. We could hear a television blaring the news. All of the coverage, even on the national broadcast, focused on the local duck crisis.

… The Prime Minister said that she would visit the affected area immediately. She blamed the population explosion on the Labour government’s intolerant attitude toward hunters. “If the previous government had allowed traditional hunting season to be observed throughout the country we would not be seeing the Lake District overrun by birds. We can only hope to restore order before one of the most beautiful parts of the nation is made uninhabitable…”

When Thatcher finished talking, the broadcast moved on to Alison’s short interview in front of our cottage. We both watched, transfixed, as the bird flew into her head on screen. A few of the other patrons in the bar chuckled knowingly. That’s why she’d been getting strange looks.

The reporters repeatedly compared the local infestation to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, usually while they ran the clip of Alison getting hit. But they were wrong and Alison was right. We were not under attack. The ducks meant no harm. The bird that collided with her seemed as surprised as she was. It was an overpopulation crisis and nothing more. After spending a warmer than usual summer breeding in Iceland, the mallards had descended on Britain in a cloud, landing first in the Lake District. Over the next few days they would disperse to the rest of the nation. And while a few lakes and ponds experienced local overcrowding, the country was big enough for a few hundred thousand extra ducks.

As the news continued, Alison got up from the table and rushed to the bathroom. When she got back, I could tell from the tips of her dreadlocks that she’d puked. At first I thought she was shocked by her appearance on TV. But her forehead was burning. “I need to see the doctor again,” she whispered. We left the gawking patrons and stumbled back to the evacuee centre. Her elevated fever and laboured breathing alarmed the doctor, especially since she’d already taken her first antibiotics. He called for a cab and sent us to the hospital in Kendal. At the hospital, a bored nurse asked a battery of intake questions. Halfway down the list, she asked if we’d been exposed to animal waste. I almost laughed as I recalled the state of our home. After I described the last 24 hours, the nurse perked up and waved a doctor over. He began to examine Alison, paying particular attention to her breathing.

“The cut on Alison’s arm is badly infected,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s causing her symptoms. I think she has histoplasmosis.” In response to our blank looks, he explained that this was a fungal infection of the lungs caused by inhaling bat or bird droppings. Since I’d also been exposed, they took me away for my own tests, only letting me go after a couple of hours of prodding and poking. I found Alison asleep in her own room, wheezing quietly. I kissed her warm forehead and took her hand. She slept on.

A TV bolted to the wall streamed the news. It showed Margaret Thatcher arriving in Bowness. She visited the local school where the council had sent us. We’d missed meeting the Iron Lady by just a few hours. I wondered if Alison would be disappointed. I only felt relief. With the cameras rolling, I probably would have greeted the Prime Minister politely. Then I would have spent the next decade wishing I’d told her off. Other footage showed Thatcher at some kind of warehouse, perhaps an abattoir. There was no sound so I couldn’t be sure. Men in plastic coats were pointing at duck carcasses. Some of the birds were not dead. Margaret Thatcher was given a hand drill and some directions. She picked up a twitching bird and drove the drill bit through its skull.

In all the years since, I’ve never seen that footage again. And no one I’ve talked to remembers it. But I am sure I saw it correctly. Were they euthanizing dying birds? Or had the birds been captured as punishment for crowding the lakes? Whatever the truth, the image chilled me.

Alison’s parents arrived from Edinburgh the next morning. I took the chance to head back to the cottage. I hoped to get a start on the cleaning and to bring back some of Alison’s favourite things—her sketchbook, her well-worn copy of Emma Goldman’s autobiography, and some uni work so she didn’t fall behind. I finally arrived after two bus rides and a long walk. A large pink notice from the council was pinned to the door. Our home had been condemned—declared unfit for human habitation. To deal with the shock of eviction, I walked to the tarn and sat on the shore, watching the sweep of the water and the shadow of the ridge beyond. A single duck swam to the beach and looked at me quizzically.

“You did this!” I thought to myself.

Back in the cottage, the stench was overwhelming. About twenty ducks seemed to have taken up permanent residence. They quacked at me insolently whenever I got too close. Fortunately, we had few possessions so it didn’t take me long to pack. I could fit everything we owned in our wedge-shaped Austin 1800 (the “flying doorstop” I called it). As I moved my acoustic guitar, I felt a weight shift within the body. Taking a closer look, I caught the now familiar outline of a duck carcass. How that bird found its way behind the strings and into the guitar I will never know.

*

Once she was out of hospital, Alison moved to Edinburgh to convalesce at her parents’ house. She never returned to her environmental science degree at Lancaster. Instead, she enrolled in law at Edinburgh (her parents were both lecturers there and it was the degree they’d encouraged her to do from the beginning). She grew tired of people snickering at her for getting smacked by a duck. So she cut her dreadlocks. Once they were gone, no one recognized her as the girl from the famous clip. I took a few train rides north to meet her. But our relationship couldn’t survive the distance. We agreed to take a break. The break became the rest of our lives.

Eventually, we both ended up in London. I teach history at Creighton Comprehensive, where my classes mix middle-class kids and Caribbean children fresh off the plane. Alison became a barrister. I see her on the news sometimes, representing an asylum seeker or a journalist whose muckraking has offended the wrong person. Her husband Martin, who she met studying at Edinburgh, is also a barrister. He tends to represent those that can afford his extraordinary fees. Sometimes Jennifer and I go to dinner parties at their place in Chelsea. But there can be moments of awkwardness: the two school teachers and the two QCs, the photos of them with Prime Minister Blair and his wife (“Tony and Cherie”), the painting hanging above their dining table worth more than our annual salary.

One day in summer, while school is out, I meet Alison for a quick lunch by her chambers. We eat at a crowded Vietnamese place on Clerkenwell Road, standing almost pressed together by the door as we wait for a table. When we’re finally seated, I order the roast duck. Alison raises an eyebrow and calls our server back to the table.

“He’ll have number 22, the mock duck,” she announces.

I laugh, stunned into obedience by her unexpected edict. We lock eyes across the table and wonder what might have been had ducks not come between us.

pencilDaniel Nazer lives in San Francisco where he is a Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Originally from Perth, Australia, he is a graduate of the University of Western Australia, Rutgers University, and Yale Law School. When he takes a break from writing and the law, he can be found surfing at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Email: daniel.nazer[at]gmail.com

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