As part of the Lockdown Stories project, professional writers and artists from Aylesbury’s own Queens Park Arts Centre. and Unbound Theatre have worked together on a brand-new children’s story, inspired by the Grand Union Canal.
The Lockdown Ducks
by Dario Knight
Illustration by John & Angela North
Something was up.
There had been no food in ages. No seed, no pellets, not a single pea.
The ducks were suspicious.
A jittery chatter of quacks went around the flock, but it ceased when Old Ma Mallard appeared, her feet slapping the towpath with an authoritative plip-plap-plip-plap. Ma was a legend – she’d led the flock for three generations. She wore an eyepatch over her right eye and was forever chewing a tough piece of bulrush.
‘Right you mob,’ she quacked. ‘You’ve all heard the rumours…’
‘They’re gone. They’re gone! THEY’RE GONE!’ stammered Dave – a perpetually-jittery Tufted Duck who was pacing up and down.
‘Pull yourself together, duck,’ Ma pecked at him, and under her glare he froze.
‘He’s right, Ma,’ honked Gordon the Goose. Being a goose, Gordon was an outsider to the group but none of the ducks had the heart to ditch him. He stood a good foot taller than Ma, but even he leaned back on his webbed feet when she turned to him.
‘I know he’s right,’ said Ma. ‘The humans are gone. We haven’t seen them for days.’
‘What about the food? The food. THE FOOD!’ Dave quivered. Ma promptly lifted a webbed foot and booted him into the water. It seemed to shake him out of his tremors. ‘Sorry Ma.’
‘We all need to stay calm,’ said Ma, chewing her bulrush with determination. She stopped speaking when a high-pitched wail faded into earshot above them.
The ducks watched as the water erupted in a fountain of feathers. They’d seen this before – it was Harry the Moorhen. Harry was a loyal member of the flock but not gifted with grace. He’d just about mastered flying, but landing remained a problem.
‘Help! Help!’ he yelped as he flapped in the water.
‘Somebody get him out,’ sighed Ma.
Gordon stretched out a long wing and scooped Harry onto the towpath, where he sat panting and dripping for some time.
‘I’ve seen… I’ve seen…’ he panted, gasping for air. Ma grabbed him and held him up to her bill.
‘What have you seen, duck?’
The flock quacked excitedly.
‘Simmer down,’ Ma snapped before turning back to Harry. ‘Where?’
‘Down by the lock,’ he gasped.
‘Right!’ Ma quacked, energised with a mission to embark upon. ‘Off we go!’
They took to the water and swam along the canal, their elegant bodies masking the frantic paddling of their legs below the waterline. Harry was too exhausted to swim, so laid on Gordon’s back, still panting for air.
Eventually they made it to the lock – a favourite spot for humans to leave a tasty meal of seeds and shreds of greens. But there wasn’t a scrap of grub left.
‘It’s gone! Gone! GONE!’ Dave cried. Gordon quickly scooped him out of the path of Ma’s foot and muffled his bill with a wing.
‘What happened, Ma?’ Gordon asked.
Ma peered at the ground and spotted a splat of droppings nearby. She scowled.
The flock gave a collective gasp. A moment later a shadow crossed the sun and they looked up at the sky. Two majestic but terrifying swans were swooping down on them.
‘Scarper!’ Harry cried, and the ducks dashed for cover. All except for Ma, who flapped her wings and rocketed into the air. The swans dived at Gordon, Harry, Dave and the rest of the ducks, but at each turn Ma swooped in front of them and batted them away. She’d defended flock after flock of her chicks and she wasn’t about to lose anyone now.
Eventually, as the swans soared upwards to ready themselves for a renewed attack, Ma shot towards them and managed to grab their heads – one in each wing. She flung herself into a spin and the swan’s necks twisted together. They realised what had happened, gulped (not easy under the circumstances), and plummeted into the water.
As they untangled their long necks and righted themselves in the water, Ma hit the canal and swam slowly in a circle around them. Finally they realised who they’d been dealing with.
‘Ma!’ they whimpered, seized by fear and embarrassment.
‘We didn’t realise we was on your patch, Ma,’ the first swan gabbled, ‘We wouldn’t have dared…’
‘Enough of that,’ Ma grunted. ‘Tell me – where’s the food and where are the humans?’
‘W-w-we ate the food,’ the second replied.
‘Not the humans, though,’ the first added.
‘Where are they?’ Ma frowned.
‘Ain’t you heard? They’re all indoors!’
‘Dunno, but there ain’t none about.’
‘Where’d the food come from, then?’
‘Out of the sky.’
Ma stopped swimming and drifted around to face the second duck.
‘What?’ she quacked.
‘Honest Ma, it comes out of the sky. Every day, it does!’
‘Just before lunchtime.’
‘Right then,’ Ma snapped. She had a plan.
The following day a young girl left her bedroom and went down to the kitchen. She walked up to the table and took a bowl of seeds and greens that had been left out. Then, taking a chair with her, she crossed the room, set the chair against the wall and stood upon it, raising herself up to an open window. She looked out at the canal and her eyes widened.
On the water – beneath the clear blue sky – a long line of ducks, geese and swans were waiting. She grabbed some of the seeds from her bowl and threw them from the window down onto the towpath below. The first duck in the line fluttered out of the water, gobbled up the seeds, quacked in thanks and then flew away. Next came a goose, repeating the same action. Each bird followed suit in calm order under the watchful eye of a grizzled mallard, who stood stock still by the lock.
When all of the ducks had been fed, the mallard padded up to the towpath, took her share of the food, quacked and then flew away.
Every day the ducks lined up for their food, and every day the girl in the house by the towpath came to the window to feed them.
Day followed day, sunshine followed rain, and then finally the lunchtime came when the girl left her house and walked down to the towpath. She knelt on the ground, scattered the seeds, and watched as one by one the ducks and geese and swans came to peck at them. And when they were fed, each of them looked up at her, bobbed its head, and leapt into the sky.