competitive duck feeding
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Duck Off
by Martin David Edwards



"Regular like clockwork," Nigel whispered. He did not want to scare the duck at feeding time. The same man from yesterday had joined him again on the opposite side of the pond. He was rattling a tub of duck food at the water. The tub was transparent plastic and held brown pellets, nestling together like the ducks when they were cold. Nigel glanced down at his own tub. The label showed the same duck, its head glowing a luminescent green.

Nigel inspected him, debating whether to say Hello this time. The man had a red pockmark on his chin where he had cut himself shaving. Nigel patted his own cheeks, feeling a nick. They were wearing the same green waxed jackets, with equally bulging pockets. Their trousers bore the same brown streaks from the mud on the path to the pond.

Saying Hello could wait until they met again tomorrow, Nigel decided. The man would think that they were mirrors to each other, feeding a duck because they had nothing to do or anyone else to speak with. They would feel rejected and ashamed at the same time. It was better to say as little as possible and pretend they were invisible to each other. Being oblivious could become a habit.

The man opened his tub with a snap. Nigel diverted his gaze to his own tub. He held it in front of his chest like a talisman and walked around the pond in the opposite direction from the man to be sure that embarrassment would be avoided. Twenty paces later, he considered himself alone.

“Are you going to ignore us forever?” a girl’s voice asked behind him.

Nigel turned around. A girl in a floral dress waved at him. A boy held her hand and was glancing at the man on the opposite side of the lake. Freckles covered his face.

“I was about to feed my duck before you disturbed me,” Nigel said and blinked.

“Disturbing you is the story of my life,” the girl replied.

“The duck gets scared by company,” Nigel replied.

“The excuses never change. They don’t even know each other,” the boy said to her.

With a squeeze of their hands, the couple retreated behind a tree bordering the pond. Nigel shook his tub at the couple by way of dismissal and trudged down the path. He glanced at the other side of the pond. The other man was watching him, his eyes wide open and tracking every step.

A solitary duck paddled across the pond, two streams of bubbles in its wake forming a V. Its head matched the green of Nigel’s boots and its beak was the yellow of the September afternoon sun above them. But its feathers were the grey of an overcast sky and were spoiled by a patch of white, baby feathers on its side fluttering in the backdraft.

“You’ve been in a fight again. Daddy will take care of you,” Nigel called out and rattled his tub at the duck.

The bubbles altered course towards him. Nigel held out a brown pellet like a homing beacon.

“Fish and maize to make you feel better,” he said to the duck.

The duck quacked and slowed down to the riverbank. Its beak pecked at the pellets in Nigel’s hand.

“Naughty Elizabeth,” Nigel winced. A fleck of blood glistened on his thumb. He sucked on the skin, then reached into the tub for more pellets.

The duck bobbed its head as it ate each pellet in turn.

“When we’re together, we have the best of times. We don’t need anybody else when you’ve got your treats to entertain you,” Nigel said.

With a quack, the duck turned around and paddled from Nigel to the opposite bank.

Nigel tried not to frown as the V widened away from him and. The other man was squatting on the bank, holding out a palmful of pellets that were equally brown and tempting.

“Thomas is such a good little boy. Getting into scrapes shows that you can handle the playground bullies,” the man boomed at the duck.

“Elizabeth is a girl,” Nigel mouthed across the water, scared of breaking their visits of mutual oblivion to the pond.

The duck pecked at the man’s pellets.

With his free hand, the man stroked the duck’s head. “What a cutey for his daddy,” the man said, each word thundering across the water. He yelped as the duck pecked at his middle finger. “Someone’s not getting their dinner tomorrow,” he grimaced.

“Someone’s getting disturbed by people shouting at the top of the voice,” Nigel whispered. He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and took out a sandwich.

The V narrowed across the pond towards him.

“I don’t like the maize either. Tuna with a touch of mayonnaise as you liked it. I shouldn’t have forgotten,” Nigel said to the duck. He peeled the sandwich into two halves and removed the tuna from the middle. The water sparkled as he scattered the tuna into the pond.

The duck bobbed its beak at the tuna flecks. A tear formed in Nigel’s eye as he watched. He wiped his face, aware that he was showing more of himself to the man than he had intended to.

“Stuff tuna. Thomas likes proper food so he can show the boys from the girls,” the other man boomed. He removed a brown paper bag from his jacket pocket and fed thin white slivers into the water. “Organic chicken, cooked according to your favourite recipe topped by a dash of oregano.”

The duck snapped its yellow beak at the chicken strips, holding them in like a vice-like grip.

“Beautiful Thomas, appreciating everything his daddy gives him, because his daddy loves him so much,” the man said.

The beak loosened its grip on the chicken, dropping the strips uneaten into the water with a splash. Then the duck’s head spun in a whir of green as the V of bubbles reversed and it paddled towards Nigel.

“Good girls know that chicken makes you grow hairs on your chin,” Nigel said to the duck. “Princesses prefer an after-dinner snack to help them sleep better.” He ripped the bread from the tuna sandwich into chunks and cast them on the water.

A flock of seagulls swooped onto the pond in a cacophony of shrieks and bodies narrowed like arrows. One of the seagulls snipped at the duck’s white baby feathers and pecked at the bread.

Twisting its neck, the duck nursed the patch of white feathers on its side. Then it stretched its wings and flew away, its webbed feet flashing in the sky like orange-tinted chicken slivers.

The two men stood watching each other on the opposite sides of the pond, their tubs hanging by their sides. Nigel blinked, wondering if the other man would speak to him and what he would say back.

A pair of knickers flew over his head. It collapsed in a sea of blue and white lace trimmings on the pond. Shrieking, a seagull tapped at the lace.

“We wanted to get your attention,” the girl said from behind the tree.

“Actually, we were wondering if you had any condoms. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes you made when you were careless,” the boy said.

“Duck off,” Nigel and the man replied at once.

“Tomorrow we’ll escalate to my boyfriend’s socks. He’s worn them for a week, if either of you give a damn,” the girl said.

 “Let’s catch the bus home. I’ll get my socks ready for tomorrow,” the boy replied.

“Top deck while I’m knickerless,” the girl said.

They left the pond, the girl leaning on the boy’s shoulder.

The two men were alone. Nigel blinked, equally reluctant to go home and scared of speaking.

“Ducks are so demanding,” the man boomed.

“Too picky,” Nigel whispered. Maintaining oblivion would have been safer, but he hesitated still.

“I can’t hear you,” the man replied.

Nigel repeated himself. He felt like he was skidding on ice that could break at any moment.

“Selfish,” the man said.

“Inconsiderate,” Nigel squeaked.

The seagulls waited in the pond, half-way between the two men. Nigel rustled his pocket and they darted towards him. But his hand stayed in his pocket and they returned to the middle. His head was giddy. He had jumped from skidding on ice to being reckless.

“Thomas got indigestion from your bread,” the man boomed.

“The undercooked chicken made Elizabeth woozy,” Nigel replied.

“Boys are worse than girls.”

“That depends on your perspective,” Nigel said.

“Tomorrow I’ll try turkey.” The man paused. “Less fat.”

“Salad cream will make my tuna irresistible.” The ice was holding, just.

The two men scanned the sky, waiting for the flash of a yellow beak to appear.

“Thomas isn’t giving up,” the man said.

“Neither is Elizabeth,” Nigel replied.

“Ducks are like their fathers,” the man boomed.

At the entrance to the pond, they heard a bus stopping and its doors hissing open.

“There’s always tomorrow,” Nigel smiled.




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