On Life Without Ducks

It must be forty years, I think, since last I saw a duck. It is not that I have consciously avoided them, though I am willing to admit that I may have done so subconsciously. But nothing is more dull than the subconscious, particularly one’s own, don’t you find? Thus I shall pass on the notion that there may have been an element of subconscious duck avoidance. The only thing worth saying in this connection is that Vladimir Nabokov liked to call Sigmund Freud a “Viennese quack”, and “quack”, of course, is the usual way we represent the characteristic sound made by ducks, in this language at least.

Whether I have avoided them, or they me, the blunt truth is that I have not seen a duck since the last years of the war in Vietnam. I did not fight in Vietnam myself – I was too young – nor was that ill-remembered duck I did see, circa 1972, a Vietnamese duck, so far as I know. I mention that war merely to give some idea of how much time has passed. I could equally say “since the middle years of the Heath government” or “since the year Ezra Pound died”. Did Ezra Pound ever write a poem about ducks? I do not know his work well enough to be able to say. Certainly it will not be anything said, or unsaid, by Pound that propelled me into the duckless years.

At the time, of course, when I saw that teal plashing in a pond in a park, I could not have foreseen that so many years would pass without my seeing another duck. Had I known, I might have remarked it better. I would probably have made a note in my log book, perhaps essayed a little sketch with my propelling pencil. That said, it is better that I did not, as I am a hamfisted sketcher at the best of times. My attempt might have looked like something other than a teal. There are innumerable sketches in my log books, both child and adult, where the subject would be wholly unidentifiable had I not added a written caption. I know this because in a surprising number of cases I saw no need, at the time, to add a caption, and now, whenever I pore over the log books in a fit of nostalgia, I have no idea what in the names of all the saints in heaven I am looking at. The sole certainly I can cling to, like a drownee to a raft, is that I was not sketching a teal, nor any kind of duck, at any time since 1972. That narrows down the possible subject matter, but only slightly.

If my sketching is so barbarous and cackhanded, one may wonder why I have continued to practise it, in my log books, through all these years. I could say that it is simply that I am waiting for the lead in my propelling pencil to be exhausted. It shows no sign of ever reaching its end. Either it is a magic lead that somehow replenishes itself, or goblins replace it while I am asleep. There can be no rational explanation.

Is there, though, a rational explanation for my never seeing a duck for forty long years? As I said, I have not consciously avoided them, nor their habitats. In a municipal park I often prance through, at least once a week, there is even a duckpond. I grant that, for at least the past several years it has been drained, and filled with filth and litter, it being that kind of park, but one might have expected perhaps to find a stray duck investigating the area on the off-chance that volunteers of a conservationist bent could have restored it to watery duckponddom. There is always the possibility that there is something about me terrifying to ducks, and if indeed a stray merganser or pochard were to come waddling into the park in hope of finding the duckpond restored to its former glory, they might scarper behind a shrub at the first hint of my approach. But why would I terrify a duck?

It is true that I do not know enough about the inner workings of a duck’s brain, its psychology, if a duck could be said to have one, to give a coherent answer to that question. All I will say is that it seems unlikely that I have certain attributes which would cause mental turmoil to ducks. I have never seen a duck flee from my presence, nor indeed any other aquatic creature, nor non-aquatic creature come to that, except for such beasts as always flee from humans, the nervous ones, such as squirrels and some cats. And there are some beasts which, on the contrary, seem to be inexplicably attracted to me. I was once pursued, on a country lane, for at least a hundred yards, by a gaggle of honking geese. That was in the year of the fall of Saigon, the year Dmitri Shostakovich died. Did Shostakovich ever write a divertimento about ducks? I do not know his work well enough to be able to say. I wish I did.

Yes, I wish I knew more of Shostakovich, but would it be equally true to say that I wish I had seen more – seen any – ducks, in the past four decades? Do I feel a gaping absence in my life because of a lack of ducks? That is a hard question to answer. But if I give it due thought, I suppose the answer has to be No. After all, if my heart was really set on seeing some ducks there is nothing to stop me going out in search of them. There must be, somewhere in prancing distance, a park with a duckpond still extant, one not drained and rife with filth and litter, a duckpond in which ducks happily plash. I should put on my hat and coat and walking boots right this minute, and crash out the door, and prance the highways and byways until I light upon such a park, with such a duckpond, with such ducks. And taking from my pocket my current log book, I should make sketches of them, and append captions, so that, forty years hence, when poring over them in a fit of nostalgia, I will be able to identify them as the ducks I saw in 2012, after a gap of forty duckless years.

That is what I should do. But instead, I am tempted to make a cup of tea, and listen to Shostakovich, and read Ezra Pound, and imagine myself in hand to hand combat with the Vietcong. The ducks can wait.

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