The Elusive Language of Ducks

BOOK: The Elusive Language of Ducks
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Elusive Language of Ducks

Judith White is a winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Centenary Award, and twice-winner of the
Auckland Star
Short Story Competition. Her short-story collection,
Visiting Ghosts
, was shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards, and her first novel,
Across the Dreaming Night
, was shortlisted for the Montana New Zealand Book of the Year. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.



A Oneworld Book

This ebook edition published by Oneworld Publications, 2014

First published in North America and Great Britain by Oneworld Publications, 2014

First published in Australia and New Zealand by Random House New Zealand Ltd, 2013

Copyright © Judith White 2013

The moral right of Judith White to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved

Copyright under Berne Convention

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-78074-400-1

ISBN 978-1-78074-401-8 (eBook)

Text design by Megan van Staden

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events of locales is entirely coincidental.

Oneworld Publications

10 Bloomsbury Street

London WC1B 3SR


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For my mother, Beth Featherstone



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31





Yesterday, your mother died and now you are drunk.

You were both there and it was the salt that you had always refused her because you thought it was bad for her health, and now it was keeping her alive through the slow saline drip into her arm, and then the doctor said, No more salt.

It was time. You knew that.

The doctor insisting on plunging his oar into the deep, deep sea of your sorrow.

I'm going to have to turn this off now.

That's fine, we know what's going on. Now go away.

Already it had started. The breathing. The stopping and the starting of it.

The stopping and now not daring to look at each other. Then, as you sat by the bed, you read in the little handbook they gave you in that special hurried meeting in the office of the Primrose Hill Rest Home that, sometimes, towards the end, the period between breaths could be between ten and thirty seconds.

And yes, counting in your head, it was ten to thirty seconds, ten minutes to thirty years, as you waited for the next one.

And then the stopping and it was


And then the big heave so that you jumped, jumped out of your skin. And, only just, back again.

But . . . the silence and the waiting for the next one, the next breath. Mum.


The silence that was so silent, and afterwards your husband spoke to you about the great swirling wind, the great swirling

The great swirling outside and the leaves

And you didn't hear it, all you heard was the silence, your mother's breath stopped . . . the chatter stopped

And then

You put your hand on her chest and there was nothing there at all

Just the buttons of her nightie and no thump of a clock

Her breasts flattened into skin over bone

And then all the colour that was her life going away. Her lips white and her mouth open

And her cheeks whitening

And everything draining away.

The colour that she would have had a name for, in all its tones. Raw sienna, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, Windsor yellow, cadmium orange, permanent mauve, etc, etc. You have no idea, really. The colours she squeezed from aluminium tubes, sloshed around with camel-hair brushes before she dabbed and made her magic.

All the colours that she absorbed through her eyes and interpreted and played with on canvas.

All the colour in her eyes.

Gone from her.

It's all so final, says old Joyce afterwards, in the lounge when you say goodbye to the others in their bucket seats who are waiting their turn.

But really it's all so now and everlasting, the life without her

The life without your mother.

And now you are drunk because you don't know what else to do with the thoughts in your head.


And you bring out the boxes from under the house and go through her clothes and fill the car boot with them and take them to the Salvation Army. And you can't help yourself picking up objects that are too deeply connected to this time or that time and, inside your chest, a snake of pain grows too fat for the cavity it has found there; it has swallowed its own tail, and everything that follows is too big for its stomach. It has opened wide jaws and engulfed your life and down you flow into the tight darkness of the beginning and the end.


And as if it will make up for it all, they bring to you, as an offering, a baby duck.

Your husband's relations have a small farm in Te Awamutu. On one of his missions to the area, a business meeting in Hamilton, Simon had driven down to have lunch with his aunt and uncle. He told you that he'd had no say in the matter, but in fact he could have said no. That would have been the ultimate no say. His meeting was after the lunch in Te Awamutu and he had to stay in Hamilton overnight. He had excuses. But he explained to you that the duckling was waiting for him in the hard-based plastic carry-bag. All ready for the journey back to Auckland. A container of mucky mash for food, and a lid holding water.

They were well-meaning, and it could have done the trick. Every passing day had become a slushy footprint in mud. You were depressed, they said. You were not yourself. You seemed withdrawn. The duck was an orphan; it would die anyway. Everybody was worried about you. They thought a duckling would help. They thought a yellow fluffy duckling pooing and skittering around the wide well-worn seat of your mother's throne would give you something to think about. Is that the trick they had in mind? The one up the sleeve, the sleight of hand. From woe to go, just like that.

Chapter 1


Sitting in the grass in the spring sunshine. Somewhere nearby a starling was munching on a song, savouring every whistley morsel before spitting it out for inspection in long chewing-gum threads.

The duckling was lying with its head resting on Hannah's ankle. Her other foot contained it in a safe haven. It appeared happy to be there. She wondered whether it thought it was a foot, or whether her feet were ducks.

It had been lumbered upon her; there was no doubt about that. When her husband had arrived home from Hamilton, several weeks ago now, he had hesitantly made his way down the garden path as she greeted him from the front door. He was carrying a bright orange carry-bag with a hard base, rather like a doctor's medical bag, full of quackery. He'd opened it, less than triumphantly, for her to see inside.

BOOK: The Elusive Language of Ducks
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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