Between writing novels, it’s refreshing to do something less demanding, and quicker. I keep an eye out for writing prompts, and a while ago, this one caught my attention:
International Stale Bread Day.
The resulting short story, I entitled Duck Day, and begins on a stretch of common land behind a housing estate:
The ducks lined up in rows. The greedy mallards to the front. Behind them, the feathery white ones chased each other, skimming their feet over the water as they scrambled for position, while the sprightly moorhens darted in and out of the reeds. They quacked a tuneless chorus, an endlessly noisy carbuncle on an otherwise serene day.
Stephen rested the basket on the muddy ground by the pond. “Right!” He clapped his hands together. “Time to feed the ducks.”
“Why today, Dad?” Danny kicked a stone. He’d much rather be watching Sponge Bob underwater not ducks paddling above.
“Because…because, it’s International Stale Bread day,” he declared.
“Is that why you went to all those bakeries yesterday?”
Dragging himself out of bed before the night shift, he’d visited three cafes and two enormous garbage bins outside the supermarket. Stephen had scooped out the leftovers with gloved hands, isolated the slices of dry bread, the rock-hard rolls and buns. He’d dug through until he found the half-eaten loaves and shaken out the fillings of the sandwiches. The basket hamper was filled to the brim with dead bread.
“Yep,” he answered, gazing across the expanse of grey water. “This is traditional, son.” One day a year, he had to do this. For some folks it was squirrels, others, foxes or moles. Stephen’s walked on webbed feet and talked incessantly.
“And we feed the ducks.” Danny swung the scarf around his neck.
“No duck should starve on a winter’s day,” he said. “Now, put your gloves on.”
He slipped on his and stretched his fingers to the tips, rather like a surgeon. He considered it an operation, but more like a military one. Checking over his shoulder, Stephen bent and uncovered the rounds of ammunition. Dozens of balls of bread scrunched into pellets.
“Do not pick at them or eat them,” he reminded Danny.
Danny crouched next to the basket and poked his finger inside. “Yuk. Brown bread.”
“Has plenty of seeds for them.”
“My teacher says you shouldn’t give ducks bread. It swells in their tummies like a balloon and makes them sick.”
Stephen snorted. “Teacher’s wrong. Bread is what they need, especially when there is so much going spare. All that waste.”
Danny’s little nose twitched. “Teacher says we should feed the poor.”
“And the ducks,” Stephen added gruffly.
Danny stood at the water’s edge and pointed at the nearest duck. “He’s fat. He’s a fat as Mr Hilliard in No. 5.”
Stephen squinted through his glasses. “Some get lucky. That one other there, look at it, poor thing.” He waved his arm indiscriminately. “Scraggy.”
Danny’s boots slipped further into the water.
Stephen reached out and pulled him back. “Careful, son. They may look harmless, but they have a vicious peck.”
Stephen examined the basket and picked up a handful of bread balls. He slid one foot close to the water, drew back his arm and flung the missiles into the middle of the raft. They squawked and flapped their wings, fighting amongst themselves until waves lapped by his feet.
He smiled. Satisfied the first salvo was a success, he armed himself with more crusty bread. “Come on, son. You aim for them blighters over there.”
The boy wasn’t sure. He picked up one tiny slug of a bun and flicked it into the water. It sank.
“Why don’t they call it duck day, Dad?” He picked up a crooked stick and threw that instead. It drifted into the reeds.
Stephen continued to scatter bomb the pond with showers of bread. Crumbs skimmed over the surface forming a dusty film. The reflection of a man developed behind Stephen. Tall and shimmering, the image grew larger.
He wore a coal black jacket with fluorescent stripes down his arms. His jeans hung like sacks around his legs. Perhaps once a coal miner, he might remember when the pond was an empty pit and the rows of houses had smoke pillowing out of their chimneys. The nature reserve was the council’s idea of rejuvenation.
“What you doing?” the man barked.
Stephen hastily covered the contents of the basket. “Just admiring the ducks.”
Danny emerged from the undergrowth where he’d been hunting for insects. “We’re feeding the ducks with bread, but Dad says it’s okay because the teacher is wrong about bread.”
“Feeding the ducks?” The man sneered. “Why? They’re bleedin fat enough.”
“It’s Stale Bread Day,” Danny rampaged, beating the nettles back with his stick.
Stephen cringed. “He’s excited.”
“Well don’t feed them. They’re a bloody pest.” The man picked up a stone and hurled it at a mallard. Irate quacks bounced back and forth, intensifying as the bird limped away. “They swarm around like bees, and them geese.”
Stephen wondered for a minute if he should tell the truth about the bread, but Danny was always too quick for him.
“Dad. Look at that one. He’s falling over.” Danny gestured with the tip of his stick at one white duck, whose pink beak was tipping into the water.
“Oh, he’s drinking,” Stephen said quickly. They should go. It was happening faster than he thought.
“He’s right. There goes another.” The man strode to the edge of the pond. “And another.”
“Dad, they’re drowning.”
Danny’s face chilled Stephen’s bones. His little boy was crying. Stephen froze, unable to explain. His stomach churned into knots. He should have left Danny at home, but his mum wanted him out of the house while she baked a cake.
“What you been feeding them?” The man threw back the cover and delved his hand into the left-over bread.
“Don’t!” Stephen shouted. “Don’t touch it.” He hurried over.
The nuggets of bread had crumbled apart, revealing dark centres. “What’s this?” asked the man, his nose wrinkling in disgust.
“It’s…” Stephen fumbled, hunting for an excuse. “Chocolate drops. Like you get in French bread.”
“Oh, brioche. Tasty. But you’re right, it’s rock hard.” The man rose to his feet, losing interest. “Well, they don’t like chocolate. Like dogs, perhaps. Don’t feed them chocolate.” He chuckled.
Stephen laughed, half-heartedly, but Danny was wiping his nose. He put a comforting arm around the boy. “Don’t you worry, lad. They just over-indulged.”
“What’s over-indulged?” the boy asked.
“They’re too fat,” the man laughed. “Well, I leave you to it. The more you kill the bleedin better. That infernal quacking keeps me awake at night.”
Stephen watched as he walked off, whistling. Then, he sighed. “Phew.”
“Dad,” Danny picked up his discarded stick and resumed beating the brambles. “Are we killing the ducks?”
“Nah, of course not. But we should go. They do look stuffed.” He picked up the basket. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a moorhen topple over and float away.
It took two minutes to walk home. Their thin house overlooked the pond and as Stephen walked in, he smelt the warm flavours of oven baked cake.
His wife kissed his cheek and laid out the plates. “Tea and cake, yes? For my two adventurers. How’s stale bread day going?” She winked.
“Okay,” Stephen admitted. It had gone alright in the end. Last year, the cull had taken out a few dozen, this year, perhaps not as many.
She sliced the cake into generous portions. “You’ve washed your hands, Danny?”
The boy nodded and held out his plate.
“Good. Now tuck in.”
Stephen licked his lips and helped himself to a mouthful of moist cake. “Mm. Tastes good, dear.” He slurped on his tea and took another bite.
Danny was equally quick. His wife pecked at hers.
“Mum!” Danny beamed, holding out his plate. “You put chocolate chips in it.”
“Oh, yes. Found them lying in a bowl. Thought, wouldn’t they make it nice.”
Stephen choked on his mouthful. “Oh, my God,” he gasped. He felt sick. Clammy. Horrified.
Danny’s pallor turned icy white and his wife hung her jaw open, revealing a brownish tongue.
Stephen spat out his cake. “I think, if we’re quick, we might make it to hospital in time.” He shook the arm of his sleepy wife, but she merely nodded. He stumbled to his feet, hunting for his car keys in his pocket. The last thing he heard as the darkness overwhelmed him were the ducks squawking right outside the kitchen window.
A chorus of laughter.