I wasn’t always the city slicker you see today. In my mid-teens my parents decided to up sticks from our perfectly serviceable semi-detached house in Dumfries to an isolated cottage in the country. Lots of reasons were cited for this – fresh air, freedom, no more noisy neighbours, and less distractions for me (hence better exam results – they were right about that bit). What I suspect really prompted the move though, was that said house was being purchased off an elderly relative for an absolute friggin’ steal.
Of course the whole event was completely traumatic for everyone concerned. Country living is all well and good, and it’s lovely to be able to look up at night and see a sky filled with so many stars that it makes you a bit dizzy and you have to go inside and sit down, but dear god it’s quiet. Annoying neighbours take on an entirely different sheen when you haven’t seen another soul in days. Hence I would often come home from school to find my mother ironing in the hallway, quietly crying to herself. However, we all adjusted eventually – several blazing family rows notwithstanding – and adapted to our new status as country folk rather well. Mostly this involved making friends with the postman so that he would deliver our newspaper along with the mail, but as we quickly learned, in the country you take your pleasures where you can get them.
Of all the McMurrays I loved it the most.
Now, there’s a lot to be said for hanging around outside your local Spar of an evening and getting a banana fritter from the New Happy Garden, but in the years when I should have been getting up to all sorts of no good, I went for lots of bracing rambles instead. I learned to be able to stand my own company, and discovered that I was perfectly happy traipsing up and down stupefyingly steep hills and ambling deep into dark, claustrophobic forests. I enjoyed standing in any given spot and thinking “no-one else has stood here. Ever.” I would contemplate that for a moment – often while fast-forwarding my Walkman to a particularly atmospheric Enya track – and store the memory away for future recall. It was all very grand and sweeping and very, very (as it turns out), Me.
What’s prompted this peculiar bout of nostalgia is a book I’m reading at the moment. A marvellous book about the writing process. It has an uncanny ability to tease out memories of things you’d previously packed away for good on account of their being utterly useless in adult life.
Which brings me to ducks. Or, to be precise, ducklings. I murdered three of them once. Not intentionally, you understand, but my presence was the determining factor in their demise. I felt guilty about it for years, but like all my of killings, I forgot about it eventually.
It happened on a fairly grim spring afternoon. I was walking the dogs by the riverside, on one of those paths that’s barely a path, where you catch yourself on a thorn with every other step and give silent thanks that you’re wearing a waxed jacket. Nevertheless, there I was. Country boy. I turned a corner and near the bank I saw a sight that absolutely warmed my heart (and not much does that) – a mother duck and her six ducklings bobbing about. I watched for a moment, imagining that this was their first trip out. Now, these were cute ducklings – yellow and black and fluffy, their little black eyes sparkling with (I assume) excitement at finally being allowed out on the high seas like a proper, big duck. Whatever move mum made they followed in a little line, looking so bloody pleased with themselves. I was thrilled.
Just as I turned to leave, one of the dogs came careering through the undergrowth, coming to a sharp halt at the riverbank. Mother duck panicked and flapped, causing a mini-tsunami to engulf Huey, Dewey, Louie and the gang. Under the surface they went.
I waited, by this point trained enough in the art of the country person to know that ducks are aquatic creatures and therefore enormously resistant to the occasional freak wave. And eventually up they came. Three of them. Bedraggled, considerably less fluffy and looking just a tiny bit embarrassed, though I may be projecting.
That was it though. I waited some more and then I waited a little bit longer. I waited longer than the mother, who got out of there pretty damn sharpish if you ask me. And then I waited some more, but eventually had to concede that my three little friends (we were friends by this point) had been consigned to a silty, watery grave. So I trudged home, in deep shame at my new status as Duck Killer.
Now, we’re all well enough versed in storytelling to know that what’s needed to round off this tale is a nice satisfying bit of redemption, and I’m happy to be able to provide some. And this is not a metaphorical form of redemption – oh no. I took the lives of three young ducklings, and ten years later, on a busy road in the centre of Glasgow, I saved the lives of three young ducklings. True story. Walking to work one morning I rounded a corner and spotted another irresponsible duck mother, this time flapping about with three youngsters in tow. She was positively beside herself. Quite how she ended up in the middle of Renfield Street at rush hour remains a mystery, but this duck was crazy. She lurched about in the road, quacking and flapping at high speed and in all directions, with the three little ones gamely attempting to follow her. Throw in the Benny Hill theme and it would have been almost funny. Instantly, my long forgotten trauma from a decade before flashed back into my head, and I ran into the road and scooped up those ducklings, leaving Lady MacDuck to fend for herself. These ducklings would LIVE!
And so they did. I got them to the PDSA, where I was promised they would be taken to the nearest wildlife reserve and raised by a more responsible and far less histrionic mother. I got a little tearful when we parted, having already named them Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis, but by the time I got to work I was feeling rather good about myself. I had cancelled out a triple homicide, dealt with years worth of crippling guilt and given camp names to three gorgeous little ducklings. That’s redemption, Niall style.
Having said that, for all I know as soon as my back was turned those three adorable critters were quietly gassed and fed to a python, but in my head I imagine them still around today, proud and responsible parents to generations of level-headed, responsible ducks. And I’m sticking with that.