"Where Have All The Ducks Gone?"
As she often did these days, Louise walked alone into the urban park, wandering down a wide avenue lined with lime trees. It was raining a little, but sunlight penetrated through gaps in the clouds, giving the park an odd, luminescent glow. The light seemed alien to Louise, like it wasn't real, like it'd somehow been artificially painted onto the gloomy air. She turned left down a narrow pathway and her attention was drawn to a couple standing in the shadows under an oak tree, engrossed in a kiss. She stopped and stared at them, then bit down on her lip and hurried on.
As the rain eased off, Louise came across a bench opposite a duck pond. She unfolded a plastic bag from her pocket, placed it on the seat and sat down. She lit a cigarette, removed a novel, Of Love and Shadows, from her bag and began to read. A few moments later, she glanced up to see a white-haired man sit on the other end of the bench.
The man turned to her. "Where have all the ducks gone?" he asked.
He pointed a shaky finger towards the pond. "The ducks. There used to be lots, but I haven't seen any for a fortnight. Where do you think they've gone?"
"Err. Dunno." Louise took a drag on her cigarette and went back to reading.
"I mean, this is a city. There are no other parks with ponds for several miles. So where can they have vanished to?"
Louise looked up. "Dunno. Weird, I guess."
"One day here. Next day gone. How can that happen?"
She shrugged. "Beats me." Then she returned to her book.
"My wife and I used to come here together. She liked feeding the ducks."
"That was my Felicity. She'd cut off her sandwich crusts each lunch-time for them. Every day for fifteen years."
"Sorry, but it does trouble me. How can things suddenly disappear like that? After so many years?"
Louise puffed on her cigarette, then blew out the smoke from the corner of her mouth. "Maybe they got fed up with city life and flew off to somewhere nicer."
"Or maybe something killed them. I wondered about a fox."
"That'd be one explanation."
"But if a fox had killed them all in one night, there'd have been feathers and bits of bird left and there weren't."
"Good point." Louise shifted her position and crossed her legs.
"Sorry, I don't want to come across as some old nutter. And I don't mean to pester you. It's just you look like my grand-daughter. She has a young, fresh face and long red hair too, like my Felicity had when she was young."
"Actually, my hair's dyed."
"Yes? It's still pretty, dear."
"I spoke to the park warden about the ducks. He didn't know why they'd gone. He thought they'd come back, but they haven't."
"Clearly," she said, putting her novel back in her handbag.
The thermos-flask rolled off his lap onto the bench. He picked it up with a trembling hand and sighed. "Sometimes things don't come back, even if you want them to."
Louise hesitated and then turned to face him directly. "No, you're right. They don't."
"Life gives and takes without mercy or measure."
"Is that a quote?"
"It's something I read recently: life gives and takes without mercy or measure. I'm not a big reader, but I remembered that. I think it's true."
Louise paused for a moment. "You know, I do too."
"My Felicity believed in God, but I don't. Some things in life just can't be explained. There are no reasons sometimes."
"I'd agree there."
"But if there are no reasons, if you don't believe in God, what have you got to fall back on when life takes without mercy?" He didn't seem to be directing this question to Louise, but to the air, the world, in front of him.
Louise tossed her still-burning cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out firmly with one boot. "I'm afraid I don't know," she said quietly.
"Knowing we're not alone helps I think. Knowing there are other people out there who are also hurting. Strangers we might pass in a street. Or even in a park." He turned and offered her a slight smile, one that held a shadow in it.
She was silent, contemplating his sad smile. Then she stood up, grabbed the plastic bag from the seat and thrust it in her pocket.
"Sorry, but I've got to go now."
"Take care of yourself then, dear. Sorry to have rambled on."
"No, don't apologise. It's been nice. Interesting. But I have to go. Really. Sorry. Got to. Take care." She walked briskly away.
It began to rain. She didn't have an umbrella, but didn't care. She tipped her head back, letting the rain-drops fall on her face, hoping they might disguise the tears running down her cheeks.
Leaving the park, Louise wiped her face surreptitiously with a hand. She turned right and noticed a flower vendor by the park railings. She stopped, eyes fixed on the bunches of bluebells.
"You want something, love?" asked the vendor from under his umbrella.
The man took her money and handed her a bunch. "Don't they just remind you of spring, despite the rain," he said.
She looked down but said nothing, and clutched the flowers to her. She hurried to a taxi rank. "Where to?" asked the driver.
"The cemetery on Mersea Road."
They drove in silence. Louise watched the windscreen wipers moving slowly back and forth, as if waving a long goodbye.
At the cemetery she paid, got out, and walked over to a familiar tombstone: JOHAN SMITH, 1985-2008, BELOVED HUSBAND AND SON.
She traced the word 'Husband' with a finger, then placed the flowers on the grave. "Johan. I brought bluebells, your favourites." She crouched behind the tombstone to shelter from the weather, lit a cigarette, inhaled and blew out, watching the smoke disappear into the air.
Katy Wimhurst studied for a doctorate in Mexican Surrealism after getting an MA in social anthropology. She has also worked in publishing, but now suffers from M.E./CFIDS. She writes fiction and non-fiction and has been (or will be) published in Guardian.co.uk, GlassFire, DogVersusSandwich, Serendipity, Kaliedotrope, Bust Down the Doors and Eat All the Chickens, The Abacot Journal, the 'Bradley Sands is a Dick' anthology, the 'Lost Voices' anthology, and InterAction. She was a winner of the Tate Modern short story competition 'TH2058: Imagining London in 2058', which accompanied the exhibition in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London in 2009. The story will be part of an audiobook recorded by the English actor Christopher Ecclestone.