Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week’s story is by Andrew Lemming, who recommends caution should you ever be approached by a talking duck.
“You look a bit glum,” said the duck. Derek Flatterly studied his stash of lager cans. There were two possibilities: either the drink was stronger than he thought; or, he had been throwing chunks of a stale sandwich at an actual talking duck. In the end he decided it was the sign of a nervous breakdown.
He characterised most bad days as a mild headache — nothing he couldn’t banish with paracetamol and a walk in Regent’s Park. Today, however, was a full on migraine followed by a punch in the kidneys — or should that be a knife in the back. He was a risk taker. There were going to be times when investments came good and times when they didn’t. Thanks to his connections and a little insider knowledge, his hunches usually fell in the former category. However, whistles had been blown by a disgruntled employee and the authorities answered. His employers needed a whipping boy and thought: “who better than Mr. Risk Taker?”.
“Bread me,” the duck demanded. Derek shrugged and tore off a crust. “Want to tell me about it?”
“Hearing voices is one thing — that just means I’m slightly mad. Having a conversation with an imaginary water fowl is up there with people who think they’re washing machines and eat socks (no offence).”
The duck pecked him. He was surprised to find it actually hurt.
“That should give you a bit of a clue that I’m real.”
“Good point,” he conceded. “Do you have a name?”
“Helen,” she replied. “You?”
“Derek.” He found himself offering a hand to shake. Helen glared at him until he retracted it. “So, you’re a talking duck. How is that working out for you?”
“Technically yes, but I’m not allowed to talk about it. I’m more interested in you. Rough day?”
“You don’t know half of it,” he mumbled.
“Would three wishes help?” she asked.
“What like ‘rub a magic lamp’ three wishes?”
“You’ve shown me kindness so I‘m allowed to grant three wishes. It’s explained in here.” She rummaged under her right wing and brought out a leaflet entitled ‘You Have Three Wishes’.
“You serious? I mean there’s no such thing as magic.”
“I am a duck. That talks. What more evidence do you need: turning all the creatures in the zoo over there purple?”
“It would help.”
“You want these wishes? Because someone over at the boating area gave me some of her cake and...”
“All right, I’ll take the wishes.”
“Before we start I have to explain a number of conditions. Firstly, all of the wishes can benefit you but one must benefit someone you love, one must benefit someone you hate and the one must benefit the wish giver (that will be me). The wish has to be specific and wishes are final once granted. There are other terms but they’re explained in the booklet. Your wish may be recorded for training purposes. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Because a breach could result in forfeiture of wishes and other... consequences,” she said. “I’m just going to head over to heronry for an hour to give you time to go through the information and come up with three wishes. You might also get me some more bread — just a thought.”
Helen waddled into the lake and paddled away. Derek plucked a fresh can from one of the packs and leaned back on the bench. Booklets, brochures and newsletters were for budgie cages and recycling bins. He tossed it over his shoulder and took a swig. By the time Helen returned, he had worked through three more tins.
“Read the booklet?” she asked. He nodded. “Any questions?”
“Nope, I’m ready to fire,” he replied — his speech slightly slurred.
“By all means, fire away.”
“Very well, I wish for 50 more wishes!” Derek sat back, arms folded and sported a smug grin.
“I thought you said you read the booklet,” said the duck.
“Well, yes,” he lied.
“I only ask because wishing for more wishes is expressly forbidden. In fact it is in bold and underlined three times. Sorry, that means you lose a wish.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Next?” She shook a few drops of water from her wings.
“All right! I wish that I win the National Lottery — triple rollover and everything!”
“Nope, can’t grant that one either.”
“Why not? I could give some of the money to someone I love or someone I hate. That’s one of the conditions right?”
“You could give some of the money to someone you love or someone you hate not you will give some of the money. Semantics, I know, but I told you to be specific.”
“Damn it!” Tears formed in his eyes.
“Last wish — and you might want to think this one through.”
“Just get me my old job back.”
“Is that what you wish for?”
“Yes!” he howled. At once his stomach tightened with an intense cramp. He tumbled forward scattering empty cans. Writhing, he felt himself shrink into his clothing until they completely swathed him. He tried to wrestle his way out only to find his arms had become wings.
Someone freed him — a woman naked but for a light coating of downy feathers which shed in the breeze. She dressed herself in the shirt and trousers.
“Helen?” he quacked. She gave an apologetic smile and nodded. “What just happened?”
“Again, it was in the booklet,” she said. “The last wish is forfeit. As none of your requests complied with the terms and conditions, I change back into a person. You take my place. You might want to read this.” She rummaged through discarded feathers until she found a leaflet entitled ‘What to do if you become a Duck’.
“This isn’t happening! You can’t leave me like this!”
“With any luck you’ll find someone who will accept an offer of three wishes,” she said. “You just have to hope they’re as selfish and self centred as you.”
Copyright Andrew Lemming, photo by Thomas Burian in the Londonist Flickr pool.
We’re still after your stories — particularly about London's green spaces — which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
- The Strangest Suitor: An unconventional Prince Charming.
- Mud Man: A quietly heartbreaking tale from the canal.
- The Fingernail Fairy: Do you believe in her?
- The Last Train: A fairy godmother on the tube.
- Waterloo Sunrise: A dawn encounter on Waterloo Bridge.
For children/by children
- The Lion: Something’s up in Trafalgar Square.
- Lyndon The Greatest Thief in London: A light fingered robber meets the Queen.
- Beyond the Central Line: Notting Hill Gate looks different today…
- The Makings of a Killer: A dark encounter in Southwark.
- Places to Hide a T-Rex in London: About time someone tackled this one.
- The Modern Fire of London: A sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing.
- The Let Down Competition: A mango has a fight with a pig.
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
- Graphic Novels: A celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
- Not Enough: A family struggles to get by.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Routine: The importance of the day-to-day, by Clare Kane.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.