The duck flew right at her. A missile with wings. A dog – a small terrier – was off the path in the rotting leaves and the flock had taken flight on his approach, exploding into the air like fireworks.
In a moment of that bizarre, dilating relative time, she assessed the situation. Should she duck, she asked herself, or did the duck have a plan? If she swerved left or right she could be blundering into its chosen flight path.
She’d keep going forward unflinching, trusting the duck has it in hand… And would miss her.
The duck was a split-second away. Could she hold to her decision?
‘Jesus F Christ on a bike, what happened to you?’
Meredith put her hand to her temple, as if this would belatedly protect it. ‘There was a duck,’ she reported. ‘On my walk by the river.’ She dropped her keys in the bowl by the front door and steadied herself against the wall.
Her boyfriend got himself off the couch, was briefly tangled in chords and wires that plugged him into virtual worlds, then broke free. ‘Have you got concussion?’ Bernie reached over to touch the egg-sized lump and then let his hand hover when she recoiled. ‘Do you mean you forgot to duck?’ he asked.
‘No. There was a duck.’
Bernie was now inches from her, his breath a soft wind on her left cheek. He peered at the cut and the blossoming bruise on her forehead. ‘Hell, everyone will think I bash you.’
Meredith rubbed his upper arm, a soothing gesture, as you would a child who is distraught. He’d never hit her. She couldn’t imagine him ever hitting her. She counted her blessing.
‘Do you think you need a doctor?’ he asked as he followed her into the bathroom.
A band-aid had always worked when she was a child. A band-aid and a kiss from mum. Now band-aid solution was a pejorative term.
‘It’ll be right once I clean it up,’ she assured her lover. It. She distanced the throbbing pain from herself with a word. It. ‘You put the kettle on?’ she suggested to get him out of the room so she could be alone in front of the mirror.
There was a buzzing in the vine as she lifted the tomato-heavy branch from the scaffolding of tightly drawn string. The very last of the summer crop was easy to spot: deep red against leafy green. The buzzing increased as she bent to gently tug at the lowest hanging tomato. From a faint drone to a frantic chainsaw.
She was wary after the moment by the river. She asked herself, in parody: should she fly, or did the fly have a plan?
Before she could decide, the buzzing insect was stuck in her hair. Now she didn’t know whether to stay still and let the pest find its own way out, or shake her head wildly, grasp her fingers through clumps and extricate the irritant.
She panicked. Realising, maybe it was not a fly. It could be a bee; a bee or a wasp; a mud wasp or a paper wasp. Classification was necessary to calibrate degree of panic. Either a bite or a dead body would confirm what was caught next to her ear. She could feel line-thin feet itching against the still throbbing wound on her temple.
Playing dead was also a survival instinct. Along with fight or flight.
She’d bought the most expensive test kit on the pharmacy shelves, equating cost with reliability, even though her rational mind told her this was not necessarily so. The packet was in a paper bag in a canvas bag in the boot of the car. Meredith had left it there, a time-bomb waiting, while she’d cleaned her wounded temple and then harvested in the veggie patch. Bernie was back in front of the flat screen battling aliens when she came in and dumped the tomatoes and lettuce in the sink. He would not notice. She took the opportunity and went out and grabbed the canvas bag and carried it straight to the bathroom.
The box had a thin sheath of plastic adhered to it, and the magic wand was in another plastic bag again, inside the box. A baby is a huge drain on environmental resources: the pregnancy test kit appeared to have been designed as an early lesson in this fact.
A shout slipped through the closed door as a cotton-woolled muffle. ‘What’s for dinner?’ Bernie called.
Meredith played statues with the small white stick in her hand. The bits of crackling clear plastic packaging wouldn’t stay crushed. They reanimated into boxy shapes on the vanity top beside her. Sections parachuted down onto the tiles.
‘Chicken and salad,’ she shouted back through a cracked gap in the door. He’d only have to look in the sink and open the fridge to work it out for himself.
She waited patiently until the silence said he was back under gamer-tech earphones, transforming him into a deaf Doctor Who Cyberman. The intervening clatters and bangs and thuds had their own story: he’d made a peanut butter toast snack.
Nausea had crept over her as she’d waited. A full glass of tap water didn’t help, but it did ensure she could follow the test kit instructions. The procedure was straightforward though the diagrams were anatomically obscure. With her jeans bunched around her ankles, like the manacles of a convict ancestor, she willed up the urge to urinate. She’d never tested herself before and aimed badly. Her urine was warm on her fingers. She tilted the plastic stick to ensure some went in the little hollowed trench.
And then she waited in the thickening silence. Ignoring every message from the pain receptors on her skin.
‘Come on you wankers,’ Bernie growled at some online companions. They must have come on. Quiet reigned again.
Meredith went to the kitchen and took the No 12 chicken from the fridge and put it in the oven. Bernie crept up behind her and kissed the back of her neck, then slowly turned her to find her lips.
‘Jesus look at that bump,’ he said, his voice full of solicitation.
Her hands fell instantly to her belly.
She was not unaware she already had a child.
‘You’ve really been in the wars,’ her man-child said, leaning to peer more closely at the inflamed lump on her neck and then the one on her shoulder; which did not match the massive one on her temple.
‘The animal kingdom has it in for me today,’ she joked.
‘I’m allergic to bee stings,’ he told her, not for the first time. ‘You’re lucky you’re not.’ He touched the centre of the sting on her neck. ‘Nasty. You poor baby. Can I do anything to help? The guys have gone off-line for a break.’
She could feel the heat poaching her sole. A sock of red encircled her right foot to the level of the water. She did not lower herself any further. The pain of the insect stings screamed against the excessive heat of the bath. Because it had been a wasp nest, a whole horde of intruders. Neck, clavicle, left breast, and in the soft cave of flesh on the other side of her elbow, poison burned deep.
The past and the future were too awful to think about. The world was reduced to the present. The moment and the bathtub.
She addressed her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She spoke to herself in uneasy formality. ‘Do I get out and stalk away, angry with the decision the universe has thrust upon me, or do I continue my stork impersonation, one foot in, one foot hovering over the bath?’
She almost laughed at herself.
This was beyond the usual bathroom risk assessment of trips, slips and falls. In her mind, really hot baths flagged passages from post-war novels about Catholic girls.
Her one foot in the water was already numb to pain. She needed to lie down because in addition to the sting sites that craved benumbing, her head was now throbbing. Disbarring all further thinking.
If only she had made the right decision by the river, the duck wouldn’t have hit so hard.
Whatever she did next, she knew the water in the bath would cool of its own accord.
Jane Downing is an Australian writer with prose and poetry published widely at home and overseas, including in Southerly, Westerly, The Big Issue, Griffith Review, Antipodes (US), Headland (NZ), Kunapipi (Denmark), Paris Transcontinental (France), and Silverfish (Malaysia). A collection of her poetry, ‘When Figs Fly,’ was published by Close-Up Books in 2019. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com Image: Ducks, Goyo Hashiguchi, 1920.