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Ducks in a Row

Kathryn Cave

2024 Short Story Competition Short List

corpse pose

Ducks in a Row

Standing tall, raising up her aching head, Stephanie dove into the early morning Piccadilly Line train at Hammersmith. The carriage was brimming, and although she did her best to unwind her long winter scarf carefully – casting minimum waves with her gigantic shoulder bag – she was largely unsuccessful.

Stephanie’s skull was pounding, like she was trapped inside a surging sea squall, so she closed her eyes, clung to the yellow life vest strap, and tried to count ducks as the train raged forwards. There were realistic ducks in ponds, fluffy ones in cute jumpers, and strange mutant birds with bright beaks and colourful wings, who may or not have been ducks at all. Stephanie wasn’t much good at keeping them consistent, or even counting, and it took most of her will power just to hang on.

It was only five stops to Knightsbridge, but the passengers remained a steady and ebb and flow, so Stephanie just kept on clinging and counting, until it was her turn to face the steady stream of commuters queuing to join the upward escalator. The dress code at this station and this hour was smart navy and Stephanie looked rather out of place crawling slowly up the middle staircase in her beige joggers and cheap puffer, while the mechanised crew of preened and buffed cruised up past her.

Stephanie’s headache was thumping to the rhythm of to her own heartbeat by the time she wheezed her way to the top of the stairs, fumbled for her Oyster Card, and gulped the traffic-stained overground air. Outside it was still only half light as she took off round the corner from the tube station, past the Rolex shop, and across the road into Hyde Park. Beyond the frozen whorls of her breath, indistinct cyclists and runners streaked grey through the distance.

Deep in the park, the thick, heavy Serpentine lake lay curled and awaiting her approach. Its murky depths held mud, eels, and secrets. To the left, hazy and undulating squatted the bridge from which Shelley’s first wife was thought to have jumped to her death. To the right loomed the sail-like canopy of the waterside café, while opposite lines of plastic pedaloes waited patiently for the people and the season.

At the shoreline row upon row of ducks sat resting, their faces folded over their vast feathered chests, and their beaks tucked warmly into their wings. Stephanie walked faster, setting a swift pace along the path. Past the padlocked wooden gate. On towards the semi-open one, where a sign warned sternly that, in the first flush of morning, this small stretch of bank belonged strictly – and only – to members of the ancient Serpentine Swimming Club.

It was just a cordoned off section of lake but inside was a languorous flurry. There was some wooden decking, a few handrails, a couple of cold showers, yet everything had its place. The ducks mostly kept to the middle section. The people mainly rushed about at either end. Few bothered using the modest changing hut outside the perimeter, and instead, practical belongings were spread carefully across the public benches, railings, and steps.

She found a spot near the other gate, stripped down to her black bathing suit, and added a bright pink silicone hat. She laid out her blue tabard robe, flask of hot ginger tea, and layers upon layers of dry clothing. The concrete was damp underfoot with a smattering of brown leaves. Duck mess pooled in easy to navigate patches. Holding onto the handrail, the thick murky Serpentine water gazed impassively up at her.

Stephanie stepped tentatively inside and felt the icy grip, grab, and grapple. Pausing for a moment, numbness spread from toes, up legs, through her chest and wormed deep into her centre. She took a cleansing breath and pushed off into the darkness.

Gasping, it hit her like a punch, leaving her winded and reaching for more breath. The cold became a heavy brace round her ribcage, as she thrust her pounding head down – down – into the blackness and held it there until it reached serenity.

Now Stephanie, The Serpentine, and the freezing cold fused into one as she began to swim. Jerkily at first, then picking up speed and ease, with long sweeping arms and legs, lengthening fingers and toes, pumping heart and lungs – all working together in unison. It was a kind of hideous bliss, a horrible paradise, a place of such intensity that all else faded to zero.

Emerging at the railing by the entrance after a single – yet eternal – length, Stephanie ran back to her things, jumped furiously into the bluing sky, and felt completely and wholly at peace. Her head was clear and calm. The day was blossoming – bright orange – across the Serpentine bridge. Everything was fresh, and light, and wonderful.    

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