‘I’m worried about your sister,’ Mum tells me during one of our tea and cake chats in what was formerly the conservatory but is now known as the bubble.
‘Why?’ I say, taking a sip of my tea. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘She’s not herself. She’s talking about getting some ducks.’
‘Yes. Living and breathing and quacking ones.’
I study Mum’s face, trying to work out if she’s serious or not. She cuts a large slice of cake and hands it to me. Her face is etched with worry.
‘But she doesn’t do the outdoors,’ I say.
She cuts an equally large slice of cake for herself. ‘I don’t know where it’s come from. This lockdown has done strange things. First you with your cleaning and now her with her feathered friends.’
I take another sip of tea, trying to imagine my glamorous sister in her wellies mucking out a duck house. ‘I just can’t see it.’
‘Exactly,’ Mum says. ‘Handbags yes. Ducks no.’
‘She just wanted to get back to usual shopping life,’ I say, remembering an incident a few months into lockdown when my sister had phoned me in a distressed state. ‘For the sake of my sanity,’ she’d said. ‘I need to shop. It’s what I do. I shop!’
‘But she can shop now,’ I say to Mum. ‘So, what’s with the ducks?’
Mum shakes her head, looks forlornly out the window. ‘I don’t know what the world’s coming to,’ she says.
‘Maybe she’s embracing the good life,’ I say.
‘Does she think she’s Felicity Kendal?’ Mum says.
I smile. ‘She’s more Margo.’
Later that night, my sister phones. ‘Has Mum told you? We’ve ordered some ducks.’
‘That’s lovely,’ I say. ‘What kind?’
‘They’re ducks,’ she says.
‘I know, but what breed?’
The line goes quiet.
‘There are different breeds,’ I say, thinking that the only duck she’s ever ordered before came with pancakes and hoisin sauce.
‘I’ll phone you back,’ she says.
I sit waiting for her call, worried that she’s ordered geese by mistake. I imagine them hissing and spitting at my sister and niece.
A few minutes later, she’s back on the phone. ‘Indian Runner Ducks. They’re a bit like penguins but not. They do the waddle thing.’
‘Ah,’ I say, already desperate to meet them. ‘They’ll be lovely.’
‘Dad’s going to build them a house,’ she says.
Work on the duck house begins immediately, taking every hour of every day. Dad goes early and returns late, each time looking more and more exhausted.
‘Why’s it taking so long?’ I ask, beginning to worry that the duck house could be the undoing of my dad.
‘This isn’t an ordinary duck house,’ Mum says. ‘This is your sister’s duck house. It’s huge.’
That night I dream of a duck house like the bird cage in Jurassic Park, but the ducks are not ducks at all. They are velociraptors. After that, whenever the duck house is mentioned, I get an uneasy feeling.
Just as the duck build is nearing completion with pond, steps, sunbathing spot and patio area, I get another call from my sister.
‘Rabbits,’ she says. ‘Should we get some rabbits?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘They’re expensive,’ she says. ‘A hundred and fifty for two.’
‘But they’re hard to get hold of after lockdown and they’re lovely.’
She sends a picture.
‘Ah,’ I say, immediately falling in love. ‘They’re cute.’ I turn the phone to show Chris. ‘They’re getting rabbits.’
‘If she wants encouragement to buy an animal, she’s phoned the right person,’ Chris says.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘She did it with the horse. The horse that thirteen years later, I’m still looking after.’
‘It’s exciting,’ she says. ‘And my ducks are coming soon. It’ll be like a farm.’
‘It’ll be great,’ I say, excited for the new arrivals.
A week later, I get another call. ‘We have rabbits,’ she says. ‘But they were one-hundred-and-fifty each.’
‘Each! You could have had mine for free.’
‘Well, we’ve not been shopping,’ she says. ‘Or been anywhere, really, so we bought them.’
I am secretly pleased because I am desperate to cuddle a baby rabbit.
‘Are you coming to meet them?’ she says.
When I arrive, Dad is still working on the duck house and Mum is supervising. My sister is in her wellies, mucking out the rabbits.
‘You do know the shops are open,’ I tell her.
She stops shovelling rabbit poo and smiles. ‘I know but this is fun.’
I look at Mum; Mum looks at me.
‘The good life,’ I say.
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