In the previous issue of Critical Mass I wrote about how I came to write Lucky Goes to Market. I promised to share it with you and here it is!
The barn was a warm and noisy place. Bales of straw were built in stacks that disappeared into the darkness. Kittens prowled around the stacks hoping to catch the mice scampering safe within their towers of straw. Old Tabby looked on, purring with pleasure at her children’s antics. One day soon she would teach them the proper way to hunt.
Some of the straw bales had been used to build a pen for the goslings. They dashed here and there, pecking at the straw and sometimes at each other. Once in a while one of the kittens would climb up to have a look. Then the old gander would bear down hissing and beating his wings, and the kitten would run to his mother in terror. But it did not take long before he was back to hunting mice with his brothers and sisters.
Across the way from the great barn doors the piglets squealed for their mum. They were not long weaned and it would take a while to fatten them up for Market. None of the barn animals knew what Market was, except for old Tabby, and she wasn’t going to tell them. The rest all thought that Market was the big lorry that came by once in a while. The pigs and ducks and geese that went to Market were never seen again.
Within all this noise there was a small corner of silence. The old duck sat uneasily upon her clutch of eggs. Her laying days were nearly over. Perhaps these eggs would be her last. She had laid them on a full moon. That was normally a good sign. But last night the full moon had returned and still nothing stirred. The eggs felt strangely cold beneath her plump, feathery form. They did not return her warmth and there was no movement to give a hint of life inside their shells.
She was tempted to leave her eggs by a fresh uproar. One of the kittens, the stripy one that the farm children called Tiger, had fallen in with the goslings. Now both the goose and the gander were flapping and hissing, driving the kitten up against the straw bales. Tabby had jumped to his defence. Her back was arched and erect with fur. Hissing and spitting, she unnerved the geese. All the noise attracted the farm children, who came rushing into the barn.
But as the old duck moved, so did one of her eggs. The clamour in the barn faded to her ears as she listened for the tip-tapping, egg-cracking sound of one of her babies struggling to be born. It took a very long time before the shell broke and the duckling was hatched. There was something odd about the way its head hung to one side. Maybe it had twisted its neck fighting to get out of the egg. The old duck did not mind. Her baby was alive. That was the main thing. She carefully folded the duckling under her wing and settled down. And still nothing stirred in the rest of her eggs.
One of the farm girls, Sophie, came over carrying Tiger, the rescued kitten. “Now then Lucy,” she said to the old duck. “What a good mother you are. All that fuss going on in here and you never once left your eggs. It is such a pity though. Dad says it has been too long now. He doesn’t think they will ever hatch.”
Sophie put Tiger down and he darted off to hunt for spiders in the shadows. He had already forgotten his ordeal with the geese. Sophie bent down to stroke Lucy and then she saw the little bundle of feathers beneath her wing. “Oh! One has hatched! You are the lucky one.” She was the only one of her brothers and sisters to make it into the world. And that is how Lucky got her name.
When Lucy took Lucky down to the pond for the first time the other ducks tried to be kind. But it was hard for them not to quack with pride as their own ducklings swam and dived. Then along came Lucky, with her head bent to one side. She followed Lucy into the water and managed to swim well enough. But how was she supposed to dive with her beak pointing up at such an odd angle? All she could manage was a sort of Eskimo roll. She was like a canoeist going over sideways in the water with a very ungraceful splash.
“Lucky up. Lucky down.
Lucky cannot look around!”
It was true. With her crooked neck, Lucky had one eye forever pointing to the ground and the other pointing to the sky. Their parents told them off and explained how she was lucky to be alive. That just made it worse.
“Lucky duck to be alive.
Unlucky duck if you can’t dive!
Quack, Quack. Don’t come back!”
Lucky’s mum tried to comfort her. She told her the story of the ugly duckling that turned into a swan.
“Will I turn into a swan, mum?”
“No, but you will grow up to be a fine duck and keep your mother company. Not like those others. Quack, quack – they are never coming back when they go off to Market.”
Sophie had adopted Lucky. She had hand reared her on a special mash and tried to stop the other ducklings from picking on her. Lucy did not know much. But she knew that if a farm child liked you it was a good thing. You were safe from Market and sometimes even allowed into The House. Sophie’s dad let her keep Lucky. He did not want the other farmers to laugh at him for taking such a weird creature to Market.
One morning in spring Lucky went down to the pond and it was empty. All the other ducklings had gone. “Where is everybody?” she asked her mum.
Lucy looked at the other ducks. They stared back angrily. “Hush!” she said to Lucky, “Not so loud! See those other ducks. They are sad because their children have gone to Market. But I still have you.”
Lucky longed to know what Market was. It sounded so strange and terrible but she knew that now was not a good time to ask. So she went down to the water alone and tried not to look at the other ducks. That was quite easy. Because of her crooked neck it was easier to swim with one eye looking down for fish and the other gazing up at the sky.
Then she got a fright. Instead of a fish she saw a kitten under the water! She blinked hard then quacked with laughter. Looking up the kitten appeared in her other eye. It was perched on the branch of a tree hanging over the pond. The kitten in the water was just its reflection. She knew this kitten. It was Tiger.
“I made you jump there,” said Tiger.
“No, you did not,” she fibbed. “I saw an eagle up in the sky. They sometimes steal kittens, you know.”
She looked hard at him with one eye but he just laughed. “I’m not scared of eagles. I’m not scared of anything!”
“I bet you are scared of Market,” Lucky answered.
“Of course not! Kittens don’t go to Market. That’s for ducks and pigs and silly geese.”
“So what happened to the rest of the kittens, then? And why are you the only one left?”
“They have all gone to be house cats. They live in people’s homes and get looked after. Me, I can look after myself. I am going to be a farm cat when I grow up and catch all the mice in the barn.”
“I must be a house duck,” said Lucky. “Sophie looked after me and saved me from going to Market.”
“Have you been in The House yet?”
“Not yet. But I expect to one day.”
“I don’t want to go in The House. I want to stay in the barn and keep an eye on the mice. Mum is getting a bit old now. I expect she’ll retire soon and be an indoor cat. Those mice will have to watch out when I’m in charge!”
Lucky liked Tiger. He was funny and brave and a bit fierce. But she was not frightened of him. He was not cruel or unkind like the ducklings had been. And Tiger liked Lucky. To tell the truth he was a bit lonely since his brothers and sisters had left. And it was not much fun being brave if there was nobody to share your adventures with. Lucky and Tiger both knew they were going to be friends and they were both glad.
And there we must leave them. When I wrote this story I gave it its own website and you can go there to meet Hannah the Pig and learn what happens next when Lucky Goes To Market.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Uncommitted member of the Labour Party. Will they expel me before my direct debit expires?