Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2018 Results




What an Ugly Duckling!

Copyright © Geoff Covey 2018


Admiral Drake paced up and down before stopping in front of the dish of wheat, oats and rye, and beginning to eat.

One of his juniors came hurrying up. "Quickly, Admiral, the eggs are beginning to hatch!"

But Admiral Drake did not move. He paraphrased the famous quote of that earlier Admiral Drake and pronounced, "I still have time to finish this bowl of grain and to dash to the spinach!"

Despite these brave words, he gobbled his food and then hurried to his mate’s nest (which was, as you guessed, next to the spinach patch on the farm).

Despite his high status, Admiral Drake was always affectionate, perhaps even romantic, towards his mate. "Hello, Lover Duck!" he greeted her as usual. "How’s it going?"

"Hello, Charlie," she replied (her pet name for him was Charlie Drake). "I think it’s very close! I can feel them wriggling in their shells… Ooh! They’re beginning to peck their way out – time for me to get off the nest!"

Lover and Charlie stood beside the nest holding wings and watching its six eggs wobble as their precious occupants struggled free.

At last! One egg shell broke in two and out tumbled a beautiful, fluffy, yellow ball.

"Hello, Ducky!" cried his parents in unison. The duckling waddled up towards its mother.

Four more times the same thing happened. Five lovely little ducklings were soon standing beside their proud parents. Just one egg remained.

This egg had been a puzzlement from the first. It was larger than the other eggs, and a somewhat different colour. It had caused Admiral Drake to cast the occasional suspicious glance at his wife – she had responded with virtuous dignity. However, she did admit that she only actually remembered laying five eggs, and had only noticed the sixth one when she came back to the nest after attending a hen party.

They waited expectantly, at last the last egg also began to wobble. A crack appeared. The shell fell in two. Out popped – a very different sort of bird!

"What an ugly duckling!" exclaimed Admiral Drake.

"Just a little different at birth – he’ll soon be OK," insisted Lover Duck, displaying all her motherly pride. But deep down she realised she was having to work at it.

This was indeed an ugly duckling. It was large and clumsy compared with the others. Instead of yellow he was dirty white. And he had scraggly feathers rather than soft down. His beak was all the wrong shape and his legs were black instead of yellow.

"Are you sure that …" began Admiral, but he stopped short at the glare his partner gave him. "Are you sure that they will all be OK," he concluded lamely.

After some thought, Admiral Drake decided to make the best of it and see how the odd one of his brood turned out.

Unfortunately, how he turned out was not at all well. Of all the badling (bet you had to look that up – I did) the ugly duckling was the most inept. When they swam, he just could not get the head straight down and tail in the air pose. With his oddly shaped beak he was a very messy eater. On land he would never adopt the proper waddle – tending to walk instead – whoever heard of a duck without a waddle?

Ugly duckling was naturally very sad at being so bad at all things canardian and at the mocking of his fellows. All this despite him giving his very best effort.

As time went on things just got worse – all the other ducks, drakes and ducklings were laughing at him, and even his immediate family were embarrassed by his presence. It had come to the point where even Lover Duck’s maternal prejudice was no longer sufficient. Something had to be done.

A meeting of all the adults in the badling came up with a plan. It was now early Autumn; they would start their flight to warmer climes a little earlier than originally intended and 'forget’ to tell the ugly duckling.

Accordingly, two days later, all the other ducks got up quietly and earlier than usual and waddled a little way away so that the sound of their wings would not be heard by Ugly. They took to the sky.

When ugly duckling eventually woke up he found himself alone. At first he was bewildered and looked around for his family. Eventually he realised he had been abandoned. He had known things were bad – but this bad?

He didn’t have the courage to try to follow the other migratory birds or even really understand why they were heading off. So with tears in his eyes he went off to a lonely clump of weeds and hid himself all through the winter-time.

In early spring the leader of a wedge of swans looked down and saw a lone white bird hiding in the lonely clump of weeds. He decided to investigate and led his wedge down to the water beside it.

"Hello," he said, "What are you doing here all by yourself?"

"I’m here because I’m such an ugly duckling that no one wants to be with me," he sniffed.

"Umm … you’re not actually a duckling; you’re a swan," replied the leader.

"Nah … Everyone tells me I’m a duckling – and an ugly one at that!" He started to whimper.

The leader was beginning to regret having investigated the lonesome bird, but felt he needed to go on now. "Look down at your reflection in the water."

The ugly duckling obeyed. "Nah … just as usual. Some big white bird swimming upside down under the water. And when I dip my head down to look at him under the surface … he disappears! I wonder how he does it?”

Oh brother," murmured the swan immediately behind the leader. "He’s ugly, doesn’t know what he is, and stupid. He’s got the full set!"

The leader could not help but grin (not easy with a beak) but pressed on. "Look, that’s your reflection. See we've all got them, when I raise my wing like this, my reflection does too."

"Gee! How does he know to do it? And how does he do it so fast?"

The leader counted to four very slowly under his breath (he would have counted to ten, but swans can’t go past four). "Look! It’s not another swan, it’s an image of me. A copy of me! And we’ve all got copies of ourselves in the water!"

"Oh! So you have, and they all look just like you. And I’ve got one too!"

"YES!"

"Gosh! I wonder why my copy is a swan instead of a duck."

"Aagghh!" The lead swan finally lost patience. "All right! Let’s try another way. What colour are your feathers?"

"White," said Ugly proudly – he could answer this one.

"Good. And what colour are all our feathers?"

"White!" Ugly felt he was getting good at this game.

"And what colour were your brothers and sisters’ feathers?"

This was a bit tougher, it required memory, but on reflection – no let’s not go down that course again – let’s say 'on thinking about it’, he remembered and replied. "Yellow."

"And what colour were your father and mother?"

"Various shades of brown mainly."

"And is your neck much longer than the ducks’ necks?"

"Well, yes, now I think about it."

"So your feathers are the colour of a swan’s feathers, not a duck’s, and your neck is like a swan’s neck, not a duck’s, and your reflection is like a swan, not like a duck. So what can you conclude?"

"I’m a very ugly duckling! With feathers and neck and reflection like a swan’s instead of like a duck's." He burst into tears.

"No! NO! NO! NO!" As you may have worked out, they were not mute swans. "It means you’re a swan!"

"Oh! I suppose it does, how about that?"

"Right. Glad we sorted that out! We’re now going to swim across the lake to the island where we nest."

"Oh, good. As I’m a swan too, I suppose you want me to come with you."

The lead swan realised he hadn’t thought this right through, and he couldn’t think of a polite way of refusing (swans may be vicious, but they are unfailingly polite). He contented himself with a non-committal, "Mmm," and the swans, including the latest addition to the species, started to swim across the lake.

Their new companion engaged in endless, inane chatter about how nice it was to be a swan, and did they enjoy being swans, and whether all swans start life as ducklings. Therefore, they were relieved when he was distracted by a flight of ducks landing on the water near them and becoming a raft of ducks (bet you didn’t know that the collective noun for ducks is different depending on whether they are on land, water or in the air).

He stopped talking, but only for a few seconds and then called out, "Hey, that’s my family from when I was a duckling! Hello, Mum. Hello, Dad! Look, I’m a swan now!"

"My goodness," cried Admiral Drake, "He’s not an ugly duckling anymore."

"No," concurred Lover Duck, "he’s grown into the ugliest swan I ever saw!"

The other swans sadly nodded their heads in agreement.