Little ducks all in a row
Philip Walford

The grandmother readies them in the hallway, affixing grips and pins to frizzy blooms of hair their mother would allow to escape but she will not, buttoning up coats against the impending cold, and looking down with a stern love meant to ensure close attendance and good behaviour in the thawing world outside. The grandmother readies herself in the hallway, democratically enforcing on herself the same standard of dress she applies to her grandchildren, turning to them with a show of similarity.

The great-grandmother had no time to ready her children amidst the roaring sound rising from below decks, and the ecstatic creaking of bulkheads soon to burst. The grandmother had been wearing her warm jacket when they filed aboard, but the thousands of bodies crammed into the public spaces of the ship had created a heat that might have almost felt exotic had it not been for the way it warmed the shit in hundreds of nappies and created a stench both impossibly sweet and impossible wretched at the same time; so she had taken it off and in the immediate panic of those first moments of noise, the great-grandmother had not thought to instruct her to put it back on, as the black and cold and oily sea was still a distant place. This was not to the great-grandmother’s discredit – in the dark, with countless bodies suddenly mobile, newly desperate, stretching and interleaving and breaking apart in the space around her, it was task enough to gather the grandmother and the sadly-no-longer-with-us great-uncle to her side and stop them all from being swept away by the pyroclastic flow of people set in motion by the sly Russian torpedoes.

The street outside is empty of people and cracked in places, and the grandmother quickly puts a stop to the excessive swinging on her arms that the two grandchildren use to express their joy at being allowed outside; their mother may have the joints for that, but she does not, and she has no desire to topple over onto the crazed slabs because these girls, they would not know what to do in such a crisis, though God forbid that they should ever be put to such a test. The grandchildren pout, albeit silently, but know better than to test the grandmother’s resolve, which is as old and weather-beaten as her face, and has that quality that is not common to all things as they age, whereby they sometimes increase in strength the older they become. Some parts of her are weakening though, as the grandmother cannot, no matter how hard she tries, recollect that after concrete is poured it cures.

The grandmother and the great-uncle clung to the great-grandmother’s hands as they moved within the plume of bodies towards the deck, and even if you tried to imagine the fear the great-grandmother felt every time she detected a growing looseness in her grip on either the grandmother or the great-uncle’s hand, you would still probably fail, not unless you had lived through a moment when your connection to something very precious suddenly felt contingent and perishable rather than permanent, as we hope our grasp on the things we rely upon for purpose, hope and happiness will always prove to be.

The road that leads from her daughter’s house to the nearby park is heavily canopied by well-tended trees that have even been known to keep off rain at certain times of the year. The children walk either side of the grandmother, and allow their attention to flit from pigeons to cars to patches of sky that peek through the imperfectly tessellating leaves. Their resulting questions annoy the grandmother, at least as much because she believes they should already know the answers to some of them as because she honestly does not know the answers to the rest. She feels the children need constant attention, that were she to fall silent they might question her continued presence despite the press of her gloves against their soft hands and the forward surge of her subtly quicker pace. The children are pampered, she thinks, but she cannot bring herself to quieten them, or deny them the safety of her hands, or tell them of their great good fortune.

In the ship’s passageways lights flickered as generators submerged and the great-grandmother felt bodies underneath her feet and hoped her children, who she could not see, were not looking down. The seizure of illumination threw the patterned walls into shadow and relief, and gave the roiling many-headed crowd an occasional movement, like figures captured in a zoetrope. In both light and darkness the noise was total; the baritone of men, the mezzo of women and the reedy anguish of children laid down like geological layers topping out the passageway. The great-grandmother still strained to hear the voices of her children, but neither the grandmother nor the great-uncle’s voice could be picked out from the cacophony. Despite this, she spoke to them, urging them without raising her voice, leaving her words for them to find, or by providence be carried to them, in the hope that they would be able to keep hold of her hand as she led them towards the deck.

At the end of the road, where the sentry-line of trees opens out into a sky the colour of the river in winter, they come upon the part of the route the grandmother dislikes most. Its fanciful name is Imperial Hill, and it stretches up towards the plateau of the park at an incline so steep that at points the local authorities have cut steps into the sidewalk for the safety of pedestrians. Even the children tire on the slope when attempting its peak, despite the boundless energy they seem able to call upon again once it has been crested. The grandmother is old though, inescapably old, and while she possesses enviable vitality for a woman of seventy (which is the round number she has been giving as her age for at least the past half-decade) she has not escaped the degradations of her years. She now thinks of the handful of times she has been close to death whenever she gets out of breath, imagining her life literally puffing from her slack cheeks, perhaps using the memories as a kind of totem, proving to herself that she has felt the end nearing before and evaded its lunge. They reach one of the stepped sections almost half-way up, and the grandmother calls them to a halt, all three fitting snugly on the same perch, absolutely still, their breath spectral on the cold air, three necks straining unconsciously for the summit.

The great-grandmother wondered then if it was simply their destiny to die as she felt even the fundamental force of gravity set itself in opposition to their survival. In the flickering dark, her legs became heavy and the effort of scrambling forward seemed to multiply along a graceless curve. She could not see the bow of the ship already being overcome by waves, angling the vessel inexorably down below the surface, lifting the stern towards the unhindering sky. To the great-grandmother there was just fate, clinging at her ankles like another of the crushed underfoot, slowing her, making the grandmother and the great-uncle heavy, pulling them all towards the unseen depths.

The children have lives that to the grandmother seem inadvisably free of the minor hardships that shape young souls along a moral contour. Their days are entirely devoted to pleasure, and there is no indication that this will change before the law requires them to participate in full-time education. Their mother is intent on keeping them out of the schools for as long as she is able, as if exposure to the children of other families that obey other rules might taint them in a way that can never be taken back. Their routine consists of outings with their mother to the park or the zoo or the beach on the opposite bank of the river. They know nothing of chores or housework or burdens, and while she cannot actively introduce any of these into their lives, the grandmother does not hesitate to tell them stories of lives harder than theirs, and the price that most people have to pay for the freedom and leisure they have enjoyed in their first five years. It is perhaps for this reason that her daughter does not entrust her with their care as often as she might, though nothing has ever been said about it, and in fact the children listen to her stories about the harshness of the lives of others with exactly the same intentness and hunger for experience that they listen to the stories of heroes and talking animals that the television tells them when they wake up and that their father recycles for them before they go to bed.

The great-grandmother had been on the ship once before in the summer of 1938 when she and her husband had been allocated a place on a KDF cruise to Italy. The vessel had been almost new then, and they were only among the third or fourth group of passengers, so they’d explored each turn of its long corridors and the detailing of its public spaces as if they had been made specifically for their discovery. It was entirely possible that the grandmother had been conceived on that cruise, though the great-grandmother did not have the presence of mind to calculate the exact timings either after she discovered she was pregnant in the autumn of 1938, or when she distantly recognised the great mass of the ship looming above them in the crush of Gotenhafen harbour. It wasn’t until she heard the voice of a crew member issuing instructions over the tannoy that she remember the same static whistle had prefaced every announcement and inspirational maxim six years earlier, and felt instantly that she was in the same place despite the dark and heat and noise and stench. With human bodies underfoot and the sound of steel wrenching and collapsing in the darkness, neither great circles nor GPS could have helped the great grandmother plot the ship’s course from that sunny morning to this dark night.

Having rested on the roadside, they eventually conquer the peak and enter the park which sits at the top of the hill. The wrought iron gateway is capped by the numerals of a year over a century in the past, twisted in gold that the grandmother could never explain to her daughter, and which she has failed in recent weeks to explain to her grandchildren. Beyond it lies a duckpond, a model railway, all manner of swings and toys, and a broad, flat expanse of well tended grass on which many children are already running and playing. The grandchildren are immediately stricken with the paralysis often faced by those able to choose without consequence, as one moment they are pulled towards the swings, and the next they clamour for a ride on the model railway. The grandmother has a particular look, which the grandchildren have learned already – it is not lacking in love, or even patience, but it inescapably demands calm and reason, so they quickly recover from the chaos created by the gravity of desire pulling on their juvenile bodies, and look winningly up at her while asking with sibling synchronicity for a trip on the toy train.

Already the sounds of bodies falling into the cold Baltic were audible to anyone reaching the deck. The great-grandmother emerged into the freezing night, both hands still clenched around the grandmother and the great-uncle’s hands, her cries for attention as a mother thoughtless and automatic. Rough hands propelled them towards the side of the ship, already lurching towards the glassy water. A white-painted lifeboat was being readied, and despite the improbable mathematics of thousands of other desperate bodies, the great-grandmother and her children found themselves being lowered towards safety, even as the great ship itself groaned further towards the waves.

The driver of the train invites the grandmother and the grandchildren to sit in the cabin with him. He is old, perhaps in his mid-sixties, and it is not the first time he has attempted to curry favour with the grandmother by giving the grandchildren special treatment. The grandmother has not once reciprocated his interest, but this has not stopped him learning the grandchildren’s names and greeting them with genuine recognition and enthusiasm whenever they decide to ride the train during their mornings at the park. Because of this she does grudgingly admit to herself that at the very least he seems like a pleasant man who holds the happiness and enjoyment of the grandchildren at least as high in his intentions as he does making a good impression on her. The route of the train is not long, winding through the aviary and between the elaborate climbing apparatus that lean high over the park like fortresses. Once the grandchildren have taken turns pulling the thick cord that sounds the train’s steam whistle, their journey is almost over, and the silver disk of the duckpond comes into view. The train driver waves them goodbye, and creditably makes only the most cursory and polite farewell to the grandmother as they move off towards the pond, and a commotion by its side that suggests its feathered inhabitants are charming the thronged children and their minders.

The lifeboat rocked in the night-time swell, and the thud of frozen bodies hitting its wooden sides achieved a sad syncopation with the straining in-out breathing of the survivors huddled under blankets and sailcloth. Cyanose faces looked up from the becalmed sea, slumped in lifejackets as if they had succumbed to laziness and bad posture rather than cold and death. The great-grandmother looked out over the lip of the lifeboat, her son curled and asleep, her daughter attentive at her side. Among the floating slick of adult bodies, they both wordlessly recognise childish feet, upturned in oversized lifejackets, faces downturned, eyes following the sunken ship.

The pond stretches out before them, concrete rimmed and murky. The grandmother turns away as the ducks lift their tails and bob before diving towards the bottom. She listens to her grandchildren laughing and chattering and pointing at the display of energy and hunger, but hears nothing beyond the silence of sixty years, and the sound of waves lapping against canvas and legs that sprout from the sea.

Philip Walford is a writer from London with work forthcoming in Foundling Review and a couple of other places.

Photograph by Eleanor Leonne Bennett