This afternoon Nick and I did one of our favourite things – we went down to Victoria Park and fed the ducks. This is a park next to the University with a lovely lake and a huge colony of ducks, moorhen and the occasional goose and swan. Many, many people visit every day. The ducks are extremely well fed and very sociable.
Nick is sure that this particular duck remembers him and comes up to greet him each time we visit the park. It is true that there is always one duck who approaches us first. He also likes to be fed by hand.
As Nick was feeding the ducks a little boy joined us, aged about three. We gave him some bread and showed him how to break it up and sprinkle it. He was a dear little boy and kept saying “Billy loves ducks. Billy loves ducks.” His mother was nineteen years old and was studying for her Higher School Certificate because she dropped out of school when she was pregnant. She was finding it difficult to study as her son didn’t sleep well, so she rarely had consistent periods of time to herself. She lived alone in a one bedroom flat on the main road. Most of her neighbours had parties every night of the week which lasted until all hours. She came to the park every day because it offered her solace. ‘A little bit of earth in the midst of the city’ was how she described it.
Billy grew very excited when he saw Nick feeding the duck. ‘You’re bwave,’ he said over and over. Just before he and his mother left I ran over to the shop across the road that had one of those booths where you can print out your digital photos and printed all the photos of the ducks out for Billy. His mother left with tears in her eyes.
I watched her go, her thin shoulderblades sticking through her T-shirt, trying to respond with animation to Billy’s chattering. How hard it must be to be 19 and alone, with a three-year old child. Yet she didn’t complain. She conducted herself with such dignity I was humbled.
These two ducks followed us right around the lake. One of them is the original duck who approached us when we arrived, the duck Nick swears knows him.
‘She’s a beauty, isn’t she?’ A man named Malcolm came and sat with us, carrying five loaves of French bread and a six pack of beer. He was referring to the goose. ‘She a feisty one is old Lucy. Watch out, cause she nips.’
Malcolm comes to the park every afternoon with his beer and his bread to feed the ducks. He regards them as his family. He will sometimes sit and watch them and talk to them for three or four hours, going home as twilight falls to an evening of sketching what he has seen. He lives in singleman’s quarters across the road with a shared kitchen and bathroom. His fellow residents call him the Bird Man.
‘You can learn a lot from birds,’ he says. ‘Like how to care for others. The birds, they all stick together, the mothers don’t abandon their young, no one is left in the lurch. They swim together, they eat together, they sleep together. It’s a community effort. If humans were more like that we wouldn’t have the problems we have.’
Malcolm loves the park. It is an essential part of his day. It made me realise how important green open spaces are in urban environments. We work. We live in little boxes. We come out into the open air to breathe and talk and remember that we’re alive.
In under an hour I had two meaningful conversations with perfect strangers. I felt youthful, carefree as I stood in the sun laughing at the ducks waddling and splashing. The park gave us respite from the strains of city life, offering us a momentary haven, and a sudden surge of hope rising like voices in song.