One of the ducks that wanders around just outside our front door had nine ducklings a few months ago. Everyone loves ducklings. Little bundles of golden yellow and dark brown fluff and emitting not a horrible, loud quack but a little peeping sound. Any human being who sees a line of ducklings following their mother (always with one smaller one struggling to keep up) is genetically programmed to say: "A-a-a-ah! How sweet!" and make sickly cooing sounds.
And cats love ducklings as well. From the point of view of a cat, a duckling has the huge advantage that it looks like a bird but it isn't going to make the smallest attempt to fight back, or even much of an effort to run away. I don't know what habitat evolution had in mind when it created the duck, but it wasn't this one.
The fortnight or so after the birth of the ducklings was like one of those slasher movies in which a group of female high school students are stabbed to death one by one by the psychotic little runt they were all rude to at kindergarten. One of them keeps saying: "What's that noise out there? I'll just go and check it out."
Then you have a long, slow progress down dark corridors with lots of creaking. The girl opens a door and there's a horrible scream; we all jump, and then discover that it's only a little cat. She gives a sigh of relief, turns around and there's the knife-wielding killer in an ice-hockey mask.
Of course, in the duckling version of this story, when the duckling says "Phew! Only a pussycat", the cat then promptly kills the duckling. That's another problem with ducklings. Not only are they slow-moving and stupid, they also haven't learnt from the films of the past. And as Guillermo Cabrera Infante has said, reworking Marx's dictum that those who have not learnt from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them: "Those who have not learnt from the films of the past are condemned to watch remakes."
The result was the most amazing body count. A couple of the corpses were simply found floating in the water. There was also the answer to the riddle, what's worse than finding a dead duckling among your children's toys? (Answer: finding half a dead duckling.)
In the end there was just one duckling left and its mother, who didn't seem too distressed about it. There is allegedly (and improbably) a Brazilian tribe whose numbering system consists in its totality of the terms "one", "two" and "many". I suspect a mother duck requires a calculator for anything more than one.
We then decided to make extraordinary efforts in order to keep this one duckling alive. Fortunately our cats are a bit like the villains in James Bond movies, in that they don't despatch their prey immediately: "I will enjoy watching you die, Mr Bond." They like to toy with their victims, to watch them suffer.
Thus on numerous occasions we've chased a cat round the lawn until it dropped the hapless duckling from its mouth. We've rummaged in undergrowth. I've become so attuned to the cries of distress that a duck makes when its offspring is snatched that I've been woken out of deep sleep and run out of the house in a dressing gown in order to fight for the life of a duckling.
It is a mad, disproportionate effort. Even if the duck survives through our efforts, it's not as if it is going to remember what we've done and return the favour some day. The memory of ducks is not proverbial. Why are we doing it? There's the celebrated man in Moliere who suddenly realises he's been talking prose all his life, and in similar fashion I suddenly realised that I was recapitulating Saving Private Ryan, only with a cast of ducks. Readers will doubtless recall that the plot of Steven Spielberg's war movie concerns the extravagant efforts to save a private, all of whose brothers have already been killed in action. The match is perfect, but the question is, why am I participating in a duck version of one of my least favourite films?
To quote Marx again, he famously said that history occurs twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. What he ought to have said is that history occurs three times: the first time as tragedy, the second time as a movie, and the third time enacted by a cast of ducks. Except it might not have got into so many dictionaries of quotations in that form. People might have thought it lacked wider application.