Ah, this is the life, isn't it, May?” Mallard sighs with satisfaction, as he makes himself comfortable along the lakeshore.
The crystal blue water shimmers beneath the light of the sunrise, its ripples appearing like goosepimples as morning warmth touches cold. The water moves up and down as though like Mallard, it takes a giant sigh of relaxation; breathing in and then releasing. The sun slowly rises, by far the largest buoy in the large lake. The more it peeps above the horizon, the further the orange glow seeps from the sun and spills its way, like ink, towards Mallard on the shore. His personal pathway to the sun. He knows things can't possibly get any better than this. Him and May, back in Ireland at last after a winter spent at their holiday home in South Africa.
“It's lovely, love.” May fidgets beside him, restless as always as she picks at some bread.
“You're not too cold? We could go somewhere else if you're cold.”
“No, I'm nice and warm, pet.”
“Are you tired after the flight? You look a bit tired. Maybe we should have gone straight home instead of stopping off here.”
“I am a bit tired, Mallard. It felt longer than usual. Or maybe I'm just getting old.”
“Well, it can't be that,” Mallard smiles. “It must have been longer than usual. Why don't you go for a dip?”
“That's a good idea.” She brightens up and hops over the harsh pebbles that border the lake.
Mallard looks out to the lake and spots familiar characters bobbing nearby in the waters. He quickly follows after her.
“Actually I'll join you, May. Those French lads over there were on the flight with us. Never stopped jabbering on for a second. Do you remember them?”
“Oh, you know me, love, I was in my own world. I was just watching the view for the entire journey.”
“Well that's what I wanted to do too but it was just bonjour this, oui oui that, all the way over. And I wouldn't trust them, males such as those just come over here to ruffle a few feathers, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, Mallard,” May laughs. “You exaggerate too much. They look like they're a friendly bunch to me.”
“Of course they do, that's what they want you to think. For Christssake don't look now, May, they're looking right over at us! Ah, hello there!” he calls across to them and adds under his breath, “They're coming over.”
“Eh yeah, bonjour to you too. Enjoy your flight?”
“Oui, oui, it was très pleasant. Scenery was spectacular all of the way. Let us introduce ourselves – je m'appelle Pierre and this is my brother Jean-Paul.”
“Nice to meet you,” May says politely.
“This is my wife May and I'm Mallard.”
“Ah! Mallard!” He laughs.
“Yes, my parents were imaginative,” he says, feeling himself heat up.
“What a charming name,” Pierre smiles. “Enchanté.”
Jean-Paul doesn't say anything. Mallard eyes him suspiciously.
The four of them bob up and down rhythmically in the water. The motion is soothing and the gentle breeze of the morning sun tickles and brightens their faces, like a paintbrush on canvas.
May disappears as she dives head down into the water, and not being the best conversationalist in the world, particularly with strangers, Mallard looks around awkwardly.
“So, Mallard, are you from around here?”
“No no, we live more inland, Carrick-on-Shannon to be precise, but thought we'd give this Lake Corrib a crack, seein' as it was such a lovely day and all and we've heard so much about it. We always travel with a large group, from in and around the same area, but we just thought we'd go out on our own for a little while. We'll head home shortly.”
May, who's still head down, kicks the surface of the water and manages to splash the three of them.
“Eh, sorry about that. May's a keen diver.” He watches the soles of her feet, splish, splash. “We've got a place in South Africa where we spend the winter but it's always nice to get back home, isn't it?”
“Bien sûr. J'adore Ireland. We come every year.”
“Is that so? Seems these days it's the other way around, with the country doing so well and all, the skies are filled with planeloads of people flying out to their holiday homes. Can't get away from the Irish at all, I find,” Mallard says seriously.
To his confusion, they both laugh and Mallard can't relax until May pops back up from the water.
“Where do you stay when you're here, Pierre?” she asks, shaking off the water from her face, sending droplets flying into Mallard's eyes.
“Every year we have spent months in Dublin city. J'adore Dublin. We spent most of our days in St Stephen's Green in Dublin. The weather was splendid; such a lovely park with a lake and waterfall. We have been every year, but for last year.”
Jean-Paul shoots him a warning look.
“Where did you go last year?” Mallard asked curiously, unsure of Pierre's brother.
“We stayed in Kildare last year but never again, now it harbours such sad memories for us.” Pierre's tone changes.
Jean-Paul who has been silent for practically the entire conversation looks away from his brother and floats ever so slightly away from them, detaching himself from the conversation.
Mallard, not good with emotions, looks to May for help. He cocks his head sideways, motioning for her to say something to the upset Pierre.
“Oh, Pierre,” May says softly, “I do hope everything is okay.”
“Non, ma frère, pardonez moi, my brother. We lost him on our last trip to Ireland.”
“Oh dear,” May says, “How did you lose him?”
“He was shot.”
“Shot?!” she gasps. “Sweet lord, where on earth, how on earth, who on earth would shoot him here?”
“We were exploring the area, we had never been to Kildare before. July last year. Très green, lots of golf courses, very pretty. But we see men with guns and they bang! bang! and Luc – he fall down.”
May gasps and moves closer to Mallard for protection.
“But surely the men were caught? And punished? I hope they were locked away for life,” Mallard says, feeling angry.
“Non. I'm sure these men were not, for there was nothing we could do. We had to leave him, to save ourselves. That I will never forgive myself for, but if we were to stay in the area we would be like sitting ducks. We do not know who the thugs are, where they are and how we can prove anything to anyone.”
Jean-Paul looks to him with concern and Pierre responds, “Je vais bien, Jean-Paul. Merci.”
Mallard is suspicious.
“Oh that's awful,” May sobs.
“Now now, love.”
“What is the world coming to, at all?”
“Oui, the violence. So unfair, so unjust.”
“I'm surprised you'd want to return here at all,” Mallard says.
“We flew to the north of England but it was très froid. Perhaps we will one day return to our home country, France, but we prefer it here and Luc would have wanted us to return to this place that we journeyed to together. We travelled here from South Africa with many friends, as I'm sure you saw on our flight, and we will stay with them. Écoutez moi, safety in numbers, Mallard and May, remember that.”
“Yes,” Mallard says, huddling closer to his wife. “Indeed.”
“Maybe we should go back home now, Mallard?” May asks in a quiet voice. “Back to our friends and family.”
“Yes, my love. Perhaps we should.”
They say their goodbyes and Mallard and May watch Pierre and Jean-Paul exit the lake and make their way back to their group.
“Oh how sad, Mallard. I don't know what I'd do if I ever lost you.”
“And I too, my love, I too.”
“You know I've wanted to thank you for not leaving me after we had the little ones...”
“Now, now, May,” he interrupts. “There's no need to get into all of that. It's in the past now.”
“No, Mallard,” she turns to face him. “I want to talk about it, you never let me talk about it. Most of my friends and Susie just recently... as soon as they had the little ones, their other halves were off. I've heard of it all too often. I don't know why they felt they all had to form that little male group together,” she says angrily. Then she softens, “But you didn't. You stayed with me and I appreciate that.”
Mallard takes in her little face, browned and soft. He smiles, “I couldn't have left you, my love, not for a second.”
“But I am so plain and you aren't. You are...”
“Hush, May, why are you speaking like this. I love you. We beat all the odds, didn't we? All these years together?”
She nods, happily.
“Now, let's get back to the rest of them, shall we?”
They bob up and down in the water for a little while longer, watching the sun rising in the sky, feeling content and safe with one another and savouring the moment. Mallard nuzzles May and they smile at one another.
Shortly after the sun has pulled itself out of the water, they leave the lake, dry off and begin their journey home. After many pleasant hours spent journeying through the countryside, they reach the outskirts of their home town.
“It's very quiet around here, isn't it?” May comments to Mallard, as they make their way through the village and to the peace and quiet of their home beyond it.
“Indeed it is, I wonder if there's something going on? A gathering somewhere of somekind?”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The loudest noise in the distance, so sudden, May lets out a scream.
“My goodness, Mallard! What on earth!?”
“Stay close, my love, stay close.” Mallard's heart slams in his chest while May whimpers beside him.
“Is it the people that Pierre was talking about?” Her voice trembles.
“It can't be, my love.” But Mallard doesn't sound so sure. “We must make our way as quietly as possible. Find somewhere safe to hide until they have gone. Honestly, a few months out of this country and look what happens. It feels like a war zone; what on earth has happened? Hush now, we must be quiet.”
They quietly make their way through the trees, only minutes from their home, trying to make as little rustling sounds as possible. They hear the men close by and suddenly Mallard feels far too old for this situation. If he was younger, he could be faster but he and May must be still now and very very quiet. May steps on a branch and it snaps loudly.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
He jumps. There is silence. He glimpses through the leaves, the men are nowhere in sight. He remains quiet a little longer and holds his breath, unsure if they're being tricked. When a few minutes pass, he sighs with relief.
“I think we're okay now, love. I think they're gone.”
May is silent.
His heart thuds again.
“May?” He spins around.
May is lying by his side, her eyes open staring lifelessly at the skies above.
“May,” he begins to whimper. “Oh, my May. My sweet May. Wake up love. Wake up.”
But he knows May won't wake, for the life in her has gone. He hears footsteps coming towards him. A hand reaches through the leaves and branches and comes down beside him. He moves away quickly. The hand grabs May and carries her upwards into the air.
“There it is,” the man says. “That'll do nicely for tomorrow's dinner.”
“Wife will be impressed by a bit of duck " l'orange,” the other jokes and they make their way back out of the trees.
Mallard, broken and lost, watches from his hiding place among the reeds, as they carry his May by her legs, hanging her upside down. They make their way through the marsh, their long hunting guns resting over their shoulders.
Now there is nothing but quiet for Mallard. He sits for hours on the muddy ground, listening to the sounds of shots far off in the distance and strains his ears to hear the sound of May's call. But it doesn't come. Anger sets in as he wonders what on earth the world has become. Such sadness overcomes him as he contemplates what his world holds for him without his May.
Hunger – and friends – find him alone and trembling hours later and so, building up all the courage he possibly can, he finally leaves the safety of his hiding place and flies off towards the same sun he had watched rise that morning with May. With each flap of his wings and with each memory of May, his heavy wings lighten as he allows his love for her to lift him. He floats higher and higher and follows his personal pathway to the sun.
Woman and Home Magazine have published Cecelia Ahern's latest Short Story; Mallard and May.
About the author
Before embarking on her writing career, Cecelia Ahern completed a degree in journalism and media studies. Her first novel PS, I Love You was one of the biggest-selling debut books of 2004 and a number one bestseller. Her successive novels are Where Rainbows End, If You Could See Me Now and A Place Called Here.
PS, I Love You, now been made into a motion picture directed by Richard LaGravenese and starring Hilary Swank, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Bates, Gerry Butler, Harry Connick Jr, Gina Gershon and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.