Excuse me if I was so quiet, while the rest of you were talking about your animals. I have little to do with them, though dogs seem to like me well enough.
Yet I can tell you about one person who raised the love of animals to a profession and an art.
I grew up, as you know, on the city fringe, down in the ‘Loo. That was back when no one talked of its “character” because it had far too much of it. You lived there because you lived there.
The family had its crumbly old terrace house. Not far up the street lived an elderly Dutchman who was wholly and solely a trainer of ducks. He made a living by performing with his birds at Bullens, the Tivoli, various clubs; and it was known to be a good living.
He resided in the ‘Loo as a convenience, and also because it was cheap. You see, the old man’s one ambition, toward which all his efforts and earnings were bent, was to return as a prosperous burger to his beloved homeland, to “Horr-lund”, which the war, and only the war, had compelled him to leave.
Though parsimonious, he was good-natured, with the type of old man’s face that children adore; vertical creases connected villainous eyes to a fine, quick mouth, fluttering between mockery and authority.
His duck act was said to be the only one of its kind in the world. Indeed, if another such troupe existed, it could have been no match for the Dutchman’s. We saw this for ourselves each Christmas, when the old man gave a free performance in a local park – “forr Saint Nicholas”.
To our young eyes, the act was a series of wonders.
At a whistle from their master, six ducks would all hop forward on one leg, in concert. A second whistle had them all hopping on the other leg. The ducks might then play soccer on a legless ping-pong table, using their beaks as racquets – I was once the scorer! But these were only some of their tricks.
The highlight was always a dance performed by a black duck called Midnight. To the sound of a classical piece which, the Dutchman assured us, was named Duck Lake, Midnight would sway, jump, roll, lift one wing at a time…and even execute a ducky pirouette!
Yet the true joy of the show was the way each bird showed its own personality, which the owner could always draw out of it in performance. One brindled duck, a daydreamer, was always responding a touch later than the others; another was clumsy and given to rushing; and there was always a new duckling with soft-lemon fluff that drew ahhhs from the audience as it demanded cuddles from the other ducks and its trainer.
The brilliance of the act was very evidently the result of love, for the old man cherished his birds, working only by coaxing, rewards and tenderness. Much of the performance was taken up by nuzzling and kissing between ducks and master.
For all his courtesy, his house could not be penetrated. Obviously, secrecy was essential to his livelihood, and we learned to respect this. On those occasions when we had to go to his front door, he would answer the knock only after much delay and fuss. Then he would pry the door open as little as possible and finish the business, whatever it was, as quickly as possible. Sometimes a duck would shoot its neck through the opening and the old man would gently coax it back inside, without the least force or haste. In that moment, his tenderness seemed infinite.
When he announced his impending return to Holland we were all saddened.
Shortly before the date set for his departure, I was walking with my father down our back lane. It was the afternoon of a garbage night. Approaching the back of the Dutchman’s house, we noticed several red-stained sugar bags. Drawing closer, we could see that one bag had been ripped open by a dog, and that, protruding from the tear, was a black wing with an unmistakable white marking. It was Midnight!
Forcing me to stand back, my father then inspected the other bags – and found that they were full of the decapitated bodies of the Dutchman’s ducks!
He led me hastily from the scene – I remember feeling too numb to cry – then he decided it would be best to check on the old man, fearing that the trainer himself might be in danger, or the victim of a ghastly prank.
We went round to his front door and knocked, not without trepidation. Then, for the first time ever, the door swung wide open. The Dutchman immediately invited us inside. My father then began to gravely inform him of what we had seen in the lane. I watched each crease of the Dutchman’s face, expecting a reaction. The creases deepened…
The old man laughed, then explained in his resonant showman’s voice:
“They are telling me that I cannot take my ducks back to Horr-lund. Dutch quorrantine is the best in the worrld. Very strict!”
We gaped at him, paralysed by shock and curiosity.
“I was thinking: God! What if a clever bloke gets my ducks and starts up his own act? It happens a lot in show biz, you know!
“So I take my little darlings and chop their blinking heads off!
“Ducks are cheap. And when I am working again in Horr-lund, I will still be the only blinking one in the worrld. The only one!”
And, do you know, I was at the dentist the other day and read, in a recent copy of Variety, that the old Dutchman is still performing in Amsterdam – at the age of eighty-nine, mind you!
His act is unique.