Niamh stared at the green power light of the fire alarm above her bed. The too-loud clock in the hallway told her it was nearly midnight now, but she couldn’t sleep because of that mean light. If she were at home, she would have asked Daddy to cover it up so she could sleep. But she wasn’t at home, she was in a holiday home and it smelled of cigarettes and linen.
She got up and her socks felt warm on the thick carpet. She used the light from the alarm to guide her to the window. She threw open the dusty, fake-velvet curtains. When she had looked out of the window this morning she had seen a stretch of pearly swans and colourful ducks sunning themselves on the sandy edge of the lake. Loch, the Guide Man had told her they were called here in Scotland, saying the end of the word with a bear-like growl.
“And what’s that over there?” Niamh had asked.
“Over there in the loch?” the Guide Man replied. Niamh had to focus to make sense of the funny-sounding words. “That’s an island for the ducks. Duck Island.”
“What do they do on Duck Island?”
“They live there. I’ve heard that sometimes the ducks throw parties there.” He smiled in that odd way that adults smile at kids.
Niamh squinted at the little bit of land in the middle of the lake. She could see trees and grass, but it was too far away to see any ducks.
“Can I go to the island?” Niamh asked.
“That’s probably enough questions for now, Niamh,” said Daddy, with a laugh. He put his big hand on her shoulder, and that was the end of that.
All she could see out the window this evening was blackness.
Niamh knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. She wanted to sit on the sand by the loch and look at the island. She wanted to watch the ducks go there.
Niamh closed her curtains again. She had to be quiet so Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t hear her leave. She didn’t have to turn the light on because the green light was enough to see by, and she had eaten all the carrots on her plate at teatime and carrots make you see in the dark.
Niamh crept through the corridor. It smelled warm here, but warm in a bad way. She ran her hand along the wall, fingers tracing the uneven pattern in the wallpaper. She found her shoes by almost tripping over them. They were the ones with leather flowers on them, with a plastic button that was the middle of each flower. Niamh sat down, then slipped her right shoe on her left foot. It felt funny so she took it off and put it on the other foot.
A large snore came from Mummy and Daddy’s room, and Niamh stifled a giggle. She found the wall with her hands again and leaned against it to stand up. Then she felt her way to the front door and unlocked it slowly.
The air felt friendly on Niamh’s face. It smelled like thistles. Niamh could see better out here than inside because the moon was full and the stars were cheery. The stars were bubbly white, not evil green like the fire alarm light.
Niamh closed the door behind her and walked to the sand. It was too small to call a beach. She tried to make a sandcastle on it yesterday, but it turned out rubbish because the beach had the wrong sort of sand.
There was one duck here, with a green head, orange bill and grey body. He was asleep, his head leaning into his body to keep warm. Niamh didn’t want to wake him—she knew how hard it was to fall asleep. But she didn’t want him to be lonely when he woke up so she sat down next to him and picked some sand up in her hands. It was cool, but felt nice as it ran between her fingers, like she was a human hourglass.
Niamh looked at the island as the last sand trickled through her fingers. Now that it was night, it was a dark outline against the water. She liked swimming and could swim better than Roger Ackroyd at school, and he was better than her at everything. Nearly everything. This loch was cold, Mummy had said so, and it would be a very silly idea to go swimming in it. She wondered how cold the water was exactly. Niamh took off her right shoe, then her sock and shuffled closer to the water and dipped her foot in it.
Yow-zah! That water was freezing. Too cold to swim, no matter how badly she wanted to see the island.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a friendly voice said. But she didn’t think there was anyone else on the beach. She looked at the duck who was asleep next to her. But it wasn’t the duck since ducks don’t talk.
“Behind you,” said the voice, gently. Niamh turned to see a massive stag. It had big off-white antlers that looked too heavy for its head and fur that looked soft and warm. The stag leaned towards her. Now that she thought about it, she didn’t think stags talked either.
“I know I shouldn’t put my foot in the water since it’s far too cold to swim in Scotland.”
“You still did it,” the stag replied. Its tone was starting to sound like Auntie Grace. The stag leaned in further, as if he were about to whisper a secret.
“Because I want to go to the Duck Island,” Niamh’s foot was starting to get colder. She shuffled away from the water, picked up her sock, shook out the sand and put it back on.
“That’s a lovely coincidence. I’m heading to Duck Island now to listen to the ducks. Do you want to come?”
The stag looked at her with its pretty, dark eyes. “You’re in luck, because that’s Mr Charon. He can tell you all about the island.”
Niamh looked round to where the stag was nodding its head. But there was only the three of them on the beach; her, the stag and the duck. “You mean the duck?”
“But the duck is sleeping. And even if he wasn’t, ducks don’t talk.”
There was a quack, and Niamh realised that the duck, Mr Charon, was now awake. He stretched out his long green neck until he was almost twice his size, with a constant quack which Niamh realised was coughing. The duck stopped and said, “I think you’ll find that ducks do talk. They just don’t echo.” His voice was croaky and rough, whereas the stag’s voice was like listening to smooth music. Niamh should have realised that if stags could talk, there was no reason why a duck wouldn’t be able to.
“Oh,” Niamh said.
“But most of the time they don’t talk on this stretch of sand, because they’ve got sore throats from talking too much on the island,” the stag kindly explained.
Niamh nodded. “I want to go to Duck Island,” she said.
“That’s why I’m here. I bring people to the island. My name is Mr Charon,” Mr Charon said.
“I’m Niamh. But I still don’t understand how you can get me there.”
“On my back, of course.”
Niamh blinked. She wasn’t big for an seven-year old—Roger Ackroyd was bigger than her—but she was still a lot bigger than a duck.
The duck didn’t answer, but coughed again. Then he stretched out his wings and waggled his tail and Niamh could see him getting taller and taller and bigger and bigger. He grew until he was as tall as her, and then grew more until he was as big as the stag, and then he grew even more. Mr Charon stood up and plopped himself into the water.
“Hop on,” said Mr Charon. He was really big, but his voice still sounded the same, all rough and froggy from coughing.
Niamh stood at the edge of the water, then swung her legs over the duck, and put her arms around his soft green neck for balance. She almost fell in the water and the stag had to push his antlers against her back to stop her from falling in. When she was finally steady, the stag got into the water next to them.
Mr Charon coughed and asked her if she was ready. Then the duck launched off, kicking his strong, webbed feet through the water like a pedal-boat.
The loch lapped softly past them as they went. Niamh thought it was wonderful seeing the stars reflected on the water and the big white circle of light that was the moon. She was glad she was out past her bedtime, because she had never seen anything like it. It was beautiful.
“Aren’t you cold swimming in the loch?” Niamh asked Mr Charon when they were away from the beach, surrounded by calm water.
“We have special feathers that keep them warm and dry.”
Niamh wished she had feathers to keep her warm and dry. She had her sock on, but had left her shoe on the beach. Her sock was now slightly wet, so she felt the chill.
The island swam into view through the darkness—slowly at first, but then it rushed up to meet them. Mr Charon announced that it was the end of the line. She got down from his warm, feathery back, and watched the stag clamber out of the water and shake himself dry.
Niamh heard lots of chattering through the trees and knew it must be the ducks. She headed towards them eagerly, forgetting about her cold foot. Niamh peeled away the tree branches and trod over the grass until she could see ducks. There were hundreds of them. Some of them were brown with spots, some of them had green heads like Mr Charon and some of them were white. There were even a few that were half black half white. There was a table in the middle of all the ducks with a big light on it. Niamh couldn’t see any ducklings. Perhaps it was the wrong time of year for ducklings.
“So glad you could make it!” one of the ducks said, greeting the stag. “And who’s your friend?”
“Nice to meet you Niamh, I’m Ms Athena.”
Niamh saw Mr Charon walk over and talk to some of the ducks. There was a call to attention and all the duck chatter died down. Niamh looked over and saw something that looked like a cat, but had a wild glint in its eyes that a pet cat wouldn’t have.
“Settle down, settle down,” said the cat. “I see we’ve got visitors tonight. Please position yourselves in the Gallery.” The cat pointed to a few tree stumps and the stag went over to lie down there. Niamh followed. She didn’t think the stumps looked like a Gallery since there wasn’t any art.
“Who’s the cat?” Niamh whispered to the stag.
“That’s Mr Zeus,” said the stag. “He’s a special type of cat called a lynx.”
Mr Zeus had funny tufts on his ears, but Niamh thought it would be rude to say so.
“I presume that everyone received a copy of the agenda prior to the meeting?” asked Mr Zeus.
Niamh had no idea what that meant, but the ducks were now neatly sitting in a circle. In front of each of them was a leaf with words on it. Mr Zeus looked more important than the ducks around the table because he was larger, and he was taking charge. Next to him was a badger. It was black and white and looked a bit like the cat, but rather fat. The badger had her head down and was scribbling intensely.
“Apologies have been received from Mr Hermes who is currently away on business. Also, Ms Hypnos—I don’t know where she is precisely. While there are other absences, they have not sent apologies. Right, down to business: item one on the agenda. The minutes of the previous meeting were approved as being an accurate record of the occasion. Item two on the agenda. The request submitted by Clay Graves, the golden eagle, for a nest extension has now been granted by the council and the works will commence on Monday,” Mr Zeus said. His speech didn’t end there. It kept on going. And going. And going.
“What are they doing?” Niamh whispered to the stag.
Mr Zeus paused to look sharply at them.
“Item three on the agenda. We have received a complaint from Thana Azrail, the bottlenose dolphin, about the inaccessibility of this venue for marine creatures. While there have been proposals to move the council to a more suitable location, we have a series of obstinate rejections from Mr Ares, citing that this island is the traditional site of the council, and any transformations would subsequently break with this tradition. Furthermore, the movement would require stronger infrastructure and an astonishingly high investment for the location and further training.”
“We need to weigh this off against the inclusivity of such actions and what it would convey to the wider community,” Ms Athena said angrily.
“I want to go home,” Niamh whispered to the stag. She didn’t know what she had expected on Duck Island, maybe a party, or maybe just happy quacking ducks, but not this.
They kept talking and talking and then talking some more—first about what the dolphin had wanted, then something about a stupid tree branch and then a long talk about the ‘newly formed legal-action requirement of fire-retardant cladding on prior constructions.’ Niamh felt sleepy now, and her shoeless foot was cold. She wanted to go to bed, even if it smelled of cigarettes and linen.
Mr Charon said something angrily and other ducks replied equally angrily, and then all the ducks started chattering at once. They got louder and louder until Niamh couldn’t hear any words, only noise. No wonder the ducks all got sore throats! Mr Zeus told them all to be quiet.
After ages and ages, Mr Zeus said, “Item five: The meeting will reconvene a month from today, in the same location due to the rejection of a new venue. Dismissed.”
The ducks quacked and stood up, eagerly chatting.
“Can we go now?” Niamh asked the stag.
“Yes,” the stag replied. They headed back through the grass and trees with Mr Charon.
“Did you like the council meeting?” he asked with a cough. He had talked a lot during the meeting.
Niamh couldn’t even think to lie, she just kept silent as he grew, and then she sleepily slid on his fluffy back.
Mr Charon pedalled off through the water. It was pink now, like the sky, and punctuated with the occasional wispy cloud. Niamh breathed in the refreshing air and listened to the murmur of the breeze.
The beach came into view and Niamh felt relieved. As they got nearer, she could see her shoe with the leather flowers and plastic buttons, right where she left it.
“Thank you, Mr Charon,” Niamh said as she got off from his back.
“I’ll see you round for next month’s meeting. I’m always here on meeting days,” Mr Charon replied.
“I’m sorry, Mr Charon. I’m only here on holiday. I won’t be in Scotland next month.” Niamh was very, very glad to have an excuse.
“Oh, well, I’ll be sorry to see you go.”
Niamh smiled and watched as Mr Charon coughed and swam back to Duck Island. Then she found her shoe and put it back on the right foot.
“You should be getting back home. It’s getting light,” the stag said. He looked at the sky admiringly.
Niamh nodded. “You’re right.” She made to turn, and then looked back. “You never told me your name.”
“I’m Mr Logos,” said the stag.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr Logos,” Niamh said.
She wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about the island. Adults would only think she was naughty going away at night, and kids wouldn’t believe her about talking ducks. Niamh wouldn’t even tell Roger Ackroyd, even though she wanted to prove she knew more about the world than him. Then she smiled again at the stag and drowsily slipped through the door of the holiday home.