The Death of Daffy Duck
The two couples had eaten together once a month since their university days; eaten their way through menus of most of the decent restaurants in the city, and more than a few of the indecent. At times other shared their table - other couples, the odd ‘confirmed bachelor’ friend or visiting relative - but the booking was usually a Table For Four.
Things had gone well over the years for the four, professionally. Terry Hicks had established himself as one of the younger, and braver, bone surgeons in the city; his wife Mary - Mary Barratt, one of the first of her generation to keep her maiden name - taught architecture at the Institute. Scott and Jenny Greaves were both lawyers: Scott a barrister with the Crown Law Department, Jenny a private solicitor, dealing mainly with Family Law briefs.
Neither couple had yet produced children, although the time for final decisions was fast approaching. The women were now mid-thirties, and at times, especially late at night - alone with themselves, isolated by insomnia from the snug, sleeping world that surrounded them - both felt the odd prickle of anxiety. Their various mothers and fathers and mothers-in-law had long ago dropped the subject - on pain of death - but both women retained a half-conscious understanding that yes, they would one day have children, even if they denied the wish in public.
Meanwhile, there was still fun to be had, childless freedom to enjoy. The monthly diners were riotous affairs; money was thrown about as loosely as talk, course followed course, imported liqueurs followed imported wines, the tips at the end of the night were uniformly big irrespective of service. Mary (the architect) had a big penchant for desserts. Her meal often consisted of nothing but an entrée, followed by three different rich desserts; yet somehow she maintained the trimmest figure. Too trim, her friend Jenny privately thought, although in public Jenny always expressed mock chagrin at the quantities of food Mary permitted herself. In their schooldays together Jenny had been the ugly one, tagging along in Mary’s wake; now she felt more equal, was made to feel more equal, even, or especially, by the men. Clothes of most kinds still hung best on Mary but in a swimming pool, or naked before a mirror, Jenny was fully aware of who was more womanly in shape and volume. She was careful to keep her shape that way, but no more, by sticking to small picky seafood portions, salads, fruit platters.
It was usually Jenny’s insistence that led to the choice of restaurant: nouvelle cuisine, northern Chinese, southern Thai, once even a vegetarian place.
The bill was rotated between the couples, although if someone forgot their wallet or purse, or paid out of turn, no one worried - money seemed plentiful, generosity was a virtue that all four could easily afford.
At the birthday dinners - four a year - extravagant gifts changed hands: imported perfumes, cameras, wines, electronic toys. Spending on anything, for its own sake, was a form of generosity, Scott (Deputy Crown Prosecutor at thirty-five) proclaimed on one such occasion. Small, wiry, quick with his tongue, he liked to harangue his friends as if they were jurors.There was nothing wrong with conspicuous consumption, he pronounced, as long as the money was spent quickly enough.
'The velocity of money is what matters, not the amount. You have to keep the money moving. If everyone spends quickly enough, everyone can take turns being a millionaire.‘
'Briefly,’ his wife quibbled.
'Does that matter? You still get to spend the money.‘
There had been occasional hiccups in the relationship; in particular one upper-case Scene involving a smashed glass between the men. Scott was one of those whose dislikes were stronger than his likes, he was at his most passionate on things he detested, especially bad wine. Wine was his area of expertise; Terry had chosen from tthe wine list without consulting him and an absurd argument over degrees of dryness had followed; the smallest of disagreements, as always, provoking the most heated clash.
The second dispute was more serious. Terry had a kind of Daffy Duck voice that he often slipped into, especially late at night, or when drunk: a voice that let things slip out that were too embarrassing or too serious to speak of in normal conversation; a voice that could say things from behind a duck-mask, with a fool’s frankness. THe voice had quacked out its lust for Jenny - his wife’s friend, his friend’s wife - once too often, the truth half hidden under cover of banter, but this time not sufficiently. The silence that followed revealed something about themselves to each of the four.
That silence seemed to last for minutes. Finally one of the two things had to happen: someone had to say, yes, let’s do it, let’s swap, or someone had to say, I think that’s enough, you’ve spoilt the evening. It could go either way; Mary chose the latter, reining her husband in.
After the paying of that particular bill, there had been no dinner for several months. And yet even lust for another’s spouse was forgivable, and finally easily forgivable; forgiveness was another virtue all four could easisly afford.
And the subject was now dead. Despite the odd thigh grope beneath the table, things had developed no further; all four were contented in their marriages; contented enough, at least, to prefer the ease and familiarity of friendship to the disturbances and and unpredictability of lust.
It was the third Scene that proved irreparable.
Scott and Terry had always been competitors to some extent. Their friendship had grown through the two women, old school-friends on alternate Thursday nights.
Terry had been an athlete, solid and muscular at school; the good life had filled that athleticism out, it was now a little overfed, reddish-skinned, lumpen. His shirt collars were too tight on his plump neck; the skin of his face had thickened and coarsened. He was known in the hospitals as an athletic surgeon: good hands, quick reflexes, capable of record-time joint replacements - a Hero, in the parlance. Neither intellectual nor diagnostician, he enjoyed most the hands-on stuff, the actual sawing, drilling, cutting. He revelled in massive road trauma: multiple injuries, rapid decision making, all-night operating marathons, actual physical challenges.
He always ate red meat. Off-call, beyond bleeper range, he always drank heavily. He often spoke with his mouth full, it seemed to help his Daffy Duck voice. And once - in a crowded Gree Taverna - he breathed in as he spoke.
This also seemed to be a performance at first, a duck-spluttery cry for help.
'Gone down the wrong way?’ Mary asked, good-humouredly, as her husband began to cough.
Jenny reached over to pat his back, but he had already run out of air to cough with, the cough was swallowed by a strangled sound and suddenly he was on his feet, rearing up, something large and red-faced breaching above the surface of seated diners. His gagging was framed in a total, sudden silence; then people at nearby tables began shouting.
'Christ! Somebody help him!‘
'Ring an ambulance!‘
His face purpling; he seemed to be trying to say something - perhaps how to help him - but no sound emerged, there was no breath to fill out the words. He took a single step back, then fell forward onto the table in a clatter of glass and cutlery, ripping frantically at his collar and tie.
'Is there a doctor here?’ a waiter screamed above the shouting diners, but the only doctor seemed to be choking to death, among broken glass and spilled wine, on a table-top.
It took Scott - usually so quick in court, so decisive, at least with his tongue - some time to react. Or to realise what was happening. Somehow he knew what to do: seizing his bigger friend from behind, balling both his fists in the solar plexus, jerking up and back with all his strength. Something seemed to give, a loosened plug; Terry rolled away onto his side on the wrecked table, a stream of vomit was coughed out onto the floor. For a moment everything seemed to stop again - waiting, frozen-frame - then he began wheezing, making great sucking sounds, still panic-stricken. Scott forced a finger into his friend’s mouth, searching for any further blockage, and was rewarded with a bite; he jerked back his finger with a shout of pain, bleeding heavily.
The ambulance arrived, a stretcher was wheeled in, but Terry was rapidly recovering. He recognised the ambulance officers - foot-soldiers from an army that he usually commanded - and abruptly refused to go with them, sitting off to one side of the table, dropping his head between his knees, still wheezing.
'The might need a couple of stitches,’ an ambulance officer murmured to Scott. He flipped open a first-aid box and wrapped the bleeding, bitten finger in an oily gauze.
'I’ll be fine,’ Scott said, some part of him not wanting to steal the scene from his friend.
He sat down again at the table with Terry and the two women. Around them the restaurant was returning to normal. Their tablecloth was deftly whipped away with all food cutlery, plates and vomit wrapped inside it; a fresh cloth was flung casually across the wiped wooden surface and drinks and place-settings materialised.
No one seemed to speak, and at length Terry rose, peeled off a couple of large coloured notes from his wallet, and walked out of the restaurant.
Mary sat for another thirty seconds or so, then rose also:
'Perhaps, I’d better leave too.‘
'Of course,’ Jenny murmured.
And so they parted, four people who had never, until that moment, asked a single question of the world; had never had reason to. They were innocents, insulated from the kinds of pain that had goaded lesser minds than theirs into better lives than theirs; there had been no real mysteries.
Terry failed to appear at the golf club the following Saturday morning; Scott made up a foursome with some old school friends after waiting an hour at the clubhouse bar. In the afternoon he left a brief, cheerful message on his friend’s answering machine, but some sixth sense told him not to press further; especially when on Saturday morningg a fortnight later, as he was chipping onto the eighteenth green, he saw Terry on a distant fairway with a couple of total strangers.
Jenny reported home after a bridge night that Mary had merely mentioned that Terry was ‘busy’, avoiding any further discussion. Mary herself rang Scott after a month, her voice steady as she explained that Terry ‘didn’t feel up to facing you right now’.
'But I would like to thank you for what you did,’ she said. ‘Who knows - it might have been serious.‘
Scott took some umbrage at this, as did Jenny when he replayed the conversation to her. Her years as a teenage ugly duckling had given her a sharp sense of justice.
'It might had been serious?’ she said, in a voice as near to a shout as she ever came. ‘You saved his life! Don’t they know that?‘
She planned to make that very point to Mary at the next bridge night, but Mary didn’t show; someone’s husband was required to stand in at short notice to make up the numbers. The same husband was required again the following fortnight, and the fortnight after that a new member was found to join the circle, permanently.
There were no more restaurant Tables For Four; Jenny’s birthday brought a card from mary, and a brief note - snowed under with work, hope to catch up with you soon - which both Scott and Jenny were now able to recognise meant exactly the opposite.
In the small, closed universe of their city all paths intersected sooner or later. Once, Scott thought he saw Terry cross to the other side of the mall, and vanish into a shop as he approached. But there could be no crossing the street when the two men came face to face in a corridor one day of the year later.
'Terry, how are you?‘
"Never been better.‘
Scott had halted, but Terry was still moving, almost past him. Scott wanted to reach out to restrain his friend, but hesitated too long. As Terry talked away he made on last attempt to break the ice, turn the taboo subject into a joke, defuse it with humour. Once it was out in the open, he sensed, the problem would vanish.
'Last time I saw you, you didn’t look so good,’ he said.
Terry stopped, and turned. His face seemed genuinely puzzled: ‘Must have been a long time back, Scott.‘
And he walked on, leaving Scott standing, flatfooted; but after a dozen paces he turned yet again, and this time shouted, his face purple with anger, as purple as it had been on the night of the Scene:
'What do you want - a fucking medal?‘
The words came in a shower of duck-spittle; then he turned on his heel and walked quickly away, and the two men would never speak again.
This was written by Peter Goldsworthy, I’ve copied it out of his book Little Deaths. It’s most likely copyrighted, but somehow I hope he doesn’t mind, I find this short story speaks a lot of truth, its message seems almost universal, for me. I was shown this in year 11 and it struck me then, and when I found my photocopy I felt it should go on here.