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The Duck Keeper

‘Holly, we discussed this. You agreed there’s nothing else left to try,’ Dr Falstaff announced. Holly recognised the tone of voice. He’d made up his mind.

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘But I’m only giving it one day. Immersion therapy might work for people who’re scared of crowds but this is different. It’s evil, in fact.’

‘Ducks, Holly. They’re ducks, not evil. You have to identify them as simple animals. That’s the key.’

‘Don’t lecture me, Dad,’ Holly moaned. ‘I hate feeling like one of your patients.’

‘I’m a psychiatrist and you have a phobia. I think it’s helpful for you to understand that I’m

equipped to get you through your anatidaephobia.’

‘That’s it. I’m going.’ Holly grabbed her fluorescent tabard and opened the car door. ‘I’d

rather be staring at the beady-eyed little monsters than listen to any more of your psycho babble. I can’t believe you’re putting me through this.’

‘You also needed a job, remember? I called in favours to get this for you. The first hour will

be the worst. After that, your brain will start to normalise. We can’t maintain high levels of fear for long periods.’

‘Maybe not, but I can hold a grudge for at least a decade,’ Holly muttered, slamming the car


The hotel was enormous. Its marble tiled lobby boasted a world famous central feature. The

man made miniature lake, waterfall and all, was lit with twinkling lights and surrounded by fake greenery. Holly reported to the front desk where a man thrust a whistle and keys at her, pointing in the direction of the rear of the building.

‘Ducks are in the wooden house out the back. I was expecting you earlier. Just unlock their

door and blow the whistle three times. They’ll fall into line behind you. Make sure no one touches them or they’ll be marching straight back into their house. Stay out of shot while guests are taking photos. You’re to remain in the background at all times but make sure you can safeguard the ducks if there’s trouble. Off you go.’

What sort of trouble could there possibly be, Holly wondered, as she found her way to the

rear of the hotel. The briefing couldn’t have been more dramatic if she’d joined MI5 and been

posted to protect a foreign dignitary.

The duck house loomed in the distance, all boarded up, horror movie style. She froze in

front of it. Remembered to breathe. Took another step. It was their eyes she hated. The blackness of them, the fact that you couldn’t tell exactly where they were looking. Only she knew they were staring at here. And here she was, about to unleash her personal version of hell for supposedly therapeutic purposes. There was no specific history to her phobia. No incident when she was a toddler. Just a steady dawning with each passing year that the flappy-winged, sharp-beaked creatures every other child thought cute and hilarious made her want to run screaming, and hide.

‘They’re just ducks,’ she said aloud as she slid the key into the lock. ‘Not evil. Just feathery

sweetness.’ Her heart was pounding as she opened the door and stepped back. There was a moment when nothing happened, then the orange brown arc of a beak appeared, followed by a head and a feathery body. The lead duck stepped forward. Behind it, quacking at the sudden daylight and freedom, came three other fully grown ducks and seven smaller ones - not babies - but not yet fully matured into a Holly’s nightmare creature.

Her panic threatened to overwhelm her. There was a momentary stand off. Holly stared at

the lead duck who made a sound that resembled Halloween cackling. Closing her eyes and

gathering her inner strength, Holly blew the whistle three times then turned around, moving slowly but steadily towards the door to the hotel. The ducks waddled in her footsteps. Holly felt faint, sick and ready to sprint all at once. She heard the mad squawk and spun round before she’d considered what might be happening.

‘Duck!’ a man yelled behind her.

The feathered demon flapped straight towards her face. Holly stumbled away, tripping over

her own feet, and landing flat on her back. The duck came in to land. Holly’s chest offered a

delightfully soft option for its leathery, webbed feet.

‘No,’ she murmured, unable to raise the volume of her voice at all. ‘Please, get it off. Help

me,’ she sobbed. ‘Help.’ The duck took a step forward, eyes glittering in the sunlight, head dipping as it moved.

‘Off you scoot,’ the man who’d issued the warning said, pushing the duck gently sideways

and picking Holly up. She covered her face with her hands, reddening with embarrassment, still shaking with fear.

‘You going to be okay?’ the man asked.

She took a deep breath. ’I suspect I now hold the world record for the shortest time a job has

been kept, and my duck phobia has been reaffirmed in the worst possible way. Apart from that…’

‘Maybe not,’ he said, calling over another staff member to relieve Holly of her whistle. ‘I

reckon there’s a better way to deal with your phobia than this. You don’t even need to stop working at the hotel if you want a job. Come with me.’

He lead her back inside through a different door, as the ducks waddled happily away to their

indoor pool.

Holly’s parents met her for dinner. She sat them at a table overlooking the hotel grounds and

cheerfully announced that she’d dealt with her crippling fear.

‘So your duck keeper job is a success!’ her father beamed. ‘Darling, I’m so pleased.’

‘Not exactly,’ Holly said. ‘But I have got a new job. Wait here.’ She disappeared behind

swinging steel doors and returned carrying two steaming plates.

‘Duck à l’orange,’ she smiled. ‘And don’t worry. Chef promises they’re not the ones from

the lobby.’

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