Duck a l’Orange
The bank statement lay on the desk. Jim tried to concentrate but his mind was agitated. He had analysed the figures again and again. How could his business make it through the next few months?
It was half past four in the afternoon. He had been alone in the small office all day and the phone had not rung once. His hands shook as he drained his coffee, his trembling fingers running over the mug. It featured a flock of yellow and orange plastic ducks racing down a river. “Enjoy the Quack at a Duck Race” was emblazoned across it alongside the company’s phone number. He remembered how smart he had felt when he had come up with the slogan now adorning the mugs, key rings and plastic ducks that made up the company’s promotional items; how proud he had been when he first rented this one-roomed office; the thrill of seeing his company name on the brass plaque on the door outside: Cosgrove Corporate Entertainment Ireland.
Looking back, setting up his business had been such a carefree time. The bank had thrown money at him. He had had such plans, to start small and gradually to grow bigger. Orders had flown in, almost more than he could cope with, and suddenly, nothing. All of his clients had slashed their corporate entertainment and training budgets. It was as if a tap had been turned off.
He looked up and down the bank statement. He clutched his stomach as it churned. There was some business lined up in the summer but for the spring there was hardly anything. If he could get through the next few months he could survive until the autumn. A furrow cut through his brow as he concentrated.
It had been a long-time dream to return to Ireland. He had taken a risk leaving a great job in England to set up on his own. Now his wife, Anne, was expecting their first baby that summer. He would not tell her yet about the state of the business: she should avoid stress during the pregnancy. He was thrilled about the approaching arrival and wanted to provide for the baby but instead was in danger of losing their home. It meant a lot to him to have a family of his own. His parents had died when he was eight and he had been brought up by his grandmother. She had been mother and father to him. He folded his arms on the desk and laid his head sideways on top of them, trying to remember her to distract his mind from the bank statement. He pictured her small thin frame, her short grey hair, the resolute expression in her gentle brown eyes. She had been dead for many years but her wisdom had stood him in good stead. No doubt she would have told him now that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Thinking of his grandmother stirred him into action. There was no point in wallowing in despair. It was five o’clock. He would leave early.
He rinsed the mug and left it to drain beside the sink in the corner of the small office. His whole body was perspiring. Splashing cold water on his face he looked at himself in the mirror that hung above the sink. His thick brown hair was showing the first signs of grey. His face was pale and his blue eyes were dull and held an expression he did not recognise. Fear; the realisation shook him. His breath grew short and shallow. His hands felt sweaty though he had washed them a minute before. He put on his outdoor jacket over his suit, placing his sandwich box in one pocket and a few plastic ducks for the neighbour’s children in the other.
Heaving his chest up and expelling a huge sigh, he locked the door of the office behind him. His footsteps echoed as he walked down the empty corridor. Observing the forsaken brass nameplates on the doors of three small businesses that had closed recently, he reflected that he would not be the first to go out of business. Making sure the outside door clicked shut behind him, he pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck and braced his shoulders against the biting wind, unusually harsh for early February.
His eyes watered with the cold and he blinked to clear them. It was strange that life went on as normal in the outside world. He trudged down Pearse Street in the fading daylight. Tall grey stone buildings lined each side of the street. It was the peak of Dublin’s rush hour: cars queued at a standstill; horns honked; brakes screeched. A train rattled by on the bridge overhead, its lights reflecting in the windows of the Science Gallery. He crossed at the traffic lights, turning into Westland Row, carried along in a throng of workers finished for the day and making their way towards the train station. He shivered; he would treat himself to a coffee to warm up before catching the train.
Tony shifted in his grubby sleeping bag, half lying, half sitting against the front wall of an office building. He pulled the cardboard box around him and rearranged the stack of newspapers to block out the wind.
‘God bless ya, mam,’ he shouted out as a woman threw some coins into his paper cup. Wisps of grey hair escaped from his navy woollen hat under which his piercing blue eyes looked out. Crowds of commuters rushed by, intent on getting into the train station and out of the cold.
‘It’s going to be a cold one tonight, Tony,’ called out a young woman as she threw more coins into the cup.
‘Thanks, Miss. Ah, me ol’ bones feel stiff this evening.’
‘Jeez, Tony, it’s freezing outside. You get yourself into a shelter tonight, right?’demanded a man who worked in the office just behind Tony’s space. He dropped a euro coin into Tony’s cup. ‘It’s not much today, Tony. We’re all feeling the pinch.’
‘Ah, God bless you son,’ Tony replied in a voice that sounded as if he had swallowed a shovelful of gravel. ‘You get yourself off home now to the missus and chislers.’
Before long, Tony’s cup was half full. He had no intention of going into a shelter tonight. Someone else might take his coveted patch near the train station in Westland Row. It had been his for years and he wasn’t giving it up without a fight. The regulars knew him and though proceeds had dropped recently, he was eking out a living. Repositioning himself inside the cardboard box, he buried his grey beard inside the sleeping bag until only his shaggy eyebrows and red nose were visible.
‘Tony, for the love of God, would you zip up that sleeping bag?’ shouted another passer-by. ‘You’ll be petrified with the cold.’
‘Sure they’re setting fire to sleeping bags now. You have to be able to get out quickly. You don’t want to be trapped inside, believe me.’ Tony took a short swig from an unseen bottle in the brown bag beside him.
Jim passed by Tony on his way into the convenience store.
‘Hi, Tony,’ he mumbled. He had only learned the name of the vagrant recently though had seen him often at this place. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Sure, it’s grand,’ Tony replied. ‘Though at the rate that shower up around the corner in Leinster House are behaving, the country will be broke soon, broke I tell you.’
Jim grinned in spite of himself. By reading discarded newspapers, the tramp managed to be as well-informed as anyone else and never held back his opinions. Something in the steadfast expression in Tony’s eyes reminded Jim of his grandmother and he stopped.
‘Tony, have you had anything warm to eat today?’
‘Ah, I’m grand. The ol’ dog for the hard road.’
Jim struggled with his conscience as he went into the shop. He was broke and almost bankrupt. What business had he helping the homeless of Dublin? He sighed, knowing that the reminder of his grandmother had won him over. He might as well go out with a bang instead of a whimper. It was not a good idea to give money to alcoholics in case they spent it on alcohol, so he bought a large chicken roll, a takeaway vegetable soup, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate and, bending over Tony, handed them to him.
‘Here you go Tony, get these inside you.’
‘God bless you, son, God bless you,’ Tony’s voice sounded shaky now but his eyes were clear and shining. ‘May you get your reward in heaven.’
Jim felt he had already got his reward as his mood had lifted by helping the old man. As he straightened back up, two of the plastic ducks in his pocket fell out.
‘What’s this?’asked Tony. ‘The main course? You’re spoiling me. I’ll be eating real fancy tonight – I’ll have duck a l’orange.’
His guffaw turned into a cough that racked his whole body, his shoulders lifting up to his neck and the thin outline of his frame shaking through the sleeping bag.
‘I’m telling you, the Lord Mayor himself up in the Mansion House won’t be eating as well as meself tonight,’ he wheezed.
Jim felt humbled. Although Tony was ill, cold and hungry, his Dublin wit was still razor sharp.
‘I’d better run now if I’m to catch my train. See you soon, Tony, and wrap up warm tonight.’
‘God bless you, son,’ Tony replied.
Leonora jumped off the train as soon as it stopped, her long blonde hair flying out behind. As she took out her wallet to insert her travel card into the ticket machine, her mobile phone rang.
‘Oh, it’s all happening today,’ she moaned, as she dug deep into her leather bag for her phone and made her way through the barrier. ‘Can’t talk. I’m late for a Junior Chamber meeting. Worse, I’ve not had a chance to do my fundraising proposal. And even worse, it’s a national meeting tonight so the whole executive will see me caught out.’ Leaving the station, she shoved the phone back into her bag, clenching her travel card between her teeth while she rummaged for her silk scarf.
She gasped as the wind cut through her, the contrast even starker due to the recent heat of the train. She found her leather gloves, put them on, and was just about to put away her travel card when her phone rang again.
‘Hi again. No, it’s fine, I want to go to it. I know I moan about it but I like doing voluntary stuff. It seems a bit limited if life is just work, work, work. OK. Bye for now.’ She put her mobile phone back in her bag without noticing that her wallet had been dislodged.
Tony looked up as the wallet landed beside him. He picked it up. ‘I’ve no need of this’, he decided. ‘I’ve had enough good luck today and have a big feast here waiting for me.’ He shouted. ‘Miss? Miss?’
Hearing his call, Leonora stopped. ‘Oh, no, not another delay.’ She walked back towards Tony. ‘Yes? Are you calling me?’ she asked nervously.
‘Miss, you dropped this,’ Tony held out her wallet.
Tears welled up in Leonora’s eyes. She was embarrassed that she had been reluctant to talk to the old man when all the time he just wanted to help her.
Oh, thank you, thank you so much. That is very good of you. I’m so sorry; I have nothing to give you to show my gratitude. I don’t have any cash in it but I would have been lost without my cards. How can I thank you?’
‘Ah, it’s no bother, all in a day’s work,’ Tony handed it to her. ‘You look like a nice young lady. Don’t be losing your purse because you’re rushing so much. Take some time an’ smell the roses!’ Tony laughed and wheezed. ‘And here, while you’re at it, take one of these ducks, a duck a l’orange. You’re a skinny wee thing and could do with some fattening up.’
‘Oh, thank you, you’re very kind.’ She walked away shamefaced, whispering to herself. ‘He’s right, that old tramp. I need to slow down. So what if I’m a few minutes late? They can wait for me. Now, what is this he’s given me? I can’t believe I took it from him but it would have been so bad-mannered of me to refuse after he found my wallet. It’s the least I could do’.
She slowed her pace and took a few deep breaths. ‘That’s better. More haste, less speed. What is it anyway? An orange duck? Now what is he doing with a plastic toy? Oh, there’s something written on it. ‘Enjoy the Quack at a Duck Race’. What’s that all about? Wait, I think I saw one of those on the river Dodder last year. They’re great fun. And great for a fundraiser. Now, I wonder.’
She stopped at the corner of Merrion Square and fumbled in her handbag, taking care this time not to dislodge her wallet.
Hanging on to an overhead strap on the crowded commuter train, Jim answered his phone.
‘Oh, hello. My name is Leonora Mahon. Are you involved in running duck races?’
‘Yes, my name is Jim Cosgrove. How can I help you?’
‘Well, I’m a committee member of Junior Chamber Ireland and we were looking at some new fundraising ideas. Do you rent out plastic ducks for charity races?’
‘Yes, of course. We can provide a complete service where we set it all up for you. You just turn up on the day’, Jim replied.
‘That’s sounds great. Could you give me some costs?’
Leonora smiled in relief. She had arrived at the building where the meeting was taking place and it looked as she would have something to offer instead of apologies. In fact, the more she thought about it, the better the idea seemed. It had visual impact ensuring photo opportunities. People would be happy to sponsor a duck for five euro each, even in a recession, especially if it was for a good cause. And she knew what the good cause would be: the homeless charity, Focus Ireland, in tribute to the old man who had given her the idea. Yes, this could work very well.
The next morning, Jim unlocked his office door. He had barely hung his jacket up on the hook when his mobile phone rang.
‘Oh, hello, is that Cosgrove Corporate Entertainment?’
‘Yes, Jim Cosgrove here.’
‘Hi Jim, it’s Leonora Mahon here again. I’m happy to say that my colleagues really liked the idea and the initial costs you gave me. In fact, if you’re free from next month for eight Saturdays in a row, we plan to run not just in Dublin, but to have a charity duck race in each of our branches around the country. And we had a national representative from Chambers Ireland with us last night. They have sixty branches countrywide and are very interested in rolling this out. So could you please do up a quotation if I email you the specification?’
Jim sank down on to a chair, his legs giving way underneath him.