On Noah’s Ark the ducks had started a jazz band and it was almost unbearable, though perhaps marginally easier to deal with at close quarters than the African Large Mammals’ Morris-Dancing Collective (to whom, after initial resistance, Noah had yielded the use of the foredeck every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. The rhinos were persuasive negotiators). Mr Duck had recently taken up the saxophone, while Mrs Duck fancied herself as a sultry crooner. They had recruited the moorhens, the geese, the female flamingo and a coot to be the rest of the band, with, on drums, a platypus from whom they would soon part owing to irreconcilable creative differences. They practised assiduously and promised to put on a concert as soon as they were ready.
“Is there any sign of land yet?” Noah asked Mrs Noah, as they huddled in their cabin, doing their best to relax with the Epic of Gilgamesh.
“My budgie had a look around earlier,” said Mrs Noah, “and she says there’s still twenty feet of water over the highest mountain top and aggressive mer-people have colonised the city of Uruk.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you learn from tweets,” said Noah. “But the dove said the same yesterday about the twenty feet of water. I wish I could get off this boat. The noise is appalling.”
“The hedgerow birds’ choral singing is quite good,” said Mrs Noah, who believed in positive thinking and was also slightly deaf.
“If only they didn’t do it at dawn,” groaned Noah. “Whose stupid idea was this ark nonsense, anyway?”
“It was God’s,” said Mrs Noah.
Down below, Mrs Duck was making her third attempt at “Stormy Weather” and the other animals were preparing for a long evening.
“They work so hard, they’re sure to get better,” a sheep remarked bravely.
“I don’t know why you let your wife be part of this bloody awful racket,” said the sexist pig to the male flamingo. “You should put your foot down.”
“At least it keeps the children entertained,” said the sow, who had given birth to a large litter just after embarking and was run off her trotters. The piglets were dancing to the music. “I say good for them for taking the initiative and doing something. Unlike you” – here she turned to her husband – “you’ve been doing nothing but sit on your bum and tell everybody else what’s what ever since we came on board.”
“Actually I’ve been lying on my side,” said the pig; but here he was interrupted by an overbearing horse.
“It has to be stopped,” said the horse. “Unfortunately the proper authorities” – by this he meant Mr and Mrs Noah – “are choosing to ignore the situation, so we must deal with it ourselves. We must formally remonstrate with the ducks and, if necessary, pass a motion.”
“Don’t pass any motions in the living quarters,” said the pig vulgarly.
“I for one would oppose the motion,” exclaimed an angry squirrel. “This is just big animal arrogance trying to keep the small animals down. You haven’t said a word against the morris dancing – bunch of lions and elephants galumphing around, apparently that’s art – but as soon some little creatures try it, oh no, it’s a nuisance, stamp it out.” Judging by the chorus of squeaks and chitters that followed there were plenty who agreed with him.
“There could be another way,” said a slim black tomcat, dropping delicately from a beam onto the horse’s back and thence to the top of a barrel. “With a little patience – a little persuasion – one could take a subtler tack to, shall we say, create a more peaceful atmosphere.”
“You’re not going to persuade the ducks,” said the sheep. “They’re obsessed with this jazz business. By the way, I thought the tomcat on this boat was ginger?”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t ask them to abandon their music,” said the cat, “that would never work. I would merely divert their attention, in an entirely non-coercive way, to activities that are far, far quieter. That is, if you are happy to trust the matter to me – you could indicate that you are happy by helping me get this barrel open, which I am sure is full of fish.”
“And why should we trust you?”
“You can’t trust me,” said the cat. “But I am extremely clever. Watch.” And, taking the piece of fish the squirrel had prized out for him, he tossed it three times into the air, and the third time – it vanished.
When the rehearsal had finally ended (the platypus insisted on doing “Moby Dick” and everyone suddenly realised how tired they were), and Mrs Duck was waiting while her husband fussed over his saxophone case, the cat emerged from the shadows behind her.
“Mrs Duck,” he said, “I cannot help noticing what an exceptional performer you are.”
“Oh, thankyou, how kind,” said Mrs Duck.
“Your voice – your poise – your command of a stage – these are all most distinctive, most unusual. My dear lady, would you care to walk on deck for a moment?”
“Why, not at all, I mean – yes, how sweet of you,” said Mrs Duck, now quite flustered. She hopped awkwardly up the ladder. “What a nice cat you are – though I thought the tomcat on this boat was a tabby?”
“Dear lady, I am a connoisseur -” he looked around; unfortunately quite a number of owls, kiwis, bats, badgers and so forth were awake and observing – “I am a connoisseur of music and also a teacher of singing and stagecraft. I would be delighted to give you some private lessons as I am convinced, my dear lady, that I can find in you something quite delicious – I mean delectable, an irresistible height of artistic achievement and indeed allure; for, dear lady, do not think me forward if I say your performances would only be enhanced by – how shall I put it – more sauce.”
“Oh well then,” said Mrs Duck. “Well, I don’t know about that – but I suppose I do have a certain something, don’t I?”
“You do indeed,” purred the cat. “And I am exactly the person to carve you into shape.”
“Well then, if you could come to our next rehearsal and coach us, that would be wonderful,” said Mrs Duck. “And it would put that coot in her place, all those snide comments she makes. Then there’s my husband wanting to do endless widdly solos; that’s not what pleases an audience, is it? I mean, it’s the singer who holds everything together. The front woman.”
“Yes, and what a beautifully plump front you have,” said the cat. “But I was offering to work with you individually. The presence of the rest of the band would be a distraction. Let us meet tomorrow morning in the back starboard corner of deck two.”
“Oh! Um – but that’s the creepy bit with all the spider skeletons, isn’t it?”
“It is a perfect place not to be interrupted.”
Mrs Duck returned to her husband, saying she had needed a breath of fresh air – for the cat had impressed on her that she should not tell the others about her lessons, but wait to surprise them with her new techniques. The cat stole and ate some more fish. Then he found a warm corner to curl in near the farm animals; but while he was still padding and circling, he was approached by a pretty brown hen.
“Excuse me, Mr Cat,” she began, “I couldn’t help noticing your magic trick and – well, it’s incredibly exciting to meet someone as magical as you. I have always dreamed of being a magician’s assistant. I have some wonderful ideas for things we could do together.”
“The trick with the fish?” said the cat. “I ate it.”
“No, the trick with your fur. I saw you come on board and I know for a fact that, back then, you were white.”
It may as well be admitted at this point that there were nine cats on the Ark. Cats were not susceptible to Noah’s two-by-two method. They had simply turned up.
“So,” continued the hen, “I was thinking we could make a routine. I could put sparkles in my feathers and you could impress everyone with your mysterious charisma and skill. You could construct a magic cabinet and make me disappear. Things like that.”
“Well…” said the cat. “It’s a charming proposal, but I am a little busy…”
“Of course, with Mrs Duck,” said the hen. “But her forté is music. Or it would be, if she could sing. Mine is glamour and sitting very patiently in boxes, but I’ve never before had the right show-business opportunity. Oh, do say yes. I would be thrilled to work with such a handsome and talented cat.”
“When you put it like that…” said the cat.
“Oh good,” replied the hen. “It’s settled, then. We can practise tomorrow in the back starboard corner of deck two, where it’s lovely and quiet.” And she bustled off.
This was a complication. However, the cat reflected, she seemed to have noticed or overheard rather more than he would like of his dealings with Mrs Duck, and it would be wise to keep an eye on her. And how could he help it that he so effortlessly pulled all the birds?
The cat went early to deck two to clear a suitable space in which to work. It was an area where the Noah family (who were thrifty and opposed to littering) stored empty barrels, boxes and chests. Snakes and spiders also used it as a place they could moult in privacy, which gave the place its charnel house air. The cat swept aside some recent skins and chased out a small snake who was napping in the corner. He didn’t want Mrs Duck to be unnecessarily alarmed. Then he opened the one big porthole to let in the morning light. The water outside was very calm, which was good because it was only just below the porthole. Finally he laid down a soft blanket he had liberated from another part of the storage section.
Soon Mrs Duck appeared, picking her way gingerly between bits of old tail and leg. She was carrying a limp sparkly object which, when she shyly held it up, turned out to be a silver bra with tassels. “You said my act needed to be more saucy,” she explained.
“Charming, charming,” said the cat. “But we’ll discuss how best to tackle the visual presentation later. Put that down for now – yes, on the barrel is fine – and let us turn our attention to the foundation of singing technique and performing confidence, which is to say, breathing.”
“But I’ve been breathing all my life,” said Mrs Duck.
“So you have,” said the cat, “but don’t you ever find you run out of breath when you’re singing?”
“Well, I suppose it might be nice to hold some of my dramatic long notes for even longer, to make them extra specially dramatic.”
“Yes, and it makes such a difference to phrasing…I’ll explain what that is later. Anyway, why don’t you lie down on the blanket.”
Mrs Duck plopped herself down on the blanket in the usual sitting duck pose, with her legs folded under her and head up.
“Hmm. No, it needs to be more of a sleeping position.”
She tucked her head back under her wing.
“More of a stretched-out sleeping position, as though it’s hot or you want someone to rub your belly fur – feathers. Um… stand up, and then stretch a bit, and fall over backwards.”
Mrs Duck did this. Now she was lying elongated on her back with her webbed feet sticking out and her beak pointing straight up.
“That’s perfect. And now…relax.”
Mrs Duck tried to relax.
“Focus on your breath. In….out. In…out. Close your eyes. Notice the breath flowing in…and out. In…out.”
“This isn’t very comfortable,” said Mrs Duck.
“Relax,” said the cat firmly. “Focus on your breath. Imagine you are in a happy place. A larder, for example, full of meat and cream, or…um…a pond. Yes, a limpid peaceful pond with, let’s see, weeds. The breeze is blowing ever-so-softly over the pond and you are on the water and you feel tranquil and at ease…”
“I feel stiff,” said Mrs Duck.
“Focus on your breath, in…out…in…out…think of that happy pond…oh bother.”
For there was a distant bumping sound that the cat strongly suspected heralded the arrival of the hen at the bottom of the ladder from the upper deck.
“Let’s see, this doesn’t seem to be working for you, so we’ll try a different breathing exercise. Get up, jump out of the porthole and dive down for as long as you can.”
“Okey-dokey,” said Mrs Duck, brightening, and with a hop and a wriggle she was through the porthole and into the water.
“Hello!” called the hen. “What a gorgeous morning, and what an exciting mysterious place to work in. I’ve brought something.” She was hauling a big sack behind her, which, on reaching the cat, she opened. An avalanche of feathers poured out all over the floor.
“Great, isn’t it?” said the hen. “I was thinking about what could create a spectacle and distract from any clever sneaky business you wanted to do, and I thought about confetti, and then I thought of these, and of course there are lots and lots of them all over the boat. Some are mine, but there are some from the ducks’ bed – they were already up – and some from the tropical section – look at those gorgeous orange ones, aren’t they amazing?”
“Amazing,” said the cat. He sneezed. “But also messy. And perhaps a little soon. Please can you pick them up again?”
“Oh, of course,” said the hen, beginning to chase the feathers that were drifting into every corner. “But I do think it’s terribly important to find a style for the act, don’t you? And I thought exotic confusion with a hint of grand guignol. These are for the confusion. Can you help me with the bag?”
“Put them in that chest,” said the cat, sneezing again, and resisting the temptation to chase feathers, for the sake of his dignity. He was able to gather up a good bundle using the blanket, though some of the feathers stuck to it and had to be picked off.
“I have some ideas for props, too,” said the hen.
“Oh good, why don’t you get them right away,” said the cat. He could hear Mrs Duck surfacing outside and beginning her scramble back up to the porthole. The hen disappeared just as Mrs Duck landed back on deck two.
“Close your eyes,” commanded the cat.
“Why?” said Mrs Duck.
“Breathing,” said the cat. “Standing up is fine for now.” He hurriedly laid the blanket back down and continued to pick up feathers. “Focus on your breath. How has it changed after your dive?”
“Not much,” said Mrs Duck. “But it was super interesting down there. There’s a drowned temple, some drowned houses, a drowned road, drowned fields and a drowned pottery workshop. Of course I probably shouldn’t if I want to take my music career seriously, but I would love to have a go at marine archaeology.”
“What a marvellous plan,” said the cat. “Now, in…out…in…out. Think of your happy pond. In…out…in…and out the porthole you go. See if you can count the pots this time.”
The wretched hen. Why did she have to come back so quickly?
“So,” said the hen, dumping her load with a clatter. “I got these ready earlier. I’ve been up since before dawn, thanks to my rooster not being able to tell the time. One carving knife, one hatchet, three throwing-knives (actually they’re small kitchen knives but they’re lovely and sharp), and one saw, for sawing the lady in two. These are for the grand guignol part. I’ve pre-stained some of them with Mrs Noah’s homemade passata. Nice, aren’t they?”
“Good lord,” said the cat.
“I knew you’d be impressed,” said the hen. “But shall I put them in the chest for now? And then we can do some proper planning?”
“Yes, yes,” said the cat, holding the lid open.
“So,” said the hen, stowing away the knives and the saw, “knife-throwing, sawing the lady in two, and a disappearing act. We can borrow boxes from here to help with all of those. I’m thinking thrills, shivers, spectacle and a huge finale. But it needs to build up – what are some small tricks we can do to start with, to create the atmosphere?”
“I’m sure you will be inspired with numerous ideas extremely soon,” said the cat. “But personally I find it very hard to access my – ah – my magical streak without the help of my wand. Do you think – I mean, if it’s not too much trouble – please could you find it for me? I may have left it where I was sleeping last night. Or perhaps in the crow’s nest. Or in that rather pleasant warm nook just beside the elephants. I’m sorry I can’t be more precise.”
“Oh, no trouble at all,” said the hen. “I am excellent at finding things.” And off she went. The cat permitted himself a small, private smile. Of course he didn’t own a wand.
Back in the farm animals’ section, Mr Duck was agitated and venting his feelings to anyone who would listen.
“I don’t know how I’m expected to carry on under these circumstances,” he was saying (he’d already been speaking for a while). “And I can’t find Mrs Duck anywhere. She’s normally right there by my side, ready to help and organise – in fact I wouldn’t mind, on occasion, if she helped and organised a bit less – but today, when I definitely would like her to do a spot of organising, I have no idea where she is. It’s all too much.”
“There there,” said the sow. “It must be very difficult, you poor thing. But you know you can always confide in us, at least.”
“Speak for yourself,” said her husband, rude as ever.
“Have you asked around to find out if anyone’s seen her?” asked the sheep.
“She was up early,” volunteered the coot. “I was just sticking my head out and I could hear her attempting scales.”
“She’s so dedicated,” said the sheep.
“I think I saw her going off somewhere,” said the sow, “but I’m afraid I don’t recall the direction. One of the piglets had been sick.”
“Have you seen Mrs Duck?” the coot asked the hen, who had just appeared at a brisk pace and was looking purposefully behind barrels and under straw.
“Not exactly,” said the hen. “But I do know where she is.”
“Where?” asked Mr Duck.
“Sorry, I can’t take you there right now,” said the hen, “because I’m busy with an errand for the cat. He keeps sending me away so he can spend time with your wife.”
“Where?” repeated Mr Duck, even more agitated than before.
“Oh, in the back starboard corner of deck two,” said the hen. “The extremely quiet discreet bit where you can be completely alone if you don’t mind a little spookiness. But he’s made it quite cosy. He’s put a nice soft blanket down, for example.”
“Oh, has he!” exclaimed Mr Duck. He rushed off towards deck two, followed by the coot, both geese, the sheep, and even the male pig, who’d decided this might be sufficiently interesting to overcome his usual suspicion of any form of physical movement.
The cat felt he was finally getting somewhere. Mrs Duck had told him there were forty-seven pots in the drowned pottery. He had sent her down to count twice. She’d come back perkier than ever and chattering about handle shapes and incised decoration. He’d sent her down again to count three times and examine the building plan. A few more iterations and at last her dreadful stamina was wearing out. She flopped back through the porthole and tottered over to the blanket.
“I do like diving,” she said faintly, “but I feel a little funny.” And she collapsed onto her side in a gratifyingly limp fashion.
The cat bent over her and gave her a delicate sniff. She didn’t react at all. This was encouraging. She was rather large, of course, but he felt he was equal to the challenge. He pushed her gently with one paw, to test whether she had actually passed out.
“Sir, unhand my wife!” It was Mr Duck, waddling from the ladder at top speed. Clattering and thumping behind him heralded the arrival of his companions. The cat, startled, leapt in one bound to the top of the barrel.
“Unhand, unhand?” he replied. “My dear Mr Duck, I cannot imagine what you are talking about. What could you possibly mean?”
“Unpaw, then! And you know damn well what I mean, you smooth-talking fur-faced philanderer!”
“Oh dear, what’s going on?” asked Mrs Duck, rolling over weakly and rubbing her head with her wing.
Unfortunately Mr Duck had at that very moment caught sight of the silver tasselled bra. “I think that is for you to explain, you – you aquatic trollop!” he raged.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mrs Duck, reviving notably. “I slave away at my singing lessons for the good of your jazz band, half drowning myself in the process, and this is how you speak to me! Well, don’t expect me to have any more time for your stupid saxophone breaks and your pretentious honky widdling! I’ll go solo and see how you feel then!”
“Singing lessons?” said Mr Duck. “A likely story.”
“Singing lessons?” said the pig to the cat. “You’ve been encouraging her?”
“No, of course not,” said the cat, “I mean, of course, Mr Duck, I have only the purest and most benevolently artistic interest in your wife, who is not attractive to me in the slightest – though of course, Mrs Duck, you are an exceptionally beautiful duck – oh, hen, there you are.” – For there she was, and for once the cat was extremely pleased to see her.
“Hello everyone!” said the hen brightly. “How nice to see a little party going on. Now, it was a long search, I will admit, but I think, Mr Cat, I’ve found just what you wanted. I’ll put it in the chest, shall I?”
She flung open the chest, revealing the saw, the small and large knives (carefully reddened with passata), the hatchet, and a vast pile of assorted feathers. The object she was holding up was Mrs Noah’s meat thermometer.
The shriek Mrs Duck let out was a top E at least. The geese tried to fly backwards and the coot impulsively flung her wings around the sheep. Even the pig was nastily shaken. Then everyone began to talk at once. It was immediately clear to the others that the hen was entirely innocent of the cat’s wicked schemes and doubtless another intended victim. She professed herself terribly shaken by the dreadful fate that had so nearly befallen her. Mrs Duck embraced the hen and the hen embraced Mrs Duck. Then the ducks were tearfully reconciled. The pig realised this was probably the best gossip he would ever have it in his power to share and scrambled back up the ladder at a pace almost approaching a trot. Somewhere in the midst of all this the cat quietly made his exit.
“My darling, how could I ever have doubted you,” said Mr Duck, tenderly stropping his wife’s bill.
“Forgive me for the nasty things I said about your saxophone playing – I didn’t mean any of it,” said Mrs Duck, nuzzling him back. “From now on we will only make music together, in our wonderful jazz band.”
“Ah yes, about that,” said Mr Duck.
While Mr Duck had been lingering over his morning mash and vegetable peelings, vaguely wondering where his wife was, the platypus had approached him with a belligerent air and declared that, since jazz was an out-of-date elitist art-form, and the red blood of rock’n’roll ran in his veins, and also they didn’t appreciate his drum solos, he was leaving the band. And since he had been the only person in it who had a sense of rhythm, and it was quite hard to play together without him, this was a problem.
“That’s a pity,” said Mrs Duck, “but actually I have an idea for something else we can do. The geese and flamingos might take a little persuading but I’m sure the coots would be into it – why don’t we start a marine archaeology club?”
So, the Ark returned to comparative peace. The ducks flung themselves into their new, much quieter hobby and everyone decided to count their blessings when the living space began to fill up with damp ceramics. The hen made friends with the sow and helped to amuse the piglets by giving them acting lessons. The white tomcat, straying into the wrong part of the boat one day, was puzzled to be viciously chased away by geese, but apart from this all was harmonious. It lasted for almost a week.
“What is that appalling noise?” Noah asked Mrs Noah.
“What’s that, dear?” said Mrs Noah. “You know, I still haven’t found my meat thermometer, and half my knives are missing. I always put them in the same place, Shem swears blind he hasn’t borrowed them, and I’m starting to think I must be going crazy. And nobody, but nobody, is helping to look. Sometimes I think the only person on the whole boat who has any time for me at all is that nice black cat who’s suddenly so affectionate.”
“Right, I’m going to investigate,” said Noah, and stormed out of the cabin. He was soon back.
“So, did you find the knives?” asked Mrs Noah.
“The knives? Eh? Anyway, you won’t believe this,” said Noah. “The monotremes and marsupials have teamed up to do – get this – formation drumming. All of them. Drumming. Simultaneous drumming. I’m sending out the dove right away and as soon as we find land I am putting them as far from the rest of us as I possibly can. Thousands of miles, for preference.”
“I’m sure we’ll find them somewhere,” said Mrs Noah.
“Mmm,” said Noah gloomily. “Somewhere large where the sound can disperse. Somewhere with a ridiculous climate no sensible person could stand. And we’ll give them all the most anti-social snakes and spiders for company, just to serve them right. I can’t wait to get off this boat.”
This story was born while listening to the album “Eclektronics”, by Jean-Jacques Perrey and David Chazam (1998). “What’s Up Duck” is the name of one of the tracks, and I suppose it’s a rather obvious idea to translate the mixture of animal noises and jazz influences on the album into the scenario explored here, but I had fun with it and it was a nice way to write something a bit more light-hearted than most of the stories I’ve been coming up with. The short-short story “The Saved” budded off from working on this one.