Feeding the Ducks
I was seven when my grandfather first took me to feed the ducks. My grandmother gave me three slices of stale bread and sent us on our way with a kiss. I was very surprised when grandad and I walked straight past the duck pond and on towards town. It turned out we weren’t going to feed the ducks at all, in fact we were going to the local betting shop. It was a dark, smoky and smelly establishment full of unsavoury characters — a totally unsuitable place for a little seven year old boy. I loved it!
On the way home I rode on top of grandad’s shoulders and felt like the King of the Giants. Before we arrived back at the house though, he took me off his shoulders and held me up in front of his face so that our eyes were level and whispered, “Remember Peter, we’ve been to feed the ducks. We had a lovely time. We mustn’t tell your grandmother about what we really did, or we’ll never be able to go again. You understand don’t you lad?” I nodded. I did understand. My grandmother was a kind but fearsome woman who wouldn’t approve at all.
After that grandad took me to feed the ducks whenever I went round. It became the thing we did together. The times he won were the greatest days of my life; he’d spin me round in his strong arms, rub my head, call me his lucky little mascot and buy me any sweets I wanted. When he didn’t win though, I’d get no spins or rubs or sweets. Grandfather would merely set his chin in the air and say “You win some, you lose some” or “You need the lows to appreciate the highs” or, if it had gone particularly badly, “This is the last time! Next week, we really will go and feed the ducks!” Thankfully he never carried out threat and we never, ever told my grandmother.
One Saturday, when I was about ten, grandad took me to one side away from grandma.
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“Do you know what’s happening today?” he said.
“No,” I replied and shook my head.
“Today it’s the biggest horse race in the world — The Grand National,” said grandad with his bristly moustache twitching and his eyes sparkling.
“Shall we feed the ducks then?”
“Oh yes, but you haven’t heard the best bit yet!”
“There was an Irish horse trainer down at the pub last night and he gave me a little tip. A sure thing he said — a horse named Foinavon with odds of 100-1.” I must have looked at him a little blankly, so he continued. “That means if I put £10 on, I’ll get £1000 back,” he whispered. If grandma heard he was going to put £10 on a horse she would have had his guts for garters. £10 was a large sum of money in those days and £1000 would be a life changing fortune to my grandparents.
My grandmother gave us some very funny looks when I said we were going to feed the ducks.
“Aren’t you getting a little old for feeding ducks?” and “What were you two whispering about?” she asked. I just smiled, shrugged my shoulders and tried to not lie or give the game away.
We trotted down to the betting shop in double quick time. I had never seen it so busy! It was packed with strange looking men in flat caps and overcoats. I had become quite well known to the Saturday regulars, but I got a few funny looks from some of these men. I stayed close to grandad as he placed his bet and we moved over to the TV.
“Alfred Headlethorpe! What on earth are you doing here? Why have you brought Peter to such an ungodly place? I knew you weren’t feeding the ducks!” Grandad dropped his head and then turned around, as did a few of the other customers. Seeing an old woman in a betting shop was even rarer than seeing a small boy.
“And you Sid? Children aren’t allowed in here!” said my grandmother to the manager, who just shrugged.
“Come on Alfred, Peter, we’re leaving this…,” but at that moment my grandmother was cut short by an enormous collective groan from the punters. There was chaos at one of the fences — none of the horses were making the jump! Ronnie, one of the regulars, turned up the volume on the TV so we could hear the commentary,
“Rondetto has fallen, Princeful has fallen, Norther has fallen, Kirtle Lad has fallen, The Fossa has fallen, there’s a right pile up… And now with all this mayhem, Foinavon has gone off on his own. He’s about 50, 100 yards in front of anything else!”
“That’s our horse!” shouted my grandad, “100-1! That’s our horse!”
He picked me up, spun me round and kissed my forehead. He grabbed my bemused grandmother’s arms and danced them up and down.
He grabbed my bemused grandmother’s arms and danced them up and down.
“We’re rich, we’re rich!” he bellowed as Foinavon romped home to win. Even grandma managed a little smile as grandad danced around the betting shop, telling us of all the wonderful presents he was going to buy.
I never went to feed the ducks with my grandfather again after that. Instead, we called it bike riding. I think my grandmother knew where we were cycling to, but she never said a word about it, just sent us off with a smile and a kiss.