It happened somewhere in the Outer Hebrides.
I was island-hopping but, with time to spare before the ferry was due, I sat down on a grassy bank near the water. For a change, I just relaxed and let my mind do the wandering, thinking deep thoughts such as ‘Why this, rather than that?’, and ‘Who would I be if I had been born in an igloo or in an African village?’, and then, looking up at the sky, ‘What if I had been a bird?’ and, finally, as I saw three little ducklings walk by, ‘Or even a duck?’
But where was the mother duck? I got up and followed the three babies but somehow, within minutes, they were behind and following me. Whichever way I turned, they followed. Then I remembered a pond by a small dwelling with one or two outbuildings and I made my way there, accompanied by my devoted following.
I led them towards the pond on which I could see the mother with two more of her offspring. “There you are,” I said. “That must be your mum,” but as I looked around they continued to follow me, or were they somehow leading from behind? Surely there must be someone here, I thought, someone to whom I could hand them over, and eventually I found him.
He was lying behind one of the barns, moaning softly, bleeding a little from a head wound, and close to a fallen ladder. I ran into the house, found a telephone and rang for an ambulance. But it was not that easy, there was no handy A and E on that isolated island, but a helicopter was promised, and so I returned to the injured man and looked after him as well as I could until the helicopter came.
The ducklings had lost interest in me and rejoined their mother and siblings on the pond. Just as well, for quite soon I found myself to be up in the air, inside the helicopter and looking into the somewhat surprised, but amazingly blue, eyes of the now fully conscious injured man. Had it somehow been assumed that I was a relative, maybe even a wife? Maybe, maybe not, but what I did know was that my rucksack was down by the ferry landing, and here I was on my way to a hospital on the mainland when I should have been hopping to the next island.
The patient had hurt his leg, and also had a possible concussion, so he needed to be checked and I followed him into the emergency department feeling a bit of a fraud and, at the same time, rather like a confused duckling, unsure of which way to go. There was only tissue damage, no fractures, but he was kept in overnight for observation because of the concussion and then, said the doctor: “All being well, you can take him home tomorrow.” And off he went.
I saw that Finlay was looking at me curiously, one eyebrow raised. His name was Finlay – I had gathered that - Finlay McQueen, a red-headed fisherman from the island in the Hebrides where my rucksack, my travel tickets and my money were still lying in the ferry office by the quayside.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why I followed you onto the helicopter. I was following the ducks, you see, when I found you.”
“And I am really grateful, thank you very much,” he replied. “But why on earth were you following the ducks?”
“Well, actually, they sort of led me and I followed, only I was sort of in front.” I was becoming more and more incoherent, stammering over my words looking, I felt sure, like the sort of unbalanced person who would impulsively follow ducks. Embarrassed, I turned towards the door, muttering something about having to go and having a boat to catch.
“Half a minute,” he called. “Remember what the doctor said. You can take me home tomorrow, all being well.”
I sat down again, remembering that I had nowhere to go here on the mainland, no money, nothing. “Don’t suppose you could lend me a few pounds so I can get back to the island and collect my stuff?” I asked.
“No fear,” he said. “I don’t know who you are and, anyway, I am relying on you to get me out of here.”
He was looking at me curiously, but with some amusement and, realising how ridiculous it all was, I walked out of the hospital and into the tourist board where they kindly rang up the office on the island to check up on my luggage, and even arranged for me to go back on the evening ferry, so that was all right. Then all I had to do was book a night at the hotel near the quay, take the morning ferry to the mainland – no more island hopping for me – and catch the London train.
“London,” I thought. “What else is there for a Londoner like me? No more following ducks - or fishermen - what was that nonsense all about?”
London, as always, was great. I saw a play at the National, spent a bit of time at the Tate Modern, did some window-shopping, explored the parks.
The fact that there were ducks in the Serpentine has nothing to do with what subsequently happened. It was just that I suddenly felt homesick - for islands, for stormy seas, for wild flowers, for distant hills – so homesick that I invested my savings in a return ticket on the West Highland line and rode off to resume my island-hopping holiday.
And so, here I am, not far from the quayside, enjoying my breakfast of freshly caught mackerel and watching the latest batch of ducklings being led back to the pond by a red-headed fisherman with the most amazing blue eyes.