Have you ever been terrorised by a duck? I have. Let me tell you all about it.
At this time of year, under normal circumstances, schoolchildren would be going on outings. I only recall one such trip during my time in a mainstream school but it left an indelible mark on my memory.
We were doing a project on London that focused on prominent buildings such as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To help us with this, the school arranged a trip to London. I was quite young but my sight had already started to deteriorate – a point which I will come back to later – and my recollection of standing outside these venerable buildings is hazy. I do remember seeing a soldier on guard outside Buckingham Palace, though, wearing the most amazing headgear, a busby.
What sticks in my mind most of all is having a picnic lunch in St James’s Park. I sat on a bench with my classmates and brought out my packed lunch, which consisted of Bovril and Dairylea cream cheese sandwiches. This combination was my favourite at the time.
A great flock of ducks suddenly waddled over to us. One very large duck, possibly a drake, stood in front of me and fixed me with a beady eye. He continued to stare unblinkingly until I tossed him a piece of my sandwich, which he gulped down enthusiastically.
Was this enough to placate him?
No, of course it wasn’t. Having discovered that I could be intimidated, he stood firm and stared me out again. And again.
I reckon he had around half of my lunch. I don’t remember being particularly upset. I was just astonished at his strength of will compared to mine. And I could be pretty stubborn myself!
This is one of my most vivid and happy childhood memories, but it nearly didn’t happen at all.
In the 1960s, disabled people like myself were brought up to believe that we should be grateful for any crumbs the able-bodied world threw our way. The idea of disabled rights wasn’t even on the horizon. I recall the first time I heard a disabled person speaking on behalf of an organization called “Rights not Patronage” in the 1970s and being blown away by this novel concept. However, back in the 60s, rights weren’t part of our vocabulary and they certainly weren’t part of my parents’ vocabulary. Whenever an outing with the school or the Girls’ Brigade was mentioned, my mother warned me I might not be able to go. This wasn’t primarily because she was worried about me, although no doubt she was, but because she felt it wasn’t fair to ask teachers or Brigade leaders to take responsibility for me.
Can you imagine that nowadays, when families take schools to court to insist their disabled children join in all the activities on offer?
My going on the school outing to London was a landmark in my young life because, for once, I won the argument. I pleaded and, at last, Mum agreed I could go.
My parents weren’t being unkind. They were lovely people who loved all of us dearly, but they did feel keenly the responsibility of caring for a disabled child and were concerned not to ask too much of other people in that regard.
So that predatory duck will stay imprinted on my mind’s eye for ever. I hope he lived a long and happy life, extorting sandwiches out of tourists and schoolchildren and I hope some of them were there because the people around them believed that they should be, disability or not.