My sister always said that it was much better to have a niece or nephew than your own child. I suppose that my mother agreed with her. My sister said that with a nephew you got to enjoy the good times, all the fun of having a kid without going through any of the trials and tribulations that came with them. Like pregnancy, or labour. Or nappies. Or being woken up in the middle of the night. And when they grow up you don’t have to scold them, or educate them, my sister went on. You avoid all the enigma and bloodshed of their teenage years. You can just spoil them and be loved in return. For instance, you can get them a pair of trousers if you like but you don’t have to get them all their trousers and then keep tabs on them, watching out for when they’re getting frayed or too small. You can watch the children grow, but at a distance, safe from all the conflagrations and black holes. Not to mention the time that passes you by, the sensation that life is slowly slipping away from you like a rudderless boat on the tide. I couldn’t have disagreed more with what my sister was saying, but I didn’t let it show. A rudderless boat is much better than one that speeds all over the place, then springs a leak and sinks. I wanted all the trials and tribulations that my sister was talking about. I wanted to iron clothes, wipe bottoms, take their temperature and bring them to the doctor for check-ups. To lose sleep and never get that pressure off your chest. But it’s always difficult to contradict your older sister.
Laura was my sister’s daughter and thus my niece. A fragile, dreamy girl, just after she turned four she started to stay at my house once a week after school. She was born in October. At first we thought that it would be best if she came on Thursdays to spend Thursday afternoons with me. I remember the afternoon on which Laura, sitting on the sofa, pointed to the hall with an unmistakeable expression of joy on her face, smiling that radiant smile that only children are capable of. It was the second or third afternoon she’d spent with me, my sister hadn’t got back from her session yet and night was already falling, even though we’d only just had tea. I looked where Laura was pointing but there wasn’t anyone or anything there, just my dark, uninteresting hallway. There were crumbs all over the floor. Then she looked straight at me and excitedly exclaimed ‘Didn’t you see it? A ghost just passed by! It was so scared!’ That was the day that I knew I’d won her trust: she felt comfortable making things up with me. She was ready to lie, play jokes or test me. Until then, she’d barely talked at all.
After Christmas, my sister decided that it was better if her daughter came to my house on Fridays instead of Thursdays. My sister was so exhausted after her sessions that it made more sense to have Laura come and sleep over on Fridays. My flat was a one bedroom but we got a fold-out bed, I can’t remember where it came from, maybe we brought it from La Torre. A small cot with a thin, ten centimetre mattress.
On those first Fridays in winter, Laura always slept straight through, exhausted by the games and excitement of spending the night away from home (it was her first time) and maybe also by the mystery of her mother’s semi-clandestine adult activities. It was a few months before she woke up in the middle of the night for the first time, although her mother had told me that she did so regularly at home. One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time that Laura started to scream at three or four in the morning. I was fast asleep in bed when I was awoken by the sound of a crying child and for a few seconds I thought that it was a baby, my baby, a non-existent son or daughter (obviously, I don’t have any children of my own) and in my bewildered disappointment, before I went to console my niece, I cried a little too, from joy, a sense of foreboding and maybe anger. I immersed myself in Laura’s tears, plunging into them in my desperation for an alternative life. Then I went to her bed in the darkness and saw that she was screaming in her sleep with her eyes closed and her lower lip trembling, her red fingers gripping tight to the edge of the duvet. I stroked her hair and, slowly, she calmed down, as though my fingertips dispensed some kind of drug.
These regular sleepovers lasted two years. I bought a toothbrush, a pink pillow with animal pictures on it, pyjamas, toys and biscuits in different shapes and colours. At home she always slept with a teddy bear that Jaime had given her, so I got her a stuffed toy to cling to when she spent her nights with me. I found a cloth duck that I liked right from the beginning. It had the empty gaze of fake or stuffed animals but it wasn’t scary, because it didn’t look real. It was soft, there was something jelly-like in its movements, and it only cost me ten euros. I kept it in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom and every Friday morning I carefully placed it under my pillow. The first thing Laura did when she came over was run to my bed to find the toy and say hello. She thought that the duck spent all week there, sleeping with me. She was a little sad that the toy didn’t have any children to play with. I suppose that my life seemed boring and predictable to her. Every time Laura saw the duck, she jumped and shrieked with joy, as though she’d spent all week worrying that the duck, or I, wouldn’t be there. We gave it a name, Feldsduck. ‘How are you, Feldsduck? Have you missed me very much?’ Laura said as she stroked its orange beak or kissed its yellow feet, covering it in drool.
I loved spending my Fridays with my niece. I went to pick her up from school in the car and we spent the afternoon listening to music, painting, in the park or at the cinema. We ran races and hid things. We smelled leaves and paints. We put make-up on each other and danced around an imaginary fire playing invisible instruments. In the evening, we made dinner: she liked to sit on a stool and taste each of the ingredients we added to the pizza or salad. Before going to bed, I read her a story. My collection of children’s books grew little by little, taking up more and more space on my bookshelf. Laura made up verbs from nouns: ‘story-ing’, ‘movie-ing’, ‘happy-ing’. She also said ‘blanket-ing’ when she wrapped herself up in the duvet. When I was with her, the world suddenly took on new meaning, it became a wonderful gamut of possibilities.
I lost Feldsduck. One Friday morning, as soon as I’d woken up, I got a strange feeling, an intuition, as though there were a gap in my chest. I immediately saw, or thought I saw, the duck’s indifferent gaze. I looked first in the wardrobe where I usually kept it and then, automatically, under the pillow. Next I searched the flat, wildly and at random initially and then systematically. In my anxious state I searched places I hadn’t explored in years, out of reach corners, under the bed and sofa, in the utility room, in a gigantic cardboard box where I keep old letters and papers, family photographs and my notes from university. As I looked back over my life I was surprised at the person I had been only a few years before. I felt guilty. I remembered that I had put the duck into the wash the previous Sunday, in with Laura’s sheets, and I remembered hanging it up to dry on the terrace, pinning its right wing to the clothesline with a clothes peg. It looked submissive hanging there, like a puppet waiting for a hand to fill it and bring it to life. But I couldn’t be sure that I’d put it back in its place in the wardrobe. Things one does regularly fade in the mind, they pile up like socks and shirts, two by two or three by three until you can’t tell them apart any more. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so I went to the shop where I’d bought the lost duck. They had a few that were just the same, lined up next to each other on the shelf, their feet hanging down lifelessly. Like children waiting their turn. They were all in the same, tired-looking pose, and had the same empty expression.
Before I went to pick Laura up, I put the new duck under the pillow. It looked identical to the other one, you couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe there was a slight difference, the one that I’d lost might have been a little worn, but a four year old girl wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I got into the car and went to the school. It was impossible to find a parking place at that time so I always left the car double-parked. The mothers (they were almost all mothers) formed a semi-circle around the door. The pre-schoolers trooped out one by one and ran to freedom. Laura was usually one of the last to come out. She walked over to me with a smile but didn’t hurry, as though she had a keen sense of dignity.
When we got home, she repeated her weekly ritual and ran to my bed. She lifted up the pillow, picked up the soft toy and looked at it. The joy disappeared from her face. She looked at me and then back to the toy. ‘This isn’t Feldsduck,’ she said. ‘Where’s Feldsduck?’
I had to admit what had happened. I apologized again and again. It’s hard to excuse yourself to a four year old girl. They don’t yet know about not hurting people’s feelings and explanations get tangled up, they sound absurd and pointless. But as I spoke I realized that she was more curious than upset. She didn’t cry. In fact, she didn’t say anything to me at all. Instead of looking at me, she looked at the new stuffed animal. ‘You know what?’ she said eventually, ‘We need to give him another name.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I answered. ‘He needs a new name.’ I suggested a lot: Ducky, Mathew, Andy, Bart, Juan Carlos. None of them seemed right. ‘He doesn’t look like a Bart,’ she’d say, staring into the duck’s blank eyes. We spent the afternoon like that, staring at a cloth duck. Laura took the naming ceremony very seriously. I had to make an effort not to laugh. How did she know that it was a different stuffed animal? That night, after I’d helped her into her pyjamas, she announced that she’d found the right name. ‘Her name will be Duckological.’ I was left speechless. Where had that name come from? ‘It’s not a boy duck, no, not exactly,’ she said. ‘She’s a girl, a girl duck.’ (She said adverbs in a very funny way: instead of ‘exactly’, she said ‘esastly’.) I told her that in that case we should call it ‘Miss Duckological’. She thought for a moment. ‘Her name is Duckological,’ she decided, bringing the conversation to an end.
That Saturday, when my sister came to pick Laura up, mi niece told her all about the adventures of Duckological the duck. ‘Best of all,’ she said, ‘we have no idea what happened to the other duck. Maybe it flew away?’
On Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. My downstairs neighbour had the original duck, Feldsduck, tucked under her arm. It had apparently fallen off the clothesline onto her terrace. She’d come by a couple of times in the week but I had been out. I thanked her. I put the two ducks next to each other and inspected them for differences. I picked up a black marker and drew an F on the label of the duck my neighbour had brought and a D on the one I’d bought a few days ago.
The following Friday I decided to try an experiment. I put the stuffed toy with an F on the label under the pillow. Then I went to pick Laura up from school and when we got home she ran to my bed, took the toy from under the pillow and started to shout like crazy: ‘Feldsduck’s back! Feldsduck’s back! Where were you Feldsduck?’
Laura said that Feldsduck was a sad toy but Duckological was always happy. She had no trouble telling the difference. After that, I started sleeping with both of them. When I told my sister, she said that I’d always been dopey but also that I had a huge imagination. ‘There must be some distinguishing mark, something that a four year old girl can see but you can’t because you never pay attention.’ I took these words as a kind of reproach but I didn’t want an argument.
A couple of years later, when everything came to an end, Laura went to live with her father in Salamanca. I asked her if she wanted to take the ducks with her as a parting gift, but she didn’t want them. ‘They’re used to living with you,’ she told me. ‘They’d both be very sad in Salamanca, they wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t like cities they don’t know. And I know you’ll take good care of them.’ I had to make a big effort to stop myself from crying in front of her.
A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was drowning. I turned on the television and tried to watch a movie. I ate a tangerine. It was Friday, so I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. It was dawn when I opened the wardrobe door. I took out the two stuffed toys and ran my hand over their cloth tummies. I looked at the labels and realized that the letters I’d scribbled to distinguish them had faded. The D and the F were identical blotches. I wondered whether Laura would still be able to tell them apart and tell me which was which. I remembered my childhood, my sister, our mother and summers in La Torre, when we swam in a big, insect-ridden pond. You’re Duckological aren’t you? I said to one of the ducks. I put the other one back in the wardrobe. I hope I’m right, I thought, as I got into bed. I hugged the toy tight until I fell asleep. When I woke up, eight hours later, the cloth toy was still there. I went to the bathroom, took out my nail scissors, (I‘d often used them to cut Laura’s nails) and went back to bed. I looked at the stuffed toy, then at the label and held it out between my thumb and index finger, but I couldn’t go through with it. What if I was wrong?