Wild Goose Chase by Rachel McHale

They’ve taken down the signs that warn you not to feed the geese. No one in their right minds would feed these geese. They are so fat that they don’t waddle, they lumber. Every step looks like a Herculean labour. Their stomachs hang down so far that their legs are lost in the feathers, and two inadequate orange feet poke out of the bottom. For a Christmas dinner, each one would feed a family of four and their sixteen cousins.

I walk through Rowntree Park every day on my way to and from work. This morning, as I pass the patch of lawn that used to be a bowling green before the grass was too brawny to manicure, I watch the groundskeeper approach an overturned goose. Because of its rotund shape, the goose is stuck, like a tortoise on its back. Its feet cycle in the air ineffectually and it lets out pitiful honks. It’s a new sport, goose toppling; mischievous teenagers climb over the fence after dusk to play it. The slightest prod into the side of an undulating goose’s tummy and the creature rolls over and can’t get back up on its own.

The groundskeeper uses a long pole that looks not unlike a blunt scythe, hooks the curved end under the goose and levers it on to its feet. The righted bird snaps and hisses. They’ve got pretty grumpy in their obesity, the geese. The groundskeeper looks on in disapproval as the goose sluggishly plods off, bends its thick neck down and chomps on the grass.

Because I walk here every day and have done for years, I notice all the changes, from the little day-to-day differences, like the buds on the shrubs and the arrival of the ice-cream van that herald the coming of spring, to the big changes – the new café and children’s play area. I remember when the giant helmet statue appeared, and when they put in the new turf – the sheets of glorious FlashGrass™.

I hadn’t noticed how fat the geese had become these last few years, though. It’s been a creeping weight gain. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the poor things; I’m not as lithe as I once was. In fact, over the last few months, I’ve noticed I struggle to catch my breath as I climb the steps to the Millennium Bridge. I’ve noticed that my knees have started to grumble as I walk. Even in good weather, I take the most direct route through the park rather than ambling around the lake like I used to.

On the way home, I see the groundskeeper riding on the back of a large lawn-mower. It’s a ferocious industrial-looking thing, but coughs and whines as it goes. After an ear-piercing squeal, it gives up, and black smoke sputters from its engine. The groundskeeper steps down, puts his hands on his hips and glowers at it.

“Damn grass!” I hear him curse as I pass by. “There’s no doing anything with it. Another mower bites the dust.”

He kicks the heel of his boot across the lush green blades.

“If you play God, you better damn-well be ready to take on the devil,” he mutters into the air.

He looks weary and beaten-down, but I can’t think of anything encouraging to say. I know scientists are working on it – the FlashGrass™ problem – but have yet to make any headway. The genetically-modified FlashGrass™ looks superb; it always does. It’s a deep peridot green with thick blades that ripple in the breeze. It looks just as luscious in a drought and it bounces right back after flooding in the park recedes. It’s not difficult to see why it seemed like a good idea to plant it here.

The problem with FlashGrass™, though, is that it’s a bit like those build-up drinks; it’s so highly nutritious for the geese that it provides twenty times more fuel than your average grass. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the geese didn’t find it so delicious. It’s like chocolate to chocoholics. They gorge and chomp on it, even when they’re full, even when they’re so fat they can barely move.

In the end, the durability of FlashGrass™ also proved to be its biggest drawback. It’s impervious to manual weeding and weed-killers alike. There’s just no getting rid of the stuff once it’s set root.

What to do with Rowntree’s fat geese is a hot topic. For weeks now, it’s been the most common subject of letters published in The York Press. They held a forum at the University with genetics specialists, vets, farmers and animal-rights people shouting their ideas over each other. There was talk of culling or moving the geese but, last I heard, no one could agree. I watch one goose bumble into another, who hisses at him as he falls over. They really ought to do something about it soon.

I carry on my way, past the bronze statue I’ve always been fond of. It’s one of those Greek gods, I think. He’s holding a staff with snakes coiled around it, and wears a hat which has tiny little wings on either side of it.

I trudge on until I get to the noticeboard where I always stop to look at upcoming events. All sorts goes on in the park, and it’s only round the corner from home so I often wander down and take in the sights. Spring brings with it more leaflets than winter did. There are two new posters today, one for a Family Fun Day, and a garish green and yellow flyer that reads ‘Not Just Another Wild Goose Chase’.

Sometimes you read something – it can be a newspaper article, a leaflet, a poem, a street sign even – that just seems to speak to you. As if someone put it there exactly at that time and place in your life. Like the headline I saw outside the corner shop that said Cheating Husband Sues Wife, and I just knew then, all of a sudden, that Graham had been up to no good. Or walking past Scarcroft Road and just knowing that I was meant to move there (Scarcroft is my maiden name). The Goose Chase flyer is like that. I dig out my diary right away and jot the times down.

*

On Sunday morning I’m in the park early, clad in my new tracksuit, and carrying the snazzy sports water-bottle I bought. A perimeter fence made of orange netting has been set up around the green to form a large pen. The geese are in a lazy huddle at the far corner.

At the sign-in table I’m issued with shin guards and a kazoo. When everyone’s arrived, we’re divided into three groups and given coloured tabards. I’m on the red team – The Foxes – and we’re up first. When we’ve climbed into the pen, a man with a megaphone and a stopwatch, standing safely outside the fence, shouts, “On your marks, get set, GO!” And then we’re off, running towards the geese and blowing furiously on our kazoos. The geese scatter like pool balls after the break shot has been played.

The idea is that we run after the geese to get them exercising and, in the process, get fitter ourselves. The geese have little digitised step-counters on their ankles, and we get ten minutes to try to encourage the geese to do as many steps as possible. After only five minutes, my heart rate is up, my shin pads have some nasty bite marks in them, there’s sweat pouring down my face, and I’m smiling.

As the minutes pass, the game evolves. We develop tactics. One lady flaps her arms as she goes, which seems to terrify the geese into moving further. A surprisingly spry old man has taken to hopping, forcing the nearby goose into frequent sidesteps to protect its feet. A plump man about my age makes eye contact with me and then points to one of the birds. “Together?” he puffs. The two of us set our sights on one goose. We worry it at every turn, giving it no chance to evade us. With our tag-team strategy, we get the bird to waddle farther than one of us alone would have done. I grin at my co-conspirator and he smiles back at me.

When the megaphone man shouts, “Time’s UP, Foxes!” I’m exhausted but exhilarated. We leave the pen, which now has a big crowd of spectators around the edges, and wait for the count of how many steps we got the geese to make: 3572. No one knows whether it’s a good score or not, so I stand with my team as we wait to see how the blue team – The Hounds – fare.

My partner-in-crime introduces himself as Jason, and clinks his plastic water bottle against mine. “Good round,” he says. He has rather nice eyes, I notice. When The Hounds score 3233, I jump up and down, and cheer in a way I haven’t done since I played rounders at school. Jason beams at me and we high five. When the green team – The Raccoons – score 3475, Jason picks me up in a big hug and swirls me around.

We go two more rounds. It’s 30 minutes more aerobic exercise than I’ve had in several years. I’m sweaty, my muscles burn and I have a bite mark on my right index finger, but I know I’ll be back next week. And the week after that.

*

It’s Sunday morning, months later. There’s a layer of ice covering the lake and it’s quiet in the park. The geese are gone now. They had to take them away in the end. It turned out that the exercise just made them eat even more FlashGrass™. Not Just Another Wild Goose Chase wasn’t a total failure though.

I can see my breath in the air as I jog through the park. Jason is stretching his hamstrings as he waits for me next to the wrought-iron gates. He has pretty defined muscles now, I notice. I smooth down the leggings and wicking shirt that have replaced my shapeless tracksuits. After a quick hug we set off. We jog for around an hour on Sundays and although we do try different routes, we always make sure we do a lap or two of the park, for old times’ sake. As I pass my favourite statue, the wings on his helmet remind me of the geese. Ever since Jason told me that it’s a statue of Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, I’ve had this silly superstition. Whenever I pass the bronze figure, I think of the flyer on the noticeboard on that spring day all those months ago, and I nod a little thank you to him.



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