A new job in a new city. A rented flat in the outskirts, where the streets are greased with litter and a cold wind blows endlessly, seemingly out of nowhere. I find the park on the third day, and it truly feels like a discovery. No one goes there except a half-dozen interchangeable old couples, and they go only to the lake in the middle, ignoring the overgrown walks, the meagre flowerbeds.
The lake is a proper lake, the water scummy and green-tinged, revealing slabs of mottled stone and tangles of weed like rotting hair. It’s home to extended families of ducks and coots, but its unquestioned rulers are a pair of self-absorbed swans. The female squats in a nest as wide as a small shed on the far bank, while her partner stands guard nearby. The place has a gravity that draws me, although it’s out of my way. I like these birds, their haughtiness a grand ‘fuck you’ to passers-by.
Five days in, my father calls me. I’m just passing the lake, a time out on my way to work, and he’s been crying, I can tell. He’s trying to hide it, but only a little. I have no idea what to say and the anguish in his voice brings back an ache I can barely stand. In desperation, I mention the park, the lake, the swans.
“They mate for life, don’t they?”
I think he’s mixed up swans and dolphins, but I can’t bring myself to argue.
“Well, you keep an eye out for them.”
“Sure,” I say. “And you look after yourself.”
“Why not? No one else to do it.”
I have a little money but my flat is drab and empty, and the work is cutting smooth slices from my sanity. I listen to old records, watch old movies, and huddle in the park on a bench dedicated to some long-dead stranger, watching the swan family, which has grown by two chubby cygnets. I’d hoped the grief would have faded by now, but it’s knotted in my stomach like a tumour.
When my father calls, I talk about inconsequential things. The swans seem a reliable option. “She’s given birth. Two of them.”
“I hope she knows what she’s got herself into.”
I want to hang up. Instead, I say, “I’m sure they’ll get by.”
The year bleeds out, unseasonably cold. For a week, the lake is frozen nearly to its centre, thick enough that it holds under my tentative foot. The swans decamp, the ducks and moorhens too. Without them, the park is like a mortuary, black trees lining black walkways. Then, one day–a Friday–the ice begins to thaw. By Monday, only a few glassy chunks remain, and the swans have come home. I only fully realise then how much I’ve been relying on their presence.
When my father calls, I expect him to mention the holidays. I’ve been planning the conversation. I have my excuse ready.
He doesn’t ask, and I don’t volunteer.
Afterwards, my heart feels like concrete weighing in my chest.
I’ve passed my first Christmas alone, my first New Year’s too. I feel sad and enervated, drugged with the vague promise of a new year. I’ve done a lot of thinking, a fair amount of drinking, and deep down I sense that I’m changing. Maybe I’m getting a little perspective, or something like it.
Then, one day, the swans are gone–no ice this time to explain their absence. The next day there are only three. The day after, still just three. I’m dizzy with panic as I ride by, sick with a sense of wrongness. I get nothing done at work.
On my way home, I recognise two old people on the bench, hurling shrapnel of bread crusts towards the diminished family. They look at me distrustfully when I pull up.
“Do you know what happened to the other one?” I ask. I know instinctively which of the four swans is missing. I could never tell them apart before, yet there’s something overwhelmingly female about the creature hovering in front of us, mirrored in perfectly still water.
“Dog waded in, they got into a fight. Dog bit him. Then he got septicaemia. It was the septicaemia that killed him.”
“I’m sorry.” I’m not talking to them, or even looking at them. Still, they nod.
My father rings that night, of course. And of course, I tell him. One small death becomes another part of the static between us.
“What happened to the dog?”
“He didn’t say.”
My father sighs profoundly. “I hope it killed that damn mutt.”
The two offspring are almost grown, only distinguishable from their mother by a few straggling grey feathers. It occurs to me, finally, that swans are nothing like people. Soon the children will be identical to their mother, a family of one. Do cygnets stay with their parents? I doubt it. They’ll fly away, and it will all happen again, or some variation on this theme–for nature is the great recycler.
He calls on a bad day, at a bad time. “Dad, I’m a little busy.”
“Of course. Better things to do that talk to a lonely old man.”
“You know what? Screw you. You’re not the only one who lost her.”
A pause. A silence. Then, “How dare you…”
I press a button, and my father is gone.
She floats alone, her husband lost, her children gone, a little like a ghost. She turns to follow me whenever I ride by. I try not to read anything into her alien existence. Perhaps she’s grown used to human food by now, or even just to human presence.
My father doesn’t call at all.
I’m getting by okay.
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