Not much of a swan song
Two weeks ago, my boss tasked me with writing about a swan. The swan’s mate had died, and now he was spending his days intimidating visitors at a local country park. I practically had the article written in my head by the time that I pulled into the carpark, by the swan lake. I just needed a choice quote from someone who knew him before his heartbreak, plus a couple of more-or-less-verified anecdotes about his recent lashings out.
Except that it was Monday morning.
My body knew this. My eyeballs felt like they’d been bathed in bleach. But my brain hadn’t done the maths on how few people might be around. My little green Fiat was the only vehicle in the carpark, except for the snack van parked at the other end.
Snack van it was then. I locked my car and headed across the gravel. The shutters of the van were up, and I could just make out someone moving inside.
“Hello?” I called, with fake brightness. “I’m Chantal Eavis, from The Herald. Could I get a coffee? And a Mars Bar? And talk to you, just for a minute, about Albert? The swan?”
The snack van barista turned around to face me, slowly, and put her hands on her hips. She looked about my age. Maybe a year or two younger? Old enough to drive this van at least. She was wearing a coffee-stained white apron over a black sweatshirt, and a look that said, ‘I can strip and reassemble this coffee machine quicker than a gun. And then eat you for my breakfast.’ The overall effect was impressive. Effortlessly so.
“If it’s no trouble?” I got my wallet out of my duffle coat pocket, to show serious coffee buying intent. “You must see a lot from this van. In your opinion has the grief changed him?”
“Are you taking the piss?”
She turned her back and did more coffee things. Much hissing and steaming from various nozzles. No talking whatsoever. I waited quietly, and then nodded extra appreciatively when she finally handed me the takeaway cup. She slid the Mars Bar onto the counter, and then reached over, holding her sturdy hand out flat. “That’ll be £3.90.”
“Mmmhmm. Thank you. I really do work for The Herald. I interned for 6 months and then…”
Wow. Just wow. I had never seen anyone’s face do such an immaculate job of expressing extreme disinterest. Her eyebrows were particularly skilled at this.
I stumbled on… “And…I just thought…you see everything from here I bet. And maybe you have a take on how Albert….is…coping?”
“They’re vicious birds, the lot of them, and they shit everywhere.”
“Ah….ok.” I handed over my fiver and pocketed my change.
She pulled her ponytail loose, snapped her hair bobble around her wrist, and twisted her curls up into a bun as she said. “My nan’s not a fan of your paper. And my dad hates the Queen and her bloody birds.”
“Got it. Got you,” I said, faintly remembering something from a school trip about the Queen owning all the swans in the land? Maybe? “This is more an animal interest story, than a political piece. Now when it comes to Albert, would you say…”
She held up a finger. “It’s bloody stupid naming a bird, if you ask me.”
I took a sip of the scalding coffee and coughed. “Well, thank you then. Mmmhmm.” I shuffled backwards, the car park gravel scrunching under my pumps. I had to at least look as though I knew what I was doing, so I turned towards the lake and marched down the grassy slope. It was super dewy, and I could feel it soaking right through my leggings and socks.
Fieldwork. Fuck. I was feeling thoroughly judged, and thoroughly useless. I rolled my shoulders back, slugging some coffee over the side of my cup. I made myself take in the view, as I continued on to the scrubby shoreline. I inhaled my Mars Bar down and counted three pairs of swans out on the lake, plus a huddle of ducks, and a few geese. And as I got my birdwatcher eye in, I saw a sole swan, hunkered down on a reedy clump, like he had his own tiny island.
“Albert my man!”
I felt genuinely excited to see him, until I clocked how tragic he looked, his head tucked under his wing. Heartbroken to the core. Ah, shit. Poor bird. That had to hurt, your mate dying, and then everyone thinking you’re washed up and a menace to society and…
I turned away from him, looking up to the big, blue sky, feeling sad and like I really was getting nature. Lifecycles, they were coming for us all. I sighed, then put my shoulders back and found a number for the park manager. It went straight to her voicemail. I pushed on…
“Hi, this is Chantal Eavis, from the Herald. Beautiful park by the way. I’m just here on the shore, wondering if you wanted to say a word or two about…”
Before I could even finish my sentence, something hit me from the side, my smooth soled pumps shot out from under me, like greased otters, and I went down on my butt. And the next thing I knew I was pinned to the ground, a massive, webbed foot pressing down on my shoulder, and a big, orange swan beak almost touching my nose.
“For ssssstarters,” the swan hissed, beady eyes fixing mine. “My name is Len, not Albert. Ssssssecond, I am not ‘your man’. And alsssssssso I wasssss asssssssssleep.”
“Got it. Got you,” I wheezed. I nodded fervently and accidentally bumped my nose against his beak.
“Now pisssssssss off.”
“Mmmhmmm. Thank you.” I tried to radiate good manners from my eyes, while fumbling to unlock the screen of my phone. As the rest of me held dead-possum-still, he carefully lifted his foot, and then took off at a run and launched his enormous swan body into the sky.
I sucked a breath into my mighty relieved lungs, exhaled through my nose, and laughed giddily. “Fucking fieldwork.”
A sturdy hand reached across my face and I flinched. I turned my head and saw a pair of black boots. Tracking up, a coffee-stained apron, and your friendly snack van barista peering down at me, judgmental eyebrows cocked.
“Do you want a hand up or not, you bloody eejit? Are you ok?”
I grunted, and squirmed my way over onto my knees, and then pushed up to standing, dusting off my duffle coat, like I had some dignity left. That shred of dignity lasted about five seconds before hot tears started to roll down my swan-saliva-coated-cheeks. I scrubbed at them with the sleeve of my coat.
“Ah, come on there. You’re ok?” she said, bending down to retrieve my now empty coffee cup. “Come on, dry your eyes and all that, I’ve got some serviettes back at the van.”
I nodded, like a four-year-old. “He s-poke..to…me.”
“Sure,” he did. “Come on, eejit.” She gripped my noodley arm and started steering me, back up the slope.
“You don’t be-believe me.”
“No-one believes a ‘journalist’.” She did insulting air quotes with one hand.
“You hate me.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Your nan hates me.”
“Just your paper, stupid.”
I dry sobbed. Yes, this was a Monday morning meltdown of the most embarrassing degree. Worse than crying in the ladies toilets. Worse than crying in front of my computer screen as I stared at my blurry inbox. Worse than…
“You’re going to need to speed up, or I’ll have to leave you to it. I can’t be leaving the van unlocked.”
“Got it,” I sniffled, and instructed my legs to move faster.
When we were almost to the top of the slope, back on safe, gravelly land, she said. “I’ll get you a coffee with three sugars. Wait there.”
“Thank you. I don’t even know your name, to say thank you.”
“You’re wanting to quote me, Chantal. Chantal Eavis, from the Herald. No, I know how that goes.”
I stared down at my now filthy shoes. When she came back with the coffee, I gripped the cup tightly and stared into the cup, searching for strength? Inspiration? An answer to life? A clue what to do with this unprintable story?
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this,” I said, weary as though I’d run a gauntlet, and then a marathon, and then been hit by a truck, and then got up again and…
“Sure you are,” she said firmly, tightening her apron.
“Is that an insult or a compliment?”
She elbowed me lightly. “Come on, you got Albert to talk, allegedly.”
“Mmmhmm.” I took a sip of the coffee, just as scalding as my first cup, but much sweeter. Shit, it was sweet. “Just for the record, he’s called Len.”
“And maybe I’m Melinda? Mel to you.”
“Got it.” I smiled.
This week I started by trying to think about setting, as this is not where my brain goes naturally. Near where I lived, growing up, there was a country park called Ferry Meadows. Of course, as soon as I started to think about swans, and who was going to the park and why… that is all I wanted to think about! And I had to force myself to put in a few scrimpy visual details about the park itself. There’s always another week though. 🙂