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Swan Song


Becca stood by the edge of the bridge, the oppressive heat of the day finally giving in to a light breeze that chilled her bare arms. The sun hadn’t done her headache any good, but nothing did any more. Normally she’d have spent such a stifling day indoors somewhere, but she no longer had anywhere to go. Pubs cost money and they noticed if you tried to nurse a pint all afternoon. University halls were closed for the summer. The library was shut on a Monday, and besides, it would have closed at five. And as for the place she’d once referred to as home…

She looked into the water below, surely still cold, swirling around the brickwork of the bridge, little eddies forming behind each of the wooden poles to guide boat traffic through. She was ready.

She placed her hands slowly on the railing, preparing herself, steadying herself. This was the answer. She hadn’t felt so calm in months. The phone in her back pocket buzzed once again. Wouldn’t be Mum, obviously – she wouldn’t even notice for days. Wouldn’t be that bitch of a conniving bastard shit of an ex-lover trying to make things better, saying she was sorry that things had worked out this way and how they should find a way to be friends and that she would always love Becca but…

That wasn’t going to be her last thought. Not that cow. No. Peaceful thoughts.

Becca glanced along the river, seeing one late-night dog-walker off in the distance, the whole place otherwise abandoned. She put a foot on the bottom railing.

And something smacked her in the face, knocking her backwards.

A bloody swan.

A stupid bloody enormous swan, right in her face.

She rolled over to see what had happened to the idiotic creature, only to see, instead, a woman, sitting on the bench where Becca had spent the afternoon.

“Good evening,” said the woman in a melodic, otherworldly voice. Becca stared at her smooth skin, her thin cotton dress, her long pale neck, and most especially her flowing pale-yellow hair. Indisputably a woman who had been blessed.

“Where did you come from?”

“Just dropped by to see if you’re OK.” The woman smiled, narrowing her eyes a fraction, giving her what Becca had to admit was an almost-painfully-attractive mischievous expression. She shook her head. This was no time to get distracted.

“I’m not. Now, if you’ll leave me alone.”

“Oh, don’t worry. There’s time to fall from the bridge later. First, ice cream!”

The woman stood up, her long light dress wafting around her. Becca couldn’t work out what colour it was, as if it was changing as the woman moved. Becca stared at it as the woman reached down to grab Becca’s hand. Becca pulled away.

“Oh, I am sorry,” said the woman. “How rude of me. I haven’t introduced myself. My name’s Susan.”

“Becca,” replied Becca, without thinking.

“So glad to meet you,” said Susan, reaching out the hand again, this time grabbing Becca’s and pulling her to her feet. “Now, ice cream.”

Becca pulled back, but not hard enough to prevent being led off to the steps down to the riverside, and along to where the ice cream stall had been doing a roaring trade all day.

“It’s shut,” said Becca.

“Not for us.” Susan, keeping hold of Becca, knocked on the window. “George.  It’s me.  Midnight ice cream is required.”

A rattle came from behind the door, which opened to show an old man, somewhat disheveled as if he’d been woken up.

“You don’t sleep here, do you?” asked Becca.

The old man looked Becca up and down. “Not normally, no. It’s hard to get comfy in this heat, even on the river.” Turning to Susan, he asked “two ice creams?”

“Please. With flakes. I love flakes.” She glanced at Becca.

The man disappeared inside and returned, two ice creams in hand. Susan took them both, finally releasing Becca’s hand, and handed one to her. “Thanks, George.”

She turned away and walked down to the riverside, along to the little pier where the riverboats plied their trade to and from the racecourse during the day. She sat down on the edge, her feet dangling almost to the water.

“Come on,” said Susan, patting the pier beside her.

Becca stared at her. She could have left the ice cream and gone back to the bridge. But she didn’t. She obediently sat down next to Susan and licked the ice cream. It reminded her of her dad. They’d come down here when she was a girl, always having an ice cream, always sitting and chattering about whatever was troubling her. What Becca wouldn’t give to have him back, but he abandoned them, like everyone else did, and went off to Australia with another woman, leaving Becca in that house with a woman who couldn’t even begin to accept Becca for who she was.

Becca stared at the ice cream, no longer tasting its sweetness, but instead tasting nothing but the cold. She felt her eyes welling up, as they had so often done in the previous weeks. A drop of ice cream ran down her finger, leaving a sticky trail, and dripped down into the water below. A tear, unseen in the darkness, joined it.

Becca found an arm round her shoulders, and for a second felt comforted, before releasing herself and jumping up. “What are you doing?”

Susan remained seated. “Giving you what you need. No more, no less.” She licked her ice cream again, as her dress once again seemed to change, this time to a deeper colour, almost a blue, or perhaps that was somehow a reflection of the dark water on it.

“Look, thanks for the ice cream and everything, but I’ve got to go.”

“No.”

“No what?”

“You don’t have to go. You don’t even want to go. Stay a little. Talk. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Why? Why should I talk to you? You’re a weird woman who dropped in on me from nowhere and won’t leave me alone.”

“Dropped in.” Susan turned a little, and Becca could see she was smiling. “Yes.  I suppose I did. Come on, sit back down. You’re making the place look untidy.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you want to talk.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Yes. You do. You find it painful. I know that. I can feel that bursting inside you, but you have to talk. And I can listen. And then, if you really want, we’ll go and jump off the bridge together.”

“You’re making no sense.”

“And you are? All I’m asking is to hear your problems. You’ve got a lot to work through. I can see that. But if you’d just trust me, you can work through it.”

“How would you know? With your beautiful hair and your long neck and wherever you come from and how god-awfully-pretty and perfect you are you wouldn’t know.” Becca felt certain of this. The woman sitting on the pier in front of her couldn’t have suffered. Not and keep such a gut-wrenchingly perfect face.

Susan looked out to the water, at some swans floating by. “Swans mate for life, you know.”

“What?”

“No ifs, no buts. Life.”

“What’s that got to do with suffering?”

“I lost my partner a few months ago. We’d argued, as we often did, about something trivial. Something pointless and irrelevant and I wish more than anything else that I could go back and change my last words to him. I told him to get lost. Or words to that effect. And he did. He got tangled in some fishing wire round his neck. Stupid fishing twine, left behind by ignorant people who don’t realize how dangerous littering into rivers can be. He couldn’t cry out, couldn’t change or he’d have strangled himself, couldn’t free himself. If I’d been there he’d have lived. But I’m a stupid selfish creature who wasn’t there for him. Not a day goes by without me regretting that final day.” 

Susan swiveled round on the pier so that she could look up into Becca’s face. “We were supposed to be together forever. And now he’s gone. And I cry when it hits me, but I live in the moments when it doesn’t. And right now, there’s something more important to do. Which is to get you to tell me what’s wrong.”

Becca stared, and then sat down again, realizing she still had her ice cream in her hand. She licked it again. Her hand was sticky with the amount that had melted and run down to her wrist.

Susan shuffled back so they were both facing the water again.

“My girlfriend left me.”

Susan nodded but said nothing. Becca had begun. This time she would continue.

“My dad swanned off to Australia with another woman.”

Susan waited.

“My mum hates me and hates who I am and who I want to be and who I love even if on this occasion she did turn out to be a conniving backstabbing cow, although that’s not Mum’s responsibility, but she hates everything about me, probably because I remind her of Dad, and she hates even mentioning Dad.”

Susan finished her ice cream and leaned back on her elbows, slightly behind Becca.

“I can’t concentrate on studying anymore because everything else is so messed up that I’m going to be kicked out of Uni. I get headaches all the bloody time which the doctor tells me are psychosomatic and wants to send me to a stupid psychiatrist about.”

Susan said nothing. Becca looked down at her legs, dangling over the side, and wondered if the dress had changed colour again. It was definitely silvery now. Maybe it was the moonlight.

“All my friends sided with bitchface, so I can’t speak to any of them anymore.”

Susan leaned forward, and again the arm gently reached round Becca’s shoulders.

Becca looked out into the blackness. “I can’t go home. I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anywhere to go. All I’ve felt is pain for as long as I can remember, and there’s no point. I don’t want to carry on. I don’t want to try. Everywhere I go I’m going to be reminded what a total failure I’ve been, what a total failure I am.” She felt her face. Tears. “And now I bet I look awful with my mascara running, right?”

Susan looked into her eyes and smiled, then laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

Susan put a hand to Becca’s cheek and wiped away some tears. “It is true. Your mascara has run dreadfully.”

Becca stared. “I’ve told you what’s wrong, and all you comment on is my makeup?”

Susan put her second hand on Becca’s other cheek and held her. “You do not look awful, Becca Cavendish.”

Becca recoiled. “I didn’t tell you my surname.”

“Oh, you must have.”

She pulled back and stood up. “I didn’t. I definitely didn’t.”

Susan lifted herself up on her hands enough that she could get her legs under her, then gracefully rose.

“Look, I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want anything. I want to feel numb.”

“You want to feel happy. And I can make you feel happy.”

“What, drug me out of existence like the doctors wanted to?”

“No. Way better.”

“Or pretend that you could love this messed-up wreck, so I begin to hope and then you snatch it away like everyone else has. Look, I don’t care. I’m going.” 

Becca walked away, feeling Susan following, but not looking round. It hurt. All she felt was hurt. All she felt was the list of things she’d failed at, and she wasn’t going to lose control of this, the final thing she was not going to fail at. For once she was going to follow through with something she’d set for herself. For once she was going to be in control. She took the steps two at a time and returned to the centre of the bridge. This time she didn’t pause at the railings, but scrambled up, standing on the top railing for a second, until she realized Susan was standing next to her.

“What are you doing?” asked Becca.

“Falling. With you.”

“I’m doing this.”

“Oh, I know.” Susan smiled again, and for an instant Becca’s determination cracked, and the possibility, the longing she felt, cut through her. It was too much to hope again. The failure would hurt even more, and she couldn’t bear it. She leaned forward and fell.

It all happened so fast from there. She expected cold, but instead a warm hand touched hers, and she saw Susan, still smiling, falling beside her, and then the hands were gone, and instead she felt the wind around her, bursts of cool air wafting up from below as her wings beat above the water.

Becca couldn’t breathe, but not because of drowning. Instead she was drowning in experience, in odd movements, in how her body was so light, so delicate, so perfect, responding instinctively to every tiny intention, and right beside her, sleek and as perfect as perfect could be, another swan, flying, seeing, experiencing the same. She felt herself submerged in the feeling, unable to comprehend, simply being, simply existing.

At the bend in the river the two of them, in unison, lowered their feet and skidded along the water to a stop. The other swan curled its neck round hers, and she couldn’t help but respond, the two gently caressing each other.

Becca followed as the other swan paddled until they reached a collapsed section of bank, where they waddled up for a few steps. And then, before her again was the beauty of Susan. Becca looked down at her own black jeans and vest.

She did not have a headache. She did not feel sad. She did not feel anything but elation from the breeze on her skin, the dampness of the ground, the beauty of the night sky with its clear moon, and with the attraction of this divine woman in front of her, turned slightly away, staring over the water, smiling softly.

“What just happened?” asked Becca.

Susan leaned forward and kissed Becca on the lips. “I don’t entirely know, but if you’ve got a lifetime, we could try to find out.”

 

Bio: Robert Kibble’s work has in appeared in Writers’ Forum Magazine and EveryDayFiction.com. He won the Nottingham Writers’ Club New Writer Competition in 2015 and has had three pieces published in anthologies (After the Happily Ever-After by Transmundane Press, WoW Anthology by the Exeter Writers competition, and the Brighton Flash Fiction Anthology, Grindstone Literary, Pilgrimage Press). He came in second in the Writing Magazine’s Epistolary Competition in 2018 and won a monthly Reedsy’s Writing Prompts competition. He lives west of London with his wife, a teenage son, and a cornucopia of half-finished writing projects.

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