From around a dense bramble choked bend, a lone swan emerged from dawn’s mist, dipping its head between reeds. ‘Where’s your mate?’ Fern asked. ‘Don’t swans stay with their partners until one of them dies?’ Tears stung at her own question. Behind her, from inside her car, the strains of the Flower Duet floated out to blend with amber hues and stagnant scents of early autumn. When they’d first met, James had encouraged her to listen to classical music. Took her to concerts. She, in turn, had introduced him to jazz.
A cloud passed over the wavering sun, obliterating murky reflections at the canal’s edge but enhanced four grey chimneys that stood belching out industrial smoke beyond waste ground. The swan floated closer. Damp and chilled, Fern shivered. Drew a musty blanket up around her shoulders. ‘On the river’s current.’ Fern’s voice sounded croaky as she accompanied the duet from her car’s CD. ‘One hand reaches, reaches for the bank.’ She extended fingers towards the bird. ‘Ah, calling us together.’ She closed her eyes as the pure notes of two sopranos faded.
‘Lakme committed suicide by eating a datura leaf,’ James had explained after a concert at the Albert Hall.
‘How sad,’ she’d replied, hooking her arm into his. It had been her first concert and she’d hoped it wouldn’t be her last.
Now Ella Fitzgerald sang, Every Time We Say Goodbye. If only James hadn’t stepped in front of her that night in the bar. If only he hadn’t tried to defend her against a drunken female stranger who’d sworn Fern had taken her seat. If only she’d taken the knife’s deadly thrust instead of James. If only they’d stayed in their flat that night listening to their favoured music.
The swan drifted closer and appeared to eye Fern’s left hand. ‘Not datura leaf,’ she said to the swan. ‘Just a bottle of vodka and a shed load of painkillers.’ She picked up the vodka lying on a clump of grass beside her and waved it at the swan before unscrewing the top. The swan flapped its wings and rose high out from the water and sped, hissing, its long neck stretched towards Fern.
Fern let out a cry of shock and surprise as the swan’s beak, like a small, yellow spatula snatched the packets of tablets from her hand and dropped them into the water where they sank in lazy circles down into an abandoned, rusting shopping trolley. ‘God!’ Fern leapt to her feet, grabbing handfuls of her unwashed hair like a demented woman. ‘Bloody bird! Look what you’ve done!’
Then, as she yelled those angry words, the swan glided to the middle of the canal watching her and, as they eyed one and other, the face of James seemed to morph onto the swan’s features.
Fern sank to the ground. ‘I only wanted us to be together,’ she whispered and the swan drifted away taking with it a vague, familiar scent in its sedate wake.