Swan Song

Two swans.

Gliding.

Graceful, poised, entwined. Their movements choreographed. Telegraphed.

The pond is theirs. Their canvas to paint. Their stage to perform. Their own private world to sculpt and finesse. The water is cold but there is hope. A glimpse, the merest glimmer, of spring has edged its way into the weather in recent days. Defying the cold, signalling an end in sight to the tortuous, prolonged winter. Even the trees surrounding the pond, branches serrated and bare, drip gently with the dew of an earlier frost.

Suddenly both swans burst forward, their wings raised, their feathers flustered, as they dart towards a discarded piece of pastry thrown into the far side of the pond.

‘Don’t do that for god’s sake!?’ Julie turns to her partner Andrew sitting on the opposite end of the wooden bench. ‘Swans are vicious things! They’ll come looking for more now! Just wait and see!’

Andrew looked at her, his half-eaten sausage roll peeking out of the baker’s bag currently hovering mere millimetres from his mouth. He shrugs. Turns away. A familiar spark of fury blazes in Julie’s eyes.

‘And wipe your beard you bloody tink, there’s pastry in it! Bloody disgusting!’ Julie, too, now turns away. She reaches down to her own baker’s bag and pulls out her sandwich, carefully biting into the ham and cheese concoction only inches above the strategically lain napkins placed on her lap.

Andrew discreetly swipes at his beard in an effort to remove the offending segments of his lunch, careful all the while not to let Julie see this and, in turn, giving her the satisfaction that she craves. He sighs and looks at the pair of swans before him. Tussling, bartering over the diminishing piece of pastry thrown seconds earlier. Their grace, their beauty, their kinship, momentarily gone as their individual desires conflict. He flashes a look across to Julie. She stares straight ahead, giving him no quarter. Chewing. Her eyes look glazed, fixed on nothing in particular. He turns back.

An anger invades him. Well, no not anger, he decides, but a confusion certainly. This bench. There was a reason they were sitting on this bench. This particular bench. He’d taken Julie here on one of their first dates. Mind you, to put it like that it sounds planned. But it wasn’t. They were walking together, hand in hand (despite only having known each other for a matter of days), and came upon the bench. They had sat down, his arm around her. And it had felt right. Natural. Like so much did in those early days. There was never any question in his mind that she was the girl, the woman, for him. And he was certain she felt the same. It was easy, it was right, it was true. And they had returned to this place, to this bench, time after time throughout their relationship. Always hand in hand. Always entwined. But now, he thought, to look at them you would think they were strangers. Her at one end of the bench, him at the other. Both squashed against the ornate steel armrests. Now nothing but twelve years of animosity and shit left between them. Unspoken words, threats left hanging.

Andrew takes the final bite of his sausage roll and crumples up the paper bag as he chews. The crumpling process is loud, cutting into the otherwise idyllic scene. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Julie twist her head towards him, disdain no doubt clouding her eyes. She twists back. He feels resentment start to crackle on the tip of his tongue. Words, insults, beginning to form. He looks toward her, ready to verbally strike, when his attention is caught by the swans.

Gliding.

Slowly. Gracefully. Beautifully. Their movements mirrored. Seemingly of one mind. They glide in circles; in small half-circles, in grand sweeping circles. Their soft white plumage immaculate, unsullied, glistening in the mid-afternoon sun. Andrew is transfixed, his mouth hanging open slightly. The majesty of the moment paralysing him. His eyes rise and fall with every swoop and glide, every twist and turn. He feels Julie’s eyes on him but still, he’s unable to wrest his gaze from the glorious creatures before him. In unison the swans seem to turn towards him. Inching forward. They crane their necks. Their orange beaks part. And then it happens. A sound. So gorgeous, so translucent even that it seems unreal. Within the world and, yet, not of the world. The swans’ voices harmonise, rising and falling, rising and falling. Each note, each twist, flooding Andrew’s ears with beauty and warmth. A song, he realises. A beautiful, gorgeous swan song.

‘Do you hear that…?’ he whispers.

‘Hear what?’ asks Julie.

‘The swans…the swans…’

‘Don’t be bloody silly, these are mute swans! They barely make any sound at all!’

He cares not for her dismissive words. Nor for her admonishment. His body exhales, relaxes. All the anger, the resentment, the annoyance spilling out of him. Replaced by comfort. By calm. By acceptance. The swans turn and glide to the far end of the pond. The song, the sound, fades into the ether as they do so. Andrew collects himself. He rubs his eyes slightly. He continues to stare at the swans as they glide alongside each other. Then they part. One suddenly taking flight, fumbling from the water and into the air. The other notices, halting briefly, before continuing its regimented laps of the pond.

Andrew glances up at Julie, all trace of anger or resentment gone. He see’s the image of the girl he once loved in her brief hint of a smile. He see’s the face of the woman forever lost to him in the look of indifference that quickly replaces it.

‘Julie…’ he says, ‘I think we need to talk…’

‘Yeah Andrew,’ she turns to look at him. A sadness in her eyes. ‘I really think we do…’

The Woman

PPFeb18

There she sits, the woman, in the burnt out husk that used to be a bus stop. Or possibly a tram stop. No-one, truth be told, would be able to tell you for sure. The facts, like the structure’s shape, lost forever to the annals of time. But the bench remains. And so does she; the woman. Withered, yes. Weary, of course. But she remains.

Heavy drops of rain sporadically drip down onto her from somewhere high above. She doesn’t bother to look. Not interested in the source. All that matters is the end result, not the sequence of events that takes you there. This she knows. This she believes to be true. One of the raindrops slides slowly down her face. It weaves through each of the numerous wrinkles carved into her skin. It drops to the ground. The wrinkles. She’d learned to accept them long ago. They were a fact of life. Irreversible. You learn to accept that which you cannot change. But did there have to be so many? ‘Like an ordinance survey map’; ‘like the craters on the moon’; ‘like an international conference of wrinkled prunes’. Those were some of the kinder comments she’d heard. The nastier ones she tended to dismiss. It was human nature after all. To mock that which is different. To be wary about those that deviate from the accepted norm. The Old Woman, though. That one hurt. She had to admit. That one did sting.

You see, she’s not old. The woman. Not by any conventional sense at least. Old-But-Not-Old. That’s how she referred to herself. And the others. The other women. There’s about a dozen of them. Still living. Still walking around The City. Scorned, mocked, shunned. The Old-But-Not-Olds. The ones who dared to resist. The ones who ultimately failed. The ones who must now bare the scars of that failure.

It was a few years ago now. She can’t remember when exactly. Time and age lose their meaning, lose their permanence even, in a situation like this. But they were in the early 20’s. Her and the others. She knew that. It was very shortly after The Regime had risen to power. They were young. Attractive. Vibrant. Intelligent. That’s why they were chosen. Diamonds plucked from the rough. They should have been pleased. Should have felt privileged. Especially when compared with the treatment of the majority of the other women in The City. Obedience. Acquiescence. That was the only price they had to pay for a life of luxury. A life better than that of their fellow citizens. One not of squalor or degradation. That was how The Regime phrased things, anyway. But she wouldn’t have it. Nor would the others. Caged animals they would not be. Docile, passive concubines they would not be. Resist they would. Fight back they would. But of course, as we already know, this failed. The wrinkles on her face illustrated this fact if nothing else.

The Regime managed to get wind of their plot. The women. Less a plot, more a resolve. The resolve to overpower their guards and break free from the Headquarters. To somehow escape The City, to get help. To inform someone, anyone, of their suffering. But one of the women broke. Too crippled by fear. Too worried about reprisals, about repercussions, should the plot be discovered. Too focussed on the promise of her own salvation at the expense of the others. She confessed all, believing the regime would take pity on her. Award her confession with the absolving of her previous crimes. That they would thank her. Thank her they did. But that was all. She ultimately suffered just like all the other women. They injected her with the chemical just as they did the others. You see, one thing The Regime despised more than the thought of betrayal was weakness. When this woman confessed the plans of the plot they didn’t see loyalty. They didn’t see courage. They saw only weakness. They saw a pathetic creature scrambling to save her own existence. As much as the others should be, and were, punished they had a grudging respect for their courage and resolve. They would suffer, of course they would, they couldn’t be allowed not to, but there was respect there, make no mistake. She thought she would be able to walk the streets of The City unlike the others. Her face, her body, untarnished. But no. She walks as the rest of them do. Wrinkled. Scarred. Another Old-But-Not-Old to be scorned, mocked, shunned.

The chemical injections were frequent and harrowing. The chemical eating away at their flesh, their blood cells. Aging the women. Stripping away their beauty, purging them of their youth. It left them wrinkled, weak, defeated. They weren’t to die. No, The Regime were adamant about that. They were to be released back onto the streets. To be seen, and recognised, as permanent reminders. For the citizens. For themselves. Reminders of the punishment should you go against The Regime. Reminders that your life is no more than a plaything in the hands of The Regime. To be moulded. To be discarded. However they see fit. And so they were. Released, that is. Sent back amongst their people. People they had so recently been elevated above. Now seen as no more than the permanent living monuments they were.

The rain falls harder. It ricochets off the woman’s every joint, every crease. A drop falls onto her lips. She blows at it slightly, trying to send it from her lips. But her eyes remain fixed. On the building across from her. The huge, grey, sterile, featureless, almost-monolithic building. The Headquarters. The hub of The Regime. She sits here everyday. Staring. At the building. At the source of the torment. At first The Regime would send out guards, often soldiers, to dismiss her. To threaten her. But after a while they started to ignore her. She was harmless. Beaten. Broken. And, in their minds, it was, if anything, good to have a display of their strength, their authority, close to the Headquarters every day. A warning for all others. Over time she would give up, they surmised. Over time her resolve, her anger, would lessen.

That’s the thing about time, though, the woman thinks; there’s plenty of it. Enough for everyone. Time enough for the punishers to become complacent. Time enough for that complacency to become dangerous, to become hubris. And time enough for the punished to beginning planning. And when you have the time to plan – the time to plan every eventuality, every hurdle, every variable – you can make sure that plan is the best it can be.

Her eyes flit to the left quickly. And then to the right. Across the street, at the foot of The Headquarters, two familiar faces walk hurriedly in opposite directions. Two of her fellow Old-But-Not-Olds. Each seem to pay the other no heed. But the woman smirks. Just slightly. The smallest of smirks. Invisible to most. She slowly lifts herself off the cold, sodden bench. The smirk widens as whispered numbers sneak out from her lips…

‘4…’

‘3…’

‘2…’

‘Now…’

The woman watches as a huge explosion rips through the lower section of The Headquarters. She turns and begins to walk away as the building buckles and starts to slowly collapse. The sound of screaming and emergency sirens collide in the air. A distance blast echoes into the air from across The City. And then another. And another. With each blast the woman’s smirk increases. She continues to walk away, her pace calm, as the rain gently weaves and caresses its way through the wrinkles on her face once again.

 

Invasion

Shut your eyes and
go to your happy place,
never show you are
dying inside

Listen to the waves,
to the gulls calling loudly,
not to the screams
as you hear yourself cry

Imagine the calm, gentle
breeze flowing softly,
and not the invasion,
nor the searing, raw pain

Keep in your head
every good time
and memory,
you shall need them
for sure when it all
starts again.

Valentine’s Day

(Written Feb 2016)

What do you write in a Valentine’s Day card after all these years together? I mean, honestly. What can you write? I’ve personally always been of the opinion that, if there’s love there, you shouldn’t need a cheap Hallmark Holiday card to say it or know it. It’s perhaps the emptiest gesture of all, isn’t it? A long-term couple exchanging a Valentine’s Day card complete with a banal, beige poem or ditty likely written by a low-paid worker who has to churn out dozens of similar messages a day, with only a line or two plucked from your own imagination scrawled below it. And if you don’t quite feel the full weight of regimented, manufactured display of love then here’s a small raggedy teddy bear clutching a love heart, lovingly purchased at the last minute from the local supermarket. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, in fact I know I am, but I just don’t get the whole telling-your-loved-one-you-love-them routine on a particular day of the year just because some card company has decided it should be so. Much like Mother’s Day. Or Father’s Day. I’ll tell my parents I love them or appreciate them when I like, thank you very much. In the same way that I’ll tell the man I love that I love him when I choose to. I don’t need Valentine’s Day to do that. But then, of course I do it. We all do it. Every single one of us in a relationship participates in this hollow charade. Simply because not doing so would hurt your loved one. It would come across as uncaring for the sake of being stubborn. At least you think it would.

In the early days, when we first met, we used to do it differently. We weren’t going to be like all the other couples. You always tell yourself that don’t you. Me and my man, we’re different. That’s what you say at the beginning. We won’t play by the standard romance rules. You’re convinced that no-one has felt love as strong, as blinding as this before. Look at the other couples, look at their expressions. Boredom, frustration, exasperation. That won’t be us. That won’t ever be us baby, you say. Of course it is. It always is. We all settle into the standard routine, all us long-termers. The lavish romantic, love and lust-filled gestures of the early weeks, months or even years slowly erode into a functional, ‘comfortable’ routine. So the horse and carriage rides, or the expensive meals, or nights in five star hotels become a card and a box of chocolates. The same chocolates you eat throughout the year, yes, but which extracts of strawberry wedged in them to give them Valentine’s Day relevance. But anyway, yes, we did it differently. For those first few Valentine’s Days Luke and I would dress up as 1920’s Chicago bootleggers, or gangsters, in homage to that other reason to remember the 14th of February. Al Capone and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Pin stripe suits, hats; the works. We would go to a restaurant, politely eat our meals and, with only a handful of food left, we would descend into a loud, riotous food fight with one another, the more ketchup the better, right there in front of an array of stunned on looking diners. The result would always be chaos, a hideous mess of stains and food strewn around our table, our faces, our clothes. Often we would be chased out by outraged waiters, occasionally we could walk out calmly simply due to their onset of bewildered paralysis. It certainly limited out restaurant options for future date nights anyway. But that was us. We were different. And of course one year, with both of us crazily busy at work, we couldn’t do it. And that was it. Never again. A simple card, chocolates and maybe a movie became the standard template for the night thereafter.

To be fair, for the next few years, we did try our best to be different with the cards aswell. Often we would have a competition to find the worst Valentine’s Day card we could for one another. Sometimes the funniest. Occasionally ones in different languages. The messages we wrote each other would be different. Always laced with in-jokes, private sex jokes, or silly facts about Valentine’s Day we would find on the internet. At first he would always sign off my card with the note ‘P.S. You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright, and that’s alright with me’ as a joke. That line from Thunder Road, the Bruce Springsteen song, OUR song. And then I would sign his with ‘Tramps like us, baby we were born to run’ or some other Springsteen lyric. And then one year, because life is like this of course, we weren’t exactly feeling all loved up towards one another, arguing about something so trivial that I forget now, and the messages disappeared from the cards. Replaced by the ‘To blah blah…Love from blah blah’ standard. And that became the way it was. The way it is. The way it always is for almost every couple on the planet once you ‘settle’. And then one day even the cards stop. It’s nothing malicious, or unkind. Once again, it is just the way things are. The way it is.

So, once again, I’ll ask; just what do you write in a Valentine’s Day card after all these years together? He knows all my quirks, every piece of my humour. An Al Capone reference maybe? A Springsteen line? No, we’ve done that to death. It’s a sad thing to say but after so long together most couples run out of ways to surprise one another. The element of surprise, of ‘new’ becomes lost in familiarity. In fact, no, it doesn’t have to be a sad thing but it just is what it is. It’s a fact. There’s nothing wrong with familiarity though, with comfort, with partnership. So, in all truth, and as corny as this may sound, all you are left with, all I am left with, is the truth. With honesty. Honesty stripped of quirkiness, stripped of anxiety, stripped of all the calculated bullshit. Just love.

With that in mind I gently rip the plastic off of the generic couple of doe-eyed cuddly bears hugging one another card, pick a pen out of my handbag and write carefully;

Luke

My husband, my best friend, my life, my everything.

I still love you, I always have loved you and always will love you.

You loving wife.

I place the pen back in my handbag along with the unused envelope. I pull myself up off the bench and walk across the gravel path before stepping onto the sodden grass. I lean down and delicately wedge the card in between the vase of withered flowers and the marble, placing it alongside a handful of faded cards. I gently kiss my gloved fingertips before pressing them against the top of his gravestone. Light raindrops begin to fall.

‘I love you darling,’ I whisper, ‘I always will.’

I pull myself back up, edging along the grass before stepping back onto the path. I button my coat up, shooting him one last lingering look, before turning and walking away through the February rain.

New Moon

Deep within the darkest shadows’ dance
lies unseen, the bright new moon,
and so my unanswered questions fall
and leave me in this empty room.

But enduring loss the night sky shines
and blazes with a different wonder,
while my deepest questions are left to probe
past lightning and past thunder.

So standing here, under this new night,
my darkest questions should leave,
but in shadows cast by a different light
they all remain and grieve.

 
Daily Post Word Prompt: Suspicious

One Small Step

One small step
is all I need
to take the pain away

One leap into
the icy depths
and my world
will cease to be grey

One swift cut
will drain away
the poison
from my heart

One tug of war
will free my mind,
of this world
I will have no part

So many ways
to surrender,
to finally be free

No more fight
to endure the pain,
to continue being me.