Swan Songs

Kathryn sipped her coffee and watched the male blackbird preening himself on the wide birdbath. Having made himself look presentable he looked around and then flew down to the grass to feed and hop around the garden.

You’ve set up home, but however it goes you start every day by making yourself look good.

The forty-something woman watched for a while and thought about the bird’s activities over the past week. He’d worked tirelessly fetching various materials before disappearing into the thick winter jasmine growing up against the garden wall.

Kathryn turned away from the window and walked to the full-length mirror in the hallway. She looked from her tired expression to her clean, but plain dark blue dress and brown sandals. For a moment she wondered why she had come to a mirror to confirm what she already knew—she was still grieving for Max, her late husband.

Kathryn thought back to the final time she spent time in a simply decorated room with Max. They’d travelled to a special clinic in Switzerland together so that according to her brave man, they could both be set free.

* * *

Max said in his final few minutes, “I can only give consent if you promise not to grieve forever.”

“Please, Max,” Kathryn said. “I’m already grieving—”

“I need your promise—” Max held her hand with what little strength remained in his body. He swallowed and winced—the cancer had staked a claim on most of his internal organs and the pain-killers were no longer effective. “If a good person comes into your life, take off that ring and bury it where I asked, with mine.”

“Max—”

“Kathryn, I’m going to sleep in a few minutes, and I want to dream of you moving on; happy.”

“I promise.” Kathryn leant over the bed and kissed her husband softly on the lips. Her tears landed on his ravaged features. “I love you, Max.”

“I love you, Kathryn—goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Max.” When she saw the faint nod and his eyes closed, she kept to her part of their agreement and left the room. She didn’t see the doctor and nurse follow her in, but she knew what was to happen. A short while later, in a daze, Kathryn left the clinic and walked the three miles to the nearest village. As per her husband’s wish, she ordered a coffee in a particular cafe and sat near the window gazing at the mountains.

For twenty-five years Max had been husband, confidante, adviser, repairman, and everything in between, but most of all he had been a rock—something strong and resilient whenever it was needed. When Kathryn had returned from the clinic near Geneva she had done so with a few documents and Max’s wedding ring. There were no children or grandchildren to visit and the woman lived from day to day, in a trance for the first few weeks, eating and drinking out of physical necessity.

* * *

“Two years today, Max,” Kathryn whispered as she picked up a framed photo of her husband. “I’m sorry my love, but it’s hard to move on when you go rapidly from idyllically happy to anxiety, and then tragedy.” She kissed the image and replaced the photo on the sideboard.

Normally, Kathryn started the day by getting dressed as if she was going out to work, even though shortly after her return from that brief visit to Geneva she’d started working from home. Denise, the bereavement counsellor had suggested that it would be detrimental to become a person who stayed indoors alone, spending hours in a dressing gown.

Although Denise had been good at her job, alarm had registered on her features momentarily when she realised that as young as she was, Kathryn had no relatives from either side of the marriage, and she had nobody she would class as a ‘friend’.

“Well,” Denise had said on one visit. “If you’ll permit me, I’m going to be a surrogate friend until I know you’ll be okay.” So saying, she’d gone to the kitchen and made a pot of tea. True to her word, she remained in close contact for three months until she was sure that Kathryn had achieved a healthy routine.

Denise had been such a good influence that there was a framed photograph of her on the sideboard at the opposite side to Max.

“You two would have liked each other,” Kathryn said and looked from one picture to the other. She returned to the kitchen and sat there with a fresh cup of coffee staring out at the big rear garden. The dull-coloured female of the blackbird pair was feeding, hopping across the grass and then feeding again. “What would you do, if that handsome partner of yours disappeared, eh? You’d no doubt just get on with it.”

Kathryn burst into tears and spilled coffee down the front of her dress as she was reminded of her situation. For ten minutes she cried as she hadn’t done for a long time, her body wracked with the violence of her sobbing. When she regained control of herself she cleaned up the mess. She washed the cup and as she passed the sideboard to go upstairs she saw Max grinning at her from his photo.

It was a few minutes later as she stood semi-naked that Kathryn did something she’d not done for the past two years. She peeled off her underwear and looked at her naked reflection.

* * *

An hour after her brief breakdown in the kitchen, Kathryn strolled towards town, a mere two miles away, but a walk she rarely made, preferring to drive in, make whatever purchases where necessary and then get home to her private world.

As she walked in the bright sunshine her shoulder-length blonde hair lifted in the light breeze, and her floral, sleeveless, summer dress floated out from her long shapely legs. Kathryn’s white sandals felt like old acquaintances she’d not contacted for a long time—not surprisingly because they’d never seen daylight in two years.

Before leaving the house, the widow had invested a little bit longer in front of the mirror, applying makeup carefully and diligently for the first time in a long while. She had actually allowed herself a brief smile when she saw the end result of her efforts.

“I’m going out for a walk, Max,” she’d whispered as she passed the sideboard and set off along the hallway.

* * *

On the outskirts of the small market town, Kathryn paused and took the footpath down to the riverside. She chose a table outside, which was under the shade of a large tree. A few minutes later with a cup of coffee in front of her she watched the birds flitting around the bank.

A handsome man in a blazer and open-necked white shirt sauntered along the path, and sat alone at a table. He glanced at Kathryn a short distance away and nodded as a faint and brief smile passed over his lips.

Kathryn returned the greeting and smiled for an equally brief time, before turning back to survey the constant activity near the water’s edge. She looked up when the man gave his order and a few minutes later he too sat alone, with a cup of coffee for company. The widow’s eye was attracted to a movement nearby as two magnificent swans paddled along close together.

“Watch out for each other.” Kathryn was aware of the monogamous nature of the beautiful birds and how it was said that on occasion a swan might die of a broken heart if it lost its mate. “My Max said we should grieve and move on, so if one of you is left alone, find a new partner.”

Kathryn was smiling as she set off back along the narrow path and headed home. It had felt peculiar, but somehow uplifting to be in the real world to relax and observe instead of making a quick shopping trip.

* * *

From Monday to Friday, Kathryn made herself presentable and strolled to the small cafe near the riverbank. There never seemed to be many customers sitting outside so she wondered if it were the sort of place which got busier later in the morning. One constant was the presence of the swans, and another was the smartly dressed man who would turn up, drink his coffee, and stare at the river.

Saturday saw Kathryn deal with an early shopping trip and then she did housework for the rest of the day. The house was clean and hygienic, but a change of curtains and sheets in the bedroom followed by a few minor moves of furniture elsewhere had been a tonic.

Sunday was another industrious day for the widow. She spent the morning trimming the borders and tidying up the front garden before a leisurely lunch. In the afternoon, Kathryn dealt with the much larger rear garden, mowing the lawn and trimming all the greenery. She was particularly careful in the area of jasmine where she knew the blackbirds nested, and also around the flower beds.   

* * *

As the following week got underway, Kathryn chose a bright summer dress, brushed her lustrous golden hair and applied a little makeup. She strolled along the road and down the footpath to the cafe beside the riverbank. Five minutes after taking her seat at the usual table she was sipping coffee and watching the birds. The two swans glided past majestically as if greeting the regular visitor.

The sound of motorbikes rose rapidly from a distant rumble to a deep roar, and then abruptly within a few seconds there was peace and tranquility once again. Shortly afterwards, heavy boots crunched gravel as over a dozen riders in leathers walked around the corner of the old stone building which housed the cafe.

Kathryn smiled as she noted that male or female, not one of the riders could be less than fifty years old and most were grey-haired. Some of the people were undoubtedly the pillion riders but it was still a strange sight. Many of them nodded and smiled at the woman sitting alone at a table near the riverbank.

Within a few minutes every available table was occupied, and placed around them at their feet were helmets and gauntlets. Most of the bikers stood to remove their heavily padded jackets before settling down to order a drink and snack. A hubbub was created in the area as people at one table discussed a topic with their friends at another table while they ate and drank.

The forty-something dark-haired man in the blazer appeared from the other direction on the riverbank path. His lips parted as he took in the sight of the usually quiet setting buzzing with the conversation of the leather-clad visitors. He glanced into the cafe to see the four tables inside were occupied and then he surveyed the outside seating again.

Kathryn caught his eye, smiled, and nodded to the vacant chairs at her table.

The man approached and smiled briefly. “Are you sure you don’t mind me joining you?”

“Of course not. Please take a seat.”

When the young man came out to take orders he visited Kathryn’s table.

The dark-haired man turned to Kathryn before ordering. “Could I get you a coffee or something?”

“That would be very kind of you, thank you.”

“Two coffees, please,” the man said, and when the waiter went indoors the stranger turned to Kathryn. “If you’re like me you value your privacy so I’m very grateful of your offer to share.”

Kathryn smiled when she realised the man was studying her features. “Is it privacy we both value, or solitude, I wonder?”

His brow furrowed briefly and then smoothed when he relaxed and smiled. “Greg,” he said and reached out a hand.

“Kathryn,” the widow said and felt the long forgotten strength of a man’s hand in hers.

The waiter brought the drinks and after a polite nod, left the couple to their chat.

Greg said, “I’ve been coming here regularly for about a month, but I’ve only seen you recently. Have you just moved nearby?”

“No, my house is a couple of miles outside town.” She nodded behind her. “I’ve lived there for many years and as an artist I work from home.”

“Well, there’s some contrast then,” he said and gave a fleeting smile. “My house is a bit more than a couple of miles outside of town in the other direction.” He nodded towards the direction from whence he came. “I’m a retired policeman and I’ve only lived near here for a few months.”

For a short while the pair chatted and then Kathryn thanked Greg for the coffee, excused herself and set off home.

* * *

On Tuesday morning while she got dressed, Kathryn changed her mind about her outfit twice, and then settled for a blouse and knee-length skirt. “Make the most of what you’ve got, even if it’s only to make you feel better.”

Kathryn arrived at the cafe at one end of the building as Greg arrived from the other direction. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt but for a change, carrying his jacket over his arm. He returned the nodded greeting from Kathryn.

Greg said, “Would you mind if I joined you again, Kathryn?”

She smiled as she looked around and noted that every table was available. “I suppose you’d better since it’s crowded again, but the coffees are on me.”

They chatted about the local area and how peaceful it was most of the time.

“Are you married or—” Greg raised an eyebrow.

“I’m a widow. I lost my husband two years ago.” She turned and gazed at the swans as they sailed past almost side by side and it seemed to be symbolic of her thoughts. “We were together for twenty-five years and he passed away after a brief battle with cancer.”

“I’m sorry to hear that … it’s such an indiscriminate killer.”

“What about you … is there a significant other in your life?”

It was a peculiar thing to watch, as Greg’s features changed from a contented smile to sadness and then to an indeterminate expression. “I lost my wife six months ago. She was killed by a hit and run driver.”

“I am sorry, Greg, and there’s me playing the victim.”

“Don’t be silly, Kathryn, you weren’t to know.”

“Did anybody see the vehicle or the driver?”

“Oh, yes, he was caught. Actually, it was down to a couple of silver-haired bikers. A couple in their sixties arrived on the scene within seconds of the incident. The man told his passenger to take care of the casualty and he set off on his motorbike after the car. He caught up with him and phoned in the number.”

“Was your wife—”

“She was killed by the impact. The vehicle was a four-by-four and beyond the driver’s ability.” He lifted his coffee and stared at it for a moment. “We’d only just closed the deal on the house, so I’ve only ever lived there alone.” 

“Do you think you’ll stay there or look for somewhere else?”

“I’ve already taken early retirement from the force, and fortunately I’m financially comfortable, but you’re quite right, I might move on. Every day I spend in the house feels wrong, which is one of the reasons I walk about five miles to this spot every morning.”

* * *

Wednesday morning saw Kathryn and Greg meeting again for coffee beside the riverbank. Neither of them had an ulterior motive. It was a platonic friendship built on no more than the strength of two people accidentally thrown together by using the same remote and pleasant cafe.

“It looks like I might have a buyer for the cottage,” Greg said. “Tomorrow morning a couple are coming to take a look.”

“I hope it works out for you. Do you have any idea where you’ll go next?”

“I didn’t want the frustration of looking at something else until the house was sold, so at this moment in time I have no plans. If I found somewhere small enough and stayed nearby I’d come here for coffee.” He smiled and for a change it was more than a fleeting expression.

“Well, if you still come here I insist on buying the coffees at least every—”

A loud splash nearby was followed by a woman’s frantic cries. “Ryan! Ryan! Help! Please!”

Kathryn was astonished at the speed her companion kicked off his shoes and dived into the water. As Greg rose up from under the surface a few metres downstream, the two startled swans settled on the water again.

A few minutes later, and fifty yards away, a man in a sodden white shirt and dark trousers climbed from the river carrying a toddler in his arms. Greg placed the child on the bank and resuscitated him. When the boy sputtered and coughed, he was rolled into the recovery position as his mother arrived beside him.

Kathryn walked along the towpath carrying Greg’s jacket over one arm and his shoes in her hand. “I’ve called for an ambulance and it’ll be here within a few minutes. It’s nice to see we still have heroes in our midst.”

Greg smiled and accepted his jacket, but he placed it over the soaking, recovering child.

* * *

The pair had walked more than halfway when Greg had doubts.

“Are you quite sure about this, Kathryn?”

“I’m positive. I don’t live as far away as you and we’ll have you dry in no time.” She gave him a sideways glance. “I have an old pair of overalls I wear when gardening. I’m sure you’d get into them … they’re pretty generous in size.”

“Charming,” he said, and laughed naturally for the first time since they’d known each other.

Kathryn laughed too and it felt strange, because she couldn’t remember the last time she’d done such a thing.

As they’d covered the last half mile they fell into a conversation about picturesque places like rivers which draw the attention of unsuspecting youngsters too close.

“Apart from me, you gave those swans quite a scare when you dived in.”

Greg nodded. “Yes, knowing how long swans are together, they’ll probably be talking about that incident for a long time to come.”

They both laughed more than the quip deserved, but they’d both been involved in some way with what had ended in the saving of a young life, and not a tragedy. If they hadn’t met up for coffee and stayed longer each day to chat, neither of them would have been there when the child fell in.

“Here we are,” Kathryn said and pointed to her driveway. “If you give me two minutes, I’ll grab my overalls from the shed for you.” True to her word, she was back shortly after and carrying green overalls.

When they went indoors, Kathryn sent Greg straight upstairs to have a shower and told him to leave his wet clothes in the basket outside the bathroom. She took everything downstairs and threw it into her machine for a quick wash.

* * *

“I’m in here,” Kathryn said when she heard Greg coming down the stairs. “Breakfast bar in the kitchen.”

“Thank you,” Greg accepted a mug of coffee and sat on a kitchen stool. “These are a decent fit.” He grinned as he held up an arm and the sleeve rode up leaving four inches bare from the wrist.

Kathryn shook her head slowly. “I’ll put your things out on the line and they’ll be dry in no time in this weather. Meanwhile, you can have lunch with me.”

“I couldn’t impose any more.”

“Nonsense.” Kathryn watched as Greg toyed with his wedding ring. “I bet it’s what your wife would do if she were in my position.”

“Do you know something, you’re probably right. She was that type of person.” He glanced at Kathryn and then looked at his ring again. “It must be about a year ago that she made me promise her something really strange.”

Kathryn sipped her coffee. “Strange in what way?”

“She asked that we made a pact. Whichever one of us died first, if the surviving partner found someone else, they were to bury both of our wedding rings in a place which we could visit occasionally.”

Kathryn choked on her next drink of coffee, but recovered.

“Are you okay, Kathryn?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Just me trying to take in too much at once.” The coincidence of such a vow was hard to believe and Kathryn gazed at him.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I don’t know anymore, Greg. What was your wife’s profession?”

“She was a nurse for most of her working life and then for about three years before the accident she was a bereavement counsellor.”

“What was her name?”

Greg’s brow furrowed. “Her name was Denise … why?”

Tears rolled down Kathryn’s cheeks unchecked. “I had a very good friend called Denise. She pulled me through the worst time in my life when I lost Max. I insisted that however long we knew each other, I didn’t wish to know anything about Denise’s family. I’d lost the person dearest to me and I couldn’t afford to lose anybody else.”

Greg stared at the woman on the other side of the breakfast bar and his brow furrowed.

Kathryn continued, “Denise stuck by me far longer than she was supposed to do officially, and then about six months ago, she stopped visiting me. We talked about swans one day and how they can die of a broken heart if they lose a mate and don’t find another. I told her about Max’s wish, that I shouldn’t grieve forever. He told me to find somebody else, and when I did I was to bury our wedding rings—”

“What did your friend look like, Kathryn?”

She got off her kitchen stool and nodded for Greg to follow her. At the sideboard in the hallway, Kathryn said, “That’s Max, and this is my friend, Denise.” She lifted her friend’s framed photo and handed it to Greg.

Tears filled his eyes and he briefly held the picture close to his chest. “It was my Denise.” He placed the picture on the sideboard and embraced Kathryn when she held out her arms. 

* * *

Kathryn and Greg continued their friendship but instead of coffee breaks, they usually went out for a meal or a drive in the countryside.

Three months after saving the young boy from drowning, Greg’s cottage sold, and he accepted Kathryn’s offer to move in with her. Six months after they’d started living together they drove out to a remote hillside where they buried four wedding rings under a massive oak tree.

In a large natural pond nearby, a pair of swans glided over the water together.

The End

Shadow: and other stories

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