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The Swans

“Be careful, little man, I don’t want you falling in.”

The canal was shallow at the bank where they stood but still deep enough to worry about, Helen thought. And four or five feet deep in the middle; plenty reason enough to insist Charlie wore his lifejacket at all times on deck. Standing here on solid ground she had let him go without it and she regretted it already.


“I’ll be careful.”

The wild way in which he flung his bread said otherwise, his arm coming all the way back then arcing out with sudden speed that was efficient but clumsy.

“Break the bread up a bit, honey. They can’t eat pieces that size.”

The sodden slice of white was sinking uneaten, the swans slow and lazy in their pursuit. There were two, one significantly larger than the other, both of them sleek yet slow. Perhaps they were tired of the haphazard delivery system; Charlie’s throws sent bread left and right but never directly to them.

Helen was glad of the swans. Was glad of some time away from the all-too-narrow boat. Now that Charlie was tearing the stale bread into pieces, she was pleased for the little extra time it would take to feed them as well. She didn’t like the boat much. It was beautiful on the outside, bright and colourful, but the inside, as neat and efficient as it was, felt too enclosed. Her first night had not been a good one. Too many bad dreams, some of them true.

“Can I feed one?” Charlie asked. One of the swans was approaching him at the bank. The big one.

“You are feeding them.”

“I mean can I feed one?” He held out a piece of bread then looked at her for permission.

“Just put it in the water, sweetheart.” The swan was gliding to her boy’s hand so she said again, “In the water, go on.”

Charlie dropped the bread and the swan snatched it up. It would have had his fingers for sure, Helen thought, wondering if it was true that they could break your arm. Were their wings really strong enough? Perhaps a child’s arm, yes. But had it ever happened? Why did people say it?

“Throw it out,” she said, “Far out, across the water. See if you can hit the other side.”

Charlie turned his body with the action, throwing the bread like a discus. The ragged shape of it span up the canal rather than across it, but the swan followed anyway and that was the main thing.

“Good boy.”

Helen and Charlie were the only two on the waterway this morning, but it was still early. A thin mist clung to the water and seeped into grassy banks rich with the smell of fresh dew. The boat was moored nearby. It was far too big for their needs but it had been the only one available. She’d been able to rent it for the same price as one of the smaller vessels, though, so that was good. The steering took some getting used to, that was all.

“Charlie, honey, be careful.”

He wasn’t paying attention, looking at her instead of the swan that was returning for the next piece of bread in his hand.

Helen pointed—“I think he’s hungry, sweetheart.”—and Charlie turned to see the swan stretching its long neck forward. His cry of surprise sounded exaggerated but she laughed as he threw the bread high into the air. Another full slice. It slapped down on the water and the bird darted for it, beak snapping it into pieces quickly gobbled down.

“Do all swans belong to the Queen?” Charlie asked.

“I think so.”

“Even these ones?”

“I think so.”

“Does she ever feed them?”

Helen smiled. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“What about the King?”

“Is that bag empty now?”

Charlie looked inside. “All gone.”

“Then shake out the crumbs and put the bag in your pocket so they know.”

“All gone,” he said again, letting the crumbs fall into the water. Before he could pocket the bag, though, a breeze took it from him. It floated past Helen before she could catch it.

“Quick, Mum!”

There was no urgency. The bag had caught in some of the long grasses or reeds—she wasn’t sure of the difference—that nestled close together in a tall thatch rising out of the canal. Helen plucked the bag free and scrunched it into her pocket, glancing down at a spot where the reeds beside the towpath had been flattened down. It took a moment for her mind to register what she was seeing.

“Stay there,” she said to Charlie.

He would have done exactly that, had she not told him. “Why?” he asked, making his way over.

“I mean it,” she said, and Charlie could tell. He stopped.

“What? What is it, mum?”

“A swan,” she said.

“What’s wrong with it?”

She hadn’t said anything was wrong with it, but children just knew, didn’t they? They heard your thoughts even when you were saying something else, sometimes.

“It’s all right,” she said. “It’s just sleeping.”

The reeds had been flattened down in a circle and the swan was displayed in the centre. It wasn’t all right, and it wasn’t sleeping. The swan was dead. Not just dead but killed; its head had been cut off all the way down at the base of the neck where it normally joined the body and, oh, how she wished she hadn’t seen that neat red circle. A bloody full stop on feathered paper. The wings were folded into the body, a neat white parcel except for its open wet wound.

Helen looked at the other two swans, wondering if one of them could have possibly caused such damage. She wondered how they were able to tolerate the loss. They were gliding back down the canal, carried by a current too slow to see or perhaps paddling their hidden webbed feet furiously. Secret effort for a seeming grace. One of them briefly examined the gap between the boat and the bank but detoured around the vessel instead.

“Come on,” Helen said. “Let’s go. Hold Mummy’s hand.”

Charlie was too old for Mummy now, she didn’t know why she’d said it, but he did as he was told. She led him away from the grisly nest, back towards the boat.

“Can I drive?”

Helen remembered the silent stare of the shirtless man, saw again the way he clenched his jaw, but she said, “Yes, all right.” She understood there was some kind of trade off here, even if Charlie didn’t quite realise he was doing it.

“Just let me get us started.”

Charlie hurried ahead, pulling her after him, eager to get back onboard.

The early chill of the morning quickly faded and the low mist on the water burnt away under the warmth of the sun so that Helen and Charlie puttered onward in a lazy haze of sunshine, wending their way at a wonderfully slow pace. The hum of their engine was the drone of honeybees, drugging Helen into drowsiness, a pleasant state of in-between. The low fields on either side of the canal were spotted with the fluttering forms of butterflies, and wisps of dandelion seed hung in a gentle breeze. Meandering with the waterway, they eventually passed into countryside that was farmland, thick with colourful crops and home to lethargic cows. Helen had seen the canal in the city suburbs, had smelt its dark waters and grimaced at the sludge that clung to its litter, but here the water was dappled with sparkles of sunlight and the air carried the subtle scent of distant manure and rapeseed. Helen felt almost calm, this far from the city. The noise and the people, the relentless energy and startling vitality, the traffic, the pollution; it all tired her. Here she could enjoy a temporary respite from all but the most simple decisions. Though it was supposed to be a time for making choices, Helen found she was really enjoying the lack of them: their world, for a few days at least, was a stretch of canal forever straight and narrow. There was no urgency to be somewhere, somewhen, and it left her with the feeling that they’d stepped aside for a moment while the rest of the world carried on without them.

Despite the fine weather, they’d not seen many people on the canal. Occasionally they’d glimpse the stern of a boat ahead of them, which they never seemed to catch, and once a boat had passed them the other way, but that was all. She had expected more, especially on a long weekend. And she had expected more people on the towpaths, too. At one point they’d seen a chair and a rod set out for fishing, a small picnic of lunch laid out beside it, but no sign of the owner.


“You’re doing fine, sweetheart.”

He was. They were well under the four miles-per-hour limit, and when he steered he did it gently and with plenty of time, his small hands comfortable now on the long stretched S of the tiller. It took a bit of getting used to, that was all. He’d learned his lesson.

On the first day, within the first half an hour, Helen had allowed Charlie to take control of the boat. She had steered them out of the boatyard, negotiating the channels between the jetties—and that had not been easy, not with such a large vessel—but immediately after that they were on the straight course of the canal and Charlie had begged and so she’d let him. There were still many other boats around but they were moored at the banks, semi-permanently from the looks of most of them, so Helen had thought it would be all right. Even when Charlie steered them too severely she’d thought they were fine, talking him through how to correct the turn, speaking calmly, explaining that he had to turn the tiller in the opposite direction to where he wanted to go and then pointing to where he needed to take them. But he was anxious about how slowly the boat moved, the length of it taking an age to straighten out, and he overcorrected while increasing their speed, sending them across to the other bank. Helen had needed to take the controls, desperately trying to alter a course she could tell was already fixed as they headed at one of the boats tied up at the side.

They’d bumped it hard. Both of them lurched with the impact, Helen grabbing for the lifejacket Charlie wore, steadying him, while she tried to straighten the boat. A man had come out from the other vessel almost immediately. He was wearing jeans, but barefoot and bare-chested. He was lightly muscled and handsome. Helen had apologised several times before he could say anything himself, embarrassingly close to him as they were carried past. She could see the grey shadow of stubble on his jaw and the way he clenched it as she apologised again with the second bump as the rear of their boat struck his. The man had grabbed the doorframe and cabin roof for support but only stared, red-faced and breathing hard but saying nothing. Helen would have preferred shouting, or a good swear word thrown her way. She didn’t belong here. He could have told her to go home.



Charlie pointed this time.

There was a family on the canal, each encased to the waist in the blue shell of a kayak. They were travelling single file, led by the father, a pack secured to the front of his craft with a criss-cross of elasticised rope. He stopped paddling and indicated for his wife and daughter to do the same while they waited for Helen and Charlie to pass. He smiled.

“Okay, let me,” Helen said, stepping to the tiller.

“I can do it, Mum,” Charlie said, but he was already turning them the wrong way.


Charlie hesitated, then stepped away for her. “Careful,” he said.

There was plenty of room, but Helen steered close to the bank anyway and cut the engine completely to drift. Charlie went over to the side and leaned to look at the family.

“Morning,” said the woman, and, “Morning,” said her husband. The girl smiled and nodded hello.

“There are swans down there,” Charlie said, pointing.

“Well, we might have something for them,” said the man, patting the pack in front of him.

“We fed them already.”

Charlie.” Helen smiled at the family but said to him, “They might be hungry again.”

The man raised a hand to block the light from his eyes, watching as they cruised by. Helen wondered if she should say anything about the swan she’d discovered in the reeds. She didn’t know how to bring it up, though, not with Charlie around.

The kayaks rocked as Helen and Charlie passed; only a gentle side to side wobble in their wake, an easy up and down, but Helen apologised anyway. It was dismissed with a wave that became a proper wave goodbye as the family started paddling again, father in front. Strong slow strokes, she noticed, watching him go.

Charlie watched too.

“That man kept looking at you.”

“Did he?”

“The man in the canoe.”

Helen glanced behind but they were already too distant, too low to the water, to see clearly. She hadn’t noticed the man looking. Barely noticed him at all. Maybe that was a good sign.

“Kayak, honey.”


“The boats they were in. They’re kayaks.”

“Why was he looking at you?”

“I don’t know, honey. I don’t know that he was.”

“He was.”

Charlie was looking up at her, squinting into the light, one hand curled at his brow in an awkward sun-shielding salute.

“Maybe he was looking at the boat,” she said. “It’s a beautiful boat.”

“But he’s got a canoe.”

“Kayak. It’s a kayak, honey.”

On either side of them, bushes of bright white flowers crowded the banks and dipped into the canal. She recognised the image as one from the tourist guide. There was a lock coming up soon, and a pub shortly after. She’d factored it into their route; their last stop before turning.

The bright summer light made a mirror of the canal’s surface. It reflected the white-flowered bushes so that clouds seems to float in a long straight line of fallen sky.

“It’s a palindrome,” Helen said, and explained. She told him it was a word that made sense however you looked at it. Palindromes were strong words, solid words. Good words. She spelled dad. She spelled kayak.

Charlie said, “Mum.”

Helen shook her head and said quietly, “Mummy’s not a palindrome.” She didn’t know what she was. She pointed at the large double gates blocking the canal in the distance ahead. “A lock,” she said.

The first set of gates were angled open to them, the water level for their approach. The second set were closed, of course, barring their way. She thought of all the water held behind.

“Look, sweetheart, another swan.”

It was gliding out from the lock, drifting across their path.

“Out of the way,” Charlie said. “It’s my turn.”

Was he talking to the swan?

“Ready to take charge, Captain?”

Charlie grinned, nodded, and saluted, all at once.

As the swan neared, it dipped its head into the water. Helen watched its body pass, following the course the man and his family had taken. Heading away, heading away, until gone.

The locks seemed easy to operate. They’d had a brief tutorial before leaving the boatyard. It was alarming, Helen thought, how you could control the course of water simply by opening and closing a gate. One simple action.

Charlie was unimpressed. He was of an age where everything operated to his demands anyway, Helen supposed, so going uphill in a boat was nothing to him. It was just as well, because she needed him to wait onboard while she took care of the lock mechanism.

At the front, up on the walled bank of the canal, Helen couldn’t see Charlie, but she kept her eyes on the rear of the boat as she turned the windlass. Water began to gush from one side of the lock into the other and the boat began to rise with the water level. It began to drift forward.

“Take us back a bit, honey,” she called over the rushing water. More because she wanted to give him something to do than out of any concern. When the boat continued drifting forward, unpowered, she glanced back for Charlie but her view of the stern was blocked by the angle and the raised roof.

There was a semi circle of tyres gathered at the bow of the boat and they bumped the lock gates but Helen barely noticed. She called again for Charlie, hurrying back along the wall, looking down into the rear of the narrowboat.

Charlie was not there.


There were no ripples in the water that she could see, or rather there were too many because of how the surface churned and she couldn’t tell if he’d fallen in or where he’d fallen in or—

He appeared from the cabin in a hurry, glancing back inside as if he’d left something behind, and Helen felt that blend of anger and relief reserved for concerned mothers. Charlie must have seen some of it in her face. “There was a swan,” he explained.

“Stay there.”

She ran back to the front of the boat.

One of the tyres at the bow had caught beneath a horizontal beam in the gate structure. As the water level rose, so did the boat, and as the boat rose, so did the gate.

“Go back!” Helen called. “Quickly!”

He’d be too late now, but she called it anyway, grabbing the gate paddle and trying to shift it, move it away from the boat, opening the lock chamber early. In part she was successful, pushing hard and somehow managing, but the boat continued forward with it, still caught and still rising.


She heard the engine, but still the boat moved forwards. The paddle she pushed to lever the gate open suddenly ceased resisting and, as the last of the water filled it to the appropriate level, the lock opened up. One gate was about a foot or so higher than its partner now, though.

“Charlie, rever—”

The boat began easing backwards, angling so that the front worked itself loose from the gate and the gate dropped down in the water. Now it was lower than the other one. Helen had a horrible idea as to why; they had lifted it from whatever pin mechanism held it or hinged it, had separated one section from its mount, or something like that. In short, they had broken it. She would know for sure when she tried to close it, but—

“There was a swan,” Charlie said again, emerging with the boat from the confines of the lock chamber. Helen ignored him, stepping aboard and moving him aside from the controls.

She guided them away from the lock, leaving the gates open behind them. She didn’t want to check if one of them was broken because she knew it would be. She could tell it sat on the bottom of the canal just by looking. It wouldn’t budge.

“Can I—”

“No. You’ve caused enough damage.”

She sent him back inside so he wouldn’t see her cry.

They arrived at the pub later than Helen had planned. The guidebook had advised adding the number of miles you intended to travel to the number of locks on the route and then dividing by three for the number of hours it would take. With only one lock it had been an easy sum, and yet it was still nearly evening by the time they arrived at the Still Waters. There were many boats already moored, and quite a crowd outside enjoying dinners and drinks. It was one of the few places with space enough to manoeuvre a boat around, the canal deliberately widened into a lake-like expanse. It was green with weed but picturesque in its own way. Helen supposed couples and families would pose for photos beside it.

The pub was so close to the canal that from the picnic benches you could see the tops of the moored boats over the hedges. Helen thought the only reason the hedges were there at all, interrupting the view, was to prevent the playing children from running right into the water. She sat with her back to the canal, though. She needed to face the play area to keep an eye on Charlie.

It was a simple set up. A pair of mock trees were connected by a rope bridge, the ground thick with those soft wood pieces that miraculously prevented most injuries. A line of swings were suspended from the branches of one of the trees, each of them a child-bearing pendulum swinging back and forth, forth and back, while a huge tractor tyre twisted in circles from another branch as the children on it leaned their bodies one way and then the other. A slide dropped down from one of the treetops too, half its length an enclosed tunnel painted faux bark. It was from this that Charlie repeatedly emerged, screaming his joy into the world only to return to the ladder and climb back in. Helen grew tired watching him. She picked at what remained of her ploughman’s, trying to enjoy what was left of the evening sunshine. She shined an apple on her sleeve. And there was Charlie again, coming out of the tube head-first. As soon as he was on the ground he ran around for another go.

Helen pressed her apple gently to check for bruises. It felt all right, but you could never really tell.

“Are you done?”

One of the pub’s waitresses was beside the table reaching to take Helen’s plate. She was a pretty thing, in the middle of girl and woman and enjoying the change, it seemed, judging by her makeup and how tight she wore her clothing.

“Yes,” Helen said, “I’m done.”

There was a man talking at Charlie in the play area. There was another boy with him. The boy was crying.


Helen grabbed her handbag. The man was pointing at Charlie but being careful to not actually touch the boy.

“Charlie, come on, time to go.” Whatever he’d done, it would be punishment enough, and she wanted to avoid a scene. She was careful not to make eye contact with anyone else.

“He pushed in,” said the man. “He wouldn’t wait for his turn.”

Charlie pushed him. He used both hands and he did it hard enough that the adult staggered back.


Charlie had both hands out, ready to charge and push again, but Helen grabbed one of his wrists. She span him away with her, dragging him behind as she marched them back to the boat.

“I want another go.”

“I know you do, sweetheart, but you can’t.”

“Why not?”

Helen, her mind suddenly taxed with all she thought she’d left behind for the weekend, wanted to tell him you couldn’t always have another go once you’d done something bad, but she replied with every parent’s favourite fallback answer instead.

“Because I said so.”

“It’s not fair.”

Helen was old enough to know that rarely mattered.

Her second night’s sleep on the boat was as poor as the first. She’d dreamt of the kayak family. Charlie’s father was supposed to be with them his kayak was empty, a vacant stretched O in the middle marking his absence, and she woke from the dream before much could happen. She woke suddenly, fully, denied even the brief pleasure of wondering where she was. She held her breath and listened for any noise that may have woken her. She heard only the quiet slap of water against the boat. Her dream faded into fragments, ebbing away in the dark.

Helen checked the bed beside her. It was empty, but warmer than it should have been and she remembered Charlie sleeping there, scared of something he didn’t want to talk about.

Perhaps his rising had brought her awake.

“Charlie, baby?”

Her dressing gown was hanging on the door. She shrugged into the sleeves and rubbed a crust of sleep from her eye. “Charlie?” She swept the gown closed and stepped out into the galley.

He was in the small lounge area at the front of the boat, kneeling on the curve of sofa and looking out the window. He was wearing his father’s sweatshirt, the hood up. Helen had brought it. She wasn’t sure why.

“Hey, little man, what’s wrong? Why are you dressed?”

And why are you wearing that?

Charlie tensed at her voice, his body suddenly rigid. Then he slid down from the sofa, retrieved something from the cushions, and faced her. The sweatshirt was too big for him, the hood so low that it was a mask over his face, all shadows and gloom. She heard a strange clacking sound as he approached, arms swinging at his sides. She saw what he held in each hand.


In each fist he gripped the long severed neck of a swan. The heads dangled down by his knees. Helen’s surprise gave him a few moments to get nearer and then he swung one of them at her. She managed to get her arm up in time to block it and the white length of neck folded around her wrist. She heard the unhinged beak snap against itself on empty air. Then the other one was coming down at her. It struck her across the chest. “Charlie?” She held her hand out to protect herself, fingers spread, and was struck across the palm. The hard beak gouged a line in her skin. Then the next came up from beneath, underarm. She pushed it away before it could strike between her legs. “Charlie!”

The heads swung at her again and again, beaks clacking. At one point a neck wrapped around her arm and she managed to yank it from his grip. It fell somewhere behind her. He was beating her into retreat, though. When she passed the door to the bathroom, she flung it open to block the narrow corridor but any advantage it gave her was lost when she stood on the fallen swan neck; the severed length was soft beneath her bare foot, a white-feathered snake that rolled with her step and sent her toppling backwards. Charlie fell with her. She fought to keep him off, pulling at his hood with one hand, groping inside with the other for his face. Her hand sank in too far, her arm swallowed up to the elbow, and then she had the hood down and there was nothing there. Nothing. The hoodie collapsed upon itself, empty, and fell into her lap where she lay on the floor, sprawled and panting for breath.


Charlie was crouching over her, gripping her shoulder, the bathroom door open behind him. Helen looked down at herself and hitched her nightie back down, pulled her dressing gown closed again. She clamped her legs together and felt something awful between them.

“It was a bad dream.”

She wasn’t sure which of them had said it.

“Can I sleep with you still?”

“Of course, honey. Get to bed, I’ll be there in a minute.”

But she lay there for another five, slowing her breathing, waiting for him to fall asleep in the other room.

It was still dark when Helen went out on deck, but it was cloudless and silvery with moonlight, the air sharp with the fresh smell that belongs only to such secret hours. It was cold, too, and Helen felt it in the shallow cuts that criss-crossed her wrists and arms. She was still wearing her dressing gown, only taking the time to pull on some jeans and shoes. It didn’t matter, there was no one around to see. Not yet. A light had come on in one of the nearby boats when she’d started the engine but nobody came out to say anything and she was able to take the boat into a slow and awkward five point turn, using all of the widened lake area. The canal curved away from it and she used as much of that as she could as well to help her manoeuvre. She didn’t bump anyone.

Once they were clear of the moored vessels, Helen eased the throttle forward and rushed them away faster than was strictly allowed on the canal, sending a breaking wash against both banks. It was hardly high speed, but enough that their wake was probably eroding the sides of the canal as they went, adding silt to the shallows. Helen couldn’t care less. She only hoped the noise and movement wouldn’t wake Charlie. Perhaps the vibrations, the dull throb of their progress, would actually soothe him and keep him under.

The sky was greying with early light when Helen saw an early morning dog walker. He was walking slowly along the towpath, his head down. She saw no dog, just the empty lead in the man’s hand swishing back and forth. When he looked up at her she looked away. Neither of them spoke. After him she slowed the boat to a legal speed. She looked for the fisherman’s chair with the abandoned rod but she didn’t see it. She couldn’t remember if it was before or after the lock. Perhaps some boy had come along and pushed the chair into the canal, stolen the rod.

When Charlie woke, Helen stopped so she could change her dressing gown for a blouse while he ate at the tiny table.

“Aren’t you having breakfast, Mum?”

“Not hungry,” she said.

She ate her apple at the tiller. The sky began to fill with white cushions of cloud but the sun remained bright and by the time they reached the lock the day had warmed considerably. At first she thought that was why so many boats had gathered in lines, bow to stern, at the banks. She thought they were moored because it was such a beautiful day, perfect for an outdoor lunch, but a woman waved to them from one of the closer boats as Helen neared.

“Lock’s broken,” she said.

Helen eased the engine down and then into reverse, drawing level with the woman. “Sorry.”

The woman heard a question. “Lock’s broken,” she said again. “One of the gates has come off its mount. They’ve called for a crane but we’re still waiting. You best moor up somewhere, could be a while before things are fixed.”

The woman was about Helen’s age but in much better shape. Whereas Helen was wearing a sensible blouse, this woman wore a turquoise bikini top and probably matching briefs, though a sarong was draped around her waist. She probably didn’t have children. She probably had her choice of men.

“We have to keep going,” Helen said, hating how pathetic it sounded. “I’ve got to get him back.”

The woman shrugged. She sidestepped the length of her boat to where a towel had been laid out on the bow. There was a book there, too, but Helen couldn’t make out the title.

“Look at all the boats!” said Charlie. “There’s a thousand of them!”

“Yes, lots and lots of boats.”

“Are we parking as well?”

“We have to, honey. The lock’s broken.”

She took them backwards. They would have to wait with everybody else.

“Can’t we go back?”

“Not yet.”

Maybe never.

She looked at Charlie, thinking she should say something more reassuring about what they were going to do next, tell him everything would be back to normal soon, but he was bouncing on the spot and pointing.

“Look! Look at all the swans!”

There were suddenly dozens of them. Some were gliding by, quiet on the canal, dipping their bills to the water or into the narrow gaps between boats and bank. Others were on the boats themselves, waddling on cabin roofs, nestling into comfortable positions on the decks. She saw a mother and two children sitting with one, a blanket spread between them piled with snacks for a picnic. The swan snaked its neck forward to take bites from the sandwiches, nodding its head back after each mouthful as if throwing the food down its long throat.

An abrupt shriek drew Helen’s attention back to the sunbathing woman. One of the swans had settled nearby, opening its wings to her, wide, wide—such a wingspan!—as it puffed up its chest. The woman swatted playfully at the swan with her book, laughing, as if the feathers of its enormous wings tickled her. The bird waddled closer, settling on her towel, engulfing its dark webbed feet with its own body as it draped itself over hers.

“Do we have anything to give them?”

“No, honey. Everything we had is gone.”

She took her hair out of the band she’d worn for days and ran her fingers through it, shaking it into shape. She unbuttoned her blouse.

“What are you doing?”


She stripped off her blouse and dropped it to the deck but the air it caught falling took it to the water where it floated a moment before sinking. It didn’t matter.

“You don’t have your costume on,” Charlie said.

Her brassiere was a good one but still very clearly a bra, and its colour had been washed out long ago. Her arms were scratched, darkened in places by ugly bruises. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed but everyone was busy, each with their own swan.

“I need to change,” she said.

She went inside.

The bed was still unmade, quilt tossed aside. It looked vaguely human in its gathered shape. Helen stepped out of her shoes and jeans but instead of finding something suitable for sunbathing she sat on the bed in her underwear. She pulled the pillows to her lap and made a nest of them around her.

“I can’t,” she said.

She looked at the bed, one she would usually share, and saw the vague shape in the sheets of someone not there. She struck at it, punched it flat, threw it this way and that, straddled the quilt and brought both fists down upon it again and again. She tried to keep the noise down, grunting and growling instead of crying out, but Charlie heard anyway and came to see what was happening. When he saw what his mother was doing on the bed, he joined in. He dragged the duvet away from her and she snatched up a pillow and beat at that until the fabric split. A flurry of feathers rose up around them both, too many feathers for such a pillow, and she beat at them as well, swatting them from the air. She scooped them up and swiped handfuls of them back again as they fell, crushing them in her fists, slapping at the blizzard that swept around them. Charlie climbed onto the bed with her and bounced on the mattress, up and down and grabbing. Helen’s noises had become a series of desperate exhalations, hitched and laboured, almost sobbing, but Charlie’s yelling was victorious joy.

The room was thick with feathers, and sometimes there was a shape in them Helen almost recognised.

Originally published in Black Static, Issue 60, September 2017.

About the Author

Ray Cluley’s work has appeared in a various magazines and anthologies. It has been reprinted several times, including in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories 2013: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and in Benoît Domis’s Ténèbres series. He has been translated into French, Polish, Hungarian, and Chinese. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story (“Shark! Shark!”) and has since been nominated for Best Novella (Water For Drowning) and Best Collection (Probably Monsters). His second collection, All That’s Lost, is available now from Black Shuck Books.