Every month or so, the three sisters would dine together at one of their houses, alternating kitchens, husbands in tow, they would dress smartly, yes, but there was little else in the way of formality. On one such occasion in late summer, merry and during a lull in conversation, the youngest sister, her elbows off the table, offered—‘There’s this pair of swans on that little lake around the corner to my local Asda, and about two months ago they had seven chicks—’
    ‘Cygnets,’ said the eldest sister through a mouthful of food.
    There was a brief glare between each, as the youngest way adept at conveying her disdain with a stern glare, which she thought was unrivalled—‘Seven cygnets. And now they’ve whittled down to two! I’ve never found any bodies, and am mystified. They all looked healthy, yet the next day there was one less. None’ll survive at this rate.’
    ‘Foxes?’ asked one of the husbands, who had developed a rather vitriolic hatred for Vulpes vulpes since his beloved dog had rolled in fox excrement and then ran it into the house, and so would often blame many things on red foxes.
    ‘I heard that other swans might try to drown cygnets if they wander into their patch of the lake,’ the middle sister.
    ‘O no, there are no other swans on the lake.’
    (‘Is this spinach?... It’s delicious.’)
    The eldest sister again—‘Crows, foxes, pike, cats, dogs, yobs… take your pick! It’s not easy being a young bird.’
    ‘So sad.’
    ‘They’re beautiful.’
    (‘Pass the lime pickle, please.’)
    ‘Protected by the Queen, aren’t they? Sorry… King.’
    (‘You’ve had enough already. You’re drowning out the flavour of this meal!’)
    ‘I doubt he’s going to prosecute a fox.’
    (‘Just pass it, please.’)
    ‘I meant the yobs.’
    ‘This is lovely,—’
    Walking alongside a river, it seems not to curve but run straight and only the world around it turning. One foot is placed before the other, nothing is winding. In the spring, I noticed that outside of the burger restaurant many would come and stop to stare at the swans as they incubated a mound, and the duckweed smothered the water, it wobbled. The river back then ran less colourfully, the surface black and it reaching for the fluster of clouds. Three hatches. The burger restaurant al fresco, on the decking, patties glistening and ripe with tomatoes, with unnatural cheese, gazed and cooed at royalty. Still the mother and children, for six weeks, observed. On their way between shops during the heatwaved summer holidays, they paused, perspired, and admired.

    At first, the cygnets were brown, fluffy down but brown. Skip in shorts and light dresses, the cygnets were brown when mother drove them into town. They swam in a row. Out of all animals, the skeleton of a swan is most gracefully accentuated as it glides upon the surface of a body of water. Honeycombed and refined. There is not the pressure of muscle or plump of push; everything is actually as a Tchaikovsky ballet.
    On my walks during a break, to lunch and from it, in the heatwave of August, I saw the swans and their cygnets moving in a procession. So orderly. So tightly they confined themselves, claimed, to that meander of the river. The young were the colour of roux.
    There were three.
    It is unlike me to stop anywhere, to observe. The world happens around me as I move on detached. If it is interesting, then I refute it because, somehow, to pause would be to interrupt and take a piece of something that does not belong to me. So, too, did the swans and cygnets not pause but swim alongside me. That was it. I side-eyed them and no doubt they side-eyed me. What do animals think of the stranger who regards them? I knew that the soles of my trainers were hot. People ate outside of the burger restaurant. Ducks and moorhens, coots, pestered the shore to greet the thrown bread; still the swan and cygnets swam on.
    They reduced. Far be it from me to keep a tally, but the cygnets reduced in number. There is not much of a reduction in number from three to one, maybe you have counted backwards yourself. The mother and father existed and were resplendent, but they were witnesses to the disappearance of their brood, twenty-two.
    It was the afternoon of the twenty-third of November when I rushed to get some lunch – bread and cheese from the local supermarket – and I rounded the corner of the burger restaurant. The burger restaurant had gone into administration and was now vacant, but the river was still there. The river and the swans. The swans were still there. One cygnet remained, and its down was not so much the colour of roux anymore. It was a grey, shadowless day. The cygnet, now adolescent, was trying to fly. At the bend of the river, I watched it come from one way and turn another. It went at speed, feet pattering over the water, large wings going. It wanted to lift itself up and fly. There was a tremendous commotion over the water, but it went nowhere further than tracing a broad sweep. The cygnet, quite out of breath, slowed its wings and poured into the water fully just before a bridge interrupted its path. I could hear it pant. Swans pant; who knew? In small circles, it spun. Watching a swan learn how to fly was not the lunchtime spectacle I had anticipated.