Bohemia Village Voice  Bohemia Village Voice

For bohemians everywhere

Elizabeth Allen

The Swans

It’s a magic number, three. The Trinity, trebling, three Kings of the Orient.
Andrew is happy to see them there again, his three swans, in their favoured place at the corner of the bridge and the path, a dignified distance from the spot where ducks, geese, seagulls and pigeons congregate and jostle for bread and attention from tourists and regulars. His swans form a tight triangle, disdaining the squawks and the clicks of the cameras, almost still, a neck occasionally flexing, a synchronised move forward while maintaining their formation. ‘Three, wrapped up with each other’, he thinks.
When he came here first, with Elise, she said:
“They mate for life, you know, swans. Look, there and there, all in pairs.” She leaned towards him as they stood on the bridge so that their shoulders touched.
“No,” he replied, “one, under the trees, she’s on her own.”
“How do you know it’s a she? Whichever, he’s not going to be alone for long.” And they had watched as the second swan, the life-long lover, came from the shadows of the bridge, making unerringly for the spot where the branches dipped down to the smooth surface of the lake. They had watched and twisted their fingers tightly together. Two, in those days, that was their magic number.
The tall woman with the fair-haired boy is here again, the child, as always, clutching his paper bag, focussed on distributing his scraps as fairly as possible among the noisy contenders. A squirrel has scurried among the flapping wings and is holding up his paws winningly. It is difficult to avoid returning the woman’s tentative smile: they have been here together often enough.
“Cheeky little beggars,” she ventures.
The boy says loudly, “Jamie says they’re just rats with bushy tails. But I like them.” He looks across at Andrew, “You like the swans best. You’re always over there, looking at the swans. At the one, two, three swans.”
“Yes. I like that they’re – a family.”
“Do you want to give them some bread?”
Andrew hesitates. “It seems – intrusive.” Damn, the kid won’t know what he means. Or will he? Andrew isn’t used to children, not children as old as this. What is he, ten?
“Like patting those big dignified shire horses,” says the mother. She understands.
“Go on,” the boy insists. “They belong to the Queen, did you know that?”
He holds the bag towards Andrew and Andrew takes a small ball of the bread crumbs.
The boy says, “What did you do to your hand? It’s all crumpled up.” He puts out a hand, such a small hand, and, very gently, runs his finger up and down the scars.
“Sam!” says his mother, protesting.
“There was – an accident.”
Three can be bad magic. Think of Macbeth’s witches. Andrew drops the bread on the ground and walks away. He can’t take any more, not today. It’s the anniversary, that’s why he came.
Behind him, he hears the slap of feet, quick, quick. It’s Sam, red-faced with running or with anger, who knows, who cares? He plants himself directly in front of Andrew, daring him not to listen.
The boy says: “That’s not a family. Don’t you know anything? Mummy and daddy go birdwatching. Swans stay with the same swan, always. And when the cygnets grow up they send them away, right away. It’s not cruel, that’s what they do.” He pauses, smiling.
“Those three, they’re like widows. Their other swan has died. So they stay together because they’re lonely, see? That’s not a family.”
Three is a magic number.

 

The Vigil

Nine wear baseball caps, fourteen are left-handed, twenty-three women. I count: which brand of mineral water is today’s favourite? There are limited options for entertainment when invigilating an examination at a top-end business school.
The preparation stages were lively enough. Negotiations on the advantages of open or closed windows, the admissibility of chocolate bars and fruit juice to stave off famine for three hours, were carried out in a spirit proper to students and lecturers at a school teaching the principles and practice of group interaction and conflict resolution. Negotiations over, my co-invigilator intoned the regulations and we were off.
The post of invigilator would appear far down any scale registering excitement, prestige or pay rates. Yet it has its own skills, its practitioners their own quiet beliefs on what makes a star performer. There are the centralist bureaucrats who commandeer any student refreshments, even mineral water, and allow only the definitively dying to quit the room in the final ten minutes, who read aloud every word of regulations. There is the laissez-faire populist whose gaze sweeps indifferently across the forbidden bagels and bananas, drawling: ‘Make sure your mobiles are off – you know the rest of this shit as well as I do.’ But all the male invigilators, from Stalin to Bakunin, love making the general announcements.
To me, as a woman, therefore, fall the more domestic tasks, getting students to sign the official document, responding to the waving arms of those demanding loos or clarification. It had bemused me when I began teaching at the Business School and supervised my first examination. At Haywards Heath Girls’ Grammar, if Catherine or Sarah were unfortunate enough to be confused on the finer distinctions of the demand to ‘evaluate’ or to ‘discuss’, she was on her own. But here a languid hand waves and a young woman with a petulant pout demands a definition of ‘ex-rights price.’ She smells delicious, is one of the burnished, rich kids whose futures are oiled with family riches, family influence. She will live near Harrods, may be chauffeured to her studies. What does she know of waiting for trains on gusty pee-scented platforms north of Wembley and worrying about the cost of having her winter boots resoled? She expects instant solutions.
My subject is Spanish. All that she and I have in common is an ignorance of the meaning of ‘ex-rights price’. I could beckon my co-invigilator, whose subject is finance, but he is rows away, entranced by the ceiling. I decide therefore to maintain authority and minimise disturbance by offering a succinct definition of the term and she bends again across her paper in the clumsy way of the left-handed.
A hairy forearm is waving impatiently: ‘variable costs’ this time. Briskly I invent a response so plausible it may even be correct and move on, becoming ever more creative as I bend benignly over those problem terms. Many students know that I teach only Spanish but none queries my authority. Seemingly, despite their sophisticated knowledge of consumer goodies, they retain a child-like confidence in the teacher as the fount of knowledge.
“You have twenty minutes remaining,” intones my colleague.
Should I feel guilt at confidence betrayed, professional ethics devalued? We live in a knowledge economy: this is my small part in the redistribution process. From those that hath shall be taken away.
This girl has a sweet smile and a poor hair cut: a scholarship child? Her question is one of English definition and I am able to offer her an accurate answer.
“Your time is up.”

 

Keeping the Faith

Walter Evans was of those whose labours are unknown, unsung. He did not stand out in a crowd.
A foreman in the big local factory, he was popular with his mates, played a fair game of darts and belonged to the Workmen’s Institute where each Christmas he collected his coupons and drank the twenty pints to which they entitled him. He and Sandra lived in a pleasant semi-detached with a neat garden.
He did well at school, not outstanding, but enough, he believed, to make him a suitable candidate for the works’ trainee management scheme. Managers had the biggest houses, the longest cars, cleaning women. So he achieved good grades at the local technical college and applied.
“Mr Evans,” said the HR director. He tapped his fingers together, gazing at the reports that lay on his enormous desk.
“Very interesting,” he murmured. “There’s someone else you should see before I make you any offer.”
The someone else had a smaller and shabbier desk, but Walter, always swift to recognise authority, could not but be awed by the power which seeped across the scratched wood and leather.
“I’ll tell you straightaway, Evans, we won’t be offering you a management traineeship. Not the right calibre. But there’s another possibility. Looking at your school reports we’ve noticed that you’ve a healthy respect for authority. Significantly healthy.”
“Well,” said Walter eagerly, “rules are there for a reason aren’t they? You can’t just have everyone deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Can you, sir?”
“Quite. Now, in a large organisation like ours, bound to be troublemakers. Some are just bloody minded, know the type? Others more serious, paid to rock the boat. Know what I mean, Evans? Would you be prepared to take a job here, seemingly just another worker – skilled grade of course – and know that you were helping to protect your country and your people?”
“Yes sir,” said Walter, straight in his chair.
“Good man. I’m not pretending this is glamorous. Hardly James Bond. No-one must know – not your parents nor, when you marry, your wife. Live just like the others – play darts, do the lottery. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself. You’re an ambitious young man. I know this is asking a lot of you. But few are called upon to serve. Keep the faith.”
So Walter married Sandra, played darts and from time to time made his reports on subversives to this man who had spotted his potential. He did occasionally allow himself the heresy of wondering if the man intended him to understand that his virtues would be rewarded in heaven. He hoped not. It was, at best, an uncertain way.
But then Walter could cease worrying about the man’s promises. The lottery win was a staggering eleven million. Arriving at the opulent London hotel for the presentation ceremony, he was ushered to his suite. Fidgeting in his ante-room he watched the famous disc-jockey who was to present the cheque flanked by two blondes in very few sequins. A quiet cough at his side and he turned to find the man, evidently sent to represent his employers. They shook hands, Walter with the new confidence of riches.
“What luck, eh?”
“Hardly luck, Evans. Do you think that such enormous sums of money are allowed to pass into ignorant hands by random chance? Remember what I told you, all those years ago? Keep the faith. Seek not to know the day or the way. They’re calling you, off you go.”
And Walter walked out under the camera lights to where the blondes were waiting.

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