Wednesday, 4 July 2012

"All our geese are swans"

A  man came running round the corner on Monday morning, the tails of his  dark coat fanning out on either side of him as he loped away from me.  I heard his feet pounding on the wet pavement long before I saw him. He had straight, severely  trimmed white hair fanned out on his shoulders, his dark brown knitted cap pinched into a peak at the top of his head.
I wondered where he was headed in such a hurry; his long, gangly limbs working like one of those wooden artist’s models: bendable in unlikely ways. He had a sort of macabre grace, fleeing up the street.  
I caught up with him at the bus shelter, where he was peering at the timetable and glancing up the street anxiously, despite the fact the bus was not due for almost ten minutes. His neck was long and thin, like a stem; his features were razor sharp--you could have hung out your washing on his cheekbones.  But his rather distinguished profile was somewhat compromised by dental subsidence.  His deep-set eyes were small and dark and hard--like aniseed balls--and despite his obvious age, the skin on his face was curiously smooth and unlined, the colour of a brown hen’s egg.  He made me think of a character from a Steinbeck novel in his shabby, sober clothes.
He kept looking at his watch, up the street, and back at his watch.  Eventually he stepped out into the road, craning his neck and swaying gently, like a sailor on rolling deck.  I have seen people looking impatient at bus stops, but never anyone so anxious that they stood in the road, willing the bus to come.  
As the rain came down harder, he reluctantly came back into the bus shelter. I took out my ipod and he reached into his small backpack, pulling out a transistor radio and a set of ear plugs--retro chic at its finest.
He got off the bus at the west end, and I watched him rushing up the road, his arms extended slightly behind him, as if propelling him.  I hoped he was in time for whatever it was he was running to.
It bothered me all day.  I felt certain I had not seen him before, but there was something about him that seemed familiar; something that niggled and teased and vexed.   It wasn’t until I crossed the Dean Bridge walking home in the afternoon that I made the connection.
Early on Saturday morning as I was walking along a narrow stretch of the river I heard an extraordinary sound coming up river: whump, whump, whump .  A few seconds later an enormous swan came into view, running upstream on the water, the way they do when they are about to take off...except it didn’t take off.  It went on running, its feet slapping the water, its beating wings making that strange, deep, vibrating noise. I would never have guessed feathers could make such a solid, visceral sound.  
The swan should have looked ridiculous, clumsily trying to lift itself into the air.  Instead it looked powerful, inimical.  Suddenly Yeats‘ description of Zeus transformed in ‘Leda and the Swan’ -- ‘brute blood of the air’-- made perfect sense.
It passed a few feet away from me and still it went on running--effort surely out of all proportion to any result.  In the end it was almost out of sight before it finally broke free, urgently exchanging water for thin, blue air.

*'All our geese are swans' - Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

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