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The Flight of the Swan


Jack Windsor

Julia sat close to the embankment wall and watched the other people as they came and went. She knew that she should not have made the journey for whatever the outcome; it could only lead to disillusionment and disappointment.

When she and Mike had parted, they had agreed to meet again at the same spot by the river. Now she was keeping the rendezvous; although she wondered why she was here, for that agreement had been pledged twenty years ago to the day.

Their friendship had been short, sweet and passionate, and there had been instant and mutual attraction from the moment they had first met. Most of their friends thought it was the perfect romance and the start of a life-long partnership; sometimes they themselves had believed it. Beneath it all however, both Julia and Mike had an instinctive feeling that they would not be able to make such a commitment. Each had unfulfilled ambitions which needed to be achieved.

Those aspirations, they believed, would ultimately have destroyed the relationship. Mike wanted to go out to Australia to meet some of the challenges which were still available in that land, and Julia was so determined to become boss of her own business that nothing would be allowed to stand in her way. They had been young then, but they both were wise enough to know that, in the long term, their friendship could only founder on those rocks of ambition in the turbulent times ahead. So at that final parting beside the river Thames, each had solemnly promised that they would meet again at the same place and time, twenty years later.

Now was that time, and Julia had kept the rendezvous. Not that it had been easy to come, or even to make the decision to turn up. A dozen times or more she had called herself a fool for even considering the action; but the pledge had been made so sincerely, and she had never been one to willingly break her word.

The warm spring sunshine toyed with the ripples on the surface of the water, as the movement of the current caused the river scene to constantly change. A pleasure boat, its engine throbbing, scattered a group of last season's cygnets, now fully grown but still wearing brown.

The laughter of the crowd of holiday makers on the boat attracted her attention, and she watched as they moved upstream toward Boveney Lock. Julia smiled as she recalled the time she and Mike had made that same journey. It had been on one of those spring days when the sun already seems to have attained its summer's heat. Not that it had mattered much to them, for they had been so wrapped up in each other that sun, rain or storm would have been as one.

She was brought back to the present by the frenzied noise of waterfowl close at hand. The river was alive with the movement of swans and ducks that had gathered in an enormous flock only a few feet from where she sat. Three young children and their parents were scattering pieces of bread at the water's edge.

Each time one of the morsels was thrown out, the ducks would increase the tempo of their incessant quacking as they squabbled over which one of them should take the prize, many times only to be robbed in their moment of triumph by the swift dart of a swan's beak. Around the fringes of the constantly changing group of water birds was a handful of visiting geese, never quite joining the crowd, but ready to take any portions of food thrown their way.

Julia laughed as she saw the children suddenly step back, giggling apprehensively, when one of the swans made its way up onto the concrete embankment and headed for the source of food. The parents quickly scattered the remainder of the bread and shepherded their children in the direction of a nearby ice-cream van. It was a scene that had been repeated countless times through the generations, and once more, the memories of twenty years before flitted through Julia's brain.

She gazed past a throng of blue and white hire boats on the river, toward the broad green expanse of the Brocas at Eton. For a moment or two she felt close to tears, as she watched the young couples, some of them strolling hand in hand and some lying on the grass in each other's arms, oblivious to everything but themselves.

How well she remembered the carefree afternoons she and Mike had spent over there on the Brocas; and then after, in the evenings, they would walk into Eton and dine at one of the restaurants, before slowly making their way back. Arm in arm, they would go across the bridge to the pub where Mike always stayed when he visited Windsor.

Now all these years later, the pub was still here, as it had been for centuries before. Julia had never forgotten its name: The Donkey House. It had started life as a bargees' inn, during the days when horses and donkeys pulled the barges, and over time it had become an integral part of the river life at Windsor. At the time Mike had stayed there, the proprietors appeared to have a soft spot for young lovers, for they had gone out of their way to make him and Julia feel welcome. She wondered if the same people owned it? Maybe, if Mike turned up, they would go back to The Donkey House one more time.

If Mike turned up! Once more she found herself wondering why she had kept the rendezvous. He wouldn't come she was sure of that; or was she? So much had happened in twenty years, he must surely have forgotten the arrangement; and yet, she had made the effort, hoping to see him just once more.

Maybe he was not even in England. She knew that he had gone to Australia shortly after their parting, for he had written occasionally. He had wanted to start his own air transport business and had believed that Australia was the great land of opportunity. Julia nodded to herself: if anyone was going to succeed, Mike would. So why, she asked herself again, was she sitting here by the Thames at Windsor, when Mike, no doubt, was sunning himself on some antipodean beach? Once more her gaze drifted back to the river, her memories flooded in, and she knew why she had returned.

Even so, she wondered if she would have come back here, if she had still been running her company? The fact was, after the accident, she had been forced to sell out; and with so much time on her hands, it was inevitable that she would keep the appointment. The accident had changed everything.

The ducks and swans had scattered, and it was hard to believe so many had been there such a short time ago. Now there were just a few groups of birds; the ducks as busy as ever, moving hither and thither, continually arguing amongst themselves. By contrast, the swans were silent and serene, as if they were aware of their royal patronage.

Not far from where Julia sat was a small island, just a few metres out from the embankment. At its edge, the willow trees bent down to lightly touch the water's surface with their slender, new green leaves. From the other side of the island came a family of swans; a cob and pen and their three cygnets. Their movements were so slow and graceful, it seemed impossible to imagine that, under the surface, their feet were busy propelling them forward.

As Julia, watched them, she recalled that swans may live for 40 years or more. Maybe, she thought, she and Mike had seen those parent birds all those years ago.

Mike Lawson sat in his blue, rented BMW saloon, windows wound down. There was not enough breeze in the park to stir the leaves, and the warmth of the day reminded him of that brief affair he and Julia had enjoyed just twenty years before.

The park scene had changed hardly at all. Indeed, apart from the vastly increased number of cars, time had barely altered the royal park. Perhaps there were fewer of the ancient oak trees; maybe they had been thinned out by the great storm which he heard had swept across southern Britain a few years earlier. It was strange to be back in England after all that time the other side of the world. He had tried to convince himself that his trip to Europe was only for business purposes, and that the long pledged rendezvous was just an incidental, but underneath it all, he knew why he had come. If it was at all possible, Julia would be there.

He looked at his watch; it was almost time. He turned the ignition key and started the engine. Already the adrenalin was beginning to flow through him, as the thrill of seeing her again began to work its old magic. How stupid he had been to break off the relationship and go abroad!

Carefully he backed the car over the grass to avoid a picnic party, then turned onto the road and headed toward the town.

It was no use cursing himself: he had always intended to go to Australia, and Julia had known this. She, on the other hand, had no desire to leave England. She loved her native country and had been intent on building her life there. Her ambition had been to create her own sports promotion company, and such was her drive and determination, Mike was convinced she must have succeeded. He hoped so. Indeed, he hoped that she had done as well as he had with his air transport business in Queensland.

He wondered if she too was married, then chuckled to himself. Of course she must be. Her looks and personality were so attractive it would not have been long before some lucky devil had snapped her up. "Good luck to him," Mike said out loud: but there was a twinge of regret in his voice.

He thought of his own family; his wife Vicky and their two boys. Vicky had come into his life when the air transport venture was already successful, and at a time when they had a mutual need to find a mate and settle down.

He had not told his wife about the planned meeting with Julia, for he was not sure how she would react. Not that he was ashamed of the pledged rendezvous, for all that it would involve would be a long chat and dinner in a pleasant restaurant somewhere.

Julia would be interested in hearing about his family and he had brought a few photographs to show her. He grinned as he wondered if perhaps he was looking to his old flame for approval of his choice of wife.

Entering the one way system at King Edward VII Hospital, he turned his car toward the town centre, deciding to drive past some of the places he and Julia had been to all that time ago. It was not long before he regretted the decision and he became entangled in the traffic. Mike was staggered by the enormous increase in vehicles using the town since he had last been there. Windsor had always been popular with tourists, but now the congestion was stifling.

It was not only Windsor of course, everywhere he had been to on this visit to England had been the same. How glad he was that Australia was still full of open space.

Eventually, after inching his way through the town, he saw the magnificence of Windsor Castle and decided that even fighting the traffic had been worthwhile. Mike was sure that he and Julia would walk back up the hill later, to have another look at the grey stone royal house. Then, with a friendly nod to the statue of Queen Victoria, he followed the queue down the hill and headed for the river.

Arriving at the River Thames, he looked for a place to park; a feat easier to describe than achieve. Eventually, he squeezed into a space hardly bigger than the car and wished that he had hired a smaller vehicle.

Walking back along the road, he could see that, to his left, the river was alive with the incidents of its daily life. The commercial pleasure boats plied upstream and down as they carried an apparently never ending number of tourists to view the sights along the old and famous waterway. They were more numerous now than when he had been there before, the private cruisers flaunted their owners' affluence or lack of it; and almost everywhere, the white and blue hired rowing and motor boats demonstrated the day trippers' lack of river sense.

His eyes drifted away from the water up to the castle, which, as ever, dominated the old town. Everything that occurred in Windsor related somehow to the castle, the river or the great park; and each of those features had memories for him.

He looked at his watch again, and quickened his pace to reach the rendezvous on time. Deciding not to walk along the embankment itself, he stayed on the pathway above, to look down on the riverside scene. Then he reached that well remembered point and stopped.

Peering down over the wall, he searched along the embankment for her familiar figure; but it seemed he must be early and his gaze wandered along the river, past the Brocas to Eton Exelsior Rowing Club and beyond that to Eton bridge, which once had borne vehicular traffic but now was used only by pedestrians.

Mike stayed for fifteen or twenty minutes watching the movement of the people below him. There was a constant flow along the embankment as couples and families strolled in one direction or the other.

On the seat that Julia and he had selected as their favourite resting place, a family shared a packed meal, occasionally tossing pieces of bread to the ducks or high in the air into the rasping beak of a swooping gull. Nearby sat a woman in a wheelchair and every now and again, laughing children would run along the embankment, precariously close to the water's edge.

Every few minutes he checked the time, then looked along the embankment, until, finally, he was sure Julia was not going to turn up. To convince himself that he had not made a mistake, he strolled back to the steps and walked down to the water's edge.

Past the small island he went. Then he was level with "their" seat; the family had gone, their place taken by an elderly couple with a dog. Beyond them, the woman in the wheel chair was gazing across the water.

Suddenly, Mike's attention was taken by a movement on the river ahead of him. A swan had lifted its majestic white body from the surface of the water and was flying upstream with slow powerful wing beats. The beauty and grace of this simple action held him enthralled, and as he walked, he watched the magnificent creature until it had disappeared from view.

His interest returned to the embankment; Julia's and his rendezvous seat was now far behind, but there was still no sign of her. He shrugged his shoulders, quickened his pace and went up the road to find his car.

Julia watched the man, now approaching middle age, his hair rapidly thinning. His  figure and posture, which she once had been proud to walk beside, were no longer those of a young man in his prime, but of one who had let life take its toll on him. He did not look at her as he walked by, but stared out along the river.

She let him go, then after gazing over at the green expanse of the Brocas for five more minutes, she activated the controls of her wheelchair and moved slowly along the embankment.

She went up the concrete slope to the roadway and turned toward the town, not seeing the blue BMW as it drove swiftly by.

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