I saw a young woman sitting down by the river one summer evening. She was barefoot and wore a long white skirt, romantic in a Victorian kind of way. Her feet dangled over the water and she was reading Madame Bovary. Nothing unusual there, you might say, except that she was absent-mindedly feeding crusts to a large cob swan, which waited patiently at her toes. They seemed more at ease together than most of the other couples down on the Quay that night. It felt I’d interrupted something intimate, as if they were waiting for me to pass so she could carry on reading her book to him out loud.
Why would a girl prefer the company of a swan to that of her own kind on a summer evening?
It’s not hard to see the appeal. You’ve only got to watch the faces of children feeding the swans to remember the longing to pick them up and bury your face in all those feathers. Their size and fierceness only heightened the appeal – the illicit dream of hugging a beautiful, wild thing…
And perhaps, if human company had proved difficult and unsatisfying, might you not be more likely to feel an affinity with something like a swan? Your own existence might seem mirrored in theirs – out there alone on the river all day and night, full of thoughts and feelings and glimpses of beauty they have no-one to share with…
Perfect companions then, swans and lonely hearts. But when should you start worrying about someone who prefers the company of a swan? Lots of people talk to their pets. It’s surely harmless fun to ascribe to animals moods and personalities they can’t possibly own, moods and personalities that are scrambled reflections of our own. That’s what makes them perfect companions.
But what if the animal in question answered back? What if our girl by the river was disturbed from her book by a wry chuckle from the beak of her swan? Should she take him home? Might happiness ever be found in such madness?