SWANS IN THE PORCH
Our porch is mostly old umbrellas, croquet mallets and discarded swimming shoes – rather that’s how it normally was until the arrival one year of the Swan family. Having heard about a wonderful bird sanctuary in Surrey that rescues and re-homes wounded swans we’d been thinking of maybe giving a home to some of these most graceful of birds on our small lake, a water normally occupied by mallards, moorhens, coots and geese. So we applied, were duly inspected and assessed and finally awarded custody of whatever the collective noun is for a number of swans – a flap, I would suggest, judging by their behaviour on arrival.
We got given five in all – an odd number when you think about it because swans work best in pairs and as you no doubt know they mate for life, so one of the five was bound to end up growing bright green down. But at the moment of their arrival such thoughts were far from our minds as we stood in wonder watching a battered old jalopy wend its way up our drive with five swans a-sitting demure as could be on front and backs seats. Best of all, the car was a left hand drive which apparently afforded their charming young female chauffeuse and handler no end of fun as she zoomed along crowded roads in her ramshackle motor being chauffered as it appeared to other drivers by an eminently cool Cygnus mutus.
When she opened the doors of her car we understood why her passengers had travelled so decorously since each of them was well restrained in handmade hemp corsets, designed to keep their enormous wings in place. We then positioned the five of them carefully at the water’s edge before removing their basques and as advised standing well back from the ensuing action – which was to say the least vigorous. You would think that after their long and peculiar journey, when faced with a large stretch of calm and enticing water – their natural habitat –the swans would naturally take to it at once but no – the five of them stood there staring horror struck at what we had hoped they would see as their new aquatic playpen as if they had never seen H2o previously in their young lives, before as one flapping five pairs of enormous wings in the air and heading full pelt for the adjacent undergrowth where they plunged headlong into the stream that feeds the lake. It’s not a very big stream and it contains very many brambles and nettles yet in we three plunged to try and rescue the frightened birds which simply could not and did not fit into the stream. Duly well and truly nettled and brambled, once we had recaptured them we placed the birds on the lake the way you place plastic ducks in your bath then once again stood well back to watch as the five of them swiftly about turned and plunged once more back into the impenetrable stream. This interesting and demanding event occurred at least half a dozen times during the next hour and a half until finally soaked and scratched and stung through from head to foot not to mention well and truly nipped by the Swan family corporate beaks, at last we got them to stay on the water by jumping up and down on the bank and shouting as one Don’t you Something Dare!
Finally we threw bread at them, around them and all over them as directed, manna that they duly ignored, choosing instead to begin paddling and generally swanning about - once they had discovered that our H2o was just as H2o-ish as the stuff they had been used to up in Surrey – then when they were settled we tip-toed away, took off our waterlogged clothes and poured ourselves into several dry martinis.
We got up extra early the next morning and padded as silently as we could down to the lake to make sure all was well where there was not one swan to be seen. Panic struck we searched the streams and the neighbouring fields but there was not a sign of the birds anywhere. Bewildered, baffled and sad at heart we trudged back to the house imagining that so hating their new home they had simply taken wing and left. Then just as were crossing the lawns, Herself says to me did I have the feeling I was being followed? Because she did – and when we turned about there were five enormous white birds behind us playing Grandmother’s Footsteps.
We duly rewarded them with bread and corn which they readily consumed before settling in for a preening, grooming, cleaning and general beautifying session which left them looking even whiter than pristine and even more extremely elegant. Finally with every downy feather in place they ambled flat footed back to the lake where they spent a happy summer day swanning about, which is just the sort of thing swans do particularly well. Early morning inspections for the next week revealed an identical lack of any visible swans, but by then we had given up worrying because we knew they had taken to hiding somewhere which indeed they had. Beating them to the draw one morning we caught them tip-toeing it out of the reeds and rushes where we found they had made a very acceptable swan dormitory, well away from the banks and completely invisible to the human eye let alone those in the head of Monsieur Renard. Finally, having decided their new home was a fit, safe and proper place to be, they deserted their hidey hole and took to chilling out and/or sleeping on the islands.
The four of them, that is, took to island life because during the term of trial number five swan took off and flew off, a task which in itself is pretty prodigious since the average mature cygus mutus requires a long runway in order to achieve lift off. They’re not like ducks that can simply lift themselves off the water just like that – these mighty creatures need a good 50 metre dash up a lawn accompanied by much flapping off enormous wings before they can become airborne, and I have to say there were quite a few prangs while the quartet were earning their wings, crashes that resulted in large birds landing prematurely on stable and garage roofs, and on one notable occasion when pressing the abort button too late crashing into and getting well and truly stuck up our most ancient walnut tree. After a day playing away they would also often misjudge their home run and end up landing in the lane by our Local or the farmer’s field a good half a mile away whither I would have to take myself and carry the exhausted young birds home. I became a well known sight, ancient author carrying large and seemingly dead swans home in his arms with their heads draped decorously over my shoulder, their favoured method of transport and one to which they would submit quite willingly.
Then one day having firmly reckoned that east west home was best, they decided to make an extension to their new premises which was how they took up residence in the porch. Morning, midday and evening they had already made it their habit to come to the kitchen window on which they would knock extremely hard with their beaks in order to remind us that is was food time. They took absolutely no notice of the dogs that always sat inside on the window seat, although initially the dogs took great notice of them. In return the swan family just simply stared long and hard with dark beady eyes at the three barking boys before raising high their huge wings, opening wide their big beaks and hissing most theatrically. The boys soon put a sock in it and in fact in no time at all - particularly after being well and truly swotted a couple of times in person - they all became quite reconciled to the ballet birds.
After breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner the Swan family liked to chill out on the front lawn, taking it in turns when hot or raining or at any other time to use the porch for private meditation. Visitors unused to the amount of wild life in our petit parc often failed to keep their appointments due to our equivalents of the geese that guarded Rome. Postie in particularly took it hard since the constant hissing and wing raising not only prevented him from delivering his normal sack of junk mail but also precluded our daily gossip and exchange of old jokes. Worse, one of them learned to open the front door (it has an old fashioned latch that if you press it down the door opens) so on occasion one of the people who sometimes came and mimed cleaning our house would find herself confronted and being warned off by one of Mother Nature’s greatest avians. Oddly enough although they quote often padded in and out of the house never once did any swan do a Who-Did-That, although judging from the looks on the faces of some of those who came in and pretended to clean and found themselves confronted by cygnus iratus I am not altogether sure the same can be said for them.
But then tragedy struck – when returning home from a day’s upping or whatever one of the birds flew smack into a power cable and was mortally wounded. We did everything we could to save her – and she was a wonderful patient, trusting and brave, but the damage was too great and we lost her. We lost her mate as well but he died from heartbreak. Having lost his beloved he was inconsolable and finally and simply he broke his vow of silence, gave a cry to the heavens and was gone. The last couple remained, thank heavens, but not for long. They stayed over the winter, one of those deeply frozen ones that necessitated us regularly breaking the ice on the lake for them so that they would never be marooned and always have an escape route for swans can easily become marooned at such time and perish. But they survived everything Jack Frost threw at them and when spring came we hoped they would mate – but something was worrying them. We knew it from the amount of times they would leave the lake to disappear for days at a time but we never found out what it was. On occasion I would see a fox watching them and once I saw them see Monsieur Renard him off, both of them flapping him into a state of panic as they ran full pelt at him, so I’m not altogether sure it was he who forced them to leave. But leave they did one fine spring day. They came up to the kitchen, knocked on the window for their food and then instead of chilling out they stood facing a direction they had never faced before, north rather than south and began to grow tall the way swans do before they fly. Then when they were on their very tip toes they started to run - and then they were up, away and gone, two huge white beauties as elegant in their flight as they were on the water, becoming ever smaller until they were just dots on the horizon and until they finally they had altogether vanished.
They came back once or twice – and we knew it was them because one day after about six months we heard a knock on the kitchen window and there they were, the pair of them; after another few weeks they returned once more for another brief visit - but after that they went and we never saw them again - except for one morning late in the year when I came down to let the dogs out and there was a solo swan in the porch, standing all alone and looking up through the half glass door into the hall. He didn’t come in, but he allowed me to stroke him the way the four of them always had and he took a good feed of corn and bread. After breakfast the three of us plus the dogs padded down to the lake where – and by then we quite sure it was the male of the pair – where he took to the water and swam and swam and swam all morning. But after lunch he left and that really was the last we saw of our swans.
They are wondrous birds, elegant, characterful, bright and beautiful. You can watch them swim for hours on end and never get bored with their grace and their singularity. Our grandchildren used to stroke them and hug them and the swans loved the affection. They would seemingly and deliberately make themselves smaller when our granddaughter went to put her arms around them, and they would stand for ages having their backs and indeed even their heads gently stroked before waddling off to the lake to do a bit more swanning about. Of course we miss them - everyone who comes here regularly misses them, and now and then we see a couple over-fly us, and like children we wave at them and call to them but they take no notice for they are not our swans. Not that swans belong to anyone, anyone at all. Swans belong just to the lakes and to the air and to the water and to other swans, and as humans we are just very lucky to have got to know some of them and to have had them in our porch.