The river seems different today: like it’s holding its breath; expectant; waiting for something....... I walk this way as often as I can. It keeps...
The river seems different today: like it’s holding its breath; expectant; waiting for something.......
I walk this way as often as I can. It keeps me close to her. I know every inch of earth; every dip and bump in the track; every sweep and bend of the river. The way the current divides around the boulders, swirling in little eddies until it rejoins itself, calming and settling before continuing its relentless journey onwards – unquestioning; uncomplaining — at peace with itself.
I’m not a bad bloke. I treat people well; treat women well; show them respect.
I treated her well – my Sarah. Like a princess. Such a sweet, artless girl.
This was her favourite spot — just here; where the river curls away from the road, diving behind the spinney that soaks up the traffic noise. It’s quiet; secluded. A place where she could lose herself, she said.
She liked to sit and watch the water rippling round the reeds, forming patterns that stretched and broke and reformed – always changing, always the same. The gentle flow would catch the trailing fingers of willow, trying to drag them downstream, making them dance in the sunlight.
She’d point out the little stream of ripples and bobbing head of a water vole; delight in the iridescent flash of a kingfisher. Once, we even spotted an otter, slipping out of the water and away through the undergrowth.
She said if I listened really carefully I’d be able to hear the water nymphs, their laughter mingling with the song of the river.
She taught me that – to listen; to feel.
Now all I can hear is her laughter, echoing in the water. She was always laughing.
The track’s deserted. But it’s not time yet. I’m early.
The first time she brought me here she skipped along like a child, stopping every so often to turn and smile at me. Her smile could melt steel.
When I smiled back she’d laugh – soft, tinkling laughter like fairy bells. She’d wait until I’d almost caught up with her and then skip ahead again; always flitting just out of reach. I was afraid to blink in case she disappeared.
Maybe if I go for a wander through the trees it’ll calm my nerves.
The bluebells are out – masses of them. I picked some for her once. She told me off.
“As soon as you pick them, they start to die.” She preferred them growing wild.
We’d spend ages in here, her hand in mine; breathing in the damp, earthy sweetness. Listening to the whispering of the leaves, the creaking and cracking of the gnarled old oaks. She said they were trying to tell us something; impart some vital ancient wisdom, long smothered by the concrete of modern life – if only we could understand.
It feels weird in here today. There’s a kind of restlessness; an apprehension; a darkness.
It’s a relief to be out in the sun again.
Still no sign. It’s nearly ten past one.
Maybe she changed her mind. Maybe he stopped her.
But she always was late – always kept me waiting. Like the time I took her to see Riverdance in the West End. Her birthday treat. The dress I bought for her was the colour of the spring reeds.
I was nervous that day too: stuck in the living room with her awful mother, trying to listen out for her on the stairs, while the old bat kept droning on and on. She just wouldn't shut up.
Then suddenly she burst through the door, looking radiant: her rich, dark hair cascading over the emerald bodice in a mass of corkscrew curls. She took my breath away.
Riverdance captivated her. I knew it would. Not my thing really, but watching her face light up made me happy.
We were inseparable after that. I took her to all the best restaurants; the theatre; punting on the Cam.
I always paid. A gentleman always does. Besides, she couldn't afford it, not on her wages – and I enjoyed spoiling her.
I bought her some new outfits too. She had absolutely no dress sense. So unworldly. My fairy girl, I called her.
Jesus! What’s that? Something’s making a Hell of a din in the reeds. A duck I think. Yes, there it is, squawking and flapping and scooting frantically about: a female mallard. She has ducklings.
There’s something else in the water too. An otter – or a mink maybe – I can’t tell. Oh, it’s got a duckling! The mother’s going mad.
It’s gone. I’m glad Sarah wasn't here to see that, it would only have upset her. The mallard’s still agitated, trying to round up her brood. I only hope whatever it was doesn't come back for the rest.
I know how that mallard feels. It was hard keeping Sarah safe too. Men were drawn to her like wasps to ice cream. Everywhere we went they’d be staring at her; flirting with her. She didn't realize the effect she had. I had to constantly tell them to back off.
But I couldn't watch her all the time, could I?
I knew something was wrong when she started cancelling dates, making excuses. She stopped laughing, became distant. I couldn't understand it.
I organized a special trip to the ballet, get things back on track. She loved the ballet. When she cancelled that as well I was so worried I drove down her road, just to check she was OK. I parked a little way off, so she wouldn't see me – but I saw her.
She came out of the house in a mini-skirt that barely covered her bum, tottering on high heels like a cheap tart.
I felt sick. That wasn't my girl.
I knew then there must be some other bloke. How could she do that to me?
She denied it – said she’d gone out with some mates. Said she needed some space.
I wanted to believe her. She was a good girl. But I had to be sure.
When she caught me going through her stuff she screamed at me. I was shocked. I mean, if she had nothing to hide, what was her problem? I had to slap her face in the end – well that’s what you do with hysterical people, isn't it?
Then she cried and my heart broke. I couldn't bear to see her so upset.
Of course I forgave her straight away – held her close until she stopped shaking. But I found it hard to trust her after that.
My watch says twenty five to two – I don’t think she’s coming.
There’s a swan cruising down the river — only one. Its mate’s nowhere to be seen – usually they go everywhere together. I hope nothing’s happened to it. You see it on the telly – anglers’ leaving hooks and lines and stuff and they swallow it. They mate for life, swans. If one dies the other pines. I named them Ian and Sarah.
Maybe it’s sitting on eggs. That would be nice. Sarah loved to watch the cygnets riding on their mother’s back.
I always thought we’d have kids – two of each. I had it all planned out. Even after….. I mean, all couples go through a rough patch, don’t they? I thought if I steered her away from her chavvie mates we’d be all right again. She was such an impressionable girl.
I bent over backwards trying to please her. Took her out all the time; showered her with presents – even took her to Florence. But it never seemed to be enough for her.
And then she dumped me! Just like that – after all I’d done for her!
I knew it must be her mystery bloke – messing with her head. Or maybe even her poisonous mother – I got the impression she didn't really like me that much. You’d think the stupid woman would've been pleased that her only daughter had someone loving and responsible to take care of her.
I begged Sarah to give it another go but she didn't want to know. She never replied to any of my letters. She even ignored the special DVD I made for her.
I missed her so much, sometimes I’d sit in my car outside her house. I’d see the curtains flicker but she never came out.
One night the police tapped on my window – told me to move: like I was doing something wrong! I was just making sure she was safe, wasn't I? – Who else was going to protect her?
Mum helped me out then. Walked down her road a few times – kept an eye out. It wasn't long before she saw him. Arm in arm they were. Rough sort, Mum said – not suitable for a delicate creature like her.
I was afraid for her then. I thought if I wrote to her one last time, persuaded her to see me, I could get her to see sense. He must have found out – stopped her. I might as well go.
There’s someone coming down the track – an old biddy by the looks of it: Bent and huddled up – hugging their coat to their body, even though it’s warm today. Why did they have to come this way today? It was supposed to be…..
Oh my God, it’s her!
I can’t move. She’s still so beautiful. She looks pale and tired though. Huge dark circles under her eyes. What the Hell has he done to her?
“You look beautiful, how have you been?”
“What’s this all about?”
“I….I….” Suddenly I don’t know what to say. There’s such a lot riding on this. I don’t want to frighten her away. “Sit with me please.”
“I can’t stay long.”
“Just for a bit.”
“It won’t change anything.”
“I know….please….just for a little while.” I take her hand and pull her down beside
me. “How have you been, sweetheart?”
“I’m not your sweetheart.”
“You’ll always be my sweetheart.”
“Please don’t do this Ian. You have to move on.”
I want to tell her I can’t – that I can’t live without her. But I’m afraid I’ll scare her. There’s an awkward silence as I struggle for the right words. “You look tired,” is all I can manage.
“I miss you so much.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“But it’s true. I still love you, you know.”
“Ian stop, I’m with someone else now.”
“He’s no good for you Sarah, you deserve better.”
“What, like you, you mean?”
“I treated you well, didn't I? Respected you, looked after you.”
She smiles then. Just a tiny smile but suddenly she’s transformed. Suddenly she’s my beautiful fairy girl again. Now I know it’s going to be all right.
I seize the moment – lean over and kiss her. She’s so soft and warm. I've waited so long for this moment.
“No!” She pulls away.
“It’s OK. darling, there’s nothing to be scared of.”
“No Ian, I don’t want this!”
I wipe the tears away. “Silly girl, there’s nothing to cry about. I’m back now. I’ll look after you – keep you safe.” I hold her tightly. “You know we’re meant for each other.” I don’t want to ever let her go.
She’s still crying. “It’s all right baby, everything’s going to be all right.” I stroke her hair; run my hand down her neck – such a long, slender neck; like the swan on the river.
I kiss her again – gently; tenderly. Her mouth is so soft.
“Don’t fight it darling.” I stroke her throat with my thumb. “No, don’t struggle. Don’t struggle!”
She lets out a little gasp. Then finally she stops protesting. Finally she gives in.
I cradle her head against my chest. “There now, I've got you my darling. Everything’s all right now.”
We sit there for hours, just like we used to. I rock her gently in my arms as the setting sun turns the river pink and the lengthening shadows gradually swallow us.
Eventually, the sun slips below the horizon, its reds and oranges giving way to the grey shapelessness of dusk.
A coot’s melancholy call drifts across the dark water.
I kiss her forehead. “It’s time to go, my Love.”
I get up, carry her in my arms. She’s as light as a feather. I hesitate for a moment on the bank, kiss her one last time. Then I wade into the shallows and lay her gently among the reeds. They close over her; claim her as their own.
She’s safe now.