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Words and wisdom (maybe just words). You be the judge.

Listen for the Swan Song | Reddit Writing Prompt – 5

This Reddit writing prompt is from u/brixen_ivy

And if she dies in the meantime then what?

Martin had recently started drinking The Pogues Irish Whiskey each morning. He explained to Eileen that he liked his whiskey with an e. He was more Irish than Scottish and though arguably “a Celt was a Celt was a Celt” he chose to identify solely as an Irish Celt when it came to sipping the fierce stuff. (And it had been on offer at £20 a bottle.) Eileen had nodded automatically but had not been interested. She had milk on her cornflakes which more than sufficed. And Good Morning on ITV provided enough conversation. 

Eileen had rarely listened to Martin since the kids had flown and the couple had had to face up to the reality that they now had each other all to themselves once more. He could drink single malt every morning at 6 am if he liked – it would neither impress nor worry her. Which was a fact that depressed her a little – surely there was more to the latter stages of a married life than a mild but all-pervasive apathy? 

Good Morning was over and now, before Lorraine, there was an infomercial inviting all to buy a No!No!Pro which promised no hair with no pain, It seemed to be a glorified electric shaver but it was being taken very seriously. Women were smoothing their upper lips, necks, legs “and lots of other places.” Whereas men were shown shaving their forearms and chests and could apparently also use it for their backs. And, Eileen imagined, their cracks and sacs. And most likely all their other grooves, crevices, creases, bumps, humps, lumps and increasingly-wobbly bits. We were rapidly becoming a hairless society. Perhaps that was progress. A glance toward the armchair reminded her that Martin had developed impressive sprouters from both his nostrils and his earlobes. He hadn’t been paying attention to the TV but even if he had been, she was sure he’d still have no intention of dealing with them. He’d seemed to have given up on any interest in personal grooming around his mid-40’s. Eileen sighed with the realisation that such fact didn’t bother her. She wasn’t sure when she had given up encouraging him to look his best. He would be away for a week and it was quite possible she’d barely notice. 

Martin was drunk by the time he took his seat. He was humming a tune in his head – “On the third day of Christmas my True Love said to me… All devices should be switched off and stored in the footwell before thee…” He chuckled at that, pleased with his wit. He had chuckled out loud.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes! Yes, I am! Martin Ramsbottom at your service.”

He held out his hand toward the young backpacker-type sat in the seat next to him. She shook it tentatively.

“You were laughing out loud.”

“Lol!” Martin laughed. Out loud. 

The backpacker-type grunted and afforded him a slight smile. She’d asked for that she guessed. And of course now she’d opened the gates of discourse.

“I’ve been on these flights before-I reckon they water down the whiskey.” Martin informed her. 

“Addicts will always chase the euphoria of their first high.” She replied.

“Pardon?”

“I’m just saying…”

“That I’m… no… I’m not… well… I’m… just a social…”

“It’s 11 am.”

“Not somewhere! Not in Mumbai! I don’t think so anyway…”

“Humour often disguises pain.”

“Oh. You’re a philosopher, are you?”

“No, I’m an ornithologist. Of a kind. But I don’t believe any of us have only one label.”

Eileen was not expecting a knock on the door. When it came, she thought to herself ‘I wasn’t expecting a knock on the door.’ But then her next thought was ‘well, how often are we?’

Knocks generally come unannounced and unexpected. She put the mute on the TV and slowly rose from the sofa.

Martin had only ordered one whiskey. He’d felt self-conscious when the trolley arrived. The backpacker type had nodded her approval when he’d turned down the offer of a double. She waited till he was settled with his Jameson and ice and small packet of pretzels, then asked

“Did you know that swans mate for life.”

“No.”

“It’s true. And very laudable don’t you think?”

“Just the one partner for life?”

“Yes.”

“One’s enough for any swan! Haha! Swan’s enough!”

Martin chuckled again, pleased with himself – he was on a roll.

“Exactly. And it’s more admirable than amusing don’t you think? They can live for up to forty years and spend all that time together – learning from each other, relying on each other and helping each other survive, raising clutches of cygnets whilst always swimming in step. They depend on each other and grow wise together.”

“And they don’t get bored?”

“No. They don’t. They stay mindful and aware. Always involved and appreciative. Have you seen the courting ritual they perform? Their heads come together and their necks form the perfect heart shape. It’s beautiful. We can learn a lot from birds you know.”

“Especially the swans?”

“Especially the swans.”

Eileen and Martin did not have a peephole on their door. It was always the an open-and-find-out option. Hence an element of tentativeness always preceded the act. And today Eileen took an immediate involuntary step back – he was stunning.

Back on the plane the backpacker type was flicking through the inflight magazine.

“Have you ever noticed that male models never smile? Not if they’re advertising after shave at least”

“Ha! Mean, moody and smelling marvellous eh?” 

“Yes. That can be appealing to women.”

“Miserableness?”

“No, good grooming. A self-pride. A self-interest. A self-awareness. An effort being made. A confidence that comes from looking their best. They sell lots of different grooming tools for men these days too. All sorts of trimmers for all sorts of places.”

“I think I need another whiskey.”

“Humour is good too. But a hairy, red-faced half-drunk joker is unlikely to stoke a woman’s desire.”

“Hey, hold on a minute. I thought we were getting on.”

“Maybe we were but perhaps it’s not me you need to impress.”

Eileen felt herself blush and wished she’d checked herself in the mirror before answering the door. 

“Hello… can I help you?”

His smile widened. Perfect teeth caught in the sunlight. Attracting the sunlight? The word ‘devastating’ entered Eileen’s mind. The vision held out his hand, took hers confidently and spoke convincingly.

“Maybe I can help you. Perhaps we could have a cup of tea?”

The plane conversation was continuing on a theme.

“Excess is never attractive.”

“Yes, okay – I get your point. Swans don’t get inebriated at every opportunity I suppose?”

“You’re being facetious. My point is more poignant than that. If one dies then the other is often said to die from a broken heart. I believe it to be true.”

“Blimey. So if the man swan swam upstream and didn’t tell her where he was going…”

“Exactly… not communicating can be very dangerous.”

“And if she dies in the meantime. Than what?”

“Exactly. How might he feel then?”

“He could lose her.”

“He could.”

“Wow. So, they kinda keep each other alive, you could argue?”

“Yes! They do. I think you’re starting to understand.”

“I’m not a complete clown. What is your name by the way, I’m Martin.”

“No, I agree – you’re probably not beyond redemption. Yes, you’ve already told me your name. I’m Aphra.”

“As in dighty?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Wasn’t she the goddess of…”

“Love. Yes, she was.”

“Oh…”

Eileen had sat her visitor in Martin’s chair then hurried to boil the kettle and get the Royal Albert china out. She fervently hoped there were some of the posh biscuits left over from Christmas in the cupboard. Her husband was away and only hours later there was a strange man sat in his armchair. Somehow it didn’t seem peculiar at all.

Martin was struggling for the right words. The conversation had dried up. Aphra had sunk back into her seat as if she’d said all she’d wanted to say. All that she needed to. Martin however was alert now, he felt energised and newly enthused. He wanted their debate to continue.

“Are you a backpacker? 

It sounded ridiculous as soon as he said it – what was a backpacker? Why was he always so presumptuous these days? So quick to pigeonhole. When had his mind narrowed and his certainty so expanded? She smiled tolerantly before she answered.

“I am simply a traveller.”

“And you travel light.”

“Always.”

Eileen placed the tray on the coffee table between them. He smiled a thanks. Enigmatic and beautiful.

“My name is Anteros.”

He looked and sounded Mediterranean, Greek perhaps.

“I’m Eileen. What did you mean when you said maybe you could help me?”

“Ah, yes. I’m here to tell you don’t give up.”

“Oh, you’re one of those religious types. I don’t usually donate to charity…”

He laughed. 

“I’m not what you imagine. And you are a good woman; I can sense that. And I’ve been admiring your photos – your children look happy, well cared for.”

“They’ve all grown and flown…”

“That’s nature. It’s all you can hope. You’ve given them your time and prepared them well.”

“I… we’re alone now…”

“And is that such a bad thing?”

“Well… I suppose…”

“You must have memories. Of before. They’re always a start.”

“I think there’s some photos in the loft…”

“I think you should get them down.”

“Maybe I will… Look, this is all very nice but let’s cut to the chase – I can probably afford a fiver but I don’t want to sign up to anything.”

“I’m not here for your money. More for your soul shall we say.”

“Oh. Come to save me have you?”

“Perhaps, in a way.” He frowned. “I’m not always the best at explaining – I usually work in a team but my partner Aphra is engaged elsewhere today.”

“So it’s just advice you’re offering eh? Go on then.”

His smile was back.

“Okay. Well, if I was you, I would begin to prepare. Your husband will be home in exactly six and three-quarter days.”

“Hey?”

Eileen was shocked. How on earth did he know that…

The seat belt signs had just come on and Martin was confused. He stopped a passing steward. 

“Where’s the young lady who was sat next me?”

The man hesitated a moment before replying.

“Urm, You were very fortunate sir. That seat has been vacant all flight sir. 

“No it hasn’t.”

“I can assure you it has sir. We’ve just done a headcount before landing. Everyone’s in the exact place they should be.

“I… er… oh…”

“Can I do anything else for you sir?”

“Erm… actually yes! Are you still selling the after shave?”

“Well, not strictly speaking but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Great. And one of those trimmer things too please.”

Martin thanked the steward and fished in his pocket for his phone. He needed to check his hotel reservation to make sure it had a gym.

H. B. O’Neill is a London born writer inspired by the City and its myriad opportunity for comedy, pain, drama and adventure. He is a prize-winning poet and short story writer, a screenwriter, playwright and author.

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