For Tim Henman
I was walking along the towpath of the old canal when, suddenly and out of nowhere, a maddened swan came flapping at me in stormy rage, and thumped me so hard with its wing that it broke my arm.
“Confound you, swan!” I cried in my distress, but the swan had already returned to the canal, gliding through the water, a vision of elegance.
By one of those curious coincidences with which my life is stippled, the physician who tended to my fractured bone at the canalside clinic was called Dr Swanfracture.
“I suppose you must have to set quite a few bones broken by swans,” I said, through the haze of anaesthetic with which I had been, unnecessarily, injected.
“Actually, you are the first such patient I have had to attend to in twenty years of practice at this clinic,” said the doc, “For the swans on this canal are known for their placidity. There is perhaps something in the canal water.”
Later, convalescing, shattered on an Alpine balcony, I reflected on this, and my reflections were unhappy ones. If Dr Swanfracture was correct, and the canal swans were placid, then what had I done to provoke one of them to such uncharacteristic violent frenzy? Or, was it not something I had done, but simply me, my being, my essential self? Was I, without realising it, a danger to swans?
A man can come undone when faced with such an uncomfortable truth about himself, and I did indeed come undone. I raved and spluttered and rolled about. It never occurred to me that Dr Swanfracture was talking through his hat.
Many years passed, the majority of them spent trussed and medicated and bewildered in a series of lunatic asylums, before, one day, I was visited by an ornithologist. This saintly chap was convinced that the mad and the lunatic and the bewildered could be brought to their senses through a better appreciation of birds. He it was who enlightened me regarding the ineradicable savagery of swans. When I explained that there was something in the canal water that made placid the swans that glid therein, he laughed, like a drain. When eventually his gurgling ceased he said he had never heard such poppycock in his life. There is no drug on earth, he said, that could pacify a swan. Indeed, his own studies had shown that the only way to render a swan harmless was to wring its graceful neck.
Dr Swanfracture’s neck was anything but graceful. Rather, it was scrawny and bepimpled and wrinkled, as I learned when I clamped my hairy hands around it and wrung it, having stridden into the canalside clinic and through his waiting-room, where sat several patients nursing swan-broken arms.