Athene’s Room

Ruskin Park Bandstand

Athene’s room was small and well insulated, giving their voices a flat, serious quality, like a Bakelite radio broadcast. The air inside it was sweetly resinous. He was working hard to remember all these details, even while they talked. They were 15 minutes into the session and he was acutely aware of time leaking away.
“I remember Robert, we once had a similar conversation about swifts – how you envied their scissoring effervescence, their apparently carefree lives.”
“Yes, it’s true – I envy the lives of others, even wood-lice.”
“Believe me – they all have good and bad days.”
Athene’s yellow and green eyes looked directly into Robert’s, above them a white uni-brow added to their ferocity. There were delicate flecks of white all across her flat brown face and rounded body. She was an odd mixture of childlike bundle and raptor sharpness, somehow he’d grown fond of these confusing contradictions.
 They were up high, inside the rotten oak where Athene had lived and worked for years. It was only a few metres from the pond, but seemed another world to Robert, at least for the one hour a week he sat with her.
“Robert, I’m so glad you’ve kept this last appointment, even though things are bleak for you right now. Tell me more about Albin, what is it you envy about him?”
Robert cleared his throat, tilted his red and yellow beak sideways before speaking.
“He knows he’ll wake in the morning. He knows his wife and children are safe – there is even a royal warrant to guarantee his protection.”
“He’s certainly arrogant, I agree. His gait in the water is sovereign – an effortless glide.” Although she lived safely, with no personal threat from predators, Athene too, had lost many children – crows had eaten them or parakeets thrown her chicks from the nest to make space for their own. He knew this from others – she never spoke revealingly about her own life.
“He is above molecular resistance,” Robert flexed one of his long, scaly toes, “have you noticed how he flies through the air like a strong heart, slowly and regularly, his huge white wings beating the sky? He’s so sure of himself and his place in the world – he has no need of hurry.”
“Are there any downsides to this high-and-mighty existence?”
“His voice, although not strictly mute, can only raise itself to a farting snort, much like a small pig – though God help you if you make that observation in front of him. He’s killed for less.”
“What do you imagine has made Albin into such a brute?”
“Some months ago he started talking to himself. Ranting. I learnt his most traumatic memory was his father trying to drown him beneath Putney Bridge.”
“That explains his violence?”
“According to Albin, it was a valuable lesson – an apprenticeship in cygnine masculinity he never forgot.”
“I remember his father, Alarch. He was a fascist, wasn’t he?”
“He was a member of the Cygni – a fascist organisation established in the 1990s. Alarch’s membership number was 4. Albin loved his father for his low membership number and his lack of mercy, he loved himself even more for doubling it – the brutality. But his love for his father was always shaky – to celebrate his death he had a brief affair with his mother and sisters before abandoning them to the Swan Sanctuary at Shepperton. After that he moved into the pond on Tooting Bec Common with Bianca.”
“Albin and Bianca epitomise Folie à deux – they share a psychosis – a deluded emotional convergence, much like the Miloševićs or the Ceaușescus. But tell me about your own father, how does this story of brutal fathers resonate for you?”
“Dad? He was like me. Meek. Intellectual. Not good at fighting. But we knew he loved us.”
“How?”
“He tried to make things feel safe, even though they weren’t. When we were in danger he showed us how to make toys from sticks, to distract us.”
“Who does that remind you of?”
He twitched his shoulders, looked down.
“You are a good father Robert.”
He swallowed loudly, trying not to weep.
“What are you feeling now?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I feel so anxious I can’t tell any more.”
“Shall I tell you what I feel?”
He nodded his tiny head.
“I’m touched by how tenderly you look after your own family in such difficult circumstances.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to a Chiffchaff’s repeated call. It echoed around them like the sharpening of knives.
“And in your fantasies about his inner life is Albin happy or unhappy?”
“I think his happiness is synchronised with his repeated compulsions – constantly patrolling the pond, gliding along its wavy edges, harbouring an imminent yet elegant rage to let others know they will never rise above him or dominate the waters, to kill the weak and demoralise the strong.”
“You have developed such useful insight Robert. Do you remember when we first started working together, how hard you found it to talk?”
“I do.”
“So what are you going to do now – to make things better for you and your family?”
“Try to start a new life in a pond near Norwood.”
“I applaud your pro-activity. It won’t be easy but you are taking control.”
“I wanted to ask you, Athene – are you ever scared of Albin and Bianca?”
“I’m not scared of them but I don’t like what I see.”
“What do you see?”
“An emotional cross-contagion unique to swans and humans but never found in Moorhens or Little Owls.”
“We do have our plus-points then?”
“We have many Robert, but now, I’m afraid, our last hour together must end.”
“Thank you for listening to me Athene.”
“Good luck to you Robert.”
He would be sad, he knew that, but his father had loved him and Albin’s hadn’t. He had that to hold onto as he left Athene for the last time.

Published by Rejected Short Stories

"Now I have restored some of my words that I want to tell people what it feels like to go through such an experience- the contents right flushed out of your brain. What it's like a whole load of other people's stuff pumped into it. Most of what they put in my mind was bank account numbers and bioinformatics data flows rearrange forever. A swirl of unstable figures, flows through me in all directions, such as rats and fleas self-replicating and voracious attacks of my brain, only animals was not, it was language."

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