Saturday, 2 March 2013

On Welney Bridge...

... a short story

The last time I saw her was on Welney Bridge. It was where we'd first met, four months ago while I was on secondment to the nearby Wildfowl Trust centre. Molly lived locally - I'd never have met her otherwise - and we sort of hit it off. (I'll spare you the background details – use your imagination. Yes, all of that too...)

WWT Welney lies in the very heart of the Fens, about two miles north-east of the village. It's not easy to get to, but the Fens'll do that – the roads of the area try to steer you away, make you decide to go somewhere else instead. This sounds a bit weird – and it is. There's one important thing to remember when looking at this vast horizonless landscape – it is wholly and completely man-made.

Hundreds of years ago, this whole area was fen indeed. Each autumn and winter, the sluggish rivers Nene, Bedford and Ouse would flood, backed up by the tides of the North Sea. It was a land of marsh, reed, and eel-traps, supporting a small rural population. Then in the 17th Century, a Dutch engineer was engaged for an impossible project – to drain the Anglian fens.

Cornelius Vermuyden knew that it was impossible, so instead he conceived a different idea – one that was four hundred years ahead of its time: a washland flood control system. Working only with picks, shovels, and wicker baskets, teams of labourers dug two immense cuts to intercept the eastern fenland rivers. For more than twenty miles these canals slash across the landscape, straight as a pair of parallel rulers. And between them lie the fields which are still allowed to flood in due season, taking the excess water from the channels: the Ouse Washes.
In summer they provide rich grazing for livestock, and in winter a refuge for wildfowl from all over northern Europe, most importantly the wild white swans.

You came then. I wasn't sure if you would.”

Her voice was quiet and steady. No blushing English rose this, but a daughter of some Jutland tribal diaspora. Molly was slim as a fen-willow, fair and pale and blonde with sky-grey eyes. Like my wife's eyes, but younger, of course – because if you're going to be a complete swine, you might as well go the whole hog.

I said I'd be here. Didn't you believe me?”

I couldn't look her in the eye directly, for reasons already given. Instead, I leant against the brickwork pier of the bridge and looked upstream. It was early spring and early morning, cold and misty. But something had told the birds that this was already time to leave. In parties of increasing size, they took off from the water and followed the river towards the bridge, wheeling away into the north. Soon, I would be going in that direction myself. 
There are two species: whooper swans Cygnus cygnus are the noisy ones; their trumpeting contact calls ring out for miles across the Hundred Foot Drain and the New Bedford River. They're shy of people – except for the juvenile females, birds of the year. Knowing no better, they tend to trust everyone.

Smaller and more graceful, the Bewick's swans Cygnus columbianus had already departed for their Siberian breeding ground. It's a long journey and perilous, but it's where they call home.

 “Are you going to stay?” The steadiness had faltered a little.

Of course I'll stay with you. I love you, don't I? We'll always be together.”

Now, the rhythmic thump of the birds' wings was directly over our heads, and their twin-tone voices split the morning air:-

LIAR! .. -LIAR! .. -LIAR!”

She didn't speak, but simply turned away. The last I saw was her grey form merging into the mist, along the road below Welney Bridge.

Women always know when you lie to them.

After all, think how much practice they must get.

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