A cheerful young woman greets us as we walk in for dinner. She wants to know what we would like to drink even before we sit down. We ask for the drinks lists. “Come with me” she says and takes us to the bar. The beer/ale pumps are running dry. There is no point in topping it up just for the day. There is hardly anyone else staying at the hotel. The hotel was fully booked for the weekend, but now only uncertainty looms. She finds a pump which is working and pours me a pint. The dinner menu is limited. There are only two items for the mains. She says we can chose as many starters as we please. Make it small portions please, I say, as we pick four of the starters. “No, way” she says with jollity and walks away. The deal only included a two course meal but we are fed as much as we can eat and everything is on the house. Eighties music is playing in the background. Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’ comes on. A popular song which used to be played repeatedly on Ceylon radio, so much so that I taped it onto Achan’s magnetic audio tape recorder. The song is now synonymous with the recorder. We are staying at a hotel in St Ives in Cambridgeshire. A booking that has been hastily brought forward from Thursday before the lockdown begins.
I wake up in the middle of the night. The radiators are on maximum, the heat is stifling and my mouth is parched. I scrabble in the dark to turn the radiators off and open the windows. The white silhouette of a lone swan appears on the Great Ouse. Its head bobs up and down a couple of times before it paddles away. Is it having difficulty sleeping too. In the morning I see it again, circling the river on its own.
The hammering rain and blustery winds from the day before have gone and bright sunshine has taken its place. A stone’s throw from the hotel is a 15th century medieval bridge. It is one of four bridges in England which incorporates a chapel in the bridge. A chapel which was used for toll collection and prayers. Across the bridge we reach the bustling town centre. People wearing face masks are queuing outside barber shops for last minute hair cuts. Town buskers are strumming their guitars and adding music to the liveliness. Oliver Cromwell’s statue stands tall on the Market Hall, displaying his authority centuries after he was designated Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. A short walk past the parish church takes us to the Thicket Path. A path through the forest with the river on one side and the forest on the other. The path leads us to Houghton, another nearby village. A young woman with a perfectly honed body jogs past, the tight Lycra doesn’t leave much to the imagination. If you have it flaunt it, isn’t that how the saying goes. The village of Houghton comes into view. We pass a thatched house which looks as if it belongs in a Disney movie rather than a sleepy English village. There is something magical about the house and I can feel the fairies tinkering away inside. A Plane tree covered in golden leaves stands guard over it forming a canopy. As the wind catches the leaves, they fall like confetti over the house completing the mirage. We reach Houghton Mill, a seventeenth century water mill, at which point we decide to turn back and retrace our steps.
On our way back we pass the lone swan once again. Have you no friends, no soulmate to keep you company, I ask? Further up the river past the bridge the water is teeming with swans and ducks. It seems the lone swan is happy on his own, ruling his territory and guarding his kingdom, away from his distant relatives. Back home I cant seem to get the swan out of my head, I keep seeing him floating around on his own, looking majestic but sad and lonely.