CREATIVE Rhiannon Lewis

NWR Issue 122

The Significance of Swans

I felt a new energy. My sore feet and back didn’t seem to matter now. I felt the happiest that I had felt, possibly ever. As I marched, I thought of all the stories I was going to tell my brother, all the things that I had suffered on my own without a sympathetic ear. No doubt he would have stories too, traumatic ones, perhaps? I hoped that he was still sane. I wondered vaguely why he was burning things and warned myself not to raise my hopes too much, in case it was a natural phenomenon, a bush fire, perhaps?

I took very little notice of the town as I passed through. It looked much like all the other places I had seen. Some broken windows, some boarded up. Cars left in odd places, blocking roads. Weeds, so many weeds. Every shade of purple-coloured buddleia seemed to have taken hold in all sorts of places. Great big branches of it grew from the smallest cracks between paving. Walking up the high street, the quiet seemed particularly eerie. An upstairs window in a Victorian terrace was open halfway. The curtains had been blown out at some point. They were dirty and stained.

In the middle of the road, just where the road split in front of the war memorial, there was a single sandal lying on its side. I walked up to it. It was turquoise, strappy and covered in diamanté. The heel must have been at least four inches high – totally excruciating for any woman who didn’t have the largest of feet. What on earth had we been thinking? I looked down at my walking boots – dusty and worn – and wondered if I would ever have a reason to wear silly footwear again. I thought of the marriages and celebrations our family would never have. My children would never fight a war, but there would be no memorial either. I stepped over the low chain in front of the column. The plinth was covered in moss and dead leaves. I placed the diamanté sandal at the base, and wondered if the young men listed there would have been happy to give their lives for people who coveted ridiculous shoes.

Soon I came to the turning, which would take me uphill. I was glad to be out of the town, and I realised that seeing the smoke had made me wary. By the time I reached the top of the hill, it was getting on for late afternoon. The sky was clear and there were very few clouds. Up here, I could almost smell the sea and, as I turned to look back the way I’d come, I could see it, nestled in the folds of the coastline, sparkling. The sea wouldn’t be missing us, I thought, remembering stories of floating plastic islands and dolphins starving to death because their jaws had been pinned shut by discarded plastic rings.

A few hundred yards away from the main entrance, there was a field gate. It was not much of a short cut, but I could climb over it and cross the field towards the back of the farmyard. How would he feel to see me, I wondered. Had I aged terribly?

I reached the gate and took off the rucksack. There, in full view about a hundred yards away, was an enormous bonfire. Fresh flames were rising from the centre, and just as I was about to put my foot on the lowest bar of the gate to climb over, I saw him. He was carrying large cardboard boxes, so I didn’t see his face at first. But when he stepped up to the flames and chucked what he had in his arms onto the burning pyre, I realised something that his gait had already prepared me for – this was not my brother. He dropped the box on the floor, flipped open the lid, then tipped the contents onto the flames. The heavier collections of attached sheets tumbled awkwardly. The lighter scraps of small notes – perhaps those precious bits of history – fluttered gracefully as if they were trying to escape. He caught one of them in his left hand, screwed it up tightly in his fist, then chucked it into the flames...


Rhiannon Lewis’ debut novel, My Beautiful Imperial, was published by Victorina Press in 2017, and the following year became a Walter Scott Prize Academy recommendation. The Spanish translation, Mi Querido Imperial, was published in 2018. Rhiannon has also had success with short stories, including the 2018 Bristol Prize (shortlisted), the 2017 Hammond House International Short Story Prize (third place) and the 2017 Frome Festival (winner). Originally from Ferwig, Cardigan, Rhiannon divides her time between Abergavenny and London. Her entry, ‘The Significance of Swans’, was placed second in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2019: Aberystwyth University Prize for a Dystopian Novella. The prize was awarded this summer at Hay Festival, and this is an extract from it.

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