Wondering what to do, John McMaster sat down on the park bench. Up until then, work had been the centre of his life, but retirement had ended that. He still had years of life in front of him and he needed to decide how to spend them. Unlike his colleagues, he didn’t have children or grandchildren to occupy his time.
The gentle breeze blowing across the man-made lake brought with it the hint of apple blossom. Smiling the smile of someone enjoying the newness that Spring brings, he pulled out his brown paper bag and reached in for some pieces of stale bread. Feeding the ducks was an enjoyable activity as he pondered what to do in his retirement. It was a regular Saturday afternoon activity that he saw no need to change.
A plastic ball, coloured to look like a soccer ball, flew over his shoulder and landed in the water, disturbing the birds that had gathered before him.
“Damn!” a familiar voice said from behind him. “Toss a coin for who goes in to get it?”
John twisted in his seat. Two guys that he knew only as Eric and Paul were watching intently as a coin flicked through the air. A small black-haired boy was heading in John’s direction. Paul spotted what the kid was doing before he got too far, and ran over to pick up him.
“No, you don’t! You have to stay with us, Steve.”
“I want my ball!” the young boy wailed, arms reaching out as if he could call his toy to him.
“You lost, Paul,” Eric said as he stepped up to join them.
John smiled and turned his attention back to the lake. It was only shallow, but the bottom was very muddy. Paul would need to sacrifice some dignity to retrieve the ball.
Paul moved up to the edge of the lake and started to take off his shoes. Eric, holding Steve, went over and sat down next to John.
“G’day, Mr. McMaster. I’ve got someone here I’d like to introduce to you.”
“Hello, Eric. Who’s the handsome young man?”
“This is Steve. He’s our new foster son.” Eric grinned broadly as he made the announcement.
“I’m five!” Steve said with the pride that only a five-year-old can muster.
“Well, good for you,” John said to Steve before turning his attention to Eric. “Congratulations! You hadn’t told me that you were looking at fostering.”
Eric glanced over at his partner. “Paul and I have been talking about it for a while. We’ve finally gotten approval, and we picked up Steve a couple of nights ago. We didn’t say anything to anyone, just in case we jinxed it.”
John followed Eric’s gaze and decided to take pity on Paul, who was nerving himself up to step into the water.
“Paul! You don’t need to go in to get it. Just watch. The breeze will blow it back this way if you’re patient.”
Paul put one bare foot into the water, then pulled it out, picked up his shoes and socks, and went over to join the others.
“Thanks, Mr. McMaster. That water is cold!”
John laughed. “It’s probably not safe in there, anyway. Look,” he said, pointing to a small cluster of reeds near where the ball was floating.
Paul and Eric stared in the indicated direction, while Steve squirmed in Eric’s arms.
“Are they what I think they are?” Paul asked.
“Yes. The first cygnets. Their parents would probably attack if you got too close.”
“The infamous black swans. I had a lot of arguments with my dad on whether the council was wasting money when they brought them in. He couldn’t see the aesthetics in having Australian natives as features of our local park,” Eric said.
“Eric’s told me the good news. Congratulations, Paul!”
“Thanks, Mr. McMaster. I have to admit that until we picked up Steve, I was worried it was all just a dream.”
“I want to get down!”
Chuckling, Eric let Steve down. He stood up and followed the young boy as together they explored the edge of the lake.
Paul stayed behind and watched them. “It’s only been a couple of days, but Steve’s already making a difference to our lives,” he said, grinning.
“Obviously in a good way, it seems. Did you have any problems because you and Eric are... er...”
“Because we’re a couple? A few, but not as many as we’d expected. I got the feeling that they’re desperate for foster parents.”
John nodded slowly. His impression of the young men was that they were a very dedicated and loving pair. He thought they’d make a pair of great dads.
“Will Steve be with you long term or short term?”
“Long term, we think. His dad has disappeared and his mum is in prison on a drug conviction. We’re hopeful we can keep him permanently, but we don’t know. When his mum gets out, there might be a stressful time, but that’s years away. In the meantime, we’re just going to enjoy being parents.”
Paul and John chatted for another few minutes, while the ball slowly drifted back to the edge of the lake. When Eric finally collected it, Steve gave a squeal of delight and had to be stopped from kicking it straight back into the water.
The two black swans, aware of the humans around them, kept watchful eyes over their progeny.
“Hello, Mr. McMaster.”
The old man looked around in surprise. “Oh, hello, Steve. I didn’t see you there.”
The teenager laughed. “I didn’t think you did. But I don’t want to be the one to say you snore.”
John chuckled and patted the seat next to him. “This warm summer sun is just too relaxing at times. I must’ve dozed off. Sit down and tell me what you’ve been doing.”
The lanky young man jumped over the arm of the park bench in a display that showed off his energy and athleticism. John smiled and shook his head.
“While you were away, I came here every week to feed the birds. I even brought a friend once, to share how relaxing the place is,” Steve said.
“Did they like it, or did they think it’s a boring way to spend a Saturday afternoon?”
“She liked it. It didn’t turn out, but the two of us had a good time here,” Steve said, reaching into his bag to bring out some bread.
“Oh? And did any of the birds get fed that day?” John asked, raising an eyebrow at his young companion.
Steve chuckled. “At least one did. No, seriously, they all did. I think the swan colony is up to sixteen, now.”
“Seventeen,” John said. “There’s a shy one that doesn’t come out very much.”
Steve nodded his head. “I thought so, but I wasn’t sure.”
They fell silent for several minutes while they threw bread to the birds.
“Did I ever tell you that black swans led me to my philosophy in life?” John asked.
“No,” Steve said, looking askance at the old man.
“I was told once that back in the seventeen century there was a saying, ‘As impossible as a black swan.’ It meant that something just couldn’t happen. Then they discovered Australia, and what did they find?”
“Black swans,” Steve said, grinning.
“Exactly! I take that to mean that if you keep on searching, if you keep on looking, you just might find what others have said is impossible. I’ve only found a couple of black swans, myself, but I’ve never stopped looking. To stop is to give up.”
Steve was silent for a few seconds. “And what are you looking for, now?”
John paused and looked at the young man. “For happiness. I’m usually finding it, too. I don’t have high expectations, anymore. The cruise through the South Pacific was good, and I really enjoyed it, but I find just as much pleasure sitting here and feeding the birds.”
“With or without company?” Steve asked, grinning broadly.
John laughed. “With is better, but I’m happy without.”
“Is it true that swans mate for life?”
John paused before answering. “Well, yes... and no.”
“How can it be both?”
“White swans and black swans differ a bit. When they are older, both tend to mate for life, but when they are younger, black swans aren’t as loyal. A young male black swan will often leave a companion for another, and end up mating with several females. But as they grow older, they tend to pick one mate for the rest of their lives.”
When Steve didn’t respond, John continued.
“Another difference is that black swans form colonies, like this one. White swans get very territorial when they are mating, but black swans like their own sort being around. They’re a lot more social than their white friends.”
Steve nodded slowly. “Just because they look similar, doesn’t mean they’re the same.”
“Exactly. Too many people make mistakes because they expect things that look similar to be the same.”
John paused. When Steve kept on silently feeding the birds, he spoke up again. “How are your two dads doing? I haven’t seen them recently.”
Steve chuckled. “They’re good. They’re just so busy with one thing or another. Like today, they’re at the school helping out at a working bee. I was there for a while, but there were so many people that I decided to skip it and come here.”
“You’re skipping out on doing work?” John asked, trying to instill a disapproving tone.
“You don’t think that looking after the ducks and swans is as important as moving mulch around?”
John laughed. “You left off entertaining an old man.”
Steve grinned, but only half-heartedly. He leant forward and rested his forearms on his legs. Keeping his gaze on the birds, he chewed on his lower lip before speaking again.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure. We’ve known each other for almost ten years, now. I’m surprised you have to ask.”
“Well, it’s something I don’t feel comfortable asking my dads, and you’re the closest thing I’ve got to a grandparent.”
John gave his companion a sideways glance. Steve seemed nervous and unsure.
“Is there some sort of problem at home?” John asked as gently as he could.
Steve snapped his head around. “No! Oh, no. Those six months I had to spend with that woman were the worst days I can remember. I was happy when the courts sent her back to prison, because that meant I could come back to my real parents. I love it where I am. No, it’s something else.”
John waited and then prompted Steve again. “Then?”
Steve sighed. “It’s girls, or rather, one girl in particular. I just don’t know how to talk to her.”
John smothered a chuckle as he thought of how some things never change.
John sat and stared at the fence that surrounded the lake. It was another attempt by the council to address the swan problem. The dappled light on the gold and brown leaves floating on the water gave no sign as to the huge political fight that was going on.
The colony had grown too large for the area, and the swans were getting aggressive. Two weeks prior, a young child had been frightened when a swan rushed her. The mother was understandably upset, and had made lots of noises to all the media. A few lone souls had tried to explain that the swans were just protecting their territory, but most people just pointed fingers and demanded action.
John had been there on that day. The child had run at a cygnet and the mother swan had defended her child, but few people saw it that way. The council was split as to what to do, and the wire mesh that surrounded the lake was yet another compromise.
John pulled his coat around himself as he tried vainly to keep the cool air at bay. Autumn used to be one of his favourite times of year, but the cold was beginning to aggravate his arthritis. He was flinging pieces of bread over the fence to the ducks and swans when Steve came along and sat down next to him.
A grunt was the only reply he received.
“Is there something wrong? Things okay at home?”
Steve’s shoulders rose and fell as he gave a slow sigh.
“Yes and no. Yes, things are fine at home – money’s tight, but we expected that with Karen staying home to look after the baby – but we’re coping. No, it’s my dads.”
“How are Eric and Paul? I haven’t seen them for a long time.”
“And you probably won’t; at least not together. They’re fighting.”
John sat quietly while he absorbed the news. It didn’t take an Einstein to work out that Steve thought it was serious.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Steve pulled out his own bag of bread and flung a piece over the fence.
“I think they’re going to split up.”
“Eric’s been sleeping around and Paul’s just found out.”
John had seen it happen before, but he hadn’t expected it from Eric. He and Paul had seemed such a solid couple. The fact that Steve hadn’t left home until he was twenty-three and about to get married had been a sign to John about what a happy home it had been. But after their son left, the dynamics of the household must’ve changed, and not for the better.
“Did I make it worse by not saying something?” Steve asked, looking sideways at the older man.
Steve nodded his head, a forlorn expression on his face. “I saw him with someone else at a gay bar about six months ago. I tried to tell myself it was probably only a friend, but deep down I knew otherwise.”
John stared at him in surprise. “You were at a gay bar? I thought you’re straight?”
Steve gave a short bark of amusement. “I am. I was there with Karen for a friend’s birthday party. I don’t think Eric saw us. I only spotted him as he was leaving.”
John threw some bread to the nearby ducks while he thought.
“I don’t think it would’ve made any difference if you’d said something earlier, Steve. If Eric was going to be unfaithful, it was going to happen. The only difference is, we’d have had this chat six months ago, instead of now.”
Steve threw a large piece of bread at the fence, but it hit the wire and fell onto the bank. Cursing to himself, he got up, picked up the bread, and tossed it over into the water. He stood there for a moment before turning and moving back to the seat.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty.”
John nodded slowly. “It hurts when our parents don’t live up to our expectations.”
Steve caught the note in John’s voice. “Did it happen to you, too?”
“Obviously not the same, but yes. My dad died in the war, and Mum went to pieces. She tried to find comfort in the arms of strangers, and it didn’t work. I left home soon afterwards. I couldn’t stay to see what she was doing to herself.”
The two sat there, feeding the birds on the other side of the fence and listening to the raucous cries from the nesting swans, while thinking about their parents.
Eric stared at the empty park bench for several minutes before he advanced and sat down. The bitterly cold winter wind blew against him, but his heavy cloak kept out the worst of the chill. There was no one else around, the weather giving everyone an excuse to be elsewhere. The place seemed odd without Mr. McMaster, who would never sit there again.
Steve and his wife were expecting again, but they were in Queensland and Eric suspected he wouldn’t be welcome. The absence of the swans added to Eric’s depression. The council had collected them up and shipped them to a wildlife park in the country.
Eric was about to retire. He was alone, through his own actions, and his only child didn’t want to see him. He was going to be a grandfather again, but he didn’t think he’d ever get to bounce his new grandchild on his knee, unlike Paul. Life was hitting the lowest ebb.
He drew out a plastic bag and reached in for some stale bread to feed the ducks. He’d seen Paul, Steve, and Steve’s family at the funeral, but he’d tried to make sure they didn’t see him. He had to live with the consequences of his actions, no matter how much he wished he could take them back. One thing he’d decided to do was to take over from Mr. McMaster. If he couldn’t do anything else right, he’d feed the ducks every week.
That night, after all the humans had gone home, two remaining black swans came out of hiding and commenced their mating ritual.
Eric drew out another piece of bread to see if he could entice the swans to come closer. The beautiful black birds were once again the centre of controversy, this time regarding the incompetence of the council in failing to take them away. There was a move to capture and relocate them to where the rest of the colony had been taken, but a number of prominent citizens were arguing to let them stay. With the arrival of Spring, Eric wasn’t the only one there to feed the swans and admire their cygnets.
“Excuse me, mister. Can you get our ball for us?”
Eric turned his head to look at the two small girls. The older, brown-haired girl, he guessed she was about five or six, was standing there expectantly, while her younger, blonde sister was looking at the birds in the lake.
“Sure,” he said as he clambered to his feet. “Where is it?”
Both girls pointed to a nearby apple tree. A brightly coloured ball was resting amongst the blossoms, just above eye height. He walked over and carefully picked it up.
“Here you are.”
“Thanks, mister!” the older girl said, flashing a big grin. Her sister gave Eric a shy look.
Eric watched them play for several minutes, until they were called by their parents to where a picnic had been set up. A smile played across his face as he returned his attention to the birds. The park felt right with children.
Instead of returning to feeding the ducks, Eric pulled out the letter he’d received. It was an invitation to the christening of his new granddaughter. It was from Karen, not Steve, and it was clear he wasn’t being invited to stay with them while he was in Queensland, but it was a start.
The two black swans swam serenely nearby, keeping watchful eyes over their cygnets.
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Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.