‘Morning,’ said the swan, sat in the passenger seat, its great black feet sticking out in front of it. I nearly crashed the van. I hadn’t noticed it when I left the depot this morning, but then I suppose it was white, just like the van.
‘I’m ‘P∃ξ₪₰Җ,’ it said.
‘P∃ξ₪₰Җ,’ I confirmed.
The swan sneered. ‘No, it’s a silent ₪.’
‘Ah, P∃ξ₪₰Җ .’
‘Better,’ it said. ‘Come on: We need to get going.’
‘Oh yes. You’ll need me to guide you.’
‘I’ve got Sat Nav.’
‘That thing won’t get you through six hundred swans, believe me.’
She nodded. ‘Give or take.’
I reached for the delivery sheet and was surprised to see where normally a dozen or more destinations were printed, there was just the one address, crudely handwritten: A. Swann, Abottburie Swannneri.
‘Where in heavens is that?’ I said to myself, not expecting a large waterfowl to have any reasonable grasp of geography.
The swan glared at me before thrusting her beak in her pouch and pecking out a very crumpled piece of paper. ‘Here, you dummy,’ she said through her clenched beak. Sellotape had been stuck over the many creases which were badly frayed, I’d imagine, through months if not years of folding, opening and refolding again. It stank of Crustacea. Although it was quite faded and water-stained, I could see it was a visitor leaflet for the Swannery in Abbotsbury, Dorset, some 97.7 miles away. I read out the front blurb as best as I could: ‘If your family is looking for unusual things to do in Dorset, come to the Swannery and help hand feed 600 swans at 12:00 noon and 4:00 daily, or get lost in the giant maze.’
The swan tutted, ‘I forgot about the maze. I can get you through that too. It is giant, after all.’
‘I’m not going to bloody Dorset, no matter how mazy its maze is,’ I said, trying to think how I could get out of this potentially long drive with this bad-tempered goose. ‘What do swans want with a grocery delivery? Don’t you eat pond weed and stuff?’
‘Pondweed? ‘That’s so Swallows and Amazons,’ she said. ‘Some of us have far too busy lives without spending time with our heads in the bottom of some murky lake, you know: we have standards. And anyway – have you ever tried to get a pound coin out of a supermarket trolley just using your beak?’
I couldn’t say that I had.
‘There you are then,’ it said with all the moral high ground of a vindicated waterfowl. ‘Now, can we go? We’re wasting time.’
She was right. I held eye contact with her as I started the engine, to show her that I was the one calling the shots.
It was an excruciating two hours’ drive before we crossed the county line into Dorset. I know swans are impatient birds, but this one hadn’t stopped going on and on moaning about rubbish thrown in waterways, how annoying ducks are, and the unmerited presence of olives in some ciabattas. God, I was sick of her. Then mercifully, the van’s two-way radio system burst into life.
‘This is the loading bay to Colin in the kumquat van, come in please.
‘Colin here,’ I answered. ‘Is there a problem?’
The swan narrowed its eyes.
‘Yes,’ went the speaker. ‘We’ve had a 47B scenario in the bread store, and now a number of angry customers have called in to say that you’ve not turned….’
Before the sentence had finished, the swan whacked its beak, hard, into the dashboard and the communication unit blew up in a death of sparks. The swan extracted itself from the smoking device and gave no explanation for its behaviour, except to say, ‘sorry… I slipped’.
‘Ha,’ I said. ‘It’s almost as if you didn’t want me to hear that message.’
‘HA HA HA,’ said the swan.
We drove on. I tried to work out what the complete message would have been. I knew a ‘47b’ was our code for significant produce theft by non-human entities, but why would they be calling to tell me about a break-in at the bread store? And what were customers angry about me not turning? To Buddhism? Japanese? I didn’t want to make the swan feel any worse about damaging Acardoh property, so I made an excuse to stop and call the depot in secret.
‘We err, need petrol.’ I told her. ‘I’m stopping at the next garage.’
‘Whatever,’ said the swan, trying to wipe bits of burned-out electronic components from her beak onto the arm rest.
At the pump, I dialled the loading bay on my mobile. Immediately, there came a booming voice from the sky, that echoed all-round the roof of the petrol station. ‘OI, pump Six.’
I looked around and pointed to my own chest in uncertainty.
‘That’s right, YOU.’
Number six was my pump. I fell to my knees. ‘Is that you at last, God?’
The almighty spoke clearly. ‘Turn that bloody phone off, or we’ll all end up in kingdom come.’
I was humbled. God had finally chosen now to come to me after all these years, to tell me that it wasn’t my time to ring the depot or go to heaven. So I did what I was commanded and turned the phone off. I carried on filling, but my newfound joy turned to a sinking feeling when just as the pump made a satisfied clunk to signify I’d loaded a full tank of petrol, I realised that my wallet was in a locker back at the loading bay,
I grabbed what money I could find, and walked into the kiosk, nervous, but knowing that at least now I had God by my side.
I poured the contents of a zippered bag I kept in the van onto the counter in front of the man.
‘What’s this?’ He looked horrified.
‘5p pieces,’ I said. ‘We keep them in for when customers sell us their old plastic carrier bags back to us. 5p-a-shot; you’ll find there’s £13.65. It’s all I’ve got. Consider it a down-payment.’
‘Consider it up yer arse,’ said the man.
‘It’s legal tender,’ I said.
‘It’s a bleedin’ joke, that’s what it is. Go on – take your scrap metal back to the fairground Mr bloody penny arcade. They won’t fit in my drawer for one thing, and for a second, you owes me £44.57.’
tried to look pious. I felt I had the Lord on my shoulder. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evils”- Timothy, verses 6 to 10’.
The man glared at me. ‘Hey, you’re the clown that used his mobile phone on the forecourt. £44.57. Tosser.’
I looked him in the eye. “Whoever despises his neighbour is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”- Proverbs 14:21.’ I trusted this would appeal to his more thoughtful, holier side.
He sat up in his chair. ‘Whoever tries to take the piss gets a punch up the bracket. Gary –Fingers: 2’, and he waggled the combination of two fingers he had in mind right in my face. ‘Now, have you got the money to pay in something other than nuts and bolts, or not?’
‘Not,’ I confessed. ‘I do have a van full of groceries though.’
‘Groceries? What the bleedin’ hell would I want with bleedin’ groceries?’
‘I thought maybe you could take £44.57’s worth of them – £45 even – for your trouble.’
He thought for a second or two, then his eyes widened. ‘Got any cheese? I love cheese. I’m not saying I could eat £45’s worth. Well, I probably could. Maybe £20’s worth, hmm, some Shropshire Blue and a fine Crottin de Chavignol with Jacobs and a bottle of Chablis. I left my lunch at home and I’m on a 14-hour shift. Oh, and how ‘bout a ripe camembert for tommorrow’s breakfast? And I’m right out of washing powder: Fairy Non-Bio. Powder, mind – I don’t get on with those liquitabs.’
I nodded wildly throughout his shopping list, mentally totting up the value, confident that God, my new holy friend, will have divinely stocked all of these items somewhere in my van.
I strode back and opened the back doors to seek out the man’s goods. I was in for a shock. The shelves were crammed to the roof with bread, and I was immediately confronted by at least six large unidentified birds, which all tried to peck me, but were restricted by the stocking masks over their heads. Frustrated, they pulled them off.
‘Swans,’ I recoiled in horror.
‘Grab him,’ shouted one brute wearing an eye patch, who was clearly their leader. There was a flurry of feathers and I felt myself pincered by half a dozen beaks and swan-handled into the van, the doors being pulled shut behind me. The van was a right state. The floor was covered in crumbs, loose feathers and loose droppings. Eye Patch banged on the cabin with his beak and yelled to the front, ‘drive, now!’
From the cabin we heard a flustering of feathers and industrial language before P∃ξ₪₰Җ’s voice came back, ‘I can’t – my feet don’t reach the pedals.’
‘Right.’ Eye Patch hissed at me. ‘Yous is going to drive us to the Swannery – and no monkey business.’
‘But the man…his cheese…his fingers,’ I pleaded.
‘Just drive: or you’ll get your arms broken. Capeesh? ’ The other swans honked in angry support.
I crossed myself, and zoomed off, accelerating as hard as a Bedford Midi can accelerate.
I drove us on through Dorset. One swan is aggressive enough when you are walking along the canal edge holding a cheese and pickle roll, but the thought of being in the back of a van, near Dorchester, with more swans than I had arms to break, I felt I had no choice. I know I should have thought of the threat to human life of approaching six hundred swans in a van full of bread, but selfishness, fear and an aversion to plaster of Paris are great motivators.
We saw the first sign to Abbotsbury, some 5 miles away. Someone had sprayed ‘swans go home’ over it. At 3 miles the furious squabbling and hissing of distant birds could be heard. At 2 miles their fumes were almost overpowering. Then, with a mile to go, we saw yellow lights flashing in the distance.
Still on the passenger seat, P∃ξ₪₰Җ raised her head. ‘What’s that?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said, but as we approached I could make out what looked like a hastily uncoiled barbed wire fence, and a checkpoint preventing ongoing access, protected by a chieftain tank and three Acardoh vans. Some soldiers and three men in delivery uniforms like mine came to the barrier as we edged closer. One of the soldiers pointed a megaphone at us.
‘This is a military exclusion zone,’ the ratchety voice called. ‘Prepare to be stopped and searched.’
We reached the barriers and I stopped the van and held my hands up.
As the militia walked over there came a sound of distant throbbing, like an approaching Chinook helicopter or when you are hiding in the gents at a heavy metal gig. Whatever it was, it was coming our way. Suddenly a piercing siren shrilled out from the checkpoint and between the blasts, over the loud speaker came the warning: ‘Incoming flock, twelve o’clock high’.
I looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was bloody digital, so I had no idea where this flock was coming from. Soldiers ran and jumped behind emplacements of sand bags, and started steering the barrels of ack-ack guns towards what I took to be the general direction of the swannery. Meanwhile the delivery drivers were panicking, running in all directions, flapping their arms and whooping, like, err, whooper swans. They didn’t stand a chance. The first wave of swans flew in low over my van, pulling up at the very last moment to release their noxious green droppings to splatter the poor Acardoh men. The guns accounted for a few of the birds who selflessly, aimed their death dives to knock out a bank of guns in a blaze of honks, feathers and broken arms.
The next wave went for the tank. Their carefully aimed guano soon1 blocked the end of its cannon, causing a shell to explode in the barrel on and blow it to smithereens. A hail of hot metal and swan shit was thrown over us, no doubt ruining the Acardoh logo and the large kumquat motif on the side of the van. I feared they might deduct it from my wages in the same way as when a delivery is reported to be a Snickers bar short. I was wondering if it was safe to put my arms down now, when there came was a series of clunking noises from the roof. ‘What’s that?’ I startled.
‘The cavalry,’ said P∃ξ₪₰Җ.
I doubted this. What would horses be doing on the roof?
I could hear the strained flapping of wings, when my amazement, the ground in front of us started to drop. ‘The world is sinking,’ I yelled, not that I expected a bad-tempered waterfowl could do very much about it.
‘Bird brain,’ said P∃ξ₪₰Җ. ‘We’re flying.’
She was right. I opened the window and looked down, quickly deciding that was not a good idea as the fjords of Dorset passed far below, so I looked up instead. I could see swans in full flight, each gripping on to the roof bars with their huge black feet, carrying us along. There was a strange silence, all apart from the strained honks of the birds and sinuous creak made by every flap of their wings.
‘There it is,’ said P∃ξ₪₰Җ, pointing a wing out of the broken window next to her, I dared to look, as we circled what must have been the Abbey building, and we began our descent towards a lagoon full of swans, all with wings outstretched waving in sync, guiding us in. I feared that on landing, I would be pecked to death in an avian surge for the baked contents of the van.
We straightened out as we made our final approach. I extinguished my cigarette and checked my seat was in its upright position. If the van had been equipped with a lap table, now would have been the appropriate time to stow it.
As I looked through the windscreen, I could see there was only one thing between us and the hundreds of hungry swans looking up, and we were headed straight for it: A bloomin’ great electricity pylon. I wondered why our carriers didn’t adjust course to fly around it. I turned to P∃ξ₪₰Җ, who seemed oblivious to the rapidly approaching tower of electrified steel. It was then I remembered reading in the Observers Book of Bloody Big Birds that with the stupid great black ‘basal knob’ on the top of their beaks, swans can see to the sides, but not straight ahead. The pylon was, to them, invisible. I remembered all the times I’d laughed when I’d seen swans fly into lamp posts. There was nothing I could do. Then it hit me. Or rather we hit it.
The van instantly wedged in a series of high tension cables. P∃ξ₪₰Җ was thrown against the windscreen, and I heard Eye Patch and his cronies hit the back of the cab behind me.
I sensed there were only moments before the whole van exploded. I reached across to the glove compartment and hurriedly grabbed the van’s instruction manual.
‘Shitty buggering piss,’ I shouted as I fumbled through the pages about changing interior bulbs, maintaining recommended tyre pressures and the operation of the vanity mirror behind the passenger sun visor. Then, as sparks began to leap from the snapping cables as the pylon started to sway, I found it.
‘I’m ducking out of this mess, my feathered friend,’ I shouted to P∃ξ₪₰Җ as she started to rouse, I crossed myself and pressed the button on the dash marked “ejector seat”.’
‘You’ll never make it,’ P∃ξ₪₰Җ laughed. ‘We’re too low. Your chute will never open in time: You’re toast, mate.’
‘Oh, contraire,’ I yelled as there was a swoosh, and instantly the rapidly discharged chair and I were flying up, up through cold air. I hadn’t time to think whether she had a point about our height relative to the not-so-terribly-far-away ground.
The chute opened as the pylon blew-up in a massive fire ball, sending millions of crumbs of utterly inedible burning toast over the swans below. And there’s nothing worse than burned toast.
The blast sent the remains of the pylon reeling to forty- five degrees, where it snagged one of the lines of my parachute. The ejector seat came to a jerking but safe halt, three metres from the ground, just out of pecking distance from the incensed swans below.
Acardoh managed to claim all the money lost from the heist as the courts refused Mothers Pride’s argument that the application of 50,000 volts did not invalidate their guarantee to replace any loaf that “failed to meet with expectations”. I handed in my notice as a delivery driver to do the work of God somewhere safer, like a Baltic Sea oil rig, but I ended up working at that petrol station, in case he chose to speak to me again. He didn’t, not even when I paid back the £44.57 from my first pay packet. It’s what God would have wanted. After all, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives” – Psalm 37:21. There are two things you can take from this story: The next time you see a swan, you will know why it is so pigging angry, and if you ever make an on-line order from Acardoh, it will not be delivered by Colin in the Kumquat van.