I can still see the swans that last night, their wings unfolding, beating, huge; white necks horizontal, black webs pushing against the water as they fought upwards into the air. The moon fierce above them in a clear sky, throwing its unearthly light on the splash as a wing-tip caught the water, on the four wakes rippling outwards. I don’t expect to see them again.

It was late in May when Morwen moved into the flat over the landing. It’s been let furnished since the Hendersons left for London. I was glad when they went. The effort involved in smiling and sounding confident each time Diana asked how I was managing had become wearing. Her tone of solicitude and concern was always belied by that smug look behind her eyes: her husband would never walk out on her for a younger model. Archie knew she was faking it; dogs do.

Morwen was a nice change. She followed on a series of tourist weekend lets, and at first when I saw her on the landing that Saturday I thought she was just another. Then I noticed the amount of supermarket shopping she had set down at her door. Much more than a weekend’s worth for one person.

She was Welsh, of course, with a name like that. A sweet little thing, looked very Welsh too with all that long dark hair flowing over her shoulders and a pale freckled skin. Politely refused my offer of a cup of coffee, and evaded my questions about how long she was staying and whether she was on holiday or not. Archie seemed to like her though so I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She asked one very strange question
in that melodious Welsh accent:

‘Do you happen to know if there is a black lake in these parts?’

She was clearly new to Cheshire or she would have known that there are meres everywhere in this area, flat as it is. But black?

‘Lindow Mere is the nearest lake,’ I told her.

‘Lindow,’ she repeated, but with that odd Welsh ‘thll’ sound on the front, and almost splitting it into two words. ‘Yes, that’s the black lake. That’s what it means in Welsh.’ There was an odd tone in her voice. Well, I’d never realised the Welsh got this far and ‘Fancy that!’ seemed the only polite response.

I walk Archie late. At night it’s harder to deal with the images, the film I can’t turn off. Henry’s supercilious smile when he told me he was leaving; the blonde hair and elegant legs of his former secretary; the blood pouring out as I stabbed them both again and again. The last imaginary, but as vivid as the real images. Walking in the dark with Archie makes me feel better.

Perhaps it was the mention of Lindow that took us down to the mere that evening. The long May twilight had only just become night, and the warm air was full of the scent of leaves and flowers and the tingle of pollen. A full moon illuminated sky and land.

The air was calm around the mere, but high up clouds were moving across the sky with a stately inevitability. Archie investigated all kinds of fascinating smells, but he stayed close. He always does.

The voices came from behind a stand of rhododendron bushes blocking my view of the mere. I was glad Archie was there. The chances of encountering a mad axe murderer may be low, but they are not infinitesimal. More than one male voice, and a single female voice, intense and emotional. They carried on the night air but not quite clearly enough for me to make out what they were saying.

I would have turned back but Archie sniffed the air and darted forward with a short bark. ‘Come back,’ I cried, without thinking. A cloud crossed the moon and it was suddenly dark. The air quivered, as if a string had been plucked and the whole mere and its surroundings had vibrated in sympathy. Or maybe it was inside me, maybe I was having a stroke. I stopped, gripped by fear. ‘Archie,’ I called, weakly.

The moment passed. Archie was beside me, his cool nose pushing at my hand. I bent and grasped his shoulders, wanting to feel the warmth and solidity of his body. The night was silent but for the noise of distant traffic and when I finally made myself walk to the mere edge I saw nobody. The mere was indeed black under the night sky.

Out in the middle I thought I saw pale shadows on the water. Swans? At night? Next day I was ashamed of my foolishness. The day after that it seemed like a dream.

I saw Morwen more than once over the next few weeks. ‘Did you visit Lindow?’ I asked her the next time we met.

She looked at me sharply for a moment, before she smiled pleasantly. ‘Yes, it’s a good place to walk isn’t it?’ Then she asked me another strange question.

‘I was looking a for a place where there are a lot of nettles growing. Do you know of one?’

I bit back my immediate impulse to ask ‘Why?’ If you ask questions like that you get lies back. As with Henry. I would find out why some other way. As with Henry. I told her where huge banks of nettles grew on Lindow Common. I’d watched the hook-edged leaves emerge from the ground over the previous month until the plants stood a malevolent foot high in vivid spring green. Maybe she wanted to make nettle soup – was that a Welsh speciality? She was welcome to them. When Archie and I next walked on the common, our route took us past the nettles. There were substantial gaps where nettles had been growing. Enough for gallons of nettle soup.

A week or so later I was in the library, Archie tied to the railing outside looking patient. He’s used to our visits. I take out four books each week and when the film images keep me awake, I read. Historical romances, airport sagas; contempt for the sentimentality of their heroines warms me a little. This time I decided to brave the complexities of the library internet terminal too.

I typed in ‘uses of nettles’ and got 1,560,000 search results. Still, many fewer than the four million if you type in ‘poisons’. One of the early entries was for a bizarre-looking book called ‘50 uses of stinging nettles’. Nettle soup was the least of it
according to the contents page: treatment for arthritis, nettle beer, nettle linen, a cure for nosebleeds and headaches, protecting beehives. Was Morwen brewing beer?

None of these uses of nettles seemed very likely. Though if nettles really do ‘consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moisture of winter has left behind’ as another entry said, then maybe I should try them too.

The new telephone directories arrived and were left at the bottom of our block. I saw a chance to find out more and knocked on Morwen’s door with her directory in my hand. ‘Yes?’ she said shortly, opening the door. And then ‘Oh,’ in a not-very-pleased tone. It didn’t sound as if she would invite me in. I explained about the directory and held it out while trying to look past her into the flat. There was a strong smell of wet vegetation coming from somewhere inside. I noticed a small pile of books in library jackets piled on the hall table. I tried to decode the title of the one on top. I thought it said ‘Creative Weaving’.

Perhaps I became a little too preoccupied with the problem. I really had to know what Morwen was up to. Her defensive manner had convinced me that there was something she was trying to keep secret. I’m not a stalker, in spite of Henry’s unbalanced assertions. Without determination and resolve I would never have uncovered his treachery. In the same way, discretely following Morwen seemed the only way of finding out more.

June had long since arrived and the weather was glorious. My flat faces the front and I left the living room windows open to let in air. I would hear if Morwen went out and I could watch which way she went before putting the lead on Archie and following her. However in a week she only went out twice. The first time was to buy some food at the supermarket, and the second time she went over to Lindow Common. I watched from a distance as she cut more nettles and packed them into four large carrier bags. I learned nothing definite.

The flats have a common garden out the back maintained through the annual service charge, but I had taken over a small plot in which to grow things I liked. I planted cuttings from my old garden, lost when Henry forced the sale of the house. In that hot midsummer weather I was watering every day. I’d go out in the early evening when the sun went down behind the limes and beeches left over from whatever large house stood here before the flats. Archie would lie in the shade and watch me.

I hadn’t realised Morwen had come into the garden until Archie gave a little bark and wagged his tail. I turned just in time to see her almost throw herself down on the garden seat near the back door. Her long hair fell over her face as she slumped forwards but it looked as if she was crying. Of course my curiosity overcame my embarrassment and I walked back to the door, carrying my empty watering can. It really did need filling.

She shrank into herself as she heard me, clearly hoping I wouldn’t talk to her.

‘Has something happened?’ I asked, trying to keep my voice on the concerned side of neutral. ‘Can I help at all?’

She flung her head up and I could see she was distraught. Crying is so bad for the complexion.

‘No, you can’t help Mrs BusyBody. Nobody can help. It’s too late, it’s too late. I’ve near on killed myself—’ she flung her hands out, red and marked with multiple nettle stings, ‘and I can’t do it. It’s midsummer today and I can’t do it. It was the only chance.’

I was taken aback. Quite unreasonable that a polite offer to help should be thrown back at me like that. But what was too late? While I stood lost for words, Archie moved close and nosed against her knee, whining softly. Maybe I should have put my arms around her. It’s said to help. But before I could decide she got up and fled back into the flats, her front door banging shut a minute later.

It was Archie again who alerted me just before she went out later. He’d been lying by my front door as if waiting. He got up quickly and looked at me and then at the door. A minute later I heard her door open – it has a slight squeak on the hinge. A dilemma. It was dark; how could I go out without Archie? But if I took him, it seemed all too likely he’d betray my presence. I grasped his collar and pulled him into the sitting room. He resisted, tail down, looking at me reproachfully. But there was no alternative. How else could I find out what was too late? I shut the sitting room door, trying not to hear him whine.

Following at a distance I was not surprised to find she was heading for the mere. She had a carrier bag, just the one. The moon was full again, so it was a whole month since I’d heard the voices there. One of them I’d thought was hers.

Close to the mere I turned from the main path towards a small clump of willows. In daylight this had looked like a good place to see the part of the bank where the voices had come from without being seen. I stood up against a trunk. There! I could see her clearly in the bright moonlight on the bank. She raised both arms and threw her head back to the moon. It was almost a chant, but the words were indistinct. Oh – Welsh.

From over the silver track of the moon reflected across the mere, three swans flew down, low, webbed feet cupped forwards to slow them as they hit the water. As they did, a quiver in the air, as if a string had been plucked and the whole mere and its surroundings had vibrated in sympathy. I clung to the willow trunk, my eyes shutting of themselves. When I opened them the swans had vanished and three men stood on the bank. Men? Ghosts. They looked silvery, and only half solid.

Morwen cried out, but it was Welsh again. From the tone though it might have been just what she’d said in the garden. The silvery men replied, at first all at once, and then just the one in the middle. Morwen bent to the carrier bag at her feet. She pulled something out. Something white – a shirt or smock. At once I knew it was woven of nettles. She held it out to the silvery men, tears streaming down her face. Three ghosts and the full moon of midsummer, but only one nettle shirt. She was indeed too late.

Which ghost would the shirt go to? The silvery men exchanged long glances. Then as one they stepped back towards the water. Morwen shrieked.
The middle ghost raised his hands to the moon. Then he suddenly stopped. His hands fell. He strode forwards. He took the shirt from Morwen’s hands. And threw it over Morwen’s head.

The world tipped. The sky was the mere, the mere was the sky, then back again. The tree trunk shook under my hands. Silver light half-blinded me; a deep chord sung in my ears.

Not three but four swans, lifting across the silver track of the moon in the mere. Their wings unfolding, beating, huge; white necks horizontal, black webs pushing against the water as they fought upwards into the air. As they lifted into the fierce moonlight they dissolved and were gone. I don’t expect to see them again.

© Ruth Aylett 2009