The Swan (and how to end your short story)

In Fiction, Writing on April 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm
Cygnus olor Deutsch: Höckerschwan am Rathausma...

A swan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stumbled across a story of mine this afternoon, one I wrote a while back, and decided to post it — not just because I like it (it’s about a man who wants to eat a swan, not to spoil it), but because it raised a couple general questions for me when it comes to writing.

First, and the more minor question here: how careful do you have to be when writing a dialect which you don’t speak yourself? The characters in this story are British, and use British words and phrases. On the one hand, it could make your story sound unique and authentic if you get it right, but if you get it wrong, it may sound like you’re writing caricatures rather than real people. I still haven’t quite decided where I landed in this story.

The second, and bigger, question this story raised for me: how open are you allowed to leave your endings? I think it’s fair to say you have a little more flexibility with a short story, where the goals of the piece are a little different than they are in a piece of longer writing, but that still doesn’t exactly settle the issue for me. I don’t want to give anything away before you get a chance to read the story, though, so give it a read first and then we’ll keep going:

The Swan

His hand looked out of place, there in the filthy engine compartment.  It was fine, white, and perfectly manicured with tidy cuticles; it held no spanner and would have proven incapable of wielding one if it had.  All the same, he had delved into that greasy chasm, walking his fingertips over the wires and caps and cylinders until they settled upon their goal – and with a gentle movement, as though flipping through a stack of papers, he switched on the timer. A series of red numbers flickered alight.

In the car outside Harrod’s, there were two hours on the clock.

*             *             *

“Ah, Mr. Chamberlain: there you are.”

The porter ran out a short distance from his post as Mr. Chamberlain rounded the corner toward his Knightsbridge office.

“Yes, yes – just out for a little walk.”  He dabbed a bit of something from his finger with a white handkerchief, which he tucked neatly in his breast pocket.  “Has the young Mr. Winters arrived?

“Yes, sir.  Shall I have him wait in your office?”

“No.  Bring him out here; we’ll walk together.”

The thought of being confined to the office with some bright-eyed pedant from Surrey was nauseating.  The elder Mr. Winters, a rather presumptuous friend of Mr. Chamberlain’s, had asked if his son Devon might be allowed to follow him during his day’s work, in order to become better acquainted with the workings of his position.  Mr. Chamberlain had tried to explain to Mr. Winters that his was not the average post within Her Majesty’s government, but to no effect.  So, he thought, let the little bastard come and see how it is with the world — Mr. Chamberlain was all too willing to show him that.

Soon a gangly young man in a black suit came out of the building, advancing with an awkward jump in his stride. Mr. Chamberlain thought he looked very much like a cricket.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mr. Chamberlain; my father told me you would be most willing to advise me.”

“Not at all. I’m delighted you take an interest in my work.”  The two shook hands.  “And please, call me Graham; we don’t need anything so formal as ‘Mr. Chamberlain,’ do we?”  He indicated the sidewalk with a friendly gesture.  “I thought we’d walk to the park, and you could ask me what you’d like to know.”

The two came up into the park through a pedestrian subway, slowly padding a route toward Speaker’s Corner.  As usual, there was some sort of demonstration underway:  an Arab man stood atop a wooden crate and spoke with impassioned eloquence.

“The brutality of the government against its citizens must come to an end!”  There was sporadic applause and shouts from the crowd.  “Power of any kind is violence, friends:  the Queen’s scepter is no more than a gilded club, a symbol of domination over the common people.”  Cries of encouragement rose up from the audience, the beginnings of frenzied anger.  A small group to the side of the speaker set alight a banner with the word “oppression” written upon it, which curled in flame and fluttered to the ground.

Through the demonstration Mr. Chamberlain remained silent and attentive, a quiet and polite observer.  The young Mr. Winters, on the other hand — Devon — shuffled about and seemed uncomfortable there at the fringe of this hostility.  He shook his head in disapproval, but so imperceptibly that only Mr. Chambers, standing directly beside him, could notice.  When they continued to walk and had made it out of earshot, Devon sputtered, suddenly brave with indignation.

“It’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it?  That they can be so ungrateful — when we welcome them here, like strangers into our homes.”  He snorted and looked to Mr. Chamberlain for concurrence.  But Mr. Chamberlain simply walked ahead and left the little cricket to follow behind.

“Anyway, Mr. Chamberlain – or Graham I mean – what is it exactly that you do for the government?  Do you have a title?”  He rang the last word like a bell, at which Mr. Chamberlain almost couldn’t wait to reveal the truth of his employment.  But he resisted.

“I’ll be able to show you directly in a moment, but tell me: what hopes do you have for yourself?  Hope to be P.M. someday, maybe?”  He colored the title with a disdain to match Devon’s reverence.

“Well, of course, who doesn’t?  But then again, the main thing is that I get a chance to serve my government, and do something right for its people, isn’t it?”  He sounded like a job applicant.  “But I’ll never serve the likes of people that have no gratitude for what we’ve done for them.”

After a period of silent ambling along paths through the trees, they finally arrived at the edge of the Serpentine.  Roller-bladers and joggers went about the crowded perimeter.  Geese and rowboats shared the water, paddling aimlessly this way and that.  A large swan waddled up dumbly from the edge of the water to see them more closely.

“Ah, you see Devon, this is what I do”.

“What, you walk by the lake?”

“No, no.  This.”  He indicated the swan, which swiveled its head at the sudden movement.

“Swans?”  There was a slight panic in Devon’s voice, and it was clear he thought his father had sent him to work with a crazy old codger.  “I don’t understand, Mr. Chamberlain.”

“I am the Royal Swan-Master.” He laughed.  “If you’re looking for a title there it is.  I oversee the ownership of all the swans of the Kingdom, so that when some poor beggar or Everyman comes along and lays claim to a swan, I can slap his little hand away and say ‘Halt now.  That there is the property of her majesty the Queen, or Earl such-and-such of such-and-such a place’.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.  The sole purpose of my office is to oversee and protect the ancient right of royalty and nobles to ownership of these birds.”  Mr. Chamberlain put his hands in his pocket and shook his head, grumbling.  “Ridiculous, really.”

“Do many people want swans?”  Devon sat on a bench nearby, though Mr. Chamberlain remained standing and watched the swan.

“No, of course not, it’s a bleedin’ bird isn’t it?  But it’s not about whether they want one: it’s the principle of the thing,” Mr. Chamberlain nodded officially and crossed his arms, acknowledging the cliché.

“Well,” began Devon, and Mr. Chamberlain hoped that he was about to attempt a justification of the ludicrous arrangement.  “Well, I suppose tradition is important – it’s what our country is built upon, and if tradition says the birds belong to the Queen, well, it’s important to protect that tradition.  After all, it’s a symbol of sovereignty isn’t it?”

Mr. Chamberlain chuckled and bent over the swan, looking into its onyx eye, daring it to shuffle away on its pale blue feet.

“Oh they’re majestic creatures, to be sure.  But wouldn’t you like to have a taste?”


“Aren’t you curious, Devon?  Sure, no one wants one padding around on the back lawn, but why shouldn’t you be allowed a taste?  Won’t you be furious, when you’re the P.M. in your big office with your private car, power over all the world, and you’re still not allowed?”

Devon didn’t speak, but only glanced at his watch.  In a gentle motion, Mr. Chamberlain reached toward the bird, holding his hand menacingly above the perfect white tufts of its head.  He wanted to strike, to destroy it.  He, for one, had always wanted to taste, had always balked at the insignificance of his job and the absurd, arbitrary privileges some had over others.  For a long time he had been the instrument of the institutions that upheld that absurdity.  Now perhaps he could be the instrument of its downfall.  He pulled his fist back in preparation, at which Devon rose from the bench.

“Mr. Chamberlain?”

“Please, call me Graham.”  Mr. Chamberlain thrust his fist forward stopping himself just in time to avoid collision.  The swan, startled, flared open its wings and stood to its full height.

“Yah! Yah!  Get out of here your ruddy bird,” Mr. Chamberlain shouted, chasing the bird back toward the lake.  Everyone in the area had stopped what they were doing and were now staring in his direction in disbelief.

“What?”  He bellowed.  But the tension and silence was broken by the ripping grumble of a distant explosion.  At exactly 2:25, two hours after it had been set during the lunch break, the bomb had gone off, carving out the back third of the building.  Incredibly, and disappointingly for the culprit, though several high-level government officials were inside at the time, there were only a few serious injuries, and no fatalities.

*             *             *

Two weeks later, Mr. Chamberlain was sitting at his desk watching Mohammed al Fayed on television giving a press release, when a receptionist stuck her head into the room.

“Mr. Chamberlain?  Some policemen here to see you.”

“What do they want?”

“They want to ask you about young Mr. Winters.  Apparently he’s been arrested in connection with the bombing.”


It’s clear to me what this story is about, even if it’s a complicated subject, and even clearer who did what and why — but I’m not sure that it’s so obvious to anyone else who reads it. Originally, in fact, the short explanatory section at the end didn’t exist, and the story simply ended with the explosion.

My question, then, is this: As a reader, are you frustrated by open-ended or vague endings? Or do you find them more thought-provoking than concrete endings? And writers: What strategies do you use to make your endings both powerful and satisfying to read?

(P.S. I told you my blog would rarely be about different kinds of birds. Now I’ve delivered on that promise.)

  1. […] now my stories have featured crows, grackles, pigeons, swans and seagulls. As you can tell, I’m quite […]

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