Latchkey kid. Sent home from school early, but he's forgotten his latchkey and there's nobody home. Weak sun falls on the concrete walkways, bleaches the smell of piss from dank stairwells, throws barred shadows on the peeling paint of his green front door, all locked up. The long afternoon stretches itself emptily out in front of him. He lifts the metal flap of the letterbox, and peers through at a dim rectangle of home. If he pushes his face into the letterbox really hard, he can just see a corner of the lumpy brown sofa where he left the book he was reading last night, but there's no chance of getting at it: too far away. He shrugs to himself - a curiously adult, embittered shrug - rubs out the ridges the letterbox made on his face with a thumb, and falls to chewing the thumb for a while, looking up and down the corridor. No signs of life. Over the wall, seven stories down, a couple of dealers share a smoke in the sun, sat on the rusty bonnet of a burnt-out car. One of them he recognises: his uncle. He doesn't want to talk to him. He slips down the stairs and out the back, through the estate down to the railway bridge, the old warehouses, and the canal.
It's quiet down here: the water seems to absorb all the traffic noise. Even trains going past, so loud at night from his bedroom, are just a faint rumble. His mum says it's something to do with echoes. He wonders where she is, hopes she's all right. Hopes she hasn't met up with her brother, his uncle. He walks down to the first lock, imagines a boat coming through. He saw a tv program at school on the narrowboats, once. Steam-drawn, horse-drawn. He likes animals, loves horses, has never seen one in real life. The only animals down here now are the rats, but he doesn't mind the rats, who seem to do no harm. Soft brown fur, shiny black eyes, tiny human-looking hands, they dart about from shadow to shadow on the old tug moored on the opposite bank of the canal, where half a ton of rubbish from the warehouses and offices has been dumped. It spills over into the brown water and floats by, partly submerged: Sainsbury's carrier bags, rapidly sinking coke cans, folded pizza boxes slowly unfolding in the water like weird blooms, sprouting slimy dark red buds in the shape of uneaten pizza slices. He remembers other snatches of tv, somewhere abroad: a brown river where the dead are thrown, with scarlet flowers. He finds himself looking, half scared, half-excited, for a body. And he finds one, but it is not what he expected.
Something white floating in the water up by the bridge. At first it looks like another Sainsbury's bag, but when he gets closer he sees the white spread of wings trailing. A bird. Duck? Goose? No, it's a swan. A swan, down here. It floats upside down, wings adrift, the long neck curved in a limp U, tiny head at one end with black eyes gleaming. Dead, or only hurt? He thinks he sees a wing move, runs to the water's edge and before he knows it he's tugging at the white shape, trying to pull it out. The little head flops forlornly and the great wings spread, impossibly beautiful, great feathers and muscles (imagine it flying! something this size, which can glide in the air!). It's heavy, so heavy, and the ribs of feathers feel like wire cables under his hands. He puts his whole weight into the tugging, pleading under his breath with it - please be alive please be alive - but when he finally gets it onto the towpath it's pretty obvious that the swan is dead. The head falls limply and the eyes, at close range, are dull and filmy. The boy straightens up, brushes damp feathers from his hands and stares at a thin trail of blood the colour of soy sauce dripping from a black hole in the swan's white back. Air rifle. In his imagination he hears the shot and the laughter. His eyes prickle with tears: he swallows down the hard lump in his throat and feels a sudden, murderous rage.
"Bastards," says a fruity Scottish voice behind him. It is so exactly what he is thinking that the boy whirls round, alarmed, but it is only a tramp, staring down at the swan. He has a bushy black beard with streaks of grey and an awesome smell of beer hanging round him, but he looks harmless enough.
"Lunacy," says the tramp. "To kill such an exquisite creature." He stares at the swan for a moment, and then spits noisily on the ground. "Aye lad, there's some scum in this world."
The accent and some of the words are difficult for the boy to understand, but he gets that the tramp is sorry the swan is dead, and nods his agreement. The tramp pats him gently on the shoulder, wanders down the towpath a little and rummages in the weedy strip of earth along the wall. The boy wonders what he's doing - looking for a hidden stash of beer, maybe? - but after a moment the tramp says: "Ah, here we are," holds up a muddy, plaster-encrusted bricklayer's trowel, and gives the boy a complicitous grin.
"Now," he says, "we can bury him."
He finds a suitable patch of dirt behind a scrubby tree, kneels down and zealously applies himself to the trowel. The boy watches, delighted, and within a few minutes the tramp has made a shallow grave of about the right size. He pulls a carrier bag from his pocket, wraps it round the dead swan and places the heavy dripping body carefully in the grave.
"You fill it in," he says, handing the boy the trowel. As the boy complies the tramp is fiddling deftly with two sticks, a sharp knife and some string, and when the grave is finished he sits a neat cross on top.
"There," says the tramp.
They stand side by side, admiring their work. The boy, not knowing what to say, mumbles: "You're a good gravedigger," and the tramp, who is not without a sense of irony, accepts the backhanded compliment gracefully, and gives a little bow.
"You're welcome, lad," he says. "Be seeing you, now," and he hands the boy a long white feather, as a souvenir. The boy skips off down the towpath with the feather in his hand: the tramp smiles to himself, watches him out of sight. The towpath is now deserted. Behind the cover of the small tree the tramp quickly and skilfully disinters the swan, removes its extremities with his sharp little knife, guts it, plucks it, and wraps the carcass in his coat. Nice and fresh: must have been shot last night. He's enjoyed a duck or two in his time, but never a swan. No sense in wasting it. He restores the little grave in case the child comes back, picks up his bundle and sets off down the towpath, heading for home, a cooking fire, and a kingly feast.