The Disillusionment of Mermaids
The sun presses warm to the barnacle of my morning. I look out to sea, longing for glimpses of tails or heads breaching the surface, but see only choppy water. I sigh. Sometimes I want rainbows to ignite in my loafers; this probably won't happen today.
Young Joe McFennan is trudging towards me on the beach, with that battered plastic lobster he clutches sometimes. He looks up at me. 'The mermaids,' he says. 'Have you seen them cavort yet in the crucible of the sea?'
'Not this year,' I say.
'But they always come in May.' He gazes out to sea, hands on hips.
'Let it be soon,' I say. 'Soon the mermaids, soon the imaginal ride.'
He examines my face. 'You look like you need to dig.' He points at a new wooden sign planted nearby in the sand, and ambles off.
The sign says: 'Please Dig Here'. I crouch down carefully, ensuring I don't aggravate the arthritis in my spine. With cupped fingers, I scoop out sand, making a hole. Deep down is there a column inscribed with the arcane murmurs of Tara when we first met? I dig and dig, like I'm searching for seahorses in a silent box.
I stop, puffing out a frustrated breath. Sand. Only sand.
While brushing the sand off my hands, I glance up. Just below the cliff top are caves accessible via a steep staircase; graffiti has been written in them by local bards high on the Yellow Pages. Sometimes I visit the caves, but don't fancy that staircase today. And the graffiti says nothing I don't know already: commercial sonnets, administrator haikus, telephone numbers of relationship counsellors.
I continue along the beach, which reminds me of Tara when we got together eight years ago, when I'd recently moved up from the south. We took long walks here, talking about the overtures of whales, laughing about how seals curtsey to clouds. Now she takes Moonie out for a walk in the woods early morning, then is usually busy in her office until late afternoon. I come here alone if I want a constitutional.
I head to the top of the beach, where there are sheds, boats, fishing nets, old buoys. I pass the tourist shack that sells gifts for the mermaids and paraphernalia about them – books on their myths and legends, hand-held mirrors, chocolates and marshmallows in water-tight bags, hair extensions, photographs of the mermaids on the rocks near Silentine End. In front a sign says: 'Boat Trips to Spot Mermaids with Local Story-teller Jo Mersea, 2pm Saturdays. Sightings/Singing Not Guaranteed.'
I've heard Jo on local radio, telling stories of mermaids who shape-shift into adolescent girls and seduce local lads with their singing. Tara dismisses the stories. 'You're such a fantasist. Why do you still bother with the mermaids, especially at our age?'
Putting her words out of my mind, I walk down towards the shoreline, the crisp wind a confessional on my face. Up above, gulls wheel in wide circles; cirrus clouds drift the cerulean sky.
On the sand, Meg Brewis is lying on a tartan blanket, her eyes shut against the warm sun. She opens her lids.
'Dreaming of the mermaids?' I ask.
'No, of long corridors where fireflies stutter.'
'Oh,' I say.
'The mermaids.' She makes a dismissive sound, tch.
At the end of the beach, I take the narrow path that leads round the rocky headland. Clusters of pink Thrift dot the track. After about fifteen minutes, as I round a bend, I stop abruptly. Startle the starfish! Two mermaids are on the rocks about five metres away, their long, muscular tails stretched in front of them like premonitions of blue-green. It's very rare to see them this close up on land; they usually avoid places people visit. The older, plump one has long greying hair; the younger, thinner one with matted auburn hair, has her arms folded and a tail that slaps at the rock irritably. I avoid looking at their naked breasts. My heart flips a Catherine wheel.
'Greetings to you, mermaids, and to the breath of your indelible song,' I say.
They shoot each other a glance. The younger mermaid's mouth tightens. 'Why do you lot talk so weirdly?' There's an Irish lilt to her voice.
'Because...' I glance down. 'I'm afraid I've got no mermaid snacks.'
'I need antibiotics not snacks,' says the older one, scratching at her tail and grimacing. 'A cut's infected.'
'I'm sorry.' My palms sweat; seeing the mermaids has set my hummingbird tingling. 'Will you be singing soon, pledging illumination to the sky?'
The younger one picks at a scab on her arm. 'Doubt it.'
'Our singing's overrated,' says the other.
'I've heard recordings. Your singing's a tuning fork of stars,' I say.
The young one rolls her eyes. 'My singing's rubbish.'
'It really is.' Pressing her hands over her ears, the older mermaid makes a melodramatic pained face. 'Fish, seals, crabs – all dash for cover when she sings.'
I chuckle – she's funny.
Tara, who's lived here over fifty years, has told me again and again that mermaids are drip-dried in the mundane. Why was I reluctant to believe her? I hover, not sure whether to speak again.
'You humans don't half gawp.' The younger one's expression is sour.
'You'd like me to go?' I ask.
I don't want to, but return the way I came along the pathway. As I stroll, sediment settles on my mental outcrop, the crag of my fantasy eroded. Is it so bad that mermaids aren't what I want them to be? That they simply are what they are?
Back on the beach, I text Tara: 'Just seen two mermaids close up.'
'Woopee,' comes the sarcastic reply. 'Did they sing to you?' she adds.
'Are you disillusioned ;)?' she texts.
'Yes. One made me laugh, though.'
'Isn't that as good as it gets: disillusionment but with some humour?'
It's a pointed statement; she's got a point.
'Fancy lunch at The Whalebone? Just finished my latest chapter,' she texts.
The cat-flap of my step opens up. She's in a good mood for a change. We'll eat skate, drink wine and chat like we still can sometimes. 'Great,' I text. With a quiet smile, I head back to my car, the humdrum illumination of the familiar beckoning.
Katy Wimhurst studied social anthropology before doing a PhD on Mexican Surrealism. She has also worked in publishing. She has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Puritan, The Guardian, Black Pear Press, Fabula Press, To Hull and Back Anthology, Serendipity, and Breath and Shadow. She won the Early Works Short Story Prize 2017 and the Tate Short Story Competition TH2058. Her story "At Hiverblue Lake" appeared in Issue #52 of The Cafe Irreal and "Crows and Sorrows" in Issue #57.