THE MERMAID

 

It wasn’t possible. Things like that just didn’t happen in a place like this. Not with the sun shining so brightly on the sparkling blue waters of the bay, the waving palm trees, the neat green lawns and colourful flowerbeds of Victoria Gardens along the promenade.

     Besides, he didn’t believe in all that weird stuff. It was just for old ladies in saggy dresses, and fey girls who would tell you all about your star-sign, as if you were interested.

     She had just been a girl. A strikingly pretty one, with long dark hair, flirting with him as she swam just out of reach. When had he ever minded about a pretty girl flirting with him?

     He had called out, asked her name, but she had just shaken her head and smiled. And then she had dived under the water. It had been a trick of the light, nothing more - the sun in his eyes - that had made it look as if a fish tail had broken the surface as she had disappeared.

 

With an impatient grunt he turned from the window. He had work to do – he couldn’t spend all morning standing here, staring out at the bay. It was only his second week as Assistant Hotel Manager – he wanted to impress the bosses. He had every intention of making Manager by the time he was thirty.

     Striding across to his desk he sat down and booted up the computer. One of the most tedious jobs of an assistant manager was arranging the staff shift patterns. No matter how carefully he did it, there would be queries, complaints.

     'But I always have Wednesday afternoons off.' 'Tom, sorry to bother you, but I need to take next Friday. Kid’s sports-day – I promised not to miss it.'

     A light breeze stirred the papers on his desk – odd, he didn’t remember opening the window. The noise of the traffic along the road below drifted up to him, the sounds of children laughing and squealing as they played on the beach on the far side of the gardens.

     And that tune again. It had been playing yesterday, as he had got ready for his swim. Someone must have had a radio. He hadn’t caught the words, but the tune was nice – haunting, like the notes of a tenor saxe.

     He had swum out a bit too far yesterday. He hadn’t realised until the girl had disappeared, but when he had looked around he had been surprised to see just how far he was from the shore.

     Not that it mattered. He was young and fit, a strong swimmer. Even so, he had been relieved to feel the sand beneath his feet again.

 

Working a split shift meant he had the whole afternoon off. He had intended to take a stroll up the main street, look in the shops – he wanted to buy a couple of new shirts.

    But he could do that any time – it would be a shame to waste such a sunny day. Even here in Devon you couldn’t be sure of how many of them you were going to get.

     The tide was out, the beach crowded. Families picnicking out of cool-boxes, sunbathers spread out on their beach-towels, baking slowly to every shade from lobster red to chestnut brown. Children racing around excitedly, splashing in the shallow water – the sea was so tranquil here in the bay, perfectly safe.

     Tom stripped off his clothes and left them in a neat pile beside the sea-wall. A woman in a deckchair, reading a book, glanced over and nodded – she would keep an eye on them for him.

     He walked down to the water’s edge, breathing in the fresh sea air laced with the sharp tang of seaweed drying in the sun. Tiny wavelets were rippling in, white foam unzipping along their length as they reached the damp sand.

     The water was warm. He swam lazily, enjoying the stretch and pull of his muscles – a few weeks of this and he would have built up a very impressive body. And it was a much pleasanter way of doing it than slogging away in the hotel’s gym.

     It had been a good move, coming down here. He enjoyed his job. The pay was pretty good for the hospitality industry, and as Assistant Manager he had one of the better rooms on the staff floor in the hotel’s attic. After the cold grey streets of Middlesbrough this place was paradise.

     That song was playing again, drifting out from a radio somewhere back on the shore. He still couldn’t catch the words, but the haunting melody seemed like something he had heard years ago.

     And there she was, just a little way ahead of him, laughing back at him over her shoulder, her long black hair drifting on the water behind her.

     “Hello,” he called.

     No reply.

     “What’s your name?”

     She just laughed, those lovely almond-shaped green eyes sparkling beneath their fringe of thick, dark, silky lashes.

     “Please - I just want to know your name. You’re very pretty.”

     She had turned to swim on her back, maybe five feet in front of him, and… He couldn’t quite see, with her hair streaming down over her body, but… He could swear she wasn’t wearing a bikini top.

     Her hands were stretched out towards him, beckoning him. And that song was running through his head – almost as if she was singing it. A voice so sweet and haunting it sounded… out of this world.

     He tried to swim faster, to catch up to her – but without any apparent effort she remained always just out of reach. His muscles were beginning to ache slightly, and with a small stab of surprise he realised that the sea was getting choppier.

     He’d swum out well past the end of the pier, and that was the white façade of the Grand Hotel up on the cliff. He must be more than a thousand yards from the beach. Crazy.

     He turned to suggest to the girl that they should go back. But she just laughed, and waved, and was gone - just like yesterday. And again that flash of something iridescent in the sunshine, a hint of tail-fluke…

     No – mermaids didn’t exist. He was imagining things – he’d been out in the sun for too long, had tired himself out swimming so far. He’d heard of seals frolicking in the harbour, and someone had told him that a basking shark had been seen in the bay a few weeks ago.

     But mermaids? No way.

     The beach looked an awfully long way away, but the cliffs were no closer. He was right out in the middle of the bay, on his own. Suddenly he felt a little niggle of alarm. It had been difficult swimming back yesterday, and that had been maybe half the distance. And he was already tired.

     What had possessed him, swimming after that stupid girl? If she wanted to play games, he wanted nothing to do with her. He didn’t need that. There were plenty of pretty girls around – a couple of the chambermaids had already shown an interest, and one of the barmaids.

     For a few moments he rested, floating on his back, and then with an effort of will he began the long swim back to the shore. He saw no more of the girl. Wherever she had gone, she had gone.

 

The late shift finished at midnight. It hadn’t been a particularly busy evening – a breakage in the kitchen which had required some soothing of ruffled feathers, a few drunks returning from an evening out. Nothing he couldn’t handle.

     He was grateful for that, still tired from his long swim this afternoon. He’d take that as a warning not to swim so far out again. It had been stupid.

     In Reception the night porter was locking the front doors.

     “All quiet, Bob?”

     “Quiet enough. Just a few late-comers not home yet. And no doubt they’ll grumble at the inconvenience of having to ring the bell to get in.”

     “They’d grumble even more if their rooms got broken into. Wait – don’t shove the bolt across yet, Bob. I think I’ll go for a bit of a stroll myself before I turn in. I won’t be more than twenty minutes or so.”

     “OK.” Bob held the door open, touching his forehead in a sketchy salute as Tom strolled out. “See you later.”

     A couple of shallow steps led down to the pavement. Tom paused on the top one, breathing in the fresh night air. The town was quieter, but there were still a few cars on the road, a motorbike, a bus trundling to a halt at the traffic lights, its interior lit up but only a couple of passengers aboard.

     Away to his left the sound of thumping dance-beats spilled out from the nightclub down at the corner. A shriek of laughter as a bunch of girls tottered past in high heels – a hen-party, in matching pink T-shirts and crazy feather things on their heads.

     He crossed the road to the Victoria Gardens. A gentle breeze was rustling the leaves of the palm trees, and the flowers in their neatly-tended beds were putting out their night scents.

     A long string of coloured lights, festooned from lamp-post to lamp-post, traced the wide sweep of the bay. The Big Wheel was lit up, though of course there was no-one riding it at this time of night. And the pier, and the cafes along the sea-front – all reflecting in the dark waters like shimmering jewels.

     On the far side of the promenade he leaned against the stone sea-wall, gazing out towards the distant horizon. The moon was like the pale imprint of a thumb-nail against the black velvet sky, the stars a sprinkling of white diamonds.

     Where had she gone, that girl? She had seemed to disappear into nowhere. No doubt swimming away underwater, to tease him.

     Something moved behind him…

     Ah… He laughed, glad that there was no-one around to see him make a fool of himself. It was just an empty crisp packet, brushed along the pavement by a wisp of breeze. And the shadows cast by the long spiky leaves of the palm trees… they did look a little like pointing talons…

     And there it was again, that haunting song, sweet and beguiling, echoing in his brain.

     A concrete ramp led down to the beach. The sand crunched beneath his feet. Down here, the lights and noise of the town seemed to fade, as if far away. There was just the soft whisper of the waves rippling along the water’s edge, and the inky darkness of the sea.

     He left his clothes beneath the sea wall again. The water was quite warm, lapping around his bare feet. For a moment he glanced back over his shoulder at the brightness of the coloured lights, the street lamps, the hotels and holiday apartments. And the people, enjoying themselves for this brief break from work and chores and the mundane round of daily life.

     It all receded behind him as he swam. Though the music seemed to grow louder in the silence, with only the gentle splashing of his strokes and the sigh of his breathing.

     And there she was, laughing, beckoning to him as she swam just a few feet in front of him. Her skin seemed to glow like moonlight, cool and pale. Her hair, darker than the night, swirled around her – and yes, she was the one singing.

     Come with me

     What will be will be…

     She let him draw nearer, her hand outstretched, her long slender fingers twining with his. Nearer, her lips brushing against his cheek, as light as a butterfly’s wing.

     Come with me…

     He felt the water close over his head. Through the pitch darkness beneath the surface he could still see her, moonlight-pale as she drew him down... Deeper, deeper…