I can see shafts of sunlight penetrating the waters from above my head, but the sea disorients me and I cannot work out which way to swim. I flail my arms uselessly and a deep sense of panic wells up inside me, making me thrash even harder. And then I hear it. The mermaiden singing her sweet and mournful song from somewhere far below me in the darkness. I pause my movements, calmed by the lilting notes; I want to get closer to the voice to hear it better, but I don’t want to abandon my quest to find the sunlight lest I can never get back. My heart is thumping and my ears are aching, and all of a sudden my arm is gripped at the wrist by an icy hand that wrenches my body around. Tamsin’s cold, dead eyes meet my own. She is pale and blue and drowned, like she was when I found her, and guilt consumes me.
“I’m sorry,” I try to stutter. “It wasn’t… I didn’t…
She pulls my head closer to hers, gripping hold of my am so tightly now that I can no longer feel my hand, and fills my ear with her harsh whisper.
“She is coming for you.”
I jolted awake, a fevered sweat upon my brow. I wasn’t sure if I’d cried out, but Jess and Lil, who shared my bed when they weren’t working of a night, showed no signs of disturbance. I rose and dressed quickly, picked my card deck from the table and headed to the door. But once there I hesitated absently. Barely thinking, I went back, dug down underneath the loose boards in the corner of the room, and pulled out the mermaiden’s shell from its hiding place. It glittered and shone, even though the light was dull and grey. I slipped it into the pocket of my smock and went to sit in the bar as the sun rose.
It had been seven days since the ghost had visited, and I had barely slept a night. My face was pale, my eyes were dark, and Ma had watched me all week with a concerned frown as I struggled to balance the books and read the cards and smile cheerfully at the leering customers like I usually could with such ease. I sat on a dusty stool in the half light, cutting and dealing and shuffling and cutting again, staring blankly at the numbers and symbols that I turned, my thoughts elsewhere. A shrill whistling from outside the brothel doors pierced my thoughts and brought me back to the present. I was in no mood to deal with Tom, the delivery boy who brought the meat of a morning, nor with the concerns of Ma who would soon appear to greet him, so I crept swiftly to the passageway at the rear of the building and stole away outside.
My feet took me to the docks, without waiting for any instructions from my head. A fine galleon had docked and the area was all a-bustle with men shouting and haggling, unloading goods and reloading supplies, testing their legs ashore and telling of their horrific endurances and subsequent voracious appetites for shore life to anyone who would spare them time to listen. The brothel would be busy that night. She looked a familiar vessel, so I thought of venturing down among the throng to see if I could read her name, but it was too crowded and so instead I walked along the boards to where I could watch the waves and the dirty sea foam lapping gently against the stones of the harbour wall. I fingered the shell in my pocket. My fingers itched to open it and I ignored them. I tried to steel my heart to hurl it away, back into the waters where it belonged, but as my fist clenched around it I thought of my father and I thought of the song and I stood still like one enchanted, dumbly fighting an inner battle that I didn’t really understand.
“Well, now. There’s a face I haven’t seen in a while. And haven’t you just grown up to be a sight for sore eyes.”
I looked up, startled at the intrusion, but was instantly delighted by the figure I saw before me. Ferdinand had been my father’s much favoured Shipmaster, and I had known him all of my life. Some years had passed since his last visit to me, perhaps for shame, for I remember distinctly discovering Ma throwing him out the house in a fury one morning. I may have changed since last he saw me, but he still cut as fine a figure as ever and I smiled shyly where once I might have run and embraced him, not sure what the appropriate response would be any more. He stroked his rum coloured beard with a grin.
“Come now child, I can’t believe that in five years you have lost your tongue as well as your innocence.” He winked as he reached for my hand to kiss it, as if I were royalty. The same old game he used to play when I was a child, after my father’s lead.
“Why Sir Ferdinand,” I took the bait, only a little reluctantly. “You do me wrong to have presumed that I have lost anything other than a dear old friend who rarely visits.”
“Sapphire my dear,” he drawled in his playful, musical voice. “Your father would be glad to hear it, but I must warn you not to call me “old” ’til I am good and dead. But until then, I bid you come walk with me. Let us take in the morning air and I shall make up some for lost time.”
We walked, arm in arm, along the harbour wall. He told me of his grand adventures, and I told him of my small misadventures and we passed away the morning in this manner until we neared his ship again and he had to take his leave to check on the vittling. But before he would leave he could see I was troubled about something, and so against my better judgement I brought it before him.
“Ferdinand, did my father ever know a mermaiden?”
He didn’t react to my question, but just stared ahead out to sea, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“Why do you ask, child?”
“I believe he may have done something once to anger one.”
“Pah!” he spat, with sudden, uncharacteristic feeling. “It is no hard thing to anger the Mer.”
I looked at him and said nothing, but I must have showed my nervousness, for his face softened almost instantly.
“Come now child. A mermaiden is nothing to be a-feared of if you have a head full of sense on your shoulders, which I know you do. Your father made sure of that!”
I tried to press him further but he had no time to dally, for he had to be away again one day hence to catch a decent breeze. He pressed a bag of sweet candy into my hands, kissed my forehead tenderly, and promised the familiar promise of the sailor; that it would not be so long this time before our next encounter. And then he was away, his coat whisking about in the wind as he marched with his swaying gait up to the loading area. I nibbled at the candy as I watched him go, more confused now than I had been ever before, and my head began throbbing as a fresh wave of punishing tiredness washed over me. Dazedly, I began to make my way back to the winding streets that would lead home, but my feet struggled to lift themselves and the last thing I could remember before blackness engulfed my vision was the gut churning sensation of falling.
Next installment on Monday 23rd August.