Prithy Daines lived on Back Beach in Lyme Regis. Every day he would lovingly assemble and interweave the embers of the ocean into an abode, adorning it with curious shells and stones as if he were a sultan and this was his palace. He would race up and down the beach, his arms full and fall upon a choice location perilously close to the water’s edge, his fingers working in a blur of delirious construction.
When all was complete he would fashion a commode and a bench and the fixings for a small door with which he would close away the world. In those moments he would stretch out his arms and touch the sides of his kingdom and in his heart he knew that this was what freedom meant. He would listen to the querulous gulls and the distant horns of boats jousting for their square inch of tide and gradually, a horror would dawn upon him which which he could not shake. He was a man had who built his home in the lair of a demon who did not share and could not forgive, he was a artisan and an architect, a dreamer and a beseecher but most of all, he was a fucking idiot.
Every day he built his home on the beach and every day the tide would come in and destroy it. Prithy Daines hated the sea and the sea hated Prithy Danes. This was not a symbiotic relationship, more the ultimate exercise in futility, but futility was all he had. It was not that he hoped to defeat the ocean, more that one day it might tire of kicking him in the balls and pick on something its own size.
That morning he awoke at dawn to a cruel northern rain, whipping at his shrouded face with despicable vigor, a wind, bitter and revealing, chilling him to the core and through a granular mist, where the shambles of his creation should have lain, he saw a woman in a tattered floral swimming costume.
As a rule Prithy ignored the human race and all its vagaries but this spur of human detritus peaked his curiosity. He went about his daily travails, his curiosity about her stoic lack of movement poking him insistently, like the finger of an elderly relative who needs the toilet. Battered by the elements, her hair a festered mop smeared across her grey-white face, her eyes remained fixed on the sea. As he worked away at his tiny construction - a particularly fine plank complete with nails made a lintel, a smashed victorian balustrade became a wall, she did not stir. He could not afford to pause, to stop was to admit defeat before it became inevitable and yet her embittered eyes drew him to her like sodden garnets.
“When will it stop?” asked the woman through a jawbone that was almost atrophied with cold.
Prithy pulled the carcass of a sack across the face of the four uneven stakes he had sunk into the ground, and adorned his ceiling with a chandelier of seaweed and sea urchins. He stole a glance at the woman’s toes, nails blooded and blue, at her legs, mud ingrained and starkly thin, at her torso, barely decent between the rips and tears in her swimming costume. He had not spoken with a human being for so long that words, when they came, felt like white hot Alphabetti Spaghetti on his tongue.
“When will what stop?”
He looked out at the sea as a burst of sunshine wove a tiny coruscating carpet which was instantly erased by the wind, at the seagulls, muzzled by the pitiless gale, at the surf, emulsifying the beach with alternating tenderness and rage. He saw it every night and every day and at last he had a name for it.
“I bought a ticket to the sea but I lost it” the woman opened her hand to evidence emptiness.
“I sat on the train and I thought - I want to change into my swimming costume now but I knew that if I went to the toilet to put it on, I would lose my place. So I decided to leave all of my things on the seat - my purse and my coat and my umbrella and my bag with my sandwiches in it - I always cut the crusts off because thats the way my boys like them, I have three sons but one of them was killed when I drove through a supermarket. I looked at the man sitting beside me, he had gentle hands and a lovely scarf and cap which matched his eyes and I could see that he wouldn’t mind looking after my things and I asked him and he didn’t mind. So I went into the toilet and changed into my swimming costume but I couldn’t remember where I had been sitting. I walked up and down the train and I was sure that it had been just beside the toilet but the man and my things had all gone. So I was fucked, completely fucked, again. I went into the toilet and had a good cry and I washed my hands again and again until the room became a paper bag that someone had just burst with their fists and I heard someone screaming my name over and over again and I recognized the voice because it was mine. So I walked up and down the train again, shouting abuse at everything and everyone and then I realized I had left my clothes in the toilet. When I went back the toilet door was locked, then I saw the man with the scarf and the hat and he was dressed in my clothes, so I picked up his wallet and I threw it out of the train window. He got angry and grabbed my arm really really hard and the ticket man asked me for my ticket and I told him of course I don’t have a ticket now you tremendous fucking moron; where am I going to put a ticket - all I have left is this stupid fucking swimming costume; so at the next station they threw me off the train and a British Transport Policemen tied to arrest me and I head butted him and climbed over a fence with barbed wire on it and he didn’t follow me. So I had to walk to the sea and it was miles and miles in bare feet and there was a field and a cow with the face of a frosted angel and a farmer waving a gun who wore a wreath of fire and here I am a mermaid sitting on a rock.
“And now you have found the sea.”
“And now I have found the sea because this is where I belong. I had a swimming lesson which I didn’t enjoy because I don’t like water and I don’t like exercise. I floundered about for an hour, unable to swim in any direction other than down but I thought - this should be enough, then I saw the sea and I realized, its far bigger than Kentish Town swimming baths. So I sat on this rock and looked out because that is what mermaids do, and a ship came by and I wanted to lure it to its destruction but I didn’t know how so I threw a stone at it but it didn’t seem to notice.”
It was raining so heavily now that the raindrops were forcing Prithy down into an involuntary stoop.
“Would you like to come and it in my..” he had never had to find a name for the structures he built, to do so would have allowed them to become visible to the waves.
“Castle” offered the woman, walking past him and crouching down through the inadequate doorway. Prithy followed and sat down next to her on a corrugated metal sheet which he had adorned with the bodies of three deal eels and the top shell of a crab.
To say that the makeshift hut offered protection from the ardor of the storm would have been as deluded as the two minds that huddled within it, behind faces distorted with the effort of existence, but it was, at least a different kind of discomfort. They sat, shoulders touching, each tethered so precariously to reality that one more raindrop might have cut them loose, to float off into oblivion.
“You don’t look like a mermaid.”
“How many mermaids do you know?”
“One, I know one and you don’t look like her.”
She reached up and studied the seaweed above her head that played with the back of her neck, at the rag doll who sat beside her, arms of shattered porcelain, eyes so sunken they echoed when he blinked. They were the eyes of her dog on the day when he died, eyes that knew more than any man what it was to exist a mili-second before the big bang.
“What happens when the tide comes in? Won’t this, won’t we, shatter?Won’t your castle be destroyed?”
Prithy moved his toe against hers. It felt like touching a dying plant but one that could still be saved.
“Today might be different.”