After two days of building castles in the waves, only to see them gutted and consumed by a gluttonous ocean, Daniel’s mother had earned, if not Prithy’s trust, then a dilution of his contempt.
They were staggering, heads bent, alone on the beach in the early hours. Ice had formed into shallow opaque pools between the drifts of sand and as they broke it with their blistered feet they could see their faces shatter in a way that meant they could never be reassembled.
“There is a garden in which I sit when the cold has me by the throat. It is the place where I first realized I could defeat the sea, that it could be defeated, if one understands it’s purpose. The mermaid lives there - I could show you it.”
Daniel’s mother could neither defy nor consent, her feet followed Prithy’s and that was all that life consisted of now. They arrived at a line of beach huts, their bright paint corroded into peeling leather rivulets by the talons of a force that would return them to their elemental form. Prithy ducked down into a shallow trench, up into the stomach of a sky blue shack through an unlocked service flap and she followed. She emerged into a tangled thicket of ivy and bindweed, to find Prithy tearing at the green brown veins, unearthing a bench seat, a coal burning stove and some matches. The fire filled her with a warmth so intense that she wanted to inhale it so that it resided in her lungs. Something inside, where so much was broken already, snapped and she began to weep for the life that continued just beyond her grasp as if she were Tantalus and her family were the fruit.
“Whenever I wanted to take my dog for a walk it would hide. I just had to stand up and look for it’s lead and it would crawl under a bed or behind the settee, sometimes into spaces so small that it must have hurt itself to get in to them, anything but walk with me. On one occasion it wedged itself behind the fridge and I had to lever it out with a plank. Our dog had no name so we could never call it. We developed a complex series of hand gestures and whistles which, since neither we nor the dog understood them, made communication an ultimately unsatisfactory process. I forgot exactly what a dog was for, shortly after he arrived - by then the world was like two jigsaw puzzles that have been jumbled up together but when I tried to use the dog as an ironing board it bit me with such unbridled fury that I still have a fragment of it’s tooth embedded in my knuckle.”
“This particular Friday the boys were off school because of the snow and I found the dog cowering under a pile of frozen leaves and branches in the back garden. The dog had assumed the same expression as my children did when I tried to rationalize with them - a mixture of unexpurgated contempt and fear. It knew, they all knew that I was like a wounded alligator floating on the surface of a river, directionless, floundering but still capable of one last terrible attack. I dragged the dog out - I think it knew it would perish there if it wasn’t discovered but it had accepted that - and down the road to the Heath. I had no idea if I had taken it for a walk already that day, I had no idea what taking it for a walk consisted of but I was going to do it anyway.”
“Middle Lake on the Heath is a landmark for migrating birds because of its size and normally its busy with children feeding the ducks and swans but it wasn’t busy that day. That could be because it was minus four and it could be because I was screaming so loudly and the dog was so much in fear that it found a voice that was like a child begging for time itself to come to an end. I left the dog tied to a bench, walked out on to the ice - right into the middle of the lake, got down onto my hands and knees and saw, in my refection, exactly what they all saw, the children, the dog, the fucking milkman who still delivered even though I threw his bottles back at him - it was the void and it was in my eyes and it was labyrinthine. I took off my shoe and I hammered with the heel at that reflection, I hoped that beneath it I might discover the cobwebbed shards of my dignity. The ice begged for me to stop as I hacked away it’s pristine layers, my arm arced and the dog struggled until it’s collar bit into its throat - it was like the dance of a murderer.”
“Eventually the face below my fists floated apart and the dull black velvet of the water below embraced me like a disciple, kissing my body until it was extinguished. Then the dog was upon me, pulling me back to the surface, it’s throat was wrecked from where it had broken free but it kept on coming and coming with it’s teeth, struggling against the ice, it’s feet splaying and skittering. My body somehow re-surfaced and was dragged from the water, onto the snow matted soil.”
“I fucking hated that dog and it hated me. I would love to tell you that I lay on the bank of the lake and held it in my arms, sharing it’s warmth, discovering some hitherto untapped love for the species canine but I can’t. It had saved by life, I knew it had killed itself in the process and that really pissed me off. It sunk its teeth into my left thigh and thats how it died inflicting as much pain as it possibly could.”
Sarcastic applause spewed from deep within the foliage at the rear of the hut and a woman emerged clothed in seaweed strung with decaying seagull heads. Her hair appeared to have been recently excreted onto her head and her skin was befouled leather and rope.
She waved a hand, depraved by arthritis. “I thought that Prithy was the most stultifyingly depressing little shitebag that had ever washed up on this beach but apparently I was wrong. This really is a seminal moment.”
“I am a mermaid - I am here by serendipity” croaked Daniel’s mother.
“You are a middle aged woman in a torn swimsuit following around a maniac who lives on the beach in a pile of twigs and bird droppings.”
“This is my little piece of England and I must defend it from the warrior Neptune” protested Prithy.”
“Exactly - he’s mentally ill and you are lost.” The woman lowered herself with no little effort, onto the bench in front of the fire, besides Daniel’s mother.
“This is perdition” bellowed Prithy.
“This is Lyme Regis” the woman replied, “go and build some more sandcastles on the beach”.
Prithy was about to protest but the woman dismissed him with a disparaging flick of the wrist.
Daniel’s mother had nothing more to offer. She felt herself plummeting into the nether reaches of her mind and plunged her hands into an endless pool of tears. She had seen this place in side long glances during the worst of her waking dreams and knew that if she drank from this pool there would be no returning. The woman placed an arm of petrified bone around her shoulder, turned her face gently so that it was inches from her own and after stroking the straggles of sand and mud from her face, head butted her with tremendous force. Daniel’s mother collapsed to the floor of the shed and the woman fell upon her until the solidified strands of her hair lay in her eyes and mouth like rats claws.
“You selfish, selfish bitch. How dare you come here and abandon your children.”
Daniel’s mother spat out two shattered teeth as she tried to speak.
“I killed my son, I have lived on the margins of sanity for years, spare me your fucking contempt, you can’t know what this has made me, made of me.”
The woman grabbed her by the ears, spittle drizzling between an abandoned graveyard of teeth.
“I am the old woman with the supermarket trolley and two hundred brimming carrier bags yet I have never been into a shop, I am the face that you look at a second time for the incandescent horror of it, I am the stubborn stain that this country scrubs and scrubs at but cannot remove. I have never been kissed, never felt a man’s hand other than in rage and I would give my eyes just to have known how it felt to hold the hand of my own child. This is the life of a mermaid, it is my life and it is wretched and it is interminable.
“Now fuck off back to where you came from and prove you can still be a mother to your sons.”