One of the theme's Laura explores through her work is identity metamorphosis, a theme that manifests in some of my stories too. I've been using one of her collections, Serpents, to think about that, and it's taken me in all sorts of directions - from selkie children to lost mermaids. There's a wistful, sad and dark feel to many of those stories, but that feels unbalanced.
I decided I wanted to write something more upbeat, funnier. Addiction was born from a "What if?" What if Arial and Prince Eric had a kid? What if she didn't know about her heritage?
|From Serpents by Laura Ward|
I’ve given up the sea.
It’s a 12 step programme and I’ve made a promising start. I’ve admitted I have no power over the sea, and my life has become unmanageable. I really have come to believe that a power greater than me could restore me to sanity. I have firmly decided to turn my life and will over to the care of God, as I understood him/her/it. Now I’m trying – really trying – to make a fearless moral inventory for myself.
The problem is, that whilst the principles are sound, London doesn’t abound with people with sea addictions. It’s stupid really. I can’t be the only one who goes fruit-the-loop at a hint of sea salt and handful of kelp, but you would think so looking at the complete lack of support groups devoted to cracking this serious addition.
That means there’s no one to call when the drizzle on a windowpane makes me temporarily gaga or to shake me when I’m caught staring into a puddle, in a state of insensate longing. Don’t laugh. It’s ruining my life. I missed my last job interview because I put Dead Sea Salts in my bath and couldn’t bring myself to leave it.
They say addiction is a family disease. They got that right. My mum was worse than me. The house looked like a bloody shipwreck, all the shells and sea glass and coral she had stuck around the place. She had no less than sixteen fish tanks, eight tropical, eight cold water. She made money looking after other people’s fish when they went away, and from designing fish houses out of stones and flower pots and so on.
Weird thing is, she couldn’t swim – practically had a phobia of water. It was my dad that took me to the seaside. Told me that’s where he met mum (maybe that’s why she couldn’t bear to go back!). Mum was a proper looker. I’ve seen pictures: red hair down to her arse and a body designed for a bikini. She could’ve passed on a few genes to me, but no. I take after my Dad: thick black hair and put on muscle faster than an Olympic weightlifter. Good build for swimming. I can swim for miles and miles and not come to the end of my endurance.
That’s why I need to stay away from the sea. Soon as I hit the waves, I want to go down, down, down into the depths. I want to swim out with the whales and not come back. I’m completely and utterly out of control.
My dad thinks it’s sweet but he’s been pretty mental since Mum passed on. Spends all his time in Devon, walking the cliffs and singing. It’s harmless, so I don’t interfere but I do worry for him, and for me. That’s what I’ll end up like if I don’t sort it out. So, I leave him to it and stick to London. I go a long route to work, to avoid getting within sniffing distance of the Lido and I close my eyes when the bus goes over the Thames. Not that the Thames is the sea, but I can feel it rushing through the city, rising through Teddington Lock, bifurcating Essex and Kent to flood into the Tideway and out to the North Sea.
If I leapt in the river, I could swim to France. So I keep my iphone buds firmly wedged in my ears, block my view with a copy of Metro or simply shut my eyes. People think I’m asleep, or maybe dead. It’s London, so they won’t mind either way.
I’d been five weeks without engaging in any sea-related activity, my longest stretch ever. I’d stopped planning my relocation to somewhere dry and landlocked like Johannesburg or Denver and started to think I could manage here, despite the siren lure of the Thames Estuary and my dad’s obsessive cliff-walking. I’d gotten rid of the three-foot-long fish tank to a local school and emptied my Dead Sea Salts down the toilet. I was clean. Straight. Dry.
Then it started to rain. It had rained once or twice since I gave up the sea, but nothing like this. This was lashing rain, torrential rain. The kind of rain that sent flood plains into red alerts and made the drains overflow. Glorious, wild, dancing naked rain. The type of rain which soaks into a girl and makes her feel like she’s part of the water, like she could dissolve and flow into the sea.
I got inside pretty sharpish, I can tell you. It didn’t help. I could bloody well hear it then, battering the roof as though it were asking for permission to come in. I shut all the windows, tight shut. Started to shut the curtains and that’s when it got me. A shard of sun pierced the clouds and caught the raindrops scattered across my steamed windows and suddenly, I could see sunlight on silver water, soft mists gusting across the surf. I was there, thigh deep in salt water ready to dive. I could taste it on my lips.
My pulse must have kicked up to danger levels. I could hear it, thundering in my ears. The compulsion to run outside and keep on running until I could leap into one of the engorged arteries that connected to deep oceans.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I must have stood there two hours, my hand flattened against the glass. I couldn’t go outside. Couldn’t respond when my phone beeped. I’d stood Andrea up at Ritzy’s and I didn’t even care.
The doorbell rang and I didn’t answer. It rang and rang and rang again. I ignored it. I couldn’t peel my palm from the glass which connected me to the raindrops, which were running down the mansion block and into the ground, which soaked into the Thames, which ran into the sea. I could feel myself becoming that raindrop.
I stood, until I just keeled over. And I keeled over because – to my not inconsiderable surprise - my mother-fucking actual legs had turned into a giant fucking tail.
Not the furry kind. No, that would be too bloody simple. My legs had turned into a giant koi carp. I looked like I belonged in some Las Vegas freak show approximation of a Japanese restaurant. What. The. Ever Loving. Fuck.
That’s when I texted my Dad. He’s shit on the phone but he does know how to text.
Dad. I’ve turned into a fish. M
Ah. I was afraid that might happen.
WTF? You KNEW?
Not KNEW. Thought maybe.
Don’t swear, Marina.
Don’t swear? I AM A FISH!!!!!!!!!!
Hold tight. Seb on way.
Holy fuck. That’s all I need. Mum and Dad’s weird friend with the funny shaped hands and awkward, fast-slow way of walking that looks like he's doing a two-step on acid. Really?
Turns out that Sebastian has a key to my flat, which is not creepy at all. I point this out in no uncertain terms. He points out that I’m a fish, lying on a carpet and I should be grateful for the assist. Which I am, kind of. Except I’m not, really.
“Where’s my Dad?”
“Pon ah train back from Exeter,” he says. He has helped me up onto my sofa and lifted my tail so it flops over the end. Now I look at it, it’s quite pretty. Glistening and muscular, shaded gold and silver. I give it an experimental twitch and its fins wave elegantly. “Cool,” I say.
Sebastian gives me a long look. “Fi yuh takin’ dis well, yuh Highness.”
He’s always called me that. When I was little it was kind of cute. Now it just makes me sound like some bratty rich kid, like Paris Hilton or Nicole Ritchie. No thanks. I work for a living, or I did until my legs turned into a fish supper.
“I like fish,” I say, with commendable cool. No way is Sebastian seeing me rattled.
“Dat wi be helpful when yuh transition,” he says. He talks in this patois, but like he’s humming at the same time, speaking to a tune only he can hear. It drives me demented and makes my feet want to tap all at the same time. Or it did when I had feet.
“Doh. I’ve gone fish, not switched gender.”
“Yuh cyaan stay like dis,” he points out, as though he weren’t stating the bleeding obvious.
“No shit, Sherlock. So,when will I shift back? I’m late for work.”
He scuttles over to the TV and clicks the remote control to check the time. “Yuh fada be here soon,” he says, relief evident in his voice. There’s something he’s not telling me, the git. I can tell by the way he snaps his fingers. I’ve known Sebastian all my life, and he only does that when he’s nervous, like it’s an old habit he can’t quite break. Suddenly, I remember how he and my mum used to sing together and how he made her laugh. It makes me feel a little fonder of him, though the key thing still irks. “What aren’t you telling me, Sebastian?”
He blurts something out in a great splash of words that sounds like, “Nahgoingtochangebackcosmermaidsbelongtokingtriton.”
“Firstly, I don’t belong to anyone. And secondly- mermaid. What is up with that? How is it that blokes get to be mer-men but women have to be mer-maid. Like you’re the cleaner or something.”
He stares at me like I’ve gone mad.
Which maybe I have, because my legs have turned into a fish tail and I’m not even screaming.
The door goes again and this time I recognise the heavy tread which denotes my father. “Hello minnow,” he kisses me on the forehead and looks at my tail with admiration. “You look beautiful.”
“Thanks Dad. I don’t think it goes with my jumper, but…” I shrug. I’ve never been much of a clothes horse. He dumps a Primark bag on my stomach. “I got you a present.”
Inside is a t-shirt which says, “Always be yourself unless you can be a Mermaid. Then always be a Mermaid.”
“My pleasure, sweet pea. Did Sebastian explain what was happening?”
I shot Sebastian a dark look. “He said I belonged to King Triton.”
My Dad shakes his head. “You don’t belong to him, but you do belong with him. He rules the seas and… and he’s your grandfather. On your mum’s side.”
My mouth literally falls open. Mum fell out with her Dad when she met my Dad. They haven’t spoken since. He doesn’t even know that she… I gulp. “Dad?”
“I know, sweet pea.” He puts his arms around me, and I’m comforted by the warm woolly smell of his fisherman’s jumper and the familiarity of his hug. “I miss her too, but believe me, she would want you to experience this. It’s who you are.” He indicates the tail. “We had no idea how your genetics would play out. Your mum was shifted by magic. We could never tell if she’d been made human permanently, or if it was a fix – you know, like plastic surgery. But magic.”
“Mum was a mer-woman?”
“She couldn’t even swim.”
“She could swim like a lightning bolt. She was just scared that if she went near water, she would… you know. Reverse. And if that happened she would have had to leave me – leave us. You had legs back then.”
I stare at him. Stare at my tail. My world is spinning off its axis. I hear the scuttle of Sebastian’s odd, imprecise movements and a door slam. Then he’s back and he and my Dad are conferring. “You’ve got the van? Okay. Let’s get her moving.”
Then he’s back, gripping my hand “Marina, listen. We’re going to take you to Teddington Lock and lower you into the water. After that, it’s up to you. Make for the North Sea, avoid boats, sailors, anyone like that. They’ll think you’re just another wild swimmer if you don’t get too close.”
“But Dad – what about you?”
He smiles. “I’ll see you at the coast, silly. I’ve bought a cottage on the cliff edge. It’s got a private beach. I bought it after Mum… you know. I thought she’d be happier there. Her ashes, I mean. And I knew this was a possibility. I’d take you down there now but I don’t want your scales to dry out.”
“How will I find it?”
“Merpeople can find anywhere. They never get lost, you’ll see.”
And that’s how I end up in the Thames Estuary, swimming deeper and faster than I ever thought possible, flicking through rip tides and dangerous currents, my hair streaming like duckweed in the grey-brown water.
The joy of it is maddening. My heart is going to burst through my chest, it’s beating so hard. And as I swim, I remember my programme.
My life was unmanageable.
A power greater than myself has restored me to sanity.
Now I’m turning my life and my will over to that power.
To the sea, the wonderful, changeable, addicting sea. I’ll swim with the whales. I’ll swim so fast and so far, that no ocean will hold me.
Can. Not. Wait.
Fuck. I forgot to get an underwater cover for my iphone.