There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond.

They are the green kind, and the silver kind. The ones molded from bits of lake floor – from weed and wetness and the bones and bills of ducklings. The water is very dark in the Ladies’ Pond. There are shadows from the willows and the bigger trees. The leaves trail into the water, dipping into their own reflections, so it is hard to tell where the tree ends and where the reflection begins, a green vine spinning darker and taller and longer.

It is hard to tell where the water ends and where the mermaids begin. They move like you imagine they might: that is to say, not like you, with your white wet legs jerking at angles, propelling you awkwardly, forcefully, away from the dock and into the darker bits of the green-black water. Not like you with your shivering, and the sharp chatter of your teeth. Not like you treading the water to keep your head up, to keep your ears dry. Not like you, so clearly out of your depth, and out of your element, trying to talk while your tongue quakes in your mouth and your skin screams to return to the sun and the meadow and your half-read book on your sun-warmed towel.

They move like you imagine they might: like not half-fish, but like whole-fish, like a boneless being that might be more like 90, or 95% water, armoured and cooling.

A game they play: touching. Your small pink and white feet are so pretty, dancing up above, twitching and moving, always moving. A mermaid knows how to sink, but a human only knows not to, flickering and forcing, pushing to remain on the surface even as the water draws you in. You will do just about anything not to believe in the mermaids: you will believe in small tangles of weed, or lost fish. You will believe in imagination and fear, so you do not have to think about grey-green fingers tipped with greener nails, flashing out for a touch of skin.

When you’re in the water you keep your thoughts from the bottom, though they want, very badly, to drift there. It gets darker and colder down there, much more of both than you could tolerate for long, and there are things down there: we won’t talk about it. Don’t stir it up.

They won’t pull you in, but of course they’ve done it before. The mermaids want more – there’s not much room on the surface of the pond, what with the ducks and buoys and the chattering grannies, but there’s plenty down the bottom, where the sun doesn’t reach. Mermaids don’t breed – how could they? You’ve seen the pictures. You know how it works. Where would it go? But they probably won’t pull you down. They only want a touch. You’re very warm. You carry the sun.

They don’t allow men in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. This is a source of freedom for the women on the banks of the pond, who take their tops off and let their breasts loll free. Women look at each other’s breasts of course, because they can. Women are allowed to look at the size of each other’s nipples, the scars and the sag and the drape; pink and white and brown.

You don’t think about teeth on a mermaid, but they have them, and they get sick of fish. They nibble on weed, and suck down the occasional eel, but when they’re hungry, properly hungry, from the rigor and the rush of a life spent swimming, what they really like to eat is swan. It’s a sight, from above, in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and if you were watching, you could see it happening: the bird, white and black and orange, on the black-green water, drifting across the surface. And then, beneath that, a shadow, a quick-flicker.

You can imagine how they do it: two quick hands wrapped around each orange foot and then a jerk beneath the surface. They have to be quick: if they’re slow, the swan will start into the sky, the way they can, and only two strong beats of those big wings and they’re up, and free, and safe – and a bird like that can lift a mermaid out of the water if it’s a small one (and they’re mostly small). But if they’re quick that’s it: beneath the surface is no place for a swan, and they break the wings, and the neck. A swan can break a man’s arm, so they say, but I’ve never seen them do the same to a mermaid. And then, from above, you’d see the stirring cease, and then perhaps, a drift of red. But there won’t be waste.

If you’re wondering where mermaids come from, don’t. They don’t breed, they just feed. I’ve never seen a pregnant mermaid. Thoughts like those are heavy ones, with a tendency to drift, and sink. It’s just a piece of weed. It’s just a silver fish.

Back To The Lake

The water should have been cold. It was the middle of winter.

The lake was cold. That’s how she remembered it, though they’d always come in summer, when the sun shone all day, most days.

The best days were the rare cloudy ones. That was when they were allowed to use the pool table, and when they might sneak to the adjacent cabin and prise open the freezer door, where he hung whole pigs, their throats slit and rubbery. One summer he’d padlocked the door and they’d broken it off with a rock, out of pique more than anything else, and curiosity about what could be worse than a pig, but it was empty. She remembered that – the cold smell of the empty freezer, which still had pink stains on the floor. And the cold of the lake.

She sat at the end of the jetty, dangling both feet, warped in the water. The weeds rose almost to touch her. That’s how she judged her friends, back when she was thirteen and allowed to invite one to join the family each summer – how they reacted to the weeds. Most of the girls from her school were used to swimming pools, and they’d never swum with the green, where fish might flick up against you in the shallows. Catherine had been the worst, but it made her the bravest – she’d only swim off the boat, or off the end of the longest jetty, where the weeds couldn’t grow up long enough to touch her. Jane hadn’t cared at all. She’d come back three summers all up, until that last one, when they were fifteen, and old enough to have one drink when the fireworks across the lake went up, set off by one of the rich families who owned property right on the water. You wanted to hate them, because of everything they had, but you couldn’t, because of the fireworks.

There wouldn’t be any fireworks during this trip. This was the first time Ellen had visited in winter. She hadn’t wanted to come, but Jack had heard so much about the lake, and Hot Water Rock, and the sand tennis courts that merged with the beach, that he’d insisted. Her own fault, for the tying the place up so tightly with her childhood. He’d even driven, plugging the address she had memorised into the SatNav, and managing the local roads while she sat watching the bush flash by, counting.

“19,” she’d announced to him as he made the last turn onto the five-minute downhill that would spit them out directly on the lake front.

“What? 19 what?”

“19. That’s how many dead animals we’ve driven by. 19.”

“You’re counting the roadkill?” he’d asked. He should have looked stupid in his Brits-on-holiday get-up, the chequered shirt half-tucked into knee-length shorts, but instead he looked comfortable. He always looked comfortable, born in the right skin, even when, like now, he was dotted with bites and burnt across his knees and neck. It was one of the things she liked about him.

“We always did it, on the way down,” she’d said. “It’s not weird or anything.”

He’d risked a glance at her, one eyebrow up. He was doing better than her, really. She couldn’t shake her London habit of black-all-over, especially in winter, but winter here wasn’t really winter, and she was sweating beneath her jumper and jeans.

“19’s a lot,” she’d said, half to herself. It was one of their habits, passing the time in the back of the car, after the Anne of Green Gables audiobooks had finished. Possums, cats, rats, dogs. The highest she could remember from this stretch of road was 11, but that was a long time ago. There were more cars now.

Gravel beneath the tyres. “We’re here!” Jack had announced, pulling up on the handbrake. “Let’s see what it’s all about!”

He owed her this enthusiasm, even if she didn’t particularly want it. Six years now they’d lived together in London, and even though he was northern, and had moved to the city at the same time she had, it was still his. His university friends, and his family home for Christmas. Coming here this year had been his idea.

They hadn’t managed Christmas, since prices had been impossible, but it was almost nice to come in winter. No tourists. No humidity, though of course he’d still managed to get sunburnt. The hard part was over now, hadn’t even been that hard. Her parents already knew she wasn’t coming back, even before she’d met him. She was as much of a stranger to them as he was.

Now it was just them, would be until next Sunday, when they’d drive back up north and get back on the flight.

Jack had been amazed that they’d been able to book the same cabin that her family had visited for so many years, but it wasn’t so amazing. No one visited the lake during winter. It was cold, and grey, and the nearest town was a 50-minute drive along roads so dark you’d never chance it in the rain. At this time of year it was only locals. They’d wonder what they were doing here, but they’d never ask, she knew. There was a line between those that lived, and those that visited.

She didn’t tell Jack that though. He thought everyone was so friendly; best to keep it that way.

Still: she’d have liked to ask someone why the water was this warm. It was almost sensationless against her feet and she thought, idly, that that must make it the same temperature as her. Blood temperature. 42 degrees? She could never remember. But then, it couldn’t be.

Steps on the wood behind her, and she leant her head back, waiting for Jack’s heavy hands on her shoulders.

“Warm, isn’t it?”

She jerked her head around. A woman, no more than 50, dressed in the uniform of a lake local: shorts, damp at the hem, and a fleece zipped up to her neck. She had grey hair cropped close to her head, no makeup, black eyes.

Ellen stood, slipping wet feet into her shoes, brushing off her palms against her jeans, but the woman made no move to take her hand. She’d never really shaken hands in greeting before she lived in London, but now it was instinct, and she paused awkwardly before clasping both hands before her.

“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”

The woman smiled. “Really? Most tourists are just pleased. Don’t wonder about it.”

“I used to come here every summer, for 10 years or so,” Ellen said, a tiny hint of defensiveness creeping in. “Never been here at this time of year before, I thought it’d be freezing.”

The woman didn’t react to her words, and Ellen knew she’d made herself look more of a fool than anything else, trying to pretend like this was her place. It wasn’t, not any more than London was.

“The springs. That’s why”.

It clicked. It was one of the best parts of the lake, as a kid, a spot you could get to only by boat, a tiny inlet you only knew if you knew, where natural springs bubbled up under the cliff, mixed with the lake water, formed a perfect pool of hot water. They’d spent hours there, eating cold sausages and drinking from the lake.

“But… they’re tiny. Wouldn’t that…” she trailed off. She worked in digital. She’d failed biology. She had no fucking idea. “The whole lake?”

The woman nodded, looking out at the water. “Screwed all the fishing. Made the koura spawn like anything.”

Koura were local endangered crayfish, black and the size of a child’s foot. Only the indigenous were allowed to fish them, technically, but everyone did, spotlighting them with torches after dark. She looked down into the water and suddenly she saw that the darkness at the bottom of the lake wasn’t weed, or mud, but a thick, crawling mass of crayfish, scrabbling shell on shell.

“Ellen!” Jack’s voice, bouncing off the water, brightly foreign. It was getting dark. The winter thing again; she remembered endless evenings here.

Ellen smiled with the same brightness at the woman who hadn’t offered her hand, or her name. “I’d better get back. He’s new here, doesn’t know where anything is.”

The woman was thin but the jetty was narrow and she was firmly planted, barefoot, of course, right in the centre. “You’re staying there?” She jerked a thumb at the little cabin, so much smaller now than in Ellen’s memory.

“Yes,” she said, because the car was there and because Jack stood in the doorway with moths swarming his head.

The woman stood aside at that, and Ellen smiled, said good night, walked past. There was a moment of closeness where she could have been pushed, would have had no chance at stopping it, but nothing happened, of course.

She didn’t turn around as she walked back up the sand, avoiding the sharp rocks though she had her shoes on. She walked into the cabin, but Jack was gone, and the two rooms were cool and empty.

She stepped back out, flicking off the porch lamp as she did so. She hated moths. The woman was still on the jetty, staring up towards the cabin, though there was no way she’d have been able to see Ellen in the half-light.

A scratching to her left, and she knew what Jack was doing, same thing she’d done so many times as a kid, drawn to the concrete sides and the thick slab of a door. “Hey babe,” he said. “What’s in here?”

No padlock, hardly a surprise, since the house it belonged to had stood empty all these years. You could tell by the cobwebs, and the rot of the porch. He might think it was empty because it was winter, that the family would return for summer, but it wasn’t that kind of emptiness.

He pulled on the handle, and she wanted to shout, but. And it was empty, of course.

“Looks like an abattoir,” he said, with a half-step inside.

“Don’t,” came a voice, but it wasn’t Ellen’s, though her mouth was open to say the same. Black eyes, grey hair, a bit too close behind them both. You could do that with bare feet. “No one goes near this place anymore.”

Jack stepped out, interest all over his face. “Why’s that?”

“Girl died, stuck in here, one summer. Stupid game of hide and seek. Had some sort of fit, threw her head up against the wall. Her mates found her later. Bit of a shock to the community.” She nodded her head twice. “Bit of a shock”.

Jack’s eyes were wide. “Wow.” He turned to Ellen, took her hand, as she knew he would. “Must have been horrible. Did you know her?”

She opened her mouth, but another voice filled the gap again. “Nah. After your time, wouldn’t it be, girly?”

Ellen nodded. “Yes. Later, I think.” The door was still open, white walls, pink stains.

“Anyway. You’re brave, staying here. We’re superstitious folk, round here. Not interested in trying our luck, if you know what I mean. It’ll be bowled over one day soon, prices going up like they are.”

She was already turning away, but she spoke directly to Jack, who was hanging on every deliciously dark word. “Shut that door, boy. Don’t need to invite anything out, do you?”

But it was Ellen who caught the lip of the door with her fingers and swung it shut, hard, making a noise that rang out across the lake. Jack looked at her crossly, but the local woman nodded her head, approving.

“Don’t try catching the koura, will you? Not yours to take.” She walked down the gravel driveway, fading quickly into shadow. Just the sound of the lake, warm against the sand, thick with black cray, bigger than a child’s foot.

Telling Her Stories – Chapter 32

This is a chapter from my second completed novel, Telling Her Stories. If you wanna publish it, you know, call me. This is a second draft, and full of errors, of course. Mind your step. 

There’s not a chance that she knows; no chance at all.

If she knew, I don’t think there’s any way she’d be able to avoid asking me, even if she knew she could never have answer. She would ask me all the questions that I ask of myself, all the time. How did you let it happen? Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you tell anybody? Even selfish people want those kinds of questions answered. When the questions are that big.

The answers to those questions have changed over the years.

When I’m lying to myself, it’s easy enough to say, “I don’t know”. Plenty of women in abusive partnerships manage to trick themselves into believing that things will change, or that things aren’t that bad. That their partner doesn’t know what they’re doing. That they want to be different. That things will only be worse if they leave.

That’s not the truth for me, though. I knew exactly who he was, and what he was capable of. The war changed a great deal of men in my generation, and did it in differently insidious ways. Some came home physically scarred but mentally unchanged, and I suspect they had no idea that they were the lucky ones. Others came looking much the same, but with a look in their eye that had shifted; something almost like suspicion, that came of having seen the worst that the human race was capable of, and the subsequent belief that it must be watched for, and quelled.

Joe was never someone who would be described as kind, but that was not a fault, exactly. Kindness is not everything, though I suppose it’s a good starting point. It’s never mattered all that much to me because I was always able to be kind enough for the both of us. It sounds ridiculous, but then in a partnership, if you’ve both got all the same characteristics, it gets boring. Someone has to be a bit worse, don’t they?

Or that’s what I thought. Anyway, he was smart, and he was curious and he asked a lot of questions. I like people who ask questions. He always wanted to know how things worked, which was a bit like how I was, but he took it much further than me, taking things apart. When I cooked for him, he would sometimes question the science, or what made this rise or this flat, and I had no idea of the answer to any of it, I just knew that it did. I realize I’m making him sound a little like one of the men off The Big Bang Theory – I watch a lot of TV – but it wasn’t like that. It was just living his life with his eyes wide open. I liked that.

After the war a lot of people stopped living like that, even if they might have been that way before.

It just started to seem like a way to get in trouble, I think, like asking too many questions had got us there in the first place. And, of course, when you’ve made it back from something that so many people didn’t, where you never expected to come back from, it does change you. Most people I knew, it closed them down a bit.

So that was a good thing, about him. But with questioning things like that comes a degree of expectation, and it also meant that he always thought there were answers he hadn’t been given yet, like I was keeping things from him.

And that’s where it all starts to fall in together in my head, when his curiosity became cruelty. I know it seems like a big leap.

One thing I remember: I’d been out, across the park, where I’d stopped for a bit to sit and read, because it was warm and dry and because I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I was a housewife, you see, after the war, which I’d never particularly thought I would be. Before the war, I was at school, and working in the store. And during the war I was a nurse, thrust into it, like so many others left behind. And while I didn’t love it, the sudden housewife thing, I must confess that the amount of time I had to myself was something. This is pre-Elizabeth, pre-all of it, pre-everything, and everything was wide open, including my days. Or I suppose, thinking about it, it wasn’t exactly pre-Elizabeth. She was in there, tucked away. I just didn’t know it yet.

And then, after I was finished reading, I went to the market and picked up meat and vegetables, talked to a few people, and headed home. It was warm and quiet and I walked slowly, because I could.

I got home and started to cook, and he came into the kitchen, leaning against the doorway in that way he had, blocking out the light from the hall. I knew from his tread that something wasn’t quite right, and so I didn’t turn around, staring out the window into my little garden and kneading the pastry with a little more energy than it needed. My heart rate went up.

It’s silly isn’t. Here I am telling the story of when I first realized, when I first thought, but it’s all wrong. It’s full of flaws, like the fact that I didn’t turn around. Why not, to face my young husband? Why not, to tell him what’s for the dinner? Why didn’t I smile? It couldn’t have been the start. It doesn’t make sense.

The fact is that trying to point out one moment when something switches, when you look into a face and see someone different: that moment doesn’t exist. It’s not a gun being fired or a punch being thrown. It’s a leak. It’s a crack. Things come through slowly.

“You were gone for a long time”, he said.

“It was such a lovely day,” I replied, still looking out into the garden where the last of the sun was playing in a large square on the bench, and where I wished I was sitting, instead of hewing a large piece of meat into chunks for stewing, the smell of flesh rising to my nose and working into my fingers. “I sat in the park and read for a while”.

“What did you read?”

“Oh, something I borrowed from Sally. I don’t even remember the title, it’s in my bag. It’s alright, she really liked it but I…”

“There’s no book in your bag”, he said, and then I did turn around, holding my hands in front of me, to where he held my bag wide, and where there was no book.

“Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “I might have put it in the bedroom. I hope I didn’t leave it in the market”.

He slapped my bag onto the table, so that my purse slid out, along with my diary, and with a lipstick.

“Where were you really?” he asked, his nose pinching up and his chin pinching forward, so that he looked like himself only older.

“Don’t be silly, Joe! I can find the book. I don’t know why you’d think I’d lie”.

He moved around behind me, not quite touching me, but close enough that I could feel his warmth. “It’s not warm enough to read anyway. You’d have mud on your dress. There’s nothing here”. His palm on my thigh, hard. Not a caress.

My fingers in the meat, the pastry to the side, the bloody strings. “It’s dry in the park, we should go there tomorrow and read the paper, you’ll see. It’s quite lovely, on the right day.”

“You were seeing him.” Not even a question this time, not even a chance at a denial. “You were seeing him, and you didn’t think that I’d figure it out”.

“Seeing who?” I asked, and this time I washed my fingers and dried my hands because I couldn’t fight with bloodied palms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Joe, why are you so angry?”

“I don’t like being lied to,” he said, and he was so close, his face above mine like a moon, close and far, not even looking at me, but above my head and through the garden and further.

“I’m not lying,” I said, and I put a hand on his arm, damp against the white cotton. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but I promise I wouldn’t lie.”

He took his hand and lifted mine, dropping it like a tea towel. He looked down at me then, but it was still like the garden, there was no focus. “Don’t lie to me again,” he said, and he left the kitchen and left the house, closing the door quietly behind him.

I followed him to the doorway and watched him walk down the street, briskly. He might have been going anywhere, but I thought probably to the pub, where he could hunch up to the brown bar and talk about sport, or not talk, and certainly not think about his wife. I locked the door. I threw the meat in the bin. I went and sat in the sun. That was the first time, that I remember.