The wild coast of Cornwall in the middle of winter, when the rain somehow falls horizontally, and me. A coast made of endless rocky coves, and beaches which exist only at low tide. In between are the headlands where the rockpools form, each one a tiny temporary ocean unto itself, an ecosystem of miniature crabs, sea anemones, shrimps, and darting fish. Far from the tourist land of summer, this is a world of fishermen and smugglers, the village half shut-up for the season.
I’m the only guest at the one bed-and-breakfast that’s still open, in a farmhouse near the cliffs. The proprietor, Caroline, feeds me an enormous breakfast every morning, although she doesn’t seem to have quite grasped that I don’t eat pork, and that includes black pudding. Also bacon. Also sausages. Still, the fried mushrooms on toast are good, the porridge with homemade bramble jam and a dollop of clotted cream is even better, and the mugs of strong tea get me set for the day. She even gives me a thermos flask to take out with me, and some sandwiches. (Although no, she hasn’t figured out that ham also counts as pork.)
My research into the local marine ecosystem is lonely and cold, and I like it that way. I had to get out of Southampton because everything there reminds me of Esther. Especially Esther herself. You’d think in a city that size, we could avoid each other — but of course, we have the same favourite brunch spot, the same favourite vintage shop… and I know I could move somewhere else and find new favourite things, but I don’t want to. I want to have the same favourite things and share them with her.
I can’t. That much she made plain. I’m too much of something, not enough of something else. She can’t tell me what, exactly, I’m too much or not enough of, just that I’m not right for her. I think I know the answer though — I’m probably too boring. One drink when we go out, and then longing to be back home in bed — and not “in bed” in bed, but tucked up with a hot water bottle and a cup of chamomile tea and a good book. Too much time spent on my research, not enough time spent with her.
If that’s the answer, I can’t really argue. And she said we can still see each other occasionally, as if that isn’t worse than not seeing her at all. I know she was trying to make it easier for me, but it didn’t work.
And so here I am. This particular research project is probably a dead end, which is why nobody else in the Oceanography department wanted it. All the other guys got the glamorous gigs saving baby turtles on the beaches of the Caribbean or whatever, and I’m here in Cornwall, investigating “uncorroborated sightings of unusual sea creatures,” which are probably just basking sharks.
Still, it’s perfect for me. Away from Southampton, away from Esther, away from the other guys and their casual boasts about scuba diving in the Red Sea on family holidays. Here, I’m away from everything except the farmhouse, the cliffs, and the great grey sea.
This morning there is a cold, driving rain, blowing right in my face. The wind is so strong I can barely get the front door of the farmhouse open. I pause for a moment in the doorway, bracing myself.
Caroline comes out of the kitchen behind me. Are you sure you want to go out today, Sally?” she asks me. “You could take the day off. I’ve got some friends coming round later; you could play Scrabble with us. And I’m making fresh pasties.”
For a moment, I’m tempted. The warmth of the house beckons and so does the smell of pastry. And I play a mean game of Scrabble.
Then Caroline says something else. “You’d need to take that headscarf off, though. I don’t mind it — you know I don’t — but a couple of my friends are a bit old-fashioned.” Old-fashioned. That’s one word for it.
“That’s a very kind offer,” I say, “Still, I should really be working.”
“Even in this weather?” she asks.
“Even in this weather.” I square my shoulders and step outside.
I have to bow my head against the wind, and the air fights me every step of the way. More than once, I think about turning back to the farmhouse and playing Scrabble in the warm dry living room. Would it really be so bad to drink tea and eat pasties with some bigoted middle-aged ladies who’ll accept me but not my headscarf?
I steel myself to continue. I’m not a quitter, I tell myself. I’m a marine biologist. And I have a job to do. Even if it’s probably just tracking down a basking shark. Eventually, I make it across the fields to the edge of the sea, where I’m buffeted by a mixture of rain and sea spray. I crouch in the not-very adequate shelter of a half-ruined wall. There I rummage in my rucksack, get out my all-weather notebook, pen, and binoculars. Like I’m going to see anything in this weather. Still, I have to try.
I remain crouched in the lee of the wall as I put the binoculars to my eyes and scan the horizon. The sea is choppy, the sky a leaden grey, and soon the lenses are coated in so many water droplets that I have to pause to wipe them. It’s just as I’m about to put them to my eyes again that I see it: a dark shape moving through the water towards the shore. By the time I’m looking through the binoculars again, it’s out of sight below the lip of the cliff.
“Probably nothing,” I mutter, even as I scramble to my feet and walk to the cliff’s edge. The wind is even worse here, and the ground is uneven.
There it is again, almost on the beach now, thrashing around as if in distress. It doesn’t seem in control of where it’s going. What is it? A harbour porpoise? It doesn’t look big enough to be a basking shark, although it’s difficult to judge the size from here without anything to compare it to.
There’s nothing else for it. I have to take the steep, narrow, treacherous path down to the beach. Half-scrambling, half-sliding, I arrive on the narrow strip of damp sand a few minutes later.
The tide is coming in. Less than an hour from now, there won’t be a beach. Just waves pounding the rocks.
Now I see it. Washed up, lying almost still as the waves break around it.
Not a basking shark.
As I draw closer, I reach for my camera and take some pictures, almost on instinct. The scientific part of my mind processes the separate features, making conjectures, while the less rational part of my mind is screaming incoherently.
I mutter a quick description under my breath, trying to fix the details before the creature can slip away. It’s about the size of a seal, although the scales and fins are definitely fish-like. Its skin is a deep charcoal black, and there are rows of sharp spines running down the sides. The mouth gapes wide, with long pointed teeth. The eyes are blue and relatively small beside the huge maw. It looks almost like an ogrefish, or something else of the deep sea. There are even a couple of faintly bioluminescent tendrils growing out from its head, like the lures of a predatory anglerfish.
And then my eyes reach the part I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about, and my voice ends in a stutter. A word springs to my tongue, but my marine-biologist mind desperately wants to deny it. The thing has — they’re not arms, they can’t be arms — extended fleshy pectoral fins, like a coelacanth’s, only more so. Much more so. With webbed not-fingers at the end, which look like they could grasp things almost as easily as a human hand.
I stop about a metre away from the thing and try not to imagine those not-hands grabbing for me. Whatever this thing is, it’s clearly carnivorous, and although it appears to be dying — its gills flapping helplessly, its sides heaving — it could still be dangerous. I back away, breathing hard. What should I do? Take more pictures? Make a record? See if anyone will believe me?
As I lift the camera again, I see something else moving in the water. Another one of whatever-this-is? No. I catch a glimpse of mottled skin and a pair of rear flippers. Just a common seal. I don’t want to think about how relieved I am.
Then the wind drops for a moment, and I hear something — or rather, I become fully aware for the first time of a sound that has been there all along. It sounds like… singing, although not in any language I know. A chorus of voices, high-pitched and not quite human. I stumble away further up the beach, which is small and getting smaller, and look around.
And there, sitting on the rocks, I see her. Not her, I tell myself. It. It’s a seal. Must be. A seal with some bladderwrack seaweed draped over its head that looks a little bit like hair. Just a common seal, like the one I saw in the water.
Then she lifts her hand and beckons me over. I stumble towards her, wondering if Caroline mixed in some hallucinogenic mushrooms with my breakfast this morning, or if I’m actually in hospital having a psychotic episode. For what else would be in a marine biologist’s fever dream but mermaids?
I finally let that word escape: Mermaids. That’s what I’m looking at. The one lying stranded on the beach behind me must be some kind of deep-sea variant. And this one now beckoning to me must be… a harbour mermaid?
The bottom half of the body resembles a seal. Then the mottled brown-and-grey skin gradually fades into a pale taupe, and the top half of the body — arms, a head with thick greenish hair, and even a pair of breasts, large and soft-looking, no cartoonish modesty seashells here. She’s unmistakably what Esther calls “zaftig,” with plenty of fat on her arms and rolls around her middle. Seals need a good layer of blubber to insulate them in the cold water. It makes sense that a — a what, seal mermaid? — would have the same.
She’s singing. And it’s not just her — I can hear more than one voice. Somewhere, unseen, are more of them. Half-remembered legends leap through my head, of sirens sweetly singing, luring sailors onto the rocks. Behind me, the sea is coming in. Soon I’ll be cut off from the path back up the cliff, with nowhere to retreat.
She smiles at me. And I can’t help it — I step closer to her rocky perch, even scramble up towards her.
“You have come to us,” she says to me. Her voice is lilting and musical, with a Cornish accent. “We have seen you here, watching the sea. Every day. You yearn for it.”
“I am a marine biologist,” I tell her.
“All you humans yearn for the sea. You came from here, and now you walk around on land, carrying salt water inside you, longing for the day when you can return. Sometimes that longing is deep down, but sometimes it’s close to the surface. Like yours.” She smiles again. “What is your name, marine biologist?”
“Sally,” I tell her, and then I correct myself. “Saleema. Dr. Saleema Malik.”
“It is good to meet you, Dr. Saleema Malik. My name is Lowenna.”
I scrub my hand over my face, but she doesn’t disappear. I’m still here, standing on a rock, sea water seeping into my shoes, talking to a mermaid. In the absence of any other logical thought, my scientist brain reasserts itself, and I decide I have to make the most of this opportunity for research.
“Why are you here? Why are you showing yourself to me?”
“I live here,” she tells me. “This is my favourite cove. I swim all along this stretch of coast, as far as the place you call Padstow. The others have come here from all over the Atlantic.”
Another smile. Lowenna gestures over my shoulder, and I glance back to see the abyssal mermaid, now drifting in the shallow water as the tide comes in. “She is from the darkest depths of the ocean, while if you come a little closer….”
She beckons again, and I climb up further, until I can peer over the edge of the rock she’s perched on and see into the deep pool beyond. There I see two more merfolk. They have lower bodies like spotted eagle rays, and the skin of their upper bodies is a warm earthy brown. Their hair is slightly reddish and hangs in long coils. The woman is singing, while the merman says something to me in a language I don’t recognise.
“What did you say?” I ask.
The woman speaks now, her male companion seamlessly taking over their song. “I am Mado. He is Kahungu. He said, ‘We come from the western coast of Africa, where the flow of the mighty Congo makes the water sweet for miles out into the sea. But we can no longer live where we once did.’ And I say all of us are the same — we have been driven out of our homes, and the survivors have washed up here.”
I swallow, uneasily. “‘All of us’?” I ask.
“Look,” says Mado, and she makes a wide gesture with both her arms and her winged tail, to encompass the rocks and the sea.
I climb up a little farther still. There’s finally a break in the weather, and a few weak shafts of sunlight make it through the clouds to illuminate patches of grey water. And now I can see the true multitudes of merfolk. Every type of human body and every shade of human skin, merged with every type of sea creature.
The eight orange suckered arms of an octopus, the silvery striped body of an Atlantic bonito, the deep blue segmented tail of a lobster, the soft bell and long tentacles of a jellyfish — they’re all here, in the tidal pools and coastal waters of Cornwall. Further out to sea, I swear I can see something that looks like an Orca with a human head, and something else — yes — a basking shark.
And then I bring my eyes back to the beach. The deep-sea mermaid I had thought was dying is swimming again in the deepening water, moving her head with its toothy mouth as if trying to catch a scent.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “about climate change.” Which is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever said. “But I can help you. I can tell people about your plight. We can find you safe places to live.”
Lowenna and Mado both laugh at me, and Mado speaks. “We’ll do just fine. There might be few enough of us left, but as the waters rise, so will we. We will swim through the streets of London. We will grow forests of kelp on your rolling hills. We will feast on the remnants of humanity and make coral reefs of your bones.”
At this moment, something in the quality of the singing changes slightly, becoming wilder, harsher. Water laps against my legs. I look round again, and I can see the abyssal mermaid has added her voice to the chorus as she swims towards me. The bioluminescent glow of her lure is much brighter now, almost mesmerising….
I remember her teeth. I remember all I know about ogrefish and anglerfish and every nightmare-looking thing of the deep sea. I remember Esther’s laugh, and I want to hear it again, even if we can’t always laugh together. I remember Caroline’s cups of tea.
Most of all, I remember how to swim. I launch myself backwards from the rocks, into the incoming tide, and let the swell carry me to the path back up the cliff. A webbed hand tries to grab at my ankles. I kick it away, seizing whatever piece of rock I can find and hauling myself out of the water. My legs skid on the treacherous ground as I run up the path.
A few minutes later, I drag myself onto the cliff top, thanking Allah for my waterproof clothes and the camera cradled in my arms. Shivering, I risk a look back. The beach has now all but disappeared, and waves pound against the rocks. Something swims effortlessly back out to sea.