Landfall, Autumn, 2006; The Roads Ahead (Tindal Street Press, Birmingham) 2009
“Is she blonde?”
“What colour’s her hair?”
“Oh well, she might like to dye her hair later.” Hugh smiled. “Does she speak English?”
“As far as we are aware she doesn’t speak at all.”
“Oh.” Hugh crossed out the goldfish he had doodled in his diary. “But can she sing?”
“Our scientists have not examined her vocal chords yet.”
“I told you I don’t want any scientists involved in this,” Hugh said, the pen fell from his hand.
“Yes, yes. That’s fine. No scientists.”
“Is she friendly?”
“It’s hard to tell. She has been heavily sedated since her capture off the coast of the Caribbean.”
“So she’s from a warm climate,” Hugh said.
The voice at the other end of the line coughed. “I must warn you she has been known to bite.”
“Yes. She is still extremely distressed. We think it’s the shock.”
“I suppose that’s only natural,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll feel better when she has a new home. How old is she?”
“We don’t know.”
“What do you mean? She better be young – I didn’t pay to have the ancient mariner delivered to the mansion.”
“Don’t panic Mr Hefner. She’s definitely very young.”
Dusk descends upon the lawn. Dew licks the grass with a wet tongue. Downstairs, the waters of the Playboy grotto are empty. The pool filter purrs, effortlessly sifting the chlorine. Hugh paces the tiled floor, unable to rest. Upstairs the playmates are having their afternoon nap. Earlier he passed by the door of the communal bedroom and saw them sleeping naked on top of the silk sheets. A row of silicon breasts back to back. Tonight he has told them to go clubbing without him. He doesn’t want anyone to see the truck when it arrives at midnight. Outside, the sky deepens to dark blue, bruises itself with clouds, then turns black.
She wakes. Her head fights its way through an army of images. Rope digging into scales, bruising. The sharp bite of oxygen slipping in and out of her gills. Fish writhing beneath her, their mouths opening and closing in surprise, the prickle of their tails against her flesh, their fins flickering. One by one the fish lie still.
Odourless night. A snatch of ocean. The lap of waves.
A creature in white inches towards her. Large fingers of coral wiggle in front of her face. The creature holds something, a prickle that punctures her skin. She shrieks. Pain needles her limbs and the putrid scent of simmering flesh fills her nostrils. Water scratches her scales, bubbles rise around her waist, popping and fizzing. She is hot. Too hot. Her tail writhes and twists in shallow water, the mermaid opens her mouth and screams: the high pitched scream of an animal being cooked alive.
His hands tremble in the heart-shaped lock. Inside the attic, he finds her on the carpet next to the Jacuzzi, shivering.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
He rushes to her side. She screams at the sight of his face. The interior of her throat is alarmingly opaque. She has a set of baby teeth, small and slightly pointed.
The Jacuzzi bubbles like a cauldron in the background.
“Is the water too hot?”
Her tail hammers through the air towards him and he is knocked sideways onto the floor. His maroon dressing gown splays open and his penis flops out like a parsnip. The mermaid clutches at his legs. Her fingers are white with a sheen of blue, slightly webbed. She scratches four lines into his face with talons. Hugh raises his hand to his cheek stunned. The wound stings of salt. Her eyes stare at him. She has no pupils. Just the blackened eyes of a shark.
“There, there, good girl.” He fumbles in his dressing gown pocket for the needle and stabs it into her the parched flesh of her tail. The mermaid wails. Then the morphine rushes into her blood and she is out cold.
Hugh turns the Jacuzzi off. He picks her up and rocks her against his chest. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He kisses her head. Her hair is still wet. She smells of the deepest part of the ocean. Of places human eyes will never see. The dark shifting carpet of sand, the never-ceasing darkness from which all life has grown. He imagines the quivering souls of amoebas clustering on the bottom of the ocean like abandoned silicon breasts. As he rocks the mermaid against his chest, time runs backwards. Human flesh grows coarse brown hair, faces shrivel, eyes blink and open: the raisin eyes of apes. The apes get smaller, their backs hunch until they are the smooth hairless backs of Mexican Walking fish, sitting in the white heat of the sun, their amphibious skin still glazed with seawater. The earth turns and the Mexican Walking fish walk backwards into the ocean. A pterodactyl flies overhead, searching the waves for shoals of fish.
The next day Hugh fills the gold-plated Jacuzzi with oxygen weed. The mermaid sleeps, with her face underneath the water. The tip of her tail hangs over the jacuzzi and drips onto the carpet.
He sits on a nearby chair and watches her. His hands ache to touch her tail. The scratch along his face still stings of salt. Bubbles float up from her nose and cling to the skin around her mouth. She has mauve lips. A bit more rubbery than Hugh would have preferred but she is only a child.
At night she cries. Her eyes gaze at the sea of stars through the skylight. He hears her calling for her kind. He plays her a CD of whale and dolphin sounds. This makes her crying worse. In desperation, Hugh sings the mermaid the same lullabies his Mother sang to him as a child.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.
He buys her toys. She bites the head off his favourite Barbie, tries to eat it. He hangs a mobile over her Jacuzzi as though it’s a cot. He brings her a music box and sets it up on a table out of the range of her tail. Hugh winds the music box up and opens the lid. A plastic ballerina springs up and turns around to the tune ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’.
The mermaid’s eyes dart towards the box. She listens. Her luminous hands grip the side of the Jacuzzi. Her black eyes drink in the music. Every time the tune winds to a close, she slams her tail against the side of the Jacuzzi. Waves of water fly over the shag pile carpet. Hugh spends all night winding up the music box. In the morning he stumbles downstairs with heavy bags underneath his eyes.
The cook looks up from her bowl and gasps. She drops her spatula.
She hands him a fresh shrimp cocktail and he returns to the attic. Seeing the mermaid suck and chew on the small pink ringlets of shrimp fills his heart with pride.
When he sleeps during the day strange dreams race through his veins. A bevvy of mermaids dance towards him under the ocean, he hears their voices, rich and deep, the sound vibrates in his ears. Just as he is about to reply, the mermaids move in and strip the flesh from his bones like a pack of piranhas’. He wakes with a dry throat and reaches down to squeeze his balls. Inside the right sack, he finds a hard little lump the size of a pea.
“Are you alright?”
“What’s the matter?”
“He’s burning up, feel his forehead.”
“Oh my god.”
The playmates loom over his bed. Their blonde faces mime concern. Hugh tries to swing his legs out of bed. He can’t sit up. His balls throb. The Playmates dress in nurse’s uniforms and escort him to a black limousine. A fine layer of sweat breaks out over his forehead. He stumbles on the pebbled drive. The Playmates hold him steady, their tanned arms are strong. They open the door to the large back seat. Beige vinyl: the palm of an embalmer’s hand. Hugh pauses. He looks up at the attic window glazed with sunlight.
The Doctor admires the x-rays with the zeal of an artist exhibiting his latest set of paintings. Hugh stares at his balls in black and white. The smell of sterilised needles and surgical gloves pepper the air.
“The tumour is extremely large. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Do you think it’s a side effect of the Viagra?”
“No, no, there’s no proof of that.” The doctor snaps the projection off. The x-rays disappear.
“How much will it cost?”
“Excuse me?” The doctor slides the glasses down onto the tip of his nose.
“To cut it out.”
The doctor frowns. “I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple, Mr Hefner. The tumour is extremely advanced. There’s no easy way to say this.” The Doctor squares his shoulders. “We need to remove your testicles.”
Hugh swallows. He manages a little laugh but there’s no-one to share the joke.
The doctor continues, “We must act quickly. Think of your family.”
Hugh thinks only of the mermaid.
Death hovers in the room like a moth, flapping its wings at him.
His shoulders collapse. He feels older than Rip Van Winkle. “Okay. But I want to keep them.”
“Keep what?” The doctor’s mind has flown away already, projecting into the future, the surgery he will have to perform…
“My balls,” Hugh says.
Clouds smother the lights of Los Angeles. A veil of mist shrouds the gates at the Playboy mansion when Hugh returns, still groggy from the operation. His head lolls against the backseat. He gazes out the window, clutching a small sealed plastic bag as the limousine penetrates smog as smooth as cream. Worms shuttle through the ground. The petals of roses close. Leaves drip from the trees. The chauffeur helps him to the door. Hugh shuffles slowly across the marble foyer, the plastic bag carefully concealed in his dressing gown pocket. Outside lightning lacerates the sky and the playmates scream.
The mermaid is waiting. Her head turns towards the door as it opens. Her eyes are streaked with tears. She howls. Her face is hollow, it has only been one night, yet she is thinner, her skin almost translucent. He can see the river of veins beneath her flesh. She reaches out for him and Hugh smothers her webbed hands with wet kisses.
“SSShhh. I’m here now, I’m here now,” he croons. He has brought her a lobster and a pickled eel. She tears the lobster apart. Flakes of orange shell crackle beneath her teeth. The white flesh of the lobster disappears. She sucks on the eel. Hugh watches her throat expand. The eel travels towards her stomach with a satisfied slurp. He winds up the music box and she falls asleep. Her head rests on his lap. Her damp hair seeps through his dressing gown and soothes his wounds.
Above the skylight is a full moon. Unblinking. Cold. The mermaid’s tail twitches. She must be dreaming. Hugh hears her mew in the night, like a kitten calling out for its mother. Across the world, the tide is rushing into estuaries and inlets. Waves smother the sand of beaches and rivers overflow…
The mermaid can sense the change in Hugh. She touches his face for the first time. Hugh feeds her fruit in shades of pastel lingerie: pineapple, mango, watermelon and guava. She tastes the sunshine in bananas, swallows the earth in a mouthful of roast beef. Her tongue leaps out of her mouth and chases the juice. Hugh feeds her his mother’s favourite recipes. The mermaid eats fried chicken and wonder stains her face. He dangles tender marinated strips of porterhouse steak above the Jacuzzi. Tiny bites adorn his fingers. The sheen of blueness disappears from the mermaid’s skin. Her breasts swell and an apricot glow assaults her cheeks.
Hugh sits on the edge of the Jacuzzi. A sliver of moonlight illuminates the room. The mermaid cocks her head like a dog and regards him with intelligent eyes. He holds his hands behind his back. She watches his lips closely and tries to imitate the sounds.
He holds out a ring of pineapple and she grabs it, stuffs the fruit inside her mouth. Juice races down her chin and drips onto her chest. She reaches out for another ring of pineapple.
Hugh shakes his finger. “Not yet. One more time. Hu-gh.”
“Ew – ew.”
His shoulders sag. He sighs, rests his head in his hands. The mermaid slaps her tail against the side of the Jacuzzi. A spray of water wets his lap. He passes her the tin of pineapple and she fishes the slices from the can with her fingers.
The drugs the doctor prescribes percolate inside his veins. Chemotherapy teases the hair from his scalp. The playmates buy him a platinum grey wig. “You’re looking better,” they assure him. “The wig is so natural.” His penis shrivels to the size of a baby’s finger. When Hugh emerges from the attic he finds one of the playmates standing guard outside his room. He phones his lawyer, redrafts his will. Ex-wives reappear at the door: friends, lovers, journalists. Pamela Anderson brings him a bunch of green California grapes. “Oh my god.” Her blue eyes bulge. Cancer has whittled away his skeleton, hollowed him out. Hugh grabs the grapes and slams the door of the mansion shut. He refuses to see any more visitors, except for a naturopath.
The naturopath waits for Hugh in the oak-panelled library. Her sensitive hands caress the erotic statues on the mantle-piece. She strokes the naked bust of a woman, admires each marble breast. Hugh enters: a cadaver smoking a pipe. Two playmates flank him on either side like Shetland ponies. A bright blue aura radiates from his skin. The naturopath is overcome by the stench of seaweed. Hugh sinks into a comfortable chair. “Can you help me?”
The naturopath unwraps her quartz pendulum from a soft leather pouch around her neck. The pendulum quivers above Hugh’s forehead. She smiles. “How much seafood do you include in your diet?”
Hugh licks his lips. Saliva coats the roof of his mouth. For the first time, he wonders what the mermaid might taste like? Is she pink and tender like corn beef, or grey and salty like canned tuna?
Light ebbs and flows like water. The howl of a dog in the night. Her nostrils fill with new smells. Baked bread. The tang of the cocoa bean. Meat braised and seared and sautéed. She salivates at the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. Her tail plumps up like a cushion. The scales flake off revealing flesh as pink as spam. She forgets what the ocean smells like. Only when she dreams can she glimpse the greenness of the sea. Her fins quiver, her spine aches. She smells him on her hands. The stink of dry land. Weeks of stagnant water, the scratch and drag of oxygen weed. A tune plays in her head. Alone she tries to make his sounds. Ugh. Eew. Eeegh. Her throat stings. She submerges. She cries for the ocean. Her tears blend with Jacuzzi water. Movements echo below her: the gallop of legs. Tentacles of white light drift down through the skylight. His key clicks in the lock.
Hugh bundles the mermaid in his arms like a bride and carries her down the oak staircase into the grand hall. Her tail drips water onto the stairs. Outside the lawn wets his bare feet. The mermaid shivers in his embrace. She opens her mouth and drinks in fresh air. Hugh stumbles under the weight of her tail. He walks slowly through the sprinklers, the water rains on them like confetti.
The mermaid sees the pool. The blue water lit up by a funnel of yellow light. She mews for the water. Her tail begins to tremble. She twists in his arms. His dressing gown falls open and the night air shrivels his flesh.
A loud clap breaks the playboy grotto. The mermaid moves with the stealth of a shark. She laps the pool several times as though searching for a channel back into the sea. Her head pops up in the distance, her face in shadow. Below the surface of the pool her tail hangs like an anchor. She stares down at it, as though it has surprised her, with its usefulness, its strength and speed. Hugh is surprised too. He claps as though she has won a race, then fears a playmate will have heard him. Hugh glances back toward the mansion but the windows are dark and expressionless.
The sprinkler fans out on the lawn behind him, the soft patter of drops hitting the grass. A dog barks. The mermaid’s head jerks round.
“Its okay.” Hugh smiles. He forgets there is so much of the world she has not seen.
“Shall I join you?” He asks.
The water feels cool and indifferent on his skin as he swims towards her. The mermaid bears her tiny razor-like teeth, arches her back and growls.
He holds his arms out to greet her. “There, there, it’s only me.”
Her tail rolls him under. They turn together as though twisting through silk sheets. Hugh claws at the mermaid. Her black eyes are large and calm. He thrashes through the turquoise water, bubbles explode from his nostrils. Finally, his mouth breaks the surface. He lurches towards the side of the pool, kicking off her hands and heaves himself onto the grass. A train of blood runs down his leg and splashes onto his feet. His breath pours out in staccato bursts, fogging the air. The mermaid submerges a chunk of his flesh between her teeth. He limps back towards the mansion, the night heavy with the spice of blood and cologne.
Midnight. Hugh removes a plastic bag from the freezer. He opens the door of the microwave, places the pouch of flesh inside and pushes the defrost button. Hugh dices an onion, hears the oil in the pan hiss. The microwave beeps. He works slowly. It’s been years since he cooked. He lathers the meat in octopus ink. The bite on his leg fizzes. Blood pools on the black marble floor. He hadn’t wanted to use the syringe to sedate her but he had no choice.
In the great hall, the monkeys carved into the balustrades of the oak staircase smile in the dark. Hugh carries the mermaid her last dish on a silver platter. His leg clenches on the stairs. He grips the bannister. His slippers slide back and forth on the soles of his feet. At the attic door, he fishes into the right hand pocket of his dressing gown and pulls out the key. Through the lock, he can hear her voice. A lonely high-pitched sound. A rash of goosebumps break out on his flesh. She is singing. His ears string together the broken sounds. He recognises the tune, Raindrops keep falling on my head.
Inside the attic, her dark eyes turn toward him slowly, the echo of the moon behind a cloud. Hugh holds the mermaid’s last supper. Light plays on the silver platter. The mermaid regards the meal cautiously. The morphine has made her docile, she fumbles for the sack of pale beige flesh. The moon sinks below the cloud and the skylight is smothered in blackness. Hugh listens to her slurp and crunch. He hears the juices running in the darkness. Her eyes widen as she breaks into the soft centre of his right ball. A river of salt splashes onto her tongue. Sperm mingles with salvia. When she has finished eating she licks the platter clean. Nothing is left. Not even the sprig of parsley.
The embalmer and his daughter take special care with the penis: a wilted flower.
“It’s smaller than I imagined,” the embalmer’s daughter says.
Her Father nods. She lifts the penis gently and dusts underneath. She sees the scars from where his balls were removed. Two pink smiles.
Together the pair drains the fluids from the corpse. The body still smells of cologne. The blood is thick and lusty. In the contents of his stomach, they find the half-digested fin of a strange fish.
She holds it up, “A shark?”
“No.” The embalmer shakes his head, “something else…”
The day of the funeral approaches. The smog above Los Angeles has whisked away, revealing a garter blue sky. The Playmates attend the open coffin at the Funeral Parlour. They took special care choosing the coffin. A white casket with a maroon satin interior. “To match his dressing gown.” A large white candle burns in the corner of the room. Their tears rain on his skin. Their fingers skim the surface of his face. They leave after ten minutes.
The embalmer’s daughter sneaks back into the room for one last look at the corpse. She lifts the corpse’s arms up one at a time and rolls the sleeves of the dressing gown from the body. Maroon silk ripples beneath her fingers. The tumour has whittled each arm to a twig. She tugs at the fabric and pulls it out from under his back. She will sell the dressing gown on e-bay, fetch a handsome price. She blows out the candles and clamps the lid of the coffin shut.
A fleet of Playboy bunnies hauls the white coffin out of the back of a Hearse. Their black satin ears shimmer in the sun. A helicopter scissors through the Los Angeles sky. The diamond flash of a thousand cameras.
The doors to the Playboy mansion close. Without a gardener, the garden reverts to its natural state. Vines grow up around the driveway and thread through the iron gates. The pool filter utters its last sigh. Mould spreads green tentacles across the belly of the grotto. Dead leaves fall through the broken glass and settle like a film over the water. The air conditioning breaks. The polar ice caps melt. Mountains cascade into the sea. Seaweed towers above high-rise buildings. Schools of fish travel freely through the underwater world, their scales flash in the dark like car headlights.
Mermaids pop up above the waves and gaze at what remains of the earth. A Tyre ring floating in the endless ocean. Then dive down to hunt for treasure in the desecrated cities. They pick garbage off the streets. A fishbone from a rubbish bin. A pair of leather trousers. The mermaids sniff and stare. They find a solitary high heel, the instep bloated and strange, hanging out like a tongue.
The coral reef restores itself: a white breathing world laced with fish.
A throng of mermaids rests on the roof of the Empire State building. They dip their tails into the sea and scoop out funnels of salt water. The mermaids wash their faces, then comb the knots from one another’s hair. The carcass of a cat drifts by, its fur straggled, its eyes eaten out by the birds that circle overhead. A young mermaid plucks the cat from the waves and nurses it in her arms. A sense of de-ja-vue glitters behind her black eyes.