The Myth of the Mermaid
by Ed Blundell
No one, not even the oldest people in the town, could remember when there had been such a fierce storm. It was a wild, tempestuous, raging night, wind gusting at gale force, rain endlessly lashing down from dark, thunderous skies, and turbulent seas surging and crashing against the shore
The next morning, the storm lulled, although the heavy, dark clouds on the horizon threatened more severe weather to come.
The first person to see the body of the mermaid was old Harry, the tramp. Harry slept rough, anywhere he could find to keep warm and dry. He existed by begging and by finding scraps in bins. The best times were in the holiday season, when drunken visitors threw newspapers of half-eaten fish and chips away. Out of season, things were harder. He had barely slept through the storm and, with nothing stronger to drink than rainwater, he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
Walking along the beach, hoping to find something of value, he discovered the body. From the waist up, it was the body of a woman, white-skinned and full-breasted, the face pretty and calm in death, the nose flat to the face and the hair long and vivid green. Below the waist was a fish tail.
At first, he thought he was hallucinating and waited for the spiders to appear again. He poked the body with the toe of his boot. It was tangible and solid. It was something that should be reported to the police, but he knew the reception he always got from them. Better to let someone else find and report it, he resolved. He decided to try his luck at scrounging a drink and some food from soft-hearted Mary at the Smoky Kipper Café.
Later, after a mug of tea and a bacon balm cake, he decided he’d imagined the whole thing.
Jim and Kenny had skipped school. The first two lessons that morning were RE and the last two, History, and they were all with their form teacher, Miss Havers. Miss Havers was young, inexperienced and had difficulty controlling the class. She probably wouldn’t notice they were missing. She usually forgot to take the register until midday. Their plan was to arrive at school early afternoon. If she questioned them, they would say they had been to the dentist. Meanwhile, they had the whole morning to explore the beach.
The storm had washed up a lot of debris and, in it, they found the bodies of numerous starfish. They poked them with sticks to see if they were still alive. It was as they were throwing stones at drinks cans amongst the detritus that they first caught sight of the mermaid.
They knew at once it was a body and, after a cursory examination, decided it was a corpse. The fish tail puzzled them.
“She’s dead,” Kenny announced.
“I know,” replied Jim. “We’ll have to tell somebody. The police.”
“No way. That would prove we’ve been off school. My dad says you can go to jail for wagging.”
“What shall we do?”
Kenny looked down the deserted beach. “Let’s go. Someone will come along and find her. Let’s get back to school and say we missed the bus.”
As they walked down the promenade, they saw a woman on the beach throwing sticks for a dog.
“She’ll find her,” said Kenny and, conscience satisfied, they shut the matter away.
The woman on the beach, Sarah Copeland, was throwing sticks for Candy, her golden Labrador. As she walked down the sands, the dog ran ahead and began to bark at something in the shingle. It looked from a distance like a large dead creature, some kind of fish perhaps. Knowing Candy’s love of rolling in unpleasant-smelling things, she quickened her step.
“Come here, girl. Candy, come here,” she called in vain. The dog didn’t obey her and continued barking at the object.
As she drew nearer, she saw that it was a woman’s body, and then she saw the tail. “Oh my God!” she gasped and, taking out her mobile, rang 999. Within a few minutes, she was speaking to the duty officer at the local police station. “I want to report that I’ve found a woman’s body on the beach. I’m walking my dog, and I’ve just found her.”
The policeman was calm and matter of fact. “Are you certain the woman is dead madam? I mean not just unconscious?”
“I’m certain. She’s not breathing. And she’s not really a woman.” There was a pause. “She’s a mermaid.”
A silence hung, tense and strained.
“Did you say ‘mermaid’, madam?”
“Yes. Look I know this sounds weird, but she’s got green hair and a long scaly tail.”
The policeman’s voice was measured, official and stern. “You are aware that it is a serious offence to waste police time, madam? What’s your name?”
“I’m Sarah Copeland. I’m a retired headmistress and this isn’t a hoax. At least I’m not playing any games.”
A police car arrived ten minutes later. Police Constable Graham Barnett was an experienced officer. He had just passed his sergeant’s examination and was hoping for promotion. With him was a young woman, P.C. Jenny White, barely a year into the job. Her uncle and grandfather had been serving officers, and she was determined to be the first in the family to reach the rank of Inspector.
Jenny escorted a, by now impatient, Sarah Copeland to the car and took some details and a brief statement from her, while P.C. Barnett gave the corpse a superficial examination and then drove stakes into the shingle and wrapped scene of crime with police “Do Not Cross” tapes around them.
“We have to report this to the Chief Inspector,” he told Jenny. “She looks real, but the pathologist needs to see her. No one at the station will believe it. This will be a real media feeding frenzy when it breaks.”
The Chief Inspector was sceptical and cynical. “Are you sure it wasn’t a dummy or a woman dressed up?” he pressed.
“Yes,” they chorused.
“It was a woman. A real woman. Well at least the top half was,” Jenny blurted out.
“Her face wasn’t human,” Graham added. “The nostrils were flat, gills.”
“The bottom bit,” the Chief queried,” could that have been a woman’s legs under some sort of covering?”
“Not as far as I could tell, sir,” Graham told him,” but I think it would need the pathologist to do a full examination to be certain.”
The Chief Inspector sighed. “I am about to send the pathologist and a forensics team there now. If this is a hoax, we will be a laughingstock.” He looked at them closely, a hard piercing stare. “I won’t see the joke,” he concluded.
Even as they were talking the news of the river bursting its banks was breaking. The storm had already swollen the river and the flash floods from the moors swept down and over the banks into the lower part of the town.
Several streets of houses were flooded, and water had poured into an old peoples’ home. The 999 calls began to mount up. All available staff were deployed immediately to the area. The Chief Inspector left to take command, telling his secretary to contact the pathologist about the body on the beach.
She phoned the pathologist’s secretary who was on ansaphone and left a brief message asking her to return the call. When she put the phone down, it rang; it was her son-in-law to tell her that Jane her daughter had gone into labour two weeks early.
“I’ll come at once,” she said. She rang the Detective Inspector’s secretary and asked her if she would cover her calls.
“Of course, pet. You get off now and look after that girl.”
Half an hour later, the pathologist’s secretary rang back.
“I don’t know why she called you,” the DI’s secretary confessed. “I’ll ask the Chief Inspector when he gets back.”
It was late before he returned. It was raining heavily again and the forecasts were bad. A major incident had been declared, and it was his function to coordinate fire and rescue services and liaise with the local authority to accommodate and feed the evacuated householders. He rang to speak to the pathologist, who by then had left.
“It’s his wedding anniversary,” his secretary explained defensively. “I’ll call him at home.”
She eventually contacted him on his mobile in the Italian restaurant where he was celebrating with his wife. By now it was dark and, cursing his job, the police and fate in general, he abandoned his wife of thirty years to a solitary anniversary meal and set off for the beach.
Half an hour earlier, the Chief Inspector had sent for P.C. Barnett. “You found this mermaid. You go and guard her till the pathologist shows up. He’ll arrange for the body to go to the morgue.”
Tired and wet from a day wading through knee deep river water, Graham Barnett stopped en route to buy a cheeseburger. He sat and ate it in the car watching the black clouds swirling above, feeling the car rock in the gusts of gale-force wind. By the time he reached the beach, the sea was full, huge waves crashing and surging up the shingle well above the normal tide line There was no trace of the body or the tape he had left. He checked that he had the right spot then, resigning himself to the situation, returned to the car to await the arrival of the apoplectic pathologist.
The floods up and down the coast and the risks to lives in the county were a feature of the main news headlines for the next week.
It was two weeks after they had discovered the body that Constables White and Barnett were summoned to the Chief Inspector’s office. Rumours were rife that he was to receive a commendation for his actions during the emergency. There was a man with him in an expensive, dark suit.
“This is Mr Fairbrother from the Home Office,” the chief inspector introduced. “He is here in response to my report on the body you found.”
“The putative mermaid,” Fairbrother added, his voice containing the slightest hint of a sneer. “We appear to have lost the body, and you and the retired headteacher are the only ones to have seen it. Not even a blurred mobile camera photograph,” he concluded.
They had earlier asked Sarah Copeland if she had taken a photograph. She had not and became angry at an imagined implied criticism.
P.C. Graham Barrett’s wife was a librarian. She had spoken at length and at times acrimoniously about the mermaid. “It was probably a seal,” she stated emphatically. “In warmer waters, dugongs or manatees have been mistaken for mermaids. It was most likely a seal you saw.”
Graham had at first protested.
“They won’t want to appoint as sergeant someone who sees mermaids,” she suggested. “Flying saucers next, perhaps?”
Graham saw her point. He had explained to Jenny White: “Won’t help your promotion, love, or mine. Best we say it was a seal. It’s gone now, and the body has not reappeared.”
She was a pragmatic and ambitious young woman and took his point at once.
“We wondered on reflection if it might have been a seal,” he told Fairbrother. “We only saw it briefly, and I did say I ‘thought’ it was a mermaid. Maybe it was a seal.”
P.C. Jenny White silently nodded her assent.
Fairbrother sighed, smiled and closed his notebook, which was embossed with the Home Office logo. The Chief Inspector looked very relieved.
A few days later, as Sarah Copeland was taking Candy for her morning walk, she saw the gulls flocking around and fighting over something at the water’s edge. Putting Candy on her lead she walked closer, scattering the shrieking and annoyed birds.
The object was the corpse of a sea creature, half-eaten by fish and gulls, part putrefied and swollen. The only recognisable feature to link it to the mermaid was the long cascade of green hair.
She turned and, pulling on the lead, walked up the beach with the dog. “Let’s go home for a cup of tea and a biscuit,” she said, leaving the remains of the mermaid to the gulls.
Copyright © 2019 by Ed Blundell