Skiátheá retells in a contemporary setting a traditional Cornish (English) tale - the Mermaid of Zennor. The original tale is of a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid. Neither lover can live for long in the world of the other.
Skiátheá is about brief love, but also its transforming magic. Our modern mermaid is a charming conversationalist and above all else a storyteller. She will not talk of her past or future, save in stories, for neither truly exist. She has sad eyes.
I fish in a quiet corner of the beach, at a place against the northern cliff where a stream drops a curtain of water across a cave mouth, of about twice a man's height. Beside it a dozen steps lead to a footpath that climbs to the headland one way, along the landward run of cliff in another, and past irregularly spaced bungalows to the top of the village, in a third. The cliff at this spot dips low, and the sea has made a circular shape of it; clap your hands in the centre and it makes an interesting sound, not an echo, for the cliff-bowl is too small, but the resulting noise is louder and deeper than it should be.
Men of a certain age often go fishing to get away from things. But I come to this place to get closer. To the sea, to the wind and the sand and the coldness of the waves and to my thoughts. The latter can go onto paper, onto the writing pad that is usually on my knees - I do six pages in a good night, more than the usual count of fish. I am a faster writer than a fisherman. In fact, a better anything than a fisherman. Perhaps this is the shortcoming I am trying to get away from, which is paradoxical, like human nature.
This place where I fish is familiar to me: Mawgan Porth. Port Mawgan in the old Cornish, meaning both home and harbour. But it is a home no longer, I now live far beyond the beach and the green valley that bounded my childhood world. I return here for the same reasons as I stay away; waywardness; vagaries of circumstance and income; and the fact that you can return to the home of your childhood, but never to your childhood home. Whilst the hillside pines and the willows of the valley floor have grown taller since I left, and the houses have altered their shapes and colours, the real change for me is in seeing childhood friends all married and facing middle-age, and that is why I do not linger.
Yet the beach itself does not change. Or rather it is always changing, which is why it remains a constant force in my life. I hope I can still come here in my last years and see the sand swept clean and the sea flowing in interesting ways with an incoming tide, the way it always does, if that is, my beach and I make it into old age.
For our world is changing, and I do not know how to put it back. I say our world, because my home, or more precisely the sea that surrounds it, has a living name, a different one from that in maps and guidebooks. It is a girl's name, and rather pretty. But that name is for the future. For now I am only fishing, it is an hour after sunset, the moon in a clear sky is a little past full and my thoughts are on the past, not the future. Always they are of the past when I am here - this being the unvoiced and perhaps the real reason why I do not linger in my childhood home for long.
* * *
When I first saw the girl she was in the water. I don't recall which came first, the sight of her or of the wave that parted around the shape of a woman. Outside my circle of lantern-light the edges of things merge together. Seaweed joins with rocks, sky with sea and cliff edge with beach sand. There are shapes and living figures out there where none exist in the daylight.
Yet as I strained to see, her shape did not fade; the girl was to her waist in the surf, her hair touching the water and being pulled around by it, her outline and her waist were slender and her form ghostly pale in the moonlight. She was like a shadow in reverse, a name which I unwittingly gave her at that moment: Shadow. It would stick.
The girl was coming towards me. As the wave crests lowered to her thighs, her knees, the body revealed was thin, almost painfully so, and her height looked no greater than my shoulders, and I am not a tall man. Her face was down as she walked and her hair hid her features, she seemed to be looking at the water that flowed around her, at the expanding circles of foam behind each wave, at the rising and falling of the wave crests, or at the seaweed tumbling beneath them. Her whole attention was either on or in the water, and not ahead of her, despite the man there on the beach with his folding stool, with the rucksack by his side, the rod on its hands-free stand and the line trailing out, and either that man or the lantern beside him was her target, and she was finding us by some inner sonar.
As the girl stepped from the water into my light I could see her colours forming, her hair was a deep red, her face as she raised it was startling. V-shaped, and very pale. Around her eyes was an extraordinary artwork, in face paints or some such medium; there was a butterfly across her face, of many colours, and the eye patterns in the wings of some butterflies, these eyes were her own. They were large, a deep green in colour, and very solemn. The butterfly and the hair which wrapped her body was her sole decoration. She was naked.
The girl held my gaze for a few seconds. There was nothing in her expression that I could read. I say 'girl' because she looked younger than me. Twenty-four? Twenty-six?
'What are you writing?' she asked.
'Do you want my coat?' I said, slowly.
'What do you write about?' she repeated.
I tugged my arms from my fishing jacket, and proffered it to her. 'Here. Have it.'
The girl stared at me sombrely. 'You're very short on words. Or are all writers like that?'
'Over sensitive.' The girl turned around. Her hair made interesting shapes down her back. Water dripped from the ends. She made a circular gesture with her hands. Her fingers were very delicate, like a child's.
'I'm not a writer. It's just a hobby.' I unfroze and stood up and lifted the coat across her shoulders. The water in her hair as I bent close was like glass beads. I tried not to touch her skin.
She turned to face me again and pulled the sides of the coat around her arms. 'Thank-you.'
I found my stool with my foot. I sat down. 'I'm sorry if I startled you. You need to watch for the line if someone's fishing. It's not safe to swim nearby.'
'Uh-huh.' The red girl knelt to the sand beside my lantern and smoothed it with her hands. She sat down sideways, and spread the hem of my coat over her thighs. Past her shoulders her footprints were washing out in the surf. She must have clothes and a towel somewhere, I thought. Where were they?
My attention was caught by the fishing rod on its stand. The line was pulling to one side. The float, hooks and weights could be drifting into the rocks and seaweed of the shallows. It needed re-casting.
'Do you need me to get your clothing?' I asked.
'You still haven't answered me. What are you writing?'
'It's a story. A book.'
'Is it a nice one?'
'I don't know. No-one's read it yet.'
The girl fell silent. The background noise here was the chatter of waves against rocks, and it sounded like the static between radio channels. Tune out for a few seconds, and you could hear it.
'What is your name?' I asked.
She was smoothing the cloth of my coat over her legs. There were damp patches on the hem where her hands touched, and more down the lapels where her hair was spilling out. She raised her gaze. The lamplight and the line of her cheeks and eyes made interesting shadows on her face.
'You know it.'
'I think I'd remember if I did.'
Our attention was mutually drawn to the rod top, which was jerking around. 'Sorry, that's caught.' I said, and I stood up. 'Are you planning to stay?'
The waves where my line entered the water were rebounding from a projection of cliff to seaward, and making strange patterns in the water. There was a lace-work of foam on the surface, grey-blue in the moonlight. I waded through it, lifting the line in my fingers.
It was slow going. The sea as it washed out here made pits and whorls in the sand, and some of them could be startlingly deep. You had to feel your way forward. The line tugged painfully at my fingers and the water was cold at my knees. The girl must have been frozen.
I reached a place where the line as I lifted it went tight and then passed below a rock. There was thirty quid's worth of tackle on the end. Damn. I bent and felt along the nylon until my fingers were at maximum reach under the stone. Would the red girl be there when I got back? I didn't know. There was seaweed, black and oily, on the top of the rock. It was close to my nose. The smell was not good.
I let the line drop, pulled a cold arm from the water and inched around the rock. The sand dropped away on this side and sliding further into the water was not pleasant. The surface was covered in foam, and black underneath when I pushed the grey mass aside. I felt forward with my foot. Further around again the sand dropped beyond the range of my boot. I gripped the slime on the top of rock as best as I could and swung my leg through the water to try and catch the line. Nothing. Time to cut it.
I waded back towards the lantern looping the line between my hands. I could see my rod was still there, and my chair. I couldn't see the girl. She could have moved out of the light, or she might have swam or walked away again. Looking at the light hurt my eyes. Around me the sea had more colour now. It was lighter where the sand was shallow, and there were other pale areas where bubbles and foam pushed below the surface by waves were rising back up.
Back in the cliff bowl I dropped my coil of line to the ground and looked around. The girl was missing, but where?
'John.' Her voice came from the darkness behind. I liked the sound. She could have been a singer.
I was folding the redundant line into my fishing pack. My sleeves were heavy with water, and cold. As I turned about, a pale form detached itself from the cliff face and walked towards my light. She raised my notebook. 'You should be more careful.'