This excerpt is from a novel I’ve written and am currently looking to publish.
Some say that the mermaid is dangerous, that she’ll lure a man to his death. Some say that the mermaid isn’t real. But Nell has seen her and she knows the truth.
Cornwall, 1877 and two free-spirited women from very different backgrounds, are thrown together after the wreck of a ship. Their friendship leads them to take increasingly dangerous risks and after they fall captive to Nell’s unhinged and violent husband, the bonds of their friendship are tested to the limit.
Polmorvoren, Cornwall, 1877
‘The mermaid wept great salty tears for the sea. She had been such a fool to let herself be captured. She’d traded her freedom for the empty promises of a mortal boy.’
‘Did she escape?’ asked Sarah, wriggling beneath the blankets.
‘Of course she did. How many times have I told you this story? No one can keep a mermaid captive. Every fool knows that.’
Sarah yawned and rubbed her eyes.
‘You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the rest of the story though. It’s getting late.’
‘But nothing. We’ve got work in the morning.’
‘Ma says the mermaid isn’t real. She says that it’s nonsense. She said that Pa was a liar to tell you them stories.’
Nell shook her head. ‘Ma doesn’t mean it. She’s not been herself since Pa went missing. Didn’t I tell you I’d seen the mermaid with my own eyes?’
Sarah nodded earnestly.
‘And I’m not a liar am I?’
‘No, Nell. You always tell the truth.’
Sarah smiled and turned over. Shortly, her breathing became quiet and even. Nell descended the stairs from their damp space in the cottage’s rafters and went back to her sewing. The light from the fire was poor and her eyes hurt, but she needed to get the mending done or she’d have nothing to wear for church on Sunday. As she wove the needle from front to back she had to fight to concentrate. She’d been wrong to tell Sarah about the mermaid. Now she’d put them both in danger and it was all her fault. She’d got them into this mess. Pa was gone, taken by the sea, and it was all her fault.
The church bell became one looping wail chased by footsteps and raised voices. Nell realised that she had dozed off. The fire was reduced to embers. She sat blinking in surprise for one moment, before she roused herself enough to go. There had been another wreck. Shivering, she put on her cape and placed a candle in a lantern. Roughly tying her bonnet, she stepped out into the night.
Immediately the rain slapped against her face, the full force of a harsh onshore gale behind it. Other lanterns glimmered in the darkness and shouts could be heard above the roaring wind and waves. Passing the familiar clutch of whitewashed fisherman’s cottages, she drew near to the crowd gathered on the beach. At the south edge of the cove, framed by cliffs and black rocks was the huge silhouette of a ship. Vessels so big were never seen this far into the cove because there was no safe passage for them, the sand bars and rocks preventing entry.
Another gust of wind blew and cries of alarm passed through the crowd as the ship’s sails drove it further onto the rocky outcrop.
The dark shapes of men who had strapped themselves to the masts in their desperation, were revealed momentarily as the waves peaked and fell away. Looking at the wreck, she couldn’t help but think of Pa. Viktor’s boat had been lost just over a year now. Had it been like this for him? She pulled the small figurine from the pocket of her skirts. It was no bigger than her little finger, intricate in its carving, each scale picked out carefully. The mermaid looked as though she was swimming, back arched, ready to flick her tail and disappear under the waves. Nell remembered Pa making it for her, his big fingers so deft with the knife as he worked the piece of driftwood. From his first boat, he’d said, the one that had brought him to Polmorvoren so it was special. He said that it held good magic so why hadn’t it protected him?
A small group of the local fishermen waded out into the swell. They knew where the hidden reefs and rips were and they knew to take no chances. They would only do what they safely could. In a storm like this the ocean could be unpredictable.
Nell huddled nearer to the little crowd that had gathered to try and catch what was being said. She wanted to know if there were likely to be any survivors, but as she moved closer she caught the bitter whispers and sidelong glances. She’d grown accustomed to the way the womenfolk of the village looked at her and her sister Sarah. At the centre of it all was Old Mother Greaves, the head of a long line of sour-faced women. All the Greave’s women looked much older than their years, bowed and bent by their caustic thoughts. Her hair dangled from the sodden hood of her cape and her eyes snared Nell’s for a second. She smiled, all broken teeth and red veins. The smile did not reach her eyes.
Nell turned away and made a point of staring at the waves. With a thundering groan the ship rolled onto its side, its masts crushed and splintered like twigs. The men who had been tied there were gone. As she neared the water’s edge, salt spray joined the rain in lashing at her face and Nell thrust her hands deep into the woollen folds of her cape. There were excited shouts and the two men in the water were joined by others. They hauled something up onto the beach. Nell moved closer, afraid it would be bodies, but it was just casks of brandy. The Excise officer would arrive sooner or later and the men were working quickly, salvaging what they could. In the crowd Nell spied Davey Smith’s sons George and William. Davey Smith ran the fleet of luggers that fished out of the bay. He was a wealthy man and no one ever challenged him. If he wanted the salvaged goods then he’d take them. The Smith boys hauled the casks up the beach and onto a waiting cart. It would soon disappear into one of their cellars in the village.
Nell cast a silent prayer for the crew. The wind and waves were busy grinding and smashing it against the black rocks. There’d be nothing left by that evening. Along the beach, the crowd began to disperse. They would wait for the ocean to do its work and return at sunrise and take what remained. The white water lapped at Nell’s boots and she turned to go but something drew her eyes back. Thinking it simply more flotsam from the wreck, she stepped forwards to take a closer look at the dark bundle on the sand. When it moved, she started to run, not minding that the holes in her boots were filling with water. It was a boy, eyes closed, face pale and bloodied. He retched, sea water and spittle dribbling from his lips. She had to save him. Reaching down, she grasped his cold hands and tugged but he was heavy and she struggled to free him from the sea’s grasp.
She called for help but most folk were out of earshot, tramping up the muddy track back to their warm cottages. Feeling someone’s eyes on her, she turned. It was George Smith, returned to see if there were more casks. George was the oldest of Davey Smith’s sons. He was sure to inherit the impressive fleet of luggers that Davey ran out of the bay and he had already assumed his father’s swagger and arrogance.
Nell pulled at the boy’s limp body. He was a dead weight and Nell stumbled. If he was to survive she needed to get him warm as soon as possible. George’s face was unreadable, his cap pulled down over his eyes. His cheeks were red with the cold and salt spray. He would have been a fine looking man had it not been for his bad temper and grim countenance.
‘He’s as good as dead, lass. Leave him be.’
‘But he’s only a boy.’
George stepped forwards and for one moment she thought he was going to help. Instead, he stared down at her shaking his head.
‘Leave him. It’ll come to no good. You take a soul from the sea and she’ll come after you or one of yours.’
His words shook her. Did he know what she’d done, why Pa had been taken? She looked into cold blue eyes but all she saw was impatience and scorn. There was no way he could know. She hadn’t told a soul. She hadn’t even told sarah the truth. His words were just fisherman’s superstition. Another figure was making its way slowly down the track towards them. She recognised Mr White, the vicar. George visibly stiffened and turned his back on her.
The vicar’s eyes flitted from the boy’s body to Nell. On seeing the boy, he ran to Nell’s side.
‘Is he alive?’
Nell put her hand on the boy’s chest.
‘Any other survivors?’
Nell shook her head. ‘No one as yet. Perhaps by morning…’
As she said the words, she knew there was scant hope anyone else would be found alive. All there would be by morning would be smashed timbers and broken bodies. Gobbets that no one would be persuaded to collect that would wash up on the rocks for the gulls to pick at.
Mr White turned to George who hovered uncertainly a few yards from them.
‘Your help would be appreciated.’
George could not be seen to turn away from the vicar’s request so reluctantly, he took over and between them, they managed to get the boy onto a cart.
The vicar’s cottage was much more comfortable than Nell’s own home; a good fire was burning and the flagstones had been scrubbed clean. The furniture was simple but well made and there was a proper bed. Nell stripped the boy of his wet clothes. They were much like the clothes the fishermen of the village wore: heavy trousers, boots and a knitted pullover similar to their own gansey. When Nell checked the boy’s pockets, she found them empty. There was no indication of who he was or where he had come from. He didn’t look like the folk from the bay, his skin was olive coloured and his brown eyes were framed by thick dark lashes. Nell regarded the single wooden crucifix on the wall over the bed, a cold sweat forming down her spine. She was a sinner. She carried the guilt of what she’d done in her heart, wrapped up tight and hidden, but every time she set foot in the church, she shook with fear under the gaze of perfect Jesus on his perfect cross. He had forgiven Judas, could he forgive her? As her lips moved, head bowed, she thought of Pa. Viktor Ivanov had loved the sea. Nell remembered the evenings, tucked up warm and safe in bed as he’d sat by her side and recounted stories of his travels. In his stories the sea had been a place of marvels; strange creatures and pirates. Adventure at every turn. But what Nell had really loved had been his stories about the mermaids.
Viktor had many tales about the mermaids. Most of them were nonsense. There was only one story that mattered and that was the story of how Viktor had come to Cornwall. When he’d first told Nell, she had laughed at him. After all, Viktor Ivanov was known in the village as something of a teller of tall tales. His catch was always bigger, his waves always tsunami in stature, his skill as a fisherman as good as St Peter himself. Why – he hadn’t just netted souls – he had got himself a real life mermaid hadn’t he?
She had thought it just another of his tales. But then, after Pa had gone missing last year, while she was out swimming, the slim dark shape of the mermaid had glided beneath her. She had seen the flick of a tale, the unmistakeable swirl of wavy hair. It was no fish. This was a woman. This was the thing that Pa had called the rusalka, what the Cornish called a mermaid, and of course, she couldn’t tell a soul.