When Mike Greenall falls off Cromer pier into less than three feet of seawater, naturally he assumes he’ll soon be coming up for air.
“You should say ‘just under a metre of seawater’ Michael,” the voice that Mike occasionally hears in his head supplies helpfully. “In England we use the metric system, now.”
“Ah, Aa ken!” Mike gurgles, as a mouthful of salt water rushes in.
It might be useful to point out at this stage that Michael’s never thought this – voice he sometimes hears is some sort of direct line he’s got to god, or anything totally bonkers and off the wall like that. You don’t get answers from your talks with god when you come from Newcastle and if you do, you’ve common sense enough not to make any kind of a big song and dance about it.
Mike has a slight – well, put it this way, if he was a little lad coming up through the primary school system in this day and age, no doubt the educational psychologists would diagnose him as having a borderline attention-deficit disorder straight away, but being as there was nothing like that in Tyneside in 1966, most people back in the day just assumed he was thick.
Mr Cragg, that bastard, Michael’s chemistry teacher at the secondary modern? He’s a case in point. Mike didn’t even bother turning up the day he was supposed to be sitting his GCSE.
So, when Michael’s attention wanders, as it can do, when he’s bored or stressed or being hauled over the coals or up on the carpet, this internal dialogue he has going on is often quite a help to him. It’s only the part of Mike that stays tuned into the moment while the rest of him goes straying off-topic and he knows that, really, but the funny thing is what it sounds like has changed over the years.
When he was a wee lad for example, most often it spoke to him in the voice of Trevor McDonald, the news presenter off of ITV, but by the time he’s seventeen and enlisted in the army it’s turned into his company sergeant.
For a while when he was working at the Linton Travel Tavern it was a woman: Susan, the branch manager and that was a little bit unnerving and no mistake.
Mike likes women. He does! The counsellors when he was coming out the army told him it’s bad to make sweeping generalizations but he’s still basically terrified of them, like.
And now he’s drifting off again. See?
He’s drifting off, literally. The current catches him and rolls him head over heels towards one of the corroded iron stanchions that support the base of the jetty, and the sea here must be deeper than he thought, because instead of hitting the foot of the pier, just at the instant the waves pick him up and throw him so his forehead should be dashed against the rusty, flaking metal, Michael finds himself sinking down and through.
He flails in utter darkness, remembering to breath out like they tell you in survival handbooks, but this is no great help as he can’t make out the bubbles, so there’s no clue which way is down and which way’s up. A great, rushing sense of movement seizes him. He accelerates, arms flailing as he speeds faster and faster through an inky void of unguessed-at possibilities and Mike sees stars – above and all around him; recognizes the Seven Sisters –
(coincidentally this is also the name of a pub in Gateshead where Mike lost his virginity, playing truant from a school trip in 1976)
-as he’d expect to see in a wintry night sky over Norfolk, and also the great square of Pegasus, which, being as it’s a constellation you can only see in summertime at this latitude, he most definitely would not.
There’s a terrible sense of compression, and there isn’t any air. It occurs to Mike just before the blackness takes him completely is that this is probably the end.
Since being evicted from his digs a month and a half ago, Mike’s been sleeping in a stationary cupboard at the offices of the local radio company, and, to avoid being caught by late-night security, been forced to do his business (when he has to) straight into a Tupperware box, the ‘Fresh’n’Seal’ tab-lockable lid of which has been the only thing standing between Michael and disaster on more than one occasion.
So, the thought that this could be the finish of all of it cheers him up a bit, actually.
The sand is coral-white and the sky is shocking blue.
A bright pink seagull goes flitting past on slender emerald wings. Sighting a shoal of jewel-coloured tropical fish it drops down from its delicate, stop-and-start flight and hunts, lightly skimming the crystal water of the bay.
Warm turquoise wavelets lap at Michael’s trainer-clad feet.
He comes to lying on a sandbar. Mike rolls onto his side and sits up gingerly, loosening his tie. He’s maybe coming down with a fever or something ‘cause it’s awfully hot, for East Anglia in midwinter.
Looking around Mike blinks, and sees he’s obviously not in Cromer any more.
A short distance across the blue, blue estuary is a strand of light yellow sand topped by the tousled, dark green foliage of what’s most likely to turn out to be a Forestry Commission plantation. Michael can’t make the trees out properly as yet because they’re shimmering in the very unseasonal December heat-haze, but thinks they must be some sort of pine.
That, together with the naked lady who’s sitting with her back to him down at the other end of the sand bar, just where it starts sloping down into the sea, gives Michael a pretty good idea of where he must’ve washed up to. Lately the locals have put a stop to it because of dogging couples and what they call an ‘undesirable element’, but before the internet and websites for people who like to have sex in public places, it used to be a very well known spot for naturists.
And, as everybody knows, naturists like to go about nae wearing any clothes.
Mike goes up to the lady naturist and stands a respectful distance behind her, clearing his throat.
This close by he can hear she’s singing. As she combs her long, brown hair, she’s singing an unearthly melody like nothing Mike’s ever heard before - a tune of falling, rising, ringing notes, that carry with bell-like clarity towards him through the sweetly perfumed air.
The lady’s naked – didn’t Michael take note of that already? – but he’s still wearing his shirt and heavy work jumper as well as his tie and shoes and polyester office trousers, so he feels a bit funny talking to her like this. Because these days if Mike wants to look at a naked lady usually he has to pay for it.
“Excuse me Miss,” he says. “And sorry - ye knaa – for interrupting yous singing an’ all. But would this be the beach down at Holkham estate?”
The naturist lady turns and beams a wide smile back at him and she’s a right bonny lass and no mistake. Beautiful eyes, clear skin and even, white teeth and her baps! – it’s been such a long time that despite not meaning to, Mike can’t help having a dirty little keek – and why aye! But they’re gorgeous too. Now, the sun’s dazzling Mike’s eyes and the heat’s making him feel dizzy so he’s maybe not paying the closest attention, but looking lower down, there seems to something awful unexpected about –
“It’s Mermaids,” Mike’s inner voice explains.
“Mermaids?” Mike says out aloud. A horrible picture of Bob Hoskins dancing to 1950s music with some dreadful saucer-eyed brat swims to the forefront of his mind. “Ye divvn’t mean – Mermaids like ‘Mermaids’ that filum that had Cher in it, like?”
“It’s Mermaids, Michael,” the voice drawls impatiently, this time sounding just like Mr Partridge does when he’s had too many gin and tonics to drink.
Down to her navel the bonny naked lass is a bonny lass all right, but below that Mike sees green and silver scales, and there are long and curving fins and the lassie isn’t a lassie at all but instead she has the powerful muscled body of a truly gigantic fish.
The Mermaid sitting by the water’s edge swishes her tail in the clear blue sea, scything up a great shining arc of water droplets that catch the brilliant rays of noon-day sunshine and send glittering, over-bright reflections lancing straight into Michael’s eyes.
Michael staggers back a step, the heat and feverishness and rising hysteria threatening to overwhelm him.
“Shoop...shoop....shoop” sings the song that’s started running through his head, and he thinks he’s going to be sick.
Everything tilts sideways. Down Mike goes crashing onto the sandbar again.
The Mermaids don’t speak English. Michael, however, saw a lot of places in the army and can speak a few phrases in Portuguese which is always handy, some basic Fillipino and a smattering of Bahasa Melayu.
He’s more fluent in Thai for obvious reasons; but ever since Phrang-ko ran away with Michael’s brother only three short weeks into their marriage and went to live with him in Sunderland, Mike hasn’t really liked speaking it.
But it’s all right because the other languages he can still speak without getting flustered and anxious and having a stress-induced panic-attack turn out to be about enough to get by.
The Mermaids enjoy singing – they clearly enjoy singing quite a lot – and they seem to have a rich and varied oral history, if only Mike could work out what on earth they’re constantly warbling on about. But, unless they need to talk about something – such as whose turn it is to mend the fishing nets – they don’t tend to say very much.
They like to lie near the shallows, where the water meets the shore. The sea’s warm for seawater but can still feel cold, especially in the morning or when there’s a brisk, off-shore wind. So, early every day the Mermaids haul out of the ocean and onto the sandbank and bask like seals in the sunshine, occasionally pointing out especially pretty seabirds to one another, or interesting patterns in the clouds.
Sometimes they draw the patterns in the sand, or make copies of them using fragments of coral and pearlescent shell. But then the sea always comes and washes the sand-pictures away, so that’s all right.
Now, all this might sound like it could be terribly inane, but it’s not: these Mermaids have a very keenly-developed aesthetic sense. And, because he’s part of the colony now, they like Michael to lie alongside of them when they’re basking and as he has nothing better or more pressing he wants to do, he does. The fish-like portions of the Mermaids’ bodies run a little cooler than usual which is refreshing, and when the sun climbs high they shade him with their tail-fins, late in the afternoons when the temperature climbs and the air begins to shimmer and it really starts to get hot.
Mike finds it very, very peaceful, living there.
Michael sometimes wonders what part of the world he’s fetched up in. It could be south-east Asia, or perhaps a coral atoll in the eastern Pacific but it’s difficult to be sure. At night the stars are different here, and in the moonlight strange voices carry through the fragrant, humid air; half-heard voices of vast, invisible presences, sometimes passing close to shore or rushing by at some vast, skiey height. Even in the daytime, often there’s a feeling of something being subtly, not quite right.
Mike’s lived with a more or less constant feeling of not-being-right for many years by now, so this is by way of being an essentially negligible problem for him.
After he collapsed on the sandbar, the singing mermaid, Nool, dragged him into the water and then carried him across the strait to the tree-lined shore he glimpsed on the far side of the bay.
This turns out to be the southernmost beach of tropical island. It’s uninhabited, and measures about a mile (or, 1.6 kilometres) by a mile and a half (2.4 km) in length. And the trees Mike assumed to be a commercial pine plantation weren’t planted by the Forestry Commission at all.
No. These ones have coconuts.
Beyond the fringe of coconut palms that line the shore, past the low-growing, scrubby bushes of edible purslane and sea grape, the beach gives way to light, sandy soil, and there’s a tangled mass of jungle.
Michael doesn’t find even a single meerkat in the tropical forest, which is fine by him. Mike’s not been a particular fan of meerkats, ever since he downloaded a copy of ‘Life of Pi’ and was badly rattled by the end of it, the part when the jungle floor came alive and it was a veritable tidal-wave, a scuttling brown carpet all made of computer-generated meerkats. The sound on Mr Partridge’s laptop was out of synch with the pictures at the time he was watching it and, flipping heck! Allegory, but, and to this day, he’s no idea what that scene was supposed to be about.
That Christmas night when Michael’s marriage broke up he left Tyneside for good, boarding the first long-distance coach leaving Middlesborough bus station. Six hours later and he was in London, grainy-eyed from lack of sleep, purchasing yet another random ticket at the stand for National Express. Newmarket, Burt-St-Edmunds and Thetford passed by in the dark, passed by in a blur of early morning rain all lit by the dirty orange glow of streetlights, until sunrise, and Michael’s new start, found him in.....Norwich.
The first couple of nights he stayed in a squat where there was a rodent problem. He woke up in the wee small hours the second night with a pack of rats, or mice, or rats and mice crawling over his face and swarming round his feet – some of them right inside in his sleeping bag, he thinks. Even now he wakes up sometimes, the smell of their damp fur sharp in his nostrils, and remembering the feel of their sharp claws and scrabbling little feet -
Michael hasn’t much cared for small, scuttling creatures since.
Or aquatic bears. Everyone seems to think – bears drinking Coca-cola all white and fluffy in the snow and isn’t that gorgeous, like? But them bastards eat seals – go hunting for baby seals, you know, and you try feeling warm and fluffy towards them once one of the buggers has ripped into your tent two days into an Arctic survival course and then spent the rest of the week stalking you and your mate all over the tundra and ice-floes, out in the land of the midnight sun.
What Mike has described is very atypical behaviour for a bear, the bear biologist tells him once he’s back at base camp, eyeing him suspiciously like the situation’s somehow all been Michael’s fault. Had Mike and his companion been interacting with the bear beforehand, feeding it perhaps, because in nine cases out of ten, a bear only becomes dangerous after it’s been acclimatized to people –
“No, Ah did not feed it!” Mike protests. “And my mate didn’t neither, seeing how the both of us was asleep in wor tent all the while!”
The bear biologist shrugs. It’s very rare, he tells Mike, only one case ever recorded so far in the Norwegian Arctic, but perhaps the bear was rabid....
Well! That’s bound to make everything better isn’t it? Because there’s nothing upsetting whatever about the thought of being chased all over the Svalbard peninsula by half a ton of rabid polar bear.
Still, it would be daft to keep being scared of polar bears wouldn’t it, out here on a tropical island? Especially when the biggest native animal they’ve got living here is a bright purple, ground-nesting fowl that tastes of chicken.
Michael paid attention in his biology classes – or, at least he did in the ones when they were talking about different types of animals, and where they live, instead of going on about their insides, or chopping them to bits. He knows about islands, and remembers what happened to dodos and great auks and almost happened to the Mauritius pink pigeon. So he’s careful never to eat too many of the purple chickens at once. The Mermaids try to tell Mike not to worry as they’ve seen those birds on other islands nearby in the archipelago, but you can never be too sure. Michael is pretty certain there must be something special about those chickens.
They have four legs, an extra pair of wings, and their flesh and bones are also purple all the way through.
But then a lot of the wildlife seems to conform to a body-plan that isn’t quite as Mike previously knew it, here.
The Mermaids, for example.
(He doesn’t like to think too closely about the talking plants or walking fish.)
Michael comes to for the second time lying on the bank of a little stream, with a bare-breasted Mermaid rubbing coconut oil into his sunburned back. The Mermaids don’t wear clothes, for obvious reasons.
(Such as: what could they use to make clothes from? And, as the Mermaids are largely aquatic and live in the tropics, what would be the point?)
Assuming Michael had fainted from heat-exhaustion and distressed by the layers of cloth cocooning his chest, arms and back, Nool removed his wool-mix work jumper, his tie, shirt and winter vest, then left him lying up to his waist in the shallows to cool down.
Exposed to the blistering tropical sun, Mike’s pale, freckly back soon starts to redden and burn.
The Mermaids have blue eyes or green eyes or brown eyes, but all of them have silky, golden skin and until Michael washed up on their beach, they’d never seen a person get sunburned, before.
Nool is devastated by her mistake.
At the local radio company Michael’s job was to sit in a security booth checking off car licence plate numbers and signing in guests.
The car park used to be accessed by an automatic barrier operated using a swipe-card. But, following a serious police incident involving a disgruntled Hear’Say fan who ‘phoned in to the radio station with a bogus report of a car-bomb during a visit by Great Yarmouth native and ex-Hear’Say vocalist Myleen Klass to publicize her new book ‘An Honest Diary of My Pregnancy,’ the station management decided that on-site security could really do with being stepped up a bit.
Their solution was to keep the barrier but get rid of the swipe-cards, in place of which they installed a small transparent booth. Michael’s job is to sit in the approximately five foot square (1.5 x 1.5 metre) kiosk operating the barrier for up to eight hours a day - excluding tea breaks and a half hour for lunch.
It gets cold in there, especially when there’s an east wind blowing: the same wind from the east that takes its time to pick up a real sub-zero chill-factor out on the Russian Steppe, before – absolutely unimpeded by the low countries of Europe – it blows over the North Sea, across the flat lands of East Anglia, and, as it often feels, directly into the radio-station car park and straight through the thin walls of Michael’s fibreglass booth.
It was the middle of winter when Mike left Norfolk and gloves or no gloves, nothing really helps, so his knuckles are already raw from the cold and there are deep cracks in his fingertips and the edges of the nail-beds where the skin’s dried out, chapped and split.
Nool, lying beside Michael on the riverbank, makes a sympathetic noise then begins kissing his chilblains and his too-dry fingertips, and then sets about rubbing coconut oil into those as well.
(As regards the ready source for all of this coconut oil, the Mermaids are making it. So, using a particularly serrated piece of tropical limpet shell, what they do is to grate the flesh of the coconuts, right, then they squeeze the gratings with a little fresh water to generate coconut milk. Then they separate off the thicker portion of the coconut milk, which, if you keep it in a warm place for a while itself starts to separate as globules of oil are generated, and they skim off those and keep it for later use in a coconut shell. This process is, admittedly, a fair bit of palaver but the Mermaids go to the effort of making coconut oil because it works well as a hair-conditioner, and, as everybody knows, Mermaids are pretty much obsessed about hair-care, aren’t they?)
There Michael is, lying by a waterfall in company with a half-naked, gorgeous, friendly Mermaid who has a very beautiful smile. He’s a man of a certain age, but that’s not to say he no longer experiences....bodily urges; urges of the all-too-corporeal flesh. He’s experiencing one right now in fact; a downwards rush of blood that leaves him reeling and feeling light in the head.
If the current state of Mike’s love-life may be inferred from fact of his recent stationery cupboard-sleeping, it’s been a very long time since he had any meaningful or even a casual chance for intimate contact. As he’s pressing his unwanted erection into the ground and trying to will it down... down... down into submission, Nool takes hold of him, slipping a cool, slender hand through the waistband of his slacks.
He comes less than two minutes later with her hand on him. Climaxes so hard he sees stars and passes out again.
This time Nool isn’t apologetic. But later on she laughs, not unkindly, to the others about the passing out, Mike’s excitement, and how he tried to hide it.
Turns out they’re extremely sexually-liberated mermaids.
Mike doesn’t starve. As well as the occasional chicken he eats limpets and sea urchins and fish that he, or the Mermaids, catch. On the beach there are coconut palms and land crabs and then in the jungle wild bananas - small, but intensely sweet - and also breadfruit trees and a type of large, bitter-rinded citrus that wards off scurvy.
(Incidentally there aren’t any mosquitoes or tropical diseases on the island, this not being one of those grimly realistic alternate universes like that.)
Now that the things he eats aren’t all ready-meals that he prepares in the staff canteen, or food that owing to a lack of microwaveable crockery, has to be consumed cold from the can, living on the island Michael starts putting on a bit of weight. And swimming’s supposed to be really good exercise isn’t it? I expect he’ll regain a fair bit of his lost muscle-definition from doing that.
After Mike’s been on the island a couple of months –
Full moon to full moon here clearly lasts a good deal more than 28 days, according to the scratches Mike’s making on a coconut husk, but the moon looks much the same so he’s still calling them lunar months -
So after couple of months, the Mermaids set out to an urban development they know of, where they sometimes barter and trade for various sundry goods with humans of Michael’s own species.
Usually they make the journey there by swimming across the open sea, but in deference to Michael who’s accompanying them, this time they island-hop.
Some of the Mermen have a bit of a grumble about that but for some reason he has the women and children of the colony firmly on his side, so this time they island-hop.
There’s a slight issue regarding drinking water about the third day in because you can’t carry nearly as much water as you might think you can, even in a giant conch, but it rains in the night and that sorts the problem right out.
Early afternoon on the fourth day and they reach the Mermaids’ trading post.
It looks like a floating version of Singapore.
Michael proves his usefulness to the colony by being able to walk into the city streets of floating-Singapore. Away from the waterfront, he secures a much better price than usual for the Mermaids’ hand-made knick-knacks and other tradeable bits.
The streets are very clean, but the noise from the traffic and the fumes and the garish neon hurt Mike’s head. They leave in the early hours that same night.
In the meantime Michael buys some supplies. He successfully trades for everything on the Mermaids’ shopping list, and then everything you possibly might need to permanently survive very comfortably on a desert island.
(Incidentally everything he’s bought fits very conveniently into one large rucksack, so there’s no issue about carrying all of it back.)
Mike rejoins the Mermaids where they’ve been waiting for him, down by the old wooden pilings of a derelict dock. The morning wind is blowing, offshore into the early sunrise and the sky above them clear and pink and distinct as the inside of a sea-shell. As he lowers himself into the warm ocean water, a sheet of newsprint caught by the morning breeze flutters down beside him. One of the pictures shows a very familiar face that catches Michael’s eye.
It’s an article about a film called ‘Fall to Die in Winter,’ starring an up-and-coming actor called Steve Coogan as the new James Bond. Steve Coogan doesn’t seem to be much of a better name for the star of an action film than Alan Partridge is, but Michael’s still excited for him.
“It’s Mr Partridge, look!” Mike tells the Mermaids excitedly. “He gets to be James Bond, finally!”
The Merfolk have no idea who James Bond is, but they’re a kindly people, and because they can see Michael’s happy for his friend that makes them happy for him too. Mike hums them the 007 theme to demonstrate, and they incorporate it into one of their songs.
Back on the island he’s sometimes homesick, but only a very little. What he sometimes misses are little, inconsequential things, such as all-day breakfast cafes and monster truck rallies and tractor-pulling contests, and watching ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ at Christmas on ITV.
But there are compensations. The sun, the sky and the sea; the warmth of living a quiet, contented life among people who are calm, and kind and tolerant -
And also, the Mermaids love Geordie cock.