Ralph strode along the cliff path on the outskirts of Ilfracombe. He could smell the freshness of the sea and a cooling breeze brushed against his face. He paused in his usual place and looked downwards towards an outcrop of rocks and there she sat; the beautiful mermaid with her shimmering tail, on the flattest rock, with her blonde hair billowing out behind her. He could tell she was beautiful even at this distance. She seemed to sit there every morning at this time. Of course he was just being foolish. She wasn’t really a mermaid. She was wearing a turquoise patterned sarong that flapped in the breeze and gave the impression of a mermaid’s tail. He thought she was young because of her slim body, which he knew to be agile as he had seen her dive into the sea.
This holiday was his way of drawing a line under the past year. He thought about how his life had changed. The bitterness he felt had not dimmed. He must do something to move on and find some peace. He twisted the gold band on his finger until it was free and then held it up to the sun. How happy he had been when Kate had agreed to marry him. He threw the ring as far as he could into the sea and it disappeared forever.
The mermaid was removing her tail and then she dived cleanly into the clear blue sea. She swam like a fish quickly and efficiently with smooth rhythmic movements. Soon she disappeared under the waves. The first day he had seen her do this he’d thought she had drowned, but he waited and waited and finally her golden head had popped up some distance from the shore.
He watched the sea and continued his walk along the South West Coast Path. As he saw her surface he turned back towards the hotel. Ralph spent the afternoon reading and researching. He could tell that the long walks, good food and working in this relaxing place were doing him good. The scenery was exquisite and the fresh air made him hungry.
He went downstairs at seven p.m. to the dining room and was greeted by the hotel proprietor, Mrs Mere. She was a tall slender woman with her fair hair wound in knot at the back of her head.
“Good evening Mr Blake. I hope you’ve had an enjoyable day.”
“Yes, thank you, Mrs Mere.”
“If you would like some company at dinner, do say. I sometimes join lone diners.”
Ralph’s head screamed silently, ‘No!’ He didn’t want to make conversation with a stranger but he smiled at the proprietor and said, “That would be lovely.”
She showed him to his table and said she would be with him in a minute.
A warm vegetable soup was served as a starter and Ralph tucked into it enthusiastically.
“How are you enjoying Ilfacombe, Mr Blake?”
“It’s very beautiful. I walk along the cliff path in the mornings and enjoy the views of the sea.”
“Ah, yes, I believe I’ve seen you. I often read my book sitting on the rocks before my swim.”
He looked at her again. She had the long blonde hair and the tall slim body. Before he could stop himself he said, “Oh you’re my mermaid.”
She laughed. “I am a good swimmer. I’ve lived in this area all my life and the sea is very much a part of me.”
“I’m sorry. I do let my imagination run away with me sometimes. I’m collecting local stories and I was hoping to find a mermaid one for my new book.”
The waitress quietly appeared and filled their glasses, his with wine and hers with water.
“I will tell you a mermaid story but first you must tell me why you are so unhappy. I can feel it in you every time we talk.”
Ralph hadn’t thought he wanted to tell anyone but she had a gentle, almost hypnotising voice and he found her a good listener.
“It’s a common story. My wife ran off with another man, after thirty years of marriage. It was about a year ago. I came on this holiday because I know I have to deal with it, and move on, but I find it very difficult. You see she left me for our son’s best friend. He was always in our house. I made him welcome.”
“Perhaps you could try feeling sorry for her.”
“You think I should feel sorry for that cheating…” he began in a controlled whisper, lowering his voice in case he exploded.
“What’s the age difference? Twenty years?” she interrupted.
“Although I believe that age is just a number, in human life experience, twenty five is a lot of years. Tell me do you wish to do the same activities as your son, even though you love him very much?”
“Well no. We go out now and again, but mostly he does his thing and I do mine.”
“It will be the same for your wife and her young lover. They’ll increasingly find that they don’t share the same interests and has she lost the love of her son?”
“Not exactly, but he doesn’t really want to spend a lot of time with her.”
Mrs Mere finished the last of her vegetarian pie. “Whatever happens in the future her relationship with her son will never be the same. I would feel sorry for her. If you change all that bitterness into pity you will be able to move on and find some peace. She has a lot of heartache ahead.”
“Next you’ll be telling me she’ll want to come home and I should forgive her.”
“I’d never dream of telling you any such thing, but I hate to feel your unhappiness. Now I promised you a mermaid story. It will give you another perspective on life.” She smiled at him and her face became so beautiful he could hardly take his eyes off her.
“Would I be able to use the story in my book?”
“Of course, but please don’t acknowledge me. It is after all a legend.”
The waiter served up a light lemon mousse and poured more drinks for them both.
“The merpeople are often portrayed as wicked people who lure gullible men to their death, but this is never their intention. They used to sit on rocks to warn sailors of the perils of the sea and their screams of warnings unfortunately drew the sailors closer. Mermaids have always been fascinated by living on land and every so often one would fall in love with a human and go with him, but if she chose to do this she could never again live beneath the waves. One such mermaid fell in love and went to live with her man, who was an innkeeper. They were very happy together and then they had a beautiful daughter. Children of merpeople can make the choice to live beneath the waves, but they can only make the choice once. This child was drawn to the sea. She loved it with a passion and one day she swam out to a rock and the waves called to her and she dived in. Her father swam after her. He was a strong swimmer but only a human. He tried and tried to find her but eventually he became too weak to swim and he died. So the mermaid was left bound to the land, having lost both her daughter and her husband and her sadness was immense. She was so sad she could feel any sadness in anyone who came near her and she always tried to help them. In fact it was only by helping others that the mermaid felt any relief from her pain. After some years, when she was walking by the sea, she saw a mermaid and knew immediately that it was her daughter. She swam out to her and although she can never live under the waves she can spend a few minutes every day with her dear child.”
“What a beautiful legend,” Ralph said. “It will be the jewel in my book. Thank you.”
The next day Ralph packed his bags ready to go home. He took the cliff path. He would look at his mermaid one more time, but she wasn’t sitting on the rocks. He searched the sea and suddenly he saw two blonde heads pop up. They made no sound but both waved their hands at him and he waved back. She had trusted him with a secret and it somehow healed him. He would tell her story but he would set it in a different time and place to protect her.