BY SUSAN ROCKS
Copyright is held by the author.
IT IS finally time to recount the strange events I experienced in on the last day of October 1972, which have, I believe, had a profound effect on my life. I’ll leave you to decide if you believe me, but I swear everything written here is true.
A naïve 20-year-old, I somehow managed to secure a job as a sales rep trying to persuade shopkeepers to stock our particular brand of soft drinks. On my first week unsupervised, I headed for the far west of Dorset, an area new to me. The threatened storm hit during the afternoon, and I found myself driving down a narrow lane. Rain hammered on the car roof and leaves twisted and twirled, like dead confetti in a whirlwind, making the road slicker, and catching in the flimsy windscreen wipers so they smeared more than cleared. I could barely see the front of my yellow Cortina and I clung to the steering wheel as the water streaming down the narrow lane tried to wrench it from my hands. Branches waved manically overhead, showering twigs onto the car, adding to the cacophony. I crept along slowly, releasing my rigid grip every few minutes to swipe my sleeve across the condensation on the window, which the pathetic heater failed to clear. After what seemed like miles, hedges replaced the trees and up ahead, the bright white beam of a lighthouse pulsed, piercing the gloom.
I stopped the car; I shouldn’t be this close to the coast. I checked the map but the squiggly lines blurred as my tired eyes strained to make sense of them under the dim interior light. I carried on slowly, searching for a gateway to turn in but the hedges loomed continuously. Heading down a steep hill, the petrol warning light began angrily flashing red, clashing with the lighthouse beams. In the valley, I spotted faint lights, a swinging wooden sign and breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I needed was to break down in the middle of nowhere. I pulled into the empty pub car park; someone here would point me in the direction of the nearest garage.
By the time I reached the door the rain had plastered my hair to my head and dripped down my neck. My trousers stuck to my legs and water seeped into my cheap shoes. I vowed to be better prepared in future; always carry spare fuel, a decent torch, a mac. I pushed open the heavy oak door and entered a narrow passage, ducking under the low, age-blackened beams. The flagstone floor, worn smooth by thousands of feet, led to another door, light flickering around its edges, and I entered a sparsely furnished room. The bar was on the right-hand side, opposite a large stone fireplace and I was grateful to see logs blazing merrily, although the room felt damp, chilled. The walls were that particular shade of ochre, stained by a million cigarettes that no amount of cleaning or repainting could completely erase, the air redolent of tobacco, beer and mildew. Long dead, grumpy fish contained within dusty glass-fronted cases, watched me, and a large oil painting of a shipwreck hung above the fireplace.
The only occupant was an elderly man on a stool in the corner. He ignored my entrance, glaring into a silver tankard on the bar, fisherman’s cap pulled low over a deeply lined face, etched by wind, preserved by sea salt. From somewhere came the sound of laughter, music, faint chatter, as if there was another bar hidden from strangers, in the depths of the building. I hadn’t noticed another door and the car park had been empty; no one in their right mind would walk any distance to a pub on a night like this. There must be a village nearby. I could buy petrol and maybe find a room for the night. The man tapped his pipe into an ashtray and began refilling it from the yellow packet he removed from a pocket inside his oilskin jacket.
“Evening,” I said, “nasty night out there.”
He mumbled something into his tankard and slammed his fist onto the bar, rattling a clutch of smeared glasses awaiting washing. A man emerged through an archway hidden behind a black velvet curtain, wiping a glass with a striped towel. He was tall, well over six feet, and solid, like a rugby player, a thick dark beard, threaded with grey, clasped the lower half of his face, hooded dark eyes were unwelcoming, forbidding questions.
“Ready for another pint Fred?”
The old man gestured in my direction and I put on my best salesman’s smile, practiced in the privacy of my bedroom, approaching the bar with outstretched hand. “Good evening, nasty night out there.”
He ignored my hand, placing the glass on the bar. “Pint? Sir?”
“Oh, okay. But. I wonder. Could you give me directions to the nearest town? My car’s running out of petrol and —”
“S’all closed this time o’ night. We got rooms.”
This time of night? It couldn’t be much later than five o’clock, although the miserable weather had brought the afternoon to a premature end. I glanced at my watch and saw it was nearly eight thirty. I tapped it, listened, but it was ticking gaily. Had I really been driving around those lanes for three over hours?
“Well, I suppose in that case . . . do you do food?” No wonder my stomach had been rumbling so ominously; I’d only had a sausage roll and bag of crisps for lunch. The thought of a steaming hot pie or plate of stew in front of the fire felt very appealing, far better than battling through the storm.
Better than going to bed hungry, I suppose. “Okay, sounds lovely, thank you.”
“Get yer bags; girl’ll show you the room.” He pulled the curtain back a fraction and yelled “Polly, get in ’ere.”
A young girl appeared, barely a teenager, pale and thin with stringy black hair dangling over her face. I hoped she wasn’t preparing the food.
“Show ’im to the back room,” and he vanished behind the curtain.
After fetching my overnight bag from the car and getting another soaking for my trouble, I followed Polly up a narrow flight of stairs and along a corridor to the room at the end. She flicked a switch and, amongst the strange shadows thrown by the shaded wall lights, I saw a large, comfortable looking double bed, a mahogany dresser complete with blue and white china bowl and jug, and a paisley print wing-backed chair beside the casement window. Polly produced a box of matches and lit the fire in the small fireplace, prodding it with an iron poker as the flames caught the kindling.
“Bath’s two doors down,” she told her feet, and backed out of the room.
I shivered and went to the window. The wind howled around the corner of the building, rattling the panes, finding minute gaps to creep through, bringing the sharp tang of ozone into the room. During a brief lull in the wind, I heard the sea crashing against the rocks below. The lighthouse still flaunted its warning and I noticed the occasional flash and flare of car headlights in the lane. Odd; I hadn’t seen another vehicle for miles, but there were several passing the inn as if they were oblivious to it. I felt a sudden sense of unreality and, closing my eyes, I had a vision of Dick Turpin galloping past on his horse and holding up a stagecoach. I must be more tired than I thought. I pulled the heavy damask curtains closed but they did little to stop the draught. I washed quickly and pulled on a dry sweater and jeans, leaving my wet shoes propped on the hearth, hoping they would be dry by morning. The fire was doing little to dispel the cold, clammy air so I prodded it and put a couple of logs on top of the smouldering kindling, before returning to the bar.
Fred was still staring into his tankard, pipe smoke loitering around his head.
“Is there a pay phone here?” I asked. I’d promised to phone my Mum when I could as she worried about me. Fred removed his pipe long enough to take a long swallow of beer, replaced it firmly and puffed out more smoke. Obviously not interested in conversation. The barman appeared through the curtain, carrying a pint of beer and plate of ham sandwiches.
“There you go,” he placed them in front of me and turned to leave.
“Excuse me, I thought I heard music, is there another bar?”
“Nope.” And he was gone.
“Why don’t you join me?” I turned and suddenly the room felt warm, welcoming. She sat at a table next to the fire, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. How had I not noticed her when I came in?
I felt my face heat. “Oh. That’s very k-kind of you. Th-thanks.” Beer and sandwiches forgotten I moved towards her, helpless under her gaze, as if caught in a net being hauled ashore. There was a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket on the table. She filled two glasses and passed me one.
“To fellow travellers,” she smiled, raising her glass to me. I willed my hand to move as I studied her. Her blonde hair cascaded down her back, mingling with her shimmering pale gold dress; the embodiment of the glass of champagne. Her eyes were the colour of the sea on the sunniest of days and the reflections of the flickering flames flashed in them as she smiled at me. A gossamer fine scarf, the exact shade of blue as her eyes, caressed her throat. I no longer heard the faint voices from the hidden room. I no longer smelt Fred’s pipe smoke. Her perfume, light, floral that brought to mind a summer’s day, with faint undertones of the sea, surrounded me.
We talked, I know that. I don’t remember what we talked about, if I ate my supper, or how much we drank. We laughed, I don’t remember about what. I’m loathe to say it was love at first sight but I don’t know how else to describe the feelings I experienced that night. Finally, she stood, rising in a singular fluid movement. Her dress hugged her figure in all the right places, and skimmed the floor, hiding her feet.
“Come,” she said, extending her hand. Her skin was smooth, cool and I stood hurriedly, my chair scraping the flagstones, an unholy screech, that failed to break the spell. I followed her up the stairs to my room in a daze.
The following morning, I woke alone. All that remained was the faintest hint of her perfume on the pillow. Pale dawn light crept around the edges of the curtain as I stretched and yawned, feeling as if I had slept for days. I dressed hurriedly, hoping she was already downstairs organizing breakfast as I was famished. Outside, the sky was clear, the trees rising above the mist which hovered over the ground. I could now see that the inn nestled in a dip between two headlands, watched over by the lighthouse. High above a murmuration of starlings swept black patterns across the sky, as if from an artist’s brush. I swiftly packed my case and rushed down to the bar. Fred was still in his corner, drinking coffee, newspaper propped against the beer pumps.
“Good morning,” I exclaimed, far too loud, “lovely day!”
Fred thumped the bar and the landlord appeared through the curtain.
“Good morning. Has my . . . companion arranged breakfast?” Embarrassed, I realized I didn’t know her name.
“Don’t do breakfast. Bill sir?”
“Oh, maybe a cup of coffee please? If it’s not too much trouble?”
He slipped his hand behind the curtain like a magician, and pulled out a cup and saucer, placing it on the bar, then took a pad from his pocket and laboriously wrote my bill.
“Has my lady friend left already?” I hoped she had left me a note, her phone number, something.
“And what lady would that be sir?”
“The lady I was with last night. Here.” I pointed to the table where we had spent the evening.
“No sir. You ate your food and retired alone.”
“But, she was sitting there and asked me to join her. Wasn’t she Fred? You s-saw her didn’t you?” Fred mumbled into his coffee cup. “M-maybe’s she’s in the other bar?”
“No sir. No other bar, no other customers.”
His words scrambled in my brain. Nothing made sense.
“Your bill sir,” and he pushed it across the bar.
I froze under his hostile stare. I remember I took some money from my wallet and he must have given me a receipt because I still have it. I went out to my car wondering if it had been a dream. Could it? It had seemed so real. Had I been that tired last night? Everything seemed blurred, as if seen through murky glasses. Without even consulting my map, I turned onto the lane and, within five minutes, pulled into a garage forecourt on the edge of the town I had been unable to find the previous night.
After fuelling the car, I walked across the road to a café and ordered a full English and pot of tea. The waitress, a chatty, motherly type, asked what I was doing in the area. I told her I’d spent the night at the inn back along the road and she laughed.
“The Mermaid? Don’t think so love. It’s been derelict for years, ever since the tragedy.”
“I didn’t notice the name,” I said. “It was old, in the valley below the lighthouse. No more than five minutes away.”
“No. You must mean the Kings Head,” and she named a village I remembered from the previous day.
“It was The Mermaid . . .” She stared at me as if I’d grown two heads and turned to go. “Wait. Sorry, you’re right. I must be mistaken. I’m new to this area. What was the tragedy you mentioned?”
She told me about a terrible storm on Halloween night, some forty years ago. The inn had been busy as usual and, during the evening, a woman had rushed in, begging for help as her husband’s ship had run aground on the rocks. Naturally, everyone followed her down to the shore, but, as they reached the ship a colossal wave reared up and swept the landlord, his young daughter, and one of the local fishermen away. When the others finally got aboard the stricken ship they found the crew all dead, and there was no sign of the woman. The landlord’s family moved away and no one wanted to take on the inn, so they boarded it up. Some of the old fishermen recalled similar things happening in the past, but my friendly waitress was skeptical.
“I mean, it’s an old building love. And folks like telling tales, don’t they? Parents make up all sorts of stories to scare their kiddies away from dangerous places, like derelict buildings. Or to frighten the little ones at Halloween.”
“What was the woman like? Do you know?”
“Gracious lovey, how should I know! Long before my time. Though they do say a woman’s seen sitting by the shore during storms, but I don’t believe it. More tea?”
I left in a daze, driving back to the inn which was indeed, boarded up. Ivy was gradually overtaking the brickwork, and one of the chimneys had fallen and lay smashed in pieces across the weed-strewn car park. I don’t know how long I sat there, appointments forgotten, simply staring at the inn. The weather was closing in again, turning the world sepia as the mist thickened, rolling in from the sea. Finally, I concluded I must have slept in the car, the weird dream triggered by the strange surroundings and the vicious storm. Remembering the petrol receipt, I added it to the growing pile in the coin tray by the gear lever and noticed the one on top: The Mermaid Inn. A glimpse of blue caught my eye then, peeping from under the passenger seat. I leant down and withdrew a scarf, light as a butterfly’s wing, the colour of the sea on the sunniest of days.
I never did make my appointments that day, and was sacked not long afterwards. My life in the 30 years since that night hasn’t exactly been as I had envisioned. First, and devastatingly, my beloved Mum died unexpectedly the following year. I have been unable to sustain any serious relationships; no woman has ever managed to match my mysterious lover. I’ve drifted from job to job, still a salesman driving up and down the country. I often come back here especially when a bad storm’s forecast. There’s a bench in front of the lighthouse, with a plaque commemorating all the souls lost at sea, and I make the long climb up from the new car park to sit and wait. I’m drawn here, as I was drawn to her so long ago. I’m hoping one day she will return. At low tide, when the normally concealed rocks can be seen in all their vicious glory, I often think I see her, sitting, watching for ships. But it’s my imagination.
It’s getting cold now, the wind’s growing stronger. Starlings are swooping and weaving overhead and ominously dark clouds are rolling across the sea. Soon the lighthouse will begin flashing its warning.
Wait. There is someone on the rocks. It’s not my imagination. I’m going to pause writing to take a closer look. It’s a blonde woman. Can it be her? After all this time? She’s waving, beckoning me to join her. Finally! I’ll leave this journal on the bench while I go to the cliff edge and take a closer look . . .