Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

Mermaid

Late one Friday night in the year I left university, I woke on a strange and distant railway platform, lying face-down in a puddle of my own yeasty vomit – half-chewed chunks of pineapple strung in my hair – and resolved never to regret another choice. Since then, I have applied myself assiduously to leading a blame-free life, fearing guilt, and retreating from any situation that might lend itself to my own embarrassment or shame. Time and again, I have been reassured that regret is little more than the destructive byproduct of an inconstant mind. So: if the crayfish spaghettini looks good, I will order the crayfish spaghettini. Once ordered, crayfish spaghettini becomes, so far as I am concerned, the only option that was ever available to me on the menu. To dwell on what might have been is to invite doubt. Doubt – as every quavering failure knows – is the pale cousin of regret. And regret, much like an overfamiliar cousin, is only ever an engagement party, birthday party, or christening away.

I accepted Petra’s invitation because I have always believed it is the parties we do not attend that we most regret. Besides, refusing to accompany Lori to the housewarming was impossible. Although her friends were not my own, Lori would have ensured that I regretted staying home. It is not that I am wary of parties. In fact, I have rarely been known to entertain even the faintest flickering of doubt in myself in company. I am so confident, in fact, that I make a habit of telling the same joke whenever I encounter an acquaintance at a party. Upon being reunited with such a person, I will invariably lean in toward them, raise my eyebrows with unmistakable import, and whisper, in a furtive and solicitous tone, ‘here we are, then: revisiting the scene of the crime.’ I have never regretted saying this.
It was not until I boarded the bus that I felt the first inkling of my mistake. Perhaps, in actual fact, I had sensed a certain fore-omening of my fate as I walked to the bus stop. Strolling along the esplanade, I had passed a young sea lion, which at first I took to be sunning itself on the warm cement of the quay. As I neared the creature, however, I had spied the length of nylon fishing line that trailed from its slavering jaws, and the foamy streaks of blood and spittle painting its breast. Until the year I left home for university, I was an avid recreational fisherman. On the bus, and despite my best efforts, I could not help but think of all those times I had snagged my tackle on some undersea crag and broken off several feet of line – and the sinker, hook, and bait along with it.

At the next stop, a young man who looked uncannily like my cousin Harvey boarded the bus. I shut my eyes against the still-sharp image of my uncle’s kelpie with the limp carcass of a penguin in her maw. I had given up fishing in that first long year of university, sensing the activity was morally incompatible with my chosen degree in marine biology. It took me almost 18 months to realise just how deeply I regretted embarking upon such an academic heading, at which point I left university for good.

I had just about succeeded in pushing the sea lion and the fishing line out of my mind when the bus pulled up outside a mall, three blocks from Petra’s apartment. Sensing no danger, I decided to get off and walk the remaining distance to the party. It is the walks we do not take that we most regret. Here, again, fate conspired against me. Shuffling toward me on the footpath was a woman carrying a pineapple.

A large part of my success at parties has to do with the pineapple rule. When attending a party, as everyone knows, it is always advisable to bring a gift for the host. If in doubt, I have found that a pineapple is always well received. Everyone loves pineapple, although most people rarely think to buy a whole one for themselves. But, seeing the woman with the pineapple on the footpath at the bus stop, I recalled with dread that I had forgotten to buy a housewarming gift for Petra, as I had promised Lori I would.
‘Don’t get her a pineapple,’ Lori had said. ‘Get her something nice.’

I could not turn up to the party without a housewarming gift. Lori would see to it I regretted such an oversight. But one glance at the mall in front of me was enough to make my blood run cold. It did not look like the kind of mall that stocked something nice. It looked like the kind of mall that has not undergone renovations or repairs since 1978, and in which half the shops have been vacated and never re-let. It looked like the kind of mall in which a Woolworths, a Liquorland, and a miserable little bakery account for 80% of the rent-roll. Despite these first impressions, I drew a breath and marched inside, at which point I discovered I had been mistaken in my initial assessment of the place. There was no Woolworths. It was at this point I remembered another errand I had somehow forgotten: I was meant to bring three bags of ice to the party. Perhaps, I thought, while picking up the ice from Liquorland, I could find a nice bottle of booze for Petra – maybe something packaged in a novel decanter. Such a gift might pass for something nice. But, as I soon discovered, the poverty of the Shaw Street Plaza Liquorland’s stock-list was all but terminal. Defeated, I sloped toward the counter to ask for the key to the ice chest.

‘Three bags of ice, please,’ I said.

‘Sorry, we’re out,’ the shop assistant replied.

‘Hold on,’ a second teller said, ‘I think there might be one box left in the cool-room.’

‘How old is it?’ the first man said.

‘Might be a bit stale, I suppose,’ the second man shrugged. ‘You don’t mind if it’s a bit stale, do you?’

‘It’s ice,’ I said.

I thought of the sea lion drooling blood on the distant break-wall of the quay, and shivered. Wary, I followed the first shop assistant into the cool-room. There, wedged down the side of a fridge, a badly battered box of ice lay half-concealed beneath a pile of pallet-wrap. The teller crouched down and unfolded the flaps of the lid. As he did so, he recoiled.

‘Oh shit,’ he said, coughing, ‘it’s gone bad. It’s covered in that fucken ice fungus.’

Since its arrival in the southern hemisphere several years ago – seeded to the earth by a meteorite, or some unmarked fragment of space wreckage – ice fungus had been an object of much fascination in the scientific literature. Highly virulent, its inexorable spread across the Ross Ice Shelf and the dire impact this had had on the penguins of its landward edge had been the topic of my very first essay at university. Despite its notoriety, I had never seen it in the flesh. In fact, I had never heard of it being encountered anywhere north of New Zealand before. Stooping, I peered into the box.

Two thirds of the ice the box had once contained had either evaporated or been consumed by the corrosive chemical action of the extraterrestrial mycelium with which it had been infected, so that only a loose and shallow litter of misshapen cubes lined the cardboard bottom. As to the fruiting bodies of the fungus itself, no macro photograph could have prepared me for their weirdness. The nearest I might come to describing them would be to say that they resembled the exposed, decomposing extremities of a human corpse that has been buried in a too-shallow grave. Finger-, nose- and- ear-like growths sprouted from the remaining ice – their colours spanning a range of sickly, unnatural fleshy hues, and every outgrowth purpling at the fringes. There would be no ice at the party.
‘Is there a bathroom nearby?’ I asked the shop assistant, defeated.

‘Sure is, mate – you want to follow the hallway to the loading dock. The toilets will be straight ahead, opposite the fishmongers.’
Following these directions, I sloped through the deepest, dimmest recesses of the Shaw Street Plaza until I arrived at the grimy doors of the loading dock. The atmosphere in the deliveries bay outside was still warm, which only intensified the reek of the rubbish skips it housed. Rounding the corner, I spied the men’s room ahead of me. Not only was the toilet unaccountably occupied, but another patron of the plaza had actually beaten me to the punch and now stood before the locked bathroom door. Shuffling with impatience, I was startled by a sudden movement to my left. There, I was confronted by an enormous tank of greenish water, which served as the rearmost wall of the fishmonger’s shop that backed onto the loading dock. And bobbing sadly within that prism of glass and water and algae was a mermaid – or, to use the Master Fish Merchants’, Retail Fishmongers’, and Professional Fishermen’s Associations’ preferred nomenclature, a Gould’s Giant Antarctic Rock Lobster.

A decade prior, and long before I had left home for university, a joint team of Victoria University of Wellington and University of Tasmania researchers had discovered the Giant Antarctic Rock Lobster while investigating a deep-sea trench several nautical miles south of Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean. Through a filmy veil of plankton motes, the camera of a remote-controlled submersible had revealed a teeming mass of enormous crustaceans swarming about a sunken rocky pinnacle. This sea-bottom formation had since been marked upon all shipping maps and charts as the Sirene Pyramid. The cold waters of the Southern Ocean had, so the biologists said, contributed to the great size of the creatures that made its icy vastness a spawning ground and crèche. Incredibly, the mermaids of the Pyramid numbered in the millions – if not tens of millions. The total biomass of these bizarre relics of more ancient seas was found to be equivalent to more than 1,000 times that of all the residents of Manhattan, and their dogs, combined. It was rumoured that the creatures, much like sea otters, collected stones and pebbles – secreting their favourites in the leathery egg-sacs of sharks for future use in breaking open bivalves and other shellfish.

Mermaids had rapidly become a sought-after catch for deep-sea trawlers; the fishery expanding exponentially with the discovery of every new colony in the southern reaches of the world’s oceans. Ordinary families routinely purchased and chargrilled juveniles of the species on special occasions. A brisk restaurant trade in mermaid meat had sprung up almost overnight, with high-end eateries from New York to Cape Town regularly bidding against one another at auction; famous chefs routinely finding themselves embroiled in the bitter squabbles that inevitably ensued on the packing-room floors of mermaid markets the world over. For my part, I had never seen a live mermaid up close before, although I had seen their tails – the girths of which sometimes recalled a man’s thigh – shelled, cooked and arrayed atop crates of ice and displayed for sale in the food halls of the city.

The living creature that now swam before me was jet black from top to bottom. Its lower half – with its broad tail-flukes and the armoured segments of the carapace – recalled nothing so much as a colossal, 120-pound yabbie. From the underside of the tail, two rows of innumerable small, apparently useless vestigial legs projected, rippling in the artificial current of the tank’s oxygen pump. From this weird fish’s abdomen sprouted a pair of secondary arms – not unlike those of a langoustine or squat lobster – each terminating in a pair of frail-looking pincer claws. Higher up, the torso widened into a barrel chest and what passed for broad shoulders, from which sprouted decorative fronds of seaweed-like fleshy lobes such as those that adorn some species of seahorse. Strikingly, the creature’s muscular arms resembled those of a heavyweight boxer. The well-developed biceps, triceps and extensor of each arm supported a gargantuan claw, the lesser pincer of which seemed to be arranged not unlike a thumb. There was something almost human in the structures of the thorax and head: from the suggestion of clavicles, to an elegantly slender neck; jawbone, cheekbones, and forehead – all covered in leathery, armour-like scales that were raised to a small point at the centre like the textured skin of a pineapple.

Upon encountering such a massive specimen for the first time, I mused, wonderingly, on its market value – which I guessed at upwards of $1,000.00. It was beyond strange that such a valuable fish should be available for purchase, live, in so decrepit and unloved a place as the Shaw Street Plaza. There was something of majesty inhering in the creature’s bearing that made its surroundings appear all the more squalid. But more striking even than its quasi-regal outline was its gaze. As he bobbed forward and back in such space as the tank afforded him – mere inches in each direction – and butting against the glass at either end, he turned his head to face me. His eyes were wide and dish-like, like a seal’s, and shone with an amberish, pancreatic hue. I shuddered to remark the subtle upward curve of the corners of the fish’s mouth as his face split into something like a smile. As he turned his head to face the glass directly before him once again, I saw, for a moment, the profile of a man.

‘Can it really be legal to eat these?’ I asked the man who stood in front of me, still waiting for the bathroom.

Before he had quite had time to respond, I resolved to secure a present for Petra before relieving myself. Turning, I stalked purposely back into the mall. As I stepped into the deserted foyer, I found myself directed, by a flimsy sandwich board, toward an arts and crafts gallery concealed somewhere deep within the strip-lit bowels of the centre.

‘Arts and crafts’ is a regrettable phrase, as the things it actually describes consist of cheap synthetic wool, bad jam, and amateurish lacework. But the products available for purchase in the Shaw Street Plaza Arts & Crafts Bazaar were a worse thing altogether. I can say this without remorse, because I searched the entire shop from top to bottom – desperately hunting for anything that might pass, in the half-drunk mood lighting of a housewarming party, for something nice. But, as if to underscore the hopelessness of this effort, I discovered, on a trestle table at the rear of the shop, a cluster of garden gnomes – the kinked red caps of which some artisan or craftsperson had smashed off with a hammer, replacing them with glued tufts of neon fur (‘rave gnomes, $27.50’). My heart leapt when I spied what looked, from the far side of the shop, like a decorative ceramic pineapple sitting on the counter. But, when I asked the shopkeeper the price, she only laughed and said: ‘Sorry, love, that’s a real pineapple. It’s not for sale.’

The abjection of my situation engulfed me as a cold, grey tide. I could not go to the party without a present; I could not go to the party without ice. The shops across town would soon be closing. Even if I succeeded in finding a present, and ice, by the time I made it back to Petra’s, the partygoers’ drinks would be warm. At once, the extreme urgency with which I needed to piss overwhelmed me.
To my dismay, I discovered that the same strange man was keeping his interminable vigil outside the locked men’s room door. As I drew up to him, he leaned in, raised his eyebrows with exaggerated import, and furtively whispered, in a solicitous tone, ‘here we are, then: revisiting the scene of the crime.’ I had pissed myself before he had quite had time to finish speaking. I was overwhelmed at once with the remembrance of the seal I had hooked off the wharf at Eden; of cutting the line off with my pocketknife, and watching it trailing behind the creature with accusatory sinuousness as it swam to its suffering. I turned to face the mermaid once again. Silently, he disappeared into darkness as the lights of the fishmonger’s shop were extinguished, leaving me to tremble in the dim and noisome cavern of the loading dock.

Here I woke, for the second time, on that selfsame strange and distant railway platform – still facedown in a puddle of my own yeasty vomit, half-chewed chunks of pineapple still snarled in my hair, and now a new puddle in the region of my groin – and resolved never to order crayfish spaghettini again.

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Gareth Hipwell is a Sydney-based Australian artist, freelance arts journalist and author, writing for Rolling Stone Australia, Big Issue Australia, Australian Book Review and other publications. Gareth is currently working on his first novel, 'Maneroo', an acid western set in the New South Wales colony of the mid-19th Century.

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