Priddy's Tale

What doesn’t kill you sometimes makes you wish it had...

Priddy’s a lost soul in a part of Cornwall the tourists don’t get to see. He’s young, sweet-natured and gorgeous, but that’s not enough to achieve escape velocity from his deadbeat village and rotten family life.


He’s a drifter and a dreamer, and self-preservation isn’t his strong suit. An accidental overdose of  a nightclub high leaves him fractured, hallucinating, too many vital circuits fried to function in a tough world. When a friend offers him winter work in a lighthouse – nothing to do but press the occasional button and keep the windows clean – he gratefully accepts.

His plans to live quietly and stay out of trouble don’t last very long. A ferocious Atlantic storm washes a stranger to Priddy’s lonely shore. For a shipwrecked sailor, the new arrival seems very composed. He’s also handsome as hell, debonair, and completely unconcerned by Priddy’s dreadful past.

Priddy has almost given up on the prospect of any kind of friendship, and a new boyfriend – let alone a six-foot beauty with eerily good swimming skills – out of the question entirely. But Merou seems to see undreamed-of promise in Priddy, and when they hit the water together, Priddy has to adapt to Merou’s potentials too, and fast. His lover from the sea might be a mere mortal from the waist up, but south of that line...

Far-flung west Cornwall has a hundred mermaid tales. Priddy’s loved the stories all his life. Now he has to face up to a wildly impossible truth. Merou’s life depends upon his courage and strength, and if Priddy can only find his way in the extraordinary world opening up all around him, all the ocean and a human lifetime needn’t be enough to contain the love between merman and mortal.

Excerpt

His arms were empty, the rippling surface vacant. He whipped round, losing his footing, submerging under the weight of his soaked jeans. That was all right—he needed some ballast, something to keep him down here while he searched, because he was damned if he was going to let the sea snatch Merou now. He kicked off his shoes and dived.

The water was so dark! He lost his bearings instantly. Something was swirling around him, a heavy current or one of the vortices that occasionally formed as the tide combed the ocean back through the Hell’s Teeth barricade. Priddy tumbled through it, blind, casting hopelessly around him for a floating limb, a handful of hair. “Merou,” he yelled, wasting his last breath on the cry. Silver bubbles, soundless, shimmering away into the abyss...

Something bumped against him. He had a DNA-deep west Cornishman’s terror of sharks, and he lashed out wildly. If it was a mako or a white, you stood a chance—a very remote one—if you could catch the bastard a hard enough thump on the nose. Christ, though—this felt more like a serpent, one of the giant eels that got caught in the nets and passed into infamy as grandfather stories, tales around a beach fire on Golowan night. A coil of it slipped around Priddy’s waist and clamped tight. Bubbles and foam rushed past him and he broke surface with a breaching dolphin’s force. Whatever had caught him just as suddenly let him go. On reflex he started to swim, coughing and trying to clear his vision. There were the stars and the bright heavens, bisected like Merou’s unmarred belly with the silvery brush of the galactic rim.

 

Merou was swimming beside him. Priddy sucked an astonished breath and went under again. Again something caught him—coiled around him—raised him with supple, irresistible force. Not Merou, who was calmly treading water, smiling incandescently. “All right there, then, blue-eyes?”

 

“Merou!” Priddy threw his arms around him, not caring if he drowned them both. Merou burst into laughter, not a bit inconvenienced by the attack: seized him joyously in return. Priddy’s world turned upside-down once more, the Milky Way swooping down into the depths and the glitter-filled water soaring to the zenith. The eel, the serpent, was rolling him over and over, laughing all the time, and Priddy couldn’t be afraid, because... “It’s you,” he cried out, the next time he could breathe. “You’re back. You’re alive. It’s you holding me, isn’t it, with your... with your...”

 

“With my tail,” Merou finished for him, taking pity. “Keep still, wriggly landling, or I’ll scratch you up. The scales are very sharp when they first grow back.”

 

“Oh, man, what the  fuck  are you talking about? I’ve lost it, haven’t I? This is a fucking dream.”

 

“Feeling is believing, my handsome. Let go your stranglehold on my neck. Go on! I won’t bite.”

 

Heaving great lungfuls of air, Priddy forced himself to unlock one hand and slide it down Merou’s back. The skin was warm as sin and toast, normal enough if normal meant bloody perfect, all the way down the groove of his spine to his waist, and then to the opening crease of his arse, which began right on time but then... “Shit!” Priddy snatched his hand back. “You’ve got scales. You really have got a tail.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. And you’re sitting on part of it, so don’t freak out too far.”

Priddy gave a barking caw of laughter. Keeping one arm hooked safely around Merou’s neck—the top end of him, the part that still made sense—he tried again, and this time dared to feel the great muscled curve that had swept behind the back of his thighs and was supporting him there. “How are you... How are you holding us still in the water like this?”

“Great big fluke on the end. Whale-style, not fish-style, perpendicular to my tailbone and totally flexible. Treading water, you could call it, only...”

“Only you don’t have feet. Oh, God. Oh, God.”

“Calm down, you infant. Even Jacques Cousteau wasn’t as overwrought as this.”

“You really did know him? So—wait...” Priddy tried to catch his breath and bring his voice down an octave or so. “What does that make you—immortal, as well as a mermaid?”

“Not immortal, no. I’d have died tonight if not for you. A change on land is one of the few ways to kill us. And... there’s nothing maidenly about me, as you’ll find out soon enough.”

Priddy shivered hotly. “Sorry. I scarcely dare ask what’s become of John Thomas.”

“Oh, he’s in there. Just tucked away behind an armoured wall of muscle and scales, like any sensible penis ought to be. Can you please pay attention? This has to be done in the proper, formal way.”

“What has?”

“Just a short ceremony. Landlings can’t be allowed to know about us, you see, not unless they’ve done us a great service.”

“But... doesn’t my dad know about you now?”

“Not at all. I’m just a drunken vision that will haunt him the rest of his life. But you, Jem Priddy... Wait. What’s Jem short for, when it’s a boy?”

“Nothing.”

“Yes, it is. You’d better tell me, or you’ll go down in the annals as Jemima.”

 

“Jeremy, then,” Priddy growled. “And don’t ever call me that. What annals?”

 

“Never mind now.” Merou cleared his throat and raised his voice, as if something in the water or the diamond-blazing sky was bearing witness. “Jeremy Priddy, you have done a favour for a spirit of the sea. In consideration of such, I can now, by the powers of the Mer in Lyonesse, grant you a wish.”

 

Priddy settled more comfortably on the great coil of tail. He’d been cold for a while, but now he too was sin-toasty warm. Maybe he was drowning, or in end-stage hypothermia, and somebody else’s life was flashing in front of him. “An actual  wish?”

“Yes. Just like in a fairytale, or...” The tail gave a teasing jounce beneath him. “...or when you were a little lad on Santa’s knee in Trago. Come on—make it a good one. You saved my life.”

 

“Technically I saved it twice. Once just now, and the other day—”

 

“Crikey, did you bargain with Santa like this? That one doesn’t count. I only needed saving then because you turned me into a biped.”

 

I  did? How is that supposed to have happened?”

“I tried to tell you at the time. You  touched  me. If a landling lays a hand on us, and if we like the hand enough, we can change. Sometimes,” he said ruefully, tightening his grasp round Priddy’s waist, “we like it so much, we don’t get any choice.”

“I’m sorry.” Priddy didn’t mean it: he was overwhelmed with pride, to have been the catalyst for such a transformation. “It didn’t seem to hurt you then, though. Not much, anyway.”

 

“It’s fine if it happens in the sea. It just feels like being... unzipped, or zipped up again, if I’m going the other way. Did you think of your wish yet? Would you like a speedboat? Your father’s heart, liver and lungs served up to you on a silver plate?”

“Jesus, Merou.” Priddy pulled a face, but the thought of old Vigo’s entrails didn’t really disturb him. What scared him was the power of his wish.  I wish you’d stay with me forever, with your magic and your laughter, and your sweetness that makes everything else I’ve discovered in this world so far seem hollow and bitter and dry.  But that wish wasn’t fair. It involved someone else, and what if Merou didn’t want to stay? If by some insane chance all of this was real, and the wish had binding force, he’d be trapped.

Priddy could only ask for something for himself. “I wish,” he said faintly, leaning his brow against Merou’s, “that I’d never taken those damn pills.”

 

Merou became very still. Somewhere in the waters below, the great fluke was sculling, place-holding them against the tide, but he stopped stroking Priddy’s hair and tipped his head a little, as if listening. “Ah,” he said regretfully after a moment. “Can’t be done. Would involve swimming in time with an unqualified person, and the inevitable paradox. If you hadn’t taken the pills, you’d never have ended up here, so we’d never have met, and I couldn’t be here granting your wish, or trying to. You see?”

 

“I do, but so far you’re a pretty crap Santa, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”