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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”