|Written by Judith Field / Artwork by Holly Eddy
The December sky was an inverted bowl of unreleased snow. Joe crunched across the frost-covered sand towards
the rocks where the eels swam. Fishing, all alone. Just how he liked it. Better than having to stand listening to Mike
mouthing off about his latest ‘get rich quick’ scheme, while their lines drifted further apart down the beach. Mr Big,
with his twopenny-ha’penny fishing rod.
Getting rich would be nice. But he’d settle for getting by. Retirement, no more work, it should have been great.
Now his time was his own. But, he thought, they stick a pension book in your hand, and it’s counting the pennies
for the rest of your days. You’ve still got to find the same money for the bills, though. And if you can’t keep up
with the rent, it’s goodbye home.
Faded, flaking groynes stretched to the sea, along the empty shore. He looked up into the white sky. Weighed
down by his rucksack, his shoulders complained with each jarring footfall. Joe turned his face away from the wind
and tied his scarf tighter. Ice cream papers and supermarket bags whipped round his ankles. Idle sods on the
council should clean this lot up.
‘You there! Can you help me? The tide’s gone out and I must get off this beach!’ A woman’s voice, in the tones of
an actress from a nineteen-fifties British black and white film. Cracking through the freezing air behind him.
An old woman strained to peer over a groyne, her shrivelled face a sun-deprived white. Seashells hung from her
drooping earlobes. Joe had heard that ears never stop growing. His own should reach his shoulders, the age he felt
these days. The woman’s few wisps of hair were white, streaked with apple green. Colour-blind hairdresser, Joe
thought, remembering his wife Hazel’s fuss when she got the wrong shade of blue.
The woman pulled herself up higher behind the barnacle-encrusted wood. Joe realised that she was topless.
Another triumph for care in the community. Bloody social workers.
‘Too cold for sunbathing, love,’ he said, rounding the groyne.
Joe jerked to a gasping halt. His fishing rod clattered down onto the pebbles as he stared at the place where the
woman’s legs should have been.
‘Shut your mouth before a fish swims in,’ she said, lashing her tail against the wet sand as she tried to sit up. ‘And
don’t look so bloody surprised, we get old, like you land people. It takes us a lot longer but it comes to us all in the
Joe opened his mouth again. She raised the palm of one iridescent-scaled hand to command silence.
‘And you’re no young fry yourself. Now are you going to help me back into the sea or just stand there flapping
your mouth like a cod?’ She coughed. Water oozed from the slits in her neck.
‘Pleased to meet you, Jesus. My name is Lortedo.’ She held out a hand. Joe wasn’t sure he wanted to touch it, but
reminded himself that he picked up the fish he caught. Better not tell her about that. Her hand was warm and dry,
with curved claws for nails.
‘No, I’m Joe.’
She snorted. More water, running down her chin.
‘That’s better.’ She wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
An idea formed in Joe’s mind. First, better put her at her ease. ‘Nice name you’ve got. Unusual’.
She smiled and nodded. ‘Thank you. I’m called after the land men’s weapons that make ships sink. They move so
fast…mother hoped I’d grow up to be the same. But I could swim even faster.’ She smoothed the scales on her tail.
‘What are you talking about, weapons? You mean torpedoes?’
‘I know what my own name is. Mother thought it was exotic, we’re usually called after plants or fish.’ She pulled
herself into a sitting position, digging her tail into the sand to get purchase. ‘Enough of this chat. Help me back into
‘My back won’t let me, love. Like you said, I’m not as young as I was.’
‘Don’t tell me!’ Lortedo said, putting her hand behind her and rubbing the place where her tail met her waist. ‘Some
days I can hardly swim for the pain.’
She looked towards the sea, grimacing, ‘You will be able to get me back in, I trust—what did you say your name
‘Joe. Have to ring my mate, get him to help. Put you on a tarpaulin and carry you between us, Bob’s your uncle,
Fanny’s your aunt.’
Lortedo frowned and looked upwards, as though she was trying to work out a puzzle.
‘I think you’ve mixed me up with someone else. And I hope a tarpaulin is something I can ease myself onto, I will
not put up with being rolled about.’
Joe walked away to the next groyne. Turning away from Lortedo, he spoke into his mobile from the side of his
‘Mike? Get the van down to the beach now. Never mind why. Let’s say the future has just got brighter. No, I mean
our ship has come in. Still got those fluffy handcuffs that strip-a-gram girl left at your retirement do? Yes, and
bring bit of tarp as well. And your tow rope.’ Mike lived on his own, he wouldn’t mind not being able to use his bath
for a while.
Joe hunkered down next to Lortedo on the wet sand.
‘Won’t be long,’ he said, ‘now what shall we talk about? Can’t have you getting bored while you’re waiting.’
‘I’m just glad of the chance to chat. The time hangs since my Kohu died. Since our young grew up and swam away.’
‘You keep them with you, once they’re hatched—I mean born—do you?’
‘Of course! What did you think—I’d just leave them under a bit of seaweed?’
‘Sorry. But I know what you mean. Since our lad set up on his own, Hazel and I have been rattling around the
place, trying to find things to talk about.’
‘At least you have your land woman.’ Lortedo’s mouth buckled and her voice thickened.
‘If you stayed round here, you’d never be lonely.’ The papers and TV would make sure of that. And, no more penny
pinching. No more make do and mend. No more fear of what the post would bring. Or the future.
‘What do you mean?’ Lortedo’s head snapped round to face Joe, and her eyes narrowed.
‘Nothing, nothing, just trying to help, that’s all.’
‘Help me? You’ll be doing that as soon as you get me back in the sea.’
The wind blew a dusting of sand across the pebbles into Lortedo’s face. She sneezed. Joe took his coat off and put
it round her shoulders.
‘Don’t want you catching a cold.’
She tugged it round her shoulders, her claws catching on the fabric. ‘Very thoughtful. But don’t you need it?’
‘I’ll be okay. What we need is a nice cup of tea.’ He took a flask out of his rucksack.
‘Hot…’ Lortedo stared at the rising steam.
‘Careful!’ Joe passed her a cup, ‘just a little bit at a time.’
She spread her fingers apart to take it. They were webbed. Her hands looked like paddles.
‘What a curious sensation! I can feel it going down inside. But very refreshing. I could get to like this “tea”.’
‘There’s plenty of it round here, it’s great. Keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer.’ Joe dipped into a plastic
bag. ‘You hungry? Have a scotch egg.’
She grabbed it and pushed most of it into her mouth, clamping pointed teeth around it. She tore a lump off,
grimaced and spat it out. Gobbets of egg and sausage plopped onto her tail.
‘The scotch must be a very peculiar creature.’
He rummaged in the bag again. ‘Try an apple instead.’
She bit into it like a conger eel snapping at a freshly caught mackerel.
‘Juicy. Sweet. That’s better. You have a bite.’ She held out the half-eaten apple.
‘Not for me. Hazel put it in my bag, but they make my teeth hurt.’
‘You should pull the sore ones out and wait for the next set to grow. Let me.’
She grabbed his chin, pulled it down and pushed a finger into his mouth.
Joe tasted fish. ‘Get off!’ He grabbed her wrist and pushed her hand away. His arms flailed and he fell backwards.
‘Our teeth don’t work like that.’ He sat up and spat onto the sand in front of him. ‘We’re meant to look after
them. Hazel’s always on at me about healthy eating. But give me a good fry-up any day.’
Lortedo raised her eyebrows. ‘Fry? Of what?’
‘No, sausages, bacon, that sort of thing. Cooked in hot oil.’
‘I have never heard of such fish. And you eat oil, that black stuff that pours out of your ships. You’re like Kohu, he
liked nothing better than to chew on a piece of blubber. I told him it was bad for him, but would he listen?’
Joe smiled and nodded. ‘We males cock a deaf ‘un when it suits us. I bet he didn’t say no to a beer; oh, never
She looked out to sea. ‘When I was young, land men tried not to hear me. But my song was too powerful. I used
to have golden hair, can you believe it?’ She ran her fingers through the white-green wisps on top of her head.
‘And I wore a sparkling golden chain I found in a wrecked ship, round the neck of a dead land woman. I would sing.
Listen now.’ She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. Opened her mouth. A thin, piercing wail, like a seagull.
‘Doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid’ Joe said.
Lortedo’s mouth turned down. ‘I can’t do it out of the sea, now. But then, ah then, I would sit on high. Land men
would rather look up to me than down at the rocks. Devoured by the waves. Drawn down, the water closing over
their faces. A time of joy.’
‘I’ve met women like you before,’ Joe said. ‘There’s plenty of them on the land. Heartless. Man-haters.’
Lortedo frowned and shook her head.
‘No, you don’t understand. The joy was for them, if they would embrace the kind sea. Deep water closing over your
head, holding you, soft on your skin. You look up and see nothing but blue. Breathing slowly, water flowing over
your gills.’ Lortedo looked at Joe and sighed. ‘Why don’t you come with me? Up here, you get old, you die, you rot.
But come down with me to the soft sand and I’ll show you coral made of land men’s bones. Land eyes turned into
Joe felt hot fluid rise up his throat. He swallowed and shuddered. ‘I’m not dead yet. A few years ahead of me. I
hope. The sea’s too cold for the likes of me. And we can’t breathe water like you.’
Lortedo shook her head. ‘True, I’ve never drawn a man into the sea who did. But they never tried. Perhaps you’re
different, perhaps you can. Let silence clog your ears as you drift alone, deep in the ocean darkness. Changing you
into something new.’
‘Nah,’ Joe said, ‘Not today. Hazel will have me tea cooking. Better stay here. Home’s best.’ He took a hip flask out
of his pocket. ‘Don’t want you freezing up. This will give you some internal warmth, it’s a different sort of scotch.’
Lortedo grabbed the flask. Shoving a corner into her mouth, she bit down.
‘No, stop, it’s a sort of bottle—you drink out of it.’
She held the flask up to the few weak sunbeams that managed to force their way through the cloud.
‘A smooth, shining shell. What are these symbols?’ She looked at it with one eye closed.
‘It says ‘To Joe, from all your pals at Bateson’s Engineering.”’
‘Earrings? Like these?’ she flicked the shells hanging from her ears so that they clattered.
‘What? No, it was where I worked. But I got to sixty-five and they threw me on the scrapheap. Suddenly it was
“thank you Joe, now sod off.” I could have gone on for years, I knew my stuff. But there’s no room for old buggers
like me in their world.’
Lortedo put her hand on Joe’s arm. The coat slid onto the sand.
‘I know. I used to teach the young to sing. But when I got old they made me stop, too. No more golden jewellery
for me.’ She flicked at the shell earrings again. ‘I decided to swim the seven seas, don’t ask me why because there
was nothing there for me. I missed my home. But I couldn’t find my way back. Everything looks strange. We’re not
so different, you and me. You understand.’
‘Yes, I know what it’s like. I can’t be doing with gallivanting about either, when I’ve got everything I need right here.
You are a long way from home, aren’t you?’ Joe pulled the coat onto her shoulders. ‘Give me the flask, let’s have a
little drink together,’ he said, ‘just don’t tell anyone else, don’t want them thinking you’re some old boozer’.
Lortedo threw the flask onto the sand.
‘What do you mean, “them”?’ her eyes narrowed and her voice grew hard at the edges, ‘I won’t be meeting
anyone, except for your friend. Will I?’ Straightening her arms, she pushed her hands down on the sand like
crutches and shuffled forward a few inches. ‘Enough is enough. My scales are drying; you have kept me waiting for
too long. The sea calls me.’ Her tail beat against the sand.
‘No! Stop it, you’ll do yourself an injury. People like us can’t be too careful, not at our age.’
She leaned back, panting, against the groyne.
‘That is true. Now listen. I need to tell you,’ she paused, pursed her lips and looked upwards, ‘no, it’s gone. This
stupid old brain of mine can’t hold onto what it should. My thoughts are like jellyfish bobbing across the sea. I can’t
catch them.’ She smacked her hand against the side of her head.
‘Give over.’ Joe pulled her hand down. ‘Life can be tricky enough for people like us without making things worse
‘But how else can I get back? I want to go home. Your world is not my world. I have no place here.’
‘We’ve got to wait for my mate...’
Not so different. People. Like us. Joe looked away from her. Mr Big, with his get rich quick scheme. A wave of shame
washed over him. In the distance, he saw Mike’s van coming down the road. He would have to park at the end of
the beach and walk the rest of the way, but there wouldn’t be long to wait before he got there. Joe knew what he
had to do. Tearing the coat from Lortedo’s shoulders, he flung it onto the sand.
‘Quick! Hotch onto that!
‘Cut the gabbing, just do it.’
The van pulled up at the far end of the beach. Joe bent down to the elderly mermaid on the sand.
‘Put your arms round my neck,’ he said. ‘Not like that, I can’t breathe!’
Joe tied the coat sleeves round his waist, turned round and shuffled towards the sea. Razors of pain shot through
his back as he dragged Lortedo through the icy water. As it reached his waist the waves lifted her, suspended
beside him. Joe undid the coat, let it go. She lashed her tail and dived under the waves.
Joe began to wade back. From somewhere, a voice sang his name, blown away on the bitter wind. He stopped and
turned back towards the horizon, up to his thighs in water, a hand cupped round each ear.
Mike yelled from the shore. ‘Joe! What the hell did you drag me down here for?’ Joe shook himself and turned
‘Don’t just stand there, get out! Your arse is all wet,’ Mike shouted. ‘What’s Hazel going to say when you get
Hazel. Land woman. Mike called his name again. Joe looked far out to sea, where a hand protruded above the water.
Waving. Saying goodbye.
Judith Field was born in Liverpool, England and lives in
London. She is the daughter of writers, and learned
how to agonise over fiction submissions at her
mother's (and father's) knee.
She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a
grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared
in a variety of publications in the USA, UK and
Australia. She speaks five languages and can say,
"Please publish this story" in all of them. She is also a
pharmacist, freelance journalist, editor, medical writer,
A collection of 15 of her stories can be found here.
Visit her blog here.