The Mermaid by Kathleen Jowitt

The Mermaid by Kathleen Jowitt is our fourth and final story in our 20196 Fiction Series in The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast (Episode 40e).

Listen to this episode here.

Some queer stories in history are about discovering or realizing your desires within the context of your ordinary life. But often they are about crossing boundaries, whether geographic or behavioral, whether the boundary is set up inside your mind or created by social performance. And once you’ve crossed that line, the world looks entirely different: there are new possibilities, new opportunities, and–yes–new hazards. But after that, your world never again looks the same.

Kathleen Jowitt’s story “The Mermaid” is about just such a crossing–about what you leave behind and what you find when you arrive.

Kathleen is a writer and trade union officer. Her first novel, Speak Its Name, was the first ever self-published book to be shortlisted for the prestigious Betty Trask Award. She lives in Cambridge, works in London, and writes on the train in between.

“The Mermaid” is set on the Isle of Wight in the mid 18th century. For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Isle of Wight lies just off the southern coast of England, along the Channel between England and France. Its history has always been tied to the sea.

This is a story that cries out for a native voice in the narration, but I wasn’t able to locate a person who would be just right for it and I will be doing the narration myself.

This is the fourth and final story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 2019 fiction series. If you’ve felt inspired by these stories to try your own hand at historical short stories with queer female characters, remember that we’ll be open for submissions for the 2020 series in January and this time, in addition to strictly historic stories, we’re interested in stories with certain types of fantastic elements as well.

Call for submissions for the 2020 LHMP audio short story series. See here for details.

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Transcript for Today’s Show

They call it a treacherous coast, and I suppose it is that: all rocks and swift water, and a wind you can’t understand. They call us a treacherous people, and that isn’t fair. There’s talk of smugglers and wreckers all along this side of the island, but for the most part we are honest farmers and fishers.

That night in November nobody had any need of treachery. The tide was racing around the Ledge and the fog was thick enough that none would have seen any light shone from the shore, and the first that I, at least, knew of the wreck was when Jake Timmins’ little boy John pounded at our door.

‘My dad says you must fetch your dad, Alice Attrill, and your brothers, and tell them to come down the cove! There’s a ship in trouble and men drowning!’ He did not wait for me to tell him that I would or no, but was racing off towards Squibb’s farm before I could shout for my father or George or Stephen.

Dad was sick in bed, but George and Steve were quick enough to come down the chine with me – for I went too – bearing a coil of rope and a few other things we thought might be useful.

There were a couple of men down on the beach besides Jake Timmins, but it was clear that had we brought an army with us they could have been of no help to those poor souls. The waves came down on the dark rocks belching great clouds of spray, and the noise of them drowned the screams – for surely those men must have been screaming.

We could see little enough in the fog, only the shape of the foundering ship lurching and grinding on the rocks, and, when the cloud lightened a little, the awful sight of men leaping into the water to drown. We yelled and waved and shone our lights so they could see where help was, and the men cast out ropes towards them, but each time the ropes fell short and they had to haul them back; so that I was kept busy coiling them, which was no easy task when they were stiff and heavy with brine.

And then Jake Timmins yelled, ‘There’s a man there! See – on a spar!’ I ran forward once more with a rope, and Jake took it from me and flung it out, and it uncoiled neatly as its own weight carried it over the breakers. The figure on that fragment of wood stretched out a hand, but missed; Jake drew the rope back again, but less despondently, for it had not fallen so far short this time. He tried again, and his effort was rewarded. One hand and then the other caught the line, and Jake drew her to shore hand over hand.

Yes, her. For this was a woman that we had dragged out of the sea, as was plain from her streaming long hair, and her skirts, which clung close around her legs.

‘Why!’ Steve exclaimed, ‘it’s a mermaid!’ and then seemed to feel that his joke was out of place, since he fell silent.

The poor thing looked to be exhausted, and for a little while she could only lie on the shingle and gasp.

‘Alice,’ George said, ‘you must take her home and get her warm and put to bed, or she won’t last an hour.’

I started to ask if she could not be taken to the Timmins’ cottage, which was closer, and at the foot of the cliff rather than the head of the chine, but then I remembered that a landslip had covered the path some weeks before, and while Jake and John might have contrived to scramble over it, this creature would find it harder than the steep but well-trodden path to my home.

‘Come,’ I said to her, ‘do you think you can stand?’

She took my hand, and hers was as cold as the sea itself, and she let herself lean up against me and she let me place her arm across my shoulder, and put mine about her waist, to support her. But she was shivering, and, I thought, weeping.

‘You’re safe,’ I told her. ‘I’ll take you to my mother, and she’ll find you some dry clothes to put on, and something hot to eat to warm you.’

‘Th-thank you,’ she said, and even through her shivering I could make out a foreign accent.

* * *

It was slow going, for she was tired, and hampered by her wet skirts, and the path was dark, and more than once she slipped and I feared she’d take us both down the cliff again. But we persevered, and when I saw the dark edge of the cliff top I was glad, and when I made out a light in the field beyond I was gladder still, for that was the farmhouse, and my mother, who knew what to expect, would have a hot fire and hot soup ready.

She was a little surprised to find herself entertaining a fine lady – for what I had not seen in the dark, and what became clear now, was that the wet clothes that were coming off were exquisite and costly, and the hands that were full of splinters from clinging to that spar were soft – but my mother was equal to the occasion, and one woman looks much like another when she’s wet and unclothed, and our guest seemed grateful enough to be rubbed vigorously with our plain towels and dressed in my dress – well, it was my Sunday best, so well she might be. And by the time George and Steve came home, with two men they’d managed to save, and news of many they hadn’t, we’d shown her to my bed, and she seemed grateful for that, too.

We knew that she ought to have had a bed to herself, but we were short of them as it was, and I think it was as well that I went in to share with her, and put my arms about her to warm her. Because for all the fire and the soup and the dry clothes, she was still chilled through. She clung to me, and I lay awake listening to her breathing, pondering the strange chance that had brought her here to me.

‘She was in the water a long time, our mermaid,’ George said the next day, when I told him that she was ill, her skin burning to the touch, and muttering to herself in what I thought might have been French.

We took care of her as best we could, and between seeing to her, and the two sailors, and going down to the cove to retrieve our belongings and do what might be done for the poor drowned men, not to mention the usual farm work, we had plenty to be doing, and were hard put to it stopping Dad from making himself ill again.

The two men my brothers had brought home were, though shaken, sound enough to be on their way within a few days, and, with some money from the vicar, went off to the mainland to try to find a new ship in Portsmouth or Southampton. But our mermaid was still weak and, so we thought, raving. I moved to a pallet on the floor after that first night, thinking it unhealthy for both of us to share a bed while she was ill. And every day I was in and out, bringing her food and changing her bedding.

Once she sat bolt upright and said something to me in French, her eyes bright and wild.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t understand you.’

She said, in English, ‘Don’t let him come here.’

‘We won’t,’ I promised, knowing nothing of what she was talking about. ‘Now, can you take a little broth?’

She ate it obediently and then, settling down on the pillows, said quite calmly, ‘You have been very kind to me.’

‘I hope we’d do the same for anyone,’ I said.

She laughed a little bitterly at that, and I wondered why. She was four or five years older than me, I thought, with dark hair and dark eyes, and would have been pretty before she became so thin. ‘I can’t repay you,’ she said. ‘I have nothing. You must let me work.’

Now I was the one who laughed. ‘Forgive me,’ I said, ‘but you don’t look as if you have worked much in your life.’

She smiled, and said, ‘I can sew.’ She held out her hand to me as if to prove the point. I took it in my own, holding it like some precious treasure. She said, ‘Find me some work to do, and I’ll show you.’

‘Well,’ I said, charmed, but still suspicious of her sudden recovery, ‘perhaps tomorrow.’ Letting go of her hand, I turned to leave and then a thought struck me. ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’

She laughed. ‘My name? Of course. You don’t know my name.’

‘We’ve been calling you the mermaid,’ I told her, hoping she’d take it as a compliment.

‘Who?’ Her voice was urgent. ‘Who has been calling me that? Who knows that I am here?’

‘The family,’ I said, ‘and the Timmins, and the Squibbs, and the vicar…’

‘Oh,’ she said, dismayed. ‘Many people, then.’ She was silent for a little while, and then said, ‘My name is Marie.’

‘Marie what?’

‘Just Marie.’

She shook her head, smiling, and all of a sudden I had to catch my breath.

* * *

She had told the truth: she could indeed sew, once she had adjusted her dainty little stitches to suit the coarser work that we needed. As she grew stronger she began to come with me around the house, and then the farm, and I taught her how to cook and clean and churn, and in return she taught me my letters and my numbers, and some words of French, which I thought charming. She was not skilled, but she was willing, and she was quick, and it was a pleasure to me to have her company as I went about my work.

‘Is she going to stay?’ Dad asked one day in January.

I held my breath. I had no wish to send her on her way.

My mother raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Well, she shows no signs of leaving.’

‘She doesn’t belong here,’ Dad said. ‘It isn’t natural, a lady like her…’

‘She doesn’t belong anywhere, so far as I can see. But until she remembers where she does belong she’s welcome to stay here, so long as she earns her keep.’

And nothing more was said.

My brothers regarded her as a sort of prize or good luck charm; they would not have dreamed of approaching her with any sort of lewdness, and she seemed to look upon them as her own brothers. When Bessy got married and moved over Totland way, my parents decided, without really talking about it, that there was no need to replace her so long as Marie was staying.

And she stayed, through the ploughing, through the sowing, through the spring gales. There was some little difficulty about her being a Papist, but she squared it with the vicar somehow, and came to church with the rest of us. She ate her meals with the rest of us; she shared my bed (for she was still a lady, and could not be expected to take Bessy’s); altogether she seemed to be prepared to stay with us for the rest of her life.

I taxed her with it one day: ‘Marie, do you intend to remain here forever?’

‘Do you wish that I should go?’ She said it with a smile, and a dimple in her cheek.

‘No,’ I said, keen above all things that she should not misunderstand me, ‘not I! But you must have such marvellous things to go back to that I can’t understand why you stay.’

She looked grave. ‘What I have to go back to…? I would travel all around the globe to keep away from it.’ And she would not say anything more.

* * *

I began to understand a little when a Frenchman came to the door. It was the wheat harvest, and all the men were out in the fields, and Marie had gone with my mother to take them their dinner, and so I was all alone in the house. When I saw the stranger at the door, I made sure that I could lay my hands upon the rolling pin, but it was not me that he was after.

‘Mademoiselle,’ he said to me, ‘last year there was a ship wrecked on the rocks below this place. The Alphonsine.’

I agreed that this was the case.

‘Many of those on board were lost,’ he said. ‘But not all.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Four men were saved. My brothers helped.’ Some instinct told me not to mention any women who might have been there.

‘And I hear that two of those men stayed here for a little while.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The other two went to the Timmins’, down by the sea.’

‘Ah!’ This seemed to be news to him. ‘And do you know of anybody else?’

‘Anybody else?’ I echoed. ‘There were bodies washed up on the shore for weeks afterwards.’

He pursed his lips. ‘Might one of them have been… a woman?’

‘Poor souls,’ I said, ‘it was difficult to tell.’

I offered him refreshment before I sent him off to the Timmins’. On the way out of the door he passed Marie. Perhaps it was not so surprising that he did not recognise her, with her sun-browned face, and her plain dress, and the basket on her arm. I thought him a fool, all the same.

* * *

She recognised him, and when he had gone she drew me aside to ask me what the man had said.

‘You know him, then?’ Having known all along that she was hiding things from me, I was not pleased that she now went about to find things out from me.

‘His name is Jourdain. He is my fiancé’s… I don’t know the English! His steward, his foreman, the man he trusts!’

‘Your fiancé?’

‘The man that I am meant to be married to. In France, I have a large fortune. I would give it all up to be rid of him!’ There were tears in her eyes, half angry, half afraid, and I checked an urge to reach out and wipe them from her face.

Instead, I said, ‘Marie, how can I keep your secrets when I don’t know them?’

She bit her lip. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Come inside, and I’ll tell you.’

We sat in the kitchen, the flagstones cool under our feet, and she explained that the Alphonsine had been meant to take her along the French coast to marry the man at his estate, but the ship had been blown off course before finding itself lost in the fog, and at last caught on the rocks in the rushing tide.

‘I thought it was Providence,’ she said. ‘All year I had been praying that I might die. Now I could. And then –’

‘Then –’

‘Then there was a plank of wood, and I couldn’t bring myself to let go of it. Then you pulled me from the water. But you didn’t know who I was, and nobody had told you, and I thought perhaps…’

‘Perhaps you could stay forever,’ I put in.

‘I would. Alice, I would stay with you.’

‘Then stay,’ I said.

She said, urgently, ‘He’s going to come back for me. He wants my money, and he can’t have it unless he marries me. I leapt into the water to escape him once. I would do it again.’

‘Marie,’ I said, ‘don’t talk like that. It’s a sin.’ But she was crying and shaking, and so I put my arms around her and stroked her hair, the way I used to with the twins, once upon a time. And I kissed the top of her head, and she clung on to me and she turned her face upwards, so now I was kissing her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her lips, and she was kissing me…

And suddenly I understood several things – about old Tabitha and Nell in Brighstone; about why I had never been as keen on Harry Martin as my mother thought I should be; about why I could not bear the thought of Marie leaving, or leaping into the water, or being taken away by some man who thought he had the right to her. ‘Hush, my love,’ I said. ‘Hush. We’ll make it work. We’ll hide you.’

‘Your parents…’

‘I’ll think of something to tell them,’ I said.

‘But Timmins will tell him that you pulled me out of the water, and then they’ll come back for me.’

‘Then you’ll have to go,’ I said, though it broke my heart.

She looked hurt, and I couldn’t help kissing her again. ‘You are right,’ she said, ‘but how can I? How can I leave you?’

‘By promising me that you’ll come back,’ I said.

‘I promise,’ she said.

She said it over and over again, that night, and the next night, and all the time that we had left together.

* * *

The next Thursday, I watched from my bedroom window as she walked down the lane, dressed once more in her French finery, and with a little case held in her hand. I watched as Daniel the carter helped her up to sit next to him, and I watched as they drove away and disappeared between the high hedges. And though I knew I let her go to keep her safe, I wept as I watched.

* * *

I did not think that she would come back. I thought that she would repent of our strange, wondrous, harvest time. I wept in my lonely bed, and in the daytime I affected to show that I did not care.

Jourdain returned, and he brought his master with him, but my father said – which was quite true – that a Frenchwoman called Marie had stayed with us, but that she had gone away very suddenly after the harvest. He thought she had gone to the mainland; perhaps she had been trying to get back to France. Everyone in the village agreed that this was what had happened – because it was quite true. So they got little of use out of any of us, and eventually they went off to look in Portsmouth and Southampton, and what became of them there I don’t know.

But one night in November – it was, I remember, a calm, moonlit night, I heard a rattling of little pebbles against my windowpane, and I tiptoed downstairs and unlatched the door.

And there she stood. Not in her fine gown and dainty shoes – she’d sold them, she said, to pay her fare – but in the honest plain dress I’d come to know her and to love her in, and with a sweetness on her face that told me that she’d been longing for me as I had for her.

We didn’t speak. We simply held out our hands, and took one another in a silent, joyful, embrace, and kissed, there on the doorstep.

My mermaid had come home.