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Once, in a blue lagoon, where mermaids played, and sang, down where the music of the sea whispers across the Sandy Bottoms, a strange sound was heard. It did not come from a snarkle horn or yet a sea trumpet or banjo, or even from within the lagoon itself, but from farther out and far away, down, down, down, below even the farther depths, down in the darkness where, so it was rumoured in half-whispered legend, Things slept. Things out of mind and out of time. From the shifting rumble, it sounded like they moved uneasily in their slumbers.
Which might have had something to do with, up above on the landward side of an island out to sea, the strange rites that were being said and the strange rituals that were being danced, beneath stranger stars. “Music” not so melodious echoes through the night, trying to avoid the flame-lit shadows of things, shaped like men, that gyre and gimbal out of the waves towards strange standing stones that seem somehow to glow in the starlight.
If you listened closely you might make out such words (if such words existed) as ‘nah!’, ‘Kahlepso’, and ‘Na’arphloz’, and such phrases as ‘keflos nekrumpet lui!’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean). One thing’s for sure, no good will come of this.
Out of the corner of one eye, something moves in the bushes. There is a scream—
—and vision fades back, back across the sea, to a beach. To soft sands that glow silvery in the moonlight. If only the sands were not quite so soft, he might not be slipping so much as he ran. Had to get away. Straining to listen for every splash, as the roaring waves rolled against the shore. Something on the ground, brightly coloured against the sand—
—He woke, chilled and soaked and shivering. He reached for the bedside lamp and pulled the switch. A pool of warm incandescent light seemed to chase some of the darkness away. What a rotten nightmare.
He fumbled for a well-thumbed notebook on the table by the bed. On the fly leaf was written: Your name is Art Longlost. It was just a dream. Try not to let it worry you.
Art sighed. It had seemed a little too real for a dream.
Somehow, the curtains had blown open. He’d left a window open at the top. Outside, moonbeams streamed through cold mist, and cold stars sparkled through frosty skies up above.
He sighed. There was no use trying to go back to sleep on nights like this. The nightmare would continue. And get worse. He closed the curtains, and went behind a folding screen to get dressed. He needed a cup of tea.
Only, down below, he heard a knocking. A knocking at his old front door.
There was a car outside. And, stepping back from the door to see if her knocking was having any effect, a distinctly feminine figure in the darkness. From here, it looked like she had her hands in her pockets, and was shivering.
He hastened down the stairs. The knocking came again.
By the time he got the hall light on and the door open, she was standing there, looking, if anything, slightly annoyed.
‘I’m sorry, can I help you – have you broken down?’
She gave him another annoyed look. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’ she said. Her teeth were chattering slightly. ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s the middle of the night and it’s freezing out here.’
‘Oh, of course,’ he said stepping back. ‘Sorry.’
She stepped past him and he shut the door again.
‘Er, can I take your coat?’
‘Maybe in a minute,’ she said, stamping her feet for warmth. ‘Crimity, but it’s cold out there.’
Art opened the door to the kitchen. ‘It’ll be warmer in here. Can I get you a cup of tea? Um, do you need to use the phone?’ he added as an afterthought.
‘Tea? Tea? Marry me! But tea first!’
His midnight visitor seemed to revive a bit with a cup of tea in her hands.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ Art found himself asking.
She looked at him over her teacup, and took a long sip. Then she set it down and rested her head on one hand and regarded him with good-natured amusement. ‘Are you real?’ she said, eventually. She was smiling when she said it, though.
‘Um, last I checked. Is the tea alright? Are you warm enough?’
‘Delicious, thank you,’ she said, taking another sip. ‘And getting there. But really, I could be anybody. For all you know I could be hear to drug you, tie you up, and rob you or something like that.’
‘You looked cold and like you needed help,’ he said, simply.
‘But I could have a couple of burly accomplices hiding behind the hedge, waiting to leap out and beat you up!’ she said, outraged.
‘Oh,’ he said, not quite sure what to say.
‘I don’t, as it happens. But I could have done!’
‘Um, would you like some more tea?’
‘Yes,’ she said, eyes going wide. ‘Please.’
As she was adding more milk and sugar, she burst out, ‘I’m almost tempted to marry you after all, tea or no tea – you’re not safe to be let out on your own! You haven’t even asked my name!’
‘Oh, sorry. I’m Art, how do you do?’
‘I’m Lyla, Art, pleased to finally meet you at last.’
‘What do you think I’m doing here? I didn’t drive half the night out into the middle of freezing nowhere for the fun of it! And yes, I believe you can take my coat now.’
While she was getting up to shrug out of her coat, he said, ‘You came to meet me?’
‘Yes! Why do you keep saying that? I just told you that. Oh, thank you,’ she said, as he took her coat and hung it up. Even as she said it, though, she shivered again. ‘I say, you don’t have anywhere with a decent fireplace, do you?’
He was just pointing to the other door, when she said, ‘Do you mind?’ She took his numbly shaking his head for ‘No, not at all,’ took her cup of tea, and stepped through.
By the time he followed through after her with the teapot and his own cup on a tray, she’d managed to breathe life back into the dying fire and was standing by it with every sign of enjoyment, sipping her tea. ‘Glorious,’ she said. ‘Nothing like a proper wood fire to warm you right through. Now, Art – you don’t mind if I call you Art?’
He shook his head.
‘Splendid. You can call me Lyla, by the way. What are you looking at me like that for? Do I have mud on my cheek?’
‘Um. Have we met before?’
‘I was wondering when you’d ask me that. About time,’ she muttered. ‘Not as such, no. But I’m glad you finally recognised me.’
‘Well, you write for my magazine, after all. Well, you will do, once the next issue comes out. Don’t you check your mail?’ And without asking, she strode over to his desk, where there was a pile of unopened envelopes and flipped through them. ‘Ah, here we are. I thought so,’ she said, handing one to him. ‘That’s us. Well? Aren’t you going to open it?’
He hadn’t really noticed it before when he’d put it there. It was a pinkish cream envelope. Inside, was a letter. Typewritten, signed characterfully above ‘L. Fitzalan, Editor’. The letterhead read Resounding Tales. There was a cheque attached. For more money than he would have expected.
‘I – I don’t understand. You came all the way here to tell me you’d accepted something I’d written, in person?’
She looked at him a bit like she was wondering if he was hard of thinking. ‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘I came all this way because I think I know what you see in your dreams.’
‘I think you don’t sleep much,’ she continued. ‘I can see that from your eyes. But I also think that you see things a lot of people don’t – I can see that from your story. By the way,’ she drew a piece of paper from a pocket and unfolded it, ‘don’t you think this is a good illustration? We’re putting your story on the cover of the next issue.’
It was a colour copy of a magazine proof, the legend Resounding Tales emblazoned across it and, at its centre, a painted picture – in a bright and cheerful style so that it looked, to some eyes faintly cheesy and ridiculous, and yet … allowing for imagination and the slosh of paint and brushes, Art thought he’d seen it somewhere before …
… standing stones glowing bright with strange inscriptions. Tentacled things dancing round them. And others, many looking perfectly human, until you got a bit too close, but others with webbed hands and skin that turned scaly from the neck down, or slimy and luminous pale green, or scorched lobster red – one turned to look at him and gurgled something. ‘I don’t understand,’ he tried to say, then it pulled off its mask. There was a scream— …
… When he awoke, he was amazed to find he wasn’t being wripped limb from limb by gruesome cephalopod and crustaceous appendages and hands that weren’t quite human, or bound to some strange altar, a twisted dagger rising—
‘Ssshhhhh,’ said a voice ever so gently. ‘Shhh-shhh-shh-shsh-shhhhshhh.’ A hand was gripping his, holding tight. ‘Come back now – you don’t want to go there. You don’t want to be there. Come back to the nice living room with the warm fire, and the old red teapot. Come back to me now, Art—‘
—‘Kephlos flui fthag’n – kephlos flui pthaga-hai! Nah! Kahlepso! … Na’arphl—’
—‘No!’ said a much more ordinary-sounding, but suddenly commanding voice. ‘Don’t speak that name. Here or anywhere. Not like that!’
The world started to swim woozily back into focus. He was cold and chilled, lying on the floor. His head was being cradled carefully, though. He looked up groggily. A woman’s face – no, her corrected himself – a girl’s face, practically, but still a young woman, looked back down at him with concern, and he noted several things. One, that Lyla was actually extraordinarily pretty but she somehow just didn’t let it show; two, that she had kind eyes; and three, that whatever her reasons for coming here, she’d just received a fright.
Oh, and four, a hand kept nervously stroking his head, which was cradled, in fact, in her lap. And he found that he didn’t mind. It beat how he normally woke up from a nightmare.
She looked very thoughtful, though, and muttered, almost to herself, ‘I was right, wasn’t I …’
‘You look lot younger than you sound, Lyla,’ he found himself mumbling. He wasn’t sure if she heard it, though, or if it even came out as anything more than ‘Young-mumble-gleeb-storm, Ryra.’
She smiled at him anyway, and just gently shushed. After a few moments, his eyes closed, but with the difference that he felt a warm hand firmly gripping his again, as if holding on for dear life. And his heart started to still, and slow back down. And for a moment, the pain went away … It was glorious.
* * *
When he woke up again, there was a cushion under his head. There was also a blanket draped over him. No, not a blanket. A coat. Lyla’s coat – maybe she couldn’t find the blankets – but he couldn’t see Lyla.
The door was open to the kitchen, and there were bustling sounds. His arms and legs felt numb and hard to move. Somehow he managed to get up and stumble forward.
As he pushed open the kitchen door, he saw Lyla had made herself at home. She’d found an apron from somewhere, and was heating something on the stove. She turned to him with a look that looked at least half relief. ‘Ah, good, you’re up and about. I hope you don’t mind, I rummaged around in the pantry a bit. You haven’t been out long. Sit down and let me get us some more tea. I presume you could manage a late, late supper?’
‘Supper?’ His mind struggled to try to form the words.
‘You’ve had a bit of a shock. You need to eat something, and then maybe we can talk some more about it. Aside from anything else, I’ve been looking for you for a long time and I don’t intend to let anything happen to you.’
‘… looking for me?’ His mouth didn’t seem to be co-operating with him very well.
‘For someone who can see,’ she said, stirring the pot on the stove. She dipped a spoon in and blew on it a bit, and then tasted it. ‘Mmm. Not bad, even if I do say so myself.’ She glanced back at him. ‘I suspected it when you first read your story – and to set your mind at rest, it is a real magazine. But it’s not just a magazine. Yes, it sells well, and a lot of people enjoy it, and it helps pay the bills, but it’s also not exactly what it seems.’
He didn’t know quite what to say to this.
‘Are you alright? Something hasn’t snuck in in your place, has it?’
‘Oh, it’s fine. You’re just a bit dream-struck. By the way, if I’d realised you had it that bad, I’d have tried to find you sooner. I just never thought it would pay off like this.’
Art closed his eyes and focused, then he opened them again. ‘That … what would pay off like this? What are you talking about?’
‘Art, I need you to do something for me,’ she crouched down next to him, till she was at eye level with him. ‘I need you to look at me, and keep looking at me, no matter what. You frightened the life out of me the way you zonked out when you saw that cover.’
‘… I did?’
‘You recognised it, didn’t you? The scene from the picture. You’ve seen it before, haven’t you – not just in imagination – in your dreams, nightmares I should say – you’ve seen it just like that before— No, no, Art, look at me – keep focusing on my eyes …’
He was surprised how much effort it took.
‘I’m with you, Art. Lyla. You remember? Lyla, your new editor?’
‘My new … editor?’
‘Well,’ she shrugged modestly, ‘among other things. That’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. Those things you see? What would you do if I told you they were real?’
‘Calm – keep calm. You’ve had a big shock. If I’d known you’d already had a vision this evening, I wouldn’t have tried that business with the cover illustration.’
‘Vision … ?’
‘Haven’t you ever notice how people don’t really see anymore? How they look around and they don’t see things as they really are?’
That stopped him. Actually … ‘Now you come to mention it …’
‘How someone can look at – someone can see the same things you do, but not actually see it? Hear it? See what actually happens? What’s actually there?’
He swallowed. ‘You mean you see it too? It’s not just me?’
Lyla looked like she wanted to cry, but she was smiling. She squeezed his hand. ‘Oh, you poor klutz … Did you think you were on your own, all this time … ?’ She was shaking her head. ‘You’re not alone, Art. You are not alone. I’ve never seen anyone who has it as bad as you, though. How have you even survived? We’ve got to get you out of here. There’s so much to do, so much to learn …’
‘Out of here? This is my home!’
A hand gripped his shoulder, not unkindly. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why, though? Why it all seemed to change at some point. That people didn’t used to be like this, but suddenly, almost imperceptibly, before you could even notice, they were behaving as if it had always been this way? As if all the strange things in the world just weren’t there? That, that – oh— … !’
‘… As if there was no such thing as heroes anymore … or happy endings … or … or magic … ? That true love wasn’t real, that honest virtue couldn’t happen … that none of it was true, that none of it was real … That life just wasn’t like that …’
He hadn’t realised he’d been looking down. When he looked up, Lyla’s eyes were shining, and she was smiling fit to dazzle traffic. ‘I knew it,’ she said softly. ‘I knew you’d understand – I knew it the moment I first read about the mermaids of the blue lagoon. You can see, but the darkness doesn’t touch you. Have you any idea how …’ She sniffed. ‘Oh, I think supper’s burning …’
She got to her feet again, but before she did, she looked him straight in the eye and gave him a smile he felt, like a jolt of magic straight to the heart. Something in her eyes, something in the air … something … ‘But we’ll talk. I promise you. And, if you’re willing, maybe you can help me …’
‘Lyla,’ he said despite himself, as the smell of soup reached him, ‘I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship …’
 Generally on musical instruments such as the snarkle horn and the sea banjo, though, be it said, mermaids are also fine singers.
 A place on the seabed.Published in