Does everyone love that warm smell of rain and dust after a storm? A smell that some ways speak of a freshening of the air; tingling in the nostrils, though not altogether unlike that achieved by fading flowers deadheaded and ready for the compost heap. An earthy smell, yes that’s it, earthy.
Daniel, having risen early from his bed, made coffee and taking this along with the paperback novel that he bought just yesterday, stepped from his front door to confront the new day. Having taken a few deep breaths to confirm the freshness of the morning, he seated himself on the wooden bench beside his door and looked across the harbour. All was quiet, save for the repeated rattle of halyards against the masts of the small boats moored alongside the harbour wall, and the constant screeching of gulls patrolling the skies or perched on a dozen lookout points. Quite a contrast with the storm that had raged through most of the night, thought Daniel. A night in which the thunder seemed to roll in from far out at sea, building to a crescendo accompanied by electric flashes that momentarily illuminated the harbour, previously hidden beneath the blackness of the sky. Was it his imagination, or were coastal storms more violent than those he had known during his city upbringing? When he was a child, had the rain lashed against the houses in his street with the force of last night’s storm? Perhaps the memory plays tricks, or maybe we just like to think that every new experience supersedes those from earlier days. Whatever the situation, Daniel felt a warm glow of contentment as he closed his eyes and felt the rays of early morning sunlight warming his face.
“Penny for them!”
Daniel opened one eye only to be assaulted by the dazzling morning light. Raising a hand to shield his eyes he glanced around to find the source of this disturbance.
“Good morning Mr. Fletcher. You were clearly miles away, lost in your thoughts I’d say.”
Daniel sat up straight, nodded and smiled.
“Good morning Mrs Hardcastle. You caught me having a little doze. The sunshine is lovely and I was just enjoying forty winks. How are you this morning?”
“Oh well you know, fine now the storm’s passed. Clears the air though don’t you think? Been coming for a few days. You can’t have so much heat without it breaking at some point I suppose. I wasn’t surprised when it came, but sure it was a good one. Perhaps that’s why you were dozing off. Not a good night for sleeping maybe?”
Daniel smiled. “You’re right there Mrs Hardcastle, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. But as you say, there’s nothing quite like a good storm for clearing the air, and it looks as if it will be a glorious day today.”
Without waiting for an invitation, Mrs Hardcastle seated herself beside Daniel on the bench, which flexed somewhat under her considerable weight. As she arranged herself to a position where she felt most comfortable, easing her host further along the bench to give herself more space, Daniel decided that she was likely to be in residence for some time. Still, he thought, he had little planned for the morning, and his visitor having been one of the first locals to make him feel welcome when he had arrived in the town, was often the source of some amusing gossip. In many ways, he admired his visitor for her lack of inhibitions. Whereas others would have awaited an invitation to impose themselves upon his property, Mrs Hardcastle had long ago adopted a more liberal attitude to other people’s space; a form of behaviour that annoyed many of Daniel’s neighbours, but which he accepted as yet another indication of the lady’s many eccentricities.
“Well let’s hope the storm hasn’t done too much damage this time.” Mrs Hardcastle continued as she proceeded to take the book from Daniel’s hand and skim the blurb on its back cover that praised its many virtues. “Sound’s interesting,” was her critical appraisal as she returned the volume to its owner. “Now then, as I was just saying…”
Daniel knew that what would follow would brook no interruption and committed himself to the role of a patient listener for however long might be necessary.
“Well then, a couple of years ago,” she continued, “early September it would have been, or perhaps the end of August now I come to think of it; maybe the Bank Holiday weekend. Anyway, we had such a storm and poor old Mr Kensall, lost half of the slates from his roof. Came down with a tremendous crash. Lucky no one was out on the street. Could have been a real tragedy. Well, you can only imagine. And the same night, two boats in the harbour broke their moorings. The next morning all that could be seen of one was the top of its mast standing proud in the water, standing up to attention like, you know? And the other, well, swept right out to sea. I heard they eventually found it around the other side of the head. Nobody on board, so no one was harmed thank goodness. I don’t think last night was quite as bad as that, what do you think Mr Fletcher?”
Daniel didn’t quite know what he was expected to think, and was fairly sure that it wouldn’t matter anyway. He, therefore, opted to make a non-committal response in the hope that he wouldn’t be drawn into a conversation to which he felt he might make very little contribution, and that any he did make was unlikely to lead anywhere. He need not have been worried, however, as Mrs Hardcastle, with hardly a pause for breath continued her monologue.
“Of course, living on the coast we have to expect such meteorological events,” the peroration continued. “I can’t recall a year in all of my fifty years living here when we haven’t had at least a few storms. It’s only to be expected, and a small price I say for living in a place of such beauty don’t you think?”
Daniel rightly interpreted this question as being wholly rhetorical and offered no reply as his visitor advanced her sermon at pace.
“Of course, October seventy two, or possibly seventy-three. Whichever it was it doesn’t really matter, but it was certainly October. I remember this particularly because it was around the time of my late husband’s birthday. October 12th that was. But of course, you never knew George, did you? Ten years since he passed and this was Mrs Gilbert’s house at that time. She went as well you know, about a year after my George. Now, where was I? Oh yes that October was the worst storm in living memory. Trees down, damaged property, houses flooded, you wouldn’t believe the damage. I don’t suppose you recall the storms of seventy-two or three whichever it was do you?”
Noting a slight pause in proceedings Daniel detected that Mrs Hardcastle was possibly anticipating his participation at this point.
“Actually Mrs Hardcastle, I have no recollection whatever. In nineteen seventy-two I would have been just one year old and I suspect that had a tornado hit the city of Leicester where I was born, it may well have passed me by.”
“Oh yes, how silly of me, I tend to forget how young some of our new neighbours are.” Mrs Hardcastle laughed at her error. “Well now, I only hope we don’t ever have to face a storm such as that again. Chaos it caused, you wouldn’t believe Mr Fletcher, utter chaos.” Daniel’s raconteur halted briefly to readjust her position on the bench that groaned in opposition to her weight, and he thought for a moment that she might be about to get up and leave. However, the lady was not yet ready to desert a willing audience and continued with a shift of emphasis.
“Now the thing that many of us, or at least those of us who were old enough at the time, will remember from that great storm, was that it was probably the event that confirmed a suspicion that many of us had held for a number of years. Ah, and what exactly was this suspicion I hear you saying.” In all honesty Daniel was afforded little opportunity to say or think anything, but that, as Mrs Hardcastle would have undoubtedly confirmed, was beside the point. “Well I’ll tell you, because I know you will be fascinated by the story.”
Fascinated or not, Daniel reconciled himself to remain seated and to hear whatever saga the lady had clearly made up her mind was too important to be allowed to pass.
“I’d always had my suspicions about Jack Carey,” Mrs Hardcastle claimed, while cocking her head to one side she nudged Daniel in the ribs, and once assured that she had his full attention offered a wink in his direction. “Oh yes, he was a man who often told the most outlandish stories and at times, particularly when he had the best part of a quart of beer inside him, he could behave in the most outrageous manner. What was he like? Well I’ll tell you. I once saw him asleep and snoring like a tug boat in the little children’s playhouse in Victoria Park. Can you just imagine? But anyway, I digress. The great storm of seventy-two…”
“Or perhaps seventy-three Daniel,” interjected, only to be ignored by the storyteller who was now at full throttle.
“Well,” she continued, “it was the storm that finally pushed old Jack over the edge. It was after the great storm that just about everyone in the town, well at least those who knew Jack Carey well enough, all came to the conclusion that he had gone completely mad.”
“What made you all think so?” Daniel, who until this point had decided to let Mrs Hardcastle’s speech drift around him without paying much attention, suddenly discovered that his interest had been aroused.
“Well, it was like this you see.” Mrs Hardcastle looked all around as if she might be anxious that others could overhear a salacious tale intended only for Daniel’s ears, before returning to her story in more hushed and conspiratorial tones.
“It was two days after the great storm. Since that night, Jack Carey had been seen by nobody. Generally of a night, he would be found in the front bar at the Admiral Rodney, and one or two of the regulars became a little concerned that perhaps he might be ill, or even worse. Anyway, Bill Mulligan, you probably won’t remember him but he was landlord at the Admiral Rodney at the time. Well anyway, Bill Mulligan decided to pay a call at Jack Carey’s house to make sure he was alright. He was always thoughtful like that. Nice man, greatly missed around these parts. Well, when he got to Jack’s door it was open, so he knocked then after waiting a few minutes decided to enter.”
“Don’t tell me, he found him dead in the house.” Daniel interrupted, anticipating the course of events.
“Shh… don’t stop me in my flow. I’ll tell the story in my own time thank you, and no, Jack wasn’t dead. When Bill entered the house, Jack was sitting upright in his armchair by the fire, wide awake but apparently lost in his own little world. Bill spoke to him quietly but there was no response. Approaching Jack he placed his hand on his shoulder and spoke again, at which point, or so Bill Mulligan told it, he leapt from his seat as if he had been woken from some strange nightmare. Fair made the landlord jump too, or so he told it. But anyway, once both men had recovered their wits. No that isn’t right, once Bill had recovered his wits I mean because as you will hear, Jack Carey’s wits were completely gone. Once they had overcome the initial shock that they had given each other, the two men sat down together and after Jack had opened a couple of bottles of light ale, he commenced to tell Bill Mulligan the story that finally confirmed what many of us already knew. Jack Carey had gone completely mad.”
Daniel’s interest in what he had anticipated would be a rambling presentation of trivia, was now firmly held.
“Now Mr Fletcher, you must realise that I am telling you about this terrible event exactly the way I heard if from Bill Mulligan. However, there were details that he recalled from Jack Carey’s story that should never be allowed to pass the lips of a lady, so I will give you the basic outline and then what you do with your imagination is a matter for your conscience.”
Daniel smiled, “Mrs Hardcastle, I am what I believe has been described as an innocent abroad. I am sure that your report will be sufficient to give me the most important details. Please go on.”
“Well quite. Though I do believe I detect a note of mischief in your tone Mr Fletcher. So, here is the outline of the story as Jack Carey told it. Apparently, on leaving the Admiral Rodney after last orders on the night of the storm, Jack decided he would take a short cut to his home by cutting across Short Haul Cove. Ok most times, but absolute madness most would have said with such a storm kicking up, but there we go, that was Jack Carey all over. Well, so he told it, he was half way along the beach when he saw something rolling around at the edge of the tide. He stopped for a while and thought he could hear a voice calling to him and realising that the sound was coming from the mysterious image, he decided to go and investigate. Bill Mulligan put it this way. Jack thought there might be someone in trouble at the sea’s edge and decided that he should go and see if he could offer assistance and therefore he made his way down the beach to investigate. Now Mr Fletcher, you will have to bear with me here. What I am going to tell you now is exactly what Jack Carey told Bill Mulligan. You will think the story fantastic, but please remember; Jack Carey by this time was completely mad and might even have believed this story himself.”
“Go on,” urged Daniel, “I’ll suspend my disbelief of anything you might tell me.”
“If I was you Mr Fletcher, I’d hold fast to your disbelief, because as you will see, Jack’s story was so fantastic that no man with his full set of senses could ever credit it. According to poor Jack, when he drew near to the sea the first thing he saw was a beautiful young woman. He described her as being completely naked. Well actually, he described her in language and details rather more colourful than that if you get my meaning, typical of most men I suspect, but the strange workings of Jack’s mind probably took over at this point in his telling of the tale. Anyway, as Jack would have it, he dashed into the shallows to assist what he believed to be a young woman in distress, and indeed he should at least be commended for this act of charity. Now, thus far in the story, I believe that anyone with an ounce of decency would have given Jack Carey the benefit of the doubt, but from this point in its telling any sensible person would say it became total make believe.”
Mrs Hardcastle shook her head and lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “You see Jack stated that it was only when pulling the young woman to safety from the sea that he noticed her most unexpected feature. Hauling her above the tide, and hoping that she might assist him by taking some of her own weight on her legs he was shocked to find that she in fact had no legs.”
Daniel, about to comment was halted in his attempted intervention as Mrs Hardcastle raised her hand to indicate that she should not be interrupted.
“No legs. That was what Jack Carey said. No legs, but in their place a long and shapely scale covered tale, just as might have been found on a magnificent fish. Now please, don’t interrupt, I know what you are thinking, and I know that you are completely accurate in the insistence that you would make. There are of course, no such thing as mermaids. You know that, I know that, but Jack Carey he swore by all the saints that ever lived, that during that terrible storm he pulled from the sea a beautiful young maid that turned out to be a mermaid.”
Mrs Hardcastle looked directly into Daniel’s face expecting to see an expression that might have indicated incredulity. However, unable to detect any meaning in his expression she decided to continue with her story.
“Now, of course, any fisherman in his right mind on catching a strange fish, immediately returns it to the sea, but you have to remember that Jack Carey was neither a good fisherman or in his right mind. As he told it, his fate was sealed when he looked into the eyes of this woman or mermaid or whatever he believe her to be, and he was completely lost. Overwhelmed by her beauty was how he put it. She begged him to rescue her and to take her home until after the storm had past. And according to him, the old fool, that was exactly what he did; carried her back to his house. But that wasn’t the half of it. And you’ll forgive me Mr Fletcher for what I am about to tell you next, and remember that the story is exactly, well not quite exactly because I feel it necessary to moderate my language, but almost exactly as Jack Carey recounted to Bill Mulligan. According to Jack he took the creature back to his home intending simply to give her shelter from the storm, but once she was through his door she bewitched him with her cunning ways until he was completely in her power. And then Mr Fletcher, what do you think happened next? Well, I’ll tell you what Jack Carey claimed happened next shall I?”
“Please do Mrs Hardcastle, I’m all ears.”
“Well, according to mad Jack, and you’ll see why I have had to moderate the telling of this tale. Indeed I remember hearing the story as originally told how it brought the colour to my cheeks. According to Jack Carey the creature lured him into a night of the most fevered passion, such as he could never have believed possible, and such I would suggest as could indeed only be possible in the mind of a madman. So what do you think of that Mr Fletcher?”
“Well, what should one think? Quite a tale I must say. And did Jack continue in his claim that it was true.”
“Right up to the last,” Mrs Hardcastle confirmed. Right up until the minute that he died some five years later. Never would accept that it was anything but the truth. So there’s madness for you.”
“So, what did jack Carey say became of this mysterious creature from the sea?” Daniel asked.
“Well, there too we have evidence of his madness. Jack claimed that on awaking the next morning, the mermaid as he insisted she was, had completely disappeared. Probably gone back to the sea he suggested. But I ask you Mr Fletcher. Tell me this. How could a mermaid that had a fish’s tail and no legs have returned to the sea. If that wasn’t a flaw in Jack’s story I don’t know what was. Absolutely no credibility to it whatever; none whatever I say. But after that time you know, every time there was a storm poor old Jack would go down to Short Haul Cove and walk along the sea edge, even in the howling wind and the rain. He would walk up and down the tide line and not a soul could distract him. Poor old sad Jack.”
“Fascinating Mrs Hardcastle. What a strange story. I must say I feel quite sorry for poor Jack Carey. Thank you for sharing this strange story with me.”
Mrs Hardcastle, with some effort, pushed herself up from the bench.” Goodness me Mr Fletcher, I’ve let you keep me here far too long nattering to me. I must be getting about my business. But I did enjoy our little chat. Have a good day.” And with that Mrs Hardcastle made her way down towards the harbour.
His visitor having departed, Daniel re-entered his house and after depositing his coffee mug on the kitchen table made his way upstairs to his bedroom. There he found his dishevelled bed exactly as he had left it, with crumpled sheets and blankets all in disarray. Surveying the scene he stretched his arms above his head, yawned, and muttered to himself, “not a night for sleeping for sure.” Leaning across the bed he began to smooth the sheets when his hand came across something hidden beneath the covers. Bringing his find out into the open he held it to his face, taking a deep breath closing his eyes, and smiling. Seaweed. Yes seaweed, a fine souvenir and with a smell yet more evocative of the storm than rain and dust.
Richard Rose is a British author of a collection of short stories and essays ("Breaching the Barriers" published by Cyberwit 2021) that were constructed around his times working in India. In 2018 his play "Letters to Lucia", co-written with James Vollmar and based around the life of James Joyce's daughter received its first production by the Triskellion Irish Theatre Company and will be performed again in 2022 as part of the celebrations for the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. His poetry collection - "A Sense of Place" was published in 2020. He lives in the beautiful countryside of Northamptonshire in England.