Henry and I have our routines, although I will admit he is far more diligent than I am about keeping to them. He often lollops upstairs to the studio, where he sits and watches me paint for a while. When the pacing starts, I know that it’s time to go for one of our walks and, if it’s left up to Henry, he always heads for the beach.
It’s a beautiful walk when the weather is kind. From the old crofthouse where we live, you reach the main coast road running from Tongue in the West to John O’Groats in the East. Once across, you dive down into whins, long grasses and feathery white sands and wind your way along the riverbank to the beach. When you reach the mouth of the river and the tide is out, all you can see is that same white sand stretching out before you in a wide crescent.
On days when the sea and sky are a Mediterranean blue, you can see the most southerly Orkney Islands. I’ve never been there but I often wonder about the people and their lives on the other side of that stretch of water. I’d love to know if there is someone on a beach on the island opposite, looking my way and thinking the same thing.
I nearly turn back today when we reach the coast road. The sky above me is murky and damp. Passing cars spray us with a fine mist as we wait to cross. I can see the coast road snaking up the hill but where the fog starts, the town has disappeared. As have the cliffs and Orkney. I cross the road and Henry pads on ahead of me. As soon as we go down into the grasses, I lose sight of Henry but can still hear him. I know the path well and walking it in the fog is a good test of how much of a local I have become.
I reach the start of the beach fairly quickly with only one misstep and congratulate myself. Henry is waiting for me, eager to race off across the sands. I walk, listening to waves that I can’t see, hearing their insistent rhythm as we get closer. I feel damp spreading around my neck, wetting the roll top of my sweater. The cuffs are already ringing wet and my hands are clammy. My face is being pawed by the fog and I shiver.
Henry is a little way off to my right where there are still pools of water left by the outgoing tide. I can hear him splashing his way through them and I try to make out his shape in the dullness.
The smell of salt, over-boiled cabbage and dead fish assaults me. That’s when I hit something solid and fall, one leg twisting under the other. My right arm sinks into what feels like cool rice pudding. I cry out with pain when something sharp cuts into the palm of my hand, which has snagged on something and is now bleeding.
That’s when I see her.
She lies beside me, a sleeping selkie: long black hair clinging to her beautiful pale blue face, neck and grazed shoulder, thick seaweed wraps around her arms and her body from the waist down. She is such a wonderful ethereal creature and so much more beautiful than any I have painted. She looks as if she were carved.
I stare at her while threads of fog wind about and creep over us. Her skin is cold steel blue, her lips and eye sockets a deeper purple. Her black hair shimmers with the sand caught in it. I touch her cheek and recoil. I can see the impression that my fingers leave on her beautiful face, steel blue to look at but blancmange to the touch.
Henry nudges past me to where the mermaid lies. He walks around her a couple of times, peers into her face, draws away and pulls at some seaweed around her arm. It gives slightly and she shifts a fraction. He pulls some more and frees her arm. It falls away from her body. Henry pads around her again and nudges her. No response. He circles once again and looks at her stony face. Going halfway round, he grabs more seaweed and pulls it as hard as he can. It hardly moves at all. He drops it and backs away a little. Then he snorts and moves forward, taking hold of the seaweed. This time he digs into the sand and pulls, running backwards when the seaweed comes away from her. Pulling the seaweed has lifted her a little and her heels bounce down onto the wet sand, making two shallow indentations.
I catch my breath when I see her feet.
My chest becomes tight and I scramble clumsily to my feet, backing away from her. I wheel around, my hand at my throat, and throw up. My mouth is so dry it hurts and I drink in some of the fog, anything to wet my lips again. I turn around. She lies there still. I feel my stomach swelling again, so I start running towards the dunes and the safety of the path, calling out for Henry to follow me. I run so hard that my chest aches but I don’t stop until I reach the beginning of the path. Henry is in front of me now and, arms flailing and feet stumbling, I run all the way to the coast road. When we reach it, I stop and put Henry’s lead on.
Then we walk side by side up the road to the police house.