© Rosalind Winter
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This is one of series of short stories set on the south coast of Cornwall.
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It’s a perfect summer morning, the sun dazzling on the sea and a brisk breeze making white lace of the little waves. Mrs Borlase eases herself down into her chair in the small yard of her cottage over the slipway, and winces at the stiffness of her limbs and the dull ache in her chest. Still, aches and pains are only to be expected at 85, and in an odd way they’re reassuring. If you couldn’t feel all the long, long years in your bones – why, then you’d be dead. And then you could run down to the shore again, and dance in the waves. It’s a long time since Tegan Borlase felt the cool sand beneath her bare feet and the silky water lapping her ankles.
No one wonders why the old woman sits there, day in, day out. They guess she likes the fresh air, and the sound of the children playing on the sand. But for Tegan Borlase it's as good a way as any to pass the endless hours, as she waits for her man to come home from the sea. It's forty years and more since Jowan's boat went down: lost with all hands, they said. Wreckage came ashore, but they never found the bodies, so every day Tegan Borlase is out here in her yard, and every night she leaves a candle in her window, to light him safely home across the harbour bar.
She settles down to her knitting, then looks to see who is out and about today, and especially she looks for her favourites, the Blamey children: two slender, quicksilver boys and their little dab of a sister, for ever following them with worshipping eyes. The sight of Tamsin Blamey’s dogged devotion always amuses Mrs Borlase: but up at Rosemullion, the big house perched high on the cliff above the beach, it is no laughing matter.
Today the Blamey boys are in open rebellion.
'She follows us everywhere, Ma!' moans Kenwin.
'It's just not fair, Ma, she's making us a laughing stock!' adds his brother Keverne. ‘Think how you'd feel, having your baby sister always trailing around after you!'
'Ma, it's just not cool!' says Kenwin.
Lowenna Blamey regards her twin sons with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. Kevern and Kenwin are a month off becoming teenagers, and it is hard on them to be constantly dogged by a round-eyed, adoring six-year-old sister.
'I know, boys, I know, but it's just a phase she's going through,' says Lowenna. 'She'll grow out of it, I promise you.'
'That's as may be, Ma, but for now we have to put up with her, always under our feet!' says Keverne.
'And it's not safe for her, following us around,' adds Kenwin. 'We're taking the boat out this morning, us and the Pascoes -'
'Oh no you're not.'
The head of the household comes in through the garden door, and regards his sons with as stern a look as he can summon up, which isn't very. Goran Blamey is inordinately fond of his two boys, and finds it almost impossible to deny them anything they want. This is the exception, though. He is not about to let two twelve-year-olds and their equally young and inexperienced friends put out to sea in a small boat on a falling tide and a building swell.
'If you want to take the boat out, I'll be coming with you, and that's until further notice,' he announces firmly.
'And when I'm convinced you can handle her safely, then you can take her out on your own. You can even take the Pascoe boys along with you if you want. But until then, if you want to fish, you can either come out with me or stick to the rock pools.'
'Dad, we're thirteen next month, not three!'
'Take it or leave it, my handsomes,' says Goran Blamey placidly, giving his wife a surreptitious wink. She knows perfectly well that her ex-sailor husband would far rather be out on the water than weeding the vegetable garden, which is what he is actually scheduled to do on this bright, breezy day.
'And if Tamsin wants to come as well -' Goran is interrupted by a synchronised 'No, Dad!' He grins at his two sons. 'If Tamsin wants to come, she's coming.'
'She'll be whining to go home before we're even half way to Fowey,' says Kenwin gloomily.
'She'll get seasick again, Dad, you know she will,' says Keverne.
'We're not going all the way to Fowey, and she has to find her sea-legs one day,' says Goran firmly. 'No more argument. Now go and find her, and ask if she wants to come with us. She's in the front garden, playing with Inky.'
Kenwin and Keverne know when they are beaten, and slouch off to find their sister. As they step out of the house, the garden gate opens to admit their neighbour, Mrs Pascoe, carrying a large wicker basket.
'Morning, my handsomes! I just brought some o' my duck eggs for your Ma,' says Mrs Pascoe, lifting the lid of her basket to reveal a clutch of large greenish-white eggs. Keverne stares, transfixed, and his twin recognises the signs of imminent inspiration.
'I'll take that basket for you, Mrs P,' says Keverne. 'Ma's in the kitchen, just putting the kettle on. These ought to go straight out into the pantry.'
Mrs Pascoe relinquishes her heavy basket with some relief, and carries on into the house.
'Go and get Tamsin's paint box,' whispers Keverne to his brother. 'And some of that glitter stuff from the Christmas decorations box. And glue. We’ll need a lot of glue.'
Ten minutes later, the two boys approach their little sister, who is playing in the sunlit garden with her white kitten, Inky.
'Here, Tamsin, come and see what we've got,' says Keverne, in a conspiratorial whisper. 'It was caught up in Fisher Tom's nets this morning, and he'd no idea what it was, so he let us have it when we asked him.'
Tamsin Blamey looks up with innocent curiosity as her brother displays a large egg, an improbable blue in colour, which sparkles with a dusting of tiny bright flecks.
'It's an egg,' says Tamsin cautiously.
'Yes, but what kind of an egg do you think it is?' prompts Kenwin.
Tamsin shakes her head, black curls bobbing around her face, and looks at her brothers with wondering eyes.
'It came up, up, up from the very bottom of the sea in Fisher Tom's nets,' says Keverne, in thrilling tones. 'It's a mermaid's egg, Tamsin! A mermaid's egg!'
The little girl breathes a wordless sigh of wonderment, and reaches out to touch the precious object. 'Oh, when will it hatch?'
'Soon,' says Keverne. 'Some time this afternoon, and by tonight for sure.'
'How can you tell, Kev?' asks Tamsin, still wide-eyed with awe.
'Easy,' says Keverne. 'A mermaid's egg starts to change colour when it's going to hatch. You see how it's a lovely bright blue now, just like the sea? Well, the colour's starting to fade already, and when it's nearly white, then the egg will hatch.'
'It will get paler and paler all through the day,' says Kenwin, surreptitiously wiping his hands on his trousers, where they leave a faint shadow of Cerulean and a scattering of glitter frost. 'See all the sparkly bits? That comes from the very bottom of the sea, where the mermaids make their nests in heaps of silver sand. It's wearing off now, and that shows the egg must be near to hatching.'
'We were going to take it down to the shore, to a big rock pool, and watch until it hatches,' says Keverne, 'only we can't.'
'Dad wants to go fishing,'' says Kenwin, 'and he'll be really disappointed if we don’t go with him.'
'So we need you to stay and look after it for us,' says Keverne. 'You go and find a rock pool, and put the egg just under the water, and watch it really carefully until it hatches.'
'What do I do then?' asks Tamsin breathlessly. 'Shall I catch the baby mermaid for you?'
'You'll have to be quick,' says Kenwin. 'Baby mermaids are really slippery when they hatch, just like little fish. She'll slip through your fingers if she gets a chance, then she'll be into the sea and away.'
Tamsin nods wisely. It won't be easy, catching a baby mermaid - but how exciting to try! How wonderful just to see one!
'Don't tell Ma or Dad about the egg,' says Keverne hastily. 'They'll only want to take it and put it in a museum or something. You know what grown-ups are like.'
'Just you go and tell Ma you want to play on the beach today,' says Kenwin, 'and make sure you hide the egg when you're telling her.'
Lowenna Blamey is baffled when her small daughter insists that she wants to play on the beach rather than go fishing with her brothers and her father. Perhaps the little girl's rather tiresome infatuation with the twins is wearing off at last? She packs a lunch box with a pasty and an apple, and watches her daughter down the garden path, across the road and safely onto the beach. An informal child-minding circle operates on Portlemon beach, and today Mrs Trenance is there with her brood. Lowenna knows she will keep an eye out for Tamsin, and so will old Mrs Borlase, sitting in her tiny cottage yard perched just above the slipway.
Mrs Borlase smiles and calls out a greeting to Tamsin, then settles back to her knitting and watching. As it does every day, her mind soon wanders into happy dreams of the children she and Jowan never had: little girls with her once-bright hair flying in the wind, and little boys, noisy and sturdy and dark, like the husband whose face she can barely remember. Some days she thinks she sees his boat, white with a blue trim, and its smart red-painted wheelhouse, and she half-rises, to catch his eyes and wave to him as he searches the shore for a sight of her. But always the boats drift on by, and Mrs Borlase sinks back to her endless wait, as the tides rise and fall, and the sea holds on to its precious dead.
Tamsin makes her way down the beach, carefully searching out a rock pool suitable for a baby mermaid. She finds one at last, just below the high tide mark. The water is already sun-warmed, and she sets the precious egg down gently, just below the surface. She watches, entranced, as waving fronds of seaweed, green and red and brown, caress the egg, and tiny fish come to investigate, nosing it gently and dislodging the last of the glitter frost.
Tamsin is thrilled by this sign that hatching is near. The egg has lost its blue colour too - it is almost pure white now. Surely it must be nearly time!
All afternoon Tamsin watches, whiling away the hours by making a soft nest of seaweed for the longed-for hatchling, and collecting a little heap of pretty shells for it to play with. She eats her pasty and her apple, and wonders whether she should save some to feed the new arrival, but decides that the tiny fish in the rock pool will be food enough, and much more to its liking.
At half-past four, Mrs Trenance gathers up her offspring to leave the beach, and hesitates about fetching Tamsin away with her too. But the child seems happy enough where she is, absorbed in her rock-pooling, and old Mrs Borlase will keep an eye on her until her mother calls her home.
At half-past five, Mrs Borlase is starting to worry. Tamsin has barely moved all afternoon, which seems very strange for a six year old. Feeling mildly concerned, the old woman packs up her knitting and makes her way carefully down the slipway and onto the beach. Her steps are not so sure these days, not like the old days when she used to run like the wind to meet the little white boat as it drifted in. Sometimes it seems like only yesterday, but her aching joints and the constant dull pain in her chest tell her it was long, long ago.
'Tamsin, my bird, what be you a-doing there all day?' she asks as she reaches the foot of the rocks where Tamsin sits, gazing down into her chosen pool. 'Have 'ee found a crab, my handsome?'
'Hello, Mrs Borlase,' Tamsin responds. Like all the village children, she is fond of the old woman, who always has time to talk to them, and even more time to listen. 'It's a secret thing, but I'll tell you if you like.' The truth is that Tamsin is so excited by now that she feels she must tell someone, or burst. She is sure she can see a tiny crack in the shell of her precious egg - any minute now, and the baby mermaid will emerge!
'Tell me do, my queen,' says Mrs Borlase, easing herself down onto a water-smoothed rock, and gasping as the dull pain burns suddenly sharp in her chest.
'You'll never guess what I've got!' says Tamsin, pointing down at the egg. 'My brothers told me Fisher Tom brought it up in his nets this morning, and they gave it to me to care for, and I've watched it all day.'
Mrs Borlase follows Tamsin’s pointing finger, and feels a surge of childhood memories.
'Well, I never!' she says, smiling at the little girl's expression of wonderment. 'Well, I never did. Tes a mermaid's egg, my handsome! Tes a mermaid's egg for sure!'
'That's what they told me,' says Tamsin solemnly. 'They said it will hatch today, so I'm watching it for them, and when it hatches I'm to keep the baby mermaid until they get back. But it is taking such a long time,' she adds with a sigh.
The old woman's mind is less than crystal clear these days, but she knows all there is to know about watching and waiting and disappointment. Besides, this isn't a new trick the Blamey boys have dreamed up. Eighty years ago, Tegan Borlase had a mermaid's egg. She kept it for years, nested in cotton wool and hidden away from her brothers' mocking eyes. Generations of little Cornish maids have done the same. It’s usually a gull's egg, pale brown and mottled with darker blotches. A painted duck egg is a new one on Mrs Borlase, but she knows a mermaid's egg when she sees one, and she smiles to herself at the eternal ingenuity of boys.
'Ah, but see, maid, tes no good 'ee waiting no more,' she says, gently lifting the egg from the water and holding it to her ear. 'They egg won't be a-hatching now. Tes addled, my queen. Tes a rare shame, but tes surely addled.'
Tamsin's face falls. 'Keverne and Kenwin will be so disappointed!'
'Never you mind, my bird,' says Mrs Borlase. 'Get you on home now, your Ma will be having your tea on the table. And there's no need to disappoint they brothers o' yours. Get you on home, and you tell 'em the egg did hatch, just like they said it would, and the little mermaid did slip out o' the shell and swim away into the weeds. You tell 'em that, my bird, and then they won't be disappointed.'
Tamsin's small face brightens. 'And I could take them a piece of the shell, Mrs Borlase,' she says. 'Will you break it for me?'
Mrs Borlase taps the egg sharply on a rock, and spills the contents into the rock pool, before rinsing the largest piece of shell handing it over to Tamsin.
'There now, my queen, and doan 'ee be too sad about the little mermaid. For if'n she had hatched, do you see, John Harbourmaster, he'd 'a have to 'a taken her, and put her in they Aquarian, over to Mevagissey. Tes the law, you see, my bird, if'n a mermaid do ever be found hereabouts. And she wouldn't a been happy, now would she, all shut up in they Aquarian?'
Tamsin shakes her head solemnly. 'No, Mrs Borlase. So it's all for the best, really.' She looks down, smiling happily now, at the piece of duck egg. 'And I've still got a bit of a mermaid's egg for my nature collection, even if it didn't hatch.'
'That's right you be, my bird,' the old woman agrees. 'Now you take that bit o' shell to those brothers of yours, and you show it to them, and mind you show it to your Ma and your Daddy, too. And you tell 'em all about the baby mermaid, and how she swam away free into the sea.'
Tamsin reaches up impulsively to kiss the old woman's cheek, then scampers off, happily cradling the piece of broken eggshell.
Mrs Borlase watches her go, and shakes her head. She smiles as she makes her slow and careful way back to her cottage over the slipway. For when all's said and done, who knows? Maybe one day a little girl will catch a mermaid at last, and Jowan Borlase will come home again from the sea.
Pain squeezes her chest like the claws of a monstrous crab. She sinks into her chair in the cottage yard, and rests there, lulled by the sound of the waves, as night begins to fall. As the last of her long life ebbs gently away with the falling tide, she sees a small white boat come sailing round the headland, drifting slowly shorewards on a pathway of stars, the moonlight picking out its blue trim and its smart red-painted wheelhouse.
Tegan Borlase smiles and closes her eyes, as her husband's boat comes home at last across the harbour bar.