Lionel slowed the car and Captain Kipper wound down the window. “What can we do for ‘ee?” asked the Captain, somewhat quietly.
“A lift, if you please, as far as you can go without undue inconvenience towards Kasteldrog. I have no money to get there by cab, and it is a long way.”
“Get in,” said Lionel, feeling that at least he could achieve something useful today. “Captain, shall I drop you off home first?” The stranger had a kindly face, open like a child’s, yet his wrinkles suggested the simple wisdom of a life well-lived.
“Not me,” said the Captain. “Let’s finish the day’s work properly and take this fine gentleman all the way, what do ‘ee say?”
Lionel nodded and the stranger settled himself in the back seat as the Captain turned around to look at him. Lionel could see in his rear view mirror that the nautical gentleman’s cap was emblazoned with the name ‘H.M.S. Higgs’ in gold braid.
“Arr,” the Captain ventured, “the legendary H.M.S. Higgs. Went down with all hands in that there Bermuda Triangle, so they say. I hope ‘ee be not some kind o’ ghostly apparition.”
“Ha ha! I’m as real as you are. The ship went down all right, but we all swam ashore, not a single life lost. There’s a little island there, we called it St. Doris. Strange it’s not on any chart, but there’s an extinct volcano on it which is the source of an anomalous magnetic field. Local legend has it that the navy chart makers once visited the island but their measurements were so confused that they couldn’t make their charts join together properly in the middle, where the island should be. Since they were coming to the end of their assignment and were looking forward to a holiday in Cuba they decided the easiest thing was to leave out the island altogether. They said to each other, no-one would ever notice, so no harm done. Besides, they rather liked the island and couldn’t bear the idea of it being overrun with tourists, or at any rate, that’s how they reasoned it out afterwards.”
“Local legend?” asked Lionel. “So there was someone there already?”
“Well now, perhaps we’ll come to that later, as that is delicate information.” The stranger lapsed into silence. The little car was now on the main road heading out of Pengoggly on the A-road towards Pentingly, and as they left the edge of the town the street lamps stopped, the only light coming from the headlamps. Even the scattered houses they passed were asleep, and the moon was disappearing behind clouds.
After a while the Captain started up conversation again. “By your uniform you are some kind of officer,” he remarked.
The signpost to Kasteldrog came up and Lionel turned into the side road. Almost immediately the road narrowed to a single track with tall hedges on either side, and apart from where the headlamps illuminated the road a little distance ahead, there was utter darkness.
After a pause the stranger replied, “Indeed, I was the bosun.”
The Captain started. “Arr, shiver me jellyfish! So it be you they be looking for all this time!”
Lionel, too, was taken aback. “So,” he ventured, his voice measured as though speaking quietly in a cathedral, “you are the God particle.”
“And so are you and so are all of us,” replied the stranger in a quite normal and jolly voice, “but what you mean is, yes, I am the Higgs Bosun. You can call me Alf.”
They drove on in silence for some miles, the road twisting and turning. Occasionally there would be a fork in the road and Lionel would have to slow the car to read the signposts. At each fork the road to Kasteldrog seemed to get narrower than before so that at times it scarcely seemed possible for the little Morris to get through at all. At other times the road turned to dried mud and the wheels were forced into ruts that had been formed earlier by tractors.
“So,” ventured the Captain again, “‘ee be staying at Kasteldrog? It be lonely enough and far from anywhere where ‘ee might buy a fish supper! They do say it be infested with pestilential piskies. But tell me to mind me own business if ‘ee don’t want to say.”
“I am on a quest,” Alf responded. “There is something important I must find. Something lost from that island many years ago that I must have, if it be granted to me by the powers above to have it, or perish. But enough of me. What are you two about this dark night?”
Lionel spoke. “We also are on a quest, or were, but we have lost.” Here he stopped as the risk of tears choked him up and he could not speak. Some part of him watched this with surprise, as though the intensity of the emotion were unexpected and unfamiliar. Yet there it was. Only now did Lionel fully understand the depth of his attachment to the mermaid and the void created by her loss, a void that must have been there all the time but which he never saw, as though one had papered over a huge hole in the floor and by some physical impossibility never fallen through it.
“A quest for what?” Alf enquired. “Ah, but all quests are one quest.”
“One quest?” Captain Kipper asked.
“A quest may appear to be for many different things.” Alf’s voice was calm in the darkness. “A jewel, a mythical beast, a lost island, the eternal city. But it is the quest that is important. For at the end of it a man finds himself.”
“But he knows himself all along!” Lionel found his voice again.
“That’s where you’re wrong. A man’s real self is unexpected. Totally unexpected.”
This made no sense on the face of it, yet Lionel couldn’t help remembering that moment when he had given up being Lionel through the sheer weariness of it, and he and the mermaid had stared silently into each other’s eyes.
“A mermaid,” Lionel said, almost inaudibly.
“A mermaid,” echoed Alf.
There was a long pause. The headlights momentarily lit up a sign reading ‘Kasteldrog’ and the hedges were now replaced by low dry stone walls, but there was as yet no sign of human habitation.
“Why I’m going along with all this mermaid nonsense I can’t figure out rightly,” said the Captain suddenly. “I never seen a mermaid in all my years at sea.”
“But you’re here anyway,” said Alf, “and I’m grateful for that.”
As the car rounded another bend the dry stone wall gave way to nothingness, then suddenly the headlights illuminated the foot of a white post with a sign above it, displayed under a flickering light.
“Here!” Alf said suddenly. “Stop the car!”
“We’ll be blocking the road,” protested Lionel.
At the top of the post was a pub sign showing a Cornish pixie sitting on top of a pasty, with the legend, “The Piskie and Pasty” in black gothic letters underneath.
The nothingness was the forecourt of a pub, still apparently open judging by a dim light coming from the downstairs windows. Lionel eased the car off the road.
“I need to find the castle itself,” Alf said, “and I can walk from here.”
A note from Myfanwy
Hello Finny Friends,
I'll try to be kind, but really Melvyn should make an effort to be a bit more gracious. I've been very attentive. It's not every secretary who would even bother to make a proper cup of tea, especially when he's so grumpy.
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A mermaid in the bathHumor
A mermaid, the transformation of a boring accountant, an atomic submarine and a lot of jokes. Now available as a paperback, with mermaid illustrations. See the last section for a special offer! www.miltonmarmalade.uk The first several updated chap...