Short story: “Mr and Mrs Jansen” and the Mermaid by Sharon Bolton
So what should we expect from a blog tour stop, we mused… an extract perhaps, an interview? Not for you, Dear Reader – this is something extra special. We’ve got an EXCLUSIVE SHORT STORY! Over to Sharon to tell us more.
“In the winter of 2012, I flew to Amsterdam to promote my new book in The Netherlands and, whilst waiting for the car to take me back to airport, I began thinking about a tiny, colourful, old lady who walks the canal banks of the old city, scratching out a living and dreaming of the days when she was young and strong. Over the next few hours I wrote the story of Mr and Mrs Jansen and the Mermaid.
It was an idea that refused to leave me. It seemed too good for just one short story. If there can be a mermaid in the canals of Amsterdam, I wondered, why not in the mighty River Thames?
Enjoy my Dutch short story, published in English for the first time today (I think!) and if you haven’t tired of mermaids at the end of it, A Dark And Twisted Tide is washing onto a lonely shore near you, today.”
“Mr and Mrs Jansen” and the Mermaid
Amsterdam before dawn is a place of long, stealing shadows, of street lights dancing on water and of a silence that hovers like mist. The man walking swiftly along the Herengracht could be alone in the city; he sees no one and no one sees him.
He is a little out of breath by the time he reaches the third floor of the hotel but the lifts of this old building are noisy and he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.
‘Would you believe she didn’t call?’ He steps into a room as dark and quiet as the city outside. ‘I could have stayed.’ He thinks perhaps he can hear Juliette sigh in anticipation as he pulls off his clothes but, then again, it could be the floor-boards settling.
The bed creaks beneath his weight, the sheets are cool. He slides across, already erect, and stretches to kiss her shoulder. She is naked, just as he left her.
She is cold as the air outside, her flesh oddly resistant to his touch. Like congealing clay.
With the numb acceptance of someone who knows disaster is imminent and unavoidable, Ralf switches on the bedside light. The corpse he sees beside him comes as no surprise.
The previous evening
The mermaid scuttles her way along the canal-side as the water tells her how it is doing. It’s not been the best of days, one of those murky brown, troubled days, when litter hangs around and ferries piss out oil. The mermaid taps her stick along the edge, negotiating her way around parked bicycles and thinks of a time when her body was young and strong and the cool water of the city’s canals stroked her skin like the hands of the lover who, ultimately, never arrived.
‘Buy a nice silk scarf for your lady friend?’
The man hurrying past her is rich – only the rich have that particular smell of new wool, spiced fruit and cedar wood. Rich and young, only the young move at that speed. His voice comes from inches above her head.
‘I don’t think so.’
Only the handsome have that arrogant tone to their voices. The mermaid catches the man’s hand and at the touch of his flesh sees his urgency, his excitement. The emotions bubble inside him like the water behind a power-boat.
He pulls back. He is not used to being touched by strangers. The mermaid lets him go.
Ralf pushes at the heavy glass. There are people ahead of him at reception and he is tempted to walk past, but the Ambassade Hotel is too small for him to pass unnoticed and so he waits and drums his fingers together in a manner that, were he able to see himself, would remind him disturbingly of his father.
‘Mr Jansen,’ he tells the clerk when he has his attention. ‘My wife arrived a few hours ago.’
‘Certainly Mr Jansen, your wife is in room 95. Shall I show… have a nice evening, sir.’
Juliette is at the window. As always he is surprised by how tall she is, how her long, dark hair shines like lacquered walnut. She smiles, and he loves that she can never hide the pleasure she takes in his company.
‘I’ve been watching the mermaid,’ she says.
Over her shoulder he sees the tiny woman with the rickety body and long red hair who seems to be sniffing her way over the bridge like a stray dog.
‘That old gypsy?’ he says. ‘She’s not very elegant but I hardly think that’s a tail she’s tottering around on.’
‘The clerk downstairs was telling me she’s been seen around here since she was a child. She’s always by the water so people call her the mermaid.’
Ralf doesn’t want to talk about the old woman. ‘So how do you like my city?’ he asks.
‘I like the syrup waffles,’ she tells him.
‘Little flat pancakes. You put them on your coffee cup and the syrup inside starts to melt.’
He loves the feel of the muscles playing in her strong, slim back, the way she smells of rice milk and cherries.
‘Yeah, I know what they are. Is that it?’
‘And the way it looks drunk.’
She wriggles round in his arms to face the narrow, high gabled houses across the canal. ‘The houses are all over the place,’ she says. ‘They’re like elegant ladies after a good night out on the town.’
‘Syrup waffles and tipsy streets. Anything else?’
‘The quiet,’ she whispers, tickling his ear. ‘Such a quiet city. I think in the middle of the night we can open the window and hear nothing.’
For a second he doesn’t answer and she stiffens in his arms.
‘What?’ she says.
He sighs. ‘There’s a problem? My wife is very suspicious.’
‘Has she gone?’
His wife – his real wife, not the woman he occasionally claims is his wife at hotel reception desks – left their home an hour ago. ‘She’s going to phone me at midnight. At home.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
He shrugs. ‘What can I do? If I’m not there, she’ll drive back.’
‘I’ve flown from London for what? Dinner?’
‘I’ll be back in the morning. I’ll come with you to the airport.’
‘I’ve come all this way to spend the night by myself?’
It is a constant irritation to him that a woman so beautiful can be so needy. Over her shoulder he can see the old woman, leaning on the bridge, muttering to the water below. ‘Aren’t mermaids supposed to be young and pretty?’ he says.
Juliette is still sulking. ‘Maybe she was, once. Maybe I’ll look like that one day.’
He tells himself that if she does, he won’t be around to see it. ‘We have this evening,’ he says, pulling her close again. ‘We have now.’
The couple leave the hotel arm in arm, his leather-soled shoes moving slowly to keep pace with her shorter, high-heeled steps. He smells different now. Beneath the synthetic mimicry of flowers and spice, the mermaid can detect the acrid whiff of sex.
‘Scarf for your lady friend?’ she calls out, more as a taunt than a sales pitch.
Better behaved in front of his woman, he pulls out his wallet. The mermaid misjudges and the money wafts towards the water. She makes her angry sound high in her throat, the rattling hiss of the swan defending its family. The woman’s voice, young, sweet and foreign, comes from close to the ground.
‘Got it,’ she says. As she takes the note the mermaid brushes the woman’s hand. So cold, like the ice that forms on the water’s edge in January. As the couple walk away, the mermaid makes the sound of the pen swan when her cygnets have been stoned to death by cruel children.
‘Thank you,’ Juliette says to him at dinner. The piece of brown and orange cloth is around her shoulders. He’d like to tell her it ruins the simple elegance of her dress, but knows he’ll probably want her again before the evening is out and Juliette seems to delight in taking what he says the wrong way.
‘I’m glad we saw her,’ she goes on. ‘Some people think she’s connected to the Beguines, do you know about them?’
‘The catholic not-quite-nuns of the Begijnhof,’ he says, referring to the enclosed medieaval square close to the Singel canal that his wife once dragged him around. ‘I think the last one died in the 1970s.’
‘The story is the mermaid was the illegitimate child of one of the last nuns,’ says Juliette. ‘So no one could acknowledge her, but they looked after her in the community. People think she still lives somewhere around the Begijnhof but no one ever sees her coming or going, just walking around the canals.’
A text has just arrived on his phone. His wife. When he looks up again, Juliette’s face has darkened and he knows he is going to have to work for the sex later on. Maybe he should wait for the morning, when she’ll be needy again, dreading the goodbye, eager to make the most of their remaining time together.
‘Don’t give me a hard time.’
‘I didn’t realise I was.’
He sighs. She doesn’t need to say anything, the look in her eyes is enough. He wonders whether it might, actually, be time to move on. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ he says. ‘We’ll have breakfast.’
Downstairs, the gypsy who sold him the scarf has actually made her way inside. She is arguing with the night porter, whose back is turned. As the cold air rushes through the lobby, the mermaid turns to watch him go. Her eyes flash a fluorescent green, like those of a cat caught in a car’s headlights and then that tiny, wrinkled nose twitches again, as though she can smell him.
Probably because she is crying, Juliette doesn’t see the silk scarf on the bathroom floor. As she steps on it, it slides along the smooth tiles. She falls heavily and her head strikes the stone edge of the bath.
The pain is nauseating. Hardly aware of what she is doing, Juliette gets to her feet. She grips the basin for balance, waits for the pain to lessen. When she feels she can bear it, she lifts her head. The skin on her temple is bruised but not broken. No blood. She runs a glass of water and walks back to the bedroom. Tears are still falling, but she’s no longer sure which pain is causing them. Naked, she lowers her head gingerly to the pillow, telling herself she’s OK and that she’ll feel better in the morning.
She is wrong. The internal bleeding of an acute, subdural haematoma has already begun. Five hours after slipping on the mermaid’s silk scarf, Juliette is dead.
‘She’s here, Guv,’ the custody sergeant tells his inspector, who has spent the last hour interviewing the prime suspect in that morning’s murder. An important Dutch lawyer, married with two young children, kills his mistress in a hotel bedroom and flees the scene. The papers are going to love it.
The inspector shakes his head. ‘They book into a hotel as Mr and Mrs Jansen, they’re seen going out to dinner, seen coming back, heard shagging rather enthusiastically and then she’s not seen again till the maid goes in to make up the room. His story is that he left just before eleven. Says he went home to take a call from his wife, only she changed her mind. He says he got back before dawn to find the lady-friend stiff as his prick.’
‘Any doubt he did it?’
‘Not really. We’ll wait for the pathologist’s report but it’s pretty clear she died from a blow to the head. I think our friend’s going down for a long time.’
‘And what’s the mermaid got to do with it?’ asks the sergeant.
‘He claims she saw him leave the hotel last night. She’s his alibi. His only one.’
The sergeant was born in the canal district. He has known of the mermaid all his life. ‘She saw him?’ he repeats.
‘She was certainly in the lobby at the right time according to the desk clerks. OK, she in here?’
The mermaid is looking at the floor, but he sees her nostrils twitch. The inspector finds himself wishing he’d taken a shower that morning. She leans forward, definitely sniffing him. Then she relaxes, and the corners of her mouth turn up in the semblance of a smile.
‘The man from the hotel,’ she says. ‘You have been with him just now?’
The inspector ignores this. ‘Madam,’ he says. ‘When you were in the Ambassade Hotel last night, did you see anyone leave?’
‘I saw nothing.’
The mermaid lifts her head. He understands now, why the custody sergeant found his request amusing. This frail, elderly woman with the remarkable hair has eyes that are pale and opaque with advanced cataracts. She has been blind for years.