The Mermaid

_________________________________________

1982

I should never have opened the front door. A loud knocking had woken me up and I blearily checked the alarm. 10am on a Tuesday, 10am for god’s sake, I wouldn’t normally stir until at least midday so really wasn’t with it. The floorboards in my room were cold of course as the knocking persisted and I fumbled for my slippers. I staggered down to the stairs with the thump of my morning head as unpleasant as the taste in my mouth.

“Alright,” I yawned as I lumbered to the front door. As I opened it, the incoming daylight stung my eyes.

“Hello Brian,” enthused a man in a voice more suited to opening time than this madly early hour. “Come on then, let me in,” and he pushed past me in such an assured way, that I felt I really ought to know who he was, but then I am prone to the occasional lapse. “Time for a cuppa,”  he told me and took off his coat and hung it on the rack as if he’d done this a thousand times before.

“Is there? That’s good,” I mumbled, in some state of confusion.

“There’s always time for char. You not dressed yet? We’ve got to be off in 15 minutes.”

“Who-who are you?” I ventured.

“Really Brian,” he laughed, as if I were playing silly buggers. I wasn’t. “Come on, come on, chop chop, old man. 15 minutes, that’s all. I’ll make the tea.” He walked straight to the kitchen and started filling the kettle which made me feel he surely knew me and that I was just having one of my little episodes, so I let it rest. He whistled loudly as he took the milk from the fridge. “Still one sugar, yes?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Please.” This much at least I remembered through the fug in my head.

He was older than me – 50 say, with a sharp green suit with immaculately Brylcremed hair and polished leather shoes. “Come now Brian, let’s not be late.”

Looking back it sounds daft, but he had such a presence about him, and I was so confused that I just did as he said and went back upstairs to change. The water was freezing as I splashed it on my face but it did little to ease the haggard look on my face. God, I looked rough.

“Thirteen minutes, Brian,” he called from downstairs.

“OK, OK. What do I wear?” I called back.

“Your best of course.”

I needed a shave, god I needed a shave, but with thirteen minutes left, now twelve, I didn’t have time and as charming as the sharp-suited man had been, he had an authority that made me feel I would be wise not to exceed my allotted time.

“Spot on old boy,” he complimented as I shuffled down the stairs in my ill-fitting suit, the one I wore when I worked, which still represented my ‘best’ despite its age and shiny patches. He took a final swig of his tea and put our cups, mine untasted, in the sink. “Ready then?”

“Well yes, I suppose so.” I put on my shoes, still wet from yesterday and he passed me my raincoat from the rack.

Outside was bright but cold and I followed him to an impressive Jaguar XJS and off we went.  He told amusing stories as he drove, but none of them gave anything away about who he was. My head had somewhat cleared by now but I still had no notion of who he was, but having got this far I was now too embarrassed to ask. As he talked I thought about the most likely places I might know him from in my head: the dole office, the Three Guineas, the hospital. But nothing came.

Meanwhile, he entertained me with anecdotes about hunting expeditions and horses.

We pulled up at the Carmichael Auction rooms. I had never been there before. Inside he bought a catalogue and scanned the order of sale.

“Ah, lot 126,” he said. “Right, come on: we have time for a sharpener.” I followed him into the Berkshire Arms next door where he ordered us two large G and T’s. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. Drinks downed, we hurried back to the auction and waited for lot 126.

I could sense his impatience as we witnessed the sale of tea sets and pottery, none of which seemed  to interest him. Then it was lot 126, his lot – our lot, and the auctioneer announced ‘a 20th century  cast iron mermaid statuette, no makers mark, ideal for, say a door stop. Shall we start the bidding at £5’. It certainly didn’t look very decorative to me and I’d had ‘Mr Sharp-Suit’ as a possible army  rather than navy type, but he thrust his arm up to register the first bid. This was countered across the room by £6 and a battle ensued between the two of them.  From its modest start, the price escalated, past £20, £50, then up to £100 and the tension in the room increased with each successive bid and by £250 Sharp-Suit’s cool was certainly being tested. But at £400, a month’s wages when I’d been working, the competition folded and we secured its purchase and I followed Sharp-Suit to the cashier where he insisted on paying for the ghastly statuette with all haste as he was in a ‘dreadful hurry’.

I tried to read the name on his card, but the print was too small. Then there was a problem.

“I’m sorry sir,we cannot accept your credit card,” said the supercilious cashier as he replaced the telephone. Your bank have said no”.

Sharp-Suit went purple with rage and demanded “What! That can’t be right. Give me that phone.”

“I’m sorry sir,” the cashier almost gloated. “I’m not allowed to do that. I regret that I will require some alternative form of payment.”

“Those imbeciles at the bank,” roared Sharp-Suit. “Heads will roll for this!” and I suspected that they would. I tutted in empathy with his situation, sensing exactly what was coming next.

Sure enough, he turned to me and in a quieter, calmer tone said “Brian, old chap. I hate to ask, but would you be kind enough to pay for this lovely item. My bank appear to have placed me in a temporarily embarrassing predicament. I will pay you back tomorrow of course, plus an extra £15 for your trouble.”

So there I was, in an auction house of all places and with, whether I knew him or not, a complete stranger. Driven here in the flashiest car I’ve ever travelled in, been bought a G and T and now asked to pay £400 for some hideous iron maiden. I would never have that amount in my account of course,  but I did have one of those new Barclaycards in my wallet, I’d never used it, but it was rather pushed on me by my bank as ‘the latest thing’ and I had kept it for emergencies. Both Sharp-Suit and the cashier stared at me so I looked down at my shoes. But I found no answer there and felt my heart sink as I heard myself say, “Yes, of course”.

“Splendid!” said Sharp-Suit glaring at the cashier who phoned Barclaycard and to my silent dismay the transaction was approved. “I’ll give that bank a piece of my mind, but first, let’s have a drink.” He stowed the monstrous mermaid in the boot of the Jaguar and off we roared.  We sat and drank our G and T’s outside the Kintbury Arms with the bloody mermaid on our table as the picturesque Kennet and Avon canal rolled by. It was very pleasant in the winter sun and my companion insisted on regularly going inside and returning with drink after drink as a thank you for my bailing him out.

My mind unraveled as the drinks flowed and  I became less and less concerned about who he was and how he would drive us home, and more and more captivated by his yarns of being lost in the desert and close scrapes with fiery women. I had little by way of exciting life experiences to relate in return, but so immense and controlling was his personality it didn’t seem to matter.

As the chill of early evening approached he insisted we moved inside and dined: the biggest steaks in the house with the finest claret to accompany them and then a bottle of dessert wine to wash down the pavlovas afterwards.  Then port, passed`to the left of course, until the whole bottle had gone.

We laughed stupidly with the hilarity the alcohol brought on and nearly split our sides as I admitted how loathsome I found the mermaid standing before us.

That’s the last thing I remember about the day. I woke up next morning with a head that Marie  Antoinette would have winced at. I really thought I would die, though that would have been a merciful release. I could not contemplate a glass of water let alone tea or anything and lay for several clammy hours in my state of nausea, the left half of my brain having closed down completely, the right fighting desperately  to join it. I seemed to be in a hotel bedroom.

At my trial they said Sharp-Suit’s name was Anthony George Spencer, or at least that was his legal name and he used many aliases in his ‘career as a tawdry but proficient confidence trickster.’

When I pleaded not guilty I had meant it. I really didn’t remember caving his head in with the mermaid statuette but they insisted I had, and the jury agreed. I admitted to purchasing it the same day that an enormous unpaid bar and room bill had been built up in my name at the Kintbury Arms, and no end of witnesses had seen me in the company of the deceased – the day they said he had been found.  Perhaps I did do it?

Ten years have passed since and I’m still none the wiser. It might have cost me over £700 in total and it’s another five years before my parole comes up, but I must say: it was a damn good day.

 

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