Mermaid, by John William Waterhouse

Ondioline is a short squat nymph, singer, shape-shifter, little sister; a cousin of Echo; a worker of magic of limited means. The waves of her birth-land still hush inside her. She is incongruous sitting humbly on the carpet, waiting for him to call out her music. She is good and sweet and extremely dangerous. I look after her as best I can; after all, I am the boring one. I miss him too.


We’d gone shopping the day he found her. I had a list to get through: woolly tights (for me); shoes (for him); Mae Ploy curry paste from the Asian supermarket, unavailable from the regular supermarket; a new toaster. He kept getting distracted, drifting into bookshops and record shops or catching sight of some intriguing corner. He has the artist’s eye for oddities and the backs of things, but meanwhile someone has to notice when his shoes have holes, and that’s me. Someone has to pick up the balled socks he chucks in the corner. It can be more like having a child than a husband.

So, I realised that day, on the way from Marks and Spencer to Argos, that he wasn’t beside me, and I turned back to see he’d ducked behind the flower stall in the mouth of Harry Street and was watching something. Someone. She was barefoot in a green dress, draggled as a tramp, wet at the hem, there on the pavement by the Westbury Hotel where the posh cars pull up. She must have been freezing. But she was dancing. A strange kind of swaying shuffle, watching her shadow.

He knew her immediately for what she was, even though she was mute and filthy, and I think she knew him. We went straight home, with her following four paces behind. He found her an old warm jumper of mine and sat her on a kitchen chair. Her feet were cut and weeping; he got out the savlon and bandages and knelt to dress them. She wouldn’t say a word, but he kept softly questioning her just so she could hear the kindness in his voice, as though she were a stray cat or a child. I made toast on the grill.

In the days that followed he coaxed her out. It was patient work. Little creaks, at first, wheezy sighs, gentle moanings. Then the start of singing. She never spoke – in fact, she never speaks. He taught her to sing like a violin, like a trumpet, like an alien. He played her many different kinds of music and she sang them back to him; she could sound like a whole symphony crashing around your ears. She could reflect light, too, ripple patterns on the walls, pearlescent shimmers. He had ideas for what he could make with her help. They worked through the day, when I was out at my desk job, and into the night. When he went away one weekend to visit his parents she slept the whole time, flat out in our spare room. She wanted to please him; she wanted to be anything he wanted her to be.

Meanwhile I tried to work out what she ate. The first two nights of dinners went untouched, though I’d planned them carefully (peppers stuffed with rice and pine-nuts; vegetable casserole topped with a crumble of cheese and almonds). Then I walked into the kitchen the next morning and found her cramming her face with chocolate biscuits. As I watched she stuffed one in whole and looked up at me blankly with her black and white eyes. Later I caught her eating raw fish. I gave up cooking for her and accepted the challenge of constructing meals out of whatever she had left us. But she’s a tiny thing; she doesn’t eat much really. She waxes and wanes with the moon. When she’s had a bath (she stays in for hours) she leaves a fine silt of scales, ground shells, shreds of kelp.

I grew jealous, of course. Not sexually, not really: he’s a good man, or tries to be, and it was my bed he slept in. But I was off to the side, almost invisible, loading the dishwasher and buying the groceries. He was totally absorbed in her, electric with absorption. He can work with ferocious energy and focus when he’s doing something thoroughly impractical. So I confronted him, one day when he’d paused guiltily to help hang out laundry: it was time we had some time together, he needed a rest, we should reconnect. I’d found a midweek hotel deal in Kerry and I had some holidays to use up. He saw the sense in what I said. Then on the morning we were due to go I drove her to the beach. She couldn’t resist; she ran into the water, babbling with joy, and cast herself in with an exultant splash. I waited for her to come back for – oh, a decent amount of time. But we had two hundred miles to drive and a booking waiting.


The hotel break was alright. We dined well and made use of the spa. We took walks and visited a castle and an abbey. Then we went home to a quiet house. He tried to continue some of what he’d done with her – he had recorded part of it – but it was in a rough state that he found unsatisfactory. The magic was lost. He was dejected. He didn’t blame me for what had happened – I wasn’t to know she would run off like that. (But I knew, oh, I knew.)


As the weeks passed he pulled himself together; he began a new project, writing something, not as thrilling to him as the music but something for his brain to chew on. He worked office hours and stopped in the evening to watch television with me. Often he went to bed before the end of the programme and I’d watch to the credits by myself.

One evening, late in the winter, I was alone on the sofa with Borgen when a prickle at my neck made me go to the curtain and look out. I couldn’t even see her at first, but somehow I knew she was there, and then I spotted her, just a shimmer in the shadows, a patch of rain. Each night that week she was out there. She stood closer and then further back, but always out of the light, a shapeless little bundle, very small. She looked destitute.

Eventually I went out to her, to where she was huddled against the twiggy hedge. Come in, I said, come back. He wants you. She followed me through the doorway into the light of the hall, up the stairs and into her bedroom, crawled muddily between the white sheets and slept.

In the morning I fetched her down and presented her to him as though she were a gift I was giving him. His face lit up with incredulous delight. I didn’t go to work; I went with them into his study and sat down to see what would happen, to have my part in their reunion. He took her hand and began to sing to her, and she joined in, echoing and twining round his melody, but far too loud, far too eager. He hushed her and started again. Now she was like a shawm, now a shriek, and dazzling flashes scattered off her; too much, too much; and then she leapt at him, wrapped both her legs and both her arms around him, embraced him with her whole body that seemed to spread and entirely envelop him, and kissed him fiercely upon the mouth. He convulsed and fell down unconscious.

He must have awoken to see both our faces staring down at him, as we knelt one at each side trying to revive him. She had shrunk down with shame and alarm, but she imitated my gestures as best she could, taking his pulse, listening for his breathing, chafing his hands. He sat up without saying anything, got shakily to his feet, and went upstairs. An hour or so later he came back with a suitcase to where we were both sitting exactly where he’d left us. He said he needed a little space. He would go and see his parents for a while.


And so, here we are, me and Ondioline, Ondioline and I. I can’t be bothered to cook; there seems no point now. I eat toast from the grill – we never did buy a new toaster – and let the crumbs build up in the tray. Sometimes I go to the corner shop and buy what passes for fish. Ondioline nibbles at the corners of frozen breaded cod. But mostly she just waits, and waits, and occasionally I hear her make a keening sound, but perhaps it’s only a creak from the study door, which needs oiling, and which flaps in a breeze from somewhere or other. She watches me with a terrible, cowed hope, as though I should know what to do; but I’m only miserable, and miserably angry. It infuriates me that we both need him so much.


It’s a mild day at the end of February, the first hint of Spring. I’ve roused myself to do some cleaning because all the dirt shows on the windows now there’s finally some sun, but I stop; it’s not really so important. I go to where Ondioline is sitting and take her hand. What songs do I know? Absurdly, the one that springs to mind is “The sun has got his hat on”. I hesitantly begin – my voice is rusty, years unused, and I’ve forgotten half the words. She makes a noise like someone clearing a coffee grinder. Perhaps that’s what I sound like. I keep hold of her hand and lead her into his study.

She follows me to the shelves where he keeps his records and I start to riffle through. There are so many here, some I’m sure I’ve never heard, and some I suspect he hasn’t either. I pick one out – Madam Butterfly, that sounds familiar – and put it on the record player, but I quickly decide that isn’t the mood we want. Here’s another – Suzanne Ciani, Seven Waves. The opening’s a little eerie, but there’s a pure quality in the music, a quiet optimism; I think we can enjoy this one. Ondioline begins to dance, a sideways sway, a ripple of the arms, and then a glide. And I imitate her. Moving my big body in echo of her little one, I follow Ondioline, and we dance together in the February sunshine.


3 thoughts on “Ondioline

      1. kenanddot

        You know, the thing that is bothering me about this story (apart from being dissatisfied with the prose style towards the end) is that line about sounding like a whole symphony crashing around your ears. Because the ondioline is a monodic instrument. I shouldn’t be worrying about this, should I? Given that ondiolines also don’t come from the sea, have human form, reflect light or eat raw fish?

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