Jigs and Reels/The Little Mermaid
�The Little Mermaid
I came up with this story at the gym. Not my favourite place.
EVERY TUESDAY S FREAK DAY AT THE BODY IN QUESTION. I guess the management doesn't want to upset the regular customers; people come to gyms to exercise and to look at beautiful bodies, not to he faced with a cartload of crips and mongs and uglies flopping round the pool. So we have a special day - every Tuesday, like I said - our special, personal spa and fitness day at B-in-Q, when (between the hours of eleven and two) we can flop and dribble to our hearts' content without causing unnecessary distress to the able-bodied.
Don't think I'm bitter about it. Hell, I wouldn't like to look at me, either. Big barrel-organ chest, little dangly legs, and scars you don't want to imagine; all courtesy of a high-sided delivery van just outside Greater Manchester, a driver on a mobile phone, and my little Kawasaki with the hairdryer engine, from which I had to be separated with a
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pair of industrial pliers, iTyou can dig that. Even so, I left a part of myself - well, two parts, really, though I shan't go into any more detail in case there are ladies present. Suffice it to say that on that day I became a bona ride freak, though I can still swim with my arms, which is more than some of the Tuesday crowd at B-in-Q can manage, thanks a lot.
Oh yes, on Tuesdays we're out in force. The shambling army of the unsightly, the unmentionable, the undead. I've got my wheels, and a trainee nurse to push them; most of the others have carers, too - some family members (they're the worst, because they do care, and it hurts), but mostly just professionals, with wide, professional smiles, aching backs and ample wheelchair experience. They're not bad people; but I can see the way they look at us - unlike some of the feebs that come on Tuesdays, I'm quite compos mentis, or compost mentis, as my old granddad used to say, though whether that's a blessing or a curse I wouldn't know. Him Up There has a pretty damn funny way of distributing his blessings, it seems, and as far as I'm concerned - no disrespect - I'd rather He gave it a miss.
Ironic, isn't it? I used to have quite an eye for the girls, in the days when my appreciation was valued and sought; and though in those days I would never have been seen dead at a gym, I'd have given my eye teeth to be around all those hot sweaty bodies, all flexing and treading and doing the splits against a glass wall with a view on the pool. Of course now all I get to see is the other crips, though I do have my own parking space if I care to use it, and a special entrance (at the back) for their convenience and mine.
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I've got to know some of them. It's inevitable, coming here week in, week out, sitting together in the hydrotherapy pool, swimming in the regular pool. You get to know them by sight, though few ever give you their names; you learn which ones not to swim with (take it from me, the yellow trail's a giveaway); you learn which ones will talk to you and which ones just sit by the poolside and cry.
Some of them are legless like me: accident victims, freaks, amputees. The amputees are the lucky ones; some of them have prosthetics to walk about with and most of them are pretty decent swimmers, too. One man has three legs, all of them boneless and vestigial, which dangle from his pelvis like a kind of flesh skirt. I call him Squiddy, and it's a riot to watch him swimming with his little legs wibble-wobbling behind him.
Then there are the old people from the Meadowbank retirement place. Some bureau-cret somewhere decided that water therapy would be good for them, so here they are: old ladies with curved backs and tell-tale bulges in their baggy old one-piece swimsuits; old men with hairy noses and blurred, bleary eyes. Alzheimer's cases, most of them; some cry as they are lowered into the water, others take the opportunity to fumble at their nurses with what looks to me like real compost-mentis lust, or growl rude slogans at the hospital cases as they limp by. I don't like them much. They don't talk to me, and they look like exhibits you might find in that Damien Hurst gallery - hopeless, joyless hunks of grey flesh, like something in formaldehyde. Then there's the Slipperman. Don't ask why. He's able232
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bodied, but too unsightly for the regular crowd, who complained so much about his presence in the pool that he got relegated to Tuesdays, on a substantial discount. As far as I can tell he's the bitterest one among us - though his infirmity is only skin-deep and totally non-contagious - and he refuses to acknowledge the rest of us when he's in the pool, diving in with a mighty splash and showing off with a variety of special (and mostly useless) leg strokes, as if to prove that he isn't one of us and really shouldn't be there.
Then there's Jessie. I've got a soft spot for her ('scuse the pun; nowadays of course I don't have any other kind), maybe because she's so young. I guess she's a Down's kid -- what we used to call a mong - and for sure she's a little slow in the head, but she's sweet and she's pretty, and she talks to me as long as 1 keep it simple and smile a lot.
Lastly, there's Flipper. That's not my name for her, you understand; but she's been called Flipper ever since she was born, and I guess it stuck. She's young - twenty-five, maybe thirty - with the red hair and fleshy, flawless pallor that might have been called Pre-Raphaelite if she'd had all her bits. Of course she doesn't - that's why she comes on a Tuesday - but all the same she's different from the rest of us. Or was, anyway.
For a start, she could swim. Oh boy, could she ever. Most of us try; I'm pretty good, too - faster than Slipperman, in spite of his fancy moves - but Flipper was a natural. She had no arms or legs, you see; only webby paddles, with fingernails coming out of them, and horny, yellow soles. They were no use to her on dry land - she was so big that there's
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no way they would take her weight - but in water that didn't matter. In water she would come into her own, and the paddles, which had a peculiar, jointless look on dry land, would start to move in a circular motion rather like a bird's wing, and she would roll from her chair, all fifteen stone of her, into the water without a splash, and then she'd be gone.
Call me fanciful, but time was when Flipper could have beaten any able-bodied swimmer by a mile. She cut through the water like a greased bullet; even a dolphin might have had a hard time keeping up with her. Slipperman hated her; in the water she was the one who made him look like a cripple, and it mattered to him, you see; it mattered terribly that he should be able to outswim the freaks. But I could have told him he had no chance with Flipper, who would slice, grinning, across the pool, paddles going like lazy fins, hair trailing behind her like a comet's tail. No-one else came close; and it was a joy to watch her, a real joy, even for someone like me who has so few joys left, because if ever any of us got close to putting one in the eye for Him Up There, then Flipper did it; Flipper with her dolphin smile and her rolling blue-white curves and her tireless, lovely back-and-forth across the turquoise pool.
But Flipper had a secret. I guessed first, because I was the one who watched her most, admiring more than words can say her defiance, her grace and her joy. In the chair, of course, she was just another freak; but in the water she found a playground and a home, and it was almost possible to believe that it was the other guys - the carers and
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the nurses and the smodth professionals with their pity and their secret contempt - who were the real freaks, and that Flipper represented something else, some new and wonderful line of evolution that would take us all back to the sea that had mothered us and from which - let's face it
- we never should have crawled.
But that secret - I read it in her eyes. Not at first, but later, as their rivalry grew stronger and more aggressive. A game at first - with Flipper, everything seemed like a game
- but one with mysterious, unspoken stakes, and a world of dangerous tension between the competitors.
It was Slipperman, of course. From the neck up, he wasn't bad'looking, 1 suppose; and his body, though lumpy as a sackful of pebbles, was hard and strong. Maybe that appealed to her; or maybe it was his rage, the bitter drive of him to prove himself better than the rest of us, to outswim his disfigurement and reach the shores of normalcy. I could have told him it would never work, but his type never listen, and the more I watched, the more it seemed to me that something was going on between Slipperman and Flipper, something that flitted between them like mercury, some intangible bright thing, some poison.
For a start, he taunted her. It was unkind; what was more, it was against our rules. Don't imagine that because we're freaks we don't have rules, and No name-calling is perhaps the foremost. But Slipperman wasn't one of us, and our rules didn't apply. And so began the names - not just Flipper, which she was used to, but other, crueller names. She was sensitive about her bulk, and he sensed it, calling her
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Blubber and Whalebone and Gloober and Flopsy and other such ugly, meaningless things.
He teased her about her hair, which was red and long and lovely, and her clever horny paddle-feet. He made out that she smelt - which she didn't - and would pinch his nose if she came near, saying with bright and metallic cheeriness, 'Hey, I can smell fish, hey, I can smell blubber,' so that her dolphin smile would turn down and her blue-grey eyes mist over and she would swim not for joy, no, but to outswim the pain of his words.
He even taunted her about her limbs. 'Look at it,' he would say in his metallic voice. 'Look at the blubber whale. I mean, what is it? A woman? A fish? Does anyone know?'
Once or twice I spoke to him about it. 'Leave off her, man,' I said, as he began another of his tirades. 'For God's sake, can't you leave her alone?'
He looked at me and sneered. 'Fuck you,' he said. 'What are you, her brother?' And then he was off, swimming loud and fast and splashy because that was the way he thought it ought to be done, and because it showed off his legs, which were thin but unblemished, and kicked water into the faces of the other poor creeps who had to share their Tuesday freak bath with him.
And so I spoke to Flipper, one day when we were all sitting in the spa pool except Slipperman, who was doing his laps hard and fast, like if he got fast enough some day he might just slip his skin altogether and go back and rejoin the human race. 'Don't let him get to you, girl,' I said. 'He's a nasty piece of work, and no-one likes him.' It was true;
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Slipperman had wound-gvary one of us up at some time or another; even Jessie, who was sweet as a kitten with no claws, and whom no-one - not even some of the nastier oldies - would have wanted to hurt.
'It isn't his fault,' she said softly, still watching the pool. 'He's hurting. Just look at the way he swims. He's damaged, and he needs help, and the pity is that he doesn't even know it.'
'We're all damaged here, babe,' I said tartly, 'but we don't tear into each other the way he does. What have you ever done to him, eh? What right does he have to call you names?'
But Flipper just smiled in that sad-dolphin way she had, never taking her eyes off the guy as he to-ed and fro-ed all alone in the big pool, making waves and gasping for air as he thrust his way through the water. And that was when I guessed that Him Up There had got his vengeance at last; because Flipper was head-over-tail in love with the Slipperman - couldn't take her eyes off him, in fact -- and it hit me in the gut like a tragedy. Why does it always happen? I asked myself as the water boiled and bubbled around my useless legs. Flipper, who could easily have been the missing link between ourselves and a kinder, more advanced species, and Slipperman - Slipperman, for Christ's sake?
'Oh no,' I said, more to myself than to her. 'Not him.' Because if ever the Slipperman found out, he wouldn't just taunt her, he would obliterate her; there's no pity in his heart for anyone but himself, no, nor any love, either. I don't know what she hoped for from him, but I could see that
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hope as naked as could be, and because she was sweet (and because maybe I loved her, just a little), I hoped and prayed that the madness would pass, that the Slipperman would find another gym (or maybe even get cured, that's how bad it was), and mostly, above all, that she would keep that look out of her eyes when he was around. Because no-one keeps a secret worse than a woman in love, and this was a secret that never - never -- wanted to be let out.
Now it was at about this point that I stopped going to B-in-Q for a while. The accident has left me, among other little presents, with a partially collapsed lung and an unusual sensitivity to infections. Perhaps I stayed too long in the pool one day, perhaps it was a new strain of 'flu; in any case, the resulting bout of pneumonia kept me bedridden in hospital for six weeks, and away from the Body In Question for another three.
I missed it; and because staring at the damp patch on the hospital ceiling didn't have much to recommend it, I spent much of the time speculating about Flipper and the Slipperman; about what was happening to them, who was winning their weird game. Not all the time - much of the rest was spent coughing my guts out - but some; and as my lungs began to heal, I found myself thinking with increasing foreboding of Flipper, and the look I'd seen in her eyes, and the way the Slipperman watched her, that expression of calculating coldness, like a shark looking for the soft underbelly of the dolphin he plans to bring down. I had a feeling, if you like; a feeling that things were not well with my friend Flipper; and as time passed, it grew into a certainty.
�THE LITTLE MERMAID
My little nurse - a trainee called Sophie - isn't a bad sort, as they go. One day I told her of my concerns, and she agreed to drop by at B-in-Q, if it eased my mind, and give me the dirt on what was going on. The news she brought back was disturbing. Flipper had gone. No-one had seen her for weeks, said Squiddy, the guy with the three little legs, and now Slipperman was like a pig in swill, swimming and splashing and riding the waves, for all the world like some freak aquatic king with his court of cripples in adoration around him.
The worst thing was, said Squiddy to the little nurse, that before Flipper had disappeared, she had started to get very close to the Slipperman. Not in a good way - he was still calling her names and taunting her, just as before - but now they had begun to sneak away alone to the sides of the pool, or the spa bath (where hitherto Slipperman had never ventured) or the sauna. Imagine those two making out, Squiddy had said, with an uneasy grin; although from what Squiddy could gather, they hadn't so much been making out as simply talking - arguing, perhaps - in low, passionate voices.
'It looks as if your friends might have found some common ground,' said Sophie reassuringly as she gave me my evening bath. But I was not reassured; Sophie hadn't seen that shark look on Slipperman's face, or the look of longing in Flipper's eyes. Besides, Sophie was pretty and young and had all her limbs, and she just couldn't understand those forces that turn and twist us, inside and out.
They sanctify us, the well-meaning able-bodied; they
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assume that we have somehow transcended our disability through patience and understanding, praise our every attempt at normalcy, exclaim in wonder at our most mediocre achievements. It never occurs to them that a cripple may be as cruel or as stupid, as deceitful or as hateful as a person with arms, legs and heart intact.
So it was with the Slipperman. I found out the whole story some weeks later; at least, as much of the story as anyone could tell me. There's no-one so blind as a cripple in love, nor as vulnerable, and Slipperman must have guessed her secret, as I had guessed it, and turned it to his advantage.
She never speaks of it now - never speaks at all, in fact, though I have seen her watching the turquoise water with longing on more than one occasion from her specially adapted wheelchair. The prosthetics on her legs and arms are still agonizingly painful, and will probably remain so, her carer tells me, for the bones to which the steel posts that secure the prostheses have been fused are freakishly soft, more like fish cartilage than human tissue. The paddles are gone - those strangely delicate flaps of flesh with their webby fingers and calloused pads - and in spite of the surgery she has undergone, the doctors see little chance of her ever gaining any more than a very limited kind of mobility. Her weight is only part of the problem; another is the nature of her strange physique, the unnatural curvature of her spine, the unusual jointing of the vestigial limbs (most of which have had to be removed to allow for the prosthetics). Still, she has what she wanted, I suppose: legs
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and arms so pink and bright that they resemble those of a child's babydoll, and a frame on which to sling herself as she walks, slowly and with tiny, agonized, Oriental steps, towards the side of the pool, where she spends hours just watching the others as they limp, thrash, bludgeon and flop their crippled ways through the bright water; and Slipper man, smooth, bland and sharklike, swims length after length without a glance at her or anyone.
She herself can no longer swim, of course, though she still goes into the spa pool occasionally. It takes three nurses to manoeuvre her into the warm pool, and they must be vigilant, for the surgery has left her sense of balance permanently altered, and she now runs the risk of drowning if left alone.
Why did she do it? No-one knows. Slipperman never speaks of it, though I've seen him watching her once or twice, and I can tell she never will. Who knows what she's thinking, in her special chair, that cradle of plastic and metal? Who knows what he promised her in exchange for her soul?
For myself, I can only guess. But there's a story that keeps coming back to me; a story my old granddad used to tell me in the days when we were all young and free and compost mentis; the tale of a little mermaid who fell so badly in love with a human prince that she would have given up everything she had to be close to him. And because of that - and because Him Up There likes his ironies - she made a deal; she gave up her mermaid's voice and her lovely swimming tail in exchange for a pair of feet, feet that hurt so much to
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use that every step was excruciating torment - though having given up her voice, she could not even cry out - and she left the safety and kindness of her element, the sea, to go out and find the man she loved.
But love cannot be bought with sacrifices. The prince found a love of his own - a fresh-faced princess of his earthly race - and the mermaid died alone, crippled and voiceless; unable to rejoin her people, unable even to weep for her loss.
What did he promise her? How did he put it? Like I said, I can only guess. All I can say for sure is that Tuesdays aren't the same now. There's no joy left any more, no magic; just the usual round of crips, mongs and ugli.es, and though the water is still turquoise, and on fine days the sun still shines through the glass wall like a benediction, we don't seem to notice it the way we used to in the days when Flipper was there. Because in that pool, Flipper wasn't just as good as the regular people; she was better than they were, better by a mile. And Flipper was one of us.
Except that sometimes 1 wonder, as the nights get longer and colder and my lungs don't seem to be able to process the air the way they used to - I wonder whether she really was. And though I'm not normally much of a guy for the Eternal Verities and all that crap, it seems to me that maybe Him Up There put a deliberate flaw in His blueprint for Us Down Here; something like a circuit-breaker that would trip if any one of us started to get ideas too far above his station - too much joy, for instance, or too much hope. And He buried the mechanism in a cleft just deep enough for it to be
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quite inoperable, and waited"for the world to take its course, smiling a little, like a shark with a secret joke.
Every Tuesday's Freak Day at the Body In Question. But we don't do much swimming any more. Instead, in silence, we sit and watch the Slipperman. Length after length he swims, using his arms and legs ferociously and making waves. Over the last few weeks his condition has improved considerably - in fact, the management has advised him that he no longer needs to restrict his sessions to Tuesdays but still he comes, as if in doing so he might somehow prove something to himself or to the rest of us. He never speaks. But sometimes in the aquarium hush of the long pool I think I hear something, a sound almost like sobbing beneath the splash and gasp of the solitary swimmer, and sometimes I think I see runnels of water beneath his tinted goggles that may or may not be condensation. Not that it matters; there's something broken inside him, something damaged, like Flipper said, that can't be fixed. Every Tuesday he swims in the empty pool, red in the face, legs pumping, lungs burning. But he'll never catch her now. And every Tuesday at two o'clock, we watch him come out, all lined up in our chairs like a firing squad, and the ones of us that are still compost mentis all stare at him and chant the same word over and over again in low, toneless voices, and the ones that aren't just stare; and the Slipperman's head goes down, just a fraction, and he walks past us without looking to the left or the right, and his long thin legs carry him away from the poolside and back towards the showers.
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No-one knows why he comes; no-one knows what he is thinking as he walks out into the real world. Except Flipper, maybe, and she's not telling; though she watches him go through the veil of her hair (that gorgeous red hair that might have belonged to a mermaid in another life), and it's only then, when the rest of us have done, that she turns to go, and with tiny, agonizing steps on her new pink feet, hobbles silently away.