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It was the lights that attracted me first.
Spots of bright pink, white and gold, sending beams of light down into the murk of the Tyne. I flitted between them for a while, passing my webbed fingers through them. I played for a long while in the shafts of light – anything new quickly becomes a game when you only have yourself for entertainment – before my attention was snagged by the deep, rhythmic thumps coming from above water. Being the curious little minnow that I was in those days, I left the safety of the riverbed and swam towards the sound.
The instant my naked head broke through the water's surface, I was blinded by the harshness of the lights, and deafened by music that shrilled and squalled – all the while, that deep, bassy thump pounded beneath it like a heartbeat.
As my eyes recovered, I could slowly make out the dark bulk of a ship – dangerously close to me. If I reached out my arms, I could have touched the hull. Everything my Mother ever taught me was screaming to dive back down, into the darkness and the safety, and to forget this little adventure to the world above me...but yet I stayed, bobbing in time to the music.
I could see them.
Not glimpsed from a distance, as they hurried along the stony shore of the Quayside. Not rising over my head like gulls as they crossed their bridges. They were right there. They were dancing: their shadows thrown across the water in time to the beat. The males preened and posed, in their clothes as tight as a second skin, but the girls – oh, the girls! They were like the tropical fish of my childhood. They shimmered in ways that made me resent my dull scales. Their faces were painted, and I cursed my pale skin. They, they were red black yellow white gold pink orange blue beauties, twisting and turning, swimming through the music and the air and their own laughter. One of the males swooped in towards a group of them as I watched – plucking up one of the girls and spinning her in a tight circle, before planting a kiss on her waiting lips. She squealed playfully, kicking up her legs behind her.
Her legs. They were long and slender, caught up in fishnets, with huge, golden spikes where I had thin, translucent fins. She wriggled out of his grasp and re-joined her friends, who closed around her like a shoal. As one, they began to move again; their arms high in the air, their voices happily yelling out lyrics I didn't understand, their feet stamp-stamp-STAMPing on the deck of the ship.
I wanted to dance like that.
I watched them for three months. I learned that the ship never moved, but every Friday and Saturday, it lit up and blasted its electric siren call. I watched them come, and watched them wriggle and yell and stamp and trip and giggle and sob and dance and I knew, with every passing moment, I wanted that. Even just for one night, even more than I'd longed for the cold of the North Sea, I wanted that.
I knew what I had to do. I groaned to myself as I turned, and headed towards the river's mouth.
The journey back to the sea I was born in was a long one. I travelled from my comfortably chilly Tyne into warmer waters, full of salt that made my eyes tickle. As I passed over white sand and multi coloured reefs, I felt a pang of homesickness – but pushed it down quickly. Dolphins and octopi tried to hail me, but I paid no attention to them. I knew where I needed to go.
By the time I reached the gulf, I was exhausted. My mother's home was deep within a chasm, where the water was as black as ink and twice as dangerous. Even as I rested against a rock – bracing myself – dark tendrils reached out to greet me, cupping my chin and turning me towards the mouth of the cave. She'd sensed my arrival long ago. Her voice drifted up from the blackness – almost more vibration than speech.
Ohhh...my sweet city maiden has returned, I see?
Finally come home to me, like I always knew you would...
'Mother, I come to ask for an enchantment.'
The tentacles retreated for a moment, then returned – wrapping around my arms, pulling me closer to the chasm. I pushed against her tight embrace, knowing if I didn't speak now, she wouldn't let me speak, and I'd be lost.
'I wish for legs. I wish to be a human.'
Ohhh! So the princess has found her handsome prince? Tell me, River Child – is he handsome? Does he set your dull little heart ablaze? Is he brave, loyal and true, but can't love you unless you have a—
'No, Mother! I don't...I don't love anyone. I just...I just want to dance. I want to be among them, and be happy, and dance with them.'
The darkness around the cave grew blacker – but just for a second. When she next spoke, the sardonic purr was gone from my mother's voice.
Very well. One night. I will give you that, because you are my child. But because you left me, all alone – you will have only one night. When that night becomes morning, your legs will turn back into fins...and you will come home, Daughter. Those are the terms. Do you agree? Or will you go back to that noisy little dirt-stream and watch from afar for the rest of your life?
I steeled myself, and nodded. One night above water, dancing with those girls, was better than an eternity watching them alone. A low chuckle escaped the cave, as the tentacles doubled in number, writhing high above the cavern's mouth.
Unless you find True Love's Kiss, of course...But princes aren't on your mind? No? Go on. Go back to your filthy city water. Your time for dancing will come.
That weekend, I was drawn to the thumping bass and the neon colours of the ship as usual, but my heart pounded in my throat. Nothing had happened for days. Maybe Mother was lying. No, she never lied – did she?
I was so engrossed in the music and my own worry, that I didn't see two tentacles beneath me – not until they lunged. They grabbed one of my fins each, pulling me down into the water, No matter how I struggled, I couldn't free myself, and with one almighty WRENCH —
Everything went black with agony.
'Y'all right there, love?'
Was I? Quickly, I tried to pull my thoughts back into something cohesive. I was sitting on the Quayside. I was cold. My hair was still damp. I could see the water rippling below me. My legs were dangling off the—
My legs. My legs.
I was human. I was on land. I was sitting right next to the ship and there were three girls, girls I'd watched so many, many times from the water, right next to me, talking to me—
'Oi, are you deaf?!'
'Amy, man, leave her alone – she might have concussion or something.'
I staggered to my feet, but before I could open my mouth, I tottered. My newly formed feet were encased in silver shoes – as beautiful as I'd dreamed them to be, but their spiked heels were proving treacherous. One of the girls – tall, with red, curling hair, wearing a shimmering black dress, her mouth made up pink as coral – caught me, laughing.
I looked up at her, and forgot how to speak.
'Bit tipsy before we even get to the Tuxedo, are we? Howay, come in with us. We'll probably be the same before too long!'
My tongue loosened itself from my pallet. In my stupor, I decided to try and mimic the girl's speech – attempt to blend in.
For some reason, the girls found this hilarious. They shrieked with laughter, grabbing into each other for support, while one – a very sleek, dark girl in glittering shoes with hair the colour of an oil slick – rolled her eyes.
'Oh, great. She's a fuckin' Southener.'
The redhead asked me where I was from. I shrugged, smiling stupidly in her face. Her eyelids were shimmering with green dust, and her lips curled into an indulgent smile.
'You dunno. Ok, try an easier one. What's your name?'
'Oh. Um. Morgan.'
A ragged cheer went up. My redhead grinned.
'I'm Charlotte. That's Amy, and that's Hannah—'
The other girl – a petite brunette with hair spiked like a pufferfish – waved, beaming.
With Charlotte and the sleek girl – Amy – on either side of me, I was frogmarched up the walkway, and before I could blink, we were inside.
Charlotte nudged me.
'By the way, love the hair.'
I caught sight of myself in a mirror, and blushed. I was beautiful. My hair was thick and blonde, tumbling down past my waist. The ends were tinged blueish-green. My skin was soft, warm and pink. My legs were long, and my skirt was made of a green-grey material that shimmered as I walked. Like scales.
The music was so loud. Louder than anything I'd ever experienced. Like thick fingers reaching inside my head, filling my brain. The lights flashed against my eyelids, and that incessant pounding bass thumped through my bones.
It was perfect.
The girls squealed with delight, and rushed off to the dance floor – swallowed up by the throng of bodies already writhing and stamping their feet. I hung back slightly – now that I was here, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Charlotte turned back, grinning. Without a word, she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the midst of the crowd, while the music throbbed and whined and a girl sang about finding love in a hopeless place.
I could feel the heat of the other bodies around me. I was surrounded by glittering, bright, beautiful people. More than that – I was one of them. Charlotte was in front of me, lost in her own dancing. She spun me, set me free, shook her head, her red curls tumbling around her like kelp in a strong current. The beat built higher and higher, faster and faster, and my pulse went with it. I felt my hips swaying, my knees bending, my arms raising above my head, my lips splitting into a grin so wide I felt more like a shark than a mermaid – but no. Tonight, I was a human, dancing with hundreds of other humans, to song after song after song, for what seemed like a lifetime, happy and alive and free, and there was this girl, this pretty, lovely girl, who had helped me up and took my hand and she was so pretty—
The floor lurched beneath me and I stumbled. My new legs flew out from under me and I landed with a thud on my backside. A few jeers spiked through the crowd, and I felt my skin grow hotter. It was unpleasant, for more than one reason. Charlotte and Hannah helped me to my feet. I fell into Charlotte's arms. My arms locked around her shoulders. Her skin was like fire beneath mine, and her breath was warm and dry in my face. She was looking right at me, and her lips parted.
'WATCH OUT' yelled Hannah, pointing to the dance floor. Part of it was spinning; men pulled their shrieking girlfriends onto it, and stumbled off again, dizzy.
'HEY, WANNA DRINK?' bellowed Charlotte, miming a glass. I could barely hear my own thoughts, let alone her voice, so I nodded and she led the way. I was dazzled by the lights, but felt her hand slide into mine to pull me along, wherever she wished to take me.
It was only then that I realised how dry my throat was.
'WHAT YOU HAVING?'
Charlotte, in my ear. I pulled gently on her hand until her ear was level with my mouth.
'WHA?! NAH, MAN. SHE'LL HAVE A BACARDI.'
I cradled the bottle in my hands nervously as Hannah shouted conversation at me.
'SO WHAT DO YOU DO?'
She sucked on the neck of the bottle in her hand as she waited for her answer. My head was so full of bass, I couldn't think of a clever lie.
'SWIM,' I shouted happily.
'HEY! THAT'S WEIRD, COZ—'
I didn't hear the rest. Bravery suddenly overtook me, and I tipped the bottle back, letting the liquid inside pour into my mouth, as I'd seen the others do. Instantly, my throat was on fire. I gagged, resisted the urge to spit the horrible stuff over the nearest dancer, swallowed hard. As I opened my eyes, ready to joke about how Morgan the Southerner made a fool of herself again, I saw Charlotte violently shrug off Hannah's embrace and storm off, her face contorted with tears. What in all the seas could have happened in the time it took me to choke on some foul drink?
The music was building again, with full force. The crowd of bodies cheered and danced with a new energy – clearly, this song was a favourite. This was the highlight of the night. The moment I'd never forget, as I served Mother for the rest of my long life.
I followed Charlotte.
I came up onto the deck of the ship, and I could see Charlotte a few metres off, bent over the railing, wiping her eyes on a crumpled tissue pulled from her clutch bag. I shivered from the sudden chill of the air on my skin. My legs ached. Charlotte started as I leaned on the railing beside her. Her face was almost wiped clean of makeup – but she was still a tropical fish to me. Exotic, fragile, and beautiful. She didn't look at me as she spoke, but talked down, into the waves.
'Emily said she wasn't gonna come. She said. And she brought her new tart along with her, too. That horrible, nasty little cow. Fucking ruining my first night out with the lasses in months!'
Charlotte hugged herself tightly.
'You know what, she's not even worth it. She was never worth it, I know that now. But...y'know...three years is a long time...and it's lonely.'
She looked up and laughed; a bitter snort.
'Look at me, man. Crying my eyes out in front of some stranger. I'll have cried all my makeup off, I bet I look like...'
I didn't trust myself to speak. I just took her hand.
Charlotte looked at me for a long moment. Her eyes were the colour of seawater; cool, clean and fresh. I'd never noticed before. I took a step closer. Without her lipstick, her mouth looked so soft. Her breath was on my cheek. She slid her arm around my waist. I let my eyes slip shut.
My legs gave way underneath me. I buckled, hitting the floor with a cry. My jaw struck the deck, and my vision blurred with the pain.
Everything tilted, as if I was back on the spinning dance floor. There was a slimy, sickly, cold feeling, heading from my toes (Oh, my gorgeous silver heels, how I'd miss them) over my skin to the bones of my hips. I could hear my joints grinding as my legs fused back together, that shimmering, scaly skirt stretching down over my knees, smashing my ankles together, binding them, something cold and slippery snaking around me...
The last thing I saw as I was dragged between the railings was the ship's clock as it struck midnight. My time as a human was over.
I hit the water with a force that knocked the last of the air from my lungs. My hands beat at the water, but to no avail. I closed my eyes as the lights from the ship blinked through the foam above me, slowly fading away. The Tyne welcomed me back. But I wasn't to stay there long; Somewhere in the balmy ocean, Mother was waiting. I'd be her handmaiden and her flatterer again, and there'd be no cold Northern Sea to escape to. But at least I'd danced. I'd been among them and their music and their lights, and I'd been happy. I'd met Charlotte.
At least I had that.
Something pinched my nose tight. Something else – something soft and hard and warm - covered my mouth, forcing air back into me.
'Morgan, man, don't you dare do this to me! This was meant! To be! A fun! Night! Out!'
I spluttered, gasping air in gulps. I could feel concrete beneath my head. I reared up. Everything went blurry. I lay back down. I could hear Amy yelling at someone to let her through, that's her fucking friend, the fucking hero of the hour. A face swam into focus; Charlotte. She was soaked. Water dripped from her hair onto my lips. I opened my mouth in a smile, let the drops slide onto my tongue. She grinned, shakily, letting her breath out in a loud whoosh of a laugh.
Unless you find True Love's Kiss, of course.
'Don't try and drown on a lifeguard's night out, pet.'
Soon, people were asking me all sorts of questions I couldn't answer, and bundling me into a thing called an ambulance. They took me to a building, a hospital – away from the ship, and the Tyne, and even further from the ocean.
But Charlotte held my hand through it all. And there'd be time enough to go dancing again.
I was sure of it.