I don’t remember ever having a mother. I must have noticed other kids had them, though, because I do remember asking my grandmother about mine. Gran was stirring rhubarb on the range: I stood thigh-high, looking up. “She was a whore,” Gran said, which didn’t really explain anything, but was enough to shut me up. I went away bemused and thoughtful, and even now I can’t disentangle the word “whore” from the smell of rhubarb and the view up Gran’s sooty nostrils. A whore: sugared, smutty, not-to-be-mentioned-again.
My Da was more forthcoming, less reliable. One afternoon by the river, when Da was sitting on the shilloe bank with the sun on the bald patch on the back of his head, I sat down on the top ferrystep and kicked my heels and asked him about my mother. It must’ve been after I’d asked Gran, because it was bothering me more by then, like a brushed-away wasp. Da was mending a bit of rope, a cigarette squeezed flat between his lips.
“We met when I was at sea,” he said, watching his fingers. “She was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen. Just lovely.”
The rope turned and coiled as he tweaked at the frayed ends.
“She asked me to stay out there, with her people. I couldn’t, not and leave your Gran all by herself, so we came back here. I thought she’d settle down, but she couldn’t stay.”
The straggling threads came together in his hands.
“She had to go back to her own people.”
He held up the rope, tidy, finished, and glanced round at me.
“She was a mermaid, you see. Gave up her tail for me.”
Even at that age, small enough to swing my sandalled feet over the ferrysteps—can’t tell you what age I was, though: I was never told, and I’ve never had a birthday in my life—even at that age I caught a whiff of fantasy. My father the ferryman, determinedly repairing and rejoining, thought that he could make things ship-shape for me, but I wasn’t sure I could believe him. It just seemed too tidy to be true.
I, however, will tell you the truth, in all its untidiness, to the best of my ability and recollection: I promise you that much. Unfortunately, I can make no promises about either my ability or recollection. My memory isn’t perfect; I know myself to be a partial, limited and uncertain thing; and I can’t help but see, cast over every event, the shadow of what happened next. Things look different in that shadow.
So I may well get things wrong, but I won’t ever lie to you. How could I?
The day the circus came I was at school, at my usual seat on Miss Woodend’s dresser, with my back arched away from her willow-pattern plates and my eyes fixed firmly on my slate. I was conscious of the Clay twins perched on a bench beneath my feet, and of the Metcalfe boys, all four of them, squeezed into the settle opposite. Only half an hour or so before they had shoved me up against the schoolhouse wall and tried to pull down my shorts.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“What kind of name is that, ‘Malin’?”
“I think she’s a boy.”
“There’s only one way to tell.”
I was small for my age, or rather small compared with the other children. I didn’t stand a chance in a stand-up fight. So I kicked the oldest in the bollocks, bit the second one on the hand, ducked between the other two and was away. I went and stood at the schoolroom door, where they wouldn’t dare tackle me again.
There was no point in telling Miss Woodend. It wasn’t so much that the others could do no wrong, more that I could never, as far as she was concerned, be in the right. When she found me waiting at the door before the start of lessons, she didn’t praise my punctuality or say that I seemed keen to learn, she just eyed me suspiciously and let me in. I was there under sufferance, I knew it. At best, I was tolerated.
I didn’t have friends. Because I didn’t have a mother, and my father was the ferryman (he was considered only one step up from the lad who scared the crows and docked puppies’ tails with his teeth), the other children said that I was dirty, that if I touched them they’d get gibs. Not that I wanted to touch them. I didn’t want to go anywhere near them: bunch of lard-headed inbred mouth-breathers.
Usually when they saw me, they’d just squeal and run away from me, even though I’d never even considered chasing them; but from time to time they’d round on me to inflict some form of pain or humiliation, though it was rare that they came up with anything as imaginative or enquiring as pulling down my shorts. I’ve had far more than my fair share of Chinese burns in my time.
Sometimes, as I was sitting on Miss Woodend’s dresser, I would reach down the toe of my sandal and stroke it along one of the Clay twins’ poker-partings. It was discreet, easily done and extremely satisfying. The girl would squirm in silent horror, unable to protest, because, as we both knew, the moment that she opened her mouth Miss Woodend would be on to her. Miss Woodend was a precise and powerful chalk-thrower: crimes such as speaking, smiling, sneezing, coughing, sniffing, looking-around, wriggling, and, on one occasion, breathing-too-loudly, were punished, almost before they could be committed, by a sudden blow from a scrap of chalk.
The school’s regime had its benefits, though. Condemned to stare for hours at a time at the plodding letters on my slate, my peripheral vision became extremely well developed. Being able to look all round me without moving my head has come in handy now and then, though at the time it was of limited use. I had no interest in my classmates, or in the schoolroom, or in the muddy green outside the window. There was only one thing there that I wanted to look at. The schoolroom map, framed and glazed and nailed to the wall above the Metcalfes’ settle. It seemed to me the most fascinating object in the world, and I never got the chance to stare at it straight. In the corner of my eye I could just make out the barest outlines: a squarish landmass circled by green seas, a scooped-out central lake. An island country, washed by waves. One day, I told myself, I would hop down from my seat, scramble up the Metcalfe boys and stand on their shoulders to get a good clear look. Peppered with chalk-fire, I’d find the dot that marked out home, I’d pick out the pathways, the roads and the trackways my mother would have taken. I’d trace the way away from here.
Miss Woodend, invisible against the window’s glare, creaked. I kept my eyes down, my toes to myself. I copied, my chalk grating on the slate: Jj Kk Ll Mm
because when Miss Woodend creaked, she was leaning right back in her rocking chair, perching on the tips of its runners, a bit of chalk in her hand, waiting for the next glancer-upper. Target sighted, she would fling the chair forward as she threw the chalk. Weighted with the full force of Miss Woodend’s momentum, it would sting worse than ever, worse than a wasp sting on your cheek or your calf or the tip of your ear.
Which was why, when we first heard the music, no one moved a muscle.
To be fair, it wasn’t really music at first, just the faint clatter of bells that could well have been the Robinsons’ goats frisking on the green, shaking their stinky mad heads. So I sat, back arched, and continued Nn Oo Pp
in my best copperplate. Which was, by then, very good indeed, because writing out the alphabet, our names, and the numbers one to ten were the only exercises Miss Woodend had ever given us. By the time I left, I could barely count, I could write my name, and I could read a little, if the words weren’t too long or unfamiliar. That was about it.
But it couldn’t really be the Robinsons’ goats frisking. Tethered on over-cropped turf, they strained all day against their chains, hooves dug into the mud, yellow eyes bulging for a bite of hawthorn, cow-parsley or my coat. They couldn’t frisk. They could barely move. Once when I’d been taunting the old billy with a bit of dock, he’d unexpectedly ripped up his stake. I’d scuttled off, swarmed up the wall, but when I looked back, he’d just keeled over on to his chest, chin stretched out on the mud, and was munching on the dockleaf that I’d dropped.
So it couldn’t be the goats. It didn’t even sound like it any more. There was a fiddle in there, I could tell that now, and something else that sounded rich and sharp, like blackcurrants; like wine, I would’ve thought, if I’d ever tasted wine. It was nothing like the music we had in church, Gran’s cold hand clamped around mine as we held the small black hymn book and droned on out-of-tune to the wheezing organ. This music brought water to your mouth; it tugged at you.
By now I could also hear other distinct sounds: creaks of strained rope, shouted warnings, a dog’s excited bark. The slate now lay flat on my lap, my eyes had climbed towards the window. Dark against the glare, Miss Woodend creaked, stood up. The Metcalfe boys clambered over each other to get out of the settle. The Clay twins bobbed up, knocking their heads against my feet.
The snort of heavy, burdened horses, the jingle of brasses, the smell of something I’d never smelt before, but know so well now that I can smell it again as I think of it, as if it’s permeated the membranes, stuck on to the hairs inside my nose, so that time and nose-blowing and probing fingers can’t dislodge it. The smell of cheap perfume and sweat on old sequins; the smell of camel dung, hair dye, sawdust, straw and sex. The smell of the circus.
Excerpted from The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2015 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.