When we found the mermaid hiding in the observatory, Mary was the first to offer her a place to stay, but as she was an insufferable busybody we politely declined her offer. Instead Lord Green was persuaded to give up his pool house and the generous splash pool attached—we thought that this was only right since, as mayor, he had closed the town’s only public pool, saying it was too expensive to run.
Why the observatory? We asked her finally, after a care rota had been drawn up and a large wheelbarrow procured for her transport. I wanted to look at the stars, she replied in a voice gummy like glue. We thought that was a beautiful reason. She sighed and looked to the ceiling and we fell in love.
We started asking the mermaid questions on our visits to the pool house, spilling secrets before her tailfin as she lounged on the wicker furniture. We got used to ignoring her rotting smell, the phlegmy sound of her voice, the filminess of her eyes. The fact that she never gave straight answers, just half-hearted astrological platitudes.
So when we found her frolicking with a naked Lord Green in his pool, warbling a song like a dog’s bark and gnawing on his neck, we turned against her.
This wouldn’t have happened if she had stayed with me, Mary said at our town meeting, but we ignored her. The mermaid was lounging in her wheelbarrow, flicking her scabbed tongue at us. Lord Green was sitting next to her, hand rasping over the scales of her hipbone, his eyes dead and roving in their sockets. We didn’t think it was right for her to bewitch him, even if he was a pompous fool. We wondered whether things would have been different if we had discovered her in a less poetic location, whether we would have been less inclined to idolize her.
After a vote, won by two hundred to two, the mermaid was given an anti-social behavior order, tied up in the back of a pick-up truck, and driven fifty miles to the coast. If she got up to more mischief, some other town could deal with her.
Lord Green did not recover his faculties and a new mayor was voted in. She allocated public funds in a fairer way and reopened the public swimming pool with a gala event. But we didn’t want to swim there—we were too embarrassed—so it was closed again.
Instead we took to visiting the observatory, listening to the astronomers talk about black holes and quasars; lined up to press our eye sockets in the telescope lens to look at the stars. We handled meteorites that left the smell of rust on our skin and stared at star chart posters for hours, trying to find the right sun amongst a field of them.
Our children got bored of waiting at the observatory and would play The Mermaid Game in the parking lot to pass the time. They had never been allowed to see the mermaid because we did not think it appropriate, but they had heard of her. A few had claimed to see her shuffling across Lord Green’s lawn in a trail of slime, or gorging on the fat koi fish from his pond. Tell me your secrets! the child playing the mermaid would scream, then chase the others around, trying to slap as many foreheads as possible. We would drive away from the observatory, the pupils of our eyes large with galaxies, our children red-faced and teary in the backseat.