A shrunken and dried-out mermaid (from “Fiji Mermaid” Photo © Russell Richards, from AmusingTheZillion blog)
MERMAID IN THE BATHROOM
Never tell a kid they’re being silly. My daughter told me this, adding that if I told her she was being silly, then it might be me who looked that way in the end. She was four at the time, and in a land which didn’t know tiredness.
My mum used to tell me I was “overtired” most weekends, when I was allowed to stay up later than on schooldays. I’d milk those extra couple of hours, hiding my yawns behind the hood of my dressing gown until I caught my second wind. When you’re gliding on that bonus bogus gust, you really don’t want to come down. But your wings aren’t your own; you’re someone else’s responsibility, and the strings aren’t those you use to puppeteer your parents, they’re kite strings. If only life were still so simple.
Back when the youngest was four, her older brother was seven, and they’d choose which story they’d like read to them before bed, usually the longest they could find on the contents page of an anthology. Eventually we ran out, so I started writing bedtime tales of my own, which gave me editorial control over the duration of any night’s literary theatre. Matinees were a different matter, because a story in the afternoon for one so young and adventurous would only be told when the explorer had been laid low by an injury, a cold or a pox.
The youngest used to call matinees ‘manatees’: sea cows, supposedly mistaken for mermaids by ancient mariners (probably high on rum). The little one was keen to point out the manatees’ accolade among the animal kingdom as the most spherical animal on earth (which they are).
Always hoping to be the harbinger of dreams, not nightmares, I’d write stories appropriate to the audience, but there’s no accounting for imagination, especially in a child with a wild mind.
After bedtime, my youngest one announced that she’d seen a manatee down the toilet and she couldn’t pee. Like any dismissive parent, I replied that she was just imagining it, if she needed a pee that badly, she’d go, I’d sort it out, and to go back to bed. She protested that the manatee needed rescuing.
When they get up and tell you there’s something troubling them, don’t dismiss them. That might be the only chance they’ve had that day to think about certain things, and if you’re the nearest person, they’re going to want to talk to you. However much it might sound like nonsense, there could be something in there (it’s like dream-interpretation without so much bullshit). Send them straight back to bed and whatever is on their mind will fester and mutate. Tell them they’re just being silly, and they’ll never confide in you again. There was a manatee in the toilet.
I remember teasing girls at primary school, telling them their reflection was a devil in the toilet water (I made one wet herself). I used to throw my sister’s things on the fire. I was fascinated by the flames and what they did, especially the way a doll’s face melted. I didn’t have an open fire like my parents, so I wondered if my eldest might have taken to flushing his sister’s toys down the lav.
I lifted the lid and only my own face looked back. I flushed myself away in any case, and we watched from an angle as nothing but bubbles came round the U-bend. “Someone’s breathing,” she said. I told her not to be silly. “You’re silly. You’ll see.” Then off to bed she packed.
Next to wake her was a monster in the cupboard. Again I guided her back to bed, but only after we’d inspected the wardrobe. Like most, it had clothes hanging in a line, like so many days of the week. I was asked to leave the stage door open, in case someone should wish to swish through my old suits, the curtains leading from Narnia.
There was only a ghost under the bed to deal with, then all was quiet for a couple of hours, so I decided to have some supper: not a pretentious name for dinner but the last meal of the day, this being a grilled haddock with some extra bits which look good on Instagram (I always take before and after shots, as the latter reminds the kids of cartoons: a fish skeleton with just the tail intact).
The night passed without incident, and fortunately my bladder roused me to flush the toilet again before anyone else got up and had nightmares. The fish tail went first time, a skeleton swimming in the sewer.
I was surprised at how calmly the kids told me there was a fish in the toilet the next day, as though this was an everyday event. In no particular hurry to get to the bathroom, I explained that I’d been silly the night before and flushed the remains of my supper. “But it’s moving,” the youngest said. The eldest lifted the lid, and all three of us peered over the rim into avocado cave.
There was indeed a tail, once belonging to a fish. And it was moving, as they’d said. I assumed it was the movement of the water in the bowl. I flushed the toilet, the water level rose almost to the brim, then quickly dropped, signing off with the kind of sucking noise you’d hear in an airliner toilet. The tail was still there as the water rose again around it, and it was still flapping. “Well, as long as it’s breathing,” I joked, and closed the lid. “I’ll chuck some bleach down.”
“You can’t do that.”
“You’ll kill it.”
“But it is a cartoon fish skeleton.”
“But it could be a mermaid.”
Nope. Let’s have me being the silly one for once. Let’s have me pulling this fish skeleton out, and posing with it like either Tom or Top Cat for them on their mobiles and social media.
I flushed once more before lifting the lid, only to have my hopes dashed when I did. The bowl was full and the tail was still poking out of the U-bend. It was still moving, but only slightly. “What’s obviously happened,” I said, “is it’s got stuck behind something else that’s blocking the toilet. Did either of you have a Sinead in the nigh?” (A ‘Sinead’ is our code for ‘before you go on stage, do you need a big poo?’). Neither had.
“It’s a mermaid,” the little one said, “and it’s drowning.”
“Don’t,” I paused, “rule it out.”
Like Ewan McGregor in a twisted version of The Little Mermaid, I thrust my hand down the toilet and tugged.
There was squelching and noxious bubbles, movement in my hand, then a sudden emptying of the Hoover dam as I lifted the fish tail out.
I used to write my kids bedtime stories and trust their imaginations not to have nightmares. I wouldn’t want to be in a child’s nightmare. That’s the kind of place where things can fester, like a fish tail in the toilet, actively refusing the liberation of the sewers.
In that world, the tail is indeed that of a mermaid. On first sight, it’s the tail of a fish swum into the body of a child’s doll: small, pink and wrinkled from sewage erosion, the arms contorted from entrapment in the drainage pipes. You’re about to pull the fish from the doll when the arms start to move. You imagine the crack of the skull on the porcelain toilet pan if you’re to put it out of its miserable life. Then it cries.
“It can’t breathe,” the little one says.
I’m not sure if what’s in kids’ imaginations is real, or if us dismissing it makes it real. “Can we keep it?”
So now I’ve got this puss-ridden thing, bloating about in an aquarium. It’s hardly a talking point, so it’s a feature in the airing cupboard, only coming out when the kids come to stay. Their mum wouldn’t let them have pets.
I sleep with the lights on, only in case that fucking thing gets out. Who looks stupid now?
© Steve Laker, 2018.