On the bus, Matthew made a list of his favourite words. He filled a page of his notebook and read them back to himself in silence: icy, switch, subaqueous, brood, celestial, lucid, redolent. He had assumed he would find this comforting, but once taken out of context, each word seemed hollow and meaningless; they seemed to float aimlessly around the paper. Sighing, he put his notebook back in his bag and turned his attention to the window.
The trip from St Ives to Zennor was much prettier than he had imagined. There were low hills covered in wild heather and yellow gorse bushes, and somewhere between them, the wind was lashing the sea into foaming waves. He soon saw a sign for Zennor, a tiny village built on the surrounding slopes. The thatched cottages were all made of rough grey stone, and they each stood in a star-like pattern around a church with a tall watchtower. Matthew looked up at it admiringly. It was a rugged building, designed to withstand the extreme weather, and in the graveyard, he could see a few gravestones spotted with green and orange lichen. He pushed the button, waited for the bus to stop and then stepped out onto the road.
After checking his watch, he realised he was fifteen minutes early for his appointment. He wondered if he had time to hike up to Zennor Head, a long promontory he had heard about from the receptionist of his hotel, but when he walked towards the church, he found the vicar already waiting for him, smiling coolly from the doorway. As Matthew approached, he could see that Father Bevy was nothing at all like he had pictured. He was a tall, sharp, austere-looking man, with darkly flashing eyes and two enormous silver eyebrows. His body was hidden almost entirely beneath his vestments, and a gold cross hung about his neck, shining as brightly as a mirror. His hands were covered in rings – yellow, blue and blood-red.
“You must be Matthew,” he said, his voice an unexpected baritone. “This is the Church of Saint Senara. You’re very welcome here. Come in, you must be tired.”
He led Matthew into the church, a cold, stone building with a vaulted roof and a parquet floor. The walls, made of the same grey brick as the exterior, made it look both weathered and ancient; he felt he was entering a sort of cave. Besides the door, a small wooden chair had been nailed to the flagstones. The seat was embroidered with five tessellating fish, and the arms had been carved into the shape of a mermaid, rising naked from the sea.
“I see you’ve spotted our Mermaid Chair,” said Father Bevy, stroking the wood with withered hands. “It’s become something of a tourist attraction in these parts.”
“It’s beautiful,” Matthew replied. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“No, I don’t suppose you have. It was made sometime in the fifteenth century to honour Saint Senara, who floated to Zennor in a barrel. It’s the only one of its kind.”
Matthew inspected the chair but wasn’t sure what he was looking at.
“Fascinating,” he said. “It’s unusual to see a mermaid inside a Christian church. But did the chair inspire the myth, or did the myth inspire the chair?”
Father Bevy had clearly been waiting for such a question. He looked down at the mermaid and ran his hands over the bas-relief, feeling the texture of her hair, the slight curvature of her shoulders. When he spoke, his voice sounded faint and faraway.
“It was actually inspired by another local legend. It was once believed that a young boy was stolen away from this church by a mermaid many years ago. She was one of the daughters of Llyr, the king of the sea. Some say you can still hear them singing down at Morvah.”
Matthew nodded, not quite knowing how to change the subject. Father Bevy was clearly very proud of the old chair, and Matthew didn’t want to offend him by seeming disinterested. He wished Annie had been with him; she always seemed to know just what to say.
“It was very good of you to reply to my letter,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound disingenuous. “I know it’s unorthodox, and that it’s a sensitive subject for the –”
“Yes, yes,” said Father Bevy. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve got?”
Matthew reached into his bag and pulled out a jumble of loose papers. He thanked him again for offering to help with his dissertation, explaining that he had chosen to write about the recent disappearances. Flicking through photocopies of newspaper articles, he told him that he knew the boys were all young, between fifteen and twenty-five, and that all of them lived within a five-mile radius. Apart from that, there were no obvious connections.
“I see,” said Father Bevy. “Well, that isn’t much to go on.”
“No, I know, but since the police haven’t made any progress, I thought I’d come down and look around. It’s unlikely, but maybe there’s something that they’ve missed.”
Father Bevy stiffened. “A little presumptuous of you, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but that won’t matter if I manage to find something important.”
“No. No, I suppose not.”
There was a long silence in which neither of them seemed to know what to say. As Father Bevy flicked through the documents, it occurred to Matthew that his face resembled an animal; there was a rodentlike quality to his eyes, nose and mouth. After a moment, he handed the papers back to Matthew and then turned away, walking slowly towards the chancel.
“There is something you’ve missed,” he said. His voice sounded dreamy, almost musical. “All the boys attended this church, and they sang in the choir on Sundays too.”
Matthew was stunned. “I didn’t know that.”
“No. No, I can see that you did not.”
“They didn’t mention it in any of the papers.”
Father Bevy shrugged. “I hardly think it makes much difference.”
“Well, it’s still a connection. You knew all of the boys who disappeared?”
“And what were they like, these boys? Were they happy? Well-adjusted?”
“Is any boy at that age?”
“But were they close to their families? I’m sure you’ve already said all this to the police, but even the smallest piece of information can be helpful. If they knew each other, was it possible they had planned to run away? Were they friends?”
Father Bevy turned around. His face was dismissive, amused.
“I’m sure it’s all perfectly innocent,” he said, straightening the cross around his neck. “These things have a way of working themselves out.”
“Maybe so, but four boys have disappeared, Father, and the police don’t have the slightest clue about what’s happened to them. If I can help, if I can find something that…”
Matthew’s voice trailed off into silence. He could already see that Father Bevy was in complete denial about the situation, and his hopes of finding a lead began to diminish before his eyes. Still, he had told him that the boys had all attended the church, and though it wasn’t much to go on, it was still more information than he had an hour ago.
After collecting his things, Matthew thanked him again for all his help, and after shaking his hand, turned around and left the church. He only looked back when he had reached the main road, but there was no sign of Father Bevy at the doors or windows; the place looked utterly deserted. With a sigh, he folded his notes and shoved them back into his rucksack, making his way towards the bus stop. When he turned on his phone to check the time, he saw he had a new message from Annie. He read it without breathing. It said –
“I’m serious. You can’t keep doing this to me, Matt. It’s not good for either of us. I’d prefer it if you didn’t contact me again. It’s over. Annie. xx”
Matthew felt sick. He was alone in Cornwall with no friends and no leads, and he was starting to question why he had wanted to come here in the first place. He thought about hiking up to Zennor Head, but he would have to walk past the church again, and he couldn’t face the thought of Father Bevy watching suspiciously from the window. Instead, he decided to go back to the hotel. As he walked down the road, he tried to smoke a cigarette, but it was too windy for him to light one. Coughing, he watched the sparks blow away on the wind.
Whilst having a nap in his hotel room, Matthew dreamt that the Mermaid Chair came to life. As Father Bevy watched from the apse, the mermaid slithered towards him, crawling along on her hands, dragging the weight of her tail behind her. Matthew found her beautiful at first, but as the sun streamed in through the windows, he saw that her eyes were blank and dead, and that her flaked, grey mouth possessed innumerable rows of teeth. She crawled closer and closer towards him, her fingers scrabbling at the parquet floor until she was close enough to touch him. She coughed up grey slime; she screamed; and Matthew woke up drenched in sweat.
He got up and tried to shake the dream from his memory, but as he did so, he became convinced that the mermaid had looked almost exactly like Annie. Something about this image disturbed him, but when he tried to remember what Annie looked like, he saw that her skin was mottled with scales; her teeth were sharp and both her eyes were as black as stones.
Although it was only a little after six o’clock, it was already dark outside; he could hear the wind howling against the hotel roof. He sat down at the desk, trying to avoid feeling that the trip had been a waste of time. He took his papers from his bag and spread them all across the table, laying them out in a vague chronology. He glanced at them without blinking, skimming paragraphs he practically knew by heart, but before long, he was reading back through his old messages to Annie, scrolling back to the night they had met, to the night they had first slept together. Gradually, so gradually he had barely noticed, she had grown colder after that; her messages became short, monosyllabic, and she would often wait days before replying. They had only known each other for six weeks, but Matthew was convinced he was in love with her. He wondered, in secret, if she’d known he had been a virgin.
With a sudden shake of the head, he decided to go and have dinner in one of the pubs down by the harbour. He could take his notes with him and still get some of his work done, but he would be out of the house, and surely that was better than sitting inside for the rest of the night. Besides, he had barely started his dissertation. So, after collecting his notes, he made his way down to the seafront, stopping only to watch the waves crash into the harbour wall. The sea was so black it possessed no discernible shape; he had no idea where the horizon was, or what was sea and merely sky. When he turned his back on the town, he felt he was the only person left alive; that everyone else he knew was dead. This thought excited and terrified him in equal measures, and he walked to the pub as quickly as he could to avoid confronting it. He could not or would not imagine a world in which Annie was no longer alive.
The first pub he came to was an old-fashioned establishment, stuccoed white and overlooking a small, cobbled forecourt. The light inside was soft and warm, but when he looked up at the board above the door, he saw that was it was called The Mermaid’s Purse. The name reminded him of his dream, of the chair at Saint Senara’s, so he carried on and entered the next pub he could see, a rather dilapidated building called The Bitterest Regret.
The pub – which smelled of damp, mould, and dry-rot – was already at full capacity, so he sat at the bar and waited for a table to become available. He reached into his bag and plucked out a leaflet he had found at the hotel reception, outlining some basic Cornish folklore. He was reading about the origins of the Mermaid Chair when a voice beside him said –
“Oh, I went and saw that yesterday. I’ve always had a thing about mermaids.”
He looked up and saw that a girl was sitting next to him. With her long, dark hair and luminous eyes, Matthew thought that she was beautiful – except for the fact that she was wearing slightly too much foundation, giving her skin a scaly texture. For some reason, it was this that attracted him to her. Stammering, he asked for her name.
“I’m Ashley,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I’m on holiday with my parents, but just between you and me, I’ve been trying to get away from them all day. They aren’t half boring. All they want to do is look around the museums.”
“Oh,” said Matthew. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, it’s not your fault, is it? So, you’re into mermaids, huh?”
Matthew looked down at the leaflet. “Oh, this? No, not really. I’m writing my dissertation on all the boys who’ve been disappearing from Zennor. I went to the church there, the one with all the mermaids, but I didn’t find anything useful.”
Ashley nodded gravely. “Oh, yeah. I saw that on the news. It’s awful, isn’t it?”
Matthew smiled awkwardly, annoyed at himself for bringing up such a serious thing so early in the conversation. He thought he should take a step backwards.
“So, you like mermaids then?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah. Who doesn’t? If I was a mermaid, I’d be so beautiful I would just sit on a rock all day combing my hair, waving to all the fishermen on their boats.”
Matthew wanted to tell her that she was beautiful, but instead he only laughed.
As they continued talking, a barman came over and told them there was now a free table. Matthew gestured to Ashley, but she looked at him, smiled, and asked him if he’d like to keep her company. Matthew was stunned. He wanted to decline before she discovered how boring he really was, but he merely nodded, allowing himself to be led over to a table in the corner of the room. They sat down in silence, then Ashley ordered them a bottle of wine.
“So, what did you think of the Mermaid Chair?” she asked him.
“It was very pretty, but I still don’t understand why it’s so important.”
“Didn’t you read about the mermaid who stole that boy away?”
Matthew looked up at her. He wanted to talk about something else, about anything else, but he didn’t know how to steer the conversation away from his work.
“Maybe mermaids really exist,” she continued, taking a sip of her wine. “Maybe they’re the ones who’ve been abducting these boys. I mean, stranger things have happened.”
“Sure. And besides, nobody seems to have a better explanation.”
Matthew smiled at her consolingly. Ashley was a nice person, but it was obvious that she wasn’t very intelligent, that she was a simple girl at heart. He didn’t know if he should correct her or just agree with her politely, so he simply shrugged and allowed her to carry on talking about mermaids. He realised he had already finished his glass of wine.
As she spoke, Matthew looked down at her neck, at the white skin above her breasts. He had failed to notice how much he was craving some physical contact.
“Listen,” he said, cutting her off mid-sentence. “My hotel’s just around the corner. Why don’t you come back with me? You can stay the night if you want.”
In a second, Ashley’s face seemed to undergo an alchemical change. Her cheeks turned blotchy and red, and her mouth transformed into a tight, thin line. For a moment, both of them were silent. Matthew thought she might reach out and slap him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sighing. “It’s just that –”
“Oh, save it,” she said, reaching for her purse. “I should have known there was a reason you were being so nice to me.”
She stood up suddenly, throwing some cash down on the table. Matthew’s head span. He couldn’t believe what he had just said.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve just broken up with my girlfriend, and when you started talking to me, I thought that maybe you wanted… I mean…”
Ashley scoffed. “You men only think about one thing.”
“No, we don’t. I’m sorry, I just…”
“And stop saying that! You think you can make up for everything by apologising. You might seem shy and polite but you’re no different from the rest of them. In fact, you’re worse, because you pretended to be interested in what I had to say.”
With that, she grabbed her coat and stormed away from him, knocking into a waitress on her way to the door. Matthew felt he should go after her but didn’t want to cause a scene; people were already looking over at him, whispering, trying to guess what was going on. He waited for a few minutes, looking calmly at the wall as if nothing had happened, then, after paying for his share of the wine, put on his coat and left the pub.
By the time he had reached the harbour, Ashley was nowhere to be seen. He replayed the conversation in his head, cringing at the way he had spoken to her, at how casually he had asked her to sleep with him. He knew that what he had said was wrong, but he also found himself becoming uncharacteristically angry. To him, women were complex and unknowable; they seemed to understand so much more of the world than he did; and, as a result, left him feeling like a little boy – lost, confused, unable to express himself. As such, he often found his intentions being misinterpreted. He was never sure he was doing the right thing.
He wandered alongside the harbour, looking out at the sea, at the waves pounding against the beach. He wanted to drown in it, to be dragged down into its depths; but, as the thought crossed his mind, he saw something move by the harbour wall, a few hundred metres out to sea. Matthew moved a little closer. Nothing stirred for a long time, and he began to think he had imagined it, but then he saw it again, a few metres nearer to the shore. In the moonlight, it looked white or silver, as big as a person at least, and though he couldn’t be sure, it seemed to be swimming towards the beach, directly towards where he was standing.
Shivering, Matthew thought it was a seal.
The next morning, Matthew’s body was found at low tide. He was stretched out on the beach completely naked, seaweed wrapped around his legs like rope. The police declared it to be a suicide and decided that no further investigation was needed – even though a series of bitemarks on his left shoulder could not be easily identified. The coroner, however, was less convinced by this theory, largely because his genitals had also been removed, leaving a huge jagged gash across the lower half of his body. After inspecting this wound for some time, he concluded that his penis had been bitten off by an animal, but the configuration of teeth marks was unlike any he had seen. He filed a report but heard nothing from the police.
The local newspaper ran a story about Matthew every day that week, suggesting that he had killed himself after being affected by his work on the missing boys. There was no mention of the teeth marks in any of these articles, and the removal of his penis had also been carefully avoided. One reporter was given permission to go through Matthew’s notes, and soon discovered that he had talked to Father Bevy on the day of his death. Realising that he had known all of the missing boys, she quickly arranged a meeting with him, hoping to print an interview about his conversation with Matthew. She travelled to Zennor and met him inside Saint Senara’s, but Father Bevy was cold and obtuse, wishing only to speak about the Mermaid Chair that he was in the process of cleaning. When she asked him what they had spoken about, he claimed he couldn’t remember. She left feeling tired and frustrated.
A few weeks later, the Zennor Chronicle acquired a series of photographs from the coroner’s office. They had hoped to print some of the less graphic images in the weekend edition, supposing that somebody reading might be able to shed some light on what had happened to him. They artfully cropped the photo of the teeth marks on his left shoulder, and also included an extreme close-up of his belly button, showing only a tiny fraction of the wound that ran down to his perineum. But the last photo disturbed them more than any of the others they had seen, even more than those of his body torn practically in half. In this photo, a close-up of his bloated, blue-tinged face, they saw that his expression was one of ecstasy.
This photo was never printed. Everyone in Zennor soon forgot him.