The day started the same as a thousand and one others − with the sharp buzz of the alarm clock beside his bed, like the angry drone of a summer bee caught in a glass jar. It is not true that a bee will only sting you as a last resort, or that it can only sting you once.
He reached one arm out from the warmth he had nurtured through the night and squashed the buzzing insect quiet with a heavy palm. The day began.
He drew his exposed arm back into the warmth and pulled the covers tight about his neck. He was awake now, but would watch the minutes skip forward a few more steps before he stirred himself. Outside he could hear the sibilant rush of passing cars – the street was wet. Through a gap in the curtains, he could see the tears of last night’s rain on the window, silver trails set against a grey sky. He turned over in his bed so that his back was against the day.
He faced the door now. It was closed, the limp silhouette of his dressing gown hooked high up on the back. Below the door he could see a strip of yellow, a thin sliver of artificial sun. He must have left a light on somewhere in the house. The radiator in his room clicked and gurgled into life. It was pointless really; he would be gone to work before heat leaked into the room. He made a mental note to set the timer for earlier in the morning, though somewhere inside he knew he would do nothing to change the established pattern of his day.
He showered while the kettle boiled; he breakfasted on strong coffee and toast as he dressed. There was an order to everything. He checked his watch against the clock in the kitchen without thinking, checked the knot of his tie in the hall mirror, checked his pocket for keys, rubbed the toe of each shoe against the back of his trouser legs and stepped out into the day.
He crossed the street and took up his place in the bus stop queue. He checked his watch again and looked off up the street, following the searching gaze of other passengers-in-waiting.
‘Regular as clockwork,’ said a voice behind him.
He turned to face a woman. Her hair was wet and hung like tangled ribbons on either side of her face. She was wearing thick-framed glasses that gave her face a severity undermined by her smile and her bright yellow raincoat.
‘Sorry?’ he said.
‘I said regular as clockwork,’ she repeated.
He didn’t understand, didn’t know if he really wanted to. He turned back to face the oncoming traffic.
‘Punctual as ever and dressed for business. Sharp pressed suit with matching tie and shiny shoes,’ she said.
‘Sorry?’ he said again.
‘Do you always apologise when you haven’t done anything wrong?’ she said.
‘Is there a point to this?’ he said. ‘Something I can help you with, perhaps?’
‘Maybe we can help each other,’ she said. ‘If you like.’
‘If I like what?’
‘Me,’ she said.
He was caught off guard. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. She smiled up at him and nodded her head. Her hair fell across her cheeks.
‘In a court of law silence betokens consent, so let me introduce myself; today I am Bea – short for Beatrice, like in Dante and Beatrice, you know?’
‘No,’ he said.
‘Really? It’s a great story. You’ve heard of Dante, surely? He was a poet, hundreds of years ago, and one day he saw Beatrice in the street and fell under the spell of her beauty. His heart was captured. She did not return his love and died very young. Even after her death Dante wrote poems to her beauty and he never stopped loving her. That’s Beatrice. That’s me.’ She laughed.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘Yes, I know. It’s a bit weird. I think he was more in love with his poetry than with Beatrice; more in love with words. Still, it’s a great love story. Do you know that some cultures in the past have refused to believe in love?’
He didn’t know why she was talking to him. He looked for his bus. The street was empty. He looked back to Bea.
‘And some people think that love is an illness, a madness of sorts – truly, madly, deeply, with the emphasis on the mad. Do you know that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for the colour blue?’
‘That’s weird too, when you think about it. The sky and the sea, the eyes of Perseus and Andromeda meeting – and no word for blue. It doesn’t add up.’
A bus drew to a halt beside them.
‘This is me,’ she said pushing past him. ‘And if you were Dante, what colour are Beatrice’s eyes?’ she said.
Before he could reply she had stepped onto the bus and the doors had shut with a sigh. He watched the bus move away taking something of him away with it – though he did not know it yet.
Up above there was a break in the grey clouds through which, if he had looked, he would have seen a patch of blue sky.
He tried telling someone at work about her, tried to repeat something of what she had said. Her words had made no sense when she had spoken them, they made even less sense in the retelling.
‘Sounds mad to me,’ said one colleague.
‘Best forgotten about,’ said another.
He tried to follow their counsel, tried putting her from his mind; but Bea − short for Beatrice – would not be so easily banished. She infected his thoughts, like an illness. He heard her voice in his head – ‘a madness of sorts’ she said.
‘Am I supposed to be Dante?’ he said out loud.
‘What?’ said his secretary.
He apologised and bent his head over the document he was amending.
On the bus journey home, he looked for her yellow raincoat in the drab streets that he passed, looked for her wet tangled hair and thick-framed glasses. But mostly he looked for her smile.
The next morning his sleep was not broken as it always was by the hum of his alarm clock. He was already awake and thinking of her, though he wasn’t yet sure why. He reached across and hit the button on the clock. The room fell silent again, except that once more he replayed her conversation of the day before in his head.
He showered as the kettle boiled; drank strong coffee and ate buttered toast as he dressed. If the pattern of his day stayed the same, perhaps she would be there again, he thought. When he checked his watch against the kitchen clock he found that he was, unusually, ahead of time. He adjusted and readjusted his tie in the hall mirror, shifted his keys from one pocket to another and polished and re-polished the toes of his shoes on the backs of his trouser legs.
He could see before he crossed the road that she was not there and his spirits fell. He joined the queue as he always did and looked away up the street, hoping that this morning his bus might be late.
‘Regular as clockwork,’ said a voice behind him.
At first, he thought it was in his head, as it had been when he’d woken. He did not dare turn round. He waited, waited for her to speak again.
‘Punctual as ever − or so it seems,’ she said.
He turned to see her. She was different today, her hair held back from her face with a silver bobby pin. The coat she wore was different too, an orange three quarter length garment with a loose belt that she left unfastened. She wore the same glasses as before and he could see that her eyes were blue with sparks of amber caught in them.
‘Good morning, Bea,’ he said.
It was the first time he had said her name out loud, though he had practised it in his head. It felt strange, as though he was struggling to master a new word.
‘It’s not Bea,’ she said.
‘But yesterday you said…’
‘That was yesterday.’
He was confused. Just when he thought he understood, the ground beneath his feet shifted.
‘Well, if it’s not Bea, what is your name?’
‘What would you like it to be?’ she said.
He measured her smile, weighed her words carefully and found them wanting.
‘I don’t think I understand,’ he said.
‘Don’t you see? We can be whoever we want to be. Each day we can be someone new. Have you never wanted to be someone other than you are?’
‘Like in a game?’
‘Or a dream,’ she said.
‘I thought I was Dante, and Bea’s eyes were blue, flecked with tiny shards of amber.’
She smiled up at him. She understood.
‘Fishermen casting their nets into the Baltic waters find pieces of amber in their catch. They say they are the tears of a fishtailed mermaid who lies chained to a rock at the bottom of the blue sea,’ she told him.
‘Tears of a mermaid?’ he said.
‘Her hair like liquid gold, her body as white as pearl, her tail like spilled silver coins. She forever weeps for her earth-anchored lover.’
‘Is that me? Am I the earth-anchored lover?’ he said.
She shrugged her shoulders. Her hair was crimped, like ripples on sunlit water. Her hands were white and smooth. He watched her count a handful of silver for her bus.
‘In her element he would have drowned,’ she said. ‘She in his would have been a fish out of water.’
‘You’re good with words,’ he said.
The sky was blue above them, an unbroken upturned bowl of shimmering blue.
‘It’s what I do,’ she said.
‘Are you a writer? Is that it? A poet or something?’
‘I tell stories,’ she said, ‘stories to ensnare the hearts of men, just as a mermaid sings siren songs.’
Then she laughed.
‘Beware!’ she said. ‘Stuff up your ears with wax and bind your eyes with cloth. Get on home, Odysseus!’
‘No really,’ he said, ‘what do you do?’
‘Do you know that oranges did not arrive in Britain until sometime in the fourteenth century? “Orange” was a new word then, from the Arabic word naranj. I wonder what word they would have used for my coat if oranges had not made it here? What do you think?’
Her bus was suddenly there.
‘Can I call you?’ he said.
‘Perhaps,’ she said as the door of the bus shut on her.
He watched her go, watched her bus disappear from view, watched the empty space it left behind.
At work he was even more distracted than he had been the day before. Several of his colleagues asked him if he was feeling all right. He dared not tell them about his mermaid at the bus stop. ‘Sounds a bit fishy, if you ask me,’ they’d have said, so he didn’t ask them. Instead, he shuffled paper across his desk and tried to make it look meaningful, sent his secretary messages and pretended to be busy at work on his computer. All the time he was thinking of her and how she had so quickly ensnared him – that was her word, ‘ensnared.’
‘Can you fall in love with someone in just two days?’ he wondered. Then he remembered
that Dante had done it in one, and Dante was dealing with a mere mortal; he was in love with a mermaid. At least he was in love with a mermaid today. Who knows what she would be tomorrow.
On the way home he wandered into a bookshop, almost by accident. Maybe she wasn’t a writer, he thought. Maybe she worked in a shop like this, selling other people’s stories. He scanned the shelves, passing aimlessly between the high stacks.
‘Can I help you, sir?’ said a voice behind him, and just for a moment he thought it must be her. ‘You look lost. Is there anything in particular that you are looking for?’
He turned to face her, only it was not her. An overweight lady in her forties stood before him, her arms weighed down by a crooked pile of paperback books that reached up to her chin.
‘I was just looking,’ he said.
‘That’s all right, sir. If you need any help, just you call.’ She turned away.
Then he blurted it out, said it quickly before he could stop himself: ‘Mermaids!’
‘Sir?’ she said, turning back to face him.
‘Have you anything on mermaids? You know, fishy tails and such, or anything on Dante.’
He left the shop with a copy of Matthew Arnold’s poem The Forsaken Merman and Dante’s Vita Nuova.
‘It means “New Life”. It’s about his love for Beatrice,’ explained the woman in the shop.
When he got home he laid the books aside, not sure now why he had bought them.
The next morning he switched the alarm off before it sounded. He’d spent a disturbed night diving beneath roaring and whirling waves and searching the corridors of an underwater palace with ‘A ceiling of amber, A pavement of pearl,’ searching for Bea the mermaid who had ensnared his heart.
He was in the shower before he remembered that he’d not yet switched the kettle on to boil. It knocked askew his whole ordered start to the day. He dressed in a hurry, not noticing the odd socks that he pulled on. He burned the toast, his attention lost in Dante’s description of Beatrice: ‘This is not a woman, but one of the beautiful Angels of heaven.’ His coffee was left undrunk on the kitchen table.
He pulled the knot of his tie straight, fumbled in his pocket for his keys, hastily rubbed the points of his shoes on the back of his trouser legs and left the house chasing after time he had lost.
Though he was a minute or so later than he was wont to be, the queue at the bus-stop was no different from any other morning. He thought she might have made it there before him but she was nowhere to be seen. For a moment he thought he might even have missed her. His stomach felt empty, like a drear cobwebbed space. He crossed the road and took his usual place.
‘Things beginning to unravel, I think,’ she said.
He knew it was her straight away.
‘Shoes not so shiny, knotted tie not so neat.’
He turned around. She had her hair pinned up at the back, held in place with a large clip in the shape of a silver butterfly. Miscreant curls had escaped and hung like twisted threads of gold on her shoulders.
‘And your socks don’t match,’ she said.
He lifted first one trouser leg and then the other. She was right. One sock was blue, the other green. ‘It’s the new me,’ he said, ‘and my vita nuova.’
She got the reference but did not acknowledge it.
She was dressed in white. ‘Like a bride or an angel,’ he thought.
‘Do you know that white isn’t really a colour? It’s an absence of colour,’ she told him.
‘And who are we today?’ he said
‘Penny,’ she said.
‘See a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,’ he said.
‘Short for Penelope.’
‘Patient wife of Odysseus?’
She shook her head. The gold threads of her loose hair danced on her shoulders. ‘Not so patient anymore,’ she said. The smile had gone from her face. The words she spoke, she spoke in earnest. ‘And not what a wife should be.’
‘Is she fair?’ he said.
‘Odysseus should be the judge of that,’ she said.
‘I was Odysseus yesterday,’ he said. ‘You told me to shut up my ears and cover my eyes.’
‘Yet still you have been beguiled. A siren has sharp teeth and cold breasts. It is time Odysseus was home. I thought that was what I said yesterday. There are other suitors knocking at the door. Now I tell you, Odysseus, unstuff your ears and open your eyes.’
He shifted uneasily, not sure that they were still playing a game.
He left a silence between them. He looked away, as if measuring the time he had left with her today.
‘Look, I need to see you again,’ he said.
‘It’s what I have been saying,’ she said.
‘And not at any bus stop.’
She nodded. He was distracted for a moment as more loose strands of her hair unpicked themselves and fell on her shoulders.
‘I can’t stop thinking about you – at work, on the bus home. Even when I sleep you are all that I dream of.’
‘Penelope played a trick on her suitors,’ she said. ‘They told her Odysseus would not return and that she should marry one of them. She said that she would stitch a tapestry, a splendid shroud, and that when it was complete she would choose a new husband. At night, when they slept, she picked out the threads she had stitched, unravelled the tapestry she had made. In this way the shroud was never completed. But the suitors grow suspicious and it is time Odysseus was home to claim what is his.’
‘Can we stop playing just for a moment?’ he said.
‘There is an Arabic proverb that commands you to cast your heart before you and then
run to catch it,’ she said.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘Is it some sort of riddle, or what?’
‘You were Odysseus yesterday, be Odysseus today,’ she said.
‘The story isn’t quite right. It’s Odysseus who should leave Penelope behind, but it’s you that leaves me.’
Then her bus was there and she was moving from him.
‘But like a bad penny, I keep turning up,’ she said.
‘Wait,’ he said.
‘I’ll be waiting,’ she said.
The door closed like a veil drawn shut and the bus slipped away from him.
His own bus came and he let it pass. He did not catch the next, nor the next. He thought over all that she had said, tried to unpick it stitch by stitch.
He did not go into work that day, but wandered the streets, like Odysseus lost. All his thoughts were on her, even though he did not know her name.
Words she had said to him played over and over inside his head. There were moments when they seemed to make sense, moments when he thought he held in his hand the solution to her riddles. Then everything slipped through his fingers like sand, or like water, and he was left with nothing.
Then he remembered something she’d said about Dante: ‘I think he was more in love with his poetry than with Beatrice, more in love with words.’ Maybe that was his mistake, too. Maybe they were just stories. Maybe there was no riddle and nothing to search for, he thought. But his voice was unconvincing, even to himself.
At home he sat for long hours staring ahead without seeing anything. The day slipped away from him as the bus had done, as she had done, as everything had done. ‘Truly, madly, deeply, with the emphasis on the mad.’ That’s what she had said. Maybe she was right. What he was feeling now felt like a kind of madness.
He slept fitfully, his dreams an unresolved search for her; she was Beatrice, eternally beautiful and out of Dante’s reach beyond the grave; she was the amber-weeping mermaid beneath the sea and he the earth-anchored lover; she was impatient Penelope kept at ocean’s length from Odysseus.
He woke in the near dark, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes. He got up and went out into the street. The night was not blue nor black, but something in between, and there were no stars in the sky. The street lamps shed an orange light on the pavement and the road. The bus stop was empty, as he knew it would be.
‘Cast your heart before you and then run to catch it,’ he said out loud. He looked to where her bus had disappeared from view and set off after it. What he was doing would make no
sense to anyone else, but it somehow made sense to him. His footsteps quickened in the still dark streets. He snaked this way and that, sure in his pursuit of her.
At the centre of the labyrinth there was no bull-headed monster, only the blank windowed walls of the bus station. He knew she would be there, and she was: curled up on a green bench, her legs drawn up under her white skirt. He shook her awake.
She opened her eyes and looked into his. ‘Is it you, Perseus?’ she said.
‘Sorry?’ he said
She yawned and stretched her arms in the air like an empty embrace. ‘I dreamed of you,’ she said.
‘Maybe it was your dreams that drew me to you.’
She sat up.
‘Not as punctual as I had thought you were,’ she gently scolded him.
‘I didn’t understand,’ he said.
‘Not so neat and not so smart,’ she said.
His suit was creased and his tie loose about his neck.
‘But you are here, just like in a dream.’ She smiled at him and took his hand in hers.
‘Am I mad?’ he said.
‘All lovers and poets are mad,’ she said.
She leaned close to him and kissed him, her lips lightly brushing his.
‘I dreamed you would come and rescue me,’ she said, ‘like Perseus rescued Andromeda.’
‘So today you are Andromeda?’ he said
‘Andromeda was chained to a rock beside the sea, food for a foul-breathed sea dragon. It was Perseus on winged feet who came to her rescue and slew the beast.’
‘Am I Perseus?’ he said.
She looked down at their clasped hands. ‘I left him,’ she said. Her voice was changed, not so playful.
He did not understand. ‘You left Perseus?’
She shook her head, her hair like spun gold under the yellow street lights. ‘My husband,’ she said, ‘I left him for you.’
He noticed there was a mark on her wedding finger where a ring had once been. Wedding rings are like links in a chain, he thought.
‘Does it make a difference?’ she said.
He pulled her to her feet and held her close.
‘I must be mad,’ he said.
They walked away from the bus station and back through the empty streets.
‘Did Perseus love Andromeda?’ he said.
‘They were the perfect couple,’ she said, playful once again. ‘And when Andromeda died Perseus hung her up amongst the stars for all the world to see.’
He looked up at the blank blue-black sky.
‘The heavens tonight are in need of stars,’ he said.
‘Spoken like a true lover. A true poet,’ she said.
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