Attack of the Mermen continued
He tried to sleep in the next morning and kip through the afternoon. He couldn't settle properly. Jason, the guy in the flat above, had a new girlfriend who was probably a prim little primary school teacher in her regular life but by four p.m. was fornicating furiously. At the end, she gave out small yelps like a seal cub being beaten by a hunter. Connor watched the DVD again to stop himself listening to her.
The mermen had long green tails that were bifurcated at the end so that the flukes turned out like Charlie Chaplin feet. Across dry land they were faster than most humans. No doubt these scenes were CGI-assisted.
The rain had finally ceased. The beach was quiet apart from the usual roll of the waves on the pebbles. He breathed deeply, aware of the contrast between this atmosphere and the stuffy fug of his flat. There were no lights on the boat but he could see three figures moving about furtively. No one spoke more than a couple of words until they were out at sea. The broken and never quite properly healed bones in his shins complained at the cold and the unsteady motion of the craft. It was a cold, clear, starry night dominated by the join the dots stars of The Plough. Every so often, the boat lurched mysteriously to starboard as if being shoved by a posse of porpoises. He thought he could see human-sized shapes trying to clamber aboard. He knew there were gutting knives on board; he wished he had a gun or a harpoon. Even though he wasn't exactly sure how to use either of them.
Eventually, the low wage ordeal was over and they scraped onto the shingle beach just down from the promenade. He went home just before dawn, a reeking and leaking mackerel wrapped in a newspaper under his arm; his legs and his senses overloaded by toil and suspicion. At every corner he expected to be apprehended - by an official from the Department for Work and Pensions, by some drug-addled surfer dude from Southcliff, or by an irate merman demanding recompense for mankind's ravaging of the waters.
His parents still lived in the same poky cul-de-sac cottage he'd grown up in. If finances didn't pick up soon, he'd be back living with them rather than simply turning up for a free Sunday lunch. Mercifully, his annoying sister was on a sleepover at a friend's.
"No wine today, son," his dad stated. "Can't even afford Perrier these days. Just tap water."
"That's all right," Connor smiled. "Good nosh, Mum."
"I do my best, son," she answered. "I thought about doing fish today - they had a nice piece of plaice on special in Asda. But then I decided beef is traditional. Got to keep up some standards."
After washing up, he helped his father weed the garden, which had lately been turned over to carrots, cabbages and other root vegetables. Dig for Victory? Plant to fill your belly, more like. His dad had largely given up the chase for non-existent jobs and was noticeably a little greyer and slightly more shrunken each weekend. They were scraping by on state handouts, but for how much longer? Connor had a little cash in his pocket from a "courier" job he'd undertaken two nights before. Transporting a package from A to B… sure it was either stolen goods or soft drugs but the notes inside his skeletal wallet were welcome and it never paid to ask questions. He offered to split the meagre booty with his parents but they would have none of it.
The late nights were catching up with him. Stuffed with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, and with the chronic pain in his once-shattered legs returning, he needed an afternoon nap. The glands on his neck ached a little, as if he were coming down with a viral infection.
His mother still dyed her hair bottle blonde and had a touch of the hippie about her. The bedroom was decorated with quarter-century-old framed sketches of fairy princesses, vampire maidens and mermaids. He wondered what his father thought of it all. Maybe the bare breasts and diaphanous gowns were quite appealing.
He dozed and dreamt of the coming invasion. He was on a rooftop watching the sea people clash with the landlubbers. In typical modern fashion, he filmed the carnage on his mobile phone, panning artistically down to the hectic streets from his tower of strict neutrality.
The "Attack of the Mermen" DVD kept changing but so subtly that Connor couldn't quite put his finger on each individual amendment. Over the course of five or six viewings, the slant had clearly shifted. What before had been a Man versus the monsters paradigm was no longer so clear cut. Indeed, one's sympathies were now firmly intended to lie with the mermen. Mankind had ravaged the land but, not satisfied with scooping every ounce of manna from the despoiled soil, had now turned his attention to entirely plundering the sea. In return, he dumped his sewage, his garbage and his radioactive isotopes in the watery depths. The original inhabitants of this wondrous kingdom were cast as an oppressed people forced against their will into becoming warriors, freedom fighters, the good guys taking the battle to the evil invaders in a glorious, righteous cause. The leaders of the mer people had been clever, forward thinking, realising that the deep would not be reclaimed through occasional victories in coastal skirmishes. They had taken a long view, initiating a rapid population surge to provide them with troops. Coupled with genetic engineering to enable them to infiltrate the land; in clothes and with a casual glance, they could pass as human. The market stall holder, a work colleague, your Facebook friend - did they sound a little sibilant? Did they smell a bit fishy? They could be a secret merman.
So could you. Have you looked at your legs today and noticed the way your feet turn outwards?
His limbs were aching so much that he had to have a bath. Showers were cheaper, as the bill from Welsh Water would doubtless soon prove. Maybe he could claim the money back owing to a medical condition.
The skin on his once-injured shins was still mostly hairless, overly pink and tending towards flakiness. Connor had some sandalwood scented body scrub that his mother had given him last Christmas. Nothing else soothed in quite the same way, even if such thoughts made him sound like a pampered Premier League footballer.
He didn't care to shave because his neck felt rough and ill-used. He hoped designer stubble was back in fashion this week.
The "Sea Dragon" was quiet tonight. Abby sat on her own in a corner absently watching a rap video on the pub screen. With the sound turned off.
"Get us an orange juice," she ordered. "To go with the bottle of vodka you're going to bring in your other hand."
"Where's lover boy?" he asked.
"Who cares? There's plenty more fish, as they say. Still, Con, it's nice to know politeness and good manners aren't dead," she smiled, wetting her lips.
She seemed coarser and even more forward than the teenager he remembered from school. Within ten minutes her fingers were busy - atop his trousers but, coyly, under the table.
"Let's go for a little walk," she suggested.
The shoreline was stony and narrow. Waves lapped greyly with faint hints of ozone and brine. The shadows around the shuttered beach huts offered a mixture of promise and threat.
She let him put his hand under her blouse and bra but prevented him from going sub-navel. With a girlish giggle and a final flourish of a noisy expectoration across the shingle, she sucked him off quickly and efficiently.
Sauntering unsteadily back up the slope, her blue jeans hugged her tightly around her buttocks and legs. She walked to the taxi rank like she was on board a ship. Or as if her feet had been bound in the ancient Chinese style.
She didn't kiss him goodnight or even swap mobile numbers.
This was his hometown. He should feel safer here than anywhere else on the planet. Except for the guilt of a little bit of "cash in hand" work which he hadn't declared. If he had declared it to the Department for Work and Pensions, or "The Social" as his mother called them, they would have stopped his benefit. Then he would have starved. Or frozen to death first.
It was cold tonight out on the wet pavements. Every shuttered shop doorway and brick-built corner seemed to contain shadowy figures, half-glimpsed.
Even though his limbs were weary, he took the longer route home, the one with street lighting and passing traffic. Here was the care home where his grandmother had ended her days; there a seafood restaurant catering mostly to out of towners. This stretch on his right encompassed his old secondary school, now restyled as an "Academy for Art, Design and Drama". Supposing you wanted to focus on Physical Education or Physics? You were stuffed.
Hurrying. Feeling a biting wind rising, salt spray against his anxious cheeks. Smelling the brine, the mackerel, the damp sand and the engine oil. Thinking he heard soft, sibilant voices calling him from the froth and the foam. Resisting their insistence.
Each aching stride taking him a step nearer to the sanctuary of home. Be it ever so humble… and scruffy and poky and in need of a spring-clean. The goal, always.
Keys in locks. Door opened. Door closed.
Except they were already there before him.
Suddenly, there were three of them around him. The smell of the sea was overpowering. Or maybe he was simply more aware of what had, at some level, been an ever present factor in his life.
"Take off your trousers," the strongest looking one ordered.
Even in his panic at the probable violence and male rape that was to follow, Connor tried to stay calm and alert. "My legs aren't my most attractive feature," he stated. "I got badly injured on my bike when I was younger."
The merman closest to him laid a hand on his left arm. Even through clothing, the be-ringed fingers felt cold, wet, slippery.
"We know all about your accident, son," he answered. "All the sea swimming you did to get fit again. And we're fully aware of the pictures on your mother's wall. As Poseidon would have said, 'Heritage will out.'"
They grew impatient at Connor's fumbling with the buckle of his jeans; another of his visitors reached across with a sharpened razor shell and sliced efficiently at the damp denim.
Their leader continued, "Come on, kid, recruitment can't wait forever."
Razor shell wielder added, "That DVD was just episode one. In the follow-up, we'll mass and take the land. Or die trying."
The stairs proved awkward. Likewise, the pavement. By the time he reached the slope at the promenade, however, he was moving comfortably. He thought he spied several heads and bare shoulders bobbing comfortably amid the swell of the waves. One of the figures seemed to be Abby but he would need to swim closer to be certain. The water should have felt icy but, in fact, to his newly naked skin and interlocking scales, its touch seemed as natural as a gentle breeze had once done. The gills on his neck were opening. He went to take a deep breath through his nostrils but then thought: No, relax, let nature take its course.