They don’t believe me, of course. But with just a coverless duvet and a litre of White Ace for warmth, they’re grateful for any fiction that puts an extra layer between them and the North Sea wind. Me? I know tall tales are my ticket into the arena of human company. If I make no sudden movements and keep talking, they’ll be asleep before they bid me leave. Perhaps even before they’ve finished the bottle.
I keep my hands wedged down in my coat pockets. My seven fingers worry the filthy seams, which hold the day’s dirt like a fingernail.
This is a true story, I say. Madge chuckles and wrinkles her face into shapes too old for her skin. About the Goddess of the sea. Pete settles closer to the pavement. He rarely speaks, but he takes words seriously. Pete is my best listener. I think he must’ve been a rig man too, because he knows the importance of stories. Layer them thick enough and they form a carapace, a home away from home. No one sees you’re naked underneath.
You know what I’m talking about Pete, when I say the Goddess needs appeasing? He lifts his shoulders and lets them fall in what could be a sigh or a shrug. Although it gives shelter, biography is dangerous. I know that. I think he must have been a rig man.
Well, anyway. It wasn’t always like that. The Goddess was once just a girl. The kind who watches too much CBBC, doesn’t eat her Ready Brek and is late to school three times a week. The kind who – as she gets older – sneaks out the window on Friday nights. Who drinks her mother’s Smirnoff and replaces half with water. The kind who learns that water tastes different from alcohol and leaves through the front door with the whole bottle.
The ocean is quiet, listening to see how I’ll tell it this time. Pete and Madge are still awake. One of Madge’s eyes is a little closed from where she got carried away with her opinions yesterday. Pete is a good man though – she would not be better off alone. Along the street, an arc of piss is lit by the golden lights of a pub. The punter is still smoking a cigarette and his friend is telling a joke. I resume my story as their laughter bounces in our direction.
The girl grows up to be beautiful. She has long flowing hair so black it is almost green. Long and shining like kelp. It smells of innocence, except when she uses too much cheap body spray. As time goes on, she darkens her lashes to make eyes at men and wets her lips with gloss. Although her father is often away from his castle, out at sea for months on end, he soon gets word of his daughter’s many suitors.
The street now is full of spilled drunks and high-heeled trophies. For us it is still early, but for most people it’s late. They think night peaks when it is darkest, but warmth lags behind the sun like a surly teen. When the concrete pulls hardest on the heat of a body, dawn is already painting flames on the grubby shop fronts. You learn not to trust the eyes, but to measure time by when the ground is coldest.
When the father comes home, his daughter’s face says she’s still his little girl. He puts his hand to her hair and grips some lightly in his fist. Loose enough that she could pull away, tight enough that he could stop her. He says he will protect her, now her mother is gone. That he is back for good. He doesn’t use the words dead or redundant.
Madge is asleep now, her chin slack where the fingered neck of her T-shirt meets the skin. She has ceased to care how one event can be strung to another. For her, stories are single-use like a condom – worn for temporary protection, then discarded. I think about the morning, when I will search the beach for treasures: fat crabs to crack, wood to burn, and perhaps even scrap metal. I hope I’ve appeased the Goddess with my tale – combing her wet tresses and teasing out the tangles. Pete nods for me to go on.
Back at the castle, the father turns all suitors away. The girl weeps, tears her hair and slams her bedroom door. The father’s friends still come to visit though, and sometimes she sits and jokes with them over a couple of cans. Her company is better than the jabber of talk-show hosts in their own homes. Proud of his daughter, the father smiles and tells her not to wear such fucking low-cut tops in company.
Pete offers me the bottle. It is a dilemma faced only by someone with almost nothing, the choice between being generous and being smashed. But without Madge to please, Pete can afford to be both. Narrative and alcohol do not mix well, but I’ve reached the cold part of my story so I take a swig.
One night, the father comes home from an encounter with The Golden Lion, a little worse for wear. He’s been on the whisky, which always did light a fire in his belly that felt like anger. He finds that his castle has been entered and his property defiled. The suitor, a man who gives him casual work some weekends, buttons his flies and puts up his hands, saying: “Sorry mate, she cracked on to me. What was I to do? I mean, look at her.”
I take a moment, and Pete does too. His life is not dissimilar to mine. He has done time, and knows that hours pass easily when they are your own. There is no need to hurry them now. The seagulls, fat with chips and curry sauce, spin above us and report back to the sea in harsh voices. The Goddess sighs against the shingle, disappointed.
There is nothing the father can do but throw her from a borrowed boat, in the quiet spot two miles south of the harbour. Only she won’t fit in the bag in the boot, so first he takes a kitchen knife and sharpens it. Then the father cuts her into fish food, right down to the segments of her fingers. Leaves the gold ring he gave her winking on the right index. Throws in one of his own, too. Flesh of my flesh.
Overcome with exhaustion and cider, Pete has nodded off, slumped against Madge in a near approximation of tenderness. I take up the bottle from his feet, the plastic of its midriff stressed to white creases from force of grip. There is still a good three fingers left to drink, while I throw the remainder of my story to the sea. I must finish what I’ve started. For continuity.
I walk down narrow streets, past the open fans of cigarette butts that radiate from closed doors. Slow streams of urine trickle with me down the gentle incline to the shore.
As the father throws her into the sea, the girl finally becomes a Goddess. The largest joints become driftwood, knotted ropes and empty petrol drums. The middle cuts, a scurf of cans, bottles and fly-buzzed fish. The finger bones, with their sunset nails, are all the small treasures. The blennies, smooth pebbles and whorled shells. Useless to me, but a part of her so I hold them gently in my palms just the same. The ring? It turns to amber. But I’ve yet to find that fortune.
I lean out to sea over the metal railings, sharp on my palms, and whisper to the Goddess. Decades have passed and most people forget to tell her story, but I remember. A small sacrifice in return for all she gives back. I’ve done well tonight, combed her hair like a father should.
A morning door slams in the distance and the birds cry the sun from the waves, but it’s still just the two of us here at the shore. So I whisper to her. My daughter, my daughter. Sedna, my daughter. And make my amends as best I know how.