She could not remember when she'd first noticed the geese. They hadn’t, she was sure, been there when she’d started coming along this road, when the verge was thick with poppies as well as plastic bottles. She liked watching them, in that wasteland between the two carriageways. Watches them now, as they waddle to the fence, peering at the drivers in their metal cages. Soon she’ll be at the front of the queue, pushing through to the next set of lights. But for these few goose-filled moments she’s free to stretch and preen and - foot down, fast forward. Amber turns red. To the right, forty tons of revving metal, enough to send V-reg Festina to that great scrapyard in the sky, or, God forbid, the council tip behind their double-bedded flat. Will he, won’t he? Flash a smile and catch the driver’s eye. He blasts his horn, ups two fingers: she presses on, but not without a sideways glance.
* * * * *
‘Hi, Oli, I’m home.’
‘Okay?’ Or something similar.
‘Fine. Showed someone else round Jubilee Terrace. Complete waste of time. I don’t know what it is about that house – ’ she raised her voice as she went into the bedroom ‘ – probably the seventies DIY. Did I tell you the tiles have got psychedelic flowers – not to everyone’s taste,’ unlike the Ships We Know and Love transfers some previous showerer had thought a good idea to stick up in a certain bathroom -
‘Keep an eye on the clock, Jane,’ said the bathroom. It reckoned if they left at thirteen minutes past, that should be just about spot on. ‘Okay?’
‘Oh - absolutely.’ Jane began unzipping her anorak. Seven thirty for eight. The zip snagged. They’d arrive at quarter to. Absolutely – why wouldn’t the frigging thing go any further? - spot on.
She picked up a dirty shirt, unfastened the cuffs, tugged at her zip again. Dumped the shirt, along with a sock and some boxers she found along the way, into what passed for the laundry bin. Gave the zip another go. He’d be out of the shower soon - she tried forcing it the other way - expecting her to jump in. With both feet.
Off with boots, tights, skirt, knickers. This is your final chance, zip.
She managed to get her arms out and began shoving up the coat from the inside. It had stuck just under her ears. There she was, framed in the long mirror, naked from the waist down, body encased in green padding, sleeves sculling the air – like that fish headed mermaid-in-reverse on the cover of volume 5 of Art for the Uninformed, second self down. A creature of another mind’s creation transposed on glass. No, not 5 - Oli had cancelled the subscription after the fourth book had filled the gap. Magritte to Someone-Else who dealt strictly in two dimensions. Talk about weird –
‘Oh, Oli, I must tell you. Roy was showing this couple round a new place, did the ground floor no problem. He opened the bathroom door and - ’ she upped the decibels a notch ‘ - the curtain was drawn across the bath. Roy could sort of make out a figure through it, but the shower wasn’t on or anything. I would’ve been spooked but he put his head round the curtain and - you’ll never guess.’ Through the wall the water continued to flow without even trying. ‘There was a body, hanging up!’ Which at least drew a wheezing gasp. ‘Don’t freak out - it was just a mermaid, lifesize, blown up.’ More wheezing, more frantic, more inflated sea-lion on forty a day than human. Or maybe a walrus in the last stages of labour -
‘Jane, this shower stuff’s empty.’
She wrenched the coat over her head, along with her jumper and half an earring. No matter. There was, she was almost certain, a new bottle in the bathroom cupboard.
The old one clipped her buttock as it was tossed round the shower curtain. BOGOF. Every girl’s standby. And it was dolphin friendly with essence of kelp. The spray got her full in the face as she handed it through. So she might as well...
Fibres swelled as she dragged the loofah across his back and two or three of those little flat things - funny how you always seemed to get them with a new one - dribbled out onto the dimples on the bottom of the bath. The water swished them this way and that, dashing them against the wave-ripples on the sea bed, far below a horizon measured out in six inch squares, where the curled-edge Cutty Sark sparkled on the drink - but now was not the time to think of tea. Not when sweat was filling her nostrils and, above the taps, the Argo had its sights on snaffling the gold-haired ram’s fleece, or any other body part that came to hand. The loofah slid from her grasp. Two rows up and seven tiles along, the good ship Endeavour was set to round Cape Horn. Spray doused eyes, splashed over breasts, spattered down her gleaming scales. She no longer breathed air. Her tail slithered between his thighs. The mermaid had been netted. Salt water stung her tongue, scalding nostrils with the sense-consuming smell of… synthetic seaweed, as he squeezed out a dollop of two-in-one. Oliver, thoroughly rinsed off, got out, leaving the loofah in a sog at the bottom of the bath and groping Jane wondering what happened to the other towel.
Easy on the make-up. Subdued and unobtrusive, Oli had said. She caked on the matt. He was already flicking non-existent fluff from the corporate jacket. Everything was easy for men. Her dress had been a six-Anadin headache till Oli had sorted it. Assertive – why wouldn’t the sodding button go through? - without being aggressive. The stitches began to unravel. Neither too conventional - the button, clinging on by the last cross, was through - nor too casual. Oli was already in the hall. She tucked in a few inches of loose thread and hoped it would hang on long enough.
‘Are you ready?’
Nineteen twelve and twenty-seven seconds. ‘Yes, coming.’ She slid an arm into the first-time-on faux fur.
He ran his eyes over her - ‘Good’ - approval lips brushing the top of her hair. She picked up the keys, switched off the lights, dropped the latch and followed him out.
‘By the way, Jane.’ He paused at the bottom of the steps. ‘Don’t tell your little anecdote about the inflatable mermaid.’