Five Times Round by Karenne Griffin
With one eye still on the road, Dave glanced at his twelve-year-old daughter in the rear vision mirror. ‘Cheer up, Nat. Don’t you want to spend the day on the beach?’
‘I’m going to build a big sand castle,’ crowed her noisy little brother.
‘Leave her be, Dave,’ said his wife. ‘She’s at that moody age. Hormones running riot and all that. I remember what I was like. I just wanted to sit in the corner with my coat over my head.’
‘I always thought you were a bit weird, Bev.’
She punched his thigh. ‘You’re the weirdo.’
Little Nicky took up the chant, jigging up and down on the back seat. ‘Weirdo, weirdo, beardy weirdo.’
‘Quiet, son. We’re in Tenby now, not far to the beach.’
Minutes later Dave had parked in the multi-storey and they were lugging their beach paraphernalia through the tourist-thronged streets of the lively seaside town.
Down on the beach, Natalie spread her towel on the sand and plugged into her iPod. She had little interest in spending the day with her family. Nicky was a total pain, and Mum and Dad weren’t much better. But if she’d stayed at home (not that Mum and Dad would have let her) HE might have come round.
She did her best to concentrate on her music and blank troublesome thoughts from her mind. It must have worked, because the next thing she knew Mum was shaking her arm.
‘Wake up, love. Lunchtime.’
Natalie had to admit this was better than spending the day in her bedroom. The sun warmed her skin. She wished it would penetrate her frozen soul. The sky was a vast stretch of blue, and the silvery sands stretched away into the distance. Tenby was almost as cool as that place in Majorca they’d stayed last year. Life would be okay if it wasn’t for HIM.
After lunch, Dave noticed a man standing by the large rocky outcrop that was St Catherine’s Island. He was wearing an orange jacket and holding a sign. Dave went over to investigate, returning a few minutes later.
‘The island’s been closed to the public for years, but they’ve opened it up again this summer as a tourist attraction. It’s got an interesting history. Let’s go and have a look.’
Natalie pouted. ‘I’d rather stay here, Dad,’
‘Come on, love. I’ve already bought you a ticket.’
She gave in reluctantly and followed the others across the sand and up the iron staircase. St Catherine’s was, in her opinion, a poor excuse for an island. It was on the beach for goodness’ sake, only becomng an island at high tide. She didn’t pay much attention to what the guide said about it being used as a lookout station during the war. She flatly refused to have her photo taken wearing a tin helmet. But then the guide mentioned something that caught her interest.
‘You’ve probably noticed the passage down below that you can walk through at low tide, from one side of the island to the other.’
Natalie remembered having her photo taken down there some years before, with the incoming tide lapping around her feet as she hurried through the passage.
The guide continued. ‘There’s a legend that if you walk through the passage and turn around anti-clockwise five times before walking back the other way, you’ll turn into a mermaid.’
Natalie turned this over in her mind as she trailed along with the rest of the tour group to investigate the large stone building on the other side of the island. A mermaid, huh? With a long, scaly tail like a fish. With a tail instead of legs HE wouldn’t be able to touch her. It had to be worth a try.
At the end of the tour she approached the guide. ‘How long have we got till the next high tide?’
‘Quite a while, young lady. The tide is still on its way out. There’s no need for you to hurry off the island, we’ll be letting visitors on until around four o’clock.’
But of course it wasn’t the island that held her interest, it was the passage beneath. Mum and Dad and Nicky were still poking around the derelict building. Nicky was searching for the remains of animals left over from when it had been used as a zoo.
‘I need the loo,’ she muttered, leaving them behind. The renovations on the island hadn’t yet included public toilets.
She clattered down the iron steps and hurried round to the passage entrance. She took a deep breath and set off through the puddles toward the light at the other end, around fifty metres away. The roof of the passage arched high above her head, and the surge of the distant sea echoed seductively through the rocky tunnel.
Natalie glanced around self-consciously as she emerged into daylight. She couldn’t see anyone, so presumably no-one could see her. She deliberated a moment over which way was anti-clockwise, and felt a little giddy after she’d made her five turns. Maybe this was the start of the magic?
She concentrated hard on visualising her legs as a fishy tail as she walked back through the passage. She tried shuffling along with her ankles pinned close together, but it wasn’t easy. However she had to walk normally up the beach to where they’d left their things, otherwise people would think she was mental.
Natalie was lying on her towel by the time the others returned. Nicky was still making stupid lion and elephant noises.
‘I hope you’ve put on more sun screen,’ said her mother.
‘Yes, mum,’ she said with a smile, noticing her parents exchange a glance. She felt so much more agreeable now she had an answer to her problem.
Every few minutes she glanced down at her legs, convinced she could feel a quivering under the skin that heralded change. But nothing was happening.
After an hour and a half she stood up. ‘I’m going for a paddle,’ she announced, hurrying away before anyone could join her.
There was nothing for it but to repeat the walk through the passage. As she turned five times round, she realised the sea was coming closer. Please, let the magic work this time, she begged.
She laid down on her towel once more, anxiously watching the advancing tide. At ten to four she knew she had to give it one more try. Third time lucky. She ran down the beach and into the passage. The waves were already splashing loudly around the far end, and she could feel the sand sucking from beneath her feet as she started her five turns. At the last turn, a wave knocked her off her feet and she hit her head on a rock.
Fortunately the tour guide heard her cry. He’d just seen the last group of visitors off the island. He hurried round the island, already knee-deep in water, and scooped Natalie up in his arms. She was unconscious, and blood was streaming from a wound on her forehead.
She regained consciousness on the beach, aware of her mother sobbing and a number of people bending over her.
She ended up spending the night in hospital. The staff were kind; they found a bed and breakfast nearby for her family to stay, and they headed over there around ten o’clock, leaving Natalie under the observation of the nurses.
Natalie looked down at her legs. They were still legs. No sign of fishy scales. Oh, if only she’d been able to complete the third ritual!
‘Cheer up lovely,’ said the nurse, noticing her tears. ‘You’ve had a nasty bump on the head, but I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning.’
Natalie’s face crumpled and she sobbed even harder. ‘I’m all right here, but HE’s coming back on Tuesday.’
The nurse laid a cool hand on her arm. ‘Who, lovely?’
Natalie spilled forth her tale of woe. How her father’s friend had been working for the past couple of months building them a conservatory. How she’d had a bad feeling the first time he’d put his arm around her shoulders. Then, when she’d been sunbathing in the garden one day last month, thinking she was alone, he’d crept up on her while she was asleep… Then he’d threatened to tell her parents that she’d led him on if she said anything. Next she told the nurse what she’d done at St Catherine’s Island to try and turn herself into a mermaid.
Natalie felt a bit better afterwards. It had been easier to talk to someone she didn’t know.
‘I’ll have to tell the Sister,’ the nurse explained. ‘She’ll need to have a chat with your parents in the morning.’
Natalie screwed up her reddened eyes.
‘Don’t be afraid, lovely. It’s best to get it all out in the open. The police will want to talk to you, and to your father’s friend, but not together. Your parents will understand. It’s all over, sweetheart. He won’t touch you ever again.’
Natalie drifted into a deep sleep. She dreamt that she was a mermaid, swimming like a big fish in the sea, powerful, confident, and in charge of her own destiny.
Karenne Griffin is the author of five novels and two travel books. Born in Australia, she has spent most of her life in the UK, and the past 20 years in Wales. When not writing she can usually be found helping her partner renovate their yacht. Twitter: @KarenneG