When Shall We See the Mermaids?


In the end there was a view of the sea.

That is how a story begins: a cryptic remark, followed by a minor detail. A child made a handprint in the dust. A child, Sarah, was in an empty attic room; empty, but not silent now, for her sisters were hurrying up the stairs. (We presume they were bare, wooden boards.) It was an old, or older, house built when industry and empire made in England a prosperous middle class who liked to summer by the sea.

Rochers au bord de la mer
(Rocks by the Sea), 1886
(Oil on canvas, 71 × 92 cm)
BY Paul Gauguin
Göteborgs Konstmuseum

A view of the sea evokes images of distant shores, and the voyages of exploration, discovery and conquest. A view of the sea is romantic in the time-honoured record of painters, composers and poets. And, of course, children who are known for their curiosity and determination. When nothing was visible below they hurried upward. Somewhere in the house there had to be a window with a view, not of gardens and houses, but of the thing they had come to find. The possibilities of life were limitless. The Atlantic, washing the shores of several continents, invited the eye to look out for worlds beyond the end of the world. The girl with the dusty hand was searching hard for the sight of distant shores. Eventually she thought there was something… Then the others came, excitedly. But at once she resolved to look again when it was quiet.

“We have come here to live,” the middle child said. “We have come here to live,” the eldest girl said. “Forever,” said Sarah. This was not a holiday. The prospect, so longed for from the attic window, was real, and it would last for as long as anyone could imagine. That was a long time. Actually, it was longer than time. It was always. They were never going back. Life could be disappointing, but from this moment there was a new life seen in plain sight from the house where they lived.

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