The Mermaid and The Tick is taken from Hannah Vincent’s new collection She-Clown and Other Stories. Vincent’s fierce and funny feminist stories shine with everyday heroines at work and at play. Ordinary lives are transformed as women try to be themselves while clowning around for others.
She-Clown was published on March 26th by Myriad Editions. You can order it directly from them here.
A husband and wife lived by the sea. He was a handyman and she was a baker. Every day, after her baking was done, the wife would go down to the beach for a swim. In summer she lay on the shingle to dry off in the sun, and in winter she played chicken with the waves. Her husband joked that she was part mermaid, she loved the sea so much.
One day, the husband told his wife he had booked them a holiday. ‘I thought it would be nice to go away before the baby comes,’ he said. The ten-day holiday would be in Italy. The husband showed the wife a map of where they were going.
‘It’s quite far from the sea,’ the wife said.
‘There’s a pool where we’re staying,’ he told her. The husband didn’t like the beach. The pebbles hurt his feet and he had never learned to swim. He preferred the land, spending
his weekdays mowing lawns and laying tiles, driving from job to job in a van with his name and telephone number written on the side. He showed his wife photographs of the holiday accommodation he had booked. There were cottages on the edge of a forest. Walking and cycling were recommended.
The wife bought a new, red swimming costume and ordered euros from the local bank. The husband booked a rental car, which they would pick up at the airport. On the plane, the wife did her knitting and the husband listened to music. Theirs was a late flight and it was night when they landed. The air was warm and sweet when they stepped off the plane.
‘We’re on holiday!’ the wife said, and she gave a little hop and a skip as they crossed the tarmac in the perfumed darkness to where their hire car was waiting for them.
The husband drove and the wife was his navigator. The illuminated screen of her phone lit up her face as she followed directions and spoke them out loud. Soon, they turned off the main road from the airport and drove into a forest. A signpost with the travel company’s name on it told them they had arrived. The car’s headlights revealed low buildings arranged in a horseshoe shape around a small, oval swimming pool. The
husband switched off the engine and they got out of the car. The night air was soft and warm and noisy with the sounds of crickets and frogs.
The key was in the door of their cottage and they let themselves in. There was an oven, a sink, and a table and two chairs. The linoleum was brown and the walls were white. They opened the back door to allow some air in. Light spilled out from the porch and into the dark expanse of the forest beyond.
In the bedroom, two orange towels lay folded on the bed. It was late and they were tired and hungry from their journey so they decided to go to sleep. The wife undressed, but when she went to lay her head on the pillow, she noticed spots of blood on the sheets.
‘Mosquitoes,’ her husband said.
He had read about insects in the area and had packed a special candle in his suitcase. He lit it now, and told his wife to lift her hair out of the way so he could rub insect repellent on to her neck and shoulders. He sprayed his own neck and arms while the wife looked for clean bedlinen in the cupboards, but there was none. They stripped the bed and lay on the orange towels.
In the morning, they were woken early by sounds of children playing. Loud splashes and squawks came from the swimming pool in front of the cottage. They pulled aside the curtains and watched a family who were staying in one of the neighbouring cottages. There was a father, a mother, and three children. Their cottage door was open and clothes hung on a washing line. The husband and wife watched the mother dry her child by the edge of the pool. The child stood with his arms out, like Christ on the cross. His tiny penis waggled as his mother briskly rubbed his body with an orange towel.
They were hungry, but they had no food. They would have to drive to the nearest town. In daylight, the husband saw that he had parked their hire car under a fig tree. Fruit had fallen during the night and lay splattered on the bonnet of the car. His wife came out of the cottage and locked the door, pocketing the key. She waved to the mother who had been drying her child, and the other woman waved back. When the wife saw the car, she glanced up into the laden branches of the tree and said she would make a pie with the figs.
They drove to a village, where they bought bread and milk and eggs from the only shop. The shop’s owner was a small, unsmiling woman.
‘What’s Italian for flour?’ the wife asked her husband, but her husband didn’t know. He googled it on his phone, but the shopkeeper shook her head.
Back at the holiday cottage, the husband cooked eggs for breakfast, while the wife stood in the doorway of their cottage, one hand resting on the top of her stomach.
‘They’ve got three children,’ she told the husband. She watched as the other family loaded up their car and drove away. ‘Do you think they’ve left?’ the wife asked.
‘Probably just an outing,’ her husband said.
Sunlight shone through the thin cotton of her dress and he could see the contours of her body against the bright doorway.
After they had eaten, the wife changed into her new red swimming costume and slipped into the pool. Her husband sat on the side with his feet hanging in the water. He watched his wife swim around and around.
‘I could teach you, if you like,’ she offered, flipping on to her back. The swell of her belly broke the surface of the water.
‘I don’t want to learn,’ her husband said. ‘I just like watching you.’
He went inside the villa, leaving wet footprints on the linoleum floor.
The other family returned, unloading bags of shopping from their car. The husband watched out of the window as his wife waved to them from her plastic sun lounger. Her red swimming costume hung from a branch of the tree. She held one hand up to her eyes, shielding them from the glare of the sun, as she spoke to the other woman. The children ran inside their cottage, then moments later, ran out again in their bathing suits. They leaped into the water, hugging their knees to their chests. Their mother yelled at them, and his wife laughed. Her wet hair clung to her shoulders.
‘There’s a big supermarket,’ she told him, when she came indoors. ‘We need to take the right-hand turn at the fork in the road. We took the wrong turning.’
They took a walk into the forest. Sunlight striped through the trees. In a clearing they found a shed. They tested the door, but it was locked. When they looked through the window, they could see neatly piled logs and an axe.
The next day, they drove to the supermarket. They passed through a village with a church and a pizzeria.
‘Looks nice,’ the husband said.
‘We go straight on from here,’ his wife said, so he carried on driving.
The supermarket was vast and brightly lit. It glittered like a palace and its aisles were packed with food of every description — fresh fruit and vegetables, newly baked loaves
and pastries, boxes of unfamiliar breakfast cereals, an array of wine, chocolates and beers.
‘Sheets!’ the wife exclaimed, holding up a square of neatly packed bedlinen.
They treated themselves to luxuries they wouldn’t afford themselves at home, including the bedsheets. When they returned, two new cars were parked outside the cottages, their bonnets pointed towards one another. Men were sitting on chairs on the scrubby grass beside the pool, drinking beers and cracking nuts, while the women were playing cards on a cottage patio, in the shade. The children were diving for something on the floor of the pool, chattering to one another in a language the husband and wife didn’t recognise.
The husband and wife got out of their car and unloaded their shopping. The wife unhooked her red swimming costume from the tree and brought it inside the cottage.
‘Why don’t we go over and say hello?’ she said.
‘I prefer it when it’s just you and me,’ said the husband.
They replaced the bed linen, unfolding the new sheets between them, allowing them to billow up above the bed in their hands and fall softly down.
He asked if she wanted to go for another walk in the forest.
‘I think I’ll stay here,’ she said, dragging a wooden chair into the doorway of the cottage. She settled herself in the chair with her knitting.
The forest was fragrant and full of shadows. He filled his lungs with its dry scented air and walked in the cool, dark silence, listening to the splinter of pine needles under his feet. When he came across the little shed, he walked around it and found an old wheelbarrow. He took its handles and flakes of rust came off in his hands. He wheeled the wheelbarrow back through the trees until he came to their cottage. He parked it next to the back door.
His wife wasn’t inside the cottage and she wasn’t sitting in her chair in the cottage doorway. He didn’t know where she was — until he looked across to where the other families were. She was sitting among them, her knitting on her lap. She was laughing and chatting with a woman, while the children played in the pool. Another woman moved about, hanging up clothes and bathing suits to dry, gathering shoes, sun cream, inflatables and other toys that lay strewn around.
The husband took a beer from the fridge.
‘This is the life,’ he said to no one.
He held the bottle against his face, cooling his cheek and his forehead with the glass. He walked over to the cottage where his wife and the other women sat.
‘Ah!’ his wife said. ‘My husband — mio marito.’
The husband held up his beer bottle and one of the women smiled and nodded. He tapped the top of the bottle and said, ‘Open? Can you open it?’
The woman disappeared inside her cottage.
‘I couldn’t find an opener,’ the husband told his wife.
‘Not in a drawer in the kitchen?’
‘I couldn’t find one.’
The woman came out holding a bunch of keys. She handed them to the husband, showing him the bottle opener.
‘Thank you,’ the husband said, and the woman waved a hand, as if to say, ‘It was nothing’. The husband opened the bottle of beer and raised it in a toast. The woman answered him by raising the bottle of sun cream she held. He gave her back the keys.
On the third day, the husband woke up in an empty bed. He lay listening to the neighbours’ children for a while and wondering where his wife was. He called out her name. When he looked out of the window, he saw her standing in the shallow end
of the pool in her red swimming costume. The children swam around her, kicking their feet and splashing as they disappeared under the water then resurfaced, gasping, with
their hair plastered over their eyes. They held out their arms to his wife and she took something from them, then raised her arm above her head and threw whatever it was. The children shrieked and bounded after it in a splashing mess, racing one another. When his wife lifted her arm, water streamed off her body in the sunlight. Her hair stuck to her shoulders like a cape of seaweed. One of the men lay on an orange towel next to the pool, pretending to be asleep.
‘Looks like you’re having fun,’ the husband said loudly, coming to stand in the cottage doorway.
‘They’re diving for treasure,’ his wife called back.
He walked to the edge of the pool. The gold coin his wife had thrown glinted on the bottom.
Later that day, his wife took a nap and he walked into the forest once more. This time, he ran his fingers over the shingled wood of the little shed, and feeling around, he found a key hanging on a hook underneath the windowsill. He tried it in the lock and the door of the shed opened with no difficulty at all.
Inside, the smell of the forest was even more pungent. Once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, the husband lifted the small axe off its hook and went to find a tree to chop. When he found a tree he felt capable of cutting, he planted his feet wide and swung the axe, bringing it across his body. The axe bit into the flesh of the tree with such force he grunted like an animal. He crouched down to study the gash he had made, stroking the
tree’s creamy insides.
He was thirsty when he arrived back at the cottage. A fig pie sat on the kitchen counter, halved fruits studding the pastry, like jewels. It was warm to his touch. Ants were feasting on a saucepan sticky with honey, and a bowl and a spoon stood in the sink. He filled a glass with water and drank it down. Filling his glass once more, he took a sip then poured the rest into the mixing bowl, causing it to overflow. He stood still, feeling his
pulse beating in his neck, watching the milky-coloured water gurgle down the plughole.
‘Come and see how much wood I’ve cut,’ he said to his wife. She was sitting outside the front of the cottage. Her hair was damp and she was evening out the wool on her knitting needles, counting her stitches. She rested the lemon-yellow blanket she was knitting on the bump of her belly.
‘Come and see how much wood I’ve cut,’ he said, once more.
His wife put away her knitting and he led the way into the forest, wheeling the rusty wheelbarrow. In the shed they stood side by side, staring at the pile of logs he had chopped.
‘You’re a proper lumberjack,’ she told him, and they made love on the warm forest floor.
Halfway through the holiday, he began to itch in bed at night. His wife complained that he was keeping her awake with his scratching. An angry red rash appeared on his waist, so they drove to the little town once more, and went to see a doctor.
The doctor was a small, neat man, who seemed to understand what they were saying, even though he didn’t speak English. He gestured for the husband to take off his shirt and walked around him, running his fingers over his belly and back.
‘Stato nella foresta?’
The husband could tell the doctor was asking a question because of the way his voice went up at the end of his sentence.
‘Non parlo … ’ he said.
‘The house where we’re staying is next to a forest,’ his wife told the doctor, and the doctor nodded, moving behind his desk where he tapped something on the keyboard of a computer. He turned the screen round so they could read it.
‘Tick,’ said the wife. ‘He thinks you’ve been bitten by a tick.’
They watched the doctor cross the room to fetch a pair of tweezers from a metal pot. He signalled to the husband to lift his arms, and the husband closed his eyes while the doctor inspected him, carefully parting his armpit hair with the tweezers. The doctor took a step backwards and gestured for the husband to drop his shorts. The man glanced at his wife before doing as he was asked. The doctor pointed at his underwear, and he pulled down his boxers, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling.
Bending to examine his groin, the doctor made a noise and beckoned to the wife to look at her husband’s skin.
‘I can see it!’ she exclaimed.
The husband closed his eyes while his wife and the doctor bent close to his body. He listened to a rattle of speech coming from the doctor.
‘Can you just ask him to get it out, please?’ he said.
‘Have you got a signal?’ his wife asked. ‘Ask Siri what ‘gonfio’ means.’
‘Just ask him to get it out,’ the husband repeated.
As he spoke, he felt a pressure against his skin, and with a deft movement of his tweezers the doctor extracted the creature.
‘That’s it?’ the husband asked.
‘That’s it,’ the doctor replied, in English. ‘You are free to go.’
The midday sun shone fiercely, reflecting off the pale gravel of the town square and the white walls of the surrounding buildings.
‘Shall we look inside the church?’ the woman asked, squinting.
They headed across the square to a restaurant. The tables outside were busy, but a couple were leaving — the woman gathered up her jacket, while the man tossed a few coins into a white saucer. He smiled at the husband and wife as they took their place. A waiter cleared away the glasses and pocketed the coins.
‘What are you going to have?’ the wife asked, studying the menu.
‘Pizza, maybe,’ the husband replied. ‘When in Rome.’
His wife said she would have spaghetti alle vongole. She wanted to wash her hands before they ate and asked her husband to order for her. While she was gone, the husband googled tick bite on his phone.
‘That doctor should have given me a blood test,’ he said, when she came back to the table. He passed her his phone to show her the page he had been reading.
She squinted at the tiny writing on the screen. ‘Any flu like symptoms?’ she asked.
‘Any chest pain?’
He shook his head.
‘I’m sure you’ll be fine.’
The waiter came and took their order and then they lapsed into silence while they waited for their food to arrive. On the other side of the piazza, a couple were unpacking their car. The man of the couple opened the boot and pulled out a pushchair, while the woman reached inside the car and lifted out a child. They strapped the child into the pushchair, locked their car, and walked away, disappearing down one of the side streets
next to the church. The husband stared at the pale stone church, its walls carved with gargoyles. Horned demons scowled at sinners below.
‘Alright?’ the wife asked. She reached across the table to place her hand on her husband’s.
‘I’d quite like to go,’ he said.
‘But we just ordered.’
‘Home,’ her husband said. ‘I’d like to go home.’
She removed her hand, resting it on top of her stomach.
‘Soon,’ she replied.
Hannah Vincent is a novelist and playwright. She studied Drama and English at the University of East Anglia and completed the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. She has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Sussex. Hannah teaches Creative Writing on the Open University’s MA and life writing on the Autobiography and Life writing programme at New Writing South. She lives in Brighton.