There's this old guy in the park who used to see mermaids.
Every day he sits on a weathered wooden bench,
over the lake in the our local park
smoking cigarettes he rolls himself.
I wandered up to him one day -
you know, just for the hell of it.
A freezing afternoon,
one of those noncommittal, might-snow-might-not skies.
He didn't look at me as I sat down on the ice-damp bench.
Can I have a cigarette? I asked him, because
you know, that's just what teenage boys ask.
Expecting him to say, no, you're too young,
it's a filthy habit - don't follow my example.
I thought he'd be shocked.
Instead, he shrugged, indifferent,
and passed me some caramel paper and a pinch of tobacco.
I felt my face flush as I realised I wasn't sure
exactly how to roll them.
I'd revealed myself to him –
incompetent, false, attention-seeking.
Like this, he said, seeing my blank expression
and he rolled up his own cigarette and lit it
with bony, shaking fingers.
I copied him.
He really was old, I thought.
I mean, ancient;
in his nineties, maybe, wearing this crusty old suit and tie
and a pair of leather shoes
like a man who went to meet his girlfriend at a party
and turned up seventy years too late.
What're you looking for, then? I asked him.
He turned towards me;
eyes empty, confused. Excuse me?
What're you looking for? I repeated.
You're here every day, I said,
looking out over this damn lake.
There's nothing to see.
Just drink cans and a couple of scabby ducks.
What're you looking for?
I took a drag on my cigarette, waiting for his reply.
It tasted sour, ashy -
like inhaling burnt toast.
When I was a boy, he said finally, you could see mermaids on this lake.
I gave him a bit of a look.
No, really, he said, and he blew a smoke ring.
(I'd always wanted to do that -
smoking kills and all that, but it looked pretty damn cool.
I tried, but all that came out was a puff.)
Every weekend, the old man said, I'd come here and watch them.
You had to wait a while, but they'd always appear eventually.
My favourite had red hair and a green tail.
She used to surface right in front of this bench and smile at me.
Never said anything, though.
None of them did.
He paused, and hawked from the back of his craw
a thick, harsh sound, like a raven.
They don't come any more, of course, he went on, clearing his throat.
They just stopped coming, one day -
I waited for hours and they never appeared.
Not even the redhead. None of them.
I didn't say anything.
He stubbed the cigarette out on the arm of the bench,
let it spiral down into the murky water.
I used to play the guitar, you know, he said suddenly.
I wasn't sure how to reply.
Played it from a child, he went on. Played for years.
Practised every day, I did. I could have been great.
Could've been in the business, you know.
Could've had girls throwing roses at me.
And throwing...other stuff.
He laughed then, small and creaky and weird.
You were good? I asked him.
He scowled at me. I wasn't good, boy. I was brilliant.
Right, I said, sorry.
Then I asked, Why did you give it up?
A wry smile twisted his lips.
Why did I give it up? he said.
Maybe it was the cash.
It never gets you rich, you know, the music business.
You have to get lucky first.
The cash, that's what it was.
That's it? I asked, disappointed.
Pretty much, he said, and went back to staring at the water. And maybe -
maybe I just got bored.
Maybe I decided I just didn't want to play guitar no more.
There was another silence.
It sang like a harp, high and thin,
filling the empty spaces between us.
Okay, I said, after a minute or two. Fine.
He didn't reply.
Thanks for the cigarette, I said.
Then I got up and walked away.
And I didn't look back, not once.
Guess it turned out
his eyes were just as empty as the rest of him.
But as I walked, I was wondering to myself.
I couldn't stop thinking -
what if it wasn't the cash?
There had to be more to it.
Maybe, I thought, he lost faith in himself.
Or maybe it was simpler than that.
Maybe it was because the magic went from it –
because one day the mermaids just stopped coming,
and Holden grew up and got a real job.