'Here we are, Professor Bream. Studio No 1.'
Hallie Hawker regarded her latest interviewee with satisfaction. That outfit! Too perfect really. He'd told her it was his favourite for special occasions. The audience may have seen his fluffy grey moustache and goatishly alert gaze on the book jacket but still; a rotund, sixty year old man in a purple and emerald check angora blazer, so frequently worn it was shedding, a sunshine yellow shirt and baby pink bow tie- just wonderful!
Bream tugged at the bowtie. It was sauna hot under the lights and it felt way too tight. He wondered if his terror showed on his face.
Hallie Hawker directed him to a cushioned black seat which directly faced a cushioned yellow seat on the podium. He hoisted himself into the chair hoping that his legs would reach the floor and tried to ignore the sensation of being eaten by carnivorous leather. Three burly men were aiming cameras at the podium. Bream was reminded of Goya's famous painting of a firing squad.
'Wipe his face!' Hallie instructed a skinny young girl in sneakers.
A cloth was mashed over his forehead and some powder dabbed on.
He nodded, gripping the sides of the chair as if he were at the top of a rollercoaster.
An alarmingly enthusiastic male voice echoed off the studio walls.
'Welcome to the Hallie Hawker show! Today's feature – mermaids; fact or fiction? With our very special guest, mythological ethnographer, Professor Lucien Bream.'
There was a wave of applause from the studio audience. The professor noted the board which had 'Applaud' on it; how obedient these people were!
Hallie Hawker flashed a winning smile at the cameras, and began.
'Yes, we are delighted to have with us here today, Professor Lucien Bream, a man who has all of scientific academia in an uproar with his book, 'The Esoteric Genome; an evolutionary and ethonographic account of the science and culture of "mythological' life forms.'
A picture of the book cover flared on the screen. It showed a man with a notebook and binoculars spying on a pair of kissing dragons. Bream winced. They hadn't consulted him on that one.
Hallie breezed on, ice blue eyes winking at the audience.
'Catchy title, huh? And, in case you don't understand the controversy – notice that mythological is in inverted commas. Well, the Esoteric Genome is this Spring's surprise bestseller and here we have our lovely Ricky Ross to give you a taster…'
The enthusiastic male voice re-emerged. This time its cheerfulness was subdued in favour of more solemnity and a faint dollop of awe.
"A Tale of Two Mer Cities; Melusine and Ondine."
Allowing the pretty names to sink in, it went on:
"The mammoth and the dodo were real once but there is now only evidence and belief, not presence. The centaur and the unicorn were real once and so were mermaids and mermen. Ondine, melusines- human seeming to the waist and fish below. All those sightings from the sixteenth century on; what if those sailors were not delusional? What if the creatures had noticed the numbers shrinking in their own environment and decided to hide from us?
Well, they have indeed been hiding from us but they have not always succeeded. This Chapter's notes include links to video material on secret Pentagon experiments on mer captives.'
Ricky, the disembodied announcing ghost, was done. Another brief explosion of applause.
Hallie Hawker's raised a sceptical, elegantly plucked eyebrow.
'So, Professor Bream, you state that mermaids are real and that the US government has conducted several clandestine experiments on the creatures?'
Bream's throat was dry. He removed his sweating hands from the gluey leather and folded them in his lap.
'Yes, they are real. I don't think of them as creatures any longer. I lived in a mer community for an entire year. The grandchildren of the mers who feature in the story of Melusine and Ondine I consider to be friends.'
His voice sounded a little hoarse in his own ears and he took a sip of water.
Hallie treated him to a snowy flare of teeth. As smiles went, he'd seen less predatory hammerheads.
'Some of your best friends are fish?' she suggested.
Bream lifted his head a little, straightened and smiled back to acknowledge the joke.
'They are hybrids, not fish. It took two years of tests and psychological interviews before I was welcomed into the community.'
Hallie glanced at her notes.
'Because you also write that the merpeople hate humans in spite of their genetic link to us?'
Bream blinked and scratched his beard.
'Hatred is a misleading term. They are extremely wary of humans; as you heard, many have been captured and experimented upon.'
Hallie trained a more interrogatory expression on the Professor.
'What do you say to the many people – respected high profile scientists among them – the people who say you are a deluded fantasist who needs psychiatric help?'
The professor seemed unoffended. This was very familiar ground for him.
'I would refer them to the photographs, audio recordings, journals and artefacts entrusted to me by the grandchildren of the mers who are the protagonists of this historical..it is historical…account.'
'No myth, no fable, no delusion?'
'I am as sane as anyone in this studio.'
Bream held decided opinions on the relationship between the mass media and human mental health but this was not the time to air them.
Hawker picked up and brandished her notes.
'The kind of evidence you refer to has been faked previously – for example, the famous Roswell footage of alien experiments.'
The audience were treated to a clip of stocking faced, white anorexic bodies being poked at with scalpels.
Bream sighed and took another sip of water.
'My evidence has been authenticated to the highest scientific standards. One hardcore materialist had to have counselling afterwards. I even froze some dna. It's all in the book.'
He risked an ingratiating smile at the audience. A woman held up a placard which said 'Marry me Lucien and turn me into a mermaid!' He looked away quickly, horrified.
There was a slight scuffle as a security guard directed the woman, protesting , to the door. 'Don't let that bitch talk to you like that, darling!' she yelled as she was pushed through the exit.
Hallie smiled tightly as Bream gulped. That woman had been following him for months.
'It seems you are not short of admirers, Dr Bream. Well, arguments about your claims are livening up many a breakfast table right now. Your book has even been cited in one divorce case '
Bream shrugged, embarrassed and Hallie's tone became businesslike again.
'So you claim there haven't been any sightings because these communities are protected by an invisibility spell?'
He leaned back. Perhaps there would be some serious discussion now.
'Just so. All mer communities are invisible, inaudible and intangible to humans. The spell was revoked for me after my trial period.'
Another telling pause and eyebrow arch.
'So you ask us to believe that they are magical creatures?'
There was that derogatory word again. Bream held her gaze.
'Beings. They have both magic and science.'
Hallie tapped her impeccably painted nails against matching lips.
'That's a good point to ask you more about these…beings and their societies. I'm sure our audience would love to know about them. How do they live? What do they look like? Do they sit about on rocks, combing their hair and luring humans to their doom with song?'
She glanced at the audience.
'And that's just the boys!'
Professor Bream was familiar with this sort of badinage. He smiled.
'Mers rather enjoy spreading stories to scare us off. They can read human books. Their auditory powers are astonishing and they learn the most important human languages at school. '
'But I'm sure the audience would like to know what they look like..…would everyone like to see a photograph of a real mer?'
The audience yelled their approval.
An image of a young boy with a shimmering, silver tail and very short flexible arms appeared on the screen. The scales were in high relief and very fishlike The boy's smile showed a mouth full of bright white, canine teeth. His black hair was twisted into a pretzel wheel ; he had dimples, alabaster skin and clear green eyes. He appeared to be sitting on a large fish of indeterminate breed.'
Some in the audience gasped. Others scrutinised the photograph for any visible join between the torso and the tail.
' This is a photo of a Melusine mer: their tails are silver or gold to blend with fish shoals. His name is Makifin and he appears in the story.'
Hallie re-established control by nodding at a technician and disappearing the photograph.
' Professor Bream. Tell me, what did he do to his hair?'
The professor actually laughed.
'Mer boys love whale blubber gel and their hair sculptures can get quite elaborate.'
'Fantastic – metrosexual mers! And the singing?'
'Sorry to disappoint you but I'm afraid their vocal abilities vary as widely as those fellows who go onto your talent shows. '
Bream leant back again in the chair. He had started to enjoy himself a little.
'Tell me: what has made so many people keen to read your book? And why should more people believe the hype and get a copy?
'Human are always fascinated with other life forms. The mer section is especially popular with younger readers. Five adolescents in this history, two girls and three boys, showed enormous courage in challenging very powerful and vicious adults. All to save their loved ones , their home. And when I say home, I mean, it was a life or death situation. In mer languages, the words for environment mean 'our home' We can learn from that.'
'Are you saying that they are superior to humans?'
'Perhaps in respect to the planet. Their societies were far from perfect as the events in the book demonstrate.'
'Ok. One final point before we take questions from the audience. What can you say to your long standing critic, Dr Aloysius Pike. In a Washington Post article, he dubbed you, 'The Emperor of Charlatans.'
Professor Bream snorted. His goaty eyes glittered.
'He should have that phrase embroidered on his own synthetic shirts. He has tried and failed on several occasions to kidnap a mer. You may have seen a documentary about it – 'A Fishy Business'.
Hallie tutted flirtatiously.
'I don't watch the products of rival channels, Professor. ''
'It follows the debacle of his endeavour to exhibit a 'genuine' mermaid at the Oregan State Fair in 1972. They preserved the creature. It's in the Smithsonian, I believe – half shaved monkey, half fish skins stuffed with shredded duvet. Pike is jealous and bitter because my more collaborative approach worked where his bullying failed. I have a Msc in Foreign Field Information Thematics; he is completely unqualified.'
Hallie gave her half winking smile to the cameras.
'Professor Bream is the only academic who possesses this particular…degree. And your thesis did concern depression in dragons, I believe?'
The professor smiled patiently but started twisting his hands together in his lap. He'd spotted two heads of environmental science departments in the studio. He was about to be mauled but had a secret weapon. A Bream fan working as a lab assistant had captured one of them on a dictaphone admitting that he couldn't find anything fake about the mermaid dna samples and had forwarded the recording to him.
He turned his head to meet Hallie's challenge.
'Dragons are dying out and can't find mates easily. Ergo depression. I can handle being the maverick. I know I am a figure of fun to the closed minded. I leave it up to my readers. Who and what do you want to believe
A mutual exchange of polite thanks between reporter and subject followed. There were several hands waving in the audience.
Bream was relieved to get in the taxi provided by the television company. Overall, it had been a modest triumph, partly thanks to that lab assistant and his furtive recording. His opponents had been made to look petty, vindictive and intellectually obstructive. Not that all the viewers would be convinced. That didn't matter. The important thing was he had the funding to continue his research and the tv appearance had not reduced his credibility.
He was exhausted. His suite in the hotel had an extremely comfortable bed, which he looked forward to occupying. The establishment itself was a symphony of quality beige and taupe , rather like walking through the fronds of an expensively upholstered mushroom. The paintings adorning the walls appeared to have been chosen for their lack of distinguishing features. Still the staff were polite, the food enjoyable and above all, he wasn't paying.
Once inside his room, Bream quickly donned his pyjamas, a Chinese purple and gold satin with several cavorting dragons in emerald green embroidery. Yawning, he approached the bathroom. As he touched the handle, he felt an unpleasant sensation all along his spine - somewhere between an electric shock and a bucket of ice water. Tutting to himself, he pushed the door open.
The stone coloured faux marble bath was occupied. Bream blinked.
'You can't….it's not…you're dead.'
'Reports of my mortality have been greatly exaggerated. Love your prose, Bream. Florid, metaphorical. You do a good death scene.'
The professor had only previously heard the high pitched, rather childish voice on audio. His heart skipped several beats, then resumed in a skittery, faint manner.
'I must be hallucinating – facing the media is highly stressful. I will consult a psychiatrist friend on my return to Oxford.'
'You can touch me if you like. Wash your hands first.'
The creature,no the mer, Bream, never called them creatures, giggled. The hairs rose on the back of his neck. He was beginning to feel slightly nauseous.
'I have no wish to touch you. Tell me what you're doing here.'
The mer splashed about a bit. He had poured the lemongrass and cherry blossom shower gel into the tub and his tail was only visible through a tower of foam.
'Withdraw the book and confess that it has all been a giant hoax.'
The mer stared directly at Bream. His own descriptions in Esoteric Genome had not done that gaze justice. He looked away. Even if it was a hallucination, he refused to be hypnotised.
'Why should I do that? I'm doing no harm.'
'You are drawing attention to the mer civilisation. Protected as they are, it isn't really safe. Besides, I did not give you permission to write my story. Go to your publishers tomorrow and make a full retraction.'
'Even If I do that, the evidence is out there now. I have no intention of telling such lies to please you. '
The mer blew some bubbles in Breams direction. They floated in the air then assumed the shape of a large wave. It was reminiscent of Hokusai's drawing, Bream thought distractedly.
'Professor, you are certainly aware of what I am capable of. If you do not withdraw the book, I will be making some unfortunate environmental adjustments – globally. Do you want to be responsible for that?'
Bream risked a glance in the mer's direction.
'You are dead. I haven't slept well for the past week. So my imagination has conjured you up – threatening earthquakes, tidal waves. It's just funk and stress. Even if you are real, I'm not going to perjure myself on your say-so.'
The mer blew some more bubbles and sighed.
'Then , like so many academics, you are a fool. You'll be hearing from me. Nice pyjamas – tasteful.'
Bream shuffled towards the tub. His legs felt like candyfloss. He stared at the tower of foam, and the unmistakeable outline of a mer tail contained within it.