Jack took a deep breath, letting it out gently to match the sound of the light offshore breeze that caressed him. It took the edge off the late morning Solent sun. “What a perfect day!” he exclaimed out loud. The sun warmed his pale skin as he bobbed gently on his airbed. His hands dangled in the water, reinforcing the breeze’s cooling effect. He dozed off. The wavelets lapping against his airbed sang him to sleep with their gentle rhythm. The mewing of the gulls over the beach gradually receded.
Suddenly and violently, his left hand was wrenched from below. His scream for help was drowned by the salty water as he spun over the air bed. “Sharks here?” flashed through his brain. Then he realised that strong hands held him, not jaws. He struggled against them, but they held him tight – hands on his hands, his arms, his legs and his feet. He couldn't move at all. Lack of oxygen dulled his senses. The water revealed dimly the outline of many human forms around him, but also some scaly surfaces. His world began to darken. He began to resign himself to death, but just as his lungs were about to burst, a face mask was clapped on his face and he felt air being forced into his mouth. At the same time, he felt straps being wound around him and tightened. The joy of breathing at last could not conceal the sure sensation that he was being transported somewhere – rapidly, with the rhythmic swimming of whoever was taking him transmitted through their hands to his.
Some time later – Jack wasn't sure how much – it could have been a few minutes, it could have been half an hour – he felt himself being pushed upwards quickly. His head broke the surface. He was pulled onto a sand and pebble beach. He lay face down, breathing hard, slowly gaining the confidence to move. He raised himself with his arms and looked around. There was no sky above, just chalk, with deep regular cracks. Jack realised that the cracks had been made to let the air in. The chalk arched from behind the beach, over his head, and down again. He was in a cave. It was lit by a dim blue-green light. He wasn’t sure where it came from. Then he realised that the light was not reflected but was from below –from the underwater exit of the cave. The beach shelved sharply under the water, leaving clear water for the light to come through.
Suddenly, a head bobbed above the water. It was that of a boy about his own age, with long blond hair and green eyes – one dark, one light. The boy flashed a white smile at him. “Hello!” the boy said with a hint of a Devon accent. “How are you?”
“Not very well, probably thanks to you!” Jack replied resentfully. “You and your lot nearly killed me!”
“That’s what they all say,” the boy smiled.
“What do you mean, ‘all’?” Jack asked anxiously. “Have you got a slave trade going here?”.
“I’ll explain later,” replied the boy. “But first tell me your name.”
“What’s it to you?” asked Jack.
“Well, you’re going to be with us a long time,” replied the boy. He disappeared below the water and surfaced a few feet away. “In fact, you’re going to be here for ever. So you’ve got a choice. I can either call you ‘Hey, you!’ or we can call each other by our real names.
“I’m certainly not staying here for ever, especially after such a nasty welcome. But, yes, you can use my name. It’s Jack”
“And mine is Henry Quicksilver,” replied the boy. Then, he swam the few needed strokes to the beach. “All the men and boys are named after Henry the Eighth. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but you can call me “Quicksilver”. He gradually drew himself out of the water. Jack saw that around his waist, fish scales started.
“Are you a merman?” Jack asked.
As if in answer, Quicksilver – laughing – gradually drew the rest of his body from the water. Jack saw that he wore trousers that seemed to be made of fish skin. Jack remembered the fish scale surfaces that he had seen when he thought he was drowning. He then made the connection. The boy’s body was slim and athletic, just like Jack’s, such a contrast with the many overweight boys at Jack’s school. The one exception was his barrel chest – twice the size of Jack’s.
“The same old trick!!” Quicksilver laughed. “It works every time.”
“Anyway, you’re obviously human, but you can swim like mermen and mermaids under the water. Tell me how!”
“OK, I’ll give you the detail later. I’d love to have it printed, but we haven’t got any presses down here, and we wouldn't want to give away our secret up there in Portsmouth or Southampton. We’re all descendants of survivors of the Mary Rose, Henry’s ship that sunk near Portsmouth in the French wars. They feared being hung because some thought the ship sank through poor navigation. They swum here to the Isle of Wight and went into hiding. In those days, there weren't many people around. For the first few years, they lived off the land and the sea, and captured some women to be their wives. Over the centuries, we've become very hardy. We live just off the sea now – and we create wonders from the local fish and seafood. Prawn jelly’s my favourite. Just as farmers learned to breed cows, we bred ourselves to stay ages underwater and to tolerate low temperatures. We have plenty of breeding stock because every man has seven wives and every wife seven husbands, so there were always lots of babies. Many didn't survive our cold water or bad weather tests, or our depth or submerged time tests. Gradually, we increased the time. Now we can stay ten minutes under water. We just need to surface for a breath before taking another ten minutes. We swim happily in near-freezing water. Because we’re all so fit, we all live to about a hundred and fifty. There are about five thousand of us. We have settlements all along the South coast. , and also some French cousins, refugees from the French Revolution – very noble they are too. My father is the king of all of them.
“So how do you know who your father is, if each woman has seven husbands?”
“Because I look like him, of course. Actually, if you want to know, although everyone has seven wives , it’s all managed so that each wife and husband stay together for a whole month, so we know who’s who. I’ve got lots of brothers and sisters – thirty three brothers and forty one sisters at the latest count.”
“How do you know how many?”
“I forgot to tell you, we’re organised in groups. Each group of seven women is married to a group of seven men. Their children are counted as brothers and sisters, to make sure they don’t interbreed. There are lots of children because we have to keep our numbers up, so our women must have a child every two-three years, because we lose many through the tests.”
“Who’s your mother?”
“She was killed by the propeller of one of those big cruise ships that come into Southampton. She was replaced by a younger woman, my step-mother.” He moved quickly off the subject and Jack detected a fleeting sad look in his eye.
“What else? Oh yes, we’re having trouble these days with sharks. I hate them. They come here quite often. We've tamed seals to keep a look out. They’re like sheep dogs –loyal, friendly and hard working. However, occasionally they migrate up North to Scotland in the summer. Sometimes we go with them. It’s when we don’t that we tend to lose a few of our younger folk to sharks.”
“And why am I here?”
“We need to reinforce our stock every now and then!”
“There’s no way I'm staying here!” asserted Jack.
“You wait till you see what we've got waiting for you. You see, there’s no point in bringing in new blood unless we make it work for us” Quicksilver told him with a glint in his eye.
Jack thought of his girlfriend Tanya.
“I know what you’re thinking. How can anybody be like my girlfriend back home? You wait and see what our girls look like! And you’d have seven partners – all stunning. I’ll introduce you to the one I like the most – we don’t use the word “love” here. She’s called Elizabeth Sunset, because of her red hair. Yes, all the girls’ first names are the same as Henry’s daughter. Unfortunately, she can never be mine, as she’s been reserved for …… you… and six more new boys.”
Jack looked sceptical.
Jack was feeling overwhelmed. Just a couple of hours ago he’d been lying on a beach with Tanya. He felt angry at Quicksilver’s calm assumption that he would accept the loss of his freedom.
But then, another head broke the water’s surface. It was a girl, a year or so younger than Jack. She had brilliant red hair, bright blue eyes, and a smile that Jack knew many Hollywood princesses would have died for – at once inviting and calm. She eyed him calmly for a few seconds.
“Hi, Sunset!” Quicksilver greeted her. “Come and meet Jack, my new brother!”
“I’m not your brother and never will be. I’ll find a way to…”
He stopped in his tracks. Sunset rose partly out of the water. Jack had never seen a figure like hers. Her waist was small, but her chest – well, Jack couldn't take his eyes off it, even though it was clothed in the same fish skin as Quicksilver’s trousers. Then she got out of the water completely. She wore shorts from the same fish skin, revealing slim, strong, beautifully proportioned legs.”
“Hello, Jack,” she whispered as she approached him. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long, long time.”