'Do you think he'll have a uniform?' asked Bradley.
'I don't know, do I,' said Kirsty.
They were sitting on the stairs in the hall waiting for the man from the Navy to arrive.
'I bet he will,' said Bradley.
The letter had come a month ago. It said that the Navy would be doing coastal manoeuvres for two days in February. They'd be using the beaches and cliff-tops between Eddystone Bay and Blazey Point and everyone must keep away.
Their mother had looked at the dates. 'It's in the middle of your half-term.'
'We don't mind,' said Kirsty.
'You won't be able to get down to your bay - you won't be able to get to the sea at all.'
'We can watch.'
'Not too close you can't.' She read the rest of the letter. 'An information officer is going to visit us the day before.'
'To inform us I suppose.'
There was a telephone number and their mother had rung it. She told the Navy that she'd be at work during the day, and the man would have to come after five-thirty. They said that would be fine, and the officer would call after six.
It was now nearly suppertime the day before the exercise. The children were on half term. They'd been waiting for the man since their mother got back from work. It had started raining and a wind had picked up. Every now and then a gust would hit the house with a thump. Kirsty picked at her nails. 'If it's too windy they'll cancel it.'
'How was lunch?' called their mother.
During the holidays, the children had lunch with an old woman called Mrs McGinty. She lived a mile away and had a Scottie called Fred.
The bell rang and they all jumped.
Their mother came into the hall and opened the door. 'Bet he has a uniform,' said Bradley.
He did have a uniform, but most of it was covered up by a cape. 'Mrs. Webster?' he asked.
'Yes, won't you come in.'
'If it's no trouble.' He stepped into the hallway. 'I won't stay, I'll just give you a little more detail about what we'll be doing.' He closed the door and gave the children a smile. 'Now, we'll be landing in some of the bays and then establishing supply routes out of them - up the cliffs and paths so to speak.'
'When does it all start?'
'At dawn, although no landings will take place before eleven -we'll be through by late-afternoon the day after.'
'Can we watch?' asked Bradley.
'Well, one landing will be in the nearest bay, you can watch that from the cliff.' The man tried to look stern. 'But after that you have to stay away.'
'What about the wind,' said Kirsty. 'Won't they have to call it off?'
'Oh I shouldn't think so.' He looked at his watch. 'Duty calls I'm afraid... do you still have our number?'
He opened the door and stepped out. The wind caught his cap and sent it spinning off into the dark, a flash of white and then nothing. The man shouted and chased after it.
'I'd better get him a torch,' said their mother, but the man had gone.
Later they heard a car start up from the road and drive away. 'I wonder if he found it,' said Kirsty.
The wind howled all night but stopped before dawn. When the children went outside the garden smelled of the ocean.
'The waves must have come over the cliff,' said Bradley.
'Don't be silly, it's just the spray.' She started to run towards the sea half-a-mile away. 'Come on, we don't want to miss it.'
'It's hours yet,' said Bradley, but he ran as well.
Their mother, who was leaving for work, shouted after them, 'Don't be late for Mrs McGinty.'
They ran towards the bay. It was only their mother who called it 'their bay'. It wasn't theirs; in the summer the tourists always found it.
Instead the children called it Ear Bay because of its shape. The cliffs were low at one end, and at the high end it curved round, like the top of an ear. When the tide was in the whole bay was filled, but at low tide the sea uncovered a rock-flat. The waves had scooped a big hole out of it, leaving a pool that was refilled each day. It was wide and deep enough to swim in and was always warmer than the sea.
The children stood on the cliffs looking down at the rock-pool. They had been there for several minutes.
'It's a seal,' insisted Kirsty.
'It can't be, it's pink.'
'Only the top half.'
'And the bottom looks green.'
Something was swimming in the pool. It was too far away to make out more than its general shape and colour.
'I'm going down,' said Kirsty.
'The Navy's not here yet,' She set off down the hill. 'Come on.'
They clambered their way to the bottom and ran across the rock-flat towards the pool. As they neared it they slowed to a careful creep and peered into the water.
At the bottom of the pool a baby was playing with a long ribbon of seaweed, grabbing hold and then letting it slip through its fingers. Instead of legs, a slender, dark-green tail grew from below its waist. At the moment the tail was mostly wrapped around a rock.
'It's a mermaid,' said Bradley.
'Mermaids aren't real.'
'Then what's that?'
Kirsty looked at the creature. It grew bored of the seaweed and began to swim in circles. 'It doesn't have a fishtail, more like an eel-tail. Anyway, it's not a mermaid - it's a merbaby.'
The child bobbed to the surface and began to swim towards them.
'Is it a boy or a girl?' asked Bradley.
'I don't know, do I?'
'Where's its mother?'
Kirsty thought for a minute. 'They probably got separated in the storm.' The baby had reached the edge where the children stood. Kirsty crouched and held out a finger. The baby grabbed hold of it and gurgled. 'We'll have to put her back in the sea so her mum can find her.'
'Mum said to leave baby animals alone.'
'She's not an animal. Anyway we can't, the Navy would catch her. They'd put her in a tank.' Kirsty reached down and placed a hand under each of the baby's arms. Only the baby's head was out of the water and she soaked herself halfway to the elbows.
'Do you think the mother's close by?'
Kirsty stood up and cradled the creature in her arms. 'Probably watching.' She concentrated on holding the baby. Bradley came over and stroked the tail.
They made their way across the rock to where it slanted into the sea. Kirsty edged into the water until it lapped at her knees. When she placed the baby in the shallows it darted between her legs.
'We leave it for the mother.'
'Can't we stay until she gets here?'
'Not too close.' Kirsty backed out of the water. The baby popped to surface and watched her. The children walked back to the rock-and squatted down. 'She'd better be quick.'
'Your trainers are soaked.'
A siren sounded and they both looked out to sea. Navy boats were coming around the headland not more than half-a-mile from the shore.
'Oh crumbs,' said Bradley.
'Quick,' said Kirsty, and she ran back towards the ocean. Bradley followed and reached the water as Kirsty was scooping the baby into her arms.
'What are you going to do with it?'
'Hide it in the house.'
'Mum'll see it.'
But Kirsty was already running towards the path out of the bay. Bradley looked out at the ships. They had come to a stop and smaller boats on winches were being swung out over the water. He turned and ran after his sister.
He caught up as she began to climb 'Kir-sty.'
'But there's a man at the top.'
It was true. Kirsty put the child on the ground. 'We'll pretend it's an ordinary baby.' She took off her parka.
'They'll see the tail.'
'We'll wrap it in our coats - give me yours as well.'
When she had finished only the face was showing. The man had started to come down towards them. It was the information officer. Either he'd got a new hat or found his old one. 'I thought I told you two to stay on the cliffs to watch.'
He drew level with them and looked at the baby. 'Your little brother?'
'Sister,' said Kirsty.
'Does your mother know you bring her down here?'
'Do you want me to carry her to the top for you?'
'No, we're fine - we've done it loads of times.' The children started up the hill with the officer walking beside them. He stopped at the top and turned to watch the ships.
'Off you go and remember, stay away from now on.'
When they were out of earshot, Bradley asked, 'Where are we going to keep it?'
'In our room.'
'Mum'll find it.'
'It's only for a day,' said Kirsty. 'Just until the Navy goes.'
'She'll still find it, and anyway we ought to put it in water.'
'There's only the bath, and mum 's bound to notice that.'
'We could put it in the water-tank,' suggested Bradley. The water-tank was in a space behind a hatch in their room. Their mother's room was on the other side of the house.
'It'll be very cold.'
'Not as cold as the sea, and there's a light.'
When they reached the house, Bradley raced ahead to open the door. Up in their room, he removed the hatch and turned on the light. The tank was a big metal box nearly as tall as they were. It had a lid, and Kirsty put the baby on her bed while they removed it. Bradley propped the lid against the eaves and then joined his sister who was unwrapping the coats from the baby. The baby smiled and gurgled up at them.
'Can I hold it?'
'No,' said Kirsty. She carried the child through to the tank and gently lowered it into the water. The baby held onto the side for a moment, grinning at them, and then bobbed below the surface and then up again. The children laughed. 'She's playing peepo.'
They played until the baby fell asleep. They could just see it curled up at the bottom of the tank. Bradley closed the hatch and they set off to Mrs McGinty's for lunch.
When they got back they could hear the baby howling as soon as they came in. They rushed upstairs and opened the hatch. The baby was fine but screaming at the top of its voice, its head poking up over the tank.
'What's wrong with it?' asked Bradley.
'I think it's hungry.' Kirsty raced downstairs and returned a few minutes later with a jar of applesauce, a jar of jam, and a teaspoon. The baby ate all the applesauce and most of the jam. It had stopped crying at the first mouthful.
'I thought they'd eat fish.' Bradley looked into the water. 'Oh gross.'
Grey-green wads of ooze were pumping out of a hole halfway down the baby's tail, breaking up into muddy clouds as they fell away.
'Babies always poo.'
'But that's our water.'
The infant was asleep when their mother got home. They watched her boil spaghetti in a big pot.
'I'm not having seconds,' whispered Bradley. 'I bet it's got pee in it as well.'
At bedtime, Kirsty smuggled up some of the left over spaghetti, chopped up in a bowl. When their mother had said goodnight they woke the baby and fed and played with it until it went back to sleep.
Tucked up in their own beds they soon fell asleep themselves.
They were woken in the middle of the night by a strange wail, rising and falling, but far away.
'Is it the baby?' asked Kirsty.
'It's from outside.'
But at that moment the child began to wail too, softer, but with the same rising and falling note.
'It must be its mother.' Kirsty looked out of the window. She could see lights from the Navy camps along the cliff-top. 'She must be calling for it.'
After a while the cry faded away, and the baby soon fell silent too. Their mother had not woken.
The Navy began to pack up before lunch. When the children came back from Mrs McGinty the camps at the top of the cliffs had gone and the beaches were empty. They could see the ships sailing away around the headland.
When they got down to the beach with the child, Bradley looked for signs of a camp. 'They haven't left much rubbish.'
'They probably took it with them.' Kirsty lowered the baby into the surf. Almost at once the strange cry started again.
'Look,' said Bradley.
A little way out to sea the merbaby's mother was watching them, singing to the child. With a shriek and a giggle the baby ducked beneath the water and swam away. A moment later, with a flash of tail, the mother disappeared as well. The children watched the empty bay until they grew cold.
'You look a bit down,' said their mother at supper. 'Is it because the Navy's gone?'
'It'll be the weekend soon. We could all go to the pictures.' When neither responded, their mother sighed and went back to her food.
The next morning the children went down to the beach.
Kirsty was staring out at the sea, but Bradley had gone to inspect the rock-pool. She went over to see what he had found.
Lying at the bottom of the pool were two golden rings, shining brightly against the dark rock. They were bracelet-size and one rested lightly on the other. Kirsty began to take off her clothes.
'What are you doing?'
'I'm going to get them.'
Kirsty dropped her clothes into a pile and jumped into the water. She immediately popped to the surface, coughing and gasping.
Kirsty took a breath and dived to the bottom, returning moments later with a ring in each hand. She dropped them on the edge and climbed out and began to dry herself, shivering, with her tee shirt. Bradley picked up the bracelets and slipped one on to his wrist. 'Do you think they're real gold?'
'Of course they are,' said Kirsty. 'What else would a mermaid leave?'
©Tom Melly 2001