Aidan opened his eyes to the blue of the sky. He moved his fingers. They rested on shingle. He heard the shifting sea and the cry of a seagull as it sailed overhead, tacking through the wind with white wings. He knew he was alive because he could smell the drying kelp beside him and feel the tickle of a fly on his face.
He sat up. His muscles were aching and stiff. He was still wearing his wetsuit; his snorkel, mask and fins lay beside him on the beach. There was a salty taste of fish in his mouth.
The beach was a small crescent embraced in a rocky shoreline. A path zig-zagged up the slope to the camping park. It seemed to be the same one from which he had entered the water, although his memories were confused, and dream-like.
He studied the surrounding scene. It was Reenydonaghan Lough, in West Cork, on the west coast of Ireland. The rocky peninsula jutted out into a broad sea lough framed on either side by mountains and stretching out to the horizon, where there was nothing but the Atlantic until you got to America. It was a sunny day in early summer. He had been on a camping trip with Beth. He had told her he was going out snorkelling. Perhaps he had fallen asleep.
He got up and stretched painfully, feeling as if he had trained too hard at the gym. Something in his wetsuit pocket dug into his thigh and he pulled it out. At first it looked like a stone but it was unusually dense, and amongst the concretions there was a gleam of gold. It was a handful of coins cemented together by many years on the sea bed. It puzzled him and yet he seemed to recognise it. He slipped it back into his pocket and gathering up his things made his way back to the camper van.
‘My God, Aidan, where have you been?’ Beth flung her arms around him, and then stood back. ‘I’ve been so worried. I was on the point of calling the Coastguard to start searching for you. You said you’d only be half an hour.’
‘I don’t know. I woke up just now on the beach. What time is it?’
‘Six o’clock. You said you’d only be gone half an hour. I know I said I was going to read my book, but I didn’t mean all afternoon.’
‘Sorry, Beth. I think I fell asleep on the beach.’ He felt unusually tender towards her, reaching out to stroke her face, to brush his lips to hers, but she grimaced at his salty mouth.
‘Aidan, I went all along the shoreline looking for you. You weren’t there. You must have been in the water. But you couldn’t have been in for that length of time. Where were you?’
He stared past her trying to remember. He had no recollection at all. He felt his sleeve. It was still wet, the sticky wetness of seawater.
‘I suppose I must have been.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘I’m not sure.’ He didn’t show her the coins. Treasure had to be declared to the authorities, who would investigate ownership: the finder might never see it again. Instead, he constructed an account of the missing hours. ‘I suppose I must have had quite a long swim. It’s pretty rocky out there, lots to look at. And then I was tired when I came out, so I had a lie down on the beach and I suppose I slept longer than I intended. Sorry about that.’
She frowned at him.
‘But I’ve been checking the beach all day and you weren’t there.’
‘Maybe you overlooked me? I might have been hidden by the rocks.’ He cut the discussion short by saying he had to go for a shower, and after that they’d go up to the hotel for a nice meal in the restaurant. ‘I’m starving,’ he lied.
Aidan took a change of clothes up to the shower block. Standing under the warm water, still in his wetsuit, he examined the coins more closely, rubbing at the concretions with his thumb. A fragment of compacted sand broke away to reveal a worn inscription and possibly a cross at the centre of the coin’s surface. It gave him an eerie feeling. It was ancient, no doubt about it.
He wrapped it in his flannel and put it away in his washbag. As he peeled off his wetsuit and washed his hair he thought of the history of that coast, and of the uncounted ships that had sunk in its waters. This could be from a ship of the Spanish Armada, from the 16th century. There had to have been a wreck out there, perhaps within snorkelling distance of the shore. The treasure could be incredibly valuable. He would have to have another look – if only he could remember where he had been.
As Aidan walked back through the campsite to their camper van the problem of the missing hours continued to bother him. He did not believe his own explanation. It was odd that he had no memories of the swim. Perhaps he had had some sort of an epileptic fit in the water? But then surely he would have drowned. And nothing like that had ever happened to him before. He decided that he would just have to be more careful in future. He would get out early tomorrow morning for a swim, so it wouldn’t disrupt Beth’s day, and this time he wouldn’t fall asleep on the beach.
Beth, finishing her book in the evening sunshine on a relaxer chair on the grass, seemed to have forgiven him.
‘You’ve scrubbed up well,’ she said. She stretched her arms up to him and he stooped down for a kiss.
‘Sorry about this afternoon.’ He rested his face in her hair, which smelt of sunshine and fresh air.
‘It’s OK,’ she sighed.
‘I love you,’ he said.
As they walked up to the hotel they held hands and, leaning into him, Beth told him she was pregnant. He stopped abruptly and took her into his arms. Holding this most precious gift, not one life but two, his eyes filled with tears. Over dinner they talked excitedly about baby names, about turning the box room into a nursery, and how they would let their parents know.
That night Aidan dreamed he was snorkelling in a sunlit sea. A shoal of small fry darted as one and the pebbles of the shore gave way to sand amongst small reefs of rock. Sea anemones projected pink fronds into the current. He dove down through the clear water, his throat closed. He swam along the sea bed, the water weighting him down, examining the gullies, spotting snails and sea slugs, velvet crabs with their pincers raised in threat.
At the edge of the rocks there was a drop-off, an underwater cliff where the sea-bed fell away abruptly into the depths. He floated out above the dark water and below him he saw the flash of a huge silvery tail.
Then he was tumbling down through the water, somersaulting, with bubbles spiralling around his ears, the current blowing past him like a gale. His snorkel and mask were swept from his head; his vision blurred by water. He closed his eyes. He felt a hand on his, colder than the depths of the ocean. A kiss stung his mouth with salt, with a tongue that wriggled against his like a little fish. He sank and sank, until he landed on a hard surface. Desperate for oxygen, he took a breath. Water flowed into his lungs, but he did not cough. He opened his eyes and saw a pale hand resting on his, the slender beauty of a bare arm, lush fronds of seaweed-like hair, the sinous tail of a sea monster. Her face floated close to his. Her skin, smooth like the inside of a shell, seemed to glow with its own greyish light; her eyes were unblinking, with silver irises and huge, round pupils. The mouth that had kissed him was smiling; her lips were broad and full.
They were on the deck of a sunken ship, a galleon of great antiquity. It lay at a slight angle, but above him, sails were reefed in to the masts and soft corals and anemones grew in profusion all over the structure, their fluffy tentacles creating a halo of white and cream and pale apricot around it.
He followed her past a jumble of rotten cargo, of sleeping sailors, of treasure spilling from overturned chests. Below in the galley he glimpsed slaves lying motionless across their oars. On the fore-deck a circle of mermaids and mermen were at rest, unperturbed by the chaos, their long tails draped eel-like over piles of gold. Their fronds of long pale hair and beard rippled in the soft green dusk and their arms and hands extended towards him in greeting, the webs between their fingers stretching, translucent. He picked up a coin and saw on its surface a cross and a Latin inscription. They seemed not to mind when he filled his hands and pockets with the treasure.
But in the darkness beyond the circle he saw Beth. Her face was greenish and thin, her eye sockets empty, and from a bundle in her arms trailed long strands of kelp. In the bundle was a tiny face. Aidan realised that it was the baby and that both of them were dead. His scream of horror was distorted by the water. He wanted to swim up out of the wreck but the gold was a dead weight. The mermaids started to close in around him. Hastily, he emptied out his pockets and allowed the gold to sink to the deck. Sediment rose up in a cloud and he could no longer see Beth, but now he was floating up towards the surface.
Below him a commotion began in the water, and he saw the galleon tilting upright. The slaves must have awoken, for now the galleon glided below him in midwater, its white fur of sea anemones glistening pale and ghostly in the gloom. Oars moved in perfect alignment along the hull, sails painted with sea dragons bellied out in the current, and the figurehead, a pale spectre, stretched an arm toward the inky depths. And the ship was bearing Beth away.
‘Beth! Beth!’ he called out, but his shouts were choked by water, and no reply came back from the silent vessel.
Aidan awoke shivering in the campervan. It was so sweet to hear Beth breathing beside him. He shifted closer to her in the bed, almost touching her, to sense her warmth without waking her. It was half-past-four in the morning. The dawn chorus started up outside and the grey light of morning filtered around the window blinds. He lay awake, afraid of falling back to sleep. Of course, it had only been a dream, but he felt that somehow his mind had stored and divulged to him the secret of the lost hours. The lump of gold he had hidden in the flannel weighed upon him still. Beth must never see it or touch it.
He eased himself out of the bed and found the wash bag.
Beth stirred as he was half out of the door.
‘Just off to the men’s’, he said, and she settled back to sleep.
But he went the other way, towards the beach. The sky was pink with dawn. He breathed in air with the sweetness of summer. The blackbirds were singing, dew lay on the grass, and as the sun came up the wild fuchsia glowed scarlet in the hedges.
He walked out on the shingle to the water’s edge and threw the gold as far as he could, with all his strength. It splashed into the sea. For a moment he thought he saw a head bob up out of the water and then duck down again, followed by the curl of a silver tail fin briefly breaking the surface.
Perhaps it was just a couple of wavelets, he reassured himself. But he did not dare to linger there and turned quickly away, walking back to Beth, back to his life.