Read time: 23 mins

Fish Nor Fowl

by Christine Coates
20 April 2022

I’m outside Tony’s Auto Glass in Maitland waiting for a new windscreen. My van’s worth less than the windscreen, but I have to have the glass. I know a bloke here – Wally, an old friend. Wait, he indicates. I know the gesture; his boss is around. So I drive around the corner. He’ll come; he always does. We do that for each other; always have.

Maitland, the arse-end of Cape Town. Factories have relocated to fancier premises; everything is relocating nowadays. In the early days it was the Jews and Portuguese who were the immigrants, their small businesses and fish-and-chips shops. Now it’s the Nigerians and Zimbabweans who’ve moved in. Life’s not all it’s cracked up to be; my windscreen reminds me of that. The southeaster blows Nandos wrappings, chip packets, empty Kentucky tubs. The smell never goes. The alley of the broken bits of life, abandoned kittens and car tyres.

I’m almost ready to drive off when Wally arrives.

‘Sorry man,’ he says. ‘I’ll sort it. In the meantime go down to Manny’s and have a beer. I won’t be long. Order me a Stella.’

Manny’s a Portuguese restaurant that’s survived relocation. Manny greets me like a long-lost friend, shows me to Wally’s usual table. I order a Corona and a Stella for Wally. The plasma-screen dominates the back wall. Cristiano Ronaldo is running around like a Portuguese god. I’m a Man City man myself. I flick through the channels as I wait for the next game. Suddenly the screen is an aquarium, and a beautiful mermaid fills the space. I look into her eyes. It’s not every day you see a mermaid, certainly not in Maitland, but she’s smiling and waving at me. There are moments I ask myself if I’m crazy, if my mind is migrating, but I’ve known mermaids in my time – always there when I’ve needed them.

 

In the background Cristina Branco is singing fado – the music of longing. Manny’s TV is too loud – it competes with the radio. He brings the beer. He’s had the plastic tablecloths, the plastic flowers for years. The tomato sauce in a red plastic tomato. The mustard in the sticky yellow bottle. Suitably tacky, but you can’t judge the food by the tablecloth it’s served on.

I’m on my third Corona when Wally arrives. ‘Jislaaik,’ he says. ‘I thought the boss would never go. What you watching?’

‘I was just flicking through the channels,’ I say.

Wally picks up his cold Stella. ‘Cheers,’ he says and nods at the screen. Richard Attenborough is droning on about reefs.

‘Isn’t Chelsea playing today? And you’re looking at fish?’

‘It was a mermaid earlier,’ I say.

‘A mermaid? What you smoking?’

‘Trues, there’s a bar in Sacramento with a big fish tank. They have real mermaids swimming around in it.’

‘You and your mermaids. Remember your dad’s mermaid,’ Wally says. ‘What was her name again?’

‘Angela.’ I say.

‘Yes. Your pa, the magic maker. He made our dreams come true.’

‘Ja,’ I agree. ‘People travel the world over to find what they’re looking for, but we had it all, right there in that room.’

We watch as the fish swim in and out of the coral and swaying seaweed, zebras and angels.

‘Funny how she was called Angela.’

‘Yeah,’ I nod. ‘And she was an angel.’

‘A window to another world,’ Wally says. ‘And the windows in Sea Point. Remember?’

‘Odd,’ I say. ‘Just thinking of those days. Sundays in Sea Point, how Pa took us for ice creams, how we watched the windows of the blocks of flats shine, reflecting the setting sun.’

Then a car backfires and I knock over Wally’s Stella, spilling it over him.

‘Jesus!’ he says.

Manny gets up to fetch a cloth and another beer. Wally notices my hands shaking. ‘C’mon, it’s only a backfire. I guess you get used to it in this neck of the woods; all the foreigners fighting their patch,’ Manny pops another Stella down.

‘Remember when we used to shoot birds with our catties?’ Wally says.

But I don’t want to remember. Manny is turning the music down.

‘Aw, I like fado,’ Wally complains, and Manny turns it up again.

‘Anyhow, as I was saying,’ he continues. ‘We’d go shoot birds in the woods. Once it had rained, and doves gathered around the ditch. They were dipping their beaks in and out. I aimed. There was a loud crack, and the pigeons scattered. Herman – you nearly wet yourself!’

 

Manny mutters about checking chickens, but I’m not taking it in. Maria plonks down Wally’s peri-peri chicken and another Stella. The plastic tomato has red stuff dripping down its side. Those trees are frowning, and my mind is drifting again. I’m in the copse of trees again. There’s an old window latch lying in the dirt, a strip of rusted metal, the smell of puke and eucalyptus. Wally’s looking at the pool of foul water, the view from the other side.

‘Bad things happened back then,’ he is saying. The mermaid is behind the screen of green glass again. Her eyes windows. Wally is still talking.

‘I saw his boots through the bushes; you were barking at the trees. I mean, it was terrible. I couldn’t work out what had happened; I just dragged you home. Your dad sorted it out.’

Wally is hauling me back.

‘He took me out of school,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Your dad saved you. He saved both of us.’ Wally puts his hand on my shoulder. He’s always shouldered my troubles.

 

My hand’s in my pocket. ‘Look, I still have his penny, the one with his birthdate.’ I take it out. ‘1928 and the king’s head.’

‘Yeah, King of the Road.’

‘After we found Angela, we travelled for the rest of the year, itinerants.’

‘And I,’ says Wally, ‘came with you. Your dad saved me too.’

‘He did. You were having a hard time too, weren’t you, Wally?’

‘Those were the days, I tell you.’

 

We ate ice-lollies from the ice-cream cart at the school gate. If I had pennies, I’d choose a double ice-lolly on two sticks. A green one, lime flavoured. I’d break it in two and sell half to Wally for a marble. Always hanging around, like a feral dog. He liked the white lollies, but as I said, beggars can’t be choosers. Like I could talk.

The first mermaid I saw was in a storybook. Then I got my own. My uncle had travelled, not something people in my family did much.

He’d bought a sculpture of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. I was about eight. Grey metal, perhaps pewter. It fitted in the palm of my hand. I kept it in my pocket, feeling its shape, sides and contours all day. When I held it up, her fishtail shimmered; I could see colours – pinks, turquoise, gold. I turned it from side to side. Her hair hung down, just covering her breasts. My dream was to be a merman and swim with her under the sea.

At school we were learning about elements. Water is H²O; air is O + carbon dioxide. Fish live and breathe in water; I live on earth and breathe air; these are my elements. Mermaids live in both water and air. I showed Wally my mermaid, and he promised not to tell anyone – crossed his heart and hoped to die.

Sometimes, on a Sunday, Pa took Ma and me to Sea Point, to the promenade. Always good to get out of Goodwood. The tall buildings along the beach sparkled; it’s always bright there, not like dirty Goodwood’s streets and wind-blown garbage. Ma liked to dress us up; she’d brush my hair until it shone.

‘Ah, you’d have made a beautiful girl,’ she’d say. Ma had wanted a daughter, but she got me. She liked to swagger along the promenade like one of those rich ladies in a penthouse. Pa bought ice-cream cones, and I’d hang over the railings and stare at the Atlantic Ocean, my mermaid in my pocket. How she must have longed for the sea. I’d climb down, lie next to a rock pool and lower her in to be with starfish and anemones. She seemed happy under the water. At home in her element.

School was a different kettle of fish, not my element. My hair shorter now, but still longer than the other boys’. Ma trimmed it. I’d never been to a barber for a short-back-and-sides. The boys called me a pansy and pulled it. Susie Dawson told the girls I smelled like old cheese, and they passed me holding their noses. The boys at school called me a sissy for not playing cricket, but I don’t like sports. Then Bruce Botha said I should come – they needed a fielder. I said okay, but when I was running to catch a ball, I felt my mermaid slip out of my pocket. I stopped, and the ball rolled to the boundary.

‘You stupid fool!’ Bruce punched me. Then he saw the mermaid and dived for her.

‘Leave it!’ I screamed, but Bruce pocketed her, smirking.

 

Later Pa asked what the matter was. ‘Nothing,’ I said and ran to my room. Pa ignored me until supper then said I had to come and eat – or else. Ma kept looking at me. Afterwards we sat on the stoep looking at the stars. Pa taught me the constellations. Taurus’s red eye winked, and Scorpio looked like a mermaid. Pa said time for bed.

‘Bruce Botha took her, my mermaid,’ I said.
Pa nodded. ‘You need to get it back from him tomorrow. Okay?’

‘He’s big, Pa,’ I said. But Pa said not to worry. Bruce Botha knew he had done wrong, and all I had to do was to look him straight in the eye.

The next morning Pa took me in his old jalopy. We waited in the car until I saw Bruce approaching.

‘There he is,’ I said, and we stood on the pavement facing Bruce. Pa didn’t say a word except nudge me.

‘You got something of mine,’ I said. It was easier with Pa there. Bruce simply put his hand into his pocket and handed me my mermaid.

‘You have a good day, Bruce,’ Pa said. He took my shoulder as I was getting out of the car. ‘And you too, my son.’

Pa could make things out of nothing. His garage was a magic chamber. People were amazed at his contraptions – like the candyfloss-maker he made from an old washing machine tub; he was a kind of magician.

‘Pity he can’t make money out of nothing,’ Ma’d say. Pa’s latest idea was always going to be the big one. But the candyfloss-maker was good – it led him to the idea that changed our lives.

Pa took his machine to agricultural shows around the platteland. He’d set it up near the freak-show tent – the fattest man on earth, the bearded lady, the bendy man. I’d eat the bits of candy floss that got stuck in the bottom of the machine. Sometimes Wally came too. Sometimes he’d arrived at the house as we were leaving, his eye black, and he’d been crying.

Pa said, ‘You come along with us, boy. I’ll chat to your dad afterwards.’

 

I loved the show animals – the Afrikander bulls and Merino sheep. A man was selling ridgeback puppies.

‘African lion-dogs,’ he said. ‘To keep livestock safe from lions.’

Ma asked Pa if he’d noticed any lions lately around Goodwood.

‘Not the maned variety,’ he said. But we never had burglaries while we had that dog.

School was a waste of my time and theirs – the teachers told me that daily. I wished I could have stayed home and help Pa invent, but I had to go to school; it was the law of the land, Ma reminded me every day. I thought of ways of making money, but it was Wally who came up with our big idea – boys paying to see my mermaid. We set up a peek-show behind the bicycle shed. Wally spread the word. The boys lined up.

‘A tickey a time,’ and I turned her this way and that. The boys were mesmerized. It didn’t surprise me. I knew her magical powers. We were onto a good thing. To hold her cost a sixpence.

 

Wally bought a red ice-lolly and gave me half, but he didn’t walk home with me that day. He was seeing Susie Dawson. I sucked the colour from my lolly until only ice remained. Blue gums lined the road; the soil was so depleted it was pale pink. The trees had sucked out the colour like I had the lolly. Beyond the copse of trees was a pit. Muddy water half-filled it. Secrets lurked; papers blown from the road rustled in the undergrowth. Standing near the trees was a man, a hitchhiker perhaps. He smiled and said hello. He was friendly and said I had beautiful green eyes. No one said that except Ma. Then he gave me sweets, said it was a gift. I thanked him and walked home.

The next afternoon, as I was nearing the copse, something glinted. It was a copper penny lying in the dirt. Ma always said, ‘Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ve got good luck.’

It was old. A king’s head and 1928. It was the year Pa was born. Must be my lucky penny, I thought. Something for each pocket – a mermaid and a penny.

 

A few days later I saw the man again waiting, and I wished Wally was with me. The man wore a blue and white checked scarf like the tea towel Ma kept in her kitchen.

‘I need a favour,’ he said. I asked what sort of favour. Pa always said there’s nothing for nothing. The man said there was five shillings for me and more sweets. My face must have been a question because he said, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’

We stood looking into the water. It was dark jade. I had never noticed the colour before. Again the man said my eyes were like the sea. He said I was his little merman. Then the water began to swell like a wave, and a mermaid rose, her face smiling, her hair falling about her shoulders, her eyes clear as glass. The man stroked my hair. I ran all the way home like this little piggy, my heart pounding. There was a popping sound in my head.

I never said anything about the man or the copse of trees.

Soon all the boys at school had seen my mermaid, and they were bored. Wally wasn’t around as much anymore. He was always off with Susie Dawson. He said I was hard to talk to.

A few weeks later as I walked home after school, I saw the shape of the man in amongst the clump of trees.

‘I knew you’d come, my little merman.’ He said I could have all the sweets I wanted.

I thought of the money I could make selling the sweets at school. I could help Pa with his dream. Then the slimy waters of the pit rose. At least I’d see the mermaid; she always came and waved and smiled.

Ma nagged me about dinner, but I had no appetite. Pa watched from under his eyebrows. After supper I went to my room and sat in the dark. Ma had found the bags of sweets; Pa wanted to know where I got them. I told him I was saving to help with his dream. One evening he called me to sit with him on the stoep, but I found the night too black. There were no more stars.

A few days later I was walking past the copse again; I heard a sound – like popcorn popping in a pan. But then the popping became a shout. The man lay there in the dirt, his scarf now patterned with red splotches.

 

Green carried me; green hid me – behind the Fatsia leaves in the garden, leaves huge like the sides of a tent. I bunked off school; my pewter mermaid and copper penny gave me little comfort.

‘There you are,’ Wally said, pulling me to the surface. He had an idea. Better than mermaids or sweets. Mice. All the kids at school wanted a pet mouse. Some boys had a white mouse as a pet. They kept it under their shirts during school, took it out at breaktime to show everyone. Imagine a mouse living inside your clothes, but business is business, and I forgot about the copse for a while.

One afternoon an old Ford truck was parked outside our house. Pa was beaming like he’d found gold.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Our dream wagon,’ Pa said. An idea for a new life and he was going to take me with him. We would hit the road. Ma looked at the rusted jalopy.

‘What you so pleased about?’ she said. ‘It’s too large to be anything but a farm truck, an’ I ain’t see no farm.’

It didn’t stop Pa. He converted the truck into a mobile home – King of the Road. He divided the back into compartments, placed a mattress in the space above the driver’s cabin for him and Ma. I’d sleep on a plank in the back. During the day the plank would double up as a dining table. But it was the small stage at the end that would make his fortune. The idea came from the white mice Wally and I had been breeding.

Pa built a miniature city – little houses, roads, a town hall, even a palace fit for the king and queen of mice. He placed it in a large box on the stage at the back end of the truck.

 

Wally’s eye was black again, and Susie Dawson wasn’t on the scene. Pa said, since the mice was Wally’s idea, he could come along. We drove out of Goodwood and into the countryside. We set up our truck at the Worcester Agricultural Show. The kids lined up. Wally and I took the money, a sixpence each. The mice ran in and out of the tiny houses, up and down the roads; they scaled the palace walls. The only problem was everyone wanted a mouse of their own. But Pa saw another opportunity – he’d sell the mice for a shilling each. Soon we made a pile of money but we had no mice left and needed to go home.

‘How long to build up another stock of mice?’ Pa said. I put my hand into my pocket, felt for my mermaid – and that’s when I had an idea.

‘Let’s get a fish tank and put my mermaid in it along with some starfish and seaweed,’ I said.

‘Ja,’ said Wally. ‘A mermaid show. Boys will pay anything to see the mermaid. We know.’

‘Man after my own heart,’ Pa said. ‘But I have a grander idea. What about a big tank and a real mermaid? Your mermaid can be a side show for the kids.’

‘That’s a thought,’ I said, ‘But wherever will we get a real mermaid?’

 

At school the other boys laughed when I said soon I’d have a real live mermaid. I became the butt of their jokes again.

‘What the matter son?’ Pa said when I got home.

‘No one believes there are mermaids,’ I said. ‘We’re going to look like fools.’

‘Trust me boy. What you doing Saturday?’

Saturday, it turned out, was the best day to shop for a mermaid – or so Pa said. We walked up Adderley Street, towards the OK Bazaars. The southeaster blowing a gale. We leaned forward into the wind.

‘No dawdling now,’ Pa said. The traffic honked, shoppers hurried, newspaper boys struggled to hold onto their papers in the wind. The flower sellers’ tin buckets were full, colours of every kind.

‘For de missus, beautiful kisses an’ your weekend’s made,’ a seller said through missing front teeth. A double-decker was passing, and Pa almost yanked my arm out of its socket. He’d pulled me away in the nick of time. There was a blue Ford Capri, a meter maid was issuing a ticket and I was staring. I was almost knocked over by a policeman chasing a robber who’d nabbed a handbag.

Then the large chrome-and-glass doors of the OK Bazaars ahead of us. Pa pointed me to the Milky Lane.

‘Here’s some money. Get yourself a milkshake. When I’ve caught my fish, I’ll bring her over.’

Styled like an American Soda Bar, the black-and-white tiled floor, padded stools in pastel colours, a chrome countertop looked like a dream. A brush-cut man in a candy-striped shirt and bowtie was talking to me.

‘Strawberry, chocolate or lime?’

‘Lime please.’ Pink’s a girl’s colour; chocolate gives me headaches. Through the glass of the Milky Lane, I saw Pa eyeing the girls in the OK. Saturday, girls gathered at the counters, flocked around the makeup. Pa knew what he was looking for. Then he was talking to a blonde woman. Pa dapper in his suit, his blue eyes sparkled like trout flies – lustrous lures. I could imagine his line. ‘Everyone wants an escape from their regular lives – just for a little bit.’

I gave her the once-over too. She looked pretty all right – small and blonde. Had he hooked her? Then they were coming towards me.

‘Son, meet Angela.’

Her nails luminous pink, her eyes turquoise. It was taking every ounce of strength just to keep my head above water. As she sucked on a double-thick, Pa explained what he was offering. It included board and lodging of course. I wondered how we’d fit another mattress in the truck. He described the idea – the small stage, concealed by glass, and all that was required was to smile and wave to the patrons.

‘And wear a mermaid tail,’ I piped up.

‘Oh yes,’ Pa said, ‘a mermaid tail and a bikini. But no funny business; my wife will be there at all times to make sure you’re well looked after.’

Angela seemed to like the idea. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Everyone wants an escape from their regular lives – just for a little bit.’

Soon school would be history, but until then we were learning about angles – acute angles, oblique angles. I thought of the angle Pa was taking with Angela. No one would believe it or our truck down the lane, once filthy and neglected, now gleaming.

When I arrived home that afternoon Angela was peeling potatoes; not what I expected from a mermaid. Ma was getting her in touch with reality soon enough. A fat yellowtail was baking in the oven.

‘They’re running,’ Ma said. ‘Trekking on the beach today.’ Yellowtail was our staple diet at that time of the year. They followed the snoek journeying up the east coast to feed on sardines.

‘We’re making scalloped potatoes,’ Angela said.

‘Yeah,’ Ma said. ‘She’s never heard of scallops, but soon she’ll be wearing them.’

The newspaper was for the peelings, but my horoscope was sticking out – Right now you’re in a period of discovery, personal and out in the world, it read. There was a phone number – but I didn’t need to call. My future was clear as Angela’s turquoise eyes.

 

Pa was in his garage making a tail. He shaped paper around chicken wire, covering it with plaster of Paris. ‘Luckily she’s small,’ he said as he smeared the white paste on the wire. ‘It will be easy to fit her behind the glass.’

‘You not putting her into the fish tank? She’ll be on the stage behind it, won’t she?’  I said.

‘Of course,’ Pa said. ‘I will have two sheets of glass with a narrow space between them, and we’ll fill that with water and tropical fish.

 

A windscreen supplier in Voortrekker Road had the glass. Two convex, double-strength sheets fitted into a waterproof frame.

‘The glass will act as a lens,’ said Pa. ‘Angela will sit behind the glass in the tank, and it will seem as if she’s in it with the fish.’

In the meantime Pa enlisted Ma’s help to make fish scales from the inners of old rubber tyres. Ma cut them into half-moon scallops. I painted them pink and turquoise, sprinkled glitter and sealed them with varnish. Then Ma made a bikini top. Angela’s hair covered her breasts so she’d appear naked.

We were almost ready to take to the road. Pa secured the tank, and we took a trip to the pet shop. I helped him choose – gold fish, zebras, gobies, a clown fish, an angel fish.

It was a hot April day when we set up our attraction at the agricultural show in Wellington. Pa had made a large banner for the truck’s roof: COME AND SEE – LIVE MERMAID – STRAIGHT FROM THE CARIBBEAN.

 

‘Jeez it never rains but it pours, Herman,’ Wally says when I tell him about my smashed windscreen. A rock on the N2 near Spine Road.

‘Bloody students protesting fees.’

‘Bad spot for motorists, but good for business,’ Wally says.

‘The cops stopped me, wanted to fine me,’ I tell him. ‘I said I was coming here to you, to Tony’s Glass I mean.’

 

Wally and me; Batman and Robin, always the odd ones out. Fish swimming against the shoal. There’s safety in numbers, but there’s also being swallowed. Either way, I guess. We looked out for one another. He called me fish-eyes, said I was sort of fishlike. Now I’m at the end of the line, washed up.

Friends helping friends. We were just kids then but we knew moral failing in adults. My pa down-and-out. The teachers for whom it was just a job. Boys like Bruce whose family’s success he used to bulldoze over those of us who had nothing. But Wally was someone whose dreams were not going to drown. Not his; not mine.

Cristina Branco is singing another song of longing. I look up; the mermaid is staring into my eyes. I can’t go back now. Returning takes too long nowadays, but lines are drawn in the sand.

The day that brought fear to our childhood, I remember that day. There’s no pretty way to talk about this. What happened changed our lives. Over by the blue gums I heard something. It was more than the usual papers rustling in the bushes. It was a groan of the sort that stops one in one’s tracks. A Friday, the beginning of the weekend. Through the trees, on the edge of the ditch of water was some sand like a little beach. A man was standing there, his belt loose, the silver buckle a mermaid’s tail. I’ll never forget it, metal scales, the tail a pointed V. He was packing himself away.

 

‘What’s going on Herman?’ The polluted water is staring.

‘I was there that day too, you know,’ Wally is saying. ‘That other day in February. I saw his boots. And then I heard the shots.’

The journey back through the waters – no longer green and clear. The mermaid on the screen is not Angela, the music I hear is too loud, the smells of Manny’s chicken too oily. The picture I see is spotted with blood.

‘The man’s shirt had dots,’ Wally says. ‘I thought they were polka dots. Then I saw they were gunshot wounds.’

I look at Wally. ‘You shot him?’

‘All I can say is justice was done,’ he says. ‘That’s all that’s important now.’

 

Back at Tony’s Auto Glass my van is ready.

‘Thanks Wally,’ I say. ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’

‘Sometimes it’s all we have,’ he replies.

‘I had my mermaid; you had Susie Dawson,’ I say.

‘Susie, yeah. A slippery fish, not cut out for marriage. She’s in Australia now.’

Behind us old windscreens are stacked against a wall. ‘Look antique,’ I say.

‘Bedford trucks,’ says Wally. ‘I should have sent them to be scrapped.’

‘So I can have two?’

‘Mermaids again hey?’ Wally says. ‘You know what old mate; how ’bout we go into business once more?’

‘What kind?’

‘Know that bar you were telling me about? The one in Sacramento?’

‘Now that’ll be a thing,’ I say.

The clear green waters of Jacobsbaai, crayfish flap backwards to hide under seaweed, among the long swaying stems, the shafts of light through the waters. I slip in – don’t need a snorkel or goggles.  The seaweed streams out in long ribbons in the tide. After a few minutes I break the surface, hold up two crayfish. Wally waves from the beach.

‘Lucky catch?’

‘Lucky?’ I call back to him. ‘You should know. I have a way with fish.’ Just then a shimmer of iridescence, and something catches my eye. It’s the scalloped end of a tail. Then a slap on the surface of the water – like a long distance call.

About the Author

Christine Coates

Christine Coates holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. She has three collections of poetry. Her debut collection Homegrown, 2014, Modjaji Books, received an honourable mention from the Glenna Luschei Prize. Her short stories have been highly commended and anthologised: Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Short Story Day Africa anthology, The Short Story […]

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