Reluctant mermaid

It was more than sixty years ago; I was twenty and on my way to a party on a summer evening in Wonderful Copenhagen, as Danny Kaye had taught us to call it. Why Copenhagen? The University, you see, had organized a course in Danish for foreign students, most of who turned out to be Americans. It was not clear to anyone why they should trouble to learn Danish, nor were they trying particularly hard. I myself was just the odd girl out, an undergraduate from Amsterdam who was here as a reward for passing an examination.

On our last day one of the lecturers, who lived a little way up the coast, was to host a farewell party at his home. Never one for getting to a party late, I set off far too early on my own, tripping along a path beside a little harbour where boats were moored. It was a warm summer evening, a party was promised – could life be much better? And then I heard a scream, a cry for help it seemed, coming from across the water; clinging to one of the boats was a small boy obviously terrified that his last moment might have come. I was quite alone – all right-minded Danes were at home having dinner.

In a flash, all my dreams of parties were wiped away – action was called for! Hardly stopping to think I kicked off my shoes and jumped into the water.

I was with him in a minute, holding him tightly to pull him away from the boat; he was kicking and struggling as I swam, but I headed back to the path with him, hindered only by an inquisitive duck that had arrived to watch the course of events but was so alarmed by the screams that it hastily paddled away as I pulled the boy on dry land. Once there, the screaming stopped – now the young fellow was crying, holding tightly on to me and muttering something in Danish; but my meagre understanding of the language had quite evaporated and I had no idea whether he was thanking me or accusing me of spoiling his fun in the water. There was no time to find out; a moment more and he had fled from me along the path, disappearing from view behind a clump of bushes.

So there I was, alone once more, searching for my shoes, wet as a porpoise and totally confused – wasn’t I going to a party? Indeed I was, and somehow I got there moments later, arriving to astonish myself as well as my American friends. They stood around me in all their finery, staring disapprovingly. For there was I, posing like a drowned rat, muttering incoherently. What, they demanded to know, had I been up to? What was I trying to say about some boy or other? Clearly I did not belong there, wasn’t it better that I went away so that the party could get going? Only our host seemed to grasp the whole story, thanking me profusely for saving a life, apologizing that his young compatriot had caused such trouble. His wife drove me rapidly back to the youth hostel, and that was that. To the folks who ran the hostel I simply declared that I had fallen in the water; publicity was the very last thing I could face and I desperately wanted to go home.

Back in Holland it all seemed like an unreal tale, but it haunted me for weeks, a story of an acute confrontation with life and death, a memory I somehow wanted to be rid of. And so it went, when you are only twenty you really can set such things aside and life will go on as before.

Yet now, after sixty years, so much more has happened in life that I am content to take this particular memory with me as a salient happening in my existence. And the little boy that was? He is now an aged male in his seventies. Does he remember that he once very nearly drowned? And as I face that memory again I go on wondering: how did he get to that boat? And what did he tell the folks at home? I shall never know the answers. Nor, I imagine, will he; he must have been similarly confused. Perhaps neither of us truly needs to know. Maybe it is for that reason that I have never again taken a walk alongside the water in Copenhagen …..

 


Iris Clent is a retired lawyer and amateur historian, latinist and pianist. Iris lives in the middle of Holland, has an adult son and daughter, and once, feeling energetic, restored a mediaeval castle.

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