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The Mermaid's Purse

by Linda Thomas

The eastern coast of England between Felixstowe and Great Yarmouth is a windswept place where buildings and people are like watercolor washed into the landscape. I have come here from Cambridge to see the heather that grows in purple brush strokes on the cliffs above the North Sea. And I have come to eat the fresh fish and chips sold in fishhouses that lie away from the main highway, hidden along bumpy half-dirt roads that lead toward the sea and emerge suddenly from low-lying trees into the open expanse of cold, gray sea.

My mother is here with me, and though she does love nature and has pronounced the heather fields "nice," she prefers a gift shop. She is seventy, and trinkets hauled home to friends are proof that she made this venture across the Atlantic Ocean. But so far, our day trip has turned up nothing in the way of souvenir shopping. I have abandoned the map except to have a sense that the highway called A12 is inland to the west, back along the twisting unmapped roads I took toward the sea. And now we are alone on a windy gravel shore where the fishermen have beached their dories, and where the surf foams but the gray, salty water does not rise into waves.

Mother says she thinks this ocean is dirty. "Sea," I tell her, and she huffs. A gust of cold wind lifts her blue wool scarf and wraps it across her mouth. I say, "The North Sea is just an arm of the Atlantic Ocean."

But such distinctions mean little to a woman in need of a gift shop. She has roped her scarf twice around her neck and bends half-double to search the shoreline for seashells--something, anything, to hold in her hand and account for the day. But there are no shells here. Instead, the rocky beach is fouled with clumps of tar and oily streaks, so rich is this sea in fish and petroleum.

Suddenly, she stoops and reaches to pick up something she has spotted--a black thing, rubbery, a plump rectangle about one-by-two inches, looking for all the world like a doll's tiny purse hung from a black thread. Mother says, "What in the world," and holds the black thing to her nose. "Smells salty."

She cups the thing in her palm while we examine it for familiar signs. Plastic? Mother doesn't think so. Seaweed? She's never seen seaweed like this. Finally, she wraps the object in a tissue and tucks it into the pocket of her slacks. "I feel better," she says, meaning now she has something to take away from this beach, this sea, this day. Her excitement moves along to her second favorite event, second to souvenir shopping: food.

It is early in the day, and no one has arrived to buy the fish and chips for sale in the white-trimmed board fishhouse. But we have seen smoke begin to curl out of its flue. We hope this means lunch, so we climb the incline from the beach, past the fishing boats. At the door to the fishhouse--the odor of hot fat washes over us like swirling steam in a hot shower. Inside, the place is snug and over-warm, so we unwrap scarves, unbutton coats, loosen sweaters, fold our jackets over a bench at a window table--aware all the while that the three English women behind the counter are watching us.

They chuckle and murmur to one another, but what the English say among themselves is always a mystery to me. Does the look of America dangle from our collars like a designer label? Have we been preceded by louts and grumblers who demanded ice in their Coca-Cola? I hang back a moment, but Mother marches to the counter. "Fish and chips, please," she says.

One woman, the older, larger of the three--though between them they could easily winch one of the heavy dory boats up from the surf--points to a chalkboard hung on the wall behind them. I see that the other two women could be her daughters. Each has her mother's layer of doughy flesh beneath the eyes and about the neck, like insulation against the North Sea winds. They are wrapped in wide chef's aprons. Their eyes are blue as cornflowers. "Skate's good today," the mother says.

My mother peers up at the words on the chalkboard and reads aloud: "Skate. Plaice. Eel." Then she turns to me with a look of puzzlement on her face. "I want fish," she says.

The three woman have returned to their work: one uses a big tin funnel to pour hot vinegar from a kettle into a shaker jar; another slices chunks of white fish from a two-foot long filet; and the mother mixes batter, alternately adding handfuls of flour and draughts of beer from a quart bottle of stout. "Oh them's all fish," she says, turning to grin at my mother. Her teeth are large. "You like fish firm and chewy like gizzard?" she asks. "Or you like the taste of saltwater, a little brackish?"

Mother relaxes now that the conversation has settled on food. "Just so there are French fries!" she exclaims, and takes a paper napkin from the stack on the counter to dab her forehead.

The women break into laughter. "Chips!" one of the daughters cries. They laugh and laugh.

Mother laughs, too, even though to her, chips come in a sealed bag marked Lay's or Ruffles. "Say." She digs into her slacks pocket and unfolds the tissue that contains her beach treasure. She holds it out for the women to see. "Do you know what this is?"

The three women turn away from their work to peer at the rubbery black thing. They nod. "Found that on the beach, did you?" a daughter says. "Uncommon find that," the mother says. "That's a mermaid's purse."

Mother's eyes widen. "Not really," she says.

A daughter says, "Sure, really," and laughs some more. "They keep their pearls in there." Such fun these tourists.

"That's an egg case from a skate," the mother tells us. "Inside is a tiny skate. Except if you found it on the beach, likely the baby has died."

Mother holds the egg case up to the overhead light and peers at the densely black object. Finally, she says, "What's a skate?"

The women--a genetically merry bunch, I have decided--laugh some more. Their laughter rustles and rings like the noise of wooden wagon wheels on a stony road, like the crackle of crones in a forest, like the sound cooking steam might make were it not so thickly occupied with the business of filling up a small room. At last, the mother wipes tears from her eyes and says, "The skate's good today."

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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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