I wrote The Tarney Scalp in 2010. Because the main character turned out to be a teenage boy, I wrote the story with younger readers in mind, though I had not set out to write teen fiction - I don't really believe in the divide between novels suitable for teenagers and novels suitable for adults. However, this novel was long-listed from over 1,000 entries in The Times/Chicken House children's fiction competition. It also won Adventures in Fiction's Spotlight competition on the strength of its first page, so I will be receiving professional mentoring to help make it more 'publishable.'
The story follows James Maggs as his attempt to track down what appears to be a mermaid scalp drags him into the underworld of smuggling that threatens his small seaside town.
I am undecided about how to release this book into the world, as it emerged just as publishing began to undergo a fundamental sea change. I am thus biding my time, watching developments in digital publishing, trying to keep an open mind about e-books despite my abiding love of proper, dusty, paper tomes.
In the meantime, I have plenty of work to be doing on the next novel...
Below is an extract from The Tarney Scalp. James Maggs (known as Maggs) has been gleaning information about the scalp, what it might be and where it came from; one of his sources is the stories the fishermen tell in the local pub where he helps out glass collecting.
“So, was it any particular story you had in mind, Mr Maggs? Or will any one do?” It was one of the brothers, Maggs didn’t know which. Side by side their heavy brows and wide cow eyes were identical; only their mouths, one wide, one pursed, told them apart.
“Any story. Maybe from the sea?”
“Beauties or beasts, eh? Or both?”
Flame flashed and smoke began drifting like sea fog over the tabletop. Maggs breathed in the sweet Christmas musk.
“One of Bernie’s then, I reckon,” said Sid. “Bernie saw more beauty than the rest of us put together. There was one night, she were only a girl.”
Gilchrist emerged through the slashes of rain with the pints on a tray, and one of them was placed in front of Maggs.
“Waiting up with her Ma for Old Mike to come in. Georgie asleep by the fire. They sat right up at the window in their old place, where the sand blew under the door and the waves whispered through the glass.”
A smoke ring wobbled towards the mast in the centre of the table and dissolved around it.
“When her Ma started snoring, little Bernie, terror from the day she were born, toddled out of that door and straight down the beach. Plonked herself down in the wet sand right where the breakers tickled her toes. Maybe it were the giggles she made, or maybe that bright blonde hair, golden as summer sun, but they came for her. Three beauties she saw, with crescent moons for cheeks and stars for dimples, and the whole Milky Way for their hair. Not to mention the tails. Nor any other sacred parts.”
There was a rumble of approval. Dan nudged Maggs and whispered “Way-ey.” He couldn’t help smiling at Sid.
“They lifted her up by her chubby little arms and sailed her over the silver water until she could see Old Mike, steering his way home. Once she knew her Daddy were safe they plopped her right back on the beach. All they left were smears of some shiny stuff where they’d rubbed against her. She said it wouldn’t come off for weeks, and Old Mike knew what it was, but it were always their secret. Bernie’s poor Ma was never any the wiser.”
“Aye, it’s a good ‘un. Sea-angels,” said Dan
“Not always kindly though, is it? What shows up out there?” The wiry man was looking at Sid through beady eyes.
“Let’s not scare the wits out of our guest. It’s a harsh night as it is.”
“That was amazing,” said Maggs. “Did it really happen?”
Sid laughed and coughed sweet smoke.
“You wouldn’t bring Bernie up on one of hers. Tough as boot leather she were. Only soft in the middle.”
“She’d drink Sid under the table,” said Dan. “Didn’t she?”
“Only on the whisky mind. Never touched nothing else.” Sid swigged from his pint. “Rest her soul.”
They raised their glasses and Maggs raised his too. The haze from Sid’s pipe and the rain around them seemed to draw the web closer and the rest of the world floated away.
“Crockett, she’d say, you barnacled beastie. Where’s my amber fire?”
One of the brothers was speaking again. Maggs’ eyes flicked round the circle at the name, and he saw Sid nodding.
“I always kept a bottle on the back shelf for her in those days” he said, and puffed at his pipe. Mags stared at the dark brown pint in front of him.
“How’s about that time she found the skin?”
It was the wiry man again. Maggs felt the beer swash in a cold wave through his stomach. He couldn’t look up. The high voice continued.
“Trudi’d only been in town a week, which was all it took for every fisherman to know her name. The legs on that girl; strutting round The Bear, stretching out on a towel down on the beach. Bernie never said, but she couldn’t stand it. Trudi this, Trudi that. One morning she’s waiting for us by the quay at sun up, says she’s found a seal skin round on Tarney. Funny thing is, it’s clean as a whistle. Smooth inside and out; no tears, no flesh and bone. That same night, when Bernie’s had a few and Trudi’s perched on Paul’s knee swinging them bare lovely legs, Bernie comes right out and accuses her. Says it’s Trudi’s skin. Says Trudi’s come out of the sea and she’ll make nothing but trouble for us.”
“Why would she says that?” Maggs asked.
“A selkie, was what she meant,” said Dan. “A seal-woman. Seal in the waves, but a leggy tart on land.” He grinned at Maggs. “A good ‘un though.”
The wiry man continued, his eyes glinting.
“So Trudi laughs in her face and Bernie gets all trumped up and stern like and she says, ‘Just you wait. She’ll go back when she’s made enough mischief. As long as she can find that skin, and I sure won’t be hiding it from her, she’ll be back where she belongs without so much as a by-your-leave. Fools, the lot of you.’ She whispers something in Trudi’s ear and she’s off. Sure enough, come end of summer and Paul’s good woman finds out there’s been some dillying and dallying of them legs where there shouldn’t have been. She’s ready to give Trudi a piece of her mind, and likely the back of her hand. But Legs-Eleven has vanished.”
“What happened to her? Did she – did she ever show up again?” The red seaweed vision floated up through the smoke.
The wiry man shook his head and turned to Paul, whose wide eyes were sorrowful as he looked at Maggs.
“Never a peep. And the skin gone too, from where Bernie left it in the cove. I heard her whisper to Trudi where it was hidden…” His voice trailed off.
“Aye, Bernie was triumphant. Lucky for you she went when she did though, Paul’s Missus being a proud one.”
“All’s well that ends well.”
Pints drained down throats. Maggs gulped with them.
“Will that do you then? Or are you wanting more?” asked the wiry man.