A Tail of the Unexpected

by Susie Gordon

What I absolutely did not expect to find that night reclining beside a pile of slub and unwanted plastic down by Suzhou Creek was a mermaid. I hadn’t expected to find anything at all, except for the sort of solitude that would have been welcome after the despicable night I’d had thus far. I’d been down at Shelter, for yet another tiresome evening of overrated dubstep (whatever that is) and being asked what I “do” by legions of sweep-haired, sweaty entrepreneurs bent on upping their cool-cred by frequenting Shanghai’s dirtiest club.

On arriving at the creek somewhere near those warehouses on Guangfu Lu which are now “studios” taken over by yet more legions of sweep-haired entrepreneurs, I had skeeted down a set of slimy steps and alighted near a long-abandoned barge. Beside the barge, wrapped in an old orange jacket discarded by a migrant worker, sat what appeared to be a female torso atop a giant, dirty salmon’s tail. A length of mucky blue rope bound it the rusted pole against which it was leaning. A mermaid. A mermaid? Part fish, part girl – the result of some toxic leak on the Yangtze? A failed experiment in a lab somewhere?

I stared until it noticed. When it saw me, it – she? – gave a double take and a little shoulder shake.

“Lee?” she said in an odd accent that could have been American.

I held my hands up to show I meant no harm.

“Where’s Lee? Who are you?” she asked warily.

“Lee?” Amazed that the creature could speak English, I barely knew what to say. Her long brown hair was falling from a shell-comb, the effect of which – coupled with the blue-black sweep of her tail – gave her a charming Andersen look.

“Are you part of the team?” she asked. My mouth fell agape as I marvelled at her perspicacity.

“You noticed straight away!” I whispered.

“Are you a friend of Lee?”

I figured Lee must be some sort of guru or deity.

“Yes. Yes, I’m with Lee,”

“Did he tell you when it’s all going to end?” The mermaid shifted against her rope bonds, a flash of discomfort crossing her face. The apocalypse? The end of days?

“No…” I breathed. “He didn’t tell me,”

“He promised it would be soon,”

I was starting to feel the early fronds of a hangover spreading over my head, so I decided to sit down.

The mermaid sighed.

“Lee said everything was ready – all he needed to do was push the button,”

“The… button?”

She fixed me with a look.

“Do you even know anything about this?”

“Um, not really,”

“So what are you doing here?” she had that blunt way of school bullies.

I shrugged artlessly.

“Just out for a stroll,”

“Do you even know Lee?”

“Not exactly. But I could convert.”

“Convert? What the hell are you talking about?” she was aghast. “Don’t you even recognize me?”

“No. It’s not every day I see a mermaid,”

“For fuck’s sake – I’m not a mermaid. Are you stupid? This is fake,” she jabbed the tail. “I’ve been sitting here in the cold and damp for the past two hours while Lee and his stupid friends set up their camera equipment on the other side of the river,”

“What? You’re not real?”

She cocked her head and poured pity from her eyes all over me.

“Are mermaids real?” she purred. “We’re part of an art collective at the Art for Art’s Sake Gallery on Moganshan Lu. This is our first project. It’s called ‘A Tail of the Unexpected’.”