Prologue: 1973 – Pete's Birthday Party.
It was a perfect Laurel Canyon day. The sky was an unbroken blue and the sun gave off the Golden Hour glow of a Hollywood movie. Pete was the drummer for the stadium-filling, platinum-selling hard rock band The Auchtermuchty, and his twenty-fifth birthday party was going well, at least for Pete. He was covered in the remains of the top tier of his cake and had crashed the second tier around the head and shoulders of his assailant, the band's singer Arthur. The guests were nervously dividing into two groups; the group that didn't mind being soaked by the inebriated birthday boy, and the group that was looking for somewhere to hide while still appearing to remain cool. The first group had abandoned their drinks – the ability to keep broken glass out of the swimming pool is etched into the DNA of rich Californians – but remained nervous about their expensive stashes, since the white powder that bought them entry to these rock star bashes wasn't waterproof.
Arthur tried to head-butt his crazed drummer, but Pete outweighed him. He grabbed the man's neck and pushed him backwards into the pool, as relentless as a bulldozer. Without pausing, Pete turned and picked up his girlfriend Bambi and threw her bodily after him, then stalked towards the other guests with mayhem on his mind. He seized a pair of girls, one in each arm, pulled them to the Spanish-tile edge of the pool and tipped them into the water, where they clutched at each other and giggled, red hair and black hair floating together on the sun-dappled surface. The rest of the guests were now edging towards the cover of the giant Birds of Paradise that lined the pool area. Only Pete's hulking manager, too big for him to shift, was unafraid and standing his ground. He was talking with The Auchtermuchty's guitarist Dave Walker, who, typically, had not noticed the turn the party had taken. Dave's mind was elsewhere, as it so often was, when Pete caught him by the wrist and threw him onto his back to carry him to the pool.
When Dave realized what his drummer was doing, his blood ran cold. He kicked at his captor's legs, but Pete didn't feel it. He was unable to twist himself free without risking a career-ending broken wrist. Into what seemed like a sudden, total silence, Dave yelled, "Pete – Petey! Don't put me in the pool! Please God, don't throw me in the pool."
Dave's voice was close enough to hysteria that it penetrated even Pete's fogged mind. He stopped and pulled his guitarist off his back, where Dave dropped to one white-suited knee. "Leave me alone, Pete. I can't go in the pool."
Pete bellowed in frustration, and Dave put his hands up, palms out. He searched for something to convince him. "I can't swim," he said, lamely.
Pete ignored that and put his hands under Dave's arms to pick him up again, and Dave’s faint self-control reasserted itself. "Wait – Petey. Wait." Obediently, the drummer put him down. "I'll walk into the pool, okay?" The walk would buy him time to think; time to prepare for the water. Pete nodded.
Dave walked towards the curved steps of the pool, where the jets were now recirculating the macerated, diluted cake-water in sick colored streams. Pete, arms folded and eyes narrowed, watched him walk like a condemned man to place both his brogues on the first step, where the water was only as deep as Interview magazine was thick, and only the wedge-shaped ripples on the surface of the shallow water reflected the guests' wild splashes. When nothing happened, Dave put one foot on the second step, and followed with the other. Now he was up to his ankles in water. Emboldened, he moved to the third, then fourth, then the last step, and finally, immersed in soiled pool water up to the band's runic emblem embroidered on the breast of his white satin suit, he walked on the pink Gunnite floor towards Arthur and his girlfriend, keeping a lid on the nightmare thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him, holding them back by sheer will.
Pete lost interest and went in search of another guest to pester. Dave's mental dam burst. He looked wildly around the water surface for her, his nerves shredding. Then: She isn't here, he realized. The single thought hammered at him, driving all other thought away. Maybe she's waiting for me at home. But she isn’t here.
Earlier: Honolulu, Hawaii, 1969
Dave walked around the sandy curve of Diamond Head, looking for seashells… or angels…or mermaids. When he eventually looked back, the remainder of The Auchtermuchty was out of sight around the bend – literally, he scoffed – at the fire-pit with hotshot teen photographer Idris Jones and some local stoners, charring murdered animals for their evening feast. It was quite a feast, too; they were all unusually hungry. One of the youths had brought along a can of grass. Raised on the greasy smoke of London home-grown, the rare taste of real pot hit the Englishmen like a baseball bat. Dave had needed to walk away briskly, to clear his head.
He found a tide pool, a scant foot in depth. The tide was coming in and already the ocean was lapping at the surrounding ring of foamy rocks. He sat on one, wincing as the heat of it stung him through his cotton shorts. He stretched out his legs, his feet in the shallow water, and watched the underwater fissures carefully, hoping to see a starfish or an urchin. The sea was filled with creatures he'd only ever seen on BBC wildlife programs, and for the first time Dave regretted he had never learned to swim. The others, determined to make the most of this, their first American tour, had been cheerfully snorkeling in the ocean, their noses under the surface as though that was natural for human beings, and Dave had been confined to the sidelines. He had been sidelined a second time when the manly men of the party chopped up two chickens and a pig, and rubbed them with marinade to prepare them for the grill. That's when Dave, a vegetarian, had decided he needed a walk.
He sat staring into the still water, his mind half a mile away, preoccupied with the barbecue he had tried to escape, when he noticed he was not alone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a woman standing with her back to a tall rock, her feet bathed in the onrushing tide. She was dripping wet, as if she had just gotten out of the water, white-skinned, with a perfect nose, her long golden hair draped over her shoulders and wrapped artlessly around her folded arms. Her lips were full, slightly parted, and her eyes were deepest green. She was watching him with interest. She was not wearing any clothes.
"Hello," Dave said cautiously. She had appeared so suddenly he was not sure how to proceed.
She didn't reply. She blushed and looked down at the water that lapped at her ankles, and her shyness synergized her beauty, sending a thrill through him.
"Do you live here?" he said, wincing at the clunky line. Clever repartee seemed to have abandoned him.
"I live near here," she said.
"It's very nice," he said, wondering why nothing scintillating was coming to him.
"I love the water," she agreed.
His disappearing conversational abilities made him cringe. Not trusting himself to say another damn thing, he patted the flat rock beside his own. To his delight she came over, kicking a sandy cloud in the deepening water as she walked.
"You're inviting me into my own hot tub?" She unfolded her arms and uncovered the full beauty of her nude form.
He shifted uncomfortably on the rough pumice stump, unable to hide his attraction to her. The bathing spot was hers? That would explain her nakedness. She must have been surprised to find anyone here on her part of the beach. Something far stronger than his usual off-hand horniness was driving him, and the desperation, rather than making him more eloquent, was turning him to jelly. He would be devastated if any lack of cool on his part terminated the encounter. She turned and sat beside him. The pool was overflowing, now, and the water was almost at hip height.
She turned her face towards him and the radiance of her smile destroyed the pathetic ruins of his thoughts. She lifted her hand; she had a gift for him. He put out his own right hand, palm up, and she gently held it between finger and thumb, the touch shocking his whole body. She dropped a shell into his palm. Yellow, with dark brown Bridget Riley Op Art engraved in its mathematically perfect cone, it was so pretty that for a moment he wasn't able to tear his eyes away from it.
"You were looking for shells," she said.
"Yes." He couldn't say anything else. His throat was dry; he couldn't even swallow. His heart hammered in his chest. He knew he looked as though he were about to cry. Not trusting himself to think, he put out his free hand to brush the damp locks of hair from her shoulder. His thumb touched the hollow of her collarbone and she leaned towards him, lips parted. He dropped the shell and put his other arm around her, pulling her against him. She responded, throwing her arms around his neck and nuzzling at his jawbone. He stood, lifting her up with him, frantic to get her away from the rough pumice stones and on to the packed sand.
He had not moved her more than three paces when she pulled him off balance, tipping him into the ocean. She threw herself over him, holding him down against the seabed, stroking his chest with her long pale fingers. Fear of drowning filled him even as his body continued to respond to her kisses. When he saw she breathed underwater as easily as she had on land, he knew what she must be and he struggled vainly to push her away. She fended that off easily and continued to caress him. But as he began to black out he felt her put her arms under his shoulders and lift him effortlessly, floating him to the shore like a breaker carries a riderless surfboard, leaving him in a heap with the broken seaweed at the tide-line.
Weir House, Henley, 1970
Clouds scudded across the sky, alternately hiding and revealing the cold white sun of a British winter. The rapid changes in light made the landscape dim and brighten like an unrestored silent movie. It was confusing, and the Quaaludes he’d taken to mellow out didn't help. His long-term girlfriend Emily was upstairs in the bedroom with a bottle of wine and a stand-offish attitude he could neither understand nor, currently, tolerate. Outside, by the bank of the Thames, he tried to gather his thoughts.
A thin film of ice had formed on the mud between the pebbles at the water's edge. The air was clean and fresh, as if the cold had precipitated out the London smoke. A breeze gusted through the leafless trees on the far bank and the whole world seemed regenerated, almost as though it were a newly vacated house. The cleaners had been and it was waiting for its new owners, plain and cold but full of possibilities.
He buttoned his tweed coat and pulled his long hair from inside the collar. As he did so, he noticed something and stood still, listening. He couldn't hear anything. That was odd. The crows had been cawing all day in their flat, forlorn voices and now they had stopped. Nothing was flying in the wintry air. In the river he caught the rare silver flash of a rising fish. The grass still retained its morning coat of frosty-bladed hostility and nothing stirred there.
He turned to go back in the house. Behind him he heard the slap of a tail on water and turned again, color draining from his face. He had guessed what was in the river, but he was not prepared for the form she took. Her tail was silver, the scales edged in delicate pink, and her caudal fin was devised of elegant aqua filigree. She smacked her tail again to bring herself upright, and her body was white and beautiful as before. She reached behind her head to tie her hair, and the wet strands trailed in the water like a slick of molten gold. Her green eyes watched him carefully.
"It's you," he said.
"I came back," she said. "Look, I brought your shell. You dropped it."
He crunched the frozen mud underfoot as he walked toward her. She was holding out her hand. He stood on one foot and reached out. She smiled. Realizing what he was doing, he jumped back, stumbling on the slick pebbles, scrabbling back up the bank. He had almost touched her! She would have pulled him into the freezing water!
"Throw it," he said. "I'm not touching you again." Although she was as powerfully attractive as she had been a year ago in Hawaii, he had gotten over his verbal stumbling.
"I didn't drown you last time, did I?" she said. She was hurt, he could see that. His lack of trust made her sad. He wanted to go to her and put a comforting arm around her shoulders, have her rest her head against him. He would find a warm blanket for her in the airing cupboard and they would share a hot drink.
The clouds raced by and the sunlight dimmed and brightened again. The vivid glints from her silvery lower body flashed each time the light changed. He put out his hands, palm up, and she lifted herself high in the water with a kick of her tail, and threw the shell underhand in a perfect arc. He caught it and turned it over, looking at the reticulated pattern. It was real. He felt its weight, its solidity. This was not an illusion.
"You must be cold."
"I am cold – I am as cold as the river." She put out a languid arm, hand drooping palm down. "Feel my skin."
He laughed, and shook his head.
"You'll come to me one day," she said. "Of your own free will, David." She cocked her head to one side, but made sure to keep eye contact with him. "You want to try everything, consume everything. You want to give into your desires." She smiled. "In fact you crave new experiences. You can't abandon me. You know what you'd forfeit if you did."
"Is this what you say to all your victims?"
The black membrane of her inner lids flicked briefly over her eyes as she considered her answer. "No, David. I have only said this of you."
She was human again. She stood in the water in the modest pose of Venus pudica, like one of the ceramic sculptures in his art-filled house. Her legs were perfect, long and shapely (though they still appeared as cold as marble) but she was hidden up to her calves in the water and he knew that the eels roiling in the water nearby were just as much a part of her as her perfect rose-tipped breasts and inviting eyes.
It was difficult to leave her. Almost impossible to turn away. It was as hard to turn his back on her as it is for a smoker to walk away leaving a full pack on a table. But turn he did, and when he reached the balcony of the house and looked down, there was nothing in the river but the reflections of the speeding clouds.
Timperley Place, 1973
At Timperley Place, the music room ceiling was ringed with a molding of hundreds of tinted lotus flowers. A large window was draped with flowered curtains, left open to let in the natural light. The warm summer rain ran down the window panes, and Dave watched the rivulets, spellbound. When sufficient drops were gathered together, they formed a runnel that ran down the pane. Sometimes one split, and each half went its own way. Some joined again after their solo journeys, or met another and joined with that one instead. Eventually, he thought, they were all one, all running back to the sea ready for another trip on the helter-skelter. The after-effects of the big end-of-tour party earlier that day had left his thoughts sharp and bright but lacking in depth. The rain reminded him of a metaphor, but he couldn't dig up who had said it or when. Possibly Lao Tzu. We are all the Tao, but occasionally it pleases us to individuate. Or something. He clicked his tongue at a philosophy so at odds with his own, put down his guitar, went in search of his jacket and walked outside, across the gravel drive and down to the mansion's moat.
He saw her standing near the bank from almost a hundred yards away. Her white form was naked, her golden hair unbraided. She was jeweled, pearls adorning her throat and waist like the frozen tears of babies. She did not approach. Even to reject her, he would have to first come within reach of her.
Fish nuzzled her calves. "You don't have to fight me," she said. "You just have to say yes. How much easier can it be than to follow your own desires? 'Do what thou wilt' – isn't that your philosophy?" She was pale, but her face was soft and rosy and she smiled. Her breath was warm and human and her eyes were bright.
Timperley Place was not near a river. The moat was an artificial lake. That had been a major factor in his decision to make it his principal residence after his experience at Pete's birthday party. "How did you get here?"
"In the rain," she said. "I am only one, you know. Sometimes I appear to be here, and sometimes I choose to be there. But I am everywhere."
The rain had plastered his hair to his skin. It was so warm that he hardly noticed it until a drop ran down his brow and off the tip of his nose. His heart sank at her words. He could not avoid water. It was everywhere. His face was wet. He did not have to reach out for her to have him. She was golden, lit by a radiance that seemed to come from nowhere. The sight of her made his body ache, and he knew he could not resist her. The inner voice that told him to retreat seemed weak and bourgeois and silly. The voice advised him that if he took her he would himself be taken. He disagreed; he decided never to listen to it again.
She stroked his arm, flattening the black hairs against his skin with her moisture. Her touch was as warm as mother's milk, and he put his hand over hers. He felt the slight tremor as she forced her hand to be still, and she looked up into his eyes. "I can be very nice to those who swim in the sea with me."
"Don't drown me," he said.
"I won't," she replied and she looked sincere. Warm light brought her face sharply in focus and he bent to kiss her, taking a pearl between his teeth and touching it with his tongue. They were lying together and she was kneeling over him. He remembered one day in the studio, many years ago, a string player telling him, "Break it down into pieces, learn each part first and then put the arrangement together. Make it manageable. Don't run before you can walk." The pegboard walls of the studio were stained brown where the rain came in and the stone structure of the building was still visible under the cheap wooden partitions that overlaid it. There was half a window in his guitar booth, sooty and filthy, often with a complacent pigeon standing there watching the traffic outside.
He had to change the dynamic, move her under him, take control. The rain ran down his naked back. "Em," he said. He had trapped Emily's arms at her side and was leaning his weight on them, raising himself up above her. He smiled his sunny smile and she smiled back. "David, you play such funny games," she said and he laughed and bent down to kiss her. He had kicked the sheets to the bottom of the bed, and when he finally freed her hands she leaned down to pull the bedclothes over them.
He woke up and found the sheets around him were soaking wet. He threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, head in his hands. Emily leaned over and patted his side of the bed, felt the impression he had left behind and the cooling damp. She opened her eyes. "Night sweats," she said, "It's not good, Dave."
He got up to go to the bathroom.
"When did you come to bed anyway?" Emily said. "When I went to sleep you were still in the music room playing something loud."
In the bathroom, he remembered what the white lady had told him. "It's peaceful in here," she said. "Truthfully. An eternity to stretch out and drift with my tides. No commitments, no regrets. A warm planktonic life. Always whole, never sundered. Never warring, never doubting."
He imagined sleeping in her arms forever, sunset to sundown in the warmth of her embrace. He thought of the rivulets on the window pane, dividing and merging, always running down laughing to themselves at their games of separation within wholeness.
Barcaldine House, 1977
He came out of the east end of Barcaldine House, still in his ceremonial robes, sweat sheening his face. Loch Creran was dark and silent, and away from his incense and pipes the world smelled of turf and sheep and mud. The magickal working had been a success; the protections against malign spirits were almost visible, like northern lights clinging to the drystone walls. Orion stood out above him, the mighty hunter on his path across the night sky with his dogs by his feet. There was a bright half moon in the sky, and the chilly wind stirred up little more than yellow leaves and tiny wavelets. He stood in the cooling air, moisture drying on his cheeks, and watched astonished as the surface of the loch, as far as the eye could see, began to twist and wriggle as if a million eels were writhing just below the surface. The surface boiled like a cauldron of entrails, but as suddenly as the movement started it stopped, solidifying in a complex Celtic knot that sank below the surface with a hiss of bubbles. The loops trailed a faint phosphorescent glow, a muted scrawl of ancient runes written inside a dark mirror.
"I've fought bigger things than you," he said to the dimming water. "I have the willpower. I can make you disappear."
She was there, in human form again. He was conscious of the stiffness of his robes, the thickness of his boot soles, conscious that he was wearing armor as he faced her, armor that parodied the closed aspect with which he faced the world. She ignored his wards and threw her arms around him, her mouth seeking his, and he felt her against his naked body. Without effort she breached every defense he had put up. She overwhelmed him; he could not keep his hands away.
He said, "I want to be with you – all the time. I want to be inside you, against you, around you. I want to have you – but I want you to stop trying to swallow me!"
She laughed, a sound like a thousand tiny fishes leaping in a white waterfall. "How can you be in me if I don't consume you? She was taller than before, towering, her hair floating around her shoulders. "One will mutually engulf the other."
"But I won't go on – I'll be destroyed. I'll lose myself in your depths."
She was brighter than before, starker, in sharp and almost painful focus. Her words flashed as they were spoken, like a flint struck on a steel. "But that's what you want, isn't it, David? No more ego, no more striving. No 'keeping it together' – it's killing you. Dissolution. Dispersion. I am the way and the life."
"You have taken too much already. You can't have me."
"I have taken nothing."
"No," he said. "That's not true."
"Hungry," she said with a pout. She lay on her front in the lapping wavelets of the shore, head cupped in her perfect ivory hand. She looked hungry; sharp cheekbones stood out under the rosy skin. But more significantly, a barely restrained need showed in the tension of her body. She held herself immobile by an icy will, her breasts made modest by the lacy white foam that hid the tips. His eyes strayed down her body, involuntarily, past the rounded globes of her buttocks visible just under the surface of the clear water, and further down, where he thought he could make out eely coils rolling and unrolling into disks and ringlets, languid and monstrous.
"I know you're hungry," Dave said. She smiled and her teeth were sharp and translucent, like the teeth of a pike. She licked her lips and the illusion vanished. Her teeth were perfect white pearls.
"Are you going to come to me?" she said.
No, he thought. "Yes," he said. He felt her wash over him and she took him to a coral sea where he dreamed he was a man.
Granary House, 1980
The Granary House was in London proper, which made it convenient for the nightlife, and perfect for entertaining his friends. Arthur was there one late summer's day, sitting in the green overgrown garden.
"What's through that gate?" Arthur said.
"The Thames. Don't mess with it. Don't go near the water."
"Why do you always live by the water's side if you hate it so much?" Arthur said.
"I understand it," Dave said. "I can handle it. But I'm afraid for you – it's very deep. There are currents which can sweep you away."
"Crap," Arthur said. He got up and opened the gate with Dave following fussily behind. He crouched by the bank and found a flat stone, which he curled in his palm and middle finger and flung it skipping across the water. It made four hops and disappeared beneath the surface. "Not bad." He searched around for another stone and put all his strength and all his English into it. The stone hopped six times and reached the other bank, skimming the surface without being dragged under. "Surface tension," he said to Dave by way of explanation. If Arthur's hard-played stones bruised the white lady's head, she said nothing when he next saw her. Arthur had approached the edge but had not been caught.
Dave went down to see her the next day. He walked along the bank, past the dock where the local boats moored. The Thames here was beautiful, having not yet started its journey through the center of London. Over the fast side of the river there was a weir where green water fell like Belgian lace in a graceful arc, and that was where she hid.
Her dress was like fine porcelain lace, and her skin was like ivory. She was thin and her cheekbones burned with fever. Her unsteady hands reached for his hair and a few drops splashed as she twisted a curl around a finger. "I'm hungry," she said. "Hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry.…"
"I'm not giving myself to you," he said. "I'm too strong for you."
"You love me," she said. She pouted.
He loved her. He wanted to tell her to find someone else, but to do so would be like tearing his own arm off at the root. If she left he would be devastated, a hollow shell. He could not imagine life without the white lady – it would be like being plunged into boiling oil. His skin crawled at the thought of leaving her, even for a moment. And yet, for all that, she needed more than he had been willing to give, and it was starving her.
Dave went to the Speakeasy that night. It was crowded and as loud as usual. Many of the road crew he'd worked with over the years were at the bar. Idris Jones was there, now a respected rock photographer with the inkies. There were publicists, studio workers, heavies, drivers and, of course, the girls who liked to be around those people. He found one quickly. She looked like a child’s doll, despite her Geordie accent and the red track marks on her arms. She told him she usually came to London on cheap one-day return tickets. She'd missed the last train and was looking for a place to stay.
They took a cab back to the Granary House, sharing a bacon double cheeseburger in a paper wrap. It dripped brown sauce on the black mats. Once there they played music and she ate crackers straight from the box. Dave brought out the cheap cognac. She loved older music, for some reason. She didn't want to listen to The Ramones, or Television, or Patti Smith. She pulled out the Pink Fairies' Kings of Oblivion and they sang along to I Wish I Was a Girl.
She said she loved their hit single. She sang a tentative line of it: "She said, 'Jesus gonna wash away all of your sins.' I said, 'You don't know 'bout the state I'm in.'" They both sang the chorus: "She said, 'Well, well, well.'"
She waited a long time for him to produce his stash, knowing that most rock stars eventually did, but he made no move to do so. Eventually she brought out a pouch of Old Holborn, but there was no tobacco in it. That was where she kept her works. Dave saw the dropper and the needle and shrank back on the settee. She laughed. "You don't inject?" she said.
He shook his head.
"Man, smoking it wastes so much. I'll do it. You won't even need to look."
He didn't need to look. She was right. He only needed to have the decision taken away from him, and after that everything was fine. Very fine indeed. When he looked for her the next day, mid-afternoon, he couldn't find her. He checked, automatically, to make sure nothing of value was missing.
Epilogue: Granary House, 1980
The moored yachts in the dock sat like hulks, low in the water, heavy and gross. One had leaked fuel and a trail of it shimmered on the water's surface like a slain rainbow. When Dave looked up from the stagnant water, he saw her there, sitting on the wooden pier, leaning against a piling.
The gorgeous white lady of Hawaii – her golden body so full of promise, the lust he had felt, the need he had endured, the sacrifices had made or forced on others – had come to this – she was sitting on a rotting dock beside the Thames, her face pinched and sullen, the scum of the inlet gathering morosely around her ankles like hellish cherubs.
"Thank you," she said. She made it sound like a curse.
He kicked at the ivy that had spread unchecked from the pine-board fence to the pitted gravel slipway. A fungus was growing in the wood, eating it from the inside out and flowering with ugly purple toadstools shaped like bruised and bloodied ears. His skin itched from his heels to the back of his eyeballs. "Will you go away now?"
She laughed. "Oh, my little man. You want me to go away and carry your guilt away with me. Am I a scapegoat?"
Even in his hollow psyche, some kindling remained. Anger flared and caught fire. "You're not what you were, you know."
She dropped her head a little and looked up at him under her brows. Her pupils glowed like cats’ eyes in the road. "Neither are you," she said with real venom.
"I ruined myself for you. I broke myself for you. Now you treat me like this? Go away."
She leaned forward and dived gracefully from the dock into the turbid green water, raising hardly a ripple. She came up thirty feet away and shook the water from her hair in a rainbow arc. He saw her white shoulders and perfect breasts once more. He was wrong. She was still a godling. "I like it here," she said. I like your Granary House. I think I will stay."
She dived under the duckweed again, and this time she did not resurface.