Once upon a time a fisherman called Jacques lived in the picturesque, medieval fishing port of Honfleur. Of course, the locals didn’t think of it in those terms – that only came much, much later when the advent of the railways allowed holidaymakers from Paris to visit and let artists like Claude Monet experience the delights of Normandy. As far as Jacques, his fellow fishermen, the shopkeepers and their wives were concerned, Honfleur was
- a safe haven to moor your boat in at night
- a market where you could sell your catch
- a place to relax in during the evening with good company and a good drink
- a place to lay your head at night
To these people, Honfleur was just …. home.
Now Jacques’ parents were quite old when he was born, but his father was still an active man and he taught Jacques how to row a boat out to sea and cast a net when he was still a young boy. He showed him the best fishing grounds and the safe passages in and out of the estuary – because Honfleur stands where the River Seine runs out into the sea. And at night, there was nothing that Jacques liked more than to sit at his mother’s knee listening to her wonderful stories – stories full of wonder and magic.
Now the drawback of being the only son of older parents was that Jacques grew up a solitary boy. A problem that grew worse after his parents died. It wasn’t that he wanted to be alone; Jacques was desperate for a sweetheart. The problem was Jacques was cripplingly shy – a young woman only had to look at him and he’d start to blush and stammer and become tongue tied. The one time he’d attended the annual Fête du Marins he had drunk a glass of calvados for courage and it had only made things worse.
So everyday Jacques would go out in his boat, he’d come back at the end of the day and sell his catch. Then in the evening, while everyone else was sitting in a bar, (or whatever the picturesque medieval equivalent was), Jacques would slip into the great timber church of St. Catherine. He’d sit in the quiet gloom looking up at the vast wooden roof – which always made him think that he was sitting under the upturned hull of a boat – and whisper a prayer. “Great Lady, please send me a soulmate, someone to share my life and home with,” but always his prayers were met by silence. Friends and neighbours, seeing him walking back to his home in the Rue Haut would say, “There goes poor, lonely Jacques. It’ll take a miracle for him to find the woman of his dreams.”
One fine spring day, Jacques went out in his boat. He rowed out to his favourite fishing spot, shipped his oars, cast his net over the side and lay back in the bottom of the boat – after a long winter of storms and driving rain it was good to feel the sun on his face. Soon the warmth, the rocking of the boat and the gentle lapping of the water against the hull sent him into a deep sleep.
He awoke several hours later realising that things had changed. The wind was rising and the waves were now slapping against the hull. He opened his eyes and saw dark clouds building up on the horizon – he would have to work quickly if he was going to get his catch on board and be back in port before the squall struck. Jacques grabbed the net and began to pull it aboard, he was surprised at the weight of it, it looked as if he was in for a bumper catch. As the net came up he could see something in it, something that flashed and glittered as it moved, something far larger than any fish he had caught before.
As the net broke the surface Jacques saw long, flowing hair, a tail covered in delicate silver green scales, a slender waist and torso but, where there should be arms, there were only two stubby fins. But what took Jacques’ breath away was the face that looked up at him – it was the most beautiful face he had seen; far more beautiful and serene than the statue of Our Lady of the Sea that stood in the church. As the net came up over the side of the boat and landed in the bottom of the boat with a slight bump and Jacques opened it, the mermaid smiled at him and his heart … melted.
Jacques grabbed his oars and rowed for the shore, he was less than halfway back when the squall swept into the estuary. Now the odd thing was that no matter how hard the wind blew, no matter how high the seas rose, Jacques and his boat always seemed to be in the middle of a patch of calm water. He arrived back at port quicker than he expected and moored his boat where the Boulevard Charles V now meets the sea. It was only now that he started to think about what he should do with his ‘catch.’ Part of him thought, ‘I’ve got a living, breathing mermaid, I could charge people to see her. I need never work or go hungry again!’ But the thought of people gawping at something so beautiful and perfect, like she was a freak, appalled him. At the same time, the thought of putting her back into the sea and setting her free broke his heart.
In the end, he decided to take her home and keep her safe – she would be his secret. He carried her back to his home like a parent carrying a sleeping child – curled close against his chest. He opened his door, stepped across the threshold and closed it with a hefty back heel kick. It was at this time that the miracle he had waited patiently for occurred. As the latch clicked shut behind him the mermaid’s form began to shimmer and shift. For a moment her body seemed to melt in his arms and then suddenly before him stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Hello Jacques,” she whispered and then she put her arms around his neck and kissed him.
And with that kiss, my tale, like mermaid’s, has come to an end.