Rise and Fall
It was a Tuesday when Mr George Barraclough noticed a Nereid sitting on the banister of the Wool Exchange. He knew it was one because he had studied Ovid at Bingley Grammar School. He supposed it was rather pretty, but not in a way that was condusive to a morning’s trading in Swaledale and Romney Marsh.
“Do you mind not doing that?” he said, trying to keep his eyes on the Golden Jubilee window. The Nereid’s dress looked distinctly like underwear and he didn’t think Mrs Baraclough would approve.
“Come away with me, mortal man,” said the Nereid. “The tide is rising.”
Mr Baraclough straightened his collar and went downstairs.
On Wednesday, the Nereid began pouring water from a bronze ewer onto the trading floor. The expensive boots of the wool merchants were getting wet, and water was dripping from the shoulders of their frock coats.
“Come away with me, mortal man,” she whispered in Mr Baraclough’s ear when he came to tell her it just wasn’t on. Her voice hushed in his head like waves on the shore. “The storm is swelling. It will engulf you.”
“Don’t talk silly,” said Mr Baraclough.
By Friday, the trading floor was a pool of knee-high waves. The traders waded to and fro, their trouser bottoms wafting behind them. Only Mr Baraclough seemed to notice.
“Stop this now,” he said to the Nereid. “How is the British Empire to function without its wool trade?”
The Nereid threw back her head and laughed. “There is no Empire,” she said. Then she brushed her foam-cold lips against his cheek, her hair falling about his face like tumbling sea grasses.
On Sunday night, George Baraclough dreamt of the sea, a great sea of fleeces that floated beyond his grasp. He woke with his knees in Mrs Baraclough’s back beneath the pale blue counterpane, and it seemed that the bedroom filled with a song like the keening of whales and the hiss of the tide pulling out into a distant ocean.
On Monday when Mr Baraclough went to the Wool Exchange, he found it deserted. The trading floor was water-stained, and the roof smelled of damp and emptiness. Only the Nereid was sitting on the banister. She was wearing a long fur coat and had a strip of bright cloth tied around her forehead, like something Mr Baraclough might have expected in the colonies. Her face turned towards him and he thought he saw tears in her eyes, but it may have only been salt water.
“What happened?” he said, as he stumbled upstairs.
The Nereid smiled. “The tide has turned. For now. But it will always turn again.”
Mr Baraclough opened his mouth, but no sound came out. The Nereid stepped down beside him. She took his arm and patted it as gently as Mrs Baraclough herself might have done. Her hair smelled of coffee and wet afternoons.
“Don’t look back,” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Come away.”