Turning the Table by John Dodds


“How about, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’?”

Merlin sighed. “Already taken, my lord.”

Arthur, King of Camelot, son of Uther Pendragon, had been working on a speech for next week’s pre-joust banquet and thinking aloud as the others debated the issue of the symbolic structure. As king he was certainly entitled to have all the best sayings licensed to him, so he wasn’t best pleased by his wizard’s reply. “By whom?” he growled. “I’ve only just thought of it.”

“Hmm,” said Merlin, “That’s a hard one — as the actress said to the Bishop — but I can tell you it will be used at some time in the distant future by a ruler you don’t know in reference to a battle that hasn’t happened yet.”

“Merlin, I’m becoming displeased by your perpetual riddles. And your bad jokes.” Arthur then gulped down half a tankard of ale in one go.

The wizard opened his hands out and shrugged in a “sorry, not my problem” gesture.

The King, too, wanted to make a gesture, in the form of something that would memorialise him, and Camelot. A painting, a sculpture, whatever. One that would be memorably unusual.

At the far end of the table, Sir Damien, who preferred the paintbrush to the sword, and aspired to be an artist of sorts, said, “I’ve got this fab idea that would get you some media attention. We capture a dragon, see. Then we slice it in half and put it inside a glass case, with its guts on view to the public.”

A neighbouring knight scoffed, “Call that bloody art? My serf could do better art than that. And he’s only got one eye!”

“The trouble with this particular table,” the Brothers Saatchi interrupted in unison, “is that it’s just like every other table in the kingdom.” They were referring to the gigantic table at which they were all presently seated. The carpenters had only just this morning brought it into the grand hall, piece by piece, and assembled it in situ. Unfortunately, Arthur had failed to consult with the Saatchis about the acquisition. Naturally so, since the King considered them to be poseurs who tended to dismiss anything they regarded as “mere craftwork” in favour of Art – with a capital A.

The trouble was that the table wasn’t all the King had hoped it would be. It was in reality deeply flawed, and didn’t give the message he’d hoped for. Hence the current debate about the relative merits of tables, works of art in the form of split dragons, and so on.

“Yes,” said Charles DeLeon, “It is ordinary, my Lord. We quite agree with you. Not very…symbolic, if you take my meaning.”

DeLeon’s brother, James, clarified, “It’s your common or garden rectangular style of table, your majesty. The usual number of legs — inlaid with gold, certainly, but otherwise unexceptional.”

The king was scowling again. “I paid a lot of money for this table. A king’s ransom, in fact.”

“You were done,” said Merlin in a stage whisper.

Arthur threw him a silencing glare.

“Lancelot’s a ladies man, we all know that,” Gawain sneered. “I’d lay odds he flirted with your lady, Guinevere, so that she would persuade you to commission the carpenters. Who, incidentally are good friends of Lancelot’s.”

“Truly,” Sir Geraint added. “They don’t call him lance a lot for nothing.”

A ripple of laughter went around the table.

Arthur’s face blackened with incipient rage. “Are you suggesting that Lancelot not only seduced my wife, but that he’s also taking a backhander from the bloody carpenters?”

Said Lancelot, interestingly enough, was not currently present to defend himself. He was in fact, at this very moment, giving Guinevere what the queen herself called, “a jolly good seeing to”.

“Sire, forgive me, I beg.” Sir Gawain held up a placatory palm. “I was by no means suggesting seduction —” and here he gave Sir Geraint and accusatory glare for his off colour bawdiness. “— certainly not…big Lance could no more seduce your Lady than an ant could seduce an elephant.”

A gasp of horror around the table. A mixed metaphor of the worst sort.

Gawain blushed and blustered, “Again, forgive me, my Lord…my facility with words is…”

“Non existent,” the Brother’s Saatchi pealed in unison.

More laughter.

King Arthur slammed his fist down on the table. The table shook, bouncing the knights’ tankards an inch or two into the air and slopping some of the ale in them onto the recently-polished surface.

The King’s eyes widened in horror. “But…but…this can’t possibly be oak! It’s so…flimsy!” He rapped the surface with his knuckles. The tabletop gave a hollow sound like a dampened drumskin.

Arthur’s face was completely black now. “What – in God’s name — have I bought here?”

The Saatchi brothers exchanged a look of profound satisfaction. One of them (no one seemed to know their Christian names and generally they were referred to in the plural), said, “My liege, while it is true that your table is not entirely a work of art, the makers at least are trying to display a contemporary sensibility.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Saatchi?” The King quaffed more ale and fiercely backhanded the froth from his top lip.

“In the use of materials,” said Saatchi Two. “Very modern, if you will. Science as opposed to art.”

Saatchi One, in response to the King’s puzzled expression, explained. “MDF, my Lord. It’s all the rage in furniture making these days.”


Next day, under pain of execution, the humbled and terrified carpenters, Eoin and Walliam, offered to make the King a new table. A table so extraordinary, so unique, that it would insert itself into the popular imagination for centuries to come. Not only that, but it would be big. Really, really big!

“Big is good,” King Arthur said, “Size matters. It suggests that the King’s got a really massive…”

Merlin, standing beside Arthur’s throne while the King sat there in all his Kingosity, coughed politely into his fist to divert him from completing his sentence.

Arthur whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Oh, righto, Mer…gotcha.”

Eoin said, “What about a hexagonal one, sire?”

Arthur slowly, mentally, counted his fingers. “”That’s…that’s….five sides, isn’t it?”

The carpenter nodded.

“And how many knights do we have?”

“Er…one hundred and fifty, my lord?” The carpenter was growing paler by the minute.

“So,” said Arthur, leaning back theatrically in his throne. “How would that work, then, if we had guests, for example?”

The carpenter seemed to want the floor to open up beneath him. “Well, they could…perhaps…be ten to a side, and the guests could…um…share a corner each.”

“The sides would need to be extremely long,” Merlin sneered. “And some knights, visiting or otherwise, might think it beneath them to share a corner.”

The carpenter lowered his head, then lifted it again, and now he was smiling like an eager-to-please puppy. “I could add more sides. Of course, that’s it! Ten sides, five knights each, with room left over for visitors. Now that would be an opti–, a penta–, a septa–, um…a ten-sided table.”

Brilliant,” groaned the king. “Absolutely bloody brilliant. And where, pray, would I sit?”

The carpenter’s smile faded. “Oh, you meant a hundred and fifty knights…plus you.”

“Odd number, see,” said Merlin. “Lucky. Very fortuitous, that.”

“But not for carpenters,” said Arthur, adding, “Obviously.”

The poor carpenter had by now been emotionally sawn, sanded, planed, splintered and rendered down for wood pulp.

“Back to the drawing board with you, carpenter,” said the King. “Your choices now are as follows: really cool table. Or Death.”
* * *
And so it transpired that the carpenters, after much consideration, fuelled by fear of execution, devised a table for the King’s hall that would go down in history. Not only was it big — really big — but it was made of proper oak (none of that MDF malarkey). Plus it was, may God preserve us, not square or hexagonal, nor even decahedron for that matter (we looked that one up in Wikipedia). Put simply, it was, in fact, circular.

“Except,” King Arthur complained, “Knights of the Circular Table doesn’t have a proper ring to it.”

Carpenter Walliam said, “Except it is a ring, my Lord. It’s got a hole in the centre for starters. Which makes it….a ring…sort of…”

“That’s not what he meant, boy,” put in Merlin. The wizard did that strokey beardy thing of his — an affectation displaying to the world that he was thinking profound thoughts — and said, “How about….Knights of the Round Table, my liege?”

The 150 knights sitting around the remarkable tabled with its inlaid marquetry of different exotic woods and gold leaf, made mutterings of approval.

Arthur raised his eyes heavenward for a moment — his own affectation, signalling profound Kingly thoughts — then made his pronouncement on the issue.

“Cool! Really cool, wizard. Now then, that’s that. So, Knights of the Round table, what’s the order of business today?”

First order was the Expedition. A young knight had come up with the idea, of which the others were in broad support. Some wondered at Sir Percival’s courage and folly in going out in search of the Holy Grail. And others of his fellow knights, who knew him for his naivety and impulsiveness scorned him for risking his life for a bit of crockery.

“What is a grail, anyhow?” Sir Bors, a quarrelsome braggart, commented.

“The cup in which a centurion caught some of the spilled blood of Christ,” said the Welsh knight, Yvaine, adding, “Cretin! Everyone knows that.”
Sir Bors refused to take the bait and laughed, “Well I only hopes his gives it a good wash before offering it to our king. It must be totally rancid by now.”


Mermaid art

This treatise follows an essay entitled “On the Nature of Sireniae and Selkies” (Ravenwood Press, 1842). It expands upon matters alluded to, though not fully addressed, previously. Further guidance is provided also which we hope will make this the definitive work on the subject. It should be noted that the new material has been made possible as a result of research by the Institute of Marine Sciences; in particular the work of Professor James McIntyre and Dr. Clara Daws. The authors wish to pay tribute to Professor McIntyre’s son, Stephen, who was lost at sea while on a sample collecting voyage in the Gulf of Mexico. Stephen McIntyre’s aquatic fossils, and microbe samples from deep within the Norwegian fjords, proved invaluable in his father’s research and, indeed, in helping us complete this second treatise.

According to Prof. McIntyre, there is very little anatomical difference, at least in the British Isles, between mermaids and selkies once they have assumed human form. In their natural state, however, they are quite different.

Selkies, as you will recall from the first treatise, are colloquially known in Scotland as “seal wives”. Some people, particularly the women lobbying to make equality between the sexes law, deplore the capture of these creatures. Indeed, to bind them to domesticity, prospective husbands lock away their sea skins while the creatures are in human form. More liberal commentators, among them the honourable Member of Parliament for the Western Isles, Ruaridh Macleod, claim that loneliness, rather than “lust” is the motive for the enforced servitude. Macleod says that, as a young man, he himself had a seal wife, whom he loved to distraction and who loved him in return. However, after the “seven year spell” expired, he was obliged to return his wife’s raiments to her so that she could “go back to her family, for whom she had always mourned.”

Five years ago legislation was passed that selkies or mermaids taken from the sea as prospective wives, must sign a document affirming their agreement to remain on land. Several Parliamentarians see little difference between this and the arranged marriages common on the Indian subcontinent.

Prime Minister Owen Jones told The Times newspaper (published 15 March, 1838), “The law insists that the sea women should not be held under duress. And that, should they wish to return to their original form, they are permitted to do so without right of appeal by a husband.”

And editorial in the same newspaper said: “The legislative clause stating that man and mermaid be legally wed seems hypocritical at best. While we would not go so far as to describe this absurd Act of Parliament as legalised prostitution, it is in any event close in spirit to the enslavement of the Negro people of the Americas.”

It is not the purpose of this treatise to engage in political debate on this topic. However, the authors deem reference to the debate useful, if only to provide a context for the argument herein. We also wish to make it clear that  it is the welfare and happiness of such “seal wives” that has prompted this and our previous paper.

The first issue we must address, surely, is that of clothing. We know from our studies that the former denizens of the deep are unfamiliar with issues of modesty. Indeed, several who spoke with our field researchers, told us they assumed the clothing the men wore was actually their skin, and that the concept of clothing was alien to them. When a mermaid leaves the sea, and her tail, behind, she assumes the form of a human female. Invariably of preternatural beauty. The only remnant of her former life is the somewhat startling silver-pupilled eyes. It is imperative, therefore, that mermaids be educated into what is and what is not acceptable in polite society.

The husband of such a wife must, we believe, be a man of sufficient means to adorn her only in the finest silks. Poorer grade materials such as cotton and wool, for example, are likely to be discarded. Several interviewees explained that rough fabrics brought them out in a rash, while others told us certain clothing made them feel claustrophobic. Our understanding now is that the government-funded team of mermaid educators have had to concede that corsets are not obligatory; had they insisted upon the wearing of the constricting garment, it seems, a man might well find his wife one day serving dinner to his guests quite naked.

The silken garments should naturally be opaque. Or several layers worn so as not to reveal so much as the shadow of the form beneath. Ideally, they should be loose, somewhat like a nightgown, as any form of constriction might lead the mermaid to be “inappropriate” in company. Shoes are a matter of personal preference. But the wife should always be given a choice between silk slippers, or bespoke footwear. Or indeed, of remaining barefoot, if she prefers – unless she is outdoors, where broken cobblestones or gravel might cause injury.

Accommodation is equally important. Bedrooms should be kept cool, and bedclothes light. Mermaids have an unfortunate tendency to overheat. Indeed, some have been hospitalised as a result of sleeping beneath a goosedown quilt. While we appreciate even the wealthiest individual may not be able to afford a room-sized aquarium, cold baths and open windows are highly recommended.

As to the subject of nutrition, there has been a great deal of speculation. We know with certainty that mermaids, like homo sapiens, are carnivorous. Their preference is for live fish or crustaceans. Not an easy meal to provide unless one happens to live in a fishing community or close to a port. Cooked fish is acceptable, though it should always be served entire with eyes and organs intact. Salted fish, such as herrings from a barrel, are easily digested by mermaids. However, their preference is for living flesh.

Distasteful as this may be for most of us, allowance must be made for cultural difference. Consider this. We happily breed cows and sheep, only so they may be slaughtered to provide beef and mutton for our supper tables. Similarly with poultry, game, rabbit, hare and other beasts of the field and the air; all is grist to the mill for our boundless appetites. Other races are different again, from the Esquimaux eating raw seals, to pygmy tribes with their unique palette for boiled Christian missionary. Why them should we turn up our noses at creatures with the simplest diet of fish, prawns and lobster?

Doubtless it is because of this prejudice that the myth of mermaids luring sailors to their deaths is perpetuated. Studies have proven that merfolk are, by and large, peace loving. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they mutate into grotesque monsters that rip unwitting seafarers into bloody rags below the waves.

Providing a good diet, therefore, is important if a man is to cherish and nurture his chosen partner. Be she mermaid or not.

In the absence of fish – salted, smoked, or alive – fresh blood will serve equally well. Exsanguinating a cow, a deer or, God forbid, your pet dog will not, you will be pleased to hear, serve the purpose. Only human blood, which is arguably richer than that of a trout or a salmon, will do. There are accounts of men who will unstintingly drain some of their own blood into a wine glass for the sake of their beloved mermaid wives. Such tales may be apocryphal, but they do speak to the best part of our nature as human beings.

We have in the Natural History Museum in London the diary of such a man, one Albert Proudfoot. Proudfoot, a former infantryman who served with Her Majesty’s forces in India and Africa, was given medical retirement as the result of a heart murmur. He was 25 years of age when he married a young woman named Chloe. Chloe had hitherto been unknown to Albert’s family. Evidently they saw very little of the woman while they lived in Oxford. And nothing more of the couple when they retired to a woodland retreat somewhere in the Scottish Borders. The winter of 1814 was especially harsh and roads and tracks were impassable. Come spring, when Albert’s and Chloe’s neighbours saw no sign of the couple, two men volunteered to take the nine-mile hike to the cottage.

What they found is a matter of record. Though it merited but a brief obituary in the Border Telegraph and a short paragraph in the Oxford News. Albert’s body, supine in bed, was only a little decayed; it had been preserved longer than was usual by the icy conditions and the snow that had blown through the smashed bedroom window. Of his wife there was no sign.

Neither of the searchers had ever met Chloe, though they had shared a drink or two with Albert, who was partial to a mug of ale from time to time. It can hardly be surprising then, that on noticing the couple’s wedding portrait – a daguerreotype – on the mantel that one of the men said, “By God, it’s no wonder he wanted to keep her a secret. I don’t expect to see another woman this beautiful in my lifetime.”

On the bedside table they found Proudfoot’s journal. Albert had recorded significant events in his life from his period in the army until the present day. He spoke of skirmishes and near death experiences with bandits in India; of combating malaria; of the utter boredom most days in the army. The crucial entry, for our purposes, is his account of a walk along a stretch of coastline near Portsmouth one squally autumn day. The moon had disappeared behind the clouds. Albert briefly lost his way in the dark and stumbled over some rocks. When the moon reappeared it illuminated a patch of silver. At first he hoped it might be valuable jetsam, perhaps a coin chest from a sunken ship. Upon closer inspection he found, as he expressed in his journal, “something beyond the price of rubies”.

That his valuable discovery was in fact a mermaid is evident from a late passage in the journal, although he does not use the word “mermaid” once in the entire account. He calls his find “my darling Chloe”, by which we are meant to assume, presumably, a half drowned woman, and not a sea creature. It is only later, when we must suppose the author is half-delerious, that he inadvertently reveals her true nature.

Later pages of the journal relate in vague terms a happy marriage. Though Albert gives more space to neighbours and “so-called” friends who had effectively ostracised the newlyweds. He does not go into the reasons as to how this came about. But of his scorn for their behaviour we are left in no doubt.

The penultimate section of the journal speaks in vivid detail of the harsh winter. The sudden snow. The ice sealed the river to a depth of half a metre and caused his wife, he writes, “untold distress”. While the larder was well stocked with dry goods, salt fish, powdered egg, flour, sugar and other staples, the weather began to make it impossible to hunt. Albert had been brought up on a farm, and could hunt by most conventional means: with guns, traps and snares. He was also handy with a fishing rod, which, sadly the frozen river made a useless skill.

In the final entries Albert writes:

“Chloe is fading fast. And I am not far behind her, I fear. We have packed barrels and buckets, and even the tin bath, with snow, and set them around the fire to give us meltwater. I have kept some of my strength by eating preserved pig fat, but the merest smell of it makes Chloe unwell. The salted fish is all but gone.

“On two or three occasions I opened my wrist with my old Army razor. I did so behind Chloe’s back, as she would rather die, she said, that have me sacrifice my health for her. Nevertheless, having drained off almost half a pint, I begged her to drink it from a porcelain mug bearing an image, ironically, of a four-masted clipper at sea. She swallowed the hot broth gratefully, but with tears streaming down her face.

“My beautiful girl told me through sobs that had her life been more important to her than mine, she would have drunk directly from my open veins. Not only would that have saved her life, and kept her in robust health for weeks, perhaps even a month, but it would also have condemned me to become one of her own people. When I said I desired nothing more than to be with her under any conditions, she believed this was too high a price to pay.

“It may be that we are too far from the coast, and that the rivers are impassable. Perhaps that is why Chloe is so adamant on the subject. Perhaps by drinking my blood she would only ensure a longer drawn out death for herself, and a shorter one for me.”

There is a break in the account here, then an undated passage which is hard to read because of the now understandably terrible penmanship. And the terrible event which occasioned it.

“I am dying. Chloe is sickly pale, though her eyes still gleam like silver coins. I have made her swear to drink of my blood before I take my inevitable last breath. I hold her hand, and pull aside my collar saying the words, ‘One last kiss’.”

Nothing was heard of Chloe again. Nor were any sightings of her reported.

Which brings us to our next topic, one that is every bit as important in its own way as the imperatives of shelter, clothing and food. That topic is society.

One argument has it that Albert Proudfoot concealed his wife from society because he was afraid that other men would desire her. Which was, given the searcher’s remark, a reasonable fear. Except that, if the journal account is an accurate reflection of their relationship, Chloe loved her husband in way that was both all encompassing and exclusive. A more likely explanation is the snubbing they received at the hands of friends and relatives. By withdrawing from society, then Albert was “returning the favour” to all who had rejected the couple.

Notwithstanding Albert Proudfoot’s “pride”, as it were, our position is that it is important to offer merwives education and appropriate social interaction. Undersea folk have their own sciences, history and mythology. As for music, it is believed they sing, but principally as communication rather than for entertainment. We now know from research that mermaids are entranced by our music, particularly when it is played upon instruments rather than sung. The voice of even our best opera singers supposedly offends the shell-like mermaid ear.

Yet these former oceanic females appear to relish conversation. And while they seem happy to discourse solely with their husbands, surely it is only right and proper they be given the chance to broaden their education within society at large?

According to parish records of the year 1840 there were 530 mermaid wives in circulation. Some are believed to have befriended human women in their communities. Others, sadly, were paraded around like circus freaks. One individual, a city banker no less, accepted large sums of money for his merwife’s “services.” Fortunately the courts recognised the repugnancy of his behaviour and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Teaching a mermaid to read, however, is another matter.

Certainly several ophthalmologists, notably the esteemed Dr. Eric Franklin from Harley Street, agreed that her peculiar eyes cannot distinguish text from the paper on which it is printed. According to a paper Dr Franklin presented to the 1837 European Medical Conference in Zurich, sound and touch are her primary ways of understanding, and communicating with, the world. A notoriously humourless man (so some of his peers claim), the good doctor added, to the great amusement of his audience that, following a series of additional tests, he learned that a mermaid’s skin is “almost supernaturally sensitive.”

Marine biologists have discovered that marine mammals as well as fish, can detect vibrations in the water. But whether this is due to skin sensitivity, brain function or bone resonance (as is the case in our own ears), is a matter for further research. Dr Franklin had nothing to say on the biophysical transformation a mermaid must go through in order to pass for human. How this miraculous mutation occurs continues to baffle science. In any event, the transfigured mermaid loses both tail and gills. Legs replace the tail and lungs take over the function of the gills.

Nevertheless, she has a great capacity for learning and, given the opportunity, a mermaid can be an asset to any social gathering. Provided, of course that she does not out of the blue evince problems with her clothing and disrobe during dessert.

Other aspects of the physiology are likely to remain a mystery for decades to come, as to date no mutated marine female has left her corpse to be studied by anatomists. Mainly because they can live to the ripe old age of 300 years or more.

This latter fact inspired several cult movements, such as the Neptune Society, and the Atlanteans. The Atlanteans believe that merfolk are actually our ancestors, and that they evolved from a group of rebel submariners at odds with the reigning authority some 20,000 years before the birth of Christ. They are furthermore convinced that the holy grail is not the cup of Christ, but a mystical conch shell which turns simple seawater into the wine of immortality.

One question remains on the subject of our discourse. It may appear that the care and maintenance of mermaids is the responsibility of their human husbands. Not so. Mermaids, after all, have their own minds, and wills and impulses. In common with us shorter-lived mortals, they are subject to emotions such as excitement, boredom and, as Albert Proudfoot’s journal admirably illustrates, fear and depression. So why then voluntarily elect to become human? Or as close to human as is possible for a species in every sense separate from us?

Perhaps they leave behind their aquatic home in a spirit of exploration, to seek adventure? After all, do not our own children wish above all to flee the nest as soon as they are of age? It is equally plausible that they live in a society which oppresses the female of their species in a similar though potentially more oppressive way than ours does. (Publisher’s note: the views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of Ravenwood Press.)

Or it may be they leave the sea in pursuit of love, as several best-selling romance novelists would have it. Glossing over the penny dreadfuls with such low titles as “Mermaids in Chains”, we cite such tomes as “Meromancy” and “The Seal Wife and the Sea Captain” by a certain Jane LaBelle. Miraculously, Mrs. LaBelle’s oeuvre was the subject of a flattering essay in the Literary Review by an Oxford Don, Sir John Laverty. That the essay entirely lacked the irony such potboilers usually merit should come as no surprise when one learns that Lord Laverty is none other than the husband of said Jane LaBelle.

In any event, it is of paramount importance that readers of our treatise understand that mermaids are children of God, just as much as we are. They are born and, eventually, they die. In the space between these two remarkable events they experience the same griefs and joys as ourselves. They do not simply “exist” as plants and animals do. They do not come here to be servants or unwilling life partners.

As for how they feel about leaving their birthplace behind, have we not amply evidenced that they regard us – or most of us, excepting incarcerated bankers and their lecherous clients – as no different at heart than themselves?

One man I know of, but whose name I exclude to respect his privacy, married a mermaid not too long ago. Their relationship began, as do most relationships, with simple conversation. Each evening for a month he would walk down to the shoreline below the town of Brighton and talk with her about his world, while she spoke of her own. As night was invariably falling during their liaisons, there were few passers by. When someone did happen by, man and mermaid would hide in the shadows of sand dunes, or he would drape her in his coat until the stranger was gone. From there, the relationship blossomed into love. He nurtured her, educated her and introduced her into society. She was always welcomed most warmly by the man’s friends, though their curiosity as to why she wore tinted spectacles indoors as well as out, merited explanation. The man told them his wife had a rare eye condition which made her photosensitive.

Have you ever seen a mermaid light up with delight when she hears a Brahms symphony or a Bach concerto? Have you listened as she discusses the cellular structure of an oak leaf, even when she can barely distinguish more than its general shape and colour? When someone says something offensive about her marriage, or what her husband gains from it, how wonderful she seems in her regal gentleness and empathy for those who cannot possibly understand.

We cannot stress enough, therefore, that the care and maintenance of mermaids, if carried out to the letter, not only benefits this beautiful creature, but the carer himself. In due course, all being well, the caretaker can at last relinquish his duties so that his wife, having also gained an education, can stand beside her husband as a true equal and, more importantly, a “soul mate”.

Editor’s footnote

Ravenwood Press is sad to announce the disappearance, and presumed death, of the author of this treatise, “On the care and Maintenance of Mermaids,” Mr. David Symons. Mr Symons was reported missing the week before we were due to go to press. The whereabouts of his wife of 14 months, Cordelia (coincidentally a Celtic word meaning “jewel of the sea”), is also unknown.

A report in The Times of 18 April, said the police had responded to a call by Mr Symons’ sister who was concerned that he had not been in touch for a month. Upon further investigation it was revealed that he had not reported for work as deputy librarian at King’s College. The police found in the Symons’ home, no signs of forced entry, or any indications of foul play.

The next day, however, a man strolling on Brighton Beach found, beneath the pier, a man’s suit and a pair of shoes. Inside the pocket of the waistcoat was a fob watch bearing the inscription, “To my dear son, David, on the day of his graduation. Heartfelt congratulations, Robert Symons.”

Entwined in the jacket was something the man initially mistook for seaweed. It proved to be a second garment – a woman’s nightgown of the finest Thai silk.


The Anatomy of Seahorses on Tales to Terrify podcast

Tales to Terrify April coverMy tale, “The Anatomy of Seahorses” is out now in audio format in episode 69 of the excellent Tales to Terrify podcast.

As for the narration, I think it’s brilliant. Jedidiah Kalanu Shepler recounts the story in a performance not unlike Ray Winstone or even a young Michael Caine – the English bad boy character is perfectly crafted by Jed.

When the story first appeared in The Horror Express magazine a few years back, it attracted this review by Peter Tennant (of Black Static magazine) on the Whispers of Wickedness website:

“With the possible exception of the [Dear R] Koontz, The Anatomy of Seahorses by John Dodds is the finest story THE has to offer, the tale of professional tough guy and contract killer Wilbur, who is in the Far East to retrieve a valuable package for his employer. Dodds does everything right here, succeeding in the difficult task of creating a credible killer and then making him sympathetic by invoking terrors even more fundamental to the human condition. His evocation of the foreign setting is perfect too, with the spirit life woven seamlessly into the physical world, and the people given attitudes and traits convincingly at odds with our own Western world view. And Dodds’ writing grips from the very start, bringing an intriguing plot to life, providing the essential colour and sound and fury, with phrases that ring in the mind, such as the simply wonderful, ‘The corpse looked like four gallons of snot spread on a log,’ which I so wish I’d come up with myself.”

On the podcast, too, you’ll find a really nasty story called  “It’s Just Tearing Me All Apart” by O.D. Hegre, narrated by Stephen Kilpatrick, a fact article,  “Horror 101” with Kevin Lucia and a poem,  “The Taemor” by Alexei Collier.

Tales would value your comments on their website, and star ratings on itunes. The podcast is always free, though donations are welcomed to keep the podcast alive. I do hope you will consider giving Tales to Terrify your support.

A Real Boy (flash fiction)

Once in a while an idea for a story jumps into my head and won’t let go until I write it down. This one has been on the back brain burner for a few days. It may become a longer tale at some stage, but for now I am signing off on it as a flash fiction story. It also prompted a writing tip: try writing something which is an inversion of something familiar. I trust you will get it when you read….


My father’s expression is kindly, unchangeably so. That frozen smile, those laughter lines scored into the corners of his eyes. He rarely speaks, but whenever he does his voice seems to come from above, behind the curtained vault of heaven.

How he came to make me in the first place is a profound mystery. His hands  are  fingerless, the thumbs not even articulated, but I admire them; they are the hands of a master craftsman. A master craftsman who made me so perfectly in all my imperfection.

I waggle my tiny, chubby fingers in front of my face. Five fingers and a thumb on each hand. They repulse me. Why should I have all this fleshy articulation when I would infinitely prefer to have solid wooden spoons like father? It seems so unfair that he is unarticulate whereas I am so fluent, both in body and in speech. When I speak my lips and my tongue move. That tongue of mine is disgusting in my mouth, a wriggly little worm, fattening itself on the inane words that insist on spilling out of me.

If only I could have the same painted smile as my father. If only my lips could not move. Then perhaps I would not keep asking the same question, over and over, “Why, father? Why did you make me?”

With my back against the wall, I sit quite still, legs outstretched, feet over the edge of the workbench while father tries in vain to tie my boot laces.  The best he can manage is to cup each boot in turn in his spoony hands and lever them onto my repulsive, multi-toed pink feet. Though he’s still smiling — how can he do otherwise? — I feel sorry for him, and decide to let him off the hook.

“Can I do up my own laces, father?” I say.

When he raises his head his expression might be one of either surprise or gratitude. Depending on the angle of his head or how the artificial lighting strikes it.

He steps back, giving me his silent permission. My heart breaks for him.

Drawing my feet up onto the bench one at a time, I lace up the boots. Then I slide off the bench and onto the floor.

Father nods in satisfaction and clumsily pats me on the head.

“Time for school,” he says.

I know this already. My first day.  I nod and fetch my satchel from the hook behind the door. Glancing up briefly I find myself finally understanding why our house does not have a roof. Why none of the houses in town do. It is to allow father, and all of the other residents to move in and out of their homes freely. So that their strings do not catch on anything as they go about their daily business.

After kissing my father’s hard, varnished cheek, then patting the black carved wooden cat sitting on the windowsill, I bid them both goodbye. The cat might try to follow me, I think, but then again he has been on his perch for as long as I have known him, though I have no idea how long that might be. Each day, like my father’s smile, is exactly the same as the one before. There is nothing to mark the passage of time here, except for that single bright star that appears in the dark blue curtain above us once upon an eternity.

Sugar Ceremony (free ebook)

They buried the candyman, the child killer. Except that one child, Marianne, knew he wasn’t really dead. Because the candyman was in her home, living with Marianne and her mother. Sugar Ceremony, a short story by John Dodds. tackles the difficult and terrifying subject of child abuse and murder from the point of view of one child who becomes the potential victim of one such abuser.

I’m offering this story free in ebook format. It originally appeared in the now defunct Judas E-Zine, and the new version has been slightly edited Hope you’ll pic up a copy and, of course I would appreciate comments and star ratings on Smashwords, if you’re so minded.

The brilliant cover photograph is by a friend, Nicola Miller – you’ll find more of her stunning work on her Flickr pages.

ALL CLEAR (flash fiction)

Here’s my response to a friend’s Facebook challenge to write a short story for Hallowe’en. Even though the date is over, why not write one of your own and post it in comments? And, of course, would love to get your reactions to my effort here.


I was eight years old during the Blitz. All these years on, close to the end of my life, I still sometimes waken in the middle of the night to the sirens sounding the all clear. Worse, if I were to draw back the curtains of my room (my cell, I call it) in the home, I see the woman who wears the gas mask. She stands there, beneath the branches of the ash tree in the middle of the back garden. She’s still holding the baby. She’s been holding it in her arms all this time.

There’s something horrible about the way the gas mask hides her face. The rubber and metal skin with its huge saucerlike eyes which seem to express perpetual shock or surprise. The woman doesn’t know the all clear’s been sounded. All her concentration is on that bundle in her arms, swaddled in a grubby woollen blanket. The blanket was once white, but its grey now, its nap flat like the fur of a wet dog. The woman’s frock, though, is immaculate. A floral sleeveless A-line number with a hem just below her knees. The height of fashion back then. In the ’40s.

The baby was dead, you see. Buried beneath the rubble of the collapsed buildings after the final bombing raid. When we all emerged from the tube station, amid the still-settling dust, the remarkably untouched edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral seeming to mock the devastation all around, I saw her on her hands and knees across the street. Pawing the shattered bricks, the shoals of broken wood and glass. I never saw her face, though. Because she was still wearing her gas mask. But, remarkably, she found her baby beneath that scrapheap of devastation. I swear it. I saw her pick it up, gentle as you like, and wrap it in the blanket, and cradled the unmoving form in her arms. She stood up slowly, ever so slowly, the weight of the world on her shoulders. Stood up and looked straight at me. None of the others who’d emerged from underground with me paid her any mind. Or maybe they never saw her. They were only happy to have escaped once more the enemy’s latest attempt to erase them from the face of the earth.

I wanted to do something for the woman. Help her, maybe. Even though her face was concealed by the mask, she reminded me of my own mum, who’d died only last week. The floorboards in the living room had given way, weakened by the previous day’s bombing. A doodle bug. Somehow failed to destroy our tenement but must have unravelled part of its structure. A pulled thread that parted the boards and sent mum plummeting to her death, splintered floorboards puncturing her jaw, slashing a jugular.

There was an unexploded bomb down there, too. In the basement. I fell onto it when I tried to save mum. But it didn’t explode. I blacked out, and when I woke up I was being hauled out of the basement by my uncle Fred. His glasses were misted up with tears. I tried to warn him about the bomb. But it wasn’t there anymore.

It’s back now, just as I knew it would be. That metal egg of death. The woman in the gas mask is still cradling it out there, the way she has done every night since. Like a baby. An unexploded bomb wrapped in a filthy baby blanket. Swaddled and comforted in all these years I have come from being a young girl to an old woman.

She saved me, you see. Whoever she is. When she couldn’t save her own baby, she chose to save me instead.

The sirens sound again. My heart’s stuttering. I hate this old folks’ home. Hate it. So it is perhaps with some defiance that I throw back the blankets and stagger on creaky legs to the window. I pull back the curtain. The woman with the gas mask is there. Cradling her baby. I can’t read her expression. Because of the gas mask, you see. But as I look more closely the streetlights around the garden wall are extinguished, one by one. It’s the blackout all over again. The woman’s body seems to sink in on itself. Because of her baby, you see. You hold onto a baby for 70 years or close to that and it’s bound to get heavy. It will try to drag you down. Which leaves you with only one option.

It’s okay, I say to the woman without moving my lips. You did everything you could. More than most people. It’s okay. You can let go now. You can let go. And then the world fills with light.

Free or not free?

Lately I’ve been reading debates about challenges to internet freedom. While the threat that the US Government could potentially shut down what they see as problematic websites has been headed off at the pass meanwhile, a new debate has arisen. This one is about free file sharing.

Yes, I know the debate isn’t itself new – anyone remember the furore over Napster? – but now file sharing company Megaupload is facing charges for a crime that doesn’t technically exist.

As a writer, I would of course prefer it if people paid to read my books. But equally I have chosen to release some of my work for free. Arguably people who share stuff I’ve created without my permission are stealing it. However, is this really all that different from what most of us do in the real world? If we read a book we enjoy, we’re keen to pass our copy on to friends and family for them to read, too. Provided, of course, they give it back to us when they’re finished. I know years ago I happily copied friends’ records onto C-60, or C-90 cassette tapes, or record my favourite radio programmes (John Peel, RIP). None of which deterred me from also spending most of my pocket money, and a good chunk of my earnings when I started working, on records, books, the cinema and so on. But a borrowed book led me to many writers whose other books I shelled out my hard earned bucks for. Ditto music artists.

It’s a complex issue, I admit. If I likened myself to a builder, or a plumber, or an office worker, the ability to feed myself and family depends on people paying for my services. I would be rightly aggrieved if someone refused to pay me. In one sense if your work is creativity (musician, actor, writer) you should be accorded the same respect. But many creative people, some of whom have gone on record, see the file sharing thing as a type of marketing for their work.

There are pros and cons both sides of the argument. But, as far as the latest anti authoritarian campaign suggests, I can’t support their tactic of demanding that people stop buying books, CDs or going to the cinema for one day. Those who feel they have a God given right to take stuff for free have no right, in my view, to demand that people who chose to support creative artists add fuel to the fire by not paying for something they value.