I woke, convinced I’d heard a noise downstairs. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, crept across the carpet to my window, and drew back the curtain. The passageway was empty and dark. Near the fence, our bin had fallen on its side and the lid was flapping open and shut in the breeze like the mouth of a dying fish. Perhaps that was all it was.

I stumbled back to bed, discarded biscuit wrappers crinkling softly underfoot. I had one leg under the duvet when I heard it again—unmistakeable this time: a furious rattling of the back door. Was someone trying to break into the kitchen? Of course they were.

I sat rigid on the bed, every sense peaking and alert. Claire, our live-in landlady, had gone to Paris for the weekend and Joe, my other housemate, was out, whatever that meant. The phone lay out of reach on the living room table.

It was up to me.

I looked around my darkened room for a weapon, and saw nothing but my old Wilson tennis racquet slumped in the corner, giving off an odour of resentment. Silently, I unsheathed it. The rubber grip had frayed. The racquet felt weightless in my hand. Oh, to be weightless, I thought.

Thus armed, I snuck barefoot down the stairs, my left hand gliding an inch above the banisters, the racquet slicing the thin winter air.
The elastic of my pyjama trousers gripped my waist and squeezed hard. Perhaps the burglar would flee at the sight of me. I knew I would.

Bare-branched shadows swayed across the carpet as I tiptoed down the hall.

The kitchen door was still rattling, as if someone was trying to shake it to pieces. An amateur, I thought. An incompetent amateur.

As I neared the doorway, something small and sharp stabbed the sole of my right foot. I pressed the racquet to my mouth, stifling a yelp. The strings made a waffle of my face. In the kitchen the rattling continued oblivious, underscored now by a stream of suspicious expletives. Amateur, I thought, my foot.

I hobbled into the kitchen and flipped the switch on the wall with the frame of the racquet. The kitchen flickered and filled with a sickly neon light. Now I could see that the window in the back door had shattered and the tiled floor was sprayed with sharp splinters of glass. An arm had reached through the empty frame and was wrestling with the key in the lock. It was a muscular, well-defined arm; impressive in its Neanderthal way, but the challenge of working out which direction to turn the key from the outside appeared to be too much for it. Across the arm’s bicep was a small tattoo in the shape of a Minoan bull. I knew both arm and tattoo well. They belonged to Joe, my housemate.

Joe was wearing a thin blue T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon picture of a monkey. Draped across his shoulders was his accessory du jour—a black leather biker’s jacket from the George’s Street Arcade. His dark hair, gelled into an immaculately erect forest some hours before, had begun to droop. The tiny goatee under his bottom lip—which he had once, charmingly, referred to as a ‘flavour saver’—was like a little exclamation mark underlining his every word. Tonight, it was somewhat redundant. His words were doing the exclaiming all by themselves.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ he yelled, his eyes struggling to focus on what I gathered was one of my many doubles. ‘I’ve been throwing stones at your window for half an hour.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, spreading a mortified hand across my chest, ‘I don’t know where the time goes.’

Sarcasm was wasted on Joe in his present condition. His voice simply took on a pathetic, whimpering tone. ‘Just let us in, Mir,’ he whined. ‘It’s fucking freezing out here.’

I was tempted to turn on my bloodied heel and march back to bed but, instead, I folded my arms—a little awkwardly, given the racquet—and considered his request. During our years in the house Joe had variously described me, in chronological order, as a ministering angel, a friend to waifs and strays, and a sap. With those accolades in mind I sighed, crossed the cold kitchen tiles, earning myself an identical wound on my left foot, and unlocked the door.

It was then that I noticed the girl.

She was standing behind Joe, wearing a halter neck made from hundreds of shimmering silver sequins. From the waist up, she looked like a glamorous fish, but her legs were undeniably human. Slender and blue-veined in the cold, they seemed to go on indefinitely, unimpeded by anything that might be described as a skirt. At the other end, two round eyes stared out of a small, flat face. Her eyeliner was very dark, exacerbating her anaemic complexion, the weary look in her eyes. It was hard to tell whether she was pretty. Her face seemed not to have made up its mind. She had, I supposed, a translucence that only youth can provide, and that, I knew, was more than enough for Joe. For what remained of the night, at least.

‘Hello,’ I said, and waited for Joe to introduce us, but he didn’t, of course. I stood aside while he grabbed her hand and led her through the kitchen door. From their bodies came faint whispers of song and sex. Joe smelled of hair gel and sweat and beer and impatience and other things I preferred not to think about. The fish girl was too cold to smell of anything.

I shut what remained of the door behind them. ‘You’re welcome,’ I said. I am droll at 4 a.m.

Joe made a sterling effort to focus on my face and I noticed that the dancing feet of the monkey were stretched a little tighter than they used to be. He was developing a paunch. Well, well. Perhaps he’d been at my biscuits. They were certainly disappearing at an alarming rate these days.

‘I’ll get it fixed in the morning,’ he muttered.

‘Oh, really?’ I said, fruitlessly raising an eyebrow. Perhaps the dance floors of Dublin were full of agreeable builders falling over themselves to re-fenestrate on a Sunday. Perhaps the mermaid was one of them.

The girl glanced up at me, hugging her glittering stomach with a pimpled arm. For a moment her mind seemed to wander out from behind a cloud of chemicals. Whatever they’d been on was wearing off, I surmised, leaving more than a tincture of disappointment on both sides.
‘Why are you holding a tennis racquet?’ she asked.
I noticed the strange stringed instrument in my hand. I looked at Joe. ‘I’m practicing my swing,’ I said.

Joe shook his head and tugged the girl away into the hall with some urgency, as if he had an appointment he was anxious to keep. The mermaid followed meekly. She was back in the club again, far from our poky little house, surfing the ambient waves of whatever she’d taken. Given the available alternatives, I couldn’t blame her.

I watched them go. Their shoes ground shards of glass into the carpet. Their unpunctured feet thudded up the stairs. So, despite the encroaching sobriety and the hypothermia and the general detumescent ambience of the situation, he was going through with it. What marvellous pluck, I thought, what gumption.

I reached for the broom and began to sweep up the glass with brisk, sharp strokes. You shall not go to the ball, Miranda. As a matter of fact, I had already been to the ball and, quite frankly, the ball wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be.

The draught from the broken door slapped my face. My feet were beginning to throb. A knot of anger tightened across my chest.

I waddled to the foot of the stairs and saw that the happy couple had already reached the first floor landing. I heard Joe whisper something to the girl and she laughed a strange, aquatic laugh. If she was a mermaid, I reflected, she was unlikely to remain a maid much longer.

For a few moments I stood there, listening to their feet padding softly up the second flight towards Joe’s attic bedroom. I pictured them going inside: the clothes heaped in piles on the floor, the unused guitar propped under the eaves, the half-smoked roll-ups, the lava lamp bubbling banalities in the corner. Last thing, if he wasn’t too drunk to remember, he would turn and take his contacts out, prizing one lid open with forked fingers. In the morning, the lenses would lie shrivelled on the bedside table like discarded sea shells.

I pictured it all. I came to a decision.

‘She’s prettier than last week’s!’ I yelled.

Four feet continued to creak up the stairs. Was there hesitation now in that fluttering second pair? A new urgency in the first? The door to Joe’s bedroom opened and slammed shut, and there was silence.

I tweezered three gleaming slivers of glass from my feet—Oh bejewelled lady!—stole plasters from Claire’s bathroom cabinet, unwrapped a Kit-Kat from my private stash, swept up the remaining glass, locked the kitchen door, stretched two pieces of masking tape over the gaping hole in an X like the scene of a crime, and went back to bed, unwrapping a second Kit-Kat en route. As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a cab pull up outside the house, two waif feet skipping quickly down the stairs. I smiled thinly to myself—my smiles, at least, are thin—and turned over.