The Mermaids Singing

Chapter 1
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.

'the love song of J. alfred pruf rock T. s. eliot The soul of torture is male comment ON EXHIBIT CARD the museum OF criminology and torture sah GiMlCNANO, italy.

All chapter epigraphs are taken from "On Murder considered as one of the fine arts' by Thomas De Quincey (1827)

you always remember the first time. Isn't that what they say about sex? How much more true it is of murder. I will never forget a single delicious moment of that strange and exotic drama. Even though now, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, I can see it was an amateurish performance, it still has the power to thrill, though not any longer to satisfy.

Although I didn't realize it before the decision to act was forced upon me, I had been paving the way for murder well in advance.

Picture an August day in Tuscany. An air-conditioned coach whisking us from city to city. A busload of Northern culture vultures, desperate to fill every moment of our precious fortnight's package with something memorable to set against Castle Howard and Chatsworth.

I'd enjoyed Florence, the churches and art galleries filled with strangely contradictory images of martyrdom and Madonnas. I had scaled the dizzy heights of Brunelleschi's dome surmounting the immense cathedral, entranced by the winding stairway that leads up from the gallery to the tiny cupola, the worn stone steps tightly sandwiched between the ceiling of the dome and the roof itself. It was like being inside my computer, a real role-playing adventure, working my way through the maze to daylight. All it lacked were monsters to slay on the way. And then, to emerge into bright day and amazement that up here, at the end of this cramped ascent, there was a postcard and souvenir seller, a small, dark, smiling man stooped from years of lugging his wares aloft. If it had really been a game, I would have been able to purchase some magic from him. As it was, I bought more postcards than I had people to send them to.

After Florence, San Gimignano. The town rose up from the green Tuscan plain, its ruined towers thrusting into the sky like fingers clawing upwards from a grave. The guide bur bled on about 'a medieval Manhattan', another crass comparison to add to the list we'd been force-fed since Calais.

As we neared the town, my excitement grew. All over Florence, I'd seen the advertisements for the one tourist attraction I really wanted to see. Hanging splendidly from lampposts, gorgeous in rich red and gold, the banners insisted that I visit the Museo Criminologico di San Gimignano. Consulting my phrase book I'd confirmed what I'd thought the small print said. A museum of criminology and torture. Needless to say, it wasn't on our cultural itinerary.

I didn't have to search for my target; a leaflet about the museum, complete with street plan, was thrust upon me less than a dozen yards inside the massive stone gateway set in the medieval walls. Savouring the pleasure of anticipation, I wandered around for a while, marvelling at the monuments to civic disharmony that the towers represented. Each powerful family had had its own fortified tower which they defended against their neighbours with everything from boiling lead to cannons. At the peak of the city's prosperity, there were supposedly a couple of hundred towers. Compared to medieval San Gimignano, Saturday night down the docks after closing time seems like kindergarten, the seamen mere amateurs in mayhem.

When I could no longer resist the pull of the museum, I crossed the central piazza, tossing a bicoloured zoo-lire coin in the well for luck, and walked a few yards down a side street, where the now familiar red and gold hangings adorned ancient stone walls. Excitement buzzing in me like a blood-crazed mosquito, I walked into the cool foyer and calmly bought my entrance ticket and a copy of the glossy, illustrated museum guide.

How can I begin to describe the experience? The physical reality was so much more overwhelming than photographs or videos or books had ever prepared me for. The first exhibit was a ladder rack, the accompanying card describing its function in loving detail in Italian and English. Shoulders would pop out of their sockets, hips and knees separate to the sound of rending cartilage and ligament, spines stretch out of alignment till vertebrae fell apart like beads from a broken string.