Seawater By Jim Holland
All my life, I have been shrouded in seawater. The salt sting of it in my eyes. The taste of it in my mouth. The smell in my nostrils. Constantly I fight against it. Wall upon wall of translucent blue brine pounds against me, my small ship creaking and screaming as it struggles to break through the torrent. In every direction I turn, from horizon to horizon, the miles before me and after me are filled with seawater. The waves roll on forever like rippling muscles on some great blue beast. And if the ship were to break, or if I were to lose heart and take over the side, what would I find after tumbling into its maw? What would I see as I plunged fathom after fathom, sinking into its depths, until all light be lost and I saw no more?
Seawater. But I must fight with it every day. To try and tame the beast as my father tried to. Every day I must pull the riches from its innards. Flapping scaly creatures fall upon the deck, so that I may put food in the mouths of families, so I may make a coin or two and one day feed a family of my own.
As a child, I watched my father's hands hanging out our fishing nets on The Level. Hands so rough and beaten they looked like they should have barnacles growing on them. His ship and his hut down on South Street, they were my inheritance. He told me so again and again, as he trained me with the skills of fishing.
"This is our livelihood, our life!" he would say, holding up one of that day's catch. "Look at this little blighter. Been swimming around merrily all day. Doing nothing worthwhile. Then I comes along and pulls him out the sea. Be doing much more good on a plate than in the water, eh? You have all this coming to you." He waved the fish at me. "You will be looked after when I am gone. It's good honest business this. I learnt at the hands of my father. And now you learn from me."
He laid the fish down and gutted it.
I’ve the same hands as my father. And like his, they always stank of fish. Isabelle couldn't stand the smell, though she loved me anyways. Isabelle's father owned a public house were she worked sometimes as a barmaid, though her father weren't keen on it as she was always getting the prices wrong and giving the punters more change than she ought. She were dreamy. Both in that she was a good looking lass, and she had dreams. Or, she were "away with the fairies" as her old man put it.
She were always on about wanting to be an artist. She did draw pretty well. Better than she could draw a pint. But no picture could be worth as much as a fish now, could it?
I knew her through her brother, Jamie, who came to work on the boat after my Dad grew ill and took to his sick bed, spending his days in the hut. I became captain of the little trawler and Jamie and I worked together well. We would sneak into the pub after hours and steal beer and tell tales. He were a good lad. And when he found out Isabelle and I were courting, he was pleased for us, said he wouldn't have her on anyone else's arm.
It were Jamie that came and found me the night of the second great storm. I was with Isabelle. I heard him calling my name over the sound of the gale and the far-off roaring waves. I ran outside into the rain to meet him. Struggling forward, he grabbed my shoulder.
"Friend... My friend..." I tried to look into his eyes but they turned from mine, toward the sea.
Then I was running. Toward the seafront. Toward my home. My father. But when I arrived, it had all gone.
South Street had been devoured by the ocean. And the barnacled hands of my father, tough and weatherbeaten though they were, could not grip onto dry land when it fell from under him. He had been reclaimed by the great blue beast. Foolish of him to think that by growing old, by falling sick, by staying in the hut, he could ever escape it.
The next day, the sea were calm again. Sated. Its hunger fed. The great blue beast slept soundly, having shown it could rise up and smash us whenever it wished.
Miraculously, the boat had survived. The sea giveth and the sea taketh away.
Jamie came to me as I were checking it for any damage. He asked if I were alright. And then told me he was leaving for London.
"There's no streets paved with gold, you know," I says.
"Ah, but if they be paved. I'll be out of this loving mud, at least," he says. "Why don't you come with me?”
"No. My Dad was right. Fishing is what I know. It's what my family’s been doing for generations. The sea may have taken him. But the sea is what provided for us all these years. And it may repay me now. It owes me after all."
But then, for some reason, what the sea provided was not enough. "Economics" they call it. I would go out, day after day, the seawater cascading over the boat and over me. I would fight through the waves, would not go overboard, and would bring in the fish and gut them and hang the nets on the Level. But whatever I brought in was not enough. The fish were not worth what they had been. And I had no money saved having spent it on a new home.
There were many empty homes to choose from. People were leaving. After the horror of the storm and the crush of "economics", people were abandoning their ships and leaving the village.
I had seen her less often as I worked harder. And she complained more and more of the smell of fish. On me. On everyone. The village stank of it. One day I went to the pub and her father handed me a note. Again, no chance to say goodbye. She had gone to London, to live with her brother Jamie and to be an artist. She said it was not my fault. With the note was a drawing by her hand. Of me. On the boat. On the seawater.
That is where I returned. I could have gone after her, to London, away from the sea. But I would not give up. This life, this livelihood was all I had left. I would succeed where my father had not. The sea would not take me. I would take from it. Though I had begun to hate it so.
One day, as I finished hauling in the nets and took off my heavy gloves to scratch an itch, I noticed a spot on my arm. And next to it another smaller one. And another. Over the following week they spread. I became affected by a leprosy on both arms, as high as the elbows and all over my hands. Like barnacles.
Leprous yellow spots appeared all over my body. But though I became weak, I carried on working. It was only after I narrowly avoided being washed from the boat that I went to see a doctor. Doctor Oldman told me he could cure the disease with the use of mercurials. I believed him because he was a man of science, a man of medicine. Whereas I was a man of fish.
But the treatments had little effect. I took to my sick bed and though my house was the furthest inland in Brighthelmstone, I could hear the roar of the sea through the sick stillness of the house. In my weakened state I lay and dreamt of Isabelle. Of her turning away, rather than falling into these leprous arms. I dreamt of my father. And of the sea rising up and falling on all of Brighthelmstone to wipe it off the map forever.
The next day Doctor Oldman called on me. He had recommended me to a Doctor Russell, who lived in Lewes. So I rose and though I was ill, travelled out there to see him. A sturdy gentlemen answered the door, frowning out at me from under his grey wig. He bade me come in and he looked at my arms and he hummed and he ha-ed. And do you know what he told me was the cure? Do you know what medical marvel he prescribed? What great healing force he had "discovered"?
"Seawater!" I says, "I am not lacking for that! I have been surrounded by it for years. It has washed over me, it has flowed under me. It has taken my father from me. It has put up a barrier between me and my love. Oh, I am familiar with seawater! If anything it is the cause of this malady, not the cure!"
He was unmoved by this outburst.
"You may know of it," he says, "But you are not versed in its medical use. The vast collection of waters we call the sea, surrounds the whole earth and therefore washes whatever is contained within its opposite shores, as submarine plants, salts, fishes, minerals, and is enriched with the particles it receives from these bodies, either being washed off or being passed into the water by transpiration..."
He went on. All I could think about was my father's body being washed off or passed into the water by transpiration. Had particles of my father's soul passed into the sea? Had those of all them mariners that were lost to it?
When I focused again, Dr Russell was looking up impatiently. He saw he had my attention, and continued. He prescribed me half an ounce of cuttlefish bone, two drams woodlice, prepared, and an assortment of other things like nutmeg. But I had to drink with this confection, a pint of seawater a day.
I was still mightily angered at the idea. But he was a man of science, a man of medicine, and so I did as he said. And as he recorded in his writings, less than two months later, there were naught but one spot on this fisherman's weathered arms when he returned to sea.
Dr Russell never saw me again. The fisherman did not return.
But I did.
Maybe it was the medicine that cured me. Maybe it were my father, the particles of his soul joining mine to give me one last chance, to release me from my heritage.
Either way, I journeyed to London with the money I raised from selling the boat and my home and joined Jamie, working for him in his rag and bone business. We ploughed our cart up and down the streets which are paved. But not with gold.
With him, I found Isabelle. And she did fall into my arms again. Now they are no longer leprous and do not smell of fish.
I have a son of my own now and he is near fully grown. He has his mother's eyes. But his father's hands. My father's hands. He talks of returning to Brighthelmstone. Now many folk travel down there to bathe in the life-giving water, ignorant of the life it took from me. I understand there are many ways to earn a crust down in Brighthelmstone now. My son can determine his own fate. If he wishes to return there, he can be whatever he wants. As long as it does not depend on seawater.
This page was amended on 09/04/2014
From Lee Hume