About the Story:
“A sharp wind slapped the sodden hem against my ankles. Clutching the cloak beneath my chin with one hand, I held the other over my brow as a shield from the stinging ocean spray and squinted to see past the curtain of angry grey mizzle drawn across the entry to the harbour. I tried to transport myself beyond the heads, imagine what lay out there; see with my mind’s eye what my physical one could not.
Just as they had for the last three days, land and water conspired against me.
With a protracted sigh, I turned and walked back along the dock, my mantle damp and heavy across my shoulders. Brine made the wood slick and the receding tide had strewn seaweed and other flotsam across the worn planks. Barnacles and ancient gull droppings clung to the thick timbers, resisting the endless waves. I marvelled at their tenacity.
On one side of the pier, a number of boats protested against their moorings, rocking wildly from side to side, abandoned by the crews till the weather passed. Along the pebbled shores of the bay, smaller vessels were drawn high, overturned on the grassy dunes, their owners hunkered near the harbourmaster’s office at the other end of the dock, drinking ale and complaining about the unnatural weather that stole their livelihood, pretending not to be worried about those who hadn’t yet come home. I waved to them as I drew closer and a couple of the old salts raised their arms in return.
They knew what dragged me from my warm bed and down to the harbour before the servants stirred. It was what brought any of us who dared to draw a living from the seas.
I continued, lifting my skirts and jumping a puddle that had collected where the dock ended and the dirt track that followed the estuary into town began.
To the toll of morning bells, I joined the procession of carts, horses and vendors trundling into market as the sky lightened to a pearlescent hue. The rain that hovered out to sea remained both threat and promise. Ships that plied their trade across the Channel were anchored mid-river, their sails furled or taken down for repairs; their wooden decks gleaming, their ropes beautifully knotted as captains sought to keep their crews busy while the weather refused them access to the open water. Some had hired barges to transport their cargo to London, while others sold what they could to local shopkeepers or went to Norwich. Closer to the town, abutting the riverbanks, were the warehouses belonging to the Hanseatic League, their wide doors open. Bales of wool, wooden barrels, swollen sacks of grain and salt were stacked waiting to be loaded onto ships that were already overdue. – ours being one of them. The workers lingered near the entry hoping to snatch some news. Like us, these men, so far from their homeland, longed to hear that their compatriots were safe. Apart from the whinny of horses, the grunt of oxen, and the grind of cart wheels, silence accompanied us for the remainder of the trip into town.
As our procession spilled through the old wooden gates, dirty-faced urchins leapt onto the path, offering rooms, food and other less savoury fare, tugging at cloaks, pulling at mantles. Avoiding the children, I steered around the visiting merchants and travelling hawkers who paused to pay tolls, and slipped past the packhorses and carts to head towards the town centre. Jostled by the farmers with their corn and livestock, apprentices wearing leather aprons and earnest expressions, the way was slow. Before I’d passed the well, the bells of St Stephen’s began to toll announcing the official opening of the market. Around me, shop shutters sprang open, their bleary-eyed owners waving customers forth. ‘Hot pottage!’, ‘Baked sheep’s cheek’, ‘Venetian silk’, ‘Copper pans going cheap’; their cries mingled and were soon drowned in the discordant symphony of market day. Catching a glimpse of our housekeeper, Saskia, among the crowd, I darted down the lane near St Nichols and increased my pace. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Saskia – on the contrary, as one of my mother’s countrywomen, a constant presence since I was a baby, I loved her dearly. I just wanted to enjoy a few more minutes of my own company, without questions or making decisions or, what I was really avoiding, the suffocating weight of the unspoken. I also wanted to make it home before Hiske knew where I’d been or the twins escaped the nursery. If she spied me, Saskia, with the familiarity of a valued servant, would suborn me to her will. I needed to dry myself and change my gown. More importantly, I had to erase the worry from my face and voice. Why I insisted on doing this, going to the seaside these last few days, I was uncertain. It was a compulsion I couldn’t resist. It gave me purpose, prevented me from feeling quite so helpless. I thought about what I’d tell the twins today, how I would distract them. I rounded the corner back onto Market Street, the main road that led to the gate at the other end of town. Walking against the tide of people, I drew my hood, quickened my step and entered the alley that ran beside my home. I unlatched the garden gate and squeezed through.”