I sat on a stool in front of my cottage, watching the packet ship sail into Falmouth. From up on the headland, it seemed to drift in as pale and silent as a ghost. On the docks, everything would be bustle and noise, people calling back and forth as the ship steered into harbour, bringing news from across the world.
It was a long time since I’d found the courage to face the docks.
“Why are you crying?”
I looked around to see a boy, no more than six years old, his head tilted to one side as he looked at me. He was dressed in a threadbare smock and his feet were covered in dust from the road, but there was a brightness to him beneath the grime.
“I’m not crying,” I said, and held up the frayed ends of rope I’d been twining back together. “Just got a loose strand in my eye.”
“Is it because you’re missing a leg?”
If a grown man had said that to me, he’d have felt my fist, and to hell with whether I could stand up to finish fighting him. But children didn’t know better. You had to make allowances.
“It’s the sea,” I said at last. “It moves me.”
“Have you been to sea?” His face all eagerness, he sat down on the ground next to me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Tell me about it.”
I wiped my eye. “It’s been a long time.”
“I bet you have brilliant stories.”
“Aye, maybe.” I hadn’t told any of them in a long time. They reminded me too much of what I’d lost. But you had to make allowances for children. “What’s your name, lad?”
“I’m Edward. Let me tell you about the time I was chased by pirates…”
I sat on a barrel by the docks, sewing up a torn sail and watching ships come in. It had been a rough winter, the storms battering hard at the Cornish coast. But now the packet was back, the surest sign of Falmouth’s prosperity. It swept towards the harbour, slicing through the waves, the crew waving and cheering in excitement to be home. That sight made me smile, remembering my own returns from long stretches at sea.
“Edward!” Robert strode towards me, a sack slung over his shoulder. He’d grown a lot in eight years, each story I told seeming to add a little more to his height. And though he couldn’t yet grow a proper beard, he took great pride in the patches of stubble that dotted his chin.
“Good to see you, lad,” I said. “Come to see the packet come in?”
“More than that,” he replied, slinging the sack down beside my barrel. “I’m looking to sign up for her crew.”
I hunched over my work, jabbing away with the needle, hiding my face.
“Whatever’s the matter?” he asked, always perceptive for one so young. “Don’t you want me to go?”
I thought of everything I’d seen at sea. Men swept overboard. Others carried away as slaves. My own leg smashed by a shot from a French raider’s cannon, ending my sailing days forever. That was no life for a healthy, happy lad like Robert.
I looked up and saw him staring at the packet ship, beaming with excitement. The same excitement he’d shown when I told him all those stories. The same excitement I’d felt for so many years, in those moments before I set out to sea.
Was it really him I worried for, or me, left here alone on the dock?
“You go for it, lad,” I said, forcing a smile. “They’ll be lucky to have you.”
I sat on a crate amid the goods being unloaded from the packet. The ship’s sails hung limp beneath a grey sky. Over the Channel, storm clouds were gathering.
“The lad switched ships in Lisbon,” the first mate explained to me. “Joined a crew heading for the Americas. Said to tell you he was having a grand old time, but he’s thinking of you.”
I pulled myself up on my crutches.
“Thank you kindly,” I mumbled, then headed back up the hill.
I sat on a stool outside my cottage. The packet had arrived in the harbour below, one more set of sails amid the rest. One more forgotten dream.
I looked down at the battered satchel in my lap. I’d said I’d have it back to the Reverend Willows days before, but the work never seemed to get done.
“Why are you just sitting there like that?”
I looked up to see a man walking towards me. His clothes were salt-stained and faded, his skin browned by the tropical sun, and he wore a full beard. But the twinkle in his eyes was unmistakable.
“Robert!” I practically shouted in joy.
He hugged me, then sat down in the dirt at my feet, just as he’d done when he was small.
“Are you here to listen to my stories again?” I asked with a laugh.
“I thought I might tell you mine instead,” he replied. “If you’ve a mind to hear them.”
“Aye, I think I could stand that.”
I sat back, closed my eyes, and listened as he told me about his adventures. And in my heart, I was there on the ship with him, carried once again out to sea.
* * *
For the reality of Falmouth in the age of sail, check out Philip Marsden’s fantastic The Levelling Sea. It’s full of stories of the amazing people who lived in and sailed from the town.
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