Once there was a child called Jessica
, who had never seen the sea
. She lived with her uncle and aunt in a great house deep inland
, within a forest, in a gloomy valley between low hills, and there was no scent of sea air from any direction, no cry of sea-mews
blown off course, and no books to tell her. No old sailors came by, peddling wares or telling stories.
Once, when she was between governesses, she had had to be taken along by her aunt and uncle when they had important business in a seaside town, but they had travelled in a closed carriage with heavy pomades to ward off the salt air, and had arrived at their hotel at dead of night. She had been locked in her room for three days, eating alone, and her Uncle Oswald had paid the local butchers' boys to set up braziers outside her window and burn their nastiest offal day and night.
On the third night, not long before they were due to return home, setting out before dawn, she had been awoken by a change in the air. The butchers' boys had finally fallen asleep exhausted, and Jessica heard not their coarse sporting, and the turning of the spits, but a faint and constant shushing and breaking; and with it came a rich, sharp smell she had never known before.
When she got home another governess was found for her. Governesses seldom lasted long: they got sick of being whipped when caught teaching Jessica the alphabet, or having their own rations reduced when they let Jessica sleep in or watch television.
Yet Aunt Miriam refused to let Uncle Oswald hire cruel governesses, for fear the two of them would hit it off and conspire to do away with her. She slept with a Pekinese at the foot of her bed in case anyone came in during the night.
Nor did Jessica have many friends among her uncle's serfs, for they were too afraid to disobey his injunction not to speak with her, or teach her of other places. Tom, the simple-minded stable-boy, sometimes carved her a doll from acorns and twigs, and she spent most of her time playing with these, when she was not actually doing her lessons, tatting, crocheting, or cleaning her room.
Each Christmas her uncle would sweep into her room and collect up all the trinkets, toys, feathers, blue eggshells, school-books, and old clothes and blankets that she might have accumulated during the year, and cart them off to the main hall to burn them all in the great Christmas fire they allowed to blaze in their grate once a year, as he rubbed his hands cheerily and sipped his madeira. But she didn't know it was called Christmas, or that anyone else in the world did anything else that winter's day.
Then she was given the new year's gingham frock, and some stockings and a coat, and allowed to choose whatever food she wanted from the dining table, and went back to her room to wonder what her new governess would be like, for she had never before seen one arrive in a red E-Type Jaguar.
Miss Heartsease was a great education, in several ways, for although she knew no more of Russian, economics, or astronomy than Uncle Oswald, only rather more of the skill of bluffing, she was in love -- with a sailor. With several sailors, in fact, with one from each ship; so she told Jessica about the sea, and about love, and taught her to read. Miss Heartsease smuggled an encyclopaedia in, volume by volume, under her pelisse, and Jessica as she progressed to two- and three-letter words and beyond, learned of the moon (which her uncle and aunt had always kept hidden from her), and of atomic time-keeping, the Fiji Islands, the Book of Kells, the making of pancakes, and the beetles of the tropical rainforest.
And whenever Uncle Oswald discovered some sign of this, and beat Miss Heartsease with a thick leather strap, the more she defied him, for sailors were not the only pleasure she enjoyed. Uncle Oswald found he was spending hours at a time correcting his unruly staff.
To this governess young Jessica owed her only true toy, a real doll, a fine chap all in bright blue and white sailor suit, and which she named Joe Sebastian Henry Barry Leo after some of the sweethearts Miss Heartsease spoke most fondly and most often of. Together they shared the secrets of brine, and galleons, and quinquiremes, octopuses, rigging, cutlasses, torpedoes, nets, palm-fringed islets and whales breaching under the Greenland moon.
One day her uncle found the doll and exceeded all bounds in his fury. He turned away Miss Heartsease with no notice, references, or chastisement, and seized the doll, swearing to start a fire to destroy it, even though it was early in December and the snow, though it had isolated their house and blocked many of the lower windows, was not yet at its height.
They tugged and tugged, but Uncle Oswald was the stronger, and he took away the doll, and called for serfs to come and prepare a fire; while Jessica was left with a little arm and a little leg, and her tears.
Never before had she known such a loss, for never before had she had anything like it to lose. Her tears flowed, and all the world outside turned into a blur, a sea. Through the rainbows filming her eyelashes the world became more beautiful, involuntarily, making her gasp and smile even as she wept. Where Jessica's tears fell upon the sailor's arm and leg, the sailor's flesh became warm: he returned the pressure of her hand.
Was this, she wondered, what it was like at sea? When everything around her was wet, and there was violence and misery and solitude?
A long time later, after the salt tears had dried on her face, Jessica ventured downstairs in the hope of finding and dissuading her uncle: but what met her eyes was a roaring fire, stoked by many of Aunt Miriam's dresses and the newspaper which her uncle had once bought, dated April the seventeenth of the year before last. Her sailor doll was on the sideboard waiting for the fire to reach its height.
Even as she watched, her uncle judged the flames to be right, and took the doll and flung it with all his might into the heart of the blaze.
Jessica screamed, and as she did she thought she heard a rough voice cry out, 'Jessica!'. Were the sailor doll's eyes staring wide at her? She gazed horrified into the conflagration, seeing all his clothes and hair curl and blacken. Without realizing what she was doing she leapt forward and tried to snatch the doll from the fire.
But the fire was faster and more eager. The fire captured her, sucked her, drew her down, ate her clothes and hair and seared her heart.
Once again, much closer, she heard the anguished cry: 'Jessica!'.
Someone was carrying her. Together they went outside, into the snow, amid the flames and pain and the mist. (It was like a rainbow licking.) Her uncle screamed at her, was standing at the doorway bellowing out into the snow, where she looked back at him, and realized she was free.
The sailor threw her into the banked-up snow and extinguished the flames, but his own burning continued. He burned higher, blazed higher, stood before her like a beacon. Now he had both his arms and both his legs again. The snow around him was melting.
It melted, it flowed, it became a torrent, it became a bubbling stream, it became a river falling gracefully to the sea, it became the Sea. Salt, and tides, and jellyfish, and seaweed, and one wing of the house stood out from the flood like a pier, and her Uncle Oswald stood at the end of the pier like Mr Punch, gesticulating, shouting, raving at her flight.
And the sea rose and her sailor held her. And so Jessica saw the sea, at last, and when the ship came they climbed aboard together.