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Sea Legs

An elderly man sat on the bench in the market square, his hands resting on the stick propped in front of him. He watched the comings and goings of the people of the town and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his back. A group of children raced into the square, kicking a ball between them, jostling and squabbling, sidestepping swipes from angry stallholders. The old man smiled at their antics.

Traders called out their wares and the square filled with shoppers intent on their business. The old man's eye was drawn to the eastern entrance as an elderly woman staggered into view. She leaned heavily upon her stick, a large sack thrown across her back to carry her shopping, and she reeled from one side of the narrow alley to the other.

As she wheeled out into the square people stopped what they were doing to stare at her. She paused at the edge of the market, drew in a long shaky breath, then struck out determinedly for the vegetable stall, but her rolling and uncontrollable gait carried her in a long lazy curve, delivering her instead to the butcher.

Apparently unfazed by this inconvenience, the old woman purchased a side of ham and some preserved beef, placing them with extraordinary care in her sack. She then took a few moments to align herself, and struck out once more for the vegetables.

This time her wayward legs carried her to the bread stall, far to the right of the vegetables. Once more, the old woman took this in good part, and made her bread purchases instead. She was long used to her unruly legs, and the stallholders were long used to the strange old woman and her drunken walk, some even offering a guiding hand here and there, helpfully steering her from one stall to the next.

The old man watched keenly as the old woman made her erratic tour of the market. At one point she stumbled, nearly losing her shopping, and he leaned forwards anxiously, but a stallholder was at her side in seconds and helped her to a chair where she sat a while, gathering her strength.

The children belatedly spotted her as she lurched over to the fish stall. They followed her, aping her actions, staggering and reeling into each other in exaggerated impersonation. The old man watched their every move, his hands gripping the age-smoothed handle of his stick.

'They're not very nice, are they?' said a small voice beside him.

He looked down and saw a small girl sitting on the bench at his side. How long she had been there he did not know, but she watched the children teasing the old woman with great concern. He sighed wearily and smiled down at her.

'It's understandable. She is a most unusual lady.'

The little girl considered that and nodded solemnly. 'She walks funny.'

'She does.'

'My Paw walks like that when he's been at the beer.'

The old man nodded sadly. 'The lady is not a drinker.'

'Then why does she walk like that?'

They watched as she collided with a young woman pushing a small child in a pushchair. The young woman reacted angrily, pushing the old woman away. The old woman recoiled, and shuffled backwards, crashing into a stall selling leather goods. The stallholder hurried around to right his goods and help the old woman back on her way. As she finally reached the vegetable stall, the old man relaxed.

'It is quite a story.'

'Will you tell me?'

The old man looked down at the earnest face, framed by a mass of blonde curls, and smiled. 'Well, it all began when her husband decided to surprise her with a holiday. You see, the lady had a yearning for a cruise, and one year the husband had a particularly good bonus, which he spent on tickets aboard the 'Princess Gabrielle' of the Splendour Line.'

'That's nice. The old lady must have been pleased.'

'She was a young lady then, and yes, she was delighted. She borrowed frocks from her friends and used her few savings to purchase some smart shoes. And when she saw the ship at the dockside, she nearly swooned with excitement.'

'Was it big?'

'Oh yes, and grand. Bedecked with fairy lights, and all the staff in their best uniforms.'

'So what happened.'

'The instant she stepped aboard, the lady was overcome with illness. She collapsed to the deck and curled into a ball. The ship's doctor was called and gave her medicine and assured her husband it would pass.'

'What was wrong with her?'

'Sea sickness. She had never so much as been in a rowing boat before, so her body did not know how to react to the motion of the boat.'

'Did it pass?'

'Well, they took her to her cabin and laid her on the bed, but she grew sicker. The doctor was called again and he gave her stronger medicine, but nothing worked. She never left her cabin the whole cruise.'

'So she didn't get to wear the frocks?'

The old man smiled. 'No, not one.'

The little girl stared across the square at the old lady as she staggered away from the vegetable stall, her now bulging sack adding to her difficulties. 'The poor lady. She must have been glad to get home.'

The old man clenched his jaw as the lady narrowly avoided a painful collision with a lamppost, then careered into the alley once more. 'Well no, as it happens. You see, sometimes, just occasionally, sea sickness doesn't go away.'

'She didn't get better?' asked the little girl, horrified.

'Not at all. She was just as ill at home. But worse, she and her husband began to fight. She was angry with him for ever taking her on the cruise, and he was angry with her for being ill the whole time.'

'But it was no-one's fault,' said the girl reasonably.

'No, but they were angry and frightened and took it out on each other. Eventually, they decided they could no longer live together and the lady moved away. She bought the house at the top of the mountain, up there,' said the old man, pointing a shaky finger at the tiny house at the top of the steep craggy cliff. 'She found that being at altitude made her symptoms easier. Up there she was no longer sick and she could walk properly.'

'So why didn't her husband move with her?'

The old man was silent for some time, staring up at the house on the mountain with watery eyes. At last he smiled sadly and looked back at the little girl. 'Because he was a stupid stubborn fool.'

The little girl stared up at him, then patted him on the leg. 'It's you, isn't it?'

The old man nodded. 'Yes, I am the good lady's poor excuse of a husband.'

'And you come here on market days to watch for her?'


'Because you still love and care for her?'


At that moment, the little girl's mother appeared on the far side of the square and called to her daughter. The little girl slipped from the bench and made to leave, but she stopped and looked back at the old man. 'You should go and live in the house on the mountain.'

The old man watched as she skipped away, oblivious to the tears tracking down his cheeks. He stayed at the bench for the rest of the morning, watching the people, chatting with acquaintances, gratefully accepting a coffee from the café owner. Then he pushed himself wearily to his feet and shuffled away from the square.

That evening the little girl stood at her window looking up at the house on the mountain. Suddenly she smiled, pressing her nose against the glass. There on the long steep path to the house, was the old man, his stick in one hand, a small suitcase in the other.


© 2013 Kay Lawrence.

line The Wise One
8th August 2013

I enjoyed your story very much, it put me in mind of a couple of poems I seem to recall from a few weeks ago. I like tales about the older generation, could be something to do with my age!


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