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still the sea is salt

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It isn’t as if you haven’t had any offers. Mr Bailey, the butcher, whose wife passed three years ago – he asked you. Always very nice he is, too, and never a hint of bad feeling, not even when you turn him down.

Oh, not from pride – no. You're happy to say that Martha Huggins is a good worker, a good cook, and as good a woman as the Lord above saw fit to make…but you've never been a beauty.

It wasn’t on account of any notions about marriage or fancy proposals or bunches of flowers that you turned him down neither – no. Charlie Bailey is a kind man, who’d give a wife as steady a home as she could want, and only ask a decent meal and some company in return. One thing for another, and you can’t say fairer than that, you think. It’s a better wind to sail by than most folks get, you know that. But it isn’t the life for Martha Huggins.

You might have said yes, maybe, if it wasn’t for Mrs Muir. You’d never be comfortable in your bones again, if you left Mrs Muir in that cottage, alone, with nothing but the dog and the fog for company of a night.

Not that Mrs Muir seems to mind it. Miss Anna’s asked her time and again to come and live with her and her young man. She’s even talked to you – trying to coax you into persuading Mrs Muir.

“It isn’t right, Martha – the two of you, out here alone. I can’t bear to think of it when it’s stormy – especially when we’re so safe and cosy at home.”

“I can’t say as I notice much of a difference in the bad weather. Not when everything’s locked up and there’s hot water bottles in the beds.”

“Oh Martha, you know what I mean,” Miss Anna cries. It doesn’t matter that she’s a grown woman, with a husband and a child of her own – you always see the girl she was back when you first came to this house.

“It – it’s such a lonely sort of place – don’t you ever think that? I didn’t mind it so much before, when I first asked Mummy…but I worry, now. Wouldn’t you like to come to us? And help take care of little Lucy?” she asks.

You would. The happiest years you remember were when Miss Anna was a little girl, and it was the three of you in Gull Cottage. But Mrs Muir is set against it – and that’s that. And it doesn’t matter that Miss Anna has that pretty coaxing note in her voice, reminding you of how she used to beg for five minutes more at the shore. You’ve loved Miss Anna all her life, since she was a tiny little thing you could hold in your arms. For all that, you’ve loved Mrs Muir longer, before she was Mrs Muir at all, only Miss Lucy Furnell, and no less kind and good to poor, plain Martha Huggins than she is now.

“And if she got used to the idea, Mummy would love it too. I know she would. Especially since the Captain is gone.”

“The Captain, Miss?”

Miss Anna nods her head, fast. “Yes, Captain Greg. Mummy and I – say, Martha…he never appeared to you, did he?”

“Who, Miss?”

“The Captain – Captain Greg! He was the seaman who lived in this house before us – Mummy and I saw him, well, dreamed him up, really. He was simply wonderful…I used to talk to him for hours. Mummy did too, I think. You never dreamed him, did you?”

“I dream about sensible things, Miss – I always have done. And I can tell you, I never dreamed about no Captain,” you say firmly, unable to allow for the dreaming-up of poor souls that have gone to their rest years before.

“What a pity. You would have liked him,” Miss Anna says. “Although perhaps it’s just as well – you would have fallen in love with him too. Mummy did, and I was hopelessly in love with him for years after he’d gone. Bill says I still am, a little bit, and that it’s a good thing he’s only a dream, because otherwise Bill would have to break his neck!”

You tell Miss Anna that you’re always been happy enough to make do with the living, even if her flight of fancy is a Captain, and that her gabbing has made you late starting the tea.

That talk with Miss Anna is what settles things, and you turn down Charlie Bailey, next time you see him. Oh, your answer was already decided, and it was always going to be no, but you did like to turn over Charlie’s words sometimes, and know that even if you left the name Huggins as fair as you found it, it wasn’t for want of being asked. But now you put those thoughts away. You certainly couldn’t leave Mrs Muir alone in a house with no-one for company except the dog and the fog and a make-believe Sea-Captain – no matter how charming he might be.

After Mr Fairley, Mrs Muir never gets an offer either. She doesn’t seem to mind, though you remember her telling you about not being impervious to feelings and needing love, and you think it must matter to her, deep down. A body doesn’t say things like that, in that way, if she don’t mean them with all her heart. And Mrs Muir goes for those long walks, and then comes back quiet, and stands outside her bedroom and stares out into the night, breathing that cold air, no matter what advice the doctor gives her. For all she’s not one to do things hurriedly, Mrs Muir can be awful restless sometimes.

It’s just like what you said – there’s nobody good enough for her. That Mr Fairley – he wasn’t good enough, not half. The names you used to think up for him! Perfumed parlour snake – that was one, though you must have heard that one somewhere, because it doesn’t sound like you. It sounds like Mr Fairley though – him, with his smile, and his shiny hair. Brillantine! And his paintings. Painting a lady in her swimsuit! Pah!

There doesn’t seem to be anyone else, though. Not anyone good enough. Sometimes you’re sorry for that. It’s all right for you. Charlie Bailey asking…that was nice. And if there’s ever a nasty thought flapping in your head like a loose sail – like about time blowing by, or grey hair, you can start scrubbing the floor (though that’s a bit harder nowadays, with your creaky knees) or cooking a nice dinner, and before you know it, you’ve forgotten whatever it was got you in a state.

Mrs Muir though, she stands and looks out over the sea, and all you can do is wish there was someone almost good enough for her. It’s not right, a lady like Mrs Muir with no-one for company except an old housekeeper, not when she needs…all those things she talked to you about.

All you can do is talk to her, and cook the things she likes. You bring her warm milk when the nights are cold, and you try to make sure she follows the doctor’s orders.

Mostly she’s in good spirits, and thanks you for the milk, and there are evenings the two of you chatter away like a pair of gulls, her busy with the ironing, and you washing the crockery and tidying odds and ends. The lamps are lit and the curtains drawn and it’s as cosy and homelike as Charlie Bailey’s house never could be.

It’s not that you haven’t had any other offers. But you’re happy with what you already have, and only a fool sticks an oar in where it’s not needed.