They say the sea is but a cruel mistress but for Alice the callousness was leaving its embrace. She watched the men as they pulled into port – while they felt joy, she – only sadness; and the overwhelming urge to turn around, never to return.
Like the storm on her first passage to India, the love struck as epiphany. While the waters tossed them like a matchstick, all she could feel was the wonder of it all – the salty spray, the swirling wind, the noise as wave on wave crashed on the hull, determined to destroy them all. She understood the anger and the rage; the power that came from setting your emotions free. After all, it was what she'd longed for all her life, but what well-behaved young ladies didn't do.
"You's a right prop'r sailor now, Miss Kingsley!" they told her afterwards. She grinned, "I am?" They laughed, "Course you're. The sea…she don't take kindly to those she doesn't like. She spared ye and that must mean she sees." "Sees what?" As ever, Alice was full of questions. "Sees someone that she finds worthy." She asked again, "Why is it that you call the sea a 'she'?" Their ribald chuckles split the air. "Not sure you'll ever understand, miss!"
But she would.
Like the choppy seas of China, the comprehension took time to navigate. She'd always known she was different from the rest but it was here, strangely the farthest from her 'home', that she at last learned what she truly was. And all at once, she knew that there would be no Hamish; no Harold, Paul or Mark or John. For those almond eyes spoke of a promise, one that she knew a man could never match. She left right afterwards and didn't linger, afraid she'd been forever changed.
"It isn't proper," she wept to Somerley, "this isn't what I'm meant to be." "Who says?" The cook was gruff. "Who deems what's prop'r and what's not?" Crying the harder, she whispered brokenly, "They do." To this he countered, "And who are they?" Infused by anger, she spat out, "Do not play games! You know exactly who I mean – the world." He laughed, wrapping his arm around her in a hug, then murmured quietly in her ear, "Well then, little Alice – just find another."
But then, of course, she already had.
Like the gentle waters of Antigua Bay, the realisation lapped at her for many years. And all that time she dreamt of hair more white and fine than any sand. Assuming it was all a fantasy, she sailed the seas, trapped in a fruitless search. For every time she tried to settle, the sea would call her forth again.
"What is it ye be seeking, lass?" one day Nathaniel asked her. "You know, Nate, I don't rightly know." He laughed, "Then how's it ye'll ken when you will find it?" "I ask myself that question every day." All of a sudden, he sobered. "She doesna exist, ye ken…the woman that ye seek." She frowned back, "What makes you think that is my search?" "Because we've all been where ye are the now. Each one of us has looked for her, in turn. Naught but a dream that most sailors have – to find the one that will replace the sea." As if all it needed was a voice, inside her head the picture coalesced. "What happens if you find her, Nathaniel? But you don't understand and walk away?" He clapped her heartily on the shoulder, "Well 'en, my Alice, ye walk back," he winked, "and pray to Neptune, she ain't mad."