My legs tremble as I stand on the platform at the fringe of the sea. The wheel-mounted cubicle was drawn across the sand for me to change within. As my first venture in the bathing-machine, it feels much as any strange event; a tentative toe in new waters. I blink against the salt-sting, straighten my cap, then flex one foot closer.
The grey-green water’s lapping at the steps, inviting me. Mr. Colebrook’s words swim into my mind; “Seawater’s potency cannot be underestimated, Miss Brampton. Believe in it and offer yourself a chance to heal.” As he spoke, I watched his fingers smooth wisps of hair away from his temples.
Lately, he’s coaxing me to drink some mixed with honey to aid my fragility. With closed eyes I sip it from a teacup like my favourite blend. It’s detestable, but my fatigue’s lingering even though the sweats and chills have long passed.
If I recover, my dancing may resume. Since the illness, my joints ache after brief attempts at simple movements. Without the dances and their adornments, my life has shrivelled. Bereft of rhythm, I’m as a gull without wings. The warm, tantalising air of the ballroom has been replaced by a briny chill.
My maid helps me to descend as carefully as a duckling. First my ankles, then calves, then thighs. “Relax, my lady,” she says calmly, “l shan’t falter.” My costume clings to my flesh, heavy like sackcloth, as powerful water surges around me.
I’m standing in it hip high, raise my arms for balance, let the waves buffet me. A sudden laugh escapes. Perhaps Mr. Colebrook is right. “See, my lady!” We’re laughing together now. I move out a little further, let it rise to my waist. As my modesty dissipates, I forget my trepidation; my legs are firm, my feet are anchored where the shifting sand soothes them. I inhale deeply, let the salt-breeze whip across my cap until it almost blows off.
Then at last, leaving the sea behind, I steadily climb the steps. My cleansed skin shivers: fortitude has yielded hope, and a smile.
In ballrooms the cogs of fashionable society turn; without me, they will continue. Mr. Colebrook could move on before we have ever danced together. Resting, I recall his trustworthy, kind expression. The way I think of him can never be spoken, not even in whispers.
I tentatively perform a whole arm arc; my limbs do not ache quite so. And I wonder if I’ve undervalued him in many aspects, not simply in his medicinal wisdom. Upon my return I yearn to talk with him, just him, of everything I feel.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. She’s a Best Microfiction nominee and has been longlisted by Bath Flash Fiction Award and Reflex Flash Fiction. She tweets @collinson26.