A Sting in the Tale
A short story by Barbara Godfrey
SUSIE was six years old and lived with her parents and two sisters in a beautiful little seaside village. Their home was close to the shore and had magnificent views, and like all the other families they spent hours on the beach in the warm weather as well as walking in the unspoilt countryside along the coast.
Her sisters Wendy, who was twelve, and Lizzie, aged nine, loved bathing in the sea with all their friends. The soft white sand was ideal for barefoot play and swimming, the water was mostly warm and welcoming, and the smooth rocks safe for youngsters to climb on.
But poor little Susie could never join in the fun because she was quite unable to overcome her fear of the water, even though the waves were mostly gentle as they lapped on the sand. Her sisters had been paddling and later learning to swim ever since they were toddlers, and their parents just couldn’t understand why Susie was so terrified of the water. It wasn’t as if there were any sharp rocks or stones, and certainly no seaweed, jellyfish or other nasties so close to the beach.
Subtle bribery and promises of ice cream or extra sweeties had no effect whatsoever. Susie just whined: “I hate the water and I’m not going in.”
Her mummy said resignedly: “Well, at least she still has the lovely sand to play on. She can have fun making sandcastles and collecting pretty shells, so we mustn’t be too cross with her. I expect she’ll eventually be tempted to follow her sisters and splash about in the waves.”
As Susie grew older things didn’t improve, as the boys and girls who knew her started jeering and taunting her for refusing to go with them into the sea. This did worry Susie more than her family’s impatience and lack of understanding, and she began to fret. Her mother even heard her sobbing quietly in bed and muttering: “I wish I’d never been born! I wish we didn’t have to live in this horrid place!”
Her parents took this so seriously that they spent several hours discussing what they could do about it. Just keeping Susie off the beach wasn’t really the answer as her school friends and other local children would taunt her wherever she was, even well away from the sea.
“I think we’d better get away from here for a while,” her mother said to her husband. “Now the summer holidays have started you could take a couple of weeks off work and we could perhaps go to France for a holiday where no one will know the kids and Susie might be able to calm down. After that I just don’t know. Maybe the only answer will be to move to another area, though that’s a bit drastic, of course.”
So it was arranged the family should go to an attractive coastal village in Brittany where there was plenty to do apart from enjoy the beach. All three girls were excited – Susie wasn’t worried about going to a French seaside resort provided she was well away from her schoolmates and didn’t have to go in the sea.
When they arrived in France they were all delighted with what they found. There were little cafés where they could sit in the sun and enjoy an ice cream, fruit juice or coffee. There were interesting shops, several small but attractive parks, and beaches where even Susie wasn’t afraid to go – as long as she didn’t have to set foot in the sea. Above all, none of the other children took any notice of her.
“I wish we lived here,” all the girls kept saying. They were even moved to try out the small amount of French they had learnt at school, and found the local people were very helpful and kind.
One morning Susie was playing on the rocks near the water’s edge when a little French girl starting speaking to her. It was a while before the child realised that Susie was a foreigner and unable to converse freely, but the two children got on so well that both made a real effort to understand one another. Soon the language difficulty was no bar at all to their friendship, and they felt more like sisters than strangers.
The little girl said her name was Odile, and unlike Susie’s real sisters she made no attempt at all to persuade her new friend to venture into the water. This was of paramount importance in sustaining their relationship, as Susie just played about on the shore until her new friend came out of the sea.
As the time passed and the holiday was drawing to a close, Susie’s mother thought what a lovely idea it would be to invite the little French girl to come and visit the family in their English home. After all, the seaside there was just as beautiful and Odile would surely feel completely happy. She suggested the idea to Odile’s parents, and they were delighted to agree. They even asked if the best thing would be for their daughter to go back to England with her new friends when they left in a few days’ time rather than make the trip on her own at some future date.
So it was all arranged, and Odile set off for England with her new “family” when they left France. Susie was thrilled that she would be having her friend with her at home, even if only for a couple of weeks – and even though they were still in the very early stages of conversing in a foreign language.
Back in England, Odile settled in joyfully for her short stay, and the weather was still wonderful so she was able to splash about in the water when she wanted. To Susie, her French friend seemed even more joyful and relaxed than her sisters, partly because this was a new experience in a different, though similar, area.
Susie even began to wish she could join her friend in the water. After all, it was plainly not only fun, but also perfectly safe, exactly as her family had always told her. By the time Odile’s visit was drawing to a close Susie was beginning to feel so tempted to join in that she stood at the water’s edge and even let the frilly little wavelets tickle her toes.
It was low tide, and Odile called out in her broken English: “It is warm and nice in the sea. You would like it.”
Susie felt a sudden urge sweep over her. Then she stepped gingerly into the water. Odile beckoned her on, and her sisters, astounded, cheered and called out: “Come on, Susie, you’ll love it, really.”
For Susie, this was a vital turning point in her life. She splashed out into the shallow water, laughing gleefully as she finally overcame her fear for the first time in her life. She told herself what a fool she had been to waste so many years through a groundless terror of something as wonderful as this.
Suddenly she let out a violent scream. The other girls gasped in horror. Her sister Wendy rushed towards her as the little girl doubled up in obvious agony and clutched her foot in the water.
Susie’s mother was not far away and saw what was happening. She ran into the sea and scooped up her daughter in her arms, asking breathlessly: “What on earth’s wrong?”
Susie was still clutching her foot and the pain was so excruciating that she could barely speak.
“Something stuck into my foot under my toes and there’s a terrible pain all the way up my leg,” she managed to gasp.
Her mother carried her to the road and was looking around for help, absolutely mystified by what had happened. A man who was working on his boat near by noticed them and asked what was the matter.
As soon as Susie told him about the pain he said pityingly: “I’m so sorry, little girl, but you’ve obviously been stung by a weever fish. Your leg will be very painful for a couple of hours and your foot will be inflamed, but then it will gradually get back to normal, so don’t worry too much. We’ll find somewhere they can soak your leg in a bucket of hot water to stop it hurting so much.”
The man told them that the tiny sandy-coloured weever fish lie in shallow waters, buried under the sand with only their poisonous dorsal fin exposed. “They aren’t around all that often, so it’s rotten luck that you’re been stung, little girl,” he said. “When you go in the sea at low tide in future you must do what everyone else who’s been stung does – wear bathing shoes.”
Susie whispered: “I’ll never ever go in the sea again.”
Footnote: Weever fish belong to the Trachinidae family and live in European waters including the English Channel. The author is among the relatively few people who can testify from personal experience to the agony of being stung. And once, while holidaying in Brittany, she saw a continuous line of bathers staggering from the sea to first aid huts specially set up to cope with an exceptionally large influx of the poisonous fish.
© 2007 Copyright by Barbara Godfrey
The story A Sting in the Tale is an original work protected under copyright law, and may not be reproduced or adapted without the written permission of the author.
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