Castles Made Of Sand

Mum, dad and small boy walking along edge of the sea. Boy holding dad's hand, mum reaching her hand out to him

Emma stood on the loch’s sandy shore, gazing at the handful of sailboats and kayaks gliding across the water’s rippled surface. The snow-streaked peaks of the Cairngorms formed a magical backdrop, like an illustration from a fairy tale, and a warm, gentle breeze carried a pleasant mossy aroma from the surrounding woodland.

It was such a perfect setting, just a half hour’s drive from where they lived – but like the clouds floating across the summer sun, doubts about the move here drifted into her mind.

Not that there was anything wrong with Stone’s Throw Cottage. It was much nicer than anything they could afford down south. It was just…

“Mummy, Mummy – ice cream.”

Emma turned, her thoughts interrupted by her little boy’s voice. Alongside his father, Jake toddled across the sand. In one outstretched hand, he held an ice cream; in the other, a new red bucket and spade.

It was obvious Lee had detoured into the shop on the way back from taking Jake to the toilet.

“Thank you, poppet,” Emma said. “Mmmm,” she made an exaggerated noise as she licked the vanilla scoop.

“Thought it might end up on the floor, but he threw a right wobbly about carrying it so I let him,” Lee said.

Emma frowned. “You shouldn’t give in to him when he does that.”

“Relax. All kids his age have tantrums. It’s no big deal.” Lee crouched beside Jake. “Anyway, the bucket came in handy to carry our lollies, didn’t it, buddy?”

“Yes, Daddy.” Jake beamed.

Lee took out a milk lolly, put a tissue around the stick and handed it to his son, before unwrapping a choc-ice for himself.

Straightening up, he nodded in the direction of a wooden picnic table and bench near the forest entrance.

“Let’s sit over there.”

As they walked across the sand, Emma wanted to tell Lee that her well-thumbed childcare manual, devoured on their lonely evenings apart, stated good behaviour should be rewarded and bad, ignored, but she knew he’d shrug off any advice.

She’d left the book open on relevant pages before, suggesting he read up on different stages of Jake’s development. Charts at the back mapped growth, and the chapter on speech was fascinating.

Lee was adamant he didn’t need a book to tell him Jake was doing just great.

Nowadays, it seemed to Emma that Lee took the opposite stance to any idea of hers about child rearing.

Instead of speaking up, she crunched the sweet waffle cone, even though the ache in her throat made it hard to swallow. As they passed a bin, she threw the remainder away.

They reached the bench and settled Jake between them. Emma smoothed her son’s hair, fine and golden, a contrast to her dark locks. His eyes were green, like Lee’s.

“We should’ve brought his hat,” she remarked.

The breeze had turned sharper now and the clouds blocked the sun. There was a nip in the air, as her gran used to say.

“Don’t fuss,” Lee said. He picked a shard of chocolate from the last piece of his choc-ice and handed it to Jake. “You’re a tough guy, aren’t you, son? It’s in his genes.”

Lee’s eyes met hers.

After they’d been together a while, she’d shyly told him how his eyes sparkled, reminding her of the gemstone, peridot.

But it wasn’t just the colour that entranced her. His eyes were kind, and a gentle look from him had the ability to soothe her nerves and banish negative feelings – the same properties, it was claimed, that peridot possessed.

Now his eyes flashed, having the opposite effect on Emma.

She was going to protest, say she wasn’t fretting, but Jake began to grizzle. His lolly was melting and the creamy liquid ran down his chin. The tissue had stuck to his fingers and Emma rummaged in her bag for a clean handkerchief.

She found one, which had belonged to her gran, white and lacy with a purple pansy embroidered in the corner.

The flower represents the thoughts of lovers, shared before a word is spoken, Gran had once told her. But Lee had already produced wet wipes from his pocket and was cleaning deftly around Jake’s mouth.

Their son tolerated it for a few seconds before arching his back and sliding off the bench.

“Hey, Jake, how about we build some sandcastles?” Lee said, and sat, cross-legged, beside him on the sand.

Emma perched on the end of the bench and pulled her jacket tight across her chest. She slipped her flip-flops off, sank her feet into the sand and stared ahead and wondered how they could have been so naïve as to think this arrangement would work.

And yet, they both loved the cottage.

“An Aga and a wood burner,” Lee had exclaimed excitedly when the agent showed them the kitchen and then the cosy lounge.

“I know,” Emma had answered with a giggle, mentally ticking off two items on their dream-home wish list.

Yet it was when they went into the study that she was truly smitten.

An arched leaded window set within a deep alcove overlooked the lawn, where borders of pink and white wild flowers spilled onto the rippling grass.

“It’s big enough out there for Jake to have a swing and slide,” Emma had said. She glanced around the room. “And Gran’s desk would look perfect in here.”

Lee had squeezed her hand and whispered, “No excuses not to write that novel now.”

Emma’s gran had bequeathed her the rich mahogany desk. With no room for it in their tiny London flat, it had sat under a tarpaulin in her mother’s garage for two years now.

When she used to go to her gran’s after school and help with a few chores, the older lady would put some beeswax on a bright yellow duster and show her how to polish the desk.

“It’s no antique, granted, just a reproduction, but it’s a solid piece that’ll see me out and last you a good many years,” she’d say.

Hard to believe, six months on, that space for a desk had seemed so important.

Now newspapers, magazines, books and the daily detritus of junk mail were strewn across its dusty surface, which Emma once imagined as highly polished and neatly stacked with pages of the novel.

Nowadays, she felt a pang of guilt knowing the first few chapters lay neglected in the bottom drawer.

As for the wish list, the microwave was used more than the Aga and although they’d bought Jake a swing, only this morning she’d reminded Lee about the pile of damp logs that was waiting to be chopped for the wood burner.

A doggie!” Jake’s squeal jolted Emma back to the present. He pointed to the water’s edge.

A black and white spaniel barked excitedly at the heels of three young children kicking a bright orange beach ball and running ahead of their parents, who walked along hand in hand.

In a flash, a long forgotten scene came to mind, so vivid that it made her catch her breath.

She was a child, with her mum and dad, on Brighton’s pebbly beach. Like the family they were walking along, just out of reach of the waves breaking in gentle frills over the grey stones. But her parents weren’t holding hands.

Dad threw an orange tennis ball into the sea and Tammy, her little black and white terrier, chased after it.

Her father laughed, but Mum complained that the dog’s yapping was giving her a headache.

No prizes for guessing who’s going to be bathing her when we get home, Emma remembered her saying.

Dad’s jaw tightened, his face darkened and he said something about her mother always moaning.

Now, Emma shook her head to get rid of the next episode – the row that had followed on that last day out together as a family.

“Maybe we should get a dog.”

She hadn’t meant to say it out loud but without warning the desire to bury her face in a little dog’s soft fur was overwhelming.

“Hmmm? I don’t think so, Em. Jake’s a bit young yet and we’ve only just moved maybe in… hey, what’s wrong?”

In an instant, Emma felt him beside her, his arms around her as she leaned into him and started to cry, the words tumbling out between big gulps.

“Everything. Us being apart then bickering when we’re together, the messy desk, the logs… then seeing that family over there – it brought it all back.”

Through the soft wool of his jumper, Emma felt his heart racing.

“I don’t understand. Brought what back, Emma?” he said, bewildered.

She looked down at the hanky with its stupid pansy, screwed it up and shoved it in her pocket. Although Lee knew lots of details about her childhood, that her parents divorced when she was eight, her dad had only kept in touch sporadically and money was tight, there were some things, she realised, she’d kept buried… even from herself.

She took a deep breath.

“When I was little, Dad got me a puppy. Bought it from some bloke in a pub who wanted to get rid of it. Mum was furious. She said it wouldn’t be fair on the dog with them both working and me at school. But somehow, we managed between us.

“Then, a year later they split up.”

For a moment, Jake, banging his spade on the upturned bucket, took their attention. He lifted it off too quickly and the castle crumbled and collapsed – just like her parents’ marriage, she thought.

Unlike her parents, he immediately started on another attempt and scooped the sand back into the bucket.

“What happened after the split?” Lee asked her quietly.

“Mum told me she’d had to take an evening job cleaning local offices as well as houses during the day. I had to go to Gran’s after school. At first she said we’d have to find another home for Tammy, but I pleaded with her to let me keep my little dog.”

“Oh, Em, why haven’t you told me about this before?” Lee said, softly.

Emma shrugged and shook her head. She supposed she hadn’t wanted to relive those painful times.

“I used to take her to Gran’s after school. Having Tammy helped me get over their divorce.”

And her mother had softened. She was as upset as Emma when, after fourteen years, the time came for them to say goodbye to their pet.

“But we’re nothing like your parents. We’re solid, aren’t we? At least I always thought we were,” he said, his voice edged with concern.

Before she could answer, Jake let out a frustrated whine. His second attempt at a sandcastle had crumbled.

“Hey buddy, come here,” Lee said, releasing Emma and holding out his arms.

But Jake clambered onto Emma’s lap and she hugged him close, inhaling the sweet smell of babyhood.

His chubby, sticky, sand-encrusted fingers touched her tear-stained face and her heart squeezed.

“I’m OK, poppet, Mummy’s just a little bit sad. But having a hug makes me feel a lot better.”

She tried to sound reassuring and kissed his cheek, flushed a peony pink by the fresh air.

She looked at Lee, wanting to believe they were as solid as the distant mountains but everything felt like shifting sand since the move.

They’d taken a gamble because the job offer had come with a proviso; employees were required to live within a reasonable distance of the heliport. So, at twenty-five years old, they’d been faced with moving hundreds of miles away from family and friends.

They knew it would be tough.

Work on the rig meant three-week stints and twelve-hour shifts monitoring the gas from the well.

But the promise, within a year or so, of a dream onshore job as a geoscientist, would surely make the sacrifice worthwhile.

And, as for writing the novel, where better for inspiration than the beauty of Scotland?

But Emma was never keen on writing, preferring the creativity of science, which morphed into a fascination with gemstones and later, at university, a First in Geology. It was Lee who studied English and was the aspiring writer.

With a deep sigh she said, “I just don’t know any more. I miss you both when I’m on the rig but, admit it, there’s tension between us over Jake when I’m back.

“I don’t say much because I feel so guilty and torn. I’m out there doing a job I love while you’re at home looking after Jake and no time to write your novel.”

Lee lifted her chin.

“I’ve not abandoned the novel, Emma, it’s just on hold. The desk is keeping it safe for a while until Jake’s settled into a playgroup and I get a bit more free time. And I still submit an article now and again.”

He smiled.

“OK, the desk is a mess. I’m a bit lazy when it comes to housework, but I can sort that out when we get back.” He grinned. “And I haven’t forgotten the logs.”

“But the novel was always so important to you…”

Emma’s words were silenced when his lips found hers and his arms held his wife and child in a strong embrace. When they parted, his sparkling green eyes were steady and serious.

“No, the most important thing is for me to say I’m sorry if I’m monopolising Jake and shutting you out. I don’t mean to.

“I just want you to relax and enjoy being with him, not to be so anxious. You can’t always rely on experts in books, Emma. Bringing up a child isn’t an exact science.”

How much easier it would be if it were, she thought. Maybe she did need to loosen up a little.

As though on cue, Jake began to wriggle and she released her grip. He picked up his spade and, scowling, started to flick the pile of crumbled sand.

“How about Mummy and Daddy help?” Lee said.

The wind had died down. They sat either side of Jake and showed him how to dig down to the dark, damp sand.

“You know what?” Lee tilted his head thoughtfully. “Maybe a dog wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Nice long walks get the creative juices flowing and stroking a dog is supposed to be relaxing. It could be good for both of us as well as Jake.”

Emma stopped scooping the sand into the bucket and glanced up at Lee.

She saw the look in his eyes and knew he understood.

Tears blurred her vision and she fished out the hanky and wiped her eyes. How appropriate the pansy seemed now.

In the distance, a dog barked. It didn’t sound like the spaniel. More like a younger, smaller dog. Just like Tammy.

“Ready for this?” Lee said, as they finished filling the bucket.

“We’re ready, aren’t we, Jake?” Emma replied, smiling.

“Ready, Mummy,” Jake squealed.

All three put their hands on the bucket, turned it over… and released a solid, perfectly formed sandcastle.

We’re sharing another lovely holiday-themed story from our archives every Monday and Thursday throughout June. Look out for the next one!