By Dan Brotzel
Arriving early on the empty beach, the black sand a vast naked canvas, he and Lilly had dared to dream big.
Google ‘sand turtle’, grandad, she said.
The template they had sketched out with Google’s help was easily as long as him. He saw that the turtle’s flippers would have to come out much higher up the body than he would have imagined, almost up by its head. He was also surprised to realise that the creature would need quite a long pointy tail.
But it was only after he and his middle grand-daughter got started that he realised that the sand where they sat was compact and unyielding – especially hard work as they only had one split bucket and a tiny plastic spade between them.
About 15 yards away, however, there was a lovely big pile of loose sand that must have been displaced for someone else’s holiday project the day before; this sand was loose and crumbly, even if the surface around it was too uneven for turtle-building.
So there was nothing for it but to get stuck into the laborious commute between their spot and the pile, filling up the bucket over and over and tipping sand into the middle of an animal shape which now seemed impossibly large, almost infinite. Lilly joined him for the first five minutes, signalling her official approval of the project by ferrying a few tiny handfuls.
He had been soldiering on alone for a good half-hour when he became aware of another family group settling down close to them, in a position at right angles to their own encampment and directly to the side of the turtle.
While his group comprised two grandparents – him and his wife Jan – and three grandchildren, this new group boasted the full generational flush, by the looks – a pair of grandparents, a son with his wife, and a little toddler of indeterminate sex.
Together, they gave off an air of quietly complacent affluence. The gran was an attractive woman with a deep all-over tan, hooped earrings and expensive-looking casual beachwear. The grandad wore deck shoes and blue cotton shorts and a Polo shirt with a designer logo that was international code for ‘expensive’. His receding hair was artfully cropped to make him look rugged and well-travelled. He looked like the sort of man who owned a boat and once ran his own company and now went into town once a week to attend the odd board meeting or check in with his broker.
The new group had brought with them a fancy cool-box. It contained food that appeared to have been sourced from an Italian deli, though to his knowledge there wasn’t such a thing within 30 miles of here. They had clearly disdained the local Spar, where Jan had bought their crisps. They were clearly not local.
He was initially a bit put out by just how close this new family had chosen to sit. But then he looked up and saw that while he had been slaving away at his turtle, the beach had been steadily filling up. An hour ago the beach had been all theirs, but the prairielands of the virgin frontier had given away to tight-knit strip-farms. Space was at a premium.
It quickly became clear to him too that the new family did not like his turtle, especially as little sandy avalanches from the creature’s growing shell kept tumbling onto the space they had marked out as theirs. The new family kept ostentatiously brushing bits of the loose blackish sand away, strategically placing towels and blankets right up to the edge of the shell and pointedly fidgeting in its direction.
What complicated matters more was that, in order to shortcut the creation of a 3D effect, he had decided to turn the outline of the animal into a deepish gully. This would instantly give the illusion of depth and cause the animal to ‘pop’, as Lilly put it. But to dig the turtle out the whole way round, he would eventually be obliged to encroach on the other family’s territory further.
Why was he still working on the turtle anyway? Lilly had wandered off to the rockpools ages ago and seemed to have completely forgotten about their shared project. She might come back to it perhaps, you never knew. But finishing the turtle had for some reason become a point of personal pride, especially as there was a hostile force – or family, if you will – that was now actively trying to stop him.
Completing the gully could have been a flashpoint. But just as he neared his Gibraltar moment, the posh gran suddenly set off with the toddler to paddle in the tide.
Britain at its best, he mused. There was naked animosity in the air, but no one was going to actually talk about it.
The gully completed, he sat back on the far side of the turtle from the interlopers, and began to smooth and shape the huge shell. Perhaps Lilly would want to decorate it with all the seashells and pretty stones that she would be bringing back from her exploration of the shore.
He sat back and surveyed what he had done. It was, he had to admit, a ludicrously large thing he had created, its scale all wrong in among the bustle and throng of a holiday beach.
Just thinking about what he had done tired him. He felt tired all the time now, a sort of grey wash that lay behind everything he did. The constant tweaks of back and bone. The endless need to pee. The breathlessness at the top of the stairs. The strange heavy feeling as he sunk into his bed every night, the weight of time pushing him down into his mattress, as if the bed was a grave and he was sinking deep into the earth. The early waking, the sense of sleep as a temporary respite that never really left him feeling rested or refreshed. The way he had to sit down and stare into space for ten minutes after a walk to the shop for the paper. The absent-mindedness. The endless need to pee.
He was old, of course. He looked at his wife, Jan, who was old too, though she looked much better on it than he did. Jan was chatting happily with Izzy, their eldest grandchild. Izzy wore a skimpy bikini these days – in a shade she told him was ‘electric pink’ – and spent hours in the bathroom and took endless selfies on her phone. It was just five minutes ago, surely, that Izzy had been dressing like Snow White and writing endearing letters to her tooth fairy; this morning, he heard her humming a song about waking up with murder on my mind.
And here they were again, looking after the grandkids for yet another week. He loved to seem them, of course he did, and Jan would have had them over every weekend given the chance. But living on the coast was a hostage to fortune.
He stood up and arched his back tentatively. The posh woman was on her way back from the water now, steering the toddler expertly between sandy puddles and somehow keeping her white culotte things spotless.
Tom, his youngest grandchild, was over with Lilly now too, he noticed, jumping in and out of pools and chasing seagulls and lying down in the tide and just generally being a boy. (Albeit a boy who had no interest in giant sand turtles.) Tom’s grandad looked over at the other family, the turtle-haters, and hated them back.
On the way down to the water, he saw that elaborate sand fortifications and comedy burial scenes were springing up everywhere on the beach. Men stood, hands on hips, boasting to other men of their new phones, comparing motorway routes, troubleshooting boiler issues. Women rubbed their necks with cream, closed their eyes and looked to the heavens. Excited children ran past carrying milkily translucent buckets full of crabs. Tiny ones dipped their feet in the brisk tide for the very first time.
But as grandad stood at waist height in the water, the queasy hostility he had felt from the earlier tussle for territory slipped away from him, like a burial at sea. The current pushed and pulled at his frame, and he let it drag his steps where it would. Looking back myopically at this vista of happy human ants, he wondered if there was anything on earth as profoundly pleasurable as weeing in the sea. The oceanic amniotic surrender to the warm, wet embrace, all-knowing and all-forgiving. And again. Aaah.
Out beyond him, towards the horizon, jet skis and dinghies traced white plumy lines in the infinite blue. The sun breathed warm and true on everything and everyone. It became impossible to believe that anyone in the world could wish harm on anyone else.
He took to pondering the meanings of Turtle-gate. Why this sudden anger? Was it to do with politics in some obscure way? Everything else was, these days, apparently. Was it a projection of his annoyance at being taken for granted by his son and daughter-in-law, who assumed now that he and Jan would have the kids for this week every year? As far as he recalled, they had offered to take the older two when the third arrived, because the parents obviously needed some relief. But somehow this had morphed into a regular annual obligation, a tradition that he had no memory of initiating or even signing up to, but which he was convinced his son now thought of as a favour to him. He could just imagine the pair of them, lamenting the fact that they couldn’t go to Spain or The Canaries in August ‘because mum and dad would be so disappointed’.
Would we heck.
Well yes, OK, maybe. We’d miss the little buggers.
More delirious weeing. He fantasised now that when he returned to the beach, the giant turtle would have come to life and turned out to be (what else?) jovial and endearing, taking all the kids for rides on its shiny convex back. But like any respectable fantasy cartoon animal, it would of course always be aware of health and safety issues, taking care never to stray out of the kids’ depth. And it would even take up the little one from the other family, and bring everyone together, so they all sat round in one big circle and held hands and sang songs, and the posh gran was really rather attractive, actually, and…
What actually happened when he got back, or soon after, was that Tom got stung by a wasp. Tom, the youngest, the boy, the tough wiry one who seemed to feel no physical pain but was insanely sensitive to the slightest barb, more sensitive in fact than the two girls put together, launched into a hysterical delirium of panic from which he could not be consoled. Wasps were everywhere, they were all out to get him, everything was infected, nowhere was safe. He clung to his granny for dear life, ducking and flinching as imagined aerial assaults rained in on him from every direction.
The fact that granny had just brought everyone a lovely ice cream was no consolation; it only made things worse because of course wasps love ice cream. The day was ruined. Happiness was gone forever. Life was over.
Grandad did his best to stroke Tom’s head over his wife’s embrace, but Tom just thought he was under attack again and roughly pushed his arm away. Under cover of his undoubted concern for the boy, he felt a rising irritation that he was going to have to clear everything up again so soon – all the beach crap that he had so laboriously lugged down the hill and across the sand only a couple of hours ago: the canvas bags, the sandwich boxes, the flask, the folding chairs, the towels and mats, the broken bucket. Not to mention leaving the turtle. Only…
Only now the other family were in there with them, offering sympathy and soothing gestures and practical help. The posh gran had produced wipes and cream and water. The posh granddad was telling little Tom in a lilting Welsh voice that wasps never sting someone twice, that no wasp would ever sting him again, that in fact it was a mark of great fortune to be stung by a wasp, a sign that Tom was a man of courage who was destined for great things. (All obvious nonsense, but it did seem to be having an effect.) The posh gran had produced a special ointment which she said was ‘a magical and proven wasp-scarer’ – wasps would never go near the smell, she said. (He could see that it was actually some sort of M&S lavender moisturiser thing, but this too seemed to be working.)
So: the enmity had been a fiction. The hostility was in his head. It was the sort of scene that could restore your faith in human nature. Indeed, the only sand in the sandwich, the only piece of grit in the oyster, was that, in the course of their ministrations, the other family had accidentally stamped on the face of the turtle, mutilated one of its flippers, punctured the shell beyond repair, and smudged the artfully pointed and surprisingly long tail into an effete little stump.
After all the drama had subsided, he glanced over at posh gran, stretched out on a fancy, adjustable lounger that now occupied what had until very recently been the bottom half of a giant turtle. For a moment her gaze seemed to lock with his from behind her dark elusive shades, and a gold filling glinted as she flashed him a triumphant smile.
About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.