by Kathrine Sowerby
Marion and I sit half way up the dune while the boys run in different directions below. The tide is as far out as it will go. In the distance white horses tip and glisten on the water under the crisp line of Raasay and we watch the last families pack up and leave the beach. One has a sledge to pull all the shoes, the wet towels, changes of clothes across the sand. A couple walks ahead of their crying daughter while her protests are carried downwind. Another family peel off their matching wetsuits, deflate their dinghy, and walk inland in order of size. Our older boys have clambered out of sight past the headland. The youngest is near the water burying his truck, digging it up, burying it again. Let’s round them up, I say to Marion then run in deep strides down the dune. The turn‐ups of my jeans, full of sand, are weights bumping against my ankles.
The wind falls away as we reach the grassy curve of the bay and we
brush away the pinpricks of biting midges. We take the path that cuts through
the ferns and I tell the boys to mind out for dog shit at the side of the path, to
remember and check for tics later on. There’s a ditch where the path meets the
road that leads down to the military base, up to the car park, and the older
boys and Marion scramble up, laden with bags and boots. I’m dawdling at the
pace of my youngest. He treads carefully on the gravel, his little feet angry at
the transition from sand to stones. A woman is coming down the road.
She has grey, cropped hair and a beige skirt, in her sixties, early
seventies I guess, and carrying a metal detector. I prepare a greeting in my
head. You’ll have the place to yourself, I’ll say. Happy hunting. But she
doesn’t meet my gaze. Her jacket is open and I think for a second she’s
wearing a superman T‐shirt but as she walks past, head down, I recognise the
Lonsdale logo. I remember a flatmate at university and his brother who came
to visit without warning. His head was shaved, his maroon DM’s laced to the
knee. He wore the same T‐shirt. I turn and walk backwards watching her. On
her back is a Converse rucksack. It dips above and below the line of the ferns.
My son takes my hand and pulls me back round.
Marion and the older boys are leaning against our car parked on the
grassy verge. The only car left in the car park is an old Ford Fiesta. Haven’t
seen one of those in a while, I think. You’ve got the keys, I say to Marion. I gave them to you, she says. I pat my pockets, pull my cagoule from the bag
and shake it. A lighter, a dud biro and a train ticket fall to the ground. Marion
is looking at me, arms crossed. Check again, she says. I stick my hand deep
into one pocket after the other and find nothing. Fuck.
The truth is I’m calm. We’ve had a great day and I’ll wander down to
the beach, retrace our movements. I’m confident. I’ll be as quick as I can, I say.
Marion is taking the Tupperware box from the bag, rooting through the crusts
and sucked flat juice cartons.
I glance up at the dune scraped out of the hillside where a single red
welly is lying at the foot of its slope and I head for the cluster of rocks that
was our base for the day. The woman from the road is on the hard sand near
the water swinging the metal detector in slow arcs in front of her. As she
walks steadily forward water pools in her footprints.
Excuse me, I shout. She doesn’t hear me. I walk closer. Excuse me, I
shout again and she turns, a startled look on her face. I was wondering, I say,
I’ve lost my keys. We were sitting over there. I point to the rocks, black now
in the flat, end of day, light. The woman is staring at me and I think for a
second maybe she doesn’t speak English. There was a German man and his
young daughter on the beach earlier. They lay on their towels, then walked
into the sea, thigh high, and splashed water up their lean torsos. My keys, I
say again, have you seen them? She shakes her head.
I look back at the sand dune, to the other side of the bay, out to sea and
back at the woman. She is standing with her hand in her pocket and I want to
ask her to show me what she has in there. I imagine her fingers curled round
old coins, bottle tops. They have a bottle opener as a key ring, I say, a silver
one. I haven’t seen them, she says.
I walk inland searching for a glint of metal. The wet sand turns to
powder with ridges of shattered shells. The millions of tiny fragments fill my
vision and make my eyes ache. I walk back to the shore. The woman is a
silhouette against the water. I lift my hand to shield my eyes, bring her into
focus. Can I borrow it? She looks at me blankly. Your metal detector. Oh, she
says, I don’t think so. She clutches it to her as if it were her child. They could
be anywhere, I say. I notice she’s wearing canvas shoes. The water has crept
over the soles and sodden the material. Will you be out here long, I ask. Can
you help me, perhaps. My family…
I don’t really like anyone else using it, she says. Her voice is soft but
firm. Surely, I say and step towards her. She steps back. You could walk alongside me. I take another step towards her and I’ve got my hand on the
aluminium rod of the detector. You’re being a bit unreasonable, I say giving it
a tug. She has both hands on it now, pulling away from me. We stay like this
for a while, pulling backwards and forwards then I let go. She staggers. Her
mouth opens but no sound comes out. She’s falling and I lunge to catch her
but instead I land on her with my full weight.
Something is pressing into the skin on my forehead and when I open
my eyes I see the teeth of her zip and the letters, N, S, D, rumpled across her
chest. I watch the cotton for its rise and fall, but it’s still. My head is on her
and all I can hear is the muffled breaking of waves. Eventually I lever myself
to one side. Her head is tilted forward at too sharp an angle, propped up by a
rock. Her eyes are open, looking past me. I get up and walk quickly without
looking back. There’s no one around. The sky is clouding over.
I step from the sand to the grass and there, lying in the middle of the
path, are the keys. I’d forgotten. They’re not hidden, not tucked under
anything, obscured from view, just sitting there, like someone has simply put
them down. I pick them up and clench my fist around them, pressing the
blade into the fat of my palm.
Voices echo round the hills, sliced through for the coastal road to pass.
I follow the curve in the path and see my eldest sons sheltering under an
overhang, hands cupped at their mouths. Marion is sitting on a rock in the car
park. The rock is dotted with shells cast in resin and information plaques
about the geology of the area. The shells look ridiculous. I think of a climbing
wall we took the boys to once and the plastic footholds carefully arranged to
give the best climb. I made it to the top but had to be guided down by an
instructor. By the time I reached the ground my hands were shaking
I’ve got them. I hold the keys in the air. He’s got them, Marion shouts
up to the older boys. She climbs off the rock and helps our youngest to get
down. Where were they? Marion asks. Her hair is pressed in damp curls to
her forehead. It’s starting to rain, I say, let’s get going.
Kathrine Sowerby lives in Glasgow and is the author of story and poetry collections The Spit, the Sound and the Nest and House However (Vagabond Voices). Her new book Tutu will be published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe in 2021.
This story was first published in Issue 18, the rest of which can be read in our Archive.