Footprints in the Sand
By Isabella King
The sea might wash away all trace of our existence – but the love we shared will always endure.
I look out through my children’s open bedroom window towards the shimmering ocean below. Quiet little waves are lapping up on to the sand as the sun begins its lazy journey across the sky. Only the echoing barks and faraway voices of early morning dog walkers disturb the still air.
Tom is sitting on our rock on the far side of the beach. He’s in silhouette at the moment, the rock no more than a jagged black lump, but I know without a doubt that it’s him – where else would he be on such a day? He’s dangling his toes in the water, waiting for the line of shade that now envelops him to shrink back up against the cliff edge for the day.
I wonder if he’s blaming himself for what happened or if he’s angry with me. I know that I deserve it. I turn away from the window at the sound of rustling sheets and the sleepy murmurings of Josh and Alice.
‘Good morning my little cherubs,’ I whisper, as they wake to meet this strange day. Will they remember? Will they be sad? God knows I don’t want their little souls to feel even one moment’s sadness for what I have done, but neither do I want them to forget…too soon.
Looking back out of the window I see that the sun has crept farther up the beach covering the sand in a carpet of glistening diamonds. People have appeared, as if from nowhere, to bask in its warmth. Tom’s rock is now a mixture of shiny grey and silver and his blonde curls, now bleached almost white, form a shining halo around his bowed head. The sound of children’s laughter fills the air as they frolic in the sand behind him, but Tom doesn’t turn around.
I scan the beach, from the rocks on the far left where my brave and courageous husband is sitting, past the little stream that forges its way relentlessly through the sand to the waters edge, then on to the unmistakable, deeply tanned form of the lifeguard, standing, binoculars in hand, surveying his territory. Bikini clad girls flock towards him from time to time, like wasps round a jam jar. He’s a new one this year. Last year Tom was standing in his place.
I hear a commotion behind me as Josh and Alice hurriedly pull on their clothes and make their way downstairs, chattering excitedly to each other as if I weren’t here. I try to hide my disappointment and follow them to the kitchen. I manage a smile as they devour their breakfasts and listen quietly as they plan out their day. No sooner are they finished than they are tearing out of the kitchen door and on to the hot paving slabs that lead down to the beach below.
‘Well at least they can still enjoy this beautiful place without the events of last year spoiling it for them,’ I whisper to myself.
‘Race you to Daddy’s rock,’ Josh shouts, and I smile at their animated faces. It’s hard to stay sad amidst such bounding enthusiasm for life.
‘It’s good they’re happy,’ I whisper and I’m pleased, really I am, even though my heart is still heavy with sorrow and guilt.
Josh is so much like his father now. Even at his young age he shows signs of the same strong back and those blonde curls are the exact same shade as his father’s. Alice is more like me; quiet and thoughtful, that’s why I worry about her most. Now they are running about on the sand, their little feet leaving but a temporary sign of their chaotic route. Soon their tiny footprints will be washed away by the tide, as so many other things often are.
Sometimes bits are lucky enough to return, months even years later, their edges smoothed and rounded by their epic journey, but mostly things lost to the sea are lost forever. Alice bends and picks up a shell or maybe it’s one of her ‘jewels’ that’s attracted her attention – a piece of shiny glass rubbed smooth by the ocean – I know she will rub the sand off on her shorts before secreting this new ‘jewel’ into her pocket.
Josh is jumping over a sand castle now, but I know he cannot walk away and leave it whole. He turns and launches himself at it, then runs off laughing, leaving nothing more than a heap of damp sand behind him. They seem happy but it brings a tear to my eye that I can no longer be here for them when they need me.
When they reach the rock their father is sitting on they clamber up beside him and sit quietly for a moment, then they are up and darting about again, bubbling over with summer holiday excitement. Yes, it’s good that children are so resilient. Tom’s head follows his children’s games. How I wish that I could look into his face one more time. Why doesn’t he turn around and tilt his head up towards the window where I am standing; doesn’t he know that I’d be watching for him?
‘Please let him return to the house before it’s too late,’ I ask, and glance up at the old oak clock on the wall – Already it is 10.45.
My mind jerks painfully back to this time last year. It had been every bit as hot and sunny as today, the beach teeming with happy children. Tom was in his usual position at the lifeguards post. I had set up camp a little to the left of him, a tartan blanket laying claim to our square of sand. I’d brought a picnic of peanut butter sandwiches and bananas for the children, salmon quiche and salad for Tom and me.
By midday the sun was high in the cloudless sky, a rippling haze rising from the sand. The children wanted to paddle, so we wandered down to the waters edge, and as they danced in the gentle surf I waded out deeper to take a swim. I had been swimming around, just out of my depth, for no more than five minutes when I heard that high-pitched shriek followed by the splash. I looked towards the beach to check that Josh and Alice were safe. They were still splashing about in the shallow water, oblivious to the drama unfolding only a few metres from them. It was then that I noticed the flailing arms of the little red haired girl. She had fallen from the rocks and was thrashing about wildly in her panic.
I glanced back toward Tom but he was busy dealing. with another child on the beach. I had no choice. I swam towards the spluttering child as she fought to stay afloat. The moment I reached her I realised that I had made a big mistake. In her panic she grabbed wildly at me, clutching onto handfuls of my flowing hair. I desperately tried to hold her above water – away from me – but she just kept pushing me under, her eyes wide with terror.
I was vaguely aware of the sound of Josh and Alice screaming and shouting from the rocks and I so wanted to be with them but everything began to play out in slow motion and soon, even their screams became distant as the sound of the ocean and a rush of bubbles filled my head. The chiming of the kitchen clock jolts me abruptly back to the present and I spin around quickly to check the time. Already it’s mid-day. Time is so short. I can only stay a while and there are so many things I still want to see.
Pointed shards of bright sunlight have made their way into the shade of my kitchen and are now creeping slowly across the stone floor towards me. I turn back towards the window one more time. Out there it’s just another hot summer day for most people, but not for Tom and me. I wonder if the little red haired girl is back again this year. I hope so. I hope she hasn’t learnt to fear the beach. It’s such a wonderful place for children to grow up.
Tom has left his rock now and is making his way slowly back up the beach. Josh and Alice gravitate towards him. He takes their proffered hands in his and hugs them to him before continuing his journey back to the house. A solitary tear escapes from the corner of my eye. My heart pounds against my chest. He’s coming, thank God. The warmth of the sun still radiates from their bodies as they enter the relative coolness of the kitchen. Tom takes a can of spaghetti hoops from the cupboard and opens it.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper in his ear and brush against his bare shoulder. ‘I never meant to leave you alone with the children.’ He stops for a moment and listens, as if he’s heard a faraway voice. I wait for him to turn and see me, to look into my eyes once more, but he doesn’t.
I have to know that he doesn’t blame me. I can never rest in peace if he blames me for leaving him. I turn my attention to my children who are sitting at the table waiting for their lunch. Gently and with all the love I can muster, I plant a whisper of a kiss on each of their soft, downy foreheads.
‘Mummy’s here,’ Alice says, so matter-of-fact. Tom spins around and looks at her open mouthed, but then he smiles.
‘I know darling, I can feel her too. She’ll always be watching over us from somewhere,’ he says, as he kneels and hugs our children to him. ‘Never forget how brave mummy was,’ he adds.
I feel the heavy weight of guilt lift from my heart as I begin to drift away from my family. Soon the scene in my kitchen is no more than a speck of light at the end of a long tunnel, but now I know that they are not lost to me. Now I know that our love will bind us forever.
‘It’s time for me to go,’ I whisper and blow a kiss.
In the kitchen, a light breeze ruffles the fine blonde hairs on the back of Tom’s neck. He shivers and then smiles. I hope he’s remembering the touch of my lips.