A child runs along the deserted beach, arms outstretched, shoes already abandoned, hair freed from the restrictions of her mother’s earlier attentions; a bird could make a nest in this, her mother will say later as she washes out salt and sand and the child will wriggle and squirm as tangles are combed out. But now, a million birds, each with a strand of her hair in its beak, swoop and swirl her like a dancing kite. She leaps and spins and soars leaving a message in the sky, a white trail that will slowly dissolve then disappear. She cartwheels and collapses in a heap.
Damp sand stuck to her hands. Liquorice allsorts. There’s a jar in the kitchen for stray bits and pieces: buttons, safety pins, hair slides, nails and screws, elastic bands, paper clips; our flotsam and jetsam, her mother says. The jar is white and decorated with liquorice allsorts and it’s also where the child leaves notes for her parents; sorry or I love you. Liquorice allsorts. That’s what sand looks like. She has seen pictures of grains of sand magnified. She wipes her hands on her shorts, leaving a faint yellowy stain on her palms.
Tracks in the sand. Man and dog. She stands and looks in all directions. The morning is overcast. It’s low tide, the beach, a vast damp desert. A seagull calls but no sign of dog or owner. She would like to have a dog to play with, she would look after it; one animal to train is enough for this household, her dad had said when she asked. He laughed and patted her on the head. She didn’t understand but knew he was saying no. Feral, that’s what he calls her. Here Bella, she shouts. Good girl. Sit! Stay! She gives the dog a reward from her pocket. Away! She throws out her arm and chases the tracks, looping, criss-crossing, laughing, veering right then left, tying knots in the sand, until she runs out of breath.
She stands sucking salt from sticky hair and looking out towards the sea, a distant glint on the horizon, a boundary between earth and sky. Behind her lines of shingle, shells, pebbles, seaweed marking high tides, bigger stones and rocks, sand dunes with tufts of coarse green grass and beyond that, the road home. First with her big toe, then with her heel, she writes her name.
Walking back, ridges in the sand massage her soles. She squishes worm spirals, picks her way across shingle, stones, shells; don’t bring stuff back from the beach, her mother has warned, I’m sick of emptying sand from your pockets. She picks up a piece of turquoise glass, rough but any sharpness worn away by the sea. She finds another and another. She imagines someone from a distant land writing a message, putting it in a turquoise bottle and floating it out on the tide. One day she’ll put a message in a bottle and float it back. Using her t-shirt as a basket she collects more turquoise gems.
She climbs over rocks and tips her treasure onto soft sand near the dunes; the sea doesn’t reach here. Tucking her hair behind her ears she clears a flat space and arranges the stones in a circle. She sits back on her heels, leans forward again, head bent in concentration, and rearranges the pattern. She sits back to admire her work.
One day, when the sun is shining, someone will glimpse a sparkle in the sand and come to investigate. They will find a turquoise crescent moon and wonder at its beauty. And they will know she has been here.