I had watched him scuttle past these rocks so many times this week. I do not think he knew I was watching. Perhaps he thought I was like all the other tourists; too busy watching the sunset and the wind-surfers, to notice him rifling through bags and swiping picnic food. He was about 8 years old, I was guessing. A wiry, sun-bronzed boy with a matted mess of blonde curls. He did not seem to belong to anyone and always disappeared around the rocks, rocks so slippery I hesitated to follow but he was the only mystery worth solving on this beach and Thomas had forgotten me, so followed.
There was a beautiful little cove on the other side. No one was there, but that wasn’t surprising. My clumsy clamber over the rocks had earned me a wealth of cuts and bruises. Most people wouldn’t bother going to all the trouble, but i had always loved climbing mountains and trees and I could never resist a challenge set by a child. I stood, silent and still, listening for him. At first, all I could hear was the wind, the waves and the cry of a seagull cutting through raw places in my heart. A strange tapping sound echoed out from the cliff face. I followed the sound and found a small opening, large enough for me to wriggle through, if I really wanted to. Instead, I leaned up against the rocks and imitated the cry of the gull, letting my heart sound its song. The tapping stopped. For a while we were both silent, listening to the sound of the wind playing with the waves.
My own hideaway was a long way away. I wondered if this tousle-haired little thief would share his hideaway with me. I could see him now, from the corner of my eye. He was peering up at me, squinting in the sunlight, with a scowl on his face. Grown ups aren’t meant to mess with a kid’s turf, but I wasn’t a real grown up. He would just have to get used to me being there because this cove was the closest I had come to finding a haven in at least three weeks. I loved the way the sand was patterned with lines from the ocean, untouched by footprints. The roar of waves crashing on rocks muted the sound of cars and people passing by overhead.
He waited for me to go away. When that didn’t work he got cross and threw little pebbles at my shins. I made a game out of catching them and tossed some back in. When he yelped I laughed, amused by his indignant surprise.
“What do you want?”, he demanded, his voice hot and sulky, with a lovely echoing reverb created by the cave he was in.
“I want to make a sand castle”, I told him.
He was silent for a moment, while he digested this.
“So. Go make one. Somewhere else.”
I didn’t answer him. A crab scuttled over the sand. He had electric blue snippers and a funny jaggedy way of moving, just like the little boy in the cave mouth, glaring at me with his piecring blue eyes as he half-heartedly flicked sand at me.
With a shrug, I sat down on the sand and started building, right outside his cave door. He retreated for a while and I was left in peace, with the sound of the waves guiding the movements of my hands as I scooped and pushed and piled the sand. Time slipped through my fingers like sand, the gentle sunlight warm on my skin as I worked. Finally I sat back, admiring my work with a smile. It was rather magnificent, even if I did say so myself. The boy was watching from the cave-mouth. He had crept forwards so much that he was almost outside it now.
I ignored him and wandered off in search of shells, feathers, sticks and rocks to decorate my castle. Occasionally I looked back, a little concerned he might smash it down before I could finish it. Instead, he seemed to be studying it intently from all angles, a puzzled expression on his face. I came back with my treasure and started placing it very carefully around the edges, pushing shells and sticks into the sand to create patterns.
“I’ve seen this before”, said the boy, a far-away sound in his voice.
“What, a sand castle?”, I asked
“No, this castle. In a dream I had once. It’s the same castle”
He went back into his cave and came out a little later with something in the palm of his hand. Weathered pieces of glass caught the light as he offered them solemnly to me. I looked at the glass, then at him.
“You place them”, I said.
He was a little hesitant at first, but soon found his feet, darting here and there as he settled each piece of glass into its new home. They looked just like stained glass windows. After a while, he started to talk again, dreamily, with a slight catch in his voice.
“I was looking for my sister. In the castle.”
I nodded, waiting for him to go on.
“I couldn’t find her. She kept disappearing around the corner, going down and down the stairs, into the dark.”
He shuddered. I could hear what he wasn’t telling me. I could heat the sound of a man’s laughter, and it chilled me to the bone.
“Did someone take her?”
“No. I mean, yes.” He looked confused and gathered himself to explain. I reached into my backpack and found us a couple of bananas. He seemed delighted with the gift and rewarded me with a small smile.
“In the dream she was by herself. But in real life someone took her.”
We sat in silence, eating, listening to the waves.
“Did she come back?”, I asked, after a while.
He shook his head, choking a little on his food. A wave lapped at the foot of the castle. I looked at the rocks in alarm and realised i was trapped. I had left it too long to get back around to the main beach. The boy watched my face as I took all this in and started to laugh. The laughter swelled as I joined him and suddenly we were having a sand fight, with sand-castle sand, shrieking and hollering as we scrambled and ducked.
When the castle was gone, we sobered for a while, both of us wondering where I was going to sleep.
“You don’t snore do you?”, he asked me. “My dad snores.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
The waves had almost reached the opening of the cave by this stage and he gestured for me to follow him in. I pushed the back-pack in ahead of me and crouched down, squeezing my way through the narrow opening.
“You can sleep up there”, he said, pointing to a high ledge or rock.
“Sometimes the water comes in a bit.”
Then he showed me a series of tunnels. One of them lead to an opening in the rock further down the beach. This was the toilet. Another lead further back into the cliff-face, coming to a dead end.