For those whose eyes are better than their ears. First recorded in April for Carried in Waves.
Joseph filled his pockets with sand. Instead of pressing it into buckets, he scooped up handfuls of specks and patted them into the ears of his trousers. But the sand always trickled out, and ran down his leg and into his shoes. With every step, the grains rubbed in between his toes, reminding him that he couldn’t keep it.
His mother dusted him off outside, hosed him down every day, and told him that it wouldn’t do; he needed to clean his act up if he ever wanted a wife. He listened, and three decades later he was stalking the High Street with two bum-bags of sand saddling him. The soapy sun dripped through the clouds, falling onto his neck and ears. His gaze swung like a pendulum: left and right, left and right, searching for a grain.
He stopped at a glint and snapped upright. Pulling up the knees of his trousers, he squatted, and pressed a single speck into his finger. He rubbed it against his thumb, and happy with its gritty quality and size, he unzipped the front bag and dropped it in. He unfurled towards the sky and his lips spread into a smile. But he missed the grain that fell; the one that worked its way out of the seam when he crouched. It happened in a second, a blink: a moment in imaginary time.
A boy from number 12 called Joseph’s house the Sandcastle on the Hill. There were beaches instead of floors and dunes instead of stairs. Sea and salt carved through every corner of your nose, prying open memories of seagulls, ice-cream, sand sticking to sunscreen, warm coca-cola, and smeared sunglasses. But Joseph was numb to them. He saw a body, a collective, not a single fragment of rock or beach. He sank into its outstretched arms and let it fold over the space around him.
But as he slept, he didn’t know that the sand was betraying him, slipping away through the high floorboards and into the foundations. He’d forgotten that it couldn’t be kept; he had forgotten about the boy with the grit in his shoes. One morning, his house was almost empty. Most of the sand had fallen down into the earth, tick-tick-ticking away – and his mother went with it. She packed up her thoughts, her breath, and with her feet hanging over the ridge she looked at her single son for the last time, shook her head, and plunged under the earth, extinct, never to be seen again.
In each moment after that, a grain of him chipped away too, weathered by the storm that she left behind. Distance was dividing by speed, and his time was almost up. One night, in his pyjamas that shone like moonlight on a pond, he cradled a pouch of sand, and stared at the pots and pans, the buckets and bags, the upturned spoons and picture frames, peaked with his last mounds, and he did the maths.
Every cup of sand equalled five million grains, and he had one hundred and two cups left when he last counted, roughly five billion grains. But as large as it sounded, it was only four point two days, and his blood grated through his body, wearing him away from the inside. He knew his last option, and placed it on the scale, but he didn’t turn back to see the outcome. He left his tumbling castle and drove throughout the night, his pyjamas rippling in the wind from the open window.
He’d been there before – to the ocean and the beaches with all the time in the world – but he had never touched a grain. It belonged to Earth, not him. It needed it for itself, for its future. The Earth had a beginning, and it would have an end too. So the grains that Joseph had always acquired, until now, were the lost ones, the dregs, the ones that people wasted or let pass them by. He made them count, every second, every moment, every piece he held in his palm.
But now, with his heart almost empty and the tick-tick-tick roaring in his ears, the heat and pressure was too much for a single man who wanted more chances. So he ran down onto the beach that held forever and filled his own pockets. Then he loaded up two sacks with sand, and another two, and another, stealing from the world that gave him everything.
He repeated the journey cloaked with night. Sand banks rose up around his home like a fortress. His garden became a desert. When the rain came the neighbours down the hill were awash with eroding sand, and that was where they drew their line. And they knocked, and they knocked, and they put paper to clipboard, and they petitioned. Nobody wanted The Sandman living next door.
Joseph remained solid. He chased away the children who made sand angels in his front garden. But it didn’t matter how fast he ran, he couldn’t get back the bits that they took with them. He stayed awake some nights, prying open a gap in his curtains, watching everything he had worked for, slipping away. The next morning, he cleared up the risen mound of hot bags of disrespect that were pushed through his letter box, and burnt the crust of angry letters.
But his neighbours watched him erupt from his house to chase after the children, and caught sight of his quaking arms, his bellowing lungs, and so they began to take the sand for themselves. They bagged up the golden sugar of the ocean and sold it. And before long, he was losing it three times as fast as he could get it from the beach to his house.
By late November, the ground beneath him shifted. He hit his reserves again: four point two days. He took more empty sacks to Charmouth beach, but instead of packing them up, he stared at his feet. His soles sank into the traces of melting stars that were washed away by the space of the sea, and for the first time he wondered if it was too late for him, perhaps he should give up and follow his mother. Maybe he should let his last grain fall.
He didn’t want eternity, just a bit more time, and he wasn’t sure why or what he would do with it. He only knew that he needed more. The whispers of his mother, that used to get tangled up in her curly hair, rolled across the sea, blowing her thoughts back into his mind: the two-point-four, the layers of sediment that should follow him, the next generation.
And he closed his eyes for a moment and crumbled, and he whispered back to his mother that he was sorry he didn’t have enough for her. He was sorry that he had pretended; that her dream for him had never sunk deep into his core. He didn’t understand why he had kept his gaze to the ground, why he had never looked up into the eyes of anyone else.
He fell to his knees in the licks of the waves and longed for the sand to pull him in and hug him close. But he heard the wind change. It brought a clear whistle into his ears that he thought were blocked with the whispers of ghosts. He looked into the diluted sun, which hurried over the cliff and pulled up off the ground. The rock pools under the cliff were lit up like a stage, and he saw a man crouching on limestone, whistling, and running his hand across the smooth rock. He lifted up a pickaxe and brought it down with accuracy not force.
A piece broke free. He stood up and held it up into the light, squinting and turning it over in his hand. Joseph pushed his way through the soft, unstable floor and pulled himself up onto the hard rocks. And it’s hard to say what made him speak to the man who collected the past, preserved it, and studied it. But the closer he got, the more his core bubbled and burned, and it pushed him towards a collision.
His name was Patrick and he smelt like brewing coffee. He paused for such a long time when Joseph spoke that Joseph unreeled his problems in a handful of seconds. Patrick looked out to the sea with only a hum to show that he was processing his reply. He pushed his glasses up his nose and suggested that Joseph should move. Since he spent so much time taking the beach to his home only to lose it, why didn’t he bring his home to the beach?
It was a bad idea but he was a man with only a few days left; a man with an unstable core. He wanted to see Patrick again and it didn’t matter if the devil was in it, he had to see him. He tried to ignore the tremors and the whispers. Joseph told himself that it was because he didn’t have any brothers or any family, and he just needed someone, only one, and the earth could spare a little more to give him that.
So he left his heirlooms, his inheritance, and his mother’s ashes. He locked the doors, and left his Sandcastle on the Hill. Under the cliffs, on the shore, he built a shack from drift wood and iron. He collected sand up around him, separating out what belonged to him. A stolen infinity lay at his feet, and for the first time in a while, he rested.
At dawn, angry waves awoke him and a whitewash sky glared down at him. He ignored them, and spotted Patrick on the rocks with his head down and glasses at the end of his nose. Joseph waved to him with sweeping arms and a smile that could have been his first: unguarded, unchecked. And he walked the long stretch towards him for the first of many days of soggy newspapers and chips, kicking sand, and humming duets.
When the Sandman retired, the sky was a chalky Wedgewood blue bowl with clouds decorating the rim. Patrick had carved out a perfect ammonite from the skin of the cliff to the hum of Joby Talbot’s Once Around the Sun. He held it out to Joseph and gave him part of the Earth’s memory. Joseph covered the ammonite with both hands for a moment, and said that he would make room for it. He delved into his pocket, scooped out his last handful of sand and held it out. Patrick caught the grains trickling through his fingers and smiled. And in his gaze, Joseph saw all of time and space, huge and expanding. He had collided with the past to be in the present. And he wondered why all this time, he had been looking for something so small, so tiny, and so insignificant, at his feet.