Every summer, they dig a hole.
The day at the beach is the best day. Skin rough and sticky with sand that rubs raw patches on knees and thighs. The air is rough with salt. She sticks out her tongue to taste it, before licking her skin. Sand cracks between her teeth, echoing in her ear, unpleasant and disconcerting,
Already they’ve jumped down sand dunes, leaping and then throwing themselves into the fall, tumbling down roly-poly through the spiked sea grass, the twigs that drift up with the tide sticking to their swimsuits, as they somehow manage to dodge the plastic bottles and drinks cans that inevitably intrude.
Earlier they swam out, avoiding jellyfish that moon beneath the surface, avoiding seaweed too with its deceptive tentacles. Best to be on the safe side. They bobbed at the edge of safety, watching the gannets beyond dive for fish, straight and fast as bullets, the great big bird folded narrow and slender and deadly. Beyond even the gannets, out of sight on the islands, nest the razorbills and kittiwakes - her favourites, the idea that a bird can be a cat, with their pretty round heads.
All day, they’ve been keeping an eye on the tide. It’s the tide, you see, that matters when digging a hole. And now, after they’ve jumped and swam and walked to the rock pool and eaten seeded rolls stuffed with egg and ham, sugar biscuits for afterwards, sand in their teeth, it’s time to dig.
They don’t have spades. It’s odd, when she looks back, to realise what little childish paraphernalia they had on the beach. Other children had spades and bat and ball, inflatables and liloes and wetsuits. Families had wind guards and deck chairs. They have their hands, and years of practice, and that is enough.
They find a place where the sand is firm to dig. Too soft, and the walls of the hole crumble in. Too firm and, well, without a spade there’s no deal. The sand is uncomfortable as it burrows beneath finger nails, burns against bent knees, but she knows that discomfort must be waved aside at times like this.
It doesn’t take long before the hole is dug. It’s dug when water is reached. There’s no point digging further.
It’s a good hole. They’ve dug it well.
They turn to face the sea. It’s that time of day now; the tide has changed and each wave is landing closer and closer to the hole. They have about half an hour, they estimate, to finish their work - a mere half an hour to protect the hole. Half an hour to build walls and sea defences, to dig channels and gullies that will divert the ocean from the hole and keep it safe.
There’s an urgency to the digging now. They take on a flank each, using the sand dug up from the hole and the channels to build up walls as high and as thick as their hands. Soon a fort over two metres wide springs up around the hole. With each wave the tide moves in faster. As they pile sand on the outer wall, cold bubbles slap and pop against the soles of her feet.
The sea hits the first wall. The struggle now is to rebuild. The sand is sodden, melting to sea between their fingers, but the channels are doing their job, and the ocean takes a detour. It’s a momentary relief. The next wall is breached. They pull up handfuls of sand that is now seabed, throwing it wildly onto collapsing walls, streaks of hardening brown gunk on their faces and in their hair. A dump of seaweed washes up around her legs and she grabs it, vainly hoping it will make a stronger defence than the wobbling sand.
With a roar, it’s over. She falls backwards and sits facing away from the ocean, as the sea laps around her and cascades into the hole, the work of the afternoon destroyed. Proud in defeat, she lies back and floats on the white foam, watching the birds circle in the sky.