There’s a young girl a couple of sand dunes away, tottering up and down the mounds, digging her hands in deep and pulling them back out, amazed that they’re still attached. Her parents keep going wide-eyed with her every time, as though they’ve never seen anything like it before, and she does it again and again, giggling for them sweetly. They’re the last ones left on the beach apart from us. She digs her hands in a final time then pulls them out, clapping to herself.
Dad leans close to me, tipping his head towards them, and says, “you used to play like that.”
I ask him to tell me about it and he shrugs as if it’s not that important. But I want to know so I nudge him with my shoulder. He never talks about anything willingly. He keeps it locked up like he’s protecting himself from the elements, from memories and moments and ideas – “don’t tell people things because that’s how they get ya” – but for once he decides to indulge me.
“Well, y’know, when we used to live here, you’d mess around on the beach like that. And in the old garden too, always fascinated by things, open to seeing the world. It was fun when you were little, showing you new things, looking at it through your eyes.”
He pauses and turns away from me. I stare at the nape of his neck, the sea air ruffling his shirt collar. There’s a blackhead near the side of his throat, and I want to squeeze it out with my fingernails. He speaks into the sunset, letting the words drift on the breeze.
“You ate the flowers at the old bungalow, done up in your dungarees. I’d plant one and you’d pick it right out, plant, pick, plant, pick, eating the petals – and the mud, squelching around in your wellies. Chewing on the stalks. Maybe even a worm.”
I laugh and tell him that’s disgusting.
“Bloody annoying is what it was,” he says, but I know he doesn’t mean it. He sighs and tells me, “that was you, always out with me – on the beach, in the garden. I built you that treehouse, didn’t I?”
“Did it up nice, painted the walls baby blue, fairy lights, the lot. I hated it when we had to move.”
I don’t recall moving – I just remember living by the seaside one day and not living by the seaside another. Mum had got a new job, a career, and the treehouse had to stay, the haven firmly wedged between the branches. I’m not sure if he’s ever forgiven Mum for bettering our lives. It was fifteen years ago, and I try not to get involved.
“I spent a lot of time on that for you, wanted it to be perfect.”
It was perfect, but I don’t say it. I glance back to the family. The little kid has stopped stomping around now, instead she’s ogling the sunset. Legs crossed on the sand, hands on her chin. Her parents – or carers, maybe aunt and uncle, are splayed down and out beside her.
Dad talks into the breeze again, eyes set on the horizon.
“I was happy then.”
There are pictures in our house framed in black because that’s what “goes with the colour scheme” and you can see it in his eyes, the happiness. It’s like a glow or a blossom, something you can’t put your finger on – measure or bottle.
The sun is starting to blur into the sea with the evening heat and I ask him if he’s happy now. I know the answer, but it still smarts like a wasp sting.
“Not really, no.”
He huffs as he says it and hangs his head down, keeping it low for well over a moment. I wonder, silently, watching the skin on the back of his neck, if he’s started to cry.
It’s uncharted territory for me – I haven’t seen him cry since his cousin’s funeral, six years ago. She was buried in our local graveyard on a cold and wet December afternoon up in the middle of the moors. Every member of Dad’s family is buried there, next to each other. As Dad says, “least you can visit all of them in one go.”
I stuck by him for most of the service but as everyone started leaving he stayed by the open grave and begun weeping silently in the drizzle, his hands heavy over his eyes, nails pushing into his cheeks. Mum wasn’t there that day because she had to work, and I had no words to offer and no concept of how to make him feel better without her. I’d never seen him cry before – I just watched, quietly, like I am now.
He pulls his head up and looks back over to the disappearing top of the sun. I can tell there are no tears, just resignation.
I used to think it was me, or Mum, that made him feel this way. Thought that maybe if I didn’t move away or ask him for things so much he might be better. I know it’s not that, it’s “the chemicals in my head, don’t you worry about me” but I worry anyway because he’s my Dad and that’s what you do.
The sun has slipped into the sea, heading over to wake another land, and as I sink myself into the sad silence Dad mumbles something that I don’t catch.
He turns and looks at me dead on, his crow’s feet prickling outwards.
“I said,” he nods at me like he used to do when I was a kid to make sure I was properly listening, “but I’m happy now, with my girl, here.” He taps the sand, “This…is a happy moment.”
Emily discovered that she actually enjoyed creative writing in 2018, despite everything she may have previously said, and has decided to stick with it for the foreseeable future. She can be found on Twitter @emily__harrison, and has had work published with Ellipsis Zine, Storgy, Soft Cartel, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few. You can find the links to all her work here: emilyharrisonwrites.com
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