Early evening sun danced on the water as the remaining beach-goers eked out the final moments of warmth the day had so generously offered. An hour earlier the scene had been teeming with life before families packed up bags and belongings, gathering in children and dogs to make the journey home, the school holidays all but done. Glancing behind her to the handsome row of houses overlooking the bay, Sarah was grateful for a place to call home that afforded them the luxury of extra time on days like these. She watched as her two boys paddled their way across the emptying sea, while towards her came the silhouette of husband and daughter, stacked together like those towers of interlocking cups, the smaller one fitting neatly on top of the larger below.
“Mummy look at me! Look how high I am!”
Anna waved her arms from her favourite seat atop her father’s shoulders, giggling with delight as Struan spun around and around on the sand.
“Careful you two! You’ll get dizzy.”
Sarah stood ready to receive them with a towel and a smile.
“No, not yet,” Anna pleaded on seeing the towel. “The boys are still out. Just one more sandcastle. Pleeeease?”
“Ok, just one more – but a small one this time. Dad’s going to call the boys in now.”
As she began the work of digging and building Anna was oblivious to her parents standing above her, Struan coming in to put an arm around his wife and kissing her on the forehead.
“I love you.”
His wife looked up into his face and smiled.
“I’m so thankful for you,” he continued. “I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
Sarah considered the man before her. She knew every inch of him, every freckle and scar. Running her finger along his nose and across his stubbled cheek, she tugged playfully on his earlobe knowing it signalled the start of what they would finish later. Continuing down his neck and to his chest, a faint white circle told of childhood chicken pox and a little boy who picked the scabs despite the warnings not to. Her hand stopped over his heart where she placed her palm flat to his flesh, knowing that beneath the skin the wounds ran deep. Her gentle devotion had soothed the pain over many patient years. To the outside world he was the picture of success and happiness, but she was the one who slept beside him and heard him cry out in the night. It didn’t happen often now, and when it did they were more murmurs than sobs. Only occasionally did it cause her to sit up in alarm at the anguish she heard from her husband. No longer did he waken from it, or remember it in the morning. The pain was etched on his soul, an integral part of him that he carried behind him daily like a shadow.
Struan Ferguson was a driven man, climbing his way up the ladder within his law firm, eyes firmly set on the top. An internal fire stoked his ambition, giving him a singular focus as soon as he walked through the doors of his office, but when he returned to the family home he gave all of his devotion to his wife and children. He was an attentive husband and a loving dad, playing sport with his sons and encouraging their efforts in school, but it was with their daughter that he came most alive. Kneeling beside her he accommodated her every wish, allowing himself to be transformed into a princess, a pony or, as had been the case earlier that day, buried in sand shaped as a mermaid. All decorum and dignity were cast aside in pursuit of Anna’s smile and she returned his affection in equal measure.
Sarah’s favourite pastime of late was to watch the two of them play together. These days her boys were usually running out the door on their way to some activity that would generate a mountain of laundry, and so as parents they had time to give to Anna in a way they hadn’t with the twins. Two at once had been a challenge neither of them was fully prepared for and Sarah spent most of the first seven or eight years chasing her tail. Just as soon as she thought she was getting the hang of it and considering a return to teaching along came the unexpected gift of Anna. Sarah loved her boys deeply and had told herself she didn’t care what she had second time around, but when the midwife smiled and handed her this tiny squawking bundle with the words ’congratulations, you have a daughter’ Sarah’s heart leapt in her chest. Instead of going back to her beloved history classes she found her most attentive student in this tiny brand new person who hung on her every word. This time she could enjoy every stage as she watched Anna develop and grow into a thoughtful yet strong-willed little girl who at this precise moment was project managing her current excavation on Elie beach with her father beside her, the ever-willing assistant.
Sitting herself down on the rug beside them Sarah lay back to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her face, relishing those moments of joyful calm as all of her people were content in their endeavours and she could have some time for her own thoughts and dreams. Letting her hands drift back and forth across the sand she felt anchored once more to this precious place. Some day she hoped this would be more than a holiday home, when the kids were up and gone to their own lives she and Struan could leave the city behind and potter their days away among the pretty towns and villages of Fife. She could never give up Edinburgh for good of course but she would be happy with more time here with less distractions to come between them. They would still pursue their own pastimes, him on the golf course and her with her writing and painting, but in between would be long walks along the coastline and dinner dates in local places they would find together. Some day.
A roar of teenage boys brought her back to the present as Robert and James dragged the dingy up from the shore, before dripping and shaking the sea over her on purpose because they thought it was hilarious.
“Argh!” she cried, playing along, “get off you rotten lot. Here,” she countered, throwing a towel in each of their faces, “get yourselves dried off and gather in here for a photo.”
Eyes rolled and there was a general muttering of disapproval as both boys gave a cursory rub of their heads with their towels before standing either side of her and plastering their faces with identical mischievous grins. Struan scooped Anna up from the sand and they hunkered down at the front as Sarah flagged down a passing stranger to do the honours.
“Ready? 3-2-1 cheese!”
Click. A moment in time, captured on a tiny screen. Using one hand as a shield against the light Sarah peered into the glass on the back of her digital camera to see the most perfect reflection of her family staring back at her. Robert and James, paused from their perpetual motion just long enough to show a glimpse of the handsome young men they would soon become, while keeping one hand on the tousled mess of boyhood. Tucked beneath her, cheek to cheek, were Anna and Struan, Anna’s arms wrapped tightly around her dad’s neck squeezing him in a way that could not possibly have been comfortable and yet he looked utterly delighted with his smiling limpet. And standing in their midst, the still and reliable axis around which this wheel turned, was Sarah. Mum. The early signs of crow’s feet were showing at the corners of her eyes and she noticed the laughter lines were more pronounced around her mouth. Where she could easily see the future in the faces of her sons she had to look more closely to find the girl she had been. Her wild and carefree younger self had been tamed and tidied away by marriage and motherhood and sometimes she missed that part of herself but she could not deny that this was a photograph in which she looked as happy as she had ever been. Standing with her family in her favourite place on a glorious day.
“Mum, what’s for tea?”
The eternal question broke into her moment of reflection. How did anyone keep teenage boys fed and satisfied? They had reached the point in the evolution of the mother/son relationship where she was most regularly cook and cleaner, part time tutor and regular taxi driver. She dare not begrudge it. At least when they were around her table she could look at their faces rather than their backs as they headed out the door.
“Well I thought that this could be a night for fish and chips. What does everyone think?”
A chorus of approval rang out from every member of the family and lent momentum to their efforts to leave the beach. The boys threw all of their belongings into the dingy and began to drag it across the sand while Struan threw a variety of garments across his shoulders before adding the finishing touch of his insistent daughter who was now apparently too tired to walk anywhere, not even the few hundred metres back to the house.
“Go on,” Sarah insisted, “I’ll get these last few bits.”
She stood alone among the detritus of the day basking in the sight of her most precious people scattered across the shore like jewels glinting in the sunlight. The twins raced ahead dragging the dinghy between them, carving a trail in the damp ochre along which followed their dad and sister, bound together like one merry creature singing their way towards home. Taking a moment Sarah breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the sea air and the satisfaction of what she had made. She wanted to stretch this day, to fill it with as many experiences as possible until it bulged to breaking point. Fish and chips by the harbour in Anstruther as the sun set, gathering on the sofa with a film and ice cream until little Anna’s eyes could stay open no longer. She and her husband would exchange a silent look across the body of their sleeping daughter and know which of them would lift her up to bed. The boys would be allowed one final night of staying up late while Struan would wink across at her before taking her by the hand and leading her to bed. Bending to pick up bags, buckets and spades she turned once more to face the sea.
“Still time for a final dip.”
An older man walked past her on his way back from the water, droplets clinging to his freckled shoulders. Her eyes glinted in response and they exchanged a knowing smile. He noticed her hesitation and so took a step closer and whispered.
“Go on girl. It’s never too late and you’re never too old for a paddle.”
He nudged her arm playfully before moving on. Walking a few steps further up the beach he glanced behind to see the woman running with absolute abandon towards the waves before diving beneath them fully clothed. He threw his head back and roared with laughter as she waved to him from sea, her smile as wide as the sky.