Erik Haines clenched the shovel and heard the soft crunch as it churned up the sand. Wind buffeted the back of his head and he planted his feet, listened to the rhythm of the tide, the harsh, sobering cries of gulls rocked in updraughts. Drizzle pelted him but Erik didn’t look up. The shovel scraped against a slab of red stone with shell swirls engraved in the surface. He dug the stone out and added it to the cavalcade of forgotten treasures behind him: A half chewed bone, an old wellington boot and a soup can, home to a colony of small crabs.
Erik fished out a flask from his pocket and took a swig of coffee. Warmth slipped down his throat, overpowering the damp percolating in his lungs. He pictured himself at the bakery, shelves packed with pastries and golden bread simmering in the oven. He’d take his son Jason there when he got back to Manchester.
Erik put the flask away and picked up the shovel. Perhaps he hadn’t been searching in the right spot, but to a valiant heart, nothing is impossible. Was that not the Haines family motto framed above the mantle of his mind’s eye? Erik took quick strides, crossing underneath the wharf and onto a patch of wet sand.
Blackpool Tower trapped his gaze like a bluebottle on fly paper. It jutted out towards a grotty sky and Erik feelt an emptiness in his head. He recalled Jason galavanting towards it with all the wonder a five-year-old could dream up. The rest of the town was a dark smudge on the landscape, devoid of colour and cheer. Erik walked until he stood in the shadow of the tower and resumed excavation.
Fragments from the past played out in his mind: His father snoring in a deck chair, Lian fretting over cake designs for the holidays, Jason building a sand castle with toy dinosaurs strewn around him. Erik remembered each of them. There was a green one with a long neck, another with wings and a chipped beak. Jason’s favourite was the T-Rex. He used it to stampede through the castle until the ice-cream man showed up and Jason left it behind.
Most parents would’ve bought their child a new play thing, and Erik wondered why he’d come so far for the sake of a single toy. It could’ve been picked up by someone else, it could’ve been washed out to sea. Or it could be right beneath his feet.
A noise broke his concentration. A woman in a red coat walked her terrier a few feet from where he was digging. Her shaggy hair matched the dog’s fur and every time it ran too far ahead she stopped it with a whistle.
There was something about the single-mindedness of the action that spoke to him. What kind of father would he be if he gave up? What kind of example would he be setting for Jason if every short cut and easy road was taken? He rubbed his hands and grabbed the shovel.
Later, when the sky had brightened, Erik gathered his belongings and returned to his car. In the driver’s seat he took out a handkerchief and wiped down the plastic T-Rex. He held it up to the rear-view mirror, checking all the dirt had been removed and placed it on the passenger’s seat. On the way back to Manchester he listened to Mick Hucknall blaring through the radio.
Holding back the years
Thinking of the fear I’ve had for so long
When somebody hears
Listen to the fear that’s gone
Erik stopped at the house to change out of his mucky shoes. He was careful to leave them on the mat. Any trace of dirt on the carpet and Lian would be on his case. He said a quick hello to his father who grunted and barely glanced away from the Only Fools and Horses marathon he’d been watching.
Erik drove to Jason’s school. The gates were opening as he arrived and Erik waited in the playground. A bell rang and students pooled out in a chatty horde. Erik searched the group and found Jason swinging his Ben 10 lunch box.
“Hey, big man. How was your day?”
“Missus Jones said I couldn’t play with my dinosaurs.”
“Well, Mrs Jones obviously doesn’t know the meaning of fun. Come on. I’ve got something to show you before we see mummy.”
Erik tousled his son’s hair and lifted Jason up in one arm. Once they were back in the car, Erik put a hand into his pocket and jerked it away.
“Ow! I think there’s somebody here who wants to say hi.”
Erik took out the T-Rex and held it up to his face.
“Uh-oh…don’t give me that look, Rex!” His arm twisted and writhed, as if Rex was trying to break free and tear his face off.
“Argh! Jason, help me out here buddy!”
Jason giggled until Erik put Rex into his small hands. “I rescued him and that’s how he repays me. You should have him back. He likes you a lot more.”
Jason held Rex the rest of the way. He talked about his day, about mean old Mrs Jones and how she would never dream of stopping him from playing now Rex is back. Erik smiled to himself and drove to the bakery. At this time of the day, the bakery was quiet, save for an old man waiting for a cheese and onion pasty. When Jason burst in it made him jump.
“Mummy, mummy! Daddy found Rex!”
“That’s wonderful, sweetheart. I’ll look at him back at the house, okay?” Lian spoke from behind the counter and apologised to the customer.
Erik winked at Lian. “Mummy’s busy right now, champ. She’s got grown up stuff to do.”
He took Jason home and found the TV was still on. His father was asleep, snoring gently. Erik went into the kitchen to get a packet of chocolate chip cookies for the both of them. Normally, Jason wasn’t allowed to have anything sweet until after dinner, but what Lian didn’t know wouldn’t hurt Erik.
He sat in front of the TV, gave a cookie to Jason and had one for himself. The cookie tasted like a promise, warm, wholesome and sweet. The peace inside the living room was comforting, and as he watched Jason play with his toys in front of the TV, Erik knew his son would be a great man one day.