Making sandcastles

He sat on the beach and built sand castles. He wanted them to be bigger and better than any he had ever seen. The sand was damp and sticky – perfect for those sharp corners and the battlements on the turrets, which his sophisticated orange plastic bucket offered him. He’s chosen it at the seaside shop to allow him the edge (literally) over his foes, who had simple conical fez-like buckets. He’d removed the handle, which he found tended to invert beneath the fill of sand at that crucial moment when he up-ended the bucket, causing his turret to split in two, and he’d developed the ‘momentum lift and swing’ his skills honed to perfection. You fill the bucket to the brim and a little above. You take the spade, an old metal one with more strength than the average plastic affair, and you whack the sand into the bucket, compressing it as much as possible, then scrape the excess off the top, using the spade like a barman’s spatula to the Guinness. Good compression is key to the rigid tower, and to the crisp battlements – the sand must be forced into the base of the bucket, into the indentations cast in plastic for the battlements.
You prepare the ground – a firm flat base of sand at the chosen position, aided by the flat of the spade and the neat cut of its edge to delineate the ground works.
You lift the bucket without its handle by gripping its narrow rim with the tips of your fingers on both sides, and then bring one hand carefully underneath the base. This is the point of greatest risk. The weight in the bucket is substantial, and heavier at the top where it is wider. Your wrist takes the strain of the wavering load. Your strength, in holding up a full bucket of damp sand, is limited and time is short. You know exactly what has to happen.
Like a Russian weightlifter, he raises the bucket quickly to shoulder height in his left hand, whilst kneeling beside the ground works, enough to the right of them that when he slams down his hand, it will arrive on target, like the lunar landing, but with a speed which would bring the lunar module to a crashing end. He creates the perfect upward curve that inertia will allow the sand to remain in the backet through the top of the arc and into the downswing. The bucket lands perfectly in place. The angle is good – the ground works have held up and that awful tilt, like the leaning tower of Pisa, which sometimes undermines the architectural integrity of the castle, is not evident. He looks with satisfaction at the inverted orange bucket, in the context of the castle walls and moat. Now he taps the bottom of the bucket, to loosen the sand mass from the bucket wall, but only enough, not too much. He has learned to judder the bucket to release the sand, in the way his mother shakes the pot-bound geraniums to release their root ball from the plastic flowerpot. He is conscious that any wrong move will crack the tower, or worse, will cause the battlements to detach and remain in the bottom of the bucket. Repairing castle walls is a separate art involving wetter sand, which can be sculpted to repair such damage. Often the pristine new-build has to morph into the battle-worn without looking less than intentional.
He carefully tries to lift the bucket by its slender rim, and feels for the releasing suction of the damp sand from the plastic. It’s a clean separation. Years later, he will feel the same joy when the pot comes free of the plaster mould.
The bucket is discarded, an empty husk, a distraction from the tower it gave birth to. The tower is perfect in this moment, but only for as long as the sun doesn’t dry out the sand too much. And the tide is rising, and the run-off from the moat has yet to be dug, or the next but three waves will overwhelm it and soak into the castle’s foundations. There are arrow slits to be cut, and doors to create. The paper flags on cocktail sticks are waiting patiently in their cellophane packet on the chequered beach rug, a treat from the seaside shop. They were chosen over the day’s ice cream. They are notoriously delicate, as the paper is glued to the skewer without care, and they only survive until they become wet. The designs are the usual Union Jack and Red Dragon, ready for the tops of each tower. He wanted a skull and cross-bones, but there are none. The manufacturers don’t understand nine-year-old boys.
This castle has five towers, arranged in a pentagon held together by carefully carved walls which, like the Great Wall of China, were built with the bodies of slaves. The have a pleasingly offbeat pentamerous symmetry, when all the other castles have four or six towers and dull oblong forms. The central mound of the castle, traditionally a tall cone formed from the groundworks of the moat, has been patted and decorated with a shell walkway, and is topped off with a perfect bucket-cast tower for its keep.
But before the flags can be brought, before all the doors and the arrow slits are cut, a red setter runs through the castle, stops to piss on the wall and the whole sorry mess is abandoned to that third wave which inundates the moat and takes with it the west wing. What had been sharp and crisp and man-made, became organic, flowing, lozenge-sucked. The castle lost was beautiful still. It’s ruin the memory of battles fought and knights buried.
His arm is coated in a fine crust of sand crystals, and his hands, reddened from shoveling and patting with the old spade, are sticky with damp sand. The sea is turquoise blue and the surf is frothing white. He must discover where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus has sheltered from the giant squid.


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