Shift­ing Sands

New friends are found in un­likely cir­cum­stances in this at­mo­spheric short story by Re­becca Holmes.

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

IT was sup­posed to have been a per­fect day out at the beach. Lorna had taken time off work dur­ing the last week of the school hol­i­days, and she and her son Matt had driven along in the Devon sun­shine, rev­el­ling in the free­dom as they left the out­skirts of Ply­mouth be­hind them.

They headed down coun­try lanes, edged with pic­turesque cot­tages, to the field that served as a car park for the hid­den cove, where her lit­tle car bumped along, find­ing the ter­rain a chal­lenge – a lit­tle as she was find­ing life at the mo­ment.

Then the sun in the wing mir­ror blinded her as she re­versed into a space.

She braked, but not quickly enough.

Matt cringed.

“Mum! You’ve hit some­thing!”

Lorna groaned and got out to in­spect the dam­age. Her car had a dent in the bumper.

“Never mind. It’ll sur­vive.” The other car sported a sim­i­lar in­jury, only this model was the sort where even a blem­ish was an in­sult. Al­though not new, it was in pris­tine con­di­tion and doubt­less purred along mo­tor­ways.

The owner wouldn’t be purring when they saw what she’d done.

She rum­maged in her bag for some paper and a pen to write down her phone num­ber.

“You could just drive away,” Matt said. “No-one has no­ticed.”


“It’s true. How do you know the owner won’t claim you did more dam­age and try to get more money out of you?”

Her son had changed so much over the past year. He was no longer the quiet boy he’d been at pri­mary school.

Jonathan, her ex­hus­band, had al­ways said sec­ondary school would toughen him up.

“About time, too,” he’d added. “It’s no good be­ing a dreamer, like you. It’s a harsh world out there.”

In fact, for the fleetest of sec­onds, Lorna had been tempted to drive away, but that would have been dis­hon­est, as well as a ter­ri­ble ex­am­ple to set.

She had had some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pen to her in the past, at a time when she’d felt dented emo­tion­ally after the split from Jonathan, so knew what it was like to be the vic­tim.

That driver hadn’t left any de­tails, and al­though the dam­age had been mi­nor, it had added to her lack of faith in hu­man na­ture at the time.

“I was brought up to be­lieve that hon­esty is the best pol­icy. I was also taught that it’s bet­ter to be safe than sorry.”

She took some pho­to­graphs of the dam­age with her phone and slipped a piece of paper with her num­ber un­der one of the wind­screen wipers.

“Now, let’s en­joy our day.” The path to the beach led through some woods, where sun­light fil­tered green and other-worldly through the leaves, be­fore the trees gave way as if by magic to a sandy cove.

As a girl, Lorna used to think she heard the trees whis­per­ing and the sea car­ry­ing on the con­ver­sa­tion. She never knew what they were say­ing, but was sure they must have a lot to tell.

The two of them emerged to find the beach busy but not over­crowded. Lorna glanced around, won­der­ing which of their neigh­bours owned the car.

Sun-wor­ship­pers basked on the warm sand. A man was build­ing an in­tri­cate sand­cas­tle for his daugh­ter, about Matt’s age, who looked too old for such en­ter­tain­ment but seemed to be hu­mour­ing him.

A young cou­ple had made a heart shape from shells. Teenagers screeched as they chased each other with seaweed.

The rest of the day passed con­tent­edly, chat­ting, eat­ing their sand­wiches and swim­ming. Lorna tried not to think about the car and its owner’s likely re­ac­tion.

When the sun, lower in the sky, cast a mel­low glow on the water, peo­ple started to drift away. After a while, Lorna and Matt, too, walked through the woods, al­ready cloaked in evening hush.

The trip was off to a bad start. Would the rest of the day make up for it?

They got back to the field to find the other car’s owner, piece of paper in hand, check­ing the dam­age.

Lorna recog­nised the sand­cas­tle-build­ing man and his daugh­ter. He’d seemed nice enough on the beach.

Now, though, his jaw was set.

She took a deep breath. “I see you’ve found my note.”

The man looked at her and raised one eye­brow.

“I’m im­pressed by your hon­esty, if not your park­ing.”

“Sorry. Hope­fully the dam­age isn’t too bad.”

“It’s some­thing I could have done with­out, but should be re­pairable with­out too much ex­pense.

“I know some­one re­li­able who can do the work very rea­son­ably, prob­a­bly for less than your in­sur­ance ex­cess, sav­ing us both a lot of has­sle in the process.

“I can get him to look at it on my way home and phone you later, if that suits you? Then we can take it from there.”

Lorna’s heart thud­ded a lit­tle less loudly. Maybe hon­esty was in­deed the best pol­icy.

“Thank you. That would be very help­ful.”

When he smiled, the thud­ding changed to a flut­ter. Re­lief was a won­der­ful thing.

“Good. Now, if you don’t mind, per­haps I should drive off first. Best to avoid any more bumps, eh?”

“Dad!” The girl glared at her fa­ther. “That is so sex­ist.”

“Sorry. You de­cide,” he told Lorna, look­ing re­signed.

“That’s fine. You go first.” “I still bet he claims lots of money,” Matt said once they’d gone.

“Matt, not ev­ery­one’s out to cheat other peo­ple. And I have pho­tos, re­mem­ber.”

She couldn’t help feel­ing sad­dened at his at­ti­tude. Surely twelve was too young to be so sus­pi­cious? If any­one had cause to be sus­pi­cious of peo­ple – and life – it was her.

She and Jonathan had made the mis­take of mar­ry­ing too young, be­fore they knew them­selves prop­erly, never mind each other. He was ul­tra­ra­tional, while she was more of a dreamer.

Still, they had man­aged, or so Lorna had thought, un­til Jonathan an­nounced they should part. Look­ing back, he had been right, but it had felt like hav­ing the rug pulled from un­der her feet at the time.

At least Matt had seemed to take the split in his stride, fac­ing the world and mak­ing her proud, even set­tling in quickly after mov­ing up to sec­ondary school.

Now she won­dered whether he had been af­fected more than she had re­alised.

Thank­fully, the car owner, true to his word, phoned that evening.

“I’ve seen the me­chanic.” The fig­ure he quoted was a pleas­ant sur­prise, even though it meant the rest of the month might be a strug­gle.

They ar­ranged to meet in a café in the city cen­tre the next day at lunchtime, when Lorna would be back at work and Matt busy with foot­ball again.

She was al­ready sit­ting with a cof­fee, watch­ing rain run down the win­dow, when he ar­rived.

He nod­ded across the room and queued for a drink be­fore join­ing her.

“It’s good to get out of the of­fice and have a proper lunch break for a change,” he said. “You’ve done me a favour in that re­gard.”

She paid the agreed amount and in re­turn was handed a let­ter con­firm­ing the mat­ter wouldn’t be pur­sued.

“I know it seems a bit for­mal, but it does no harm. On a pos­i­tive note, it showed my daugh­ter that these sit­u­a­tions can be dealt with civilly. They seem to think ev­ery­thing’s a drama at that age.”

Lorna nod­ded.

“My son’s the same. He even texted my ex­hus­band, who treated me to a mini-lec­ture about be­ing too trust­ing.”

“In that case, it’s even nicer to know that there are peo­ple like us around. I’m Alas­tair.”


They shook hands. Alas­tair’s hand­shake was warm and firm.

“It must be a chal­lenge, bring­ing up a young man on your own, if you don’t mind my say­ing.”

“It is,” Lorna ad­mit­ted. “I ex­pect cop­ing with a daugh­ter can’t be easy, ei­ther.”

“True. She stays with her mother most of the time. She’s grow­ing up so quickly, though. I feel I’m way be­hind and an em­bar­rass­ment to her.

“In ret­ro­spect, per­haps build­ing sand­cas­tles yes­ter­day wasn’t the most en­ter­tain­ing ac­tiv­ity. She was more in­ter­ested in get­ting a tan. Mind you, I en­joyed my­self. I hadn’t built a de­cent sand­cas­tle in years.”

He drank some of his cof­fee.

“I saw you with your son. You seemed com­fort­able in each other’s com­pany. I was a lit­tle en­vi­ous.”

Lorna al­most choked. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew the de­tails.”

The con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed felt like the deep­est heart to heart she had had for a long time.

Like her, Alas­tair was di­vorced. Long hours work­ing as an ar­chi­tect had taken their toll on fam­ily life.

“Be­fore I re­alised, it was too late. My ex-wife has a good job, too, and we lost each other along the way. She’s al­ways been a high achiever.” He looked thought­ful. “She seems to ex­pect the same from Christie, com­plete with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pres­sure.

“That’s why I try to make our time to­gether as much fun as pos­si­ble. Sadly, I seem to be fail­ing mis­er­ably.”

“I think we all feel like that some­times,” Lorna as­sured him.

She found her­self telling him about her back­ground.

“All the more credit to you for be­ing so hon­est, then,” Alis­tair said when she’d fin­ished. “Which re­minds me, your car didn’t es­cape un­scathed.”

“It was only a small dent. She’s get­ting tem­per­a­men­tal any­way. This warn­ing light keeps com­ing up on the dash­board, and my lo­cal garage can’t find the cause.”

“You should see my me­chanic friend, Josh. If you tell him you’ve met me he’ll do any work needed

Lorna was wary of any more com­pli­ca­tions in her life

for a very rea­son­able price. It’s bet­ter to check than leave it and risk some­thing se­ri­ous go­ing wrong.”

He took two busi­ness cards out of his wal­let.

“That’s his card. The other one is mine, if you fancy a cof­fee and chat some time. No pres­sure, and no need to read more into it.”

She took both cards. “Thank you. You have my num­ber if you want to talk.”

He nod­ded be­fore glanc­ing at his watch.

“I’d bet­ter get back. Build­ings don’t de­sign them­selves, you know.”

The meet­ing had gone well and, if she were hon­est, Lorna found Alas­tair more than a lit­tle at­trac­tive, but she didn’t want to in­trude, and not only be­cause she’d al­ways been on the shy side.

Part of her wanted to see him again, but she was wary of more com­pli­ca­tions in her life, and sensed that he might feel the same, though that didn’t keep him out of her thoughts.

With the warn­ing light on al­most per­ma­nently, and the car jud­der­ing alarm­ingly a cou­ple of times over the next few days, she fol­lowed his ad­vice and con­tacted the me­chanic.

The fol­low­ing Satur­day morn­ing saw her at a place that re­sem­bled a barn more than a

garage, by a farm down a track. She was greeted by a very bouncy Al­sa­tian.

“Don’t mind Ralph, he’s soft as but­ter,” a friend­ly­look­ing man, pre­sum­ably Josh, called out, wip­ing his hands on a rag.

“Al told me you might be in touch,” he said after they’d in­tro­duced them­selves.

He looked about the same age as Alas­tair, but with a rounder face and cropped hair.

Per­haps be­cause of Alas­tair’s rec­om­men­da­tion, Lorna liked him straight away, even though his hand­shake left her flex­ing her fingers.

“Did you man­age to fix the dent in his car?” she couldn’t help ask­ing.

“Oh, yes. We get plenty of those. Car-park bumps are hardly rare. I wouldn’t feel bad about it. Now, you men­tioned some­thing about a warn­ing light?”

“I don’t know if it’s any­thing to worry about.”

“Bet­ter safe than sorry. We’ve got a cou­ple of chairs in the of­fice, if you want to wait there. Our cof­fee’s only in­stant, but it’s bet­ter than noth­ing, and the milk’s in date.”

Lorna spent the next half hour flick­ing through mo­tor­ing mag­a­zines, with Ralph doz­ing at her feet, bird­song out­side and a ra­dio play­ing in the main work­shop, be­fore Josh came back.

“All sorted, in­clud­ing the warn­ing light. It only took me five min­utes to fix.

“It could have caused prob­lems if you’d left it longer, but I think you’ll find your car runs bet­ter than it has for a fair time, while the dent’s barely no­tice­able now.”

“Thank you so much. Alas­tair wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing when he said you were a ge­nius.”

Josh laughed.

“He said that? He must have been in a good mood. What did you do, bake him a cake?”

“We had a cup of cof­fee when I paid him for the dam­age.”

“Well, some­thing must have done him good, and about time, too. I thought he seemed brighter.”

He nod­ded slowly, as if to him­self.

“We were best friends at school, you know. He was the brainy one, while I liked mess­ing about with en­gines.

“Any­way, I’ll tot up the bill and then shut up shop. I promised my wife and kids I’d take them for a pizza, and it’s more than my life’s worth to make them wait.”

Again, Lorna was pleas­antly sur­prised at the amount.

“That’s a load off my mind. When you next see Alas­tair, can you thank him for me, for pass­ing me on?”

“Aren’t you see­ing him again?”

“Noth­ing’s ar­ranged.” Josh rolled his eyes. “That’s so typ­i­cal. No won­der he can’t move on.” He seemed to be about to say some­thing else, then shrugged.

“You never know, you might bump into each other. En­joy your day.”


The car ran per­fectly. Lorna put Josh’s num­ber into her phone for fu­ture ref­er­ence.

As she trans­ferred his busi­ness card to the drawer in the kitchen dresser where she kept use­ful items, she no­ticed Alas­tair’s card in her purse and re­mem­bered what Josh had said.

Was there a hint that he had had a dif­fi­cult time? She could iden­tify with that.

She looked at the card. It had an at­trac­tive but un­fussy font, a lit­tle like Alas­tair him­self.

What caught her at­ten­tion was the logo con­sist­ing of a few lines that man­aged to sug­gest a quirky but not out­landish de­sign of a house, and some wispy curves that rep­re­sented trees nearby.

There seemed to be al­most more de­tail in what hadn’t been drawn than what had.

“In case you need it,” he had said when he’d handed it to her.

At the time, she’d as­sumed he had meant prob­lems with Josh or the car. Nei­ther of those seemed likely now, nor that she would need to con­tact him in his pro­fes­sional ca­pac­ity, how­ever much she might love some­one to de­sign a se­cret house in the woods for her.

Maybe, as with the card, there had been more in what he hadn’t said than what he had.

He’d men­tioned cof­fee and a chat, but she hadn’t pur­sued it.

He hadn’t phoned her, ei­ther; prob­a­bly for the same rea­sons that had held her back.

The card had both of­fice and mo­bile num­bers. She en­tered the sec­ond into her con­tacts list.

Her thumb hov­ered over the screen. She could al­ways ring and let him know all had gone well with the car.

“What are you do­ing, Mum?”

Matt’s voice made her jump.

“Just adding Josh and Alas­tair to the phone book in my mo­bile. Have you fin­ished your home­work?” she added, chang­ing the sub­ject.

She was alarmed when her son heaved a deep, heart-felt sigh.

“What’s the mat­ter? Is ev­ery­thing all right at school? You seem dif­fer­ent since you started there.” Matt rolled his eyes.

“I’m not a kid any more, Mum. School’s OK. But the work’s re­ally hard. I don’t think I’ll get good marks.” He hes­i­tated.

“Do you think Dad will be cross if I don’t want to be a sci­en­tist like him?”

Lorna re­mem­bered Alas­tair’s con­cerns about his daugh­ter feel­ing un­der pres­sure. It seemed she wasn’t alone.

“Oh, I think he’ll live. We both just want you to do your best. All par­ents want that for their chil­dren, but we also want you to be happy. Al­ways re­mem­ber that.”

If Jonathan said any dif­fer­ent, which she doubted, he would have her to an­swer to.

“Thanks, Mum. I want you to be happy, too. I’m sorry what I said about Alas­tair. There are nice peo­ple, and he’s one of them.”


An edge to the air hinted at the ap­proach of au­tumn as Lorna sat on the beach for what might be the last time that year.

“I love this spot,” she told Alas­tair as they watched Matt and Christie splash each other in the sea, en­joy­ing them­selves. “Not just the beach, but the walk through the woods as well.”

Some­how she wasn’t sur­prised when Alas­tair nod­ded in agree­ment.

“When I was a boy, I was sure there were wolves in those woods. I dreamed that one day I’d tame them. I de­cided they must be fright­ened of peo­ple and only come out at night.

“I even tried to per­suade my par­ents to let me stay on after dark so I could see them, and promised that I’d walk home the fif­teen miles home in the morn­ing.”

“Did you suc­ceed?” Lorna asked when she’d stopped laugh­ing.

“What do you think?” “I think we should ex­plore the woods. If we re­ally look, who knows what we might find?”

They held each other’s gaze.

Alas­tair spoke first.

“Why did you call? I’m glad you did, but what made you? Was it just to thank me for putting you on to Josh the magic me­chanic?”

Lorna told him about the de­sign on his card, how the house re­minded her of the se­cret place in the woods she’d al­ways dreamed of, and how there seemed to be more to it than met the eye.

Alas­tair grinned.

“Fancy build­ing a sand­cas­tle in the style of a lit­tle cot­tage? You can ap­prove the de­sign, if you like.”

Lorna grinned back.

“That sounds per­fect,” she replied.

From the way the trees whis­pered and the sea mur­mured back, she could tell they un­der­stood, too, and agreed with ev­ery word.

The End.

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