“Lil, do you fancy cockling this afternoon?” asked Jack. “It’s a nice enough day for it.”
“You dirty sod. Asking me that in front of your mother,” laughed Lil.
Deirdre, Jack’s mother, was caught off guard while taking a drag on her cigarette. She burst out laughing and ended up choking. Jack’s face went bright red.
“Cockling’s not rude!”
“Oh, you saucy bugger Jack,” laughed Deirdre. “You’ve only been seeing her three months and you want to cockle her already!”
He went redder still.
“I know what it is, you silly sod. I’m just having laugh with you,” replied Lil.
“What do you know about cockling anyway, Jack? You’ve never been interested in it before,” said his mum.
“Well, Cam down the pub does it with his dad. He told me it was easy. Free shellfish, all you can eat, if you know where the good beds are. If you get enough you can sell them too. Cam knows some guys who’ll buy them, no questions asked.”
“You have to know the tides and the paths too, those sands can be treacherous.”
“I know mam, but Cam told me the right times and stuff. It’ll be fun. Fresh cockles for tea, and maybe enough to sell at the market. We could have a night out on the proceeds.”
“I don’t mind, Jack. It’ll make a change from sitting in the pub all day listening to your mates talk about football,” replied Lil.
“Right you are then, it’s settled,” replied Jack before his mother could object. “I’ve got all the stuff, so let’s head out.”
Lil borrowed Deirdre’s boots, rather than going home. Jack put his on and grabbed a three-pronged, short-handled rake and a bucket. He gave a second bucket to Lil.
“What’s that?” asked Lil, pointing at the rake.
“I borrowed it from Cam’s dad. You use it to remove the larger cockles from the sand. It leaves the little ones.”
“I didn’t know that, I thought you’d use a spade.”
“So did I, till yesterday.”
He called back into the lounge.
“See you later, mam!”
“Take care of that girl, Jack!”
The couple headed out into the spring sunshine. Lil took Jack’s hand as they walked.
It didn’t take long to get the seaside. They walked past a seafood stall advertising cockles, mussels, winkles and the like. The old man behind the counter called to them.
“And where are you two going with that tool?”
“We’re building sand castles,” replied Jack.
“That’ll be right. You best be careful; they don’t allow the public to go cockling any more. Best not be caught by any of those by-law johnnies. You’ll get a hundred pound fine for fishing without a permit. Best not be caught by any of the commercial gang-masters either; you won’t get a fine, but you will get a kicking.”
“Like I said, sand castles.”
“And I take it you know the right paths to take. The sand is dangerous out there. It never stays the same, there’s tide pools and quicksand out there.”
“I’ve got it covered mate.”
The couple headed past the stall and further along the promenade towards the harbour. They stood for a moment and looked out at the sea. The bay was wide and shallow. It was low tide, and about a mile of sand was exposed. Jack could see the sun glinting off pools of water and wet sand. In the distance the sea glittered, as the sun caught the cresting waves.
“How long have we got?”
“A few hours till high tide. We’ll have to keep an eye on the sea, when the tide turns it moves quickly.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing? That man said the sands are dangerous.”
“They can be. Like he said, there’s quicksand and fast tides, but I know what I’m doing. Cam showed me the safe paths to get to the cockle beds and I know what time to head back.”
“Weren’t there some people drowned out there a few years back.”
“They didn’t know the paths, or they didn’t check the tides. We’ll be okay.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
They walked down the stone steps to the beach. The place was empty, it was mid-week and still too early in the season for tourists. They headed out onto the wet sand, with Jack consulting the map drawn by Cam.
“Let’s head this way. We have to keep parallel to the harbour wall and then head towards the buoy. The bed is close to it, according to this map.”
He pointed into the distance. She could just see an orange shape stuck out on the sand.
Lil found the going hard. Her boots were slightly too big, and the sand was wet enough for her to sink an inch or so every step. Her heels started to rub, her socks getting soaked with sweat. The sun shone directly into their faces, causing them both to squint. Neither had thought to bring sunglasses. Lil’s forehead started to sweat, the salt water running into her eyes, causing her to squint even more. She wanted to stop, but she didn’t want to disappoint him so she kept her head down and followed Jack’s footprints.
They trudged for about half an hour. Lil glanced back at the shore and was surprised how far away it was.
“We’ve come ever so far. Aren’t we there yet?” she gasped.
“Look, there’s people up ahead, that must be where we’re headed.”
In the distance, she could just make out shapes that looked vaguely human, standing just past the buoy. The sweat in her eyes and the glare of the sun made it hard to focus.
“They have to be working the bed Cam told me to head to.”
“Okay, but I hope you’re watching the time.”
“I am, but if there’s people still out this far, then we’re safe. They have to know what they’re doing.”
“What if they’re commercial fishermen, won’t they be annoyed.”
“They’ll just be workers. If they ask, we’ll tell them we have a permit.”
They walked for another fifteen minutes or so, with Lil focusing on Jack’s back to avoid thinking about the pain in her legs and feet. She looked up for a second, staring into the distance at the figures ahead of them.
“Jack, is it my imagination or are those figures not getting any closer?”
“It’s the heat haze. It’s making everything look weird.”
“It didn’t look that far before. We’re nearly at the buoy, shouldn’t we be at the bed yet?”
“It must be further out than we thought. We’ve just got to reach those people. Shouldn’t be long.”
His voice was listless, flat. Lil realized he must be exhausted too. The day wasn’t overly warm, but the exertion of walking on wet sand and the glare of the sun was draining their strength. She wondered why he kept going, maybe he was trying to impress her, prove he was a real man. Lil, her head thumping, decided she couldn’t take anymore. She would make the call. She stopped walking.
“Jack, just stop. I can’t go on anymore, I’m exhausted.”
He looked relieved. Lil looked back at the shore. The town was a mere speck in the distance.
“Oh my god, look how far we’ve come.”
Lil could see glittering movement in the near distance.
“Is that the tide?”
She pointed. A few hundred yards away, the sunlight reflected off small waves as the sea moved back towards shore. The tide had turned. Jack checked his watch, his face suddenly pale.
“Shit! I forgot to check the time. We need to head back. Tide is starting to come in. I should have checked earlier; we’re going to have to move.”
“What about the people in front of us? Are they in danger?”
“They’ve gone!’ said Jack in a disbelieving voice.
Lil lifted her hand to shield her eyes. He was right, there were no figures in front of them anymore.
“What the hell?”
“What’s happened to them? They couldn’t have moved that quickly. They would have come this way.”
“Never mind them. We need to get going. Now.”
In the distance, the sparkling water continued to move towards shore, towards them. It was moving fast. Jack dropped the bucket and rake and headed off first, walking as fast as he could in the wet sand. Lil followed in his footsteps, her strength quickly fading.
“I need to rest.”
“You can’t, we’re not moving as fast as the tide.”
“Can’t you phone for help.”
“No reception out here.”
“Are we going to make it?”
“As long as we can get close to shore, we’ll be okay. We can shout for help.”
They kept moving, not paying attention to the route in their efforts to outrun the sea as it gradually crept up on them. Jack took a step forward and stopped. His feet, then his ankles started to sink into the wet sand. Lil could see he was stuck.
Lil stepped forward but found herself starting to sink too. Jack grabbed onto her. They continued to sink into the wet sand. Lil started to scream for help, but she could see they were too far from shore to be heard. She prayed someone would notice them.
She was aware of the sand sucking her down, Jack’s harsh breath in her ear as he fought to stop them sinking, the glare of the sun and worse than any of these, the sound of the sea as it flowed towards them. The sand continued to pull them down, until they were both buried up to their chests. The water reached them, soaking them. It started to lap around them. Lil continued to scream for help. Jack, his arms still free, frantically waved.
Four figures appeared next to them; for a brief second Lil thought they’d been saved, then she realised the figures were floating above the cresting waves. They were dim, hazy and Lil knew these were the same figures they’d tried to reach. The truth hit home. They’d been lured out onto the sands, complacent and willing to follow these deadly sirens until it was too late. The ghosts danced around them, as the water reached their necks. On the shore, Lil could just make out people as they walked along the promenade, but she knew that was another world, a world she’d never see again. It took mere seconds for the implacable sea to overcome them.
The next day, at low tide, six figures stood on the sand beyond the buoy.
RJ Meldrum is an author and academic. Born in Scotland, he moved to Ontario, Canada in 2010. He has had stories published by Sirens Call Publications, Horrified Press, Trembling with Fear, Darkhouse Books, Smoking Pen Press and James Ward Kirk Fiction. He is an Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association. Find him on Twitter HERE.