Before I wrote my first book of poems in 1998, All I Need and Other Poems for Kids, and my first novel in 2000, The Twisting Road Tea Room, I wrote a number of short stories which were published in a couple of Canadian magazines, one of them being Storyteller. I thought I’d share my first-ever published story right here online, in three instalments. The story is called Sand Dancing. Here is the first instalment…stay tuned for the rest and feel free to share!
by Deb Loughead
My mother was always dancing. Music, any sort of music, made her body move. Soft, romantic melodies, and she would sway and swivel gracefully as she stirred porridge at the stove or did her ironing. A big band’s brassy swing, and she would jive with an invisible partner.
It was the sixties, though, and while our older sister Sonja was hooked on the clean-cut image of the Beach Boys and their sun-and-fun fantasies, our mother grooved to the bad-boy beat of the Rolling Stones. Whenever one of their songs came on the radio, Mother turned it up full blast. The three of us children would watch in a sort of stunned fascination as she shrugged and shimmied around the room.
Father was a classical music buff. Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi– sonatas and symphonies soothed his soul. He always claimed that bird song was the classical music of nature, but our Mother’s rock music he compared to the savage fury of a tornado. “It doesn’t last long and you count your blessings when it’s over,” he liked to say. “Then you try to assess the damage.”
If he ever happened to wander into the kitchen when Mother was in one of her Rolling Stone stupors, he would pause for an instant, watch her with a look of disgusted dismay, then turn off the radio and ask: “Haven’t you got anything better to do, June?”
It was Father’s idea to motor east across three provinces and spend a summer at the sea. “It will rejuvenate us,” he said. “Think of the sea birds careering over the foamy waves, the shore birds scurrying along the beach on their delicate legs.” “Think of the work,” Mother said, “and think of the hours we’ll have to spend in the car.” “We won’t know anyone there,” said Sonja. “It’ll be a bore, and Peter and Laura will drive me insane.” But my younger brother Peter and I were eager for any adventure that would spare us the tedium of those dragging days of summer in the city.
I think the thing I remember the most about our drive to the east coast that summer was my parents’ bickering over the music on the car radio. It was tinny to begin with, and barely audible even in the front seat. But Mother was constantly spinning the dial, searching for a rock station. And despite the constant crackling and poor resonance, she would sing and sway to the throbbing beat as we sped along the endless miles of highway. Mother would turn it up, Father would turn it down. She would turn it on, he would turn it off, mile after mile.
As we neared our destination, Father would often skid to a halt on the dizzying edge of some cliff-side stretch of coastal highway. He’d leap from the car, fling open our doors and point out a pair of cormorants preening themselves on a sun-drenched rock in the bay. He would stand staring in rapture, then read aloud to us the description and habits of the bird from his tattered field guide. While he was distracted, Mother would quickly find her station once more, and the battle would begin again in earnest as soon as he climbed back into the car.
Finally Father gave Mother the daunting task of following the road map. He instructed her to trace the path of the thin grey lines, a cobweb of weaving country roads that would lead us to the coastal town where he’d rented our summer cottage. He smiled proudly and patted her knee each time she peered over the rattling map and said: “Right turn at the next intersection, William,” or “straight ahead through these lights.” Everything was fine, until he realized we had passed the same gas station three times and were driving in circles. Then he yanked the map from her hands, studied it for a moment as he drove, and set us quickly on the right course. Mother just stared out the window, twirling a tendril of chestnut hair and humming to herself, ignoring Father’s barrage of impatient remarks for the rest of the journey.
Our clapboard three-bedroom cottage on the beach was grey and weathered, and smelled perpetually of mildew. My brother Peter and I loved it at once, and the windswept days of freedom that it represented. Sonja sulked at first, but soon she grew fascinated with the canvas of the wavering seascape. She would lie on the warm sand for hours, mesmerized by the rhythm of the sweeping waves.
Mostly I remember the sand…sand everywhere. Sand in our sneakers and crunching underfoot on the kitchen floor. Sand in the scallop chowder at supper, and clinging to our scalps. Sand between the sheets at night. It was a nuisance only the first week, but once the sand had become permanent, once it had settled in our hair, crept between the cracks in the kitchen floor, and left a constant gritty coating in the bathtub, we didn’t even notice it anymore. It was as much a part of our lives at the sea as the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tide, and the stiff breeze that snapped the clothes on Mother’s line, and sent the sailboats scudding past our beach-front cottage.
Father spent that holiday satisfying his bird watching obsession. Freed from the burdens of teaching university English courses, he prowled the wharves and the beaches day after day, equipped with binoculars, field guide and notepad. He was constantly in search of some elusive species that might have travelled off course, or strayed from its habitual breeding ground. Only rainy weather and the ghostly grey sea fogs that crept ashore unexpectedly, would drive our father indoors. Late each afternoon he would come tramping into the kitchen, hot and discouraged, slam the screen door behind him and heave a great sigh.
“I can’t understand it,” he would say to no one in particular. “Day after day, the same blasted species. If only I could see something new!”
Then he would sink into a lounge chair in the screened porch, light up his pipe and bury his face in one of the countless ornithology books that were always stacked up around him. Every few minutes he would scan the seascape with his binoculars for fear of missing out on the opportunity of spotting a coveted specimen that he could add to his lifetime list. Then he would turn his face back to his books. Only the top of his head was visible then, a balding dome with a book in front of it, and pipe smoke in a wreath above his head.
For Mother, life by the sea was really not much different from being at home. Her hands were as red and raw as they were the rest of the year, steeping in dishwater three times a day, scrubbing laundry in the tubs, or sweeping the stubborn sand from every room. But she never complained about any of the work, disguising her discontent with her coral lipstick smile. She even made a game of her sweeping, and danced gracefully with her broom as if it were an actual human partner. We called it sand dancing.
Mother wore pedal pushers and pop tops around the cottage to keep cool, so that her taut, slender midriff, and her tanned, muscular calves were always exposed. On days when it was really hot, she would put on her short shorts that crept high on her thighs and threatened to expose the bottoms of her buttocks whenever she bent over. Those shorts (as we always referred to them) made our father scowl and shake his head in embarrassment, and sometimes he would grumble “Whatever happened to dresses?”
Mother had a radio in the kitchen, since that was where she spent most of her time. My brother and I had a perpetual game of Monopoly set up on a card table in the corner that we returned to whenever we began to feel bored, or had had too much sun. Sonja spent most of that vacation baking in the sunshine, and staring at the sea. In fact, I think we saw more of the soles of her feet than anything else that summer.
Camping out in the kitchen playing games and keeping Mother company meant that we were there from the very beginning when that thing happened shortly after our arrival. We were sitting right there watching when it all started. And Mother was wearing those shorts.