I remember a time when the mere thought of sand did not send me hurtling into the grip of a panic attack. Before I was old enough to know that brightly-coloured fences and gates did not always keep you safe. When I would meet Dale, Maisy and my older brother outside Foxton Primary so we could all go to the park together. Rob, a meatier version of my own scrawny self, was the “responsible one” who would escort us to the park and home again afterwards. Although, at the park he would leave us in the playground and drift off to join the other boys of his class to play at football or frisbee or whatever it was they did behind the army-green bike shelter. That was before the mothers and fathers of Foxton village thrust “For Sale” signs into their front lawns beneath a slate-grey sky pounding their world with chill, autumnal rain.
The first time it happened was in February.
Dale, with his shock of red hair and freckles, practically lived at our house. My mother always made a ham sandwich for him and got the posh biscuits down from the top shelf, her blue eyes edged with concern. Sometimes, she would insist he change into some of my clothes so she could wash his, claiming they were dirty from the park, but they weren’t. They had that weird, acrid sweet smell that clung to most kids from New Road, but they weren’t muddy or anything. Now, I think my mother must have felt sorry for him.
I wasn’t allowed to go to Dale’s house. Maisy wasn’t either, but that didn’t stop us the day he didn’t turn up for school. We thought he might be in the playground on the village green, but he wasn’t. His road ran adjacent to The Green, slicing through the centre of Foxton it was full these newer-built red brick council houses which looked odd because the rest of the village had traditional black and white timbered houses, like mine.
“Do you know which number he lives at?” I asked Maisy as we cut through the overgrown footpath, dodging brambles and stinging nettles.
“Three,” she said, “I heard him say it once.”
I nodded. Maisy had this amazing glossy black hair - so long she could sit on it - held back from her face with a bright red ribbon which was never out of place. Unlike me, she always knew the answers to Mr. Hardy’s questions, but never raised her hand. Our wooden desks were close enough that I could see her workbook brimming with gold stars and smiley faces. The one time she caught me looking, she blushed and moved her porcelain arm to cover her flawless marks. She smelt of pink bubble-gum and soap and definitely didn’t belong on New Road.
We found it easily enough. A wonky three hung from one nail outside a terraced crimson house with weeds poking up through cracked paving slabs. The curtains were drawn which was a relief because I didn’t want to see inside. Feeling gallant, I stepped forwards and reached up to press the grimy doorbell. We could hear a television blaring and muffled shouts as heavy footsteps approached the front door. That strange sweet smell oozed from the doorway as it swung inwards revealing a thin man in a black vest top with tattoos covering both his arms and half his neck.
“Wadda yoo want?” His bloodshot eyes narrowed on me and Maisy.
“Uh, is Dale home?” I asked.
The man folded his arms and leant against one side of the doorframe and somehow, this casual movement made me very nervous.
“Nah, little shit dun a runna, in’t he,” he said, rolling his tongue around his mouth as if speaking of Dale left a bad taste in there, “If ya see ‘im… tell ‘im he’s in fer it.”
We were already halfway down the path when the door slammed shut behind us and we rushed back to the park, hoping that no one had seen us.
“Where do you think he went?” Maisy asked as our feet found the soft grass of The Green. The sun had dipped lower during our escapade and the park was quieter. I could still see my brother playing football in the far corner of the field, but the playground was empty.
“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe my house? We probably should have checked there first, but—”
Suddenly, Maisy was sprinting towards the playground, her long black hair streaming behind her, shiny black school shoes kicking tufts of earth into my face as I followed in her wake. I couldn’t see Dale, but she obviously had.
My heart was thumping in my chest as I reached the playground. Maisy was staring at the climbing frame, her expression a mixture of confusion and worry. It was a big, wooden one with tunnels, slides, monkey bars, poles and three or four wobbly bridges connecting it all together over a large wide sand pit. On the side furthest away from the grass (where the adults mingled) was where you went to share sweets you weren’t supposed to have and to play at knuckles. One of the tunnels led to that side of the frame and to a compact space beneath one of the slides known as The Hole. Only those of us still in the grey and white checked primary school uniform could fit. We all knew it wasn’t supposed to be there because you had to squeeze through a torn hole in the wooden slats to reach it. It was cramped, all noise was deadened and the air was still and so moist that it seeped into your lungs, making you cough. The sand felt different too. I don’t know how to explain it except that it felt like it was… sleeping. Rob had dared me to go in the previous year when I was eight and him nine. Everyone got dared sooner or later, but no one ever crawled in there twice.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He went in The Hole.”
“Are you sure?”
I took one small step forwards and stopped. In my peripheral vision, I saw the willow trees swaying, but there was no wind upon my face. My chest squeezed. It was as if the air didn’t want to be breathed. Maisy coughed and staggered backwards. I couldn’t move; I could only watch. The sand around the climbing frame began to undulate, up and down like dark waves under a lightening-strewn sky. Faster and faster it went… and I know how it sounds, but the sand was boiling.
And that was the first time I heard the noise that would haunt me forever. A snake-like whisper lashing out from the ether.
A rolling wave of sand reared up and swept towards us. Maisy screamed, a bone-quaking shrill sound that snapped me out of my trance, and fled. I did too. I ran home, tripping and falling to my knees more than once. I didn’t stop until I was trembling under my bedsheets, sweat pricking the bones of my spine with the door slammed shut.
We never saw Dale again.
The only person I told was my brother whose jaw clenched under narrowed eyes, but said nothing.
The last time I saw Maisy it was not, as you might imagine, a dark day when the village was ravaged by a terrible storm, but an easy Sunday in May. Birds chirped in the willow trees which framed the playground, their fronds brushing the vibrant lush grass and numerous village cats sprawled in the shade, occasionally hunting field mice that ventured too close. An endless sky of palest blue stretched out and sunlight winked over the mis-match of tartan picnic blankets and half-eaten cheese and pickle sandwiches. Somehow, that all made it worse.
You’ll think me a befuddled old man, but I swear… something… some thing lurked in that dank space. In the midst of pounding elastic legs, squeals of delight and the watchful gaze of hovering parents, it was there, waiting for an opportunity.
From the safety of my mother’s lime green picnic blanket, I saw Maisy’s red ribbon flash and disappear beneath that slide. I knew immediately what she was doing. Ever since Dale’s disappearance, I had seen her eyeing the sand, using a stick to poke at the borders of the playground, testing it. I yanked her back a number of times, but all that earnt me was a withering look and a greenish bruise on my upper arm. Wiry and fiercely independent, she was like one of the village cats and I knew what curiosity could do to them.
She’s much braver than me and she wants to know, I thought.
The thought of losing Maisy too held my fear back enough for me to take action. I rushed over, dropped to my hands and knees in the hot sand and wriggled into the tunnel that led to the infamous dead space. I sensed it instantly, my breath caught in my throat. As I turned to my right, the moment that even now threatens to break my sanity slapped me hard. The jagged gap in the wood wasn’t there.
Quickly, I looked behind me and to the sides, out of the various vertical gaps in the wooden planks, but I was definitely in the right place. My little hand reached out to the place where the gap should have been. Sweat pooled in the nape of my neck and dangled off my nose as my fingertips touched the surface.
It was hotter than anything I’d ever encountered and that’s still true to this day. I leapt backwards, knocked my head against the roof of the tunnel and held my throbbing fingers to my mouth. My eyes did not waver… but the wood did. It bent and flexed and let out that hissing noise which stung like a whip.
The wood melted away for a second, revealing The Hole and Maisy trapped within. My stomach churned. Infinite grains of sand crawled over her like dark-yellow ants, making her pale skin shift in the damp obscurity. They trickled out of her nostrils and covered her eyes, blinding her. She lifted one hand, reaching out towards me. Her mouth was open, but sand poured inwards to fill that space and only one noise came out.
That sound stalks me. It mingles into the rush of wind on a blustery winter’s day, it lingers in the aftermath of a car passing by too fast and seeps into my dreams, forcing me to wake with a start in the dead of night, my pillows damp with feverish sweat.
I ran back to my mother and never explained, not to the police nor the search parties. I let the words fester on my pink tongue and swallowed them back down. That’s when I started having toast for breakfast because I couldn’t bear to pick up Maisy’s shadowed face and pour it over my cereal. That’s also when I started planning.
It was different from when Dale disappeared. His picture didn’t make it onto the full-fat milk cartons or splintered lamp posts of our village. I guess he wasn’t pretty enough to rouse collective outrage in the same way Maisy did. Or was it because his parents didn’t live in a black and white house? I guess I understand, but that doesn’t make it right. Dale’s parents were no less bereft through their drug-induced stupor. I don’t think either of them made it to the following year.
I wanted more than anything to run away, like I did with Dale, like I did with Maisy. But I knew I couldn’t run forever and so did the other kids. The adults didn’t understand, but we knew. It was whispered at sleepovers, in playground huddles and bike shed meetings. It was in the sidelong glances and the hiatus of dares to venture in The Hole.
And on the last day of school, we stopped running. My brother, Rob, rallied the year above and I gathered mine. We told our parents that we were going to the park to celebrate the end of the school year (as we always did). We didn’t explain why we smuggled our beach holiday spades into our school bags or why our young faces had taken on the hardened look of warriors marching into battle.
On that day, twenty-four nine and ten-year-olds descended upon the Foxton village green.
Twenty-four tiny hearts pounding. Twenty-four small hands clutching multi-coloured plastic spades. Twenty-four girls and boys who had lost two of their own to the sand.
The dormant wooden structure loomed into view. It creaked and groaned in the nascent wind. A black cat watched from the car park picket fence, its tail switching back and forth, its amber eyes flashed in the gloom.
Grey clouds blanketed the sky and thunder rolled in the distance as we reached the edge of the sand and halted.
I could feel them looking to me. I had seen it take Maisy and Dale and I had led this band of children to the monster’s lair. I had to act before the magic disappeared and fear sent us tumbling back to our mothers. No more running.
I dug my spade into the sand and carried it to the nearest bin where it fell in with a whoosh. Nothing stopped me. Everyone joined in, encouraged and eager. Spades thrashed on all sides, distributing the sand to various bins scattered around the park.
It started to rain and the rain dampened the sand, making our job easier. It wasn’t until we got closer to The Hole that our luck ran out.
The ground vibrated and a lump swelled up out of the sand, bulbous and growing. A sudden burst of grains blinded many, sending them running away to rub stinging eyes. Dropped spades were swallowed up as the bloated tide of sand rose to the height of a grown man.
The plan had failed. We were losing. I was losing.
I was so terrified that I broke my vow and turned to flee. After four or five paces, I tripped, fell flat on my face and tasted wet dirt. Pushing myself up, I looked back to see a long thin piece of metal lying in the grass by my feet with a red ribbon tied around one end, the frayed edge fluttering in the wind.
I grabbed that piece of metal, instinctively knowing what I needed to do. I strode towards the sand-creature, now the size of a small house, which let out a furious roar like the crash of ocean surf against a ragged cliffside. Lightning flashed closer, punctuated by the boom of thunder and the tremendous downpour.
Ssch-wah! Ssch-wah! SSCH-WAH!
I thrust the metal rod into the creature and backed away. Sand swarmed over my feet and pulled me to the ground, grains skittered over my skin, tickling the curve of my collarbone.
“NO! JAKE!” It was my brother’s voice, but it was far away. So far away.
A flash of white light.
They told me the storm carried on well into the night and our parents grounded us for the first few weeks of that summer, but we didn’t mind. And I never did find that piece of metal with the red ribbon tied around it and believe me, I tried.
Maisy’s mother still lives in the village. I see her waxen face haunting the streets, looking left and right, her wide eyes searching. She says she’ll never move because Maisy won’t know where to find her when she returns. The husband’s life ended with the dull clink of an empty whiskey bottle and a loaded hunting rifle. Sometimes I wonder if he too heard the noise.
No children have gone missing since that day. Most of us left as soon as we were old enough and some of us stayed, unofficially, to keep watch.
So, I beg of you, the next time you are at a playground, a playground with sand, keep your wits about you and listen very carefully to the wind.
Did you hear that?