Line in the Sand by Helen Chambers

Foam spatters Great Uncle Ben’s folded-up trouser hems as he splashes towards us through the shallow wavelets. Shell grains glitter his marbled feet. The receding tide washes over his footprints with salt water and he lopes close enough to shout to my Grandpa Joe, who is busy sculpting a turret on his own sandcastle.

Ben frowns and jabs his finger at me. ‘That’s cheating Joe, letting your lass help. Against competition rules.’

Grandpa Joe straightens with difficulty, leans into the wrinkled hands he’s pushed into the small of his back and stares back at Ben. Joe and Ben are identical as the kelp strands draped over the wooden groyne: piercing blue eyes, wisps of flyaway hair, cotton trousers the colour of pebbles. Joe looks at me, then back at Ben. ‘Didn’t hear you complain last year when your lad came up, helped you then.’

‘He were there for moral support,’ says Ben, face furrowing. ‘He didn’t do owt.’

Grandpa Joe winks at me, growls in a voice like backwash on shingle. ‘Not cheating. She’s not buildin’ owt, eh chick? Just fetchin’ water and shells; helping out cos of me back.’

Ben’s eyes wash over me, mouth twisting like his rope bucket handle.

The sky deepens, the waves pound and a seagull screeches. The silence between them stretches beyond the horizon. I promised the family I’d drive up here to prevent a fight.

‘I could bring you shells and water, too, Uncle Ben,’ I say. I’m eight years old again, summer holidays here with the cousins.

Ben’s smile is broad as the beach. He dips his bucket in the sea, scurries across the sand back to his own creation.

‘Aye lass, mind you save the best shells for your Grandpa,’ Joe says, once Ben is out of earshot.

‘Of course, Grandpa Joe.’

When I carry a selection of shells over to Ben, I wonder how the judge will be able to choose between their two identical castles.

Helen is a writer from North East Essex, UK. She won the Fish Short Story in 2018 and was nominated for Best Microfictions in 2019 and a Pushcart Prize in 2021. She writes flash and short stories and you can read some of her publications at: