This story is by Roland Clarke and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“I’m the King of the Castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.”
The taunt rang out from the dune where Kev stood, hands on hips and feet planted in the sand. Smarty-pants acted invincible, but the ground began sliding downhill towards the sea.
Todd grabbed his chance and dived for the bully’s ankles. But his reward was sand in his face and more insults. Another defeat, but he wasn’t beaten yet.
“Take that you dirty rascal. Failed again. You’re nobody.” Kev’s voice rose into a sing-song refrain. “Todd’s a useless toe rag. Pants for brains.”
The other two attackers smirked at Todd as he lay struggling in the dune grass, his mouth full of sand. Choking the grit out, he beat his fists against the ground.
Hopeless. Or is there a way to topple Kev? I must win this.
He crawled upright, plotting revenge and watching. His treacherous friends made their two-frontal assault on the King of the dunes, but they also failed – with a stomach-wrenching difference.
Why does blasted Kev push Ginger away tamely? And she lets him. Prick likes her. She likes him.
Todd’s head ached. Was the game getting boring or had the sun hit him. His mother said he had weaknesses.
Is this one of them? Is this why Kev wins easily? My Kryptonite?
Time to slip away unnoticed. He was unwanted, the add-on to make up numbers for the stupid game. But Kev had butted in as he always did when Todd needed Ginger to notice him. She never did, so why bother.
Sighing, he took a deep breath. Wandering down the beach was best, and then they would want to call him back. But they didn’t notice. When did they ever? Bullies like Kev were the popular ones. When did anyone care? That was why his parents had dumped him at that new school for different kids. His parents never said stupid, just pretended he was ‘special.’ Why did they let someone else look after him?
He glanced away, shutting out the shrieking voices.
Just listen to the cry of the seagulls feeding offshore and smell the salty air.
The sand washed between the toes of his plastic sandals, making him giggle. The water was cooling as he stood in the surf, and his tension drifted away. He stared further out to sea.
A huge sailing ship was anchored offshore, rising and falling with the waves. Whump, whump they went against the ship. What was it? Too large for a yacht, with too many masts.
A pirate ship.
The grown-ups would tell him not to talk rubbish, but it had everything but the Jolly Roger flag – black hull, tall masts, figurehead, and ropes everywhere. He watched for the skulking crew with their fearsome weapons, but they were hiding.
Far out. I can run away and become the pirate king ruling the waves, not the stupid dunes.
The mate of the two-masted brigantine scanned the shore with his telescope and watched the children playing. He chuckled and smiled at his memories.
Oh, to be young again. No worries, just freedom to enjoy life and dream.
Their happy voices carried on the sea breeze, pushing away the kittiwake’s cries and the lapping sounds of the waves. Children’s games were such fun – and tinged with cruelty.
The lonely boy on the edge of the waves must be worried – left out of the play. Was that why he was throwing sand at the sea? No pebbles to toss? Was he with the other children? Were the adults reading in the shade, with all the children? The adults glanced around between pages, so they must be concerned.
Memories seeped over him of his childhood and holidays by the sea, playing on dunes like these. Fun days that never made sense, until later. Decades earlier before he became Thaddeus McIlroy, feared skipper of the shipping lanes. Running away to sea had been the means of childish dreams to become a reality.
My parents struggled with my sensitive health and learning disabilities. They tried to protect their only child. They loved me – but I ran away.
He was better suited to being a seaman, learning through imitation at first. Then he found that he had brains, but he loved the sea, so that was his calling.
The adventuring life took him around the world, rising through the ranks as the ships visited every port. Every single one was still vivid in his mind, and his body relaxed as each one surfaced. His eyes filled with tears and he chuckled.
An old sea dog never forgets, even if every sea and weather has battered him.
The toughened sailor turned skipper competed for every cargo needing secretive delivery, or a willingness to fight his way out of an impossible situation. Those were the days of thrills and scrapes, all stirring the blood of a young man with dreams of being the king of the seas.
Through his telescope the children playing were happy, but the boy was sad. Did he have dreams of escaping to sea? The old man felt a tug at his heart. He had dreamed, oblivious of his condition and his parent’s love. But escape was an illusion, although it had been rich with great excitement and escapades.
Why should I resent this boy? I had my fill of exciting times.
One day, Thaddeus had returned home to say farewell to his dead parents, who had ensured he had the right teachers for his special needs. Tears returned for them. His greatest regret swept his heart into his mouth. Pain gripped his stomach, and his breathing stiffened. Could their ill-timed deaths have been avoided? They had encouraged him to swim yet never learned themselves, afraid of the open water to the end. Would the ability to swim have saved them drowning in the ferry disaster?
His return home had been a visit too late as he never admitted how grateful he was for everything.
Did they ever know how much I loved them? How could they when I said nothing and never wrote.
However, one rite of passage had led to another. Virginia was at the funeral. One look at her face encased in her glorious red hair, and the old childhood infatuation returned but magnified by the love of an adult heart. The bully Kevin stopped his seduction game once the stalwart sea captain claimed her. So, Thaddeus married Virginia, fulfilling that childhood desire.
He stared at the wind-whipped red hair on the girl standing victorious on the dune. Below her, a dethroned king laughing at his defeat. The first reversal as he would never lift the prize.
The old seadog laughed at his innocence as a boy. How could he have known the truth? His parents had protected him from every conceivable pain.
Did they guess at those seeds of love?
For twenty years, marriage anchored him to the land and a job selling stores for a ship’s chandler. Good money but every transaction cost the price of smelling the sea in every word.
Virginia wasn’t meant to die. He never meant to return to the sea, and she believed him. But he talked and talked about his sailing days, and she worried herself to the grave.
Now Thaddeus sailed again, although his heart was heavy and his tears were salt-imbued. He could never recapture the past, even gazing at it unfolding again.
That boy has much learning to do, especially now the sea has captured his soul.
Todd watched as the pirate leaned over the side and gazed landwards. Did he want a cabin boy or a hostage? Would he charge ashore with his nasty men and seize Todd. He shivered at the thought, and his heart pounded. He needed to be brave if he wanted to become a pirate. But his parents were too strict to allow him to leave. He had to reach the ship without being seen making his grand escape.
He stripped off his shirt and shorts, down to his swimming trunks. Then he walked into the sea. The water was cool and welcoming, as his toes had already told him.
Then the sand was too far to reach. No longer the safe ground. Todd beat at the waves for balance, his heart beating faster and his head throbbing.
A figure towered behind him, grabbing him around the waist. Someone was dragging him from the sea, from his future.
“Thaddeus, we have to go back at once,” said his father, carrying him ashore. “You can’t swim. One day the teachers will show you how. Your mother was worried, and your friends want you to play.”
Todd collapsed on the warm sand, gulping for air. He had lost again so near to escaping to a better life.
As he took another look at his dream, the pirate ship shimmered and was gone.
One day, I will find that ship again. Nobody will stop me, and Ginny will be mine forever.