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Realistic Fiction

Pint of Sand

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It was the day after my ninth birthday. Being at the end of May the weather was decent, and my dad suggested a walk to the beach to take the frisbee I got as one of my presents. On the way there he asked me, noting it was a good six months off, what I thought I might like for Christmas. It was easy to answer as I knew I wanted a Raleigh Chopper bike. I remember his genuine wince, not a pretend one, saying that might be a stretch, but we could see. ‘We could see’ meaning ‘probably not’ in our family.

We talked about other subjects on the way, which part of the beach to go to, how far apart we thought we should stand for frisbee throwing, what we might have for dinner. We went to the North Beach where the sand was softer and there was likely to be more space as the tide went out further than the South Beach. The North Beach had tall cliffs. So we walked down one of the zigzagging paths with rows of flower beds and benches dedicated to loved ones.

At the bottom of the path, there were three empty milk bottles in a row on the wall. They were clean and clear and perched where they could fall onto the beach. My dad said we should find a bin for them as it wasn’t safe because people walked their dogs there. He carried two of the bottles and I the other. I wondered how many grains of sand might fit in the bottle and asked my dad what he thought. He said he had no idea. Thousands, tens of thousands probably. That’s when he came up with the idea. If I filled my pint bottle with dry sand and counted how many and before Christmas I’d get the Raleigh Chopper. He’d make sure of it.

Before we played with the frisbee we found a good patch of soft, light brown, pebble-free sand to scoop into the bottle. When we got it up to the ridge of the rim my dad said that was enough. We’d have to carry it home and he didn’t want us to spill any. We then played frisbee for a short while. I kept the pint of sand near me whilst we played, making sure I didn’t knock it over. I suppose my dad felt my keenness to get home and start counting the grains, so he suggested heading home after half an hour. On the way home we discussed how I’d go about counting them, the kit I’d need and how to record it. By the time we got back, we’d agreed a maths exercise book with grid-lined pages, a pen or pencil, some tissues, and one of mum’s older Tupperware boxes were all that was necessary.

I took all the equipment to the front room where the dining table was. With all the pieces lined up, left to right were the bottle of sand, a tissue flattened out, then the Tupperware box. In front of those, I had a fresh exercise book. I pinched a tiny amount of sand from the bottle between my index finger and thumb, then rubbed them over the tissue as they fell onto the white, soft paper. Then I rolled them out over a small area, roughly a square inch, in the middle of the tissue, and began to count them. It took longer than I thought as some pieces turned out to be two or three grains when it had looked like only one. After this first attempt, I realised I’d picked too many to count in one go and so gently folded the tissue and carefully funnelled them back into the bottle. I started again with the smallest pinch I could manage, more a case of letting the grains stick to my skin on my fingertip than an actual pinch. I repeated the same method, but with fewer grains it was possible and within thirty minutes I’d counted forty-seven grains. I gently shook these into the Tupperware box and noted my first number in the first two squares on the first page of the exercise book.


I carried on for three hours on that day and ended up with six individual numbers entered, the smallest number from a tiny pinch being forty-three and the largest number being seventy-two. I didn’t time myself or understand that the technique could be refined on that first day. But day one of my challenge to count all the grains of sand in the bottle resulted in a grand total of three hundred and forty-five grains. In my maths exercise book, I totted up the six individual counts, put an equals sign and this number afterwards.


It didn’t occur to me whether it was possible or not to count all the grains in the bottle before Christmas on that first day. It became something I did for one, even up to four hours on some days, always at the front room dining table and with the same equipment. By the end of July, I’d filled almost two pages of the exercise book. The entry for the last day of July showed a calculated aggregate of twenty-seven thousand grains. Since the day after my birthday, the sixty-eight days of counting gave me that total. Looking at the bottle, and how little it had gone down, then seeing the grains in the Tupperware box, the tallied twenty-seven thousand didn’t even coat the base of the plastic box a single grain in depth. I knew it wasn’t going to work. I wouldn’t get the Raleigh Chopper.


I went to confront my dad about it. I remember the upset, and the stupidity I felt, for doing the counting for nine weeks and it took me that long to understand it couldn’t be done. I felt like my dad had known it all along, and it was a way to keep me quiet. To me, those grains of sand hated me and were laughing at me somehow. I obviously knew they weren’t but I was hurt by them, my dedication to counting them had been a joke. My dad calmed me down though. He admitted that he had no idea it would be so difficult. He told me he’d also managed to get some overtime, so the chance of getting the Chopper was bigger. We agreed to change the challenge so that if I got to one hundred thousand before Christmas the bike was definitely mine. Straight after our chat I went back to my exercise book, chose a page for each month from August to December and numbered the days between the next day and Christmas Eve. On the right-hand side of the page, next to the twenty-fourth of December I wrote in pencil one-hundred thousand.


On my calculator, I worked out that my count so far was a tiny bit over three-hundred and ninety-seven per day. Then, for the remaining upcoming days, I worked out I needed to up my game to a neat and exact five hundred per day leading to Christmas. I figured this meant an approximate hour extra for each day to have a chance. By mid-August something had clicked though. I seemed to find a rhythm in it. Perhaps there being less pressure, and having no need to count the whole bottle, loosened my attitude towards it. It still took me sometimes up to four hours a day and never less than two, but by the end of August my daily average was up to nearly eight hundred. By the end of October, I hit my one-hundred thousand target. I was getting the Chopper. The thing was, I’d come to enjoy the process. It relaxed me. So I kept on. By Christmas Eve, the number I’d originally written as my target I rubbed out and replaced it with what I’d reached.


I got my Chopper, an orange one, like I’d wanted. But by the time New Year came, I started counting again. I found a calm when I did it. Just for an hour a day I’d set up, go through the usual process, and lose myself in it. Sometimes I’d get goosebumps bristling over my scalp as I did it. After an hour, sometimes a little more, I simply felt good, rested, but also awake and refreshed. So, I didn’t stop. Each day through my teen years I continued. By the time I went to university, I’d filled several dozen maths exercise books. I didn’t keep any of the filled ones but just threw out the previous book when I’d copied the last number from it into the new one. I also started to pick up the pace sometimes as there was a comfort in reaching a round number alongside a milestone. Just a few days before starting university I reached my first million.


I didn’t take the bottle and Tupperware to university with me in the beginning. I was embarrassed to explain it to anyone. Dad and I would talk about it occasionally with quick questions like ‘How many today, son?’ or ‘What are you on now then?’. Mum knew about it, didn’t mind it, but definitely thought it was odd. The reason I ended up taking the bottle with me in my second semester was that I struggled with my studies. I couldn’t get into it and felt out of sorts most of the time. Even though, I’d unsurprisingly chosen Statistics as my major, I couldn’t get to grips with many of the concepts. However, when I brought the sand back with me after that Christmas, and then started counting and logging again, within weeks my grades started to improve. I didn’t do more than an hour on any day and most days less. It worked for me though, kept me on track. I didn’t tell other students about it, but by the time I graduated with a 2.1 degree with honours I was roughly a quarter into the milk bottle.


So, it’s never stopped. I got a job at an accountancy firm. Met my wife. We had two kids, both grown up now. It became a running joke in our family. Dad and his pint of sand. There were times I slacked off. Obviously, there was no counting on our wedding day. The bottle did not join us on our honeymoon. When the boys were born I let it go for a couple of months and then went back in slowly. It’s always been there though. It’s where I go to relax most and has been for years now. I’d struggle to describe my process anymore because I don’t even think about what I’m doing. The only time I stopped for any serious amount of time, was three years back, when dad passed on.


He’d been ill for a good while, so it wasn’t a total surprise. By the time he went he wasn’t compos mentis as such anyway. On occasion, he’d remember my name, but the conversation was gone by the end. As much as a year before he died, whenever I mentioned the sand he’d just stare with a quizzical look. He could speak in monosyllables, but he would just make a question out of it, ‘Sand?’ or ‘Bottle?’ as though I was speaking complete nonsense. The memory of that day on the beach had left him as well as many others over the years. For close to a year after he passed away I didn’t even open the box where I stored the bottle, latest exercise book, and mum’s old Tupperware. Then, after my sixtieth birthday, the urge to keep going came to me. We’d had a lovely family dinner, my wife, the boys, and mum, but after the cake, I made my excuses and said I fancied a quick rest upstairs. I retrieved the kit from the box and just did an hour’s worth.


It’s now two years since I restarted. It’ll be my sixty-second birthday in a few weeks. I’ve kept it regular and at a similar pace. There’s an approximately ten per cent left in the bottle. Not bad for fifty-three years’ work. I’ve used my old statistics methods to work out what the final count might be. There’s a lot of this kind of thing on the internet as well. It’s going to be around the four-and-a-half million mark. It remains a constant salve of some kind. My mind drifts to memories when I do it. It focuses them. I often see me and dad playing with the frisbee on that day, the pint of sand just by my feet. Full of millions of pieces waiting to be counted.


I think I can get it done before my seventieth quite easily. That’s a good ten years before the age my father left us, so I expect to be still around. I feel the greatest calm I’ve ever felt doing it. It’s like entering pure nothingness nowadays. My eyes aren’t as up to the job as they always were, so it takes a little longer, but I barely notice when I’m doing it. My mind drifts wherever it wants to go. It’s almost like the uncounted grains have gained more and more power to transport me somewhere. And I just follow. It’s making me mawkish in my old age. I think about finishing the job. The final count. I think about seeing my dad on the other side, not that I’m even a believer in all that. I’d just like to tell him how many grains were in the pint of sand in the end. It’d be the first thing I told him.



Paul Kimm (UK)

Paul Kimm is from a North East coastal town in England. He writes short stories about his working-class upbringing and early adulthood, and occasionally other things. He has had publications in Literally Stories, Northern Gravy, Fictive Dream, Impspired, Mono, Bristol Noir, and several others.

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