The mist swirled in off the sea, engulfing the holiday-makers and enveloping the crowded beach in one easy, fluid movement. The sound of the nearby waves breaking on the sand reached them only as a muffled whoosh. Further off, a strangled fog-horn wailed in distress.
Despite the unpleasant dampness that hung in the air, clinging to cobwebs and deck-chairs and people alike, very few people fled the beach. Instead, damp towels were slung over even damper children’s shoulders, all manner of brightly coloured thermoses were uncorked and pipping hot tea was poured out into plastic mugs. Some sturdier folk even broke open a flask of spirits. These people were made of sterner stuff and would not be daunted by a paltry seaside fog.
The little boy was barely three, although he was skinny for his age and looked even younger. He patted the side of his sandcastle with the pink plastic shovel he’d pinched from his sister. He liked the colour and would willingly have exchanged his blue shovel for it any day. He scrambled to his feet, standing unsteady on his bony legs, as he studied the castle. Only one thing remained to complete his task, fetch water for the moat.
Picking up the plastic bucket, he glanced to see who would take him down to the water. His mother waved him away. She was busy making sandwiches with pickles and cheese, helped by his sister who looked down her nose at him as she clumsily buttered the bread. He hated pickles. He was the only one in his family who did, not that anybody cared. Father was chatting with the boy’s uncle as the two sipped from tiny glasses and laughed heartily. He knew not to disturb them when they were drinking. He looked pleadingly at them all one last time. It was odd how the mist made them seem much further away. He’d just have to go on his own, so, gripping his bucket tightly in his little fingers, he turned and trotted off, heading for the whoosh of waves.
On earlier trips to the water’s edge with his sister or his mum, they’d had to weave their way around large expanses of stretched towels on which girls and woman lounged half unclothed trying to soak up the sun between successive clouds. Now the path lay unhindered, were it not for the many deep boot prints that pock-marked the sand, making him stumble several times.
Where was the water’s edge? Surely he should have got there by now. He stopped to listen. The sound of the waves was still in front of him, so he must be heading in the right direction. He could no longer hear the plaintive cry of the fog horn out across the bay, but instead there was a strange creaking sound that came from close by. A boat, maybe. A big one.
As he set out again, cautiously now, mist swirled about him even thicker, till water droplets formed on his face, arms and legs, soaking him. He stopped and looked down at his naked body in alarm. Had he not been wearing shorts and a t-shirt? Where had they gone? He was all wet and bitterly cold. Something was terribly wrong. He turned back the way he’d come and shouted: “Mummy!” his voice sounding odd in the fog, as if it were not quite his own. “Mummy,” he shouted, louder this time, but no answer came.
He was about to scream “Mummy!” again, when out of the mist lurched a man in thigh-length leather boots, tatty leather shorts and a dirty leather waistcoat over his bare torso. The tattoo of a brightly coloured snake curved its way up his left arm, disappeared under his waistcoat and reappeared on his right arm, its head halting, all fangs out, just above his wrist. From a belt around his waist dangled a long sword and in his left hand he grasped a mighty cudgel. Seeing it all in a flash, the boy filled his lungs and screamed: “Mummy!”
“Shut yer gob, yer filthy blighter,” the man bellowed. “I’ll teach yer to give me the slip.” In one swift movement, he leaned forward and cuffed the boy behind the ear sending him sprawling to the ground, his mouth biting into the sand. It was then that the boy felt the heavy chains around his ankles.