This very short chapter, called ‘American Sand’, which is narrated by Justine, will eventually be tucked into the chapters dealing with Justine’s marriage with Anthony Winterbourne. If you go to the gallery and look closely at the illustration Christine Kilfoil did of Justine kneeling by a young Sidney’s bed, you’ll see a jar filled with sand on Sid’s night table. This little chapter tells you where that jar of sand came from.
One of the best presents ever given me for Sidney was from Anthony’s father John Winterbourne. From the heart and with a tear in the eye, he called me into a quiet corner when nobody was listening and handed me an object wrapped in linen.
“What’s this, John?” I asked, surprised.
“Unwrap it,” he said. “Be careful, mind. Don’t break it.”
Doing as bid, I saw that it was a jar filled with sand.
“And –?” I gave the jar a gentle shake.
“It’s for Sid’s nightstand,” John explained.
“But it’s just sand.”
“Ah, lass – not just any sand though,” John said. “It’s American sand.”
“I brought it back from my last journey. I collected it when I was stationed there. As a memory I suppose. But I’d like for you to keep it for that little lad of ours – a symbol for his future journeys perhaps. For if he’s anything like his grandpapa, he’ll be hankering to cross the ocean before too long. And mark my words, lass, you’ll turn around twice, and he’ll be standing on the threshold with his suitcase, bidding you a fond farewell. That’s how fast it goes. Rocked in your arms today – and rocked by the waves come tomorrow. Just looking at him, he was born with the wayfarer in him. He’s destined to cross the horizon, that one, so I reckoned I better get him acquainted with the other side early. Therefore –” He cocked his head toward the jar in my grip. “American sand. Beautiful proof there’s a world beyond this one.”
“That’s hard for me to imagine, John.”
“It’s hard for many to imagine,” he said wistfully. “For most, overseas is a dreamland. But I want our little lad to know that elsewhere is real. And with this souvenir here, he can actually touch it whilst he’s right here in England. Only with your supervision, mind you. He can’t go breaking the glass now; that’d be dangerous for his little fingers.”
“I adore the way you think, John,” I returned, wrapping the jar back up, making sure to hold onto it tightly. “I believe we’re alike in that way.”
“I reckon so too, lass,” he said with a grin. “Which is why I’m giving it to you.”
“Well, thank you.”
“One more thing, lass,” John said, leaning forward and lowering his voice to a whisper. “I’d very much appreciate it if you didn’t mention to either Anthony or to Sarah that I’m the one who’s given you.”
“But why?” I whispered back, raising an eyebrow.
“Because neither one of them knows I’ve ever had it.”
“Is it a secret then?”
“Let’s just say it’s from a time in my life that neither one of them would understand and, if they knew I’d brought it back, they’d start asking questions of all sorts and I’d be floundering to give them answers and once they saw me floundering, they’d start harbouring all kinds of suspicions. So, it’s best we keep this just between you and me.”
“And what am I supposed to say when Anthony asks?”
“If ever there were a storyteller, it’d be you, lass –”
“Whatever gives you that idea, John?”
“I recognise myself in you, lass. God knows I haven’t told stories since my Annie died, but once upon a time, I could spin a good yarn or two, keep my mates entertained at sea. My Sarah and our Anthony, bless ‘em, are as good as they come, but they’re surface folk, have never known how to read the deep. But I see you, lass. Out of the corner of my eye, I see you – the way you set sail in your own eyes – the way you see things others would say aren’t there. So, I trust you’ll come up with a believable explanation for this little jar of mine – well of Sidney now.”
I fell silent then.
My love for John, soft and platonic, ran deep.
At that time in my life, I believed he was the only one who saw me – not me as his daughter-in-law, the mother of Sidney – but me, Justine. That was a miracle – that someone who hadn’t known me for long could see into the deepest reaches of my soul and get that far under my skin. And I as stood there nursing his jar of American sand, I saw him as the father who, for years, I hadn’t had, not in body anyway. Our conversation ended with an exchange of smiles and a wink, and, once I got back to Foxglove, I set the jar beside the lantern on Sid’s nightstand. Whenever he asked me about it, I always told him that it was a jar of special sand from my childhood home of the Borough Flats. It was only after Anthony died that I told him the truth, that the sand hailed from across the ocean and that it had come from Grandpapa John in Portsmouth. However, whenever Sid asked me why John had insisted the origin of the sand were to be kept a secret, I never had an answer.
It doesn’t take much to guess what happened down the line.
When George and I buried Sidney, I poured that American sand deep into England. And as it sifted over Sidney’s sheet and took the beating of the British rain, from somewhere in my empty eyes, I thought that while Sid had never made it to America, a little bit of America had been beside him all along.