It’s nearly dusk, but there is no sun on the horizon. There hasn’t been one for days. Just grumpy skies filled with low, grey clouds, indistinguishable from the sea that meets the end of the mudflats. Growing up inland, the first time she saw the broad expanse, she felt dizzy as if she might fall off the edge. She’d struggled to walk through the soft sands down to the muddy cockle banks. The only sand she’d seen before was in her father’s time turner. He used to let her play with it while he read engineering reports. She’d loved turning it up and down, seeing the sand shift and slide, shift and slide – watching as time ran out.
Each day at low tide, the path through the soft sand marks the passing of her days. On the way out, her boots are clean, her tray empty. On the way back, she is mud-spattered, cold, wet, carrying a full tray back to the Collector waiting on the shore. There is no room for slacking. Only a full tray will do. And her father needs the money, so a full tray is what she will collect. Though her back is sore with the constant stooping, her arms ache, with the raking of the shellfish beds. Rake, sift, rake, sift – the pattern of her days
The shift is nearly over, the day is nearly done, but her tray is not full enough. These beds have been over-harvested, there are slim pickings to be had. Her fellow workers have moved towards the edge of the mudflats, closer to the incoming tide. She can see by their increased activity they have struck lucky. She squelches towards them, every footprint filling with water the moment she raises her boots. They will have to be quick.
On the seashore, the Collector looks down at the workers crouched over the shifting sands. Sky and sea meet in a dark grey huddle, it is hard to distinguish where the water’s edge is. It is beginning to rain again. He cannot call the cockle-pickers – they will not be able to hear him. He could raise his arm, but it is unlikely they will look up from their labours. He considers his losses and turns towards his van.
On the mudflats, the workers have completed their haul. They stand up and begin the long march back to the beach. The sand shifts and slides beneath their feet. Shift, slide, shift, slide – time is running out.