The sand jar By Brian Martin-Onraët

(Atuthors blog Equinoxio)

He lived in a small flat, in a small town, in a small rainy country, a country so small it did not even reach the sea. He had a small job, in a small insurance office.

Every day, at precisely eight in the morning, he arrived at the office. He always carried an umbrella: it could rain any day. He took his files out of the left drawer, where he’d put them the night before. In the right drawer, he stored his sandwiches for lunch. At twelve o’clock sharp, he would put his files back in the left drawer. Always the left drawer. Then he would take his sandwiches out: invariably one of ham, and another of cheese. At six, he cleaned his desk, stored his files away in the left drawer, and went back to his small apartment under the pouring rain.

He was in his late thirties, early forties maybe? He was so grey and dull, no one really knew his age. He’d always worked in the same office, in the same position, at the same desk, in the big room, with all the other employees. In all the time he’d been there, his main accomplishment had been to slowly move his desk, as people left, year after year, towards the only window in the room. Now he had the desk by the only window. Which no-one would ever think of claiming.

He’d never failed a single day at the office. His boss often praised him on the quality of his work, sighing inwards for a certain lack of initiative. But his commitment to the work and the company was beyond reproach, so the boss would take a deep breath and return to his Boss responsibilities.

He was pleasant with all the staff, courteous, decent, yet never made friends at work, he’d never gone out with other employees for a drink, or lunch. No-one knew about his life, except that he was not married. Did he have a girlfriend? Who knew? He didn’t, actually.  No friends either. He lived his life alone, quietly, ignoring people and the rest of the world. Alone, but not lonely: his own company was enough for him.

He’d never taken vacations outside his country, even outside his city. During the holidays he stay in his small flat, alone. Without even a cat, or a dog, or a hamster.

Not to say that he spent his days and nights idle. He did have a secret, a passion, which occupied all his spare time. It started when he was twelve. An uncle on his mother’s side had brought him a gift from one of his trips. He was a strange uncle: nobody in the family knew what he really did, only that he traveled a lot: Africa, Asia, Latin America… He always brought back exotic gifts for everyone. He peppered his visits with charming tales from those faraway countries.

That day, some twenty-thirty-odd years ago, the uncle arrived at Victor’s house. The name Victor, so inappropriate for such a pale, unambitious man, had been inherited from a great-great-grandfather who’d made a fortune, manufacturing and selling socks, the world-famous “Victor socks for the victorious man”.

Victor’s uncle was coming back from Tahiti. He brought a flower necklace for Victor’s mother, a ukulele for his father who’d never played any musical instrument, and for Victor, the smallest gift. A tiny jar, A small bottle. The smallest gift, yet full of magic.

This small jar was to change the child’s life. It was a small glass bottle about two inches high, with a tiny cork, full of sand. He’d bought it in Bora‑Bora, the uncle said. And he began to tell stories: the white sand lagoons, open to the sea, the palms, the canoes of the Maoris, the dolphins, the sun, the unforgiving sun, all year round… The uncle would point at the rain pouring outside. When anybody asked the uncle why he was so pale after a fortnight under the sun, he replied that he did not like sunbathing, and went on with another story. Victor listened and listened, mesmerized, holding the precious sand jar in his hand.

That night, he put the sand jar on his bedside table. And he dreamt of Tahiti, Bora‑Bora, endless beaches of white sand. The very next day, Victor started what was to be the passion of his life: collecting sand. The first sand jar always held the place of honour in his collection, even when, a few years later, the scandal broke out. Victor’s uncle had never traveled beyond the suburbs of the city. He would “disappear” for a week, two, even three, but nowhere near Africa, Asia, Tahiti. The uncle hid away with a mistress or another. Before he went home, he would stop at a bazaar and buy his “gifts from overseas”, to lend credit to his story. Now the uncle always bought “authentic” gifts from the places he was supposed to have gone to. Tahiti’s sand jar was genuine. Many, many years later, Victor would verify it.

To this day, Victor had accumulated seven thousand two hundred and thirty-seven jars of sand. They occupied all the walls of his small flat, each jar bearing its own label: country, beach, date. No one could ever dust the jars, least of all, the lady who came twice a week to clean Victor’s small apartment.  The cleaning lady was in fact the only person ever to come inside.  Any suspicious movement of a single sand jar was cause for immediate dismissal.  Every Saturday, Victor would clean every single of the seven thousand two hundred and thirty-seven jars, and place them back on their glass shelves.

Every night, when he came back from the office, he would go through his inventory, jotting down his next orders, consulting his reference books on the beaches of the world. No internet back then. Victor had seven thousand two hundred and thirteen beaches on his shelves. Twenty-four jars had been unfortunate doubles. There were white beaches, coral, African, Indian, Moroccan beaches, black sand beaches, volcanic, beaches so fine, that a magnifying glass was necessary to catch a glimpse of the grains. Victor was the world’s somewhat anonymous expert on beaches and sands: how the beaches had formed, the density of the various types of sand, the speed with which the sand  fell from an open hand. He had classified all his sand jars by origin: Surabaya, Borneo, Conakry, Malindi, Ipanema, Zihuatanejo, Long Island, Dunkirk, Itapoã, Manatee, Itanhaém… By weight, by color, by density, by type of sand…

He referenced his collection with what was possibly the largest bibliography in the world on beaches. To date, he had catalogued three hundred and ninety-two thousand four hundred and twenty-two beaches on the planet, not counting the Pacific islands. He had correspondents all over the world. He sent and received mail daily, buying and exchanging sand with other sand collectors he had never met.

*

On a cold and dreary February night, under a sprinkling of rain, he arrived at his small apartment, with the anticipation that always transformed him: “What’s in the mail today?” He found the package in the mailbox, wrapped in brown paper, with his name and address written in pencil. The parcel had neither stamp nor a sender’s name. He opened the door to his flat, put the package on the table in the living room. He set his umbrella to dry in the kitchen; took off his hat, gloves, scarf, coat, and jacket. Very neatly, using a Papua New Guinea knife his uncle had given him, he opened the package. Inside, wrapped in brown paper, was the largest sand jar he had ever seen, in between the size a bottle of wine and a bottle of Champagne. There was no note, or any indication of provenance inside the parcel. Through the glass, the sand looked ordinary, grainy, irregular. It could have been a mixture of several types of sand. Shaking the bottle, he could hear a faint noise.  He opened the jar. A faint heat came out, like a puff of warm mist.  He went to the kitchen to get a newspaper, opened it on the table to empty the bottle. The sand was hot, slightly damp, with an air of distant tropics. In the sand he found a tiny silver box, blackened by age. He opened the box, found a piece of paper folded in four. It looked like a flyer handed out on the street. The print was of poor quality. The flyer read:

     WANT TO TRAVEL?

            TO DISTANT HORIZONS?

     OPEN UP THE SAND JAR.

     TAKE AN OBJECT FROM THE PLACE WHERE YOU WANT TO GO

    CLOSE YOUR EYES. 

     THINK OF THAT PLACE YOU WANT TO GO.

     WHEN YOU OPEN YOUR EYES, YOU WILL BE THERE.

     TO MAKE SURE YOU CAN COME BACK, IT IS VERY EASY:

BEFORE YOU LEAVE, YOU MUST TAKE ANOTHER OBJECT FROM THE PLACE YOU WANT TO COME BACK TO.

REMEMBER: TAKE TWO OBJECTS WITH YOU. ONE WHERE YOU WANT TO GO TO, ONE WHERE YOU WANT TO COME BACK TO.

      NOW CLOSE YOUR EYES

THINK ABOUT THE PLACE YOU WANT TO GO TO.

     WHEN YOU OPEN YOUR EYES, YOU WILL BE THERE.

     The flyer followed with a warning:

      CAREFUL!!!

      YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO COME BACK IF THE JAR IS CLOSED WHILE YOU ARE AWAY.

     Victor read the paper twice. He started laughing. What a good joke! Surely a crank from one of his contacts. He could even imagine a couple of possible culprits. He would probably receive a letter in a few days, commenting on the joke. Maybe he could play a similar joke on someone… He refilled the sand jar with a funnel. The sand had kept its warmth. He put the bottle in the closet, put the silver box on the shelves, folded the flyer and put it in his wallet.

*

No unusual letter arrived in the following week, or the next. Every night, he would see the little silver box on the shelves. In the bus back from the office, he would read the flyer over and over again even though he already knew it by heart. Twice he had taken the sand jar out of the closet, and emptied the sand on the table. It was still warm. He’d put the jar away and take it out again. Could it be? Could it be possible?

He didn’t pay as much attention to his work as before. His Boss looked puzzled. The cleaning lady resigned. He had to get another one, and teach her to leave the sand jars alone. Under penalty of… He wrote to several of his main contacts, inquiring about the possible origin of the sand jar.

“Have you ever heard of a sand jar with a strange flyer? I’m trying to trace one I just got in the mail.”

No one had or admitted to. Then, after two weeks, he couldn’t take it anymore. He took the jar out of the closet, and prepared a label:

     Beach: unknown

     Origin: unknown

     Date: XX/XX/XX

He placed the jar on the shelves, by the little silver box. The latter he’d cleaned the very first week. It now looked precious on its shelf. He let the jar be until the next Saturday. Got up early, took a bath, had breakfast. He opened the sand jar. He double checked in his trousers pockets: he did have the keys to his flat. He looked across the shelves for a specific jar. He already knew which one: “Bora ‑Bora; origin: Tahiti; Date: 19..”. He found it, and with the Bora-Bora jar in his hand, he closed his eyes, thinking:

“This is totally ridiculous. I must be insane.”

He kept his eyes closed, counting mentally to ten, better: twenty. He opened them to a frightful sun, which brought tears to his eyes. Through his misty eyes, he could see a white beach, palms, the bluest sea, the lagoon… In a panic, he closed his eyes tight, clutching the keys in his pocket.

When he opened his eyes again, he was back in his small apartment, his small city, his small country, with the rain pouring outside. The only difference was the heat he could feel in the apartment, as if he’d brought it with him. He shouted:

“IT WORKS! IT WORKS!”

He closed his eyes again, thinking of Bora Bora, of his uncle, of the beach, of the sea. When he opened them, slowly, ever so slowly, there it was, Bora-Bora, as in his reference books: the atoll of white coral sand, the blue crystal-clear sea. He started screaming at the top of his lungs. His uncle had not lied. It was Bora-Bora sand. He sat on the beach… He took his sweater off, his shoes, his shirt, started walking barefoot along the beach, getting his trousers legs wet in the lukewarm sea water. A mild sea breeze played in his hair. He had no money from the place. Luckily, he always carried a fifty-dollar bill that his uncle had given him. Dollars work anywhere. He bought a delicious lunch of fish with coconut. When the night came, he stayed on the beach, to watch the largest moon he’d ever seen. Several hours had gone by already. He sighed, took his keys in his hand, closed his eyes. He was back to his apartment, but no more than ten minutes had passed on the clock on the small kitchen wall. He capped the bottle, thinking of his uncle, of Bora ‑Bora, of flyers. Of seven thousand two hundred and thirteen jars on his shelves.

The following Monday, he was peeling when he got to the office. He’d got a major sunburn during his day at the beach in Bora‑Bora. When his boss asked him what had happened, he replied that he’d had a minor allergy that resulted in the skin peeling away, that it was nothing. A minor skin disease. Not contagious. Just an allergy. He spent the whole week making plans, looking at the rain outside his office window. Where was he going to spend his weekend?

On Friday night he packed a small suitcase. With plenty of sun screen. On Saturday, he dressed lightly, calculating the right time to appear on the beaches when no one was around. He traveled to Africa, West, East and South, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Huatulco, the Caribbean, Georgetown, Penang, Koh-Lanta, Malaysia, Bali, Cartagena…

He had a few surprises with one sand jar or the other. One that read: “Mombasa, Kenya”, landed him at a construction site on the outskirts of his city. Another jar that read “Koh-Lanta, Thailand” took him to an icy beach in Belgium. Zeebrugge, maybe. In January. Since he wore only shorts and a T-shirt, he caught a cold, and missed three days in the office. He crossed the contacts who’d sent him fraudulent sand off his list.

He would arrive at the office every Monday with a magnificent tan. He had to explain that because of his skin condition, he needed U.V. treatment with rays. His work became sloppy. All he could think of during the week, was the next beach.

He fired the new cleaning lady, who, against formal orders, had removed dust from the shelves. He hired another lady.

At first, he would leave just for the weekend. A week in one place was about one full day. Then he started traveling at night during the week. There were not going to be enough weekends to go to all the seven thousand two hundred and thirteen beaches he had on his shelves. Every time he stayed longer and longer. The new cleaning disappeared, he had to hire another one.

            He realized he couldn’t go on like this. In the office, people were talking behind his back. His boss had dressed him down, for a small mistake in a file. He was also running out of money. The savings of a lifetime were almost gone. On the beach.

            He decided to take one last trip. Cross my heart. He cashed all the money he could, selling anything that could be sold. When he came back he would get rid of the bottle. Send it to his best contact. He chose one of the most beautiful beaches he had identified in his travels and in his books, a small island in the Caribbean, with the water so crystal clear that you could see the bottom all the way to the high sea. He’d taken a few days leave at the office. All set. He uncapped the sand jar, checked his keys. He closed his eyes.

He stayed a long time on the island, until he had only one last banknote left. He swam, walked on the beach, went fishing, drank fresh coconut milk with rum, had a sumptuous fish grilled for his last dinner on the beach… When it was finally time to leave, he grabbed his keys and closed his eyes.

*

When he opened his eyes, he was still on the island. He closed them again, holding his keys firmly, thinking about his small apartment. Nothing. As panic rose, he closed his eyes again thinking about everything: the flat, the office, the rain. That was it: the rain! It rained almost all year round there. Focus on the rain. The rain! After trying for ten minutes to no avail, he began to think back how long he’d been on the island, and how much “real” time he’d spent away. One week, two weeks, Saturday, Sunday, Monday (he’d missed Monday at the office!), Tuesday, Wednesday… Tuesday! The cleaning day! The new cleaning Lady! He’d given her two weeks’ vacation. She must have come to the flat the Tuesday after and closed the sand jar…

*

Victor never returned to his small apartment, his small office, his small city. At the office, when Victor didn’t show up for a week, the boss called his apartment. No answer. He even went to Victor’s flat over the week-end. He was concerned. Victor had never missed a day’s work. Nobody home. The neighbours hadn’t seen him in weeks. He notified the police of Victor’s disappearance. Six months later, Victor’s case was filed as “pending”.

     The boss hired somebody else, and forgot about Victor, until one day, five years later, he got a letter in the mail:

   Dear Sir…

     I collect rain. From all countries. I would be very happy if you could send me a jar of rain from your country, with all shipping costs paid, (use the following account…) to P.O. Box 3615, San Mateos Island.

     Kind regards

     (Illegible)

Author’s note: this story is roughly inspired from a short story I read a long time ago in Spirou, a Belgian Comics magazine. Story was called “Vacances en 220 V”. Holidays in 220 V. Illustrated by Jidéhem, it is a “Starter story”, no author mentioned.

Captain and crew thank you for flying Equinoxio’s Time-Space shuttle. Please grab your house keys firmly in your hand. Close your eyes and think about home. Call technical support if it doesn’t work.

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