A heavy foot shoved his face into the water. He heard ‘Move grommet’ before the fuzz of the surf smothered him.
He spat out a mouthful of sand and salt. The breeze shoved a clump of wet hair across an eye. He shoved it back into the blond mat on his head. His zinc nose itched.
Beyond the layered whitewash waves were curling and in them, brown figures crouched and shuddered as their boards cut the wet curves. Dark heads bobbed above the rise and fall, and occasionally a board would fly dolphin like into the air and crash back into the surf. Jason watched one of them bobble and bounce before the white froth of an incoming wave until it caught the tanned sands at the water’s edge. A lithe and gleaming figure arrived to collect it.
He took a breath, then raised his board in front of him. It was crystalline white beneath the excess of wax he had scrubbed on to its surface in the melting sun, with a line along its centre, at the top of which was a yin/yang symbol. It was a Christmas gift, something he had wanted for ages and it filled him with a mixture of pride and terror.
He had to peek around it to see the incoming wave. He leapt, but misjudged its arrival and was flung back into the shallows again, the board cracking him on the forehead and the surf filled his nose with another dose of silt.
Floundering in the flopping wash he was overborne by a silhouette in the centre of the blinding sky. He made out a bronze gigantor in an aureole of shrill sunlight, shining and unfathomable. Jason squinted. The giant said, Go home kid, and then it melted, leaving the harsh sun to puncture Jason’s eyes.
He picked himself up and hauled his board out of the water again. He stood and assessed the surf. Past the white rollers four or five surfers to his left ran a large break; two or three others occupied the smaller waves to his right.
He watched a surfer on the right take a wave and elegantly ride the board as the wave plummeted to the wall of whitewash. The board turned upward, the surfer swung with it and the two landed in the flat of the wave back. Jason watched as they ducked beneath the front of the next wave, then reappeared like a cormorant and paddle with lean arms into the rising swell.
That didn’t look too hard. All he had to do was breach the walls of white that kept coming at him. He lifted his board above his head and clambered over the smaller wave trails, where the water was yellow with mixed sand and dribbled foam. A foaming front raced towards him. He flung his board in the air and, closing his eyes, dropped to his knees. The water hit his scalp and rocked him with a muted savagery. The footrope caught his feet as behind him his board jostled with the wave. He anchored into the sand with his other foot and the board loosened as the wave passed.
He was chest high now.
He dragged the board to him, and launched himself on to it as another wave hit. He wrapped his arms about the edge of the board and hung on. It clipped him side on, spun him and thrust the board’s nose into the water. Up he went, legs akimbo and face shoved into the swell.
He tumbled and let his feet find the sand and sprang back up, as another wave hit him face on. He was being dragged by his footrope towards the shore, but he gathered his might and dug into the sand. He resurfaced in the swale between waves, took a breath and clasped the rope in his hand as another wall of white barrelled over him. He crouched beneath the water and heard it crash about him, and yank at the rope in a contest of fury and blunt courage.
It relaxed its grip and he surfaced again, breathing heavily. He scoured the sea for the next wave. The sky shone blue above him, the sun a white heat, the salt air a solvent upon his skin. He had not advanced, and the shallows were humiliatingly close, closer than the waves he wanted to reach.
A woman’s voice behind him said, You okay?
She was behind him. He hadn’t seen her come in. She glanced at a wave, grabbed his leg line and hers and yelled, Down.
He copied her and let the dark wash of the wave swill over his head and muddle his cheeks and ears. He could relax a little as she had the rope, but he wondered at her strength and mastery of the water.
When they surfaced she said, ‘It’s big here, but softer when they break. His board skitted over to him in response to her tug. Hop on, she said, grab the sides and push down was the wave hits. It’ll pull you up the other side.
He climbed on to his board, gripped the rim with elbows akimbo above him and did as she instructed. The wave blinded him with whitewash, sucked him down then up and he was out into the salt air, his hair flung across his face and thick drops of sweater in his eyes. He shook them off.
He turned to the woman.
Easy as, she said. Now paddle.
He watched as her narrow arms drove into the water, sinewy and strong. The sun bounced off her shoulder blades and legs, then her arms folded like wings and she ducked beneath the wave that he had not observed.
He was flung skywards on his board which cracked his nose and tossed him backwards into the slurry of water at the foot of the wave. It knocked the wind out of him then swallowed him whole. He tumbled a few times, spat, coughed and sat up in the sandy shallows, the water draining from his matted air in grainy torrents. His board rested in the sand at the end of his black leg rope, like a dog waiting for a toss of the ball.
He rocked slightly as the after draught of another wave washed by him. His board swivelled with the underpass of water.
The woman said, Probably good to start again.
For a second time now he hadn’t seen her come in. Was she even real?
She extended a hand and he felt her strength lift him.
Grab your board, she said.
He stepped over to where his board lay, and felt the heaviness in his legs from the effort he had exerted in the water. He stood at the edge, admiring the woman. She was lean, fit, with a shock of blond hair matted like his with salt and sea. She wore a plain pink bikini, and stood with her board tucked under her right arm.
Okay, she said when he returned to her side. He stood with his board menhir-like in the sand.
The boys like to surf over there – she pointed right. They’re a bunch of selfish bastards, hog all the big waves and won’t let us in. So us girls and other afterthoughts take the smaller break on the left. It’s still good, even if I’d rather have a go at the larger waves.
Jason watched a male surfer spring on to his board, then crash headlong into the vault of the wave. His board shot heavenward and was dragged along the wave front to the shoreline.
That’s Terry, said the woman, he’s too up himself to use a rope.
Talos, said Jason. The horrid giant.
The woman laughed and said, Is that what you call him?
Good call, said the woman, I’m Creusa by the way.
Yeah, I know, odd name, she said.
No, said Jason, I know who Creusa is. It’s a good name.
Well, you’re a first, she said, and wiped a thread of hair from her face.
I’m Jason, said Jason.
Well, Jason, welcome to the afterthoughts. You wanna surf?
Jason picked up his board and jammed it under his shoulder like Creusa held hers.
Creusa removed her board from under her arm and grabbed it with a hand either side. Follow me, she said, and this time, don’t get distracted. You can’t surf and look at yourself surfing.
She sprang across the low wash and when the water was thigh high she leapt over an incoming wave and flopped on to her board. He did the same, and paddled with an eagerness towards the incoming wall. He folded his elbows in as she did, grasped the board as she did and pushed down, and rose as she did behind the wave. They each flung their hair from their faces and paddled keenly to the next wave, then repeated the duck and flourish. He felt his confidence grow and he greeted the next wave with relish, letting it pummel his back and heels as he entered its grip and was spat out the back. He looked up at a growing hill of water rising way above him.
Go! Go! Go! she yelled, and he copied her urgent thrusts in the sucking waters. The wave grew menacingly above him all blue and deep jade and glassy and he dug his arms into it. Above him he saw Creusa’s feet disappear over the crest of the wave as it started to break. He panicked but fought on, and was pulled up as the sheet of water cracked over his crown. To his great excitement he passed through it, like birthing through a patina of egg white and was momentarily sky bound, the air free and wet about him, his toes the only contact with the water. His board smacked on to the back of the wave and, grinning, he pulled himself away from any potential back wash.
Not too far from him three women sat on their boards in the rolling swell behind the break, the noses of their boards peeking out of the surface like seals sniffing for fish.
You made it, said Creusa.
Jason sat up on his board like the three women, wobbling a little until he found his centre of gravity. He trailed his hands in the cool water by his side.
This is Gemma and Charlie, said Creusa, and said to her companions, Jason. Got his board for Christmas.
Surfed before? said Gemma. Jason looked at her bronze arms, as long and strong as Creusa’s. A turquoise earring hung from her ear lobe beneath her dark hair.
On foams, said Jason.
First dip with the new board, hey.
Happy Christmas. That was Charlie. She was stockier than the other two, and had a black bob that was short enough to reveal a chain tattoo about her neck
Thanks, said Jason. You guys get stuff you like?
The women chuckled.
Dunno, said Charlie, we haven’t opened them yet. Just had to come out and surf.
Jason’s met Terry already, said Creusa.
You poor lad, said Gemma. Christmas day on the beach and you run into him.
Jason said, He was menacing.
Menacing is one word, said Gemma. Dickhead is another. Thinks he rules the beach, but fact is, he can’t surf for nuts. You could staple his feet to the board and he’d still fall off.
So he compensates for his lack of talent by bullying everyone else, said Charlie. That’s why we surf over here, out of his way.
Jason stared about him. One way, the sea spread like a vast and rolling plain to the horizon. The other, the beach arched in a cream whorl from headland to headland. Trees obliterated the view beyond. In the distance a couple threw a ball for a dog which leapt and bounded about the sand.
They were safely beyond the shore break. He could see the spray drift spin off the waves as the broke in front of them and followed by the muffled plunder of the waters. It was a new view for him. He felt he was on a precipice, whose depth he could not measure, but which he knew he had to cross to get home.
Here’s one, said Gemma, and Jason looked to see the sea rising more than it had been. Gemma stretched out long upon her board and paddled into position. Her back arched as she looked back to judge the wave. When the surge rose she paddled hard, her muscles and shoulder blades switching piston like back and forth. Jason saw the wave lift her and she pulled her knees up then disappeared. He heard the wave thunder beneath them. He looked for Gemma but Charlie said, They’re coming in now.
She took her turn to launch on to her board.
Love to chat, she said as she slipped past, but gotta go, and she thrust her meaty arms into the gathering might of the sea. She too surged forward, rose to a crouch and Jason just glimpsed her stand as she sank behind the wave.
Look, said Creusa. The boys are falling like sticks. Jason saw three of the men collapse in a wave and tumble into the drink, their boards flailing like caught fish on their leg ropes. Terry was body surfing in to retrieve his vagrant board.
A swell had crept up and almost toppled Jason off his board.
Eyes on the prize, said Creusa, and she lay on her board to start paddling. We’ll show ‘em how it’s done, she said as she slid past, lifted herself up and surrendered to the wave that billowed over her.
He was by himself now.
He turned to face the rolling swell, making sure he was safe from the break point. At its peak he could see Gemma and Charlie on the water’s edge with their boards tucked under their arms. They’d obviously had good rides, the whole way in. they were accomplished surfers. The swell he was on dropped and they disappeared as he entered the trough. Nothing but water now, swirling, growling, calling, threatening. This was bigger than anything he’d surfed before.
He sought solace in paddling for a bit, and saw the tree line when he rose again. He thought of his family in bed, or around the kitchen table, or at the Christmas tree in the front room, sleep still on their skin like the salt air.
He sank into the hollow again and stared at the tumult of the waters. Strains of whitewash topped the submerged currents of thrust and deep energy. The air was colder down here. Above the summit the sky was a blank blue.
When he rose again he saw Terry paddling towards him.
Hey, grommet, the man yelled, and drew alongside him. Jason sat up, his legs dangling over the side of his board.
Scared? Said Terry.
No, said Jason.
Bullshit, said Terry. Now that your girlie mates have left you.
He extended a long arm and patted Jason’s board. Nice piece. New?
Mmhmm, said Jason. He tried to back away surreptitiously, but Terry kept close.
Terry spat into the water. He said, I could do with a new board. Mine’s a piece-a piss.
Is that why you keep on falling off? said Jason.
They were descending into the next trough.
Fuck you, kid, said Terry and grabbed Jason’s leg. He whipped off the leg rope and with a simple muscular flip hurled Jason into the water. He jumped on to the new white board and paddled away, shouting, Fair trade, grommet, as he left.
Jason fumbled in the rolling water for a moment, tears in his eyes, anger rising within him, then fought to climb on to the old blue board that the thief had left behind. The bastard. Christmas Day and he’d not had the board for an hour. He smacked the blue board with his fist. Bastard! Tears rolled down his cheeks and he sat with both hands on the old board sobbing with powerlessness and rage.
He felt the sun on his back. He felt the churn of the current beneath him. He felt the fire of his tears. He looked at the beach. The three women were there, like amazons on their island. Their boards were both shields and weapons, but he had been stripped of his.
He noticed a larger roll moving towards him. He knew he had no choice. He had to get in somehow, and surfing was what he wanted anyway. He lay down on his board. It was not as long as his, and felt less stable. It wobbled as he paddled, but he had no choice. He turned to gauge the rising swell, felt its luff and pushed his arms into the deep.
He surged forward. He was no longer in control now. He was a buoy on the water, driftwood, a plaything that the surf could ruin if he let it. The task was to maintain control and flow. He was being lifted legs up, his nose staring down a wall of water. He pushed himself to the rear of the board, pulled his feet under him and stood.
The roaring thick water was beside him curled above and he heard the wind snap and the sharp crack of sea upon his face. He rocked and shuddered with the force and kept his feet flat and gripping to the board. He plummeted down the arch of sea that thundered with him, leant back a bit and rose then dropped as the sea climbed to meet him. He emerged from the curl, flying in the current, the sun filtered through wet, the air billowing on his cheeks and his mind a flurry of awareness and negation. His legs were taut yet flexed, his feet firm yet accommodating. His arms were splayed, and one hand tore a strip into the seawall. He ducked as he dropped again, heard the wave crash behind him and turned to head shoreward as the whitewash bubbled about him in laudatory tones. He was above the water now, riding it easily to the sands, to where the three women stood applauding.
At the very shallows he hopped off and gathered the board from beneath him.
You did it! shouted Creusa and the beach wind whisked her voice way. The three of them crowded around him.
Terry stole my board! said Jason. His tears resurfaced. He came over and tossed me off mine and nicked it!
What? That was Gemma.
He nicked my board! It was my present. I hadn’t even used it.
Creusa looked over to the right where the waves were rolling in mighty formation.
Gemma, Charlie, you guys take these to the ute. She shoved her board and the blue one into the arms of her friends. Jason, come with me.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him across the sand to the far end of the beach. Run!
He followed her. She was fast and fit, but he could keep up. He knew he could get speed if he kept to the strip of sand from where the water had receded, but was still damp. When the wave ends drifted into his path he leapt and splashed his way through.
Creusa pointed. There!
It was his board, skimming to a standstill as the fin caught in the sand, muddled by the small trickle end of the wave that had brought it in.
Quickly, said Creusa.
He looked up and saw the might of the Terry-Talos pounding high-kneed through the bubbling waves.
He grabbed his board and ran, his heart thumping with glee and fear. He raced across the soft sand behind Creusa, the heat prickling his feet but no step long enough to be painful.
The monster’s voice was close, but they were into the access way. He skipped across the planks that crossed the path in a feeble attempt to stabilise the sand then felt the rough gravel of the curbside under him. The only thing slowing him down was the weight of his board.
A battered tradie’s ute was idling by the road. He could hear the Talos breath close behind. Charlie’s arm was waving through the window.
C’mon! yelled Creusa and she leapt into the back of the ute. Terry was upon him. Jason tossed his board into the tray and then dived in face down in a muddle of boards and wooden planking. The engine roared and rubber skidded on gravel. He turned over and saw Terry running with the vehicle, one hand on the side.
Stop you fuckers!
But Charlie sped up. Terry floundered and let go and Jason watched as he fell face first on to the gravel road, his legs flying up behind him in a cloud of grey dust. An expletive bit the air but was quashed in the sun.
Jason lay back in the ute and laughed. He turned to looked at Creusa who was also laughing, her belly shaking and her wide smile open and free. Above him, the blue sky passed by, measured in wisps of white clouds like tinsel on a big, big blue tree.
Creusa said, Merry Christmas, Grommet.