Authors, Biarritz, Books, France, George Orwell, Herman Melville, Jonathan Swift, Landscape, Literature, Surfing, Travel, Vernon Watkins, William Maxwell
My father walks toward me up the beach his spare frame silhouetted against the sparkling sun. ‘Breathe deeply boy’ he says as he ruffles my hair. I look into his eyes the colour of the sea and realising a cat has my tongue bury my head in the warmth of my faithful dog’s neck seeking comfort and reassurance in her familiar smell. I am asthmatic and the sea makes me well. It is why we came here.
A daydream takes me to our house in the hills and the grave of the unknown, unnamed, tortoise. He ran away, finding temporary refuge amid the wreckage of my grandmother’s desk – a Christmas present compromised by my father’s ill-timed gift of a tool set – perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come. The doctor says that if we get rid of the animals it will help my breathing. Snowy the rabbit is adopted and subsequently eaten by the neighbours. We are unable to part with the dog.
‘The darkness is not dark. Nor sunlight the light of the sun’
Eight summers pass when Alan speaks to me walking by on a startling, sea shimmering, summer morn with salt in his hair and a smile on his face. ‘Why don’t you follow me out’ he says. Squinting upward, I place my trust in him tuck my beloved and battered surfboard beneath my skinny arm and allow him to shepherd me through the rip next to the pier. Forty years later I place my hand gently onto his casket and say goodbye.
‘And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty’
Major Matt Mason sinks slowly beneath the glossy mirror of the mossy moat. Calisto, despite the enormous brain straining against the confines of his transparent green skull, is unable to save his friend. I grasp the Major’s clumsily articulated armature as my father grasps mine as I dive downward. I gaze into those grey eyes once more and recall our journey home from school, the day my brother died, remembering that he buried him alone in the winter rain.
Adrian and I fail to hear Akela’s footsteps on the creaking boards of the scout hall, blissfully unaware of our impending dishonourable discharge. Adrian is my best friend. His father Jack a fine cricketer. But to Ade and I he is better known as a singer, immortalised by his unforgettable, some might say unforgivable, rendition of Al Martino’s ‘Spanish Eyes’. Jack has a lingual protrusion lisp and the line ‘Please say Si Si’ reduces us to helpless laughter. Akela’s glare is far from benign as she spots the crescent shaped bite mark on my thigh and the cartoonesque, egg-shaped lump protruding from Adrian’s forehead. The old wolf uses her wisdom to expel us from the pack, confiscating our woggles and consigning us to the wilderness, like Jason McCord in Branded, to forever fight for our good names.
Dad’s a rugby man, regularly and eagerly watching as I shiver on the touchline, my skinny, hairless and mottled knees knocking in the bitter northeasterly wind. I place my frozen hands inside my thin cotton shirt to warm them against my unfilled out torso and wait for the pass that never comes. Checking my opposite number, I accurately guess that he’s been picked for size rather than speed. His fledgling moustache and probable pubic hair suggest that we cannot possibly be in the same academic year. If we are my folks just don’t have a big enough larder.
The ball comes above my head, exposing my bare sinewy midriff. I gather the greasy ball, with stiff little fingers, just as the overfed progeny of Brobdingnag cuts me in two with a scything tackle that sees me crumble like a Corinthian column in an earthquake. Bundled into touch – where another large and ungainly lad falls on me – I overhear a cry of ‘Who’s that kid on the wing’ and imagine the expression on my father’s face.
‘I tread the sand at the sea’s edge’
‘What do you think he does all day’ my mother asks?
Becoming an ordinary surfer is a difficult task, but becoming a good one, one that people look up to, well that’s another story….This is how I spend my time.
The lefthander is technically difficult, requiring one hard turn, mid face, followed by a series of rapid pumps to trim, drive, and out run the crashing lip. I am flying down the line, pushing hard on the first third of my board to flatten the rocker, simultaneously keeping my toe rail down to maintain glide along the fast moving wall. I alternate with pressure on my heels to stop the inside rail from being sucked up and pitched by the lip. Subtle changes are transmitted from my feet to my brain as the water draws off the bottom and the wave disembowels itself on the rocky slab. I take another, staying close to the hook so I can feel the foam-ball spit and spray my back like a fire hose, testing the limits of the board, the bite of the inside rail, the whip of the tail, the alignment and cant of the fins. Oh how they sing at speed.
Over dinner, silently pondering minor adjustments and the shape of my next board. I conclude that talking would make me sound like Orwell’s ‘rattling stick in a swillbucket’ and besides, I don’t like the sound of my breaking voice. My father glares at me, but I am fourteen and have long stopped listening to my father.
I feel my mother’s eyes on me, as I prepare for my first big trip, and wonder what she makes of her one remaining son. A poorly designed wetsuit seam has reduced my belly button by half over the summer, and my left foot, strapped with duct tape, has a wound that fails to heal as I refuse to stay out of the water. Add to this knees full of skating grazes, permanently bloodshot eyes, a condition called surfers ear and a mop of unruly, unwashed, salt encrusted hair. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she kisses me on the forehead and with a tear in her eye holds me just a little too long.
The first trophy is hard earned in double overhead surf. ‘The kids ok in the small stuff, but lets see how he does when it gets bigger’. Hiding it behind my back I try to look disconsolate in front of my girl – who has a Saturday job in the pet shop – but she can tell I’ve won and laughing loudly tosses her dark hair that smells of birdseed and pony nuts.
Pushing through the crowd at the water’s edge, away from the American and Australian surfers who’ve consigned me to an ignominious first round exit from the contest, I avoid Sylvie’s sympathetic smile realising that no matter how good I think I am, I’m not in their league. Sylvie returns to Biarritz knowing that I do not love her enough to follow. I return home to race rats and do not surf again for seventeen years.
‘Time past and time future. What might have been and what has been.’
In the waveless world of the city, where my wife grew up and my boys were raised, it’s difficult to imagine the sea, and when I dream of home it is not as it is now. Unnatural and false full regularly appearing in colour supplements, its caramelised onions and cappuccinos fortifying overindulged, overfed, middle aged alphas, unforgivingly shoehorned into shorties by their mean lipped, male hipped wives, before their next bespoke tutored surf session. Once the epitome of cool, my sport is neatly packaged as a lifestyle choice and used to peddle 4×4’s, seaside property and life insurance for the newly retired. I don’t begrudge them their fun, but they belong on paved sand-less streets not on the last of the country’s uncommitted land, their baby soft feet weeping for the safety of shoes.
‘The free person who runs away is no better off than a fish with a hook in his mouth, given plenty of line so he can tire himself out and be reeled in calmly and easily by his own destiny’
Leaving the warm car in the leaf strewn lane I strike out alone down the sheep strewn banks where livestock once walked to market. Past the simple castles – mounty banks – their battlements crushed by the Normans and where Edward I danced a jig on the bones of Llewellyn the Great. Past the ancient caves, facing south into the meagre warmth of the ice age sun, where Eynon once walked with the sea in his blood and the rain on his face, his feet bare and damp, like mine, on the dew of the new morning’s marram grass. Through a cleft in the valley I glimpse the silver grey faces of the new swells, polished by the oarweeds and marching to the mournful sound of the sea bell, the legends of the drowned churches, and the incandescence of the dead.
‘Sweet fields beyond the the swelling flood, Stand dressed in living green’
Entering the chill water, its surface the colour of armour, I push out relieved to escape the land and the incessant nanny ping of the cell phone. Quiet now save for the saw of the wind and the siren call of the sea. ‘Breathe deeply boy ‘ it says.
‘The end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning and after the end.’