1. Surfing blind
Jamie and Tanner stood on the rock wall, surfboards under their arms, peering into darkness. The ocean was a black mass. Only the lines of whitewash were visible. But the rumble of the surf and the amount of spray stinging their faces suggested the swell was a decent size.
‘I didn’t sign up for this,’ Tanner said. ‘It’s still dark.’
‘Yeah, well …’ Jamie said. It would be dawn soon, he just didn’t know when. All he knew was that it had been three-thirty when he’d given up trying to sleep and rolled out of bed. At the most you could add another hour to that: the time it had taken him to get to Rocky Head, wake up Tanner, collect their boards and jog the seven hundred or so metres that stood between Tanner’s place and the Point.
In the sickly glow of the carpark’s lone streetlight, Tanner’s long face looked distinctly unimpressed.
‘You better get over this thing soon, ’cause I like to sleep, even if you don’t. I’m going to start locking my window so you can’t get in. You’re crazy, man. You’ve been crazy for months. Ever since that night with the boat you’ve been insane.’
Which, for Tanner, was quite a speech.
‘Yeah, well …’ Jamie sighed. Tanner was right. Four months ago he’d nearly drowned and since then nothing had been normal.
‘Look, we’re here now – might as well give it a go, hey? At least we’ll have the break to ourselves.’
In a couple of hours the line-up would be teeming with surfers: regulars from the caravan park who came every Christmas holidays, backpackers who were in town for the music festival, and locals like him and Tanner. Rocky Head was one of Australia’s best point breaks, a sweeping right-hander that peeled for almost half a kilometre on a good day.
Tanner was nodding in that slow way of his – like the toy dogs people put on their dashboards – which meant he was at least considering the idea. Sighing loudly, he turned and started walking up the path that ran alongside the rock wall to the jump-off point. Jamie followed him. As he walked, Tanner shifted his longboard from under his arm and balanced it on top of his head. He loved that board, he would have slept with it if he could; sometimes Jamie caught him stroking its sides with a dreamy look on his face. Tall and thin, Tanner was a bit of a longboard himself. He had sea-dog skin, the type that was permanently tanned, and his dark hair was dead straight and reached his shoulders. His green eyes bulged like a frog’s when he was surprised. His real name was Todd, but people had been calling him by his surname forever. Even teachers.
Jamie’s real name was Jamieson, but everybody called him Jamie. Which sucked.
It was even darker at the jump-off. Behind them, the golf course was a stretch of black. Further back, you could see the occasional glow of house lights on Reservoir Hill. Most places, though, were in darkness.
‘Why are we doing this, again?’ Tanner asked.
Jamie looked out at the ocean, smelling the salt tang, a familiar electric prickle washing over his skin. He always got it just before he hit the surf. He wanted to tell Tanner how he’d been lying in bed, hand on his heart, feeling it beat away his life, and he’d panicked. All of a sudden he had to be at the break. But how could he expect Tanner to get it? The only person who might understand was Dale. Dale Chilcott had been with Jamie on the night he’d nearly drowned and had definitely come off second best. But Dale and he weren’t speaking anymore, and Tanner had to put up with him crawling through his bedroom window at all hours of the night.
‘To be the first ones out there,’ Jamie said.
‘I don’t want to smash my lady.’
‘I’m sure she’ll live. Come on.’
‘No way. You can’t even see what’s coming. I’m going to wait.’ Tanner placed his board on the ground and sat down. ‘Sorry, man.’
‘Nah, it’s all right. Look, I’m gonna go anyway. I’ll see you when you get out there.’
Jamie put his leg-rope on, taking hold of it so it wouldn’t trip him, then started to pick his way along the jump-off, a finger of rock extending out into the break from the rock wall. He went slowly, swearing when his feet hit sharp patches of barnacles and oyster shells. He was careful to hold his board up so it didn’t scrape the rocks. He rode a shortboard, a 5’ 11” thruster. He’d been alive for fifteen years and he’d surfed for seven of them.
The water washing over the rocks made it hard to hold his footing and he was quickly soaked by the spray. When he reached the end, he peered into the black ocean, trying to make out the lines of swell before they smashed into the rocks so he could time his jump. He couldn’t see shit. Jamie held his board out in front and waited until the set of waves seemed to have passed, then launched forward, his board hitting the water with a smack.
He started paddling hard, buzzed on adrenaline. When he felt himself drop lower, he duckdived, gathering himself up and pushing the rails of his board under, spearing its nose down and then kneeing the back of the deck to swoop through to the surface. He’d timed it right – he could feel the suck of the wave as it passed over him.
The memory of that other night haunted Jamie. He’d swum through an ocean as black as this one, heading towards the lights of Rocky Head. Dale’s screams had gradually faded behind him, until Jamie’s whole world became the lines of swell rolling underneath him and the slapping of his arms hitting the water, fatigue creeping into them like slowly setting cement. He’d concentrated on breathing. When he didn’t, sobs ratcheted up his throat, threatening to choke him.
Shaking his head, Jamie came back to the present. The horizon had lightened to a steel-grey colour. As he saw this, a black wave reared up in front of him, blocking it out. He duckdived awkwardly, forcing the nose of his board under the surface while the wave crashed down on him. His board shot out between his legs and he was pushed backwards. His shin connected with a blunt edge, which hurt like crap, and his board clunked against something hard. The rocks. Clambering back on his board, he started paddling with quick choppy strokes to get clear of the boiling foam before the next wave smashed him.
When he was sure he was beyond the impact zone, he sat up on his board, breathing hard. He glanced at the shore and spotted the bright Christmas lights strung around the Norfolk pines near the lifesavers’ building, about two hundred metres down from him. He started paddling again, his strokes smooth and strong now he was sure he wasn’t going to get caught inside the breaking waves. He felt safe in the break. It was like coming home every time he got here, even if he couldn’t see. He counted off twenty strokes, then paused, letting his board glide, feeling it rise and then fall as the next breaker rolled through. It felt like he was at the head of the line-up, even if he couldn’t be sure. Maybe he needed to be a little closer to the rocks. He moved sideways. Should he try and catch one?
Aw, bugger it. Don’t die wondering.
He started paddling quickly, and when he felt the surge of a wave picking him up, he flattened out, pulling harder. That’s when he heard it.
Over to his left, came the unmistakable sound of somebody’s feet thrashing the water as they paddled to take off. Jamie froze, and dropped off the back of the wave. The kicking noise stopped and a moment later he heard the splattering noise water makes as it arcs out from a hard turn. Spray stung his face.
Someone else was out there with him, surfing in the dark.
The thought put a chill through him. How long had they been there? Did they know he was out there, too? He sat up and looked backwards, wobbling on his board as another mound of swell passed under him. How could whoever it was have made that wave? The surfer had been right on the inside, near the rocks. It was a tricky take-off at the best of times and the guy had done it blind. Jamie had the jitters real bad, but he talked himself out of paddling in. Soon it would be light and then none of this would be a big deal. He’d see the other guy and find he was just a hardcore local who’d fluked it on that last wave. They’d give each other a nod.
As he was thinking this, frozen with indecision, something white glided past him in the darkness. A surfboard, and on it, the outline of the other person. The guy paddled close enough for Jamie to feel the ripples of his wake. Jamie opened his mouth to say something but, for some reason, dread blocked his throat. He had the distinct impression he was being sized up and it made his skin crawl. It was like being circled by a shark, seeing the fin cut through the water, but not knowing when it would go under and what would happen next.
He wheeled on his board and started paddling hard, not caring about the noise he made, just wanting to get the hell out of there. He’d gone maybe five strokes before he felt himself rising up a wave face and he flattened out, kicking like hell, pulling each stroke, desperate to make that wave, even if he couldn’t see.
He felt the wave surge, waited for a beat to see if he was on, then snapped to his feet. The drop was a buzz, a slicing, sliding fall into shadows and darkness. He felt his board’s inside rail lock into the wave face and he went into a sharp bottom turn, grinning like an idiot, wanting to yell as he made it. For that moment, he forgot about anything else except the fact he’d caught a wave in the dark.
A piercing whistle split the air. Jamie glanced over his shoulder, nearly falling off his board. He knew that whistle. A dark figure thundered towards him, crouched down low on his surfboard. Jamie knew that silhouette. The surfer’s stance was one he’d seen a thousand times before.
Shaken, he pumped his legs to gain enough speed to kick off the wave. But it was too late. The surfer smashed into him, knocking his board out from under his feet with the solid thunk of fibreglass hitting fibreglass. Then they were both in the water: a churning mess of foam, fists and boards washing towards the rocks.