Seagulls wheeling and crying overhead, waves breaking against the shore, his body embraced by the warmth of the sun, Erik yielded to the creeping languor and stretched out on his beach towel, hands folded over his stomach, cap shielding his eyes.
Lynda lay face down alongside him, bikini top unhooked, reading a paperback she’d borrowed from the library.
As he was drifting off, he caught snatches of an argument in a foreign language. He waited for it to subside, but like a tennis match it carried on – one moment a man’s voice, next a woman’s. He wished he could understand the nature of the argument. After a while it began to irritate him. How could he relax when people were quarreling close by?
He raised himself on his elbows. A small family group sat close to the water’s edge, about ten metres away. The man and woman were facing each other, fingers pointing, determined to get their point of view across. The man wore a red baseball cap back to front and baggy shorts; she had on a summer frock and some kind of headdress. Next to them, a small brown-skinned boy was digging a hole in the sand with a plastic spade.
Erik would have to wait until they quietened down.
He turned his attention to the sea. A year ago the horizon had been dotted with tankers queuing to collect coal and iron ore from Newcastle to ship to Asia and beyond. Now an unbroken, hazy blue line stretched from left to right, a backdrop to the surfers waiting to catch a wave.
Thirty years ago, his dad had brought him here – the best surfing beach on the Central Coast, according to his dad – to teach him how to ride a surfboard. He still remembered that first day. Standing upright on a board seemed impossible, let alone manoeuvring it along the shoulder of a wave, but his dad made him persevere, and by the end of the day he reached the shallows without collapsing.
On his eighteenth birthday, he received a longboard, complete with a little tail fin. It was now stored above the rafters in the garage, along with a shortboard he’d bought later.
Watching the surfers got him thinking of taking the board down and waxing it. There wasn’t much else to occupy his time.
The argument again attracted his attention. Couldn’t they leave it until they got home? The boy seemed unaffected, probably used to their disagreements.
He watched as the child poured water from a bucket into the hole he’d dug. The boy looked to the adults for approval, but they were too absorbed in their dispute.
Erik sighed. “More bloody immigrants.”
“We were once,” Lynda said, flicking a quick look at the family in question.
“Maybe, but we came from civilised countries.”
Without taking her eyes from her book, she said, “I dunno about that.”
He was in no mood to argue with her — she always had the better of him anyway — and returned his attention to the sea.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the boy pick up the bucket and totter towards the water, his parents unaware he was wandering off.
Erik leapt to his feet and ran. “No!” He reached the boy just as he squatted to scoop seawater into his bucket. He whipped him up and swung him away as a large wave crashed about his legs.
Then the mother was there. She said something he didn’t catch and snatched the boy from his arms. She made her way back to her husband, who glared at him as if he’d tried to abduct the child.
Erik shook his head in disbelief. “No need to thank me.”
He trudged back to where Lynda was waiting.
“What was that all about?”
He explained, adding, “See what I mean about uncivilised. They can’t even look after their kids properly.”
“You can’t expect people to watch their kids every minute of the day.”
“They pinch our jobs, live off benefits we pay taxes for, and then they can’t even look after—”
“Give it a rest, mate.” She reached for her bag and pulled out a ten-dollar note. “Here, go get some ice creams. I’ll have a peppermint Cornetto.”
She didn’t understand. She never did.
He took the money and set off for the kiosk at the surf lifesavers club. As he waited in line, he turned the incident over in his mind, trying to get a grip on the man’s attitude. Erik’s own family migrated from Norway when he was two years old. Lynda’s came from England when she was six. Both families assimilated easily because they shared civilised values, European values, with Australia. These other folk — third-world types — well, they were tribal, weren’t they? Women were chattels, while the kids went to work in the fields as soon as they could walk.
He was conscious of someone standing alongside him, facing him, waiting to get his attention. He turned and saw someone in a red baseball cap. It was the child’s father.
Before Erik could gather his thoughts, the man said, “You did not need to do that. My boy was not in danger.”
“What do you mean, he wasn’t in danger? He could have drowned.”
“He would not have drowned. We had seen him. You mind your own business in future. All right?”
The man was struggling to keep his temper and voice under control, but Erik had no such inhibitions. He stabbed a finger in the man’s direction.
“You’re fucking crazy! If I hadn’t snatched him up, he’d have been knocked over by a wave and dragged out to sea. You wogs don’t know how strong the currents are around here. What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
The man recoiled momentarily and then moved in again. This time he was the one pointing the finger.
“You show me up in front of everybody. Make a fool of me. I don’t like that. Keep away from me and my family in future.”
He swung round and marched off.
If Erik had been bemused by the man’s previous actions, now he felt angry and aggrieved. He looked around at the others in the queue. They couldn’t help but hear the confrontation. An Asian woman standing next to him gave him a sympathetic smile.
He said to her, “If I’d done nothing and the boy drowned, how would I be feeling now? Like shit, I can tell you.”
“He just felt guilty. Don’t let it get to you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. The bugger’s got a guilty conscience.” But he still smarted from the attack.
On the way home, he said, “I’m thinking of taking up surfing again.”
“What’s brought that on?”
Lynda was driving. He sat alongside, trying without success to remove suntan lotion from his sunglasses.
“I have to do something. Besides, I need the exercise.”
“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that kind of thing?”
“I’m not geriatric!”
He was forty-eight. His dad had been over fifty when he’d taught him how to surf.
“Anyway, how are you going to get a board to the beach?”
“I thought maybe I could drive you to work and pick you up afterwards.”
“Not all three shifts you couldn’t.”
“Day shift then.” Day shifts at the hospital were seven to three. “Or before your late shift.”
We’ll see. That’s what she always said when he proposed something new.
Although the day was overcast with an edge to the wind, they chose to drink their coffee out on the patio. Lynda still wore her dressing gown.
“You were late in last night,” he said.
“Maria had car trouble. I covered for her until she turned up.”
“They should take on more nurses.” He knew they wouldn’t. There were rumours that the three 8-hour shifts would become two 12-hour shifts. It would be cheaper, they said, though he couldn’t understand why.
“Guess who I bumped into last night?” Before he could answer, she said, “That woman who was on the beach the other day. Her husband bailed you up, remember, at the kiosk?”
Erik hadn’t forgotten the altercation. The look on the man’s face as he tried to contain his anger wasn’t an image to be forgotten easily.
“Was she visiting him? Someone finally sorted him out?”
“Don’t be silly. She works there as a cleaner, part-time.”
That didn’t surprise him. The place had more nationalities than the United Nations.
“Did you speak to her?”
“I did. Her name’s Maryam, and she told me what they were arguing about. He’s just lost his job. His name’s Edris and he was a courier. The company laid off two drivers, and it was last in, first out.”
“I bet you told her about me.”
The wind gusted briefly. She pulled her gown tighter and folded her arms.
“I said you’d been out of work for six months and there were no jobs available around here. That didn’t make her any happier. She’s pregnant, and they only have her small wage to live on. He can’t go on the dole because they’ve not been here two years yet.”
“I still don’t know what they were arguing about?”
“She wants him to take any job, no matter how menial, but he says he’d rather starve. He only took the courier job because they couldn’t rent a house until he had a job.”
“He doesn’t mind her cleaning though.”
“Yeah, I know, typical. She said he’s too proud. Back in Iran – that’s where they’re from – he was a marine engineer and he’s classed as a skilled migrant. She was a science teacher, but her qualifications aren’t recognised for some reason.”
“The Immigration Department’s stuffed up again.”
“I don’t suppose they saw the recession coming either.” She stood up, holding her mug of coffee. “I’m going inside. It’s cold.”
He followed her into the kitchen. As they sat at the table, he said, “I need a new wetsuit. My old one’s too tight now.”
“You do know we’re only just managing on my wages, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but… Winter’s coming. I can’t surf without a suit.”
The water was colder than he’d expected. As soon as he was waist deep he climbed onto the longboard, lay face down, and began paddling. He’d chosen a spot away from the other surfers to avoid collisions, and to give himself time to adjust after such a long absence from the sport. He would try a few practice runs before doing anything adventurous.
The wind from the south-east provided a good swell, and he cut through the waves without faltering. His only concern was an ache developing in both biceps. Perhaps he should have done more swimming over the summer. Also, wheeling his old bike to the beach with the board strapped to it hadn’t been easy either, but Lynda had the car.
When he felt he’d gone far enough, he turned the board towards the shore, sat astride it and waited. He kept glancing over his shoulder until he saw a burgeoning swell developing. As it reached him, he jumped up clumsily into a crouching position. He wasn’t steady enough and tumbled sideways into the water. Using the ankle leash to pull the board back to him, he remounted and paddled back out.
He realised just how out of practice he was. He used to pop up on the board in a single, fluid movement. Undeterred, he made another attempt and this time managed to stay on, but the opportunity had got away from him.
He succeeded at his fourth try, riding along with the swell until he reached shallow water. He paddled back out again, the ache in his arms challenging him to give up. He decided to make the next wave his last for the day.
There were other surfers close enough now to cause him some concern. They were picking off the good waves before he could make his move, and he was forced to sit on his board and wait. Eventually a swell approached that seemed to be his. He set himself quickly and timed it to perfection, turning his board at just the right moment to find he was riding the curl like a pro. He let out a whoop of joy. This was what he remembered, the exhilaration that surpassed anything else he’d ever experienced. He was weightless, at one with the wave that powered his board, gaining speed amid the crystal spray, purposely avoiding any manoeuvres, just content to enjoy the moment.
Then he lost it. One moment he was gliding effortlessly, the next the board flipped from under him and he was tossed into the air. That was the last he remembered.
A seagull squawked.
Someone was speaking to him in a vaguely familiar voice, accented and urgent, fading in and out, but he couldn’t make out the words. He realised he was lying face down in the sand. It was stuck to his lips. He tasted vomit and his head ached. More voices could be heard, growing fainter as he drifted off again.
When he next came to, he was on his side and someone was holding his shoulder. He struggled to open his eyes. When he did, the light blinded him and he closed them again, but in that moment he saw a man’s face pull away. He carefully re-opened his eyes and the face came into focus. The man wore a uniform of some kind.
“Good. You’re conscious. How do you feel?”
“What happened?” His words came out mumbled.
The uniformed man turned him on his back and held up two fingers.
“How many fingers can you see?”
His voice growing stronger, Erik said, “Two.”
“Excellent. Can you tell me your name?”
“Erik Iversen. What happened?”
“Does your chest hurt?”
“Can you sit up?”
With an effort, he lifted himself into a seated position. He could see now that the uniform belonged to a St John Ambulance officer. A dozen people stood around watching them.
“Your board cracked your head and you went under. Luckily, somebody saw it happen and pulled you out quickly. You swallowed some water but none went into your lungs.”
“Who was it?”
The officer looked around. “He was here a minute ago. Now, let’s get you on your pins and see how you feel.”
He was watching television when Lynda came home late that evening. She called out “Hi” as she hung up her coat in the hall. “Catch any good waves?”
She entered the lounge room and stopped dead. “What happened to you?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “That’s a lump the size of an egg on your forehead.”
He touched it gingerly. “My board attacked me.” He gave her a brief rundown of what had happened.
“You might have drowned. I hope you thanked whoever it was who saved you.”
“They left before I could find out, though I have a good idea who it was.”
“Someone you know? Who?”
“What’s-his-name… Ed, Eddie?”
“Edris? Edris saved you? How do you know that?”
“I recognised his voice when I was gaining consciousness, before I blacked out again. I’m almost certain it was him.”
She started to laugh, then stopped. “Oh, that’s just too much. Of all the people. I must ask Maryam when I see her next.”
“Don’t, please. Just leave it.”
She couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Okay, but that’s priceless, it really is.”
He had a feeling she wouldn’t keep it to herself forever. It was too good a story to pass up.
He sat in the car and watched the beach. It was another fine day apart from the strong south-easterly. The surf was up and tempting, but he wasn’t yet ready to give it another go.
Three days had passed since the wipeout. The bruise was still noticeable, having gone the colour of approaching thunder, but his other aches had subsided. He just needed more time to get his confidence back, another couple of days perhaps. If he left it too long, it might never happen.
On the horizon a solitary tanker came gradually into view, the first he’d noticed in weeks. It raised his spirits a little. He wondered if there would ever be a return to the days when queues of boats laid off awaiting their turn at the coal loaders, the days when he’d had a full-time job.
He fumbled in the glovebox for his shades. It was time to go. He got out of the car and locked it.
Down on the beach a familiar red baseball cap was heading towards the shore. Erik donned his own cap and set off in the same direction.