Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Beginning - part 1

        Summer at its height and the day trippers were heading home up the hill in their tired vehicles, the beach returning at last to some semblance of sanity. Up on the cliff, overlooking the Atlantic in all it’s over-there-is-America vastness stood Joe, his two brothers and Matt, fifteen years old and ready to take back what they saw as their birthright, the sea, the beach and the occasional tourist girl who might be prepared to let them.

The sun still hung well above the horizon and in shorts and open necked shirts they gasped in great lungfuls of the salt and vinegar air that permeated from down below. The tide was on the turn and the swell was starting to thicken, they watched the sets come in from a long way out and collapse over themselves as they hit the sand bars and the beach.

 Behind them was the old Perran Hotel, a Victorian edifice as solid as the rocks it stood on, spired towers at each end holding up the sky and vying with the distant lighthouse for superiority over the clouds. It was freshly painted white at the beginning of each season and housed a clientele which consisted mainly of the old middle class. The new middle classes, the advertising execs, the professionals, those riding the end of the sixties’ boom, went abroad for their holidays now – it wasn’t so cool to hang around the declining villages that peppered the North coast any more – these were the families that had been coming here for generations, the farmers, the doctors, the minor landowners. Down in the valley was a rudimentary campsite, a few caravans and some scout tents, which housed the less well off patrons of this resort, and on the fields of the cliffs opposite stood a few more houses which were let over the summer. That was the sum total of the holiday industry here – other than that the numbers swelled dramatically as the waves swelled below by the day trippers who were scuttling back to farmhouses and inland hotels for tea now.

            Joe, fifteen and already with his black hair well down below his collar, sucked on a Number Six and passed the packet to his elder brother Dave. There was an equality about them which belied the difference in age, at an age where two years mattered – Joe was the talker, the joker, the doer, Dave was quieter, more tongue tied, hiding behind his thick National Health glasses, a laugher at rather than a teller of  tales. The third brother was Andy – more serious on the surface, somehow restrained in his outward self, underneath he was cut from the same cloth as the other two, but he was more restless, searching even if he didn’t really know what for. Matt, was, well, he was Matt – no-one else like him around here – he’d been bought up in Kenya for the first five years of his life, his father was some sort of post colonial administrator. When they moved back to their family home they didn’t try to change the way Matt behaved and he treated the beach and the surrounds like an extension of the veldt that he had known – he was almost always the instigator of any wild scheme and was the champion cliff jumper, tombstoner, swimmer and girl chatter in the village. A reputation he worked hard to reinforce, even to the extent of adopting a slightly African twang when confronted by a newcomer – the rest of the time he was as broadly Cornish as everyone else.

But it was Matt who had made use of his African connections in getting to know the new owner of the Perran – a South African called Victor; white naturally, all South Africans were back then.

“So can we use it ?” asked Joe

“Well, he said we could use it sometime…” replied Matt nonchalantly

“Like now ?” Joe persisted.

“Well, he said I could use it” – that “I” was spelt out in bold.

“Well fuck that then, how about you go and get it”

“Do you think he meant it ?” Andy asked cautiously

“He said it didn’t he ?” Joe quickly interjected, in case the momentum was lost

“Well get the thing then” Matt said, pushing Joe back on the furzy clifftop.

The thing in question was Victor’s surfboard – it wasn’t like the boards that everyone used in England. These were four foot long flat bellyboards, the ‘planks’ with a curved up front, and they were ridden by lying flat and catching the white water in front of the breakers. There were still some people on them down in the sea now, this was what the English had always considered surfing. Genteel enough for it to be mainly a women’s activity whilst the men showed off by splashing through the waves and bodysurfing with no boards at all.

Joe looked at Matt, Matt tried to look back but broke off his gaze and turned it on Dave, always the more easily persuaded, Dave looked at the ground. Andy looked at all three of them with an air of anticipation mingled with his role as the group’s moral arbiter. He finally decided that there was no point arguing and joined Matt and Joe  to stare at Dave, his lank blond hair falling over his eyes. Dave finally mumbled his assent and trudged up to the side door of the hotel.

There was no-one around at this time of the day. The kitchen staff wouldn’t arrive for another half hour and the bar staff were usually taking advantage of the down time to have a sleep or reading books in their rooms. A few of the patrons sat in the lounge reading newspapers. Victor was probably in his office at the far side of the hotel drinking his incessant cups of coffee and complaining at each sip that the English wouldn’t know decent coffee if their lives depended on it.

Having established in their earlier conversation that Victor had agreed they could use the board, or at least that Matt could, it was easy for Dave to sidestep the actual formality of asking him if they could use it right now…. He slipped inside the door and two minutes later re-emerged with his prize.

Joe sucked in his breath – it was a huge piece of wood, how they were even going to get it down the cliffs was going to be tricky.

Matt was already in love – the slick varnished balsa, alternating stripes of dark and light veneer, the curved and polished single fin, the curves, the lines of the rails, the sheer warmth of the wood and the latent power of the paler underside. Almost ten feet of sheer sensuous pleasure and that was just as an object, not even as a tool in the water yet. He wanted to hold it so desperately he ran over and tried to grab it off Dave, who overbalanced with the weight, leaving them both lying on their backs holding the board away from the gravel on the edge of the road. It wasn’t made to be marked by mere landlocked stones, the ocean awaited.

Ten minutes later and the water was sucking at their feet, promising numb pleasure even at this time of year. The sun was ambling sluggishly down through the absolute blueness of the sky to the point where the silver sheen of the horizon waited. A small group gathered to watch as Matt launched the board in a smooth plane across the incoming foam, its nose bobbing up as the bulk followed and improbably stayed, slick and shining, on the surface between waves. Somehow the four of them manoeuvred the board out through the white water and into the path of the inside sets sweeping in from the far larger outside break. Laughing and spluttering in equal measures, feeling the cold water turn magically warm as it embraced first their legs, then their waists and finally as they dived under for full immersion, they were no longer on some Cornish beach but out in Waimea, Rincon, Ventura, Laguna – wherever those cheesy surf records and grainy films had made so familiar over recent years.

Joe was first on the board, spread-eagled as he tried to paddle this vast piece of varnished tree out further through the waves. The first incoming set threw him and the board back ten feet, the second turned him over like a turtle, still clinging on to the upturned deck. Wax wasn’t even thought of back then and repeatedly he slid further down the board as successive waves washed over him. Finally, with Matt towing and Andy and Dave pushing he managed to get the board into some sort of useful position and he waited, late sun on his bare back, facing inland, anticipating. With much shouting of useless and barely heard instructions he felt the water dip below him and then start to rise almost inexorably. It seemed that the world had shrunk and the sole focus was on this one bay, this one wave. He began to paddle furiously – Dave and Andy pushed from behind as the water surged up, then he was off. Gliding along the glassy front, balanced precariously, although still lying flat, willing the board on. The rush was fabulous, like nothing ever before, there was no going back to those planks now. At once it felt like lying on the deck of a stately cruise ship and simultaneously as thrilling and dangerous as lying atop a guided missile.

How long the ride was was endlessly debated for days afterwards, it seemed like the longest ever as he slid effortlessly towards the beach and the few staring paddlers at the edge. By later standards it was pathetically short and in waves that they would later deride as beginner’s, but here he was, riding the ocean with as much grace as he could muster and leaving behind both the landlocked and the flailing swimmers as if he had done this all his life. Time to get serious, he pushed his arms up like he’d seen them do in films, lifted his knees and tried to jump to a standing position. The board was surprisingly stable, its size and weight saw to that. With youth and fitness on his side he was up in one go and ready to shout at the top of his lungs. Then, within milliseconds, the nose dipped, snagged on the treacherous water that had been its path, upended and sent Joe crashing through the air and into the water and sand below. His first wipe-out.

Matt ran clumsily through the water, half falling half swimming and reached out to grab the board, surprised at how much it tugged and tried to get free from his grip as the next wave splashed through. Joe was ignored in his attempts to claim glory and Matt threw the board ahead of him as he pushed it back out to the horizon again. They were only in waist deep water now and the return to a rideable wave was maybe fifty yards and many minutes back through the white foam that now surrounded them all.

All the rest of the evening, until the late summer sun was sitting atop the horizon, spreading crimson and gold across the furthest reaches of the water like a leaking paint pot, they surfed and splashed and chased the board and sometimes caught the waves and sometimes didn’t and almost always fell, abandoning dignity with a smile, back into the elements that they knew now were their playground.

It had taken a good hour before anyone was able to stand up on the board, even then only for a few seconds. It was improbably Dave who managed it first, a combination the others later agreed of beginner’s luck and his lightweight frame, but it didn’t matter they all celebrated together as if he’d won the 5000 metres at the Olympics.

As time went on all of them bar Andy managed a spell standing – they realised that the trick, such as it was, was to keep the nose up and find that spot on the board where they could plant themselves and watch the world going by. The waves were barely three feet tall for most of the time, but they were the conquerors of the ocean, kings of the sea. Something in the salt water told them that they had that day baptised themselves as the new breed and the beach was now theirs.

That was until a figure appeared on the cliff path. Stomping purposefully down the rocks was the stocky angular figure of Victor, rightful owner of the new toy they were all so enamoured of, who had been all but forgotten until this moment....

No trace of The Action version - but the song does say it all....

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