By the end of the season the beach was clear, the sun still put in an occasional appearance but the main rush was well gone and the boys finished their duties at the hotel after a final party night for the staff. Victor had been in good form and, after one or two whiskys too far, he’d even come up to Dave and thanked him for coming to work for him – forgetting that they’d really had no choice in the matter.
The next morning the sea too decided that it was the end of the season and picked up its waves and flung them at the cliffs, the beach, the rocks – seabirds wheeled and swooped like ineffectual ticks on the back of a great beast – picking off the shellfish dislodged by the force. The ocean was laying out its statement of intent for the winter to come, no more playground antics, this was the ocean in all its maturity laying claim to the land once more and leaving no mistake in anyone’s mind as to who was the real ruler around here.
The road at the top of the beach was awash with sand and a slick of seawater, no vehicles had come through all morning. The tide was running higher than it had for many months and the beach was almost invisible under the combined onslaught of the water and the wind, whipping the remaining sand across at a height guaranteed to whip the skin off your legs if you were foolish enough to venture out. A solitary old woman, dressed in a thick coat and headscarf pulled tight across her mouth, twill skirt and large clumpy shoes, dragged her reluctant Terrier to the edge of the sand where she stood and watched, unable to go on any further but unwilling to turn back and forsake the daily routine of the beach walk. The dog skittered around her ankles, wary of yapping lest its mouth be filled with beach detritus and grateful for its wiry coat which deflected the worst of the stinging sand. The woman seemed to hesitate a moment and then she proceeded to make an orderly retreat back up the road to the left hand side of the village, across a stile into a field and out of sight down the far slope to home.
Matt watched this from his window in the flat he’d rented as a winter let, above the butcher’s shop, facing directly out to the sea. His windows rattled with the gusts and sand flew in through the ill fitting frames making little piles each side of the glass. He was hung over, his head throbbing and delicate, his mouth a victim of too many cigarettes and too little food.
He watched the mantra of the waves rising and falling, rising and falling, metamorphosing from a ridge far out the back to a steepening face, rearing up in stately power, then tipping slowly and peeling from right to left in a torrent of white water with the wind whipping the tops forward in a haze of spray almost half as high again as the waves themselves. Crashing and surging, barely able to suck back out before the next set rolled in, crashing, crashing, crashing. Today was not a day for entering the water – boats would be staying tied up in the nearby harbours, swimmers would be sensible to stay in front of the fire and the board was definitely going to stay under the stairs of the hotel, despite this being the first day of the summer when it hadn’t been in the water.
The room was cold, draughts flew through the gaps under the door and the rattling window seemed to amplify the lack of comfort. Matt drew his blanket ‘round him tightly but continued to stare at the sea, mesmerised by its unbreakable rhythm.
The door banged, down below at the bottom of the stairs. At first Matt ignored it, unwilling to move from his perch by the window, but it banged again and a voice could be heard through the wind, muffled and incoherent. Reluctantly he relinquished the blanket, threw it onto his bed and padded downstairs in his thick socks. Water was spilling under the door, forced through by the wind, and the door was stiff in the frame, swollen with water, as he jerked it open.
Joe’s face, framed by a thick woolly hat and a old army greatcoat peered round the door, his face was flush with the walk down the hill and rain slid down his cheeks as he smiled at Matt.
“Mornin’ !” He chuckled, obviously not feeling as bad as his friend. “Fancy a surf then ?”
Matt grimaced and shoved the door shut with some difficulty as they manoeuvred past each other on the skinny staircase.
“You’re joking, please ? Please tell me you are ?”
“Well, I thought about it to be honest – those waves are as big as houses out there and they manage them in the films – but…well, to be honest it’s all a bit too scary, not to mention too bloody cold today. Wondered how you were feeling ?”
“Crap.” came the one word answer.
They walked up the stairs and sat in the bed sitting room, after a few minutes discussing the party the night before they both fell again under the spell of the roaring sea and the pounding waves. Joe was partly right about the possibilities for surfing – the waves were certainly nowhere near as big as the ones they’d seen in pictures or films of far off places like Pipeline or the famed North Shore – Victor had been allowing them to use the hotel lounge once every fortnight to show some surfing films that they’d been able to lay their hands on, and a very profitable night’s takings he’d had too until the projector broke down after three sessions. In all Joe estimated that they were ten to twelve foot waves, but occasionally a set would come through from far out in the ocean which added another four or five feet to that and which looked awe inspiring even here on the mostly dry land. The boys drew in their breath and whistled low at the thought of being in the drop zone for one of those. The main problem, from a surfing perspective, was that the waves were too wild – a storm somewhere in the Atlantic had thrown these waves at the Cornish coast with a fury and the white water and sheer bulk of these thick slabbed monsters meant that you wouldn’t even be able to get near them before being pounded and pushed under and back, choking on foam and gasping great lungfuls of salty water.
Matt pottered delicately around the flat – holding his head now and then as if to caress it would numb the pain. He made them a coffee on the two ring baby belling and dug in last night’s jacket for the remnants of his foil packet of tobacco.
“Joe, what was I smoking last night ?”, Matt looked up sheepishly,
“Mine mostly you tight git” replied Joe with a smile.
“Mmm, Thought so.” Matt threw the packet to Joe, “That’s why there’s still some of that left !”
Joe opened the packet and pulled out a small brown lump. He grinned and pronounced that there was nothing like it to start the day, even if it was now past noon, then crumbled it up into some papers and chucked the packet back to Matt.
Matt put on the radio, the reception was hissy and tinny, fading in and out with the gusts of wind, but it was better than nothing. An incongruous piece of classical music filled the air and Joe groaned, but they knew that here was nothing else good to be had on a Sunday unless you wanted to listen to the dreadful easy listening that the country slumbered by on as a salve for not going to work and avoiding going to church.
The sea watch continued and Joe expounded his views on the stupidity of building more on the strap of land that separated the beach from the road, already there was a well known chance of flooding even on this side of the road. Who, he asked, in their right mind, would want to own a shop or a house that was under water at least twice a year ? The topics moved around, Matt picking up slowly as the day progressed and more smoking followed. Joe was indignant on the subject of the Torrey Canyon, run aground and spilling oil across beaches up the coast, although mercifully sparing this one, even then oiled birds still fetched up on days like this, over two years later. How long, he wanted to know, would it be until the next one, and the next, until the oil completely wiped out the coast and all that lived on it. He’d just read Silent Spring and was indignant about most things man-made these days.