Saturday, 21 April 2012

Solo - part one

          The storm started to die down outside Matt’s window; the rattling had become a series of more gentle, but equally irritating knockings at random intervals, spurred by the gusts that remained of the dying gale. The tide was back away from the road, away from the flat, now – receding as rapidly as it had risen and washing across the sand where it licked at the wet edges of the beach. The rain had stopped and the clouds were one shade less of winter and a little closer to daylight again. The road down below was barely recognisable as such; sloughs of wet sand blurred the edges and the paths and kerbs disappeared beneath its messy fluid bulk. The garage forecourt was empty and a single twirling sign reading alternately ‘petrol/paraffin’ clattered around on a rusty stand. Lumps of beach hung to the rendered walls and Jackson Pollocked the building in seaweed, sand and seagull shit – the whole scene looked as if it had been recently recovered from the ocean depths rather than having lived through yet another onslaught. Matt thought that it wouldn’t be too much of a leap of the imagination to see Neptune step out and start filling up tanks with brine and foam.

          He was bored now, slightly stoned and bored. He played with the Sunday radio and found nothing but the most hiss filled stations with mellow jazz and inane conversations.

          The sea was looking clearer now, it had just dropped behind the steps that led from the hotel to the beach and he decided that the only thing to do was to go for a walk to clear his head and get to grips with life this side of summer. End of the season.

          It was the hotel really, honestly, that made him do it. That and the spliff he had walking across. The half bottle of whisky that he recovered from the scrub where he’d placed it before leaving the party the night before was innocent. He found it after a few moments, unscrewed the top, feeling the grit in the bottle top first resist and then give – took a tentative sniff and then almost retched. He placed the bottle in the pocket of his jacket anyway, but left it untouched.

          But the door to the hotel lobby was swinging open in the drizzle and he saw the board leant up against the inside wall, wetsuit slung over the top. He decided to go over and close the door, you never knew who might wander by and nick it – 'though the chances of anyone wandering past on a ramble and being able to carry this off unnoticed were, he conceded to himself, pretty unlikely. But you never knew. He didn’t wonder why the board was there. The chances were that Victor had put it there, either philanthropically in case one of the boys called by, or as a taunt as if to say “first day of not working and look at the bloody sea, no chance today mate, no chance at all.”

          Which of course was what really made Matt do it. He quietly pulled himself into the little porch way, closed the door with one foot and stripped off his damp clothes. There was no-one around now, the day after the end of the season there never ever was. Even Victor would be somewhere else now – probably at the accountants counting his money. No guests, no-one on the beach, perfect. Matt pulled on the wetsuit, despite himself he could feel the excitement building, the neoprene smelt of summer, the faint tang of board wax clung to it and each nick in its surface reminded him of how and when it had happened. They’d bought the wetsuit collectively after a few weeks working at the hotel, no-one complained that it didn’t quite fit, because at least they all managed to get some wear out of it – only Jaz had to roll up the legs and Dave sometimes found it a bit on the short side. Matt manhandled the board out of the doorway, the top half of the wetsuit hanging loose around his waist, the water stinging his skin into some kind of enervation.

           On the deserted beach he pulled up the suit and grappled with the zip, reaching ungainly down his back, feeling for the cord, then with a flourish of triumph he pulled it up and at once felt safe and invulnerable in the comforting tightness. He slipped the recently acquired leash around his ankle and caught the rest up in his hand, all the while holding tight to the rails of the board. In seconds he was in the water – the mass of white foam had dropped back to manageable proportions and, although still big, the waves were cleaning up nicely. This was a first, to go out on his own in the empty sea, and the vast emptiness was a siren calling. He was delirious with the freedom and at the same time more than just worried at the prospect – but he was invincible after all, that’s what being this age was about. Nothing to stop him and no rules.

          First one of the inside set hit him, then another, even at this point the waves were a good four feet – and out the back came a curving set of waves, inexorable, unstoppable and cleaning up as he watched and wondered. The noise of the water cleared out all thoughts, held him in a steady pattern of paddling and ducking, spitting out mouthfuls of salt water and gasping in the saturated air. Before long he was beyond the inside break and paddling furiously between sets to get in a position where he didn’t have to brace himself each time the swell rose in front of him, wondering if this one would pass or crash on him with grey intensity, wash him back to where he’d started.

           After twenty minutes and a great deal of determination not to just catch the smaller waves for the hell of it he was out the back. Swell after swell passed him, one moment he was atop the great bulge of water, sitting astride the longboard like a Viking chief on the prow of a longship, able to see down the entire coastline. The next he was in the trough, hidden from view and only able to look up at the cliffs on either side of the bay, iron water smashing against colossal shining slabs of granite. The rhythm was calming, the flow beneath the flimsy board felt eternal and unchanging.

          With a swift move he swung around and lined up for the next clean set. He lay along the sticky plank and grabbed the rails. Deep breath. Paddle. Paddle. The wall reared up behind him and he felt the momentum increase as the board matched the water for speed and height. Then. Then he pulled at the rails and leapt upright, wobbling then steady. The almost sensual curve of the water gave way and crumbled as the wave sheared over the shallower sand. He looked down and where there had been a rolling plain there was now just the steep drop, his feet and stomach fell at the same time. He was still standing, half way down the face with the roaring getting louder. Then. Then he was up and riding, sliding down the face of the wave and oblivious to all else. The tip was tumbling white, grey, blue, black, green just feet away from his head. Almost. Almost barrelling, but not hollow enough. He raced the collapse and then, just as it reached him he shifted position almost imperceptibly and pointed the nose back into the wave, climbing slowly. Too slowly. But he made it and slipped back down, instinctively paddling again as he made the crest and flew out and over the back of the rushing wall, speed dropped and more water rushing back at him. This was always the hardest part, get the timing wrong and the next one in the set would fall about your ears, washing you round and spewing you into the shallow water past the break. But the timing was right. He pumped at the water with his arms, holding the leg with the leash clear of the board, yelling to no-one and calling on the sea to do its worst. He’d done it. Out the back. Solo. But there was no-one to see it.

          Over the next thirty or forty minutes – time was being measured in where the water’s edge reached rather than by the clock, so, let’s say over the course of about thirty yards of sucked out ocean – he struggled, rode and swam in the murky storm water. By now he was unaware of events outside of his patch of liquid gym and although he was sure that no-one else was in the water he had long ago given up looking at the cliff tops for voyeurs.

           What he didn’t see was the growing stretch of towering cloud spreading landwards from the horizon.

          He was just at the back again, teeing up ready to take another wave when it hit...


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