This is a small, surfing town. Groups of teenage girls and boys wander from the beach to the convenience store, hanging around, girls sometimes in only bikinis, boys without shirts. I often catch myself marvelling at the boys’ bodies. The effortless muscle, lean and supple. I rarely went to the beach when I lived here as a teenager. It is pretty obvious why: it’s the body thing. And I was skinny. Effortlessly so. I didn’t know this at the time but putting in so much effort now for little result makes me realise how good I had it. I wasn’t comfortable in swimwear and I was frankly a little scared of the girls who did hang out on the beach. I had read bits of Puberty Blues and I was pretty sure these girls were the same and I wasn’t having a bar of it.
I gave up surfing when my family moved here, in the 80s. I had tried for a number of years to surf when we lived further north. Mum and Dad would fill up the Kombi and drive us to Byron Bay every weekend. I really loved surfing at the Pass. On good days the waves rolled gently for miles down the beach. When the tide was full they didn’t come straight into the beach but rather went alongside it. On those days I could catch a wave and have it take me softly along, without much speed or violence, until I could ease myself off it down the beach. Paddling back wasn’t too much of a chore. I lost my mother’s signet ring at that beach. I’ve never forgiven myself for it.
When we moved here I was 13. I lost all my confidence in the water. I lost interest in surfing because my fear didn’t allow me to continue. It’s come as a surprise then having moved back here, I have granted myself a little window of interest again. My son has become fixated on surfing. He badgered my brother for a board, knowing he had four or five of them lined up in his front room. They stand there like boards in a surf shop. As a child my brother would have wet himself with excitement if he knew one day he would grow up to have his own RACK of surfboards. The little pieces of wood that stand perpendicular to the wall between the boards are even wrapped in foam to protect the fibreglass.
On the second last day of the school term my brother brought learner’s softboards around to our house in his newly-purchased 1969 Ford Galaxie. I couldn’t believe he bought the car, and from e-Bay no less, but I secretly admire his ability to ignore practicality for the sake of owning such a incredible thing. On the night of the school Christmas carols he picked up Dash and I and we rode along with his wife and their three kids in this hulking, low, pale blue beast as he crawled it through the streets. It’s so big it has the unearthly air of a train. My brother borrowed the boards from the high school so Dash could spend some time learning to surf over the holidays. There is one short red board, for Lou, and a long, blue board, for me. One day I had mentioned that I might like to give surfing a go again when the waves were small and rolling. My brother didn’t forget I had said it. I had fantasies of catching waves in a clear ocean on a day when there is no breeze. I conveniently forgot there would be 50 other people trying to do the same thing, and they could actually surf.
Once Dash has an idea in his head he doesn’t allow anything else to jostle with it, he spends all his time thinking about that idea and verbalising the thoughts most of us keep in our heads. It drives me crazy. Surfing is his current idea and until I took him out on that board he wasn’t going to shut up. As soon as my brother delivered the boards he wanted to go. I tried to explain it was too late, the morning would be best. I promised to take him the next day. This didn’t really placate him but the fact that it was soon going to be dark meant he couldn’t really argue anymore.
The next day I packed his board into the car, sliding it from the boot, through the back and in between the front two seats. We went off to the headland to check the best place to get into the water. It was pretty windy at home and remembering that as a child we spent many hours agonising over wind, hoping for still days, I knew that the beach was probably going to be un-surfable for a small, skinny boy of six and his overweight mother. The tide was also at its peak. The waves would be full and lacking sufficient, even break to provide a satisfying, safe ride. When we got onto the beach my fears were confirmed. The wind lashed us from the north-east and the waves were scraping at the beach from various directions. This was not a good day for surfing, we should come back later. He wasn’t having this. I saw him tear up. I wasn’t going in the water, it would be a disaster. I told him we’d come back in a couple of hours, when the tide had gone out a bit. I promise. Somehow I managed to get him back in the car.
Of course, two hours barely made any difference and the waves were pretty much useless for learning to surf. He caught two or three, me pushing him onto the waves as they came through, and promptly the nose of the board dived down and he slid, legs splayed on each side of the board, off and under the water. This put the fear into him. He refused to come out again and stood in the shore break, battling to keep hold of the board.
The next time we went down to the beach wit both the boards and he did the same thing. He stood next to the board and wrestled with it as waves broke just ahead of him. I tried to get him to paddle out but he was not doing it.
I shouldn’t point too much at his fear, it took me an age to get the board into the water. When we first got to the beach we went towards the spot where there were a lot of surfers. Most of them were on long boards as the waves were small and full-ish but had a good form. They were graceful on the waves. Some of them would walk up to the end of the board and back as they rode just below the crest. The blokes on shorter boards would smack their rides up and down trying to generate some kind of speed. It was not one of those days. It was a day for longer, slower boards. Just the kind of day I had wanted.
There was no way I was going out there. All it would take was for me to break one of the rules and I would be done for. I also knew my limitations. I hadn’t surfed for more than twenty years. I took Dash up to another corner of the beach where there were practically no waves and no other surfers. There was a bloke in the water having trouble balancing on his expensive-looking board and I didn’t really want to have people looking at me in the way I was looking at him right now.
Putting the board in the water felt ok. I leaned on either side and pushed it through the white foam. A whole heap of physical memories came back. They took me by surprise. I heaved my bulk onto the board that had looked well wide enough in the shed but now felt narrow. I was trying to balance a sausage on a pin. I paddled and immediately realised how strenuous paddling can be. When you watch a bunch of surfers meander about in the water beneath the headland it all looks so easy. The effort felt good. I paddled out until I felt I probably couldn’t stand. My boobs pressed hard against the board and it hurt. I tried to lift my upper body off the board to give them some space but trying to keep your shoulders elevated with several kilos of fun bag strapped to them while laying on a slippery board is not easy. I sat up on the board, almost involuntarily. Where did that come from? It just felt like the obvious thing to do. I had to work hard with my legs to stay balanced. I swirled them around underneath myself in small circles, working to keep everything the right way up.
I knew the waves weren’t really there for catching but I didn’t honestly want to catch them as I didn’t know what I would do when I did. I need to work on paddling and balance. In the end I just had to give it a go. I paddled hard trying to catch some but they were too full, not close enough to breaking. I could hear Dash saying “Go Mum, go Mum” as I worked my arms hard through the water. I turned the board around and waited. Finally. One came through that I could catch, even if it was only going to give me a short ride. I paddled hard, hard, hard, and the board was moving at the speed of the wave. I felt the wave take over. I was on it. I immediately grabbed the rails and made to stand up but thought better of it. I focused on not nose-diving the board and managed to stay on it. I landed on the sand, beaching myself, as it were, but I hadn’t fallen off. I looked up and my partner was sitting on the beach laughing. I started laughing. I picked the board up and headed back out and I didn’t care who was watching.