The sun bends their bodies across the roadside puddles. Shadows swim out from under their cranks where the playful morning light twists their bodies, bikes and surfboards into a jumble of sharp, angular shapes as they pedal past the muddy sinkholes that border the bitumen leading into town. They are two teenage boys with tangled hair yet their reflection appears like a triceratops come to life; a prehistoric beast waddling down a smooth black sweep of tar, a forgotten curve of the Great Ocean Road beyond the tourist stops and biblical rock formations, brittle like toffee eaten at the edges by potholes and puddles. They reach an 80 sign pocked with rusting bullet holes and follow the burnout marks, reading the tyre tracks, where sunshine dances across the sticky caramel dirt that plasters their wheels and spits on their legs and the arse of their pants.
I slow to a crawl, trailing the spinning spokes into a dead-end car park. There is a Holden Rodeo wedged between two almost identical early eighties XD Falcon utes belonging to local fishermen or farmhands. The Rodeo has a sticker in the shape of Australia plastered across the back window. Black capital letters begin somewhere south of Broome: ‘Fuck off, we’re full’. I park near the exit while the boys ditch their bikes under the shade of a stunted coastal wattle and disappear down a narrow walking track that leads to the deep ceramic blue of the Southern Ocean. The September sun is warm and comforting but it is cold in the shadows so I walk crookedly, avoiding the dark shapes cast by bent tea-tree and wattle and she-oak, trying to stay in the sunlight.
I see the plumes of spray first and quicken my pace, careful not to run, shuffling like Cliff Young towards the lookout—a craggy limestone platform that juts into a small bay encircled by crumbling sea cliffs, battered and buffeted by an eon of gale force winds and monster waves. Three black blobs bob just outside the impact zone, where shocks of white water explode on thick ribbons of bull kelp and rock. The ocean is a blur of movement, aroused by a gusty nor’-wester that breathes corrugations into the surges of swell that curve into the bay; shaggy lines swept ragged by the roaring forties.
The waves are good. I surf for almost three hours, until I can’t feel my toes as I scramble up the cliff face to exit the water. Tommy walks down the path, craning his neck to see the next wave rise and fall. He’s wearing a pageboy haircut and a gap-toothed, three sheets to the wind, watermelon grin. Tommy is a local; born and bred in Peterborough, the small fishing town that squats at the mouth of the Curdies River a few kilometres east. I haven’t seen him for a long time. I am no longer a regular visitor down south, to this broken shoreline west of Cape Otway, and he’s one of those guys who seem to drift away with the breeze, chasing the seasons from coast to coast, dodging the daily grind of responsibility and regret. The last I’d heard he was over in the west, working on a gas pipeline. We pause for a moment to exchange the usual surf-check banter about the wind, the swell and the tide. ‘Snake,’ Tommy says as one of the black shapes bends onto his surfboard and paddles sideways.
From where we stand he resembles a centipede, wriggling over the first lump as it folds onto the reef. The second wave is bigger and the surfer paddles in a sharp, determined arc to meet its path. The wave rears up. The nor’-wester tears shards of spray from its crest as the man in black neoprene claws at its dimpled face, leaping to his feet before it becomes a bad idea. The wave lurches, mutating with malevolence. The surfer stands tall with arms spread wide, posing midair like Christ the Redeemer before the cold slab of saltwater smites him, bending his body in half and sending his surfboard spiralling into the air. Gurgle, swallow, spit. He is consumed by the bubbling white water, keelhauled through the line-up, dancing surfboard in his wake.
Tommy shifts his stance, picks his undies from his arse, smile tightening into something more like a grimace. He rests his surfboard against a rock and drops a faded backpack at his feet, eyes averted towards the ocean. Tommy’s hands are the only hint of any familiarity with physical labour. He is built like a bird, a buff-breasted sandpiper, whose brawling barrel-chest defies its small and delicate frame. Tommy’s flannelette shirt hangs loosely from his shoulders and pale legs protrude from khaki shorts like the last two fags in a pack. But his hands are broad and scuffed at the edges. Dirt is jammed underneath his fingernails and the outside edge of his thumb is callused and speckled. They are shaking, ever so slightly, like a tremolo whispering a note.
‘S’pose I better go face the music,’ he says.
I balance on a smooth, oval-shaped lump of limestone, wrestling with a clammy wetsuit, as Tommy pin drops into the swirling cappuccino froth of the keyhole. I am stark naked, shrivelled penis entrapped in a spider’s nest of pubic hair, pale sunshine kissing my prickly, sea-salted skin. Tommy is paddling over the shoulder of a smaller, inside wave. Snake cuts across its curving wall. There is a flash of recognition and Snake turns hard off the bottom and aims for the channel, leaping onto Tommy’s back. They both disappear underwater in a tangle of arms and legs, with Snake thrashing wildly at the water. Tommy emerges first, gasping for air. They straddle their surfboards, pushing, trying to unbalance the other, but Snake has the reach. Thwack, thwack.
Tommy’s head jolts violently backwards and he capsizes, feet pointing skywards like a duck. I start for the car park, for the car, for home. But I don’t leave. Not immediately. I have a long drive ahead so I sit on the edge of the open boot eating sandwiches from the Elliminyt Mini Mart. I spark a joint and sip from a bottle of Passiona heated by the sun, the bubbles long gone, with sugar crystals clinging to warm plastic. Then Tommy walks into the car park, dripping wet and bleeding from the corner of his mouth.
‘Well fuck that,’ he says, puffing his cheeks and spitting a stream of blood. He’s breathing like he’s been running and trembling like he’s suddenly inherited Parkinson’s. ‘Fuck.’ He rubs his jaw. ‘Didn’t even hurt,’ he says, smiling now. ‘More like a love tap.’
I don’t even get a chance to laugh.
‘Didn’t hurt?’ Snake strides up to Tommy, chesting him, towering over him, clenched white knuckles dangling by his side, stained fingernails pinching the palms of his hands. ‘Didn’t hurt?’
He’s circling him now, shaking, like he has inherited Parkinson’s too but it’s more advanced. There is a vein in his neck straining like a length of fencing wire. He looks reptilian, with greasy hair swept back from a bony forehead and a flat, mashed shit-carter’s hat for a nose. His arms hang almost to his knees and he brings both of his fists down upon Tommy’s knuckles, knocking his surfboard to the ground. The sound of fibreglass on rock crackles across the car park.
I can feel the blood drain from my face, fingers and toes like I’m rushing; can feel that stoned tingle wash over me.
‘Ya can’t touch me, Snake,’ Tommy says, a vibration wavering through his voice. ‘I’ve got a witness. You touch me and I’ll go straight to the cops. With your record …’
‘You fucken’ dog.’ Snake’s knuckles are in Tommy’s face, with flakes of skin torn and bleeding. He squeezes Tommy’s jaw between his thumb and index finger like a vice slowly tightening until Tommy’s teeth grate and crack. ‘Now you listen to me, you little fucken’ shit,’ he growls. ‘You even think of talkin’ to the cops I’ll burn your fucken’ house down.’
He pushes Tommy hard in the chest. Tommy stumbles backwards and falls over. He sits on his arse in the dirt. ‘I’m not going to fight ya, Snake,’ he says, refusing to get back up.
Snake remains rooted to the spot, water leeching from his wetsuit, muscles twitching—the threat of further violence slowly passing with each unsteady breath. Then he turns on me. ‘You! You should know better. Hanging around with scum like this.’ He spits on the dirt and walks away.
I get into the car and drive out of the car park. I do not look back. I take the back road to Timboon. •