by A. R. Lamb
"I don't know what you mean," he said, picking up a dead shrew by the tail and lobbing it into next-door's garden.
"You haven't been listening. I'm telling you I can't live with you any longer."
"You know why. You bring me down. You're just too bloody miserable."
"I'll cheer up. I promise."
To prove it, he immediately began modelling his lips into a crude effigy of a smile.
"How often have I heard that?"
"This time I mean it."
"It's too late. You won't change now. You're set for life."
In his mind, he didn't need to change. He only needed to appear to be what he was - a pot of molten gold simmered by the heat of the earth.
"Come on," he implored. "You've got to give me a last chance. I'm full of joy really, you know I am. I just pretend to be miserable to protect my joy."
"Oh, don't give me that rubbish again."
* * *
Despite her infallible scepticism, she granted him his chance. Over the next few days he was light to the point of flippancy, unoppressive to the point of liberality. He went out of his way to relate to her relatives, to be friendly to her friends.
You know how a hat, after having been taken off, feels as though it is still there? This was the opposite of that. To him, the hat was thrown away and forgotten and he was now an effervescent mirthmonger. To Dawn, the hat was still on his head and his behaviour was at best embarrassing.
When he realised she wasn't having it he naturally began to experience genuine misery, which he tried and failed to hide. So she was able to dismiss him legitimately from their conjugation.
"If I can keep the cat then you can take the dog. That's fair, isn't it? I hope we can still be friends," she concluded.
The dog, who'd been severely disturbed by all the discordant vibrations bombinating about the house, was happy to be away. She stood swaying in the back of the van, her chin occasionally nudging his shoulder. She was waiting for word of their destination, while ceaselessly transmitting her own preference for the beach.
Blinded by self-pity, he didn't know where they were going. She can stuff herself for all I care. Bloody stupid work can stuff itself as well. Bloody stupid life anyway. He went on obliviously wallowing like this for half an hour, only stopping when he noticed the van had stopped and the dog was asking to be let out, only realising where they were when he opened the door: a familiar realm of dune and gloom, scudded by frantic clouds, pelted by Atlantic rain. He couldn't believe he'd got here without even a smattering of intention or awareness. Oh, well. He ran down to assess the state of the sea: a boiling mess of onshore chop; virtually blown-out; usual wintry stuff; no-one else in of course. Even from up here it looked huge. Still, if he watched carefully he could pick out the occasional possible ride.
Right, he thought. I'll show her. He went back to the van and changed. Then, for the last time, he leaped and slid down the sandcliff to the beach. He imagined the sea was his only friend. What better arms to finish up in than those of your only friend? It wouldn't be suicide because he didn't believe in suicide. Besides, if he could get out past the break he intended to live as long as he could, forever if possible. He just wasn't coming ashore any more. He sat down at the frothing edge; tied his leash; gave the dog a long and tearful hug. There was nothing he could do about her. she might wait a day or two for him, but surely after that she'd find her way back to Dawn. He stood up. There was now nothing between him in here and him out there except a hundred yards of battle. He charged.
Each broken, blinding, foaming, raging, deafening, onslaughtering monster of a wave he dived through meant he was a definite distance, no matter how small, closer to never again. Half an hour of turtle progress later, this knowledge was the sole remaining antidote to exhaustion.
But at last, after nearly making it a few times, there was no more white water in front of him. He lay flat-out and face-down on his board to recuperate, surrounded by a range of moving green mountains, by comparative peace. His 'joy', usually locked away, welled up into his chest, his throat, his mouth: he shrieked.
* * *
Darkness was just beginning to fall. He'd had a couple of long rides, a lot of short rides, a few crushing wipe-outs. He was flagging. The cold was piercing his neoprene armour; his hands and feet already hurt with it; there was little fuel left to burn. He realised he wouldn't even live through the night.
Only now he noticed he wasn't alone. Fifty yards away a blond head bobbed in and out of view. Fucking hell, he said out loud, with venom. It was a huge bay. Why pick here? He began to paddle south, to restore his solitude, but when he looked round he saw that the other was nearer than before and closing fast. Instead of the usual and anticipated adolescent male the bleached hair belonged to a woman.
"Hi," she said.
"That your collie waiting on the beach?"
"I didn't expect to see anyone else in."
"Nor did I," he said. "I prefer to be alone."
She was open-faced, Australian, disgustingly chirpy.
He took the first wave of the next set, but was so knackered by now that he fell off immediately. The wave swallowed him whole. He'd forgotten to take a breath. It was like being shrigged about inside a washing-machine on spin. Although he had time to consider the imperfections of this analogy he knew that if he wasn't disgorged soon he'd have to breathe water. He was calmly deciding that perhaps this was a better way to go than waiting to freeze when his lungs exploded.
Needless to say, he lived. He'd inhaled more foam than water. The foam had contained enough air to preclude him from drowning. When he'd recovered a little he looked up to see her catching a monster, and not merely riding it but tattooing its green face with a series of stylish filigrees.
A few minutes later she appeared again at his side.
"I'm going in now. You coming?"
"In a bit," he gasped. "You go on."
"Look, mate. You seem pretty whacked. I'm going to wait for you."
"I'm O.K.," he insisted. "I just want to stay out a little longer."
But she wouldn't go. He was forced to admit the game was up. He could hardly explain his intentions.
They rode prone together to the beach; emerged to be greeted by an ecstatic dog; began the long climb back through the soft and sapping sand. By the time they reached the top he felt, although even more exhausted, a little less shivery: the water in his boots was warm. They stood facing each other in the dusk, in the no-man's-land between their vans (his a disintegrating rustbucket, hers a gleaming camper).
"Come over for a hot drink when you've changed," she said.
This was the sort of change he was just about capable of: from wetskin to dryskin, from blackskin to whiteskin, from secondskin to firstskin. The dog had gone off after rabbit - he could hear her distant yelps of excitement. He knocked on the door of the camper.
The interior was tight and warm. The bed was out, the curtains drawn. All four rings of the gas-stove were burning; on one a kettle, coming.
"Sit down," she said, indicating the bed.
He sprawled there in blankness. She unwound the towel from her head, rubbed her hair vigorously dry. She offered him gunpowder tea. She wore a short robe, embroidered by an oriental hand. Her legs were brown and sturdy.
At first there was no curiosity in the questions he asked about her life, merely a need to avoid thinking what on earth he was going to do with his own, now so cruelly elongated. She'd left Brisbane two years before, had sailed here single-handed, tasting on the way some of the world's best waves - Tahiti, Hawaii, West Africa, West Spain, West France. She'd sold her yacht in Falmouth, bought the van, and was now proceeding leisurely northeastwards at the rate of about a beach a day.
After a while his admiration became slightly aroused. There was also a vague stirring of shame at his own feebleness. In a month she was flying to the Czech Republic to trace some relatives. As far as she knew, the Czech Republic was landlocked. So she was getting in as much surf as she could beforehand.
"Sounds great," he said.
"Yeah. It is."
"Don't you get lonely?"
"No, not at all. I quite often pick someone up for the night."
"Oh, I see."
"No-one like you, though."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, the guys I meet in the sea are usually younger than you, lighter than you and better surfers."
He shrugged. He wasn't interested in responding to invitations or challenges, yet even if he'd had anywhere to go he wouldn't have wanted to leave. The rain had begun again, pittering rowdily on the roof, accentuating the snugness within. Now Anke was talking about tubes, of which his own experience was nil. Apparently a 'perfect tube' wasn't just a cylinder of water revolving around you but the whole cosmos, creating all sorts of unique phenomena: people could even disappear. He hadn't heard the word 'cosmos' for a good few years; he had to detain it in his ear for a while before permitting it to enter, by which time she was emerging in a different era. She'd seen it happen herself twice, both in Queensland. They'd gone in, but they hadn't come out, and they'd never been seen again. One of the blokes she'd known quite well. She'd somehow felt certain that he was still alive. Then about a month after he'd gone she'd dreamed about him coming ashore on the same beach to be met by a group of astounded aborigines. They'd never seen a white man before, let alone a surfer. But their reception had been friendly and his response enthusiastic and she realised he'd gone to when he wanted to be. He was one of those who hated all life away from the beach, hated the mess his fellow-Caucasians had made of the continent, would have deported them all, leaving only the aborigines and the surfers. On the other hand maybe her dream had been a delusion, she conceded. Maybe you had no control over your destination. She shivered. Maybe it was random and you could come out at any time in the past or future so long as the seabed possessed the same shape.
After a couple of hefty sandwiches and another cup of sweet gunpowder he was beginning to recover. The usual delayed euphoria and peace after any long session were beginning to bloom. He thought of himself out there alone in the dark, filled with fear and pain, freezing to death, and idly wondered how long it would take. It might even have happened already, in which case the warmth he was now feeling must belong to another life entirely, a life as yet unfettered. And who was responsible for this resurrection? Anke. And whose life had seemingly refuted all fetters? Anke's. And with what was he now looking at her? New eyes. Whereas before he'd seen nothing more than a collage of anecdotes, a mildly remarkable member of an unremarkable set, now he beheld a real, clear, complex, simple, boundless luminous being and no-one else in the world. He beheld a possibility of heaven.
"Do you have anyone to go home to?" she said.
"I did until this morning."
"She threw me out."
"I don't blame her. You're a miserable sod, aren't you?"
* * *
When he awoke the sun was shining. He lifted the curtain and saw that his van was no longer there. His board and suit were on the grass where he'd left them but everything else he owned had gone.
"You're supposed to bark," he said to the dog, lying on the end of the bed.
She sleeked back her ears and quivered in response to his tone. He slowly shook his head at her, then lay down again. Without tools or wheels he was useless, virtually paralysed. Yet he didn't feel despondent. His loss somehow seemed to imply liberation rather than restraint, as if not only had all his tools gone, but also all the years during which the tools had been accumulated, and perhaps even all the abject habits of thought and action those years had spawned. He gazed at Anke sleeping beautifully beside him, her bleached eyelashes and white eyelids contrasting poignantly with the deep tan of her face, and great waves of tenderness rose up in his stomach: he'd rather ride back over the night before than think about the future.
It had been a series of revelations, of miracles, of hurricanes, of cataclysms. During one of the lulls he'd lain beached and motionless like a pilot-whale and realised that she was the source of everything worthwhile in the world. All the storms at sea derived analogically from her, and therefore all the waves the storms created. To be inside her was to be at the centre.
He kissed her gently, expectantly, but the moment she woke up she got up, put on her Chinese robe and a pair of boots and went out. She came back five minutes later, lit the gas, filled the kettle from a bottle of spring water and banged it down on the stove, using slightly more emphasis than was consonant with a good mood.
"Alright?" he enquired.
"Hi," she replied, without looking at him.
"I suppose I didn't expect you to still be here."
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, from the bottom of the pit into which these words had thrown him.
So he'd meant nothing to her, no more than Luke or Damian or Jason or Matt.
"I've got a bit of a problem."
"My van's been nicked."
"Jesus. I don't believe it."
"They left my board."
She began to get dressed.
"Come on. We better go out and look for it. Might only have been joyriders just around the dunes."
But the tracks led unmistakably from sand to tarmac. And although he helped her scour the deserted holiday-camp, he knew it was pointless. Even if the van was little more than scrap, the tools were worth a bomb: he felt sure they'd be dispersing to new owners by now.
"So where can I drop you?" she said, having called off the search.
"Wouldn't Dawn have you back?"
"Out of the question."
"Haven't you any family round here?"
"Not really. All our friends were her friends. I wouldn't impose on any of them. Couldn't I stick with you for a while?"
"I know some good places between here and Bude."
"I'm sure you do. Look, I'll be honest with you. I don't usually see people again afterwards, haven't done since I left Queensland. It's nothing personal, just a little rule I've got."
"Do you need any money?"
He shook his head and patted his wallet-pocket.
"I'll be alright. You've got your life to lead. I can respect that. It's about time I began to lead mine. I've got a bit in the bank as well."
"If you're sure. I'll go on up the coast a little."
She held out her hand:
"Nice meeting you."
"Yeah. Thanks for everything."
He stared at her while she backed round to face the track. There was no sadness in his response to her farewell wave. He stood still until the sound of her engine had faded to nothing, then went and sat down in the sun. It was such a mild calm freak of a day, a high after so many lows, he could easily convince himself he was glad to be alone. Even without the prospect of some immaculate surf when the tide came a little, this present peace and warmth would have sufficed. And besides, he wasn't alone. There was also a jackdaw in the hollow, hopping, pecking, reminding. He'd always loved them best of all the landbirds. Without them his past life would have been fatuous. They communicated directly with his chest. The sight of one sitting on a donkey had been a new testament. The sight of another flying back to its nest with a small bunch of keys had been a veilripper. He'd never allowed anyone else to catch a glimpse of all this tremendousness which the jackdaw engendered inside him, nor had he ever mentioned that he based his whole theology on the little speck of glitter in its eye - if the speck was not enough in itself to ignite others as it had ignited him there was no point in pointing it out. Now he was ready at last to assume their exemption from history. (Their culture having been perfected long before Christ, they remained unchanged from one millennium to the next.) Not far from where he sat lay the site of the first Christian building in the southwest, now buried beneath twenty feet of sand. Piran had come across on his own in a coracle. He'd surfed ashore on waves of knowing and built himself, or rather weaved himself, a little oratory. From then on, apart from short sleeps and thin meals, he'd preached continuously. At first only birds had listened. Among those birds, jackdaws. Among those jackdaws, this jackdaw here. Then fishermen came by, to be enthralled. Then tin miners. Then soil tillers. Up and down both coasts the saints who had followed him across were likewise making oracles of themselves, and soon the whole peninsular was converted to Celtic Christianity. If Christ himself had come here the jackdaw couldn't have been more impressed. Fragments of Piran's spirit had settled beneath its unobtrusive plumage, where they behaved much like parasites, nourishing themselves on the blood of their host.
His daydream was ended by his dog, back from another fruitless rabbit-hunt. She chased the jackdaw away, then came and lay down panting at his side. He put his arm around her, caressed her ruff, nestled his head against hers. But after her panting had died down she began to whine.
"What is it?"
Something must be very wrong, because she never whined.
"I know. I bet you need a drink. Come on. Let's go and look for some."
They walked across to the holiday-camp and found some puddles from which she could lap. Yet still she kept on whining. Perhaps she was hungry. They'd better go down and get her some food.
They were just approaching the junction between the camp and the main road when Anke turned in. She pulled up beside them, leaned across and opened the passenger-door. The dog leaped in and assaulted her with deafening affection.
"You missed me, did you?" said Anke, reciprocating. "You little darling. And I didn't even say goodbye."
She began to stroke her sternum. The dog soon subsided into a trance.
"So where were you going?" she said to him.
"Down into Perranporth to get her some food. I thought she was hungry. Seems alright now, though. Maybe she was upset to find you gone."
"I've got her some," said Anke, indicating a bag of groceries. "Come on. Get in. Let's go back and pick up your board and stuff."
He gazed lovingly at her profile while they drove through the camp.
"I never expected to see you again."
"What made you come back?"
"I felt a bit guilty. No, that wasn't it. I wanted to."
"Look at it this way - you won't be breaking your rule because I am a different person today from yesterday."
"You better be," she threatened, laughing.
They pulled in to last night's homeground. Leaving him to tie his board to the roof rack, she went off to see what 'it' was like, reappearing a few minutes later at the rim of the hollow and shouting for him to come and look.
He followed her down and beheld a corrugated sea, a glassy sea, a consistent right hand break in front of them. It was the same swell as yesterday but whereas then the roughness of the local conditions had distorted the waves now they were finishing their journey in a state of perfection.
"Why don't we just stay here another day," she suggested. "We won't find anything to beat this. It's going to be fantastic at high tide."
"You might even get yourself tubed," she said, nudging him and then hugging him. "Come on, let's go and get some fuel in."
Having filled up with pasta and bananas, they began to change. He couldn't resist caressing her nakedness. She pushed him gently away.
"All in good time," she promised.
They ran and jumped and slid down to the beach; tied their leashes; patted the dog.
"Won't be long," he said. "Be a good girl."
And then they were in, and there was nothing else to the world but white and green and blue and gold. And a few minutes later, after an easy paddle-out, there was only green and blue and gold.
* * *
The sun was reddening its way towards the horizon. Anke had just gone ashore. He'd remained, but with no thought today of staying any longer than to catch 'one more', before ascending to her paradise.
The afternoon had been stupendous, his own rides supernal. He'd also felt privileged to witness from her a majestic exhibition of that most evanescent art-form - carving water. She'd seemed able to execute a masterpiece at will.
He didn't want much now. Only for the last to be the best. He wasn't disappointed.
He didn't know how it had happened, but there was water all around, a revolving cylinder of water with him crouching in the centre, dry and quiet and smooth and still. All the hints he'd received from his previous rides became fully-fledged divinations.
When it finally collapsed he lay down and let the white water carry him all the way in to the beach. He was exultant. That had been the ultimate. He couldn't wait to see her. He brimmed with love, with adoration, with gratitude. He felt sure he would now be part of her freedom.
As he stood up he saw a little man dragging what looked like a large basket out of the water. The man waved at him; hailed him; came scampering across and spoke to him - merrily, excitedly, continuously - in an unrecognisable language; seemed especially fascinated by the wetsuit, as though . . .
He looked up and saw that the sandcliff was considerably lower, even allowing for tricks of the twilight, than it ought to have been.
"Jesus," he said.
Copyright ã 1999 by A. R. Lamb
Tony Lamb is an English sculptor and poet who "writes as trancedly as possible, with practical help from nicotine, caffeine, sugar and other carbon compounds." Other recent publications include a 1997 joint volume of poetry with P. N. Newman, and 40 short poems online at www.ariga.com
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