In the Early Morning

19/4/2011

He lay still, focusing on the soft rumble of distant breakers. The leaves on bushes outside his window were barely moving so he knew it would be the pure early morning swell. Best to try Back Beach. Come in between the two islands. He pictured the two steep little islands with perfect green walls rolling in between them. He could see the terns wheeling overhead like paper darts, smell the kelp heaving back and forth on the rocks, finally he could see himself, astride his board, 200 hundred metres out, waiting, watching. He held the image in his head inventing new details to keep it alive, until slowly it faded and he was once more lying restlessly in his bed.

It was getting bad. The more they fought, the more he struggled to get away from it. The more he tried to get away from it, the more it settled on him like a weight. He carried it around inside him all day. The effort of trying to ignore it kept it squarely in his head. Finally, there was only one way of dealing to it. He had to take it to the ocean.

Mike’s room was set away from the house. It was once a garden shed but his father had converted it to a sleep-out when he was thirteen. He had been there ever since. Just him and Pluto. There was only one window at the end, and that one was almost completely covered by a huge flax bush. It was this bush that informed him about the day. helped him make those early morning decisions. Get up or stay down? Go to school or go surfing.

He went out to pee on the lawn. Halfway through he spotted Mrs Nicholson at the kitchen window and tried to crouch down. Too late. At least he was wearing a tee shirt today, half decent. Silly old bag, serves her right for looking. He grabbed the boardies off a nail by the door. They were almost dry but stiff with salt. Must get them washed he thought and then laughed because he knew he never would. The wet suit could wait til he got there. He had a drink from the garden hose as he headed around the house. It had got to the stage where he avoided going in there now. Didn’t want to hear, to see any of that.

In the back of the garage his board rested against his bike. It had been years now since he had ridden that bike but he couldn’t get rid of it for some reason. Maybe it reminded him of better days. Fine mornings, the paper round, a head clear of all the shit that weighed him down now. The simple days.

He had almost reached the road when something made him go back. He dropped the wet suit, leant the board against the hedge and walked back to check. His mother’s car was gone. Jesus what’s with that? He stared for a while, trying to figure it out.

Pissed off now, he went inside the house. He could hear the soft sawing of his father’s snore and Pluto shot past him hoping for a feed. The cat came first, instinctively, and then he went back to his parent’s bedroom. Something made him pause at the doorway and he stood there for a moment not sure whether to open the door. Then he opened it slowly and quietly. His father was on his back halfway out of the bed. On his mother’s side was a woman he had never seen before. He stared blankly, there were things he should be thinking and it took all his concentration to shut them out as he closed the door and headed back to the board.

Sammy was only two streets away. He had left school the year before and now owned the dark green Legacy Turbo that had everyone gagging with envy. Chromes, black windows and a real shit kicker of a sound system. After a few taps at his window the shaggy head appeared.

“Wassup Miko?”

“It’s going off man.”

It took a while for the words to sink in. “Where?”

“Back Beach I reckon.”

“Kay. I’m on it.” Then he disappeared. Moments later he came out the front door, yawning and picking his navel. Above the red shorts Mike could see the beginnings of a beer pot. That, along with the Legacy, was where most of his money was going. Sammy riffled his dreads then grinned. He was easy to be with.

They threw their gear in the car. Sammy was hungry so they headed back into to town first in search of pies. There were hardly any other cars around but when they pulled up at the lights, Shank’s wagon pulled up beside them. Tai was in the front with him and there were two other guys in the back they didn’t know. They looked like real hoods. Sammy reached out and they shook across the gap between the two cars. Then Tai signalled to Mike so he had to clamber across Sammy to slap palms.

“Where are youse goin’” Shank had this real drawl, you’d swear he was an Aussie, but he wasn’t.

“Heading to Back, got to score a pie first”

The lights changed.

“Us too” yelled Tai as Shank gunned it through.

It brought a smile to the lips of both of them. There was something about Sammy’s car that brought out that response in everyone. It was like they all wanted to try to shut it down. Even Shank’s rusty old Falcon wagon.

Shank was already coming out of the dairy when they arrived. Sammy ordered two pies in his best Indian accent. Patel was one of those guys who had been there for years. Mike knew his oldest boy. Patel wore a toupee and had these big weepy eyes that made him look a bit pathetic. As usual there was some all singing/all dancing Indian epic jangling away on the little TV behind the counter. The two other guys were hanging around the back of the shop looking as dodgy as hell. Mike could tell they were about to nick stuff. Patel looked on edge as he tried to get the pies into their bags and watch the other two at the same time. As they walked back to the car scoffing the red hot pies Sammy grabbed his arm and said “So what’s up.”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Don’t come that one man, it’s me, Sammy OK. I know ya.”

‘Sprung’ thought Mike. Talking about it was the last thing he wanted to do.

“Just shit at home man, don’t go there.”

Sammy shot him this glance that told him he knew more than he was letting on, but he dropped it, which was good. The day was shaping into something blue and beautiful, why spoil it?

When they pulled in at the cliff top parking area they got a primo view of the swells coming in between the two islands. There was not much in the way of wind to hold them up but looking down on those sets Mike immediately knew that there was no other place he wanted to be.

As they were suiting up Shank and the others arrived. The pie had cost them first start but it didn’t matter. He was determined to make the most of it. The two other guys stayed in the car as everyone threaded their way down the cliff to the cold grey sand.

Out of the water everything changed. The sun on their backs, the gentle rise and fall as they let the swells slip past them, the gulls from the colony on the two islands hovered around their heads. All sharp sounds were muted by the water. All thoughts were only about which wave to try out, which to let go and then the rapid paddle, the launch down the glistening face, the immediate banking to steady then you’re there. From then on, all the calculations, the responses, the actions were signed over to that intuitive little demon who took charge as the body, the board and the wave all fused in the same glistening dance.

He may have ridden 10 waves that morning, it may have been 40. Some of them allowed him a brief mastery, others he fought always slightly behind the maddening mix of fluid and gravity. Occasionally everything went right; the right wave did the right thing and he was in the right position to carve its smooth face with his own unique tattoo. The moment was brief and personal. It flashed in his chest and was gone. He would wipe out and emerge wondering if anyone else had seen it. If there were witnesses to confirm that this magic had taken place.

But somehow it didn’t matter. His friends were lost in their own spaces. Their faces carried the dazed preoccupation that came when you were truly there, alive in the moment, needing nothing more.

After a while Mike noted that he was the last one left. Everyone else was sitting around on the beach. The sea was flattening out and he knew that now he had to emerge from this watery dream. He had to face up to everything he had shut away that morning.

Tucked up under the cliff on the soft grey sand, Sammy was sitting with the group. They all acknowledged him when he arrived.

“You nailed that one man” said Tai.

He shrugged. “How long were we out there?”

No-one had a watch.

“A while, I reckon.” said one of the other guys.

“True” said his mate looking out to sea.

They had some weed and passed it to him for a puff. He wasn’t big on dak but today he took it without hesitation. It was one of those days where he’d take anything.

The shorter stocky one was called Jez. His mate was called Rick and had this really long hair tied in a pony tail. They had blown into town a couple of days ago, Shank had met them at a party. Sammy wanted to go home, reckoned he had stuff on, but Mike knew the dope was the reason. Sammy was drug-free. They all wandered back to the cars, Shank was blabbing away about this chick they all knew. Mike felt sorry for her, she had got on the receiving end of all these stories, each worse than the last.

When they got to cars Sammy indicated to Mike to shove his board in the back but for some reason he felt like staying around Shank and his crowd for a while. Jez pulled out this bottle of Jim Beam and had a big swig before passing it on.

“I’ll hitch one with Shank,” he said, “That OK?” he asked.

Shank nodded and Sammy cleared out quickly. A bit straight Sammy. They sat on the bonnet of the Falcon drinking and watching all the families arrive for a day at the beach. The small groups unpacked their gear quickly and scuttled off down the track. There was a bit of power being part of a group of bad boys doing their thing. One guy stood there giving them the hard stare. The bring-it-on stare. Shank responded by dropping his boardies and wandering round the back of the wagon to get his jeans. You could see this guy was a bit iffy about leaving his car there, and after a bit got back in and drove off. They all cheered and waved as he left the car park.

Shank came back and said “Fun’s over let’s cruise. Put your stick in the back man.”

Mike threw in his board and wet suit, he only had the cotton sweatshirt with Jimi Hendrix on the front, but that would have to do because he wasn’t going home, that was for real.

They drove back to the flat that Tai and Shank shared next to a tire place. Mike was a bit shocked by the mess and stink inside but he didn’t show it. Everything looked as though it had been just left where it fell for the last few months and you had to pick your way across the floor to the couch. There were the other two guys’ things too, they had been dossing where-ever they could find a space Mike figured. Beer cans everywhere. Jez suggests they kick back and watch a porno but the others aren’t wearing it. When Shank and Tai show again they’ve changed and are ready to check the action so everyone heads back the Falcon. Being a small city the place there’s any action is on main, so they end up parked near MacDonalds. They hang there for a while, hitting on chicks and giving any dudes they don’t know a hard time. Mike finds he enjoys it, enjoys the idea of being intimidating. His old teacher from primary school is approaching with one of those little trolley/buggy things that old people use to tow their groceries home. She spots him and comes over. The others crack up as she insists on being introduced to them all and asking him a hundred questions. It’s like she didn’t notice he was a hood now, talk about blind.

After she’s gone they others all mock him hard out. It’s a tough one to live down and he has to laugh. In the middle of this a patrol car pulls up on the opposite side of the road. Dougie Patu is driving. He was Head boy at school in Mike’s first year, now he’s a shades-wearing car-cruising cop.

“How’s it going boys?”

“Cool” says Shank, suddenly respectful.

“What are y’plans?”

Mike noticed the two out of towners shrink down.

Tai pointed to the disappearing shape of his old teacher, “We thought we might help old ladies across the road.” Big joke.

“Yeah, young ones too.” Shank added.

Dougie appeared amused but then said. “Like the world needs more smart arses. Look guys, I’ve had a call, a... ” raising his fingers like quotation marks, “concerned citizen, I’ll be back in ten or so. Make sure you’re gone.” Then he flashed them a grin and surged out into the street.

Shank is sure it’s cool, he can’t move them, they’re not doing anything, Tai too but the other two are anxious to be gone. They get back in the car and Jez says lets score some shooters. Mike has this icy cold feeling in his gut. He hates guns. What has he got into? It turns out its just more liquor, this time its little bourbon mixers in shot bottles. After a few of these Shank comes up with an idea. Let’s get a few more, drive around the mountain, check out the beaches towards the Cape. Mike feels finally they are back on familiar ground.

“Money in!” Tai yells, his hand over the seat. The two in the back just have coins now, and Mike has this $5 note that’s been through the wash a few times in the back pocket of his jeans. All up it’s less than twenty bucks and they won’t get far on that. ”Better take us to the ATM, Shank.”

Mike was surprised. They didn’t seem the types to have bank accounts.

When they got to the car he found that they weren’t heading for the town centre.

“What bank are you with?” Mike asked.

“Bank of India Bro”, said Rick with a laugh. Then they all laughed, all except Mike who got this sudden sick feeling in his gut.

He could feel the two guys next to him psyching themselves up. They drove slowly past the dairy and parked in the next street. Rick and Jez got out. Mike could see that Rick had something tucked up his sleeve. It looked bad. After they’d left no-one said anything for a while and Tai got out and stretched his legs. Shank slumped down and fiddled with the radio.

“What’s going down Shank?”

He looked over and said “You don’t want to know eh?”

“They going to rip the shop off?”

“What do you think?”

Mike knew he wanted no part of this and reached over the back to grab his board and wetsuit. They next thing he heard Tai yell “It’s rolling and he ran back and jumped into the front seat. Shank backed up so that they got a clear view of the dairy and there, about fifty metres away and closing fast, were Jez and Rick. Behind them in the distance was a woman in a sari who was screaming and waving. All Mike had time for was to move to the far side of the car as they burst in. Rick had a fist full of notes and Jez had spots of blood all over his teeshirt.. The car was immediately flooded with the smell of sweat.

“He acted like he didn’t understand, so I had to give him the old one, two.” Then it was drowned in the squeal of tires as Shank hooned it out of there.

“Nex’ thing I see there this Indian woman charging in from out the back with this big knife in her hand….”

“Yee Haa. Hun’red and eighty bucks…” Rick flashed the money about…

“so Rick picks the pie warmer off the counter and heaves it at her...”

“Here’s twenty each for youse and the rest for me, and my man Jez, cos we done the deed eh?”

“...set off some alarm switch so it was just grab and run...”

Their story carried on in fits and starts broken up by laughs as each one remembered some fresh detail.

Mike sat looking at the twenty dollar bill thinking I don’t want any part of this. Tai was watching, and, as if he’d read his mind said “The payoff eh Mikey?”.

There seem to be no options left. His chance to bale has well gone that’s for real. He sees some marks on his Teeshirt then realises that it’s blood off Jez’s sleeve. Some of it comes off on his finger, it’s still wet. Wet blood. Patel’s blood. He thinks for a moment he’s going to chuck.

As they rejoin the main road they see Dougie Patu fly by in his squad car, lights and siren, the works.

“Yo Dougie, here we is man.” Tai treats the whole thing like a big joke. They head off to the bottle shop to re-stock. Rick and Jez are anxious to get ripped, the robbery has made them as high as kites. They come back with beer and another box of shooters, this time they get in from opposite side of the car so that Mike is jammed in the middle. They set off for their trip to the Cape but end up in the Back Beach carpark. Shank is keen to hook up with some chicks and it seems that this might be a good place. They all get out and walk to the edge of the cliff which overlooks the beach.

Mike notes that the surf has flattened out and the beach has become something else. A sort of play place for family groups. No longer the serenity that came with cold morning waves. The shots get passed around but Mike doesn’t feel like drinking. He’s worried about Patel and the hole that he seems to have dug for himself. He wonders how he’s going to get out of this. Where it’s going to end. Part of him is scared but he knows there’s another part that just doesn’t care.

After they have skulled most of the shots and are into the beer two girls arrive in a red Mazda wagon. One of them is Shelley, who Sammy used to go out with. She clocks him as they drive into the carpark and she gives him this look. It’s a quick one but he knows exactly what it means. “Why are you hanging with these losers?”

Shank takes it to be some sort of come on and decides to put on a bit of a show. He gets into the old falcon and lays a donut in the small gap between the two banks of parked cars. Shelley and her friend respond by locking up their car and disappearing down the track to the beach as if nothing has happened. Shank keeps going like he wasn’t doing it for them anyway. He tries to turn the donut into a figure eight and loses it. There is a hell of a clunk as he hits the new Holden Wagon on the end of the row.. It’s big bumper disintegrates as the Falcon’s tow bar ploughs through it.

Tai goes mad.

“Ford One! Holden zero man!”

“Holdens are shit, that’s ya proof!.” and “Looks better now.”

He’s laughing hard out and rolling on the grass. Shank gets out to check the damage to his car. At the other end of the car park Mike spots this guy and his wife coming quickly their way. He’s a huge guy with a big pot belly, like a retired All Black. He sees the showdown way before it happens. He creeps along and lies down between two cars. The others see it too just as the big guy roars.

“Mike! Mike! Come on man. We’re gone!” It’s Tai.

He stays down and from his low vantage point sees the falcon sliding out of the car park. The big guy and his wife arrive in the car park at a quick trot. They check the damage and then they’re off in their car, bits of fibre glass scraping and breaking off as they clear out.

Suddenly it’s all quiet. It takes a while to realise that it’s all over. The only evidence that they were ever there is the big black arcs of Shank’s wheel marks and the red bits of Holden bumper. What now? Relief and anti-climax. For a moment he thinks maybe he should go down and talk to Shelley but he quickly discards it as an idea. It’s about ten k.s but he would rather walk it than talk it with Shelley. Talking to her was a bit like broadcasting it on national Radio. She was the centre of a huge cell phone network.

By the time he reached home it was nearly dark. There was a light on inside but he didn’t go in, he made for the sleepout. Inside things were just like he left them that morning. Nothing had changed, his dent was still in the bed where he had climbed out hours before. Pluto was curled up on the end in a tight ball. The bed may have been the same but he was a different person now. Way different. He stripped off, leaving the clothes where they fell and climbed into bed. For a moment or two he thought about how cold and tired and sore he was. But that was good. it stopped him thinking of other things. Pluto stood up and came up by his head, looking for a way under the covers. He lifted the duvet and let it in. Almost immediately he felt better, relaxed for the first time that day. Then he was gone.

It seemed almost moments later that he became aware of voices outside the door. His father and two others.

He heard his father say “As if I haven’t got enough to worry about,” and one of the others reply sympathetically.

There was a knock.

He ignored it.

The door opened and the light was turned on.

“Oh. You are here.” His father said. And turned to the two policemen who followed him in. “He’s made a liar of me again.”