Wavering: a short story

I wrote this Aussie fairy tale recently but decided not to submit it. I like it though, so I thought I’d share.


He never understood why the city was called the big smoke. Maybe it was leftover from the bygone days (whatever they were) or the ‘good old days’. No, as far as he was concerned, you didn’t see the big smoke until you were half an hour south of the city and the chimneys of the industrial area crowded the shoreline. As a kid he thought they were cloud making factories, puffing potential rainmakers into the sky.

The freeway used to end there or thereabouts but now it stretched on much further. From there the speed limit increased from 100 to 110 kilometres an hour and the grey bitumen gradually lost its hard edge to soft shoulders of gravel and dirt.

On these trips he always listened to music from his phone, always downloaded so that he could avoid the static or silence as the radio station or internet dropped out. There was a loneliness in the silence of long car rides that was akin to school hallways during the holidays, the absence of noise where it was expected unnerved him.

As he hummed and tapped along, the view from his open window changed; the city skyline giving way to the cookie-cutter houses of suburbia, the fields and farms holding their place for a while until it was only shrubs that flashed by. Closer to his destination, the fields and farms returned accompanied by vineyards. All the while his brown hair bounced in the wind, shaking free from the holds of the gel he ran through there that morning; the tattoo on his right arm occasionally peered out from under the rolled fold of his shirt sleeve.

Stopping where he would sleep was only a formality – the sea called to him. The beach, precious to him and his memories, was a thin strip of gold. Beyond the shore, the waves broke in long, even lines across the reef below.

He threw his board into the water, upside down first to cool the wax, then he flipped it right-side-up once his wetsuit was on.

The paddle out was easy. The south-easterly that had hit the beach earlier in the day, and would hit again the next day when he would return, had lost its edge.

He sat on his board, a seemingly endless blanket of blue at his back, another above but a softer shade. In front the sand shone brilliantly, reflecting the sun.

He waited.

“Surfing is all in the waiting,” his father had said.

He was ten. Waiting was not in his nature.

“If you go too early the wave will crash on your shoulders and push you under the water; maybe onto the sand below, maybe the reef.”

His dad sat next to him, the pair of them bobbing up and down as the water rose and fell beneath them.

“Go too late,” his dad continued. “Go too late and you’re chasing the wave to the shore.”

“How will I know when to go?”

He was nervous then. He had been taken out to the beaches nearer home but the waves hadn’t seemed so big, the shore so far away, as they seemed here. Margaret River had a mythic quality the other beaches didn’t seem to possess.

That day the sea bullied him, pushed him around. Wave after wave pushed him down, held him under. His scrawny body bruised and bled.

Absentmindedly, he found himself rubbing his left elbow where he had one of many scars left over from that family holiday.

He surfed until the light faded. Back in the car park, after he had slid his board onto his roof racks and blown some of the salt water from his nostrils, he found himself sitting on a rock looking out at the setting sun.

The sound of laughter drew his attention to a small group of teenagers still down on the beach. They were chasing each other around, playfully pushing each other and horsing about. All the while they gathered dry twigs and sticks and placed them within a ring of stones.

He scoffed. Any fire they got going wouldn’t last. There were no trees this close to the beach, only shrubs of knee to chest height. Whatever fuel they managed to gather would burn out quickly. That was probably for the best. A decent blaze would draw the attention of the ranger and they would find themselves escorted off the beach. He watched them a little longer. He wasn’t that much older than them but their carefree attitude seemed so far removed from his own life. Again, he found his thoughts returned to his father.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting,” he had replied.

“No,” his dad said. “I’m not talking about the surf. I’m talking about life, about school.”

He looked down at the board, looked anywhere he could to avoid eye contact. He could feel the heat in his cheeks but it was from more than just the sun’s rays and the sting of salt on the breeze.

“Your grades are slipping,” his dad went on. “The school says you’ve been wagging classes. Your mum and I…”

But he didn’t hear the rest. He lunged forward, paddled towards the closest wave. His arms throbbed as they tried to keep up the pace his brain desired. It didn’t matter, the wave was too far ahead. It broke in front of him, without him, and he ended up paddling all the way to shore. He didn’t go back in the water that day.

The sun had gone. The teens had settled into cuddling couples no longer interested in running amok.

He, too, decided that this was an apt time for rest and returned to his hired cabin.

The following morning he made his way back to the beach. Slowly, slower than usual, he slid his shoulders into his wetsuit, zipped it up and attached his leg rope.

He paddled out. The sun peered out between clouds that weren’t there the day before. They cast shadows upon the sea. The water shivered and stirred.

He sat, again, as he had done many a time before. His legs dangled either side of the board, his arms stuck out straight (but not locked at the elbow) and his fingers gripped the fibreglass.

He waited.

Waves came and went. Opportunities passed.

He waited still.

He looked to his side – to where his dad had often sat upon his own board, dressed in a matching wetsuit.

Still, he waited.

He looked upwards, questioning eyes searched the clouds for meaning.

He waited.

He looked down at the photo taped to his board, looked down at the face that smiled back at him. His eyes stung. He reached a hand up, kissed his fingers and placed them upon the picture.

He waited no more.

A moment later he was gliding over the sea’s surface, and it was divine.

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