It’s still dark when Matthew pulls his Toyota into a parking spot in Pepper Street, a cup of cheap coffee clenched in his fist. The freckled young man, a poster boy for surfing, gets out of his car and slams the door.
A cold wind cuts into his neck and sends a shiver through his skull. He pulls his hoodie over his head and yanks the drawstrings.
He turns around to gaze at the houses lining Pepper Street, standing ghostly in the dim street lights. Most of them have been turned into surf accommodation units. Jealousy nibbles at his heart. “One day I’ll live here,” he thinks to himself.
He turns towards the ocean. The forecast was correct. Even though everything’s still cloaked in darkness, the rumble of colossal waves washes into his head and carves a smile into his face. He strolls down the boardwalk lined with aloes and whispers, “It’s gonna be a good day.”
Matthew comes to a stop at the bottom of the boardwalk. The sun peeks over the horizon, creating a thin ray of red light that stretches the length of the bay. He marvels at the moment, then saunters back to his car, throwing glances at the majestic sunrise.
He opens the rear door of his Corolla and crawls in, reaching for his wetsuit. He grabs it from the floor and makes himself comfortable on the backseat, his legs hanging out the open door.
With the help of a plastic shopping bag wrapped around each foot, he slides in, first his one leg, then the other, through the tight-fitting legs of the wetsuit. Using the same plastic bag, he slips his arms into the sleeves and wriggles in his shoulders, snapping with his fingers at the spots where the suit pinches.
“Come on, Matthew,” he eggs himself on, knowing the spot will soon be swarming with locals and Capetonians alike, the latter driving through—a trip of 800 kilometres—at the hint of good surf.
He reaches for the zipper at the back of his suit, pulls it up and jumps out of the car; Clark Kent turns into Superman.
He takes his surfboard from the car and smears it with another coat of wax, the memory of slipping off his board and being mauled like a rag doll still fresh in his mind. He tiptoes down the boardwalk, jumps onto the cold beach and jogs to where the rocks form a channel into the surf. He wades into the channel and waits for the swell to die off.
When the ocean is calm, he climbs onto a rock and throws himself into the water, landing with his stomach on his board. A few strokes later he’s sitting at the perfect spot to catch the first wave of the day. He turns around to see headlights light up the parking lot.
“Capetonians,” he mumbles, and turns his attention to where it matters.
Three hours later, Matthew runs wrinkly fingers through salty blond locks, his warm blue eyes fixed on the horizon, wishing the next set of waves into the bay. He licks dry, numb lips with a tongue craving a tall glass of fresh orange juice. Fatigue had set in an hour ago, but the ocean’s grip is too strong.
“One more,” he mumbles, as if to try and convince his tired body that the surf session is almost over, and rest imminent. His mind, however, knows better.
He’s calm and composed, despite the fever that’s swept through everyone in the water. Around him, little dots of men sit in groups, each one on a small fibreglass island, all anxious for their next liquid rush.
An endless conveyor belt of surfers crawls towards the take-off point, where they paddle into a wave, only to be spat out to join the back of the line, ready to edge towards the take-off point again.
The next wave belongs to Matthew, but Craig, a local with a chip on his shoulder, had already paddled to the inside and stolen his place. Matthew says nothing, but resolves to give Craig a quick lesson in surf manners.
The next set of waves comes rolling into the bay. One by one they build up, curl and break, peeling away from right to left, open faces beckoning boardriders to cut and carve to their heart’s content.
Matthew positions himself closer to where Craig had already turned around to paddle into the first wave. Craig gives a few hard strokes and takes off into the wave, but hardly gets to his feet when Matthew takes off and cuts to the inside, forcing Craig into the whitewater and headed for the rocks. Matthew regains his line, pumps hard with his front foot and starts carving up and down the wave. Craig’s cursing becomes a distant echo, and the only thing that matters is the smooth liquid underneath his board. Every now and then he throws the tail of his board out above the wave, creating an arc of spray, then guns down into a bottom turn that propels him into the next carve, his arms counterbalancing every move.
He reaches a point in the ride where he knows the wave forms a perfect barrel and digs his right hand into the wall of water. It slows him enough for the wave to swallow him. Inside the barrel he hunches down and watches the world around him disappear into a gorgeous green whirlpool. Fifty metres from where he paddled in, he picks up speed, exits the barrel and glides out over the back of the wave, the momentum of the ride shooting him off his board. He falls into the water backwards and remains floating there, his eyes closed, his arms and legs stretched out. A smile forms on his languid face. A seagull cries as if to congratulate him on his perfect wave.
When the last bit of his energy returns, Matthew scrambles back onto his board and starts the long paddle to the back of the line-up, where he joins other hopefuls waiting their turn. He sits up straight on his board, his legs dangling off the sides, a smile stuck to his jaw.
A tug on his leash rips him from his dream state.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?!”
It’s Craig, red with anger, ready for battle.
Matthew digs his right hand into the water, turns his board around and faces the furious fool.
He replies, “You snaked me, Craig. You know the rules. Wait in the line-up until it’s your turn,” and winks at Craig.
“What you mean I snaked you? What rules?!? I live here! I MAKE the rules! Do you see that house over there? That’s where I live! I’m a local here!”
Craig’s left hand shoots up and points in the direction of the boardwalk. The sudden action makes him lose his balance and he almost falls off his board.
“Craig, you’re high. You’re not thinking straight. You spend too much time smoking giggle grass,” replies Matthew, shaking his head and turning his board around.
He feels another yank at his leash.
“I’m not through with you,” continues Craig, glancing around to make sure the younger surfers are paying attention. His bloodshot eyes pierce through strands of dirty blond hair hanging down his face. He balls his left hand into a white-knuckled fist, but he keeps his right hand underwater.
“Well, I’m through with you. Come on bru, there’s no reason to get angry. Just do it right. Wait your turn, and we all get a chance to have fun,” Matthew tries to reason.
Matthew turns his head towards the line-up. Not wanting to lose his place, he straightens himself out on his board and starts to paddle.
A sudden pain spasms through his body and causes him to gasp for air. A frown forms on his forehead. He lets out a groan, turns around, lifts his right leg and glares at the blood gushing from a cavernous lesion on the inside of his hamstring. His left hand grabs at the wound as he tries to stop the oozing blood.
Confusion sets in. His eyes start to blur. Nausea builds up in his stomach and claws into his throat. He fades into a bright barrel filled with the faces of panic-stricken friends floating closer, only to disappear into a thick fog.
He hears voices calling his name, but they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Left, right, up, down, whispers, shouts. He gropes around in the water, searching for something to grab hold of, his head swaying back and forth. His body starts to convulse. He throws up and slides off his board into the water, where he floats upside down, his mind slipping to a faraway place.
Four surfers rush in while shouting warnings at the others. They flip Matthew over and pull him onto his board.
Six other surfers paddle towards Craig, perched on his board, arms hanging by his side, his grinning head slumped back. They form a circle around him and move in for the kill. They tip him off his board, two of them forcing the diving knife from his right hand. They thrust his head under water and keep it there for more than a minute. When his arms stop thrashing they pull him up onto his board and start beating him.
They stop only when one of the surfers notices a fin breaking the surface of the water and gliding towards where Matthew lies bleeding.
Another fin appears, and another, and another. A panicking mass of arms churns the water into a boiling frenzy, and most of the surfers manage to get away from the screams that follow.