“It’s a weird one,” says Tom.
We are driving to the Warringah Aquatic swimming pool on a Wednesday at six in the morning. In two days, my little brother will turn 60 years of age.
I laugh and say: “Well it’s not as weird as all that.” I’m allowed to say this. After all, I’m already 62.
But it is weird, or something. A blink of an eye ago, we were in our 20s and in the midst of it. Young princes swaggering about the place! Owning everything we saw, or thought we were. That’s how we’d always pictured surfing: as a pure expression of Immortal Youth. And now here we are, 40 years later, on this gloomy La Niña morning — two grey-stubbled little bald blokes, driving off to swim laps, all anonymous, while four lanes over in the diving pool, the old ducks do their Aquarobics.
There’s no textbook for the next phase of our surfing lives. All we really know is that there’s a timer on. Sure and certain, some sort of end point will be reached. In the meantime, what do you do? You can’t just prolong the inevitable, the way it sometimes feels we’re doing at the pool.
It must be possible, though. It’s not like other surfers haven’t grown old and died.
Midget Farrelly has.
Tom begins to tell me the story of the last time he saw Midget. This was early winter, 2016. “I was going to check the surf at Palmy,” he says. “Halfway along the north end car park. I pull in and there’s this figure resting on his bike, looking at the waves. It’s him!
“He’s already been ill, and for the first time he starts confiding in me about his cancer. He’d never even mentioned it before. ‘Go and get a full body scan,’ he told me. ‘You never know. I had this thing in my gut, and I didn’t have a clue. Couldn’t tell.’
“Then he starts talking to me about Mick Fanning. He’d been watching Fanning surf somewhere, maybe at J-Bay? And he began explaining to me how he’d seen some things in Fanning’s surfing that he wanted to try for himself — how he wanted to surf like Mick Fanning.
And I thought: This is never going to end, is it? Is it ever gonna end?” We’re both laughing, maybe thinking different things, but laughing at the same thing: the undying urge in this great surfer, after all those waves, to keep reinventing the whole thing, finding a way to make it fresh, even while he must have known he might not last the year.
That’s what nobody tells you about growing old: even as the body slowly betrays you, the heart and mind stay young. The old ducks in that Aquarobics class, I bet they’re just the same. In their hearts they’re still sweet 16, dancing, light as feathers. And there was Midget, dreaming of surfing like Fanning.
But Midget was just 71. That’s just ten years away. That’s nothing! What are we going to do? “Maybe we can just work within it,” says Tom in a faraway sort of tone, thinking aloud, the way he does. “Grace. We gotta be graceful.” What? “Well, we don’t have to be better than we’ve been,” I say, faking that older brother wisdom vibe. “We can just be as good as we can be, right now.” Thinking, Can we? Really?
Then I remember my own last sight of Midget. It couldn’t have been long after Tom’s encounter — a sunny winter’s day that year, at Palm Beach too, but down the south end. I’d just finished a long paddle on my racing ski. Yeah, I know. Don’t even start. Anyway, I’m hoisting the goddam thing up over my head, and wrestling with it, trying to get it on to my car’s roof racks in this stiff winter south-westerly. The ski weighs 19 kilos, but slippery with seawater and blown around by the wind, it feels a lot more than that.
I get the nose on to the rack, silently cursing, then suddenly the ski feels oddly light. It slides forward into the rack without me even trying.
I look around, and there he is, Midget — lifting the tail of the ski, taking some of the weight off.
He doesn’t know it, but he only has a month left on this Earth.
“Thought I’d lend a hand,” he says, and smiles.