Tasmanian surfers know you start the fire before you surf. Photo Nick Green

OPEN THIS WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Surfing World fiction by Jock Serong. Photos by Nick Green

 

Boy,

They’re telling me now it could be Tuesday, or maybe Thursday.

No-one actually seems to know. There’s a lot of moving parts, as I guess you understand. These things are never clear-cut. They’re waiting on the senior guy to read all the reports and make a decision about how to approach it. Or at least that’s what they tell me, but I think their main concern is keeping me calm.

We all know the other options have dried up and this is all that’s left. I’m resigned to it now, whatever happens. I’m at peace. Does that surprise you?

Peace aside, I’m sick of the bed, the antiseptic smell. The monotony of it, staff going up and down the corridors. They never turn the lights off in these places.

Anyway, anyway. There are things I want to say to you before it happens. Things I should’ve said long ago and didn’t.

The first and most urgent of these is: do not feel any guilt over having gone. I asked you to go. Told you to go. I beggedyou to go, and I’m still glad you did. In some strange way you will be living out there for me. But I know that you worry about doing the decent thing, being the one who stands up.

If that shit-heap tent of yours survives the night, I hope by morning it frames a view to make your heart soar. That’s what I’m seeing in here, inside my eyelids. You and one of those beaches.

You’ll be alone at first, but I know it won’t trouble you. The thing about travel is it’s easier to find company than to offload it once you’ve got it. Put your trust in these people: I’ve never known a coast to be so awash in ordinary human goodwill. Neither of us is the trusting kind, hey, but maybe you can start for the both of us. People warm to you.

There’s some money in your account: I put it in as a lump, so maybe break it up and spread it, carry some as cash. I don’t know, couple of different cards in case you lose one. Spend it on bar meals, local beer. Find a nag running in the fifth with a wonky gait and show it some belief. And raise a glass to me, would you? Just don’t waste the money on caravan parks or rental houses. There’s places all along that coast where you can nose into the bush and nobody’ll bother you. Look for she-oaks – they grow all the way down to the water’s edge and they’re good for dry timber, even kindling. They’re coming around with the meals just now and it makes it harder to remember smells, but I remember the smell of she-oak burning. I think it’s the sweetest firewood there is.

They’ve had specialists checking me constantly, looking to see if I’m strong enough for what’s coming. Funny, I don’t even feel unwell anymore.

Maybe I’m past all that.

 

At some point you’re going to be tested. We all are.

There would have been times when you thought I noticed nothing, that I admired nothing about you. But you’d be surprised. I saw it all.

You’ve watched all this happening to me, carried the pressures inside you. How, boy, how did you never once erupt? I felt the weight you carried around and Christ, it would have been like granite. I think about those reefs where you’re going and sure, they carry a lot of water. But it’s just water. And you’ll be far, far away from all of this.

It might be that you’ll never feel lighter than you will the day a thousand tonnes of it hurtles over your shoulders.

You’ll be exalted that day. You’ll be free. And somehow I’ll feel the release, like air shifting in a vault.

 

A lot of those waves, you know, it won’t be crowds that’ll be bothering you. It’ll be solitude.

That righthander I told you about, the one behind the rock island – I forgot to mention that it’s a nasty long paddle round from the boat harbour.

When all you have is time, it’s possible to do some careful thinking about time. Consider this: the great whites have been around 50 million years longer than the granite. And yet we think we run the show.

You know all the orthodoxies – dawn and dusk, dirty water, seals, fish cleaning. I know you’ll look after yourself. And it’s not a rational concern, is it? A random act of predation, swift and sudden, and you’re gone. Strikes me as a reasonable alternative to being in here, mouldering away. If I had gills I’d be dead by now, for lack of forward motion. I’d take teeth over torpor.

But seriously. Seriously. Sharks are only an embodiment of the fear. The fear itself goes deeper: so deep that it can’t be defined and described, and as a result we’ve had to give it a front man. The shudder you’ll feel as you come around the side of the island is the fear of the deep, of the primordial – the hind-brain saying we’re not adapted for this. The fear of being alone in a big ocean. The fear of coming to terms with our mortality. The social comforts drop away, as Johnson said.

What gratifies me, lying here, is I know you are stronger than that.

 

The little left is heavier than it looks. Makes a bowl shape and it’s shallow – you’ll see kelp in the takeoff. Ha! You’ll probably see crays. It only works on a sou-wester, so if you’re there it means the sky will be like molten lead and you’ll be freezing. I never once saw it under sunshine. Get in behind the peak and hold tight – it throws. The last foot of the nose of the board is the only thing in the world that matters: if it catches, you’re going for a spin. If you aim it too lateral, you’re over with the lip and you’re going for a spin. Hell, if you catch more than two or three of them, odds are you’re going for a spin. Don’t hit the slab if you can help it at all because the doctor in that town’s a drunk. Better off supergluing the cuts and digging out your own urchin spines.

Nighttime here. The guy next to me is sobbing. They’re doing him tomorrow, apparently. He’s been all swagger about it till now, industrial volumes of piss and wind. He was saying he’s got the top guy in Australia. He must’ve broken down at some point, when the reality hit.

 

They’ll want you to stay in the shack, and it’s best not to refuse.

Don’t worry about losing touch with me – depending what happens, I’ll be able to get word to you. There’s no power or phone line, no signal for that matter, but the human networks never drop out.

You’ll love the place, and if you feel a surge of affection for it, it will be because I took you there when you were really small, the summer after the fires. Everything was charred and re-growing and the people around the fire ground were damaged but generous. Funny how people in that delicate state are the very people whose offers of kinship you must take up. It helps them somehow to know they helped.

I wonder if it still smells funny. There was a year that a wombat took up residence under the floor and it carked it down there: we had to scoop it out in sticky handfuls, retching at the smell.

Don’t block the dunny: pumping it out is the devil’s work. Run the tap a minute or two before you drink to make sure the birdshit’s gone through. Check your clothes in the morning for huntsmans and don’t whack ‘em if you find any. Take ‘em by one leg and piff ‘em outside. It’s like sharks – you’re in their place, not the reverse. Same for the tiger snakes and the jack jumpers.

The boat lads. I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier. Sons of the people I knew there. For all I know the boat has passed down a generation by now. You’ll see them as wild, you’ll think them too loose and unworried to be in charge of a commercial boat. That’s your natural caution about people.

But don’t be fooled. For a start they know every dint and bluff in that coast. The tides, the winds, the currents, the seasons. If they seem over-composed it’s because they’ve seen the worst those latitudes can summon and they’re keeping something in reserve – an auxiliary tank for switching moods.

They will have learned from their parents; about the boat and about people and about patience.

If a generation is any guide, they’ll start out wary and then they’ll warm up, and you will find yourself without warning surrounded by brothers. Not always a good thing, at anchor, in the small hours, staring at the last fifth of rum.

If you’ve got to the boat I know you’re two thirds of the way down the coast and by now you have your bearings. By now you may have forgotten what it was that hurt, and why.

 

So I’m nearing the end.

The decision came down this morning: twelve years on the top, nine minimum.

There were all sorts of clever ways that they put it. Character, mitigation, deterrence. But the result was never really in doubt. If I gave you any other impression, any cause for false hope, I apologise.

You’ll be in the middle of your life when I’m out. A father maybe. Someone responsible. And I’ll be old and busted and the good in all of these things – for me, anyway – will be over.

Don’t hold out any hope for the nine. It’ll be all twelve. They begged me to say that I’m sorry for it but I’m not. I’ll never be sorry, and parole depends on remorse, they tell me. I would do every single thing I did, all over again, if it meant I knew you were safe.

Therein lies the irony, I suppose. I wanted you safe, yet I want every bit as much that you should go away and experience all these things, some of which are, on the face of it, dangerous. To put your body on the line when the only assailant is nature itself. Malice lives only in people. There is no malice in the sea, no matter its power. There’s no demons in the forest, nothing to fear in the rain or the boat or the birds or any of it. It is all yours to feel and to keep inside. Roar at it some night when no-one’s around and I’ll probably hear you.

The joys I felt, all those years ago, they somehow go on if you live them out on my behalf.

I never told you I Ioved you.

That’s the bitterest regret of all, because I do.

SW