He holds my foot in his hand as he's talking to me.
"The bone is fusing itself."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. The cartilage has deteriorated and because of that the bones start to rub together -- and as they rub they cause a sort of sediment that actually builds up and stiffens the joint."
"Christ..." I sort of gasp quietly, and sink down a little further in the chair.
"It's a type of arthritis."
"No one's explained that properly up to now."
"Well, that's what's happening."
Right then, I'm suffering the most awful mixture of emotions. This doc is so great. He's the first one I've found that's just so calmly and clearly nailed it down for me. That's just sat there and told me what the hell's going on without all the other crap and stuffing about. And because of that I'm sort of half out of my mind with relief. I feel a little hope, a little certainty, at last. But on the other hand, now I'm really cracking up. 'Cause now I've got it square in my face how totally fucked my feet are. And I don't really think I've got a clue how to deal with it. I feel this rising fear. I don't know what they're going to be able to do. Or where that's going to leave me. And I'm only seventeen, and that's really hurting me.
I'd really done the rounds up till this guy, I think I'd seen about half-a-dozen bloody specialists. And I'd met some of the all-time champion wankers -- one of them wanted to permanently fuse the bones in my feet so they wouldn't bend ever again and give me a set of walking sticks; another wanted me to get around in funny little leather boots with rockers on the bottom for the rest of my life. They'd scared the absolute shit out of me. I was cracking up. I was starting to lose hope. And then I find this guy -- he's at Royal North Shore. And it's different from the very start.
I haven't been in his room for more than thirty seconds and he's got my shoes and socks off and he's grabbed a foot and he's checking it out. And it goes on like that for the rest of the consult -- one foot or the other in his hands, and him working it over and pushing and prodding and really giving it the once over, while I just rave. I get going and I give him the whole tale of woe from start to finish. And he doesn't miss a beat. He just keeps on, and shoots me a question now and then -- whenever he gets a gap in my noise -- like, "This hurt here? How long's it felt like that there?" And when I answer, he's actually got this look on his face like it means something to him.
So I'm stoked. He's the first doc that's come at it in that way. The first one that hasn't sat behind the big mahogany desk and given me the carrot-up-his-arse routine for the first twenty minutes. The guy's an absolute legend. And I swear; there's like this lightness that begins to grow in me as it all goes along; there's this relief that builds in me as I check him out. I start to feel a little okay for the first time in quite a while. I feel like I've found someone who understands where the pain is, and what the pain is, and what can be done about it.
And the other thing that's going on, is a really weird thing. It's just this thing with someone working on your feet like that. I swear, it's totally freaky. It's the strangest feeling. It's too intimate. It's like you feel like you're sitting there in the buff or something -- that's how it feels. It feels too close to you. It's this thing, as they press into the softness of your arch, as their hand works around your foot. You feel like they're getting at you where the skin is too thin. And even though you're sitting there yacking your head off -- you can't ignore it, the way it feels, the way it touches a nerve. Yeah, I know I'm cracking up. I've already told you that. But I swear it's the weirdest sensation. I swear you never realize how personal a foot is, until someone grabs yours and starts working on it.
So it's a bit of a weird trip to the doc's all round. I'm sort of coming undone and over the moon all in one. So he does his whole bit, and eventually he's finished, then he gets up and goes over to his little sink to wash his hands. And I'm left sitting there, working my bare toes into the carpet pile, contemplating what a brilliant doc he is. And I'm starting to buzz a little, 'cause I'm getting just the faintest sense that maybe he'll be able to work something out here. And he comes back, drying off his hands on a paper towel, and says, "It's your arches -- they're too high." Then he lobs the paper towel into the bin.
"Yeah?" I pull my foot up and take a look at it.
"Puts a mechanical stress on the front of the foot. Bit unusual in someone your age -- but it can happen."
I check my foot out, I can't see it. Looks like an ordinary arch to me. I can't believe it -- fuckin' seventeen and my feet are packing up. You wouldn't fuckin' credit it.
He sits back down again, in the chair opposite me, and tells me some more about it, and then starts telling me about the op he proposes.
It's really hard to explain to you the pure relief I feel then. The bastard actually has an idea about what can be done. I feel I could almost cry out loud. I could yelp with joy. I feel like I've reached the end of some kind of road at last -- and I've been on my knees in the gravel all the way.
"You can't leave it the way it is," he tells me, "or the process will just continue and it'll get worse. But it's all right, what we do now is just cut the point of friction out of the joint -- and it fills up in time -- and you can walk fine."
"Honestly?" I say.
"Yes, honestly," he replies, with a little smile. I think he thinks I'm a bit of a nutter.
And I swear, I want to cry out. I want to leap up and hug the bastard. It's his calm way when he tells me stuff, his sureness -- what's wrong, what he can do -- that's what really flips me. It's like he really knows, it's like I can really believe him. It's because he's the first bastard that hasn't made me feel like I'm going to be lumping around in leather calipers for the rest of my life. I'm so stoked. I'm so rapt, honestly.
But still, I can't do it. I just can't.
I'm so stoked and relieved and thrilled -- but I can't open my mouth and ask the question. It's like I'm afraid I've used up all the grace reserved for me for one day. Afraid I've got no right to any more. And I can't push it that little bit further and ask the question I really want to. The question that's there filling up every space in my head: "Will I still be able to surf?"
It's just too much. I don't do it. I wander out of there like I've just been hauled off the rocks at Anga at twelve foot after the hammering of a lifetime. And all I've got a right to, is to be glad to be in one piece. The board's smashed to bits, but I'm okay. And that's all I've got a right to. And I'm too high and grateful to ask for something more. I'm too afraid of the answer.
I head down the pub that night. Friday, Saturday -- always big nights down the Steyne. Doesn't matter what else is on, you'll always find someone down there. Things always start there, no matter what else is happening for the rest of the night. Didn't even matter a few weeks back when half of us had the HSC on (the other half hadn't made it that far) -- there was still always a pretty good turnout. I roll up, and pretty much the whole crew's there, sitting out in the beer garden at a couple of tables pulled together like usual. I wander over.
"Owl, what's happening mate?" The usual rave on arrival.
"Where'd you piss off to this arvo?" someone asks.
"Had to go see the doc."
"Still can't shake that dose, hey mate -- told you to stay clear of those feral Queensie bitches. You'll catch yourself a fatal strain, mate."
"Or end up lookin' like Croc."
"Go the dose, Owl."
Hoots and snorts from around the table. More resident comedians than you can poke a stick at. Croc couldn't give a stuff. Croc'd root a dead wombat by the side of the road if he had the chance.
"Yeah, right." I grin and bear it, and get a seat and bury my nose in my schooey.
Croc's to my left, he gives me an elbow nudge. He's a big ugly bastard with a head like a potato and arms like a stevedore. He likes to blue on the footy field, and ride big waves on the big green pin-tail gun his brother-in-law brought back from Oahu for him. I've never seen Croc back off from a swell. When the rest of us are hanging on the beach going, "Yeah, well, it's a bit big, ain't it?" and "It's a bit fucking ugly," Croc's halfway down the sand with his big green gun under his arm. He doesn't fuck around. Some guy he doesn't know drops in on him, he doesn't bother with the mouth, he just paddles straight over and punches him in the head.
"Big night tomorrow, hey Owl," he says to me, "ain't gunna miss it are ya? Haven't got something fucking terminal have ya?"
"No way, I'll be there. It's going to rip."
"The Owl's takin' the Hayls mate," Lew says, "didn't you know? He's made it sweet -- he's goin' all the way, mate."
"The Hayls? Hayley Churchill?" Dills picks it up. "The Owl's taking the Drewester's little sister to Stink's eighteenth -- no shit! How the fuck'd you swing that Owl, you sly bastard? How'd you get past her olds?"
It's like this silence suddenly falls around the table. There might be about ten guys there, the usual crowd, the hard core of the crew from down the beach, and they all go quiet. It's like, this is sort of the scoop, this is the dirt, and they're riveted. And I don't know what to say.
"Fuck, I don't know," I mumble, "it just sort of happened."
"Come on, mate, stop being so sly," Lew says. "How'd you get that hot bit of gash off the leash? Her old man's a fuckin' Nazi, he never stops heavyin'. Sees you in the street and he comes over and starts baggin' ya about your hair or the fuckin' hole in your boardies -- fuckin' dickwit -- thinks he's still in the army or something. Hey Stink, remember that time we're down at Manly, bastard comes out of Coles and runs into us, we go ¿Hi, Mr. Churchill,' all polite and shit like that, and he just starts right in,¿What's the matter with you kids? Why don't you get your damn hair cut? How can your parents let you run around looking like that?' Rah, rah, rah, you should have heard the bastard. Tell you what, Drewe's one lucky bastard having had to grow up with that. Wonder the bastard ever made it down the beach."
"He's big time in the Manly clubbies," Poon says. "That's why he's cool with the surf -- wanted Drewe to be an ace iron man."
"Bummer, hey. Wonder if he knows he rips shit."
"He sort of does," I say. "He's always been cool about Drewe and the surf. He just could never make out why anyone wouldn't want to row a surfboat."
"Fuckin what!" General howls and hoots from around the table.
"So whad'ya do, Owl, you snake -- you give the old lady a box of choccies or what?"
"You'd need to do more than that -- you'd need to give the old man a fuckin' lobotomy, I reckon," Lew says.
More approving hoots and cacks around the table at that one, but then it goes quiet again and it's all eyes back on me. They go silent again, waiting.
"So what's the buzz, Owl? How'd ya do it?"
"Come on, Owl -- you sly dog, spill it."
"I don't know, I guess it's just kinda 'cause they know me or whatever, and that made it cool or something like that. I don't know."
Howls of disapproval and disbelief.
"Christ, I don't know," I protest. "Hayley did all the pleading and fancy footwork with them."
More howls and hoots, and I'm shat on.
I duck for cover. I head for the bar, for another beer.
Next morning, five o'clock, I'm up for the early -- like always. The booze from the night before doesn't faze me. I've been chasing the early for so long now, it's like clockwork -- summer, winter, whenever -- every Saturday, every Sunday, for the last six years of high school at least. We drank till closing at the Steyne, then I got a ride back up the hill with Stink and Dills. We stopped in and had a bag of fries at Maccas at Fairlight with the rest of the midnight ravers -- then I bailed, and weaved and wobbled my way back up my street and crashed in the front door. Lately, I like the piss a little more than I probably should. I like the dampening effect it has on the soreness in my feet. It gets in between the ache and softens it.
I leave my place in the dark, to be down the surf at sunrise. Drewe and I have worked it for years now that we try to get down there just as the lamp lights kick off along the beach. We've been meeting up for the early for so long now it's just mad. But it's just what we do. It's what we love.
To be out there, when the sun first comes, when the light's low and silvery and magic; to be drifting and moving amongst it when the swell's sweeping in and the sun's seeping thick over the blue edge of the ocean, is to be in nirvana. It makes your heart sing. To be streaming across a wall and see the light of sunrise through its glassy thickness, to push through a wave and feel its wet crashing brightness enclose you, it makes you delirious; it makes you high. It's the maddest, wildest, sweetest thing I've ever found. You end up drugged with it. You can't live without it. To take off on a six-foot set at North Steyne in the first flowing light of sunrise in spring, and drop down into a surging barreling line, with water spinning like crystal around you, and the air soft and sweet like a kiss against your skin, and the tide most of the way out so it's bowling so hard and clean over the bank you're only just making it all the way, only just hanging in there by an edge and charging so fast and nearly out of control all down the line with the lip crashing into your head -- that's the thing, that I can't begin to say what it does to you, how it works you over. That's the thing that leaves you high and buzzing for the rest of the day, that rides and shoots in your blood and never fades till you finally flake that night.
I walk down the hill from my place in the early cool of the spring morning. I'm checking out the breeze, trying to feel it, thinking about the tide, trying to get a squiz at the Bower and the swell on the horizon as usual as I go. It's about 5:30 and the light's just starting to come, but it seems a little dull -- there must be a little high cloud I think. On the steep bit of the hill by the Ra-Ra park I get a funny feeling, and I look around and there's a cop car there, creeping silently in the curbside, just behind me -- only its parkers on -- taking a look at me. I've only got my towel over my shoulder, my board and wettie are down in the garage at North Steyne where we all keep our gear. I don't give them another glance, I just keep cruising. After a little bit they slide on by me and dive away down the hill -- the cop on the passenger side making a big show of taking a last good look at me as they go. I don't know what they're on about. Must figure I'm knocking in car windows or something with the towel, the wackers. But I'm not really bothered. I just keep walking and I'm looking straight out ahead, and there's an instant I suddenly realize I'm looking at the Bower and it looks like it's catching a little swell. And I forget about the cops 'cause I'm sussing the swell out and trying to figure out where it's coming from and if it's any good.
As I'm walking I'm thinking it'll be cool to see Drewe. I haven't seen him for a few days now. He didn't front last night at the pub. He didn't show at a party we kinda crashed the night before. He's on with this absolute glam babe at the moment. She's got to be the biggest put-on I've ever met in my life -- all she ever does is rave about the old lady's Saab and where she's going skiing in Europe, and she dresses like a friggin' disco queen. I couldn't really give a stuff, that's all Drewe's lookout, but she's dragging him around to all the glam night spots, so lately he's not hanging out with the crew as much as usual. But he still shows for the early most of the time. So I'm thinking, it'll be cool to have a bit of a rave with him. Tell him what's been happening, and how I'm going to have the op. He's pretty much the only one I can communciate to about all this shit with my feet. I can't talk to my olds. Well, not my old lady anyway. I mumble sideways to her about it and she always gets so cut up. She reckon's surfing's the cause of it all, and that's it. She never lets up. Logically, I don't see how she could see it that way -- or every fuckin' kid that ever rode a board would have this. But emotionally, she's jammed on it. Her only answer is ever: "Stop surfing, Matt. Stay off the board. That'll fix it." But that won't fix it. It'll just make it worse.
I get to the beach. The sun's just rising -- a misshapen molten globe -- trailing a thick tail out of the blue sea as it draws itself over the horizon. No sign of Drewe yet. There's one guy out in the water already -- down at Mid Steyne, some mad bastard that just can't get enough of it. I sit on our bench, the bench the crew hang out on, and watch the break, and think about stuff, and hang on for Drewe. I've got a feeling he'll show this morning. And it feels all right to just sit there, and try and chill out for a bit. I tell you, this is it, I'm so wound up. This is the big day -- tonight's the night. I'm taking Hayls to a party. And not just any party -- Stink's party, his big eighteenth at the Queensie boat shed. What a blast. You know that feeling of anticipation you get where you've tee'd it all up and it's all so sweet you're only just barely hanging onto yourself -- well, it's like that. It doesn't come any sweeter than this. This is it. To be taking Hayley Churchill anywhere is like a dream come true. To be taking the babe out on the first real night her olds will let her out to a party like this, is like going direct to heaven. To be thinking, I'm going to be picking her up and driving her and we're going to be together at Stink's huge session that everyone on the beach has been talking about for months, just about blows my mind so far away I don't know if I'll ever get it back. I'm so stoked. I'm going to go out in the surf and rotate.
Hayley's fifteen. I'll bullshit all my mates down the pub -- but I won't bullshit you. I did squat. Hayley set it all up. Month ago, I'm down at their place, Drewe's and Hayls', one Sunday arvo after the surf, hangin' out like we always do. Drewe and I are out the back working on that old balsa gun we've been reshaping for like years now, and Drewe's old lady hangs out the back door and says there's a young lady on the phone for him. So Drewe goes off to talk to Shazza or Mazza or whatever the hell babe from amongst the half-a-dozen sorts that are perpetually chasing him, and then Hayley comes wandering out the back. Cruises out all cool and coy and divine in a funny little tube top and funny little shorts, in that way that she has -- that makes it that all you can seem to do is stare at her legs, and just gawk at her in general like some kind of stunned mullet 'cause she's such an absolute bloody knockout. And she's drinking pink lemonade or something or other through a purple straw from one of those big silly plastic glasses that's nearly as big as a bucket. And all she says is, "Hey, Matt."
And I say, "Hey, Hayls."
Then, no shit, no other jazzing around, she just gets right into it, "Hey Matt, you want to take me to Pete Ryan's eighteenth?"
And you got to hand it to the babe. She doesn't hang back, she just lets you have it.
And I'm Mister Genius. I think real fast. What does this mean -- the babe I've been mad stone blind infatuated with for about the last two years has seen the light and is suddenly infatuated with me? Or, Hayley wants to go to Pete's party? Hayley's fifteen and she's sick of being tied down at home by her old man who's an industrial-strength fascist, and she's such a clever bitch she's probably worked out the only bastard in the entire Manly-Warringah Shire she has half a hope in hell of getting out the front door with, is me, 'cause her olds have seen me come and go around here since I was three-quarters high to a coolite, and I'm as good as halfway to being one of the family? Yeah, I conclude, Hayley's stuck on me. The babe's finally realized what an awesome spunk I am and she can't let me go. My star-struck infatuation is being reciprocated. She doesn't really care if we go to Stink's big stir that night, that's not what it's about at all -- we could go and sit in the car park at Kentucky Fried at Manly Vale and talk about the tide all night and she'd be just as blissful 'cause she's with me. Just so long as she's with me. Yup, they don't call me the Owl for nothing.
I look at her. I don't know that I can explain to you what happens, what it is I feel, when I look at this babe. It's just a total, gob-smacked near-divinity encounter. Hayley Churchill could fart and I'd think it was perfect pitch and divine. She's got these dark eyes that are so wicked and perfect. They're the most beautiful, impish, take the absolute piss out of anything or anyone any time she pleases, divine eyes. She's got perfect skinny brown limbs, and she's just divine angles all over -- her shoulders, her hips, the raise of her arse -- the way she glides and bends to stretch when we're down at Fairlight Pool in the summer, before she slides into the water. She's just a fucking goddess.
"So, what do you think about Pete's?" she says. "You want a drink of lemonade?" she asks, as an afterthought.
I kind of hang there checking her out. I'm kind of in shock. I kind of wish Drewe would come back out and sort his sister out 'cause she's reducing me to rubble. I've got to tell you the truth. I'm a total dag with the babes, I'm clueless. I don't know what it is, but it's like I lack some critical skill -- I just can't seem to get over this effect they have on me. They flip me out. They make me want to run for my life. I just haven't got a handle on it yet. And in my crew, hitting the end of Year Twelve, even I've got to admit that's starting to look a little poor form. Guys like Lew and Stink in the crew, they're absolute legends with the babes, they've been screwing sorts since Year Eight or Nine. But me, I'm a total fucking loss. Some sexy sort starts batting her eyes at me and I lose the plot totally. I can surf the arse out of an eight-foot Bower set -- and that's probably the only thing that's saving my cred -- 'cause some sort starts giving me the chat and I turn into a dag.
And Hayley, well Hayley's a whole different story again. Up till Hayley I could fob it all off. I could still say to myself it just hadn't happened yet, so it was no sweat. I'd look at some babe and think, yeah, she's pretty cute, yeah or whatever. But no one had really knocked me off my perch yet, there was no real true ka-pow yet. So I could just keep kidding myself along, keep sort of bumbling along getting blind and falling over at parties on Saturday nights to kind of bail out of it, instead of fronting up to the sorts that were giving me the come-on. Keep telling myself because I wasn't really that hot on any of them, it didn't really matter -- I wasn't really that big a lost cause. But then Hayley knocked me flat, and she really knocked me flat. I was gone. I was nailed by the goddess. So when Hayley says, "Take me to Pete's party," I'm as good as stuffed.
"So what do you say, Matt? You interested?"
"Yeah, cool. But what about your olds?" It's pathetic, but I'm trying to be as cool as I can. I'm actually trying to act like I don't know that it's that hot an idea, or whether I'm that keen on it. Where do I get this kind of talent? Some babe that I'm absolutely blind about's standing there asking me to take her to a party, and I'm standing there doing my Joe Cool routine? No fucking idea, but it's obviously a major talent, it's a bloody brain wave.
"It's all right. I've talked to them -- well, I've talked to Mum -- she says it's cool. I've just got to get around Dad. But he'll be cool...I can look after him."
I'm so dumb. I'm just hanging there. Gazing at her. Honestly, Hayley is the most beautiful creature I've ever seen in my life. And I'm so dumb, I'm honestly thinking, What does this mean? What should I say now? Does this mean she may actually like me a little? I'm just in a stupor. I haven't got a clue. I want to say, "Hayley, why me? Why ask me to take you on your big debut? Why not some other guy?" But I don't, because I'm too dumb and gutless and that's the game isn't it? She sort of acts like she kind of maybe may like me. And I sort of act like that could actually remotely, incredibly be. But no one asks, so no one gets hammered. I wimp out and play along, and she plays the bitch and plays me along for what she wants for all it's worth. And the real truth of course is, I can't tell. We can't help it, can we? People, we tell ourselves all sorts of crap. We believe what we want to believe. We're capable of believing just about anything in the wrong place at the wrong time. And at that moment, on that afternoon, I honestly didn't know. There was a part of me that genuinely believed Hayley Churchill actually wanted me -- me, Matt Owen -- to take her to that party. That she actually liked me, that she actually wanted something to do with me, actually me. And it wasn't just some means to an end. Some way to get what you want and from here to there. Well, like I said, they don't call me the Owl for nothing.
I'm standing there. Looking at the old balsa gun up on the shaping stand. Looking at Hayls. She's so gorgeous you want to believe anything you possibly can. She smiles so sweetly at me and turns and walks back up the path and up the steps and in the back door waving her empty lemonade bucket and saying, "See ya later, Matt." Not walks, sort of glides, or floats, or whatever it is goddesses are able to do. And I hang there by the old blank, hit by a truck. When Drewe comes back out, I'm still hanging there, not working on the board, not doing much of anything. I think I'm studying a knot in the wood, trying to remember what fucking planet I'm on.
"What's up, mate?"
"This thing's a fuckin' waste of time."
"We know that -- what's your fuckin' problem?" He laughs. "We'll tart it up and sell it to some Parra -- tell him it's a Duke Kahanamoku original -- we'll get a fortune."
"Mate, you're a glassing ledge -- stop sweating, it's just for hoot."
"Who was that?"
"Kelly Crater -- wants to know if I love her. And if I do love her, why haven't I been around to shake her peaches lately?"
"May have to tell her you've moved on, mate."
I look up at him. "Your sister's asked me to take her to Stink's eighteenth."
He smiles. "No shit...So she got it past the old man."
"Reckons she will."
He thinks. "She's a sly bitch. So what did you say?"
"Said I'd think about it."
He checks me out. "Bullshit."
I wander away from his scrutiny, go over and sit on the back step.
He leans on the blank and watches me.
"Mate, I don't care if you're star-struck on my sister -- it's your lookout, not mine. Your judgment's fucked -- but I won't hold it against you." He laughs. "I figured it was bound to happen with one of my mates sooner or later."
"Yeah. So where's it at?"
"I don't know where it's at. I'm wondering if I'm just having myself on."
"I'd say there's a reasonable risk of that, mate. I'm not going to get stuck into my sister, mate. But you know the score. Little Hayls is in it for little Hayls and no one else."
"I'm screwed. My head's rotating."
"What's the prob, bro? Stop sweating. Just ride -- see where it goes. Or fuckin' give it the flick now -- 'cause you know Hayley, and you know the only thing you're going to get is heartache."
"Fuck, you're a hard bastard."
"Bull I am -- I'm her brother. And I've seen a few, and believe me, my sister leaves them all for dead -- she's the queen of vixen. She's the all-time champ."
"Well, that's it isn't it? It's different for you -- you're her brother. I've got a sister and I wouldn't exactly recommend her to anyone either, but my old man's still fighting the would-bes back from the door with a stick."
"That's bullshit, mate, and you know it. Your sister's heaps older than you and it's never been the same -- you've never even been that close. Hayley's always been around and we've always been like that. And you know what I'm on about. Hayley gets what Hayley wants."
"Okay. I still reckon it's different. I still reckon it can never be the same with a brother. You always know each other in a different way."
He looks at me. "Yeah, well, that's cool, mate, but you know the real problem -- you're halfway to being her brother too. You've been to too many Sunday lunches, mate."
He shut me up with that one. He left me thinking. But it didn't change anything -- Hayley got it around the old man and I was taking her to Stink's eighteenth.
Copyright © 2001 by Paul Hayden
It's supposed to be the best summer of his life, a final hurrah before Owl and his buddies are forced to grow up and start the next phase of life, but he and his surfing crew are about to get dragged kicking and screaming into the adult world -- and nothing will ever be the same again.