When I left London thirteen years ago my friends smiled knowingly when I said that I longed to swim in the sea again in Australia. On settling in Melbourne I did swim in the sea, just as I said I would. But never as fearlessly, as carelessly, as I had as a teenager in big surf on the coast of South Australia.
Besides, I told myself, now that I had small children there was no call on me to brave big surf. Instead I admired it from the beach, as I coaxed my children to take longer and longer walks.
Then ten years passed, as they do.
A few months ago my son made a quiet exit from family life. His sailing trips lengthened and he spent more and more time at his girlfriend’s house, which meant he was no longer around to go on adventures with his sister and me. And it was then that I looked around for things that my daughter and I could do together to fill the hole left by his absence.
Before her last birthday, my daughter asked for a proper surf board. I demurred. Proper boards are expensive and my car is too small for roof racks. In the end I decided that it was worth the expense and gave her a board. Ecstatic, she slid the board sideways in the car with the backseat flat.
Every weekend she would persuade me to take her to the surf beach, even when it was freezing. And I took her, partly out of the goodness of my heart and partly because it was the one place, and the one time, that she was completely happy. Each time I watched her pull on her wetsuit and wade into the water, keeping a close eye on her efforts to stand up on her board from behind my book on the beach.
Then last November I surprised her with a last minute family trip, which I softened with the promise that on our return I would get a wetsuit and go surfing with her. She agreed, smiling.
The morning after we returned from our trip my daughter asked if we could go surfing. I looked at her, surprised, having half forgotten my promise. She had not.
The woman at the wetsuit factory sat outside my change room as I struggled into a full wetsuit. ‘It’s got to be really tight’, she said, shaking her head at the tiny amount of slack left in the arms.
When I told my eldest sister, an ocean swimmer, about the challenge ahead of me, she laughed and told me how to use a plastic bag to slide each foot into each wetsuit leg.
‘Hurry up!’ my daughter said impatiently before my first swim, as I reached around for the tag to pull closed the zip of my wetsuit. ‘How can you take so long?’
At first I could barely remember what to do in the water, it had been so long since I’d last bodysurfed. Slowly it came back to me. Where to stand just before a wave breaks, the pleasure of catching a good wave, and the confusion that comes with being dumped.
Now that I have been surfing with my daughter nineteen times since Christmas Day, I understand how people get hooked on surfing. Out past the first break it is another world. What matters on the beach doesn’t matter in the surf. Out there all that matters is getting in place to catch the next wave, and not being dumped by the wave out the back that is too big to catch.
Mind you I didn’t always want to go surfing. There were days on which my daughter bullied me into taking her with black looks and ‘But you said!’ Plus a little stamp of her foot. On those days I let her make me take her, partly because I didn’t have the strength to oppose her, and partly because I couldn’t think of anything better for us to do late afternoon.
On our last swim for the summer holidays, two nights ago, the waves were larger than usual. The sky was dark and huge swells had gouged craters into the sand beneath our feet. After catching each wave we would wade back out, laughing as we fell into the pot holes beneath us. My husband stood watching from nearby rocks, his raincoat zipped up against wind and drizzle.
Suddenly my daughter started squeaking and thrashing her legs about as she jumped on her board. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘What’s wrong?’ More splashing about from her, but no words. ‘Please tell me’, I pleaded. ‘I fell in a hole up to my chest’, she said breathless, ‘and put my foot on something squishy. And it moved!’ We hurried out of the water and stood on the beach, looking out at the waves until my husband joined us.
With that our summer of surfing ended. Not because my daughter stood on something squishy that moved, but because in two days’ time she would button up her school uniform and hump her bag of new textbooks into school for the first day of term.
Standing on the beach, shivering with cold, I didn’t feel anything as straightforward as sadness. Instead I felt relieved that in a few days’ time I would get my working life back. Besides I knew that it was time for my daughter to reenter the fray of her complicated school friendships. We had both had our summer of surfing, even on cold days, and now it was time to peel off our wetsuits and let them dry out completely.
My daughter would need to find other ways to be a hundred per cent happy, and brave, as she has been in the surf. And I too will need to find other ways to leave my life on the shore behind, and just to be there for the next wave.