Three things stick in my mind from that day:
One, the way the wind came up as we rode our bikes back from the harbour’s entrance towards Eastbourne. The road was gravel, a track for quarry trucks; it wove in and out of the bays between the locked gate at Burdens Gate and the surf spot we’d snuck out to ride.
Funnelling down the coast, the nor’wester was strong enough to be tearing small whitecaps off the sun-golden surface of the sea. In the bays there was some shelter, but as we peddled round the headlands it slammed into us. Our surfboards kicked like the booms of tacking boats, and threatening to pull us off our bikes. J.’s bike was a rusting pink BMX with a broken pedal that he never got round to fixing. He was hopeless with that sort of shit. Worse than me even. My bike was an old purple three-speed. Literally a granny bike – inherited from my grandmother.
At times we were close to stopped in our tracks. And J was all for giving up and walking. But if we walked we’d arrive back at his place late, sometime in the evening, and his mother would figure out where we’d be surfing. She was loving but prone to temper too. J was already kind of immune to her squalls but I was terrified of them. And this propelled us. I took over his bike, struggling against the broken pedal and the wind.
Two, when we stopped at Burden’s Gate, having made it in time. We brought coke or ice blocks from the little food stall there. And sat, resting in the sun. The wind was less, under the shelter of the hills. We were glowing, sunburnt, beginning to bask in the caper. Thinking of the waves. As we sat there a group of Mettlers pulled up further down the car park on their motor bikes. Big, tough looking guys in black helmets and black jerseys. One of them rode a three wheel bike with huge handlebars. They ignored us. We were puny, surfies and safely beneath their dignity. But one of the passengers on the back of the three wheeler was staring. L. an old girlfriend of mine. Without a helmet. Slender, with a pretty pinched face like an elf’s. The year before she’d picked me up and I’d stumbled along in her wake for a bit. Frightened of her friends, but kind of attracted to her. It hadn’t lasted long. It didn’t end acrimoniously, just spluttered and then died, like a poorly tended engine.
Neither of us smiled or waved, which was probably safer for me given the company she kept. We just made eyes a little bit. And then the bikes were started and off they rode. Her looking back, her hair waving in the wind.
“She’s still keen on you man.”
I remember the cheery flush that gave me. Not because I had grieved her, or hoped to start things again. But simply because she looked pretty under the sun that day. And that she’d looked back. Reconsidered.
A good memory, but the third memory floats there better still: the waves, clean lines of swell, tidied by the offshore wind, standing then falling over the shallow reef, pitching out, barrelling, in front of a jagged tooth of rock. We were the only surfers in miles, and the waves rolled in one after another. We took turns. Me, I was content just to make the ride: to take off slightly to the side of the rock, outrunning the barrel, and skittering onto the gentle shoulder. J was surfing with the all the teenage talent that he was to squander just a few years later. With style he would take off right behind the rock, and angle in under the lip of the tubing wave. And that’s the memory that really sticks: me paddling out, watching, hooting encouragement, as J. got tubed, surfing better with every ride, in the happy summer’s light.