"When I'm out there, it's between me and the waves." Noodles had been a surfer for all of three days when those immortal words came out of his mouth. They cemented him in the gang. He was finally one of us. Looking back, it marked a turning point in our little camaraderie, a subtle shift in the dynamics. We should have been more careful, more aware, but back then we were young men, we were warriors on a quest, we were pitting ourselves against the ferocious wrath of nature every morning, we were testing our mettle. We were dumb kids and we paid the price. We all knew Noodles felt like he’d said something deeply philosophical, something we hadn’t already figured out for ourselves, so we let him ride the wave of superiority, for a couple of seconds before we all laughed. Even Noodles started laughing, though he didn't really know what at. He was eleven when he came out with those words like a latter-day surf swami. The rest of us were only a few years older but it might as well have been a generation apart. But he stuck to us like glue and every time we hit the water, without fail, one of us would recite them. Eventually, as these things go, they were shortened to just ‘between the waves’. One of us would yell it before duckdiving a wave as we headed out. They bound us together like a creed. Sid had plenty of other gangs to hang out with each season but he always said out group was the bomb. I think it was Noodle’s words that held us together for all these years as we grew up, split up, travelled the world and found each other again.
There was Sid, Spud, Whitey and me. Then Noodles and Pixie. Back in the early days the age gap was significant. Like a lot of things, it dissolved in time. Those two stuck with us four like glue. I never figured out why Noodles did. We’d be out on the water and he’d just stand on the beach, his toes burrowing into the wet sand at the edge of the waves, watching. Our parents would sit on their beach chairs drinking coffees and reading books. And Noodles would just stand and watch. Pixie, Spud’s kid sister was more his age and she just kind of attached herself to him from the moment they met. He was a brother from another mother for sure. After a few days of watching, Spud’s dad took pity on them and shelled out for two boogie boards. The next year they were both grommets, and those famous words were spoken, “It's between me and the waves”.
I always suspected Noodles sort of idolised Sid because Sid was like a fish in the ocean and nothing phased him, plus he already had his own board. But he was a local. All the locals had boards. Good boards, not the junkers we had to hire with broken fins and dings in them. Real boards. Boards that just felt right under your feet. Boards that flowed like the waves.
That was the start of everything. And at the centre of it all was Sid with all his complexities. He knew Noodles and Pixie were tight and every now and then the air would get tight and sparks started to fly. Sid didn’t have any trouble with getting girls as we got older, he just had trouble with Pixie. I think he had some deep rooted attraction to her but kept it buried because she was Spud’s sister. Don’t shit where you eat and all that. That’s how he put it once.
"Listen to the grom, all philosophical and shit. With one wave under his belt. All hail, Noodles the Elder, king of philosophers!" Sid didn’t like to admit it, but he was a closet bibliophile. Any time someone turned up at his place unannounced he got stressed in case they caught him with his nose in a book. Thought it would ruin the hard-man mystique he had so carefully crafted.
“Fuck you, grom. I’ve been surfing as long as you, mate. Grom. Who you kidding?” Noodles said. He had Sid firmly in his line of sight. I remember feeling like it could kick off at any moment. Those moments had been coming more frequently in the last year or so. Whitey used to be the middleman inn the arguements but he’d moved to Queensland with his folks three years earlier and they didn’t make the trips anymore. Why would they? There’s better waves in warmer water up in Queensland. You don’t even need a wetsuit up there.
"Mate, have a word with yourself. When you've seen someone drown out there then you can tell me what's what."
For a brief moment Noodles's face crumbled. You had to be watching closely to see it before the mask of bravado took over again. He was one of them, and be damned if he wasn't.
A silence fell over us. Only Spud had the balls to go up against Sid when he was in one of his moods, The switch flipped instantly sometimes, and without warning. "Bit hard there, Sid. You were his age once," said Spud. He slapped Noodles's shoulder twice. A mark of camaraderie.
"Yeah, but I was never as full of shit as he is," Sid said.
Noodles scowled at Sid from the darkness at the edge of the light thrown out by the fire. From where they sat, none of the boys could really see the others. It felt private, like a clandestine brethren meeting to lay their plans for the future.
I was peeling the label of his beer bottle and spoke without looking up, "If anyone's full of shit it's you Sid." I remember the words falling from my mouth without my brain engaging. I had my arms hooked around my knees, sitting in the sandy dirt. I waited for his acerbic reply but Pixie beat him to it.
“Sid, we all know you’re a big softie deep down.” She had come a long way from the kid with ponytails on a boogie board and a fascination for everything pink. She was just about to turn sixteen, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking her for a mid-twenty-something. Her curves and goth style made her appear a few years older than she was. Her attitude and ballsyness made her jailbait. Watching her in a wettie on a board made me forget where I was. She’d carve a line through much more experienced surfers and get away with it because she knew how to use her looks. She and Noodles were always together and he took more than his fair share of shit from assholes about his ‘bird’. He just rolled with the punches. Threw one or two, on occasion. But that was rare.
“Oh, fuck you, with all your eyeliner and tits. You still have a pink fetish.” Sid had his moments. Pixie looked at the pink and silver label on her bottle, winked at Noodles, swigged a mouthful of the vodka cruiser she was drinking.
I chimed in. “I miss Whitey, this stuff never happened when he was here.”
“Budge, we were kids back then,” Noodles replied.
“I know some pink you’d like to see,” she said, opening her legs slightly. We all got the idea. Spud spat beer out in a plume, nearly choking.
Noodles laughed, “See what I mean?” He looked at me as we both wondered what the right reaction was. Pixie definitely wasn’t a little girl anymore.
“What the fuck!” Spud struggled to talk as he coughed.
I was speechless. It was about that time that I’d noticed her, really noticed her. There was something about her that fascinated me.
“You sure about that?” Sid retaliated.
“Suck my cock, Sid. You wish.” she said.
“I’m not the only one, right Budge?” He looked at me.
“Keep me out of it,” I said.
“Thought you’d want to go balls deep into it?”
Silence. Then we all burst out laughing. One of impromptu infectious teenage laughs. Pixie couldn’t swallow, she spat a flume of vodka over the fire. Sid stared at her, a bit demoralised, you could tell, but a lot more fascinated. His eyes never did hide his truth. We all knew Sid had tried it on with Pixie that morning on the beach while the rest of us were in the water. He’d had a soft spot for her for years. She wasn’t the one that got away, she was the one that never got hooked. But that didn’t stop him trying. It riled Spud, but he’d given up the protective big brother role. She could handle herself more than the rest of us put together. That’s probably what attracted Sid like a moth to the flame. Her confidence was real, not a veneer. I’d once caught Whitey copping a peek when she got changed on the beach a few years back, before he moved north. I’d had my fair share of fantasies about Pixie. I think we all had. She’d always had an allure. Like a siren. Not once had we felt like we needed to look out for her and protect her. She was like that. She was the girl you wanted but were too nervous to talk to, to really talk to. We were just bags of meat and hormones.
It was coming up for eight o'clock and the campsite was buzzing with families and evening chatter. Lamps punctured the darkness. The four of us sat in the sandy dirt, each poking the fire between them with a stick. The way men do. Anglesey was a bigger town than most on the coast but it was still depressingly quiet in the off-season. Stores and restaurants had already started closing for the winter again. And that meant no more visitors. No more transient gangs like ours. We fucking ruled. Each summer there were hundreds, but our gang felt special. Even Sid knew it deep down. He didn't know our names when he first met us so he gave us all nicknames and when we got together in Anglesey, every time after that’s how we referred to each other. I don’t think I ever knew Sid’s surname. I’m pretty sure he never knew my real name. He called me Budge, on account of the budgie smugglers mum made me wear under my wetsuit that first year because I kept getting a rash. Then there was Spud. Apparently he looked like a potato. And Whitey. He had red hair and this pure alabaster skin like one of those old Roman statues. But with freckles. He used to turn blue when he surfed because he had hardly any body fat. Noodles was an only child. He was the youngest of us. He was also the most courageous. I never figured out why Sid christened him Noodles because he had this long blonde hair that hung in ringlets and looked like two minute noodles. I still think it’s the coolest damn nickname I’ve ever heard. It showed Sid’s genius. Noodles looked like a surfer long before he was one. I think Sid recognised that in him right off the bat. Spud had a younger sister who used to follow us around like a lost puppy when she was young, and Sid took to calling her Pixie. She liked it. So did their folks so they started calling her Pixie even back home in the city. The rest of us left our names in the sand each time we went home.
We'd all been coming to the same campsite for as long as any of us could remember. The twice yearly trips down the coast were part of our lives since we were nippers. On our first trip we had been signed up for the same grommets surf school. We had eight years of surfing behind us, but that’s where we gelled, learning to surf with our dad’s knee deep in the water, wearing wetsuits, drinking beers and laughing. We loved it. Before that we had just been awkward kids thrust together on a campsite. Instant friends, just add water.
Sid came later. He was a local and, as he put it, he’d been born on a surfboard and had webbed feet. We were all from different parts of Melbourne but our dads had all worked together at one point and they still kept in touch. Except Sid’s old man of course. He didn’t come to the campfires or anything like that, just Sid. He was like a foster kid floating between families, getting fed for free and only going home when he had to. We knew Sid’s old man enough to say ‘hi’ to if we saw him. But we tried to give him a wide berth because he had a vibe like Sid's, only harder, the kind of vibe that you felt before you saw him. We didn;t really have a clue in the early years. Once, Spud and I were sitting on our boards watching Whitey and Sid. Sid flowed like the water. When he was out there he twisted and flexed into all sorts of shapes, like the waves were flowing up into him.
After they were done they joined us on the beach. I remember it because it was the year Sid started working with his old man on building sites. Mostly weekends, but sometimes he said his dad phoned the school and told them he was too sick to go in and then take him working for a few days to get a job done. He walked up to us, shook his hair like a dog then smiled, “Got to shoot boys. Money doesn’t make itself.” With that, he jogged up the beach to where we had stashed our bags. By the time we caught up he’d hung his clothes on a saltbush and was cramming a banana in his mouth.
“Slow down, you’ll choke,” said Whitey. Sid just winked. Those two really were close. Spud and I put our boards down, Whitey tossed our bags at us while Sid peeled off his wetsuit.
“Dude, what happened?” Spud’s shock grabbed our attention. We looked at Sid. The whole right side of his ribs were bruised and every colour from yellow, to purple with raw bits of skin where the ribs were closest to the surface.
“Yeah, that looks painful,” I said.
For a moment Sid hesitated, we saw a chink in his armour, then he was back. “Oh, that. That was last week before you guys got here. I came off close to the rocks. A bit too close.”
We used to believe him then, when we were kids. His stories made him a living legend.
The year after, when Whitey had moved north, we were all back on the water. This time Noodles and Pixie were with us. Sid was unusually late so we’d got started without him. It was Pixie that spotted it. We were sitting on our boards waiting for a set, Sid was half jogging onto the beach, shouting at someone behind him. “Probably some city kids,” Pixie said when we wondered what was going on.
“You mean, like us?” Spud said.
She cast her do-not-go-there glance, “No, not like us. Assholes, I mean.”
“Ah, like Sid then,” Spud said.
“Don’t be like that today, please.” Brother and sister stuff. Spud held up both hands in surrender.
“Look!” Noodles was pointing at Sid who had dropped his board and was cowering, using his arms to protect himself from the blows his dad was raining down on him. “Fuck me,” the surprise in Noodles’ voice ran through us all.
Later, once Sid had joined us and there was a quiet moment with just him, Noodles and me, I took my chance, “Hey, what was all that with your dad about?”
“I missed a delivery,” Sid said.
“You missed a delivery? For real? And he went ape shit like that?”
“Yeah, I missed a delivery.”
“So?” I asked.
“So? So, it’ll cost more to have it redelivered. We aren’t made of money like you are.” He paddled off.
“Bit rough,” I said to Noodles as we watched Sid.
“I’ll say. My old man talks about his old fellah. Says the cunt’s not wired right and someone should do something.”
“Best stay out of it.” I paddled after Sid, leaving Noodles out there alone.
Noodles was three years younger than us, give or take, and each summer we made it harder for him to be part of our clique. Take my hat off to him though, he never gave up trying. It was pretty clear that Noodles had a fascination with Sid, the kind only young kids have when someone pushes them around. Like prepubescent Stockholm Syndrome. No one mentioned it but I knew we all thought it. Sid could be a malicious piece of shit at times, and the best mate you ever had an hour later. His temper didn’t flip on a switch, it just kind of simmered under the surface. You could see it in his eyes. Their veil of fury sometimes let the underlying sadness cut through when his guard was down.
That last year was different. We all felt like we were grown up. Noodles only had a couple of years left at high school, and Spud had left university and was working in the family business, but that wasn’t the biggest difference that year. Sid had moved out of home become a working man. He hadn’t gone farther than the back yard where his dad’s battered old, graffiti covered camper had been rotting away behind the chip shop. He loved it. Especially since his old man had taken a turn for the worse. They’d got into a fight and he’d punched Sid, knocking one of his teeth out. Sid said it gave him character. When he heard we’d landed in town he surprised us all by rocking up in a pice-of-shit ute that he’d bought himself. That summer, we used to bomb around in his ute early doors to catch the first waves and he smiled like we’d never seen him smile. We’d all pile in the back, hanging onto our boards so they didn’t get sucked off by the wind. Sid’s driving was something else. How we didn’t crash was anyone’s guess. During the summer Sid worked as a surf instructor but when the season closed, and his old man shut the chip shop for the winter, he had to go working with him as a plasterer. If there wasn't enough plastering work they painted houses and mended fences, anything to bring a dollar in. Out before dawn and home after dark. No chance of a surf. Only the occasional weekend gave rise to a hope of catching a wave when there wasn't any work on Saturday morning. Most weeks Sid's father made sure they had work. He was the only one of us that had his own cash. And he didn’t mind reminding us. It’s not me old man’s money in me pocket, he’d say when one of us asked why he didn’t replace the broken tailgate handle on his ute, or buy a better wetty, one without tears. Worked hard for me cash. Ain’t about to go throwin’ it round like a looney, he’d say. Most times we let it ride. We had always known deep down he was different to us. He was a country kid and we were posh city kids. Even though my folks lived in a rented house and couldn’t afford winter trips to Bali, we were somehow rich by association. But Spud and Pixie were significantly better off than the rest of us. Their folks had cash and it showed. Like most days, we had got up before the rest of the campsite and waited on the roadside in our wettys with our boards for Sid to swing by in his ute. Since the previous year his old man and the owners of the campsite had fallen out so he wasn’t allowed to drive onto the site to pick us up. We had caught some good waves. Noodles and Pixie, who was now one of us, had sloped off for coffees at one point, and Sid had got all aggro and snaked in front of Spud chopping off his wave a couple of times, laughing.
“You surf like a fucking clam dragger, mate,” Sid yelled at Spud when they both got back to where I was sitting, waiting for a set. Spud just shook his head and muttered, “asshole.” That fired up Sid, “Got something to say there brother?”
“You’re an asshole.”
Sid looked out over the ocean, like Spud wasn’t even there. He turned, lay out and began paddling for the next wave. “At least I’m something,” he shot a smile at Spud. We both sat up, our legs in the water, and watched him drop in and pop. He was already going at a fair lick when he started pumping. He was charging like a bullet. We watched him ride that wave headed towards the reef break. For a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to turn.
“He’s changed,” said Spud. “He just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. He used to hide it a bit, now he just doesn’t care. He’s fucking dangerous. Pixie’s close to knocking him out, I think.”
I kept quiet for a moment. I didn’t want the Pixie line of thought to grow bigger. I always felt self-conscious when Spud brought her up in a conversation that was just between me and him. “He’s just Sid being Sid,” I said eventually. Remember when he stole that tent from the Salvo’s and pitched it next to mine then set it on fire?”
Spud laughed, “Yeah. Suppose so. He’s always been a loose unit.”
Sid had cut back on the wave and was standing upright facing the shore, riding the remains of the wave right up to the sand. He slowed down as the wave disappeared and as casually as anyone else would walk down the street, he stepped off his board and walked up onto the beach, turned and picked up his board, all in one flowing move. He was born on a board, for sure.
“Look at that. How’s he fucking do it?”
I smiled at Spud, “Mate, he lives here. This is his backyard. We’re posh city kids, remember?”
“He’s part fish.” Spud started paddling for the next wave. “Think it’s caffeine time,” he nodded as he passed me. “Pixie and Noodles are back. Looks like his old man’s rocked up too.”
I knew what he really meant. On the beach, Pixie and Noodles were walking to their board with trays of coffees and brown paper bags that would be filled with meat pies. Noodles’s dad was standing on the crest of the dunes that separated the beach from the Great Ocean Road. He shielded his eyes with a hand, scanning the beach, then he disappeared back in the direction of the car park. Sid was headed towards Pixe and Noodles at a jog with his board under an arm. Spud wanted to be closer just in case he needed to fend off Sid, just in case Sid had one of his moments and Pixie gave him a gob full. I looked back out to the big blue and saw the next wave was too soon, but the one after looked good. I got down and started paddling. By the time I got to the others Sid had gone.
“Took a coffee and a pie and said he had to shoot the crow,” said Noodles when I asked where he was.
Spud, sat on his board on the sand with a mouthful of pie, said “Told you, he’s changed. He’d never leave us before. We got to haul all this kit back along the road. I didn’t even bring any thongs. Guy’s an asshole, don’t care what you say about brothers and all that shit. He’s an asshole.”
“Call a cab,” suggested Noodles. Pixie smirked, covering her mouth with a hand as she ate her pie.
“Right one, genius. And how will I get this baby back?” Spud slapped his board. Noodles shrugged.
“I’ll call dad,” said Pixie. “Tell him Sid got called in by his dad and we said it’d be fine. Dad’ll be cool. He’ll get to flex with his new truck. Feel like he’s getting some of his moneysworth from it.” It was obvious Spud didn’t like the idea but we didn’t have a choice. Neither my folks or Noodles’s old man had roof racks on their cars.
It was late evening the next time we saw Sid again. We’d been out in the swell late afternoon and were still in board shorts. He rocked up in work pants and steelie boots covered in plaster dust. Like usual, he had parked on the main road, leaving his ute half covered by a bush, and hiked to where we had pitched our tents. He was expressionless until he got right up to our fire and dropped a slab of beers on the ground between him and Pixie.
“Sorry about this morning, had shit to do. Thought these’d make up for it.” He patted the beers, smiling. Pixie tore one out and cracked it open.
“No biggie, Dad saved the day,” she said
Sid looked around, as he chugged his beer. Spud and Pixie’s folks had rented a luxury cabin as well as bringing their trailer tent that looked like they had driven it right out of the camping and boat show in the city. I was sleeping in the annex of my parent’s trailer tent. Noodles and his old man were in a family tent, even though his sister had stayed at home on her own. Noodles’ old man was sitting on his own, nursing a beer. When Sid looked over, Noodles’ old man gestured to him with his beer bottle, the way you do if you know someone but you’re not that close. Polite. Sid nodded back, a small nod, but it was there. Noodles’ mum had left them eight months earlier. Run off with a wog, was how he’d described it. He’d never been racist before. Spud had joked that at least he’d get cheap kebabs. It fell on deaf ears. But that’s what a thirty-five thousand a year private school gets you, a crap sense of humour and feeling that the world owes you a living.
Sid was staring into the flames, beer in hand. Something was on his mind. He finished his beer and took another. He looked up, saw I’d finished my beer, reached into the carton and tossed one my way. “Don’t say I never give you anything.”
We cheersed. Everyone smiled. Except for Sid. Silence sat around us a bit easier.
"What d'you have for supper?" Asked Spud.
"Pizza from the Captain's," I replied.
"Snags in bread," said Noodles.
They looked at Sid, waiting for his contribution.
“The Captain's is shit," he said, tossing the cap of the beer bottle into the fire. 'Their bases are always soggy. Can't eat them without them falling everywhere."
The other three had no reply. They each sensed something was eating away at Sid but none of them knew how to bring up the topic. Individually I think we all feared his temper flaring again and considering we only had one more day of surfing left before we headed home, none of us were game to take on Sid in a foul mood.
"Probably wouldn't know real pizza if it slapped you in your face," said Noodles.
Sid made to lunge out of the darkness towards Noodles. The other two instinctively recoiled away. But Sid sat back down laughing, "The look on your face!" Spud glared at Sid, who flexed his shoulders, “What you gonna do? Fucking soft arse city kid.”
Spud chugged what was left of his beer, standing up at the same time. Pixie shot up, too, holding her hand on her brother’s chest, waving Sid away, “Don’t! Leave it!” Spud stood, chest pumping, nose flared, glaring at Sid, who sat on his carton of beers, smiling up.
“LEt me know and we can go for it big boy.”
“Sid, fuck off, just give it a rest,” said Pixie.
Spud pushed against her palm on his chest, pointing at Sid, “You’ve turned into an asshole, you know that?” He strode off into the darkness, probably to the site bar where his folks were having dinner.
Sid turned to Noodles, patted his thigh, “What d’you think grom? Am I an asshole?”
“Don’t bring me into it,” said Noodles.
“Nice one Sid,” I said.
“Easy tiger, don’t forget whose brew that’s in your hand.”
I looked at the beer. “You feel that strongly about it, here, have it back!” I hurled the bottle over the fire at him. It bounced off his shoulder and soaked Noodles. Sid laughed.
Noodles shot up, “You fucking plank!”
I offered a miniscule gesture of apology to Noodles, but turned to Sid, “You know, he was right. You’re an asshole.” I walked off to nowhere in particular. I just had to cool down. The last thing I heard was Pixie reaming Sid a new one then Noodles’ old man chirping up telling them to cool their jets. Before I headed back I walked the cliff top path to the lighthouse, smoked a joint and listened to the waves crashing in the darkness way down below.
When I got back the fire was nearly out and Noodles’ old man had moved his chair next to Sid’s half destroyed carton of beer. “They’ve all buggered off son. Kevin went after that Pixie girl. She was upset. Didn’t think your mate’ll mind. Don’t look like he want’s these now.” He handed me a bottle from the carton. I had forgotten Noodles’ name was Kevin. He didn’t look like a Kevin.
Next morning we were all up at a sparrow’s fart, like usual. Spud and Pixie stepped down from their super-deluxe camper, already in their wetty’s. We stored our boards under their camper to keep them safe and away from prying eyes. Noodles was sitting on the ground just outside the tent he and his old man were sharing. He’d made himself a bacon and egg fry and a coffee. He’d got his old man’s breakie started and was sorting out a plate when I walked past. We exchanged ‘mornings’. That was as much talking as we usually did first thing. Neither of us were natural early risers.
“Pa, there’s eggs and ham on here. I’ve put coffee in your thermos. I’m off to catch a wave. Don’t let it burn the tent down.” He stood up, cracked his back, slipped his battered sneakers on, waiting for a reply. His old man was funny in the morning, like he lost the use of language. Something that might have been sounded like words in his father’s mind grizzled from the tent. We smiled, looked at Noodles. He shrugged, and bent into his tent, “What?” A wet fart split the silence. I could have sworn the birds stopped singing in the trees for a moment, too. Spud and I burst out laughing. Noodles calmly replied, “Love you too, Pa.” Noodles and his old man had a pretty solid relationship.
“Fuck off,” came the voice from the tent. It was said with love.
Noodles turned off the gas stove and walked over to Spud and Pixie's camper and set about pulling his board from underneath.
"Mate, that's harsh." Spud patted Noodles's back.
"Ah, he's dead to the world. Old fart can sort himself out when he decides to get out of his pit."
"Harsh, man, harsh," Smiled Spud.
I said he was definitely turning into management material, that he'd have no qualms firing people because of restructuring. Pixie just smiled, and said he always made the tough decisions look simple. Then Noodles blushed. And we all laughed as we headed through the campsite to the main entrance where Sid picked us up every morning.
At that time of the morning the only traffic was locals headed to work so traffic was light. Occasionally someone would give us a small wave, a recognition that they’d rather be standing there with us knowing they were headed to the waves instead of work. Some just glared, angry with their lot, angry with the world. Pixie jogged across the road with coffees stacked in her hands. Opposite the campsite was a general store, a cafe and a servo. She handed the top one to me and smiled, “Strong latte two sugars?” I took it and smiled back, warm before the coffee had touched my lips. She broke the moment, turning to Noodles, “Yours is next. Soy boy.” He rubbed his hands, took his coffee and slugged half in one go. “Holy fuck!” she laughed.
“Ahh,” Noodles let out a satisfied sigh. “Fuck that’s hot.” His eyes flashed giddy. “Where the fuck is he?” Noodles looked in the direction of town, where Sid lived. There were no cars approaching.
Spud took the last cup from Pixie in that silent way only siblings can.
We stood at the side of the road, some pacing, some stretching, until the coffees were done. Noodles had taken to sitting on his board, poking a stick in the dirt.
“He’s never this late,” said Spud.
“He’ll be here. He said he’ll be here.” I wasn’t confident, even though Sid could be an asshole he would never be late. It just wasn’t in his make-up.
“Reckon we should call the house?” asked Pixie.
“What, and set his old man off? You seen those bruises? Best leave it. He’ll be here soon.” Noodles was right. We all knew it.
Two cars passed. Then a ute we all recognised pulled off the road and stopped in the dirt. Noodles snapped to his feet. “Oh shit.” He nodded to the ute as Sid’s dad clambered out of the driver’s door and strode to where we were with the engine still running.
“Right, you set of cunts, where is he?” No one replied. “You deaf? I know the little shit was here with youse last night. I figure he slept if off. Probably with you,” Sid’s dad poked his index finger into Pixie’s arm. Her recoil was noticeable. Spud edged forward, putting himself between his sister and Sid’s old man. He leered, “I don’t bite, darlin’, but I’ll fucking set him straight when I find him. He’s had a ton of you young things, don’t think you’re anything special.” He scanned our faces. “Well? Where’s Sid?”
“We don’t know. He’s late.”
Sid’s dad, hoicked his jeans up, resting his hands on his hips and looked up and down the road, “He’s late? He’s never late.” He scratched the two-day growth on his face. Pixie moved back behind Noodles. Sid’s dad waved her off, his attention now focused on something more important. “He didn’t stay here then?” He turned to face up the road, the way he had come. “Fuck.” He looked back at us, “And his ute’s not in there?”
“No.” Noodles said.
“Fuck! The little shit.” Sid’s dad dropped into the driver’s seat, spun the ute around on the road. Stones and dust kicked up from both sides of the road in his wake.
We never got to the beach again as a gang. We never sat in the water together waiting for the perfect set again. Noodles and his old man left that morning. They just packed up and left. The following day was our last of that trip and the last time all the families got together. It was early afternoon when someone in the campsite office told Spud and Pixie’s dad that they’d found Sid’s ute. It had hit a tree hard on the old dirt road that led behind the houses along the cliff top. The engine block had pushed through the dash. The keys were still in the ignition but there was no sign of Sid. Rumours of suicide were inevitable but we knew Sid. We knew they were bullshit. Or at least that’s what we told ourselves.
It’s been seven and a half years and we’re all back here again for the first time since we lost Sid. Even Whitey made the trip with his wife Alice and their eighteen month old daughter Poppy. She has his eyes, smiling eyes. I’ve missed Whitey’s infectious smile. A few years ago the Surf Lifesaving Club got a massive grant from the State Government so they rebuilt it. Instead of a glorified shed with roller doors that had been here for as long as anyone can remember, they built something like an entry in a student architecture competition. It rose out of the ground like a glass and steel volcanic precipice. I looked like part of the landscape. The front had a balcony that projected over the cliffs to give a full view of the bay below. One end of the balcony had a shack that housed a cafe. It did a roaring trade. In the evening the place opened up to be a restaurant that could be hired out for functions. That’s why we were back. Pixie chose the place when she read about it being the coolest new place down the coast. We drove down for dinner to check it out. It was called Lilly Pilly and prided itself on incorporating native plants in their menu. Pixie and Spud’s dad had labelled it bush tucker bohemian, because he was paying for it all. We’d had our reservations too, but it felt right. This is where we’d met, down on the beach. This is where it all began. It was in our DNA. I watched Pixie walk from the bar to where we had gathered on the balcony. She had on denim shorts that she called her Daisy Dukes and a salmon t-shirt that was snug and showed off her body. She wasn’t shy anymore. She had another round of beers, the bottles trapped in her fingers. Her party trick was carrying ten bottles at once using only her fingers. She handed them out, First to Sid who was on the phone. He nodded at her. He’d followed their father into finance and had set up a successful investment fund. He was always on his phone. Pixie worked part time in his office making sure the paperwork was good. She got a slice of the action instead of a salary. She’d already bought her first home and had two investment properties. I smiled. She smiled back, handing me a beer. She gave me a sneaky kiss. Then handed a beer to Noodles.
“Last time we were all together you brought us coffees,” he said. I felt the air chill. Her smile dissolved. “Ah, shit. Sorry. My bad.” he held up both palms. He still had his long blonde curls. He’d changed the most of any of us. He was this super-nice guy. Solid muscle. He was definitely a big unit, as his old man was fond of calling him. He and I had kept in contact and only recently had started surfing again. But we’d never brought the boards here.
“Don’t fret, it’s all good,” Pixie chinked her bottle on his. He smiled, squinting up in the sun from the bench he was sharing with Whitey. She sipped her beer as she passed the last bottle to Whitey.
“How’s Poppy?” I asked him. Pixie came and put her arm around me.
He smiled, took a mouthful of beer, and sat back, elbows on the table behind him. “She’s absolutely magic. Started teething. She dribbles everywhere but she’s awesome. Giggles non-stop.”
Pixie cuddled me, “See? Told you. Want one?”
I caught Spud’s glance, half watching the four of us, half listening to the phone call. He was agitated, then he disappeared into the restaurant. Probably to the restroom, I thought.
“Mate, can I ask you a question? Poppy. Pixie. There’s no link there is there? I mean, it’s kinda close, right? And they’re both unusual names.”
We all made ‘ooh’ sounds,
“You’re still a fuckwit, aren’t ya, mate? Poppy is short for Penelope. It’s Alice’s grandma’s name.”
“Gotcha,” said Noodles. “Just making sure. Don’t want you standing up tomorrow when they ask does any man here present know of any reason why those two shouldn’t be married.” We all laughed.
“Sorry to bust up the fun guys, but I need to talk to you. All of you.” Spud was uncharacteristically nervous.
“Mate, what’s up?” I asked.
An old bloke was standing at the bar inside watching us. I’d clocked Spud talk to him on his way back outside. They’d hardly spoken but the old bloke was headed our way. “I’d like to introduce, well, you kind of already know him.” The guy was standing a metre away from Spud holding a can of Coke. He tipped the can at us to say ‘hi’. “Guy’s, this is Steve. Sid’s dad.”
I broke the silence by stepping forward. I hand my hand out, Steve automatically took it and we shook. “Hi, I’m Lachlan. This is Penny.” Steve looked confused. I looked from him to Pixie and back, still shaking hands, “I’m Budge.”
Steve smiled, “Ah, yeah, I remember you. And you’re…” he looked around me.
Pixie stepped forward and shook his hand, “Pixie. No one calls me Penny except my mum.”
Steve shook Whitey’s hand. Noodles just nodded, and drank his beer as an avoidance tactic so he wouldn’t have to really acknowledge Steve.
“We didn’t know if you’d come,” said Pixie. “We found your address online. You got the invite then?”
“I wondered about that,” said Steve. Took me a while to remember you lot, and a bit longer to decide if I’d rock up or not. It took me a long time to get over it. Wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit the past after all this time.” He looked at Spud, “But your man here can be persuasive.” He walked through us like we didn’t exist and stood looking out over the bay below. None of us knew what to say. It was like an old festering wound had opened again. What had felt like the right thing to do back in our kitchen in Melbourne suddenly felt cold and wrong now we were all here. Without turning to face us, Sid’s old man said, “You know son, he’d have really liked this.”
We all watched Steve. Eventually he turned around. None of us dared speak. It was like we were kids again.
“I know what people used to think of me. And I’m paying the price. This place is a lonely Godforsaken hole if no one likes you. I don’t believe in God. But I’m pretty sure this place is as close to hell as you’re going to find.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt sick to my stomach. Pixie wrapped both arms around me. Spud sat down on a bench, his phone rang again. He sent the call to voicemail. He never did that. I don’t know where Noodles went. But his half-drunk beer was left on the table he’d been sitting at. Whitey was the first to speak. He always was the most courageous of us. “Why’d you stay here then? Why not move if the memories are so painful.” Fuck. What a double edged thing to say. I clocked Steve’s reaction. It was slight, but it was there. I couldn’t tell if Whitey was genuinely concerned, or very subtly sticking the knife in.
“Steady on, mate. Just cool your jets,” Spud wasn’t taking any shit. He was one of my groomsmen and had been given the role of sheriff. Drunk families always involve arguments and I figured he was the most savvy of us so he could quel the arguments best.
“No, the lad’s got a point,” said Steve. “Trust me, I know I fucked up. And I lived with that for a long time. I still do. I can’t go back but this is where he grew up. He’s in the water when I look out there. He’s in the sand when I walk the dog down the beach. I see him riding his treadly down the road when I’m driving. I can’t leave. This place is Sid.”
Whitey got up and shook Steve’s hand, “I’m sorry.”
“No worries. I’ve had worse, trust me.”
We stood around in the uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before Steve spoke again, “Look, I hope you two have a very happy life together. But I don’t think I should have come.” I felt Pixie move, like she was going to say something but had stopped herself. Stee looked at us, “While you’re here, if you want to, I built a memorial for Sid, it’s near the lighthouse where they found his ute. Only if you want to. I planted a rose behind it that flowers every year about the time it happened. There’s still a couple of flowers left. But only if you want to.” He took a moment and looked at Spud, to Pixie and me, then to Whitey. “Tell the other young bloke not to be too hard on himself.” He finished his Coke and left. As he walked away we all remained still, each one of us remembering the writhing complexity that was Sid.
The ceremony had been wonderful. Everything went without a hiccup. There were no fights so Spud actually relaxed for the first time in a long time. He formerly welcomed me as his brother and I told him to stop being a wanker because we’ve all been brothers for years, and we all laughed. Pixie looked stunning in her dress. Wedding dresses must have magical properties because she looked like a different person, like someone had plucked her from the pages of a high society magazine and put her next to me. We’d hired the restaurant at Lilly Pilly’s and it had gone down great with everyone. I’d spent half an hour trying to explain to my gran why Pixie and I were staying in town with everyone. She couldn’t understand why we hadn’t driven off for a honeymoon. In her day, there was none of this sort of stuff she’d said. It was all done with decorum, she told me. Then I reminded her that Uncle Clyde was born five months after they got married. She smiled, held my arm and leaned into me, kissed my face, patted my hand and just said, with a glint in her eye, “Some things just couldn’t wait”. She was ninety three and more fun than some people half her age.
That was all yesterday. This morning we had agreed to walk out to the lighthouse and find Sid’s memorial. After a short discussion the general consensus was it was the right thing to do. Pixie had someone from the Lilly Pilly turn the flower centrepiece from our table into a bouquet and had brought it with her. The walk there was quiet. We set off before breakfast, with a coffee each and the flowers. No one spoke. I don’t know whether it was the sore heads or the thought of where we were going.
The memorial was easy enough to find. It was the only polished black marble on the side of the dirt road. A small white picket fence a few inches high in a U-shape separated it from the gum trees lining the top of the cliff. We stopped. Nobody said anything for a few minutes. I think we were all reading the inscription. A beloved son. That was the first thing it said and I couldn’t get beyond those words. You see them on countless headstones and I wondered how many were true. Before I’d met Steve two days prior, I’d have said it was bullshit. But it wasn’t. Steve loved Sid. The pain was still there, raw after all these years. Pixie handed me her coffee, stepped forward and knelt down at Sid’s memorial. She dusted the sand from it and cleaned away a few twigs that had fallen. She lay the bouquet down at the front of the black marble and stood back beside me.
“One of us should have been with him,” said Spud. It took me by surprise. He’d never spoken about Sid before. I always got the feeling he didn’t like him because of how he used to treat Pixie. Spud wsa growing visibly anxious. He was scratching his head like he did when he was struggling with something.
“How were we to know? We were just kids,” Said Noodles.
“Poor guy,” said Pixie.
“There shouldn’t be a memorial,” said Spud. He looked up from staring at the black marble. Whitey was glaring at him. Noodles stepped back, out of the circle. I held a hand in front of Whitey, “Don’t,” I said. Spud looked at us all, “he might not be dead. What I mean is, they never found a body. Sid, no matter what we thought of him, Sid could take care of himself. He was tough.”
“Might not have been as tough as he pretended,” said Noodles. His words had an edge. We looked at him.
Pixie was still staring at the memorial, she wiped her eye with a finger and I saw the light split through diamonds on her new ring, but I couldn’t smile. She smiled at me as if she knew my thoughts.
“He didn’t kill himself,” said Noodles. We all looked at him. “You all saw it. The bruises. The shit he put up with from his dad. My old man was always going on about how someone should do something to help him. So when he rocked up that night my old man did something. He told me that when we all passed out he kept getting more and more angry in his chair by the fire. So he went to have it out with his old man but saw the ute on the way. Sid was sitting on the dirt drinking. He was a bit sore but nothing broken. My old man said he just reacted. They went and grabbed a bag of Sid’s clothes.”
“What the fuck Kevin!” yelled Pixie. Noodle’s just stared at her.
“Jesus fucking Christ. There’s laws about that! Fuck me. Who else knows?” Said Spud.
“Thank fuck. Where is he?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. We took him back with us early doors the next day.”
“That’s why you left so fucking sharp. Jesus H. Fuck me!” Spud wasn’t handling it well.
“So what, you took him home? He lived with you and you don’t know where he is?” Pixie looked at us all, Whitey, Spud, me then Noodles. “I call bullshit.”
“God’s honest truth, Polly,” said Noodles. “He stayed at our place for a couple of weeks but he got more and more unsettled. Worried his dad would find out and come and beat the shit out of him, but my dad kept trying to tell him his dad didn’t know our address.”
“So? What happened? Where’s Sid?” I asked again? “He can’t just vanish.”
“He’s dead.” Whitey’s voice was verging on breaking. You could hear the tightening of his throat, the wobble of emotion.
“No, he’s not. He’s in Melbourne somewhere. Have you heard a single word he’s said?” Pixie stepped towards Whitey, she looked like she was ready to swing for him. I pulled her back. She glared at Whitey. I held her close. She struggled free and got a hold of herself.
Spud shoved Noodles, “Come on then champ, where is he? Is that why your old man didn’t show this weekend?”
“He ran away. Just left. I woke up and he was gone. My dad went looking for him. We never saw him again. Every time I pass someone homeless begging, I check to see if it’s him. I spend most of my Uni time looking around hostels and drop-in centres asking if anyone had seen him. I know he lived around Coburg for a while but I never found him.”
“I don’t know what to say. Fuck. You’re probably an accomplice in kidnapping or something.”
“You’re right. He’s probably dead,” said Pixie, looking at Whitey who was only just holding it together.
“Leave it,” said Whitey, waving her away.
“Kids don’t last long on the streets. Drugs. Violence. Hunger. Cold. Mental health. A lot of them just fade away,” she said as she crouched down to look at Sid’s memorial.
“He’s gone,” said Whitey. He finally broke into a small cry. Spud and I stared at him, of all of us, he was the last we expected to crumble but he went first.
“How’d you know?” asked Pixie. She looked up at him. Her words were razor sharp.
“He came to Brissy. I gave him my email address before we left,” said Whitey.
“Right, you gave it to all of us before your folks moved north. I remember. You were all proud you had an email.” Said Spud. “He actually kept it?” Spud looked at Whitey, who nodded. “Yes. I didn’t think he would. He never sent an email or anything then one day I get this message that he’s in town and needs a bed and could he stay on my mum’s sofa. I was in a share house by then, so I said sure.” Whitey took a deep breat. “He looked good. As good and you could living rough. But he was happy. Like, really happy. Not like the Sid from here. He was loving life.”
“So where’d he go? Is he still living up there?” I demanded.
“He made me swear not to tell. He went surfing with my board lots.”
“Fuck me. Whitey, Fucking hell mate. You sat there and kept all this schtum while his old man said all that stuff about seeing him in the water and sand and stuff? You’ve got some brass ball on you, mate.” Spud was fuming. If he was going to go for Whitey, I had decided to let it happen.
Whitey started crying.
“Pull yourself together,” Spud snapped.
“Hey, ease up,” said Pixie. She turned to Whitey, “Where’s Sid?”
“He’s dead. He went out surfing and never came back. I didn't know how to tell you guys. I had no contact details. Then I got your wedding invite and so muc htime had passed I figured I’d not bring it up unless someone asked.”
“Does Alice know?” asked Spud. I wanted to know who else knew too.
“No. I’ve never told anyone about it. Not even my mum and dad.”
“So how’d he die? He was like a fish. Sid wouldn’t just give up like that,” asked Noodles.
“This kid was drowning and Sid went to help. But the kid chambered all over him pushed him under. Some other guys got the kid but Sid was never found. He'd taken off his leg strap when he was struggling with the kid. The board I've got with me, I brought it back because I can't keep it. It belongs here.”
We stood in silence for what felt like hours but must have only been a few minutes. Sid had been a hero. He’d died saving another kid after someone else had saved him.
A car door clicked shut. “I wasn’t sure if you’d come.” The voice snapped us back to reality. Sid’s dad walked from his battered old Holden Commodore to where we were gathered like satellites milling around Sid’s memorial. “That’s a nice touch, love,” he said, looking at the bouquet.
“You fucking…” I watched Spud launch himself between Whitey and Noodles, the hours in the gym had paid off. His fist connected.
We’ve never spoken about what happened next since that day. But we have plans to meet up in Brisbane in a few months. Noodles is planning to move to Sydney so we’ll probably go there next year. And maybe, depending on how we feel, one day we’ll come back here when we all have kids and they can be grommets together and learn to surf. Whatever happens, when you’re surfing, it’s between you and the wave. We all knew that then and it still holds true. So that’s how we kept it. Between us and the waves.