Outing

I’m a surfer. My father was killed in a car crash. In fact surfing is what I do best. Girls will come later. Bloody drunk mini-bus taxi driver. Dad always cursed them. It’s enough for now. For now is the time of the big wave, the wave that lifts me up and swings me like Dad used to, or blixem me. I don’t know how to go on. I’m going to the Kom.

*

I live on a farm in the Little Karoo. Some sheep, some crops: it’s far from the sea. Summer hols my family spend in Hermanus and it’s there that I learnt to surf. Haphazardly at first. Bodysurfing with Dad; then boogie-boarding using my uncle’s diving flippers; then my first surfboard, dinged all over with soft mushy spots across the deck. Hermanus was fun to start: on-shore stuff with a small swell from the southeaster; suidoos, sy doos. The wind drove me mad when I wanted to be getting on with my surfing: on-shore slop for days at a time. But some mornings it worked. Early, before the doos wind and before the other grommets got to the beach to carve up the wave. Me alone sometimes. Sunrise with glassy walls. That’s when the drug took me. When you wanted to cry, it was so beautiful. It’s a right-hand wave and I’m goofy so the left ride there is short – straight in towards the rocks. Sometimes there was a hollow bowl at the last moment before the wave broke, a green cave of growling water with a rocky, barnacled face out the other end. I never ventured in. Too close; too sharp.

My Ouma has a house in Kommetjie on the Cape Peninsula, icy Atlantic-side. Me and Ma still live on the farm, but I spend a lot of time with relations now. This winter holiday I’ve been packed off to Ouma, which is fine by me.

The Kom is a small bay near Slangkop lighthouse. A few wooden fishing boats lie at anchor, others are pulled up on the rocks. A tame sea darter lives on the prow of one of the boats and Frederick, the kreef fisherman, feeds her with the scraps of his catch. The bay opens wide to the west, its mouth lined with walls of surf. Kom means ‘basin’ in Afrikaans, but also ‘come’, and yes, it’s as though this place has called me and I’ve come. It’s one of those things that was going to happen sooner or later. So sooner it is.

I’ve been here a while now; my vacation is nearly over. It’s June and cold. The westerlies sweep in across this hook of the peninsula bringing black skies and mountainous swells from the South Atlantic. I’m not used to the nakedness of the weather here.

Ouma’s is an old Cape cottage on the north side of the Kom. We are snug under thatch in a blanket of surrounding melkbos trees with a small fynbos garden tended by Andries, her garden boy. Ouma is a quiet old soul with long grey hair which she keeps tied in a bun on top of her head. She mostly wears black, smells of lavender and has my father’s smile. She knits a lot, but she also writes and in the mornings she demands absolute silence around the house. This I respect and go exploring. She is writing a short novel, she tells me, about her childhood in Swellendam, about her first love on the farm. When I quiz her about it she says: ‘Seun, jy sal die boek moet lees.’ She speaks to me in Afrikaans, I reply in English. Ma wanted me to go to an English school and Dad said okay.

Dad used to spend his holidays in Kommetjie as a child; here in this house. He told me how the old Ford used to bounce along the rutted track to Kommetjie. Before him, Ouma used to come here with her parents in the wagon. It was a whole day’s expedition from Cape Town and the wheels used to get stuck in the sand flats between Fish Hoek and here. These days that stretch is ugly Sun Valley and Pick ’n Pay and crime-ridden squatter camps and housing developments. It’s thick with blacks and coloureds living in the bush. Through Ouma I can see this place as it must have been. Her eyes don’t take in this modern stuff and she yearns for the old days before all the changes. Hers is the last house with no electricity and no phone, only oil lamps.

I’ve spent my days here exploring the coast and reading my surfer mags. Once or twice I saw barefoot Andries peering into rock pools carrying a long stick with a hook on the end: searching for octopus in the crevices. He looks like a strandloper, scavenging his way along the shore. I’ve been meaning to ask him if he catches many, and does he eat them or sell them for pocket-money? Andries is a strange boy.

I’ve also been visiting the lighthouse. I’m building courage for what is to come. There’s a path that runs along the south side of the Kom out to Slangkop light. The smell of the melkbos is strong there. Despite the biting wind, the rocks bake in the afternoon sun and I sit watching the sea go through its daily routines at Inners and Outers. I’m slowly getting the hang of Inners in my head. A cold front is on the way and both spots are breaking properly at the moment. I concentrate on Inner Kom, watching from the shelter of the thick melkhout, often with a flask of coffee courtesy of Ouma. The smell of sea bamboo rotting on the rocks, harvested by the last winter storm, fills the air. ‘This is the smell of the Cape,’ Dad used to say. Yes, Dad, it’s the smell of the Cape, and the bright white light that reflects off the beach sand to shrivel your eyes, even here in the heart of winter, is the light of the Cape. And that sound, the grumble of waves breaking far out, in Hermanus and here at the Kom, is that not the sound of the Cape, Dad?

This wave is a different dance partner to the old toothless maid in Hermanus. I need to learn new steps. I wish Dad were here to talk me in and through it; to lend an appreciating eye from the shore. Or to discourage me, if he thought it was too big. Dad bodysurfed and body-boarded, but he never surfed and he used to watch me with admiration. He loved to see me carve my signature across the face of a wave.

Over the past few days I think I’ve learnt to read Inners. I must jump off the rocks right near the fishing boats, where it’s sheltered; paddle past the sea darter (which I’ve taken to calling Scylla) and round the thick kelp beds before I cut left into the break. The sea bamboo looks nasty: dense clumps of it swirling on the dip of the swell. Inners seems manageable though.

Outers is a different story. I walk towards the lighthouse to be close to the break, to feel the force of it. Out on the headland there’s no protection from the wind and spray comes scudding over the rocks in vapour clouds. I never stay long. Drenched and shivering I’m cowed by the break, by its confidence as it rises, sweeping kelp beds beneath it as though they were underlings. Rising to its full height, casting an arrogant eye at the peninsula, then frowning, bending, throwing all its weight at the rocks only to resurrect itself in another wall. The wave is an old patriarch – I think of it as a mixture of Neptune and Paul Kruger with a stern face, long white beard and deep voice. For me it seems to show only contempt. It taunts: ‘Duck-dive me, ride me, sonny. Take me on. See where that gets you!’

Out beyond the Kom I can’t find order in the break. The bowl section shifts all over the place. If I get caught in the wrong spot and a freak wave comes through breaking to the right – as I’ve seen them do – trapping me between it and the rocks … well, that would be the end of me.

At night I lie awake in the attic room of the old house, warm under the eiderdown and blankets knitted by Ouma, listening to the sea and reading mags until late. My father slept in this bed after summer days on Long Beach, playing with the kids from the farms up the valley. Did he also lie awake listening to the night and the Atlantic surge? The house is dark, safe, warm; worn by our family over decades. It fills me with the peace of belonging.

Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, Ouma bought me a copy of Zigzag, the local surf mag. She got it at the Kommetjie Superette when she was buying provisions. ‘I’ve been watching you watching the surf, my boy. Ek het gedog jy’t miskien a bietjie inspirasie nodig. Daar’s ’n artikel in die jongste uitgawe oor groot golf branderplankry.’ This astonished me. What did Ouma know about surfing? How the hell did she know I was building up courage for the big wave. Ouma was suddenly very cool in my eyes. In fact I now think of Ouma as the keeper of the wave, matron saint of the Kom.

Today the wind dropped completely. The morning was bright, although high in the atmosphere cirrus clouds tore in from the west. Ouma and I had breakfast on the stoep and later I took a walk to Outers and the lighthouse. It was spring low tide and all the rocks were exposed. There was no swell to speak of and water lapped against the shore. A young seal lay on its back, flippers in the air, sunning itself at the spot where the takeoff would be. I felt I was nearly ready for it. Like those Xhosa boys in the Transkei – and these days along the N2 – I’d undergone my period of meditation, now was the time of incision. With the next big swell I’d be out there.

I walked on towards Slangkop light, tall and white. Seagulls cried incessantly; one was picking a mussel from the rocks, flying up and dropping it back onto the shelf to try to break its shell. Over and over. The cold front was a charcoal line across the horizon. I imagined it growing as I watched. This lighthouse might be coming in useful tonight, I thought. Some boats were heading down Scarborough way despite the warning on Ouma’s radio. They glided out to sea cleaving a wake through the mercury water leaving a dull throbbing sound to drift ashore. The air felt heavy and the lighthouse seemed the only tethered thing in a shifting world. Even the koppie behind the Kom appeared to be floating, as though the land had come adrift from its mooring lines.

This afternoon I lay on the lawn watching Andries prune the hedge. He’s about my age and from the local coloured township – Ocean View I think they call it – although some of his family are squatters. Ouma says he’s a good boy, not difficult like the others she’s had. I guess I should get to know him.

I’m doing a puzzle of a Cape Dutch homestead set in a red vineyard that I found in a cupboard along with beach toys and equipment from generations of holidays. I don’t think all the pieces are in the box, but I don’t mind as it’s something to pass the time and calm my nerves. Perhaps the heaviness in the atmosphere and the coming front are getting to me. The holiday is nearly over and this might be the last chance. A squadron of white-eyes were going mad in the hawthorn tree earlier. The orange berries were just the size of little apples for them and the birds were gorging themselves as though this were their last meal, chirping dementedly between bill-fulls.

Late afternoon a thin sheet of cloud was drawn across the sky. The sea started becoming restless at the front’s approach, like a tame animal sensing the presence of a predator. The swell, driven from deep in the Roaring Forties, was coming in. Every now and then I thought I could hear wind, but when I looked up there wasn’t even a cat’s-paw disturbing the Kom. Could I have been imagining the sound of the onrushing swell?

There was no twilight this evening. The sun was drowned in layers of cloud until only a few red stains streaked the sky. I lit a fire for Ouma and read Die Burger after dinner while she sat listening to classical music on the radio. I looked at the paper’s synoptic chart: a low pressure system was sitting way off to the southwest and its long arm, bent like a bow, was sweeping across the South Atlantic towards us, building in ferocity as it came. Along the line of the front were drawn the trademark black arrows. One of these lethal points, I felt sure, was aimed at Kommetjie. The surf warning spoke of a six-metre swell and dangerous conditions for fishermen. No moon; spring high tide.

We talked about Dad over dinner. It’s the first time Ouma has really opened up to me about him. She told me all sorts of things I didn’t know. Like his fear of the dark as a child, of his wetting his bed; the drinking binges; his financial difficulties. The farm, I learnt, had only been hanging on by its teeth. Ouma was very matter-of-fact. She knew her son, saw his faults, and still loved him. Hers was not, I quickly realised, the idolising love I felt for Dad. She hauled out a photo album and there was Dad bodysurfing in Durban; and Dad doing a headstand; and Dad with his arm around some woman I didn’t recognise; Dad pulling a silly face; Dad with his army buddies running naked across a South West African sand dune. If there was so much I didn’t know about him, how much of me did he never know? I thought he knew me inside out.

Outers was calling, gunfire from a distant battle. I kissed Ouma good-night and she said her affectionate, ‘Slaap gerus kleinseun.’ I groped up the stairs to bed, but didn’t light the lamp as I pulled on my pyjamas and climbed into bed, shivering from the sea air seeping through the gaps in the window frame.

Towering wave; tearing impact! The car is crushed under the breaking weight of the bus. A roar of pain. My father is snared upside-down in the dripping entrails of his car. Scorching heat. Flames splash about him. ‘Dad!’ I scream. ‘Dad, it’s still me! I love you. I don’t care if you wet your bed. It doesn’t matter Dad. Don’t cry! Please don’t cry. IT DOESN’T MATTER!’ His clothes are soaked in blood and he’s gasping as smoke pours into his lungs. Dad wrestles with the black strap of his seat-belt as though it’s a giant tentacle. Still struggling, the flames engulf him, drowning him. ‘No! Daddy, please don’t do it! Not the strap! THE STRAP!’

I struggle to the surface and wake in a sweat, throwing off covers, suffocating on smoke and petrol fumes. The beam of Slangkop fills my room with flashes of light in which I see my bedding eddying around me and pyjamas clinging to my perspiring body. For a moment in my half-sleep I really see my father, vulnerable. It’s Ouma’s vision that has brought me here.

I fumble for the matches and light the lamp. Now I’m properly awake. Dad’s photograph stares at me from the dresser: young, smiling, confident. Is he my father or Ouma’s son? The surfboard stands next to the bed. My body breaks out in goose-bumps and I hug myself involuntarily. Outers is awake and furious, intoxicated. It sounds like some giant’s door being slammed again and again, echoing across the contained waters of the Kom.

From the window I can see nothing except the odd smudge of white water caught in the lighthouse beam. I drag on a track suit, gloves, woolly cap, Ugg boots and creep down into the living room where a few embers still glow in the grate. I turn the key and let myself out.

The front is in. I sense, rather than see, the clouds low overhead. I run round the Kom to Inners, then scramble over rocks to the water’s edge at Outers. The wind has not come through yet, so I can hear every sigh of the wave. I’ve never heard anything like it. All I can see is a confused grey mess in the night, the aftermath of a set. I am doused in spray, anointed. Then the lighthouse shoots a white beam at the wave for a moment. The sight is terrifying …

I look away, feeling sick. I turn for home, forcing myself not to run, not to look back. When hidden by the melkbos, I scream at the wave, but the only choking word that is forced up from my stomach is a sobbing, ‘Dad!’ I stumble back to Ouma’s house.

Back in bed I’m almost instantly asleep and retrace my steps, as if awake, round the Kom. No, I don’t want to do this again. I am at the moored fishing boats now. Please, no further. I make out a dark-winged shadow. The sea darter – part Pterodactyl, part fish – sits faithfully on the prow, her outstretched wings covered in scales. She launches herself into the air and swoops towards me. Now I notice, perhaps too late, that she is twice my size and her white eyes have focused on me. I fall to the ground and make myself look inanimate. Her wings beat overhead, then she banks and flaps off towards Misty Cliffs. I spring to my feet and start to run along the path. Any moment now the lighthouse will reveal all. But it remains dark. I come to a halt, breathing heavily and trying to listen for the surf. Nothing. I force my breathing to slow and I collect myself. Silence. Perhaps it will be all right. Must run back and tell Dad.

But something holds my feet to the spot. I feel the nausea before I sense anything. The silence begins to suffocate me. Then I hear him. A long way out at sea like a leviathan moving at its own inexorable pace. He shifts position as he approaches, first I feel him to the southwest, far off, then suddenly much nearer and coming in due west, straight towards the mouth of the Kom. As my feet are rooted, I’ll face him on this rocky pedestal. I am man enough. Something sounds like a plastic bag being crumpled accompanied by a low whistling.

The sound begins to grow and the shoreline responds: dogs bark, seagulls mew and take to the air like white phantoms; somewhere a horse whinnies. Now I see a shape in the darkness, but shrug it off as an illusion. High in the sky above the mouth of the Kom I notice a pattern of white and then I realise the sound is coming from there. Again I disregard the vision. I smile to myself: the scale is all wrong. Ridiculous.

Then again, perhaps I’m wrong and it’s true and I am about to die. I peer into the darkness beyond Outers and see the glistening lower slopes of the hill. The crest of a monster wave starts crumbling upon itself. The whistling sound is replaced by the noise of a jumbo jet coming in to land. The black mountain stands up out of the deep, onrushing. I imagine a face in the wave. Blue, bearded, the craggy old visage of the patriarch of Outers. Like Neptune he carries a trident with blackened points.

The wave twists direction at the last moment, hitting the Kom full in the mouth, silencing it for good. I’ll be spared a few seconds longer as the lower slopes opposite me labour through the kelp beds. I watch the highest peak sweep by me, trailing a veil of spray and glowing with an inner, phosphorescent light. ‘Oh God!’ I realise at the last moment: ‘Ouma!’ The wave is tripped by the shallows and its full weight doubles over itself. At the last instant I look along the face of the wave and see a hollow barrel forming; through it, down at the other end of the tunnel, is Ouma’s house, crouched snug amongst the fynbos. I’m screaming as the sea closes over me in a cacophony of trapped air. Howling-foam-white.

I start into the square eye of daylight cast by my window. It’s dawn and relief overwhelms me. Quickly out of bed I glance at my face in the mirror: I look awful from the night. I squeeze the most offensive pimples, pick up my surfboard, slip it out of its sheath, and creep down the stairs for the third time this night. Eating whatever I can find in the kitchen, I let myself out the back. In the garage I pull on my second skin and wetsuit, my armour. I rub down the board with a fresh layer of Dr. Zogg’s, massaging the sex wax into the front foot position where I’ll need all the grip I can get on a near vertical take off. My board looks beautiful in the half-light of the garage. Opaque, like ivory; the shape of a fish with three perfect fins, all white. Near the upturned nose is the brand name, Instinct, and a black assegai pointing to the sharpened prow of the stick. My feet are bare and already numb from the cold.

I jog along the path to where the boats lie moored, past the red-hot pokers, grotesque and flaming. I hear Outers, but I don’t even look to see how he’s doing. It’s spring high, the big frontal swell is in and no-one is awake yet. Inners looks magnificent. Glassy slopes sliding into the sea bamboo and pealing down the line. Six foot, maybe a little more, but eminently rideable. I clamber over rocks and time my jump just as a swell passes. I’m winded momentarily by the temperature. Then my arms begin to work automatically, pumping free of the rocks before the next swell. I pause just clear of the shore and secure the dog leash to my ankle, linking me umbilically to my board. Then I paddle further, around the kelp beds until, finding a gap and a short open patch for a takeoff, I ease into the line and straddle my board. I shake my hands, flex my fingers, but already they’re turning blue. I grimace at the pain of the quick-freeze. Atlantic-side surfing is always a trial by temperature. Soon I’ll be as blue as the wave.

I can feel a current trying to drag me across the Kom and away from the break so I grab a frond of kelp and hold tight. It’s dark brown and slippery. The heads of a clump of bamboo raise themselves as I dip into a trough. Their snake-like stems, as thick as my thigh, trail away into the depths where a root foot clings madly to the rock as the head of black hair on the surface is tugged by the swell. These are adult plants. Far below me there must be adolescents straining their dreadlocks towards the surface, many to be ripped from the rock before they break into the light, only to be washed ashore further up the Kom to rot and desiccate amid the drone of sand flies.

I see a set coming in and begin paddling fast as the wave starts to peak. It lifts me and I kick for acceleration. Just as I’m about to stand, it’s as though a great black hand reaches up from the deep and drags me over the back of the wave and I watch it crumble into white ahead of me. The damn kelp has wrapped itself around my legs and leash. A wave breaks behind me and with all my weight I try to force the board under. It won’t go. The dense kelp is keeping me on the surface. Sprawled on top of the sea like a fly on sticky paper, I brace myself for the hit. Engulfed by white I’m knocked back, heels over head. I bob up in a kelp-free patch and paddle quickly clear. Not too bad, apart from the drumming ‘ice-cream’ headache. I’m like a child learning to walk in this new environment.

I stroke my way back to my former takeoff point, but keep well clear of the kelp this time. With the next wave I’m better prepared, angling off left as it lifts me. I paddle across the face, kick and raise my body to a crouching position. The wave has me now. I cleave a gentle bottom turn avoiding the kelp and rise to the curling crest where I snap the board back down the wave, my body suspended momentarily in weightlessness. Pressure on the front foot, accelerating down the curtain, growing in confidence with each turn. I take my eye off the wave and glance across at Ouma’s house. My skegs bite into kelp and the board stops dead sending me cart-wheeling over the nose, swallowing water as I laugh. I’ve cracked it. I’m stoked. I’m doing it Dad! If only you could see me.

For an hour I ride Inners, working the line, learning the wave and its quirks: the slow middle section where I need to pump the board a bit, then the fast section, tucked-in, flying before the swell dies off in the deeper water of the middle Kom. This is living, I think. For long stretches I just sit on my board waiting for the right wave, looking at the beauty of my world, Dad’s world: the slopes of Slangkop swirling in the updraft of clouds, the lighthouse, the arms of the Kom that embrace me, the old Cape cottages among the melkbos.

The wave is perfect and the temperature bearable. But I can hear Outers behind me banging the bass drum. I could paddle in now, well pleased with myself. Ouma would be up and about, maybe wondering where I’m at. Inners is nothing to be sniffed at. My board is facing in towards the Kom….

Now more artillery from the back line. A big set breaking magnificently, line astern. It’s like a call. I turn my board to open ocean and start paddling, looking down at the assegai icon on my prow and singing softly, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s out to Outers I go,’ as I head towards Brazil. I keep far to the right in deep water where there’s no break. From in front the wave looks bad enough, but the side view shows me the vertical takeoff, the endless drop to the lower slope and then the lip as it closes over. Moments after each break, the trapped air pocket explodes out the back of the wave: the old man’s burp. Soon he might have me to digest.

Out here the wind has turned and is blowing off-shore, a black southeaster. More south than east, more black than I’ve seen it before. Inky clouds are pouring down off Slangkop and shrouding the coast. The southeaster is holding back the wave, giving it something to push against. As it tumbles over in a riot of foam, the wind whips a long trail of spray across the sea. All down the coast are white plumes, the whitening ocean straining against the southeaster, the suidoos, the old adversary.

With the sky still so dark I hadn’t noticed time passing, but the tide is now in full retreat, uncovering a mass of black heads, a slave revolt in the shallows. The rocks too are being exposed along the shore with no beach or shoal for a landing except in the haven of the Kom.

Here goes. During a lull I paddle across to where the last wave peaked and straddle my board, shaking uncontrollably. I face the ocean, wanting to see him the minute he bulges over the shortened horizon. The lighthouse has gone, swallowed up in a brew of cloud and fog. That is, I suppose, how it should be: just me and him.

A set appears, a trio. I turn and paddle for the first, willing my arms to give me speed for takeoff. Suddenly I’m picked up from behind like a baby. I’m teetering on the brink of a fall. I look over into the abyss, for, my God, it is an abyss, and lose my nerve. My arms break their stride and I’m tossed off his back into the trough in a downpour of spray. Through the white I can see the boiling of the break, pealing into the Kom. Looking from behind he holds even more menace. He hides what he’s doing in front and below, his bite and mastication.

‘I’ll take the second one. I’m man enough,’ I say with little conviction. The old man is peaking at exactly the right spot, it’s just a matter of timing. I start my paddle, look over my shoulder making sure I’m in line with the highest peak.

The lift.

Desperate strokes.

Surge.

The crest takes me, accelerates me.

Falling.

The board drops away, skidding down a vertical wall.

I’m up!

My front leg is at full stretch, toes clawing into the wax. My back leg is crouched, trying to dig in the skegs and slow the speed, but no. Free fall. The void just keeps opening. My face is only inches from his. We look at each other, up close the wall is like glass. I can just make out my reflection as I plummet. How far down? My arms are outstretched. Flying! The slope eases and I dip the rail, pulling the arrow out of its dive and cutting a swathe of spray. Above me is a three-storey building of water toppling over. I shoot up the face as much on will power, as on board speed. He starts to peal behind me. The impact creates its own terrible wind and blasts me up the face. I jam my heals as the board smacks the lip and scream with delight. Down I go again. A more perfect run and I’m in control now. ‘Free!’ I scream at the wave, the Kom, the Cape and punch the air with my hand.

I carve off the wave and paddle straight back into the line up, anxious to do it again. The clouds have lifted a little and the sun lances through in a column of dreamy light a mile out to sea. It illuminates another set. Already I can see that these are much bigger. Enormous. The front-runner is already combing, spoiling for the rocks. Okay, these are way too big. I’ll paddle off to the right and let them pass.

Now he starts to build himself to his full height. In mid-stroke I stop in awe. He’s switched direction. The peak will break just in front of me, trapping me against the kelp beds, the rock ledge. I can’t duck-dive it, because the waves behind are bigger and have already started to crumble. They’ll wipe me out here in the impact zone. I must ride the first, try to bottom turn ahead of the white-water and run for the mouth of the Kom.

My arms are aching as I paddle. I might just make it. Thrust, and I’m up, dropping diagonally across the front of the crest. Suddenly the wave hollows and my board careers into a cavern of eerie light. I’m racing through an oval-shaped room that keeps opening up in front of me. There’s a luminous green glow and complete silence. Above me the light is strongest. The roof is like a membrane of skin, green and white and light. I rush on. The room is alive, organic. It changes shape. It throbs. I’m Jonah inside the whale. I’m in the stomach of the old man, swallowed whole but not digested. The room contorts. Ahead of me is a bright opening. I pump my board towards the mouth. Perhaps I’ll be spat out. I can see the shore and the mountains beyond, postcard-size, beckoning. Die Kaap. My room shrinks. I crouch, holding my board, bunched against the roof. I take a deep breath and his stomach contracts.

I’m pummelled from every side. White rage. The forces exerted on my body are unbearable. Me and my surfboard go round together as if in a washing machine. The board will reach the air eventually. It will save me, I think as breath is prized from me. My lungs are in flames. ‘Dad! Help me, Dad! Only you can rescue me! Daddy, please!’

Suddenly I break the surface, hugging my board. I drink air. Around me the sea is churning. The southern rocks of the Kom are much closer now.

The second wave has broken and is throwing splinters of spray. I try to force the board down into the kelp, but the water hits me like a bus, pushing me down among the sea bamboo. My board is wrenched from me and I feel the leash parting at my ankle. I twist and turn in the mass of kelp. Fronds wrap around me, the tentacles of a giant squid pulling me down. The bushy heads close overhead. I fight with the black stems, coiling around me like rope. ‘Dad, Dad, am I to die like you?’ Boiling water. Burning lungs. Upside down. Which way is up? I gasp. My lungs fill. Water pours into me. Icy cold. So this is what it feels like to drown. I am still a boy, I don’t want to die.

It’s quieter suddenly. He has passed. I make out light and kick towards it. Then the world whitens again. The last wave of the set. Oh God, this is it. I see you raising your strap. I see you kissing that other woman behind the shed, your hot alcohol breath. Get away! I see you beating the workers on the farm; your volk. Sies, Pa. I see you driving too fast, drunk, laughing. Ja, Dad. I’m coming to join you. I’m at the rock face. I’m done.

Gauze. Then blurred sun. Heaven? The sun moves and is extinguished. Something icy touches my heart. Purgatory? Voices.

‘He’ll be all right, Mrs van der Walt – survived his baptism of fire.’

Who the hell is that? What world is this?

‘We’ve got the water out of his lungs and the bump on his head is nothing to worry about.’

My eyes grow accustomed to this new, terrestrial environment. Much more friendly. And I’m breathing. A figure stands to one side with a clipboard, all in white but  wingless, which is reassuring. There’s a double-headed creature next to me. One of the heads is brown. After a while I realise that they are not attached. The brown body is shaking and it’s wrapped in a blanket. The face is looking down, not at me, but I am immediately attracted to it. I notice that I too am shivering – this we have in common. The other head talks: ‘Johan, dis Ouma. Hoe voel jy my kind?’

Johan is my father’s name. Who’s she talking to? Wait … it’s my name too. I am Johan. And yes, it is Ouma. She survived the wave! If Ouma is alive then I am alive.

‘Johan, Andries here hauled you out,’ says Ouma. ‘We couldn’t find you for breakfast so I sent him looking. He saw you get knocked off your board and dived in when you floated to the surface near the rocks. He’s a strong boy to have pulled a groot seun like you out.’

‘No, Ouma,’ I say with difficulty, ‘I’m not a boy. And nor is Andries.’

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