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Reading the Waves

By Jackie Davis

That Taranaki summer was short. It arrived swiftly, like a prickly rash, taking over everything. Lawns burned and shrivelled. The tar melted on the wide asphalt streets. Runny liquorice in the gutters. Tomatoes warm from the garden, skins smooth and tight. Barbecues on the back lawn, shrill of cicadas. Make the most of it, Mum said. It’ll be over soon.

Every afternoon that summer, I sat at the window and waited until Dad came home from work. Each day trawled past slowly. I ached and itched with the sluggishness of it. And now here he was, coming up the driveway, waving madly to me. Hello love, as he got out of his car. How was your day? Hello dear, to Mum and kissing her on her pink evening lips.

Who’s for a swim at the beach, then?

Me, me, an eager puppy scampering at his feet. All right, togs on and I’ll race you to the car.

Ready? Towels rolled into tubes, jandals, a yellow flutter board.

Ready.

Strandon Beach was Dad’s favourite. We dashed across the hot sand, racing to lay our towels down, our feet finding relief on the knobbly fabric after the burning of the black iron sand. Sometimes I took a magnet to the beach. I’d hold it above the sand and watch tiny fragments of iron jump from the beach onto the surface of the magnet. Clinging onto each other like circus gymnasts.

Dad was teaching me to body surf. Watch me, he said and he’d swim out to where the waves first took hold. You’ve got to read the waves, he shouted. His voice was buffeted in on the surf, falling before me, ankle deep in the water. Start in before they break. Then the wave will pick you up. You’ll have to kick and kick and you’ll feel the wave lift you and it’ll be as though it’s carrying you. Make yourself as long as possible. You’re an arrow, a spear, a comet shooting through the sky.

Watch me, and he found the wave, at the moment when it was breathy and full of waiting. It was as though he’d been catching waves his whole life. It scooped him up, that wave, and he allowed it to, giving in to it and he was as sleek as a fish, fingertips stretched, toes pointing, taller now than any man.

See? he said and he skimmed in next to me. Your turn.

I followed him out, into the sea, the wide, wild Tasman. Gripping onto my yellow flutter board, digging my fingertips into it. I tried to stand in his footfalls because the sea bed slid and slurried under my feet and I was afraid it might disappear underneath me completely. Up to my hips, my waist, my meagre chest. Stopping to let the waves past, not pushing up against them, but giving them the right of way.

Right. This is the spot, Dad said. He turned around to face the shore. It might have been a mile away. He turned his back to the waves that were ready to break behind him. My fearless father.

Are you ready?

Nodding. My eyes stinging, the sound of the sea inside my head. All around me.

Read the waves. One two three go.

I threw myself forward, buoyant and bouncing on the water, my flutter board pointing me in. Nothing happened. The wave slid over me, slippery and thick and I watched it break and crash in front of me.

Never mind. Try again.

So I did. Again and again. Disappointed to be left behind by the waves so many times. I’ll never get it, I thought. I wanted to cry.

One more. This time, love.

Reading the wave again, kicking off, fingers deep in the foamy edge of the flutter board. This time.

Yes, yes, Dad’s voice all around me. It had me, this wave. I was keeping up with it. I was long and smooth, on top of the water, defying gravity and sense and fear and I streaked in, salty water spraying off my face. Not daring to breathe. The sensation lasting forever. This ride. Not seeing anything, not my fingertips white against the board, not the froth of the wave, not the beach rushing towards me.

Then slowing. Feeling the wave lose strength. Its momentum slipping away. I skidded across the shallow water. It was warm and the sand was black underneath. Coming to rest there, the end of the wave. It sliding past me as it was sucked back out.

And Dad was there, his hand huge on my back. You did it, you did it.

Finding my breath somewhere inside me. And standing up and my legs trembled with the effort and the excitement and the realisation.

Do you want to go again?

No thanks, I said and my hand found my father’s. Let’s go home.

*

And now I find myself back at a beach. At the edge of the land again. Lyall Bay now. Here the sand is pale. Less intense. But sunsets are yellower. The sea is the colour of paua today, shimmering, iridescent.

Read the waves, I call to my son. Start in before they break. See? I catch one, I’m kicking, pointing my toes. My fingers are long, stretching. I am weightless again, the wave is carrying me in. I am wrapped in it. The ride of my life.

Your turn, I say as I skin in next to my son.

This is the spot. Read the waves.

And as I teach my child, it is my father’s voice that pitches across the surface of the sea to him. It is carried by the wind, the foamy surf. It is my father reaching out to us both.

My son finds a wave. His small body kicks and he catches it. He is as sleek as a fish. He is gone from me.

I watch him let the sea take him in. You’ve done it, I shout. I skip through the shallows where the water is warm, to my son, gasping, smiling, his fingers hard against his bodyboard. My hand is large on his back. Well done, I say. He looks up at me, his face shining, dripping. His smile is as wide as the Pacific.

I want to say to him, try again, have another go. But instead, I reach for his hand. Come on, I say and we walk up the beach together. Let’s go home.


Jackie Davis is a novelist, playwright, short story writer and creative writing tutor, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and is the author of two novels, both published by Penguin Books NZ Ltd. She has been published in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the US and has won and been placed in numerous short story competitions. She has also had short fiction broadcast on radio. She writes for both adults and children.

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