Still, y'gotta do what y'gotta do…
The Interloper arrived at the Rock on a Thursday. It was a quiet session. Three-to-four-foot of ESE swell, not the perfect direction. But a tide that was high enough to gloss over most faults.
Fun rights with the odd hollow section hugged the curve of the limestone outcrop, before shutting down on the inside.
There was me, Jade, Tom, and Beug – all locals – plus a handful of irregulars who knew enough to keep lineup order in check. A capacity crowd for these conditions.
I’d already been out a few hours when the Interloper first appeared.
Between sets it was easy to keep track of incoming crew. The take off spot at the Rock sat off the back of an almost exposed shelf, which itself jutted out from a deep channel below the main kunji-covered rock platform. Hidden deep inside a National Park, it was a popular spot for the local fishos, who would make the 45 minute walk in to hit the schools of whiting and yellow tail that pooled around the hidey spots. Sometimes, when the warm currents bent right into the coast, they’d even jag some bigger game.
But the fishos knew not to go overboard with their catch. There was a delicate ecosystem to be maintained. Perfected over time. Balance and order. It was what kept us in the game.
There were a few fishos on the hunt this day, with their uniform yellow jackets and white buckets. I watched as the mysterious figure with board under arm bounced between them along the platform, looking for a way in.
Even from the water I could make out his shock of curly white hair. The excitable gait. A staccato rhythm as he leapt from one rock to the next.
Enthusiasm. It was unmistakable.
I shuddered from a sudden chill.
The Interloper jumped off a weird part of the platform. Not where us locals would jump. But still not the wrong spot, either. Something about this act bothered me, though I couldn’t say what.
He made his way around the far side of the shelf. Right to the top of the queue.
He had a newish looking board. Handshaped, with a logo I didn’t recognise. Yellow with green rails. A bright blue short arm steamer. Booties. A statement in colourways.
The Interloper surveyed the crew. For some reason singled me out.
“Hey mate, how’s it going?” he asked excitedly.
It was a greeting like you’d get in one of those trendy clothing retailers. So over-friendly you’d have to second guess if you actually knew the person or not.
He couldn’t have been older than 18. A cherubic face. Bright, keen eyes. Dusting of pubescent fluff on the chin. The kid carried himself. Suggested he could surf, without actually saying it.
“Yeah alright,” I replied gruffly as I stared at the horizon.
“Looks like a couple of fun ones.”
I wasn’t sure if this is a question or a statement. I said nothing. Nor did anyone else.
“Yeah I’ve just moved here for uni from down the coast,” he continued unabated, looking straight at me. “Keen to get some waves but?”
Again he left his sentence on an upwards inflection. Intentions unknown.
“Cool.” I still had no idea what the cunt was on about. I let my eyes trail off, like I was tracking a school of baitfish just below the surface.
I caught a subtle grin from Jade.
Thankfully the awkward silence didn’t last long.
“Oh, here’s one,” said the Interloper. He swung and paddled for the first wave that came his way. Not quite a set, but probably something one of the irregulars would have gone.
“Who’s that guy?” asked Tom as we watched him race down the line and tag the end section.
“No idea. “
“Fucken lippy cunt. “
Tom was one of the middle tier locals out here. A few decades under the belt, but not quite good enough for alpha status. Still, he held enough sway. Not one to get on your bad side.
He prized his silence out here. We all did.
Like the fishos, we all came to the Rock for the hunt. Jade the former ‘Quey warrior who now ran the little cafe near the entrance to the Park and was out here most swells. Beug with his performance minimal that he still sunk to his chest, and the tattoos on his knuckles that told you all you needed to know about his past. Tom, who had no other home than here.
Each of us tied to the Rock. The better part of our lives was spent tracking it. Learning it. Best wind, best swell, best ride. How the variations of each all interplayed. Which ones would pinch. Which ones would stay open. Which ones would go dry on the inside. It wasn’t the most perfect wave in the world, or the most consistent. Only on a very particular angle and tide did it actually barrel properly. It was a hard place to get to. Required time and commitment. Mostly the Rock was frustration. Missed appointments. Broken promises. Unrealised dreams.
But every now and then, when it all came together on the right one? Sheesh, it could still be special. And most importantly, it was ours.
The Interloper paddled back out and quickly weaved his way into the queue. Beug grunted at the disruption. But before anybody can say anything another set stood up on the Indicator. This one looked good.
Tom and I nodded a silent agreement. He’d be up first and I’d take the second, which would hopefully be my last.
But the Interloper started putting himself into position too.
“Who’s up?” he asked as he paddled to the spot.
Tom shouldered in. Caught the Interloper’s leash as he was paddling.
“Farrk,” Tom crowed as he got to his feet. The wave surged. For a second he was caught in free fall. But a couple of decade’s worth of muscle memory and wave knowledge kicked in. He leaned into it, engaged the rail just at the right moment, and flew off down the line.
It was a one wave set. I was left back on point.
Unfazed, the Interloper paddled back next to me.
“Wow, that was a hell one!” he said as he watched Tom fly over the back of the end section.
I shook my head and paddled in. Did he not understand?
By Thursday night the social networks were already firing.
I got a text from Jade. She was nice enough to not say anything in the water. Plus she wasn’t really one for all our macho Darwinian bullshit. But even she knew a transgression had been committed. An upheaval in the order of things.
“If this was ten years ago he would have been sent in,” she wrote.
“Right?” I respond. “Fucken guy. You can’t do that sort of thing now though.”
On Friday the waves had improved. Bigger. Better direction. The crew was solid too. Beug, Danny, Jade, Bill, Tom, Benny, Sam, myself. More than a dozen boardriders all up. No weak spots in the food chain.
On this size and tide the take off spot shifted over to a roll-in, deeper on the platform. Everybody schooled onto the one spot, concentrating the hierarchy even more. The thick knit of black wetsuits and white boards floated over waves like a bed of kelp.
The Interloper appeared again amongst the fishos. We watched as he jumped off at that same weird spot, and snaked around the inside, under the pack.
“Hey guys!” he said to nobody in particular.
A few grunts, but mostly silence.
“Wow, looking pretty good again!”
Just like the day before, another small one popped up right in front of him. He took it without question.
We all watched the rooster tails as he made his way down the line. He could surf.
“Is that little cunt?” asked Noah, a wild-eyed veteran from the pre-gentrification days.
Word was already out.
“If this was fifteen years ago I would have slashed his tyres.”
Heads nodded furiously in agreement.
“Can’t do that sort of thing now but,” said Beug.
The Interloper made his way out and darted back into the queue, oblivious to the eyes on him. Silly grin on his face.
“Fuck I love this wave!” he yells.
Tom looks at me, aghast. “Loves it?” he says.
I shrug my shoulders. Another cardinal sin to add to his list.
A serious set appeared off the Indicator. The wall of water slowed almost to a standstill as it surged off the back of the Rock. This was it. The type of wave this place made its name from. The infinitely scarce resource that sustained the whole ecosystem.
The pack bristled in anticipation.
Noah was up. But again the Interloper moved into the spot.
“No you dont, cunt,” hissed Noah.
He paddled directly into the Interloper, pushing him too deep. So deep that even Noah was out of position. They both missed the roll-in and were forced to duck dive under the next one as the wave reeled off unridden.
“What was that for?” asked the Interloper as they paddled back to the spot.
“Wasn’t your turn,” said Noah.
“Yeah but you fucked it. Now no one gets it.”
Silence fell over the crowd. Noah was not the sort of person to talk back to.
“Doesn’t matter. Wasn’t your turn.”
Noah’s nostrils flared. For a second the only noise was his heavy breathing and the far off chatter of the fishos up on the platform.
The Interloper looked like he was about to say something. Formulating a comeback. Who knew what might happen next. It was the type of moment that could make or break a lifetime at a place like this.
From the channel came a violent splash. A flash of white and silver broke through the surface then disappeared, leaving a trail of foam in its wake. There’d been reports of marlin straying into the coast in the last few days. Hitting the balls of trevally that had been popping up around the place.
The commotion attracted a rush of fishos to the edge of the platform, yelling and pointing and flinging their reels.
The Interloper looked over to the channel before slinking back to his spot underneath the rest of the pack, his decision made.
He might have been young, but he knew enough.
That night I got a call from Bruno. One of the elders of the Rock who pioneered it back in the ‘70s. He hardly surfed now but his counsel still held as much clout as anyone still out there.
“Heard there’s been some strife out,” he said in his gruff voice. He didn’t mince his words.
“Yep. The kid looks nice enough. But he’s really getting under people’s skin. He just doesn’t know the rules.”
Bruno didn’t say anything. For a moment I thought I might have lost him.
“What we do about it?” I asked.
Finally he spoke.
“Look, if this was twenty years ago we’d have knifed his tyres and beat the shit out of him so bad he’d never make the trek back in. Problem is, you can’t do that sort of thing anymore.”
“Nah.” I sighed. “Yeah nah Bruno, I know.”
“Let’s see what happens tomorrow. But listen.” He pauses again for emphasis. “I think you know what you need to do.”
The phone line clicked.
Saturday morning. The sun blazed. Light offshore breezes lit up the Rock. The surf was pumping. A red letter day. The full crew was out. All the alphas. The line up was abuzz with the swell. But also news of the Interloper.
“I heard he called Noah a cunt.”
“I heard he burned Tom three sets in a row.”
“I heard he knocked off one of the fishos reels on the way in.”
“He even said he loved the place!”
“It wasn’t quite that bad,” I said. “But I spoke to Bruno last night about it. The kid still needs to be taught a lesson.”
“If this was thirty years ago we would have shoved him in the tinny and skull dragged him out to the continental shelf,” offered Benny the kneelo, a living relic from a bygone era.
“You can’t do that now though,” replied Tom. “Remember what happened to Pooly. You even put a hand on a kid and you’re looking at charges from the parents.
“So fucken what? Who out here is going to rat?”
“Yeah but he’s still only young, you gotta give him a chance…”
The conversation became so involved, so furious, that many of the smaller sets went through unridden. Noah even blew the takeoff on a set. First time I’d ever seen him do it.
The irregulars were having a field day a little further down the line.
It was undeniable. There was a funk running through the pack. A schism. Order has been upended.
By mid morning, just as the tide was reaching its peak, the Interloper appeared again on the shelf like a midnight spectre.
“Here he is.”
“Where’s he jumping off?” said Benny incredulously. “What the fuck’s he think he’s doing?”
The Interloper made his way around to the pack. A pod of dolphins darted past, shooting up specks of diamonds on the sun-lit sea.
“Fuck it, I’ll take the cunt myself,” said Noah, just as the Interloper came to within earshot. “To hell with the coppers.”
But something stirred up inside me.
Maybe it was the fact the kid could surf. The fact he was young, and still had time to learn the ropes. Maybe it was the fact half the crew out here didn’t want any business with filing police reports. Myself included.
Maybe it was that stupid smile.
“Noah,” I said forcefully. “Not today.”
I paddled over to meet the Interloper before he could reach the pack. For his own safety as much as anything else.
“Hey buddy, come here.”
“Oh, hey bro!” he said enthusiastically. “Looks pumping today, but?”
I shook my head at the non sequitur.
“Look kid, I need to have a word with you.”
Sat up on my board so I was right alongside him.
“You seem nice enough. You can obviously surf. But you gotta understand there’s rules out here.”
The Interloper started to respond, a confused look on his face.
“Let me finish. You can’t just traipse into the Rock like you own it. This is a special place.”
I motioned to the line up, to the surge, to the rock platform and the fishos beyond.
“You come out here with your smiles and your bright wetty and your jumping at every wave. It makes the crew nervous.”
“Hey. I’m still going. If you want to surf out here. If you want to really get to know the place.You need to put in time. You need to respect the law. You gotta be more like us.”
I pointed to the crew.
“See these guys? We’ve all been out here for decades. We’re not lairy. We’re not colourful. We don’t disrupt.”
A swell line passed under us, bringing us nearer again.
“We’re cool, kid. Real cool. Like barnacles. Only one part removed from the kunji back up on that platform.”
I saddled up real close to him. So close I could smell whatever cheap shampoo it was that he ran through that mop of white hair.
“Out here,” I said, almost in a whisper. “We don’t like change. There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
His cherubic face melted. His brow furrowed. He looked like he’d just been told he’d never surf again.
I shook my head and pointed to the end of the pack. Down past the irregulars.
He followed the path of my hand, his whole body shaking at realisation. Processing what it all meant. The end of the line. The Interloper turned back to me. Looked like he might cry.
But I stared him down, with a dozen identical pairs of eyes behind me.
The Interloper got the message. He paddled to the back of the queue.
It’s five years later now. I’m still at the Rock. The surf is firing. Another red letter day. And we’re all out. Ronnie, Jade, Noah, the kneelo, Tom.
Even the Interloper. He’s sitting in the middle of the queue. Above the irregulars but still behind the alphas. His enthusiasm has disappeared. The spark in his eye is gone. You wouldn’t recognise him if you didn’t already know. There’s no hint of a grin now on his weathered face. Black wetsuit. White board. Shaved head. He’s waiting his turn patiently.
Assimilated into the pack.
The fishoes are out, chasing a school of tailor. One of them has just jagged something decent when we see a figure appear on the platform. Bright wetsuit. Loud board. Unidentified.
We watch as the figure makes its way across the rocks. Heads to that same weird part of the platform to jump off.
I turn to the Interloper. He knows what’s expected.
He nods back at me with his dead eyes.
Looks to the unknown figure now he says: “Who’s this cunt think he is,”
Though it’s so quiet I can barely hear it. I turn back to the horizon with a smile on my face.
A place for everything and everything in its place.