This is an extract from a creative non-fiction work in progress, which is based on the author’s own experiences.
I watched the waves from the dunes in the morning half-light. It was much bigger than I’d expected, and windy too.
‘What do you think?’ I’d felt edgy about coming here, ever since I’d heard it was a sacred women’s site.
Rocket shrugged. ‘Nothing else to do.’
As we pulled our wetsuits on in the carpark, an older guy gave us a crooked smile, climbed in his station wagon and left. I knew what he was thinking – that we were idiots for going out. Maybe he was right, but we’d already wasted too much time driving the coast looking for somewhere to surf.
Boards under arms, we walked towards the cape, waves booming out the back and the briny air thrumming with a low electrical charge. Surges of water slid up the beach and retreated. Ahead, the lighthouse pulsed above the battered cliffs and the wind-groomed foliage on the cape shivered in the southerly. Watching the rip suck out along the headland, I felt edgy again. A sacred women’s site. The water was moving unusually fast, and I almost said as much, but Rocket was already on his board, drifting away from the shore. I walked a few steps, felt the pull of water and launched into the rip.
The ocean drew me in with a long, steady inhalation, water sluicing past the rock ledge beside me. At the outer corner of the headland, the rip became rougher as it came to blows with the waves. Fifty metres ahead, Rocket speared the belly of an unbroken wave just before it crumbled over him. In my periphery, walls of whitewater punched and exploded against the cliffs beneath the lighthouse. A large wave jacked and broke metres in front of me. I tried to duckdive, but the turbulence wrenched my board away and I reeled backwards. When I resurfaced, I drew a deep breath, shaken by the wave’s power. As soon as I was clear of the breakers, I angled my board away from the cliffs and kept paddling.
Rocket had been pushed in front of the cliffs and was steadily paddling towards me. He was riding a borrowed board, too small for him. And he was hung-over. But he was a tough bloke, and I knew he could handle himself in waves of consequence, so I figured he was probably more frustrated than anything else. I jagged a wave and surfed further away from the cliffs.
After a couple more waves, I’d had enough, and caught a wave in. Wading through the shallows, I turned to look for Rocket. Nothing. I jogged to the dunes and tried searching from elevation. Still nothing. He’d been paddling against the sweep for the better part of an hour and was probably getting tired. Looking around, there was no one else on the beach and no one else in the water. Heart pounding, I ran to the water’s edge and launched into the rip.
Having fought my way past the breaking waves, I spotted Rocket paddling towards the cliffs. It looked like he was planning to wash up on the rock ledge and clamber his way back to the beach.
‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!’ I shouted, but my words were lost in the wind.
I knew he hadn’t heard me but he must have seen me because he turned and raised his palms as if to say – what the fuck else can I do?
I’d planned to coach him away from the cliffs, but when I turned towards the beach, I no longer saw dunes and casuarinas, just the craggy cliff face. I knew what we had to do and I didn’t like the thought of it at all. Waves rose and fell between us as I paddled towards him.
‘Are you alright?’ I said. He looked over it. ‘Knackered.’ I nodded towards the far end of the cliffs. ‘We’ll have to go around.’
‘You’re joking, right?’ I shrugged, wanting to act tough, but feeling scared.
This was raw ocean out here. Deep water. The most easterly point of mainland Australia. I didn’t want to think about it, but it was sharky too – all my fisho mates had told me – and there would be nowhere to hide if a shark came hassling for a taste. We started paddling. Every so often one of us would call ‘Set!’ and we’d scramble for deeper water. After scraping over the last set of waves, we’d sit on the boards to recover our breath and let the ocean push us north.
A scattered line of people had now gathered on the cliff-top to watch. A local fisherman I knew pointed at his phone and raised his palms. Did we want air rescue? Rocket and I looked at each other for a beat. Be the laughing stock of the local surf crew? No. Fucking. Way. We waved him off and continued paddling.
Another set passed and I moved closer to the cliffs, not liking the feel of deep water beneath me.
‘Set!’ Rocket called, already scrambling towards the unbroken waves.
The horizon had darkened with striated bruises. I followed, swearing under my breath. The first wave peaked under me and I air-dropped off the back. Kept paddling. The second crumbled and I drew a breath, sank my board and submerged myself. The wave knocked me and I thought I was going to get thrown into the mess, but it sucked me through and spat me out the back. I surfaced and paddled two strokes, shook the water out of my eyes and looked up. Rocket was scraping over the third and biggest wave yet. The wall jacked and thundered in front of me. Fuck. I pushed my board aside and dived.
A watery fist knocked the air out of me. I was upside down, spinning, scrambling upwards, but getting pulled back down. A panicking animal. Breaking the surface, I gasped a lungful, but my board was still buried and my leash pulled me under. Fizzy silence replaced the ocean roar. When I finally clambered back to the surface, I saw how far the wave had pushed me. The cliffs were uncomfortably close. Why hadn’t we called air rescue? Rocket glanced over his shoulder from the crest of the next wave. I paddled hard, but drifted backwards in the soupy mess, hyperventilating as the next wall of whitewater rumbled towards me. Underwater, I felt the energy leaving my body. I surfaced, got pulled under again and fought my way back up. The foam on the surface was so thick, I could only just get my head above it. The next wave hit me and I drifted like a rag doll, waiting for the thud of rock or the scrape of a cave. The edges of my vision darkened, then came a sharp blast of adrenaline. I clawed through the watery hands pushing me down. Piercing the surface, I drew one almighty breath, consciousness slamming back. At the base of the cliff I turned, not knowing what was next.
I paddled, gasped and retched. Kept paddling, and didn’t stop until I’d passed Rocket.
‘You okay?’ he said.
I nodded and sat on my board, trying to catch my breath.
We paddled slowly now, sticking to deeper water. The cliff lowered to a wall of rocks then a partly submerged reef – the most easterly point. We gave it a wide berth and paddled into the bay. My legs shook as I walked through the rocky shallows and when I reached the dry sand, I stood for a moment and focused on the weight of my body against solid earth and the luxury of the air all around me.
Mum flew up from Adelaide a few days before the baby was due. I wasn’t as appreciative as I could have been. I was still in denial about becoming a father and had no idea what to expect or how to articulate what I was feeling. Mostly I just felt rage. I was furious that someone had taken away my power to choose and furious that I’d been stupid enough to get into this situation. But these weren’t feelings I was comfortable sharing. What kind of man felt anger towards the mother of his first-born child? Not the kind of man I wanted to be.
Alexa and I had barely spoken for the term of the pregnancy. Mum, on the other hand, had maintained regular contact with her. She was trying to support me by supporting Alexa, but I interpreted their communication as a betrayal. I wanted Mum to be outraged at the injustice of what was happening, I wanted loyalty, I wanted her to be on my side exclusively. I couldn’t fathom that Alexa and I were now on the same side for life.
Autumn in Byron was the best time of the year for surf – with clear skies, south-west winds and regular pulses of groundswell. Ordinarily, I would have been surfing every moment I could, but right then I just couldn’t find the motivation. I couldn’t seem to drag myself out of bed for the ‘early’ before work, and found myself blaming Alexa for every session I missed.
Despite my stonewalling, Alexa invited me to the birth and offered to let me cut the umbilical cord. Two generous invitations, given the circumstances. I accepted both, though not with much excitement; I was squeamish at the best of times and wasn’t exactly relishing the thought of cutting human flesh. But people often said how incredible birth was, and perhaps witnessing the birth of my son would be a transcendental and healing experience. Alexa suggested we call our son Noah. She hesitated then said something about the dove carrying the olive branch. I agreed and realised it was the first thing we’d agreed upon in a long time.
The night before my son arrived, I went out and got ridiculously drunk. This was typical of how I was coping with the pregnancy, which was a bit sad considering it was also how I got Alexa pregnant. Mum insisted I take my phone and checked that it was fully charged. I drank a lot at the party – anything that came my way. After a few hours, I stumbled out the front to leave. A guy I vaguely knew shouted out from a maxi-taxi. He was going to another party, and suggested I jump in and continue home after that.
The van emptied around me at the drop-off, people laughing and falling over each other.
‘Just continuing to Suffolk,’ I mumbled to the driver.
The driver glanced in the rear view mirror and reset the fare, adding a fresh tariff of $3.90.
‘It’s not a new fare.’ I said. ‘It’s the continuation of the same fare.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s a new fare.’
Why did people gouge you as soon as you dropped your guard? ‘That was a drop-off. And now. We’re going. To Suffolk.’
‘No. It’s a new fare.’ ‘Bullshit!’
I once bungee jumped from a sixty-metre tower over a cement carpark in Las Vegas. Wanting to impress an English girl, I’d acted tough and offered to go first. As it turned out, my jump was the first for our group and the first for the day. I was testing the rope.
‘Three… Two… One… GO! GO! GO!’
I jumped and flew towards that concrete God-punch. Twenty metres from impact, I heard a panicked scream. My scream… Just as the rope caught me and threw me back into the air. Afterwards, I’d felt embarrassed.
The driver shook his head, resolute, and I rose in my seat, deep breaths shuddering out of me. I stepped forward, hunching under the maxi-taxi’s low ceiling, my hands clenched into fists.
‘I’M HAVING A FUCKING BABY!
I’M HAVING A FUCKING BABY!
I’M HAVING A FUCKING BABY!!!’
The driver blinked, almost smiled, then narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re out of here, mate! Get out! OUT!’
The tail lights glowed red down the street, while I swayed on the footpath, confused and unable to catch my breath. I stumbled south along the road, cursing taxi drivers, pregnant women and babies. I saw a road sign and started laughing – I was on Broken Head Road.
A few hours later, Alexa’s waters had broken too.
Mum’s voice pierced the soft casing of my dream. ‘The baby’s coming.’ Mouth dry, I opened my eyes just enough to see the wind combing the leaves outside my window. A light south-westerly. My friends would already be out there, calling each other into waves and dream-sliding through glassy barrels… I was falling asleep again.
‘Up!’ Mum said. ‘C’mon. Quickly.’
Shops drifted by outside.
‘I’m dying. Can’t we stop for coffee?’
She looked at me askance. ‘The baby could come any moment. We have to hurry.’
I slumped against the window. ‘Don’t first-time labours go for days?’
‘We need to get there.’
We arrived at Murwillumbah hospital and made our way through the fluoro-lit corridors, Mum rushing and me lagging behind. I was stuck in a stranger’s body, moving through a life that didn’t belong to me.
At the end of a corridor, we reached a closed door and I heard screams. Hoarse, desperate screams. I waited outside with Mum and one of Alexa’s friends tried to make conversation with me, but I just looked at her. Couldn’t she hear the screaming?
I hadn’t been to any pre-natal classes, hadn’t spoken to anyone about what to expect, or how to deal with this. I’d never been to a real birth before. Aside from births I’d seen in movies, this was all new. An hour later, the nurse calmly directed me into the birthing room. Mum waited outside while I stepped into a small, intimate room. Alexa was naked on all fours. There was a baby head sticking out her. Our baby. My son. I know people said that birth was a profoundly beautiful thing, but what no one had told me was that it was a profoundly animal thing too. Animal sounds, animal need, animal pain, animal fear.
For a meaningful moment, everyone looked at me – the doctor, the nurse, Alexa’s friend – waiting to see what I would do. The newcomer. Possibly the father. Possibly a friend. I’d had no introduction; I’d never met the medical staff. So I just stood there, flatfooted. Drew a breath. I walked over and touched Alexa’s shoulder.
‘Great job,’ I said. ‘You’re doing a great job.’
She didn’t look at me. Her friend stared. Later she told me she’d thought Alexa might have punched me in the head when I said that.
Noah came out wrinkled and kind of grey-blue – more alien than human. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or not. The nurse gave him to Alexa to hold and he moved his tiny fingers. The afterbirth came; Alexa sucked breaths through her teeth, her lip quivering. Stitches.
I held Noah for the first time and searched for a feeling or some words, but just felt confused and exhausted. He had a wobbly neck and I was scared of hurting him. I bathed him and dressed him in a white baby suit. But I couldn’t feel anything. Happiness, gratitude and amazement were all partitioned with frustration, shame and anxiety. I was numb. So, I just tried to do the right thing and not make a mistake.
After the hospital I convinced Mum to go to Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast, twenty minutes away, where the world’s best surfers were battling it out in the first big comp for the year. We made it through the crowded beach just in time to see the world champion, Andy Irons, surf junky waves down the point like an ocean ninja. I should have been elated seeing my first son being born and the world champion surfing on the same day. But I just felt despondent, like my youth had finished and I had now entered an era burdened with the weight of fatherly responsibility.
‘Why don’t you invite some mates over,’ Mum suggested hopefully, as soon as we got home. ‘I’ll buy you a case of beer… To celebrate.’
‘No thanks,’ I said, already walking towards my room. ‘I just want to go to sleep.’
Mum and I visited the hospital each day for the next few days while Alexa recovered. We bumped into friends. They congratulated me and asked careful questions. Usually people didn’t ask how I was feeling. I didn’t know how I was feeling. Not ready. Not like a father. Like I was underwater, getting smashed, and running out of strength to fight back.