Friday, November 23, 2012
I grew up surfing Pataua, a slick little river bar 100 metres off the coast of a drowsy settlement with the same name. There is a steep-sided hill at the entrance to the estuary, grass covered and with gnarled pohutukawa trees rooted to its clay slopes. The hill is an ancient pa site, or Maori fortress. Stepped terraces are still visible beneath the long grass, along with shoals of long-emptied pipi shells that were dumped off its banks. Pataua means fort of the warriors. The pohutukawa flower blood red every summer, the Christmas tree of the north yet also a symbol of the past. A finger of white sand arches away up the coast. This was where my family stayed on weekends and holidays, in a wooden bach set back from eroding dunes. Two beat-up old longboards lived in the back room, one which took both my brother Glen and I to carry down to the water when the bar was knee-high. We could paddle and ride it together, until its foot-long keg beached in the shallows. Years passed, with clean summer groundswells and winters when I returned to shore with hands misshapen from the cold. One sunny morning, as a teenager, I was wandering back along the water's edge after another spiraling session, my head aloft with the buzz. I passed a gobsmackingly hot older woman sunbathing in a brightly coloured bikini. She had slender, tanned limbs and blonde hair with a mind of its own. I smiled, slowing fractionally, knowing I was way out of my depth but figuring what the hell. 'You got some nice waves out there,' she said. I stopped, half turning in surprise. Then I realised she wasn't talking to me. A tall bloke with muscled shoulders and a thick black moustache had just glided in on his longboard, and was striding up the beach. He grinned: 'Guidday.' That was how I met Karl and Penny. Their family owned a holiday home on the south side of the estuary. Karl and Penny drove up every other summer weekend, escaping their daily grind in Auckland's city life whenever a decent north swell was forecast. Karl would call the night before for an update. I hardly saw them during winter. Although Karl worked as a carpenter and Penny a fashion designer, it seemed they jetted off to warmer climates overseas during the damp, cloudy funk that settled over us in the middle months. Both about 10 years older than me, they never really mentioned their other lives. But they asked me lots of questions, which got me excited about possibilities in life. Karl was assertive. I liked that because he seemed to know what he wanted. Penny made me wish I was older. Sometimes we just talked about waves or, as I recall it now, I did most of the rambling and they smiled and nodded. They seemed really happy, an adult couple who had it sorted. In the few photos I still have of them, taken during surf trips further afield, they were either in each other's arms or laughing or both. One evening while drinking beers, Karl asked why I had stopped to chat to Penny that day. 'Did you think you had a chance?' he jibed. Feeling my face colour, I smiled sheepishly. 'Leave him be,' Penny scolded, leaning over and whacking Karl on the shoulder. 'I'm just asking, alright.' I shook my head. 'I don't know. I was in such a good mood, you know. The surf had been great. I was...I don't know...happy.' Karl laughed hard, like it had erupted out of him. I shuffled my feet, stared out the window into the dark. 'Stupid, I know.' 'There, you satisfied?' Penny said to her partner, rising suddenly from the couch and stalking outside to the balcony. We both watched her. Karl sighed, got up. 'You want another beer?' I shook my head, mumbling something about getting an early night because the surf could be good first thing. When I finished school, I lucked into a job as a junior reporter with the local daily newspaper. I still hung out with Karl and Penny whenever they came north. Then only one of them started showing up, usually Karl and he'd be amping for a wave, any wave. He was never that good at surfing, didn't have the feel for what the wave was doing. He would paddle furiously and thrust himself upon a breaking swell as if he could force it to his will. After two years I got bored, headed south to another newspaper, got bored again and bought a ticket to Europe. I chased girls in England, and a football career in Germany – neither with much success. I drank Weissbier in Munich, and watched dudes with punk haircuts in fluorescent wetsuits surfing river waves like they were at the centre of it all. I missed home. My mother sat me down. I'd arrived back in New Zealand the previous morning. It was a cloudy autumn day, and our dogs wrestled on the lawn. 'I've got some news,' she said quietly. 'It's about your friends, Karl and Penny.' 'Huh?' 'They're dead, Paul.' I tried to clear jet lag from my mind. My voice quivered. 'What happened?' My mother frowned, looking worried like something bad was still to come of it. 'We saw it on the news, your father and I. I'm not sure of all of the details.' I've only lost a few mates over the years. One of my best friends died in a climbing accident soon after I'd left him in the Italian Alps, and I still carry guilt for not being there. It left such a gap in the way I thought things ought to be. I don't know why Karl and Penny separated. Penny moved out of their home, and stayed with her mother. Karl turned up there one day, trying to reconcile. Penny said no. Karl went out to his vehicle, returning a few minutes later. The sudden crush of sound startled Penny's mother in the kitchen. Rushing to the lounge, she saw Penny on the floor and Karl awkwardly turning the barrel of the shotgun towards himself. I don't know where people go in their minds that lead them to this point. I'm not sure that I want to know. I try to remember Karl and Penny from the early days, days when they created a positive impression on a young life. Now, I stare at the fading photographs in my album and think about waves and sunshine and friendship. I like to recall our conversations, Penny slaughtering me at chess, and Karl falling off his board wave after wave, thrashing to the surface and laughing like it didn't mean shit.