The Surfer (Short Story)
"Get up on that board, do you hear me you big gobshite?..."
-Here comes the surfer, said big Patsy Flanagan.
The bread van stalled outside and we heard the ratchet of the handbrake and the slam of the door. Flanagan started singing the Hawaii Five-O music,
Donal Lavery gangled into the library, catching his heel in the swing of the door and hobbling painfully up to the desk.
-Bad day for surfing, Dan-o. You might get wet. Har, har.
Deirdre and I laughed because it was Flanagan but we'd both heard it all before.
-Why can't you leave him alone? said Deirdre. You're always giving him a hard time.
-I've nothing against him, said Flanagan, He's just a big gobshite.
Donal Lavery drove around the town in the bread van with an old-fashioned long surfboard strapped to the roof. Even in summer he wore a blue cagoule which was way too small for him. His trousers at half-mast, flat black shoes, the cagoule covering a lumpy sweater which showed a wrinkled skirt of green at the waist. His eyes, behind black framed glasses, were rimmed with thick black lashes and moved quickly, never staying long in one place. Resting on something, moving away, then returning like shyly scavenging animals. His lips were always red and moist as if he had just licked them, and his upper teeth protruded slightly. No one had ever seen him surf.
We always saw him in the library, wedged into a corner of a non fiction section, all elbows and knees, his long fingers picking their way through a hard backed book on Mao Tse Tung or Contract Bridge. He never spoke, not even to the librarian, fumbling his card out of his wallet and flinging it down on to the counter, looking over his shoulder at us as we whispered around the study table.
We got to do study periods in the town library, which was good because the Convent girls went there too. I was the only one to ever do any studying in that library, the others all just messed around in study periods and tried to look cool. Not that I was any kind of model scholar, I just hoped it might make Deirdre notice me if I acted more mature than the others did.
Deirdre was gorgeous. She had short black hair that was kind of spiky on top and she always wore her school uniform skirt shorter than the others. She was into the Buzzcocks and Wreckless Eric when we were still playing air guitar to Deep Purple records. Sometimes when I looked into her clear blue eyes I thought I was going to have an out of body experience. She was seeing a Prod from Ballyshannon but there was always hope.
Donal didn't seem to have any friends, although he knew a lot of people in town through driving the bread van. I don't know how Donal was allowed to drive, maybe it's because his father needed him to help out after he did his back in and his uncle was the Sergeant at the Garda station. He never did his test, I know that much.
-Well now, Donal, said the customers, and how are you doin'?
And Donal would smile bashfully.
-Sure the poor cub's not just a hundred percent now. Mind you, he can drive the van. Can't you, Donal, you can drive the van. Oh, now.
-That's some surfboard you have up there. That'll fair pick up the weemin. Won't it, lad? You'll be fighting them off.
-Here comes the surfer. Duh duh duh duh DUUH duh-
-The gombeen surfer. Book him, Dano. Har, har.
And Donal would just snigger and push his chin down into his cagoule and look away.
I don't know what Flanagan had against him, maybe it was just because Donal got all the attention.
-Better get that board lashed down well, Dano, said Flanagan, it might blow away in the storm.
There was a car park next to the library where all the cars full of sticky-faced children and grandfathers in Sunday blue suits used to park during the summer holidays. Today the sky was the colour of wet cement. It had just bucketed down and it was about to start again. The car park was in the middle of being re- surfaced and looked like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme, all big craters and puddles. The only vehicle in it was Donal's bread van with its long surf board on top.
Donal dumped his week's selections on the checkout counter. A History of the Third Reich and the Family Circle Book of Embroidery. He started to look worried, and scuttled out without his usual look in our direction.
We heard the cry for help soon after. Flanagan was the first out the door but I was the first one to do anything to help seeing as Flanagan was creased up laughing on the library steps. All you could see of Donal was two kicking legs and a frayed length of rope dangling over the edge of the van roof. The door of the van, with its window open, was swinging in the breeze and it wasn't hard to figure out the chain of events that had led to Donal losing his foothold on his way up to secure his surfboard. The only thing I could do was to grab his foot and give him a boost up. He landed on the roof with a thump, all arms and legs, and scrambled on to the surfboard, hugging himself down on it. By that stage the wind was picking up and I could see his glasses were spotting up with rain.
-Wooo, said Flanagan, ridem cowboy. Let's see you get up on that thing.
But Donal stayed shivering, hugging the board like a pillow.
-Get up on that board, do you hear me you big gobshite?
And then Flanagan started to get serious. There was always that serious stage with Flanagan. I saw it later in bars when he would stop laughing and get red around the eyes and ball his fists. That was when you had to take him outside and calm him down if you didn't want a wrecking match on your hands. It was a control thing, he had to have things going his way. Of course it was worse because Deirdre was there.
-Stand up and surf that thing like a man.
Donal slowly released one hand and pulled the hood of his cagoule further over his head, whimpering.
-Oh for God's sake, said Deirdre, he's had enough. Get him down. Séamus, can't you stop him?
But Flanagan wasn't listening and I saw the look in his eyes and I wasn't going near him.
-Maybe you need a bit more speed, said Flanagan, and before we knew it he was in the van, revving the engine.
-Come on, big man, let's see you surf now.
And he let out the clutch and the van lurched across the car park, splashing and rocking through puddles, half frozen water splashing like cold gravy. And Donal was hanging on with his arms and legs wrapped around the board, his chin bouncing off it.
-Jesus Christ, said Deirdre, this is stupid, he's going to kill him.
-STOP, I shouted, Stop, you mad eejit, and I started to run after the van and ended up ankle deep in mud and slid on my arse into a puddle.
But as I looked up something fantastic was happening.
Donal wasn't on his belly hugging the surf board any more. He was up on all fours. His face was calm, his brow clearing. Then he was on one knee, staring straight ahead, concentrating, feeling the ride. This was his wave, not Flanagan's. Donal stretched out both arms and lifted the other knee at the same time.
And now he was up on two legs, crouching, his bent knees taking up the bouncing and lurching of the van, his body loose and stable, his head following a straight line. He was surfing, I swear to God he was riding that wave all over the car park and all of a sudden everyone stopped shouting and Flanagan was looking round him wondering what was happening because he couldn't see Donal on top of the van.
-He'll kill himself, said Deirdre.
I don't know what way it would have gone if Brother Brendan hadn't come flying out of the Christian Brothers gates, waving a fistful of pudgy, nicotine stained fingers and roaring like a bull. Of course Flanagan looked over, lost his line through the minefield and bounced up on the new manhole cover that was sticking up a good foot above the unfinished surface.
I suppose it would have been more spectacular if the surfboard had gone up in the air too, spinning and catching the sun like they do in the surf movies. Donal made up for it though, flailing in mid-air like a cartoon coyote who's just run over a cliff. When we made it over to him he was lying there with his arm at a weird angle, grinning all over his mud- spattered face.
-They had to cut the cagoule off him at the hospital, I whispered to Flanagan the next time we saw Donal in the library. It was just me and Flanagan that day, Deirdre was over with the rest of the Convent girls. Donal was wearing a brand new rally jacket with a racing stripe down each sleeve. One sleeve dangling off his shoulder because of the cast. Flanagan just stuck his nose further into his book.
I looked over at Donal and he caught my eye and cracked a smile with one corner of his mouth. And then he loped over to our table and whispered in Flanagan's ear.
-Duh duh duh duh DUUH duh-
And left, putting his back to the door to open it and side stepping it as it swung back. Looking over towards the bay as if to check the waves.