Sandman by Paul Malone

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

Sandman
Photo by Eleanor Bennett

Did I lie when I told Jacqui and her flatmate Scotty I could surf? I imagined it as clear as a glassy Balinese reef break: dropping down that glistening face, springing to my feet, a sweeping bottom turn, surfing into the endless nirvana pipeline. That was how I’d do it—first time. It was possible because I’d visualised it, over and over, until all doubt—like a Rip Curl logo beneath a coconut fragranced layer of Mr. Zogs Sex Wax—was sufficiently obscured.

Jacqui, standing on the shore in her tie-dyed sarong (a farewell gift of “metta” sent from Sri Lanka), hands on her hips—a vaguely military stance—watching me thrash about in the breakers. Her son Zach, six or seven back then, in his floppy blue sun hat, face porcelain white like a Japanese doll from all that zinc cream. He digs in the sand with the plastic Kmart spade I’d bought him for our weekend away.

Paddle as I might, I can’t make it through the incoming breakers. All that white water pushing me back, snatching the surfboard from my hands, and the air from my lungs. Still I push on.

Eventually there is a lull in the sets, and I make it out. Scotty paddles over, sits up, and bobs in the swell like a champagne cork. “Hey Maloney, I thought you said you could surf?”

“It’s been a while. This board you borrowed me is too narrow.”

Scotty nods, a bemused expression. When he answers, his arctic blue eyes are taking in the sand dunes shimmering in the heat like a scene out of Lawrence of Arabia. “Well I wanna see you ride a big mother. Next set has your name on it!”

Over my shoulder, purplish-blue walls, impossibly high, are silently gliding in. “Yeah, sure! Why not?”

Just like I imagined: the pull of the wave drawing me into the deep trough where the sandy bottom suddenly looms so close.

“Paddle!” Scotty shouts.

Legs together, buttocks clamped, paddling madly, shoulder muscles burning. The wave sucks me backwards, upwards, upside down, straight over the lurching falls. Slammed down deep, surfboard ripped away, a huge wallop of water. Over and over, round and round, limbs flailing, eyes clenched shut, water surging up my nose, into my ears, air thumped from my lungs. Huey the surf god holding me under. “This is what you get for the dishonour, kook!”

When I drag myself like a shipwreck survivor from the water, Jacqui and Zach are sand-sculpting a surfer with starfish eyes, a reckless cockleshell grin, and stormy seaweed hair.

“Wow, awesome sandman!” I say, Scotty’s surfboard—that mocking phallus—tucked impotently under my arm.

Zach pats a spade-full of sand onto the sandman’s bicep. Jacqui smoothes the sandman’s shoulder. The sandman stares up at me with his hypnotic starfish eyes. “You lied, dude! So uncool.”

Scotty’s surfboard slips from under my arm, lands unceremoniously deck-down in the sand.

Jacqui slowly shakes her head. “Nice one, Malone. Scotty’s gonna love the sandpaper deck.”

Zach sneers. “You can’t surf.”

“Whoa, wait up!” I begin.

Jacqui gets to her feet, dusts the sand from her legs. “Can I talk with you, alone, now?”

“Of course,” I say, and follow her as she sets off along the shoreline. When she stops, she turns and draws a breath. “Tell me, the other week when you told Scotty and me you’d surfed bigger waves than those in his surfing magazine, that was a lie, wasn’t it?”

“It’s tough to tell from pictures. They didn’t look so big.”

“And you’ve surfed bigger?”

“So I figured.”

“Malone, I can’t understand you. If you can’t surf why not just say it instead of bullshitting? What kind of weirdo does that? Tell me straight: can you surf?”

Now, if ever there was a time to come clean it was at that moment, when the truth had been pounded into me in full view of everyone. But was I in too deep to back down, so I shrugged. “Sure I can. You’ll see.”

“You’re bloody unbelievable, Malone,” she says, shoves me aside, strides back along the beach towards Zach and his sandman. “Unbelievable,” she shouts again, a vehement echo.

“Wait up,” I say, and trail after her.

Scotty comes padding out of the surf, shakes his scraggly hair, lays his board right way up onto the sand beside Zach. “Man, I just saw a shark!”

Zach drops his spade. “Really?”

“Sure wasn’t a dolphin.”

Jacqui squints at him. “Good one, Scotty.”

“I’m serious, Jac. They’re always about in the late afternoon. But look at those gnarly sets,” an expansive sweep of his arm. “Huey sent em just for me.”

“And Wave Head Malone,” Jacqui says.

Scotty, buckles with laughter. Zach glares at me. Hatred in that kid’s eyes.

***

At the Regatta Bar on our second or third week together, Jacqui drops in during her lunch break from the hair salon. “Zach thinks a surfing weekend down south would be great guns.”

“Awesome,” I say, mixing her a lemon soda. “And you?”

The bar is long, with a central section that juts out like a peninsular into the surrounding venue. On a big night a dozen bartenders race about serving drinks to the rollicking crowd, like sailors desperately trying to put out an engine room fire.

Now the bar is quiet. Two sunburnt fishermen sip their beers quietly and watch the cricket on the television behind the bar. Every so often they cast a furtive glance at Jacqui who has the radiant presence of a burst of sunshine in the otherwise beer-drenched gloom.

Jacqui’s closely cropped hair glistens under the bar lights from all that gel, and she wears a Bon Jovi bandana to keep her brow cool. She applies her eyeliner Egyptian to capture the sweet melancholy of her faraway eyes. They tic slightly left to right when she gazes at me as though reading some kind of inner “Malone” script. Looking back I realise that was part of her charm: I felt she understood me better than I did myself.

“I want Scotty to come away, too,” she says.

“Great.”

“And Zach sleeps with me.”

“I’ll take the couch then.”

She reaches over the bar, draws me close. “Come here!”

Her wonderful kiss.

Almost a couple. But Jacqui keeps me and my needy love at a safe distance from Zach, her brooding kid whose father, Sandy Goodwin—a pro surfer—discovered Siddhartha  Gautama and the Four Noble Truths on a fateful Sri Lankan surfing adventure. Sandy Goodwin, who traded his surfboard for an alms bowl. Sandy Goodwin, who renounced the entire world, even his son.

Jacqui likes to ride stoned in my dented Holden station-wagon with the Eumundi Lager bar-runner covering the parched dashboard. She curls up like a cat on the seat, sips vodka and orange through a straw from a can, pinches a menthol cigarette between her fingers, a smoky ribbon fluttering from its glowing tip, out the window and into the night. Suburbia under a monochrome-orange streetlight wash. We play INXS “Johnson’s Aeroplane” from a cassette, and the speakers fizz. Jacqui winds the window all the way down, closes her eyes, allows the night and the smoky sound of the saxophone to wash over her. Finally she speaks. “What the hell are we doing, Malone?”

“You mean you and me? You don’t want to go out anymore?”

“I don’t want Zach to get hurt.”

“What makes you think he would?”

“Come on, Malone. His old man did, the selfish prick. Zach’s still reeling.”

“I wouldn’t do anything to hurt the little guy.”

“You can’t promise that.” Her voice trails, and she gazes through the smudged windscreen with her faraway eyes.

Jacqui, the girl whose heart bridges oceans and yearns for him still. I sensed that much at least. I guess that is why I felt so insecure. I was there to stop a gap; an imperfect fit was I, allowing loneliness and longing to gush in and drown Jacqui all the same. Listening to that ragged saxophone coming from the speakers, I understood then. The realisation was so crushing my foot slipped from the accelerator.

Jacqui, looking over. “Why are we stopping?”

If I had stopped the car I would have told her what I was thinking. It might’ve cleared things up, maybe ended us. But I had my own needs: to feel wanted, needed, sexual craving .

So I put my foot down, pressed my feelings back into the darkness where—like all things repressed—they would struggle to break free, take on new forms, neuroses (that lie?) as an act of subterfuge against this tyrannical ego.

Jacqui reclines further into her seat, gazes at those orange street lights soaring past like a string of blazing meteorites. “Let’s keep on driving, Malone, can we?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

The old Holden rolls into the night, leaving a trail of smoke, and the roiling wake of all our insecurities.

***

The surf shack sits atop a hill overlooking the beach. It’s a storm ravaged construction: washed-out grey asbestos cladding, warped from the sun, and those relentless winter southerlies, surrounded by a forsaken garden of wind-blown sand and brittle weeds.

Inside it is swept clean, uncluttered; everything is in its place. It reminds me of a scout camp cabin, with its sun bleached curtains, rusted fixtures, and well-worn vinyl floor. Still, there is an air of homespun respectability, and the guest book (dating back to 1967) sings its praise from several generations of ardent surfers.

Scotty saunters out of the shower, towel wrapped tightly, still an Adonis stomach (the years of hard drinking still to come), into the kitchen where Jacqui and Zach play Uno, and I cook tinned spaghetti in an aluminium pot. He clasps my shoulder, rests his weight. “Party night tonight, kiddies. Down on the beach.”

Zach drops his cards, hands raised in jubilation. “Yay!”

Jacqui grins. “What have you got planned, Scotty, sweetheart?”

“The crew over at the caravan park are having a bonfire on the beach. B.Y.O. marshmallows and weed.”

Jacqui sweeps over to Scotty, slips her arms around his neck, pecks his cheek. “That’s my Scotty.”

Was I jealous? Of course! I was totally choked-up watching her dishing-out affections I’d come to think of as reserved for me alone. This grasping “Malone” mind needing to possess her. Jealous was I, even of Zach, the way he adored Scotty, and saw right through me. I hated Scotty then, the way he lapped it all up, leaving not so much as a drop of affection for me.

Jacqui, still clutching Scotty, turns to me. “You coming, Malone?”

“Course he’s coming!” Scotty winks at me, pries free from her grasp. “What kind of question is that, Jac?”

It’s as clear as a resounding gong: It is over between us. But there is no clean exit tonight. We’ve driven down the coast in the one car. We are stuck together until we make it back to the city the next evening. So I shrug, cast Jacqui an equally frigid stare. “Sure I’m coming.”

A high-five from Scotty en-route to the refrigerator, pulls out two “cold ones” and a can of vodka and orange for Jacqui. “Alright then,” tossing me a beer. “Time to party!”

The bonfire is a roaring tipi-shaped beacon, a throw-together of termite-riddled railway sleepers from the abandoned line behind the dunes, and a tangled cluster of driftwood worn by the elements to the colour and texture of rough ivory.

A ring of mates, if only from sharing the surfing pack, jostling like cunning seals for the next big wave, sit around the bonfire. Two guitars are being passed around. Everyone seems to know a riff or two: “Smoke on the Water”, snatches of “Stairway to Heaven”. Scotty, across from me, downing another beer, glassy eyed, a satisfied, lubricious look, surfer girl at his side. But his gaze skirts around mine because he wears his heart on his sleeve, and Jacqui has spoken to him, in private, and he knows the news isn’t good.

On the way down through the dunes, Zach skipping ahead carrying his blanket, Jacqui slows to walk alongside me. “You know why I’m pissed off, don’t you?”

“Listen, I can surf. It was just a bad day, that’s all.”

“Don’t bullshit me!”

“Come on—you weren’t watching the whole time.”

“Long enough. You can’t even duck-dive, Malone. Surfing 101. You’re full of shit!”

Now Jacqui is taking a starlit beach-walk alone to “think things through.”

“At least watch out for Zach, will you?” Her parting words at the bonfire.

But Zach too has slipped away.

I find him down the beach where he was sitting earlier, beside his giant surfer sandman.

“Everything okay, little guy?”

Zach, his back to me. “Leave us alone.”

“Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m alright.”

In the darkness each breaker peels like a roll of thunder, fading to a continuous background roar. The air is dense with sea-spray and the pungent smell of rotting sea-grass. At regular intervals waves swoosh up the steep foreshore, glisten in the pale starlight, before retreating, leaving a turbulent swath of fizzing sand and tumbling shells. The tide is incoming. Soon the sandman will be washed away

Sandman
Photograph by Eleanor Bennett

Zach sits between the sandman and the surf. I can only make out his silhouette, but I sense his defiant glare. Back up at the surf shack he has refused to speak to me. No reprimand from Jacqui. He is her “little man.” She has given him peroxide tips, allowed him to grow a rat’s trail to his shoulders, even pierced his left ear. Minus the sunhat and zinc cream he looks like a regular bogun grommet, yet he is frightened of the ocean. The entire day he barely made it out deeper than his waist. He watched those waves rolling in, and the surfers carving their snaking trajectories like lines of graffiti along those glistening blue walls. He observed the surfers closely when they paddled to the shore, craning his neck, or walking over to get a good view of their faces. He was, I suppose, searching for his father. But this I say in retrospect. Back then I couldn’t see anything beyond my own problems, making some kind of truce with Zach to win back Jacqui.

I squat beside him. “Look, Zach, maybe I’m no great surfer…not like your father, but—”

“I don’t want to talk to you!”

“Yeah I know. Same deal with your mother.”

“Then go away and leave us alone!” His shout carries to the bonfire. All those gazes suddenly our way.

“Alright, peace, little guy.”

Trudging back though the soft sand, cold now, I hear him speak to the sandman. “He’s such a dick!”

The strangest thing, I remember this clearly though fourteen years have since passed: I think I hear the sandman answer. A wet whisper, deep and sleepy, like the rumble of the surf. Turning back, I see Zach has flung himself over the sandman, and is sobbing inconsolably. He never spoke to me again.

***

Fourteen years and then the phone call. “I thought you might want to attend.” Jacqui’s voice, subdued.

“Of course. Thanks for thinking of me.”

A large crowd suitable for such a lovable larrikin. Standing room only at the rear. Scotty, survived by his ex-wife and two daughters. She left him because of his drinking habit, but the separation does nothing to allay her grief now, or the girls’ wailing.

Jacqui is crying too, deep trembling sobs. She grasps my arm to hold herself up. Her palm is clammy and warm, and her nails bite through my shirt and into my skin. But I resist the urge to pull free. I’ve never attended a funeral, didn’t think about what to expect. I’ve never experienced such an outpouring of grief and despair. One moment I’m taking it all in, thinking how life—if you’re lucky—is an equal mix of happiness and suffering; next, I discover my heart is pounding, my breath shallow, and hot unabashed tears are streaming from me as though it would be my own mother laying in the coffin, and not some guy I hadn’t even seen in over a decade.

Eventually things draw to a sombre close and we file out to the car park.

Jacqui wipes her eyes. “Poor old Scotty.”

“You guys were still…good friends?”

“I haven’t seen him in while. The drinking had really changed him, but I loved that guy.”

The drinking ran on both sides of Scotty’s family. Scotty, on the edge of alcoholic oblivion, took his own life.

“He couldn’t admit he had a problem,” Jacqui says, reaching into her handbag, pulling out her cigarettes—still menthol only now they’re longer, more slender, more chic. She lights up, leans against her metallic blue Honda. It has a sunroof and surf rack. Exhaling a contemplative plume: “It was the shame that got him. Crazy Scotty….What is it with guys that they just can’t open up? Man, everyone loved Scotty.”

“If I had’ve still known him, I would have tried to help,” I say. “But like you said, he probably would’ve just denied it.”

Jacqui inhales, nods slowly.” Hmm, yeah…denial….Crazy how time slips away, ay, Malone?

“Just crazy,” I agree, shuffling the car park gravel beneath my shoe. “Actually, I’m surprised you remembered me.”

“I didn’t…at first. But when I got the news I guess I started thinking back…and there you were.”

“As bleak as a lunar eclipse, I suppose.”

Jacqui shrugs. “Something like that…not entirely….I don’t know really. I just thought I should let you know.”

“I’m glad you did,” I say, glancing around the car park to see if we are alone. Clearing my throat I ask: “How’s Zach these days?”

Jacqui is reading me with those faraway eyes. “All grown up, as they say.”

“He must be…twenty?”

“Twenty one.”

“Oh.”

“He’s an artist now.” She makes quotation marks with her fingers. “At the university at least. He loves to sculpt.”

Sandman on the beach, whispering like a father to his abandoned son. And me, caught up in a lie, an intruder with a smiling facade, unable to comprehend the boy’s misery.

“I think I could see the artist in him.”

Jacqui gazes into the darkness of the autumn night. “Look, Malone…if it means anything to you…it wasn’t such a big deal that you couldn’t really surf.”

“Oh? Really?”

“Yeah, we were so bloody young. And boys never really grow up. You were just a dreamer.”

“Still am.”

“You always will be, Malone. Not an everyday type. That is what I liked about you then. But I needed someone to trust.” She steps away from her car, takes my hand, draws me closer. “You still telling such whoppers?”

There are layers, I have come to think, of self-deception. A rare few cut threw all the “bullshit.” Zach’s father gave it a shot, left behind a broken family. Was he any closer to the truth now?  I raise one hand. “I confess your honour. I couldn’t surf for shit.”

“Still?”

“Actually, no. I’ve been practicing.”

Jacqui’s faraway eyes sparkle with a trace of a smile.

Honda taillights merging with the traffic, a farewell beep of her horn. Her business card in hand — “Jack’s Salon.” The challenge come spring: back down the coast where she still ventures, a pilgrimage of sorts, to reclaim her youth and all the imperfections it contained. But she no longer watches from the shore. Now she’s out amongst it.

Will I join her?

Jacqui and the promise of spring, running like the incoming tide through my mind.

 

 

AUTHOR BIO: An Australian living in Austria, Paul enjoys writing. Although Austria or Australia (through the looking-glass) are common story settings, he is keenly aware of the importance of universal appeal.  With over two dozen short story publications Paul is steadily forging his niche. 

ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.com