Tom hadn’t surfed in quite a while. The last time was with his best mates, Peter and John.
‘How long have I been here?’ he said to his mother three months later, from a hospital bed. She didn’t answer. These were his first words after emerging from the coma. Simply reaching out to stroke his fringe from his forehead, a single relieved tear slid down the side of her face, out of his view. He noticed movement in the doorway. A young woman. Jessica, his girlfriend. When their eyes met she brought her shocked right hand in front of her face then darted, stifling cries, down the hallway.
‘Wait!’ he called, feebly, raising himself on his elbows.
’Shhhhh,’ his mother rubbed the top of his head. ‘She’s upset about what happened. She feels guilty about it. I told her of course it wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could have done, but she can’t be consoled.’
Pain started thumping through his head. After lowering himself back down he sighed and, turning to his mother, asked: ‘What did happen?’
‘You can’t remember? But you know who I am? Who Jess is?’
‘No. Yes, and yes,’ he replied, turning his eyes again to the ceiling. ‘The last thing I remember was my alarm going off early. I was going surfing with Pete and John.’
‘That’s right. But you can’t remember anything after that?’
‘No. What happened?’
‘No-one knows, exactly. I got a call from Jess saying you’d hit your head and were in hospital. She doesn’t know what happened, and Peter isn’t sure either. Says you must have hit your head on your board or a rock. Though the board wasn’t damaged. And John hasn’t been seen or heard from since.’
‘We paddled out at sunrise,’ said Peter. ‘It was big and there hadn’t been decent surf for a month, so we were all a little unfit.’
‘I know,’ Tom recalled.
‘But it was a beautiful morning: the wind was light and offshore, the water was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.’
‘So what the hell happened?’
‘Well your mum probably already told you I don’t really know. It was about an hour in. You took off on the biggest wave of the day. Absolutely huge. You’d already gotten some screamers so I figured your confidence had grown. I thought you’d taken off a little deep on it but as I watched it break in to shore I couldn’t see you or your board, so assumed you’d made it.’
‘Where was John?’
‘He got the next one. It was almost as big and he caught it comfortably so I turned around and searched for mine after I saw him stand up. But the set had ended.’
Peter’s boss approached the table and said he had five minutes’ break left.
‘No worries Bob. I’ll get started grinding some of those coffee beans in a sec,’ he replied. Bob nodded and returned to the cafe’s counter.
‘Where was I? Oh yeah: I was sitting there staring out at the horizon when I heard hoarse screams of my name coming from the beach. I immediately started paddling in. When I got to shore John was already performing CPR on you. I could see blood from the gash on your head on his hands. When I ran up he told me to keep working on you and that he was going to run and call the ambos.’ He sipped the last of his coffee and shook his head. ‘They turned up within 10 minutes and took you away. I rode with you. But that was the last I saw of John.’
Peter checked his watch, stood up and said: ‘Well, time’s up. I gotta get back to work.’
‘But, Pete, where is John?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine, mate. It’s good to see you out of hospital. I’ll catch you later. Let’s go for a wave hey.’
Tom hoped he might have been able to piece together the rest of the fateful morning from talking with Peter. He wandered down to the now personally infamous beach to reflect on it. Sitting on the end of the rock wall jutting out into the sea, for half an hour he hypnotically watched storm clouds gathering like steel wool offshore to the south. But couldn’t remember a thing from the past three months between his alarm going off and waking up next to his mother in hospital. He could picture Peter’s shared memories in his mind almost as if they were his own, but none of his own experiences of that day would link up with them. He looked back at the car park. John’s car was still there. A burned out shell. Someone had set fire to it before his parents could pick it up and the police were, incredibly, still examining it as part of their arson investigation. A jet-black 1966 Mustang convertible. John loved that car. Restored it himself from something not unlike how it looked now. Ashes to ashes. It was hard to believe he could have gone anywhere without it. Then he noticed a short, thin brunette woman standing beside and looking at it. It was Jess. The distance was too great for him to clearly make out her face. But it was definitely her, just standing there staring at the blackened metal. The fact she hadn’t immediately entered the hospital room when he regained consciousness was surprising, and uncharacteristic of her loving nature, though perhaps she was simply overcome by emotion. He stood up to walk over to her. Beyond the fact he loved and hadn’t spoken to her in three months, even though he was unconscious almost the entire time, she was the only other person beyond Peter, the paramedics and hospital staff who might be able to make sense of what happened to him, and where his other friend had gone. Halfway back along the rock wall, he froze: Jess had pulled a bouquet of flowers from behind her back. She didn’t look at it; just kept staring at the cooked Mustang. Tom crouched down while she lingered holding the flowers like a lost bride wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Finally, she took two steps forward, laid the flowers on the driver’s seat, hesitated, wiped her face, then turned and walked quickly away. Tom waited until he was sure she had gone then walked slowly to his own car. The pain in his head had returned. While passing his missing friend’s former pride-and-joy, he couldn’t help but glance inside. Twelve red roses.
‘Mum,’ Tom said, while cracking two soluble aspirin into a glass of water.
‘Yeah hon’,’ she replied while making lunch.
‘Did you ever talk with Jess about what happened that day?’
‘Well, yes,’ she said, bringing the food to join her son on a couch. ‘Like I said: it was very upsetting for her and she felt unreasonably guilty about it. We all tried to reassure her there was nothing she could have done.’
‘Well, me, of course, your father, her parents, the hospital staff; not to mention Peter.’
‘Yes, he was as much a friend to her as he was to you, wasn’t he?’
‘Yeah, I guess. And I’m glad he was there to support her.’
‘John. He was friends with her too, wasn’t he?’
‘Well, yeah. In fact during high school they even dated for a while.’ A vision of Jess standing by the burned out Mustang holding flowers suddenly crossed his mind’s eye. He shook it away like a drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch. ‘But, anyway, didn’t Jess say anything else about that morning?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re so worried about, Thomas. You hit your head. You’re fine now. I thought you’d be more concerned about what’s happened to John. As far as anyone can tell, he simply disappeared off the face of the Earth after your accident. Thank God he phoned an ambulance first.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. It’s just that Jess hasn’t come to see me yet so I’m looking for answers wherever else I think I can find them. Pete couldn’t tell me anything of significance; even about John.’
‘Well, I’ve told you twice now about Jess’s state of mind. You should probably give her some space. And, if not, drop by her parents’ house. She had to move back there while you were in hospital because she couldn’t pay the rent on her own.’
The water wasn’t warm anymore. The swell, smaller. One of his surfing mates was working, and the other, missing, perhaps never to be heard from again. And his girlfriend was for some reason avoiding him even though he’d just come out of a three month coma. So as Tom paddled back out for the first time since the accident at that very same break there would be no-one waiting for him beyond the breakers, and no-one on the beach when he paddled in. Which was fine, really, because he had some thinking to do. And, also, he wanted to concentrate on his passion for the ocean again. He needed to clear his mind and try to remember. He recalled nobody he knew was more single-minded about surfing than John. Peter, on the other hand, was more career focused. Always busy working at the cafe and studying his final year of engineering. John never had much else going on. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother worked two jobs; as much for the money as a chance to get away from her home and husband. So surfing was John’s escape. Escape. Tom remembered what his friend had said many times, about what he’d do if things here became too much: ‘One day, Tom, if I finally get sick of the way things are around here, I’ve got family in Tasmania. Some of the craziest waves in the world down there. If I had to I’d just take off. Disappear. Start over again, down there.’ It wouldn’t have been surprising if he had fled south. Peter might always have been the high-achiever, but John had as many albeit different plans and dreams. He was just never in a position to be as ambitious as Peter, or even Tom. The latter decided that was indeed where his friend had disappeared to, and permitted himself to relax for the first time since waking into a world that had changed so much in so short a time. He watched the small white clouds in an otherwise clear sky resting like pillows on the horizon. He followed the sunlight playing like tumbling jewels upon the approaching first wave of the set. He caught the wave in, then sank to his stomach and rode the white wash in to shore. Where Jessica was standing knee-deep and fully clothed in the shallows.