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The Gnat

The Gnat was one of the better surfers to grace the little reef back in the late 70s. A skinny little wiry guy, he was a manic paddler and implausible wave magnet - finding and fitting into the pristine little shallow tubes that broke over the sea-urchin infested reef.

Small waves were his forte, and he flitted and buzzed over them and in them like a midge; his was a tireless and unconscious agility that always brought a grin to us kids watching up in the pavilion between sessions. But he often had us scratching their heads, too. How come he never pushed himself, went for the bigger stuff? But it was okay, it would sort itself out. We were still only kids.

The Gnat meanwhile was deaf to all but the crack of those tight little waves on the reef; in a messy four foot new swell he was nowhere to be seen, but as soon as time and an offshore wind had groomed the waves down to a sweet two feet, there he was - drawing his unpredictable lines over the little walls, long hair flying; throwing his stick-insect limbs into those carving turns and rubber-man laybacks; shrinking to a dot as he tucked into a sparkling little sheet-glass barrel. The guys who tried to follow him lost fins and skin and pride. The Gnat really had that little spot wired.

But as we got bigger, the Gnat’s man-sized appetite for small waves began to look embarrassing. He was letting the gang down, and we started to give him shit about it. Amongst ourselves in the pavilion at first, and later, to his face as he walked past. What about a contest? How could the club give him a singlet if it was gong to be held in anything decent? It was kind of a waste. It looked like the Gnat had insect balls as well…

As we reached and passed eighteen, the Gnat had begun to lose his status for his small wave disease. He knew it. He began to appear and disappear on his own, slinking in and out of the water like something hunted. On land he looked improbably small and frail, but somehow his stature and his persona still swelled in the water, until he towered over those little waves he so uniquely dissected.

We were at that age, but nobody ever saw him with a girl. In the water he was still unmistakeable, but in a crowd he was practically invisible. When someone did talk him into going to a party, he was so head-down and uncommunicative that - like one of the boys said - it wasn’t enough for a chick to throw herself at him, she’d have to bloody well throw herself on him just to get him to say boo.

The Gnat, always a mystery man, began to disappear for long periods, until eventually, he just disappeared.

Then one evening, well into my Uni degree, I saw him up the pub - head down in the corner near the dunnies like he used to be. But he was even skinnier than I remembered and his eyes, at best evasive, were now verging on vacant.

We talked a bit, mostly me drunk-talking, then said goodbye. He gave a brief smile and I noticed his two front teeth looked black and dead. I asked what was up and he mumbled something about being hit by his board. I was happy to hear he was still surfing, but couldn’t imagine where. He’d been long gone from the reef so they told me. Pity: the Gnat and that little reef were made for each other.

I didn’t see the Gnat again until maybe two years later. I’d left the car at St. Leonards station to get the train to the city for a meeting with the partners. I figured maybe if I avoided driving I could keep the stress levels down. But it was a hot day, and in collar and tie I was already sweating indecently. Then I saw him coming through the ticket barrier, and he was all pale and desiccated-skinny in long sleeves and jeans.

I said g’day and he smiled confusedly, and I saw his four front teeth were gone. But what struck me most later was his face - like how it looked as if it were being sucked into his mouth. Suddenly he started and stared past me, and his eyes were dewy and moonstruck big; I turned and saw a uniformed cop. When I turned back, the Gnat was weaving unsteadily but quickly through the morning commuter crowd.

Work kept me out of the surf and away from my beach for a long time. But then life and priorities did a backflip, and I found myself once more in the old house, waking early and thrilling to the sound of breaking waves in the still pre-dawn air. So one Saturday morning a few weeks ago I dragged my carcass down to the old place, and while I was getting changed beside my board I saw big Al.

There we were out the front of the pavilion, watching perfect little cylinders peel down the reef while a burgeoning summer sun lit up the air. Some blow-in was tip-toeing back to shore – slipping, wincing and staggering with a foot full of sea urchins - and the new young crew was pointing and sniggering.

But laugh as they might, their hair was dry, and they weren’t out there doing it justice; nobody was. Nobody was taking off behind the peak to back-door tiny dry tubes, then coming out to find the pocket and rip the rest of the little wall along the reef line. Nobody was surfing it the way Al and I knew it could be. It was only small, but a bloke could easily make a fool of himself out there today alright: a turn or a foot out of place and you’d get cut up, no mistake.

Suddenly I thought of the Gnat, and mentioned I’d last seen him years back, looking lost at St Leonard’s. Big Al gave me a you-shithead look and, turning to the waves, told me there was a methadone clinic at North Shore hospital, around the corner…

I put my head down over my board, and as I circled the wax over the glary white fibreglass deck, I watched my hand. It was brown, and the years telescoped away to a sunbright youth. The heat from the cement rising through the soles of my bare feet reached up for the sun radiating down through my bare back, and as I stood I felt it all meet at my centre; for a moment I was sixteen. Maybe that was what a hit felt like.

As I went to shade my eyes for a last scan of the break, I saw my hand again: forty-something, spotted and blotchy. The lithe new tenants of our break would understandably heap shit on my old anonymous bones as I paddled out. Fair enough. I would have done the same at their age.

Something made me float across behind the take-off zone, to that sweetest but trickiest of spots behind the peak. As I turned and went on the first perfect little one, old knowledge told me it was too tight and I was bound to hit the reef. I got pitched and I proned in the shallows, and felt the urchin spines spear into my outstretched palm. At least it wasn’t my face, or an eye. As I went bellyflopping over the rocks to the channel, board flipped fins-up like I’d done so often before after trying to mimic the Gnat, I could feel the juvenile sniggers from the pavilion on my back.

But as I paddled out to the peak again, hand swollen and sore, I didn’t care. I was seeing all those summers-winters-waves-offshores I’d missed. I caught a few more for some self-respect and came back in, and at the beach I stood in the shallows and smelled the seaweed and felt the shell grit, and thought about how the Gnat was gone.

The watching kids were smirking: yeah, they could laugh, but they were all waiting for the tide to come up. They weren’t confident they had the reflexes for those make-or-break takeoffs in front of exposed rocks and reef. But it could be done, and done with perfection. All of us who’d seen the Gnat knew that.

Of course they were all too young to have ever heard of him, let alone to have seen him, so you couldn’t blame them for not giving it a go. They were lacking what we older guys had had: someone who could figure out how to surf the spot and show the rest the way. Being adventurous is something you learn from others too.

Well, when they do start finding their adventurous side, hopefully the only puncture marks they get will be from urchin spines…

Cronulla, January 2004

© V. Stevenson