Skimming the surface of darkness

I RUN up the dunes with the wind howling at my back, my ears burning from its bite. It carries the sting of snow from far-away mountains and hooks under the tail of my surfboard so that I have to fight to keep it tucked under my arm. The sand is crusted over from the rain yesterday and crunches under my feet, and I keep telling myself it'll be warmer in the water. At the top of the dunes I stop long enough to check out the break. It's crowded out there. A line of surfers is strung out like a necklace, from the point, all the way down to the south bank. The swell is from the east; each wave face held up by the wind for an impossibly long time; each crest ripped backwards into long strands of spray. One day I'm going to paint this place. Probably from this very spot. But only when I'm good enough to capture whatever it is that makes my soul open up every time I see it.

Storm tides have cut away at the dunes, leaving an abrupt sandy cliff on the other side. People further down the beach are going to lose their houses soon, but nobody feels sorry for them because they're rich if they can afford beachfront. As if the ocean cares that it's been zoned residential - what the sea wants, the sea shall have.

I head towards an abandoned couch near a couple of old fence strainers further along the dunes. Since the last time I surfed here somebody's pulled the top post off and used it for fuel. It's resting across the remains of a fire, a big charcoal bite taken from its middle. There's a black dog lying on the couch, guarding a towel and a set of keys, staring out at the surf like she's worried. When she sees me, her tail thumps on the busted vinyl, and she licks her lips and wriggles, but she stays on that couch like she's been nailed to it. I croon nonsense to her for a while, running my hand over her head, feeling the silk of her ears. Seeing her makes my throat tighten.

She belongs to this guy, Greg Hill, an ex-big-deal from the '80s. He shapes surfboards under his own brand, but hasn't made it with that. All I know is that he's a creep to that dog. I've seen him talking baby rubbish to her, holding her up so that she can lick him all over the lips and face. But when he's standing, she cringes beside him, tail jammed in between her legs like she's waiting to be kicked.

Greg Hill only comes here when it's good, but not because the surf's on. He comes because it's crowded and he's a psycho; forever mouthing off at anyone he doesn't know; getting physical if someone gets in his way. The sneaky things he does are worse, though, like letting down the tyres on cars he doesn't recognise in the car park. And there are things Greg Hill is supposed to have done that are worse than that.

I join the straggly line of surfers making their way up the beach, all of us walking with our heads turned to the right. It's amazing how the place can reinvent itself overnight. Dirty suds in the shore break are the only evidence left of the howling southerlies that were scratching things apart yesterday. The banks have been scoured out and the left is barrelling. Three guys take off on the same wave, and the inside two get crunched, making me wince. Only the guy playing it safe out wide makes it, and he has to work his way around the foam ball before he can do a couple of turns on the face.

The deep is that solid dark blue you get when the water temperature is low. So far, this is supposed to have been the coldest July for 64 years or something - not that I'd know. I've only seen seventeen winters and I haven't really been a fan of any of them. Give me summer. Give me dry, hot northerlies and green water that's oily with sunscreen and sweat. Summer makes me feel sexy. Although the sad truth is, I don't know much about sex.

The recent rain has swollen the lagoon, and frothy brown run-off is gushing into the ocean. I stop there among the other surfers, throwing my board onto the sand. This spot is like a launch pad, everybody zipping up their wetsuits, stretching. I fasten my leg-rope, looking across the lagoon mouth at the tidal pool and headland reserve on the other side. Something's different, but it takes me a while to work out what: the highly original LOCALS ONLY!!! is gone. It was slashed in black spray across the face of the concrete retaining wall that gives this break its highly original name: Walls. The council has painted over it in prison-grey.

Then I'm distracted by a flash of colour. A surfer in a red wetsuit is picking his way down the boulders of the sea wall further back. When he reaches the bottom, he chucks his board down on the sand and zips up. He's too far away for me to see his features clearly, but the red wetsuit makes me hope. But I'm being stupid. It's not who I think it is. Can't be.

I hit the water with a gasp, and my scalp tightens in shock as I duckdive. The rip's running strongly and I start heading diagonally across to give the Right a go, just because there's hardly anybody on it. Today, it's the Left that's pumping. I pull up on the outside of two kids and they get the first two waves of the set, and then I move across into position where it bowls up. My first wave's steep enough on the take-off and I come out of my bottom turn with plenty of speed - but by the time I begin drawing the curve of my cutback, the wall of the wave has already fattened out and died away.

Edited extract of Night Beach, by Kirsty Eagar, published by Penguin. This book is one of 10 books shortlisted for the 2012 Inky Awards, run by the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library. The winning titles are voted for by young readers.

This story Skimming the surface of darkness first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.