I've been at the hospital twenty minutes, circling small talk. Dad waits for a break, next minute he's in.
'So, Smithy tells me you haven't been surfing?'
'Yeah, not much Dad, been busy with uni and everything.' I shift focus to a pile of folders on his food tray. 'This work stuff?'
'Yeah, plans for the house at Cooks Hill. Don't change the subject. Why haven't you been on your board?'
'Dad, I gotta go.'
He raises an eyebrow.
'No really, I'm meeting Lani.' I pat his good arm and edge toward the door.
'Righto then. Thanks for the fruit Mate. Don't forget to call in and see your mother, and not just when you need to use the washing machine. And Mitch...' he inches his right hand beneath the pillow, produces an envelope, holds it out. 'Take this, read it later.'
Crossing Lookout Road, I head for Ridgeway and the ute. Car-park complications are best avoided, I'd rather walk the distance through tree-lined streets. This air, beyond the vacuum of hospital walls, is alive; shimmering with eucalypt vapour, heat, and the burr of cicadas. Through a trembling net of Jacaranda leaves the ocean draws a blue line behind the city. I haven't been down there for over a month. I've been wasting away west of Darby Street.
Without a morning surf, to slip-stream into the day, my focus is shot. My attendance at Uni has never been better, conversely, my marks never worse. Much of my time at NUSpace is spent slumped over flat-whites at the campus café, a place of blank bright modernity; the coffee as one-dimensional as the décor. Most days I hazily consider crossing the road, where a string of people hover on the footpath outside The Press Book House indicating the brew there is worth the wait, but I never make it across. My laptop, loaded with assignments and reference material sits before me on the glossy table, keyboard untouched. Ribbons of red slash through my gaze, as trams glide into the station at regular intervals. Always, it seems, they are heading east, to the beach. Life rushes around me, the café fills and drains, every day the same.
Lani's as good as given up on me. 'I can't sleep when you're like this, I'm going to stay with Mel,' she announced last week as she flounced from bedroom to bathroom stuffing make-up and clothes into a bag. Matt and Fitz, sprawled on the lounge, divided their attention between the reality show onscreen and the one unreeling around them.
'You're being weird Mitch. Why can't you just tell me what's going on? Talk to me!'
I've tried to explain, sometimes there are no words. It's all whitewash.
Since the accident, sleep-when I fall into it-is spliced and braided with images. They flit and fold. Night after night, I churn through a grey replay. My board tossing in the swell, unreachable. I swim endlessly. Getting nowhere.
Beyond the break I see my father. Always I wake awash with adrenaline. A gag of salty bile grips my throat, clings and clutches at my airways. Twenty-two houses away the surf rolls endlessly, across the lane in the Mango tree bats squeal sticky high-pitched delight. Suburban sounds surge and fade. I've learnt to concentrate on these aural anchors, land my feet on the cool of the floorboards, and stand; using gravity to pull the panic downwards.
The coast called, and I was constantly compelled to answer.
Dad's always been my 'go to', not just mine, but the boys as well. Matt won't split with a girl, or buy a new board without "Consulting Vince", he's worse than me. We've been mates since Kindy, but I can't explain-even to him-the mind numbing brokenness.
Years ago, I was out on Dawn Patrol with Fitz when it hit me; surfing was life's sweet spot. I can't remember a time when my days weren't dictated by surf. My attendance at school was often influenced by Teza's beach report. It wasn't long before the teachers were onto me, so the joy was short-lived. Uni offered a whole new freedom; I could shift, shuffle, and turn with the tide. It's how I lived. The coast called, and I was constantly compelled to answer.
The day of the accident I agreed to meet Dad on site at Adamstown. He'd offered me an afternoon of labouring to supplement my shifts at The Del. It was one of those magic Merewether mornings. Ladies was at its best, there was just enough south in the swell, and the nor-wester was in. When I arrived at the work site-forty-five minutes late-an ambulance was out front.
It's uncertain at this stage if Dad will walk again. The accident was weeks ago. He still talks about 'tricky aspects' of building sites, and how he's going to circumvent them, as if he'll be back there, doing his usual thing. Whether this is denial or positivity, I'm unsure. Surfing-his life-long love-is out of the question. The limbs on the left side of his body were crushed to the point of uselessness.
Matt and Fitz are long gone when I get home from the hospital, out for their arvo surf, then beer at TheBeaches. I throw my keys on the kitchen table, strewn with coffee cups, and Matt's laptop, then wander out to the 'Boardroom,' which is really the back deck, rechristened for its plethora of boards, and line-up of wetsuits. I pull Dad's letter from my pocket and sink to the concrete step.
Ten minutes later I'm running-barefoot and salt-blurred-along Watkins, past Blue Door, down the timber steps, and onto the sand. Water welcomes my weight. I think of Dad, duck-dive through the whitewash and paddle out beyond the break.