The small town of Eagle Bay, on the West Australian coast a bit further along from Margaret River, gets a lot of visitors, attracted by our world-class surfing conditions, and who can blame them. But it can get crowded in the water, and so we like to get in early, at dawn, before any of the tourists wake up, shake off their hangovers and waddle down to the water to steal our waves.
For a handful of days every month we take the notion of "early", just a little bit further than most. In fact, we take it around the back of the shearing shed and explain a few things kindly but firmly with a crowbar and a pair of pliers. Because when the full moon is out we're on the water several hours before dawn, surfing the black water beneath silver moonlight, in the peace and quiet derived from the secure knowledge that no one in their right mind is insane enough to follow us. And anything lurking beneath the water entertaining views to nibble, bite, chew or otherwise gastronomically partake from any feet dangling unsuspectingly in dark water has to contend with a wide and impressive range of carefully cultivated toejam, a challenge that has sent many a nightly prowler off back to their mums retching, heaving and spewing. Underwater Protection 101. The smell alone creates a 100 metres wide impenetrable bubble of toxic proofing around us.
The Uncle was the recent proud owner of a brand new board. He had gone on a wild goose chase all the way to Albany on the south coast, homeplace of the fabled board shaper Harry Hollowbum. Reclusive and world-weary, Harry lives on a remote property at the back of Woop-Woop, down the end of a long driveway littered with booby traps, snake pits and landmines. He figures if anyone is stupid enough to try and reach him and lucky enough to survive it, they're entitled to one of his boards.
The Uncle had arrived back late the previous night, sporting an impressive array of fresh and inventive injuries, including a cast around his lower left leg. How that was going to go in the water was anyone's guess.
He reverently slid his brand new board out of the bag and proudly held it up in the moon light. We gathered around appreciatively and enviously and said ooo and aah.
'Oooo,' said I, the Baboon. It came naturally.
'Aaaah,' sighed the Snake Catcher ecstatically.
'Uuuurrrgh,' said the Reef Shark, Lord Of Man-Eating Pacific Island Coral Reefs.
'That's beautiful, mate,' I said wistfully.
'Yeah, real nice, you lucky bastard,' agreed the Snake Catcher, looking, in the moon light, a pale silvery green of envy.
'Uuuurrrgh,' concurred the Reef Shark. He was a man of few words.
'So, uh ... what's the go with this?' I said, pointing at something on the board.
'Ah, that?' replied the Uncle, looking shifty. 'Yeah, ... that's a special sort of something I'm trying out. Her-hum.' He coughed and looked at his feet.
'What,' said the Snake Catcher, 'a mouth drawn on the board with lipstick?'
'Yeah ...' The Uncle went red in the face, or, at least, by the light of the moon, silvery pink. It matched the colour of the lipstick, but wasn't quite as glossy.
'And what's the go with that bra strapped around the board?' enquired the Reef Shark, clearly intrigued now. 'And is that two oranges you've stuck in there?'
'Yeah, well, look ... her-hum ...' The Uncle looked mortally embarrassed. 'Look, I've got this theory, you see, that having a new board is like having a new girlfriend. It takes a bit of getting used to, you know, in terms of how it ... uh ... works and that ...' The glossy pink deepened to a ripe purple. 'So, I figured ... if I dressed it up a bit it would make the transition a bit easier, you know what I mean?'
We didn't. We stared at him.
'What, are you saying you're gonna buy it flowers and take it to the movies as well? Hahaaaa!' said the Snake Catcher.
'Yeah, hahaaa, that would be funn- ...' I stopped when I saw the look of sheer mortal dread on the Uncle's face. 'You didn't, did you?' I said incredulously.
His head had gone so dark it was almost black now. It looked like it was about to explode. 'Well, it was really cold last night,' he mumbled, 'a real three dog-night, and I ...hrrm nggny hurb burb wurb uurrgh ...'
The Reef Shark came to his rescue. 'Let's just get a wave, ey,' he smirked, and grabbed his board and walked down to the water. The Uncle followed him, relief pouring off him like a torrential flood.
The water, black and shimmering silver beneath the moon, crystal clear and transparent, proved willing in a modest sort of a way. The newly arrived south swell wasn't really wrapping around into the bay very well, but there were some tidy little runners that turned up with regular intervals, and, out by ourselves in the magical moonlit night, we weren't complaining.
'This board is too thin,' the Uncle complained. There's no pleasing some people. 'And it's really fluffy and floaty. I don't like it.' He looked like someone who had just lovingly sunken his teeth into a vegemite sandwich, only to find that it had accidentally been made with sump oil instead.
'Nah, you'll be right,' I said, comforting him with lies. 'Here's a wave, go, go!'
He went. We stared after him. We tilted our heads back up to the stars, followed the trajectory of the board, lowered our gaze again, and flinched.
'Ouch,' said the Snake Catcher.
I nodded. 'That looked painful.'
From the distance came the muffled but powerful sound of swearing, cursing and shouting. Oranges were mentioned in an accusatory tone. Then there was silence, broken suddenly by the sound of a loud twang, followed by a fleshy thwap, as could, potentially, be made by a snapping bra strap that is taking advantage of its unexpected momentum, driving force and freedom to hit someone squarely in the face. Seconds later an orange sailed through the air, followed shortly afterwards by another one.
'Sounds like he's having a domestic,' I said and turned to the Snake Catcher.
'Ngg nggg nggg,' he replied eloquently.
I looked at him a bit closer. He was suspiciously blue in the face. Silvery blue. I noticed his hands tucked underneath his armpits.
'You warm enough there mate?' I enquired innocently, and examined the tips of my fingers.
'Daggadaggadaggadagga nga nga nga nyuuuuh,' said the Snake Catcher, who disdains the use of a steamer in winter time, like right now. He insists on surfing in boardies and a light wetsuit top all year round, and good on him too. It's setting a great example to all aspiring would-be grommet soul-surfers out there, and, to boot, is doing a fine job of scaring off any right-minded sane person who might otherwise have considered taking up surfing, thereby contributing significantly to keeping the waters less crowded.
'Jeez, that wind is picking up, ' I said casually, ''s got a bit of bite in it, doesn't it?' I wriggled a finger into the collar of my 10/9 wetsuit with thermal lining, hoodie, gloves, booties and mini bar and pulled it aside to let a stream of hot air escape. It singed the hair on the side of my head and fried a sleepy seagull passing low overhead. It fell in the water, roasted.
Before he could master the chattering of his teeth for long enough to stitch together a reply, the set came through, and he paddled away, pulled into the wave and disappeared.
I set back and surveyed the scene. A bit further back the Reef Shark, who has spent many long years studying Surfing at Expert Level with mysterious monks in orange dresses on an Asian mountaintop in a monastery where students were not allowed to eat, drink, shit or breathe for three weeks, and who Knows Things We Don't, was catching wave after wave, cackling manically to himself in delight. In the middle distance the Snake Catcher pelted away on his ride, a small cloud of super-cooled air slowly revolving around him, and icicles dangling off his ears. Closer by and off to the side the Uncle had rolled up his sleeves and was now headbutting his board, smearing lipstick all over his forehead.
All seemed well in the world.
As if to agree, the sky chose this moment to start colouring itself a hard orange with red tinges, fading to dark blue and black overhead. Far away in front of me, out on the open ocean, the swell was rising up, breaking and rolling away, sharp black outlines against the orange background. I blinked. As the waves rose up they took on shape and size, reached out towards the sky, then shimmered and disappeared, as if swallowed by a hole in the fabric of the universe. I blinked again. The waves reappeared in slow motion, cascaded down into a soundless tumble of black foam, and vanished again. The next line of swell did the same thing, rose up, shimmered and winked out, then reappeared in thin air.
The Snake Catcher returned and pulled up next to me, with a thin layer of frost on his head. The Uncle surfaced like a submarine, half a bra wrapped around his head and sporting a shiny brand new black eye. The Reef Shark paddled up and sat upright, breathing lightly after his 90th wave. All four of us sat there, relaxed, in peace and quiet, and watched the spectacle of the phantom waves coming into existence and vanishing before our eyes, lost in the majestic impossibility of it.
I opened my mouth to say something, then shut it again. There was no need to say anything.
And so we sat on our boards and watched the sky and the ocean chase each other's tails, mesmerised by the orange and black shadow-play in front of us, and waited for the sun to come up and fill the world with light and warmth.