Valkyrie Farewell

In the mythology of the Scandinavian countries, and more specifically that associated with the ever-popular Viking era, people commonly believed that, provided they died on the battlefield, preferably with sword in hand, and, potentially, with an adversary's ear between their teeth, they would receive a hero's welcome into the afterlife. Valhalla, where, for ever after, they would sit at a banquet and feast, quaff, wench, fight, and, at a stretch, barf their brains out. Only, presumably, to wipe their mouths with the backs of their hands and start all over again. What a life. Or, rather, what a death. It is obvious that, in the great scheme of things, where the development of religion and philosophy was concerned, wishful thinking played absolutely no role at all.

In order to make it to that afterlife, the fallen fighters would be picked up from the battlefield by Valkyries, great big strapping voluptuous women riding flying horses, who would then whisk them away, while sometimes, depending on which mythological source is consulted, giving them a good spanking while they were lying across their saddle in front of them. It was clearly an outcome well worth dying for.

What happens when a surfer dies?

A member of our surfing community has died just now. It came as a shock. No-one in my circle had known he was sick, but none of us had been very close to him.

Big John was a larger-than-life character. Literally and figuratively. He was a huge bloke, tall and big, with a massive belly hanging out in front of him. A big fella. He had been in our area longer than anyone else, born and raised here, and had lived in a shack in bushland where now massive mansions look down on everyone.

He paddled out every morning like clockwork. You would see him clamber out of his old car, put his board on his head, and stroll calmly out to the furthest point, where he'd put out into the frontline of the ocean, paddle casually with one arm, and, taking his time, get to his feet and ride away into the twilight. Not such bad going at the age of 71. You can only hope.

Cancer got him. He had a relatively minor car crash, and went to hospital to get fixed up. While there they gave him a good check-over and found he was riddled with it. Everywhere. It didn't take long after that.

So we got word, and we resolved to do a dawn paddle-out in his honour and memory. There was no swell predicted at all, so we prepared to float out into flat water, watch the sunrise and commiserate over the passing of a kind man.

Six of us met in the carpark in the pre-dawn dark. As if by prior agreement, no-one rushed to get out early and get a few in before anyone else. That wasn't what we were here for. One by one the boys turned up, and we stood in a circle and reminisced. A story here, a remembered deed there. A lauding of his gentle nature, and a remembrance of times past and the fragility of life. The usual bad jokes, a prominent feature of these get-togethers, were left out of it for once. People shoved their hands deep into their pockets, hunched up their shoulders and looked at the ground, clearing their throats before speaking. A rare moment of quiet reflection in a normally boisterous and lively group.

At the first glimmer of daylight we got suited up and headed out. We walked over the long sandy beach towards that streak of orange signalling the day was going to happen for us, today, if not for the old fella. In honour of the big man some of us put our boards on our heads and carried them like he used to, old style. A couple of others tried and twisted their necks, sprained their shoulders and put their backs out. A small downpayment of minor temporary inconvenience, poured into the vast ocean of human suffering. The one bloke with the toothpick shortboard sniggered. No skin off his nose.

When we reached the furthest point of the headland, where the land meets the sea, where the great swells come roaring in out of the big void, and where the currents suck in and out of the bay, we waded out into the water. To our surprise there actually was some swell, and, as we paddled onwards, we saw several peaks rise up unexpectedly, breaking cleanly here and there. It would be an added and unexpected bonus.

The eastern sky in front of us was a hard, burning orange, topped with a vault of dark sky with a few stars here and there. All of a sudden, as we had almost reached the bank we were aiming for, right in front of us, a dolphin leaped high out of the water, cut through the air in a graceful arc, and landed smoothly in a perfect motion. Its black silhouette was outlined crystal clear against the flaming orange background, and it looked for all the world as if it welcomed us and was inviting us to leap and surf and play along with it, celebrating life while mourning death.

Moments later a pod of three others turned up, one of them a baby. Life continues to reproduce itself, in spite of all obstacles laid in its path. A bubbling rushing noise to our side, and there were another two dolphins. A splash, and a tell-tale rising and falling of curved, shiny grey backs right in front of us, not two metres away, and there were another three. We called out cautiously to each other, not wanting to scare them away. They weren't put off, and kept on circling around us and diving along underneath us.

Where do surfers go when they die?

We don't have Valkyries to come swooping out of the sky on flying horses, to carry us away to some paradise.

We have dolphins.

When a surfer dies a dolphin will appear out of nowhere, and take him away to a place where the waves are always breaking cleanly, the sun always shines, and the water is always warm.

We got some huge drops there and then, massive eye-watering rides. We dedicated every single one of them to the memory of Big John. RIP, old fella.