A Memoire for Louise
by Tully Combridge
It was another quiet day by water. The sun fluttered down like silk, flattening the waves with its warmth. I knew the sound of the waves on bare rock, and the sucking of the pools like it was my own voice. On the days the sound disappeared, I’d sit by the edge of the shelf and watch the tides suck and swell over the flat plateau below, watching how silently it could ease back to the horizon.
I’d duck and swim around the full rock pools, water like warm velvet on my skin, blissfully thick and tepid. I could hold my breath and dive down below the surface and watch until the ripples above me dissipated. Once the surface had flattened, I’d turn my face towards the openings in the rocks and swim through tunnels corroded underwater. Then I’d pop up in a different pool, laughing at the brilliance of the sun and its reflection on the water.
The charge of the ocean jaded out on those long, summer days, and the wind blew soft and slow through the bay, bringing with it no ripples or corrugations on the surface. Glassy perfection. Above and towards the right, there was a great intertwining canopy of twisted palms, boiling and scratchy in the breeze. I’d float in the pools for hours, just gazing up at the branches, cutting the blueness of the sky in pieces.
It was there under the flaky, distant, filtered shade of the canopy that I met Lewy. Her full name was Louise Janaylah Peterson, but she only answered to ‘Lewy’, and I never once asked why. Back in those days, she had her hair cut shorter than most boys, just so it was out of her eyes when she’d get in the water, and wore boardshorts and rashie over her bathers, because she hated the way people looked at her when she wore a bikini. They didn’t see her character or her substance, only her figure; toned and tanned, just the way the boys told us to be.
When she climbed over the rock shelf that one afternoon when the rest of the town was trying to escape the incessant heat, we spent the entire day marvelling at the timing of our lives, and how they seemed to collide with the magnificence of perfection, and without the burden of small-talk.
We were fourteen when we picked up surfboards for the first time, running soft hands over smooth rails, gawking over tail shapes and rocker depths. There wasn’t one board in the shop that either of us could afford with our pocket-money, so we did what any fourteen-year-olds would do, and searched under her house for old ones of her brother’s without asking. Maybe it was a bit brash in hindsight, but it was just about the most worthwhile recklessness anyone had ever committed, because from that day forward, I don’t think we spent another day wondering what it would be like to surf.
We were out there more than we weren’t, catching dumpy shore-breaks, and peelers over the point on a far too low-tide, but we didn’t care. Some days the ocean would gurgle over the seaweed carpet, and by the end of a session there was more water in our sinuses than in the rockpools formed by the outgoing tide, but there was something so marvellous about being closer to the horizon than everyone else, and the bliss the water provided could ease any concern about anything else.
That was until we started improving, afforded new boards, and the lousy point break didn’t entertain us anymore. It was when we moved around to the reef break by the surf club and paddled out where there were actual, substantial, authentic, beautiful spiralling waves that we discovered the reality of the culture we’d entered.
There were hordes of rippling muscles and scowls across tanned faces, aimed in our direction. Intrepid masculinity. Testosterone warriors. They clouded every sunny day with wicked snarls, shouting to the two of us that, “Chicks are trophies, not surfers!” They’d howl across the waves for us to go back to the kitchen. I used to cower to their remarks, flinching when they’d drop in on my waves. But Lewy, she just snarled back with a raised middle finger, and yelled at the boys who told her to get off their beach. “One day soon, there’ll be so many chicks out here, you won’t know what to do with yourself!” She’d praise.
We came in from a session one day in late January, and Lewy’s dad ushered us out onto the balcony, under the shade of their pergola because our noses were already fried from hours on the waves. He looked at us both with a shy look on his face, not quite sure how to put the words together. “Look, I don’t wanna’ step on anyone’s toes, but Peter said you girls were giving the boys some grief out there on Saturday. Said you guys made a bit of a scene. I don’t want you girls to have to stop surfing, but, you gotta’ be careful what you do out there. I mean, it is their place.”
I still remember how Lewy had laughed – a sort of surly chortle that echoed off the treetops that twisted around beside us. “You’re just like them, dad.” She said back, reclining against a lounge-chair. “Just like all the ones who stand on our waves with the self-entitlement on their heads like crowns. All the men who say we belong in the kitchen! All those men who claim the ocean as their own. Because god forbid, a woman can surf!”
We paddled out the next morning with hair blonde as all get-out, noses peeling from the day before, and words in red, painted across ours boards on repeat. Here for waves. Here for waves. And the boys laughed, mockery resting on their untamed brows, but we laughed back at their ignorance. Even when we climbed ashore, the girls on the beach watching their boyfriends and wearing string bikinis would lour at us, conditioned under the same, archaic regime that screamed PATRIARCHY at the top of its lungs. Neither of us stood for any of it, and we didn’t hesitate to protest anyone’s disapproval, because there was nothing that Lewy and I couldn’t do. She was fearless.
So, two years later, when the news came that Lewy had died in a car accident on her way home from a family holiday in Byron Bay, it wasn’t a surprise that I started to conform again. I rubbed the red from board, or what was left of it after years of gradual chipping, and mum started teaching me how to sew because I suddenly had far too much spare time.
It wasn’t until that one, quiet Spring day when the waves were flat and we paddled out for the funeral, that I found any sort of motivation to move from where I was heading: lack-lustre suburban life, in the countryside cooking tea while the husband worked. It seemed like the whole town was there. Even the girls who knew her managed to get their hands on surfboards to paddle out on.
That was when it came to me like a gleaming flare from the heavens. As we splashed the ocean around Lewy, the inspiration came to me in words, like she was speaking it. Start from the beginning, she said. Just start.
So I climbed ashore breathing ragged breaths like I’d drop dead from shock, overcome with an awkward combination of grief and fire-fuelled inspiration. I ran home with the first glint in my eyes in weeks, with Lewy’s words on repeat in my head. I’m starting, I thought as I ran glitter-glue across poster paper. Then I rustled up enough coinage to print two-hundred copies of my flyer, and stapled them on every light-pole, fence, wall, tree and sign in town until people could not ignore it any longer.
In her favourite glittery blue, the flyer read in gigantic letters:
A MEMOIRE FOR LEWY – THE FIRST CHICKS’ SURF CLUB ON THE NORTH COAST
There wasn’t another day, that I went without Lewy, or her legacy with me. For a while, the boys taunted us, but then there were so many girls in the water, the boys hardly knew what to do.
Just like Lewy had promised.