Belle howled. It was once only, but Thomas’s blood ran cold. The sound bounced off the granite cliffs behind him, seemed to blend itself with the roar of the surf, as if the sea had found a
voice. Insofar as Thomas was still capable of affection, he loved the dog. Seized by a fear he couldn’t name, he ran back to her. “Belle, you silly bitch. What’s the matter?” Belle ignored him,
and Thomas once more followed the cue of her unfathomable amber-eyed stare.
Just in time to see the surfer execute a sublime passage through the barrel of a breaker, hit the deadly Porth Bay rip, and take the most devastating wipeout Thomas had seen in thirty years of watching riders fly and crash along this coast. For a moment he was lost in admiration. The move had been so beautiful, its termination so complete, that it was almost satisfying, answered some marrow-deep impulse to destruction inside him. He waited, calculating the speed and direction of the rip, adding in a few yards for the undertow. He could work out, more or less, where this talented lunatic should surface.
It didn’t happen. Thomas swallowed hard. This was none of his business. He had come out to walk his dog, just as he did every morning, same time, same place, part of a rigid routine whose component parts could be fitted together, end to end, to form a normal day. The lunatic would be fine. Anyone who could surf like that could surely swim with equal power. He would survive, even if the wave whose belly he had threaded was still in the process of breaking, a mountain of water thundering down, rolling and roiling into its own roots. Thomas knew how that felt. No surfer himself, he had once loved the sea, and you didn’t grow up around here without learning the force of those green-grey Atlantic monsters that swelled in, heaped themselves up on the continental shelf, and expended their momentum with bruising, crushing vigour on human limbs. It was seldom fatal. There was an exhilaration in being caught up in them, like surviving a benign rockfall. If you could swim, if you knew the rip pattern, you generally lived.
Thomas shielded his eyes with one hand. The board would pop up first, dragging its owner to surface by the ankle. None of his business at all.
First, do no harm. Thomas, about to walk away, shivered to a halt. Eight bitter years since he had taken his Hippocratic oath, and he was certain he had violated it in a dozen ways. The war his nation was waging in the far-off desert he had left behind to come home and fit himself into the shape of the man he once had been—that formless, limitless, probably endless war—it hadn’t been conducive to good and dignified medical practice. Hippocrates probably had not foreseen the necessity of punching a wounded soldier unconscious to silence his raging objection to the failed Afghani suicide bomber being treated in the next bed. Of taking a rifle from a corpse and sniping off a bunch of gun-toting local kids across a wall of sandbags to defend the bleeding and helpless survivors at his feet. First, do no harm… It made Thomas want to laugh, or throw up, but he knew that to turn his back on the ocean now would be a harm his own fragmented soul might not survive. He felt inside his jacket for his mobile.
Which, for once, was not safely tucked inside its purpose-tailored pocket. Thomas swore. He always carried it. Joggers came out here, overdid it and keeled over with heart attacks all the time. Kids wandered; old ladies fell down steps. Something might happen to Belle. Unforgivably, this morning he had left it in the Rover, down between the seats where it had landed when he’d swerved to avoid a badger. It seemed this morning no one was taking care. By the time he ran up the half mile or so to the car park…
Frantically he scanned the beach, but he’d chosen his wilderness well, and there was no one to be seen in either direction.
He undid the jacket and let it drop onto the sand. He hadn’t been in the ocean for years, but his army service had left him fit and hard. He could feel the neglected strength inside himself, waiting. He kicked off his shoes. That would have to do. He swam, as routinely and rigidly as he did everything else, three times a week at the pool in Penzance. Taking one last guess at where that stupendous, still-breaking wave might have deposited the surfer—or, by now, his corpse—Thomas ran into the sea.
The stinging cold hit him instantly, emptying his lungs. You forgot, between visits. Forgot the riptide, tearing at your legs even knee-high, forgot the high pure chill, like a cry, a long, beautiful, unbearable note of music that would not end. The Gulf Stream was slowing, Thomas had heard. He could believe it. The water surged up his thighs, forcing a yelp from him as it engulfed his testicles, neither of which, he imagined, would ever be seen again. He took a few more strides and got ready for the plunge.
Something knocked his legs from under him. The impact was hard, warm, human-sized. Crashing down into the surf, Thomas grabbed instinctively at the object—surfer, dolphin, at very worst juvenile shark—which had mown him down. Held it, anchoring it and himself against the immediate seize of the undertow. An unequal battle—the monster wave, having spent itself, was now sucking back down the steeply pitching shore, creating a drag like steel cables. Thomas had to get his feet beneath him or he and whatever piece of flotsam he was clutching would be hauled straight back out. But the sand beneath his scrabbling fingers was shaly and lacking cohesion, grains and pebbles sliding off each other in the salty churn.
A tug at the back of his neck, then a sharp, tearing pain. Thomas cried out in atavistic fear. The body he was clutching to him in one arm was encased in rubber, not the astounding natural vinyl of shark skin, but nonetheless something had just closed its teeth in his shoulder. The pull it exerted and the panic it sent through his limbs enabled him to get his head above the crashing surf, find his centre of gravity and lurch upright.
Belle stood planted a yard or so behind him, soaked and mute. She looked as if she would have liked to speak to him, but the three-inch scrap of his shirt fabric hanging from her mouth was eloquent enough. Thomas coughed, shook water from his eyes. “Jesus, Belle.”
The deadweight he was holding by its armpits suddenly came to life. Staggering, fighting not to go down in the thigh-high rip, Thomas aided its struggle to flip over and get to its feet. For a long moment they stared at one another. Thomas had time to be surprised. He had been expecting some kid, a salt-bleached surf freak with a shark’s-tooth necklace who’d seen Point Break one too many times. The man in front of him, grazed and blue-lipped but now propping Thomas against the current in his turn, looked only a couple of years younger than himself. He was lean and dynamically built, radiating heat through the pro-quality wetsuit under Thomas’s hands. His hair was plastered down, its colour indeterminate, but there was no doubt about his eyes, green as the sea which had just thrown him back out of her maw, fixed on Thomas’s, full of laughter and contrition. He said, “Christ, I’m sorry. Thank you.”
Then he glanced over his shoulder, back towards the water, out of which a rushing sound was coming, a wild roar that somehow neither of them had noticed. “Run!”
The only thing bigger than the seventh wave is the ninth wave that follows it—another piece of ocean lore Thomas had absorbed during his boyhood and for some reason briefly forgotten. The surfer gave him only an instant to look back, long enough to see that the overcast morning sky had turned to foam-streaked glass. A ninth one, gathering half the deep…and all the wave was in a flame, soared up from Thomas’s memory, lines learned and loved long ago, forgotten also, and then the surfer’s hand closed on his own, a hot, tight grip he would remember.
They made it about eight yards inshore, not far, but crucial. When the wave hit, it knocked them down and forward, into water too shallow for the undertow to seize them again. It was still like being caught in an avalanche, a bloody cosmic washing machine, tumbling them limb over limb into a coughing, spitting heap in the shale. When finally it receded, Thomas found to his bewilderment that the breath he’d managed to snatch wanted to leave him in laughter. Then rage bloomed, dark and satisfactory, sweet as arousal. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d given vent to it. He tore himself out of the grip of the surfer, who was trying to help him to his feet, and gave him a shove that sent him down onto his expensively Neoprene-clad backside once more. “You bloody moron!”
Belle, who had never heard him raise his voice any more than he had heard her raise hers, came trotting down from her safe refuge higher up the sand and took up an anxious position at his side.
“You stupid git!” Salt water rose up and choked him, briefly checking his momentum. “Do you think I care about you? What about the poor bastards who have to come and get you? You think you’re worth a helicopter, a lifeboat—all those lives?”
The surfer gazed up at him. His eyelashes were matted together with salt, the grazing to his brow and cheekbone beginning to bleed copiously. He didn’t look resentful at the tirade—waited patiently till his rescuer had run out of breath and was coughing again, hands propped on his knees. “The RNLI boys know not to come out for me. One of the Hawke Lake choppers is out of commission, and the other two are off to Devon for the air show. That’s why I chose today.”
“That’s why I chose today to surf.”
“No. I… How do you know all that? And how do you come to have an arrangement with the Royal National bloody Lifeboat Institute?”
The surfer smiled. “Lieutenant Flynn Summers,” he offered, holding out a hand. “Search-and-rescue unit, Royal Naval Air Service. At your disposal.”
Thomas straightened up. He was calm now. He steadied himself with one hand on Belle’s collar, and surveyed his new acquaintance, outstretched hand and all, with dispassion. He said flatly, “Of all the people who should bloody well know better,” and walked off.