Off 6

Machter was weary. His neck hurt from the constant, up-raised, unnatural position into which he had forced it for so long that now, as he surfaced only to see that he was caught inside and would surely suffer yet another impossible beating, he started to wonder whether it had all been worth it. Started, but stopped, because as usual there was no time to ask questions, only time to upend himself, grab a lungful of air and scratch for the bottom, there to the world of silent trauma where maybe he would minimise, if not evade, the pain that was as unerringly coming his way as, a long time ago, his boxer’s left hooks and right uppercuts would find their targets.


The pain was as predictable as Machter’s response. Once ravaged by the ocean that he had loved all his life, an ocean that had only ever shown indifference (or was it disdain?) in the face of all his efforts to embrace it, he could only bob to the surface, catch his breath, look around, try to work out where his board was, assess how long he had before the next bomb imploded around him. How many times had he done this? How many times had he paddled out at Black Carn, and survived just such a disaster?


Machter no longer knew the answer. He had been surfing here all his life, before the crowds came to other line-ups, before surfing changed, before the businessmen took over, before ex-pros would fly around the world to charge a month’s wages to the corporate wannabes for a day’s tuition, but now his memories had become blurred. Only his instinct was unwearied. It moved within him like the rip to the left of the beach, steady, unwavering, integral to his being. His instinct forced him to gather yet another lungful of air, and yet again to dive as deep as he could, when the truth was that he was tired, tired of the implacable waves, tired of waxing his board, tired of fixing dings, tired of tying his leash, but most of all tired of the constant nagging pain in his neck, a pain that meant that he hadn’t slept well once in over a year.


His wife, Amy, said the neck pain was down to boxing. “It’s that bent, stilted, crouching position you put yourself in for years, trying to make the big time,” she would say, with no little bitterness, as they drank coffee in the mornings in a ramshackle house overlooking Black Carn. They’d moved there after Machter had given up the fight game with just enough money and dignity to start a new life. Their dream of raising a family by the beach – by their own beach, just about, because no one else even knew about Black Carn, back then – soured when their one child, Jamie, vanished a long time ago.


“This place is dead,” he’d announced, “there’s nothing here for me.” And with that, despite a childhood of paddling out with his father, he’d gone.


None of this was in Machter’s mind as he steeled himself to survive another 10ft beast whose journey to Black Carn had begun thousands of miles away, thanks to an intense winter storm in the mid-Atlantic. Swell had been driven towards Black Carn with nigh-on psychopathic ferocity, but just as it about to shatter the coastline of Cornwall with an unsurfable onshore bombardment the wind direction had switched. Machter knew what this meant without reading a weather map, looking at a chart or consulting a webcam. There wasn’t one, anyway, at Black Carn. No one surfed it, save for Machter, but he knew that its point would be delivering 10ft walls groomed by a north-easterly offshore, and he knew that however weary he felt, however much his neck hurt, he would be ready to paddle out as soon as he saw the first traces of swell on the horizon.


And so it was that Machter descended the steep cliff path to the beach at Black Carn, eyed the sizeable swell and tied his leash. It was mid-winter, clear and cold, but he was wearing a 5mm steamer as well as boots, gloves and a hood. Amy had waved him off, as she had done for the past 30 years, and he felt fine. He didn’t think about anything, other than getting out the back and riding the storm-swell. As he stepped into the ocean, he felt a twinge of pain in his neck, and images from his last fight came into his mind. Maybe she’s right, he said to himself as he began the paddle, maybe the boxing did for me.


Machter knew Black Carn like the back of his hand. The place was just as scarred, just as lined with the evidence of toil, regret, triumph and despair. High on the cliffs sat the old wheal houses, abandoned decades ago as their tunnels, sometimes stretching over a mile out into the Atlantic, ceased to yield the tin, tungsten and arsenic that had kept a community alive for a couple of centuries. Or rather, as Machter knew from countless days rummaging around Black Carn, it wasn’t that the lodes had been exhausted, more that it became cheaper to acquire their treasures abroad. The mineshafts of Black Carn, for anyone with time, patience and nothing better to do, were still fertile but to embrace them was to engage in a perilous dance with risk and reward. Rock falls, flooding, dust, darkness and the ghosts of seven children, killed when a mechanical ladder collapsed at the head of the shaft in 1872, were enough to deter even Machter from undertaking any more than a cursory exploration of Black Carn.


As he paddled out between sets, taking the rip to the left of the rocky ledge that passed for a beach, Machter thought of the dead children and then of his own son, Jamie. He couldn’t understand what he’d done wrong with Jamie, he didn’t get it. As father and son they’d been inseparable, always surfing, not at Black Carn but at the nearby easy beachbreaks and then, once Jamie was ready, at one or two of the reefs. Jamie nagged away at his father to teach him to box, but Machter refused. He didn’t want his son finding out what it was like to be punch drunk, to be hit so hard that your legs give way, to hit the canvas with so much force that the impact of falling is as likely to hurt you as being hit. And he didn’t want him to do that kind of damage on another man. Machter had done it. He’d made a living out of it. His last fight, against Coburn, had set him up for a title shot. He’d swung a right uppercut that hit Coburn so hard that the blood from the other man’s mouth spewed over Machter’s face and chest. There was so much of it that onlookers at ringside in the neutral corner to which Matcher had manoeuvred his opponent knew immediately what the phrase cut time meant. They, too, were spattered with blood and as Coburn slumped to the ground Machter even found himself tasting it. He didn’t care, not then, not at that moment, all he cared about was that he knew that Coburn wouldn’t come back at him. The fight was his, and with it a chance for the title.


Machter made it to the line-up with less pain in his neck than usual. He’d barely had to duckdive any waves and now, sitting on his board, he turned to look back at his house and, above, the remnants of the Black Carn mine. He could make out Amy, sitting on a bench on the garden. Whatever the weather she would always watch him catch the first wave, then she’d disappear, as if seeing him ride one wave was reassurance enough for the whole session. The slate-grey waves rose and detonated, rose and detonated, but again something was nagging away at Machter. He didn’t feel relaxed. And yet his neck wasn’t hurting. Not badly, anyway. He fancied he saw a figure walking over the hill beyond Black Carn, but instinct made him concentrate on the horizon, and there, way outside, was a set almost twice the size of anything that had swept in so far. Forget the pain, paddle, said Machter aloud, and he began calmly to stroke for the uncertain space where the sea meets the sky, the place where this outsize set would not collapse and send him to that silent world, one with which a lifetime of surfing had left him well acquainted but to which he was only ever an unwilling visitor. 


Machter paddled, at first calmly but then with increasing desperation. The waves approaching him were ludicrously large and moving with commensurate pace. He hadn’t even taken a wave and yet here he was, acutely aware that he might not make it outside. Worse, the faster he paddled the more his neck hurt. Did boxing leave me with this?  Machter had asked himself plenty of times but he had a horrible feeling that it was as much surfing as boxing that had done for his neck. Lying on a board, neck upraised, paddling – was it a natural position in which to put one’s body? Wasn’t boxing more natural? It was primeval, man has always fought, the boxer’s stance is a comfortable one because it is atavistic, it reminds us of our past. When he got back in, maybe Machter would say to Amy that No, I don’t reckon it was the boxing, it was the surfing that’s left me with this permanent pain. She would resist any such declaration, for she, like Machter, had her memories of boxing and none of them came wrapped in tinsel.


His hands scraped the cold water frantically as a 12ft wall reared up ahead of him. Machter knew he wouldn’t make it. To continue paddling was futile. Pushing his board away he dived for the bottom. He surfaced after perhaps 10-12 seconds to find himself exactly where he knew he would be – smack in the impact zone. He took some air and dived again. Again he surfaced, but this time Machter felt more tired than ever. He looked as the third wave was readying itself to punish him for any number of sins and remembered the bell ringing for the end of the round in which he’d floored Coburn with the uppercut. Saved by the bell, he’d thought with disdain, as Coburn collapsed to the canvas. His cornermen will get him up again, they’ll staunch the blood from his eyes with adrenaline swabs, they’ll stop it pouring from his lips, they’ll tidy him up and put him back out for the last round. Machter wasn’t worried, though. He knew he had hurt Coburn, he’d found a way through, and he’d do so again in the last round and he’d get his shot at the title. Let ‘em send him back out, I’m waiting!


Only Coburn never came back out. He slumped to a heap on the floor, his left leg twitching, then his body seemed to shrivel like a slug’s smothered in salt and Machter watched as Coburn tried, somehow, to raise his head, he tried to push the hands of his cornermen and the medics away, he tried to speak, to say Leave me alone! Let me stand up! Let me fight him! but it was useless, useless and pitiful, the words oozed as if lumpen in the febrile air by congealed blood, useless and humiliating and terrifying as Coburn’s body and soul seemed to be absorbed by the energy-sapping canvas and then, in a few seconds that seemed to go on forever, the life ebbed away from him and all the while Machter stood watching, paralyzed, scared, bewildered. He knew then that he would never box again, not even for the title.


The third wave was even bigger than its predecessors. Machter realised that his leash had broken and started to dive again for the bottom. Habitually he kept his eyes open on the way down, not that he could see anything but so that once in the hideous vortex of the breaking wave he might know which way was light and which dark and swim in the right direction. This wave, though, took Machter deeper and deeper, tearing him every which way with unceasing violence as if he were a punch drunk boxer standing on an endless carousel, there to take the pot shots of all comers. He went into such impenetrable darkness that it was almost a relief to feel the rough caress of the sea-bed boulders, but he knew that he was in for a two-wave hold down, at least a minute, probably more, of holding on to the breath he’d taken. Sure enough, as he was frantically reaching for the surface, another wave erupted above him, forcing him back to the ocean floor, beneath which were the tunnels of the tin miners and the ghosts of their children and at that instant Machter thought of Jamie, asking himself Where is my son? Will I ever see him again? and beginning the fight for oxygen again, pushing himself off the bottom and using every ounce of his boxer’s strength to scrabble for the surface. He made it and took the purest gasp of air in his life and tried to figure out where he was. He felt more tired than ever, a weariness that was as immutable as the sea-salt on the Black Carn seals’ whiskers coursed through his body, his neck felt twisted and battered and there, on the rocky ledge, stood Amy, worried for him, as frantic as he was and yet for all that he wanted to be at her side, to talk to her, to wonder whether it was surfing rather than boxing that had done for his neck, another urge was tugging at him, the urge to give up, the urge to accept the vicious embrace of the sea, the urge simply to stop swimming and let the next wave do its worst.

 Machter opened his eyes to find a tall man standing over him and Amy cradling his neck. He felt wet and sodden and knew that such vision as he now had was temporary. Was this how Coburn felt? He could articulate the question in his own mind but wouldn’t try to speak the words. Coburn had tried and it had been useless. He didn’t want the humiliation, he wanted peace, and as he looked at the tall man he wondered if he might have found it. The man reached to his father’s hands and clasped them, and as Machter looked at their intertwined hands he saw the ravaged, pock-marked knuckles of a boxer, the hands that betray a professional familiarity with violence in the same way that the Black Carn wheal house speaks of its ghosts. Machter clasped his son’s hands, and looked at his wife, and wanted to say I’m sorry, but she seemed to be smiling at him as much as crying, and he knew that there were no more words to be said. 


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