It was on a remote island one-hundred and fifty kilometres off the West Coast of North Sumatra. We stood on a street in the West village lined with hovels of rotting timber and thatch gables and angled bamboo posts dug shallow in the wetland soil. An incandescent light floodlit the raindrops on the palm and woody climber trees. The trees stood high and proud providing the only respite from the sun and rain but we were still very sunburnt and soaked. Along the street toward the most southern end lay a house smaller than the rest and home to an angular boned Indonesian boy.
The home was one bare room for a family of five containing an iron cooking pot on a steel tripod over a fireplace in the corner with no windows. The boy sat on the porch cross legged filling up gerry cans of petrol. I turned to the guy beside me.
“Check out that kid.”
“Doesn’t look fun,” he said.
“Pourin that petrol.”
“What’d you reckon he’s smilin’ at?”
Nanik, a local lady with whom we stayed, called the boy over. He stood up immediately and ran to us and stood waiting, his jerry can still in hand. He stood shirtless and straight, his arms linked behind to hold up his shorts from the back. His shorts resembled a forgotten rag in the shed and loosely hung from his hips and drooped well past his knees. As he stood he unlinked his arms to swat an insect on his torso and he had to catch his shorts from falling.
“Selancar?” I asked the boy. He nodded.
By the time we got to the beach the rest of the children in the village had heard the rumours of the surf lesson and all stood as a small crowd behind the boy. The boy insisted the other children go first and that he watch. The other children fought over the board in one big congested bunch. Detached and solitary the boy played by himself down the bay and the others didn’t notice. We stole the board from the other children and offered it to him but he refused and continued to wade in the shallows. He must not like surfing, I thought. After the children ran off for lunch I picked up the board and felt a tug on my arm.
“Satu lagi?” The boy said.
I handed him the board.
“Terima kasih,” he said and walked back out into the surf alone. From the north side shanties he was a speck amongst cyan waters and palm filled escarpments curling around the bay. He sat on the board waiting and bobbing over incoming swells and when a wave did come he would paddle hard and miss it and paddle back out. He waited and endeavoured and failed until the sun set and the tropical heat suddenly abated to an evening chill. He ambled back up the beach stooping under the board with his long black hair drooped over his eyes and his threadbare shorts falling below his waist.
“He just comin’ in now?” One of the others said.
“Some shorts, huh?”
“Emma brought some new shorts to give to one of the groms.”
“Yeah, from Brownies.”
“That trendy surf shop?”
“He definitely needs a pair.” He walked right up to us and gave us the board.
“Terima kasih,” he said with a stutter and left disappearing down the street soaked and shaking into the darkness.
The next day he came back alone and picked up the board and walked back down to the South end of the bay and paddled out. A long time passed and he still hadn’t stood up. I waded out and offered to help.
“Tiduk,” he said. “Bagus.” He put a thumb up and smiled.
“Masuk. Makan,” I said and pointed to the shore and then to my stomach.
“Tiduk,” he shook his head and put his thumbs up and pulled up his shorts.
I studied him from the north side shanties. He did not tire or change composure and he did not improve. Sometimes he would lay on his back watching the sky for a long time and dive under water near the coral heads but when a wave did arise he jumped on the board head down and flailed his thin arms like it was the last wave to ever come, unjaded, undefeated. In the oppressive heat it was hard not to become jaded and in the hammock rocking back and forth watching the boy I began to doze. When I woke he was gone. The borrowed board was beside me and I wondered whether he stood up. The others told me he hadn’t.
It went on like this for six days and on the seventh I stopped trying to help. I watched from the shore and thought if he would ever stand up but then again it did not matter. I watched the swell ripple from the sea into the bay and watched the boy’s smile ripple from the bay out to sea and with each wave and each smile it was hard to think of much else he needed to be happy. I thought whether more would encumber his happiness for it was he that seemed happier than me and I could stand up on a board with brand new shorts that fitted me perfectly. The boy looked out onto the horizon. A pulse of swell arose and as it surged closer to shore he grabbed the rails of the board and pulled it under him and kicked and paddled. The swell picked him up and he climbed up its face and just before the crest of the wave broke he stood up with a wide stance with both arms held out and his tongue stretched out, curled around his lower lip. As the board rode down the face the boards inner left rail caught and he swung his arms backward to correct his balance. The board readjusted to a flat plain and he rode the wave right onto the sand.
He did not come after that. Someone told us it was because he was helping his father work but no one was sure. We thought we would never seem him again and on the last day when we were packing we were almost sure. I put the luggage in the Ute and tied it down with occy straps and felt a tug on my arm. With a crowd of the other village children behind he put one hand on his heart and bowed. The other hand on his shorts.
“Terima kasih,” he said.
“It’s old mate,” I said to the others.
And then the refusal happened. Emma unzipped her bag and put her arm deep and pulled out a pair of brand new fashionable board shorts and held them out to the boy. “Here,” she said. “I have some new shorts for you.” But the boy did not accept them. He shook his head. “Tiduk, tiduk. Already, already. As he said ‘already’ he pointed to his shorts. Emma continued to hold them out and seemed insistent and once he sensed her insistence he gently took the shorts from her hands and handed them to his friend, the smallest boy in the village who had surfed those two weeks with no shorts at all.
We realised that it was more than just the waves that drew us to this Island…but hey the ocean has a way of giving back too…
Story by Jayden O’Neil, Photos by Ben Gollow