Smile and Wave The rehabilitation of a family man – a blog by Dr Billy Willcock

Smile and Wave
Alberto and Erika

Our relationship had always been a turbulent one but, after fourteen years together, we have separated. In truth we had been drifting apart for a while; she’d grown old, worn at the edges, and my eyes had started to wander. I couldn’t really help it but I’d fallen for a younger (heavier) model. No doubt I’ll be out of pocket, but “new” is exciting and it means that I won’t live in fear of being constantly whined at or let down. It wasn’t all bad though and I dare say I will miss my old car.

In the garage forecourt I had taken one last look around the SEAT before I had traded it in for something bigger;something that could accommodate my growing family. It felt like some terrible act of betrayal, like taking an elderly pet to the vets to be put down. Sliding my hands down the back of the oil stained seats I had found mostly sand and raisins, but then I came across money, and plenty of it, but in a currency which is now extinct.

In 2000 my friends and I had taken the almost new SEAT on a road trip down to south west France to camp in forests and to surf for the summer on the heavy waves of the Basque country. We were always short of cash and only now I realise why; the Francs stuffed into our surf shorts had been pick-pocketed by the back seats.

The french sun had shone all summer. We had taken on the big waves of Seignosse where a rip current as wide as the Nile would deliver us out back into the massive swell created by Alberto, a hurricane which had raged from the coast of Guinea, tracking north by northwest into the mid Atlantic. The waves were huge.

Seven months earlier, the freight ship MV Erika had sailed out of Dunkerque, bound for Livorno, with a heavy cargo and thirty-one thousand tons of oil. As she entered the Bay of Biscay, the Erika had run into a heavy storm and on 12th December 1999, she had broken in two and sank, releasing thousands of tons of oil into the Atlantic, with catastrophic environmental consequences, from Brittany along the coastline of the Loire Atlantique, down to Northern Spain. Alberto had helped in dispersing the massive slick.

Sitting out back in the hurricane swell, we had paddled onto waves beyond our ability through the broken up crude which was staining our boards, shorts and vests. We then headed back into the rip and did it again and again. It was twilight before we made tracks back to the resin perfume of our campsite in the pines for barbecues, bottled beers and surfing stories as tall as the trees; we’d then fall asleep to a midnight chorus of french lovers under canvas echoing throughout the forest. The following morning, we noticed the crude oil stain that had transferred from my friend John’s board shorts onto the back seat of my car. I wasn’t that bothered, the surf was still up. I think I would be more bothered now.

On the way home, I lost a surf board. It had been poorly lashed to the roof bars and had worked itself loose on the autoroute as we approached Bordeaux, lifting off, narrowly missing the windscreen of the juggernaut behind, banana-skinning out of the board bag as it struck the central reservation before flying across the two lanes of traffic travelling the opposite direction. Not a soul was hurt. The board however was trashed. Having seen it collected by traffic police heading back south, we asked the local gendarme at the next péage if we could have our board back. He said no.

The stain, the coins, the car; it’s all so evocative. I am sadder than I thought I ever could be having said goodbye. There’s something so soulless about a garage forecourt.

I like my new car, it has parking cameras and a panoramic view but, the thing is, it’s just a thing.
I now have a precious family which I will put in it, and we will make new memories in due course.

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