Aidan Hartley

Last season

Aidan Hartley's Wild Life

Last season
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Kenya

Our surfing gang — average age 50 — are out in the bay again, dodging sewage, bull sharks and even, earlier this season, a pirate’s corpse. The waves are terrible, that never improves. Yet our tight-knit gang persists in trying to stay fit enough to surf. There’s nothing else left to delay old age and give us our kicks. But this year Abo announced, ‘This’ll be my last season, boys.’ I stood there on the garbage-strewn beach with others — Mudprawn, Surfer Tony, James and Daudi, who works in the Guernsey financial services industry — and we shook our heads in disbelief.

Surfing is a matter of life and death for our group. Surfing is such an obsession that one of us was served divorce papers that listed among the spouse’s reasons for ending the marriage: ‘Surfing (NOT the Internet)’. If Abo retires, we thought, how long have we got left?

Growing up poor in Australia, Abo suffered a bone disease that should have put him in a wheelchair for life. Instead, he learnt to surf, which kept him nimble for decades. As a teenager he scrounged bottles for their deposits, bought a Volkswagen combi and hit the road. He lived off the bush with his rifle, and surfed until he was ultra-fit. After becoming an engineer, he migrated to Sudan, where he toiled for years, always finding time to trek to a bit of ocean with his board.

Today Abo suffers from gout, and his Neanderthal gait is worsening as the bone condition catches up at last. His real name is Kirk, as in Captain James Kirk from Star Trek, and his dream is to start a beach bar called The Starship Enterprise. But instead he plays the markets online — and that’s one kind of surfing he can’t manage well. He lives off the whiff of an oily rag, but he bears his growing physical pain philosophically. Out on the water I asked him if he was happy. He said, ‘Yes, mate — though I’d love to be more handsome, with a nicer personality.’

He’s already had a tough year. At a recent beach party an American mercenary beat him up. Abo was asleep at the time, having passed out after kissing the mercenary’s mother. He grew a beard to hide the scars on his upper lip.

First day out this season, Abo came off a wave and hurt his back badly. We were all very concerned. The words ‘last season’ came up again. He convalesced in his beach hut, giving me surfing tips since I am still useless. I can stand up pretty well these days, but I keep colliding with other surfers. I’ve earned the nickname Chopper because I keep tearing chunks out of boards. Abo patiently got out the resin and fixed everything.

When his back mended, Abo joined us again, came off the first wave and took off up the beach with Tony. Out in the roaring surf we figured it must be his back again — but later we saw the teeth marks on his board. Abo had been whacked in the mouth, cutting his lower lip and chin so badly that he said he had his whole lower face going down his throat.

The problem was where to go for treatment because, despite being in shock and bleeding profusely, Abo kept haranguing Tony that he needed the cheapest treatment available. Tony took him to a backstreet hospital where the wards had no light bulbs or mosquito nets. The doctor put him under with ketamine, then put in 40 very neat stitches.

Tony, Daudi and I were at his bedside as he came round. His wetsuit — a vagrant’s outfit of patched bits of foam sewn together — was on the floor and he wore a hospital gown spattered with blood. Still hallucinating from the ketamine, he declared love for us all from his hospital bed, jumped up and tried to embrace all the nurses and then demanded to be released from the hospital because he had no money. So we dragged Abo off to the Driftwood bar, where we drank rums and Cokes and he slept. It was a touching scene, but the writing was on the wall. Abo had to get a job. His surfing days seemed to be over.

A few weeks later Abo called me. I could hear clanging hammers and drills in the background. ‘I want to get out of here. What’s the surf like?’ ‘Useless.’ ‘Good, I’m coming.’

Abo turned up and that day he surfed like a champion. Not only that. The new scars across his face have given him a cut-price facelift. He looks younger, he has bucks in his pocket — and we pray to the gods it’s not his last season.