"Squirrel fins are supposed to be good for noseriding, but I don't know..." He said with his minimalist smile, yet an expression that said "I've considered it carefully but I just can't see it" and an approaching set brought the conversation to an end.
He rides with his own style. No flamboyance or signs of performing. Setting lines and getting forward to trim and then walking the board in order to turn. He always finishes a wave, he never pulls out. I've come to realise that the audience are ignored at best and pitied as worse. Dysfunctional people have unconventional paths in life and their perspectives are their own. Still there is a presence there and like a child with an oil painting, I wanted to make an impression on it. I was drawn to his energy and intrigued. Still he's not much of a conversationalist...so it sort of remained that way.
Sometimes I wonder why people do the things that they do, when they do and why they pick a particular time to tell you. I certainly wasn't thinking that when I stood in a queue to get some food next to him.
Talking surf trip plans is the easiest conversation between two surfers. We dreamed collectively. I was intrigued by the places he'd been. Before I could quiz him about one place, another place had already stolen its limelight.
We had sat down at an empty table loaded with food for a chat by this time. "How come you've been to every country with waves in Central America? I mean how did you manage to do that?" I quizzed. I could have changed Central America with Asia or Europe (I came to understand later that I could have pretty much named anywhere in the world with a surfable or non surfable coastline.). The first few minutes of the explanation I struggled with, as the general din from the room made it hard to hear with ever encroaching surfer's ear. I picked up an acronym of three letters. It sounded like it was important to the plot so I picked up on it.
"Secret services......." he didn't seem to want to raise his voice any higher. I made a banal remark as if he'd just told me that United had won a football game, but my deeper brain that doesn't come into play too often was rumbling, as if on stand by should something more come of it. I now realise that he moved his chair and came closer, he wanted me to hear but didn't want anyone else to hear.
He continued, he was training to be an officer, he had been adopted by a military family, it wasn't likely to end in his selection. The acronym told him, he wasn't their type, he wasn't a team player, he was socially dysfunctional, he was without ties and yet he was very intelligent, especially good at languages, fiercely independent, resourceful and determined. He wouldn't need to fill out any job applications, he changed barracks, too a smaller more clandestine kind of training. He thrived.
Up close I couldn't help but study him as I listened intently. His muscles protect the bones and hold them in place, skin just adorns it all. His face is a map of a distant place where no one else has really been. But the look that sticks in my mind was of the blue eyes with the smallest, darkest pupils I have seen, they were like dark Tahitian pearls. He sought to lock me in eye contact, in doing so no doubt he would control the situation and gain my reaction to what he was telling me. Which I guess is why he was telling me.
He'd said "the most fun I'd had in my life" sticks in my mind now,as well as the excitement of being in the back of a transit armed in Northern Ireland aged 18, though there was lots of information to bring it to light that this was not everyone's idea of "fun". I didn't understand it all, I was getting a picture with lots of background but I felt like I was missing him in the foreground.
"What exactly did you do? I mean on a day to day basis...I'm just not quite seeing what you actually did." had I done the right thing by asking I thought? Before I had time to worry about whether I'd said the wrong thing. He'd galloped forward, he wanted to tell and his words and body were loaded with sincerity. "We'd do ops and when they were over we'd do courses back in England learning skills for the next one. In and out." He went into some detail of doing ops for a few days or over a year in other cases, doing "clean ups". "They might be following someone, working an asset, killing someone or killing their family members...." My brain lurched.....He had killed someone, multiple people. It had been his job. "fun" was a word I stepped back from.
"Ghosting" was his specialism by the time he finished. Ghosting is working with a small group of operatives. You work with or convert an asset, use them for their purpose and then the ghost eliminates the asset. You then return, do some courses, live in normal society and only work your ops. It wasn't until many hours later that I appreciated what converting an asset might mean, far away from my ideas of a chat over a drink.
Work it would seem was plentiful, Africa, South and Central America, Russia, all of Asia and the Asian/Europe bridge were areas needing a lot of work doing. Eventually he went freelance, responding to his line manager with no information going up or down. Just details. By yourself, no back up, no support no nada.
Just the way he liked it, dysfunctional, poor team player, emotionally screwed, no one was relying on him, he didn't need to think of them and they didn't worry about him. Addresses some real and some not, made up jobs and I'm sure fake passports etc to boot.
He said it several times but I kept missing it, I think the expression was "The bottle was full". It was peak lunch now and though our table was made for 6, we were two and every other table was crammed, so the noise was on the up. It had been the Balkan area and the conflict of the 1990's that had finished him off, he reamed off Sebia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and others, some he repeated, strangely inarticulate for him as if they were stuck and he couldn't swallow them down It was the only hint of emotion the whole half an hour. He talked of many of the others having their "bottles full" after the Balkans too. Of walking past lines of beheaded children lined up on the side of the streets and turning the corner to see the Serbs lining up the next set, men this time. I was there with him, his eyes were the real life TV.
Many got out at that time, too much work, the wrong type of work was what I summarized. Many that didn't were dead, some he is still in contact with and some worked with the South and Central America cartels. 12 billion pound turnover apparently attracts a certain type.
I probed a little further, pathetically aware that I was going to be late for a completely useless meeting and that society had indoctrinated me far more successfully than my dining partner. I asked the normal questions people do with 5 minutes to question someone who worked in the clandestine world who has decided that he's going to open up for a rare show. What I learnt was that everyone copes differently or they don't cope. That 5 seconds was his genuine remorse limit, before the feeling passed. That choosing who to support is not obvious, make two choices, one overtly and one covertly. That menial concerns don't ever register. That normal life is possible because of the lifestyle between ops. One op for 2 days can pay your way through an entire BTEC and sometimes you can coincide an op with a surf trip.