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  • Published: 28 September 2021
  • ISBN: 9780143789383
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $19.99

The Break




He stepped onto the beach, the sand warm beneath his feet, his board tucked under his arm, and the memory came back to him. The same one as always. It was his sixth birthday. He’d just got his first board – a foamie, of course.

Waist-deep in water, his dad held the board steady, while Taj found the right position.

Not too far forward. Not too far back. Just right.

‘You ready?’ his dad asked.

‘I’m ready, Dad.’

‘You know, once you catch your first wave, you’ll get hooked for life.’

‘I’m ready, Dad!’

As the wave started to break, his dad pushed, and Taj was away.

His dad was right. Hooked for life.

But today the sea was flat, there were no waves.

As Taj paddled out he could sense the frustration of the other surfers: the Aussies, the Brazilians, the Russians, the Balinese, the Brits.

Once out back, he sat astride his board, scanning the horizon for the hint of a swell. The sun was warm on his

shoulders. And mingling with the salt smell was the faint scent of the satay being cooked on the beach.

Sonny paddled past. ‘This is as weak as piss,’ he said.

‘Never know,’ said Taj. ‘Might pick up when the tide changes.’

‘I’m hitting the warung for a feed.’

Taj watched Sonny paddle off towards the beach.

Any other day, he would have followed him. But today he needed a wave, needed to purge his head of the thoughts, the feelings, that had tormented him since he’d woken this morning.

Feelings of terror: they were going to kill his dad.

Feelings of anger: they had no right to do that.

Feelings of shame.

And beneath all of this was an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness: there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

He was, as Sonny would say, as weak as piss.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a steep shoulder of clean water. As Taj paddled hard, he saw the other surfer on his inside. Both arms sleeved with tattoos.

Taj knew it wasn’t his wave, knew it belonged to the tatted guy, but he needed it.

Needed to purge his head of the thoughts, the feelings, that tormented him.

So, Taj broke the first rule of surfing: he dropped in, popping to his feet before the other surfer knew what was happening.

‘Kook!’ the other guy screamed as Taj took the line, the shoulder getting bigger, wider, the crest beginning to topple.

Taj crouched deeper, urging his thruster forward, and he was in the tube, in the green room. It was quiet, the light incandescent through the falling water, and time stretched and stretched and stretched.

Then the wave lost its shape, but that was enough for Taj. His head, at last, felt clean and clear.

He paddled towards the shore as other surfers cele­brated, pumping their fists.

‘Way to go, man!’

‘Awesome ride!’

Keren!’ yelled a Balinese surfer. Cool!

As Taj came out of the surf, hair plastered across his face, board under his arm, he saw the group of people up ahead. With the sun shimmering behind them, they were hazy, indistinct.

Locals. Another ceremony.

But as he moved closer, the group took shape, and he could see that they were not wearing traditional Balinese clothes. And then he noticed the bulky video camera, the microphone on a boom. Again, Taj wasn’t surprised: people were always filming on these beaches. Surf films. Short films. Drone shots. Weddings.

Somebody yelled, their accent Australian, harsh and abrasive, ‘That’s him, that’s the son!’

As one, the group started to move quickly towards Taj.

Now he knew they weren’t there to film the surf, or newlyweds – this was a news crew, and they were after him.

Run like hell! There was no way they could catch him.

But then another thought: I can use this to help Dad.

What was that phrase Jacqui from the Embassy always used? ‘Control the narrative.’

In no time at all, the video camera was focused on him and the microphone was hovering over his head and a tall woman in a bright red dress was smiling at him.

‘Taj, I’m Jessica Disher from Channel Nine News. Do you mind if we have a chat?’ she said, revealing whiter-than-white teeth.

Control the narrative, Taj reminded himself.

‘Sure,’ he said, his voice loud and clear.

Jessica Disher moved closer, and Taj saw the perspiration jewelling her upper lip, he could smell her big-city perfume.

As was often the case on the island, a crowd had quickly formed, with quite a few spectators recording with their phones.


‘It’s been ten years since your father was sentenced to death for smuggling drugs,’ Jessica Disher said.

Ten years, and Taj felt that same feeling he always felt: intense shame. His own father a scumbag drug smuggler.

Jessica Disher moved even closer, her perfume stronger.

‘Taj?’ she prompted.

‘Yep, that’s right,’ he said, holding her gaze. ‘Ten years.’

Suddenly a voice shouted, ‘Free Kimbo!’

A ripple ran through the crowd.

Control the narrative.

Jessica Disher and her teeth were unperturbed. ‘And in that time no prisoner has been executed in this country?’

‘There’s been a . . .’ he started, but he faltered because the word he wanted to use, that he’d read countless times,

was moratorium, but he wasn’t confident he knew how to pronounce it correctly.

‘Yes?’ prompted Jessica Disher.

Instead he said, ‘You’re right, no prisoners have been executed in the past ten years.’

‘And with the election, there will be a new president?’ said Jessica Disher.

‘Yep, that’s right,’ said Taj, but he was starting to feel that it was her, not him, who was taking control of the narrative.

‘There’s a lot of talk around the place that if Widaya is elected he will pardon your father.’

Please don’t say it out loud, like that! Please!

Taj maintained eye contact with Jessica Disher, but beyond her he could see all the people in the crowd staring at him.

‘Of course, I hope so,’ he said, and immediately he thought how weak that word was.

You hope the wind is offshore.

You hope your girlfriend will have sex with you one day.

But what word do you use when every single second of your life is about wishing that your dad was free?

Stay cool, Taj told himself, control the narrative.

‘My father broke the law.’

‘But in your own country he would be a free man by now,’ said Jessica Disher.

My own country? Which country is that, exactly?

‘We are, you know, guests in this country and need to, like, follow their laws,’ said Taj.

‘Even if those laws mean executing your father?’ said Jessica Disher.

They would drag his dad from his cell and they would blindfold him, and twelve soldiers with guns would aim for a target marked over his dad’s heart.

‘But . . . you know . . . like . . .’ started Taj, but suddenly there were no words and he had to get out of there, get away from her, that perfume, those teeth, the shame, the hope.

Hoisting his board back onto his hip, he turned around and hurried off, across the warm sand.

The Break Phillip Gwynne

From the author of the literary hit, Deadly Unna?, comes a fast-paced rite-of-passage set amid the mythical surf and island culture of Bali, and up to its neck in the madness of its politics and the terrifying consequences of breaking the rules…

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