Ever echoes the urban myth about waterholes in bushland or that perfect beach surrounded by rock pools; all remote, almost impossible to reach unless you are washed up on shore.
Teenage lads scare their young, first loves about the waif separated from her party group, never to be seen again – dead or alive.
“Wooooooo, don’t go down there Miranda,” Geoff called. “Miranda? Miraaaanda.”
“Stop it,” Kerry yelled, giggled, and punched her friend’s arm.
Of course, the stories evolve like Chinese whispers.
A psychologically unstable itinerant grows murderous intent in direct proportion to his left leg growing extra centimetres; his hand shrivels then drops off, replaced by a chrome hook; with testament to its lethal sharpness provided by the moonlight glittering at its curved tip.
“Come here my little pretties,” Steve croaked and dragged his leg in the dust as he walked around the campfire. “Come here my little darlings, I have something for you.”
“EEeee don’t,” Trace yelled and laughed loudly, face stretched up, gazing at the stars.
No one ever believes any of the campfire stories; of bunyip spirits waiting in the reeds to catch the unwary traveller drinking at his billabong, or the siren just past the shallow shelf who mesmerises the swimmer just that one step too far into murky depths, her kelpy fingers caressing a chest full of sea water.
“Who’s in for a swim tomorrow?” Trace called, breaking the eerie mood.
“What? With yeeewww?” Iman drawled. “You’ll be down the pond at the crack. I, on the other hand, will still be zipped up in my sleeping bag.”
“Geoff? Kerry? Steve?”
They all shook their heads.
“Nar, might catch some waves tonight but … ,” Steve said as his head turned slightly so he could catch the sounds of the waves on the rocks below. “Might finish me beer and head on down. Hear them breakers! Phew!”
Trace looked at the group huddled around their campfire.
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged. “But I will. Don’t care.”
She sulked for awhile but no one noticed. Kerry and Iman snuggled closer as the coolness of the evening gathered around them. Steve’s mind was already wading out to sea and Geoff was sucking on the last of the cream bottle bong.
Eyes watched the group from the salt bush, patiently, noting the cuddling girls wander off to their tent. Eyes blinked slowly as the lass with gold hair gave up on the group and returned to her single person tent. They blinked just once, turning to watch the blond lad pick up his surfboard and head out of the circle of light. They blinked finally, turning to the pimply, stoned lad who lay on his side gazing into the flames with rapture. Then they closed, or disappeared, with only a slight shimmer of the bush hinting that something or someone had been there.
True to her word, Trace emerged from her tent just a little before the sun rays licked the horizon. Already the coolness of the evening air was long gone, moisture evapourated leaving a saltiness to everything.
She thought she could hear muted, gentle words in the adjacent tent, so discrete she wasn’t sure, but decided privacy was probably best. Over by the glowing embers of the campfire, she could see sand indented in the shape of a body, but Geoff was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, she thought, gone to dig a deep hole. Their camp spade was also missing from the wood pile.
Steve’s board was half buried it seemed in the sandhill adjacent to his tent; licked clean and dry of the night’s surfing.
“I’d wait for you lot. I should wait,” she said in conversational tone, half wishing she would annoy them enough to join her, but not entirely convinced it would work.
Already in her bathers, Trace grabbed a bath sheet hanging from their makeshift clothesline between two straggly trees, and took the path that would lead down the cliffside and eventually to a swimming hole, separated from the wide ocean by a circular fall of boulders.
She regarded the swimming hole with an appreciative gaze, making her way slowly down the steep path. It was deep enough to dive in from the boulders and long enough for her to do laps. Trace intended to work up a hearty appetite, revelling in the thought of campfire sausages and smoky toast made over the embers, held there on the end of gum branches.
While they were all good and close friends, the group was so eclectic that Trace wondered how they had ever met, let alone formed their nucleus. It irked her that they did not join her and revel in the growing morning light or what would be, she was sure, the most refreshing way to start the day.
Iman and Kerry, she knew, would argue that they had their mornings worked out perfectly together. Geoff most likely was nursing a hangover and reaching for the prune juice, while Steve probably had stayed out half the night, catching tubes in the moonlight.
“Should break his bloody board. Then he’d stick around and be more social,” she grumbled, not meaning a word of it.
At the base of the cliff she slid off her thongs, popped her towel on a flat rock and her glasses in the middle so they could be seen clearly and would not get broken. Then she slid into the water slowly, watching the dark blue fabric of her suit turn black.
She never, ever wore red or yellow bathers to swim in the sea, could barely get the image of Jaws out of her head. Geoff took her to that flick at the Astor one time and Trace did not set foot in sea water for months afterwards. Steve assured her there were no sharks in the water at this site, and he was right, not a single fish, in fact!
Full light had emerged from the sea rim. Trace could almost see the bottom of the pool, but not quite. Although it was never likely, she assumed she was alone in her own little world, pushing her body from the edge in one gentle motion, fanning her arms out as though to greet the ebb and flow of the water.
At only ten metres from the edge, Trace thought she heard distant voices and looked up. Right at the top she could see someone scurrying down the side waving madly.
It could be Geoff, she thought. He’s changed his mind and wanted a race perhaps?
She was still surly about no one coming down the path with her so she kept her steady, slow stroke. But not too fast. She wanted to make a point, but she also wanted him to catch up.
Stroke, then drift, stroke then drift, closer to the centre of the pool.
As the sun ascended, a wind picked up, occasionally carrying flecks of sand and salt right across the pond. Trace could feel a faint crust gather on her face. Geoff was almost at water’s edge when she flipped up and then over, into the water depths, pulling herself into the cool water, refreshing her skin. She kept her eyes closed, felt the water swirl almost in an eddy, then stopped and turned around to head upwards.
Buoyancy shot her up above the surface of the water, popping up into the air like a surfacing cork. She laughed, steadied herself by treading water and looked around for Geoff.
By this time she was more than halfway across the pool. She squinted at the waving figure beside the water.
“What? I can’t hear you,” she called back over the growing noise of wind and surf.
He pointed up. She looked towards the top of the cliff, seeing another figure waving furiously at her. By this stage Trace realised they were not just waving hello. A scream pierced through nature’s cacophony. She also realised that Geoff was not diving into the water, just continuing a panicked dance at water’s edge.
She began to stroke back along the surface of the water to Geoff and it was then she felt herself getting ever closer to the centre of the pool. By now it was more than a drift as though something was pulling her. Sharp, adrenalin shot throughout her body and her limbs. The jolt made her swim harder – strong, steady strides not yet overcome by panic.
Trace made a small progress, moving away from the centre, but it was ever so slow and she was beginning to tire. The current, or whatever it was, incessantly pulled. Her body although moving outwards, was also drifting sideways. Debris on the water’s skin was travelling with her, but she passed it as it continued to be sucked towards the centre.
“I’m getting tired,” she shrieked in frustration and fear. “I’m getting tired. Help me.”
“Try fucking harder,” Geoff roared. “Whirlpool. Try harder.”
Her body was already buzzing but she had never heard her gentle, dopey friend swear before. This had the energy of a lightning bolt.
Kerry was almost at the bottom of the cliff path. Trace could hear her screaming something but it was not the distance that made it unintelligible. She was hysterical.
“It’s in the bottom. It’s mouth. It’s there, Get out, get out,” is what Trace thought she heard.
She stroked with all her might, breaking through the swirling water, beginning to cry, wondering what the hell was trying to grab hold of her.
Exhausted, Trace’s mind began to wander along the path of giving up when a freak wave broke through the barrier of rocks she had earlier thought were protecting her. She felt more than saw it coming, levelled her body onto the surface of the water, and waited momentarily to see if it would push her under or carry her to safety.
The wave petered out quickly, but it was enough to weaken the current grip and out of the swirling sink hole. With the last vestiges of survival, Trace pushed herself closer and closer to a rocky outcrop. The others ran along the shore line. Geoff stepped across the stones and pulled her out of the water.
They turned and stared to the centre of the pool where the water spout spun clockwise it seemed and out of sight, the pool refilling simultaneously by fountains of water flying over the rocks.
“I got away,” Trace gasped, her chest heaving and her body shaking from the shock.
Geoff place her bath sheet over her shoulders and they made their way to the sand where Kerry waited.
“You didn’t escape. It let you go,” Kerry yelled.
“Why the hell would it let me go?” Trace said, looking over her shoulder at her friend. It was then Trace realised the thing Kerry was carrying was half of Steve’s surfboard. The other ‘half’, Trace had presumed at daybreak, was beneath the sand making it stand on its end.
Kerry looked out to the centre of the pool.
“I think it has already eaten.”
Preparing to sink into grief for their lost friend, their minds simultaneously gathered the facts.
“The board was up there, not down here,” Geoff said.
“It can ‘walk’?” Kerry asked. “What the hell is it?”
“Where’s Iman?” Trace asked.