I think it was the shadow in the water below that most disturbed me. It could have been anything but the only thing I could think of was “Shark!” The full moon offers quite a lot of illumination, but when you’re treading water off the Bass Strait in Australia, the light gets reflected off the waves and all you see at best, are the shadows.
It’s the stories you hear that make you worried. I came from Dublin and swam in the chilly waters of the Irish Sea or occasionally the Atlantic when I was a kid. Nothing more dangerous than a jelly fish or a piece of broken glass in the sand could get you there. Australia was a little different. There were poisonous spiders and snakes and in the water sharks.
I guess the fact that I was only there a few weeks when I decided to go camping in the bush didn’t help. The newness of it all meant I was not just unfamiliar with the local flora and fauna, but I was downright naïve.
Something moved beneath me and a wave slapped me in the face as I looked down. Further out, the others were swimming freely. They were laughing and messing about and were more used to the place than I was, so it was bound to be safe? I looked to the shore and all I could see in the night was the fire we had lit and one of our tents nearby on the beach. Flip! – and that’s the nice F-word for what I was thinking – It looked like a long way back and then something touched my foot. I swallowed a lung full of water.
“Bollox.” I said the word out loud and felt my heart thumping in my chest. I knew I shouldn’t have had those beers. Drinking and midnight swimming in shark-infested waters suddenly felt like a bad idea. The very thought of that combination, drink, night-swimming and sharks, suddenly brought me back to Galway in 1976. I was only a nipper and my older brother smuggled me into a cinema in Galway city to watch Jaws. It scared the actual shite out of me and in that moment I could literally hear the music in my head and something touched my foot again.
Now I had options. I could scream and flay my way back to shore but I figured it would be no good for my cred to lose my cool and look like a Wally, especially if this was a false alarm. There was the choice to carry on and ignore the large dark shadow circling beneath my feet and enjoy the respite that the cool water offered to the 80% humidity and ridiculously high night time temperatures. That was never really going to happen. Then there was the play it cool, I think I’ll just casually swim back and have another beer on dry land option. Option 3 it was.
Of course that turned out to be easier said than done. In the first place, even as I considered my options, I had drifted further out to sea. I am a decent enough swimmer and back then I was young , strong and fit so I could make it back easily enough. It was just a fair distance to have to swim with a shark stalking me, assuming it actually was a shark. Regardless I began to swim back. Slow and steady I thought, don’t splash too much. The shore seemed further away with every shark-attracting stroke. Half way there a thought struck me and I stopped to look back at the others. My feet touched a sandbank much to my relief.
I called out for the others to come back but they waved me off. I said that there could be sharks – trying not to give away my fear as it was as yet unfounded – but they mocked me for worrying and for being a blow-in. Fair enoughski, I thought, if you get your legs bitten off, don’t come running to me. On I swam and I felt the first pang of a stitch as the beer kicked in. My mother always told me not to go swimming for at least an hour after eating or drinking. Why hadn’t I listened to her. Something splashed to my left.
I picked up the pace and the stitch evaporated. I could smell the fire and my knee hit sand beneath the water. Hallelujah I was safe. To be brutally honest, at that point I sort of scrambled, half crawling, half swimming into the shallows and then ran-waded my way to complete safety on the sand. I plonked my nervous arse onto the beach, panting like I had run a marathon. The adrenalin was still pumping as I scanned the water for the others.
I heard them laughing and splashing and then picked out their silhouettes swimming back to shore. What to do? The answer was easy, another beer. They tumbled onto the beach, unaware of my no-good, two-bit, lily-livered, yeller-bellied, chicken-shit varmentism. We drank some more, stoked the fire and eventually crawled into our respective tents and crashed out until the sound of rosellas and cockatoos screeching woke me up early the next day.
The fire was dead and I had been savaged my mosquitos the size of bears but at least I was alive. I was first up and I strolled to the water’s edge and looked around. I had panicked the night before and felt better with the sun on my face. Behind me were the jungle encrusted cliffs that we had somehow negotiated half-cut in the dark the night before. There were exotic birds everywhere, the likes of which I had only seen in the zoo back home. The sky was pure blue, not a cloud and already, even early in the morning the heat and humidity had me perspiring like a sauna-loving sumo wrestler’s crotch in a fur lined jock-strap.
I looked out at the water and the blood drained from my face. The sea was calm with only a few crested waves near the shoreline, but it wasn’t the waves that caught my attention. Like some horrible aquatic nightmare, the sea’s surface was dotted with small triangular fins. There were dozens of them and they were everywhere. I felt sick.
That was it. No feckin’ way was I going back into the water again. I would sweat my hole off if I had to, but my worst imagined fear had just come true. Or had it? I turned my back on the water and returned to my tent. Just before I reached it, I thought I saw something slither in the sand near the door. I could have sworn it went inside. The word ‘Bollox’ was used once more. Apparently the sharks had made me bush-paranoid. All I could imagine now was a tent full of snakes. I was afraid to pull on a pair of Kecks without checking. Feckin’ snakes! My mother warned me about them as well. You should always listen to your Ma. I figured that this was going to be a very, long weekend…
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