The Ocean Bunyip
When you’re in the midst of things, in my case the worst of things imaginable, surely the last inclination should be to write. The worst of things happened to me a month ago when Jane disappeared into the ocean. We’d not even been engaged twenty four hours, still dizzy in the wonder of love. A sense of mystery lingers in the mist enveloping Port Nepean, today. Perhaps the mystery was here last time but I was too much in love with Jane to notice. I approach an information tablet, the last thing Jane ever read. I’m reminded of the Bunurong people. For thousands of years they inhabited this land. Jane didn’t last an hour, yet it’s her face I see, not the people inscribed on the tablet.
Cheviot Beach may keep its secrets but I’m resigned to search. The diving gear in my rucksack slows me a little as I scale the cyclone fence that seems symbolic, ornamental, a bit like speed bumps that only go half way across a road. I make it over, unscathed on the surface, all limbs intact. Underneath though, lost emotions from a month ago waste no time flooding back. Happiness radiated as Jane and I floated effortlessly over the fence. The champagne from lunchtime persuading us danger was easy. We even walked past the Parks Victoria sign warning of unexploded bombs as if it were just another dare. For Jane it was something we could talk about later on, something to revel in knowing the experience would bond us closer together. Today, it’s just me and my anxiousness but I’m determined to trace the exact route we took to the beach that day.
I move on, in between shrubs, stepping on a twig that cracks but doesn’t break. I imagine it to be the first click in the process of detonating a bomb. I should halt but instead walk faster, crunching more twigs that seem to mimic my pounding heart that has increased to a beat faster than hardcore techno. Something has to give – fortunately not my heart. The twigs dissipate as the rocky decline begins. I gasp and stop to see an image of myself in pieces, splayed everywhere, never to be put back together. I look toward the blue heavens with not one cloud blocking the way. Please, if it’s my fate for a bomb to take me, let it be on the way back.
The stagnant salty smell encircling the narrow foreshore of Cheviot Beach is not unpleasant and instantly reminds me of Jane’s laugh, after I told her that it smelt like candy compared to when her dog passed wind. Entering the water, I realise that I’ve never swum alone. Who will know if something goes wrong? I’m a strong swimmer but I think about how I’ve always swum in company, whether that be a partner, a friend, or even a family member just sitting on the beach watching. Should I call this off? A flash of Jane’s bravado convinces me to keep going, albeit apprehensively.
Swimming with her was such fun that day. We waded out into the welcoming waves and body surfed them haphazardly back towards the shore. I remember the refreshing cold water against my skin contrasting with the hot February day. Today, just a month later, my snugly fitting wetsuit keeps me from shivering in similar but not the same, cold water. I begin my search. The weight belt helps me to skim under the initial swell. I dive beneath the foaming wash using the undertow to help take me out deeper. I stop where I last saw Jane to quickly adjust my scuba mask and blow some water from the snorkel. I stand on tiptoes and remember the final wave I body surfed here. An exhilarating ride on a crest that was larger than all others that day. When I realised Jane had missed the wave, I turned, expecting her to be surfing in just behind me, instead I saw her tensed hand disappear into the ocean. I still wonder if she screamed for help as I rode that muting wave.
Reality hits me as a large unbroken wave lifts me from my comfort zone, taking the sand away from beneath my toes. It’s time to dive. I find it difficult to see clearly as swirling sand caught in some backwash passes me by and rudderless clumps of seaweed, ebb and flow around me. I swim a little further out to where the water is clearer, then to the rippled sandy bottom, looking for clues, anything to shed light on Jane’s whereabouts. I let the current take me, hopefully the way it took Jane. A school of Blackfish flee around me as I drift towards their rocky protection. I surface to gulp in some air and dive again. The sand at the ocean floor seems so close. I kick hard, stretch my arms in front of me but am unable to reach it. This is a little deep. I pop my ears and swim towards a rocky shelf that reveals itself from behind a garden of dense date coloured seaweed. My vision is impeded as I swim through the seaweed. Was that a huge pike scurrying past? It couldn’t be a shark. Startled, I somehow get my flipper wedged between two rocks. This is not happening. I panic and try to kick violently but my foot’s anchored. For a moment I think of joining Jane. No, she wouldn’t want me to greet her this way; swaying aimlessly in the ocean’s current. Be brave, her voice comes to me. I reach down and manage to grip onto one of the rocks. I pull with all my might but my hands slide off the rock’s slimy sides. My throat contracts, wanting more air. I grip the rock again, lower, and heave as if I’m a young boy trying to lift a medicine ball. The rock budges and I fall backwards to sit with it in my lap. I let the rock go and watch it float effortlessly away like it has just been filled with helium. Not a party trick to recommend. I stand, freed, and power to the surface which speeds toward me like a squinty sunlit horizon.
On the surface again, I let the wet suit’s buoyancy give me a breather, a real breather. I can’t see Cheviot Beach but it appears a moment later as I rise with a wave. I swim back towards the shore with my head down, surveying the ocean’s unpolished floor of sand and rock as best I can until I reach the spot again where Jane disappeared. I stand on tiptoes and feel something slimy entangle my flipper. I kick but this time lose a flipper. I dive down to look for it but swirling sand and lumps of seaweed block my view. I dive again but nothing, it’s gone. Honestly, what do I expect to find here? I body surf the next wave in and sit in the shallow water, take off my remaining flipper. There’s a crescent shape chunk missing off the flipper’s end which looks as if someone hastily chomped a half slice of watermelon. Must have been when I was caught in the rocks.
I look towards the empty waves and still feel the same disbelief as when Jane disappeared; no resolution. I get a strange feeling that I’m not alone and look back at my rucksack. Nearby, a stranger with a grey fairy floss beard that reaches his bare breast, sits cross legged, watching me with brown eyes the colour of strong tea.
‘Watch ya diving for, son?’ he says.
I don’t answer and warily keep an eye on the old man. I peel my wetsuit off and wrap a towel around me. I shiver and notice goose bumps invade my forearms. What business has he to ask? I wonder while trying to slip my clothes back on which is proving difficult without drying myself properly.
‘Donch ya speak? He persists.
‘I do.’ I say, hoping he goes away so I can get out of here. In any case I’ll just get my runners back on and scat.
‘Well, the abalone’s long gone from here.’
‘I’m diving for something, I can’t discuss.’ I say as I tie my laces.
‘That right. Looking for Harold Holt then, arnch ya?’
‘Why would I be doing that?’
‘That’s the only mystery ya folk ever look for on this beach.’
‘I thought his disappearance was a conspiracy theory.’
‘Either way; still a mystery.’
I’m not in the mood for another bloody lecture. All I care about is Jane. Let him finish talking, now. A moment of silence comes between me and the stranger. I’ll put my wetsuit and flippers in the rucksack and leave.
‘Watch ya diving for, then,’ he reminds me.
‘If you really must know, my fiancé disappeared a month ago, just there,’ I point.
‘That’s where they all go. Find ya self any clues?’
‘Doesn’t surprise me. Ya whole country couldn’t find a clue either. Navy divers, helicopters, hundreds of men in uniform, all found nothing, but I think ya found one, son. Ya just don’t know it,’ he says and points with a shaky finger. ‘Look, bit the end of ya flipper, there.’
I run my fingers along the flipper’s mangled edge and confirm. ‘It is shaped like a bite.’
‘Only sharp teeth did that,’ the old man says with surety.
‘So, you think a shark bit my flipper?’
‘No son, something far more dangerous.’
I look at the old man intently; his wrinkled forehead seems full of knowledge. I’m intrigued. ‘What then?’
‘An Ocean Bunyip, we, the Bunurong people call it. Ya folk call it an Anomalocaridid. I think that’s how ya say it.’
‘An Ocean Bunyip! Looks like a giant prawn but with tusks of a wild boar, teeth sharper than a shark’s, eyes – cunning like a man.’
This guy has to be nuts. ‘I’ve read about Bunyip myths; pure fantasy.’
‘Wasn ya culture born from fantasy, myth? Dinch ya read fairytales as a child?’
‘Yes, but I’ve grown to understand – what’s real and make believe.’
‘It’s not bullshit, son. I saw it. Took my brother, just near where ya fiancé was taken. Not far from Harold Holt’s disappearance. We were diving for abalone. Tide was out, the ocean calm. Our basket full. I was ready to go but my brother wanted more. He was only a few meters from me when I saw the Bunyip flash by, took him. My eyes did not trick me. I ran to my parents. The whole tribe came back here in search of my brother. Every day, for a moons cycle we came back, hoping the Bunyip was forgiving; it was not.’
I find it hard to believe what he’s telling me but the misty red clouds floating from the corners of his eyes and drooping bottom lip echo a sincerity of real loss. ‘Did your parents believe your story about the Bunyip?’
‘Of course,’ he scoffs at me.
‘Well, my parents blame me for taking Jane here and Jane’s parents would have me locked up if they could, yet I’m the one who lost my love. I’m sorry but your Bunyip story isn’t going to change anything. Only some kind of hard evidence is going to help me now.’
‘Is hard evidence, all ya need?’ The old man sighs. ‘If it is, I’m sorry too.’
I look at the ocean, wanting to believe in fairy tales again, hoping to see Jane’s hand, in need of her voice, but the waves just keep rolling in. I look back towards the stranger to ask his name; he is gone. My first inclination is to write. I find my diary at the bottom of the rucksack. I flick through to my last entry. The evening before Jane disappeared, how I hoped she would say yes. The next page I expect to be blank, it is not. There’s an entry from Jane. I love you, this is the best day of my life, she wrote.
Andrew Mansell, July 2012.