Karen Whitelaw: Caught in the Rip, highly commended
Caught in the Rip
The last day of summer. The westerly snorts a premonition of autumn, but by midday that will be forgotten. It’s just the type of day the bronze retirees live for; everyone else back at work – snigger, snigger – and the sea scattered with morning dazzle. At this time of year all I’ve got to do is sit in my watch tower with my feet up on the desk, keeping an eye on the odd swimmer and the board riders and resisting, and then surrendering at lunchtime to the fat salty lure of hot chips.
I glance down at the sand and there she is. I check up the beach, but no one’s with her. She puts her red beach bag under the black and white chequered flag which warns surfers away from the swimming area, and stands with her hands low on her hips, thumbs pointing forwards as if all the responsibility for this beach belongs to her, not me. She keeps glancing up at my tinted window, squinting. I lean back and stay very still.
She’s wearing one of those floaty see-through things over her bikini, and it makes me think of the time I overheard a guy say – unfortunately for him he didn’t know I was still her husband then –that even when she wears clothes she could be wearing nothing.
This is a new thing for her, coming to my beach.
After fifteen years I can read the ocean well. I know when to expect the whale migration and recognise individual dolphins who live along the shore. I can point out the submerged rocks, the treacherous rips, I know which wind will bring the blue bottles and I can smell the change of the tides.
But I can’t read Chloe.
What do you make of a woman who faces my tower square on, crosses her arms to grab the hem of her shift, and pulls it slowly up over her thighs, her hips, her belly, like a stripper?
I glue the binoculars to my eyes and aim them right over her head. There’s a board rider paddling hard for a wave. I lock onto him. Behind him the wave rises like something dark from the deep. It peaks, looms over him like the black osprey on the cliffs eyeing their prey, and pounces. But the rider is up and whooshing along the dark underbelly while the wave rolls and crashes behind him, spitting up angry mountains of spume strong enough to break a surfboard in half, or a man.
When I put down my binoculars Chloe’s cutting through the thigh-high foam near the edge, arms raised to her shoulders against the cold. Then she dives under the water and steps up on the sand bank with her face to the sun. She stands calf-deep, alone in the ocean, and slicks her streaming hair back with both hands, arching her body as if she’s in a shampoo commercial. It would be laughable if anyone else did it.
People think a sandbank collapses without warning. But it’s always gradual. A slow erosion caused by the force of water. Like the wearing away of limpet shells on the rocks, a dead seagull washed up on the shore, marriage. It can take months for the sandbank to erode under the normal tussle of the moon and tide. Or only hours under the churning force of a violent east-coast low. What usually happens is people on sandbanks get swept off their feet in a sudden surge of water coming from the deep unknown or backwashing from the shore. They’re snatched over the edge and into the channels where there’s nothing solid under their feet, just a swirling maelstrom in which they lose all control. Some of us struggle across the current and crawl back to the safety of the sand bank. I’m not sure if we could be called the lucky ones.
It’s low tide and Chloe runs across the sandbank with her legs shooting out to the sides and the spray leaps around her like an adoring dog. She dives through a breaking wave on the other side of the bank and swims out into darker water. Here the current has carved a deep trench running parallel to the shore and the only sign of danger is a slight ripple on the surface. It pulls left towards the rocks and does a dog leg out to sea. Chloe lies on her back and rides the swell. She of all people would know she’s in a rip.
Behind her the board riders wait near the first break. The waves angle across the flagged area and I’m usually lenient with the surfers if no swimmers are out the back, especially when it’s pumping. My finger hovers over the loudspeaker switch. Chloe is the only swimmer. Unless you count the two old ladies standing in the shallows with their sarongs hitched up into the legs of their one pieces.
The westerly sprays the top of the breaking waves backwards like lace veils. I watch Chloe’s head bob in the space between like a dark buoy. I check her through the binoculars. She’s smiling. A surfer slides into view and flips back off a wave. He’s only ten metres away from her. I drop the binoculars and they bounce across the desk.
I flick the switch and the loudspeaker crackles in the air.
“Board riders. . .” Something occurs to me and I switch it off.
I turn it on again.
“Swimmers. The swimmers past the inside break,” as if she’s not the only one, “come in now. There’s a strong rip out there.” I repeat the message. I flip off the switch and high-five myself.
I check Chloe through the binoculars. She’s looking right at me. And waving. And I’m having trouble understanding why she looks like she just got awarded the Bronze Medallion.
Her chest rises out of the water, and she waves with two arms like they’re windscreen washers. She sinks chin deep, and bobs up again, waving. All she has to do is catch one wave to the sandbank, for Christ’s sake.
The old ladies in the shallows start jumping up and down. Waving one arm at the tower, the other pointing at Chloe as if they’re landing aeroplanes. They sound like screeching seagulls. I stand up so they can see me more clearly through the tinted glass and make a show of lifting my binoculars. When I check on Chloe she is staring straight at me. I stare straight back.
The final collapse of our marriage came when the woman across the road stormed into our back yard. I was nailing the new weatherboards onto the extension I hoped would eventually become a nursery. She stood at the bottom of my ladder, eyes all red and soggy, her mouth stringy with saliva, yelling up at me to do something. If Chloe hadn’t been having it off with someone we knew I probably wouldn’t have found out.
I put my nail gun carefully on the fold-out shelf and climbed down, first one heavy boot, then the other. I noticed the red paint splattered on the risers from when I painted the bedroom. The blobs of putty from the leaking bathroom window. By the time I felt the ground firmly under my feet I knew I was through fixing things.
‘Hey. Someone’s … in trouble … out there.”
One of the women from the beach is bent over, clutching the door frame with one hand and the bunched ends of her sarong with the other.
‘I’m watching,’ I say, and wave my binoculars.
Out near the kiosk the seagulls squabble over chips, seduced by the smell of crisp fried potatoes and salt air.
‘Watching isn’t …going to save her.’
‘She’s not panicking. She could be waving at her friends. Or her husband.” I raise one eyebrow but the woman stays stony faced.
‘She’s waving at you.’
That knocks the breath out of me but I look right back at her. “She put herself there and she knows exactly how to get herself out. But I’m watching her.”
I turn away from the door and make the binoculars fit my eyes as tightly as a wetsuit. The woman actually growls, and I hear her sandy feet scrape back across the concrete.
Every summer people do idiotic things: swim outside the flag area, jump off the rocks into big seas, ignore the red flag. Some of them are tourists, but usually they’re just stupid. Last year we even had a guy with a body written in tatts swim right in front of the shark sign. In the shallows, would you believe? Offering them something to read while they eat. When stupid people get into trouble we usually leave them for a little while if we can. Fear is a good teacher.
But Chloe is neither a tourist nor stupid. I lean on the desk and watch her. She keeps her chin above the water and her head makes jerky movements that show she’s dog paddling like crazy. Every now and then she lifts one arm above her head but slaps it back down quickly. The current has swung her round near the rocks and she’s heading out. Even now if she swims a few strokes across the rip she can hitch a wave. She’s lived with a lifesaver for fourteen years and must know that.
Both women are on the beach going berko. Doing some arthritic version of star jumps and shouting to the board riders. Chloe’s got them fooled.
I lift the binoculars and watch close-up as a wave slaps her face and her head disappears in the whitewash. She doesn’t resurface. I sweep my binoculars in circles. Past the rock outcrop. Along the dark empty trench to the churning white water and out to sea. Automatically I start counting seconds. …4, 5, and on the way back in see her out past the rock ledge. Her head is thrown back, her eyes red and scrunched shut. Her lips are blue and gaping. And while I watch the next wave smoothly erases her.
I have nowhere left to hide. I scramble down the concrete stairs three at a time. Race across the sand. The old girls yell something I don’t catch. I slice through the first cold shock and make for the trench. The salt water stings my eyes but I don’t close them. Out past the sandbank the water resistance slackens and instead of holding me back the current snatch me up and we rush towards the open ocean – and Chloe – with a force that’s too powerful to resist.