This week we are staying in a cottage on a farm above Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. We stay here every Easter. David goes to Bluesfest, and we visit the beach early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Sometimes we find remnants of the night before: bottles, a fire pit, occasionally sleeping people who do not wake up even when the sun is high in the sky.
When I can, I swim from The Pass at one end of the scallop bay where there’s a sheltered cove and a shaded beach. While I’m in the water, Otis, now five, builds in the sand with David or makes face paint out of the different-coloured rocks. I go into the water, dodge the dive boats and surfers to get out beyond the break, and swim an easy kilometre, with the tide, to the surf club. Sometimes there are big waves to negotiate. Sometimes it is calm and I go out through the rocks and around the point where we see dolphins and occasionally whales from the lookout. After the swim, I walk back to The Pass and we eat toast with avocado and Vegemite and boiled eggs for breakfast.
Swimming in the sea has much to teach me. Last year I saw a shark while I was swimming. It's possible I channelled the shark, in the new age sense, having been obsessed with them ever since I started sea swimming twenty years ago. My shark may have started its day at Lennox Head, heading my way only when I started my shark thoughts for that day. Otis, who has a book about sea creatures, used to try to help me with my fear. Sharks don’t really like the taste of humans, he told me. They only take one bite because they think you might be a seal. He appraised me carefully. ‘Maybe don’t wear those black togs,’ he said. Leaning in conspiratorially, he added, ‘And definitely do not swim breaststroke.’
David read a Guardian article suggesting you make yourself vertical in the water, as a shark won’t be able to get a purchase on you to bite. If you’ve been attacked, you should make yourself vertical then punch the shark when it comes back around.
I could imagine treading water despite a leg wound bleeding out from that big artery, but the idea of punching a shark was beyond me, even in my wildest imagination. And I am a novelist, so my imagination should be wilder than average.
The morning I saw the shark, I had swum out on my own, before the gaggle who walk along the beach together at eight each morning. The water was clear. I’d seen two turtles when I swam over the rocks at Clarkes. A voice in my head, some preconscious visual response unit in my brain, said, ‘You’re going to see a shark and it will be all right.’ Before I could get the word No! that was forming in my head out through my mouth, there was the shark, below me and to the right, bigger than me, the biggest creature I have ever seen in the water.
I swam for shore as fast as I could, without kicking so as not to arouse interest. I ran back to The Pass without stopping. I wanted to live.
I wanted to live.
This holiday, we are becoming a family again. We are not a normal family but I think we are starting to be happy.
From For a Girl by Mary-Rose MacColl, published by Allen and Unwin, out now.