The second swim was quite different from the first. Whereas brio and excitement had carried him through on the first occasion, this leg required stamina and a dull sort of determination. He felt his lack of physical and mental fitness. It was work.
He plodded on. The sun blazed down. The water felt thick and viscous. Everything – air, water, his own limbs and body – felt heavy. It seemed to him that he was going very slowly, that he was crawling on hands and knees across a watery desert. Still, he had one advantage which was invaluable. He had done the crossing. He knew what to expect. He knew that the shore would play tricks on him, that this would be more tiring than the physical effort of swimming. He also knew that he would do it.
Slowly, steadfastly, Frank dragged himself across the lake. He didn’t even feel particularly excited when the reeds finally loomed up before him. He was too leaden for that. Dropping his legs and raising his torso, he kicked out the last few metres in a gentle breast stroke, until he was within grasping distance of the first line of reeds.
He bobbed like a cork, drowsily scissoring his feet. Once again the droning of cicadas filled the sky and his ears. He didn’t want to think about the swim back. He didn’t want to think about anything.
He looked up. Clinging to one of the reed stalks, about half way up, was the abandoned shell casing of a young cicada. At first he took it for the creature itself, but then saw that it was grubbily translucent, empty. It was like a tiny suit of armour, waiting patiently for its knight to return.
Somewhere in the distance a kookaburra began to laugh. It was joined by a friend.
It was then that Frank felt something clamp onto his foot. It was so unexpected that at first he thought it wasn’t even happening. Then he was pulled under. His second thought, which was patently ridiculous and lasted only a moment, was that his cousins had somehow circled round unseen and were now playing a prank. But he was pulled down ever further – two, three, five metres – out into the lake and deep water. Whatever had him was big and strong and held him like a trap. It wasn’t human.
When Frank realised this, bizarrely a sort of calm washed over him. He had been expecting this, waiting for it ever since that time in the harbour. It had been an exhausting, wearying wait. And now, finally, the moment had come. It was a relief. He could cast out his fears and just be.
The Saltie had dragged him six metres down to the bottom. It was now just a case of holding tight until he drowned. It had been relatively easy. The prey was slack and unresisting. He was fairly certain that it was man and was surprised that he had ever been frightened of him.
It was dark where they were, and cold in the deep water that the sun never reached. Slowly it seemed, but it must have been quick, Frank felt his senses return. He became aware of the ache in his ankle where the teeth dug in. There was a throbbing in his ears as his blood swarmed. He looked up. Far away he could see the light at the surface, filtering down until it faded out. Another world. Some bubbles escaped from his mouth and shot up. He turned his eyes back to the gloom and was struck by a thought which made his mouth open in laughter. Here he was, at the bottom of a lake he didn’t really know, in the dark, supposedly on holiday, with his foot clamped in the mouth of a monster. Somehow he found it hilarious. His shoulders rocked with his laughter. He could hear the echoey clang of it in his ears. It sounded hollow, non-human.
A barrage of air bubbles flew from his mouth and climbed urgently away. Suddenly he felt a burning in his chest. It grew steadily, as though fanned at the bellows of an internal forge. It was an exquisite, terrible pain, like nothing he had experienced. He was running out of air. He was beginning to drown.
His old enemy fear came charging back, this time as an ally, shaking him into life. This was followed closely by anger, a ferocious anger which seemed to spring from the very worst of the pain. No! It didn’t have to end like this! He wasn’t going to die at the bottom of some God forsaken lake!
With his cheeks swelling and his eyes receding back into his skull, Frank felt down his leg for whatever it was that held him. He didn’t know what to expect, but was surprised to find a long object, smooth but ridged, alien but curiously pleasant to the touch.
Immediately he fell on it with a desperate fury, clawing at it, hammering it with his fists. The crocodile moved its head in surprise, plucked from its semi-slumber. It moved backward over the shingle, dragging the boy with it. Frank resumed his attack. The crocodile shook its jaws in irritation. Then Frank remembered the old classroom advice of going for the eyes. He felt feverishly along the snout, if that’s what it was. It made no sense in the dark. It was covered in lumps and ridges, any of which could be concealing the eyes. Then his thumbs passed over something which gave the barest flicker. He jammed them in and suddenly felt a beautiful sensation of weightlessness. e was floating up. The animal had released. He was free!
He kicked up but a pain shot through his ankle so he threw out his arms and hauled them back in an exaggerated breast-stroke. His lungs were bursting. The light quavered and broke at the surface. His face was strained and twisted. One more lunge. Two. The light scattered, dissolved into a shower of droplets as he broke the crust. He was gasping, groping for air as he emerged back into the world.
He blinked in the brightness as he took in the old world, which was new to him once more. He hadn’t even time to properly get his breath before he started swimming. It was too far back; left and right was even further to the shore. He headed straight on, into the reeds.
He swam as fast as he could, without regard to style or concentration of effort. He smashed through the reeds, clearing a passage as though trampling corn. The scratchy sheathes raked his body. His heart pounded. His lungs began to burn again. He became aware of little whining gasps that came from inside. They were strange and disconcerting and sounded as though they came from outside – from a little teasing doppleganger that fled with him. He had to believe that he would make it and he would. He would make it.
The reeds began to thicken. Suddenly he came upon a sight that he barely had time to register before it was dispelled. Two Red-Bellied Black Snakes were twined vertically in swaying combat. Their scales glinted. The oil black of their backs and deep scarlet of their bellies flashed like warnings in the sun. He swam straight over them and they scattered. He’d rather be bitten by black snakes than taken by the thing behind.
The reeds were dense now. His swim had become a flounder. Still, he was making progress, ploughing forwards. He thought he could see the trees beyond. He was almost there. Almost. And then he felt a rush of waters behind. The wake lifted his chest. He felt that sickeningly familiar pressure on his foot, and he stopped moving. He looked over his shoulder. Two yellow green eyes with demonic cats’ pupils looked at him briefly before sinking below the surface. His foot was turned in its mouth, which seemed to grin horribly. Beyond, the entire five-metre length of the crocodile was stretched out in the water like a surfaced submarine.
Frank screamed. It seemed to come from the deepest part of himself, digging back through time and space to a primal, universal primitive. It was full of fear, incomprehension and a futile anger at the universe. The crocodile didn’t care. He was angry, too. The man had hurt him when he jabbed him in the eyes. But this wasn’t about revenge. It was about survival. The man was food to live.