by Austin Armatys
The beach has two faces. I first realise this at age 13, my skinny arms buried in the sand to counteract the poison coursing through my veins. I've been stung by physalia utriculus, which in Australia we just call “blue bottles”, and the little jellyfish have left angry red lines that throb where their tentacles lashed my skin. I embed my arms up to the elbows in the cool sand, and it makes them feel better somehow, the weight of the moist earth lessening the intense ache. Around me, sun-worshipping families pursue relaxation, parents lying on towels and chatting or listening to the radio while their children frolic unattended at the edge of the surf. The crowd is oblivious to my mortal fear, my terror invisible as I silently consider the possibility of some heretofore unknown allergy to jellyfish toxin. I’m scared I might die—it certainly feels like it, my heart racing, limbs pulsating with pain—but I am entirely too full of pride to ask for help. To the casual observer I probably look like I’m playing some weird game—inserting myself into the beach arms first, burrowing like an animal, face fixed in a half-grimace, looking around for help that won’t come, because why would it?
Kingscliff is a beachside town in northern New South Wales, and when my family first visits in 1994 it is still a quaint and quiet place, yet to be transformed by foreign capital, the real estate game, and a tourism boom. But some of the locals know what’s coming: on our first trip into town we sit for lunch at the local bakery, and my father laughs as he points to graffiti carved into the wooden table. It says DIE YUPPIE SCUM in crude slashes and hacks, violence implicit in its form. I try to imagine the person who did this—were they laughing, was it just a joke? Or were they grim and serious, their act of petty vandalism fuelled by genuine hatred? Could they even be watching us right now? I look at the black BMW parked in front of us—my family’s car—and know with certainty that we are the yuppies they want dead.
The beach has two faces. During the day it's idyllic in the ways you already know: seagulls and hot chips, crystal-clear water and body boards, big umbrellas and bikinis. But then there’s the other beach, the beach that’s actually a trap. This other beach is a slave to the endlessly undulating ocean, a vassal that lures in unsuspecting victims to drown or disappear them without a trace. This is the other face of the beach, hidden in plain sight: this is the beach that can kill.
One night I overhear my parents talking about a murder that occurred in Kingscliff a little over a decade earlier, in 1982, the same year I was born. From these intercepted snippets gruesome details have been extrapolated: two hitchhiking 13-year-old boys were kidnapped and taken into the dunes by a pair of men—AWOL soldiers; lovers and Satanists. The men raped and tortured the boys before they made one of the schoolboys kill the other, forcing him to bash and bury his friend half-alive in the sand, leaving the truant teenager to suffocate in a shallow beachside grave. The men then drove their unwilling accomplice home, injured but alive...and burdened with a tale so terrible that it is impossible to know its true weight.
Although this scenario might seem outlandish, it was all true, and, as I found out many years later, the actual details of the crime were even worse than those I overheard—more disturbing, crueller, more depraved. If you want to know for yourself, you can search for the murder of Peter Aston. But I can’t recommend it. There are some things that best remain unknown.
You can read the rest of this essay in Creeper Magazine Issue One, coming soon from Oh Nothing Press.
Austin Armatys: Writer/Teacher/Wretched Creature. Co-Founder & Creative Director at Oh Nothing Press.
On Twitter @0hnothing