“It’s not a whirlpool, I don’t reckon,” I said. “You can’t have a whirlpool without water. Can you?”
The elderly man on my left paused in the act of peeling a mandarin, his moist eyes blinking as if I’d called him back from some distant dream.
“Maybe it’s a maelstrom,” I continued, reaching into my bag for another can. “Yeah, that’s it, definitely. A maelstrom.”
I peered round owlishly. The only other person within scoffing range was a young woman, head tucked between her knees, plucking obsessively at the grass.
Stretching her neck like a turtle, she scoured flecks of green off her black jeans with her fingernails and glared at the far side of the pit, where it was lapping against the base of the goal posts.
“Maelstrom’s just a fancy word for whirlpool. Like vortex or eddy.”
I wasn’t about to argue with such authority, so I took a large gulp and belched.
“So you’re over at the university, are you?”
She obviously regretted having started a conversation but I was used to that.
“What are you studying?”
She shrugged, shoulders jutting sharply under her thin jersey.
The old man beamed at me like a kid who’s solved a difficult maths problem.
“That’s what we called it. When I was a lad. Up the coast. The Great Sump. Two, three times the size of this.”
“Sump?” I echoed. “Seems a bit tame somehow, for something that could swallow a stegosaurus.”
I stumbled over the word but got it on the second attempt. He waved away my proffered can, excited by his story, so I opened it myself before remembering I already had one.
“There was a picture in the paper and everything. It was a sight, I can tell you.”
He passed me a mandarin. It tasted funny, like apple with toothpaste. When we finished he put the scraps in a bag, which I took from him and lobbed in an arc into the hole in front of us. It landed with a soft splat, then began moving slowly in a large circle. By the time it had completed one revolution it had dropped eighteen inches or so, gradually being dragged towards the centre. We watched its progress like spectators at a car race, eager for the crash. Each rotation became smaller and swifter. Near the eye the blades of grass were pressed flat as though by a strong wind. The bag seemed to hover at the last moment, twirling so tightly it was almost motionless, before being sucked under.
“Beauty,” I said, juice dribbling down my chin.
“My wife will be along soon,” he said, talkative now that the ice had been broken. “She’s bringing scones. She makes yummy scones, with lots of raisins and cinnamon.”
“Excellent. Hey, where do you think that orange peel went? It must have gone somewhere.”
“I had one in my bathroom once.”
I squinted back to my right but all I could see were the piercings lining her earlobe. Her intensity was kind of intimidating.
“Matter doesn’t just vanish, does it? Or maybe it does. Have you noticed there’s never a pen when you need one? They just disappear and then new ones take their place, that you’ve never seen before.”
“It was only wee, but it was cool.”
The man shuffled towards me on his tartan rug.
“The big boys tied a rope to a branch with a tyre on the end and swung out over the middle. I wanted to try it but Mum wouldn’t let me.”
I gave a sympathetic grimace. Mothers are like that. But I didn’t want to lose my train of thought.
“Cheese disappears too. You’re feeling a bit peckish and you know you’ve got some in the fridge but when you open the door it’s all gone.”
He carried on as though he hadn’t heard, engrossed in an adventure from decades ago.
“Mr Dewe, the policeman, he came and took it down.”
“It was fucking cool.”
Her blonde spikes quivered as she fired the words at the clubrooms. A ring glinted in the side of her snub nose. I figured it was still best to ignore her.
“He clipped Joey Rawiri round the ear and called him a numbskull.”
“Well, mine do anyway. They always turn up dead three days after I get them.”
A corgi came bounding past, trailing a long leash. It darted to and fro, sniffing at the crater and leaping backwards with hysterical yelps and lolling tongue.
“It moved, see. Mostly it was behind the door but sometimes it moved.”
A woman scooped up the dog and carried it to safety, out through the gap in the fence. She seemed a little out of focus.
“One time I got up to go to the loo and nearly stuck my foot right in it.”
I guess everyone has their own maelstrom story.
“But the Jemmet twins, Dave and Seth, they snuck into his shed at four o’clock in the morning. They pinched the rope and put it back up again.”
“I used to stare at it for hours. I’d put a candle on a saucer and sit up against the bath, looking at the shadows dancing on the wall. It was like I was somewhere else.”
Slightly unsteadily, I leaned behind me and added a new can to the row of empties.
“But perhaps goldfish don’t count,” I said, licking some drops from my wrist. “Because they don’t exactly dissolve into nothingness. I’ve still got their little corpses to mourn over if I want to.”
I folded a beer tab back and forth until it broke. The old man observed me earnestly.
“So fucking cool.”
She spoke more to herself than to us, head tilted to one side. I wiped the condensation off a fresh can with my sleeve and held it out to her. She looked at it doubtfully as if expecting some kind of trick, so I placed it on the ground between us. Skinny arms locked around her shins, she waited for it to run away. It didn’t. Quickly she unfurled and pounced. A triumphant gleam appeared in her eyes.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
She flinched as she opened it. A knob of foam bubbled out and she blew it away, took a tentative sip. Her face flickered in what might have been a smile.
“Thank you,” she repeated more audibly.
I fished out another for myself.
“You got a name?”
She laid the tin against her cheek, inspecting my question for sinister meanings.
“Yeah,” she said finally.
“Everyone’s got a name, don’t they?”
That seemed profound, though it probably wasn’t.
“So what should we call you?”
“Whatever. Rudolph. That’ll do.”
I was distracted by a high-pitched keening. The old man was rocking fretfully, jaw sagging and brow furrowed. I wondered if he was having some kind of seizure.
“But they didn’t tie the knot right. Seth—”
Five students came bursting through the hedge from the hostels. A youth with gangly limbs was propelling a supermarket trolley that bounced and rattled across the field. With the others in pursuit he dashed for the pit, aiming at an angle to the curve, against the spin. One pair of wheels veered over the rim, and when the castors touched the ground the cart bucked like a rodeo bull. His hips slammed into the crossbar and then the whirlpool spat him out, leaving him flat on his back with the cage squashing his chest. His friends applauded. While he was dusting himself off a ginger-haired boy hijacked the trolley and headed screaming in the opposite direction, clockwise. This time it lunged forward, snatching his feet from under him. His war-cry became shriller as his torso slid down the bank. They sprinted after him, grabbing his ankles and pulling him back from the brink.
The man beside me was clearly watching a different drama. The woman who called herself Rudolph retreated inside her shell again, stabbing at the weeds and mumbling. Neither of them paid any attention as the boys sorted themselves out and plotted their next move.
“I got an idea!” shouted the shortest one, clambering into the basket. “Push me!”
They roared their approval, but immediately someone else heaved him out and leapt in to take his place. Soon there was a noisy melee as they fought for the top spot, like several armies battling for the same citadel. Eventually the trolley toppled over and they collapsed in a panting, swearing heap.
They gathered in a huddle, with lots of gesticulating and good-natured abuse. When their conference was finished the one who seemed to be in charge looked us over appraisingly. Rudolph sensed his gaze and squeezed herself even tinier. He fastened on me.
“Hey, keep an eye on our shopping cart for us, mate?”
I raised my beer in salute and gave him the thumbs up. I only spilt a little. As they tramped off through the bushes again I glanced at the others to see if they were impressed with my male bonding. Rudolph was cuddling her can like a teddy bear, shoulders trembling.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “That was great.”
She nodded reluctantly.
“I suppose. It’s just. I don’t. You know.”
Her lips drooped as forlornly as a garden gnome who’s lost his fishing pole, so I relented.
“Yeah. Ain’t that the truth?”
The old man floundered back from wherever it was he’d been.
“That’s where I met Alison. At the sump. She was wearing a white dress and the heel came off her shoe. I asked her to dance, but she—”
He faltered, head wobbling in confusion.
“No, that’s not right. It was Benny Franklin’s 21st.”
“Lovers,” said Rudolph.
Turning back to her I knocked over my beer and the precious liquid ran into the grass. I scrambled for it and drained the remainder in one long swig.
“A couple of dances later I went up and asked her again. This time she said yes.”
“They promise you the moon and the stars and then they’re out the door, leaving your heart in tatters.”
“So you find them floating belly up in the morning, do you, staring at the ceiling with their mouths open?”
I tipped my head back and made a dead guppy face. Nobody else seemed to find it as hilarious as I did.
“But because her shoe was broken she had to hop all the way round the room, one-hop-three, one-hop-three.”
He jiggled his knees to demonstrate. I listened as politely as I could, trying not to squirm. I was desperate for a pee but the toilet block was way down the end of the park.
“And one day, gone, just like that. Clothes, DVDs, coffee mug. Even the potato peeler.”
She rested her chin on her knuckles.
“She was so self-conscious because she was sure that everyone was looking at her. So I started hopping too. Every second step, when she put her foot down I dipped too so that we were always the same height. Joey and his girl, they copied us, and pretty soon the whole room was doing it. Boy, did we laugh!”
“Took my candle as well,” she said wistfully. “It was dark blue, like a pyramid, with gold sparkles. My Christmas present.”
There was a gasp from my left. The old man had pulled the lining of his pockets inside out, pawing at them with a perplexed expression. He saw me watching, took up his tale again.
“She never saw one, you know. She always wanted to.”
He frowned, momentarily uncertain.
“I bought a new one but it wasn’t the same.”
“We almost went once. Up in the Sounds, on a beach somewhere. Do you remember that?”
I shook my head. The muscles in my neck seemed looser than normal.
“We loaded the car, Alison made a bacon and egg pie. But then something happened and we couldn’t go.”
“Didn’t have to take my candle.”
“I think someone got sick.”
“Excuse me,” I said, staggering to my feet and sniggering as though I was about to say something witty. “I’m going to see a dog about a man.”
I pushed my way into the undergrowth, stopping beside a large bush with yellow leaves. It was dim and smelled of compost. I wanted to whistle but my pucker wasn’t working properly so I hummed instead. When I came back to my spot Rudolph was still talking.
“How come it’s always cold when you’re alone?”
She was shivering again.
“Alison would be thrilled to see this,” he said. “After all these years. She’s baking, did I tell you that?”
“Even when I turned the heater on full and jammed myself right up against it I couldn’t get warm.”
There was no answer to that so I opened another beer.
“Scones,” he whimpered.
“But my vortex in the bathroom, one day it was gone too.”
She looked at me imploringly. Luckily at that moment the students returned. Slow marching in sombre procession, carrying a naked mannequin. They were doing their best to act suitably funereal, but a guffaw ricocheted from one pallbearer to the next. The dummy seemed to be swimming directly towards the whirlpool, one hairless arm pointing vertically and the other extended behind him. I sat up, intrigued. Rudolph resumed her frenetic gardening.
They set the trolley erect and with much jostling and shoving crammed the lifeless figure into the basket. Its hips were twisted at an unnatural angle, but if it was embarrassed it hid it well. Its painted eyes stared calmly at the heavens.
The leader raised both arms and began clapping. The rest of them joined in. I banged two cans together with great enthusiasm, sometimes even getting close to the beat. The old guy was tapping his thighs with his palms, though he still didn’t seem entirely sure where he was.
The tall boy gave a signal and they charged. He shouted again and they let go, skidding to a halt. The cart trundled downhill, teetering on two wheels as the sideways forces kicked in. Then it hit a bump and reared, sending the dummy soaring through the air in a graceful swan dive. It landed headfirst, spun like a breakdancer and was swallowed up. The trolley followed a few seconds later, its wire frame buckling and protesting at the death. Most of us cheered.
They milled around for a bit, seeking an outlet for their nervous energy. Then they realized that happy hour started in five minutes and they straggled off, squabbling over who owed the first round. Soon the park was deserted except for the three of us. The shadows from the elms stretched far across the field, teasing the edge of the pit.
I weighed my last can in my hand, then decided I’d had enough. I picked up the empties and stuffed them in the bag. It knocked against my calf as I walked, the tins clinking together. When I tugged the sides apart and upended the contents into the hole, the full can rolled straight down and was lost to sight. The others skipped, settled and began their slow descent. My head moved in small circles as I tracked their course around the spiral.
Planting my legs wide apart, I spread my arms out and leaned into the breeze. The spinning looked faster from up close. I gazed at the dark centre of the maelstrom, where the slope tapered into a narrow funnel. The effect was mesmerizing, inviting me in. I shut my eyes against an abrupt bout of vertigo.
A movement on my right made me turn. Rudolph was standing next to me, swaying slightly, the tips of her fingers nearly touching mine. Some of the tension had seeped from her body. She too seemed fascinated by the still point in the middle. Her lips curved in a faint smile.
When I glanced round the old man had taken up position on my other flank, his arms bent behind him like a wishbone. His mouth was open in a soundless scream, or a rebel yell, a shout of joy or something. Maybe it was all three. I wondered which sump he was seeing, the one in front of him or one from sixty years before. A single windblown tear trickled down his cheek.
We waited there, a row of paper cutouts, as the day faded around us. The vortex seemed to have grown since this morning, but perhaps that was just wishful thinking. I’d come back tomorrow, bring a proper picnic. If the rugby posts were swept away, even the scrum machine, now that would be cool. Anyway, there’s something reassuring about a good hole in the ground. I leaned further forwards, lifting my face to the sky.
I felt like I was flying.