This work is Copyright (c) Alan Baxter, 2021. For the full book, find all the links you need here.
Strange things happen in The Gulp. The residents have grown used to it.
The isolated Australian harbour town of Gulpepper is not like other places. Some maps don’t even show it. And only outsiders use the full name. Everyone who lives there calls it The Gulp. The place has a habit of swallowing people.
A truck driver thinks the stories about The Gulp are made up to scare him. Until he gets there.
Teenage siblings try to cover up the death of their mother, but their plans go drastically awry.
A rock band invite four backpackers to a party at their house, where things get dangerously out of hand.
A young man loses a drug shipment and his boss gives him 48 hours to make good on his mistake.
Under the blinking eye of the old lighthouse, a rock fisher makes the strangest catch of his life.
Five novellas. Five descents into darkness.
Welcome to The Gulp, where nothing is as it seems.
1 – Out on a Rim
Richard Blake’s day had been deceptively boring. Tall, pale gum trees lined either side of the road, and spread thickly back into shadow. Late afternoon sun occasionally lanced through a rare gap in the canopy that closed over high above. Rich sat quiet in the passenger seat as George Grayson drove the Woolworths big rig along the single lane highway.
“It’s like a tunnel,” Rich said eventually, leaning forward to peer out the windscreen. The road freaked him out. “Kinda claustrophobic.”
George laughed. “You haven’t seen anything yet. It’s like this for nearly twenty minutes from Enden until the Gulpepper turnoff. It’s another twenty minutes from the turnoff on the other side too, until you get to Monkton.”
“Nothing in between?”
“Only bush and Gulpepper. And that’s ten minutes from the turnoff through nothing but more bush until you reach the coast.” He nodded out the other side of the cab. “That way is thick all the way to the freeway that bypasses all of this.”
“It’s the only town there? No other villages or anything along the coast?”
“Not between Enden and Monkton, nah. Just Gulpepper. A kind of big, natural bay with high cliffs either side. It’s quite a big town, but there’s fuck all else for miles around except bush and ocean.” George frowned out the side window towards the lowering sun. “We’re running too late. That traffic jam in Enden fucked up our schedule.”
“Does it matter?” Rich asked the question despite George’s obvious discomfort. What was the problem, other than being a little late home?
George glanced at the young man beside him and sighed. “I don’t want to be in Gulpepper at night. Listen, there’s some stuff you should know. You’re a good kid, you’ll be a good driver. I’m just sorry you’re inheriting this fucken route offa me. I’m glad as hell to be retiring, I tell you that. Pretty much everything about this gig is just fine, except once a week when you hafta come to this freaky fucken town. There’s one road in and out of Gulpepper. I hate driving down it and can’t wait to come back the other way.”
Rich smiled. Old George reminded him of the conspiracy theory nuts who thought mobile phone towers were transmitting mind control. Rich didn’t buy into all that hokum.
“I see you fucken grinnin’,” George said. “Trust me, you get in, make your delivery, and get right back out again. Once I stopped for lunch there. Never again.”
“Why, what happened?”
George frowned, swallowed. “I don’t wanna talk about it. Gulpepper is just… different, that’s all. And only outsiders use that name. Everyone who lives there calls it The Gulp.” He shot a sideways look at Rich again. “The place has a habit of swallowing people.”
Rich laughed. “That what they tell you?” It’s not like Australia wasn’t riddled with remote towns. George was trying to scare him.
“Mark my words, son, make this stop your quickest of the week.”
They fell into silence as the gum trees blurred by on either side and the sun got lower. After the bustle of Enden, especially with the added excitement of the traffic accident, the empty, gloomy road seemed preternaturally quiet. It was ten minutes before another car passed them going the other way, the face behind the wheel a pale moon in the low light, staring dead ahead with intense concentration. Eventually George slowed, leaning forward over the big wheel.
“Junction’s coming up,” he said to Rich’s questioning look. “And nowhere to turn a truck, so if you miss it, you have to go all the way to the outskirts of Monkton to turn around, which adds nearly an hour to your trip by the time you’ve finished fucking around.”
“I told you, son, there’s nothing good about this place.”
George pointed ahead. “See the memorial?”
Rich saw a white cross at the side of the road, a faded wreathe of plastic flowers hanging on it. Painted on the crossbar was Wayno. Right behind the cross a large gum tree had a huge scar in its pale bark. His stomach soured. Memories of watching Grant’s last drive were still fresh after all these years. His old school friend had a memorial like this on a road heading out of Sydney. They’d been racing, Grant was winning, until he misjudged the bend. Rich thought he’d never shake off the guilt. The image of Grant’s car disintegrating as Rich stood on his car’s brakes would never fade. “Yeah, I see it.”
“It’s a good one to look out for. The turnoff is only a few hundred metres past.”
Rich nodded. “Okay, good to know.”
“Poor old Wayno. Probably aimed his car at a tree rather than have to go back to The Gulp.” Before Rich could address that particularly dark assessment, George pointed again. “See the sign?”
On the other side of the narrow highway was a small green sign, pointing across the road.
“Is that a skull hanging off it?” Rich asked as George slowed to make the turn.
“Or a shrunken head. Kids, probably, mucking about with Halloween props. But with this town, you never know.”
Rich laughed. The old man was laying it on a bit thick. He realised this was probably like when Rich got his first job out of school, at a factory in Bankstown. First day, the foreman sent him to the office to ask the manager for a long weight. The manager smiled and nodded, said, Sit there, son, and Rich was left for an hour. Eventually the manager came back out and said, Long enough? Off you go then! Rich went back to the factory floor among gales of laughter. But fair enough, he’d play along.
The road into town was indistinguishable from the highway running between Enden and Monkton. One lane each way, thick bush either side. But even gloomier now, the sun behind them about to drop below the tree line.
“We’ve left this much too late,” George muttered, almost to himself.
After a while the gum trees began to thin and a few farms appeared on either side. The houses were old, tin roofs and weatherboard walls, a lot of them with peeling paint and rust encroaching from all sides above. Tractors and box-back trucks were parked around, most of them at least twenty years old. Dogs ran up dirt driveways, barking at the large green and white Woolworths 18-wheeler as it bulled past.
Another few minutes and regular houses began to dot the sides. Plenty of bush still around, but lawns with fences, trampolines and cubby houses, family cars. Then the side streets began, more houses with smaller plots of land. They passed a large building, lit up with neon, a big Tooheys New sign glowing out front. Illuminated letters above the double glass doors proclaimed, Gulpepper Bowlo.
“Is there a town anywhere in Australia without a lawn bowls club?” Rich asked with a grin.
“If there is, I haven’t been there,” George said, but his face was set. Normally the man had a good humour about him, crass and rough sometimes, but he was in his late 60s and that was only to be expected. Now though, he seemed entirely dour. Perhaps he really didn’t like this place.
Either that or he was playing his role in this particular hazing with great skill. The road opened out and they came to the main street leading into town. A roundabout at the top of a hill had three other exits, one to the right was signposted to a leisure centre, to the left went towards more housing, and one dead ahead. They went straight across. The road sloped downhill towards the ocean that lay dark and grey across the horizon. From their high vantage point the town lay to either side in undulating waves of steep hills, covered in houses and shops, an industrial looking set of units off to the left. Rich caught a glimpse of the harbour, a small forest of white masts and all manner of fishing and leisure boats, then the road led down and he lost perspective on it. Far to the north and south the land rose steeply to cliffs thickly covered with gum trees and banksia.
“If there was a bush fire, this place would be entirely cut off,” Rich mused.
“It’s happened once or twice apparently. But given how often the rest of the country burns, this place has been pretty lucky.” George nodded ahead as he spoke. “Here we are.”
They came to a large area on the left with a car park, half full of cars, and a big shopping complex behind. The huge Woolworths supermarket took up one end of the complex, and Rich spotted a baker, a reject shop, and a couple of other things on the far side. But George turned into the loading bay before the car park, leading him to the back of the supermarket. There was a big turning space and he nosed the truck in, then backed slowly and expertly along the narrow cement apron to big double roller doors at the supermarket’s rear warehouse. A few young people in Woollies uniforms stood waiting on the raised dock, looking bored.
“Saw us coming,” George said. “Get this stuff inside and we’ll be out of here in under half an hour, we’re lucky.” He killed the engine and jumped down from the cab.
Rich joined him at the back and they opened up the trailer. The teenagers and one grizzled older man began walking manual hand-held pallet jacks back and forth, ferrying all manner of grocery store items from the truck into the big warehouse. George leaned against the wall off to one side, squinting up into the darkening sky. It was indigo out over the water, pale grey and pink to the west over the bushland.
“If this lot pull their collective finger out, we’ll be back towards the highway before the streetlights come on,” George said.
“What happens when the streetlights come on?”
George sneered. “This place is weird enough in daytime. I don’t wanna know what comes out at night.”
“It’s just a harbour town,” Rich said with a laugh. “Tourist town.”
“You see any tourists?”
Rich grinned. Next week George would be retired and this route would be his. He’d have to do his best to make good time and take the opportunity to stick around for an hour or two after the goods were delivered, have a proper look at the place.
At twenty-seven, Rich had started to feel like maybe he needed to broaden his horizons. He’d grown up in Sydney, but hadn’t been out of New South Wales except for one high school camping trip to Queensland. He became estranged from indifferent parents right around the time school finished and figured it was no great loss. He’d largely looked after himself since the start of high school anyway. University didn’t suit him, and after Grant died he decided to go somewhere else, forge his own way. The factory job didn’t last long, still too close to home, so heading south down the coast a few hours seemed like a good idea.
He’d done a few different things over the years, mostly drinking his weekly pay cheque from various blue-collar jobs. He was happy enough for a while. He found a job at meat packing plant and thought it would do for a time until he saw a divorced workmate of only forty-two keel over dead from a heart attack. It was like a flare going off in his mind, seeing himself heading for the cold cement just like that poor bastard. So he decided to shake things up, look to a further horizon. He moved another hour south, studied and passed for his HGV licence, and got the job with Woollies. Better pay than the meat plant and cheaper rent too. Save up enough over the next few years, he’d decided, then leave not only the state, but the entire Australian continent behind, see the world. In the meantime, keep painting. He loved to make his small artworks, weird landscapes in oils on miniature canvases. It calmed him. A workmate in his last job had said he should get an Etsy shop or something, try to make some money from it. Maybe he would.
“Stop daydreaming,” George said, punching Rich lightly on the arm. “Let’s get outta here.”
He slammed the trailer shut, dropped the locking bar in place, then went back around to the cab. They headed away from the loading dock, and George made a sound of disgust.
“This fucken dickhead!”
A large white panel van was parked right in the entrance to the loading bay, blocking half the road. The gap it left was enough for most vehicles to get around, but not a truck the size of theirs. George blasted the horn a couple of times, several pedestrians turning with startled expressions.
Rich leaned forward to peer at the van. “No one in it,” he said.
“Fuck me dead.”
George sat there a moment, knuckles white on the wheel. He blatted the horn again, this time drawing some shaken fists and choice curses from passers-by.
“He surely hasn’t just left it there.”
“Give it a minute,” Rich said. “He’ll probably come back.”
“Fuck this.” George revved up the truck and crept slowly forward.
“You won’t squeeze through there,” Rich said. His training and licence test were all still fresh. Widths and heights, load limits and speed limits, it was all branded on his forebrain.
“Nah, George, you’ll hit the van.”
“Fuck him, shouldn’ta parked there.”
“Don’t give yourself an insurance nightmare the week you retire, mate. You want a clean getaway don’t you? Just wait, he surely won’t be long.”
George grunted in annoyance and edged the truck a little to the right. “I’ll get through.”
Before Rich could say anything there was a bump and grinding crunch.
“Fuck it!” George snapped. The cab tilted a little to one side, then bumped back down. “Fucken kerb. I didn’t see that.”
They jumped out and saw the front right wheel had ground into the apex of a shallow cement curve, and the tyre was already half-flat.
“Ah, shit. I done a fucken rim!” George said.
Rich crouched for a better look. Sure enough, the wheel rim had bent up and out where it had pressed into the cement, the entire weight of the cab on top of it. Only a little, but enough for air to hiss from the gap it made.
“There’s no driving on that,” Rich said. “We’ll have to call out for a new wheel.”
“No shit, Richard! You think I was born yesterday?”
Rich frowned at the man’s vehemence, but George was already looking nervously at the sky, then down along the main street. He pulled out his phone and rang a number. At least there was reception here. Rich checked his phone and frowned. He had no service at all. George must be on a better provider.
“Nah, gotta be now. Can’t you send someone in from Monkton or Enden?” George’s voice was angry, but it was higher in pitch too. Scared? “Then what are we supposed to fucken do? Fuck! All right.”
He hung up and the eyes he turned to Rich were haunted. “No one coming until the morning.”
Rich’s eyebrows rose. “Overnight in The Gulp then?” It didn’t bother him, he had no one waiting for him. “Better ring your wife.”
“I’m gonna back it up before all the air is gone.” George got back into the cab and lined the truck up along the left side of the loading bay, as neatly tucked against the supermarket as he could make it, leaving the damaged front right wheel easily accessible. He didn’t get out of the cab.
Rich walked over, looked up as George wound down the window. “Where we gonna stay then? You know anywhere? Motel or something?”
George barked a laugh. “Right here.” He held up an empty plastic two litre Solo bottle. The man chugged the stuff all day long. “I’ll piss in this and sleep where I sit. I suggest you do the same.”
“I’m not sharing a fucking cab with you overnight, much less a bloody piss bottle, mate!” Rich gestured behind himself. “There’s a whole town out there. It’ll have pubs and motels and shit. Let’s have a feed, get pissed. Enjoy ourselves.”
“Nah, no chance. I’m staying right here. You should do the same.”
“You’re taking all this a bit far, George. I get it, I’m the new boy, wind me up. But this? It’s a bit much.”
“You can do whatever you want, son. But I strongly advise you stay in here with me.”
“No way, mate. I’ll find somewhere to stay in town. What time are they sending out a wheel?”
“Said someone would be here by eight.”
Rich nodded. “I’ll be back by eight then.”
“If you’re not here by ten, I’m leaving without you. I’ve put in years and this is my last week. My last run to this place. I’m not being swallowed by The Gulp three days before I quit.”
Rich laughed, twisted his face into something sardonic and said in a bad American accent, “I was three days from retirement, dammit!”
“I am not kidding, Richard. Ten a.m. I leave, with or without you. Then I do my last two days of deliveries and I’m a retired old cunt with nothing but drinkin’ and moanin’ to do for the rest of my life.”
Rich frowned, looking up at George, the sky above him darkening into night. “All right, mate. Whatever you reckon. I’ll be here by eight.”
George nodded once, but his face was resigned, like Rich had suddenly become his biggest disappointment. Then he rolled up the window and was lost behind its dark mirror as a streetlight buzzed on and made a pool of weak yellow glow.
“Crazy old man,” Rich said with a laugh. He turned and headed out of the loading bay, then turned left towards the harbour.
The streets were wide, forty-five-degree angle parking bays along both sides, with deep stone gutters. It was relatively quiet, a handful of pedestrians wandering around, a few cars crawling by in the speed-restricted local traffic zone. Rich passed a Chinese restaurant, empty of customers, and a Leagues club that seemed quite busy, and crossed the road beside another roundabout, a neat circular bed of flowers in the centre. He entered the main street proper, surf shops and pharmacies, a Salvation Army thrift store, kebab shop, banks and a doctor’s surgery, a second-hand bookstore. The place was pretty nice, he decided, the architecture old-fashioned like so many country towns in Australia. There was a heavy air of colonial settlement in the style, the white man’s boot print heavy on the landscape. Again, like so many Australian towns. All of them, if he was honest about it.
He came to a large park on his left, a big war memorial arch standing white and stark against the shadowy green grass. He frowned at a couple of piles of mushrooms, or were they toadstools? Normally you’d find wreathes of flowers placed against a war memorial, but this was the first time he’d seen fungus. And so deliberately placed. He laughed, kept walking. A children’s playground sat far back from the street in the middle of the park. It looked to be in pretty good condition, bright colours in hard plastic, rubberised crash matting underneath. Certainly the most modern thing he’d seen thus far in town. Streetlights beside a community centre next to the playground cast a wan orange glow across the play equipment, and Rich startled when he realised four people were sitting on the large double-sided metal seesaw. They were almost solid silhouettes with the weak light behind them, but they were clearly all watching him go by. He was a good fifty metres away, on the footpath raised a little higher than the park, but they stared up the slope at him with a strange intensity. Grown-ups too, not kids.
Well, Rich told himself, teenagers more likely. There wasn’t much to do in country towns and kids tended to hang out in public places until they were old enough to drink, then they’d hang out in the pub. Rich was well past the hanging out stage of his life and most certainly headed for a pub. There had to be one. And it would hopefully have a bistro too. He was starved.
He tore his eyes away from the curious teenagers and skipped sideways as a man with a dog walked right at him. “Scuse me,” Rich said, even though the man had made no effort to avoid a collision.
He wore a heavy woollen coat, down to his knees, despite the late summer warmth. Rich was comfortable in cargo pants and a t-shirt, a light denim jacket clutched in one hand in case it got colder later. The dogwalker had a dark hat, a trilby or something like it, pressed down low on his brow, his face a dark shadow. His dog was a golden retriever, glossy in the streetlight, face split in a guileless grin.
As they were almost side by side, Rich paused. “Actually, mate, sorry to bother you.”
The man stopped and turned, streetlight splashing across his face under the brim of the hat. He had no nose, just two dark, vertical holes beneath his eyes. “What?”
Rich swallowed, determined not to be spun out by the unexpected deformity. But George’s words slid across his hindbrain.
Gulpepper is just… different, that’s all.
“Well?” the man demanded. “I’ve got to be home, can’t be out when… got to be home.”
His dog sniffed wetly at Rich’s hand and Rich absent-mindedly patted his golden head. It was damp, a little sticky feeling. He grimaced, pulled his hand away. “I was wondering if you could tell me where the nearest pub is?”
“The Gulp’s got two. Gulpepper Inn about a hundred metres further along here on the other side, corner of Shellhaven Street. The Victorian Hotel is on the same block, diagonally opposite, corner of Tanning and Kurrajong Street.”
Rich opened his mouth to says thanks, but didn’t get a chance as the man put his head down and walked quickly away. He was stocky and seemed to fill his coat strangely as he ambled off at speed.
Rich walked on. After he passed the park he came to a large sandstone building, an old hall of some kind, now a museum. History of The Gulp was stencilled on the door. He might try to find time to spend in there when it was open, he decided. This place was certainly piquing his interest. And not in entirely good ways, but curiosity was a valuable trait, he’d learned. It tended to allay fears. Knowledge was power and all that.
He looked over when he came to a crossroads, Shellhaven Street heading off up a fairly steep hill and whatever street this was continuing on further towards the harbour. Sure enough, across the road was the Gulpepper Inn, the name carved into the plaster façade of the second storey. Maybe they had rooms too. A sign in gold letters across the doors said Welcome to Clooney’s. Schizophrenic pub? A big sign in another window said Harbour Bistro. He imagined a line of sight right through the large block to the other pub the old man had mentioned and decided not to bother. No point in walking further when there was beer and food right here.
This work is Copyright (c) Alan Baxter, 2021. For the full book, find all the links you need here.