A compass, drawn on a piece of paper… can’t really point north, right?
Table of Contents
Part 1: A Compass that Does Point North
There is a commonly-repeated story in Australia that concerns a paper compass. So the story goes: in the first years of Australia being a British colony, a group of twenty one Irish convicts, including one pregnant woman, decided they were going to take off, escape their sentences, and walk their way north to China – a place they believed was easily accessible by foot from Sydney.
To anyone with access to a map, this is obviously a journey that’s not going to work. Especially not when you’re walking with a group of twenty other convicts through territory completely foreign to you, scant provisions over your shoulder, in the late 1700s, and none of you have a ship.
Regardless, they set off with sure feet and determination, unswayed by doubt and derision, hiking through the thick Australian bush. And one of them had the most perfect method to navigate to China: a drawing of a compass on a piece of paper. See, it did point north. The needle, in fact, did a fantastic job of pointing north. It just only showed the actual north if you pointed the piece of paper that way.
Shockingly, they didn’t make it to China. Who’d have thought? The furthest they got was to Broken Bay, on the Hawksbury River. Which, in fairness to them, is north from the place they set off from.
At least a couple died along the way, of misadventure, or, perhaps, by spear. The rest were driven back to the settlement in Parramatta, near Sydney, by starvation.
It’s a ridiculous story, but one that fits so well into the complete ridiculous disaster that was the beginning of the invasion of a colony at Sydney. It’s a story that was popularised in modern day by David Hunt in his 2013 book Girt.
Thing is, though, despite what Hunt wrote in that book, there’s no evidence there ever was a paper compass. None, until a couple months ago, that I’d been able to find, anyway. Interested, I looked up the story after reading it in his book. I found Watkin Tench’s journals of the early colony in Australia, and read them. In A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, published in 1793, Watkin Tench does chronicle this story of the hopeful travellers to China. To the detail. Except for the part about the paper compass.
As far as I could tell, there was no paper compass. And, from what I’ve found, Girt got the date wrong too: the travellers to China had their misadventure in November 1791, not 1792.
But my nitpicking aside… I had found zero evidence of the paper compass that adds such great flair to the story.
Until a couple months ago.
Because, a couple months ago, I jumped to catch a piece of paper blown by the wind.
It was a very old piece of paper. Small – about the size of my palm – though thicker than today’s paper; badly yellowed, repeatedly crumpled and smoothed, little holes worn into it; rain damaged and faded. The drawing on it was done in pencil, with the lines so reinforced by tracing over them again and again with the lead, I could still make out, the page tilted into the sunlight, a faint outline of a compass, drawn with a needle that pointed north.
That was, at the time, proof of nothing. Someone more recently than 1791 could have drawn it and it just looked over two hundred years old. But it stirred my curiosity. Partly, because where this paper compass blew to me was very near the furthest north the doomed travellers to China were known to have reached: Pindar Cave, in the Brisbane Water National Park. This part of the National Park sits on a peninsula between Mooney Mooney and Mullet Creeks, both which feed, at the tip of the peninsula, straight into the Hawksbury River. And just east of that is Broken Bay.
Pindar Cave is less a cave, and more a spectacular overhang of rock loads of people can camp together under, enjoying its shelter after a long bushwalk. A refreshing waterfall tinkles nearby, perfect to douse your sweaty head or refill your water bottle if you got desperate and ran out.
I’d been sitting for a breather there, in the overhang’s shade, taking in the tranquil surroundings and birdcall of the Australian bush, when the fluttering of the paper compass caught the light in the corner of my eye.
At first, I’d thought it was the scuttling of the lizard I’d been watching a moment before. But the lizard was still there, in the same place, basking in the sun. The paper blowing through the air and into the short scrub before it.
Jumping up, I caught the piece of paper, only slightly startling the sun-bathing goanna. I’d been annoyed, before I looked at the paper, about people littering in the park. After I looked at it, seeing how old it appeared and making out the faint impression of a compass… the wheels of imagination in my head started turning.
Maybe it was just that overactive imagination – my curiosity – but looking up from the page to stare back at Pindar Cave… I could almost see twenty one 18th century travellers, destined for China, camped under it. It’d be a great spot for it, even over two hundred years ago. The overhang and waterfall would have been there for them, just as it was here for me now.
…Tired and hungry travellers sprawled on the ground, their shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows… The one pregnant woman huffing and leaning back against the rock, her skirts tied up in the slowly diminishing heat of the evening, as the men in tweed trousers looked to build a fire on the orange dirt floor under the overhang…
At the time, it was really just something I wanted to think. Like how, visiting what remained of the first highway that led north from Sydney, I’d stood on that rough-hewn road and thought I could imagine all the convicts who’d built it, cutting into that rock by hand – mused over whether any of those convicts were my own ancestors.
I liked the idea, looking at Pindar Cave, the paper compass in my hand, that the travellers on their ludicrous quest to China had actually made it this far, and spent the night here.
And I got a flash, gazing at the shaded space under the overhang, of what that would have been like for those convicts who’d lived centuries ago: transported so far away from their Irish homes, out, lost far into the wilderness, surrounded by nothing but wilderness – nothing they recognised – Indigenous people who rightly felt their homelands were being stolen, and not even a map to guide them. The only European settlement that had, back then, existed, all the way back near Sydney.
I tucked the paper compass into my backpack, being careful not to crumple or crease it any more than it had been already, and took it with me, hiking through the bush; back towards the old Wondabyne Quarry, and the train station built to service it – my route home. A route home so much easier in today’s world, where I could snooze on a train as it took me south, and had the path back to the railway both tramped into the ground, and tracked by GPS on my phone.
I worked out who the leader of the travellers to China was. His name was Peter Malone, and the pregnant woman who’d travelled north with him was his wife Mary; luckily, for them, she transported to Australia on a later ship, rather than imprisoned in those fair and emerald isles or transported elsewhere.
I figured this out from the names written on the back of the paper compass. “Peter and Mary Malone” was scrawled, barely visible, in faint charcoal on the reverse – something I only noticed when I got home and took it out of my backpack. Again, it could have been someone far more recent than 1791 who’d drawn the compass, who’d written those names…
But I looked up those names. I bought a membership to a genealogy website, and searched. I found the ship’s manifests that listed the early convicts transported to Australia. And Peter and Mary Malone were on them.
Mary, not Peter, was listed in the sick list for the Rose Hill tent hospital in November 1791. She wasn’t there because of the dysentery that had struck down over three hundred convict settlers, however. She was there because of a festering wound to her leg, gained in, as the records state, an escape attempt – to China, I’m assuming.
There is no further record of Peter, other than the end of his sentence, recorded in the old logs not as “sentence served” but as “deceased”. I don’t think Peter, like Mary, made it back from their 1791 ill-fated voyage north.
From what I found from British records, Peter had been found guilty of the theft of one handkerchief from the owner of a jewellery store. That was his crime – why he was transported to Australia as a convict. Mary, a week after Peter’s crime, had stolen a loaf of bread. Due to the long length of time between Peter’s transport and Mary’s arrival in the convict colony, I must assume she became pregnant in Australia, so I don’t think that bread was to feed two. But it just sounds like she was trying, in a poverty-stricken state without her husband, to not starve. And she was caught, found guilty, and transported to the other side of the world for that one loaf of bread.
In those days, possibly somewhat more than it is true to say now, the word “convict” was a synonym for the words “poor and starving”.
It was the day after I found that out, having passed out in my bed after searching genealogy sites late into the night, that I woke up to notice the paper compass, which I’d left on my desk beside my computer, was pointing north.
Not just that the needle, drawn to always point that way, was pointed toward the “N”. I mean: the entire piece of paper had spun around, and was now accurately pointing north.
I was sure, before I’d passed out, I’d left it orientated upright beside my computer. That orientation would have left the needle pointing south east.
You know how you like the idea of something, but don’t really believe it? Standing next to my desk, looking at the paper compass, that was me. It was a cool idea to think a paper compass could actually point north. But it was so much more likely that I’d just brushed it when I’d closed my laptop the night before.
I righted the paper, got myself ready for work, and left for the day.
And when I came home…
Well, the idea not only seemed cooler, it sent tingles down my spine. Because the paper was, once again, spun around to point towards my computer mouse.
I shivered, went to right the piece of paper, then stopped. Instead, I double-checked with the map on my phone, making absolutely sure that needle was pointing north.
Conferring with the road out my window, and some turning around in circles while muttering to myself, and I was sure of it: yep, due north.
I’m guessing there are ways a piece of paper can be rigged to spin around on its own in order to point north. But… Inspecting the paper compass, there was nothing added to it. There wasn’t even enough pencil lead on it for it to be somehow magnetised. It was just a bedraggled, and rather floppy, piece of paper.
I righted the paper, and watched TV that night. Getting up to go to bed, my eyes darted back over to the paper compass.
It had spun around again: due – freaking – north.
A new wave of chills ran down my spine. I hovered beside it, then braced myself and righted the compass yet again.
It seemed the paper had gotten bolder. Right there in front of me, under my gaze, the thing, flat on the wood of my desk, started to move. I watched it shift slowly sideways, then pick up a bit of speed, the ratty old paper rotating on its own.
It stopped, pointing, as it had done multiple times before, right at my mouse. North.
I shuddered. Then sighed out what felt like a cold breath.
Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, but the whole thing felt incredibly spooky. One of those things that’s just otherworldly. My eyes prickled with weird tears I hadn’t expected, as a new wave of chilled tingles ran through my body.
How was it doing that?
Just to spite it – or myself – I turned the compass back the right way up. Then waited.
The light sound of paper slipping over wood. The revolving of that drawn needle.
It did it again.
‘That is creepy as hell,’ I told the paper, for my own benefit, shuddered, then went to my bedroom and, feeling the inexplicable need on this night, shut the door.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and the only conclusion I came to, over the night, was to decide to head back to Wondabyne on the weekend, taking the compass with me. That was where I’d found it, at Pindar Cave. So it seemed a good place to start.
What I was starting, I had no idea. But… a paper compass that actually worked was remarkable enough that I wanted to look into it.
Wondabyne Train Station is the only train station in Australia that has no road access. To get to it, you can go by boat, which the few people who live over Mullet Creek from it do; by foot, but that’s a long walk from the nearest road; and by train. By train, you have to let the train guard know you want to alight at Wondabyne, otherwise it doesn’t stop there. And you have to be in the last carriage of the train, because the platform is so short it fits only one train carriage.
It was first opened in 1889 for the sake of both connecting a rail line from Sydney to Brisbane, and to service the quarry that supplied the sandstone used in the construction of a good number of the old buildings in Sydney.
Only an hour and a half’s train ride out of Sydney city centre, the station today is mostly used by bushwalkers. Like me.
My hand resting over where I’d slipped the compass into my bag, I gazed out the window as the train trundled steadily north, passing into the expanse of national park that must look, now, just like it had two hundred years ago. The main difference is, though, that instead of the bush outside the window being endless, the national park now is just a, admittedly large, green space between many different towns and sprawling suburbs.
It still feels like you’re travelling into some great wilderness though. Despite the inane graffiti scratched into the train window.
The train trundled to a stop, and I disembarked the last carriage onto the short Wondabyne platform. The doors shut, and the train started up again, its yellow and grey livery snaking away north beside the glistening river, until it wound behind a steep and rocky hill, and disappeared from sight.
It left me behind, alone on the train platform. Though I’d been here several times before, I looked around with what felt like fresh eyes.
Wondabyne Train Station may have first opened in the late 1800s, but it’s been renovated since then. Modern down to the electronic train card readers and emergency help point, it’s incongruous in the idyllic and ancient valley. Just this small, weirdly modern train platform, sitting here, in the apparent middle of nowhere.
To one side of the train line is Mullet Creek, better called a river; to the other, the sandstone quarry is sliced into the rocks, half-hidden by bush. There’s a small jetty that pokes out into the river, no boats tied to it today. And, over the river, I could just see the several fishing boats and cottages of the people who lived there, very much off the grid. As they’d have no road access either, no street addresses, I’d long imagined they’d built those houses themselves, and done so to get away from the rest of society.
For a moment, I wondered about that. What would make someone want to live out here? And… if they had no road access… how did they get their rubbish collected?
Then I shook myself and squatted down. Slipping from my bag the folder I’d protected the paper compass in, I fetched out the bedraggled paper and laid it on the concrete platform.
This was as far as I’d developed my plan. So I watched that paper compass with an eagle eye, hoping… it’d do something. I’d expected it’d just point north. But that alone would convince me, in the light of day, that I wasn’t a nutcase with a paper compass.
The paper seemed to rustle on the platform – like it was shivering. Somewhere between scepticism and belief, I noted the light breeze against my skin. I leant down, curling myself over the compass, and did my best to shield it from the wind. Looking under myself, I eyed the compass for movement.
Though the breeze didn’t get any stronger, I felt it like a sudden cold chill that ran down my spine – like each of the times, over the week, I’d seen the compass move.
The paper shivered. And it couldn’t be because of the breeze now.
Maybe it only worked on my wooden desk?
Feeling like an idiot, I noted the rough platform surface under my hands. Grabbing the plastic folder I’d brought the compass in, I set that on the floor and put the compass on top of its slippery surface.
Once again shielding the compass from the breeze, I waited, watching. And, slowly, it did as it had done back at home:
It twisted, rotating around all on its own, and came to a stop.
My eyes prickled with tears again as yet another shiver went down my spine. Blinking my eyes clear, I fished out my phone, now equipped with a handy compass app, and checked.
North. But, this time, not due north. I frowned, comparing the faint drawing of a needle to the one on my phone. The paper compass was now pointing north north east.
I packed back up, and stood. Well, north north east then, I figured logically. If I was here to investigate a paper compass, I might as well follow its direction.
How I’d get north north east though… The trail from the station, the one I’d taken to Pindar Cave, led north west, with the closest intersecting trail I knew of leading south west. In the direction the compass had pointed was rail line, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to walk along tracks.
Deciding I’d look for a trail that led north off the main one, I started off that way, headed for the steps up around the old quarry.
Standing sentry above the tall man-made cliffs of the abandoned quarry is an old steam crane, just left there for over a century. It feels like the mascot of Wondabyne Quarry: rusted and majestic, right at the edge of rock walls discoloured by years of leaching rainwater.
Like I had on my trek to Pindar Cave, I detoured from the route, following an informal trail a short way to be able to look out over the quarry through the chain link security fence that keeps people from the dangerous edge.
There, able to see further on higher ground, I pulled out the paper compass again and set it up on its folder as level as I could on the rocky path.
It was still for a second, then, the chill once again going down my spine, it rotated around and pointed, me looking from it across the deep gorge of the quarry, straight at the old steam crane.
Still North North East. And now… it looked to me that it was the steam crane the compass was leading me to.
If there was some old mystery here at Wondabyne, I thought that steam crane wasn’t a bad location for it. Maybe there was a reason it had never been removed from the site, other than the fact it was a huge steel beast. Surely it no longer worked.
But getting to it didn’t prove easy. Many false turns, trekking far off the trail and watching for treacherous footing, took up my afternoon, the hours trickling by as I sought a way to walk in the direction the paper compass had indicated. I was starting to lose enthusiasm for my self-imposed task, the wonder of the compass becoming forgotten in the heat and sweat, when I found a place I could sneak under the chain link fence – a place not far from that rusted beast that had watched over the quarry since the first stones were cut here.
It was getting worryingly late, considering I still had to find my way back, but I walked out, skirting the edge of that stone hole, as the sun just started to change to that dimmer colour that meant it was threatening to set.
The quarry, at the edge of its carved hole, is a magnificent place. I felt suddenly tiny there, a speck in a grand landscape filled with silent history; the laughter of kookaburras, heralding the coming darkness, singing out through the valley. Bleak and ugly, yes, the quarry was, but in a wondrous way. The base of it, a dizzying distance below my feet, was dotted with machinery in varying levels of rust and disuse.
I made my way carefully around the steep edge of the quarry, the steam crane starting to loom, a forgotten technology, over me.
Rust brown, crafted in steel beams and massive gears, the operation of the crane was unknowable to me. I didn’t get too near. The bush had grown up around and inside the crane’s stance on the very edge of the quarry’s sheer cliff. Fear of somehow getting hurt by the thing, or disturbing it in some way, had me stopping a meter away from it. I found a flat spot of dirt beside the crane, and set up the paper compass.
The wind had picked up, but, shielded by the shrubs, only one corner of the compass fluttered. Undaunted, it started to revolve. I watched it turn, feeling like I was in some surreal other world alone out here, and then pinned it to the plastic folder when it stopped.
The crane was right before me. But the compass wasn’t pointing at it. It had spun around to continue to point north north east.
I think it was disappointment, this time, that prickled my eyes with light tears. That, and the chill that caught me every time the impossible compass moved.
‘Not here then?’ I breathed to the compass.
Almost like an answer, a tousle of wind snaked around me, lifting my hair and fluttering the edges of the compass.
Well, that was all I could do for today. I’d followed one lead and found nothing. I’d better head home before the sun went down. I wasn’t even sure the train driver would be able to see me madly waving for him to stop in the dark, and that was how I’d get home: by unceremoniously flagging down a train on the least-used platform in Australia.
‘Sunrise is better.’
I startled, for some reason thinking to snatch up the compass and folder protectively as I spun around.
The compass clutched close against my chest, I stared at where a man, someone I hadn’t noticed at all, was sitting barely a metre from the edge of the quarry, just his balding head visible over the long grass and scrub.
He was only a few meters away from me, and I hadn’t even heard him – hadn’t caught even a hint of his presence. And I would have walked right past him.
‘What are you doing here?’ I uttered, admittedly really freaked out.
Unaffected, the man glanced over at me. He took a moment to reply.
‘Could ask the same of you, love.’
He watched me a moment longer, then pointed out over the deep pit of the quarry.
‘That’s east,’ he said shortly. ‘Sunrise is better. You can’t see the sunset from here.’
My mind racing, I stepped cautiously towards him, grabbing up my bag and swinging it over my shoulder, the compass still clutched to my chest. I figured the man was one of the people who lived over the river. A fisherman off the grid. He looked to fit the mould: perhaps in his late fifties, his well-worn singlet revealed no tan lines, his skin baked by decades of Australian sun, his face shielded by little more than a greyed beard left to grow wild. A small paunch might bely his fitness, but I got the sense from him of that wiry strength of a middle aged man who’d worked hard his whole life.
‘Oh,’ was the only response I could think of.
The man glanced at me with startling blue eyes. They looked weirdly light against his leathery tan.
‘I come to look,’ he answered my question belatedly.
He didn’t seem dangerous, so, carefully, I edged even closer.
It wasn’t a bad place to look, I thought, following his eyeline over the quarry. The place seemed so much bigger from here – the hole enormous, opening up right near our feet. Beyond it was a wonderful view of the valley and river.
‘Erm…’ was, again, the extent of my intelligent response. I wasn’t sure I wanted to say why I was here. It seemed ludicrous to reveal I was following a paper compass. ‘I’m… a little worried about making it back to the train,’ I found myself saying instead, angling for a way to leave. ‘I should probably… look to find my way back.’
The man glanced up at me again, then indicated a direction behind me.
‘There’s a path just there that’ll take you back to the tracks,’ he said. ‘You’d be at the station in twenty minutes. I’ll take you back when I’m ready.’
He patted the ground next to him. It took me a moment to realise he was inviting me to join him. I glanced over my shoulder, looking for this path. I couldn’t see it. The bush was too thick.
But letting him show me a quick way back was, as the sun dipped lower, a far better way to head home than to stumble through the forest without a path, trying to find one.
Wary, I lowered myself to sit a short way from him, and glanced out at the quarry. Daunted by its size and depth, I looked away and, releasing the compass and folder from the tight clutch I’d had on them, I went to slip the paper back away safely.
‘Neil,’ the man said, interrupting me. He didn’t extend a hand, but I still took it as an introduction.
‘Ah – Maeve,’ I responded automatically.
‘Maeve.’ He nodded slowly, as though thinking about my name. ‘Got the Irish in you, Maeve?’
‘Oh – well…’ surprised by the question, I had to think about it. I’d gotten that membership to the genealogy site to look up Peter and Mary Malone. So far, my own family tree was just the names of my immediate family. But the family story was that we did have a fair amount of Irish heritage. ‘Yeah, I guess. If you go back far enough.’
Neil nodded again, then turned his nod to indicate the paper compass I was slipping away in its folder.
‘What you got there?’
‘Just…’ I was a little put off by the abruptly intense stare Neil was treating the compass to. I closed the folder, and put the compass back away in my bag. ‘Something I found.’
‘…Down at Pindar Cave,’ I answered reluctantly.
Neil had turned his gaze away. He was back to staring over the quarry. We were both silent for a time, me far too aware of the setting sun. I wished he’d just get up and show me the path home. But from how comfortable he was, sitting at the side of the quarry, Neil didn’t look to be interested in getting up anytime soon.
Casting around for some way to stir him from his reverie, I said, ‘Funny they’ve just left all the machinery…’
Neil glanced at me, then down at the machinery I was indicating, left to moulder far below on the floor of the quarry.
‘It’s still active,’ he said. ‘This quarry. They still cut the stones.’
‘Oh… I… didn’t know that.’
Neil nodded a little again.
‘Oldest active sandstone quarry in Australia,’ he told me. ‘Only cut the stones sometimes though, now. Makes you wonder what they’re looking for.’
‘Looking for?’ I said, surprised. What they were looking for seemed pretty obvious to me. ‘It’s a… quarry,’ I went on, hesitant. ‘The… stones…’
Neil made a small noise. It acknowledged what I’d said, but it didn’t sound like he believed me.
‘Maybe now that’s what it is,’ he said. ‘They get the odd order for stone, and come get it.’ He indicated the entire valley with a twitch of his head. ‘But the guy who started this, in the early days – all the way out here: what was he after?’
Stone, was my answer. Not thinking Neil would like that answer, I didn’t voice it.
‘Wondabyne sandstone is good,’ Neil carried on, leaning back on his hands. ‘But there’s lots of places to mine good sandstone in Sydney.’ Neil sniffed, suspiciously it seemed to me. ‘This place started in the 1880s. They had to get all the workers up here, house ‘em, feed ‘em, so they could cut the stone by hand. Then barge the stone out.
‘That train line – it was supposed to be for the stone. But did it carry much stone?
‘No,’ Neil answered his own question, not waiting for me to try. ‘They built the station, and rarely ever used it for the stone. They still barge it out.
‘So tell me the point of all that,’ he said glancing over at me with those startling blue eyes. ‘Why have a quarry here, rather than somewhere easier to get at? They could do, but they didn’t. That bloke who started it put it here. Why?’
I was wondering whether good ol’ Neil, there with me, was a conspiracy theorist. But, honestly, I had no good answer to his question. So I shrugged.
‘You think they were looking for something?’
Neil began his slow nodding again, looking considering, as he pondered the quarry.
‘I think that first bloke was,’ he said. ‘Think he had an extra reason to say the quarry should be here. No other good reason for it. Now, I think it’s just local pride – the history, you know. Sydney’s built by this stone. But back then…’ Neil tilted his head, suggesting the “bloke back then” had had an ulterior motive.
A noise broke into our conversation – it started with a screech that had me jumping near out of my skin. I spun around, gripping the scrub with terrified fists, to stare at the old steam crane.
The thing looked rusted beyond operation. As though Neil’s suspicions had awakened it, I stared on, confounded, as the gears in the crane’s trunk started turning. One kicking on the next – the one after being set to turn with it, and the whole thing, like a massive juggernaut of a forgotten era, started moving.
A cold wisp breathed out of my mouth as the great pulley, on a beam that soared up into the sky, started to turn. Old cable rattling over the mechanism, the gears tugged, carrying no load, but churning as though determined to lift something.
‘Owh,’ Neil muttered, sounding undisturbed, behind me. ‘The spirits are active tonight. You got ‘em goin’ love.’
Terrified, I wasn’t looking away from the damn ancient steam crane that had suddenly started to work – work without any steam I could see powering it. I gaped at it, frozen to the dirt, until, with just as much screeching as it had made starting up, it creaked to a halt, the huge gears grinding slower and slower until, the picture of innocence, it just sat there, unmoving, a relic at the edge of the old quarry.
‘What?’ I hissed, my eyes huge in my face, my knuckles white on the mashed grasses I’d gripped, and that shocking cold tingling down my spine all over again.
‘Killed a dozen quarry workers over the decades,’ Neil seemed to answer me, as calm as ever. ‘Them spirits don’t care for anyone who searches too close.’
My eyes still fixed on the terrifying steam crane, it was the sound of Neil getting up that alerted me to a need to leave.
‘Let’s get you back to your train, lass,’ Neil said, heading toward the bush, barely waiting for me to get over my fright and follow him. ‘It’s gettin’ dark.’
I scrambled up, made sure the compass was carefully tucked back in my backpack, and gave the crane a wide berth as I hurried after Neil. The “path” he’d spoken of was less a track, and more an indistinct narrow gap between trees and scrub. It led down to bare, unprotected train tracks.
I’d started my journey trying to avoid those. It seemed, though, the quickest way back to the train platform that was my journey home was trudging along them. I did so, hurrying after the sure-footed Neil, back to the incongruous train station that had been the only sign of the modern world here.
It wasn’t quite now. Tied to the jetty was a dated speedboat that hadn’t been there when I’d alighted from the train. Neil gave me a wave, and left me on the platform as he sat by the motor of the speedboat, and started the engine, the rapidly diminishing light of the evening glinting off the dark ripples of the river. His speedboat carried him over Mullet Creek, back to, I assumed, his off-the-grid home.
When the next train finally approached, I flagged it down with exaggerated waves – taking no chances on the driver seeing me. He did, and the train stopped, me slumping in a train seat in the last carriage, with the journey of the train steadily putting Wondabyne and all its mysteries behind me.
Feeling safer, in the well-lit carriage, I pulled out the paper compass. Just one moment, after I’d rested it on its plastic folder, was all it took for it to spin around. For it to point north. Back towards the place I’d just left.
Part 2: A House in Eggshell Blue
Despite extensive searching online, I found no revelation for what the man, Louis Samuel, who’d started Wondabyne Quarry in the 1880s, could have been searching for. Nothing to substantiate Neil’s claims. All I could find was that the quarry had been opened to provide stone for the Mooney Mooney Bridge.
But I could see what Neil meant: Sydney sandstone was everywhere. There were many different places the people of the past could have quarried that stone. Why do it at Wondabyne when there were far more accessible places to mine?
But the name Samuel rang a bell. Going back to the records of Peter Malone, I confirmed it: the man Peter had stolen that handkerchief from, way back in the 1780s – the jeweller – was a Frederick Samuel.
Again, it seemed more something I wanted to believe: that all of this was tied together. Though my mind churned through thoughts and reasoning, I could find no concrete proof that Louis Samuel, the man who’d started Wondabyne Quarry, and Frederick Samuel, who’d lived a century before Louis, were related. The family tree was just too uncertain, and the handwriting of those digitised old documents not easy to read.
For what Neil had said about the “spirits” causing a dozen deaths over the decades… I was likewise uncertain about that. There was no simple “deaths list” for Wondabyne Quarry. By digging deeper, searching name after name after name for people I’d found who’d worked there, I did find a couple over my workweek who’d died at Wondabyne. There was no straightforward “death by ghostly presence” listed as their cause of death. One had been “met with misadventure by falling stone” at the quarry, and the other had had some kind of encounter with machinery that wasn’t detailed.
I couldn’t confirm Neil’s words there either, and by the time Friday night clocked over to late… I gave up my search and just sat back to stare at the paper compass, resolutely pointing north on my desk.
‘You gonna kill me if I go looking again tomorrow?’ I asked it.
Unsurprisingly, the piece of old paper didn’t respond. I sighed, treating it to a withering look.
The paper, I’d figured, wasn’t damaged enough to have been out in the weather for over two hundred years. If it was that old, as I’d started believing it was, then it’d been sheltered for a time. Perhaps stuck somewhere, hidden away, around the overhang at Pindar Cave.
So then… maybe it had found me. Just maybe, that piece of paper had freed itself from its shelter, hundreds of years later, to waft into my eyeline. On purpose.
I mean, it was a paper compass that could point… well, sometimes due north. Other times slightly off due north. Why couldn’t it be a paper compass that could find me?
And it was, I pointed out to myself, leading me. Right that minute, it was sitting there on the desk, where it had rotated itself to tell me to go north. If I accepted that, then it wasn’t crazy to believe the compass wanted me to go searching.
Searching for what, again, I had no idea.
‘Okay,’ I told the paper, ‘I’ll go looking tomorrow. Please don’t kill me. I mean no harm.’
I got up early the next day, packed plenty of food and water into my backpack, and went a step further: adding a multi-torch useful as both lantern and flashlight to the bag, and clipping a sleeping bag onto it. If I got caught out with no handy Neil to lead me back to the station, I wanted to have a plan B.
‘All right,’ I said to the compass as I slipped it into its plastic folder, ‘off we go then.’
There was no speedboat docked at the jetty when I arrived at Wondabyne. I gazed across the river, wondering whether Neil would pop over again this time. But the station was just as deserted as last time, and no boat headed over.
I’d been reluctant to walk along the train tracks last time. This time it seemed the best option. It was certainly a better one than getting turned around, stumbling along, off the track, like I had last time. That had had me feeling lost and repeatedly checking my phone the moment sight of the path behind me had disappeared.
How had those twenty one convicts managed it in 1791? I wussed out after one day trying my hand off the beaten path. They’d had no path, all the way up here from Parramatta! It was astonishing they’d even made it north, without the handy GPS, map, and compass I had on my phone. It was so easy to veer the wrong way when you couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Though, I thought, as I tramped down off the platform, I suppose they may well have had a compass. A paper compass. Whether it pointed north back then… I wasn’t sure. I’d started just assuming there was a ghost attached to it.
There was no fence stopping me from walking on the train tracks. I stepped straight onto them, then, scared, darted aside to walk on the gravel beside old but well-maintained sleepers.
No trains were coming, and I made sure of that, checking before and behind me.
It was a gravel-crunching walk beside the train line, the river just over the other side of it, me hoisting my heavy backpack higher over my shoulders time and time again. I had to dart into the bushes a few times, hiding from the trains that came rumbling and screeching along the curved tracks. But every one of those times, I missed the trains easily, watching them zoot past from safe vantage.
The spring morning smell, and the clear light… the easy trek north… it had my mind drifting. I found myself humming, then whistling. Then, finding lyrics, singing:
Will ye go lassie go?
And we’ll all go together
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather!
Will ye go lassie go?
It was a song I hadn’t thought of for more than years. My own parents had sung me the regular suite of lullabies. My grandmother, though, rest her soul, had sung me folk tunes it seemed had stuck with me.
Surrounded by nothing more than the river, train tracks, and bush to hear, I sang it loud and clear. I was searching for what I thought was a mystery left by Irish travellers to China, after all. An Irish song seemed appropriate.
Still humming, I made it to the other side of a causeway, then got off the tracks to avoid a train I could just hear coming in the distance. Setting up the compass, I waited for it to turn.
The past two times I’d checked it, it had continued to point north north east. This time, when the needle stopped, I thought it was more north than that. Instead of pointing in the general direction of the tracks, it was now pointing straight at a steep and rocky hill. The train line was still mostly leading me in that direction, though. And I didn’t want to climb that hill.
I stepped back out onto the tracks, and followed them to the start of another causeway that sent the tracks curving off to the right, over the mouth of an inlet. Popping off the thoroughfare again, I checked the compass.
That meant leaving the train tracks. But due north would probably mean the other side of the inlet.
Checking no train was coming, I darted out onto the tracks again, and hurried onto the narrow causeway. It seemed the best way to cross to the other side.
Living in Sydney, I hadn’t often taken the train further north than Wondabyne. If I had, I might have noticed an old shack, painted blue, sitting on the north bank of that inlet. It would be visible from the train as it passed over the causeway. Because standing on the causeway, I could see it.
And that shack was due north from the last place I’d checked the compass.
A landmark to head towards now, I got to the other side of the causeway, and found a reasonably well-trodden track that led in the right direction off it.
The track made me wonder whether anyone still lived here. The condition of the blue shack, and the one I spotted on the other side of the inlet, in green and rust corrugated metal, suggested they’d both been abandoned for a good while.
As did the detritus that started to litter the ground around me. Some of that, further away, I thought were actually other shacks, long since collapsed. Around my feet appeared ruptured plastic bottles, rusted boxes and sections of unspecified white goods or machinery parts, what looked like a badly decayed old fridge, a crumbling bathtub and broken toilet, and, curiously, a discarded lawnmower. The rest of it I could see as stuff someone living out here would find useful. Why anyone would have lugged, presumably by foot and along train tracks, a lawnmower up here… when there was no lawn to be seen in the wild bush of a national park, was a mystery.
How anyone had gotten anything up here, let alone a bath tub, was its own mystery. As far as I was aware, the way I’d come was the only way to get here. You couldn’t even bring a boat up the inlet: the causeway blocked it off from the river.
I didn’t see or hear anyone else, in the shacks or around them. And the closer I got to the blue house, the more I was sure it was unoccupied.
Built into a slope, it was half propped up on haphazard stone pillars. Its fiberboard and corrugated steel construction looked to have proved sturdier than the other shacks in the area – seeing as the place was still standing – but it was visibly falling apart. Parts of the siding had broken or rotted off; sheets of corrugated metal, unconnected to structure, were lain around the place; there wasn’t a window I could see that wasn’t broken; and rather than a door, someone had just leant another piece of corrugated metal up against where one had been.
Temporarily forgetting my quest, I walked around the outside of the building, curious. Who would choose to build a house out here, without even boat access? That was my first question. My second was… was that decayed fiberboard asbestos?
The house looked old enough for it. And it looked very much self-constructed. I doubt the government would let anyone build out here now, so, I figured, the place must be a good many decades old.
The asbestos and how unstable the place looked gave me pause, but, eventually, my curiosity won out against fear. I took the concrete steps up to the side of the house, set my bag down beside the door, and got a handhold on the corrugated metal covering it.
It wasn’t the easiest thing to shift, but with some embarrassingly girly squeals and one spider, I managed to get it out of the way.
The interior of the shack looked like it would, long ago, have been rather a pretty little home. The room I was peeking into had once been a kitchen. Walls painted eggshell blue like the outside, the roof above was held up with bare rough-hewn beams; cabinets, counters, and shelves were built against the walls, and a small old fridge was left in one corner. It had been abandoned for long enough for some of the bush, in the form of creepers, to have grown in through the windows, adding a whimsical flair to the holes in the walls and the bits that had fallen apart.
Beyond the kitchen was a living room, a couch that would have been hard to carry up here left in it. I debated it for a moment, then found enough daring to step up onto the thin floorboards. They creaked worryingly, but held. Going very cautiously, and skirting a hole I found in the floor, I trod further in.
The house had a couple bedrooms, a bathroom that was now far from functional, and the two main rooms. From the grungy mattresses, the sheets pinned over doorways, and the few piles of rubbish in corners, I figured the place had since been used to either camp or squat in.
As for the people who’d built the place, all I found were a couple service medals from, I think, World War II, that had been left behind and untouched in a dusty and cobwebby corner of a built-in cabinet. The presence of the medals made me think the house served for them as maybe less of a summer cottage, and more of the only affordable way to house their family.
I went back to my bag, pulled out the compass, and set it up on the top concrete step outside.
I’d braced myself against the wash of weird tears I often got when the compass turned. The sad little house, a relic of what rather seemed to me a loving family, had me thinking I’d be a little more emotional than usual when the chill ran down my spine.
I was right. But it wasn’t just the tears and chill as the compass started its rotating. Though there was no breeze, the corrugated metal sheet that had been used as a door, that I’d propped up to the side, started to move. One knock, then another, and another after that – it made me take my eyes off the compass, whirling around, to watch that metal sheet bang, wafted by no wind at all, against the side of the house.
Another shiver went down my spine. I looked back to the compass.
It had stopped, and this time it wasn’t pointing north at all. It was pointing west, straight at the old house beside me.
Getting an idea, I grabbed the compass and its folder, and crunched through the dead leaves over to the other side of the house. I set the compass up again there, and waited.
This time, it wasn’t just one metal sheet that started banging against the side of the house. The entire corrugated metal roof sounded like it was warping and rattling – as though in a gusting wind that didn’t exist.
The compass spun, more freaked out and, simultaneously, almost touched tears springing to my eyes, and pointed.
East. Right back at the house.
‘So you wanted me to find this then?’ I asked the compass quietly, looking up at the abandoned house. ‘…Why?’
The compass didn’t answer, and neither did the house. Or… not in any way I understood.
The sound of rushing water suddenly picked into the bush sounds of birds and quiet rustles. Grabbing the compass, I hurried back around the house, headed towards the sound, and gawped at a buried pipe that poked out next to the concrete steps.
A veritable deluge of water was pouring out of it. In the mud below, a stream was already forming, running down toward the inlet.
Surely there was no way the place still had running water? How it might have had it in the first place, I had no idea, but the house must have been abandoned for decades.
Gobsmacked, I followed the pipe, spying where it emerged on the other side of the concrete steps and fed through the crawlspace under the house. A bend took it up and through the floor above.
Not as worried about asbestos and weak floorboards now, I hurried back to the door and into the house.
I’d only peeked into the broken bathroom on my first pass. Skirting the hole in the floorboards, I made it swiftly back to the bathroom, pulled back the sheet that served as a door, and stared in.
There was a smashed sink, the toilet was missing –
But the bathtub, badly cracked and completely lacking the taps and faucet that would have filled it, was full of clean, clear water.
I was nearly certain it hadn’t been before. I surely would have noticed that.
As though its job had been done, the full tub before me started draining. I watched the water level go down, the sounds of rushing water continuing outside, until the last of it ran down the drain, out through the pipe, and along that stream to the inlet.
A shiver ran from the top of my head down to my toes.
‘You led me here!’ I cried to the empty house and whatever spirit possessed it. ‘I came because you led me here! I’m not doing anything to harm any of this!’
I wasn’t sure whether I was more scared, or more miffed. It was both. I shook again then jumped and squeaked as the makeshift curtain I was holding back swept forward and curled around me. Like a freakish caress.
I launched away, staring at that sheet. Released, it drifted backwards and forwards, settling in leisurely sways.
‘Was that…’ I whispered, my voice quaking, ‘like… an apology?’
The sheet just drifted. I stared around me, looking for anything else that might want to move – or spring out at me. The corrugated metal of the roof gave a shuddering settle.
My breath bated, I waited for something more. It didn’t come, and my heart rate slowly started to slow.
‘Don’t freak me out!’ I muttered at the house. ‘I’m just… trying to understand what you want from me.’
Noticing the hole in the floorboards was right beside my foot, I had another little pang of terror. If I’d jumped just a few centimeters closer to it… I could well have fallen through.
But, though I wondered whether that had been the house’s plan – whether it had tried to make me fall down that hole, as my fright abated, I didn’t really think it.
None of what it had done so far had really been malicious. It could well have dropped one of the rickety ceiling beams on my head. Or broken up the floor right before my feet. I’d been right beneath the metal sheet that had served as a door when I’d first set up the compass here. That had just banged on the house. Not fallen on top of me.
Calming down that bit more, and with no other plan for how to proceed, I stepped further away from the hole, sat on the dirty floorboards, and set the compass up before me.
‘Okay,’ I said to the now silent house, ‘no funny stuff, yeah? If it was just this house you wanted me to find, spin the compass around and around. Don’t stop it.’
I waited, watching the compass. It started to turn. And then it stopped.
South, this time.
‘Okay…’ I said slowly. ‘So… it’s not just this house.’
Grabbing the compass, I moved over to the south side of the room, sat there, and set the compass up again.
‘Do your thing!’ I called to the house.
The compass turned, and pointed north.
It left me stumped for a moment. Gave me that chance to wonder whether I was really imagining all of this, and the compass wasn’t being guided by anything at all.
Then I sat at the west side of the room, and tried again. That pointed me north east, and the east side of the room pointed north west.
Getting the idea, I edged closer to the intersection of all those directions and tried it there, then when it still pointed north, set it up closer to the hole.
The compass started spinning, and didn’t stop.
‘Ahh!’ I exclaimed, triumphant. ‘It’s here!’
My triumph faded quickly. Where was here? This spot on the floor was a great deal of nothing. Had the compass pointed me to a hole in the wall, where something was hidden, or a cabinet… But all it had done was take me to a very specific blank part of floor.
Lifting my eyes from the whirling compass, I spied the hole in the floor. I hadn’t really wanted to look properly at it before, as it did a great job of showing me how thin the floorboards I was resting on were. But I looked now, seeing right down to the rocky dirt below the house.
‘Below the house?’ I whispered.
The compass stopped spinning. It was pointing straight at me, where I sat on the floor, so… with no better way to take it, I took that as a “yes”.
And I took the sound that started up, like wind whistling through a gap under the metal roof, as more confirmation. I supposed the house and compass were just… doing what they could to communicate with me. So, while the whistling was eerie, I figured it too wasn’t malicious.
The whistling, indistinct but omnipresent, followed me as I took the compass out and peered under the house again.
The spider webs and risk of dangerous eight-legged beasties was only one issue with searching around under the house. The soil wasn’t nice digging soil. It was rocky, cracked-off bits of concrete and detritus from the decaying house chucked under there too. It was, however, thankfully not a concrete slab. It seemed the hand-made house hadn’t involved a hydraulic digger that would have given them the chance to do that.
Using a stick to clear the worst of the things I didn’t want to touch, I got up the nerve to crawl carefully under the house. Trying to figure out where the compass had started spinning above, I crept slowly further and further under the house, where the crawlspace narrowed as the hill the house was built on sloped up.
It took a few attempts with the compass to work out exactly where it wanted me to look. Finally finding the spot where it started spinning round and round, and having fetched my multi-torch out of my bag for extra light, I began shifting aside stones and dirt.
It was slow going. Unsurprisingly, below rock and sand was more rock and sand. And, on edge as I was, I started wondering whether dislodging the foundations might have the house falling down on me.
I don’t know when it changed, but when I took a breather, nursing hands that were starting to feel rubbed raw, I heard the ongoing whistling as less like one made by wind through a gap, and more like the whistle of a person.
Grabbing the compass and my torch, I crawled out from under the house and looked around.
No one. Just the rubbish strewn on the leaf-laden ground around the house; the curious lawnmower parked just before it, like a symbol of the Australian Dream of a suburban house, all the way out here.
But the whistle definitely had a tune. And it did seem like it was coming from the house.
Dusting my hands, I dumped my dirty self on the concrete step and listened.
There were times where I thought I recognized it, then others, the tune moving on, when I didn’t. It did seem all part of the one song though.
It went round and round, like a grandfather whistling absent-mindedly as he worked. It started to lull me, as it got louder and more certain. And I found myself joining in with a slightly different tune.
Not my grandfather, but my grandmother, had done that. Back when she’d been alive, she’d whistled a similar tune. Sung it too.
‘Is that…’ I said quietly. I didn’t finish, I just waited for the bit I almost recognized, and started whistling along with that.
That part was close to the song I’d been singing on my way here: Will Ye Go Lassie Go. The rest of it was different.
Slowly, the tune drifted off into nothing, me letting my own whistling die with it.
‘Peter?’ I called, speaking the name of who I’d started to think the ghost might be. ‘Is that you?’
The only thing that could be called a response was the original sound of whistling, like wind through the eaves.
‘Neil,’ another voice called. ‘I told you love: I’m Neil.’
I’d been gazing at the house as I spoke. Startled, I looked around now. The voice wasn’t close by. This time, Neil had announced himself before he was a couple meters from me.
He was trudging along the same track I’d taken, from the train line. I watched him get closer and closer, the house now completely silent beside me.
‘You should be careful on that causeway,’ Neil told me as he approached. ‘There’s nowhere to get out the way if a train comes by.’
I assumed it was just an automatic paternalism, for him, to warn me of that. Brought on by me being a young woman. I’d certainly been very aware of that when I’d run over the causeway, without him telling me so.
What I was more worried about was the idea Neil was following me. Then again, he seemed to know Wondabyne like that back of his hand. Chances were he walked it daily.
‘Hi Neil,’ was all I said in response.
Neil nodded to me, then to the house.
‘Been searching, have you?’ he asked.
The question stumped me for a moment, unsure how to respond. Then I noticed my soil-covered jeans, dirty and raw hands, and shoes that now weren’t the clean runners I’d left home with.
‘Exploring,’ I said, as Neil stopped near the bottom of the concrete steps. ‘Thought I’d take a break here.’
Why, exactly, I didn’t want him to know what I was doing, I wasn’t sure. Probably just because of the whole ghost thing.
But my half-lie was, in a way, revealed as Neil’s gaze landed on the paper compass, it tucked safely inside its clear plastic folder. Seeing the way he looked at it, I got the sudden sense he knew more about it all than he was letting on.
I eyed the compass too, wondering how casually I could grab it up and put it away, out of sight, in my backpack. It currently wasn’t pointing any telling direction. It didn’t tend to, I’d noticed, when it was trapped inside the folder.
All of a sudden, I was very glad I hadn’t been digging away under the house when Neil had spotted me. I wondered, briefly, whether the house had changed its whistling for that very reason: to lure me out from under it so the compass’s secret wouldn’t be any further revealed.
‘Used to be a nice old house,’ Neil said, having lifted his gaze from the compass. He indicated the derelict egg-blue shack.
I glanced at it, then back to Neil.
‘Did you know the people who lived here?’ I asked curiously.
Neil took a moment to answer. He nodded thoughtfully.
‘I’m not that old, love,’ he told me, so dryly I wasn’t sure whether there was humour in the words. ‘They were before my time. The people I knew here only used it as a weekend cottage.’
‘Family name then was Combs,’ Neil went on. ‘You can add that to your search. I don’t know what the earlier name was, but it wasn’t that.’
This time, I wasn’t sure whether Neil’s words were friendly or derisive. He didn’t leave me hanging, unsure how to respond, though.
‘Know the story of that, then?’ he asked, his nod indicating, this time, the paper compass.
I chewed my lip for a few seconds. But then, what was the harm, really, in recounting the story a lot of people already knew? So I relayed the tale of the travellers to China.
Neil nodded right the way through my tale, as though he’d heard it all before. When I finished, telling the part about how a few of the travellers had died, however, he gave one shake of his head.
‘The Aborigines didn’t kill ‘em,’ he said, using an outdated term for Indigenous people that carries a lot of stigma. Neil’s piercing blue eyes were boring into me, though. He didn’t seem the sort of person who’d take correction well. ‘Why would they?’ he went on. ‘What’s twenty unarmed men going to do to them?’
He’d neatly forgotten the one pregnant woman. But, to be fair, she probably wouldn’t have been seen as too much of a threat back then.
‘…How do you think they died, then?’ I asked, hesitant.
‘Accident,’ Neil grunted. ‘Ate something they shouldn’t.’ Offhandedly, he added, ‘Killed each other.’
‘Why would they do that?’
A flash of a smile, the first I’d seen the man produce, passed over Neil’s face.
‘Maybe one of ‘em had it better than the others,’ he said. ‘Desperation does terrible things to a man.’
That made me think it’d been Mary they’d fought over. And that idea made me sick.
It seemed to upset the house too. Even Neil jumped, this time, as the old lawnmower right next to him seemed to rev.
We both stared at it. Though the pull chord was no longer existent, it gave another sound like someone had tried to start the rusted-out petrol engine.
This time, the thing choked to life. And this time, I didn’t find it as frightening as Neil seemed to. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t me the house was angry with. And I was safe, sitting up the concrete steps. If that thing still had blades and started to go after him, Neil was the one in trouble.
Neil straightened his shoulders, found his cool again, gave me another nod, then turned and just carried on his path, moving away from the blue house and the mutinous lawnmower.
‘Hang on –‘ I called after him, yelling over the sound of a petrol engine that shouldn’t still be operational.
Neil slowed to a stop, and turned back around. He questioned me with a look. Then his gaze darted to the lawnmower.
‘You said,’ I went on determinedly, ‘the… “spirit” didn’t like people searching to close…’
Neil considered his answer, his eyes darting back again and again to keep an eye on the lawnmower, then said cryptically, ‘I think you can guess that one as well as I can, lass.’
‘But…’ I paused, considering. I was pretty sure, however, that Neil knew about as much as I did – if not more. All the same, I gestured to all the abandoned and tumble-down shacks near the inlet when I continued, ‘Then why didn’t it hurt all the people who lived here?’
Neil’s piercing blue stare had met and kept mine.
‘Who says it didn’t?’ he asked. Then added, the lawnmower giving a particularly loud rev, ‘Maybe it didn’t mind some of them finding what they searched for.’
And that was all he would say in answer to my question. He stomped off after that, moving away, I thought, rather more quickly than he’d approached.
Unfrightened, I watched that old lawnmower as, when Neil passed out of sight into the bush, its furious revving petered out.
It definitely did seem like the house didn’t mind me being here. Neil, however, it didn’t much like.
Part 3: A Tin Box
Though I’d packed to spend the night out at Wondabyne, I didn’t end up needing to. I tried digging under the house for a bit longer, and gave up when I encountered a rock I couldn’t shift without a tool stronger than my hands or a stick.
Telling the house I’d be back, I covered over the place I’d been digging with a natural-looking cover of detritus, packed up compass and flashlight, and headed back to the train tracks.
I wouldn’t be able to return until the next weekend, but the house, the compass, and the unknowable history of them didn’t leave my mind for even a day that week.
I found myself searching something new that week. The genealogy website was meant for you to build your own family tree. But it was the Combs’s I was more interested in.
Not having much more than a common surname to go off of, I found a lot of stuff, none of it useful. Perhaps because they’d just used the blue house as a weekend place, no Combs was listed as residing in Wondabyne, no matter how many years of electoral rolls I scanned through. And, as the blue house had no street address, I couldn’t even find it as its own entity. “Blue house, Wondabyne” wasn’t a useful search term.
What I did find, though, was a Neil on those electoral rolls. It seems there’s only one “Neil” in the small population of Wondabyne, and his surname is Bronson.
Neil, from what I can tell, did live in Sydney for a time. When his father died about three decades ago, he moved back to their house in Wondabyne – where he’d grown up.
It appears his family has lived there, on the shore of Mullet Creek, for a long time. I found the Bronsons going back a good few generations. And even found, me curious as ever, some Samuels that had lived over the river there – descendants, I assumed, of Louis Samuel, the man who’d started Wondabyne Quarry. From what I can tell, though Louis Samuel was the contactor who’d set the quarry up, he’d died before it’d really gotten going, and none of his descendants inherited it – possibly because I don’t think, for all he’d located and planned the quarry there, Louis Samuel had owned it.
When the weekend finally rolled around, I packed up as I had last time, added the trowel I’d bought to my bag, and wrapped my new extendable spade in my sleeping bag, tied, concealed, to my backpack. I didn’t really want to have to explain to anyone on the train, or Neil, why I was carrying a spade.
Knowing where I was going now, and less scared of the trains, the walk to the blue house was quicker. To me, it seemed the house started whistling the moment it noticed me. With no one else around, I whistled back, sharing the same song both of us remembered differently. From what I’d found online, Will Ye Go Lassie Go had had a different tune back in the 18th century.
‘Told you I’d be back,’ I said as I unpacked my spade and trowel.
The house whistled merrily. I smiled, and ducked under it into the crawlspace.
The digging was only slightly easier now I had tools. It took me ages to get that big rock out of the ground: having to dig around it to free it, under a house, where I wasn’t able to stand upright to use the spade. Huffing and sweaty in the growing heat of the day, I took break after break, and, when, this time, the house produced a font of clear water from the drainpipe, I didn’t freak out – though I did get that wave of weirdly emotional tears. I thanked the house and stood underneath, enjoying the cold water as a refreshing deluge.
‘You know Mr Peter Malone,’ I muttered, as, hunched and on my knees under the house, I dug deeper below where I’d gotten the rock out, ‘whatever you buried, you coulda done it in a more accessible place.’
I was starting to think the house had a sense of humour: it seemed to laugh at me with a rattle of its corrugated metal roof.
‘Seriously, dude,’ I carried on, slamming the spade back into the ground, ‘I’m a city girl! I’m getting blisters!’
The sound of rushing water started back up. I took that as an invitation to take another break and soothe my sore hands in the cold water.
‘If it is you, Peter,’ I said thoughtfully when I broke to eat my pack lunch. It took me a moment to finish that thought, wondering what I could get the house to do to confirm it. ‘How ‘bout…’ I said slowly, ‘you whistle me a different tune?’
I waited, and felt, through those minutes, that the house was thinking about it. Then, the whistling growing louder and louder, it gave me a different tune. It wasn’t one I recognised, but I grinned out at the rubbish that surrounded the blue house.
‘Hi Peter,’ I said, pleased.
The tune changed. A new one yet again – energetic like a jig – but one I recognised. I pondered it for a few minutes, then caught on enough to sing:
‘…From Bantry Bay down to Derry Quay
From Galway to Dublin town
No maid I’ve seen like the fair colleen
That I met in the County Down!’
The whistle had picked up, more enthusiastic, as I’d sung. It sent a shiver down my spine.
That was definitely one my grandmother had sung me when I was a child. She used to point out my auburn hair and call me her Star of the County Down after she’d sung it. But…
I pulled out my phone, thankfully near enough to some tower to get service, and searched up the song.
Peter may have learned that song during his time as a ghost… but it wasn’t one from his time. It was too recent for that.
A new shiver ran through my body, sending tears, as ever, to prickle into my eyes. As my fear had diminished, I’d started to feel the tears as ones of wonder – and… of feeling touched.
I blinked them clear, not sure what to think, as the whistling drifted off to nothing.
I dug on into the afternoon, finding another shelf of rock I couldn’t shift but could dig around, and then, after much effort, below. The house, thankfully, didn’t fall down onto me despite what I was doing to the ground below it, and Neil, also thankfully, didn’t appear. I had some trust, now, that the house would let me know if he was coming. I figured, if he was nearby, the lawnmower would start up, or the house would start flapping its roof – or… something. It knew I wasn’t so scared now. And it wanted only me to find what was buried.
I broke, exhausted, for dinner. I was sure my hands would be more raw had I been doing the digging with just my hands, but it wasn’t much consolation. The hands that fed me muesli bars and trail mix were not only as clean as I could make them in the font of clear water from the house, they were blistered, scabbed, and red. And my back ached.
‘I live in a comfortable modern world,’ I muttered to my hands, then showed them to the house. ‘Bet your hands, Peter, were far more used to this.’
The corrugated metal panels on the roof seemed to chuckle at me.
‘Yeah, well,’ I grumbled, finding another peanut, ‘not like my day job asks me to dig into the rockiest dirt I’ve ever seen.’
I munched the peanut, then asked, ‘You would let me know if anyone was walking this way, right?’
Picking up into the evening song of the kookaburras, the house whistled a calming refrain of Will Ye Go Lassie Go. I noticed, one line in, that it was the song as I sang it, not the 18th century tune Peter had known. I took that as a reassurance.
My multi-torch there to give me light when the sun gave up on the day, I went back under the house after; working hard, despite my blisters. I felt close now, and didn’t want to stop. It’d probably mean I’d end up spending the night here, but, honestly, that wasn’t even a daunting prospect now.
I was sure, now, that there was something buried. That that is what I’d been searching for.
As I dug, my mind played back over the things I’d learned. A way to keep my mind active as my hands were, I figured. Maybe Peter had just told people he was trying to get to China, to make them follow him? Maybe, instead, all he’d wanted was to find a safe place to hide whatever it was?
Then again, if he’d had something valuable enough to hide, China surely wouldn’t be a bad place to trade it? It was easy to laugh at those early convicts now, knowing how impossible it would be to walk to China from here, but back then… It’s not like they had access to maps. It’s not like they’d know exactly how big Australia was. They’d just been sent there on a ship, against their will, to a land Europeans knew next to nothing about – the scientists of the day had thought the platypus was a hoax, for heaven’s sake.
Maybe Peter and Mary had thought they could make their way to China. Maybe they’d had hopes for raising their family in a place far more comfortable than the penal colony in Sydney. Maybe they had something they thought they could trade when they reached China, but realised, right about the time they reached Wondabyne – still an entire state from the sea that separated Australia from Asia – that there was no China within walking distance. And decided, knowing they were escaped convicts, that the best plan was just to bury the thing they carried, and come back to it later, when their sentences were over and they could raise their unborn child as free settlers.
It could be that it wasn’t carnal interest in Mary that had caused the convicts to turn on each other. Maybe Peter and Mary deciding to stop here, at Wondabyne, and bury something valuable, rather than carry on to China, was what made tensions emerge among the hungry and desperate convicts.
It was all just my supposition. But it was plausible.
My hands had gone numb. I took it as a mercy, tossing the current load of sand to the side and slamming the spade back into the dirt.
It hit something that didn’t crunch like rock and sand. It slammed, like it’d hit something hollow and reverberant.
I tossed the spade aside, and pulled the multi-torch closer, shedding light in the late evening down into the hole I’d created.
The rock shelf shadowed what was below it. I shoved dirt aside with my hands, and hung myself down into the hole, the torch in my hand.
Just dirt. I swept aside the sand over where I’d been digging. And there it was:
The corner of a badly rusted tin.
The next half hour, as the sun sank below the horizon and the house stayed completely silent, was spent scraping zealously with the trowel: trying to reveal enough of the tin to be able to pull it out.
Finally, with mosquitoes revolving around my torch, I got it out. Sitting back on my heels, I pulled the lid off the old tin. And, by the light of that one flashlight, stared inside.
It was jewellery. I supposed, sitting there, that shouldn’t be as surprising as I found it. Peter Malone had robbed Frederick Samuel, a jeweller. But it wasn’t what I’d been expecting. What I had been expecting, I wasn’t sure.
It just wasn’t the pile of gold rings, diamond necklaces, and pendent earrings I was staring at.
Peter Malone had only been accused of stealing the one handkerchief. There’d been no mention of the pile of jewellery, only slightly tarnished, I saw filling the tin.
‘Oohh… Peter…’ I muttered. ‘You stole a lot…’
The house, above my head, rattled its metal roofing sheets, as though chuckling back at me.
I grimaced. I’d been seeing ol’ Peter Malone as just a poor man who’d stolen a handkerchief. What in the world I was supposed to do with the, likely, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of antique jewellery in this tin?
“Finders keepers!” –that was something my grandmother had said to me, way back when she’d still been alive. That, and:
“You do what you gotta do.”
I’d long put all that down to the laissez faire attitude people of that day and age had grown up under.
It wasn’t how I’d been raised, though. I’d grown up with “fair is fair” my motto, and, “unless you’re searching for something a ghostly compass is directing you to, respect “NO TRESPASSING” signs”.
That last one I’d made up as my moral guide on the spot. But still.
On top of the pricey loot in the box was a twisted handkerchief. It was fed, keeping the old and water-damaged fabric bunched, through two rings. It was on that that I focused, finding it the far less morally objectionable thing to look at.
I picked the handkerchief out, its fabric now stiff and liable to crunch under my fingers. I turned it over, eying the gold band that was one simple wedding ring; and the other one, which was made of twisted metal in white, rose, and yellow gold. That second one held a stone in its centre, the metal twined around it. Emerald, I thought the stone, looking at its deep forest green colour, though I was no gemmologist.
Carefully, I slipped the rings from the handkerchief. They sat in my palm, foreign in a hand that wore no rings at all. Tipped towards the light of the torch, I saw that the simple gold wedding band had an engraving on the inside.
I lifted it, and looked.
“Forever and for always,” the engraving read, “my dear Mary.”
Those wondrous and touched tears prickled anew in my eyes. They did it a whole minute before the house started whistling quietly. So I was sure it wasn’t fear that caused those tears. It was the enormity of what I was involved in that had. This silent history… that had found me as its messenger.
Not so silent anymore, I thought, as the house sung its tune around me.
That first ring, the simple wedding band that held the inscription, was a man’s ring. I was sure of it. It would be too big for all of my fingers but my thumbs. The more intricate one with the emerald wasn’t. It’d fit my own ring finger easily. It was Mary’s ring.
And I understood now. Or, I thought I did:
Peter had died. Killed by the other convicts or not. Mary had buried this box.
Because I didn’t think the man who’d had that message engraved on his ring – who’d risked so much to steal the rings – would have willingly taken it off.
She must have – Mary. After he died. And then she’d added her own ring, threaded it over the handkerchief he’d been transported for. And buried the loot. Probably for her to find later, so she could feed their child.
But she never had.
I dashed at my face, wiping the tears that had finally chosen to fall from my cheeks. Maybe I was stupid for reading so much into it. But I did. And I felt Mary and Peter like they were right there with me.
No, they hadn’t done a good thing. They’d stolen a lot of very expensive jewellery. But they’d done it for reasons I was sure I could understand.
And Mary had lost him. A man who very much seemed to have loved her more than anything. And she’d had to go back to Parramatta without him. Have their child alone…
I was crying properly now, in that tiny crawlspace under the blue house, by the light of my torch. It was realising that that made me buck up, sniff back my tears, thread the rings back onto their delicate handkerchief, close them into the tin box, shove the majority of the dirt back into the hole, and crawl out from under the house.
But, the sun already set, the only place I had to go was into the house. I caught up my backpack, stuffed the box into it, and climbed up into that derelict kitchen.
The sheet over the doorway into the old bathroom billowed out towards me. For a moment, by the light of my torch, I saw it as shrouding the silhouette of a man, who’d never been reunited with his wife. Who’d never gotten to see his child. His figure created in the waves and creases of the cloth.
‘I’ll search for them,’ I promised Peter. ‘I’ll find your descendants. I’m good at…’ I trailed off. “Searching stuff up online” wasn’t likely to be something a man from the 18th Century would understand. ‘…finding that sort of thing,’ I finished.
The house seemed to hum with approval. I watched the sheet hung in the bathroom doorway settle back down, Peter’s silhouette gone.
I set myself up, the sleeping bag laid out on the hard wooden floor, the tin box safe in my backpack; the torch in lamp mode and more peanuts being dropped into my mouth from the bag of them.
A light breeze blew through the old blue house. Still too charged to sleep, I pulled out the paper compass, and set it on the floor atop its folder. I considered it. What would it show now the box of jewellery was found? Would it just point to my backpack?
I set it up, and sat to watch.
For a long moment, the compass was still. I started to think it had done its task, and wouldn’t turn any longer. And then it started moving.
It stopped. What point of the compass it was indicating didn’t seem important to me any longer. It was pointing at the wall, right where, in the side of the eggshell blue kitchen, a part of that wall had broken away to reveal a hole.
I nodded to the compass, then crawled over to the wall with my torch.
Sitting before the hole, still a little wary about asbestos, I shone the light into it.
There was something in there. Between the wooden planks of the sturdier part of the wall and the blue fibreboard sheeting, was something off-white. I reached in, only somewhat worried about funnel web spiders, and grabbed for the thing.
It felt like cloth. Not the crisp cloth of the ancient handkerchief, but something more recent and softer than that. Pulling blindly, I tugged the cloth out, then spread it across my knees.
I gulped. Then just stared at what I’d found.
It was needlepoint. Across the surface of the fine muslin was embroidered the name “Thornton”.
My surname is Smith. As common as you come. But my grandmother – my mother’s mother – the one who’d sung me all these old songs…
She’d been a Thornton before she’d married.
All over again, those touched and wondrous tears prickled my eyes. As the house started whistling again. Something new this time:
Sail yo-ho boys…
Let her go boys
Bring her head round
Into the weather…
Heel yo-ho boys
Let her go boys
Sailing homeward to Mingulay.
My mind supplied the lyrics. The house provided the tune.
My lips pressed tightly together. I wanted, for no good reason, to stave off the feeling that, just maybe, my beloved grandmother, who’d died when I was twelve, was here. With me. Singing me off to sleep like she hadn’t done for over a decade.
‘Mingulay Boat Song,’ I identified, speaking it to her presence, if she was there. ‘I loved that one.’
I really had. It’d been my favourite. Too painful to think of until now. Because I’d always tied it to my grandmother. I’d always felt so at home with her, every time my parents had left me at her house, down in Sydney, when they were away or out. That song had told me I was loved, and ready to fall off to sleep.
Wives are waiting by the peer head
Gazing seaward from the heather
Heave ahead round and we’ll anchor
Ere the sun sets on Mingulay.
I heard that part of the song, in the house’s whistle, like I’d never had before.
‘Did you live here?’ I whispered to the house, talking to my grandmother. ‘Was this where you grew up?’
I felt the song like a response, humming through the floorboards and into my body.
I had one memory of my grandmother telling me she’d grown up in a little house outside of Sydney. I don’t think she told me where it was. But she had told me of how her father had liked tinkering with machinery, trying to make it work when it was broken. How her sister had taken after him. About how her dad had died in the war. About how her mother had made toasted cheese sandwiches in an old stove, the method, and stove itself, something I hadn’t been able to understand back when I’d heard those stories.
And I think… she’d said that house had been blue.
There was no old stove I didn’t understand now. But I did see an open hole in the wall where a chimney for one might once have been.
Mingulay Boat Song sang on around me, whistled in a way that reverberated through the house. I found it as comforting as my grandmother’s singing, cuddling me to her chest, once had been.
I put the embroidered cloth in my bag with the box, and crawled into my sleeping bag.
‘I like it here,’ I whispered, as I pillowed my head on the jacket I’d packed in my backpack.
I felt my grandmother’s smile in the lullaby she whistled to me – that old folk song I didn’t feel the need to google this time.
I fell asleep to thoughts of my gran growing up in this little house – an affordable home hidden in a national park; to ideas of Mary and Peter struggling their way to this spot centuries ago. I was left with one strong impression, something I’d thought to say but didn’t get a chance to before dreams took over my thoughts: it’s okay, things have gotten easier.
It was true. My apartment was small, but I hadn’t built it myself. Whatever poverty my family had faced before me, I had a good job. I had a university degree… I was saving up a nest egg…
I woke to the sense things weren’t right. To the sound of a revving lawnmower – and the knowledge I wasn’t in a suburban home with a lawn.
I sat straight upright in my sleeping bag. The multi-torch, beside me, switched suddenly on, adding some light to the pitch black of night.
The roof above me was rattling. Not as though it was chuckling this time. But furious. Banging loud and angry.
I stared around. And then screamed.
A face was right beside me.
My eyes followed the person’s movement. Spied where their hand was. And launched – half-trapped by my sleeping bag – to stop him.
‘You got yours love!’ a voice shouted back at me. ‘This is mine!’
He shook me off, tossing me aside. And reached back into my backpack.
Blinded by terrified rage, I shoved at the sleeping bag, and launched again.
‘NO!’ Neil screamed, as I shrieked – the old house groaning and rocking around us. My fingernails sunk into his skin – I was not going to let him get it –
‘YOU STOLE IT FROM ME!’ Neil yelled, right into my ear – and I was thrown, landing side-down on those thin, hard floorboards.
I gasped, choking for breath; winded.
‘THINK I HAVEN’T SEARCHED LONGER THAN YOU?’ Neil’s voice demanded, while the house shook as though in in a gale force wind. ‘THINK YOU HAVE MORE RIGHT?’
‘It’s my family’s!’ I gasped, shoving back onto my knees. ‘MY GRANDMOTHER –‘
‘Only because you stole it!’ Neil screamed back at me.
Blinded, by the low light of the torch, I flew forward again, clawing out for him –
‘You can’t win lass!’
He did have the wiry strength of a man who’d worked hard most of his life: my first impression had been right. I landed on my side again. And I saw the tin box, emerging from my backpack, in his hand.
The house seemed to scream. I saw the curtain screening the bathroom billowing out. I spotted the beam from above shake before it fell, landing right atop Neil’s head.
He barely seemed to blink. But it did stop him for a second. The house was shuddering under us.
‘OPEN IT!’ I screeched, clawing back up onto hands and knees. ‘JUST OPEN IT!’ I yelled at Neil, my voice breaking my throat.
With a loud CLANG! the corrugated metal sheet I’d moved out of the way of the front door slammed back against it. Blocking Neil’s exit.
He stared from it, to me. The torchlight flickered, then flickered again. I shivered, my eyes pricking once again with tears.
‘Don’t take their rings!’ I yelled. ‘Just leave those!’
It felt like I was begging. The house below me felt as weak as I’d first worried it was: shaking under my hands and knees. The thin floorboards bowing.
‘Take the rest of it!’ I begged, staring, in the low light, at Neil. ‘Please – just leave their rings!’
He stared at me, those eyes no less blue and piercing in the lamplight. Then he nodded.
I watched him set the box on the floor. He shoved the rusted lid off. Then stared down at what was inside.
I watched him think, blinking to rid my eyes of the film of tears that had slid over them. Then, as the house quaked and screamed around us, Neil picked up the handkerchief, the two rings threaded, as I’d left them, over it.
‘Just give me that!’ I cried, holding out my hand for it. ‘That’s the bit that’s ours! You can have the rest of it – but leave us that!’
What drove me, I wasn’t sure. It was just the deductions I’d made – suspicions I’d had. But Neil glanced at me, and, my hand wavering in the air as the roof clanked above and the house quaked around us, he held out the two rings, threaded over the handkerchief.
I grabbed them. Clutching them tight in my hand.
‘It’s okay!’ I shouted to the house. ‘We’ve got all we need!’
And with that, the house settled. All of a sudden, it calmed right down, the metal sheet over the door falling to the ground outside.
Neil stared from me to the doorway. Faster than I could clutch the rings to my chest, he’d shut the tin lid, and was leaving through the door, tin box in his hand; the beam that’d landed on him left on the floor beside me.
In the calm and quiet after his departure, I uncurled my hand.
Both rings were there, the stiff handkerchief threaded through them. The simple wedding band, and the more intricate one with the emerald.
And, still in my backpack, was the embroidered cloth with “Thornton” stitched across it.
Though it was only a few hours to sunrise, I didn’t sleep a wink more that night.
The house was still and silent, not responding to me even when I spoke to it. And though that upset me more than I can describe, I still felt I’d done the right thing.
It was Peter and Mary’s rings that were important. And the embroidered cloth with my grandmother’s surname on it. Neil could take the rest of it – that part didn’t matter.
As the sun rose, I packed up, and, my eyes clouded by endless tears, set off back to the train station.
‘Don’t worry,’ I’d told the blue house as I left it. ‘I will find your descendants. I’ll give them these rings.’
I thought, as I walked away, that the house had whistled after me, singing Star of the County Down to my departing back.
My own home – my small apartment – felt drab after that. It had white walls, not the homey eggshell blue. I set the compass down, outside its folder, on my desk. It didn’t spin around to point north. It hasn’t spun to point anywhere since that night.
I put the rings in my drawer, making sure they’d be safe. And I spread the embroidered cloth over my bed. It felt right there.
And, the next day, I felt ready to start searching online.
It wasn’t descendants of Mary and Peter I got far with though. I found out they’d had a girl. And then I’d gone back to Neil.
For some reason, I couldn’t believe it was simple greed that had driven him. I’d found him old-fashioned, yes. But I hadn’t thought him purely cruel.
The Bronsons and Samuels, as I’d noticed before, had lived in Wondabyne for generations.
What I hadn’t noticed before was that a Samuel had married a Bronson. And that that line had led, directly, to Neil.
The other Samuels had moved away or died out. Neil’s family had stayed on in Wondabyne.
And he was descended, directly, from Louis Samuel. The man who’d started Wondabyne Quarry.
Whether Neil’s line led right the way back to Frederick Samuel – the jeweller Peter Malone had stolen from – I’m still not sure. But it’d make sense if it’s true. And, for all my experience with him, I still want to think Neil acted out of a need to retrieve what his family had lost – what had once been, rightly, theirs.
It’s not like I needed that money, anyway. Maybe Neil, who’d never inherited the quarry his ancestor had started, did.
As for how I come into it…
Well, I’d had a theory – the same theory I’d shouted at Neil that awful night. And, finally getting around to tracing back my own family routes… I found my theory was right.
I traced back my grandmother, then her parents, one of whom died in World War II… Then her mother’s parents…
And all the way back. Over two hundred years ago. Two hundred years, and multiple different surnames ago, my family had been the Malones.
That girl, born to Mary and the deceased Peter Malone, hadn’t kept her name. She’d married a tailor, and lived in the city. Many generations later, her descendants had been on the electoral roll for Wondabyne, under the surname Thornton.
The Combs surname had been my grandmother’s sisters’ family. They’d kept the blue house going by spending weekends there.
My grandmother had married a Jones, and my mother had married a Smith.
So, as Maeve Smith, I got back on the train, about four weeks later. I sat as it trundled north, with two rings on my fingers: an intricate one with an emerald on my right ring finger, and a simple gold band, a loving inscription on the inside, on my thumb, and rode north.
The trek to the blue house was easy.
Seeing that there was no rubbish surrounding the trail was harder. Seeing that, before me, there was no blue house, was downright painful.
Across the inlet, the green corrugated metal shack was gone too. As were all the collapsed shacks.
But it was the blue house I’d been looking for, and the blue house I didn’t see there.
I’ve since learned the government had planned to demolish those abandoned homes for a long while. Clear out the detritus, and return the National Park to what it should be: a rubbish-free stretch of nature.
I’d otherwise agree with that completely.
But all I saw of the blue house was a bit of those haphazard stone pillars, the hole I’d dug between them roughly covered in with the dirt I’d tossed over it.
I stared at the space the blue house had once occupied. Where it had stood for a grand number of decades. And wished I’d grabbed the World War II medals when I’d last been in there.
‘Sorry,’ I whispered, as I sat on the concrete steps that now led nowhere. ‘I’m… sorry.’
The wind picked up, a cold chill making its way down my spine. My eyes prickled with those weird tears.
‘I found a descendant of yours, Peter,’ I went on, emboldened. I swallowed, touched in a way I couldn’t explain. ‘It’s me. And your daughter did just fine. Mary survived to sixty eight years old. Your daughter’s name was Siobhan. She married a tailor, and she lived in Sydney.
‘And she led to me, which I’m thinking you already know. Because you found me. And I’m doing just fine.’
I twiddled the emerald ring on my finger.
‘I think Neil’s family was the one you stole that jewellery from,’ I went on. ‘But he left us these – and that’s all I want.
‘Otherwise, we’re fine,’ I repeated. ‘All of us are fine. Mom’s fine. My grandmother was a happy woman. And I’m glad, Gran, I got to see your childhood home before…’
I trailed off. But I was sure, in the now empty inlet, that my grandmother knew what I was going to say.
Before the blue house was demolished.
‘Glad I met both of you,’ I finished.
Picking into the sounds of a light breeze and the songs of birds, was a whistle. Like a grandparent whistling away while they worked. I smiled, and left the inlet with Will Ye Go Lassie Go in my head. I sung it loud along the train line as I headed home.
Though there were twenty one travellers to China, and one was a pregnant woman, I made up Peter and Mary Malone. I also made up Frederick Samuel, and Maeve and Neil. The story that includes those characters is fiction. The rest of it, however, is real, with fiction shoehorned into it and a few liberties taken.
As a quick bit of info to understand the history below: the First Fleet arrived to create the first British colony in Australia in 1788.
It is true to say that Australia was settled by convicts, but saying that suggests criminals being warded over by good, law-abiding soldiers and governors. The real history is much more muddled than that. A lot of the soldiers were no more law-abiding than the convicts. Additionally, the convicts were often transported due to little more than petty theft, motivated by poverty and starvation back in Britain and Ireland.
For governors… Governor Phillip, the first governor of the settlement at Sydney (under orders from the British King) desired himself an “ambassador” to the “natives”. But none of the Indigenous people in the region wanted to be this, quite understandably, and the first guy they kidnapped for this role, Arabanoo, died of smallpox. So Phillip stole another one. Literally had his officers go out, find and kidnap another man, with the very cheery English “hallo – you are to be our new ambassador!”
In fact, they stole two men, Colebee and Bennelong. Colebee managed to escape and stay escaped. Bennelong, who was a married man with his own life, also tried to escape, but Governor Phillip sent out his men, and recaptured him. Because them English have gotta have an ambassador!
They made Bennelong learn English, and alienated him from his people.
So just, overall, the early colonial days of Australia were a bunch of lawless and amoral authorities, trying to force their rule over the Indigenous people and a mixed bag of angry and actually guilty or just kinda down and out convicts. It was an utter disaster.
Within a short time of arriving in Sydney, the First Fleeters lost their cows, who were later found grazing happily some way south.
There were no women, to begin with. The single minister who’d come over with the First Fleeters described the arrival of the first women’s ship to the colony as something of a debauched orgy on the beach.
Arthur Phillip’s government house, a prefab structure transported from Britain, wasn’t weatherproof.
While he remembered to bring that to Australia, he’d completely forgotten the documentation of the convict’s sentences. So convicts kept coming to him to tell him their sentence was over now, and he had to respond with ‘Ah – look, my good man… I totally forgot to bring those documents… so you’re going to have to wait for a ship to come from England with them.’
The convicts, who outnumbered those who were supposed to keep them in line, refused to work long hours in the fields producing food. So, pretty soon, they all hadn’t much to eat.
And then they ran out of clothing.
To cap it all off, in 1808, a well-entrenched underground rum industry, which fuelled the military corps in the colony, was threatened by Governor Bligh. So, in response, 400 soldiers went and overthrew ol’ Bligh in the Run Rebellion. (There is no need to feel sorry for Bligh, he is the man to whom the quote “the beatings will continue until morale improves” is attributed to – and whether he actually said that or not is irrelevant, that describes his character). The Rum Corps, as it’s fair to call them, commanded the colony for the next couple years, until Britain sent a new governor.
You can imagine. It still surprises me that the British powers didn’t decide to just chuck the whole settlement, and give up. But they didn’t, and within even a few years, they’d actually built quite a lot, both in Sydney, and further up the Parramatta River at what was then called Rose Hill, now Parramatta.
Anyway, besides the fiction surrounding the named characters above, and their families, the locations and history here are real. Twenty one travellers to China were documented in Watkin Tench’s journals; they did, at least, reach Broken Bay; Wondabyne is as described; Pindar Cave is a cool spot (although I have not tasted the water at the waterfall – drink at your own risk); please do not sneak past the security fencing to go stand on the quarry edge; and beyond a vague promise that Wondabyne stone is really good stone, and that it’s near Mooney Mooney Bridge, I don’t know why they chose that difficult location for a quarry. I also know very little about those who live over the river from the station.
The derelict shacks Maeve finds, including the blue house, did exist, but they were demolished several years ago. So this story is set shortly before they were demolished.
Also, if you were confused: Brisbane Water National Park is not in Brisbane. It’s far closer to Sydney than it is Brisbane (which is in a different state entirely).
To see pictures of the real little blue cottage, you can find them here. Please note: my story invents the people it talks about living in these places. Real other people lived there, and I don’t know their history. This story does not reflect the real people who live/d there.
For Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, you can find it here.