south – the middens. story 12
The boy stood shivering in the knee deep water with his pipe stem arms crossed over his chest for what poor warmth and protection they offered. Monty was by his side and in deference to the boy’s discomfort he had not put on his wetsuit. They were both goose bumped from the chill of the early morning westerly and not a little envious of Tom who was sat in the lee of a sunny dune nearby basking in the sunshine. Occasionally he would offer a word of assistance or encouragement and the smile never left his face.
It had taken an hour to get Toby wet to his knees and the glance that was finally transmitted by Monty and received by Tom signaled that today was not going to be the day of the boy’s first surf. Despite the long lines of surf that broke empty away around the headland.
They draped the purpled lad a dry towel around his shoulders and placed him in the sun to regain some warmth into his skinny little frame. His teeth chattered like bones in a bucket and there was not one part of him that did not shiver. Thus he sat bundled up and was cold all over as the two men considered what would be the best way to spend the rest of the day
‘ We could take him down to the Middens, ‘ said Monty, it’s just down at the end of the beach and over the headland, or we could go up Luncheon to see the big gum. ‘
‘ Too many leeches. ‘
‘ How about we throw a line into the lake, try to hook a flattie? ‘
‘ He’s done plenty of that. ’
‘ What then? ‘
‘ Dunno. ‘
Monty walked down to the water’s edge, retrieved the surfboard and carried it back up to the sunny little hollow in the dunes where Tom and the boy were sitting.
Toby, now a little warmer and again active, climbed to his feet and pointed a finger down the coast to the next headland. This small boy’s gesture had in it all the curiosity of man on the edge of a wilderness as yet unexplored.
‘ What’s around there Monty? ‘ He asked.
Monty smiled at Tom. ‘ Middens it is, ‘ he said.
Flight Lieutenant Alistair Newby was doing his routine weekly flight from Nowra base to the Victorian border and back in Neptune AAE558, flying low level and following the shoreline contours. A three-hour round trip he always enjoyed in fine weather.
His first thought however, when he glimpsed the two figures on the long beach dragging another on a sled like contraption behind them, was that there may have been some accident down there and he immediately reached for his radio.
– and only when the figure on the sled, a small boy, jumped off and started running after him waving wildly did Newby relax, and in acknowledgement of the lad’s enthusiasm he banked the aircraft a degree or two in greeting.
Tom and Monty freed the poles of the towels and after sticking them upright in the sand followed Toby who was loping along the beach far ahead of them. The drone of the Neptune was still noticeable although the aircraft had disappeared around the southern headland.
‘ Who told him that was how Apaches carried their sick and wounded? ‘
‘ Harry. ‘
‘ That’d be right. ‘
The low tide enabled them to easily round the southern headland without getting their feet wet and after climbing up a steep gully they sat on the grassy edge looking down at a small rocky island about five hundred feet offshore.
‘ That’s called Brush Island, ‘ Monty said as he handed the damper around, ‘ the old ones used to swim across the channel for pipis and crayfish. There are plenty of rock carvings on that big pale block over there to the left. The midden has been washed away. ‘
Tom and the boy listened with interest.
‘ I paddled over there once, ‘ Monty continued, ‘ and found iron all over the place, even an old boiler that had been swept up above the waterline. Some pieces were wedged so tight amongst the rocks I couldn’t shift them. ‘
‘ Shipwrecks? ‘ asked Tom.
‘ Pirates! ‘ whispered Tobias.
‘ Coastal steamers, ‘ replied Monty, ‘ this whole coastline is fair littered with the bones of boats and them that perished in them. Miranda, Lillian, Emily Miller, Olivia. There’s even a little beach up the coast called Emily Miller, half of it has yellow sand and the other half has grey.’
Monty paused as three pelicans sailed over them on their glide path down to the lake.
‘ Strange that, because they say that the girl’s hair turned from gold to grey the day she heard that her husband had been lost down here. ‘
‘ Who’s that Mont?’ Tom asked.
‘ Young Emily Miller, the skipper’s wife. He’d named his boat after her. Yorkshire lass. ‘
‘ And behind us, ‘ – they all turned around, ‘ you can see that the lake in the middle over there must have been full of wild fowl, still is now as a matter of fact. ‘
The distant lake was shadowed by a grove of tall blackbutt that grew around its tranquil banks and a line of slow moving waterfowl left a glittering arrow-lined wake in the mirror surface of the water.
A couple of grey kangaroos showed themselves by moving around in the shade of the blackbutt trunks. To the west a range of low hills grew above each other until they formed a blue forested barrier to the inland.
Monty continued his discourse. Toby turned his face back to the sea. Tom lay back on the soft grass and closed his eyes.
‘ There must have been a few thousand people living down there at one time, and all in there must have been about six major camps around the lake. I’ve found a couple of their middens about six feet down in the earth.
Sharks’ teeth, baked shellfish, fowl, turtle shell, the lot. A couple of yanks came through here a while back and they said that this camp would have been occupied for thousands of years. ‘ Monty scratched his hairless head. ‘ Blowed if I know how they could tell but they also reckoned that this was only one of about eight permanent camps that linked Queensland to the Bass Straight. ‘ He took a pull of the canteen and looked over at Tom, ‘Imagine being the first to come on to this paradise. ‘
But there was no reply other than some slow regular breathing.
Monty fell silent and let his eyes roam about the near empty landscape, a landscape as familiar to the skinny hermit as is a village square is to the townsman.
His eyes hunted through the soft green and shadowed folds of land as other eyes do the lines of their best loved literary passages or the faces of their young children. They slowly traversed the line of low hills opposite with it’s deep seams and wooded gullies, they lingered on the reflection of sun and clouds on the distant lake’s surface, and occasionally he would smile to himself. If Tom had been awake to see his friend’s’ face he would have said that Monty was in love.
‘ A couple of years ago we had a major brush fire go through the place and with all the cover gone a man could make out their old walking trails. Even found their cemetery. ‘
Twenty minutes later a large bearded raven trod its wary path between the three sleepers and seized the small piece of uneaten damper that had fallen from Toby’s hand. Below them a family of ducks erupted in panic from the reeds as a line of dingoes loped their silent way around the lakeshore.
They were awoken fifteen minutes later by the roar of AE558’s return pass.