south – Toby and the un-shuttered window. story 18
Some years ago I finished and had published (by Bennison Books) a small book called The Next Headland. The story concerned a small boy orphaned by the loss of both parents in a car accident and who was sent to live with his grandfather on the south coast of NSW. A place many of us know very well. Since then, and courtesy of a small business in Ballina that resurrects old files from computers long fallen into in disuse I’ve found a few lost chapters, most of them pretty raw stuff and in need of editing rescue, like this one.
After they had reached the far side of the lagoon Tom showed Toby how to lower the fish trap by letting the rope it was tied to run slowly over the boat’s gunnel. There, where some of the larger trees had fallen to overshadow the water’s edge he figured the water was deep enough to attract the bigger fish.
Tom had packed one of his old socks with burley and tied it inside the trap with a couple of pieces of wire and as Toby slipped it over the side a faint trace of oil surfaced and drifted downstream with the ebbing tide, Toby glanced at it and understood its purpose without having to ask.
‘ Good lad, just let it slip down nice and easy. ‘
The trap was already out of sight and Toby was easing the float line over the gunnel, his mouth set grim in concentration.
‘ When you feel it get lighter it’s reached the bottom, then we can tie off the float. ‘
The boy stood braced against the side of the boat as he sure-handed the weight down, his bare brown feet awash in shipped water and a faint cording visible on his young arms.
Born to it thought Tom. A fisherman.
‘Will we get some fish today granddad?‘
‘Maybe, we’ll have a look on the way back.‘
Tom saw the strain ease on the little boy’s arms as the trap finally reached the bottom.
‘How deep do you reckon it went Tobes?‘
The boy looked over the side of the boat and into the placid depths beyond the glittering surface.
‘About a mile I think, can we pull it up now for a look?‘
Tom smiled as he attached an old glass float onto the end of the line and threw it into the water. ‘Later mate, let’s go and have a look at the old Chinaman’s house.‘
With the float adrift Tom set himself at the oars as Toby scrambled up into the prow where he trailed his arms in the water, then he pulled easily into midstream and headed the dinghy toward the calm and wooded reaches of the river upstream of the lagoon. An early summer sun beat down on them and already there was a heat waver visible in the air above the crab-holed mudflats on either bank as they glided past, their destination about five miles distant. A priestly white heron set on spearing a fish did not look up as they passed by.
‘Do you want to hear about Mister Lee?‘
‘And his goldmine?‘
The boy turned and peered back along the line of disappearing wake.
‘Do you think we’ll have a fish yet granddad?’
‘Soon mate, soon.‘
Over the years Tom had done some research on the long dead Mr Lee after finding his house on one of his earlier treks up river.
The Eden newspaper archives contained a few articles about the man that had dated back into the previous century as well as a couple of drawings of the home he had built in the wilderness by the river. The house, now deserted for ninety-five years and only a mile away as he rowed, was unaccountably unscathed by the bushfires that had raged through the area during those decades.
Mr Lee had arrived from Shanghai during the gold rush and with about six others he surveyed and explored on foot the regions fifty miles inland of the coast around Eden. Tom thought they must have been days of great hardship and loneliness as the men had left their families in China and the terrain they searched was home only to inhospitable aboriginal tribes, poisonous snakes, mosquitoes and leeches.
Many of Mr Lee’s countrymen as well as those of other nations had left their bones in the same forests and gullies though none were as successful at finding gold as was Mr Lee.
Dave Gillies, a young local fisherman had found the old mine hidden under a rock overhang in a nameless deep gully about twenty years ago. Gillies had spoken of sluices and iron trackways undisturbed but for the forest growth and a massive steam engine rusted through and collapsed into itself. He said that one side of the creek bank was built up as level as a road with stone removed from the hill where Mr Lee had dug out his fortune and he described the mine entrance as a piece of engineering wizardry with massive wooden bolsters supporting a cut stone lintel. The mine itself was curved rightwards from its entrance for its entire two hundred-foot length, suggesting the miners were chasing a gold seam.
A slight bend in the river opened out into a wide reach and Tom scanned the foreshore for the rotted stumps that were all that remained of Lee’s landing jetty and despite that the mangroves that had grown over them in the years since he had last been this far upriver he spotted a couple of dark stumps in the gloom of the low branches and turned the bows to the silent shore where he slid the boat into the shade.
Once the dinghy was secured Tom and Toby slipped over the side, crossed the muddy shallows and reached a clearing free of the mangroves and open to the sky. Here they were at the base of a forested hill and at the beginnings of a pathway made up of dozens of barely visible flat stones that stretched out before them to trail up into the trees. Tom sat on the ground to clean the mud off his boots as Toby wandered over to the old path and in a minute was out of sight.
Tom soon followed, stepping slowly on hexagon sided stones that had been etched by the Chinese and laid level, embedded into the gradual incline. Mandarin characters were inscribed on their surfaces and every twenty feet or so a small stone bench had been erected beside the path as a place that suited a person who may need a moment’s reflection on the banks if this placid waterway. The final thirty steps led the visitor onto what was once an acre of open ground and a large, stone enclosed and long overgrown garden.
The old house stood two stories high and half hidden behind a sixty-year-old forest of spotted gum and coastal cedar, its bottom floor made of Sydney sandstone that had been shipped to Eden and then carried by dray and pontoon to this place. The top story was timber. The roof iron.
Every window but one on the top floor was shuttered. The massive oaken double front door was closed and secured by a wooden beam chained across the threshold.
Tom found Toby standing on the top step, looking up at the old house. He turned to his grandfather, his eyes wide with wonder.
‘There’s someone here!’
‘Couldn’t be sport, they all left a long time ago.’
Toby turned back to the house.
‘He was looking at me.’
Toby pointed to the un-shuttered window.
‘He’s in there.’
now i must buy the book.thanks for the read it’s been awhile since i read parts of the story in your blog.loved it.
thanks joe, now I have to figure out what comes next ..