Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Our Place by the River – Once Upon a Time

A grey, gunmetal grey, late August morning; and the old man knew. He knew as soon as he pulled back the cloth material draped over the orifice in a wall that served as one of only two windows in his hut. He knew as he peered out with his rheumy old eyes soon after rising. What was to become known as the jerry enveloped the river, so it was difficult for him to see across to the other hut, but as soon as he did, he knew. William Prouse's squinting eyes discerned no smoke rising up from the tin chimney opposite, as it usually did, these frostfitful days. There was a tussocky paddock, separating the two shanties, and he knew that he'd have to go across to the other – as he usually did about this time. But he knew, in his very bones, what he would find when he arrived over there - something that would make this day very different from all that had passed before. By now his old mate was always up, heating up a brew, preparing for his arrival. Normally he and Prouse would sup together, smoke baccy together, plan the day, such as it was, together, and, inevitably, reminisce about their long history of togetherness on the river, together. But, he knew, not this morning – or any future morning, for that matter.

He dreaded what he would find as walked across the dew saturated divide. He peered across to the Derwent, grey as grey in its milky, misty surrounds. The few swans he could spot were seemingly becalmed, as if in wait for the milky sun that would appear later in the day, when the fog finally dissipated.  He dreaded what he would find as he pushed open the door and passed through Billy Bracegirdle's dark, dank cooking area to his sleeping quarters.

For months he'd known that this would be Billy's last winter by the river. Prouse had watched as Billy's creaking movements became more and more painful, although Billy would admit nothing. Prouse had quietly taken over most tasks they'd previously shared, and Billy offered no complaint. He could no longer pour the brew from the old billy, he could no longer prepare his baccy from the plug, and Prouse took over the cooking of the meals they shared. Their women, of course, had long gone. And so was Billy now, the proof was in front of him, on the bunk. The Lord had been kind, thought Prouse. He'd been taken in his sleep – or so it appeared. He placed his gnarled, hoary old hand over that of his mate's. He closed his eyes for a moment, and exhaled a shuddering, choking sigh. He then wiped away his tears, retreated to the main room, and lit the fire they'd set together the previous evening, to take the morning dankness away. He knew what he had to do, but he couldn't see that there was any hurry to start that walk up around the corner to let Reverend Timms, at the church, know. Prouse knew Timms would take it from there, but there was no rush. He pulled up a chair to the flames and sat. He wanted some thinking time – he'd brew up and think back over their story – of all those years together. Years that had now ended with this, his friend, gone to the Maker.

County Mayo boys, the pair of them – but gawd, he thought, times were tough as they grew up across the way from each other in the little village. They were both second sons, had no prospects, and their families were large, and each household’s starveacre existence was hand to mouth. When they came of age they didn't have to be told. They hit the roads of that moist, blowy western county together, looking for a change in fortune – but the Ireland of those times offered none for them, nor countless like them. Emaciated, though grimly still hopeful, they made a pact; William Prouse and Billy Bracegirdle. In broad daylight they stole a sheep. In broad daylight they lit a fire by the road. In broad daylight they skun and gutted their sheep. In broad daylight they cooked it and commenced to eat. In broad daylight, tummies full for the first time in months; they were caught and hauled before the magistrate. In broad daylight they were incarcerated. They knew it would go one of two ways as they waited his majesty's pleasure. They knew it could be the gallows if the judge was of that mind, or if he was of the other, they would, fettered, leave Eire behind for Botany Bay. They gave thanks their luck held, for it was the latter.

The voyage at sea, it seemed to Prouse, now by that fire, was a lifetime ago. It seemed as if it had happened to someone other than him. He only had to feel his ankles, though, to know that was not the case. Across the oceans he, and Billy, endured months of foetidness and foulness – confined, chained, retching, stinking, lice infested, semi-starved and helpless – almost devoid of all hope. They were surrounded by death on that leaky sailing boat out to Sydney Town, New South Wales. Eventually, though, the air grew sweeter, grew warmer, and then a strange smell entered Prouse's nostrils – eucalyptus. He had arrived, or so Prouse thought. He was no sooner on land than he was hauled onto another ship, the 'Sirius', and on it also was Billy.  Across yet another sea they went, and to a small island covered in pines – Norfolk Island. This place, they knew, could be hell – or, if they played their cards right, it could lead to heaven. If the Maker was of a mind, they would be granted the wish they'd had swapped blood for back on an Emerald Isle road.

Billy Bracegirdle and William Prouse kept their heads down on the island. They kowtowed to their captors in the most obsequious manner it was possible for two illiterate Mayo boyos to manage, and did, without a murmur, all that was asked of them, fair or otherwise. From dawn to dusk – pick, shovel, scythe – they sweated for month after month. Then for a year or three more. Then it was done, for in their hands they received the paper that was their ticket to heaven. With it, and a few granted acres, they were free, to a degree - and would be expected to work for the common good, which they did. As convicts they had watched and learnt the right way to treat the land, now they could put it to use for their own advancement. Again, heads down, they produced enough to keep the authorities off their backs.

In the Year of the Lord 1808 they were informed that the little colonial afterthought on Norfolk would be packed up and transported – to Van Diemen's Land. They were promised good, arable land equivalent to what they given up, and enough provisions to make a fresh start. So, lock stock and barrel, after another voyage on the briny, they arrived at a small settlement under the shadow of Table Mountain – yet to be named for the Waterloo hero. Most of the islanders moved up river to what became New Norfolk, but Prouse and Billy inveigled, aided by a little coinage, adjacent acres just a little further down the Derwent, on its eastern shore. On arrival at their land, they observed what looked to be fine pastures of native grasses, lightly wooded, with water frontage, and gentle hills as a backdrop. They knew they had to be on their guard as they were advised there were still some remnants of the natives around, and some convicts had gone bush, reputedly basing themselves around Dromedary, the largest of the nearby tors. There were also rumours of an ungainly native wolf quite partial to mutton. Their combined land stretched between a small cove to the east, and a small rise jutting up on their western boundary. They knew this would do, and it soon became apparent that the supposed dangers were overstated.

Diagonally across the watery divide from them was the hamlet of Black Snake, and another one within walking distance further down on their shore. Sweat, sweat; they planted seed, established a few sheep and dairy cows – and the land soon gave back. Sweat, sweat; from the timber they cleared they fashioned two adequate huts in close proximity, replacing the canvas, and, sweat sweat; constructed a boat of sorts to make river crossings with the fruits of their labours. There were fish in the river, plentiful swan, and up in the hills, 'roo and possum. They had enough, they were on their way to heaven, Prouse remembered by the gum-crackling flames, as a tot replaced a brew that chillsome morning.

As time passed so Black Snake grew, along with their crops and the multiplication of their livestock. The collection of rudimentary buildings just down river was becoming a starting point for journeys further north – to Pontville, the Green Ponds, Jericho and Oatlands. Canny Richard Burroughs opened an inn at Black Snake to compliment his ferry punt operating to the other side, and Prouse and Billy began to supply victuals and a distilled potent home made liquor to him. The publican knew the more he could delay crossings, the more the 'punters' would put down their gullets. It was all going very well until Mr Burroughs became too greedy, overloaded his little conveyance, and drowned eleven souls, including himself. Prouse, now with a warming measure of that very same rot-gut all these years on, found he could still chuckle.

With a new publican came more good fortune as the convict built road being laid up to New Norfolk reached the front door of his expanding tavern, with further benefits to the local provisioners in the way of a marked increase in passing traffic. That same Year of the Lord, 1818, was a milestone for Prouse. He was thirty-eight when he won the hand of the publican's daughter, Elizabeth – a comely twenty year old. She agreed to move across river and she gave him a son. It was short-lived, as she found life on the eastern shore too primitive for her taste, and soon returned, with the tiny lad, William, back to the comforts of her father's establishment. Prouse soon discovered his Elizabeth had made an arrangement with a government official, a wife back in the old country it was rumoured, to set her up in even more comfort in a Hobart Town house of some substance. The official did not mind the little fellow being part of the package.

Prior to Elizabeth, there had been Molly. She had a thriving business operating from a hut beside the inn. For a couple of pennies she offered a bonny fulsome breast to fondle, and some hand relief – no more - for all prepared to part with the fee. Except for Billy, to whom she took a shine, and Prouse knew his mate was privy to somewhat more for his tuppence. It wasn't long before Molly shared Billy's hut for much of the time, but still kept her lucrative side business going on the opposite shore. After his wife's departure, Billy wasn't averse to sharing Molly with him as well – after all, they were mates - and for a while he was content enough with that. He had a few other brief sorties on the side, but nothing stuck, and eventually Prouse decided all women were more worry than they were worth This was  especially so when Molly passed, after years of making Billy's life, and that of countless others, less burdensome. Prouse, now reddened and made mellow by fire and grog, thought that it may have now been of some value to have persevered somewhat more with those womenfolk who fleetingly passed through his life.

After the causeway was built, with its swinging bridge, Prouse and Billy, entering their sixth decade, eased up, deciding just to provide enough for their own needs. They weren't greedy. Their land and the river had been kind to them. They had squirrelled away enough for any little extras – evenings at the Black Snake, or the newer coach inn up around the corner. Once or twice they even took passage down river to Hobart Town. He’d heard there his son, now a man, had taken the new road north, establishing business opportunities up there with the backing of his powerful Hobart mentor. Mostly, though, the pair of them were content enough to potter, or simply just watch the passing parade of river craft, contentedly sitting and waiting for the sun go down over Dromedary. The river lulled, the river soothed, the river made for contentment.

The mist had by now lifted and Prouse knew, as much as the grog had addled him, that it was time. He walked, told the tale, and soon enough the body of his friend was taken care of. There would be a half hearted funeral in a few days, but he also knew that with Billy Bracegirdle gone, his life as he knew it was done. He knew what he had to do – a gun could be borrowed, pockets could be weighed down. He'd give it time – something may turn up to change his mind. He'd give it another summer, but he was dammed if he would spend a further winter of bonechill by the river alone. One more summer of watching the river, that's how long he'd give it. He'd wait for the sign. When the first milky mist descended to mark the passing of the warm days of his last summer, he'd have had the time to have thought it through and figured it out. He'd rejoin his mate, Billy Bracegirdle.

The river lulled, the river soothed, the river made for contentment – some things never change. The above is an imagining of what it may have been like here by the river in a spot I share with my beautiful Leigh and wonderful neighbours. The characters are real, some appearing on Leigh’s family tree, the publican in historical records. Their lives here are the fiction of my mind.

The former Black Snake Inn today

1 comment:

  1. Dad, this is wonderful. I really think you should consider entering it in a competition, or submitting it to a literary magazine. What about Islet????