Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rural Ghost

While leaning on the lichen-covered gate my gaze strayed to the old stone cottage that was almost hidden by the gnarled apple tree whose heavily laden branches nearly touched the ground. Deserted for several years the cottage was rumoured to be haunted.
Once, when a harvest moon filled the heavens, a spectral white shape had been observed flitting across the shadowy unkempt garden. In the village store I had heard whispers that if one peered through the dusty windows, a woman garbed in a drab brown dress, covered by a calico apron, could be seen rocking gently in the chair, which stood next to the unlit fire. She seemed oblivious to the cobwebs and dust that gave the room a neglected air. I don’t know if there was a ghost. I had never seen her.

My finances had been shaky when I moved to the village, but by selling watercolours, and living frugally, I had managed to save enough for a deposit to buy the empty cottage. The countryside was an artist’s paradise. Barren hillsides rose above the green swift-flowing river, and apple and apricot orchards lent a rural atmosphere to what could have been a harsh environment. I rented the neighbouring property. Miners had erected both cottages during the gold rush of the 1860’s. They lay abandoned for over fifty years until an enterprising local farmer decided to refurbish them as farm-laborers’ homes. Slowly mechanization arrived, allowing one man and a tractor to do in a day what had taken two men a week to achieve. The cottages stood empty until the farmer’s entrepreneurial son modernised one and offered it up for rent.

I let my mind wander into the realms of home ownership … a small mortgage, and me painting well into the night to pay for the dream … and somehow found myself standing in the garden of the abandoned cottage. The window frames, which were once painted a deep, almost brick, red, would have complemented the grey stone exterior … schist taken from the nearby hills. The flagstone step of the cottage was covered in moss and dangerous when wet, and two casement windows stood to attention on either side of a solid wooden door. I pictured a brass knocker on the door and red-checkered curtains at the windows. In my mind’s eye I grew a garden … yellow roses clambering around the front porch, delicately scented stocks, wallflowers, Sweet William and pansies creating a colourful foreground against a backdrop of rusticity. The apple trees in the orchard I imagined severely pruned into fertile submission. In spring daffodils and tulips would vie for space alongside the lilac bushes, and hanging from the old walnut tree I envisaged a swing … a simple rope swing with a wooden seat.
I was sure that any occupant of a country cottage would simply make friends with a wandering spirit. Those who had encountered the ghost said it was a woman and wondered why she had chosen that cottage. I did not consider it haunted … there was neither sounds of rattling chains nor haunting cries in the night. I thought it strange that those aware of her presence were afraid of the house, calling it spooky, and keeping their distance.
Rain began to fall as I hurried back through the rickety gate with its creaking rusty hinges, and picking up the cane washing-basket perched on my doorstep, I quickly unpegged the laundry, and carried it into the kitchen. I carefully folded the old white sheet, my grandmother’s brown dress, and the faded calico apron that she wore over it, and as part of my preparations to move next door, returned them to the battered tin trunk where I stored all my treasures.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Shearing Shed

Nan, breathing a deep sigh of thankfulness, unfastened the seatbelt that restricted her movement in the dust-filled Ute, and a little stiff because the distance travelled over the red-dirt road had left her weary, slowly walked to the derelict gate swinging on one rusty hinge. A fleeting thought slid past her mind … why have a gate when the fence was all but non-existent? The gate slipped from her grip and collapsed on the ground, allowing the vehicle to drive within a few meters of the old shearing shed that captured their attention whilst heading home, via the seldom used back road.

Electing to walk the short distance, and needing a breath of fresh air, she waved for Bill to drive on. The building appeared to consist of several separate units; one obviously where the shearers laid their heads after a busy day, stood aloof and distant from what she presumed was the cookhouse. Another smaller building, minus door and windows, leaned like a drunken sailor against the cookhouse, and it was this large ramshackle hut she decided to check out first.

Peering through the cob-webbed gap that acted as a doorway Nan glimpsed, standing upright, plump, and full of importance, a huge chopping block, which gave a positive sign that not only did the cook prepare meals, but was compelled to show a skill in slaughtering the beast before placing it in the oven. She shivered upon spying a dark blob, suspiciously like dried blood, staining the splintered floorboards.

Bill, who had wandered to the sleeping quarters called to Nan. “Nan, see how small these rooms are! They don’t have a window, only a door. I bet they kept it open at night.”

“I don’t think they would”, she replied. “Mosquitoes and snakes could get inside.” Clutching his arm she whispered, “Oooh Bill, it’s spooky!”

“Come now Nan, don’t let your imagination run away. It is isolated, but definitely not spooky!”
Nan glanced into the darkened space no larger than their bathroom at home, closed her eyes, and attempted to envisage the tiny room furnished with a bed, and perhaps a box at the side on which to place tobacco, or maybe, a lamp. In the heat of summer it must have been stifling, and in mid-winter the cold night air would have made one pull their swag further under their chin. Looking at the shearers’ quarters was fascinating … living in them, almost certainly, less tolerable.

Nan was more interested in the cookhouse. From outside it didn’t appear large and she wondered if the stove was still in working order as she fancied a cup of tea and had forgotten to fill the thermos before leaving their weekend retreat on the southern coast. Taking Bill’s hand they carefully made their way over the dusty track that separated the cookhouse and sleeping quarters. Footprints showed others had visited recently and wheel tracks engraved in the soft ground had smoothed out from strong winds that buffeted the region for several days bringing a promise of rain while the scudding clouds, white and fluffy on top and dark and grey underneath, hinted a little moisture might fall onto the scorched earth and hopefully encourage a flush of growth.

The cookhouse occupied a corner site; in real estate terms it had location, location, location. The fact that it was several miles from human habitation may have appealed to those desiring a quiet rural atmosphere. A couple of scraggy flannel plants valiantly raised their heads but the severe lack of moisture curtailed the majority of their efforts.

A fuel stove looked forlorn, its rings rusty, and an enormous gap that was big enough to put head and shoulders through lay at the base of a tin chimney allowing the sunlight to shine onto the cobwebs and grime accumulated over a period of years. The wooden surfaces representing preparation space were minimal and would have needed careful scrubbing to maintain basic standards of hygiene.

In what was the dining area, if such a pompous term could be applied to the oblong room with a long narrow plain wooden table with dust as a cover, and two strictly utilitarian benches either side, dominated the space. Nan imagined men drinking strong tea, or something alcoholic, from chipped enamel mugs as they waited for the evening meal to appear.

What a long day it would be for the cook who would not only be expected to produce a breakfast of bacon and eggs, but morning and afternoon smokos as well as lunch, plus a substantial main meal at the completion of the days shearing.

She wondered where the sheep were penned before slaughter. Had there been a garden of sorts or was it up to the cook, or the station holder, to supply vegetables? Potatoes, carrots and cabbage, or perhaps pumpkin roasted alongside the mutton and smothered with luscious brown gravy? Nan smiled as her mind soared into culinary delights.

She became aware of a woman’s voice seemingly emanating from the kitchen and vaguely wondered how it was they had seen no sign of life. She listened. Was that a woman crying? Nan shook her head in disbelief. The sobbing woman was asking for her Mammy. Nan held her breath and beckoned to Bill to come and listen. Bill plodded over, his boots echoing throughout the ancient building.

“Shhh Bill,” Nan whispered. There is someone in the kitchen crying.”

“Nan!” Bill exclaimed, “How can you think such rubbish? There is no one here. This is the Outback and no woman is sitting in the abandoned kitchen of ramshackle shearers’ quarters. The journey has addled your brain!”

Nan felt injured. How dare Bill insinuate she was losing her mind! The sound of crying was not a figment of her imagination. Her fury blinded her hearing … for a moment. She heard the crying again. Surely Bill could hear it was well?

Bill sheepishly glanced at Nan. From the depths of the gloomy kitchen came the unmistakable sobbing of a woman in distress. Bill marched in and looked around surprised to see a rocking chair moving gently in a dim corner. Was there a breeze coming in the open doorway? Bill didn’t think so.

A dark cloud drifted by; the late afternoon sun cast deep shadows on the kitchen. Bill blinked. A woman, wearing a long dusty dark brown skirt and a cream long sleeved blouse with a cameo at the neck, her crochet shawl slung over the chair back, sat hugging herself in misery, quietly sobbing as she rocked slowly. Bill, nudging Nan, pointed at the rocking woman who seemed completely oblivious to the watchers.

A fragment of yellowed newspaper caught in a recess on the mantle captured Nan’s attention. She reached up and carefully unfolded the frail paper.

Man found Guilty of Murder

An Irish girl working as cook’s assistant at Balamb Station was murdered on 2nd January 1902. Her body was left lying on the floor of the slaughterhouse while the accused carried on with his normal duties. Today, John E Cum-Lately pleaded guilty to the first-degree charge of murder, and has been sentenced to hanging.

Nan, with tears in her eyes, looked at Bill who stared uncomprehendingly towards the chair. It was empty. There was no one there, no young woman sobbing mournfully.

The kitchen no longer held a fascination for either of them. It felt cold and morbid, and they easily understood the reason for its abandonment.