Messages in Bottles
Posted on April 3, 2016
On the edge of the small Victorian town of Rushworth there is a cemetery built on a gentle slope of rough, rocky earth. At the top of the incline, the press of the state forest is contained by a wire fence. When I was very young, my grandparents owned a tiny house across the road from their butcher shop on the High Street. Nestled between the fire station and the bottom pub, all three backed onto the front of the cemetery. Even then I remember my Dad’s jokes about it being the dead centre of town.
As an older child passing the cusp of puberty, I stayed with my grandparents during school holidays. By then they had built their home on top of a hill a few kilometres outside of Rushworth, overlooking the brown expanse of the Waranga Basin in the distance. I spent the long, too quiet afternoons wandering the perimeters of the property, relishing trips into town where I walked the gauntlet of the local boys long, loaded glances out front of the milk bars. Some days I rode a bike borrowed from an Aunty around town. Other times I steered my way through the cemetery gates and up the hill to the scattered plots where five generations of my family are buried. I gathered the wild stattice flowers that grew there, placing them in the criss-crossed tops of stainless steel containers that slotted into the headstones of great grandparents, and reverently laid scraggly posies atop the tiny graves of infants born and lost long before my own birth. The dead of my mothers family; at least two sets of great, great, great grandparents and their many offspring lay dispersed in a different section further down the hill, religious segregations being stricter for the dead than for the living. The more that I learned of our family histories, the more relatives that I discovered among the sprawling plots and the perpetually brown grass.
In his youth in the late 1960s, my father endlessly explored the bush surrounding Rushworth and the vanishing ghost town of Whroo, a few kilometres away. Whroo had been a thriving hub during the gold rush days of the previous century, supporting a population of at least 400 permanent residents and many more itinerant fortune hunters from every corner of the globe. Only the massively deep open cut Balaclava gold mine and its own small square of nearby cemetery obviously remain of the town.
Before I was born, Dad bought our families first home using the proceeds from the sale of a bottle collection foraged from the ground around Whroo. He knew the country intimately. In later years, he would often pretend to us that he was lost, driving the car along windy, bumpy dirt tracks seemingly in the middle of nowhere, before revealing his knowledge of exactly where we were by pointing out some old homestead that a relative of my great grandmother had once lived in.
One time, when I was fifteen years old, he came to pick me up after I had spent a few days at my grandparent’s house. The failure of the butcher shop in Bendigo that he had owned with his younger brother had just plunged both families into insolvency, and Dad was about to take off to Darwin to try and find a way forward. None of us knew it then, but he had only a little over three years left to live. He was the age that I turn today, forty-two. I was a sneery, disdainful teenager, embarrassed by the fact of even having a dad at that age, and later too, but he tried to reach me in little ways, feeling for the chinks in my armour. That afternoon he proposed that we camp at Bushie’s, the acres of land settled by my forebears over a hundred and fifty years earlier. I suggested that if he wanted to stay a night in Rushworth, that we should go back to Mama and Papa’s house at the other end of Perry Road. He shrugged and offered me the choice of either camping at Bushie’s or we could drive home to Bendigo. We stayed. He had brought the tent with him, or maybe he always carried it. I don’t recall what we ate, or much of what we talked about. He promised me that his going to Darwin to hunt buffalo didn’t mean that he and my mother were separating, or that he was leaving us. The fire was dying and he pointed to the glowing red coals, telling me that some indigenous cultures believed that you could see the souls of dead animals dancing in the living coals nestled beneath the flames. He gently poked them with a stick, and I stared into the deep red and silver before going to bed in the tent while Dad slept in his swag by the fire. In the morning we drove home.
A couple of years later, in late 1991, the Darwin adventure having completed its brief and disruptive trajectory through our lives, Dad took me driving in the bush outside of Rushworth. Just outside of town, he turned off onto yet another dirt track, pulling into an unremarkable spot not too far in. We got out of the car, and walked around the scrubby bush land. I didn’t notice the small mounds until he pointed them out to me, scattered here and there on the ground around us. He said that he and his mate had discovered this spot when they were both young and newly married. It was the burial place of a number of children who had died in some forgotten epidemic scores of years before. No gravestones had marked these most forlorn of resting places. Another of the ubiquitous bush dirt roads had even been worn into the earth right over the top of some of the plots. Dad told me that they had combed through the records of the Church of England, which stood high on a hill a few hundred yards back, and uncovered the history of the graves. He and his mate had a plaque made up and screwed onto a huge rock that they found elsewhere in the bush and transported to the spot, something big, and substantial enough to stand in memory of these lost babies.
It was at the beginning of 1993 that we buried Dad and my older brother Grant, as close to the bush as we could manage, by the fence next to the forest, more or less in the Perry section of the Rushworth cemetery.
Days earlier, at Bushie’s, just before we drove out Middle Road to the part of the irrigation channel from which only two of the four of us would return, Dad had regaled us with his wishes to have his earthly remains artfully stuffed by an adventurous taxidermist, to stand eternally at some mantelpiece, can in one hand and cigarette in the other. The conversation later seemed to presume a certain clairvoyant quality, and while so many other words have faded into oblivion, the talk and laughter of that hot afternoon is stamped indelibly upon my memory, unforgettably illustrated by the vision of Dad in his chosen posture, hands articulate in their description of his referred mode of eternal rest. I remember looking at his large, strong hands and finding myself unable to imagine them stilled, as my brother interjected with his customary dry quietness that he was never going to die.
I meant to lay flowers on their graves last weekend when we were in Rushworth, but I didn’t get to the cemetery. It’s hard to go there with small children, many of the older graves are decrepit and dangerous, but I still manage to steal the odd visit with my mum, searching for the old relatives that she recalls, and others from long before her time. Last year in the lead up to a family reunion, I found a pair of paternal great great great grandparents, one of them bearing the same name as my father, an apparently coincidental namesake.
My husband and I instead met my 89 year old grandfather at the historical society museum. Housed inside what was formerly the Mechanics Institute, the sprawling rooms contain a large, motley assortment of vintage items, from the old telephone exchange of the town, to the doors of the now demolished church at Whroo, to a horse drawn gig, and every small thing in between. In the doorway of one of the first rooms hangs a display of several pointy ended green glass bottles. A small card on the doorframe states that they were donated to the museum by my father.
As we examined framed photographs of the changing face of the town, I asked my grandfather about the children’s cemetery. I couldn’t recall exactly where it was, though I could picture the place clearly. I expected it to be common knowledge, but Papa was intrigued. At first he thought that I was talking about an old Chinese cemetery, but we soon realised that we were talking about different burial grounds, and that he had never heard of the one that my father had shown me.
The president of the historical society thought he might know of it, but the place that he was thinking of was fenced and he didn’t know of any stone with a plaque upon it. I said that it had been 25 years since Dad had taken me there, and perhaps it was different now. Papa suggested we take a little drive out to look for it right that moment, and so we followed him up High Street, past the gothic church that marks that end of town, before turning left up various bush tracks, searching for the location of what I had so vaguely described. The land there is filled with makeshift mine shafts, hills and gullies which have been whittled at and carved continually by many different hands over the course of white occupation and long before. Though my grandfathers mind was doubtless willing, he couldn’t go traipsing on foot through the bush with us, and we left, my memories of the graveyard grown larger through mystery. Papa was keen to go and have a look through church records in his eagerness to locate the place and the plaque that his son had screwed into place, but we had to get back to the children.
We returned to Geelong the following morning. Papa drove down Perry Rd in his old brown VW bug to bid us goodbye and assured me that he would get to the bottom of it. I felt happy to have shared the knowledge with him, knowing that stories like these must restore to him in some minuscule and yet precious way the son so long gone.
*At the time of writing, I didn’t realise that it was my father’s best friend, Pete who had discovered the children’s cemetery with him. We now have someone who knows exactly where it is, and the circumstances under which it was discovered. I look forward to hearing the story from him, and going with flowers to visit those little graves.