The history lesson

THIS IS 1975, over a hundred and twenty years since the event, and I don't reckon history is that important but Dad sent me along because Mr Doyle wants a photo of the old massacre site and the graves. Mr Palmer is the only one who knows the location of the massacre but it's on Mr Adams' land. Then the graves, they're on our land. That's why we're all here, because Mr Doyle is writing a book. He says it's a historical record, which, if you heard my dad, means it'll be a book of bloody fairytales.

So we're all standing in the back paddock, and Joan's beside her old man, Mr Doyle, who's doing all the talking. He seems too excited. Joan's the only girl among us and I don't know where they told her she was coming because she's dressed for bloody town, all frocked up but looking good. Mind you, Mr Doyle's wearing a jacket and tie then he's holding his notebook and pen. There's a camera, leather case, slung over his shoulder. Facing him is Mr Adams, our new neighbour, with that funny grin always on his face like there's some joke behind everything while he stands there and rolls another smoke. Beside him is Mr Palmer from Rivera Station towering tall above everyone in that stupid felt hat he wears everywhere and a red rosella feather stuck in the brim. Mr Doyle finally asks about my dad. I tell them all politely he couldn't make it and give some excuse rather than tell them what my dad said about Mr Doyle's book. Mr Doyle says it's a shame my dad had to prune the orange trees, but his voice says he don't believe me. He goes back to talking to the others about the research in writing such a book and he includes Joan in the conversation as if she knows more than me. I'm just watching a breeze moving the hem of her dress. It's one of those cool autumn days with pure sky. Joan goes to high school in Grafton, which is too far away for us to really know each other. I'm in high school on the plateau and there's as many kids in my whole school as in her one year. She's fourth form, same as me. I'm going to leave at the end of the year, work with me dad, but she'll go on to sixth form. You can tell she wants to be smart, educated, living in the city maybe. It's in the way she holds her shoulders back and the way she dresses. The rest of us are in farm clothes. There are plenty of other differences too. Our skin for one. Hers is still soft, smooth, beautiful.

We've all walked to the far corner of the back paddock now and Mr Adams' got one hand holding the barbed wire for us to climb through and the other holding the last of his rolly to his lips. I can see him watching Joan too.

Then we all stand there and watch Mr Adams wrestle through because his shirt gets caught so I jump in and help. They can be real bastards these barbed wire fences strung tight, and the others are watching him for some kind of fun. Mr Adams though has still got the funny little smile on his face. He's only new to farming but he'd like people to think he was born to it, that he was born to the area. I'd tell him that's hardly possible around here unless you've got old family names already in the cemetery or on the war memorial way over in Dorrigo that shows you've been here too long to care about the truth.

We set off again towards the massacre site. Now the three old guys practically skip down towards the little creek like we're going to the Dorrigo Show for the rides. They're springing over clumps of snow grass and kangaroo grass, sidestepping wet cowpats. They used this place for sheep way back but my folks and Mr Adams have gone in for cattle, mainly Herefords, and we share a couple of young Jersey cows for milk. Mum reckons a few sheep would be alright so we could slaughter them for a good roast but the wild dogs are too much trouble and Dad and I reckon we'd just lose them all. Anyway, Dad and I don't want to farm like these old timers, 'specially not feather-hatted wankers like Mr Palmer and the overstocked scratch of earth he's got out there at Rivera. Dad and I have got our own idea of things. We need to bring the native grasses back, destock a bit and go back in for patch burning to bring on the pick. I wouldn't want sheep.

The other thing my dad has different views about – how excited we should be about pinpointing this massacre site. Joan and I walk behind the others but not side by side. I let her stay one pace ahead. She's got nice legs to watch.

We're heading down to the waterhole on Mason's Creek. Mr Palmer has come over especially for this. He's been living at Rivera Station longer than my dad can remember but Mum reckons her old folks knew him when he was little. Uses a piece of rope to keep his pants up but wears that little feather hat everywhere. Likes people to know who he is, to know how far back his family go around here. Mr Adams, being new to the area, don't know the murdering squatter bastards we've all been bred from. Dad and me like Mr Adams even though we're not sure he's got any real idea how to farm. He cracks himself up though, has that smart look on his face and laughs at his own comments when no one else knows what the joke is. I don't know Mr Doyle but I've seen Joan at the school regionals, she runs the sprints. So Dad said if I wanted to tag along that was my choice. He wasn't going to stop me showing them anything but he's not a big fan of the stories people like to tell about our history up here. Plenty of romantic misinterpretation, my mother says. My dad says they're just plain old-fashioned liars, picking and choosing what they want to remember which is why we've been asked to show Mr Doyle the Meldrum Massacre place and not Niggers Leap or Ginnies Creek. Telling half the story is as good as chucking the bloody abos off the cliff all over again, Dad reckons.

We end up standing beside Masons Creek where it cuts through the grass paddock so you can hardly see water until you're on it. There's a couple of rocks covered in white and green lichen. There's one skinny gum tree that's managed to grow about eight metres. Apart from that it's all grass. It's a bit boggy underfoot. Joan's shoes are damp now on the toes. The breeze is stronger down here and she uses one hand to grab her hair and the other to keep her dress down at the back. I'm still one step behind but I don't think she knows I'm watching. Probably forgotten I'm even there.

'This is the spot,' Mr Palmer says. 'The old homestead was back a bit. The folds were down there.'

Mr Palmer tells us a slow story about his grandfather who was a farrier and so traveled all over and knew William Imray in his day. That's how he knows the massacre site. Mr Doyle seems impressed at the mention of William Imray. All the old blokes suddenly turn to Joan and me like this is some sort of history class for us. Mr Doyle is actually a schoolteacher but he teaches primary over at Hernani.

I step forward a bit then because I want to watch Joan's face as she listens. I don't know if she's heard the story yet. We're probably standing right on the spot where the mother's blood pooled in big dark patches on the soil. Maybe Joan's standing right where the oldest baby died.

'So Mr Palmer, tell the story as you know it,' Mr Doyle says and he opens out his notepad. He'd already said he wasn't writing a novel but a history book. He wants all the facts and the truth of the district's origins to be laid down for posterity.

'Well Coutts himself didn't live on the property but had the manager Mason live here and look after the place,' Mr Palmer says.

'So Coutts owned the land?' Mr Doyle asks and writes quickly in his book.

'Yeah. Mason, the manager, he had a wife and three children. Don't know any of their names. Don't know where you'd look those up.' Mr Palmer stands with his arms across his belly as he tells the story. Mr Adams had been staring at his boots in the grass, listening carefully, smiling slightly, but now he looks up.

'Coutts is the one that put poison in his flour, wasn't he. Knew the local abos were stealing it, so poisoned them. Named Coutts Crossing after him, didn't they?'

So my dad had obviously been filling in Mr Adams with the finer details of our local history. I was waiting for Mr Doyle to respond but I was watching Joan. She pulled her cardigan around her and turned so the breeze blew her hair from her face, which meant she was practically looking right at me. I smiled to kind of say 'here's the truth of it for your dad' but the look she gave me back was like a frown and so I guess she didn't know and maybe wanted to listen to the other stuff and be respectful. Depends which history you think needs respecting is what I wanted to say. Not that I don't think the family's death here wasn't horrible.

'Yeah, Coutts was charged for it wasn't he. Might be worth mentioning in your book, Mr Doyle.' Mr Adams persists. Seems he wasn't going to let it drop but he did. Mr Doyle's pen was poised above the notepad and then he asked Mr Palmer to continue.

'Well. Mason had two shepherds, John Meldrum and William Imray.'

We all looked up at Imray's name as if to confirm the truth of the matter. Everyone assumed Imray had been a real person but no one here had actually met him, only Mr Palmer's grandfather, and who's to know what truth there is in the handing down of a story except that as a long-time family everyone knew the Palmers were important folk. I don't think anyone ever called them liars but they weren't saints neither.

'Imray and Meldrum would drive the sheep all over the open country, the east here, to graze them and then bring them back each night to the folds.'

Then Palmer, being a farmer of course, couldn't help go into too much detail about the folds, how they were made of hurdles and were moved because the ground got boggy. We almost lost the point of the story and above us the odd small white cloud started to drift in.

'On one such day, Mason was away in Sydney and Meldrum were moving the hurdles and Imray were out shepherding by himself. They had about six thousand sheep you know. Big flock for one man but they knew their sheep, those old timers.

'That day the blacks came to the homestead. They killed the whole family in cold blood. The two Mason girls, children, and killed Mrs Mason and her baby. The mother still had the baby clutched to her breast but they killed it too. They also killed John Meldrum when he were halfway between the fold and the cottage running back to try and get his gun and save the kids. William Imray came back that night with the sheep to find the whole bloody mess, right here where we stand. He rode across to the Major's station and broke the news.'

There wasn't much more to that part of the story. That's the Meldrum Massacre, five dead people, three of them just kids. Everyone was quiet for a time. Mr Doyle asked a few questions about what time of day and what time of year but Mr Palmer didn't know. Joan had been watching intently the whole time but now she was looking at her shoes and had one toe pointed. When she spoke it kind of shifted the tone, moved the air around us.

'Did they find the abos responsible, Mr Palmer?' Joan asked.

Well, Mr Palmer, answer that without a lie because when a pretty girl asks you a question. There was silence though. Mr Doyle didn't say anything but didn't insist Mr Palmer answer Joan. They all let her question hang like history.

She looked at them all though, one by one, and I reckon by that she knew what the answer was. I wished my dad were here because for sure he would say something but I was just here to take them to see the graves of the massacred Mason family and Meldrum the shepherd. The graves are still on our property, but I reckon my dad would have wanted me to say something because there is no way anyone living around here who knows about the Meldrum Massacre don't also know what happened next.

'Yeah they found some abos,' I said and I caught Joan's eye when I said it but I couldn't look because she seemed to be asking for some truth and no one was going to give it to her. The look she gave me made my chest feel hot and Mr Doyle half cut me off when I went to repeat myself. He didn't need to. My tongue already got so tied over the thought it all knotted back inside me. So I just watched Joan's white, damp shoes in the grass. Mr Doyle slung his camera off quickly and passed it across to Joan and so no one, not even me, was going to say anything about the other dead bodies, the hundreds of bones I could show them. The truth, just the half-truth, just the fairytale bullshit that gets told over and over again by the likes of Mr Palmer whose great-grandfather, whose grandfather, all knew as much.

When I looked up Mr Adams was watching me and I could feel this really hot part inside my chest. I just decided if it was fairytales they wanted that's what they'd get. Mr Doyle was posing next to Mr Palmer beside the poor bloody skinny gum tree and Joan was taking their photo and laughing to get the men to relax a little and look more natural. When they'd finished it was my turn to take them to the graves and finish off the story.

NOW IT'S LIKE a year later and looking back I think maybe I should have listened to my mum and dad. They knew how it would come out, how it would be a history of whatever Mr Doyle chose. His book is in the local library and the school library but Mr Doyle actually sent me my own copy. It's typed up, stapled together along the spine and it's all white pages full of white history. Joan signed the note along with her father, thanking me for my contribution, but there's still nothing in the book about the Aboriginal massacre that followed the Meldrum Massacre. So the book arrives and I leave it on the kitchen table and fold over the corner of the page with the Meldrum Massacre story on it. There's the tiny photo of Mr Doyle and Mr Palmer at the massacre site. At least he's mentioned Coutts poisoning the abos. I wonder if that was his or Joan's idea.

He's used my dad's name in there and I'm not sure Dad'll like it. I leave the book out anyway and that afternoon when we're all in for tea Dad sits down and reads aloud how the bodies are buried near Jim Hourigan's present holding yards; how the only evidence of the murders referred to as the Meldrum Massacre are the 'lonely, unkempt mounds' I showed them.

My dad starts kind of laughing and cursing in one and starts going on about what a bloody joke of a history Mr Doyle's gone and told because he's got the location all wrong. The graves are nowhere near the yards. They're on One Tree Hill, or at least that's the story we know because there's not much left of the dirt mounds after 127 years of farming and weathering and there were no headstones in the first place. So mum grabs the book off him. She says Doyle is talking about where they buried the stupid pigs her brother gave them back when grandpa was still alive.

For a minute I think they're not going to realise what I've done; that they're going to think it's just Doyle getting it all arse about but I don't say anything. I know what I showed the old bastards that day, a bunch of pigs' graves. I can feel the power of that knowledge, the power of turning their history on its arse; I can feel that, prickling just beneath my skin.

Disclaimer: This story is based on actual events. In certain cases incidents, characters and timelines have been changed for storytelling purposes.

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