MY OAR STABS the side of the Reliance. We push off and pull away from the ship. Venus is out, but the sky still has some light. Mr Bass and I boat the oars and hoist sail. The Lieutenant takes the helm. Tom Thumb’s sail snaps at the breeze and air-filled we bounce across the water.
‘To dare is to do!’ Mr Bass shouts our motto.
‘To dare is to do!’ The Lieutenant and I reply as if we are one.
Seawater sprays across the gunwale. It is Thursday, the twenty-fourth of March, the year 1796. This is the day that we embark on our second Tom Thumb sail. We are charged with discovering where the deep river, that the Pilot Hacking has eyed inland, flows out to sea. He has guessed south of Botany Bay, near Cape Banks. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant say, if we find that river, our names will be shiny buttons on English coats.
We sail past stony Pinchgut. A man stands on the shore. I see a hand rise to wave. Or is it a trick of the eye? Only the wicked are left there. No one on Garden Island. The ships moored in the harbour soon disappear. Larboard and starboard, only darkened forest. Indian fires glimmer between skeleton trees.
Our first Tom Thumb, owned by Mr Bass and friends, was taken to Timor on the Nautilus and did not return, but good Mr Paine has clinker built a new Thumb with steamed frames of spotted gum, red cedar planks and polished copper fittings.
We are kitted with a mast of flooded gum, a linen lugsail, a sweep sail and well-crafted oars. Less than twelve feet, so a small boat to sail in. There is no anchor spare in the colony. Ours is a lump of rock that the sea has speared a hole through and, under Mr Bass’s instruction, I have threaded it with thick rope. We have only two muskets to contest pirates or cannibals, supplies for ten days, no more, and the danger is great.
The Governor himself tried to dissuade us from the journey.
‘We are more than willing,’ the Lieutenant said.
‘Good fate does not side with every explorer,’ the Governor warned.
‘We are confident,’ Mr Bass assured him.
Still the Governor resisted. ‘No,’ he said, his gaze on me. ‘The risk of young lives lost, with so much yet to give, outweighs the cause.’
‘Sir!’ Mr Bass stepped forward, his great shape commanding the room. ‘Audere est facere!’
The Governor laughed abruptly, and we saw that he had relented.
THE WATER MELTS into the night sky. Mr Bass tips his head to stargaze. He is almost as long as Thumb. The Lieutenant sits, one hand on his knee, as he reads the wind. I button my jacket against the cold, see the beacon flaming on South Head. On this sail I aim to prove my worth. For it is as Mr Bass says: in the new world, a man is what he dares to be, no more, no less.
The water goes slap, slap against the side of Thumb. Slap, slap, to dare is to do.
Near Shark Bay the wind drops. Mr Bass and I get upon the oars and pull to shore. The surf foams and spits as we haul our boat up onto the sand. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant stand on the beach and shake hands.
‘Mr Bass, congratulations.’
‘Lieutenant Flinders, congratulations.’
They are pleased to have nine days exploring with no pipe whistling when to wake, eat and sleep.
A massive rock looms to one side. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant take off and become inky shapes climbing to the top. I spin on the sand. Only now is the creak and cramp of the Reliance forgot. The dark sea is furrowed by starlight. Behind, tall eucalypts stand like bark-coated marines guarding the beach, their leaves tinted by the moon.
‘Will, bring my red waistcoat,’ Mr Bass calls.
Yesterday, he gave Hoary Bogarty a bottle for it. Hoary Bogarty won it in cards from a convict, who had won it at dice from a marine. I fetch the waistcoat and scale the rock to where they stand. For a tick-tock they slip into their Lincolnshire thees and thous, like Quakers at prayer – think thee, Mr Bass, would not thou, Lieutenant – as though our arrival needs marking. Then games are over, and Mr Bass breaks off a tree branch to
The Lieutenant has lost his customary droop, and the change is not the trip alone but also Mr Bass’s doing. Many times, on the Reliance, I have been below deck and have spied the Lieutenant, on hearing Mr Bass’s boot above, down pen and hurry to greet his friend. On deck, as they pace, the Lieutenant’s cheeks begin to shine, as though Mr Bass himself has brought the sun into the day.
The two sit on a rock, talking of the Governor’s latest Tank Stream orders while I go about collecting wood. In the first order, the Governor forbade the pulling down of palings or the keeping of pigs near the stream, it being the only fresh water Sydney has and now badly tainted. But all disobeyed that command. The worst offenders? The marines who have huts along the stream. So the Governor put out a second order saying that when he gives an order he expects it to be obeyed!
‘If I were the Governor I would have those marines whipped,’ I throw in.
‘Have I taught you nothing?’ Mr Bass says.
‘The marines are boorish, I will give the boy that,’ the Lieutenant says to Mr Bass. ‘But they wield a new sort of power. Whipping some would cause them all to rise in revolt.’
If the Lieutenant speaks to me directly, it is usually to give an order. He thinks me dull-witted, a servant to be suffered for the sake of his friend. In time I will show him different. For now I play my part.
The Lieutenant turns the conversation elsewhere, and I set a fire on a flat rock that has a view of the bay. We supped before embarking and, as we intend to sail before sunrise, I stretch out to nap, but with the sea splash, frog croak and insect buzz, napping is all pretence. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant sit fireside, drink medicinal beverage and argue the politic.
‘You take too many risks mingling with seditionists,’ the Lieutenant says.
Mr Bass pokes at the coals. ‘A risk only for the lily-livered who hang on public opinion.’
The Lieutenant pays the jibe no heed. ‘You made a show by attending Gerrald’s funeral.’
‘Never a show to grieve a death,’ snaps Mr Bass.
I am with the Lieutenant, for I did not weep at Mr Gerrald’s funeral. In the months before his passing he had often detained Mr Bass and me at his house for hour after hour, giving speeches about universal manhood suffrage. Mr Bass was there to treat him, and this a kindly act, because Balmain, the colony’s surgeon, refused to medicate a seditionist. Mr Bass, whose duties were bound only to those on the Reliance, took Balmain’s place because he has sympathy for those who uphold ideals, claiming it the mark of a worthy man. Yet, to my mind, the upshot of Mr Gerrald’s universal manhood suffrage was that more men should be like him and as we had enough inebriates in Sydney Cove as it was, I wagered my sympathy was not worth the giving.
Mr Bass and the Lieutenant get as noisy as convicts at rut-time but when their beverage has spiked their drowsiness, they lie down and snore. I, flat on my back on hard rock, behold the winking sky and listen to the night. Swish, swash, swish, swash.
The sea never stops its caress of the earth. On land, old-bone branches crack and crash. This place is an upturn of the natural world, each step, new and old together.
THE NEXT MORN, with the world still dark, Mr Bass wakes me. An owl hoots: yow, yow, yow, yow, yow, yow. I sand the fire and scramble down to help haul Thumb to the shallows. The moon is our guide, but Mr Bass and the Lieutenant are still black figures splashing in water. We shove off and jump in, wet feet slapping wood. My eyes do not want to stay open but they must.
Mr Bass and I pull out of the bay, then hoist sail. The air is cool. Thumb skips over velvet water and through the twin heads of land to the ocean. The south head burner flickers. A lone redcoat will be tending, though I spy no one.
Through the heads and the breeze drops, paddles us along until dawn, then departs. The sun peeks over an evermore of watery dunes. Mr Bass and I set to the oars – splish, splash, splish, splash. I know now why sailors say the splash of wood in water is a mariner’s dirge. The never-ending of it. We pull at an even pace. The Lieutenant sits at the helm, eyeing the coastline. Behind him, the English flag is limp. The Lieutenant’s eyes narrow as he flashes his timepiece and compass, scribbling calculations in a book that he keeps wrapped in seal hide. Mr Bass and I are hour hands of a clock, slow and steady; the Lieutenant, the seconds darting by.
The sun fires hot as dog days, even though it is March. My arms shake like a fish on a hook. At Mr Bass’s nod we boat the oars.
‘Water,’ he commands.
I roll the water barica from beneath the thwart. Mr Bass sits side on, fills his cup from the spout, and leans back to drink. In a tick-tock water spurts from his mouth.
‘Blasted spoiled!’ he shouts.
The Lieutenant reaches forward, snatches the cup and sips. He too spits it out, then turns on me, red-faced, and with a neck like coiled rope.
‘Will, this water has mistakenly been put in a wine barica!’
A rush of heat. Silently, I curse Bogarty and his ruddy head, for water held in a wine barica is quickly poisoned. The Lieutenant sighs, thinking, no doubt, that his brother would not make such a blunder. Samuel is not a clot but he whines like one. I was chosen for the sail over him, thanks to Mr Bass’s stubbornness.
‘Will is as strong as a man,’ Mr Bass had argued.
‘I saw no evidence at Georges River,’ the Lieutenant said, referring to our first Tom Thumb sail.
‘Were you looking?’ asked Mr Bass, offended on my behalf. He stayed firm, and the Lieutenant gave way.
But to be without water is grim. I press my toes into the wood to press away the horror of my mistake. Mr Bass scratches at his neck. He is my advocate, and I hate to disappoint him.
Bogarty, yesterday morn, was as slow as a wet whistle because his hip was playing up and because of his rotten head, which, he said, was not due to drink, as I suggested, but caused by my mouth going pell-mell. I took the barica from his store without my usual look-to. The error is mine.
‘Check and re-check all your tasks,’ is what Mr Bass instructed at Portsmouth. One substance should never taint another. Medicines must be stored with care. It is a sin to lose a life through recklessness. These are his commandments, recited again and again.
I burn with shame and hear the creak of Thumb above the slap of the sea. Then I remember Mr Palmer’s gift. ‘Keep safe young friend,’ he had said, handing over melons newly plucked from his garden. (Mr Palmer, like Mr Gerrald, was transported from Scotland for his belief in manhood suffrage – though from Palmer’s mouth the term is not only reasoned but followed through with action. Man, boy, even on occasion woman, he treats as his equal.) I scramble to the bow to fetch a melon. Mr Bass eyes me
‘We will search out a stream when we land,’ he says, turning to the Lieutenant. ‘It is that fool Bogarty we should punish. The old goat sniffs rum from ten rods away; surely he has the nose for a wine barica.’
I lay the melon on the thwart. Mr Bass slips his blade along the thick skin, careful as he splits it not to lose any juice. He quarters the melon and we sit in the heat, sucking the moist flesh.
‘Chew the seeds,’ Mr Bass commands. He fills his cup with the poisoned water, splashes the contents over his head and shouts, ‘To dare is to do!’
This is how he lifts the mood. He fills the cup again, hands it to the Lieutenant, who, jolly now, repeats the action. I too take off my hat
and pour the spoiled water over my head. For a tick-tock I feel less sore about my mistake but when I glance at the Lieutenant, it is clear he has
The Lieutenant stores a secret ledger in his memory. Each person has two columns, for and against, and the Lieutenant always knows where a person is placed. It is not surprising to hear him tell, in bitter words and months after the event, of some small injustice he has suffered at the hands of another.
‘Mind, give that barica a good scrub before we fill it,’ Mr Bass whispers as we take up our oars.
Mr Bass does not keep ledgers but he does take measure of his fellow man.
How he does it? I sense that he begins to draw a portrait of a particular fellow in his mind and, at every meeting, he shades the portrait one way, then another. It might take several meetings for a full colouring but, once a portrait is complete, Mr Bass sticks to his opinion. The Lieutenant is more precise and, for good or bad, his ledger is always open. I spy my own name in that ledger: my against column is nearly full.
We pull southward with the sun overhead. The sail flaps. We set taut the line to catch the breeze from south-south-east and steer for shore, skimming across the waves.
‘We are sailing at three knots,’ calls the Lieutenant, pleased with Thumb’s pace.
Mr Bass is at the helm. ‘Is that Cape Banks?’ he shouts.
Cape Banks is our marker to set course for land and search out
The Lieutenant peers towards shore. ‘Looks more like Hat Hill!’ he calls, hesitation in his voice.
‘Surely we have not yet sailed that far,’ Mr Bass replies. ‘Hat Hill is fifteen leagues from Port Jackson.’
I scramble to the bow to see for myself. Cape Banks is a far shorter distance from Sydney Cove than Hat Hill. I spied both on our Reliance voyage to Port Jackson over a year ago. Looking northward, I note the hill Master Moore had pointed out to me.
‘There is the hill Captain Cook likened to a hat,’ our master said, chuckling at the navigator’s wit.
From that day all on board named it Hat Hill.
For my part, I had stood on deck eyeing Hat Hill for as long as it remained in sight, stirred by the thought that I was sailing the same sea
‘Hat Hill it is,’ I call from the bow. ‘See the land to the north.’
Mr Bass laughs. ‘Matthew, we have overshot the mark!’
The Lieutenant looks at the water. ‘Who would suppose it? The current must be strong.'
A FIERCE NORTH wind forces our sail south. Our aim is to find a place to land and search out fresh water before night falls. Clouds race along the coast, shifting from white to grey to inky black. The sea swells become frothing giants hungry for our boat. We toss about and must tack for shore even though the cliffs are still forbidding. To the west the sun dips behind the arm of the mountain. Darkness arrives in a rush. The wind drops, but the sea is choppy. The early moon tickles the water with light. We are still four miles from land.
The Lieutenant and I pull for a bend in the coast. Soon we can set a fire, boil some soup. The promise of food keeps me alert but, when we near the beach, our disappointment is great for there is white surf gnashing at the sand.
‘Landing is out,’ the Lieutenant shouts.
Nothing for it but to heave up the stone anchor and tumble it into the sea. As it sinks the rope uncurls from its loop. I look to Mr Bass. The moon catches his face as he clears the line, but his thoughts are disguised. My belly rattles. There will be no chance to make bread cakes the way our cook showed me. No flame to keep us warm, and already I am cold to the bone. I pull out another melon, place it on the thwart and cut it open. There is naught to add but raw potato. I serve our meagre meal and, as we chomp, I eye the wandering stars that halo the land.
‘Mr Bass, what shall we name this place?’ the Lieutenant asks, then sinks his teeth into the melon.
On our Georges River trip all had been named before we arrived.
‘Moody Bay?’ Mr Bass offers.
‘The theatrical interpretation?’ The Lieutenant is not convinced.
‘Too emotive?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘According to Bligh,’ the Lieutenant says, ‘when naming unknown territory, the name must allow others to imagine its function. How it might serve future settlements.’
‘Anchor Bay,’ I say.
‘Too much the impression of large vessel anchorage,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘And this is not a bay – it opens too much to the east.’ He says it with ease but I hear his dismissal.
I vow not to speak again, except to agree. This is best with the Lieutenant. The only way to stay on the right side of his ledger.
‘And yet,’ Mr Bass says, surveying the surrounds, ‘there is something in what Will says. This bay offers shelter. And that shadowy cliff could be an Arcadian barn.’
Mr Bass throws his melon skin into the sea and wipes his mouth on his shirt.
He grins at me. I bite into my melon to hide my pleasure. Sheltering is not so far from anchoring, is it? For both conjure safety. How I wish to be like Mr Bass. All is ease. Glorious ease.
‘Barn Cove,’ says the Lieutenant. ‘It has a lyrical touch and, yet, enough description.’
‘Barn Cove it is,’ says Mr Bass.
We jostle to find a sleeping nook. Not a simple task as Mr Bass’s legs, which do seem longer than a horse’s, jerk about. The Lieutenant, thinking himself in privacy perhaps, begins souring the air with foul odours. I tuck one arm under my head and bury my nose in the other. I do not know if sharks can smell but, if they can, I will put coin to it that the Lieutenant’s inner winds, once released, will keep them distant.
As I wait for sleep I vision fish swarming beneath our small vessel. Do fish sleep? Slap, slap, to dare is to do. Slap, slap, to dare is to do. Mama, you did never imagine me an explorer. Your stage set could not compare to this. What this? For this is no Reliance with its shuffle of crew, it is three of us rocking in a tiny boat on the great ocean. This is my second night away from the Reliance. I think now that no other tale ever had this shiver or this shine.
SATURDAY, MARCH TWENTY-SIX, the third day of our journey. I wake. My throat is blistered. There is water about, but the wrong kind. I am hot even though it is cold. I say this out loud then regret it.
‘Remittent fever,’ Mr Bass teases.
Mr Bass likes to scare me with horrid diagnoses. He once told me that Mama had a terrible remittent fever. ‘She could die,’ he said, with a face so grim I nearly sobbed in his presence. The fever caused him to stay with Mama night after night until she was cured. At least that is what he proclaimed. It took me longer than it should have to see through his ruse.
‘More like putrid fever,’ the Lieutenant says with a sniff at my being.
‘No,’ I say. ‘It is every bone in my body rattled by strange foot-kicking in the night.’
Mr Bass laughs, rubs his hand on my head. I pull away. I am too old for such things, but Mr Bass refuses to acknowledge it. To him I am still the boy he hired.
Mama had just finished singing on stage when he told her of his offer. ‘No,’ she said, her face puffed and red.
‘Do not do this, Isabella,’ Mr Bass replied, calmly crossing his legs as he sat beside her dressing table. ‘Do not cosset the boy.’
Mama took off her wig and thumped it on the stand. ‘He has a gift for the stage,’ she said, holding out her glass for more liquor.
‘He wants the walls cast away, not the walls closed in,’ Mr Bass argued, in his deep-sea voice. ‘He wants the rise and fall of waves, not the stage.’
Mama laughed. ‘It is lucky you are not a writer, George; your rhyme is too limp!’
But Mr Bass could convince a fishmonger to buy fish and he proceeded to convince Mama to allow me a life at sea, claiming that if not for his own mother’s restraints he might now be captain of his own ship. I had begged him to argue for me, having had my fill of rigging stage ropes and cleaning floors, of holding cushions for kings while dressed in hot fabric. His convincing involved buying more expensive liquor.
‘You are the victor,’ Mama said to me two bottles later. She put her hand to my cheek and laughed. I jumped around her dressing room.
That was more than a year ago and, since, I have travelled further than most have ever dreamt. Despite what Mr Bass thinks, I am not that same boy.
The Lieutenant leans over the gunwale, eyeing the shore.
‘Landing is still out,’ he shouts, ‘the waves are forceful close to the beach!’
North, the cliffs are high for some long way, yet we need water, desperately so, and we must land somewhere.
‘South, there, see!’ Mr Bass calls. ‘Low land is visible.’
‘South is away from our river,’ is the Lieutenant’s curt reply. ‘No, George, we must bide here until the weather turns.’
‘If we sail south and go ashore, a stream might be found,’ Mr Bass argues. ‘Besides, the wind is for the south, there is little choice.’
‘To continue south stretches our agreement with the Governor,’ the Lieutenant says.
The Lieutenant is not a man who easily defies an order.
‘How can it be a stretch when the weather itself is telling us what we must do?’ Mr Bass reasons.
The Lieutenant is unsure.
‘Remember, this far south no man has stepped,’ says Mr Bass. ‘Save roaming cannibals and one or two pirates who do not warrant merit as they have made no map.’
Mr Bass strikes the right chord, as map-making for the Lieutenant is like honey-making for the bee.
‘Cook’s map of this area is scant on detail,’ Mr Bass adds.
It is all the convincing the Lieutenant needs. ‘South it is,’ he says, as though the idea was his.
We hoist sail and steer south.
AT FIRST, THE coast is like the walls of a falling-down castle, only walls where shrubs have rooted. It is forbidding and eye-gobbing. This is not a land of fairies and goblins, more like monsters and ghosts. Then, the castle walls fall away, the land shrinks and is covered with scrubby trees. It becomes sandy beach and stony head, sandy beach and stony head, as if God had been practising his Port Jackson craft before he created the main event. We spy a likely spot for a stream and sail through a gap in the reef but cannot land as the surf is in a beheading mood.
‘Anchor,’ the Lieutenant calls.
Mr Bass and I drop anchor well before the surf. My throat is now a hollowed-out log. One of us must swim to shore to search for water.
‘Will, are you up for it?’ the Lieutenant asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, pleased not only for the challenge but that he addresses me.
I begin to strip off my clothes. The white sandy beach is curved like a butcher’s knife. Scrubby trees beyond, and a forest of green that reaches up and covers the hills behind. A man might get lost in such a place. For that matter, anyone or anything could hide there, if they knew how to get about. Before we left Port Jackson, stories of cannibals living down south had been all the talk. I stare at the trees.
‘Will, who is the best swimmer, you or me?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘Your stroke has mightily improved,’ I say, unable to take my eyes from the shore.
Mr Bass laughs too loud. I meant improved so that he could swim with me and say so.
‘Together we could fight all the cannibals that came our way,’ I add.
‘Both cannot go,’ the Lieutenant says, cheerily. ‘Two men lost to cannibal supper is unseemly.’
‘Then, as I will no doubt make the best stew,’ Mr Bass says to me, ‘should not I be the one to swim to shore?’
This moment is a mark, is it not? We are in a place where no European foot has stepped. Therefore my swim to shore is unbefitting. It is Mr Bass who should have the honour.
‘In the sea I am a dolphin,’ Mr Bass shouts, as he dives into the water.
I empty the barica and throw it to him. ‘Do not forget to scrub it out,’ I tease, because the mood has turned easy, and the Lieutenant will surely not mind my jest.
Mr Bass floats on his back, takes hold of the barrel, and begins a backward stroke. We cheer him on, but the current is strong and, despite our care when dropping anchor, we have drifted to where the waves break.
‘Here, Will, take the helm,’ the Lieutenant orders, spying the danger.
Taking hold of the anchor rope, he hauls us back to our dropping point. When we are safe again, I turn to watch Mr Bass. He is midway to shore, his arm like a great oar rowing his course. But again the Lieutenant shouts. ‘Will, the anchor is lifting!’
I whip to attention and spy a growling dog of a wave sluicing in. Before I can sort the anchor it picks up Thumb, carrying us into the air. A dazzle of blue sky and salt spray. We are riding the wave with terrific pace. I just have time to steady the helm.
The wave shatters and Thumb crashes in the surf. I fall and roll about before I grip the gunwale. A second wave, even larger than the first, splashes over the boat, scoops me up. I am tossed into the water and tumble in white froth until my shoulder thumps onto wet sand. I thud to a stop, water rushing around me. I pull myself up, coughing and spluttering, a wet rag in need of squeezing. There is grit in my nose and ears.
I see the Lieutenant, staggering to his feet, swathed in seaweed.
‘Will,’ he calls, ‘we must use the next wave to haul Thumb to safety.’ He starts limping toward our boat.
I stand and splash after him. Mr Bass, having swum to shore, comes wading through the surf. He hurls the barica out of reach of the waves.
We gather around our boat and watch as a boisterous swell romps towards us. I grip the gunwale so tight my knuckles turn white.
When the wave lip splits around Thumb we heave with all our might and run with the smash and crash of water, pushing the boat up onto land.
We are safe. Safe!
Mr Bass and I whoop with pleasure and race around Thumb. In our mad calls there is that nameless thing we share, all fluid and light, like an invisible bird pulling us up from the earth.
The wind is gusting, kicking up waves that lick the dry sand. It checks our high spirits. The Lieutenant begins to pull soggy supplies from Thumb. He lays them on high ground to dry.
‘Will, bail the boat,’ Mr Bass says, taking his cue from the Lieutenant but, in truth, having to feign sensibleness, as our fighting spirit will not easily abate.
I pick up the bucket, climb into Thumb and begin to bail, remembering the ride to shore, the rush of wind. It is how it must feel to fly. I want to hoot but dare not. It would displease the Lieutenant. I dip my bucket and bail until my arms ache. I only stop to rest when the water in Thumb is ankle-deep.
That is when I spy a thin trail of smoke snaking up from the scrubby trees. My imaginings are bloodied and boned. The howls of darkest nature, in my head. I see how we are as if from above. We three, caught between the snapping ocean and the scrubby foreshore, with a boat no more than a young one’s toy. I try to speak. No sound comes. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant face away. Do not see me pointing. I slip from the boat onto the sand, shake Mr Bass’s arm. Mr Bass, still naked, turns to gaze at the forest. The Lieutenant does the same.
I have heard tales of cannibals living south of Botany Bay but hearing tales is different to standing on a beach knowing one could soon hunt me. It is as if death and life are wrangling twins, and I am standing in between. As if I can touch without touching, see without seeing, hear without hearing.
There are strange sights enough around Sydney Cove, therefore what rarity might we meet this far south. Who foretells what possiblities issue from a land that breeds animals with enough spring to jump over huts, and birds that are taller than a man, run faster, yet cannot fly.
We three are hushed. As if being here is a step too far beyond our knowing. When I first learnt my letters I stumbled over those that would not jiggle together. I whittled away at them until one day I shaped a word. I felt so shiny with myself for having a whole word in my grasp. But a day later, when my uncle Hilton gave me one of his books to read, I fell so low. Before I started my lessons I did not notice words at all, but that day I did, only I had not reckoned on there being so many more to know. Here in the new world it is like we are all just learning our letters.
The Lieutenant is eyeing the smoke. ‘If natives were to run from those trees, we would not have time to get Thumb through the surf,’ he says.
Mr Bass picks up one of the muskets. It is wet and filled with sand. The second musket is the same.
‘Damnation!’ he whispers. ‘We are unarmed!’
In fright, I look again to the smoke rising above the canopy. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant do the same. If the rising smoke signals a campfire, and if that campfire warms cannibals, and if those cannibals have a mind to sup, we have no way to defend ourselves. I peer into the forest and spy the leaves of a bush shuddering. Animal or man I know not, but something is there for certain. The tall trees twist in the wind and bend toward us, belching forth a flock of wild birds with yellow crests and enormous white wings. The birds fly above then arc south, winging inland from the coast, screeching like the monkeys I saw caged at Rio. Aark! Aark! Aark!
Mr Bass is the first to make a move. ‘Get Thumb out past the surf now!’ he orders. ‘I will swim the provisions to you.’
‘No. You and Will take the boat!’ The Lieutenant’s face is pinched with worry. ‘I will wade out with the stores and meet you at the wave break while you swim back and forth to Thumb.’
‘And when the cannibals arrive, what then? Have us all made savage supper with your dog paddle!’ Mr Bass flushes red.
So too the Lieutenant. The air is full of fine ropes stretched tight. I cannot breathe.
‘Bass, my man,’ the Lieutenant whispers, ‘I will not leave you alone on this shore.’
‘No more on it, Matthew, you cannot swim!’
When he wants, Mr Bass is commander of all. The Lieutenant’s face is like furrowed land. He knows he has no talent in the water. If cannibals come, he will not be able to save himself, let alone Mr Bass, and without doubt I will not figure in his thinking.
The Lieutenant nods his agreement to the plan and quickly stashes any stores that might spoil.
Mr Bass eyes me. ‘From your vantage point at sea,’ he says, ‘you can spy the whole coast. If there is movement, holler with all your might.’
My friend, Na, has shown me how to call across distances with cupped hands to push the sound. I tell Mr Bass this is what I will do if I spy a cannibal. I grip the gunwale, ready to launch. One of the oars is split. I pray it holds together.
The Lieutenant signals me with a nod, and we slide Tom Thumb along the wet sand, into the shallows. When we are through the worst of the surf we jump in and, sitting together on the thwart, row out past the wave break. Mr Bass has followed. He takes hold of the lead line and wades back to shore. The Lieutenant and I pull further out and drop anchor.
‘Where are the muskets?’ the Lieutenant asks.
In our rush we have left them on the sand. He goes to holler, but I stop him. I put my cupped hands together and call. Mr Bass looks up but, thinking I am signalling danger, searches the forest first, then the beach before he turns to us.
The Lieutenant stands and mimes shooting Indians. At another time the mark of it would set me laughing. He does not intend comic, but comic it is.
Mr Bass, finally comprehending, picks up the muskets and waves them at us. Holding the lead line in his left hand, he runs into the surf. When the water is to his chest, we yank on the lead line, pulling him toward us. He raises the muskets high above his head. We heave, feeling Mr Bass’s weight.
Thumb creaks. We heave again. Seawater splashes. Heave. Heave. Then – snap! The line breaks, and we fall.
I have enough time only to spy Mr Bass sinking beneath a wave, the muskets going under with him. When I scramble up, Mr Bass has already resurfaced and is kicking through the water on his side, holding the muskets above his head once more. The Lieutenant hauls in the rest of the lead line.
‘Damaged as we were dumped,’ he says, picking at the frayed end.
Mr Bass reaches the boat, clings to the gunwale. I take the muskets from him. ‘Lash those oars together, Will. I will raft out the rest of the supplies,’ Mr Bass says.
I stow the muskets and uncoil the rope. The Lieutenant and I use it to bind the oars into a makeshift raft.
‘It is not stable enough, George,’ the Lieutenant says, disappointed. He looks about our vessel, and then he is up and at the mast. ‘Will, help me here.’
We unstep the mast. Mr Bass clambers into the boat and together we tether mast and oars as one.
‘Now we have a tolerable raft,’ the Lieutenant says, grinning. ‘But pray never tell the marines about our near musket loss. They will taunt us for not preserving our artillery.’
I look to the shore. Our stores are spread on the sand. What if cannibals were to come running from the forest? Can they swim? I wish I had asked more questions of Na who says he has met over one hundred of the devils.
We lower the raft. Mr Bass climbs down, and I toss him a coil of rope that he slings over his shoulder. He settles himself on his knees and uses his arms to paddle into shore. When he nears land, he rides a wave to the shallows and jumping from the raft he hauls it up on dry sand. He checks our supplies and discards what is spoiled. The rest he carries to the raft and fastens them to it with the rope.
I eyeball the beach. Only sand glare and tree shadow. Smoke still rises from the forest-green but now it circles the air in short puffs. A signal? Or have the cannibals left the fire unattended?
Outward, I am calm but, inside, there is a great bellowing. I now sense the true weight of my earlier error. If I had checked the barica when Hoary Bogarty had given it over, we three would not be here. I see how one error tumbles into another. Terror of all terrors!
I think of the story that had been the rush of Port Jackson before we sailed. The events in question happened a way back with the tale written up in a Calcutta newspaper and transported by a vessel from that region to Sydney Cove. The report told of how a small boat, with a captain and eight men, set out from the main ship to explore an island. Rough seas caused them to lose sight of their vessel. As they pulled toward the shore, the Indians gave off friendly and with waving arms showed the sailors a safe place to land.
Once on shore, three sailors requested permission to tramp through the trees to the top of the hill so they might eye their ship’s position. The captain agreed, said he and the remaining five crew would stay with the boat. Three Indians offered to guide the sailors through the forest.
They hiked for some time but, as they were nearing the top of the hill, one of the three sailors, the only one with a musket, became suspicious of the guides. He whispered his fears to his two companions but they, trusting souls, assured him the natives were friendly.
The men continued on their way. When they reached the hilltop they eagerly searched the sea for their ship but saw only waves and gulls. Their disappointment was monstrous. Would they be trapped on the island for all time?
Heavy of heart they began their trek back to their companions. Halfway down the man with the musket spied one of the Indians moving toward him, too fast for friendship. He shot off his gun. The Indians bellowed and whooped and attacked all three men, spearing the second sailor and cutting the throat of the third, before running off into the forest. With the help of the musket man, who was unharmed, the wounded men staggered down the hill.
Arriving at the beach they spied blood splattered on the sand. Warily, they followed the blood trail to the water. There was an arm lying in the shallows – a few steps on, a leg. These, they realised, were the limbs of their captain, now hacked from his body, a body that was nowhere to be seen.
Further from the shore three of the crew were floating, facedown, in bloodied seawater. The wounded sailors waded out and turned the men over – their throats had been cut from ear to ear. Horror of horrors!
The three survivors, one still clasping his own throat, the other pressing on his wounded side, now splashed toward the boat. In it lay two limbless sailors. They clambered in beside the dead men. Shaken by the ghoulish sight and sick with fear for their own lives, they pulled away from shore just as the Indians, which they now guessed to be cannibals, rushed across the sand hooting and howling.
The three quickened their row and were soon out at sea, far enough not to be pursued. The Indians set up an unholy racket and began dragging the dead bodies toward a large fire set back from the beach. In despair at leaving their companions to be feasted on by cannibals, the three survivors sailed away.
They had a terrible journey, with only salt water to heal their wounds and no rations. After paddling through too many windless days, they made it to Sarret, near Timor Land, where some kindly Indians gave them food and water. The three survived to tell their tale, although one of them died soon after from fever.
This story I tell to the Lieutenant as we watch the shore for any sign of wild men. The Lieutenant says he knows the tale and it smacks of embellishment.
‘Do not think on it, Will.’ He is stacking away the goods that Mr Bass has rafted in. He is being his sensible self. ‘For a start,’ he says, ‘why would the cannibals leave the boat and the bodies unattended? Where did they go?’
‘To light the fire,’ I say. ‘Or to chew on the captain’s limbs.’
‘Why did they not leave a guard?’ he asks.
‘Because they are cannibals! They do not have guards and soldiers and armies as we do.’
‘Then why did the three survivors not see the fire burning before they set sail?’
‘They were in a state of great fear and shock,’ I say.
But the Lieutenant will not be convinced. I curse him silently. If Na was with us we would be safe. Na had begged to come on the journey. Mr Bass had been for it, but the Lieutenant was against, saying he would need to first secure the Governor’s permission to allow Na to join us, and that would delay our departure.
‘And besides, Na eats for ten,’ the Lieutenant had added.
‘Na is needed to sweep in the hospital,’ Mr Bass had said finally.
But Na knows how to ward off cannibals with his death-rattle stare, which he has shown me, revealing the whites of his eyes. Oh, and it is truly terrible. I realise now that it falls to me to keep alert for cannibal terror, for the Lieutenant is too comfortable in his perceived knowledge.
IT IS LATE in the day when a red-raw Mr Bass finally climbs on board and flops down, exhausted.
‘The bread is spoiled,’ he says. ‘The tea and coffee too. I left them on the beach.’
I untie the raft while the Lieutenant reports on the rest of our supplies.
‘Sugar, half wet. Flour not at all, nor the cakes of soup. Rice, beef, pork, all dry.’
I roll the barica under the thwart. We have failed in our attempt to find fresh water, and feel it sorely in our throats.
‘One horn dry, two wet,’ the Lieutenant adds, checking the gunpowder. ‘And I cannot pull the damn rod from this musket.’
Mr Bass lies, gasping like a caught fish. There is no way to quench his thirst. Nothing for it but to leave him be.
‘We must be on our way,’ I remind the Lieutenant, who is taking his time about our departure from danger.
Surprisingly, the Lieutenant heeds my words, and we step the mast and hoist sail. A breeze catches and we are off. The Lieutenant sits at the helm and navigates toward the islands in the distance. I claim the bow. Mr Bass attempts to dress in damp clothes, but his skin is too sun sore and he can only suffer a shirt.
We near the first island, but it is screwed for landing.
‘Not here,’ I call.
Air currents roll around us as if twisting a knot. The Lieutenant steers further south, Mr Bass asleep at his feet. We again pass beaches and headlands that look like practice Port Jacksons. The wind drops, and I clamber back to the Lieutenant.
‘Can we land?’ I ask.
The Lieutenant looks to the sails to read the wind, then to the trees on land. He reads the invisible by close attention to the visible.
‘On land the wind is gusting to the west and will soon be with us,’ he says. ‘See that double saddle?’ He points to the south.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘We will pull to the other side and be well out of it.’ The Lieutenant eyes the water. ‘It is the sea currents you need to gauge as much as the wind,’ he adds, in a kindly voice, kinder than he has ever used before. ‘Come on, we will douse the sail.’
The Lieutenant clambers over Mr Bass. We douse the sail and get upon the oars. It is not long before gusts come at us from all directions, tossing Thumb about. Slap, slap, to dare is to do. Slap, slap, to dare is to do.
We row to the other side of the saddle and are out of the gusts, but the sea drums the rocks beneath the cliffs.
‘Anchor!’ the Lieutenant shouts over the noise.
Mr Bass wakes, his skin tight and red. He lies on his side and rocks with the boat. Although he is hot to touch, he shivers. The Lieutenant and I sit by and try to cheer him.
‘Will, how do you think those cannibals would have broiled us?’ the Lieutenant asks, as if it is a serious question.
‘The slow broil, I think.’
‘Yet our cook might give a different counsel on the best way to broil human flesh,’ the Lieutenant says.
‘He might indeed,’ I agree.
Our cook on the Reliance has seven different broiling methods, one for each day of the week, which he feels a need to test on us. All on ship are in the habit of remarking, oh, it is the tough broil today, or, yes, yes, cook has outdone himself with a feat that defies nature, he has given us the dry broil!
‘What say you, Mr Bass? What advice would our cook give the cannibals?’ I ask.
Mr Bass can only manage a whisper. ‘He would suggest roast for my carcass. Too fatty for much else.’
‘What if they were not cannibals at all,’ the Lieutenant says, ‘but the kindest of Indians?’
It is hardly possible to think them kindly, but I join the game. ‘What if the smoke was caused by young ones left by the campfire for the day?’ I say.
‘What if it were smoke smouldering from a fire caused by lightning?’ Mr Bass suggests.
We laugh, and our spirits are eased. Yet talking is hard with the drumming sea. I lie down near the bow and watch the blue sky fade and a fire-orange moon rise.
WHEN I FIRST learnt I was in Mr Bass’s employ, for days after, everyone wanted to jaw my journey. I was a bright star.
On the sail out, it was Mr Paine who convinced Mr Bass I would need to improve my letters if I was to contribute to the rise of man.
‘Without your letters properly learnt,’ Mr Paine said to me, ‘you are an animal, no better or worse than a pig!’
Yet, though I did not voice it at the time, and nor have I since, if I followed on with Mr Paine’s idea of who was animal and who was man, and if it all came down to knowing your letters or not, then most people I know (back home and on board the Reliance) are in the pen with the pigs.
Mr Bass paid particular attention to my spelling for he said it was a sin to stick in and take out parts of the English language without law or licence, and it was he who, with his painterly way of shaping a foreign word, roused my interest in the Indian language.
It came about when Mr Bass was attending our friend, Baneelong, who was mightily ill. This, on the Reliance sail to New South Wales. Baneelong was the first native of this land we ever met and he was journeying back from living the high life in London with Governor Phillip when he was struck by a mysterious illness.
For the first part of the journey Baneelong lay on his bunk, staring at the boards above. He made no motion other than that made for him by the rock of the sea. I spied him once for a full hour. Stillness itself.
Mr Bass said, after the hijinks in London it would be a cruel trick if he were not to reach home. But, curiously, Baneelong rallied once we’d skipped across the equator, as if he could sniff his homeland on the breeze.
It was then he taught us his language. The word for the Milky Way, he called Warrewull. The Pleiades are Moloomolong, and the moon, Yennadah.
Now I gaze up at the stars and moon every night and, moreover, speak them in two languages, where once I did not give thought to them at all. Now I know how big the world is.
Before, not knowing the world’s bigness meant that tomorrow looked like yesterday. Yet knowing makes it harder to spy ahead. Now I see tomorrow as unmade and know it will always be so.
I WAKE, COLD to the bone. Warrewull glimmers above. I sit up. It is not only the sky that is rippling with light; the sea too is covered with flecks of shining. All between is inky black, except to the east where the light curves up, as if a stairway to the heavens. A sight to behold.
If the world were being born again, this is what it would look like. The only sound is the splish, splash of water.
I uncoil a rope – splish, splash – and twirl the end in the sea – swoosh, swoosh – like a whirligig – swoosh, swoosh. It goes round and round, stirring the water so it throws off thousands of sparklings, as though sea and sky are sending signals to each other by shards of light. I think I will never see anything so beautiful again.
I grow drowsy and fall asleep with my head and arms resting on the thwart. When I next open my eyes I spy a sea eagle swerving in a sky of blue. I sit up and shiver.
Mr Bass sighs. He wears only a shirt. Holds his head prisoner in his hands. I see blistering on his neck but say nothing as he cannot abide fussing.
The Lieutenant nods me good morning, then tips his cheek to catch the breeze. We sit, silent monks in prayer with nature. The sun bounces across the waves. The air, not warm yet, but promises to be.
A voice. Heard above the swish of the sea. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant hear it too. We turn our heads together, like ducks on a river hearing the on-land press of human feet.
I spy two Indians in the surf, jumping and waving so as to catch our eye and, in a click, I am like a man stiff with death.
‘Only fish gigs,’ Mr Bass says to soothe us all.
‘Their fish gigs have sharp prongs,’ I say.
The Indians call again. I can pick out words. Only then do I ease. Cannibals would not speak like Na. One of the Indians holds up a fish. My belly yelps.
‘They are offering food,’ the Lieutenant says.
We all have eyes for the fish. ‘Is it safe?’ the Lieutenant asks. But our hunger answers for us.
The Lieutenant and I get upon the oars and row in their direction. Mr Bass sits gingerly at the helm. On the beach seabirds squawk and flap their wings. It is calm enough to land, but we stop pulling some distance from the Indians.
One is a giant. His body is burnt black and glistening with water. Hair and beard like a bush, knotted and wild. Dark eyes. Like a man born of the earth itself. When he turns to me my chest goes tight. Yet his mouth is merry.
Mr Bass speaks first using what language we know from Baneelong. He asks the giant his name.
‘Dilba,’ the giant says.
The second Indian does not say his title. He is twig-thin but strong. And a match for Mr Bass in height. Both men have bones through their noses. Do they suffer it for strength?
The second Indian wades through the water toward us, a palm leaf bowl held in his long fingers. The bone through his nose is pointed at one end, like some I have seen before.
He offers the bowl to Mr Bass, who takes it and sips, and hands it to the Lieutenant who does the same, before passing it to me. I sip and the liquid cools my throat. Three nights have passed since we began our sail and all that time we have not had water. Water, clear water. Yet after drinking I only want for more.
The giant, Dilba, offers fish, but we have no trade. Until Mr Bass remembers his handkerchief. I spot two potatoes wedged under the thwart and pull them out. We offer these to Dilba who takes them, trading two silver fish of medium size. I throw them in the pail.
Despite thirst, Mr Bass has perked up. He likes to practise the language Baneelong taught him. Dilba’s friend dimples, his teeth whiter than any on board the Reliance.
‘Is our new friend from Broken Bay, or did he say Botany Bay?’ the Lieutenant asks me.
‘One from each,’ I say, although I have not been listening properly and am not at all sure.
I want to ask the Indians if they sailed down here in a canoe or if they walked. Na swears that he could beat me to any place, he walking and me in a canoe, even if we both set out at the same time. I cannot always discover what is fibbery with Na, as everything in this land is strange, and what appears strange may not be. Na has told me that his uncles walk south for garaabara. I want to ask the Indians if that is why they are here. Are you here for garaabara? I decide to ask when Mr Bass has finished his gab and sit forward keen to speak, but spy on shore several Indians striding down the dunes. These are soon followed by more Indians, and more again, until a large number have assembled, all calling and whooping and raising an almighty racket. The two Indians with us turn and bellow to those on shore who start to enter the water with shouts.
‘George?’ the Lieutenant whispers. ‘What do they say on shore?’
Mr Bass has his ear cocked. ‘A different language,’ he replies. ‘I cannot make out a word.’
The Lieutenant turns to me. ‘Will?’
I am frightened by the shouting, it sounds like one big roar. I mimic Mr Bass. ‘Not a word,’ I say.
‘Pull out,’ the Lieutenant orders. ‘Too many are gathered.’
In haste, we take up our oars and row away. The two Indians, now waving those on shore to join us, turn back, surprised at our retreat.
‘To Port Jackson,’ the Lieutenant calls to them.
I start to pull north, even though the wind is the wrong way about and slaps me in the face.
The Lieutenant hisses. ‘Will! Where are you going?’
‘Port Jackson,’ I say.
‘We go south to the tip of the saddle!’ he snaps.
I change direction. Tom Thumb slides about in the water.
‘For pity’s sake,’ the Lieutenant complains.
‘Matthew, ease up.’ Mr Bass laughs. ‘We are safe.’ Mr Bass does not look scared but with him it is hard to tell.
The Lieutenant turns to me. ‘When you know not your opponent’s next move, make sure your own is difficult to comprehend. I told the natives north precisely because we are going south.’
‘Ah,’ I say, as though the strategy is clear, although it is not – for surely they will see us going south?
We move out of the bay and around the point. We pull and pull, and I am weak with thirst when finally we haul Thumb up onto the sand.
Mr Bass stands, eyeing the land. ‘No blasted water here.’
‘We will eat first, then search for water,’ the Lieutenant says.
I feel dizzy as I gather sticks for a fire and must sit. Mr Bass takes the pail to the shallows and guts the fish. When I have recovered I pile sticks on top of each other and set them alight with a flint, blowing until I spark a flame.
When the fire is crackling I lay our clothes near it to dry. My stomach has its own voice. The Lieutenant laughs at the noises it makes.
‘Hunger must be the most fearful death. I would rather a spear through my chest,’ I say.
‘You may get both!’ The Lieutenant catgrins, as though he relishes the idea.
‘The land is a book waiting to be read,’ Mr Bass says, slapping his gutted fish on the fire. ‘Learn to read it and you will never go hungry. But I agree, Will, hunger is a terrible thing.’
‘Disagree,’ says the Lieutenant, lively and spoiling for an argument. ‘Hunger can be good, as long as you are not the hungry party. Thinking, France. Thinking, Howe.’
Mr Bass scoffs. ‘What? Are you saying Howe won because he captured the grain ships?’
Mr Bass finds a stick to stir the fire with. ‘It was an unnecessary move on Howe’s part,’ he says. ‘I would almost venture dishonourable. But that is not why he won the battle.’
‘Howe used every tactic he knew in order to win,’ the Lieutenant replies. ‘Hunger was one of his weapons and knowing how to employ it, his wisdom.’
There is a conflict that now and then rises between the Lieutenant and Mr Bass. Both have been cheek by jowl with the carriage of death, but Mr Bass, being in the healing trade, thinks more on healing, while the Lieutenant, being in the business of defending, thinks more on that score, and thus they ride the discourse of death differently. But it has to be said that when both are hankering for exploring they take the same carriage.
The Lieutenant squats before the fire, keen for debate.
‘I know the Bellerophon story,’ I say to him. ‘They talk of it on the Reliance.’
The Lieutenant looks surprised. ‘Do they?’
‘They do,’ I say, though this is not what I mean. What I mean is that when I was first on the Reliance, I would settle near the wardroom and hear the officers talk, and several times I heard the Lieutenant tell his story of the Glorious First of June battle, led by Admiral Howe. He did not tell his version with the verve of my uncle Hilton, who is fond of telling that same battle at London inns, his way of getting free grog. Yet, when I overheard the Lieutenant, he was not without style.
‘What do they say?’ the Lieutenant asks.
There is no they, but I cannot say I was listening in. ‘You wish me to tell how they say the story?’
‘Yes, Will, yes.’
I cannot look at him if I am to speak but I set myself up for the tale in the manner I have seen my uncle do before an oration.
‘See, the French are hungry after the Revolution,’ I begin, improvising on my uncle’s version.
‘They start that way?’ the Lieutenant asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, remembering I must agree with him always if I am to stay on the right side of his ledger. ‘The French people have the heads of nobles but they do not have a plan for what to do with the heads. Not only that, but the people are helter-skelter with the business of revolution. With a bit of bad weather, the crops fail and in a tick-tock the whole country is desperate for a feed. War is trumpeted between England and France because Old George does not want dirty revolutionaries crossing the seas and messing up what he has nice and orderly. When someone high up hears, by use of a spy or two, that a hundred and twenty Yankee ships are sailing for France, loaded with grain, this makes English legs quake. The French fed are strong. The French hungry are a weaker foe.’
‘Ah,’ says the Lieutenant, turning to Mr Bass. ‘The French hungry are a weaker foe, they tell it this way too!’
Mr Bass flips the fish and pushes it into the fire. He raises his eyebrows at me but keeps his thoughts to himself so I continue.
‘What happens is Old George decides he wants to keep the French hungry and so he sends Wrinkly Lord Howe, who is like a wolf when it comes to stratagems and spoils, to capture the grain ships. Lieutenant, you were only two years on my fifteen when you were on the Bellerophon, is that not so?’
‘It is so,’ he says.
‘The fleet sails out of Spithead with twenty-nine warships and fifteen frigates. Hundreds of white sails battling the winds. A glorious sight! Lord Howe has a plan. He knows the French will sail out to meet the Yankee grain ships and guard them into port. Howe wants to get to the Yankees first, take hostage the grain ships and guide them back to England, then turn his cannons on the French. Out on the Atlantic, Howe’s Channel Fleet patrol day after day. Despite their constant watch no Yankee ship appears on the watery horizon. Howe gets a craving for battle so he leaves nine warships on guard and, with the remaining fleet, sails to the French coast.’
‘The French are under Admiral Louis Villaret de Joyeuse,’ the Lieutenant says.
‘Howe’s new plan is to trap the French as they leave Brest. But all goes hubble-bubble when he discovers the French have already left. Howe sails in pursuit. On the twenty-eighth day he sights the enemy. They have twenty-six warships and smaller vessels too. This is a tough match for the Channel fleet. They are now less nine ships and less ships means less guns.’
‘Well spoken!’ The Lieutenant is pleased with my tale.
‘The blustering winds cause sea swells that tower above the English sails. Raindrops turn to ice and pelt the decks. But still the English chase the enemy. Gun ports are flung open and cannons rumble out.’
As I tell the battle beginning, I make the noises Hilton-style. There must be theatre in the telling, he has often instructed. His style is what assured him free grog. Sometimes, when we were setting up our theatre in town squares, I would join Hilton as he rallied the crowd with spine-chilling tales. I learnt from him all the old tricks, yet my telling to the Lieutenant and Mr Bass has something firstborn about it.
‘The sailors are feverish for battle,’ I say. ‘The Bellerophon sees a frigate and fires. Bang go the cannons and the frigate sails off. The sailors cheer. But now, alongside the Bellerophon comes the great shadow of the Revolutionnaire. Big and black like a killer whale, this ship has a thousand men on board and a hundred and ten guns. Cannons blast back and forth! The roar is deafening and the smoke becomes so black it is hard to make out the figure of a man an arms-length in front. The maincap of the Bellerophon is hit and the ship lurches to one side, like a wounded walrus. The sailors drag the topsail and soon there is a mess of rigging on deck.’
‘The Bellerophon had to retreat to repair the damage, there was no other option,’ the Lieutenant says to me. ‘So too the Revolutionnaire.’
Mr Bass now has his eye on me, as if my telling of the tale is surprising him.
I continue. ‘The Bellerophon and the Revolutionnaire appear and disappear like giants of the watery deep, but soon lose sight of each other. Night comes. Lanterns flash. The sailors on the Bellerophon work on through until morning. All that can be heard above the sea rush is a hellish hammering.’
The Lieutenant picks up a twig and traces the Bellerophon in the sand.
‘At first light,’ I say, ‘Howe orders the fleet to form a battle line. He has a new cunning plan. He wants the English ships to sail straight for the enemy and cut off the rear of the French line to confuse them. This is bold and never done before. The English set sail but some cowardly captains do not carry out Howe’s order to the letter.’
‘They think the plan too dangerous,’ the Lieutenant explains to Mr Bass.
‘Yet the tactic catches the French on the hop,’ I say. ‘The English have full stomachs, but the French do not. There are loud shots – crack, crack! – and a mass of thick grey smoke. The Bellerophon aims for…’ And here I hesitate, for in my rush of Hilton-style theatrics I forget what the Bellerophon did.
‘The Bellerophon sails straight for the space between the second and third ships,’ the Lieutenant prompts.
‘The English sailors fire cannons,’ I say. ‘Boom, boom!’
‘So too the French,’ the Lieutenant joins in.
‘Boom, boom! Then the loud crack of timber as masts fall. Wails of men. All is desperate. The Bellerophon’s forward rigging is slashed to pieces.’
‘It truly was,’ says the Lieutenant, remembering.
‘The French, also, are badly mangled. The Bellerophon limps off to repair. That night, time slows. A fog covers the sea like a dirty old coat. Bloodied men appear and disappear, carrying hammers and bits of timber. The next morning the fog is still there. All day the only sound is the sea and this infernal hammering, on and on. This is a cold misty hell, not a burning hell. But it is a hell.’
‘My, you tell this tale well, Will,’ praises the Lieutenant, and I feel myself swell.
Mr Bass has two sticks wedged beneath the cooking fish. As the skin blackens over the flame, the smell rises, and my mouth waters, yet the urgency of my tale narrows my attention.
‘The morning after, fog again,’ I say. ‘Later, it clears. The English eat but do the French? No. They cannot eat. They have little food. The English wait to attack. They hold out another day, in order to make the French tremble, in order to make the French weak. Then they sail. They set a diagonal course and smash through the centre of the enemy, attacking the ships from leeward. The Bellerophon, second in line, opens fire on the French Eole. The two ships are so close that any one of the men could reach out and touch an enemy sailor. Fighting breaks out.’
‘Black smoke. Gunfire,’ says the Lieutenant.
‘Screams and clashing iron. Turmoil!’ I say. ‘The Bellerophon receives a heavy pounding from the French Trajan. You were standing where, Lieutenant?’
‘On the quarterdeck.’
‘And you were there when a shot smashed through the barricading and hit your patron, Rear Admiral Pasley?’
‘I was there. Pasley’s leg was no more than blood and bone.’
‘His blood splattered on the faces of sailors nearby,’ I add.
‘They say all this?’ the Lieutenant asks.
‘They say this and more,’ I reply, and the Lieutenant smiles, pleased his bloody battle is so spoken about. ‘Old Pasley has copped it bad,’ I say. ‘Bleeding, he is carried below. And you, sir, were at the cannons, so fiery was your mood.’
‘It was indeed.’
‘Yet, Howe’s plan has worked,’ I say. ‘The hunger of the French means seven French ships surrender, too weak to continue fighting.’
The Lieutenant claps his hands together triumphantly. ‘And that goes to show that in war there are many ways to defeat a foe, and hunger can be used for the good of a nation.’
‘And yet the grain ships got through, did they not?’ Mr Bass says.
I look to the Lieutenant. ‘Surely not?’
‘Much delayed,’ the Lieutenant says.
‘And strangely, the French claim victory of the exact same battle,’ Mr Bass adds, laughing. He turns to me and bows his head and sweeps out his arm with a theatrical flourish. ‘But that was well told, Master Martin.’
It is now that the Lieutenant looks up behind us and gasps. I follow the direction of his gaze. Standing on top of the sand dunes are Dilba and his friend.
‘Are they alone?’ the Lieutenant asks.
The two Indians run down the hill, shouting. ‘Raah, raah!’
‘Have they weapons?’ I shout.
I can see no spears. But do they hide some other weapon? We rise. There is nowhere to run. I pick up a stick from the flame, hold it before me. This is what it is to be a man.
The two Indians are nearly upon us. Their eyes wide. They shout and whoop. A black crow swoops down through the air. Ah-ah-ah-aaahh! Black wings flapping in the blue sky.
Mr Bass and the Lieutenant have no time to gather a weapon. But I am ready, a burning stick in hand.
The Indians stop, several yards from us, dimpling. We three are as still as stone. Still the natives sun-smile. Is it a trick?
Dilba takes a step forward. The Lieutenant and I step back, but Mr Bass does not. Dilba, gabbling in his own language, seizes Mr Bass’s arm and pulls him along, pointing north.
‘Ah,’ says Mr Bass. ‘He thinks we do not know where Port Jackson lies.’
The Lieutenant said we were going north, but we went south. We cannot tell Dilba about our stratagems, yet he thinks us clodskulls.
If your enemy thinks you a clodskull, what then? Might it not make them braver? Is it not better for them to fear you?
‘Thank you,’ Mr Bass says to Dilba, who I remember cannot be our enemy after all, as he speaks the Port Jackson tongue like Na and like Baneelong.
The Lieutenant mimes how we must first sup before we sail. Dilba and his friend watch closely and laugh.
The green sea is shiny. The yellow sand is warming. We are stood around the campfire.
The scissors that Mr Bass has used to scale the fish lie on the ground, glinting. Dilba’s friend picks them up and walks away, his feet on the sand go whoosh, whoosh like silk on a lady’s dress. The Lieutenant mimes what you can do with the blades. Then, with friendly gestures, but with a nervous air, he grasps the scissors from the Indian.
Dilba steps forward. For a tick-tock all is wave crash. Eyes back forth.
The Lieutenant, laughing in pretence, takes hold of Dilba’s beard. Dilba swipes away the Lieutenant’s hand, darts back. Eyes toing and froing.
The burning stick is still in my hand. I wait. Are we friends or enemies? It is yet to be confirmed.
The Lieutenant grabs a clump of his own hair. He snips it off and offers it to Dilba who takes it, stares like a mute. The Lieutenant again reaches for Dilba’s beard. Dilba, wary. The Lieutenant raises the scissors and snip! He holds the clump of beard in the air.
Tick-tock. Dilba grins.
The Lieutenant leans forward, takes another snip. Dilba’s friend laughs and points. The Lieutenant snips and snips until Dilba’s beard is cut and his hair too. The friend doubles over he is laughing so much.
The Indians laugh like us, only they laugh more. This is my discovery.
Dilba’s friend wants his hair shorn now. We all come closer as the Lieutenant snips. Mr Bass sings a barber’s ditty, and Dilba sings it after him, in perfect English, in perfect tune. It is no mean feat. Hilton and Mama would be astonished at his skill. The Indians are our friends, it is clear.
Gulls circle above, and the fire spits. The fish is cooked. We sit and eat, pulling the flesh from the bones. We invite our friends to join us. They eat the same way we do. This is proof that they are not cannibals.
‘Bado?’ Mr Bass asks Dilba, scooping up imaginary water.
Dilba points south. ‘River,’ he says. ‘River, there.’
He speaks only some words of English, but his accent, Mr Bass says, is splendid. Dilba raises his head the way Na does to indicate direction.
‘River?’ Mr Bass points south to confirm.
‘Yes,’ Dilba says. ‘River.’
Mr Bass and the Lieutenant look to each other. Maybe this is the river Henry Hacking has talked about? Or if not, it may be another river, not yet seen, by Hacking or any other, except for Dilba and his ilk. The thrill of it. Maybe this is the river that, with waters deep, will lead us to the heart of the land. Maybe this is the river that will make rise our monument.
What strange twists of fate. We would not have come this far south if not for water in a wine barica. And where I had felt bad about the troubles we have endured, now the fate of those actions may lead to a great discovery.
But this swelling does not last more than a tick-tock for, as Mr Bass and the Lieutenant debate the river, I spy Dilba’s sly look to his friend.
A look of malice?
I remember the cannibal story from Calcutta. I remember also the Lieutenant’s words. Do not let your enemy know your next move. Could these Indians be feigning friendship? What might be their next move? Dilba’s eyes are half-open. Eyes half-open mark men that are slippery in their thoughts. Hilton told me this for he has always played Iago with a half-open eye. The Lieutenant and Mr Bass, not having stage skill, see none of it.
‘Mr Bass, the wind is the wrong way about for returning north,’ the Lieutenant says.
‘It is indeed,’ agrees Mr Bass, with a wink to me. ‘Lieutenant Flinders, are we not in desperate need of water?’
How to tell them what I know without giving away the game? ‘That drink we had was plenty,’ I say.
Mr Bass thinks I have made a joke and laughs.
‘Impossible to return north without water,’ says the Lieutenant.
‘Agreed,’ says Mr Bass. ‘Unquestionable that it is impossible to return north without water.’
The Lieutenant and Mr Bass both turn to me. ‘Will?’ they chorus.
They are speaking as if I am to decide. I am baffled. Then I spot their ruse. They are rehearsing what to say to the Governor. If the Governor asks, why did you go further south? Their reasons are practised. Their true intention lies between words, or behind them. This river could change our destiny is what they think.
‘So be it,’ Mr Bass says and rubs his hands above the fire.
‘So be it,’ the Lieutenant agrees.
‘We will sail to the river,’ Mr Bass explains to Dilba who has not understood.
The Lieutenant mimes us getting in the boat and sailing south. Dilba claps his hands and points. He will show the way. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant begin to pack our things.
I stand by the fire. If I do not move Mr Bass will notice me. Then I will signal by my eyes that we cannot go. But Mr Bass and the Lieutenant, reckless with ambition, pay no heed to me or the Indians. I run to Mr Bass.
‘Sir, what if they mean to trick us?’ I whisper.
‘It was we who asked them to assist in our search for water,’ he says.
‘Must we not obey the Governor’s orders?’ I ask.
Mr Bass gives me a sour look. ‘And that was to find a river.’
‘A river that joins the sea just south of Botany Bay,’ I say. ‘We are a long way from that mark.’
‘Are you afraid?’ he asks me.
‘No,’ I say, for I will not have him think me cowardly. But I curse the day I did not check the barica was clean! Curse the day I asked to crew Tom Thumb! Curse the day I left England!
As I stomp out the fire I spy Dilba watching me. His hand flicks up. A signal to his friend? I pretend not to see.
We shove off from the shallows, Mr Bass at the helm. The Lieutenant and I step the mast, and we set sail. Dilba sits next to Mr Bass. Dilba’s friend, sits silent at the bow, as if he does not like to go. I will have to watch them both, for my elders, in their rashness, are like babes.
The wind picks up, and we are off.
‘To the river,’ Mr Bass says.
Dilba watches him. ‘Yoorongi,’ he says and points south.
‘Duck?’ Mr Bass asks. ‘Yoorongi in water place?’
‘Moremme,’ Dilba says.
‘What else?’ Mr Bass asks.
A wave comes crashing over the side of Thumb and, when I look up, wiping water from my face, Mr Bass and Dilba are laughing.
‘What?’ the Lieutenant leans forward to hear.
‘Dilba tells me that at this river there is Indian corn and potatoes,’ Mr Bass says. ‘But more than that, he swears there is a beautiful white woman who tends it all.’
‘Ah,’ the Lieutenant shouts. ‘Then he has known explorers before us. Or whalers.’
Dilba points to me, and this makes Mr Bass laugh louder. My cheeks flush with heat. I turn away. Usually it is Moore, the ship’s master, who stirs me about women. I always feign boredom. I know what goes on. It is all over the cove. If a man has stirrings, no mind the flavour, anything can be supped. White or black, woman or boy, even child, all is there and up for trade. If no coin is had, spirit will do, even flour. When Mr Bass lets me have free roam, Na and I kick around the campfires at night. We see those that go cock-a-hoop for a bit of flesh. Hoary Bogarty growls as he distributes goods from the store, but to see him with a woman by firelight and watch how he fondles her bosom is to see how he fair turns into a dribbling pup.
Mr Bass calls to the Lieutenant. ‘Matthew, Dilba is offering you the white woman!’
‘No white woman could live so far from civilisation!’ the Lieutenant shouts over the splash of waves.
I look across the sea to the scrubby land. Two escaped convicts are reported living with Hawkesbury tribes. But there are farms on the Hawkesbury that the escaped men raid. This far south, there are no farms to be had. Few animals. That is why there are cannibals. To live here would be too great a risk. Even Cook did not land in this wild place.
Seawater spurts before my eyes. I lean over the gunwale and spy the sleek back of a dolphin. More romp in the water alongside, duck under the boat and criss-cross in front of Thumb to rise up through the air with newborn squeaks. I eye one for his scarred back, and swear he eyes me in return. The dolphins swim off in haste. I look starboard and see, in the water beyond, a feeding hubbub. Silver fish jump from the water to feed on smaller prey. Circling them, dark-finned sharks. Above, gulls swoop to pick off what they can. The picture is as if all creatures of the sea and air have come to join a flipping, flapping dance of death.
I grip the gunwale. This sight is a bad omen, surely.
WE SAIL TOWARD the beach. The escarpment runs along the land like a giant’s arm, cradling trees from hilltop to shore. No river can be spied beneath the canopy of green, but there is water trickling through the sand dunes.
‘Our river!’ shouts Mr Bass. We strike sail and take up oars.
Splish, splash, splish, splash, to dare is to do.
‘It is no more than a stream!’ the Lieutenant calls as we get closer.
‘It may widen past the bend,’ Mr Bass replies.
The entrance to the stream is a yeasty beast, and the wind howls like a child in tantrum. No way to enter, yet Dilba, pointing and waving, his language his own, gives directions like a ship’s captain. We navigate the surf like a rocky path, straight towards the mouth, then one side, then the other. Soon we are through and rowing upstream against a strong tide.
Dilba and his friend jump from Thumb and splash through the shallows. They begin to stride the wide sandy bank beside us. They call out. I cannot catch their words.
Our boat scrapes the bed of the stream, and I turn my attention to pulling. The Lieutenant joins with me.
From shrubs on the shore, men appear, like tricksy spirits: first one, then another and another, as if the land is coughing them up. Dilba and his friend have their backs to us. I cannot spy their countenance. The Indians from the bush stand and stare, at us, then at Dilba and his friend. I count the Indians. Nearly twenty have gathered. The men have grizzled beards that go to their navel and sharp bones through their noses.
No one speaks. They have a spirit way of talking. It must be that.
All is still until, at some unknown sign, they begin to shout and stroll along the bank. Their dogs run to the shallows but do not bark. Are they devils in dogs’ bodies?
The Indians wave friendly and call to us, Solja, Solja! – but could friendly be a trap?
Mr Bass says it is because of his red waistcoat that is the same colour as a soldier’s. Dilba, striding the shallow water, points to the hills. We look that way and now spy a shimmering lagoon.
‘But the stream is scarce deep enough to get us there,’ says the Lieutenant.
‘Once there, we would have to wait for the tide to get us back down,’ Mr Bass says. ‘We are too vulnerable,’ he adds, eyeing the men on shore.
‘We must dry our powder and clean the muskets or else we have no safety,’ the Lieutenant whispers.
Mr Bass studies the men on shore. ‘The mood appears light. Perhaps we could risk going ashore here.’
‘Or turn now, go back now,’ I say.
The Lieutenant’s lips are pressed tight. ‘We need water,’ he says. ‘Without it we will die.’
‘They mean us harm,’ I say.
‘To show fear would be a mistake.’ The Lieutenant ships his oars. ‘We have no arms. If we retreat now they could easily overcome us. But their intentions may not yet be formed. If we keep them friendly, go ashore, find water, dry the powder, we will be prepared for attack on land or sea.’
Birds swoop across the water, catch buzzing insects in their beaks.
‘Are we for shore?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘Yes,’ says the Lieutenant.
Mr Bass turns to me. ‘Will?’
The Indians are shouting. I go to speak but all is slow and heavy and I hear only insect buzz. No, I am not for it. Yet Mr Bass will think me cowardly if I say so.
‘Good,’ Mr Bass says, as if I have answered.
He jumps from Thumb and, splashing through the water, begins to haul the boat to shore. The Lieutenant and I clamber over the gunwale and join him. As soon as we step on land the Indians circle us. They touch our hair and finger our clothes.
‘Bado?’ Mr Bass asks, his question a command.
I haul the barica out of the boat.
Dilba points to the lagoon, wants us to walk that way.
‘No,’ the Lieutenant hits the gunwale. ‘We stay with our boat.’
Dilba runs along the sand, pointing and jabbering, but too on the hop for me to follow.
I stand away to observe the belly of water and the low hills that circle it.
An old Indian grips my arm, bends it back, and pushes me into the shrubby trees. The surprise takes my voice away. This is it, I think, I will soon meet my end! In his hair I see yellowed teeth. Human? Such as cannibals wear?
A few steps into the trees, I stumble. When I look up the old man is pointing to a small pond. He smiles, revealing the pink of his mouth. It is water he is showing me! He has no other thought. The teeth, I now see, are kangaroo teeth, like those our Port Jackson natives wear.
I kneel on the sand and put my lips to the water to test for salt. I have had worse at the Tank Stream. I drink in all I can. Four days thirst is a lot to quench. The water cools my face. Leaves dance in the air. The old man sits next to me, runs his hand through the sandy soil, then pats it.
‘Allowrie,’ he says.
‘Soil,’ I say. I have played this word game before. I fetch a rough stone and rub down the barica, sluice it with water and fill it as far as I can. The old man babbles in his own tongue. I talk to him with the Port Jackson speak I learnt from Baneelong, but he does not understand.
The old man lays a rock axe-head on the ground. I spy it at first with caution and then with interest, because Indian tools fetch a high price back in London. Its rock is many interesting colours, bluish green and brown, and the handles are a strong dark wood bound with twisted vine. I offer to trade my hat, but the Indian shakes his head. The more I look at the axe-head, the more I think how useful it would be on the journey home and how it would impress all on the Reliance. I offer to trade my shirt and my shoes, but still the Indian shakes his head. I try to impress him with our expedition.
‘We are looking for a big river.’ I make my arms bend, like the flow of a river. ‘Swoosh, swoosh,’ I say.
The old man pats the earth.
‘No, no, river,’ I say. ‘Big enough to sail boats down.’ I stand and move in the wind, like the sail of a boat. The old man laughs and shakes his head as if it is me who is the halfwit. I mime unloading a large vessel but he is no wiser to our purpose.
He refuses the deal, and I know I must give it up. As we go to leave I help him stand to show I have no bad feeling about our lack of trade and that makes him laugh even more. They can be a jolly lot, the Indian men.
When we come out of the shrubs the Lieutenant and Mr Bass are in a huddle with the Indians. The old man lopes over to them. I follow but get seized by a branch and stop to untangle myself. The Lieutenant shouts my name. Mr Bass and he stride over.
Mr Bass runs his hand through my hair. ‘Will, do not scare us like that again!’
The Lieutenant is pleased to see me.
‘I was getting water,’ I explain.
‘Water!’ they say, delighted.
Mr Bass and I hold the barica up. The Lieutenant bends, and gulps the water down. Then Mr Bass takes his fill.
‘If water has been close by all this time,’ the Lieutenant whispers, ‘why has Dilba been luring us to the lagoon?’
‘To meet a darker purpose?’ Mr Bass suggests.
Now is the time to say the old man has shown me the water, but I do not because there is a hollering from the Indians. The old man is pointing at me. My fears return. Could the old man be full of trickery?
Mr Bass drinks again. ‘Good work, Will,’ he murmurs.
‘Stow the barica in Thumb,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘We will dry the gunpowder, then depart.’
But as we walk to the boat, the Indians stop their yabbering and watch our every move.
‘The snail wins the race,’ the Lieutenant says.
Slowly he takes hold of the powder horns. Slowly Mr Bass retrieves the muskets. Slowly I stow the barica beneath the thwart then ferret out twine, as the oar needs repairing. I hear the sea roar and wish us back on the ocean. Back in the spray and the open air and not watched by these forty eyes.
The Lieutenant, like the fairy godmother in a pantomime, sprinkles the gunpowder on a cloth to dry in the sun and lays out the wet paper beside it. All is ease.
Mr Bass sits to clean a musket, tips it up between his knees, but lo ho! The Indians holler and run at Mr Bass, waving spears.
I jump to and grip the oar as a weapon, but Mr Bass stills me with his eyes. Steadily, he lays his musket down. His careful action quiets the Indians. But still they hold their spears high, eyes shooting back and forth, from Mr Bass to the musket.
Mr Bass calls for the twine and oar. I take them to him. He lays the oar across his knee and begins to wrap twine around the split wood. I stare at the Indians with their raised spears. Hear only my breathing. Then, birds in the shrubs, their faint twittering. Insects drone. An ant crawls across my foot.
The Indians lower their weapons. One of them, no older than me as he has no beard, comes closer and sits on the sand, observing Mr Bass’s task. Another sits next to the first, picks up the ball of twine and threads it out as Mr Bass twists it around the oar.
The Lieutenant calls me over. ‘This is the shock of the Indians,’ he whispers. ‘Savage one moment, child the next. Keep alert, Will, keep alert.’
But an easier mood settles upon our temporary camp.
A long-bearded man now points to Dilba’s short beard. Dilba, smiling, jabbers how the Lieutenant has snipped it. He speaks fast. I can pick out some words. Yarrin, the word for beard. Dewwarra, the word for hair.
‘Boodyerre, boodyerre,’ Dilba says, miming the scissors cutting his beard.
‘You have become famous, Matthew,’ Mr Bass says. ‘These men want their beards cut.’
The Lieutenant walks to Thumb to collect the scissors. I find myself a sturdy stick. These Indians are warriors, and I will be ready to fight if this request for beard-cutting be a ruse. To dare is to do. To dare is to do. I say this over and over.
All the Indians watch the Lieutenant, who sets up a log as his barber’s chair and points to it. The old man who took me to the pond is the first to sit. The Lieutenant grips the old man’s beard that lies like an arrested waterfall upon his chest, and makes to snip the end of it. But the old man, surprised by the blades coming toward him, leans back and falls from
The Indians holler. I raise my stick.
Dilba, knowing what scissors are, picks the old man up, jabbering to him all the while. The old man raises his eyebrows, nods and grunts, then sits again on the log. He stares straight into the eyes of the Lieutenant who again takes hold of the old man’s beard and now begins to cut.
The Indians murmur, watching the Lieutenant’s actions with surprise and laughter. Soon shouting, like a soldier’s huzzah, accompanies each snip.
‘The painter, Hogarth, might have found this man a fascinating subject,’ calls the Lieutenant.
‘Ah! But would he have been able to divine his nature?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘Better than I,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘Although navigating the void between us may be beyond any civilised man.’
The sun beats down. The sand is hot. Insects nip at my skin. Indian dogs sniff at my feet.
The first barbering is finished. The Lieutenant bows like an actor on the stage. The Indians surround the old man. Some reach out to touch his shortened beard. Others laugh and jabber as if this shorn beard is some wonder of the earth.
A second Indian steps forward. The Lieutenant snips a lock of this man’s beard and holds it to his own beardless chin. The Indians clap and holler.
A tall man with many teeth twisted through his hair, and with muscles as tight as a barrel, reaches out and wipes some sweat from the Lieutenant’s forehead. The Lieutenant starts back, gripping the scissors. But the Indian is still, all his attention given to his fingertips. With his free hand he wipes his own forehead, thickly covered in fish oil, then holds both hands in front, as if comparing liquids.
‘A fellow scientist,’ Mr Bass suggests.
‘Or a cook checking his ingredients,’ the Lieutenant jokes.
The Lieutenant continues with his barbering, but the tall Indian’s interest has bothered him and he calls me over.
‘Will, pack that powder now. Wet or dry I think we must be satisfied and make our leave. The natives are friendly, but my suspicion is they are too friendly.’
With internal quivering such as I dare not display, I filter the gunpowder back into the horns (wet in one, dry in the other), then gather the near dry cartridge papers, wrap them in hide, and with bravado make my way across the sand to Thumb. Mr Bass brings the muskets and mended oar. The Lieutenant takes his last snip, and he too makes his way to our trusted vessel. The Indians, astonished at their new beards, do not notice our preparations for departure. Except for Dilba who comes running. He grips the Lieutenant’s arm and hauls him toward the lagoon.
‘Lagoon!’ Dilba says, having already learnt our word for it.
The Lieutenant, spooked, shakes himself free with a growl. The savage glares and makes to take his arm again, but the Lieutenant signals against it and steps backwards toward our boat, careful never to let his eyes leave those of his assailant.
The savage’s arms begin to circle the air, like a watermill in a fierce wind.
‘Why is he so violent in his request?’ the Lieutenant whispers when he reaches us.
‘It is strange,’ says Mr Bass.
‘We must put the Indians off in a friendly way and make our escape without them suspecting,’ the Lieutenant decides.
Mr Bass calls to Dilba and gestures our friendship by palms held forth, flat and open.
‘Tomorrow, we will visit the lagoon,’ he promises. He then beckons me, and we push Thumb into the water using idle chatter and false laughter to disguise our proper purpose.
Meanwhile the Lieutenant, with the intention of calming Dilba, points downstream to a green bank that is near the bend in the stream. He puts his folded hands to the side of his face, feigning sleep.
‘We must rest. We go to that green bank there,’ he says.
This news, however, has the opposite effect to the Lieutenant’s intention. Dilba runs back to his fellow savages in alarm, and the men stop admiring their beards and turn to stare at us.
‘Get Thumb into the middle of the stream,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘I will keep them occupied.’ He walks towards the Indians with exaggerated leg movements, as though exhaustion has set in, and again he puts his hands to his cheek and repeats our need for sleep. The Lieutenant has a feel for the comic and could be the best of actors if he took up the trade.
But the wily Dilba is not to be distracted. The savage shakes his head and points at our desired location in disgust. He does not want us to go there that much is certain, but what is his objection? It is a bank like any other bank. A cacophony of shouts erupt from the natives, and twenty or more of their dogs run to the shoreline.
Mr Bass and I, having waded to the place where the water is deepest, clamber on board Thumb.
‘Matthew, come now!’ Mr Bass yells as he wrestles our steering oar.
Still carrying on with his antics the Lieutenant splashes into the water and makes his way to us. I pull him on board.
‘Show no fear, Will,’ the Lieutenant orders as we take up our oars.
With smiling faces we begin to row and are nearly away when four spear-holding Indians hasten into the water after us, wade out and jump into Thumb. There are seven of us bearing down on Thumb’s creaking timbers and, in consequence, our little boat sinks lower in the stream.
I row faster, fearing for my life, praying that Mr Bass, with his great strength, will push the natives off. But there is no escaping our terror. A howling erupts from the shore. All the savages standing there raise their spears up high and, in a single burst, hurtle into the stream, hooting as they splash their way to our boat, surrounding it. The Lieutenant and I pull and pull but, still, I am surprised when Thumb glides along easily. How is this possible? Then I see the cause. For the natives are pushing our boat, and it is their strength that is giving us pace. The Indians begin to whoop and sing, the din unnerving.
Mr Bass bursts into a sailor’s shanty. ‘Sing, Will,’ he calls out, sternly.
Soon we are all singing, and such a savage clamouring I have never heard. There is much laughter, but there is too much laughter. Shall we survive our ordeal and leave this place alive?
When we are near the green bank, one of the young Indians aboard Thumb snatches Mr Bass’s hat and, dropping it onto his own head, jumps from the boat and makes for shore.
Mr Bass unthinking, shouts, ‘My hat!’
The Indian turns and raises his spear, ready to throw. He has no bone through his nose and no teeth in his hair, but his expression is all wildness. I let the oar rest and grip the sharpened stick I have kept by my side. My old native friend, the same who revealed the pond, hollers at the wild one who, fierceness in his countenance, wades toward us. I plant my feet, ready to fight but, to my surprise, the Indian stops, takes the hat from his head, and tosses it into the boat with a laugh, as if the whole event had been nothing more than a lark. He bows to Mr Bass, a perfect copy of the theatrical flourish the Lieutenant exhibited earlier.
‘Shove off, Will!’ the Lieutenant hollers. ‘Make for the ocean.’
I use my oar to push us into deeper water, and we begin to row at pace towards the mouth of the stream, but the Indians, still in good spirits or pretending so, and still believing the green bank to be our destination, begin again to haul the boat to shore.
‘Stop there!’ the Lieutenant yells. ‘Halt! Halt!’ Mr Bass joins in.
The Indians – intent on getting us to the bank or howling so loudly that they themselves cannot hear – do not stop. Again it is my old friend who sees our red faces and, taking his hand from the gunwale, shouts an order to his fellow savages.
The Indians stop and stand like statues in the shallows. Forty eyes staring. Twenty muscled bodies with spears aloft. And dogs aplenty. We are but three. Sea roar and insect buzz. The boat drifts on
It is the Lieutenant who shakes us from our stupor. ‘Pull, Will, pull!’ he shouts, dipping his oar into the water.
Mr Bass takes up a musket from beneath the thwart and aims it at the Indians. A ruse, as the gun is still clogged with sand. But it does the trick as the Indians do not move. We row towards the sea. Our eyes steady on the savages as they become smaller and smaller.
‘That was well suffered,’ Mr Bass says when we round the bend and the sight of the Indians is lost to us.
‘We are not out of it yet, George,’ the Lieutenant replies.
‘They have the numbers. They have the spears. If they wanted they could kill us all,’ Mr Bass says. ‘They do not and the why escapes me.’
‘They have no definite plan, no strategy,’ the Lieutenant replies.
‘What was their laughing about?’ I ask Mr Bass.
‘Indian mood shifts like the weather,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘It cannot be explained.’
We ride the stream to where it meets the sea. The salt breeze slaps my face, the ocean noise, thunderous. Waves crash over us. Whoosh goes one wave, whoosh goes another.
‘Blast! We cannot cross the sandbar till the tide turns!’ Mr Bass shouts.
‘Anchor!’ calls the Lieutenant.
We ship our oars and drop anchor. The water around our boat is deep, thanks to the current running out from the stream but white foamy waves keep whipping us from the sea. It is fifteen yards on either side to the shore. We are safe for the time from savage attack.
The Lieutenant and Mr Bass begin to clean the musket barrels that are still full of sand. We will need arms if the Indians come for us again.
I pour some of the dry powder onto a scrap of paper, and place a musket ball in it. I make up two cartridges this way, but there is no more dry paper. I begin to tear strips off my shirt. If we need to fire more shots we will have to use cotton to stuff the balls down the barrel.
We are all working at a feverish pace, our boat lurching as waves sluice over the gunwale. I keep a steady eye on the stream, the white sand and the scrubby trees.
No natives appear. Gulls flap on the shore. My breath slows.
I keep my eyes peeled.
We may be out of the horror yet.
But then I spy Dilba tramping around the bend, ten savages following. ‘Here they come!’ I shout.
The men wade across the stream, water splashing at their hips, and stand on the point to the south of us.
Dilba puts his hand to his mouth. ‘Lagoon?’ he calls.
‘Why is he still at us?’ I ask.
The Lieutenant shouts, ‘Yes, yes! If the wind and surf doesn’t abate, then we shall.’
‘Lagoon!’ shouts Dilba.
‘When the sun goes down,’ Mr Bass calls.
Several times the Lieutenant, Mr Bass and Dilba shout in this way, like noisy magpies saying goodnight.
‘Coing Burregoolah. Coing Burregoolah!’ Mr Bass finally calls. It is the Port Jackson speak for the sun setting.
‘That may steal us some time,’ Mr Bass says.
Why does Dilba insist we go to the lagoon? If I was to kill someone I would not flag it so.
‘What is at the lagoon?’ I ask Mr Bass.
‘Death,’ Mr Bass says to me. ‘Nothing more than death.’
The Lieutenant has his barrel clean and is wiping sand from the trigger. Mr Bass has freed the rod from his musket, but his trigger is still clogged with sand.
The Indians sit on the shore, staring at us. The sun drops behind the hills. The sea flickers with fading light, and the clouds redden.
There is no movement from the south but, just when I again think we are safe, I see five Indians come out from the scrub to the north. They run into the water.
‘Look there,’ I warn.
The men splash toward us. What to do? I still have my stick.
Mr Bass raises his musket, but it is all pretence for his trigger is still jammed.
‘Round,’ the Lieutenant orders and pulls the lock to half cock.
I hand him a cartridge. He bites the top off the measure, salts the pan and closes it. He casts over and pours the rest of the powder into the gun barrel, pushes in the ball and paper. He grips the rod and rams it down the barrel.
The Lieutenant’s actions are fast, and I know he is an excellent shot. He shafts the rod and pulls the hammer back.
The Indians make good time, and the seawater is soon frothing at their sides. They have no spears but they are all strong men. One of them looks like Dilba’s friend, but as there are five wading toward us – with water splashing between them, and our boat in motion – I cannot be sure.
‘Present!’ shouts Mr Bass.
The Lieutenant twists his body, and lifts his firearm to his shoulders.
‘It will fright them enough even if you miss,’ Mr Bass says.
‘We cannot be sure!’ The Lieutenant keeps his gun steady. ‘Have you a second cartridge, Will?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I say.
‘Fire!’ Mr Bass hollers.
‘George! You have no experience here!’ The Lieutenant snaps.
‘They are almost upon us,’ I shout.
‘Fire!’ Mr Bass cries out.
The Indians wade closer.
‘They are getting near!’ I shout again.
‘A few more yards,’ the Lieutenant says coolly, holding his aim.
‘Fire! Fire!’ Mr Bass is screaming now.
‘You would be no good in battle, George, with that temper.’ The Lieutenant is strangely calm.
‘They are nearly upon us, sir!’ I yell.
Seagulls scoot overhead, squealing. Karr! Karr! Karr!
‘Fire!’ Mr Bass cries out.
Thumb rocks in the waves.
The Lieutenant pushes his foot into the thwart to steady himself,
Boom! Smoke drifts up from the musket! A mad hollering from the Indians. They fling their arms into the air.
The Lieutenant makes to reload his musket but now his lock jams.
‘They are going,’ I cry out, as the Indians turn and splash toward the beach.
The Lieutenant spits on his rag and cleans around the lock.
The Indians reach the shore. They do not look back at us but disappear into the scrub.
‘Excellent execution, Matthew,’ Mr Bass says.
The Lieutenant’s face is drained of colour. I grip the gunwale.
To the south of us, Dilba and the other Indians stand and begin to wail. The waves lap at their feet, but none dare enter the water. Then, one by one, they leave the beach until only Dilba is left, a lone figure, tall against the shadowy bushes. When the light is almost gone, he too turns and walks into the scrub.
‘And it is done,’ the Lieutenant says.
‘They will not return?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘I doubt it,’ the Lieutenant says.
Waves crash onto the shore. One lone gull rides the surf. The beach blackens. The Lieutenant, more used to battle, lies down to sleep and is soon snoring. Mr Bass says he cannot sleep. The day has had too much charge. He and I sit in the moonlight, watch the darkened banks, and wait for the change of tide.
When the moon is part way in the sky, the water calms and the currents are for us. I wake the Lieutenant. He sits up with a start, rubs his face then slaps it awake. He and I take up oars. Mr Bass stays at the helm. We pull toward the first of the small islets north of the stream.
Splish, splash, to dare is to do. Splish, splash, to dare is to do.
When we are near the closest islet it is clear there is no place to land. Mr Bass and I push the anchor over the side. I look to him. He is smiling, glad to be alive, but I do not feel the same gladness. Every part of me is shaken. If the Indians wanted us dead why did they not throw spears? What was up at the lagoon? Mr Bass says death. But why must we go to the lagoon for death?
I sit staring at the shore.
‘Have some melon,’ says Mr Bass.
But I have no stomach for it. Splish, splash, to dare is to do.
‘We will call this islet after you, Master Martin,’ says Mr Bass.
The Lieutenant agrees. ‘You handled yourself well today, Will.’
I look about me. The islet is the kind that might vanish in heavy surf. Splish, splash. I remember the old man patting the earth. There is a question in his action. I remember Dilba’s dark figure standing on the shore. I look up to the stars that shine. All about me there is a vast unknowing. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant jabber on. I ache to know what might be the Indians’ purpose? Would they have eaten us? I start to shake. I am not frightened now but I am in awe at the mysteries of this strange world. Sometimes being alive is too much. It is like a new rope knot that I have never seen before and cannot untie.
I wish that I were home. At least with Mama and Hilton adventures into the wild are always fictions shaped for pleasure, and death comes with fake swords.
I put my arms around my head. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant continue with their discourse, but their voices are far away. Despite the cold, I fall into a deep slumber.
MONDAY, OUR FIFTH day. The morning is bright, and the breeze is up. According to the Lieutenant, I have faced a foe and survived.
‘We left them puzzling our very nature,’ agrees Mr Bass.
Yesterday is like a dream. My spirit, again hungry for adventure, soars.
We step the mast and hoist sail, but the breeze soon shifts, blowing one way, then another. The sea becomes a bubbling soup, and the clouds lumpy dumplings. We strike the sail and pull for land.
When the sun is above us, we row through a gap in a reef, enter a shielded bay and haul up on the beach. We climb out of Thumb like old men, our arms sore from pulling and our bodies aching from three nights sleeping on a boat. Yet the sun is warm on my skin, and there are no Indian footprints on the sand.
Carefully, I help Mr Bass undress. His shirt sticks to his body where his burnt skin has blistered. I ease him free. He runs into the sea, ducks below the waves, shoots up out of the water and bellows. The Lieutenant and I look to each other and laugh. We strip off our clothes and race to join him. I dive into the cool water and swim as far as I can, then turn to float on my back.
The clouds in the sky are like sheep in a field. Seabirds, flying low, pluck insects from the air. A cool breeze washes over my face. Mr Bass swims out and circles me; the Lieutenant dog paddles his way. When he reaches us, he dunks me beneath the sea. All three of us wrestle in the water and then I backstroke my way to shore. I run out, bound along the sand to dry off, then collect sticks. I light a fire beneath a shady tree and boil a soup cake.
Mr Bass wades out and gently rubs his body with a cloth. The Lieutenant hops in circles around the fire. Mr Bass suggests I add salted pork to the soup.
‘A neat culinary trick,’ he says with relish.
Mr Bass looks forward to every meal as if it is his last. For the Lieutenant food is fuel to keep him going.
‘Come, Will, we will search for fresh water,’ says the Lieutenant. ‘What we have is briny.’
Mr Bass watches the soup while the Lieutenant and I, naked as the Indians, scramble over slippery rocks. We find a place where water is trickling down from the cliff.
I tip my head back to taste it. Sweet and clear.
The Lieutenant does the same. ‘This will do,’ he says.
He leaves me there to fill the barica. It takes an age but I am in no hurry. I spy a gecko running across a rock. A spider drops down on a fine thread of web and dangles before me. Seagulls land on the cliff above, squawking.
I stroll back to camp happy to have my feet on firm ground. My sad spirit from the night before has withered and a new one has grown in its place. Perhaps a man must always ride the waves of turmoil before finding peace. Perhaps it has always been so.
I make wheaten cakes the way our cook showed me. The Lieutenant scribbles in his journal. Mr Bass fossicks in the scrub, picking up insects and inspecting plants and bones. He stores his collection in the shade.
We are a pleasant camp, and our spirits are much restored. I dish out soup and we sup.
‘How would it be if all they wanted was to show us a river?’ I say, thinking of our trials the day before.
I dip some wheat cake into my soup but, before I bite into it, I spy Mr Bass and the Lieutenant staring at me. They have both stopped eating. I need to explain myself.
‘Because what if a larger river ran into the lagoon?’ I say.
Is this such a strange thought? Surely not? Mr Bass looks to the Lieutenant but the Lieutenant does not take his eye from me. I am sure that fright crosses his face, but he banishes it.
‘Impossible hypothesis,’ the Lieutenant says confidently. ‘A river of any strength reveals itself at the coast.’ He turns to Mr Bass. ‘We must make sure the Governor realises that too, else he might doubt us for further endeavours.’
The Lieutenant continues eating, but I have unsettled Mr Bass, who sits staring into the fire.
Later, I walk in the scrub collecting more sticks. The wood is dry and smells of the sea. The sun sets and the dunes take on new shapes. The sand cools. Small animals rustle in the grasses. The stars come out, like lamps in a faraway town.
I make a vow, yet again, to hold my thoughts, because the Lieutenant was not pleased with my river contemplations and I now feel a wedge between us where an hour earlier there had been none. I trail away, further than I mean to and, when I come back to camp, my arms full of sticks, Mr Bass and the Lieutenant are at each other.
‘The primitive mind,’ Mr Bass says angrily, ‘does not just belong to the primitive but to us all.’
‘Yes, my point exactly! Take the French,’ says the Lieutenant.
‘Take them where?’ Mr Bass snaps.
‘Take their inclination to rise against their king.’
‘But we must all rise,’ Mr Bass says. ‘Man is like bread: to improve the quality of his mind, he must rise.’
I feed some sticks into the fire.
‘Progress needs order and order needs hierarchy,’ the Lieutenant argues. ‘It is the ladder of civilisation, with a top and a bottom. You cannot climb in disorder, George.’
The Lieutenant lays out his thoughts, like neat piles of sand.
‘If you know where you are placed, top or bottom, king or subject, you know about civilisation. These Indians mock us because they have no idea of our superiority. Their ignorance makes them arrogant. They have no order. The French did a great disservice to their country, trying to rid their society of the order of things. Causing such tumult they proved they were no better than the native.’
‘The French have some of the best minds in science and philosophy!’ Mr Bass thumps his hand on the sand. ‘They build the best ships and they truly believe in equality. It is not only mouthed but felt in the heart.’
‘They think all can be equal, but equality will never aid progress,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘Such a belief dooms humanity as it seeks to elevate it. The French thirst for the destruction of order is primitive.’
‘Such arrogance, Matthew! That same destructive force is in the English.’
‘But we control it.’
‘You talk of top and bottom, Matthew, as if you have no place in it. But what about the middle, you forget the middle, to which you belong!’ Mr Bass is all afire now.
‘What concerns me is not the middle, George, but the future. The future into which we are sailing. And how it will be for men of England.’
Mr Bass shakes his head and stares up at the sky. His hand, in a theatrical gesture, stirs the air, suggesting frustration.
‘Sometimes I look at men and see the flourishing of all that is good,’ he says. ‘But evil exists in the civilised as well as in the savage. We English do not control it, but we do disguise it.’
Dark waves slurp at the shore. It is all very good, I think, them talking about top and bottom and middle, about good and evil, order and disorder, but think of it as water in a bucket, and what if that bucket has a hole? Then soon there would be no top, bottom and middle. No good or evil. No order or disorder. Only an empty bucket.
I am about to say this to Mr Bass when he rolls on his side and groans at his blisters. He stands quickly and walks away. The Lieutenant motions me to speak no more. He bends his head toward the firelight and writes in his journal.
I lie on the soft sand to sleep. The breeze tickles my cheek as I sink into a sweet dream. I am at a theatre where Mama and Hilton are to perform. They cheer when I walk onto the stage and stoop to admire my gold buttons.
I AWAKE FROM a dream to the sound of water lapping. The sun is in my eye, and the sand is the white-blue of early morn. In my dream there was an Indian, covered in crow feathers, sitting by me. The Indian said: Bird from far away, fly home. I was so in fright of him that I did fly, but when I was in the air, wind tugging my hair, I remembered how far from home I was and began to fall. Falling woke me.
I sit up. Mr Bass is cross-legged, staring at the fire. I tell him my dream and then, remembering our talk from the night before, speak of water in a bucket. I tell him this in earnest but, to my surprise, he shoots dagger eyes at me.
‘You know nothing, boy, do not pretend you do!’
I turn away and begin to prepare our food. Why does Mr Bass disregard me so? It is the sixth day of our sail and have I not shown great courage and faced foes never dreamt of by most men? And did I not warn him of the Indian danger? Never mind it was a warning he took no heed of. I think now that he too often dismisses advice from the less lettered. He did it with our first Tom Thumb and lost that vessel to fair-weather friends. I have witnessed more wisdom in a corn jobber than in some of Mr Bass’s sermons. And for all their fine sailing, did not he and the Lieutenant miss their mark the first day of our journey?
Mr Bass speaks to the Lieutenant in a sour voice. ‘The soldier I attended before we embarked had been flogged for stealing peas from the store. His wounds were so deep they needed special care.’
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ the Lieutenant says, evenly.
‘That is what hunger does, Matthew,’ says Mr Bass. ‘It turns us all into savages. The Indian cries out in pain when he sees a flogging. He must turn away from it. But we stand and watch, unflinching. Who then is the savage and who is the civilised?’
‘An interesting point, George,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘Why not write it up in your book.’
‘I just might,’ snaps Mr Bass, and walks off.
I want to shout at Mr Bass. If so easily he raises up the Indians who might have killed him, why not those men who are with him day and night?
The wind blows along the beach, tumbling driftwood down to the sea. There is a silence among us three. Us three? The Lieutenant’s theory of top and bottom is on my mind. I am thinking, if he is right, then I am not in the middle, as he is, but on the bottom. And it is not a good place to be!
I stow our provisions into Thumb. Mr Bass sits far away, on a rock.
‘The tide is for us, George,’ the Lieutenant calls.
Mr Bass does not deign to reply, but he joins us. We shove Thumb into the water, push across the wave break and climb in. Mr Bass and I pull out through the reef. Swish, swash. Swish, swash. The breeze picks up enough for us to hoist sail. It rustles and flaps and is scooped up by a wily wind.
As we sail past the point I hear birdsong but see no birds. Not even when I squint my eyes to the thickest bush. The birds here know how to find cover when they need, as if constantly wary of hunters.
Thumb skims the top of the waves.
‘Look there, Barn Cove,’ calls the Lieutenant.
He is being his jolly self, attempting to pull Mr Bass out of his temper, which is much like pulling a dying horse out of thick mud.
‘Will, you were there at its naming,’ the Lieutenant shouts. ‘You must tell that to your family on your return.’
I look to the cove that is not really a cove. A falcon hovers above a rocky ledge. Squawking seabirds settle on the sand below. This land is a forever land. Here, the clock ticks to a different time.
Perhaps, yes, perhaps there is something in being at its naming. Perhaps I am rising. Man must rise, was that not what Mr Bass said. And when he writes his book about the colony, as he has promised to do, my own name will be known to the world and men will marvel at our journey.
The breeze turns, whipping so strong from the north that it blows us about. The Lieutenant steers through a reef near a headland. Mr Bass and I pull toward the cliff to shield us from the wind. We drop anchor and sit idle in the rocking boat, waiting for the weather change.
‘And there is no river found,’ Mr Bass says, face like a basset hound.
‘We may come to it yet.’ The Lieutenant starts to repack our stores.
He has not stopped pretending all in our little boat are merry, hopeful that by the force of his pretence we will become so, and for the first time I see some merit in his strategy. For things without resolve are best less attended.
I think back to the lagoon. That sweep of water spied from the stream must have come from somewhere. Yet, if there was a river in that place, we will not be the ones to find it.
Is this what disturbs Mr Bass? Makes him twist and turn in anguish? Makes him huff and puff and sigh? Or is it his eyeing the vastness of the sea and sky and land, against which we are like a thimble in a grand house. For the awareness is more present when sailing in Thumb than when on the Reliance where each day is busy with duties.
Our boat sits low in the water. Waves bump us about. I have voices in my head like a hundred young ones calling. What is to be discovered there on the shore? Maybe a river flows behind the trees? Maybe some other treasure is to be found?
‘Mr Bass, may I swim to shore?’ I resent the asking.
‘What for, Will?’
‘To see what is there.’
Mr Bass stares at me, but I glare back. ‘If you wish,’ he says eventually, closing his eyes, as if dismissing all around him.
The Lieutenant smiles as though pleased with my spirit. I strip off and dive into the water, swim like a shark until I ache to breathe, only then do I surface.
When I reach shore, I stagger out and glance back. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant are dwarfed by the rocky cliff and the swirling sea.
I tramp the sandy beach. The cliffs at either end are the colour of clay. No bush grows on them, yet behind me trees come all the way to the edge of the dunes. Black weed lies on the beach in thin bands. Boulders, like the tiny islands of an archipelago, are spread through the shallow water, some covered with green slimy seaweed, others with colonies of shells: fan shells, brown and purple; cup-like shells, and small grey button shells. Seagulls rest on the boulders as if surveying their kingdom, or strut in the shallows, picking tiny sea creatures from the wet sand.
There are no other footprints but mine, only shells and driftwood.
Halfway along the beach I discover a stream whistling out from the trees. It narrows in places and can easily be jumped. I kneel to drink. The water is fresh.
If I could name it as I pleased I would name this stream for the new sister Mama wrote me about. A sister who seems more dear to me now than when I first heard the news, for I worried at who the father might be. My own father was a captain who sailed to the Americas and was never heard from again.
As I spin on the sand I name the bay for Mama, and the cliffs for Hilton. I paddle in the stream water that is warmer than the sea, and spy two long-bodied insects hovering. Wings gleaming. If I had wings where would I fly? I wade along, following the insects up into the forest, and rest beneath a giant tree with roots so large they curve around my back. With a shell I scratch my name into the bark, will martin, then the date, March 29th, 1796. My stomach churns with all that has happened. I settle against the tree and doze; dream of running from Indians and in the dream I am startled to see that Mr Bass is one of them. When I wake, I scramble up the trunk to the top branch and look about. So many trees in one place! I think of Mama and her way of yammering about the world. Always imagining herself into faraway places, places she had never even been. Now I have my own story to jaw, only it is not imagined.
When I return to the Reliance I will vision this beach – how I swam to it on my own and discovered a stream and was not frightened of cannibals. The Lieutenant’s brother, Samuel, will pretend not to listen, thinking I am beneath him, but others will slap me on the back.
To dare is to do.
After a time I climb down from the great tree and pat it goodbye, for it has given me solace. When I bolt into the sea, I dive beneath an enormous wave, to cheat it of its power, kick along the sandy bottom then surface to tread water. I look back at the beach. The white sand curves around the land; the dunes in the late light are dark mountains and valleys; the forest behind is thick green to the sky. This is a wild place. Too wild for civilisation. It is a place for adventure.
I will remember this place in my dreams. I will remember it in the stories I tell. For in this place I first realised that, if I am to rise, it will come not only by what I tell of what I dare, but also by what I do not tell.
I kick out my legs and swim toward Tom Thumb.
MR BASS HAULS me into the boat, greets me like a long-lost friend, his mood much improved. The sun has fallen behind the cliffs, and dark is descending.
‘What did you find?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘A stream of fresh water,’ I say, wiping my face.
Neither he nor the Lieutenant question the length of time I spent on shore.
The Lieutenant glances about him. ‘The wind is for us,’ he says. ‘We must make use of it.’
Mr Bass and I get upon the oars and pull out through the gap in the reef. Swish, swash, swish, swash. We step the mast and haul sail.
At first the wind is strong and steady, and we make good time, but soon it gusts, tipping us about. The sky is heaving with inky clouds that threaten to burst as we ride the waves.
A great clap of thunder sounds right above our heads. Boom! Boom!
The thunder makes me jump. Boom! Boom!
Giant spider legs of light rip through the sky. Night comes in a hurry, and the moon is hiding.
‘We need shelter,’ I call to Mr Bass over the drumming sea.
‘Matthew!’ Mr Bass bellows at the Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant points to a piece of land that juts out from a beach to the north. We strike sail and row in that direction and find shelter beneath a cliff. We heave the stone anchor up and toss it in the sea. The Lieutenant leans over the gunwale, peers into the gloom to estimate our distance from the rocks. He can see nothing.
Lightning blazes. The Lieutenant quickly surveys our position. ‘We are too close to the rocks to stay long,’ he shouts.
The light goes, and again we sit in the dark. Waves drum the nearby crags. Thump, thump, thump! Thump, thump, thump! Which gives the greater danger – the monstrous rocks so near to us now or the ocean waves?
Another burst of lightning, and the sky crackles with light. Mr Bass holds the anchor rope as if it might race away. The Lieutenant at the helm, ever watchful.
Dark again. We wait. Whoosh, whoosh, goes the sea.
The wind shifts and smacks into our boat.
The Lieutenant shouts, ‘Pull now! Or we will smash upon the rocks!’
Mr Bass and I haul up the anchor – haste, haste – get on the oars – haste, haste – and row. The ocean waves it must be! Swish, swash, swish, swash.
Out from the cliff we boat the oars and hoist sail. Soon we are rolling on the sea. Lightning whips the sky. High above us the crest of a wave is bearing down. We sink to the dip. I spy harsh-faced crags barely more than an arm’s length away; then, just as we seem sure to smash onto them, we rise up and ride to the wave top.
The boat is filling with water. I slip and scramble, search for the bucket and begin to bail. Lightning sizzles and snaps! Again Thumb tips toward harsh-faced crags and again we rise up and ride the wave. I pin my feet beneath the thwart and bail. All is cold and hard and urgent. Time is measured by waves and lightning.
We again fall toward the rocks. ‘Ahh!’ I cry out. But yet again, yes, yes, we rise and ride away. In a crack of light I see the Lieutenant, iron-faced, as the waves, like shape-shifting ghouls, emerge from the noisy dark to chase us. It is death coming but we will not be taken without a fight.
To dare is to do. Slap, slap and roar. To dare is to do. Slap, slap and roar. Glory for us, not death.
A monstrous wave hovers above like a magnificent dark angel, and all is clear. For this is not a battle of my daring. No, this is nature laughing at me. Ideas of manhood and mankind are nothing now. There is no leveller that can beat this. Mankind is no more than a squib that hisses and dies.
Everything hurts. My arms scream, but my legs hold on. Water crashes over me, swoosh, swoosh. I am thrust to the side of the boat; my body whacks against wood, against all that lies between me and the hungry sea.
Bail, bail, I must bail.
As I clamber for my bucket, I spy in the distance, through the sheeting rain, the white water of a break. Could it be?
‘Reef! Reef!’ I shout above the wind howl.
The Lieutenant and Mr Bass follow my gaze.
‘We can make it!’ I shout.
‘Get ready to strike sail!’ Mr Bass hollers.
The Lieutenant leans back on his steering oar and Thumb flips into the wind. Waves smash over us. I heave on the rope, my strength stretched like in a tug-of-war. Mr Bass and I leap up, strike sail and unstep the mast. The rain pummels us as we get on the oars. We wait for the slow between racing waves and then pull, hard and fast.
Every muscle in my body screeches in pain. We pull and pull!
Rain slaps my cheeks. Pull, pull!
My feet start to slip. Pull, pull!
My hands clench the oar. Pull, pull!
Again and again, pull, pull!
To dare is to do, to dare is to do, to dare is to… We slip through a gap in the reef and are delivered – suddenly, magnificently, magically – into smooth water.
An immense quiet crowds in as though my ears are muffled in wool.
We keep on pulling, but the ease is so far from the force we have just been rowing against that it must be a dream. I see a sliver of flickering white. Oh my, it looks like the edge of the world. Is this, perchance, death’s sweet ride?
But then the flickering white becomes a beach. I laugh inwardly at my foolish thought.
Mr Bass and I slide away the oars. Slipping on the wet wood, we muddle about in the dark, heave up the stone anchor and drop it over the side.
We stop still in the pitch black. I listen to our breathing, the sound, like an untuned instrument. Oh, but I am thrilled by the sound.
The moon comes out from behind a cloud, and I spy the Lieutenant. He looks like a cat that has caught a mouse. It is infectious.
We laugh, quietly, then loudly, at the surprise of being alive.
‘My God, there is grace in our protection,’ the Lieutenant says as our laughter subsides.
‘Not God, it was chance gave us safety,’ says Mr Bass.
‘Perhaps,’ says the Lieutenant.
‘We had only the option to choose movement or not,’ Mr Bass says, his voice joyful and sad together.
‘And all the while we knew not where movement would take us,’ I say.
‘This time to safety,’ the Lieutenant whispers.
‘Yes,’ I agree.
The Lieutenant grabs Mr Bass’s hand, as though he has done a secret deal with the heavens above, and has just told us so.
‘This place is providential, do you agree, George?’
‘It feels that way,’ Mr Bass replies.
‘Providential Cove, that is what we must name it,’ the Lieutenant says. ‘Will, do you agree?’
‘That be the name,’ I say, ‘that most fits this place.’
I see now what it takes for me to be one of them. It is not about blood, nor choosing or not, but something wrought by a higher force. It was the dark angel who came to us. We battled her, and now, here we are, us three, alive and together, together and alive.
I bend back and watch clouds that race the sea currents below. The stars peek through, like children behind fingers. All is childish wonder. It is a night not to be forgotten. We sit there remembering the storm, remembering wave after wave, jawing it as though it were a story anew. It is some time before we attempt to sleep.
‘OH, HOW TO celebrate the glorious morn of our seventh day!’ I say this out loud as I jump into the shallows and help haul Thumb onto the shore.
I stand and look about me. The rocky cliffs curve to a headland on each side of the beach and set a frame for the sea beyond. The water is magnificent, like a turquoise jewel. Behind, spiky green bushes grow in the sand and tall trees cast shadows in tidal pools. I see a stream at the back of the cove and without waiting for instruction I run up the sand hill.
The stream snakes through the dunes. There are Indian footprints leading down to the water, yet my feeling of gladness cannot be dampened. This is a cove of peace. I spy the ashes of a fire and dare myself to nudge a burnt log with my toe. Ha, ha, it is cold! Nothing bad can happen here. There is nought to fear, not from man or beast or sky or sea.
It is late morn when we leave our peaceful cove. We push off and row, then pick up a light breeze and sail. Our spirits are high. I think of this remarkable life. Mama used to whisper me stories about Jamaica and Calcutta and other places that may or may not have existed. I would listen and, when she had finished her tale, I would always say, ‘How do you know about that, Mama? You, who have never been from England?’
‘Oh,’ she would say in a voice of a Queen, ‘in my imagining I have been to many faraway places, the future as well as the past. It is not the past that defines us, but our future dreams. They tell us who we are.’
If I dreamt a tomorrow for this place, what would I dream? A place forever safe. How grand would that be?
We sail on with Port Solander in sight. The cliffs turn low and sandy as we breeze into an open bay. The sun beats down upon the still water, and a tired wind pushes us along. The sky is pale blue, like faded uniforms, and on the scrubby shore the green bush is flecked with silver.
It is near noon when we see it. We are sitting in Thumb, coasting the north-east of the bay.
‘There is our river,’ the Lieutenant says.
We do not whoop for joy but eye it like seasoned travellers.
‘So it is,’ I say.
‘It was a long journey here,’ adds Mr Bass.
We strike sail and row up the river. Our river. It is scrubby on either side with rock ledges that hang over the water like bushy eyebrows.
Mr Bass sighs. ‘It will not do for large vessels.’
It is a river, but not one that will please our Governor. Not one that will take us easily to clean water and good pastureland.
‘We might name the river after Hacking, who guessed it was here,’ the Lieutenant suggests.
This river will not make monuments of our names but, after our stormy night, each day is monument enough. We row back out to the bay and sit rocking in our boat.
‘This place feels older than time,’ Mr Bass says.
‘Yes,’ agrees the Lieutenant.
‘It should be our care, not so much to live a long life, but an honourable one,’ says Mr Bass.
‘Well said,’ agrees the Lieutenant.
They look to me and smile and, in their serenity, I see something of what it means to live. For in all the tumble of joy and anger and love and hatred and hunger and greed that is our life, there are moments like this, that lift a man into a quiet place, where the thanks and wonder is in the drawing of each breath. Our journey has been worth this discovery alone. And while there is magic in this moment, I know too that it cannot last. Yet it is so glorious that its brevity can be forgiven.
Is it terror that teaches me this? Or is terror like a letter in the sentence that is my life?
We row to the north side of the cove, drag Thumb up onto the sand. The fan leaves of the palm trees give us shade. I gather sticks from the back of the beach, flint a fire and lay out our clothes to dry. Then I stretch my arms and legs, and rub my toes in the sand.
I turn and spy two Indians standing in the trees. How long have they been watching? The two men smile. One is older than the other. No spears. Must have left them in the grasses.
Mr Bass calls out a welcome in the Port Jackson speak and slowly they walk across the sand, as if we are the wild things and not they. The Lieutenant, down by the water’s edge, hurries up to join us. He tells the Indians we are from Sydney Cove, yet they seem not to know the name. We offer to share what food we have but, to our surprise, they wave
Instead, they look us over from head to toe. The older man touches the freckles on my nose. The younger one strokes Mr Bass’s waistcoat.
I sit to tend the fire but, when I stand, they are already leaving, as quietly as they arrived. I watch them go.
We push Thumb into the water and row to the middle of the bay to fish. I look to the hilltop, but there is no sign of the Indians. Sharks slide alongside and watch us, as if curious to take a bite. We sit with our lines. Catch nothing.
We leave off fishing and row back to shore.
Mr Bass and the Lieutenant gather sticks for the fire. I boil water, and we eat the last of the salted beef. Later, I dig up soft grass and throw it on the ground to make our beds.
The night is all stars. I pick out Warrewull. I hear the bird that sings in the moonlight.
OUR EIGHTH DAY. Gulls wake me. Carick, carick! We breakfast in the morning cool, then again push Thumb into the water – splish, splash – and the Lieutenant and I pull around Port Hacking. Mr Bass is at the helm, his long legs stretched out before him.
We boat our oars. The Lieutenant scrambles to the bow and ferrets out his compass and journal.
He sketches the final part of our journey onto his map.
Mr Bass and I rummage for hooks and line so we can fish. We talk about what we will say on our return, about the currents being too strong so that we overshot our mark, about the dumping on the beach where the thin trails of smoke from the forest alerted us to danger, about the cannibals that we nearly met, and our trading with the Indians and the barbering of their beards.
‘And our escape from their clutches,’ the Lieutenant adds.
‘Was it escape?’ Mr Bass asks.
‘You know it was,’ the Lieutenant says.
They look to each other, then to me, and for a tick-tock I hold my breath.
Carick, carick! the gulls call out.
They are waiting for me to speak. And what shall I say? The story of how we have met this land? Carick, carick!
From a single tree a forest can grow, but only if the seeds are well spread. Yet not all stories can be told.
‘We were dead men in that place,’ I say.
‘We were,’ says Mr Bass.
‘Indeed,’ agrees the Lieutenant.
Mr Bass claps me on the shoulder. The Lieutenant takes hold of my neck and squeezes it, which is his dearest form of affection.
And we three talk on about our battle with the storm.
‘What a story we have to tell,’ I say.
Mr Bass laughs and ruffles my hair.
‘I am too old for that,’ I shout, pulling away.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘You are too old.’
He ruffles my hair again, and we start to wrestle.
‘My journal!’ the Lieutenant shouts, as the boat rocks.
Mr Bass pushes me, but I push back. He is stronger, but I am faster. We grip arms, breathing close, poised for a fall.
‘The sharks will get us,’ I dare.
‘You think I am frightened of sharks?’ he asks.
‘You tell me,’ I say.
We stay, both holding tight. My heart beating fast. He pushes me as I push him. We tip together and fall into the cool water.
Down, down, down, I go, drift with the current, then swim up to the surface.
I stroke away from Thumb, dive under again, swimming beneath the surface back to the boat and bursting up for air at the bow. I climb in, quicker than I might normally do, for a dare is a dare but I do not want to chance sharks any more than I have to.
Mr Bass stays in the water a moment longer to prove that he can.
‘Look there,’ I say, pointing to a spot beyond him, where my imaginary shark is circling.
Mr Bass is in the boat in a tick-tock with me sitting on the thwart laughing.
IN THE EARLY morn of our ninth day, I wake to see a sky full of majestic ships. All is glory up in the clouds. It is a future portent, perhaps?
Mr Bass and the Lieutenant are still sleeping. Loud snores.
I rise and walk the beach, gathering sticks, but when I have a pile I dump them on the sand and bound off along the shore, through the shallows. When my breath is short I stop to rest, then splash into the water to swim.
Soon I will be back on the Reliance and my time will be measured. What is unmeasured is unknown. A secret that can be discovered by no one. I swim back to the shore and run in circles to dry off, feeling the soft sand beneath my feet.
The sun is skimming the water when I walk back to gather my pile of sticks. I return to the camp where my elders are still snoring, as if they have not a care in the world. I light a fire, setting a pot to boil, so we can feed on the last of our soup cakes. The flames dart up into the air. Mr Bass and the Lieutenant finally stir, and we sup as though at a feast. Later, we pack and heave Thumb into the water. I gaze back at the wide bay as we pull out through the entrance. I may never see this sight again. The sail flaps in the breeze, and we head for Port Jackson.
AT SUNSET WE are in Sydney Cove, clapping the shoulders of friends on board the Reliance. Our excitement is so great that we must report to the Governor at once. We climb down to Thumb, pull to the dock and hurry to the Governor’s house.
He is in the garden listening to an owl.
‘I am pleased to see you,’ he says to Mr Bass and the Lieutenant. Then he turns to me. ‘Young Will.’ He shakes my hand and his grip is firm. ‘A drink is in order,’ he says, but by the colour of his nose he has had several already.
The Governor leads us into the house. We follow, but at the door Mr Bass turns to me. ‘You must want to see your friends.’
‘No, sir,’ I say.
The Governor and the Lieutenant are walking away.
Mr Bass goes to ruffle my hair, then thinks better of it and folds his arms. ‘Go! Enjoy yourself, Will. I must report our adventures but you have earned the night off.’ Mr Bass shuts the door, thinking he has done me a favour but it is not the favour I wished for.
I stride along the shore, kicking stones. The sky is clear. The half-moon is bright. At the hospital, Buckley, the surgeon’s mate, is outside smoking a pipe. His dogs bark as I arrive. Na is not there.
‘Na has your dog with him,’ says Buckley.
I search the faces at the campfires near the Tank Stream. Drunken wretches singing lewd songs. A man facedown in the dirt. No Na.
Na would have seen Thumb come in, I am sure of it.
I scout along the edge of the stream down to the shore and then go on along the sand. But Na and my dog, George the Fourth – that is kept at Mr Palmer’s place, Palmer’s gift to me – are nowhere to be seen.
I climb around the cliff to an outcrop of rocks and shrubs. Last spring Na and I came here to watch the chicks of a honeyeater. The chicks are long gone, but the nest is still there as if waiting for new occupants. I sit on a rock ledge.
If I were born into a tribe like Na, what I would have to do to be a man is have my tooth pulled. Is not my journey, in a small boat, facing wild seas and treacherous cannibals, equal to teeth pulling?
They will be toasting at the Governor’s. There will be a fire blazing and they will tell the story of our journey.
But what will they tell?
I lie on the rock and eye the water slapping the shore. Now I am a man, and a man is his story, told or untold. I say this out loud, but only the nightjar answers.
Chirr-chirr! Chirr-chirr! Chirr-chirr! Chirr-chirr!