There was a road running along the ridge from the township but it had never been gravelled and did not appear on any maps. It was used quite a bit in summer by families walking or riding to town for supplies and by day-trippers searching for a picnic view. Just before the surveyor’s obelisk to the west of a giant Sassafras, two ruts the width of a buggy led into Araluen. So dense was the entrance with Banksia and Grevillea that the neat weatherboard house became visible barely 100 yards from the plunging cliff edge.
The two adolescent girls and the nine year old boy who burst through the open French doors off the wide verandah this sunny autumn morning thought nothing of the honey coloured sandstone escarpment with its blanket of eucalypts and dramatic valleys and planes stretching as far as they could see under the violent blue sky. This was their holiday playground and the secrets held by the ancient landscape theirs to discover.
Hazel the taller of the girls wore a red ribbon loosely tied around long black hair and Linda the visitor pulled a black velvet beret well down over her ears to control wild brown curls.
“Is that where we are going?” Linda squinted pointing fixedly beyond the escarpment towards the cut that was known then as now as ‘Victoria Pass’.
Hazel with voice lowered to imply mystery and intrigue, “No, down there to the Hermit’s Cave.”
Roland had caught on at once to the air of excitement and possibility. Too old to skip but young enough to run he set the pace through the unlocked wire gate beyond the rambling orchard and established the start of the steep descent. The roof of heavy branches and droopy leaves made the passage dark and roots swelled out of the dirt. Tough vines groped around from one side of the track to the other and loose rocks cascaded down. The old joints and cracks of the fractured sandstone cliff crumbled under their eager tread.
Rose didn’t like the white uniform with the pale pink bodice anymore than the thought of her new job. Her thick red hair had been cut square at the nape of the neck by Ma’s big black sewing shears and held back by a picket fence of bobby pins so as not to escape the stiff cap. Bending to pick up toys in the nursery her large doughy breasts felt as if they had been rolled and folded into the pinafore like one of Ma’s meat pies.
“I’ll be lettin’ the seams out on this by the time you get back,” Ma had chuckled as she and Rose folded the few clothes she owned. Ma had guessed her condition in the first week.
The house was very quiet this day but not quite empty. The soft voice of the young Mrs Clerk could be heard from the breakfast room where she was having an encouraging sort of a conversation with Horace, a boy not much younger than Rose. Tall and thick set he had the misfortune to be covered about the face and neck in some sort of red scaly rash which caused him to avoid the sun and spend his days reading. Georgina Clerk was the second wife of Mr M. H Clerk and there was coolness in the family. Whimsical with a constant look of wonderment in her green eyes she was the younger sister of his first wife and lacked her forthrightness. At twenty two she was not considered capable to mother his seven children. Rose had first met Mr G C Clerk over a drapery counter in his department store although why he left his office to serve her she did not pursue. Gently replacing the black taffeta laid out for her on the bench he chose instead a deep red silk which he wrapped for her himself in brown paper and string.
“The end of the bolt,” he said, “Yours for the price of a smile.”
She had smiled smugly as she walked down the hill that watery afternoon to the Quay to tidy the studio and dutifully arrange herself on the high backed cane and leather chair. Though stiff and cold of bones and flesh, the artists painted in Rose’s pose that evening a simple expression of yearning.
In the warm kitchen stooped over a heavily waxed bench built under a plate glass picture window naked of curtains to let in the view, Lil was setting tinned peaches in pineapple jelly.
“Ramekins”, she explained to Rose assuming correctly the little dishes were not familiar items.
It was all new to Rose. She shielded her eyes against the hazy blue reflections made by a sun on that glass pane and took in the jumbled layers of rich yellow rock rising from the canopy of forest around them. Soaring cliffs, grand canyons, a sea of tea trees heavy with white sprays and space all round. These were things a city girl could never imagine. Outside on the straggly wet grass beside the coach house loitered the boy most in need of her care. At six and a half Brian was the youngest of her charges and Rose well understood his sense of abandonment. He fossicked about poking a stick in a hollow log, dragging it through a puddle, and scraping the red sticky sap off a bloodwood. Forbidden to leave the boundary of the house marked only by whitewashed boulders and a bit of wire dragging from fence post to fence post, Brian shrugged and screwed up his freckled face as she approached. Each sized up the other: different yet the same. Muffled, joyful voices drifted up to them from below slowly retreating as the explorers descended deeper into the valley. Despite the freedom offered her in this high place away from ten squabbling siblings and a father, who had according to Ma, suffered from Gold Fever, she felt fenced in. This she supposed was how Brian felt. His day was in her hands and she was keen to make it a special one.
The girls and Roland had reached the flat shelf that ran away from the walking track – ‘a traverse’ they called it. Hearth Wrens and Honeyeaters scattered at their approach. Dark and pretty Minnie’s Grotto was visible from this point marked by a giant fern, its soft fronds welcoming and protective. From here the vista was spectacularly beautiful. Sunlight filtered through the misty forest rising around them. They took a fork to the left steeply descending to ‘The Amphitheatre’ passing by a Coachwood growing stubbornly on a boulder imprisoned by the roots.
“I’ll show you how high I can climb,” Roland was reported to have called to the girls.
Rose shook up soap suds in a jar and bent a piece of fence wire to make a wand. She showed Brian how to make bubbles, blowing steadily until a large shining bauble floated in the breeze towards the cliff edge. He learned to do the same though it took him longer and soon they chased the bubbles around the fence line until they disappeared over the edge or floated into the trees. Warm smells of cinnamon and sugar blew along the verandah and Lil waved to Rose indicating refreshment was prepared. Brian ran about shouting and blowing, swiping at bubbles wild with delight. Rose called him to follow her inside. Safe in the familiarity of the kitchen Rose sought the confidence of the older woman and retrieved the parcel which held such promise. Rich red silk which had thus far avoided the slash of Ma’s giant scissors cascaded to the tiles and in its folds the young one and the elder unfurled their dreams.
Deep in a narrow gorge formed by uplift and destruction thousands of years ago tiptoeing along widened vertical joints and softer layers of slate, the children ventured on. Well hidden from all except a flock of yellow tailed black cockatoos they poked amongst the leaf litter looking for a long nosed potoroo or perhaps a quoll. Deeper into the gorge they hiked, ducking and weaving until they came upon the bright green carpet of moss under a deep green grove of ancient Wollemi Pines. This told them their destination was near. The girls laughed as they plunged into the cool shadows of pine and cave.
Roland was almost there when something caught his eye.
Where was Brian?
Rose rushed out the side door. The bald face of the escarpment stared at her. The bubble maker was stretched across the grass like a lizard its wired head dangling over the silent valley. The light had changed to an angry glare and a bruised cloud appeared over Mt York. Brian’s blond head was bobbing up and down and his little arms flapped about. Sticks snapped and rocks tumbled about. His baby feet led him lightly down the steep descent. Rose called harshly. He turned and she caught his cheeky laugh, a glint in his green eyes. She ran towards the open wire gate, he ran; the game began.
She had to get to him. She saw him then on the flat top of Pulpit Rock. They’d had a little picnic there only yesterday suspended over the Kanimbla Valley counting how many seconds it took for an echo to come back. He paused again no doubt to call out, his juvenile neck craned to see where the others were hiding below. She shrieked. Brian plundered on, crazy with the thrill of a chase, his voice disappearing like handprints on a mirror.
Rose stopped there with the breath squeezed out of her. No words came, only groans of recognition as to what was to come.
Roland looked up through those tall pines, those living fossils, to some movement more extraordinary than a koala or glider. There was something which he could not yet recognise at this distance. The girls sitting on the cool earth of the cave took off their shoes and socks. Hazel closed her eyes and leaned back against the smooth rock.
“Brian,” Roland screamed his voice failing him “Go back.”
Hardly were the words out of his mouth than the lip of the ledge on which Brian was teetering, broke off soundlessly. The air was full of falling, heavy movements and bumping, some floundering limbs and a soft bundle of childish flesh brushing branches here and there – its head cracking a bald ledge in a race to the base.
Roland was to tell the police later that this body came to rest about 30’ above the cave in the hollow of Minnie’s Grotto. The body was motionless but unmarked. Roland cradled his disjointed neck in his lap. A black crow blessed with a bird’s eye view soared across the sky.
The girls clambered back to the top of the cliff by the shortest possible route calling for their step mother and Horace to come. The two eventually caught the sounds of tragedy unfolding and set off by a round about route of easier grade about a quarter of a mile long to the foot of the cliff. Rose who had never climbed the track before did so but on arriving at the bottom found that Horace was already there kneeling beside Roland and the body that was Brian. When the children’s young step-mother arrived on the scene a few moments later it was decided to carry him to the top.
How Horace made it to the house with this dead weight will never be known.
The elder boy carried the limp body as if it were nothing. “Call Dr Chisholm,” he whispered to the assembled party. Inform Mr Clerk there has been an accident.
The doors were bolted now and the picture window boarded up with battens from Norco Butter boxes. Sandstone and silence enveloped Rose as she lay on the cold ancient rock. Face down in the soft wet bed of gum leaves she smelled the fragrance of eucalyptus. The life inside her waited still while her bare toes danced about just beyond the precipice. She had paid the price for her red silk.
In the years that followed there was confusion over the details of the boy’s death and the part the Nanny played. A white cross in a mound of stones marks the spot where the tragedy took place.
The Australian Literature Review