Tuesday 22 October 2013

Trip of Discovery

Kevin leaned heavily against the bus window as he watched the passing country mould into a kaleidoscope of pastel colours as the sunset approached.  Although his hair was thinning and grey, he was still fit and alert for a man approaching old age, but on that day his mind was a thousand miles away thinking about the reasons he was on this trip of discovery.  A rye grin crossed his face when he used those words -  “Trip Of Discovery”.   “Very melodramatic,” he thought, but at the same time the most apt way to describe it .

This of course had started a long time ago, not in a physical sense, but in the mind. His earliest memories, the occasional spasmodic flash back: a warm caring face, a soft hand, the sounds of a lullaby, still played with his inner soul.  None of it coherent, just there, always there in the back ground, occasionally resurfacing only to  re-submerge into the deep recesses of the mind,  nothing more, nothing less.

Kevin was born in a place he had not set foot in since his adoption over 60 years ago.  A small town called Lightning Ridge. He had recently received the letter from the government department giving the details he had wanted for most of his adult life but had been too afraid to find out. He didn't build up the courage to find out the truth until retirement .  After 40 years working first for a publishing company, then owning one, he felt less than satisfied with his life. In all those years he never married, never even got close.  In fact he found it hard to form any sort of relationship with the opposite sex.  Women scared him or perhaps more accurately the idea of spending his live together with one did.  He visited his adoptive parents frequently especially in their later years; more through a sense of duty  than love. Even with them there was no deep feeling of human closeness;  they did their best and he appreciated that. 

The dense thick forests of eucalyptus started to thin out and were gradually replaced with sparse Mallee as the bus motored on towards the semi arid desert town.

The morning sunlight reflected back off the seat in front of Kevin as he tried to focus his eyes. Stiff and tired he sat upright and looked outside .  The bus slowed as it entered the outback township of Lightning Ridge. 

The small town of Lightning Ridge is famous for its Black Opal.  It is mined in the surrounding country by digging deep shafts down to the soft limestone and extracting the milky potash that contain the sort after brightly multi-coloured gem stone.  Good opal comes alive when the sunlight strikes it at the right angle and there was some of the best in the world to found here. Not that you could tell by looking at this old dusty decrepit outback town. The place had an air of unkept chaos and the  main street  was in poor repair with large irregular pot holes everywhere some filled with bull dust. The overall feeling was of a  ramshackle collection of ill-constructed buildings in disarray. Miners or those who catered for them seemed to go about their business completely oblivious to the state of their environment.  This was a working town, no leeway given to aesthetics.

Kevin looked around in dismay as depression set in “How could this be?”  His imagination had convinced him he would feel like he was returning home; the place of his birth.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It was completely alien to him from his city life.  A tight knot gripped his stomach; deflated, he stooped down and sat on the bench across from the bus station, his head in his hands trying not to think. 

The morning passed slowly.  There wasn’t much activity in town, this being a Sunday.  He sat there listless until reluctantly he dragged himself off to find a place to stay. 

“The Final Rest Hotel seems quite appropriate,” he thought to himself. 

The room was old but adequate for his needs.  Kevin flopped down onto the bed and closed his eyes. “What am I doing here?” He shouted out aloud. Tears slid off his ashen cheeks and rolled silently onto the well-worn sheets.

The death certificate for both his parents were issued on the same day some 60 years before. The details were scant - cause of death unnatural . “What does that mean?”  He had asked himself a thousand times.  There was so many unanswered questions.  Why did Molly and John, his parents, came here in the first place?  What were they doing here?  How was it they died on the same day in the same way?  Kevin’s mind was a whirlpool of activity  until eventually that evening he fell into a restless sleep, tossing and turning, continuing to look for answers.

Black Opal ( Geology.com)

The next morning he awoke with a start. The sunlight streamed through the dirty window, just like the day before in the bus, but this time without air conditioning.  It was  much more stifling and he lay in a pool of sweat.  The previous night's depression had vanished with the promise of what  the new day might bring though as he lifted his head to get up, it felt like the morning after a heavy night's drinking, cloudy and sluggish.  A long cold shower did not help a lot, but the thought of finding out what he needed to know from the local library and after, getting on a bus to anywhere far away from this god forsaken town brightened his mood somewhat.

Storm approaching Lightning Ridge

After breakfast, a typical country bacon, eggs and sausage affair, he chose to go for a short  walk through to the other side of town while he waited for the Public Library to open. 
His first impressions of Lightning Ridge had not dissipated.  He could not imagine parents of his ever living here.

After 20 minutes, he came upon a small open area close to a prominent limestone outcrop. The place was obviously used by the locals a lot as it was littered with assorted rubbish: plastic bags, KFC boxes, coke cans etc.  He sat down on an old wooden bench as he heard the far off rumble of thunder.  Staring into space he did not notice at first the young oddly dressed man sitting down next to him.  When his presence finally reached his consciousness, he was not startled but more intrigued or maybe puzzled by his appearance.  This man wore clothing that did not seem appropriate even for this place.  A pair of denim jeans hang loosely over his legs showing no cut nor form.  His shirt had no collar but was buttoned a third of the way down the front.  He wore an old fashion grey vest  that only provided a small pocket for a fob watch. The hair on his head was short back and sides in the old style and he displayed an unkept jet black beard. By his looks he would have been much older than 30 years old but for a light complexion.

The rumble continued in the distance as the man spoke.  “Hope you don’t mind if I sit here next to you. I don’t get the opportunity to speak to many people these days.” 
"Of course not,” replied Kevin. "I’m only killing time until the library opens. 
“Your’e not from these parts are you?” quizzed the man. 
“No I’m not.  Only here for a few days.”  Kevin’s mood lifted a little. “In fact I am looking for some information.”   Kevin almost felt compelled  to tell this stranger the reason for being there. 
“People around here call me Jack.” 
“Pleased to meet you, Jack.  My name is Kevin.  Come from around these parts, Jack?” enquired Kevin. 
Jack looked at the distant thunder storm for a moment or two before he spoke. “I was born in Sydney but have been here a long long time. I was a miner but... not now. I kind of do a little bit of this and a little bit of that to get by.” 

A sudden roll of thunder announced the  storm was getting closer.  Jack appeared lost in thought as Kevin looked on. The sky lit up and Jack's eyes reflected the brilliant flash of light that permeated the increasingly darkening sky.  Kevin took a deep breath. 

“I suppose you haven’t heard about a couple who died here around 60 years ago in unusual circumstances,” Kevin immediately felt foolish asking. 

Jack didn’t  reply at first but continued to look into the distance towards the impending deluge. “Yes, I know the story.  Everyone does.”  He paused for what seemed like an eternity.  Kevin sat there transfixed on Jacks lips.  “The couple lived not far from here in a small wooden shack on the out skirts of town.  They had both come up from Sydney like a lot those days looking for a better life.  From what I heard the man had been a lot keener on the idea than his wife.  Even in the early days she struggled with the place and its people. You see she was from a well-to-do family and had gone to university, a rare thing for a woman to do those days.  Strictly brought up she was not overly endowed with natural beauty, but had a pleasant enough face and a kind, caring disposition.  She had met her husband in a department store, David Jones, where he had been working as a shop assistant since leaving school at the age of 15.  First impressions was of a striking figure of a man, tall and athletic, brash, charming, not too articulate, but possessed the gift of the gab. “Could sell ice cream to the Eskimos,” his work colleagues would often be heard saying as they watched the way he wooed his customers.    

An outsider observing the two together for the first time would conclude they had little in common, but love is a funny thing. He made her laugh with his carefree don’t-give-a-hoot- what-others-thought attitude.  She paid him attention, when others thought him too much of a show off.  He loved that in her.

One thing led to another and she fell pregnant.  Parents upset, embarrassed, but the scandal was quickly contained by a simple ceremony in the local Methodist church. 
John had come up with the idea of going to Lightning Ridge just before his young son was born after talking to a customer who had made a fortune mining in Lightning Ridge.  Over the next few weeks, he needed all his selling skills to convince Molly to give it a go.  Finally after much soul searching, she reluctantly agreed as long as if he struck it rich they would return to the city. 

Miners in Lightning Ridge 1910

Photo LR Historical Society

The baby arrived at the local Lightning Ridge General hospital in mid summer on one of the hottest years on record, making the place even more dusty and depressing as usual.  Of course this didn’t deter John one little bit; his optimism rose almost as fast as Mollie’s hope for the future evaporated.  John was different, he immediately felt  free from the constraints of the city and his old job and looked forward to this great exciting adventure.  Mollie’s  immediate reaction - a prisoner facing many years in jail, release so far away it was pointless even thinking about it.  She often looked into the baby's eyes and shed a tear. 

“So, that is how it started,” Jack sighed and looked up at the threatening sky that refused to arrive. 

John built a small but serviceable shack for his family before he staked his claim on an area just outside the main diggings.   It took Molly the best part of the first year to feel more agreeable with her situation, however she never really accepted it completely.  She kept herself busy looking after the baby and performing the domestic duties as they were.  
In the first year, they really struggled to make ends meet.  Finding quality black opal was elusive with only occasional low quality fragments that paid for some of the bills.  The second year wasn’t much better.  Molly became more depressed and started to fantasize a lot about her previous life back in the comfort of her parent’s Sydney home; the lush green garden with its eclectic array of coloured flowers greeted her every morning as she flung open the French doors of her bedroom that led onto the wide open verandah.   There on the elegant cast iron table lay her breakfast, beautifully prepared by her mother ready to be consumed in this seemingly blissful scene.  Only a dream to help disguise the reality.

John on the other hand never gave a thought to his previous life.  He lived on Opal fever; still he was aware  his wife was approaching the end of her tether.  Day after day he toiled down his shaft, breaking his back looking for that elusive breakthrough, always the next day, the next day he told himself.  He so wanted her to be proud of him and not regret being married.

One early December morning, close to Christmas after starting a new horizontal cut, he was breaking away some loose rock with his hand pick when all of a sudden an irregular clump of material broke away from the rock wall into his outstretched fingers.  At first he could not quite grasp the significance of the moment; the eyes couldn’t convey - nay comprehend the message being sent to his brain.  In the palm of his hand lay a piece of indescribable sparkling brilliance  the earth had just given up after many millions of years.   Black opal.  The size and quality would mean they would not have to worry about money for many a year. Tears swelled up in his eyes and flowed down his cheeks as if the taps of life had opened up to wash away all the pain and suffering endured since their arrival.

He could barely contain himself as he bolted back to the shack to share the excitement of the discovery.  Molly was in shock and cried with happiness at the prospect of finally going home.  To celebrate, John, Molly and the baby held in their arms danced a little jig around their one and only room.  As they swirled and twirled John whispered into her ear, “Oh my dear, I told you I could do it.” 

“ Yes, you were true to your word.  I love you dearly,” she stated through the sparkle in her eyes. 

Late that afternoon John decided to look for the Opal buyer who came to town 3 days a week.  He knew he could find him in one of the many local pubs where miners could be found spending most if not all of their hard-earned pay.  Drinking was a massive problem here, for lack of other entertainment it was the favourite pastime and you frequently came across men inebriated, lying or staggering in the streets. 

John found what he was looking for in the Diggers Rest, Marty was sitting at a table surrounded by an army of miners playing Black Jack.  He was a supremely confident man who didn’t suffer fools gladly, a tough negotiator but fair.  His eyes broke away from the game for a second and noticed John standing next to the door.  “Oh Johnny boy, long time no see, come and join us,” he barked out. 

John without thinking obey the order and sat down. “Just a quick game and a drink, then I must be getting back.” 

The storm had changed direction again and was now closing in.  Jack sat there, eyes transfixed on the sky and said, “Well as you probable have guessed, the one drink turned into two, two into three into four  and with it the judgment of when to give up.” 

The card game turned into his worst nightmare. The loses started to pile up.  At first he thought he could manage it by continuing to play until his luck changed.  After all, he had found the black opal that day; surely the gods were on his side. The alcohol dulled the reality until it was too late.  Midnight and time to pay up.  The only thing of value he had of course was the stone.

Defeated he staggered unevenly home, stopping every so often trying to gather his thoughts. In between the mist of intoxication and clarity, lay the sickening feeling of despair.  His muddled thinking tried to explain away the lose as just one of those things.  He would find another stone, he said to himself, there must be more awaiting him deep in the bowels of his pit. 

As he approached the shack he could make out the silhouette of his wife, sitting silently on the porch. She instinctively knew something was wrong, one look at his eyes had told the whole story. 

A wail pierced the quiet of the night, she was beside herself, head bend low between her knees.  “How could you do such a thing. This meant everything to us,” she screamed at him. “Ohhhh my life is a mess. I can’t stand it, and you.” 
“Oh, pleeese my dearessst... I’ll do my best to make amends,”  he slurred.

He flopped onto the ground, dejected. A distant rumble signified a thunderstorm developing.
Molly's rage did not subside, she paced erratically around the room, picking up her son who was now crying.  Her eyes glowing with resentment.  John stood up and hobbled inside, opening his arms in a feeble attempt to comfort her.

“Don’t you dare come near me,” she screamed as she dodged his advances.  ”Keep away I say, never ever come near me again.”  

John made another clumsy effort to make peace.
Molly was having nothing of it.  She pushed him away violently.  He lurched back and collapsed into a chair.  Tears streamed down her face as she made it to the door running off with the baby clutched tightly in her arms.

John got up unsteadily and went after her. “Molly, my dear, don’t be silly.  I’ll do anything to make up for it.  Come back, come back,” he pleaded.

Molly didn’t know where she was going and didn’t care.  She would not spend another moment with that man in that shack.  Rain started to beat down and soon covered her tears. She started to climb a ridge as the baby continued to cry softly.  Placing his head close to her bosom to keep him warm, she whispered into his tiny ear, "You’re the only one I have left in my life.” 

The storm intensified, the rain now lashing down in sheets.  She became more and more confused and disorientated.  John stumbled on into the gloom looking for her.  He had no idea where she had gone when all of a sudden a tremendous bolt of lightning lit up the countryside like a Roman candle and there near the top of a ridge, he caught sight of her scrambling over some rocks.  With renewed energy, he darted up the adjoining rock face to cut her off. Turning around an outcrop he saw her outline, she was no more than 30 metres away.  Then.......................

Jack wiped away a tear of his own as the first few spots of rain brushed against his well weathered face.
“You ok?” asked Kevin. 
“Yes of course, just a speck of dust in my eye,” Jack replied curtly. 

She turned around, their eyes met for the last time.  Long last cry of anguish.  A moment forever frozen in time as a  lightening bolt brought her life to an abrupt end.  Stunned and shocked, he lay flat on his back having been thrown off his feet by the blast.  He gathered his wits and raced towards that unimaginable scene. “Oh my lord, what have I done?”  

Mine shafts Lightning Ridge

“But you see,” Jack stammering with now watering eyes. “A miracle occurred. The baby some how survived unharmed.”

John was numb.  He collected his son from the charred arms of his wife who was still protecting him even in death and started walking back slowly unable to think clearly.  The storm had cleared and with it the full moon and its companion stars filled the sky with an eerie translucent light to show the way.

The two men on the park bench had not noticed the passing of the storm.  It had been threatening all morning but just as it seemed the heavens would open up, it dissipated. 

Kevin, with tears now flooding down his face looked at Jack and murmured, “What happened to John?”

The first light of the new day was breaking when John delivered his son to a local neighbour asking them to look after him for a few hours while as he had to attend to an accident his wife had had.  By mid afternoon, the neighbour had became concerned when he did not return and contacted the police. They were aware of Molly's death as she had been found by some kids on their way to school, however they had no knowledge of the whereabouts of John.

A search that afternoon unearthed nothing. It wasn’t until the end of the second day that John’s body was discovered down the bottom of his own miner’s shaft with a broken neck.  No one knew for sure whether it was an accident or suicide. In the end it didn't matter.  Both of the parents were dead.   

“You know the rest of the story, Kevin.” 
Kevin’s jaw dropped.  “How did you know it was me?”
“ I just knew, call it intuition.” 

There was a long pause as both men were lost in deep thought. Jack pulled out his fob watch and looked at the time.  “The Library is open now.  I must be getting on.  Pleased to have met you.  Your’e a good man, Kevin and I hope you find what you have been looking for.” 

Maybe it was the tears in Kevin’s eyes that obscured his vision, but as he looked up Jack was no longer there. 

Kevin walked towards the library with mixed emotions. The story had laid out a chapter of his life he had always wanted to know, nevertheless a deep sadness remained. The Pandoras box was open. What would his life have been like if it was Molly and John who had brought him up?  Would he be the same person?  He felt for both of his parents even though they seemed to be very different people.  He didn't blame his father for what he had done, loosing the gemstone the way he did.  All men have weakness and he was convinced that in similar circumstances he might have met the same fate.  He was also sure that his mother deep down had loved his father or else she wouldn’t have followed him to Lightning Ridge.  The sheer disappointment of not being able to return to Sydney had exasperated her reaction to the news and had driven her over the edge.  It was a greek tragedy in the full sense; two needless deaths and a small boy who never got to know his parents.

The library was one of the better buildings in town, built at the beginning of the nineteenth century out of  white sandstone imported from elsewhere in the state.  It stood out amongst the others in the street by its relative grander, exhibiting fake roman pillars either side of an arched doorway. The relationship to ancient Rome didn’t extend to the interior of the building though; drab and disorganised in keeping with the rest of the town.  The librarian was helpful and assisted Kevin in finding the newspaper article that appeared the week after his parent’s death.  And there in front of his eyes were Molly and John.  He  first scanned the photo of his mother; a wave of anxiety encapsulated his body as he fought to control the emotions exploding within. 

Then the father... Kevin froze, the colour drained from his face.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.