And so it seems, Ryan has reached his final destination…
The letter from Rum Hamilton, to his brother George, folded carefully and pressed up against Mrs Anderson’s silver cross jabbed into Ryan’s thigh as he leapt from the back of the bullock dray, boots hitting the dusty street with a satisfying thud. He’d made it to his journey’s end. A smile crossed Ryan’s face, as he adjusted the position of the letter and cross in his pocket. The idea of Rum and his mother sharing such an intimate space together gave him much amusement, mostly because his mother would rather die than have to entertain someone like Rum socially, much less tolerate his presence in the same room as her… or his pocket!
It had taken weeks for Ryan to work out why Rum kept bringing up his mother. Once or twice he’d seen the way Rum’s eyes would shift slightly to the side when we brought Maureen Anderson into the conversation. It was those quick shifts of eye Ryan thought about, lying awake in his bunk. Clues to the fixation. In the end he concluded (right or wrong) Rum’s obsession with his mother had more to do with the fact he never mentioned Mrs Hutchinson than the facet he mentioned Mrs Anderson too. Ryan imagined the odd camaraderie struck up with the bosun had more to do with a shared maternal scarring than anything else. He wondered just what Mrs Hutchinson was like and how similar she was to his mother. Other nights he’d think he was wrong that Rum just liked the rise he got when Mrs Anderson was mentioned. Whatever facilitated the unlikely friends, Ryan was simply thankful. Although the letter in his pocket may have been penned by the Captain, (for Rum made it clear he was not a man of the written word) he knew it came from Rum’s mouth and the man’s black and white ideas on honour. Ryan had learnt the rough bosun may not have been a man of letters but he always kept the word he gave.
Ryan grabbed his bundle of belongings, and pulled hat his over his wild hair, and paused to look up the street at the chaotic collection of misshapen building wondering where to find George Hutchinson and Sons. Ballarat was even less civilised than Melbourne. More a town of tents than anything else.
Ryan drew alongside the bullock driver and nodded his head.
“Much obliged, sir.”
“Any friend of Rum’s is a friend of mine. Now you take care, lad.”
The driver returned the nod and pulled the whip from beside his seat, cracking it above the backs of the tired bullocks and the dray inched forward, creaking and groaning under its load of dry goods, turning right when it came to the first intersection. Ryan set off up the hill hoping he came upon George Hutchinson’s workshop sooner rather than later. Not just because he was keen to secure employment but because he was looking forward to sleeping the jolts and rattles of the bullock ride from his bones.
Walking and looking from face to face, and shop to shop, his imagination fired, wondering if George would be like Rum… tough but fair, irreverent and more physical than any other man he’d known. His back and shoulders were already glad to be beyond Rum’s rambunctious slapping, clapping and clamping.
Had it not been for the yapping of the dog at his feet he may have walked straight past George Hutchinson and Son’s shop on the opposite side of the street, as his attention was focused on the pretty girl approaching him, smiling and demurely dropping her eyes.
Messers MacDonald, his former employers, had prided themselves on the fine stone building their shopfront and workshops had occupied for more than a hundred years. They were both morticians and coffin makers. Each year the painting on the sign was refreshed and the stone frontage scrubbed clean of grime from the factories in the west. The shop, resided over by Mr MacDonald Senior, white haired, collar starched with an unchanging benevolent expression, was clean and comfortable. The viewing room attended to by the older Mrs MacDonald and a clutch of younger MacDonald women who tended the flowers and helped to ease the burden of grief to family and friends, was simple and carefully decorated. The workshops were orderly and kept clean by the younger Mr MacDonald. The right of passage of all the apprentices was to complain bitterly about allergies to sawdust as they swept the workshop clean at the end of every day. Ryan remembered feeling wrong, after all his mother had warned him about lying, when he saw the wood dust did not affect him, but he repeated the much maligned litany about saw dust until a new apprentice was employed and the job of sweeping was handed on and Ryan sighed in relief that God had not struck him down for the innocent lie.
George Hutchinson and Son’s shop and workshop hardly passed for a shed, much less a building. It was obvious how hastily built the structure was, groaning with a starboard list, the rough untreated timber boards of the wall already sun greyed. Ryan hesitated. What had he been expecting? Messers MacDonald in Ballarat.
He reminded himself the township of Ballarat was only a few years old… it did not have the vast history or resources of Aberdeen. And he’d thought Melbourne rough and ready. Ballarat was nothing more than a shanty town. Scrutinising the buildings up and down the street Ryan saw George Hutchinson and Sons building, if you could call it that, seemed to be better built despite showing signs of wear and tear on its impermanence.
Ryan turned to watch the pretty girl disappear into a general store and then crossed the street and stood at the door of the coffin makers. As he raised his fist to knock the door flew open a man, and the antithesis of Rum Hutchinson filled the small frame.
“I’m afraid we’re closed for the day.”
“Yes, yes I know it’s important. It’s urgent. Death always is, but alas my coffin maker just made off for the Clunes fields. The third this year. Gold lust. It will be the undoing of civilised society.”
“Exactly what my Mother would say,” Ryan said carefully, measuring the tone of his voice. He withdrew the envelope from his pocket and wished he’d not folded it. The envelope pristine when pressed into his hand dockside five days earlier, was now crushed and discoloured and Ryan’s attempts to flatten the crease on the doorstep succeeded only in smudging the ink with dirty finger smears.
“A letter from you brother.” Ryan thrust the envelope at the austere man, who clutched a top hat in front of him, in what Ryan thought looked like a chair in the hands of a lion tamer.
“My brother who professes to know naught of letters of numbers despite a distinguished education in England.”
Ryan caught by the confession of his friend’s brother blurted out, “I thought the Captain wrote it,” then flushing with embarrassment, his hand with envelope, lost in the space between the two of them. Did it put it back in his pocket, or press it upon George Hamilton.
“Indeed. More deception on the part of my brother. But you must excuse me,” George Hamilton said. “I have an impossible task ahead of me and death waits for no man.”
Ryan stepped into the path of Hamilton, in a move he’d ponder for year later and wonder what if he’d just stayed rooted to the stop. “I believe the letter may be one of introduction, sir.” Ryan pulled back the letter and swapped the letter to his left hand and held out his right. “Ryan Anderson, sir, late of Aberdeen Scotland and the services of Messers MacDonald Morticians and Coffinwrights. It would appear my timing could be the answer to your prayers.”