“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream”, I half sang and half whispered into Leonard’s ear. It calmed him, as I held him. The sea breeze was starting to blow stronger. The row boat with father, mother, Charles and Elizabeth was already over a hundred metres into the channel. Mum waved back. I could see father and Charles rowing with a strong rhythm.
Suddenly the dinghy looked so small, as it jerked violently in the rip tide. Lora, Gillian, Rupert, Emily and I gasped and cried out in unison as the boat tipped over. Our parents were in the sea. Mother struggled as she was heavily pregnant and quickly drifted away and sank in our view. Charles never surfaced. Had he hit his head? Father’s injured leg from a logging accident several years ago, made it difficult for him to stay above the waves. He tried to hold Elizabeth out of the water. As Father sank so did Elizabeth, held desperately in one of fathers hands above the surf, for a few moments longer, till she also sank: forever from our view.
So began our nightmare. Only Leonard, aged nearly two hadn’t really seen or fully understood what had happened. Being the oldest remaining child I had to take charge. I hardly had time to reflect on how this appalling moment had come about.
Every year my family, the Croft’s ,left our home at Arthur River to spend about three months on Little Bird Island off the North West Coast where father had a sheep lease on the island. We always went to the island by a ketch, The Rooganah because of the strong treacherous currents between the mainland and the island. It was a bit like a working holiday; more work than holiday.
However, this year a few days after arriving things started to go wrong. Mum who was pregnant with her ninth child started complaining of cramps. She had had no previous complications with the rest of us. Dad as a precaution said he was taking mum to Circular Head to the nearest doctor for a check up. He had rowed across the difficult channel many times, usually alone, in the one rowboat kept on the island. He did so for additional supplies and to fill the water barrel, when it didn’t rain. He was sure he would have no problem that October day, with the one hour rowing, especially now with the support of sixteen year old Charles, my strong muscular older brother. They took Elizabeth, as being four; she was still daddy’s little girl and had put on her usual tantrum. I was told not to worry; father would be back by midday tomorrow. Mum and Elizabeth would most likely stay with relatives at Stanley. Dad and Charles would have to come back and shear the sheep and get ready for the birding season. Our family had to have income for the coming months.
Little Bird Island is a windswept nearly treeless, lonely place at the best of times. The large Aboriginal middens gave a sense of a people here long ago for shellfish and the birding. We were here too for the mutton-bird season. Long ago it was the local Aboriginals who shared the island with the short tailed shearwater, the sooty oyster catchers, lapwings and the ever screeching silver gulls. The island now had only a small two room wooden hut built by an earlier forgotten lease holder. There was a room for sleeping and a room with a cooking stove fireplace.
Lora, Rupert and I talked often, in the dark, in the days after the tragedy, when the young ones were asleep.
“Melinda, the ketch won’t come back with provisions for the shearing and birding season, till late November. What can we do?” asked Rupert.
“We need to make a signal fire”, said Lora.
Lora then recalled having heard a story from Grandma a few years ago. She softly retold it to us: “Grandma spoke of bodies that rose from the sea on the ninth day after drowning. The fisher folk at Stanley said it was so”. So on the ninth morning, which was bitterly cold and windy, we went down to the channel shore, carrying four blankets to wrap the bodies we believed we would find. We told Gillian, Emily and little Leonard, we needed to collect driftwood and twigs for the fire. We walked back and forth twice, combing the entire foreshore. Nothing; not even a boot or Sarah’s little doll, just the ever present circling, screeching silver gulls.
“Mel, there’s no water left”, said Emily, my seven year old sister.
“I’m thirsty too “, added Gillian, just recently turned five, “Mellie, please; I’m real thirsty”
“I’ll find some in the morning”, I lied.
Both were telling the truth. There was no water left in the barrel. The island had no creeks or wells. Rupert aged nearly ten, spoke to me later. “Melinda, we need to pray for rain”. So we all did, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Luckily it rained overnight. However, it only partially filled the barrel. We all collected water from rocky puddles as best we could. Lora, a year younger than me, aged twelve, helped boil the water, so we didn’t get sick.
The signal fires were lit day and night and tended by Rupert. It made no difference. Everyone knew we were on the island. They just didn’t know we needed help. We might as well have been burning off like father sometimes did to create more grazing areas for the sheep. We gave up collecting wood and keeping the signals burning. We needed the easy wood for cooking and night time.
There was what seemed like enough flour and foodstuff to make damper and have something hot to eat. We kept Emily and Gillian busy collecting driftwood. Rupert made an effort to collect any rain water, any way he could, anytime it rained, as the barrel always hovered below a third.
The food situation finally got desperate after five weeks. One night after the young children had been reassured again and were all sound asleep; Rupert, Lora and I discussed the food crisis as the wind whistled through the shutters. We were now conserving our dwindling stock of candles. We wrapped blankets around ourselves, got closer to the fire and away from the draughts.
“There is no flour left, Melinda”, intoned Lora worriedly.
“I just don’t know what to do?", I replied
Bravely Rupert said, “I will kill a sheep.”
We slept restlessly. The next day I assisted Rupert to herd a sheep. Once cornered; he stabbed it repeatedly with a cooking knife. It was bloody and awful. Lora kept the young children inside, so they couldn’t witnesses this horrific event. The sheep wasn’t killed humanely. Rupert and I sort of skinned the sheep, cut up some chunks of meat and stripped the bones as best we could. We lived on boiled mutton for several days.
We then discussed having to kill another sheep, again after the young ones were asleep. We had kept a record of the days on the calendar .It was now nearly six weeks. Next morning, November 29th the ketch, The Rooganah was spotted on the safe side of the island, away from the mud banks and rip tides of the channel. We all headed to the shore to see Captain Fraser, who had arrived with additional provisions that would have seen a large family through the shearing and birding weeks ahead.
Fraser knew something was not right, the moment he saw us. Children shouldn’t have dirty thin bodies and deep sunk hollow tired eyes. Our story was quickly told to Captain Fraser and just as quickly a media sensation. The Telegraph calling me, “Brave Tasmanian Lass”. Not brave, just doing what it took to live each difficult day. Every day spent behind a mask of reassurance, hiding my sense of overwhelming loss and worry. Never confident about how we would survive another day, just getting on with life from sunup till sundown.
I was never told the following; as whispered conversations stopped when I entered rooms. However, I read in the district newspaper how the bodies of Ma, Pa, Charles and Elizabeth were never found, but how pieces of the rowboat wreckage had washed ashore on the mainland near Dismal Point, but that happened in the month after we were rescued.
We went to live at Stanley with relatives, who only gave me light household duties in the months that followed. I’d sometimes climb The Nut alone and look out over the water, the often deep blue, calm deceptive water. If only rowing your boat was a dream. At night I patted Leonard’s head as he slept soundly in a warm comfortable cot.
“Mellie; sing, sing, for me.”
Still put to sleep by his favourite lullaby, “Row, row, row your boat”.
However, I would constantly row against the currents in my mind, trying to find that happier time before that fateful October day.
Note: This story is a fictional account based loosely on real event from Trefoil Island, Tasmania in 1895.The outline of events is as it happened. However, most places and real names have been deliberately altered out of respect. It is a piece of fiction. The Nut is a geographic feature at Stanley, Tasmania.