‘The Ghouls Of The Rocks’

 

‘I am acquainted with some of the worst parts of London… and with the most unhealthy parts of Liverpool, Paris, and other towns, but nowhere have I seen such a retreat for filth and vice as ‘the Rocks’.’

W.S. Jevons

 

                                                                                        Chapter One

Oliver Fairchild was sitting at the window overlooking Circular Quay and thinking about planes falling out of the sky. More specifically, for he was quite a specific child, he was wondering if it would be better to die in a plane crash on land or a plane crash in water.

His mother made a humphing sound from behind him where she was folding laundry on the kitchen table.

‘For the tenth time it’s not going to crash Ollie. They do so many safety checks now days it’s practically impossible,’ she said.

‘Oliver Mum, not Ollie. And you said practically impossible, so not completely impossible,’ he replied.

Another exhalation of frustrated air from behind him.

‘Oliver, you don’t have a choice. You have to come with us, you’re not staying here by yourself.’

‘I’m 14. I don’t need babysitting, besides, Mrs McGinty’s always around.’

But even Oliver knew she wasn’t. Not around, around. The mad old lady who lived in the apartment along the hall was still grieving the death of one of the cats in her posse, that slunk and circled around her feet every time she opened her door like a mewling whirlpool. Oliver hated all of them; which was why he was so surprised yesterday when he saw, sitting outside her door, the actual dead cat washing itself. He was pretty sure it was the same one; he’d seen it being scraped off the road two weeks ago. His mum had made him break the news to Mrs McGinty, which was decidedly awkward. So seeing the dead cat again, in its usual position and looking at him with hatred equal to his own was weird, but then again, so was Mrs McGinty. It’d be just like her to have two identical cats that he didn’t know about. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was just one of those things he saw that no one else did.

‘Mrs McGinty can’t look after you and you know it. Just stop all the carry on will you and start getting excited. Going to England for a month is something most kids would be happy about. You’re missing school for crying out loud, I would have loved that at your age,’ Mrs Fairchild said.

‘Well I’m not most kids am I? I like school, well, my classes anyway, it’s just the other stuff…,’ he mumbled. The window pane reflected the twitch of his bottom left eyelid.

His mother caught the reflection in the glass as she looked up from her pile.

‘I know love,’ she said quietly. ‘Those boys are a bit of a pill, that’s why your father and I thought you’d jump at a chance to get away for a bit. While he’s doing his research thing we can explore. Castles, ruins…so much history there you’ll love it. We could even trace our Cornish roots.’

‘Mmmm,’ said Oliver, and stared up at the sky where a plane was, just at this moment, soaring silently past. ‘I’m not convinced.’

‘No,’ said his mother. ‘You never are.’

*

It was as the school bus pulled up into the circular courtyard later that morning, just outside the double iron gates of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, that Ollie first heard the whistle; cutting cleanly through the boy’s excited chatter he wondered why nobody else stuck their fingers in their ears at its shrillness. He’d always had sensitive hearing. And sensitive sight. To be truthful it was this that also contributed to him being, well, a little different. For he sometimes saw, actually, it was regularly saw, things that other people didn’t see. Like Mrs McGinty’s cat for instance.

It began when they first moved into the Rocks last year. His dad got a job at the Museum for Contemporary Art and as part of the relocation package the boss offered the Fairchild family a high rise apartment in a complex with a pool. This wasn’t a selling point for Oliver as he didn’t like chlorinated water. But as he explored the maze of narrow steep lanes while walking around the Rocks he began seeing things. Blurred faces, shadows, especially in that tight cobbled alley called the Suez Canal. As thin as a vein, it had the carved metal silhouettes of men and women out of some poem of Henry Lawson’s stuck along the sandstone walls. At dusk, blue lights lit the figures from behind and it was then that he thought he’d heard the footsteps behind him. He’d turned, then turned again, but there was no one there. At first he told his mum all about it but then he stopped. She’d taken him to see the Psychologist. That had been uncomfortable. For everyone concerned.

He now ran his finger over his left eyelid to smooth out the twitch and wiped his damp hands on his woollen school blazer. It was so blasted hot on the bus and yet they insisted on making the boys wear them. Rule follower though Oliver was, even he had to concede this particular one sucked. Catching the bus from Sydney Grammar to this Museum was a complete waste of time. The school was 900 metres from the Barracks yet for reasons unexplained to the students, they weren’t allowed to walk, though the students had suspicions about why this was so. The consensus generally agreed upon was because of the two boys who put detergent in the fountain at the picnic last month in the Botanical Gardens. Since then student exposure to the general public had been significantly curtailed.

The bus stopped with a shudder and everyone stood up. Oliver gripped the shiny plastic of the top of the seat as he positioned himself to sidle into the aisle before the boys sitting at the back reached him. But he couldn’t. The aisle was already jammed with red blazers in a row then…suddenly there was a space, in front of the one boy who he didn’t want behind him. The almond shaped eyes of the bully signalled for Oliver to jump in. It was a trap, Oliver knew it. But what could he do? Refuse to step out of his seat? Say he really wanted to be the last one standing in this heap of stinking steel? He ducked his head, moved into the aisle then stepped forward, just a fraction, to create a bit more space between his exposed back and the prickling presence of his enemy. Perhaps this was going to be OK, he thought, as he took another step forwards with the motion of the line.

Perhaps…then no, a slurping sound, then something landed on the back of his blazer. He knew it was a gob of spit but he stared straight ahead. Then he stepped forward again with the motion of the group, all without acknowledging the assault. And so the game of cat and mouse had begun anew for today. Will I always be the mouse? Oliver wondered.

He was nearly at the door now….but then a sharp push from behind, straight into the back of the kid in front of him who turned on Oliver with a snarl. ‘You idiot,’ the boy said. ‘Watcha do that for?’ Oliver opened his mouth to say, ‘I didn’t,’ but nothing came out. It was useless trying to explain himself and the sniggers from behind told him the audience appreciated his humiliation. Sweat slid down the inside of his shirt and his wet trousers clung to his backside, but he dared not pluck them out. Imagine what fun they’d have with that, Oliver caught sticking his fingers up his bum. No, he wouldn’t give them that satisfaction. But try as he might to stop the impulse, he wanted to look behind him. He glanced sideways and saw the eyes; those hooded brown eyes that were the source of his misery. They watched him, unreadable. OK. Focus. Front of the bus now. Next to the driver’s seat and here we are, almost there, almost out… Here’s the step down… bamm. He was sprawled on the gravel with his left ankle twisted at an awful angle and his face stinging from the tiny stones. He heard the sniggers again and closed his eyes. Would it ever stop? What had he done to deserve this? Be born? He got up and wiped himself down while the boys behind him jumped nimbly off the steps.

‘Enjoy your trip?’ he heard the almond eyes say. His face tightened with shame. And now he was dirty as well. He looked up as the bully walked away, now content to totally ignore him. The teachers had already led the group of boys through the double gates and marshalled them outside the entrance to the main building of the Barracks, so as usual, they hadn’t seen anything. His left ankle throbbed, it felt fat and hot. The twitch in his left eyelid started again and his hand fluttered up to smooth it out. Deep breath. There was nothing for it but to try and blend in at the edge of the group and keep his distance from him as much as he could. It was going to be another long day.

He followed the now assembled line of boys into what the guide called out was, ‘The Superintendent’s office’, and shuffled in amongst the already gathering throng; all restless and jittery, glad to be out of the classroom but now stuffed in the confines of a small room with no ventilation. And worse, at the mercy of a history freak whose job it was to make the past interesting for a bunch of year 8 boys with overactive sporting glands and underactive brains. Good luck with that, Oliver thought, no-one here apart from me, gives a hoot about history. He stood at the back, aware that the teachers supervising the excursion were standing directly behind him; it was safe here, for now anyway. He looked around the walls with interest. Of course Australian history had nothing on English history; England was a land of castles, towers and ancient ruins with stories that would, as his mum said, be interesting to explore. But the plane trip was the problem. Way too risky.

Sydney’s equivalent ruin, the Hyde Park Barracks were, in comparison, not that impressive actually. Sandstone blocks, crumbling fireplaces, all, what, 200 years old? Not that old and not that good really, not when he could be standing in medieval castles. But at least it was better than doing the beep test on the basketball courts in 30 degree heat…Oh, he thought, now that’s interesting. For his eye had been snagged by a doorway. A blocked up doorway filled with different coloured bricks; bricks of a different colour, shape and texture than the larger honey ones which lined the walls around it. The outline of the doorway was clearly defined, helped by the heavy timber frame of the lintel above. And less then 30cm away, next to it, in an uncanny contrast stood a real working doorway, with a real green wooden door and door handle. He studied the blocked up doorway while the guide began to speak, ‘The pock marks all over the larger sandstone bricks are from the convicts axe and the stone masons own signature. These rocks were hewn from the ground by men who had to make 200 bricks a day.’ Tough work for stealing a loaf of bread, thought Oliver. Now what about that doorway- ‘And this green doorway here,’ the Guide continued, ‘Used to lead to the Superintendent’s office but nothing is known of the blocked up doorway next to it. Perhaps it was the original builder’s mistake?’

Oliver was now perspiring freely, or to put it bluntly, sweating like a pig. And the stench of the deodorant of the boys around him working overtime had begun to make him feel rather ill. The guide signalled the talk was over and began pushing his way through the boys and back out the door. ‘Follow me,’ he said, ‘We’ll now return to the courtyard where the convicts used to assemble every morning.’ Oliver hung back. He wanted to examine that blocked up doorway. And because he was Oliver, teacher’s pet and low risk of doing anything dangerous that would embarrass the school, he was allowed to. He read for himself the plaque with information about the Superintendent’s office and the room he was now standing in. The original floor was much lower, there were beam holes for the floorboards and the outline of another fireplace. So OK, that doorway there had led to the Superintendent’s office, so why put another doorway next to it, so close? And why hadn’t the archaeologists found any traces of where it led to? A doorway, leading nowhere, into nothing, was simply not a mistake.

Which of course it wasn’t. And as most people know, all doorways lead somewhere, whether the actual somewhere can be seen or not. So it was quite reasonable that suddenly Oliver felt an overwhelming urge to touch those mismatched bricks that so helpfully filled the blocked up doorway. He climbed up onto the lowest steel rung of the barrier and leant forward. His right hand stretched out and felt the bricks, cool and crumbly. He pulled back and rubbed the grit between his thumb and forefinger, then reached out again. This time he planted his open hand on their surface then, as he lost his balance, his left hand arrived to help but then his glasses slid off the ski jump of his sweaty nose and clattered onto the floorboards. In his haste to right himself he wobbled further, and then, inexplicably, surprisingly, and quite alarmingly, he felt the brick’s hard surface soften, then collapse, and he was falling over the barricade, through the doorway and into, what he very soon realised, was another confined space. But this one was worse. This one was pitch black.