When school was done and the hall swept and mopped, when we’d taken Mrs Hamilton’s scraps to the chooks and polished our shoes, as the days lengthened into November we were allowed to run out on the mudflats. We’d play cricket in the cold breeze, if Mr Baye would unlock the bat and ball, and dig for pipis for Mrs Hamilton, who said they improved her soups. We ran whooping along the shore through flocks of shearwaters out to where the freezing sea lapped at the edge of Westernport, trying to keep our rolled-up trousers dry as we splashed knee-high into the bay, as close as we could get to Melbourne, eighty seven miles away, where our parents — those of us who had them — sat at their kitchen tables and started their tea. We owned the mudflats, and we opened our mouths for the spitting rain and gulped that salt wind, so sharp that you wondered if it was a solid thing that you could ride on all the way across the bay.
Rex ran less wild than the rest of us: he had calculations to make. When Rex stared back towards Melbourne, it was to judge whether the swell and the breeze were favourable for his father’s boat to cross to the island. Rex would fold his spindly arms and plant his feet apart, talking boatman’s language that you would have laughed at from someone so small, except you really couldn’t, because he was deadly serious.
‘Too choppy today,’ he’d say. ‘Southwesterly ripping through. It’s only a small boat, see.’
None of us believed him, not really. But he was only two months in, and so solemn in his reckonings of sea and sky and bracken that you’d find yourself rambling with him through the saltbush in search of a landing place and judging which tide-carved mud-channel was deepest and likely to snugly fit a runabout.
Rex was quiet about who he’d take with him, but he said there was room for six plus his father. He’d promised me a spot well back from the stern since I couldn’t swim. And even though, like I said, none of us really believed him, I’d seen Ellis Miller untwist a smaller boy’s arm when he caught Rex watching him. Ellis knew Rex’s code and he wasn’t going to risk a spot on the boat. Just in case it ever came.
Peter Billings said at tea in Hall one night that it was ridiculous. That even if Rex’s dad got a boat over, which was unlikely, they’d send us all straight back and Rex’s dad would go to prison for kidnapping. Rex, walking past with his bowl of custard, overheard and tapped Peter on the shoulder.
‘Not once they knew,’ he said, shaking his head, and it was like he was telling us the Gospel, reading from his a bowl of custard like a bible. ‘Not when we told them, they wouldn’t send us back.’
Mr Baye read the letters that we sent every two weeks to our families — there was no telling them that way. And anyway, the authorities already knew about Seaside Gardens. Mr Baye shook hands with the inspector twice a year, and spirited him through Chapel and Hall and neat rows of boys with scrubbed faces. And always, there was Kevin McInnes, who looked just the right amount of downtrodden and had chats with Mr Baye and the Inspector about how he’d felt a little low, and missed his parents, but it wasn’t too bad, all up.
But Rex made you feel like that was all it really might take; for us to get back to Melbourne and unburden ourselves: to our parents, to a policeman, to a judge. To tell about the way a boy could disappear into Baye’s office and then you wouldn’t see him for a day or two until he came to dinner with his nose bloodied and his hands shaking at his teacup.
For Rex it started on a Sunday in late Spring. At a quarter past six, Baye, as he did every morning, patrolled the steel bed-ends with a needle, pricking the heel of any boy who lay still sleeping. Rex often got the needle. He was a sleepy boy and I wondered if he closed his eyes at the bell because he had his father’s boat to think of, and the risk of a pinprick in his heel was worth it to him.
That afternoon we went straight from school to the mudflats. We raced from the water to a finish line of seaweed left by the tide. Rex was last, which was strange since he was little but very quick, but then I saw how one foot dragged behind him, scraping along the sand. Still, he whooped his way to the finish line and when he reached it he dove across the mud and grabbed a clump of seaweed and stood sodden and dirt-streaked, his arms raised, crowing as if he’d just won the whole damn race. We put him on our shoulders and someone crowned him with seaweed and a roar came up from all of us that startled six black swans out from the shore.
‘Look!’ Rex pointed at the birds, his arm stretched out above us.
We fell silent and watched them run along the water-glinting silt and take flight over the bay.
On the way back to the house Rex walked strangely, sticking his legs straight out to the side instead of bending them.
‘Why’re you walking funny?’ I asked.
‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘My legs just feel odd. Look, I’m a robot!’ He moved his arms mechanically.
By tea-time, he was shivering. ‘My jaw,’ he said.‘I can’t move my mouth properly.’
He sat between me and Ellis on the long benches at hall. He couldn’t seem to eat his stew: his head jerked back each time he raised his spoon. Ellis and I propped him up between us and, as Baye patrolled the other end of the hall, I spooned some dinner into his mouth. Baye saw us and marched over.
‘What’s this?’ he said. ‘Playing the invalid now, Simpson?’
Rex said nothing, just shivered against me.
‘Sir, he’s sick,’ I said. ‘He can’t move properly.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that. Move away, boys.’
Ellis and I shifted away from Rex, who looked tiny on his own, islanded on the bench with Baye looming over him.
‘Come on Simpson, get up.’
Rex lifted his hands to the table and hauled himself to his feet.
‘Walk to the lectern and back,’ Baye ordered.
Rex hauled first one leg over the bench in that stiff way, and then the other. He shuffled towards the lectern, his feet never really leaving the floor. I’d seen my grandfather walk that way.
‘What are you playing at, Simpson? Some kind of paralysis act? Kneel.’
Rex stopped walking, his back to Baye.
‘I said kneel.’ A rash rose from Baye’s collar up his neck. He walked over to Rex and moved in front of him, an inch or two between them so that Rex’s face was at Baye’s chest. Rex didn’t even have room to look up, just stood with his nose almost touching Baye’s shirt, breathing into Baye’s buttonhole.
We’d heard Baye hadn’t gone to war, and when we whispered about him in our beds at night we wondered: was he frightened that news of a shirking boy at his home might set the ladies of Melbourne against him from eighty-seven miles away? Or was it the tremor in his own hand, stilled only when he held a strap, that made him loathe a boy who couldn’t hide a limp?
Baye put his hands on Rex’s shoulders and pressed down. Rex dropped to one knee and his other leg crumpled beneath him.
‘Seems your knees are working now.’ Baye looked up to the rest of us and raised his voice across the Hall. ‘I won’t be made a fool of. Any boy who involves himself in this farce will be subject to the maximum punishment.’
Mrs Hamilton had come out of the kitchen with a fresh vat of custard, her red hair frizzed about her face. She walked over to Rex, wiping her hands on her apron. She put the custard down on the table, knelt and laid a hand on his forehead.
‘The boy’s ill, Mr Baye. It may be meningitis.’
Baye’s rash had risen to the tips of his ears.
‘Nonsense. Do not put ideas in his head, Mrs Hamilton. These boys are truants who will tell a lie to your face to avoid one day of school. I’ll get some pins and we’ll soon see if his legs work.’
Mrs Hamilton gave Baye such a look and turned to serve out the custard, banging the ladle on our plates as she went. Rex stayed on the floor — Baye would let none of us near him.
We ate in a hush and then filed out to prayers. I turned to see Rex sitting alone there, staring straight ahead of him and rocking slightly.
An hour after bedtime I heard him come in, his footsteps thumping and irregular like some broken piece of machinery. Something crashed onto the floor. He dropped onto his bed, next to mine, and I whispered to him and he said he was stiff and thirsty, and that his legs and his neck hurt. I went to get him some water but he’d knocked the whole jug off the nightstand and it lay in pieces on the floor. By the time I got back from the south dorm with a glass of water, he was asleep. I put the glass on the floor next to him and I dreamed that he moaned and cried out in the night.
In the morning, his bed was empty. I found him down by the water tank outside the kitchen door, leaning against it with his mouth all twisted, his forehead clammy and his legs bleeding from four tiny punctures. He held an empty tin of salmon and he tried to turn the tap to fill the tin, but he couldn’t manage it – his fingers looked stiff as he clawed at the handle..
‘So thirsty,’ he said. He held out the tin to me.
I took it and filled it with tank water and swished out the old bits of fish and filled it again. Not wanting him to cut himself on the sharp edge of the tin, I lowered him to the ground and tilted his head back to rest on my arm. When I poured the water into his mouth, he spluttered half of it back up. Mrs Hamilton came out from the kitchen with a feeder full of milk.
‘Tilt his head again,’ she said. I held him while she dropped milk into his mouth. He was like a newborn calf, terrified and grateful.
The kitchen door banged open. It was Baye.
‘Mrs Hamilton! That’s enough.’ Baye stood on the doorstep, glaring for a few moments, and then disappeared. The door slammed behind him.
‘Drink, Simpson,’ she said. ‘He’ll be back.’
Baye appeared again in a minute, a cricket bat in his hand.
Mrs Hamilton propped Rex against the tank, gave his shoulder a squeeze, and took me by the arm. ‘Come on inside now.’
She pulled me with her past Baye and into the kitchen. She took a bucket from the pantry and gave it to me.
‘Run next door and ask them for some parsnips, will you. Off you go. No good you can do here.’ She took a knife and chopped at some potatoes, making a racket with the blade against the board and muttering to herself.
But there wasn’t any way not to hear Rex.
‘Oh Mr Baye,’ he called, ‘Oh don’t! I want a drink of water.’
On the afternoon when they took Rex away, his thin body shuddering on a stretcher, Baye let us run on the mudflats later than usual. We took to a spot lined with spinifex and wheat grass where the tide had carved a channel, sheltered by a wattle that leaned eastwards away from the wind. We dug with our bare hands, throwing the muddy sand behind us, and we scraped a deep hollow and kicked at its sides and grabbed handfuls of the sand that caved into the hole and threw it at the birds that hopped through the scrub.
I don’t think Rex’s father ever had a boat. I heard he didn’t even have money for a coffin. They said later that Baye gave him £20 for the funeral when he went to tell him that his boy had died in Wonthaggi hospital.
I don’t think there was ever a spot for any of us. There wasn’t even a spot for Rex.
A few weeks later Baye was gone, and they shipped us all to Melbourne. They sent a big ferry for the seventy of us, one that crossed easily through the swell, smooth and untroubled.
Sometimes I wake still half-dreaming of a small boat hidden under bracken, waiting to take us from that place that worked its chill into our flesh, to fly on that wind that whipped us out to the edges of the island towards home. It can be hard for hope to die and sometimes it still lands on me like a cruel thing, fluffing out its feathers when its promise is long spent.