Kerosene Creek

“Kerosene Creek” is a 90,000 word novel—it is literary fiction: both historical romance and psychological mystery; set in 1895 Hong Kong, when bubonic plague decimated southern China and revolutionaries were plotting the downfall of the Qing dynasty. The Australian sections take place 10 years earlier in Dharawal country southern NSW.

Ten years after her mother was condemned to hang for murder, Agnes Kelly arrives in Hong Kong in search of the Chinese boy who holds the key to her mother’s fate. Her quest takes her from the heart of the British colonial establishment to the desperate, plague-ridden slums of the Chinese district. Agnes discovers that the boy she seeks is now a man committed to freeing China from Manchu rule, that her mother may not be the person she believed, and the answers she seeks are back in Australia in the socialist collective of Kerosene Creek.

THE SOCIALIST ADVOCATE

School Essay Competition 1884, Book Prize Awarded to Agnes Fiadh Kelly, age 14, Kerosene Creek School

For thousands of years, the Dharawal people were guardians of the hidden valley. When the ancestors first picked their way down the steep cliffs to the valley floor, they found themselves in a magical garden. The very cliffs sparkled at midday, and a Cooee! would echo around the rocks until it caught up with itself. A permanent spring burst from the stone cliff and fed a creek that bisected and irrigated the valley. The soil was so rich, that to spit a seed was to grow a bush or a tree. These first guardians cultivated yams, grass seed, berries, and fruit trees. They hunted rock wallabies, lizards, and possums in the gullies, and they set fish traps in the nearby river, named Wingecarribee because it twisted back on itself like a flight of birds.

Most magical of all was the black guruglang (the fire rock) that could be chipped from the cliff face with a hammer stone. A rock the size of a fist would burn with a hot, yellow flame for two or three hours. A handful of rocks would keep a family warm all night.

The people of the valley measured time by seasons, phases of the moon and conjunctions of the planets. When these signs told them to, they would send out messengers to other clans to assemble in the valley. Iyura and Darug people would walk for a week from Gadigal (which is Sydney Cove) in the North; Yuin people from the sea would climb the coastal mountain range; Gundangurra and Ngunnawal clans would trek from the South, and there would be a great garaabara (corroboree). For a week or more the cliffs would echo with the sound of clap sticks, the high-pitched screams of lip-blown gum leaves, the frightening moans of the yidaki (didgeridoo), the ghost-call of the bull-roarer, and the singing of the women. There would be initiations and truces, punishments were carried out and marriages arranged. When they returned to their distant homes, the elders and kadaitcha men of each tribe would take a coolamon of fire rocks to embellish their dreamtime stories.

Ten years after the waibala (white men) ships anchored in Port Jackson and founded the town of Sydney, a convict named Arthur Wallace escaped from a prison farm and walked south, believing that was the way back to England. He was crazy and starving when he stumbled on the hidden valley and the guardian clan rescued him. Wallace lived with the tribe for five years, and learned their language, but he grew homesick. One day, he filled his pockets with fire rocks, made his way back to Sydney and gave himself up. He was sentenced to 100 lashes and the living hell of Port Arthur, but he avoided exile in return for giving up the fire rocks and drawing a map of the countryside he had explored. Governor Bligh was impressed by Wallace’s map, but he wrote in the margin, “The so-called hidden valley is most likely the product of a fevered imagination deranged by torture at the hands of the savages, but his fire rocks deserve further investigation”

The waibala streamed out from Sydney, like meat ants foraging from a nest. They forced the Gundungurra, the Darug and the Dharawal off their tribal lands, sometimes with gifts and promises, but also with dogs, whips and guns.

In 1855, a man named Henry Orbiston led a ragged group of refugees from famine-plagued Ireland to Sydney then south to the hidden valley—as Moses led the tribes of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land. They grew plums and peaches and raised sheep and goats, until they discovered how to mine the fire rock, and refine it into a clear spirit to fuel their lamps. The waibala settlers named the valley Kerosene Creek.

My mother told me this story.

CHAPTER ONE: A DEATH AT SEA

MS Taiyuan, 23 July 1895, out of Haiphong

Captain Hamish Nelson, known throughout the Swire Shipping Co. as ‘Horatio,’ was cranky to have his siesta interrupted. The death of a passenger was no novelty, but there was something disturbing about the sight that greeted him as the steward opened the door of the steerage cabin and the stink of engine oil, damp clothes, sweat and vomit assaulted his senses. In the lower bunk he made out the shape of an emaciated body, covered to the chin with a damp, grey sheet, the long nose made thinner and sharper by death, the wide-open eyes fixed on the crucifix swinging like a body on a gibbet from the bunk above. Grey bristles poked through the tightly drawn scalp. The dead nun’s companion, on her knees beside the bunk, resembled a dark mushroom sprouting from the linoleum. Her lips were moving silently, her eyes fixed on an iron crucifix propped up on the locker.

“When did this happen, Sister?”

The nun twitched, as though caught nodding off in Mass, and scrambled to her feet. A lock of red hair escaped from beneath her coif and she tried unsuccessfully to tuck it back in.

“The Lord has been calling his beloved daughter from the moment we embarked, Captain. The Holy Mother…”

Catholic mumbo-jumbo.

“What killed her, do you think?” the captain interrupted.

“Our Sister was a martyr to seasickness…”

“But is she infectious?” his irritation increasing, “I have thirty passengers to think of, let alone my crew.”

“Sister Magdalene begged me to take her ashore in Haiphong. She was once a missionary there,” as though an explanation was needed for wanting to be buried in such a heathen country.

The steward handed the captain his reading glasses and he ran his finger down the manifest. “The deceased is Sister Magdalene, embarked Sydney? So you must be Sister Immaculata, am I right? You are bound for Hongkong?”

“That is… was our mission, Captain.”

Christ almighty, he shook his head, do these nuns have no sense at all?

“Are ye aware that Hongkong is under quarantine for bubonic plague?” He pointed at the body under the sheet, “D’ye think she…?”

“Neither of us has been in Hongkong, Captain. Neither of us has been in contact with the plague.”

“To the best of your knowledge.”

The captain consulted the manifest again, “I have two passengers listed as doctors. One’s a Chinaman… Doctor Sun something-or-other, and a Frenchman who joined us in Haiphong.” He passed the list back to the steward, “Better call them both.”

The young nun stood her ground, defiantly, despite the tears in her eyes, “Sister Magdalene and I are both nurses, Captain. We know what plague looks like.”

She’s no older than our daughter Isla, Captain Nelson thought, and just as contrary.

“I’m sure you do, Sister,” softening his tone, “But we need a qualified doctor to sign the death certificate.” He turned to the bosun, “This cabin will need to be sealed and fumigated.”

*

Dr Sun. Urbane, Chinese. About 30, western haircut, neat moustache, three-piece suit, trace of an American accent? He ignored the living nun and asked for the porthole to be opened. He raised the sheet covering Sister Magdalene’s face and held a small mirror to her lips. (Keeps it for trimming his moustache, whispered a voice in her ear.) The glass fogged immediately—not a sign of life, but of the humidity in the cabin. He felt for a wrist pulse, then solemnly declared the patient to be, indeed, dead. Could not be more specific. He no longer practised medicine and had scant experience of infectious diseases. The captain asked him to sign the log to that effect.

Dr Yersin, about the same age, looked cool in a suit of tropical linen. Scrubby beard, awkward, very little English. He signalled for the door to be closed and Sister Immaculata to remain, “Pour la bienséance.”

“To maintain propriety,” she translated for the captain’s benefit. Surprised she remembered so much French from the convent.

Yersin cleared the top of the bedside locker, passing her the crucifix, surprised at its weight. He wiped the surface down with a damp cloth and laid out a multi-bladed pocket knife, a pair of scissors, tweezers, a spoon, a pencil, a small notebook and a packet of envelopes. He lifted off the sheet and folded it neatly, revealing an emaciated Chinese woman of middle age, in a stained cotton shift. He pulled back the eyelids, the whites bloodshot from constant retching. He carefully inspected the white crust around the lips and scraped a sample into one of the envelopes.

Dis-moi … the symptoms.”

“It began after Singapore. She was seasick. She could not keep any food down.”

Quel genre… of food?”

“Biscuits, compote.” She showed him the box of dried fruit. “I soaked it in hot water with some sugar.”

Yersin broke off a lump of the dried fruit and dropped it into another envelope, then a spoonful of the sugar into a third. “Problèmes d’estomac? Diarrhoea?”

“Both.”

“Convulsions?”

“Yes.”

“Heartbeat—regular or…?”

So fast you thought her heart might jump out of her chest.

“As high as 140 beats per minute.”

“You measure?”

“I am a nurse” She pointed to her notebook with an hourly record of Magdalene’s vital signs.

He lifted the enamel mug and sniffed it. “She drink from the… robinet?” pointing to the tap over the basin.

“I made tea for her.” She showed him the tin box. “The hot water came from the galley.”

He took a pinch of the tea and sniffed it, then dropped a teaspoon of crumbled leaves into another envelope. He asked to see her notebook while she arranged her dead companion’s hands and threaded rosary beads through the stiffening fingers.

Yersin reported to the captain that there were no indications of plague. Her symptoms resembled salmonellae. It could also be any of a dozen tropical parasites. An autopsy would be necessary to establish the cause of death. He would write a report for the Hongkong coroner.

“Not possible,” the captain set his jaw firmly. “There’s two days sailing to Hongkong and in this heat—to be blunt—she’ll be rancid before we dock. I have to think of the other passengers. We’ll give her a sea burial. I trust you won’t object, Sister?”

He thinks you’re a pushover. Don’t let him get away with it, the voice whispered.

“Will there be a priest?”

“A ship’s captain is authorised to conduct funerals… and weddings for that matter. Personally, I’m a Quaker, but we both worship the same God, unless I’m mistaken.”

Insist on a priest!

She ignored the voice, “I’m sure a Protestant prayer will not keep our Sister from a seat at the Lord’s table. But I’ll say a few words in Latin if you don’t mind.” She looked him in the eye and smiled, “To satisfy the Pope.”

It was the same smile his daughter Isla would flash when she wanted to get around him. His flinty sailor’s heart softened a little.

He nodded towards the bosun, “Andy will see to the shroud.” To the steward, “No matter what the doctor thinks, I want this cabin fumigated.” And to the nun, “Your clothes should be disinfected before you go ashore.”

“I’d like to stay with our Sister as long as possible,” she said. “Pray for her soul.”

“You can have an hour, then Andy will need the body.” He consulted his watch, “It’s 14:20 now. We’ll put her to rest at 17:00 on the after deck.” He turned abruptly and clattered up the companionway. The bosun produced a carpenter’s ruler and quickly measured the body.

She replaced the black crucifix on the locker and knelt before it again. She tried to clear her mind and continue the psalm. “Tibi, tibi soli peccavi et malum coram te feci…”

I have a bad feeling about this, interrupted the Divine Mother, you should have stood up to him.