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Some glory in their shame! Very strange tales
Are told of gentlemen of New South Wales.
- early New South Welsh ballad 1
I must needs tell you, that I have reason to imagine, from my own experience, that all madness proceeds from keeping our stomachs empty of food, and our brains full of wind.
- Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1615 2
In the following pages I will attempt to disentangle a few of the many threads that constitute the life of Pedro Piscator. This enigmatic figure was first committed to the historical record ten years after his death, in Earl Poulett Payle’s 1822 biography, Pedro Piscator: Amphibious Spaniard and purveyor of the inland sea. Well over a century later, controversial historian Brian Brickman returned to the neglected explorer. The veracity of each account is debatable in its own way, and the fact that between them they form the principal record of this tragic character’s short life must give pause to question Piscator’s strange chronicle, if not his very existence.
Payle penned his biography upon returning to England from a sojourn to the colony of New South Wales. In researching the life of “this peculiar colonial” he interviewed “an array of soldiers, merchants, sailors, free-settlers, native-born and ticket-of-leave men”. 3 He even quotes the then-governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, describing Piscator as “an idiosyncratic yet noble adventurer who has made his own contribution to the development of Empire and the Colony’s inward expansion.” 4
There are few avenues to determine how much of Payle’s information was hearsay, supplied in jest, or elaborated upon by the author. Payle’s biography was discredited on several counts, not least by Macquarie himself, who denied ever meeting with the Earl. In a private letter Macquarie dismissed the biography as “an obtuse and presumptuous pamphlet of the most wretched kind.” 5 However, in the year following Payle’s publication, Macquarie was charged with despotism in his role as governor, and the legal battle lasting until his death in 1824 was too great a preoccupation to permit expenditure of breath or ink publicly discrediting a biographer.
Macquarie was not the only one to be underwhelmed. Payle’s commissioned print run of one thousand copies managed only a few dozen sales, though copies circulated to various press agencies prompted a scornful response from a sceptical fourth estate. For a brief moment the book was well used as the butt of public jokes. “This work would be a fine example of satirical writing, if only its author had intended it so,” declared a popular literary column of the day, “but it is a truly Ozymandian achievement to present ideas so far-fetched and fantastical in a manner so earnest and drab.” 6
Piscator did not resurface in the annals of Australian history until 1955, when merchant banker, pyramid salesman and part-time historian Brian Brickman published Dreamings of an Inland Ocean. This book analysed the role played by an inland sea in the burgeoning Australian psyche, and Piscator appears alongside more familiar historical figures such as William Charles Wentworth, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, John Oxley and Charles Sturt. Most sensationally, Brickman claimed to have re-discovered a series of Piscator’s journals, originally found by Wentworth and Blaxland on their first expedition into the Blue Mountains. According to Brickman the damaged books had been in a satchel strapped to Piscator’s corpse when the other explorers found it deep within a mountainous pass.
Many historians doubt this scenario and question the authenticity or existence of the journals. Geoffrey Sterne diplomatically suggested they were written after Payle’s ill-received biography as an anonymous piece of satire. In published correspondence with Brickman in 1958, Sterne requested the journals be donated to a university and “put to a more rigorous analysis by the wider historical and academic world.” 7
Before any such examination could be carried out, however, the books were lost for a second time, this time irrevocably. The warehouse in Newcastle where Brickman’s effects were stored was razed by a mysterious fire, from which Brickman, notwithstanding his stated distress, drew a substantial sum in insurance repayments.
In 1966, in a case unrelated to the fire, Brickman was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. This has persuaded many historians to dismiss as equally fraudulent his historical oeuvre, which included The Eskimo Connection: North American settlement in outback Queensland (1951) and The Private Histories of Attila the Hun’s Estranged Twin Brother (1953).
My personal interest in Piscator, both the myth and the reality, dates back to my youth. At 14 I discovered on my grandfather’s bookshelf a dog-eared 1965 edition of Dreamings of an Inland Ocean alongside a copy of Payle’s leather-bound original. When quizzed my grandfather said, with a look of amusement, “Keep ‘em, they’re both good reads.” An inscription on the title page of Brickman’s book read:
Many have mocked me and my life’s work, but I’ve always known I can rely on your support.
These books have sat on my shelf ever since and have been read many times. As a boy I could relate to the erudite imagination of Brickman’s Piscator. I would also picture myself in the role of “legendary explorer and adventurer beyond the unknown,” as Payle described his subject. This story lodged itself in my childhood cosmology, and can in large part be held to account for the eventual dedication of my life to the study of history. Thus my investigation of this subject is as much a personal endeavour as it is an objective historical analysis. It makes, I must concur with my grandfather, a good read, and by now I feel it is deserving of a retelling.
Payle and Brickman concur that Piscator was born to one Moira Ferguson aboard the Sirius of the First Fleet in 1788. The statement is partially backed up by ship’s records which record a birth but not the name of the progeny. If indeed the babe was Pedro Piscator, then he never knew his convict mother, for she died from complications shortly before the Sirius landed at Norfolk Island in 1788. We do know from colonial records that the infant Piscator arrived parentless on Norfolk Island and was taken under the wing of an Irish convict named in Piscator’s journals only as Old Mick. Payle describes Old Mick as “father and mother to the young Piscator”, nursing him on milk from the island’s only cow and gifting him his unusual name. Despite numerous inferences made by Payle for dramatic effect, Piscator had no Spanish blood: his surname derived from his birth at sea, while ‘Pedro’ referred to a convict joke about a conquistador’s helmet. In the absence of any more official christening, the names persisted.
Payle concludes that Old Mick was convicted political agitator Michael O’Donahue, who died on 26 January 1798 of heart failure while receiving 300 lashes. The flogging was punishment for stealing a barrel of rum, which after draining thoroughly, O’Donahue sawed in half and used as a boat in an attempt to escape Norfolk Island. With only his cap as a paddle he was soon washed ashore, and was discovered on the beach by an off-duty officer, singing dirty limericks in a puddle of his own vomit and blistering in the midday sun. With Old Mick’s untimely death, the boy he had cared for was left to survive on his own.
Between 1788 and 1803 Norfolk Island served as a natural prison for many of the twice-convicted. “Magnificent in scenery,” writes Robert Hughes, “Norfolk Island was also a natural prison, harbourless, cliff-bound and girdled with reefs on which the long Pacific swells broke with a ragged, monotonous booming.” 8 Manning Clark in his turn describes it as “a place where nature was lavish in her bounty and her beauty but men behaved so vilely to each other that an earthly paradise became the hell of the Pacific.” 9
Piscator’s childhood was passed in the company of rogues and tyrants. He bore witness on a daily basis to the drunken brawls and the floggings that inevitably followed. His formative years were spent fending for himself, and Brickman attributes the hallucinogenic texture of his journals to the effects of malnutrition on his young brain. He spent time mopping floors, polishing boots and bird-nesting up the Norfolk pines. He associated freely with both officers and convicts and was noted for his aptitude at cussing and playing cards. From two Maori residents Piscator learned how to spear crayfish and peel abalone and oysters off the rocks.
When he grew tired of stalking local wildlife he turned to playing practical jokes on the officers, such as slipping diced squid into their beds or lacing their tobacco with gunpowder. On several occasions these antics led to stints in solitary confinement. In his journals Piscator describes one such punishment.
I was once more cast into that foul, dank vault. It was such discomfort and solitude in youth that tempered my soul in adulthood to all kinds of privations, laid it open to disturbances, and spurred it on to the most marvellous of fancies. 10
With no company his own age, much of Piscator’s development occurred in worlds of his own invention. His imagination and literary appetite had been sparked early by Old Mick’s tales and the only book readily available, the King James Bible. From this sparse source Old Mick had taught the young Pedro to read and write, rare skills on Norfolk Island. Piscator’s literary revelation, though, occurred huddled under the desk in Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux’s drawing room. Foveaux’s kindly cook, having witnessed Piscator engrossed in his tattered Scripture, would design to smuggle the boy into his master’s library when Foveaux was away. Thus Piscator discovered shelves of encyclopaedias, books on naval history and stratagem, celebrations of great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Abel Tasman and Vasco de Gama, and most crucially, Foveaux’s collection of charts and atlases. They stirred something in the child’s heart, as he would later record:
I drank in with the closest of attention the blank spaces upon the maps. When it seemed I was filled with them, I would crawl under the desk and curl up in the presence of the Unknown. I found great comfort in these recesses, these voids, so full of hollowness and promise. 11
The last significant event of Piscator’s boyhood would arrive in a ball of flame during the convict uprising of 1801. The young Pedro, Brickman writes, escaped the island-wide violence by hiding himself in a vat of rum in the officers’ distillery.
He emptied enough that when he closed the lid he could keep his mouth and nose above the surface of the liquid, crouching like this for many hours until the shouting and shooting outside had subsided. He emerged gingerly, his body wrinkled from soaking all night and a little unsteady on his feet from the fumes. The first rays of light shone through the window and his teeth chattered in the crisp autumn morning. He stoked the few remaining coals in the oven and huddled in close, not considering in his haze that his body was drenched in alcoholic liquid… 12
That morning the soldiers who were clearing away the carnage witnessed a boyish fire sprite bound from the barracks, over the convict bodies, off the pier and into the ocean, leaving puddles in its wake that flared, fizzled, and burnt out in an instant. Steam billowed from the water beyond the jetty, as they turned to one another in bewilderment.
In 1803, Lord Hobart ordered the closure of the Norfolk Island penal settlement, a process taking five years to complete. These were the years of the wounded Piscator’s adolescence, years he passed limping along the mournful streets of what was becoming a ghost town. The officers paid him little heed and the remaining settlers shunned him, recoiling at his disfigured features. Scraping together a little money from the odd jobs he carried out, Piscator commissioned the smith to rivet him a brass mask to hide his face. Wearing it he appeared so other-worldly that he might have stepped out of one of the tales from his beloved books. With Brickman heavily referencing Payle, both authors ascribe the mask an almost mythic status, as in the Englishman’s description of Piscator’s eventual departure from Norfolk Island.
He cut a fearsome figure standing straight against the wind on the prow of the Governor George, his visor gleaming golden in the morning light and turned unbendingly to the spray, on this, his very first journey beyond the confines of his island home and into the world – namely, to the charge and clamour of Sydney Cove. 13
The penal settlement of Sydney was in turmoil when Piscator landed in early 1808. On the 26th of January, amidst celebrations of the 14th anniversary of the young colony, the New South Wales Corps had marched on Government House. They wrested control of the government and put an end to Governor William Bligh’s attempts to rein in the military, particularly, in the eyes of the 19th century historian William Howitt, in regard to the importation and production of spirits. 14 As a teetotal Quaker writing five decades after the event, Howitt was hardly the most impartial conduit, but his designation of the coup as a “Rum Rebellion” so resonated that the name was incorporated into general parlance. 15 Joseph Foveaux, in whose library Piscator had passed so many entranced hours as a boy, returned from England soon after the coup to restore order and form an interim government. Piscator however was oblivious to these political machinations, his eyes set instead on the interior of the continent, the blank spaces on the map for which his heart yearned.
Piscator secured employment for a period at the office of the Surveyor-General, Lieutenant John Oxley. Oxley, who would go on to explore and map much of New South Wales beyond the Great Dividing Range, further inspired the young Piscator’s determination to push beyond the realms of the known. While Piscator was a junior employee, he drew Oxley’s attention, though not always positively. Upon terminating Piscator’s tenure, Oxley reported as follows:
Everything about the man is strange, from the metal mask to the foreign name. The visor gives him the appearance of being a machine, ‘though if he be so, it is a machine of the most peculiar functionings. At turns, there is nothing logical about him. If he speaks at all, it may be incomprehensible fancies about mermaids and stone monoliths, in the thickest of tongues. Yet he approaches numbers and measurement like another born language. His skill with compass and calliper is innate, and he seems to understand maps as if in conversation with them, laying a hand on their surface and turning them to his will, as other men might horses. It is unfortunate, then, that we cannot put the fellow to use, his spirit being so bent and wilde as to make it impossible to direct it towards any practicable end. As neither I nor any other can sufficiently drive him, I have no option but to dispense with his services. 16
Following his dismissal Piscator lived in destitution for a year, taking dictation for the illiterate and working on the wharves. In the summer of the following year his fortunes changed, as he found himself in receipt of the patronage of one Sarah Foley, the Chaplain Marcus Foley’s widow. Mrs Foley inhabited a liminal zone in Sydney society, her husband having been excommunicated from the church for unspecified “licentious behaviour” soon before his death in 1802. 17
It is uncertain what Mrs Foley’s motivations were in supporting Piscator financially. Brickman proposes an instance, with no material evidence, in which Piscator suffered some sort of seizure, following which the widow found his insensible form draped across the arms of the stone angel that still stands over her husband’s grave. With her sanity waning, Brickman suggests that Mrs Foley saw the young man as entrusted to her by her husband’s angelic guardian. Payle, on the other hand, offers a more earthly explanation, of an association inspired by Piscator’s awesome appearance and the effect it had on the late Chaplain Foley’s debtors.
Whatever the motivation behind the relationship, it was by all accounts a cordial one. Piscator is recorded as visiting the older woman regularly, entertaining her with his wild imaginings over many a cup of tea. She was one of his only friends, and despite his own grip on reality, he became an important support for her as she descended into insanity. In December 1810 she was ejected and banned from her church after drowning out the chaplain’s sermon with a shouted passage from the Book of Revelations. She died in March 1811 of a brain tumour, ten months before Piscator set out on his doomed expedition. At her death he wrote, “A gentle soul was Missus Foley. What most attribute to disturbances of the mind I see as her great gift for insight. She could see through reality’s veil to the truth.” 18
Foley did not bequeath Piscator a fortune, though she left an amount directed to fund the completion of his “magnificent vessel”. What she knew of the craft is unclear, but from 1809 until her death, Piscator had worked feverishly on this contraption in a cellar below Sydney’s wharves. He would complete it in 1812, having co-opted the labour of a squat Scotsman called MacDonald, whose first name is not recorded. To Piscator’s old colleagues from the Surveyor-General’s office MacDonald was known as ‘Sancho’, after Don Quixote’s sidekick, the implications of which were lost on the less than literary recipient.
Piscator did not pay MacDonald for his labour, providing only food and a mattress in the corner of the workshop. This did not diminish MacDonald’s enthusiasm for the project. He followed Piscator with the loyalty of a dog. Where Piscator’s planned journey may indeed have been quixotic, MacDonald thought only of the potential riches it might yield, envisaging some distant Shangri-La ripe for the conquering. “He is an imbecile,” Piscator recorded in his journal, “but I must endure him for his labours are essential.” 19
They built the vessel with the express purpose of carrying them beyond the Great Dividing Range and into the heart of the continent. Like Charles Sturt, Piscator believed that if one travelled far enough inland one would find a great landlocked sea. In these colonial dreams, such a discovery “would be used to convert that vast and mournful wilderness into a smiling seat of industry.” 20
Sturt, who lugged a whaling boat 2000km into the desolate interior, declared before he set off:
I have a strange idea that there is a central sea not far from the banks of the Darling in 29°L. I should go fully prepared for a voyage. You I am afraid will condemn this, but there is a destiny for us all, and unconsciously we are the instruments in our own hands of its fulfilment.” 21
Sturt, like Piscator, would feel the “mysterious inland beckoning – uncertain whether it was summoning him to victory or luring him to death… Surely it was his destiny to plant his foot in the ‘centre of Australia’.” 22 Unlike Piscator, Sturt was fortunate enough to return alive, having learnt the fallacy of his vision. In a literal sense, his vision was also lost – he was ultimately blinded by the light of the interior. “It was like a parable,” writes Thomas Keneally. “This was what the great suns and spaces of Australia did to the European eye.” 23
Yet according to historian Michael Cathcart, the preoccupation with an inland sea was more a 20th century construction, projected retrospectively on the colonial era. He discusses the concept in this recent interview.
Nor has the idea of the inland sea vanished in the contemporary era. More recent allusions persist in a range of contexts, like this conversation between comedian duo Roy and H.G.
According to Cathcart, “Sturt was out there because he believed he was on a mission from God, he had been appointed by God to discover the inland sea.” Piscator, an “eccentric individualist”, appears to have been fixed on non-theistic notions of a highly personalised destiny. 24 For both, though, the existence of the sea was a matter of belief in which the practical melded with the emotional. If Piscator’s journals are any guide, his was the more obsessive fixation, the continental landmass becoming increasingly conflated with his own state of mind.
It is my firm belief that if one were to journey to the centre of this continent, up its arteries and down its capillaries, to the heart of its great cardiovascular system, one would discover at its core a vast, unfathomable sea. Neither reason nor passion can speak against it – the rivers flow inland, the birds fly inland, there must be an inland sea.
I dream at night of this sea and every waking hour is spent planning and mapping. In some dreams its surface is indiscernible under a blanket of mist, and in others it is not made of water at all, but an expanse of rolling, sumptuous pink, as if a maiden had thrown off her gown and lain before me, an infinite plateau of flesh, and there’s a faint pulse, almost a heartbeat under my feet and vibrating through my body. In these dreams I feel as if this were a journey not into the heart of a continent, a body of land, but into my own self, my own central seas. 25
With this in mind, there is an interesting byplay between Piscator’s biographers. In looking at Payle’s subtitle – Amphibious Spaniard and purveyor of the inland sea – it seems reasonable to assume that ‘purveyor’ is a typographical error, given that he refers to Piscator as a surveyor throughout the publication. Brickman, however, suggests that the usage may have been intentional, with ‘purveyor’ connoting that Piscator brought forth the inland sea from within himself and projected it into the world, rather than any literal reference to surveying a body of water. 26
It is difficult to piece together Piscator’s final push towards his ambition. Even the uncertified journals cease a week before he and MacDonald were due to depart, and twelve days before their wreckage was found. What their vessel may have looked like is equally hard to deduce. We infer that its shattered remains were found around Piscator’s body, when Wentworth and Blaxland discovered debris and a corpse that had come to rest high in the Blue Mountains. Wentworth records in his journal:
Judging by the vast array of cogs, springs and other mechanisms, this was a machine of great intricacy. Yet it gives no sign of its intended purpose. Indeed, one may wonder whether it were intended for this world at all. 27
No plans or diagrams of Piscator’s were found with his papers and his descriptions of the construction in his journal are no more specific. He wrote of the machine with a deep affinity yet it is impossible to picture what he was building. About two months before his voyage began comes the most detailed entry.
From the beginning I have known this was not a journey to be made on foot. The magnificent vessel that I have designed to transport us is one the like of which has never before been seen. It shall undertake anything: it is entirely submersible and equipped with icebreakers; as well as sails and oars it has bellows for extra propulsion; it carries a drill in case the sea is coated by thick sludge or a solid lump of clay; it is metallic and masculine to challenge a sea that is like a charge of cavalry; it is soft and feminine for a sea that is like a tender embrace.
Night and day blur into one as I work. I have only the muffled foghorns, the rapping at my door of the servant boys and MacDonald’s persistent grumbling to keep the time. MacDonald grows impatient whilst I take pleasure in this labour, in the tedious tuning and retuning of a fine machine. In truth it keeps my mind from what might lie beyond the mountains, what I’ve already glimpsed in my dreams, what I shudder even to write. 28
Wentworth’s journal explains how he and Blaxland were perplexed at how the machine came to be where it was “without the apparent aide of oxen or horses”, and what had befallen it. 29 They speculated over their fire that night whether it had been picked up by a freak wind, shattered by a rolling boulder, or somehow fallen from higher ground. Both were sure that the strange machine had contributed to its pilot’s demise, though they could not say how. Wentworth makes no mention in these pages of MacDonald nor of a mask. He describes the body’s face as “wholly mangled”, clearly believing this to have occurred during the accident. 30
Brickman suggests that the machine must have carried combustible material in some quantity, whether for fuel or other purposes. The accident, he posits, could only have been caused by an explosion, which tore the mask from Piscator’s face, propelling MacDonald’s body away “like a cannonball” and destroying the vessel beyond all recognition. Wentworth and Blaxland buried Piscator before continuing their journey into the Blue Mountains – another unsung martyr in Cathcart’s necro-nationalist tradition.
It seems cruelly ironic that Piscator should die so close to crossing the barrier that had thus far closed the colony’s western border, so close to the first sweep of the vast inland area he yearned to explore. Yet while he may not have made it over the Great Dividing Range in the flesh, he had visited the plains beyond many times in his dreams. Some of the final lines of his contested journal, apparently discovered by Wentworth and Blaxland, and subsequently copied out by Brickman’s hand, are tantalisingly oblique:
Where the timid cartographer might state “Here dwell monsters,” I see potential – veins of gold running beneath the soil. Where the unimaginative perceives more of the same – sand and saltbush, thirsty scrub and grasstree, an infinite horizon and the same monotonous privations we suffer in Sydney, on Norfolk Island, in Van Diemen’s Land – I see horrible jungle, deep and dense, a lightless place populated by both living and dead, past and present. It is with these dangers in mind that I prepare for this journey.
I’ve seen an ocean of sand. Granite mermaids have called to me over the hull of my vessel. I’ve been buoyed on a tide of rustling leaves. I’ve dragged my craft into the horizon and lost myself in the haze that hangs at the point where land meets sky. I’ve discarded my vessel altogether and continued on foot through the desert until I collapse from hunger, thirst, desperation, until I see in the sand in front of me a shell, a simple shell, and I know that all is not lost, and I dig. The ocean is underground. It is soft and warm and completely motionless. I don’t sink or float. I simply hang. I no longer know which way is up or down. I smile, I shed a tear and it hangs in the air before me. 31
A little over two years ago, in the small town of Waluk, I made a significant discovery. On the banks of the Murray not far from Albury, Waluk was my first stop on a field trip through rural New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in aid of my doctoral thesis, a study of the history of water management in the 20th century.
Waluk differs little from many rural towns in south-eastern Australia. There is a colonial-era hotel, a bakery, a mechanic with a vintage petrol pump and a general store that doubles as a post office. Among its handful of neat houses Waluk’s defining features include the garden of gnomes, the Ned Kelly letterbox and the praying mantis welded together from old farm machinery. The highway that runs through town was a thoroughfare before the freeway was built. With an ageing population, the place moves peacefully at its own pace.
The Waluk Historical Society is located out of town on private property, behind the modest home of the elderly couple who manage it. It is housed in a beautiful riverside shack built in the late 1860s, renovated in the 1960s, but with little work done since. I stepped out of the car and into the shade of the river red gums. Finding the door locked, I knocked at the weatherboard residence nearby and met Jean, one of the caretakers. She moved slowly, the keys jangling in her hand, and she chattered incessantly. The door to the society building creaked open, and when she flicked the switch the lamplight barely chased away the shadows.
Poring over some title deeds I was distracted periodically by the sound of machinery in the near distance, just beyond the screeching gang-gangs in the overhanging branches. Every so often I found my eyes roaming the clutter that lined the room. Then I noticed an object behind the smeared glass of a display cabinet. The brass mask, recently polished, looked for all the world to be in the same condition in which Piscator purchased it more than two hundred years earlier. Some of the things in the cabinet had been labelled in a painstaking hand, but the mask had not. I stepped outside to ask my host where it had come from. “It belonged to a convict chap who had a nasty facial injury,” she said.
“Was his name Pedro Piscator?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, sounding surprised. “How ever did you know that?”
I was keen for information, remembering my grandfather’s books. Waluk had been settled by a Scot named Dougle MacDonald, Jean told me, who had been brought to the area after being discovered living amongst the Wiradjuri by stockmen in the 1830s. The mask had been in his possession when he was found and had been handed down through MacDonald’s family. Jean’s husband was a direct descendant five generations on.
“Did he have anything else on him when he was discovered? Any papers or books?” I don’t know why I asked this. Even if MacDonald had taken the plans for the vessel after Piscator’s demise, I can’t imagine how they would have survived, or what use they would have been living in the bush.
“It’s very hard to keep track of these things,” she said. “There wasn’t any documentation about when he was brought in.” Her answer didn’t seem to address the question, but she followed it up expertly with an offer of a cup of tea, and I accepted according to the dictates of country hospitality.
I sat down with the deeds strewn in front of me but could not focus. Jean’s response had caused me to grow suspicious. The afternoon was punctuated by the persistent noise of the circular saw. I stood up and walked to the verandah. There was no sign of her. Curiosity drew me down past the burgan thicket toward the noise emanating from what I could now see was a shearing shed. I crept up to the wall and peered through a gap in the timber slats.
The darkness in the shed was cut through with daylight from the chinks in the wall. Pungent petrol fumes reached my nostrils along with the smell of old wool. Three work lights were focused on one corner where an old wool-sorting table had been turned into a workbench. Plastic drawers overflowed with bolts, sheet metal and other odds and ends. A gas and an oxygen cylinder connected to a welding torch rested on a pile of junk.
A squat elderly man wearing earmuffs and protective glasses was cutting a piece of timber. On the wall, held in place by bent nails, was a vast piece of paper, creased and yellowing. I was close enough to guess that it was marked with the unsteady though fastidious application of a dip pen. The drawing was the most complex mechanical diagram I had ever seen.
Then I noticed, in the old holding bay, a hulking shape. With eyes unacclimatised to the low light I could not make it out. Some of the parts I recognised from their origins – excised from tractors, harvesters, hay-balers – but other parts appeared so strange they might have been manufactured on another planet. The metal of choice was sheeted brass which gleamed where the sunlight struck, but it had been substituted with corrugated tin in sections. The hull was held together with bulbous rivets. The deck was covered in balloons and other odd instruments, one like a weather vane and another something like a periscope. There were blades at the front and back, and fins to the side that opened out like strange bellows. The whole contraption was perched precariously on webbed feet. The portals appeared to be washing-machine doors, though the square shapes of ovens had been used for some.
I heard a cough at my shoulder. Jean was standing at my elbow with a mug of tea in one hand.
“Thank-you.” I took it from her. “I thought I’d take a stroll to clear my head…” I began, but the look on her face convinced me to drop it.
“Not much to see down here,” she told me, “just the tools and dust and those awful smells. That’s what men do when they retire, you know, escape to their shed.”
“I really should be going,” I said, “I have a few calls to make before five.” The tea scalded as I put the cup to my lips. I thanked her, turned, and made my way back through the burgan.
I thought often about what I saw in that shed. Sometimes I doubted my own memory. But then, while travelling from Sydney to Melbourne in 2008, I found myself sitting in a roadhouse flicking through the April 26 edition of the Albury-Wodonga Border Mail.
There are fears for an elderly couple reported missing after an unexplained explosion on their property on the evening of Wednesday April 24. Waluk residents Donald MacDonald, 76, and wife Jean, 77, who are well known in the local area, have not been seen since the accident.
The explosion was powerful enough to tear most of the roof off their shearing shed, while pieces of corrugated iron and timber were thrown up to a hundred metres away. The blackened interior had previously been converted into a machinery workshop. Neighbours said that Mr MacDonald had been restoring vintage cars there since his retirement in 1998. To date there is no explanation for the accident.
“The incident may be entirely unrelated to the missing persons report,” said Sergeant Hurlle of Albury-Wodonga police. “We’re looking into every possibility at this point.” He said it was too early to tell whether the burned-out building contained human remains.
The MacDonalds’ daughter, Janet Reid, has asked anyone with any information to come forward. 32
I was not in a hurry, so I decided to revisit the Waluk Historical Society. Not much had changed, the garden was just a little more overgrown, if that was possible. My tyres crunched in on the gravel. No-one was in sight. Dusk was not far off, as I walked through the lengthening shadows of the burgan. Pieces of blackened corrugated roofing were strewn across the path well before I arrived at the shed. There was no police tape, no warning signs. The shed was just as the reporter had described it, a charred mess like something from a warzone. Stepping through the wreckage I found only warped and mangled tools, but nothing of any significance.
Walking back up to the historical society building, I found the door locked. I glanced around guiltily before knocking out one of the glass louvres with some awkward jabs of my elbow, then reaching in to trip the latch. Inside, the building had not been left in its best state. The chair was pushed back, askew in the middle of the room. The desk was covered in stacks of papers and parchment, as though someone had been sorting through the entire archive and stopped halfway. Some were recent, sketches in biro of hinges and mechanisms. Some were much older, done with ink and nib. There were lists, drawings, even a couple of ancient watercolours. I shuffled through them intrigued, but I had begun to worry about the police returning. It only took a parting glance at the glass cabinet to confirm what I already knew – the rest was as it had been, but the shining brass mask was nowhere in sight.
Back at the car, I wanted one more look at the Border Mail to see if there was anything I’d missed. Instead it opened on another article.
Paranormal activity has been reported in the sky above Waluk, not far from Albury. Close to midnight on Wednesday April 24, several residents separately reported hearing an intense whistling sound from the sky and seeing strange lights. Waluk mayor John Peters is among those who claim to have seen the phenomenon. While there are many sceptics these reports correlate with several sightings across southern New South Wales and into South Australia, as far away as Ceduna on the Great Australian Bight. Even NASAA’s Woomera space station reportedly detected unexplained interference at 8000 feet over Lake Torrens on the night of April 25. 33
I write this epilogue fully aware that such anecdotal evidence is as tenuous as any work by Payle or Brickman. For two years I have prevaricated over setting this information down. I hesitate to draw any conclusions from it; professionally, I feel that I am unable to critique the data objectively. The evidence available in this case does not shine a light into the dark recesses of the past. Rather, the historian who examines the tale of Pedro Piscator must embrace the parts of the tale that remain obscured. Nonetheless, there is a final truth to this story, and I do still feel the drive to discover more. In this sense, I think I understand some gentler version of how my subject must have felt, in his life’s unshakeable quest for something distant, something unknown, but something he was sure that he would find.
Video filmed by Simon Green and edited by Andy Lane
Graphics by Lily Tidhar