The Yalda Crossing

The Yalda Crossing

by Noel Beddoe


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A powerful novel about Australia’s frontier history, the story follows a successful trader and merchant in Sydney in the late 1870s. “Young James” Beckett believes he has put his past behind him, but when the enigmatic bushman Lancaster reappears in his life, he is forced to confront the haunting truth of his early years. In 1832, Young James and his father, the Captain, arrived in New South Wales and set out with a group of convicts and a guide, Lancaster, to claim property on the Morrombidgee River in Wiradjuri country. As land opened up for further settlement, more whites arrived and the delicate balance that was in place between the Beckett family and the Wiradjuri people was shattered. What happened next was so shocking that it has tormented Young James for life, and it is only his chance encounter with Lancaster decades later that provides the final clue to those terrible events. Based on Australia’s first contact history, this is a gripping adventure about the desperate battle for land and its dreadful consequences.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702249396
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Noel Beddoe is a former high school principal with 20 years of experience who has been involved in Aboriginal education for most of his adult life, becoming the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal Education Reference Group. He is the author of several books, including Autumn and Dad and Me.

Read an Excerpt

The Yalda Crossing

By Noel Beddoe

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2012 Noel Beddoe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-4939-6


With Lancaster

He was slow down the stairway to The Quay, his right knee ached, and there were sharper stabs as it took the weight of his descent. He heard the clack of his boot-tacks on the stone steps, heard his own breathing. Soft rain misted down, and the brass tip of his cane slid on the little puddles that had collected on the slabs of sandstone that made the steps. All the way to the bottom of the stairs he grasped a rusting handrail.

Rainwater burst over his hat and the shoulders of his topcoat. It was windy, and the tall ships at tether in the cove rocked and wallowed on the tide. At the base of the steps he drew down a good lungful of briny air, turned the collar further up on his heavy coat and began his slow progress across the planking that bordered The Circular Quay.

He stopped then, because from the hurrying crowd on the boardwalk came a tall old man. Beneath an overcoat he wore a three-piece suit, stout boots. The old man had to pause, as did Young James Beckett, to avoid collision. Young James looked a moment at the pale blue eyes, the weathered complexion, the gunmetal hue of hair brushed back sternly across the scalp, and at once felt a shock to be seeing that tanned face again. He limped on a few paces and then stopped walking, and said aloud, 'That was Lancaster.'

He turned. The tall figure had moved on, vanished into the throng.

Young James shook his head, then continued his journey in his determined, limping gait. At the end of The Quay he turned right along George Street, passed the small tea houses, the smoky inns, here and there a lounging sailor. He reached a laneway, turned left up a steep, cobbled hill, stood awhile and looked across at a tall building of old stone. The warehouse had a broad front wall, shutters at an upper level to permit cargo to be swung out for loading, high double doors that would allow the entry of a team and wagon. The sign, newly repainted, read 'Merchant, Chandler; James Beckett Proprietor'.

The air inside his store was still. Hard cold made him shiver. He snuffled up the heavy, musty aroma of African coffee beans, the tang of bales of Indian tea, thick, dry smells of wheat, the oily stench of sheepskins. Above him in the rafters pigeons cooed and warbled. He heard the scuttle of a rat running away into deeper darkness.

He ascended wooden steps onto a loading bay. Lamp-shine lit the windows of an office. Inside there was the hearty glow of a coal fire well alight and he enjoyed the blanketing warmth when he opened the office door. Henderson the bookkeeper had been in attendance for some time.

'Good morning, Mr Henderson,' said Young James Beckett before he removed his heavy coat and hat and peeled off his gloves.

Henderson gave the proprietor a nervous glance, nodded, continued at his scratching of ink onto a ledger. Young James settled himself into a deep swivel chair, turned it to look through a window into the laneway he'd just traversed.

'A strange thing has just happened to me,' he said.

Henderson returned a startled look, eventually lay down his pen, turned a miserable gaze to Beckett, listening.

'I saw someone,' Young James said. 'Nearly walked into him, in fact. We both had to stop. Do you know who I think it was?'

Henderson gave a wretched shrug, a quick shake of his head.

'I believe it was Hugh Lancaster, who scouted our party down to The Morrombidgee – what, forty years ago? Lancaster, who brought The Captain and his party to TheYaldaCrossing.'

Young James Beckett ran the ball of a thumb along his lower lip, frowned, looked into the laneway. Henderson watched him a time, then returned to the keeping of his book.

'He's meant a very great deal to me for many years, this man Lancaster,' Young James said. 'The fact only presses in on me now, as I realise the truth of it. He is whom I've turned to.' He shook his head, tapped the peeling paintflakes on the window sill. Rainwater drizzled down the grimy window pane. 'He's always been there, do you see, at the back of my brain, to be called up when I needed him. And then, this morning, after all this time, there he was before me, in reality. Strange, after all these years. To think of him, do you see, reminds me of a time.' He regarded the bookkeeper's lowered head. 'It was a time when I liked myself and thought myself to be honourable – and a short enough time it was, and long ago.' He raised his eyebrows. 'I dream of that time, sometimes.'

Henderson put down his pen.

'Mr Beckett,' the ledger-keeper said, 'sometimes you address remarks to me and I don't respond, thinking it not my place to comment. This remark, however, I can't let pass. Not honourable? You are the straightest man I ever knew. I know how you fix prices, not increasing profit even when you could, because of scarcity, reworking an agreement to your disadvantage when your costs were less than expected. Honesty, honour – I don't know how you can question yourself.'

Beckett looked again through his little window.

'Mr Henderson, it is possible never to steal and yet be a total thief and cheat. It is possible never to tell a lie and yet be a complete fraud. I've learned this, do you see. Seeing Lancaster has reminded me of a time when I didn't know those things. And that sense of worth I had once, well, to large part, he gave it to me. You use the word straight? He was the great straight man of my experience. He knew this land that so enriches us. And he did no harm.' He smiled. 'And of all of us who travelled down to TheYaldaCrossing, and did what was done there, he liked me.'

Henderson looked at Young James for a time, then shrugged, took up the wooden stem of his pen, dipped the nib in the inkwell, and turned back to his ledger.

Beckett nodded.

'I mean to return a little earlier tomorrow,' he said. 'I'll wait, and see if he comes that way again.'

The next morning James Beckett impatiently ate the boiled egg and toast prepared for him by his housekeeper. He hurried as best he could down the hill from Macquarie Street, ignoring the stiffness in his knee in his eagerness to be on The Quay. He took up a position near to the base of the stairs, waited, watched. Sure enough, close to the time of the previous day, along the thoroughfare that leads beside the Harbour to Bennelong Point came the same old man, tall, erect, striding along with a confident lope just a degree short of a swagger.

Young James noted again the good woollen suit, the stout boots, remembered a rough-dressed bushman of long ago. Lancaster, he could see, had prospered. Young James smiled, stepped out into the path of the old man. A frown of concentration creased Lancaster's brow.

'I wonder, Sir,' said James. 'Might you be Hugh Lancaster?'

The old man frowned.

'Yes, I'm Lancaster. And who ...?'

James moved his right leg and the cane, to be more comfortable. He saw that Lancaster noted this, saw him spend a time perusing the scars of folded-over flesh around Beckett's upper and lower lips.

'James? Young James Beckett? Is it you?'

'It is. I have markings you recall?'

'That, and the bad leg. I remember you getting them. I remember stitching them, the wounds to your face.'

'Ah, yes, the leg. The wounds. Gifts of Mr Firebird. Gifts of Mr Curtis and Mr Webb.'

'Curtis and Webb!'

'Think about them much?'

Lancaster looked quickly about, as though afraid to be heard saying the names.

'I try not to.' He thought a moment. 'I dream about them sometimes. Them, and other things.'

'Ah. You as well.'

James Beckett saw the old man's smile fade, saw him narrow his eyes, scowl as though troubled.

'Look,' said Young James. 'This time of the year is an impossibility for me. There's a vessel on the seas with goods bound for my store. I must clear orders to create space. I should be more free by Friday. Might we meet? There are many things I'd like to know of you.' He frowned. 'One matter in particular. A matter that has troubled me. Well, not so much in recent times, but a great deal when I was a young man. I saw you yesterday but you were gone too quickly for me to greet you, then I spent a part of last evening remembering, thinking. Would you meet me and discuss? I'd enjoy to hear of the fortune you've had, which looks to be not too bad.'

Wind gusted up the harbour, burst over the two men cold from the sea. Seagulls gave their raucous cry. Lancaster looked across the crowded shipping at tether, the ruffle and slap of the water surface.

'Come now, Lancaster!' said Young James. 'I remember the day you left TheYaldaCrossing. I never saw or heard of you again. And there's a matter troubled me. What's to be lost?'

'I suppose so,' Lancaster said at last. 'Yes, I believe I'll join you if it's what you want.'

'Say at eleven in the morning on Friday?'

'I'm now on my way to Newtown where I have a house. But that day I could come back in.'

'There's a tea shop called The Bluebird, just over here in George Street. Could you come there?'

'I know it.'

'Agreed, then.'

Young James spent a little longer regarding the long, tanned face but as he turned to go, Lancaster reached a hand to his arm, detaining him.

'But tell me this, Young James, I remember two things of you. Well, several, actually, but two particular ones come into my mind now. How you talked! How you talked as a young man! Do you still? Are you still a great talker?'

'Perhaps not so much. My talking to you really was, I think, about my excitement at having someone willing to listen. But today, no. I talk to a man called Henderson, because his hearing my thoughts scarcely counts. I talk sometimes to my wife. But, no. People who know me today would not count me as one who talks very much.'

'And write,' said Lancaster closely regarding the young man. 'Even on the track, writing by lamplight, under your dray, on scraps of paper, with a mapping pen and India ink. Do you record each day still?'

Beckett looked out at the harbour. 'No, I fell out of that habit after I left Yalda Waters – well, a little before, actually, with only one brief return to the practice some years ago. No, I never write now.'

Lancaster waited a moment.

'Have you those notes still?' he asked.

Beckett noted the intensity of the scrutiny he was receiving.

'I believe that I do. I put them in order, some years ago. A long job it was. I tied them in parcels with ribbon and stored them in our attic, packed in hatboxes. I imagine that they're up there still.'

Lancaster shuddered at the bite of the wind.

'Ah,' he said. 'Well ...'

They stood, with nothing more said for a while.

'Till Friday then,' said Young James.

Young James Beckett made for his warehouse. As he turned onto George Street, he glanced back for a reason he did not understand, and was unsettled to see that Lancaster was behind him, half-hidden by a pillar, shielded by the passage of people across The Circular Quay, watching him.

In the evening, when he'd returned to his home in Macquarie Street, the wind turned to the south, battering the three storeys of the dwelling, sending sheets of rain scudding against the white-painted double brick. Rainwater burst against window glass, which shook under the gale. Beckett heard the weather, the comfortable hiss of gas heating, and held tight upon his thighs the children, dressed in their nightwear and robes. He held them with equal firmness and affection, the son whom he'd fathered, the daughter he'd not. He delighted in their chortles and wriggles as they heard the story he read to them, raised his eyes from time to time to look to the beautiful, dark-haired young woman, his wife. When the children must go up to their beds, she came so close that James could smell the perfume of her hair, hear the slight rustling of her gown. She kissed him slowly, high over a cheekbone.

'Go up,' he said. 'I've another task.'

When she had left him he went alone to the kitchen, fetched out and lit a lamp. Upstairs he reached a tight spiral of steps, raised a trapdoor at their head, entered the cold dark of his attic.

Shadows danced and whirled at the flickering of his lamplight. He saw the residue of years – disused furniture, suitcases, a length of rope, neglected paintings stored on their sides. He placed the lamp on a table, dragged back a threadbare rug and drew out by their handles two boxes, each with rounded top and base. He snapped back the tin fastening of one, took out a bundle bound with ribbon – bits of ledger, sheets of paper of various shapes and sizes. Staring at them he felt at once a flood of love, and loss, and remembered the person who had taught him the habit of keeping the notes of a life, recalled an old man hunched over the dining table in a farmhouse in Sussex, writing, at evening, the record of his day.

Beckett seated himself in an old armchair, adjusted the lamp. He sat awhile, looking at the papers. He trembled and shook his head. At last he took out a thin bundle of sheets, untied the ribbon that bound them, smoothed them flat against his thigh. He looked down at lines written decades before. He wriggled deeper into his seat, held the pages to catch the lamplight. He could feel that his breath was short.


Young James' Record Sydney Cove

May 10 of the year of 1832. My birthday will be Tuesday of next week. I then become the age of fourteen years. The Captain doesn't know this. Or perhaps he does but I don't think so. I dare not tell him. I could not look in his face and speak of myself.

We've now been in Sydney Cove for a week. We arrived on the ship The Ruby. The Captain sold some of our store, some of the tea I think to a particular place. I went back there and asked the owner could I buy some paper and a pen and ink. I meant to spend some of the money given me by Grandfather when he knew he was going to die. But the warehouse owner gave me some materials. I can suppose that he was pleased at the bargain he made with The Captain.

This is the first writing I have to keep. What I did in Sussex was left behind when The Captain collected me at the farm to bring me here across the sea. I kept everything from the scribbles I first made to be like Grandfather. He sat every night by the fire and wrote in his journal what had befallen that day. The aunts have told me that when I was little I used scribble on something with a pen. To be like him. I don't know what they've done with the words I did write down after the aunts had taught me to write and read. I suppose the uncles found where I'd put it and all the sheets have been burned.

I fell down after setting foot on The Circular Quay. Sailors laughed but in a way that did not make me feel they mocked me. Not like the uncles laughed at me after Grandfather was dead. One sailor lifted me up by the arm and told me I'd now to find my land legs. I'd found my sea legs. Now I must find my land legs. He said sit on a chair and hold its sides. Keep my feet flat on a floor. This was my best means of being used to the land being still. Not sloping and rolling away from me like the deck of a boat at sea.

The Captain has found us lodgings in an inn at the harbour front. We have a room together. I'm used to him now. We slept in the same mess all the way over on The Ruby. He still stirs in the night and screams out in his nightmares. I don't think he knows about the screaming but he must remember the dreams. He has not mentioned them to me and I've not questioned him. I suppose his dreams have to do with the terrible scar down his left cheek. It starts below his eye and pulls down the eye and holds it still whatever the other eye is doing. The skin, doubled over down his cheek, pulls up the left side of his mouth. The company got used to it on The Ruby by the time we made land after all those weeks. They remark the scar here in Sydney Cove. Seen from his right and facing ahead he's such a fine-looking man. If people meet him so and he turns to face them they fall back and look away. He sees this. I believe that he finds this reaction to be funny.


Excerpted from The Yalda Crossing by Noel Beddoe. Copyright © 2012 Noel Beddoe. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Look down with me,
The wind and other children,
The jungle will swallow anything,
Crow season,
The milk in the sky,
The capital of missing persons,
The lap,
Plain Indians,
Hello, Satan,
The shipping views,
A selfish prayer,
The opposite of peace,
Extra time,
An innocent man,
Unconditional love,
The air you need,
The taxi driver,

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