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Little Boy Lost
'Sandra,' I exclaimed. 'Sit down. You look awful. What on earth's happened?'
It was an institution. Every Saturday, I would meet Sandra Fullerton at the
Chadstone Shopping Mall for coffee and a chat. We had known each other as
schoolgirls at ' Lauriston', then lost touch, meeting again in the street five
years ago. She's now the Creative Director of MMDO, a Melbourne advertising
agency, while I'm Personal Assistant to a mining company executive.
Sandra - who is smart, direct and funny - never married, while I had a short.
disastrous marriage that, happily, is now many years behind me. I was a little
in awe of Sandra as a child. She was attractive and intelligent. Very much White
Bread Protestant, while I've always been the dark, nerdy type. I would have felt
astonished and skeptical if you had told me as a schoolgirl that one day Sandra
and I would become firm friends.
Yet it happened and we found, to our mutual surprise and delight, that we shared
many opinions and interests. For example, while we both liked babies- myself
more than Sandra - we agreed that it was a pity so many grew into fractious
children and troublesome adults. We agreed men were largely a waste of space. We
both enjoyed Italian opera, French films and American poetry. We shared books
and that Saturday, I had just finished the latest Booker Prize winner. I found
it just as entertaining as Sandra had promised when she loaned it to me a week
before. I was looking forward to sharing my enjoyment of some of the hilarious
passages with her.
'Browsers' where we met for coffee is not a cafe. as the name suggests, it's a
bookshop. Two years ago, its owner, Harry Martin decided it would be good
business if his patrons could select a book from the display shelves, pour a cup
of tea or coffee and sit down at a table to read before deciding if they wished
to buy a book. A civilized notion which drew a devoted coterie of booklovers to
the Chadstone Shopping centre each Saturday. There was never any pressure to
finish your coffee and leave the space for another patron, as sometimes happens
in cafes or coffee shops. Nor was Harry one of those sad, anxious types always
hovering around, frightened you might spill your drink over his precious books.
That happened once and Harry just smiled and refused to take any money for the
damaged volume. 'It happens. Don't give it a thought,' he placated the clearly
distressed elderly lady at the next table. It didn't concern Harry if you
dawdled over a book all day or preferred to riffle through one of the gigantic
weekend newspapers, instead of a 'Browser's' book. Harry Martin liked books,
liked readers and is, deservedly I think, a wealthy man.
I always chose one of the tables outside the shop on the balcony, where I could
both see the shoppers and Sandra as she came up the elevator.
But that Saturday, she had changed. Instead of her normally determined stride
and the beaming smile when she saw me, pushing her sunglasses up into her unruly
mop of golden hair, Sandra looked tired and her smile was guarded.
Seeing me, she essayed a smile but was clearly troubled as she joined me at our
table. Having blurted out my concern, I remained silent, pouring her coffee and
adding milk and sugar, while waiting for her answer.
'Tell me what's happened,' I repeated when she didn't reply.
Sandra sighed. 'Oh, this sounds so silly I know,' she began. ' Do you believe in
Oddly, it was a subject we had never discussed.
'Not really. They always seemed rather pointless to me.'
'That's what I thought. Well, I don't know what you'd call it, but
something...,' she trailed off.
'Let me tell you how it started,' she began. ' You recall my writing desk?'
I nodded. It was a 19th. Century, flame cedar, lady's desk. I recalled it had a
fold down lid, beautifully fitted drawers and finely carved legs. Sandra had
found it a decade ago, at the back of a Tasmanian bric-a-brac store. She told me
she had paid a good price to have it shipped to her home in Caulfield on the
mainland. Whatever she paid, it would be a fraction of what the piece would
fetch at auction today.
'I was dusting the desk and when I bent down to clean the legs, I noticed a
brass plate fixed under one of the drawers.
'Of course, I had seen the plate when I first bought the desk. It read in
flowing type ''Angus Wirth, Cabinetmaker and Joiner. Launceston.''
'Having read the plate again, I began to wonder what was known about Angus
Wirth. I typed his name into the Internet search engine on my computer without
much hope of success. It came back with several hits: websites examining
Colonial history as well as a genealogical site, listing members of the Wirth
'I found Angus had a colorful history. He had a mixed ancestry. His mother was
Scottish, while his father was German. Originally, the family was named Wirter,
but this was later simplified and anglicized into Wirth. As a young man, Angus
forged a will in his favour. A rich uncle appeared to have left his entire
estate to Angus. He probably would have got away with the deception, but Angus
had a brother, who was religiously inclined, and he reported the deception.
Angus was arrested in London, tried and convicted. His sentence of hanging was
later commuted to transportation and Angus was sent to the notoriously harsh
penal colony of Port Arthur in what we now know as Tasmania.
'Angus, it seems, bitterly repented of his crime and having served his term,
finally earned his Ticket of Leave and set up a business in Launceston.
'This was all mildly interesting, but what caught my attention was a reference
to his cabinetmaking skills.
'It appeared that Angus, though mainly self taught, rapidly became a master of
his craft. His eye for detail that was once so helpful in forgery was now put to
better use. He made furniture for many of the wealthier citizens of Launceston
and Hobart Town, demonstrating that many of the normally despised local timbers
could be used as substitutes for decorative European wood. In fact, there is
some evidence that Angus gained a reduction in his sentence after making various
pieces of furniture for the Prison Governor and other officers. His fame grew
and the Governor of Tasmania visited Angus and commissioned numerous pieces for
'It was probably the Governor who decided that it would be a waste in a
fledgling colony where talent was in short supply, to leave a talented man to
rot in prison. Furniture was desperately needed, and the men and women who made
up the island's society wanted fine pieces to impress their friends.
Unfortunately, once you got past the bush carpenters who could knock up a rough
table, you generally had to order pieces from England, which took months to
arrive and often then looked out of place in their new homes.'
'Angus certainly sounds a man of parts,' I observed, wondering where the history
lesson was heading.
'Yes,' Sandra continued, a little cross at my interruption. 'but what jumped out
from the description of Wirth's craftsmanship was a brief, but tantalising
reference to his habit of building secret drawers into his desks and tables.'
Seeing my puzzled expression, Sandra went on. 'I suppose a psychologist might
see this as some sort of instinct for secrecy and deception. The man who was
once a forger was still laughing up his sleeve at a gullible world, but a
historian would offer a much simpler explanation. I did some research and found
it was not uncommon for Victorians to build, or have built, secret drawers in
furniture. Part of the reason was to demonstrate skill, but there was also the
Victorian's love of novelty and gadgetry, as well the very real need for
security in a time of rampant crime.
'Of course, as soon as I read this, I began to carefully examine my desk. I
pushed and prodded every inch of its surface until, just when I was about to
give up, I pressed a far edge of some ornamentation and a tiny drawer sprang out
like a Jack-in-the- Box. It was marvellously concealed, the tiny edge of the
drawer being hidden in the shallow valley and shadow of the carving.'
'What a wonderful discovery!' I interrupted. 'Was anything in the drawer?'
Sandra looked uncomfortable. 'Just one thing. A photograph. It was in sepia and
very old. Victorian era. It showed a boy who was about eight years old. He had a
beautiful face, and a wistful, even tragic expression.
'At first, I thought he was asleep. On the back of the photo was a single word
in copperplate writing: ''Joshua''. I turned Joshua's picture over and looking
at him again, I realized something.'
'That he was dead,' I supplied.
'How did you guess?' Sandra demanded.
I was also interested in the Victorians and paraded my small knowledge. 'It was
common for Victorians to take photographs of dead family members. The 19th
Century was a time when Death was very much part of everyone's experience.
People had large families, but many children died as babies or toddlers. Then,
you often had three generations living in the same house. The Victorians didn't
have the same fearful attitude to death that we have today. They believed, a
cynic might say that they had to believe, that this life was only a brief
passage before blissful eternity.'
'Well, it gave me the creeps seeing a photograph of a dead boy,' Sandra said
decisively. 'So much so that I thought of burning it. In the end, I put the
picture back in the drawer and closed it. Its destroyed my pleasure in the desk
and I'm thinking of advertising it for sale.'
'You're overreacting,' I protested. 'That's a lovely desk and you said you find
it useful. After all, what are we talking about? It's only a picture of a dead
boy. It's sad, but it's also interesting that Joshua has achieved a sort of
immortality. So many years after his death, he makes you wonder who he was and
how he died. Could he have been one of the Wirth children?'
'I don't think so. There was no mention of his name among the list of the
children of Angus Wirth. He might have been an illegitimate son, but I gained
the impression that wasn't Angus's style.'
'Well, there you are,' I said comfortably.' A mystery that you'll never solve.
Let me get you another coffee. Your drink must be cold.'
'No, thanks. I haven't finished yet and it helps to talk. I haven't told you
about the dreams.
'That night,' she continued. 'I had a brief, but horrid dream. I was standing by
my desk. I pressed the panel and the secret drawer shot out. I picked up the
photo and looked at it. Suddenly, Joshua's eyes snapped open and he was staring
at me. The rest of his face remained sepia, but his eyes were a brilliant
cornflower blue. His lips began to move and he tried to form words. It seemed to
be an appeal for help, but I couldn't hear him. Then I woke with a jolt.
'It took me a long time to fall asleep, but I must have finally drifted off
because I began to dream. I dreamt that I had risen from my bed to go to the
toilet. As you know, my toilet is in the back of the house, just off an enclosed
'As I reached the door to the sunroom, I heard a small, light voice from the
other side of the door calling ''Sandra''. I dreaded opening the door, but
finally I wrenched it open. There to my horror stood a young boy. It was Joshua.
He was dressed in an embroidered nightshirt, which was drenched in muddy water.
There was a small piece of pondweed in his slicked down hair. He was dripping
water onto the tiled floor of the sunroom.'
'Horrible,' I shuddered.
'It was both frightening and terribly sad. Joshua began talking to me. It was
very odd. It was as though he was continuing, rather beginning a conversation.
His words were, ''And you know, I'm lonely there. Lonely.'" His words seemed to
echo as though they were being sucked down a long corridor. I woke with a cry
and lay for a long time, trembling in my bed.
'Finally, the need to go to the toilet forced me out of bed.'
'Good idea,' I said. 'If I wake from a nightmare set in my house, I always get
up to reassure myself that everything is alright.'
'I don't mind telling you I felt scared turning the handle to the sunroom. When
I did, Joshua wasn't there.'
'Of course he wasn't. It was only...'
Sandra interrupted. 'And I felt tremendous relief. Then I looked at the floor.'
'The floor?', I prompted, when Sandra fell silent.
'Yes, on the floor, drying into the unglazed tiles were small pools of water.
Joshua had been there.'
'There must be an explanation,' I reasoned. 'I know the weather has been dry for
weeks, but had you been watering your plants the day before. perhaps you didn't
notice you had spilt some water.'
'No,' Sandra said shortly. ' It was Joshua.'
'This is nonsense,' I persisted. 'There must be a rational explanation. After
all, it's just some water on the floor. Spillage. Condensation. Who knows?'
As I finished speaking, we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker system in
'Ladies and gentlemen, please pardon my interruption. This is the Centre Manager
speaking. I hope that you're enjoying your shopping time with us. If there is a
Sandra Fullerton in the Mall, would you please come to my office? The Manager's
Office is located on the third floor, turn right as you exit the lifts. We have
a little lost boy here, who says he's your son. Joshua is waiting for you.'
Time froze. Sandra's coffee, violently spilled across the table, reached the
edge and paused before slowly dripping down. People started to turn, their faces
registering irritation or shock. A security guard left his post where he had
been lounging and began to run toward us, but he seemed to be moving in slow
And all the time, Sandra was screaming. On and on and on.
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