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Little Boy Lost


Stephen Collicoat

'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 ghosts?'

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 family.

'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 Government House.

'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 sunroom.

'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 the Mall.

'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 motion.

And all the time, Sandra was screaming. On and on and on.

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