Sometimes Nanna tells me about her Grandfather, Charlie Stewart
, who used to swim in Surabaya harbour when he was just five years old.
Although no one then would have thought of saying so, Charlie Stewart and his wife were basically Nanna’s surrogate parents. There was no nastiness about the way she was handed over by her real parents, they were doing well enough and lived in a nice house just down the road which she visited often, but in 1924 when Nanna was born they already had six children so outsourcing the raising of the latest one just made sense.
Later on, as it happened, it would become apparent that Nanna, if not a genius, was by far the most brilliant person their little potato farming town had ever produced, but by then their decision to give her away was made and there was no going back.
Charlie Stewart often told Nanna about what happened at the end of the 1840s when, as a five year old kid, his own parents had towed him along on an ill-fated expedition to extend English settlement beyond the south coast and into northern Australia.
At that stage the English in Australia hadn’t spread very far beyond a few isolated cities in the south east. They had mapped the north coast, but there were no towns there. They were worried if they didn’t occupy it the French or the Dutch would.
Little Charlie Stewart along with animals and seeds and all the other things needed to build an outpost in the wilderness was loaded onto a ship that sailed up the coast and set the settlers ashore in a patch of crocodile infested marsh close to where Darwin is today. Back then, as far as the settlers were concerned, the land was empty, inhabited only by mysterious and understandably hostile aboriginal tribes.
Although a good idea in theory this early attempt at founding a northern city never got off the ground. Their buildings kept on getting demolished by cyclones and the settlers themselves were whittled away by boredom and disease.
Rather than let them all perish the government in Sydney diverted a ship that was sailing up to the Indonesian sugar port of Surabaya to stop off and rescue them.
In 1933 Charlie Stewart, a resourceful moustached man who built many of the rattly wooden bridges that cross the rivers north of Melbourne, liked to talk about the two weeks he’d spent trapped on board the ship as it waited to take on board its cargo in Surabaya harbour as they made their way home.
The failed settlers hadn’t been allowed ashore for some reason, and of course young Charlie had been terribly bored. His parents placated him with the promise that if he was a good boy he would be allowed a swim each evening.
Apparently, Nanna tells me Charlie told her, his Father got permission to take the ship’s little rowboat and would drift out a little distance where Charlie would be released to paddle around in the warm sea with a rope tied firmly around his chest for quick and easy retrieval.
When Nanna tells me this she’s thinking of Charlie Stewart, and not of Grand Dad, who is not here anymore.
That’s a good thing.
When I hear her telling this story I think about the time I got off a boat in Surabaya, although I hadn’t heard about Charlie Stewart then, and didn’t know that one hundred and fifty years earlier he had been there, waiting to go home and paddling in the water.
With very little effort I can see it now, Surabaya in the evening, in 1849.
When I’m there, in my imagination, I see weak lights shining from the shore and slightly brighter ones coming from the ship, and all the other ships riding at anchor. They lights aren’t powerful enough to reflect much off the water so the harbour is very dark. Up above the stars are very bright, but on this night there’s no moon.
Little Charlie Stewart would be floundering about in the warm brine around the boat never more than a little arm’s reach from the side. He’s splashing water everywhere and audibly trying to stop the salt water getting up his nose.
“What”, says Charlie before his voice his interrupted by splashing and the swimming sounds of a kid who knows he’s not really able to talk and stay afloat at the same time, but is happy enough to try, “about the sharks Dad”.
There’s a breeze blowing in from over the island of Java that isn’t cool, but seems so after the heat of the day. Charlie’s Dad is standing balanced in the boat with the rope in one hand and his tobacco pipe in the other. The air carries a heavy tropical smell of rotting plants and earth that makes the life of the island seem very close, but it doesn’t interest him. He’s got too much else on his mind.
“Dad?” Charlie asks after a bit more splashing and no answer from above.
“The sharks, Charlie?”
There’s a splash that is sort of affirmative.
The man in the boat pulls lightly on the rope to make his son is still attached and looks over toward the ship that had taken him away from his failure.
“Well” he says “the captain said we don’t have to worry about them”.