By Matt Hawkins
David Wheeler stood at the corner of William and Flinders and squinted up into the rain. People in dark suits with dark umbrellas scurried past the trunks of buildings. Traffic lights glowed dimly, as if from under the sea. He could smell the swollen river that lay unseen beyond a dark railway bridge. A truck snored by, spraying the pavement behind him with water from an overflowing gutter. David barely noticed.
The hotel was a block of bluestone with a flat roof and dark inset windows. Melbourne’s early colonial buildings were unremarkable, and tended to look like prisons. On one hand this usually meant slim pickings for David; on the other few people cared enough about them to oppose their demolition. The passing of the Heritage Act in 1995 would slow the destruction, but that was still eighteen years away.
David’s eyes lingered on the first floor windows. They were uniform rectangles, arched at the top, except for the one furthest from the street corner, which was circular, like a porthole. It was barred. It may have been a later addition, or the remnant of an earlier building. The builders may have run out of windows and salvaged one from somewhere else. David made a mental note to have the window removed prior to demolition. It was unusual. It might be valuable.
He looked back down Flinders Street and saw a black cloud shaped like a horsehead rolling in from the bay. Hail, he thought. There had been none forecast. He mounted the two steps that led to the hotel’s narrow doorway and stepped into the shadow of a filthy awning. He removed his raincoat and shook beads of water from it; the droplets bounced off the oiled surface of the cable knit jumper he wore underneath.
The hotel was dim inside. An old man was huddled over the bar. He didn’t look up when David entered, and the only sign he was alive was the hand that crept out to a pot of beer and lifted it shakingly to his blue lips. A woman emerged from a back room, wiping her hands on her apron. She was in her fifties, her hair very red and her skin very white. She forced a smile at David, then reached out and put a hand over one of the old man’s. It was an oddly tender gesture. She whispered something to him. He glanced suspiciously at David then turned away again. The woman removed her hand from the old man’s and turned to David.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“Can we start upstairs?”
She paused, and in that moment David heard the hail start up outside. The old man looked up at the distant roar.
“If you like,” she said, raising her voice over the drumming hail.
David followed her to the back of the building, where there was a staircase and a locked door. She flicked a switch and a dim light blinked on above their heads. He could smell the wet laneway outside.
“Didn’t catch your name,” he said.
“Molly.” She gave him a cautious smile. It made her look younger. In other circumstances he might have flirted good-naturedly with her, but he was experienced enough to know never to appear to enjoy his work too much. He was, essentially, a funeral director.
He climbed the narrow stairs behind her. She moved well for her size: she was overweight, but proportionately so. Her left hip brushed the wall with a ssshhh as it swayed gently back and forth.
He stopped halfway up the stairs to look at a framed black-and-white photograph. Molly must have heard his footsteps stop, because she reached out for the banister and looked back over her shoulder at him.
The photo had been taken from the other side of William Street, from either a first or second floor balcony. The street was a mire. The dresses of the two women standing beneath the hotel’s awning were muddy from the knees down, though they both carried parasols and wore fine hats. Wagons plowed up and down the street. Even without the porthole window and the stark lettering above the ground floor windows proclaiming it to be THE STEAM PACKET HOTEL, the building was instantly recognisable. David squinted at the bottom right-hand corner, where there was a date (1861) and the initials E.K. He looked up at Molly, but she had already turned and resumed climbing.
“Anyone stay up here?” David said as he reached the first floor landing.
“Not for years.”
Molly shrugged and gestured up the hallway. The wallpaper was peeling. A large round water stain in the ceiling had gone mouldy. The wine-coloured carpet was worn though down the middle of the hallway and had rucked up at the edges like a pie crust.
“Dad did it up after the war,” she said. “We had a few people stay, but they didn’t last long. Some idiot journalist stayed here and spread a story that it was infested with rats. Said he heard them in the walls. The story caught on. After that Dad couldn’t get any bookings.”
“You ever stay up here?”
She gave him a strange look. “Once.”
David waited for her to go on, but instead she turned and swayed off down the hall, the floorboards creaking under her weight. After a moment he followed her.
There were six rooms. Each featured a cheap art deco wardrobe, a single bed with no mattress, a bare bulb, and a rectangular window. There was a thin layer of dust on everything. There was no carpet in any of the rooms. David made a mental note to salvage the Baltic pine floorboards. Anything was better than nothing.
The sixth room contained a framed photograph. Again, a date (1862) and the initials E.K. Molly gave it an uneasy look, and turned back towards the hall. “That’s all,” she said.
“Who’s the girl?” David said, leaning in towards the photograph.
Molly frowned. “E.K. was Elias Kettle. Owned the hotel in the 1860s. Ask Dad, he knows more about it than me. I think this was his daughter. Pretty huh?”
David nodded. The girl was five or six. She reminded David of his own daughter when she had been that age, and he felt an illogical rush of affection for the strange, long-dead girl. “What’s she holding?”
David raised his eyebrows.
Molly laughed nervously. “That’s what the papers called it. He made his fortune in the Ballarat goldfields. His claim was up on a hill. Dug for a year before he hit gold. Told the press he found the egg sitting right there in the lode. I guess that inspired the dragon story.”
David squinted at her.
“Dragons hoard gold,” she explained.
“Perhaps he had it made. A hoax, you know? Anyway, he came back to Melbourne. Bought this hotel and lived here with his daughter.”
“Died in childbirth.”
He peered closely at the photograph. “Dinosaur egg?”
“Could be. Naturalist came out from England to look at it, but by the time he got here it was too late.”
“Kettle lost it,” Molly said
David leaned in closer. The photograph was grainy and shadowy. The girl was sitting on a chair, a hand on each side of the egg. It was so large that its point reached her chin. He realised that if it was concrete it would have crushed her. Plaster perhaps, or papier mâché. Whether due to a trick of light or some photographic effect, the perspective of the room seemed somehow wrong: in the corner of the photograph the floor and ceiling appeared to curve up to meet. A single, porthole-like window opened out onto an empty sky.
“Better get back downstairs,” Molly said. “Don’t like to leave Dad alone too long.” It was clear she didn’t like the photograph.
When they had finished inspecting the hotel Molly asked him if he wanted a beer. Although he didn’t usually drink on the job, David felt obliged to say yes. He sat at the bar beside the old man. Molly poured his beer then went out the back.
In the time it had taken to inspect the hotel the old man had managed to drink only half of his beer. He stared into it as if David wasn’t there. David was about to ask him about the missing window, but the old man spoke first.
“Find any treasures?”
David said nothing.
“Oh I’ve heard all about you on the wireless. Wheeler the Wrecker. Famous.” His voice warbled as it rose, like a cart gathering speed.
“That was my father.”
“Apple never falls far from the tree. Look at my daughter, staying on here when she should’ve been out finding a rich husband. As much sense as I ever had.”
David said nothing.
“Go on, knock her down. Good riddance. Never made a bob for me anyway.”
“How old is it?” David said, eager to change the subject.
“Batman bought the land in 1837 – know him?”
“Heard of him.”
“Bet you didn’t know he wanted to call the city Batmania, after himself. Batmania.” He broke out into a croaking laugh, and David smiled. He knew that story too.
“Paid seventy-five pounds for the land. Someone built a hotel on it. Maybe Batman himself. Who knows? They didn’t keep good records back then.”
“Kettle?” David said.
The old man shook his head. “He was a convict. Transported here in 1831. Served his term, went off to the goldfields. Least two blokes owned the Steam Packet before him.” He reached out for his beer with a shaking hand and brought it to his lips. When he put it down again he ran his tongue over his lips. “Been trying to sell it for years. This one bloke was going to turn it into a family restaurant. Jesus. Another wouldn’t tell me what he had planned. Something shameful no doubt. There’s this queer place up the road where all the young fellas go and take drugs. What do I care? Just wanted it off my hands. Never told any of them about Kettle. Some people are superstitious – might’ve soured the deal. But you… you’re just knocking it down.”
“I’m just knocking it down,” David intoned slowly, like a priest.
“They found her out there in the lane,” the old man said.
“His daughter. They couldn’t identify her at first. Just bones you see. Picked clean.”
David tried to reconcile this with the girl in the photo, and for a while his mouth felt too dry to speak. “She could’ve been dead a long time,” he finally managed.
The old man shook his head. “Three people saw her alive the day before.”
The old man shook his head. “Worked in the bar that night, dozens of people saw him. Was seeing a woman – she was with him the rest of the night. All on the reports. I got interested when I first bought the place. Did some digging around.” He smiled ghoulishly. The skin seemed to have fallen from his cheeks and pooled around his neck, where it hung like a turkey’s wattles. “They never solved it. The pub attracted a rough crowd in those days: whalers, miners, fishermen – blew in, blew out. Could’ve been any of them.”
The hail had stopped while they were upstairs; now there was just a dusty, antiquarian silence. There was no sound from the back room. David wondered if Molly was waiting around the other side of the doorway, listening.
“Kettle closed the pub after that,” the old man said. “Nobody saw him for a long time. Or maybe they did and no-one thought to mention it – it wasn’t like these days where you can’t fart without it making the six o’clock news. Seemed like someone was doing work on the pub though. Then it stopped. Couple of years passed and nothing. Kettle must’ve been living here the whole time, slowly running out of money. His debts piled up. Eventually they must’ve got sick of sending him letters and sent someone to repossess it.”
David glanced at his watch. The inspection had taken less time that he had expected, but he had to be at a site on the other side of the city by three.
“They couldn’t get in,” the old man went on. “He’d nailed the doors shut, boarded the windows. Refused to come out. Said he’d shoot anyone who came through the door. So they called the police. They broke down the door. Kettle had an empty shotgun. Babbling about monsters in the walls. They put him in an asylum. He didn’t live out the year.”
“How’d he die?”
“Never found out.”
“What happened to the hotel?”
“No family, so when he died his property went to the Crown. They hung onto it for a while, then sold it in 1871.” He finally looked up at David. “This new owner – he’s not going to change his mind is he?”
“Already has approval. We start next week. Week after that it’ll be gone. Then they bring in the excavators.”
For the next two weeks David hardly gave a thought to the Steam Packet. He had three other jobs on, so had given the hotel’s demolition over to his foreman to handle: a man who had started out with his father when David was still a kid. His name was Steve.
It was Steve who called him when the demolition was done.
“Floorboards?” David said.
“Fine. Few rotten ones.”
“Bring them back to the depot. Oh and that window. Can’t remember if I asked you to…”
“Yeh you did. No we didn’t.”
“Come on Steve, that’s money.”
“Sorry mate. I should have noticed. Your old man would’ve killed me.”
David smiled. His old man’s passion for salvage had verged on mania. It had become a long-standing joke between David and Steve.
There was a long, uncharacteristic pause from Steve. In the background David could hear men shouting, chains rattling, caterpillar treads churning through rubble. “Something you want to tell me?” he said finally.
“One of the fellas just phoned in. Quit.”
Chris Bannon had only been with Wheelers for two years, but David had liked the boy. Always on time, never jerked around like the others, got along with everyone.
“Think he’s gone to Clarkson?” Clarkson Demolitions was Wheelers’ main competitor. Its only competitor, really: all the others were too small to pose a threat. Even Clarkson wasn’t much to worry about. Melbourne was a one-horse town, and Wheelers had things stitched up.
Steve paused again. “Don’t think so.”
“He say anything?”
“Been having nightmares.”
David didn’t laugh. He’d once seen a reinforced concrete wall fall on a man. When it was lifted away all they’d found was a long bloody smear. Then there was his father – he’d witnessed that one too. Demolition could be a fearsome business.
“You sent him out first,” Steve said.
Now David remembered. It was Bannon he’d sent to pry up the floorboards. To salvage that stupid window. He remembered thinking Bannon was capable enough to handle it alone.
“He had to take a wall out upstairs to get to that window,” Steve went on. “Reckons when he pulled the wallpaper away he found a bricked-in doorway. Knocked it out. There was a room behind it.”
Steve’s voice had dropped to a whisper, though nobody could have heard over the din in the background.
“He found a kind of nest in there. Big skeleton in the middle of it. Said it looked like it was all legs. That’s all he kept saying: all legs. Buggered if I know what he saw.”