Chapter 1: Arrival
Some months earlier …….
The young man stood scanning the waiting crowd for the face he knew would be waiting for him. He drew out a daguerreotype from his pocket and glanced at it once more to remind him of the face he sought. Behind and around him people were jostling to get themselves and their possessions down the ramp leading from the gently swaying intercontinental dirigible tethered to the landing stage atop the Melbourne General Post Office at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.
The building doubled as a convenient landing station for the range of aircraft that moved into and out of the city centre. As well as dirigibles and balloons, the landing station was used by the Post Office to launch and land their own state of the art cam-driven postal couriers. These were basically winged bicycles driven by strong, very fit young people. They needed to be strong and fit because the only force keeping the craft aloft over the rooftops of Melbourne was that produced by their very own legs.
The momentum of the crowd pushed him forwards until he stopped some way from the ramp.
“Clear the way, there!” came a shout from the left of Mitchell, for that was the name of the young traveller who had just landed. He turned to see bearing down on him from the grey and smoky skies one of these couriers. The Postie, as these dare devils were called, was pedaling furiously in reverse, the wings on this bike moving in reverse, as he attempted to slow his descent. He was heading directly at Mitchell who had stopped right in the middle of the runway it seemed.
“Clear the way!” shouted the Postie once more.
Mitchell jumped quickly backwards just in time to avoid being skittled by the bike. Within seconds the bike had landed and the driver used his booted feet to stop the bike just in time to avoid flying off the opposite side of the rooftop. This was a career fraught with danger.
“Clear the way!” shouted the next Postie in line to land and Mitchell decided it was time to move on.
Most of his fellow travellers had already disappeared, as had the crowd, which had awaited the arrival of the dirigible. He picked up his hold all and jogged to the edge of the rooftop, which was guarded by a highly decorated waist high wrought iron fence. He turned around to watch proceedings as this seemed to be the time most of the Posties arrived back from their deliveries.
Quickly, as having done this many times before, most of the Posties were expert and landed safely. One or two overshoot the rooftop and took off again to bank and circle for another try.
After landing the Posties dismounted their crafts and moved to the side of the runway. There they parked and secured the wings close to the sides of the bikes. They each picked up their empty saddle bags in which they had carried their letters and parcels, pushed their goggles back onto their helmets and marched to the lift which would take them down to the dispatch office in the basement of the building. Their faces were black with soot and clean only where their goggles had been. Mitchell likened them to miners he had seen in his native Ireland.
The Postie who had shouted at Mitchell called over to him. “D’ya want to meet with an early death, ya misfiring piston. Stay off the runway if ya know what’s good for ya.”
“I’ll do that in future, to be sure,” called Mitchell, lifting his bowler hat in recognition of his mistake.
“Ya see that ya do,” called the driver and joined in a laugh with his driver mates who had been listening to the exchange.
The group of Posties stood together at the lift doors in the covered corner of the rooftop pushing on the call button. When the lift arrived the ornate wrought iron doors opened and they strode into it, the doors closed and they disappeared from view as the lift descended.
Finally, the last of the Posties landed, parked her bike and descended from view in the lift leaving the rooftop with Mitchell the only occupant. The dirigible had moved on already.
Mitchell turned around and leaned out over the fence and looked down on Bourke Street. He knew it was afternoon but he didn’t know the time exactly. He thought that judging by the number of people milling around the cable car station it could be getting near to close of business time. He could hear the distinctive clanging and rattling of the cable car as it travelled down the middle of the street and could see it swaying from side to side. Top hats and bowlers, caps and helmets, tiny chapeaux and wisps of lace and feathers moved bodiless in a continual and unending dance below Mitchell on the street. He wondered what they all did and where they were all going.
The clock in the tower on the corner of the building began striking and Mitchell counted 6 strokes. He lifted his watch out of his vest pocket and reset it to 6. The day was coming to an end and still no-one had arrived to meet him. He pulled his jacket close. It was getting cold. He felt spots of rain and he looked over the guardrail to see that the tops of hats had transformed into a sea of umbrellas. Soon the spots turned into a downpour and Mitchell, wishing he had an umbrella of his own, sprinted to the corner shelter where the lift was located. He slumped into a dry corner and took a letter from his hold all. Taking his matches from his pocket he lit one and illuminated the letter. Satisfied, he folded the letter and replaced it in his bag. His matches were placed in his jacket pocket. He settled in, pulled his jacket even closer, pulled his bowler down lover over his eyes and settled in to wait. The letter had said that he would be met and he knew better than to cross the writer of the letter. Wait he would.
He must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew a gravelly voice was whispering close to his ear.
“You should be careful where you fall asleep. Melbourne crawls with dangerous low life ready to relive you of your baggage or your life.”
The voice was barely audible but to Mitchell it sounded like the knell of death itself.
Steel fingers dug into his scalp and pushed his head into the wall so that he could not see the face of his attacker but he could smell the breath of his attacker, sour and fetid, the breath of a smoker with bad teeth.
Mitchell closed his eyes tight and prepared for the worst.
TO BE CONTINUED …