After many years of a stressful career in the legal profession, I decided to make a tree change and move to country Victoria. Needing a challenge in life, I bought a rundown cottage on the main street of Hollow Bend, an old gold mining town some thirty klm’s west of Ballarat.
Built of bluestone in the 1870’s, the kitchen was a return to the 1940s, with an ancient green and cream Metters Kooka gas stove, a porcelain sink, and a free standing kitchen cabinet with sliding glass doors that held all of the cutlery and crockery and whatnot.
My challenge was to bring the cottage up to modern standards and run it as a bed and breakfast business. I had only just moved in – and busy making plans – when I first heard the tapping. It sounded like someone knocking on your bedroom door, loud enough to raise your attention, but not loud enough to disturb others.
I wasn’t overly bothered by it, and I put it down to some form of wildlife nesting on or within the old corrugated iron roof. To be honest though, by excusing it with some logical explanation, it meant that I didn’t have to get out of bed to investigate it.
The following night the noise worsened to the degree that I set out, torch in hand, to deal with the feathered or tailed culprit. I walked the perimeter of the house without finding anything, to realise the tapping noise was louder inside than out.
I moved my investigation indoors, and found the noise to be at its loudest in the kitchen. It seemed to be coming from behind the cabinet, but when I tried to move it away from the wall to check, it wouldn’t budge. The good news was that the tapping had stopped during my efforts, and as it was past eleven, I decided to call it a night.
In the morning I drove into Ballarat to meet Erik, a member of the local historical association, who had offered to help me in researching Hollow Bend’s gold mining history. When I told him where I was living, he seemed to be more interested in that than anything else.
A fount of local history, he told me that the cottage had once served as the district’s Post and Telegraph Office, until it was mysteriously shut down by the Department of Defence during the Second World War in 1942, without any explanation given to the local populace as to why.
Rather enjoying his historical gossip, Erik said it was strongly rumoured at the time that the post office’s telegraphist was actually a German spy, who was caught eavesdropping on the line for military information. This was very much compounded when soon after it’s closure, the Japanese bombed Darwin, and Australia faced the fear of a Japanese invasion.
The unanswered rumours in the town soon paled into the background as the Japanese threat became more prominent. The cottage sank into history along with Hollow Bend itself, which following the closure of the last mine in 1949, had become a ghost town by the mid 1950’s.
I thanked Erik for his trouble, and headed back to SPY’S DEN, or SPY’S LAIR perhaps, or some other such catchy name for my B & B.
That night, I began reading up on the town’s history. I visited Erik’s recommended websites, and thumbed through some of his books, until with eyelids wavering, it was time for sleep.
But it was not to be, for the tapping started again.
It had become an annoyance to me now, so I upped out of bed, grabbed my toolkit from the back porch and headed to the noise. With the aid of a crowbar and hammer, I jemmied the cabinet away from the wall, and to my surprise I discovered a hidden door.
Within moments, the tapping became more urgent. I suddenly remembered the rumours regarding the telegraphist spy, and the thought entered my head that perhaps the tapping noise was some form of morse code, a tapping version of dots and dashes perhaps.
I grabbed my notebook and penciled in the repeated bursts of long and short taps as dots and dashes. There were 17 in all. Then I found a website on my laptop that would convert morse code to English.
I transcribed my noted dots and dashes of …. . .-.. .–. — . into the input space, hit the convert button, and it read HELP ME
I returned to the kitchen where the tapping had intensified to a fever pitch. My mind was racing as to what to do, this was absolutely crazy, a way out of control situation. Was I in danger? Should I just get the hell out of there? Should I call the police? Or Erik? Or what for God’s sake?
But the message had said help me, and instinctively I grabbed the hammer and struck it into one of the panels of the door. It bounced off the first time, but upon the second swing a hole the same size as the hammerhead appeared in the door.
As I pulled the hammer away for another blow, I felt something gush out through the hole and whoosh past my head, like a puff of wind from an air hose, and although very difficult to describe in words, I felt it to be some form of an escaping presence.
I knocked out the panel of the door, and shone my torch into the darkness to reveal a hidden cellar. After I power-tooled the door open, I carefully descended its rickety wooden steps, sweeping aside the stalactites of cobwebs as I went, and stood upon the earthen floor. Going by the walls of old timbered shelving, I assumed it to be an old storage room and noted nothing of any interest.
As I trod on the fourth step going back up, the timber tread fell apart and sent me scuttling back onto the dirt floor, bringing more steps with it. Picking myself up, I could see that one of the staircase’s support timbers had rotted away, and on getting closer to check the damage, I noticed the bones of a human hand just showing through the soil, in what became the grisly finding of skeletal remains that lay in the dark dank sadness of a shallow grave.
I reported my finding to a Sergeant Moore at the local police station, who referred it on to the Department of Defence, believing it to be possibly rooted in the Crimes Act of 1914, relating to military secrets of World War 2.
An army officer arrived from Melbourne soon after and poked around for a bit. But as he said, seventy-five years had passed, which was beyond the life of military secrets, and perhaps it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. He arranged for the remains to be taken away for DNA testing, and held in records.
A few days later, I was laying tiles on the bathroom floor when there came a knock at the door. I was met by a woman I would have placed in her seventies.
“My name is Ellen Kroger”, she said, “And I read about the grave discovered here in The Age newspaper, and I believe it may be possible that my father, Gottfried Kroger, was the person who was buried here.” I invited her inside, recognising this as a ‘put the kettle on’ occasion. Over our cup of tea, she told me about her father.
He was born in Hahndorf, South Australia, to German immigrant parents, and had met her mother there. He had trained in Adelaide as a telegraphist, and Hollow Bend had been his first posting.
According to her mother, although the town gossip went that Fred was eavesdropping on the telegraph line for so-called spying reasons, he was actually sending his beloved fiancée a privately worded telegram telling of his deep love for her, and suggesting they marry before her pregnancy showed.
She removed an old photo album from her bag, and turned to a page that revealed a tattered and yellowed telegram that read:
MISS ANNIE FLEMING 8:39pm 15 FEB 42 WORDS 34
14 WALES ST
MY DEAREST DARLING STOP WORDS CANNOT CONVEY MY JOY TO HEAR OF YOUR BLESSED STATE STOP LET US MARRY FORTHWITH TO QUELL THE WAGGING TONGUES STOP I SHALL RETURN TO HAHNDORF TO BE WITH
And there it abruptly ended.
Anti-German sentiment was rife in Australia during WW2, Ellen told me, and all evidence for Fred’s murder pointed to Hollow Bend’s Postmaster, a man whose own father had been killed by the Germans in World War One, and he more than likely believed that his actions were in the best interests of his country. He had quietly disappeared when the post office was shut down.
I took Ellen down to the cellar to be where Gottfried had lain, and allowed her to just be. At grief’s end I bid her goodbye at her taxi, and thought upon her final summing up of the tragic and needless death of her unknown father.
“I never knew my dad, and it is a sadness I have questioned for the whole of my life”, she had said to me, “And at the age of seventy-seven, and my mother long gone, I now look back on it as folly, we simply became tangled up within the squander of life-wasting human folly.”