Tying the Knots

– Based on a True Story –


The scruffy rope tied around Robert’s ankle pulled tight and he was dragged off a chunk of rock that was once the cliff-edge above. The rope sucked him across a flat patch of slippery green and then underwater. Soon in the distance, the rope-end burst free at the surface, dancing for a few moments before disappearing into a trail of bubbles. It was the fourth shark to get away that day. Robert Rice Howard surfaced with a knife in his hand and gasped at the salty air. He didn’t mind being in the water with the sharks. Some of the locals were certain he wrestled them to land without all of his hooks and ropes. His wide trenchant hands waved back and forth, keeping him afloat as he bobbed up and down with the ocean, waiting to haul himself onto the rock-shelf. A wobbled, splash-ridden image of his face on the ocean’s surface caught his eye and he pushed away his gaze.

It was the 7th of January, 1906 and Robert had avoided the newspaper that day but the date was everywhere – in the sky, on the water, under the trees, over the sand dunes. Robert timed the ocean’s rhythm and he pulled himself out in a barrage of white. As he sat back down on his rock, his eyes rolled along the slight curve of the horizon. “We all pulled it. We all pulled tha’ rope. We all killed those boys”, he murmured.

A rope with a fresh chunk of pierced meat swung out from Robert’s hand and plopped into the ocean. The shifting blues and greens of the sea had become the backdrop for his wandering mind, peering at his former self – the tall and handsome twenty-nine year old, fresh off the boat from London; the gentleman living the good life with his young family in Sydney’s Paddington; the cabman with the most called-upon horse and carriage service in Darling Point and the only cabby the Duke of Edinburgh had entrusted to take him on his discreet nightly outings.

On his last day as a cabby, Robert had been preparing a horse, a much younger horse than his usual, ‘Lady’, to pull the carriage. Robert stepped behind the horse’s tail. Lady wouldn’t have minded but this young horse panicked. The horse’s hoof kicked up and hammered just below Robert’s eyes, shattering his nose and crushing his cheek bones.

The next job offered to him was the only job offer he received and it was a job that all others had refused – the town hangman. Robert’s work took place in the sandstone gaol on top of the hill in Darlinghurst and he became known as the ‘gentleman hangman’ mostly because of the black frock coat and white necktie he wore to every execution.

Lady, his only true companion, made her way back from the pub with quiet hooves and with two glasses of beer fixed to her saddle. Robert had trained Lady to walk across the sand dunes and up the hill to Dunlop’s Cliff Hotel House at the south end of Bondi Beach. Since his accident, Robert’s thirst for beer had grown but his injuries left him without a nose so Dunlop, the pub owner, thought there was a better way for Robert to drink his beer. Other pub owners did too and in Taylor Square Robert was told, “I’ would do m’ business no good if I gave men glasses into which you’d dipped y’ nose – if y’ ‘ad one”.

When Dunlop saw Lady out the front of the hotel, he would take Robert’s empty glasses and the money out of the saddle-bag. He’d replace it with two fresh beers and send Lady back on her way.

Robert adjusted his position on the rock, flicked at the ropes and scanned over the sand. For a brief time the area was all his and he lived alone amongst the streams, the rocky outcrops, the green gullies, the lagoons and the pale rust-streaked sand dunes. His sandstone cottage up on the headland at the northern end of the beach was his refuge. A convict called Ben Buckler had fallen from the cliffs years before and his name still haunted the area.

Robert squinted to see Lady standing in the shadow of a cluster of gum trees, resting from a long morning of helping to haul in sharks, his livelihood. Robert placed his thick thumb and middle-finger between his hairy lips and blew a piercing whistle. Lady looked up, stepped out of the shadow and continued back with the beers towards the north end of the beach.

When Robert hung ‘The Baby Killer of Burra Street’ and ‘The Blue Mountains Murderer’, the community was satisfied but it was different on the morning of the 7th of January, 1877. Four of the fifteen men involved in the crime were arrested and all were under twenty. They were said to have been part of the throng who pinned down and violated the young Mary Jane Hicks one evening. The four boys claimed they were innocent – George Duffy, Joseph Martin, William Boyce and Robert Read – ‘The Mount Rennie Rapists’. The Sydney Daily Telegraph printed that the crime was unparalleled and worse than the savageries of barbarism. The Sydney Bulletin labeled Mary Hicks a prostitute.

At 9 o’clock on that morning, the four young men were led out onto the platform. Robert Rice Howard was wearing his usual black frock coat and white necktie. He heard Reverend Father Byrne announce the boys’ fate to the mass of spectators. Robert stood in front of the teenagers and one-by-one he tied a white cloth over their eyes as their lips stretched and trembled in prayer. He walked each of them to the centre of their allotted double trap-door, adjusted their ropes and checked each knot, pulling each rope-end till the squeak stopped. Then he shifted each lever, one at a time, opening the wooden trap-doors to let each boy’s feet drop.

The following day, Robert saw that Truth had added the story of the four youths to their series: Robert Rice Howard’s Fumbled Executions. It was reported that the youths had suffered torturous and drawn-out deaths after being strangled, rather than properly hung, by ropes that were too short. In the past, Robert had also prepared ropes that, in the end, were too long and it had become common for many shillings and pounds to be wagered on such outcomes.

A white streak in the blue sky glided in front of the sun and the sensitive gnarl beneath Robert’s eyes sensed a sharp cool breeze. He pulled at the rope in the water and shuffled his feet on the rock. Lady still hadn’t returned and he peered out across the beach. Robert’s ear caught the voices of youthful shouting and laughter. He went looking for Lady and as the voices grew he heard Lady moan. From the top of a dune, Robert saw Lady surrounded by four teenagers.

“Don’ stand behind ‘er!”, he yelled.

They looked up at him and froze. One screamed out, “It’s Nosey Bob!”, and they all scattered before regrouping farther away. One of the boys stood in front, turned his back to Robert and bent over.

“Smell tha’ one could ya? ‘ey?”, one of them shouted across at Robert.

The sand squealed as Robert ran over to Lady and the four boys fled over the dunes with fading cackles. Lady had some beer froth over her mouth and the two empty glasses were lying next to her in dark patches of sand. Robert picked up the glasses and went over to wash the sand off in a nearby lagoon. He scooped up some water in his hands and splashed his face, letting out a wheezy muffled groan. With the glasses back in her saddle and a few more coins to purchase a fill, Robert sent Lady back to Dunlop’s.

Robert walked back along the tumbling sand towards his baited hooks. ‘The Bondi Estate’ was once a much quieter place, owned by Edward Hall and Hall’s son-in-law, Francis O’Brien. Much had changed since the turn of the century when a local reporter went against the ‘no daylight bathing’ law, setting in motion a big change down at the beach.

In all the time it took Lady to return from Dunlop’s Cliff pub, Robert’s rope hung in the same curve between his ankle and the water. Soon one fist followed the other and he pulled the rope into loops at his feet, eventually throwing the scraggly piece of bait back into the ocean.

Robert gazed across the bay at Waverly Cemetery where his wife, Jane, lay resting and his eyes settled on his miniscule patch that waited by her side. He went over to Lady’s saddle-bag and saw that the publican had obliged with a second round of beers. Robert raised a glass up and out to the horizon and took a sip. It was the last year he would endure a 7th of January.


Robert “Nosey Bob” Rice Howard took his last breath in his cottage up on the cliffs at Ben Buckler Point, North Bondi, on the 3rd of February 1906. The morning after his funeral, Truth published a poem in memoriam:

“The Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast

and breathed on the face of the foe as he pass’d;

Then the eyes of the sleeper closed up on his ‘nob’

and out went the light of “Nosey Bob!”

Blinding Vision

See that man in front of us? The one with the long purple coat and shiny hat. That one, there, moving like a pinball through the crowd. That’s him, follow him! We launch like silver metal balls jolting through the morning crowd and into underground walkway. There he is, next to the newsagency, the bakery, the shoe-shiner, there! We bolt past a lady in red who yells as her coffee splashes but the sound fades into the blur as we zip through, weaving through small gaps – pin-striped suits, blue shirts, brown shoes, red ties. He’s getting away. His coat flares as he jumps the turnstile and we do the same, leaping the gates without a ticket. By the time the railway guards react we’re gliding down the stairs towards the platform. We slip through the congestion and close in. A round woman with a triangular hand-bag pops out in front us and for a moment we split, shooting to either side. The man springs off the platform and all of his purple blackens as he disappears into the railway tunnel. We race after him into the heavy air which breathes like a neglected basement. Wooden sleepers bend our shoes as we run between the tracks, further into the darkness. As we round the bend the tunnel roars and we see his coat flapping, sailing and falling to the ground. He scales a ladder and pushes through a man-hole in the ceiling. A circle of light sprays over him and we see the finish on all his garments – his pants, shoes, hat, gloves and even his belt – all purple and gleaming. The walls in the tunnel shudder and screech and we dash up the ladder in chase. At the top we see him shrinking into the sky. The wind dries our eyes and cools our cheeks as we accelerate upwards after him. We stretch out to streamline and the world below us shrinks. We’re gaining on him. He stops at a wooden bridge, suspended in mid-air, and we wonder if we are still suspended in disbelief. He races across the bridge and we follow but the planks give way under our feet and we fall. We’re dropping fast and our suspension of disbelief  slips out from under us. We land back in our chair at the edge of the story.

Hardly David’s

Where desperate neon cries
and footpaths ooze under his feet.
Where worn, scarlet women shine hollow
and inked voyagers come and go.
Where two-wheeled monsters glisten
and huddle side-by-side in a pack.
Where idly, their masters sit by,
he admires their villainous guise.

Standing next to the beasts,
the slaves and the masters,
he eyes a polished machine,
he wants to feel the ride.
To saddle the machine, gently,
to hold on and grab the reigns,
to be a Rebel, a Cavalier,
masked in the great leather clan.

He asks and the guy says, “sure”,
so he braces the prized bull.
With spread feet he holds two sword handles
and looks instantly dominant, supreme.
He looks at the owner and utters,
something about a fine set of wheels.
“You better watch out”, he laughs,
“That’s not my bike you know!”

His time with them is up,
off the bike, the crime-scene, he flees,
through laneways with hungry red-lights,
and alleys that prey on the street.


You see a 28 year old woman wearing only a g-string…

How would you feel if you were:
– at the beach sunbaking?
– at a public swimming pool?
– at a beachside café?
– at the local shopping centre?
– in the CBD?
– at a nudist camp?

You see a creature being killed outside…

How would you feel if it were:
– a mosquito?
– an ant?
– a fly?
– a cockroach?
– a mouse?
– a hamster?
– a cat?
– a dog?
– a pig?
– a cow?
– a human?

Sliding Scales

My big cousin is dead. Her lips are swollen and bloody. Around my cell is a poisonous gas, preventing escape. I had seen her, only moments earlier, gasping for the air she knew she shouldn’t breathe. Her eyes are weeping and the neighbours know but they remain silent and distant.

There are four of us still captive and there has been no sign of who is going to be next. Our captor strides towards us and the room shakes violently. He reaches forward and I secretly hope that it will be one of the others and not me, I don’t want to face the poisoned mist. His hand appears and leaves food at our entrance. I am hungry. We are all hungry and we are cautious but can’t resist.

On a small wooden table and right next to us, he takes our cousin, and with his trenchant knife he severs her head, peels back her skin and cuts her from her bones. He slices her into pieces, dips her into some soy sauce and slides her into his hairy, smiling mouth. He is watching us live our lives in fear, trapped and waiting. I need a place to hide; inside the skull, behind the bushes, in the house, under the scuba-diver? I’ll go behind the treasure chest.