• Mark J. Keenan

I will not be on TV today


But, I was supposed to be.


Last year, I was filmed for the first episode of a new series about shipwreck hunters exploring six historic maritime disasters which had occurred off the Australian coast. The show was to be delivered by one of the world's largest entertainment companies on their global streaming platform. It seemed unreal and I was looking forward to telling everyone, when I was eventually allowed.


Sadly, a few months ago I received a phone call from the media company. My part, and some others, had been cut. A decision had been made to reduce the episode length from an hour to forty-five minutes and we just could not be squeezed in. I was disappointed but the feeling didn't last. Instead, I felt grateful for the opportunity to be a part of something like this, for the incredible humans I'd had the chance to meet, and the wonderfully random series of experiences which had led me to being miked up and seated in front of a film crew.


It was a brief discussion with my dad which started it all. A conversation held online, at the start of the pandemic, when I interviewed him as part of an oral history assignment. We talked about many things. Where he grew up. What his parents were like. Where he lived. What he ate for school lunches. About his extended family. And, at some point, we taled about his maternal grandmother.


Dad didn't like his nanna. Neither did his sister or brother. He told me his nanna was miserly and ill-willed. To her daughter, their mum, and to them. He said she'd married three times. Each time to a more wealthy and well-to-do man and each time immediately after the death of the previous one.


It sounded like an Agatha Christie novel, only it was set in late early 1900s Derby, outback Western Australia, rather than in a quaint English village or onboard a transcontinental passenger train. And my family was in it.


When I began researching I didn't know what to expect. If I had discovered a murderess amongst my ancestors I certainly wouldn't have been the first family historian to do so. I didn't though. Instead, I found understanding and compassion for my great-grandmother, this stone-hearted woman who had treated her second born daughter with disdain and left three of her grand-children without any feelings of love for her.


Her name was Eva. She was born in Bowden, South Australia in 1880, and died in Perth, Western Australia in 1964. A long life but one whose direction had been brutally shifted in just one day.


On March 20th 1912, Eva was living in Derby at a pub, owned and operated by her parents. Her first partner had died not long after they'd wed but she had remarried. Now, Eva and her second husband, a stockman, had five children; an older boy, three girls, and a one month old baby boy. The two youngest daughters, and the baby, were with her but Eva's mother, Louisa, had taken the two eldest children to Perth to give her daughter some respite. Louisa was returning to Derby, onboard a steamship, with six-year-old Tommy, while leaving Eva's other daughter in the city with family. They never made it back, the vessel sinking in a cyclone off the coast of Port Hedland, it's passengers and crew perishing with it.


Later that year, Eva's husband died. She was now left raising three young girls and a baby boy, with only her sixty-two year old father for support, in one of the remote parts of the country. Unsurprisingly, she weds again in 1913, and has one more child, a daughter, with her new husband.


I didn't know what to do with this information, or the feelings I was having. So, I wrote a short story, from the perspective of the young governess who had been newly hired by the family, and who was heading to Derby for the first time. Her name was Florence and she boarded the ship with Louisa and Tommy. I felt sadness, but also a deep connection, for these three people, as I researched and wrote the story. In a way, I came to know them, and to understand what was lost at sea that day. Futures swept aside in the fierce winds, possibilities swallowed up by the raging ocean. And not just for those onboard. The story had done it's job.


A couple of months later, I was due to submit some work to one of my writing groups, at the genealogical society. I'd not had time to prepare anything, as I'd been starting on a bigger project, and this was family history, so I sent the story in. It was well received and I was provided with positive feedback and great suggestions. I filed it away, to address another day, and went back to my main work.


It was nearly the end of 2020 when I received an email looking for historical fiction short story submissions. My manuscript was this genre and I considered whether I could carve something off to make a bespoke, stand-alone piece. I decided it would just be a distraction and deleted the email. Then, I remembered the story. After some tidying up, checking against my writing groups feedback, I decided to send it in. I didn't expect to get a response.


My story, and others, were selected for the upcoming online zine. It would be my first time being paid for my writing. There was a few weeks back and forth with the editor, after which a significantly improved version was published. I was paid fifty dollars. I donated it back.


I was proud of the story, and how it had come about. I made a presentation at the family history society about how I had turned a chance conversation with my dad into a non-fiction narrative piece. There are talented story-tellers in the society and I wanted to encourage them to share.


By this time, in doing the research and writing, I had connected with Annie Boyd. Annie had authored an incredible book, published in 2013, about the ship, the captain, the crew, and the passengers. And about the impact of the maritime disaster, not only only on those aboard, and their family and friends, but also the broader Western Australian and Australian community.


I had sent my story to Annie, and we'd had some correspondence about roller-blading and country towns, and even had a Zoom call, but I was surprised when she contacted me to ask if I would be interested in being considered for casting in a new series on Australian shipwrecks. There was no other detail given, though I suspect Annie knew more than she let on. I said yes.


Filming took place at the B Shed, Fremantle Wharf, near the location where the ship with my great-great grandmother, Louisa, and my great-uncle, Tommy, would have departed from. And Florence.


A light rain fell as I crossed the carpark to the entrance. The water in the harbour was calm, a light breeze skating the surface, but seaward, beyond the wharf, towards the horizon, storm clouds were forming.


Apart from the film crew and directing team, Annie was there. It was wonderful to meet her face-to-face and to hear the excitement in her voice. The put a microphone on me and gave me some paperwork to sign. Still, no one told me what was happening. A woman drank coffee at a nearby table. I was told not to talk to her. I knew who she might be and still my eyes teared up when they eventually introduced us. We had already communicated online. Aly was her name. She was Florence's great-niece.


We were prepped for the filming. A crew of shipwreck hunters, Terra Australis, were at the other end of the wharf, unaware Aly and I were here. They were about to head off to search for the sunken ruins of the ship which had taken our ancestors northward, to an overnight docking at Port Hedland and then out to sea, and to never return. We were to tell them our family stories.


The crew, four incredible young people, were fascinated to hear about our ancestors, and the details of the voyage which Annie provided as the specialist in their team. We showed photos of our relatives and other momentos, including a postcard which Aly had brought along. I read my story to them. The human impact of the wreck they were going to search for was real.


I'm going to watch the show. I won't be on it, and that is okay. Instead, I'm going to feel my great-great grandmother's commanding presence as if she were with me and I will hear the childhood giggle of a six-year old Tommy inside my mind. My nanna, Eva, and my dad's nanna, Eva, will also be there in my thoughts, and they will be holding hands. And that, I think, is much more special.


Photographs:

  1. Mollie, Eva (great-grandmother), Evelyn, Marion, Eva (grandmother).

  2. Louisa (great-great grandmother).

  3. Robert (great-great grandmother), Evelyn (great-aunt), Tommy (great-uncle).