[Music sets the mood of memory and carries under.]
William Strutt: Dear Sir. I must now thank you most sincerely for your kind and continued efforts on behalf of the picture Black Thursday. The Colonists, however, seem so indifferent about the matter, both here and in Melbourne, that I feel reluctant to thrust a picture they care nothing about upon them.
[The sound of the fire begins to build, crackling, distant roar and screams. Music segues into and stays under McLelland's memory.]
McLelland: I went back to the property once the fire'd passed. Near didn’t get out with my skin. It was gone. Like it’d never been at all. Nothin' but ashes.
[Fire overtakes the music.]
William Strutt: The entire state burned. It seemed the whole cursed country was on fire.
I remember that day it was oppressive. We stayed inside with the curtains drawn and blankets hung up over them. The previous winter had brought no rain and all. And that Summer it had been hot. The whole country lie gaping and crackling with the heat. A north/north-west wind was blowing dust everywhere.
[The fire swells and the sound of galloping horses, sheep and panicked shouts.]
Having gone blind, Mary's horse is abandoned and she is taken onto John's mare. Their son, Barwon, travels behind them on the same horse with their Aboriginal farm hand Jackie.
Mary: For God’s sake John, can you not make the mare run straight?
John: She’s half mad with fear and near blind from the heat and smoke. As am I.
Mary: Keep her to the road at least.
John: Just stay quiet and hold tight to me, Mary. If you let go and come off you’ll be trampled under the stampede.
Mary: You wouldn’t let me go, John, would you?
John: You have to hold on too.
Mary: John, look out…
[A burning tree crashes to the ground.]
John: Holy mother of God.
[More flames and the sounds of sheep and horses. Dramatic music underscores the scene.]
John: Get around us. Get around us, Jackie, drive those buggering sheep that way.
Jackie: I shout'in but they can’t hear.
Barwon: It's too hot. We should ride back to the pond and stay underwater!
John: Quiet, Barwon. Hang on to Jackie.
Jackie: Barwon right-oh. Gotta get to water. That’s what we taught, bushfire come, get in the creek. Stay away from the flame.
Mary: John, Jackie's right, we should have jumped in the creek.
John: The creek's a mile back. We aren’t turning round.
Mary: If the blacks know it, I reckon it’s right. They’re a lot more used to this place than we are.
John: We’ve a hundred head of sheep to save. The livestock’s all we’ve got left. Blast your hide, Jackie, bring them round.
[Music sweeps us back into McLelland's memory.]
McLelland: There were the burnt bodies o' animals everywhere. Horses, sheep, cattle. Blackened bones, ribs, some with the flesh cooked right onto 'em. All along the roadside, piled up like. Birds choked from the heat and smoke fell black and dead from the sky.
[Fire overtakes the music.]
William Strutt: Around noon I peered out a window. The temperature had reached 110 degrees in the city, 116 in the direct sun.
We hear the fire burning close now. We hear the rattle of a wagon, lines from King Lear being recited, someone else recites the Lord's Prayer. Milli is heard struggling from the heat.
A band of travelling actors.
Charles: Catherine? How are the others back there?
Catherine: Milli’s not well. Smoke and the heat, they’re affecting her heart, I think.
Charles: Just try and keep her cool. How are you for water?
Catherine: Near gone. I’m mopping her brow but she’s close to 80, Charles. She can’t take much more of this.
Charles: Would you have us leave her behind? How are the others?
Catherine: Mostly all right. Sebastian seems to be in a kind of terror. Keeps repeating his speech from King Lear.
Charles: What was that noise before?
Catherine: Props box.
Catherine: And costumes.
Charles: Damn. Is there anything left?
Catherine: We’ve still the violin.
Charles: We can’t play Hamlet with only one violin.
Catherine: We can get more props and costumes, Charles.
Charles: Do you know how much that’ll cost in Sydney? We’ll be ruined.
Catherine: Just get us out of here, then worry about Sydney.
[Music sweeps us back to Strutt's memories.]
William Strutt: By noon the sky was filled with heavy black clouds. The sun itself an angry red disc. You could barely see. Ash fell like snow. And then flying sparks, debris still alight, flaming junk began to fall, or float through on the wind. We didn't know it but there were fires burning in Gippsland, Geelong, and even in the Barabool Hills. 12,900 hectares were burning near Mt Macedon.
[Music makes a segue to McLelland's memories.]
McLelland: Along the way you’d see the metal frames o' dreys and harness, nothing else just the wagons. Their cargo, their horses, their drivers, burnt away to nothing.
[Music returns to Stutt's memory theme.]
William Strutt: I’m told ships in the bay sat terrified as sparks and embers landed on their decks or in their sails, setting them to blaze. Religious or not, you could hardly fail to think this might be the end of days.
Sound of fames and panic. We hear oxen near death.
Heat and smoke have caused the oxen to stop pulling the dray belonging to an Irish immigrant family.
Lizzie: Hold on, Anne, hold on.
Anne: (Coughing) Can’t breath, Mama. Wanna sleep.
Lizzie: I know dear, but not yet. You have to stay awake. We’ll be under way presently. Your Da and I’ll not be the ones to abandon my precious baby girl to the flames. Joseph, you stay on the dray.
Joseph: I’m tryin to hold on, Ma, it’s hot.
Anne: (Coughing) Is this the end of the world, Mama? There’s an angel behind us. A bad angel.
Lizzie: That’s just the flames. There’s no such thing as bad angels. Come on, breathe through this wet rag. (Coughing also.) Keep the ash and smoke out of your lungs. Joseph, where are you going?
Joseph: I’m gonna go help Da with the horses.
Lizzie: No. You stay here. You stay with us.
Anne: Mama? I can’t stay awake.
Lizzie: Come on, Annie, stay awake, darling. Just breathe through the rag. Pat, can you not get the animals to move.
Pat: I think they’re beyond movement, Lizzy. Half gone mad and the other half may be dead from smoke. I think it’s time we took a new approach to our flight. It’ll do us no good to flog these beasts any harder.
Anne: What is that dreadful smell?
Pat: Eucalyptus oil. It means the fire's very close. The heat sweats it out of the trees. It’s very dangerous, we have to move, any one of these trees might…
[A gum tree explodes into flames with a noise like gunshot. Screams from the women.]
[Music sweeps us back to Strutt's memory theme.]
William Strutt: When I returned home, here to London, I couldn’t get that day out of my mind. I fell to painting it from memory and from reports I had clipped from newspapers. Many of the unfortunates that made the papers are here in the painting, in what must be the worst day of their life.
[Music resolution of Mc Lelland's memory theme.]
McLelland: There was nothing left. Thousands and thousands of acres of land. Ash and bones and death. Had it not been for the small creek I happened upon, I’d be amongst the dead. A sweeter peace I can no' imagine. My wife, and my boys, I found not far from the water hole I hid in. Burnt, blistered, cracked, blackened. The sight will no' leave my mind. And this withered, burnt stump of an arm is here to remind me every second o' what more I’ve lost.
[Music makes a segue to the final motif of Strutt's theme.]
William Strutt: It is perhaps small wonder that the colonialists do not want this painting. It is a terrible memory made visible for eternity. Perhaps I would not want it either, were it not all I can see when I try to sleep. This is the country the empire has claimed as its own. This land of opportunity and gold. We have been settlers and explorers in hell, that’s all, and this Black Thursday should remind all such that the devil will have his due.
Conceived and directed by John Paul Fischbach
Script by Robert Reid
Recorded and engineered at I-SONIC Institute by Tim Prince
Orchestrations by David James Nielsen
William Strutt, 1864