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The Dunbar Case

By:Peter Corris
part one


I was sitting in Anton's on King, a restaurant in Newtown. French. I suppose there were Antons elsewhere but on King' is a popular tag and pretty well all Sydney diners would know from that where it was. Anton's wasn't the sort of place I usually ate at. Way too expensive. It had all the trimmings- the muted lighting, sound-absorbing walls and floor, white tablecloths, gleaming glass and silverware and attractive waitresses. I was enjoying the ambience because I knew I wouldn't be paying for it. My client, Henry Wakefield, had suggested-call it insisted on-the venue.

Mr Hardy,' he'd said in rounded private school tones when he rang, Roberta Landy-Drake recommended you to me and I was pleased to find you online. My name is Wakefield, Henry Wakefield.'

That was kind of Roberta,' I said. How can I help you, Mr Wakefield?'

Initially, you can help by agreeing to lunch with me to discuss something.'

He proposed the day, the time and Anton's. I asked a few questions but he fended them off, saying that it was a confidential matter. It was a very different approach to what I'd become used to-the sad requests to trace missing teenagers, the low-paid serving of demands for court appearances, the surveillance of alleged stalkers, workplace bullies and sexual harassers. That kind of work brought in a more or less steady cash flow for a private detective, but did nothing for the sense of self-worth. Nor did the jobs I'd done for Roberta Landy-Drake-mostly keeping order at her upmarket but volatile parties-but they paid much better.

From time to time there were more interesting jobs and I remained ever hopeful. Wakefield had suggested we meet in two days; no great urgency then. Another unusual feature. I awaited his arrival with interest.

A drink while you're waiting, sir?'

Why not? A light beer, please.'

She named several brands and I picked the only one I was familiar with, I'd done a web check on Wakefield. He was a professor of history at the Independent University, an institution I knew nothing about so I had to check that out as well. Wakefield had degrees from a couple of American universities I'd never heard of, and the IU was a new outfit privately funded from corporate sources. It had a small campus in Newtown. From the photograph it seemed to consist of four three-storey terrace houses opposite a park two blocks east of King Street-just a short stroll for the prof to Anton's. The web page didn't say so, but from the elaborate coat of arms and the motto-'Knowledge is Power'-I got the feeling that the IU would charge pretty hefty fees. I was surprised that such a place would teach history at all, but I suppose there are lots of ways of teaching it.

I was early. I always am. I call it professional caution but it's really an anxiety, or maybe both. The beer arrived, very cold, in a beautiful glass. As someone who'd enjoyed a public school education and hadn't enjoyed a few years at university when it was free, I was critical of the way money dominated the sector now. I was prepared to dislike Professor Wakefield and settle for a free lunch. Jimmy Carter was wrong about that as about so many other things, particularly cardigan-wearing.

Wakefield came in precisely on time. The head-shot on the web page had flattered him a little, but he was impressively tall, with a good head of hair and a beard-both silver although he wasn't old. He was trim and looked to be a few years short of fifty. With the day sunny and mild, he wore a lightweight beige suit. He would. I was in a light linen jacket and drill trousers myself, but Wakefield wore a stylish light blue shirt and a silk tie, while I wore a T-shirt. Clean, though.

The restaurant was filling up and Wakefield nodded to a few fellow eaters and sketched an almost bow to the waitress in charge as he advanced towards my table. No big trick to that-my mug shot was on my web page, too. Body language is very important. If you stay seated at a meeting, a natural bully or dominant type will loom over you as he extends his hand. An egalitarian will take his seat first. Wakefield hesitated just long enough to make me feel he inclined towards option one, before dropping into his chair and sticking his hand out across the snowy surface.

Henry Wakefield.'

Cliff Hardy, Professor. Pleased to meet you.'

Henry, please.'

A waitress was hovering and Wakefield pointed to my half-full glass. The same for me, please, and don't bother about the menu.'

He undid the top button of his shirt and slid his tie knot down. Good place, this.'

I nodded. Was his accent now a shade closer to mine? Possibly.

I recommend the whitebait for starters and the swordfish for a main,' Wakefield said. Unless you'd care to study the menu.'

That'll do me,' I said.

His beer arrived and he held the waitress by the arm. Wine?'


A bottle of that New Zealand riesling I like, please, Suzie.'

Yes, Professor.'

He gave our order to another waitress without touching her and drank half of his beer in a couple of manly gulps. I gather you like to get straight down to business.'

That's right, but you're paying so you can call the shots.'

He drained his glass. Have you ever heard of the wreck of the Dunbar?'

I don't think so.'

A luxury passenger vessel. In August 1857 she was wrecked when trying to enter Sydney Harbour-'

I'm with you now. There's a monument down the way in St Stephen's cemetery.'

He didn't like being interrupted. The wine arrived and he was too irritated to be polite to Suzie. He tasted it and nodded. Good. Thanks. Yes, that's right. Do you know the details?'

I shook my head. He was a prospective client and there was no point in annoying him further. Anyway, I didn't know the details. I'd just had a passing look at the monument when wandering one day in the cemetery with my daughter Megan and grandson Ben. Megan lived a stone's throw away.

The Dunbar was driven onto the rocks and she was holed and sank quickly. A storm was raging. As things stand, no one knows why the captain, who was very experienced in those waters, attempted the entry, given the conditions. One hundred and twenty-one people, passengers and crew, were drowned. There was, so the story goes, one survivor.'

The whitebait appeared and we dug in. Wakefield seemed to be torn between giving his full attention to the food and going on with his story. The food won and there was no way he'd talk with his mouth full. He poured the wine. The fish was crisp and delicious, so was the wine. We both used pieces of bread to wipe our plates.

He looked at me, his clear grey eyes keen and penetrating under trimmed white eyebrows. You've registered something in what I've said.'

Yeah, you implied that there's more to the story than-'

His turn to interrupt. Yes, much more. Mind you, the story is dramatic enough as it is-tremendous loss of life, greatest maritime disaster ever, bodies washing up on the beaches for days, a navigational mystery and one survivor.'

He had my attention and I found I was able to remember something about the monument in the cemetery. It was a fenced-in white structure, something between a grave and a memorial stone. The writing had been partly obliterated by time and the weather. Wasn't there something about another ship?'

You're thinking of the mass grave. Yes, the Catherine Adamson. That doesn't matter.'

The entrée plates were whisked away to be replaced by the swordfish with baby carrots, snow peas and new potatoes. We both accepted ground pepper. It was eating time again and we started. The words mass grave' had triggered more memories-the remains of people drowned from two ships were interred but, according to Wakefield, only those from the Dunbar mattered. Single-minded and not long on compassion. Well, perhaps that's the way you have to be to become a professor at a corporate university.

The restaurant was about two-thirds full, a good crowd for a Wednesday lunch and easy enough for the staff to handle. I sensed that Wakefield was keen to go on with his story but the food and wine deserved attention. A few pauses, however, were in order and during them he got on with it.

He said that a good many of the sixty-three passengers on the Dunbar were Sydney residents returning from a trip to England and there were Sydneysiders among the fifty-eight crew. This meant that family members were involved in identifying bodies or trying to find them. The city went into mourning, shops and banks closed and churches were full. Twenty thousand people watched the funeral procession.

A seaman with the uninteresting name of James Johnson was apparently thrown from the deck onto the rocks when the ship struck. He clung on there through the night and was spotted the next day and hauled up.'

Where was this, exactly?'

Wakefield dealt with a chunk of fish before answering. Off South Head; the fool of a captain apparently thought he was approaching North Head and gave the wrong order.'

There didn't seem to be anything to say so I just nodded and got on with my meal. A few years back I'd had some dealings with an academic historian who became impassioned about his subject when there looked to be a chance of latching on to something new. Wakefield didn't give off that kind of vibe, but from the way he settled down to cleaning his plate I sensed that he was working up to something important even if it didn't seem to excite him overmuch.

We both sat back with empty plates and the last of the wine in our glasses.

The Dunbar story has been pretty well cut and dried for a long time,' Wakefield said. The wreck was only nine metres down and they located it early on. Divers retrieved various things in the 1960s. There's an exhibition of relics in the Maritime Museum-worth a look, but only just-and the grave in the cemetery is a Newtown tourist feature. Do you want dessert or coffee?'