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Dutton Hill

The Plight Valerie Baines

By E MPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read


People were always surprised just how bitingly cool it got at night up there. Situated on the lower western coast, low-lying trees and big skies whipped up the wind and cold air off the southern ocean when the sun went down, sometimes even in summer.

Some might question why you would come to Dutton Hill at all. Rising up out of the land like a large blister, the only defining landmark for miles. The climb to the summit through dense mallee heath, banksia’s, eucalyptus and thicket was enough to put most people off. With no clear pathway, it was best to just follow your feet to the top where, if you reached it, you would be rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the valley and lowlands below. The echoing songs of the splendid wrens and the yellow flashes of the golden whistlers pervaded through the bushland, and if you were there at dusk, you would likely peep the western grey kangaroos. You could even glimpse the ocean and see the whitecaps on a windy day. Dutton Hill was certainly no mountain, but it was tall enough to feel like you were above the world, and around these parts that was something special.

At night, Valerie Baines would often climb Dutton Hill. Although she loved the feeling of the freedom it gave her, she truly hated it just as much. The landscape, the smell of the bush, the thicket, all reminders of her reality. All reminders that she was no longer in England living the life she should have been, the life of a wealthy young lady. It is true what they say; we long for what we do not have, long to be where we are not. Valerie Baines wished so hard to be back in England that when she closed her eyes at night and pressed her eyelashes together tightly, she was sure that she would wake up there. But of course, she did not.

Like most things though, it went both ways. The land hated Valerie Baines just as much as she hated it. She could feel it every time she climbed Dutton Hill. The way the sandstone and quartzite rocks jolted out at dangerous angles up the escarpment, the tangled lacework of branches and twigs ready to stab her limbs at any moment and hidden poisonous creatures were all enough to knock her off, let alone the extremes in weather. The heat would kill a soul in summer and the cold would freeze him solid in winter. She often heard a call on the breeze; “leave this place”, whispering right through her ears and into her mind where it twisted with thoughts of longing to go home and the sadness and loneliness of her unfortunate plight. It was the voice of the land, of the ancestors and the ancient ones. She did not belong here and she knew it.

Climbing Dutton Hill that night the salty air swept up around her on the sea breeze, conjuring up memories of the four, nearly five months she spent with her family on the ship to Australia. She shuddered at the thought of the long, tedious passage, but still wished to make the journey back home again. The night air flurried through her auburn hair which, if she were at home in bed, would have been twisted in pieces of fabric to enhance her natural curls. She had to do that herself here. There were no maids to help, no luxuries in that wattle and daub cottage down in town. Mice would nibble at her feet in winter, spiders in the summer and the draughty rooms felt as if they lived in the gardens all year round. The warmth of the fire escaping through holes around the window frames and cracks under the doors. A far cry from the affluence of her maternal grandmother’s country estate in Sussex. Grandeur and opulence, wealth and class. She often wondered why her mother and father emigrated here. Did they really think it would be like home? For the life of her, she could not fathom that her father, a celebrated Royal Navy captain, had adventure in his veins, her mother just as much. She did not understand it; she did not even try to. Her mother seemed to have washed her hands at the thought of the wealth she could have inherited from her parents and this enraged Valerie Baines to the core. She did not want to live here like a settler. She did not want to work on the farm. All she wanted was to be back in the lavish trappings of her grandmother’s fortune and living the life she knew she deserved in England.

Valerie Baines was one of eleven children. Several before her had passed away before they emigrated in 1832. She was fourth youngest but the most incessant. Every day she would complain of their new home and surroundings. Every day she would forsake her parents for bringing them here. Every day she would bemoan her situation and every day, it fell on deaf ears. Her mother, father, and siblings had simply stopped listening to her. There was too much work to be done just to ensure they lived comfortably each day. They did not have time to encourage Valerie Baines and her woes. But it did not stop her. Their silence and unresponsiveness only made her aching worse. If she was unhappy, she had to make it known.

It is a funny thing, the mind. Capable of great things on one hand and provoking and coercive on the other. Some people can block out the dark thoughts, the limiting beliefs, and some people cannot. Valerie Baines was a slave to her mind. Her thoughts pervaded so deeply that they intertwined with her feelings until she could not determine one from the other. Endless loops of complaining, arguments and projecting filled her days. Her own worst enemy, she was able to pick a thought and lament on it for weeks, months, years. Her mind became a prison, of which, she was not capable of escape. She climbed Dutton Hill for physical freedom, but what she did not realise was, when you take the prison everywhere you go, you are never free.

The wattle and daub cottage was already standing when the family arrived at Christmas. The gardens established too, set up to help feed the military stationed in town. They were there to defend against the French if ever they were to make land. Valerie Baines, although knowing nothing about politics or the military, doubted anyone would ever come here to claim this land as their own. She really could not see anything worth fighting over. But she was ignorant like that. Her father said she was so ignorant that she could not see past the end of her own nose. Perhaps if she hadn't been, she would have been able to make this new place home, but she had started to pity her father and the other settlers. Out on their farms trying to coerce the land to bend to their ways. Their old ways. Crops, cattle and vermin brought out on the tall ships, forcing them to behave in the dry sandy loam the same way they did in the rich, damp soils of the motherland. It was laughable to her. She seemed to be the only one who could see it, apart from the Aborigines. She watched them watch the white folk with their foreign ways and unfamiliar words. Looking upon them with fear and disdain. They also watched her watching them, and every time their eyes met, she heard the land whisper again; “Leave this place”.

Ironically, her mother still dressed like an English lady even although their new surroundings did not call for it. It only took about a month for her long hemmed dresses to fray and tear. Mud and dirt from the unpaved garden encrusted around the delicate heels of her leather boots. Her skin soon darkened with brown spots brought out from the sun. Hands dry and cracked and sweat across her top lip and brow, took away any perfectness she once had. Her mood, elevated one day, like thunder the next. Valerie Baines used to look up to her mother and wanted to be just like her, but not anymore. She did not want to be anything like the woman she had become. What would her grandmother think if she saw her daughter now? Wringed and wracked from hard work and harshness. No sign of the beautiful, well-kept woman she once was. But it never occurred to Valerie Baines what kind of woman her mother was. Perhaps she did miss her old life in England. Perhaps she did have regrets. It did not occur to her to even ask.

The night drew on as she kept climbing Dutton Hill, half way up, following the wind, pushing branches away from her face and flattening shrubs with her feet. No care to preserve the delicate life force in these plants, she did not care for them at all, nor they her, as thoughts filled her mind in recollection.

It was a Saturday morning when the women from town came to have tea with her mother. They fussed and delighted over the small reception room with the fireplace and two large windows at the front of the cottage. They showered her mother with compliments about how much British sophistication she and father had brought to the small coastal town. Valerie Baines rolled her eyes behind their backs and retreated to the second floor to do what she did best, escape. She was not a nosy girl but she did like rummaging through her mother’s jewellery box on the dressing table. It was in this box that she found the letters. Three of them, rolled up and folded under a little compartment in the base. Purposefully hidden. Of course, she read them. Correspondence between her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother asking for the family to come home before she dies. Her mother answering with a resounding no. In response, her grandmother asking for at least one of the girls to keep her company on the estate. Valerie Baines had felt her heart skip a beat as she read on. Surely, her mother would send her, knowing how she longed to return to England. She unrolled the third letter and from reading her grandmothers words, she knew her mother had refused again. The date at the top showing six months had passed since being sent. She decided to write to her grandmother herself explaining she would come on the next ship if she were to send the money. Wanting to leave this West Australian coast for good. The letters were replaced in the box and she awaited a reply, but no reply ever came.

Valerie Baines reached the summit of Dutton Hill that night, following her usual path in the darkness, listening to the voice on the wind; “Leave this place”. There was no moon in the inky sky above her and she had found it difficult to traverse the densely covered ground. She was not helped by tears streaming from her eyes and blurring her vision. She had assumed after receiving no reply letter, that her grandmother had passed away. A mixture of sadness, desperation and angst filled her. The thought of her only connection to home no longer there, she knew now that she would never leave this place and it was starting to feel too much. She walked on towards the small tree stump that signalled the summit and sat facing the ocean as she usually did. A bittersweet view of the great southern, one which once embodied freedom and possibility now seemed like a dark moat cutting her off from her homeland and anchoring her here for good. Her heart filled with hatred and contempt. She held in a scream but it made her chest hurt, or maybe it was the pain of her heart breaking. She sat there alone for hours crying. Shivering from the cold and the sorrow until it was almost dawn. Her eyes swollen, puffy and red, she did not care how she would explain herself to mother and father. Perhaps she would not even have to.

An hour or so after sunrise, the police chief from town knocked on the crooked wooden door of the wattle and daub cottage. Valerie Baines was missing at breakfast but her mother and father had hardly noticed as they ate quickly and set to work for the day. It was her youngest brother who answered the door and called out to mother.

"Ma’ma! There's a policeman here. He needs to speak to you about Valerie".

Mother wiped her hands on her apron, pinned her hair neatly and made her way to the door.

"It was a miracle we even found her at all. Up there on Dutton Hill Ma'am. Must've been right at the top I reckon. Here's her shoes. Found 'em down in the thicket".

The police chief handed mother the small leather shoes and she looked at him in shock.

"She's gone then?"

The police chief nodded his head.

"Yes Ma'am. We don't know if she jumped or fell".

Mother had no words for him. She nodded her head in response and closed the door. Her head fell against the back of it, the shoes held to her chest as she let out a mournful sigh for her obstinate daughter. She composed herself and headed upstairs to her bedroom and pulled out a small brown box from under her bed. She opened the lid and placed the shoes on top of a letter from her mother and the money that she had sent months ago for Valerie Baines to return to England to be her companion. In that moment, mother did not really know why she had hid them. Perhaps because she was supposed to be the heir. She was supposed to inherit the estate, not Valerie Baines. She felt anger at herself and at her daughter. She put the lid on the box and pushed it back under her bed for safekeeping. Her other children would not think to look for such things; they would not even enter her room without permission. They were not like Valerie Baines.

Mother decided to leave her chores for the day and head up to Dutton Hill. She had never been before and was not prepared for the terrain but she was determined to reach the top. After a few hours, exhausted, she finally emerged at the summit and walked to the tree stump looking towards the great southern. She sat down and felt her daughter’s presence. Despondent, all she could do was say a prayer as she cried. Tears for herself as much as for her daughter. Weighing her own failings, and hoping, selfishly, that Valerie fell, but knowing that she jumped.

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