St Margaret's Girl School is simply dripping with history.

St. Margaret’s Anglican Girls School at Ascot, one of Brisbane's more well off suburbs, is simply dripping with history. The office building is the beautiful old mansion that used to belong to Tom Petrie. Tom Petrie grew up in Brisbane when there were still convicts being flogged for stealing food from the colony’s gardens or made to work the treadmill on Observatory Hill in chains. It had been erected last century as a windmill but when the sails refused to turn they turned it into a tread mill and used the convicts to grind the corn. Actually it was Tom Petrie’s father, Andrew Petrie, an engineer, who realised that whoever had installed the sails on the old windmill in the first place had put them on back to front. When he got the sails working again, the officials still preferred human convict power over wind however. One of the saddest functions of the old windmill was when it was used as a gallows.

Tom Petrie was a popular figure with the local Aboriginal tribe, the Turrabul, because he grew up playing amongst them and spoke their language. As a young man there were times when Tom had to ride out to protect his friends from the raids of land hungry colonists. It was said that one group of young Turrabul men even asked him to brand their shoulders with his initials T.P. so that other colonists would realise that they were Tom Petrie’s men and not shoot them.

Of course the history of St. Margaret’s doesn’t end with Tom Petrie. It’s been sitting up there on that hill above Ascot for sometime. During the second world war tunnels and rooms were excavated under the school as bomb shelters for the students and teachers. Sometimes the current students get to go down there during a history lesson. It was for that very reason that one of the year eight classes was so excited at the start of one of their history lessons last year.

Their teacher said, "Now I hope you remembered your torches and clipboards and pens. There’s actually a light in the first room but most of the small tunnels are unlit and I do not want anyone walking into a spider's web or something"

They walked out of the classroom, along the corridor and down the stairs. "Oooh. I hope there are no ghosts," said one of the girls.

"I don’t believe in ghosts silly," replied Maggie as they walked across the lawn towards the old building.

The teacher said, "All right girls listen here. I am going to unlock the service door and I want you all to walk quietly down the stairs and wait in the first room till I come down."

Well that’s just what happened. They walked down into the first room and looking around realised that it was being used as a storage room by the school maintenance staff. There were boxes, broken chairs, old desks and equipment scattered in piles on the floor and on shelves around the room.

"Girls as we explore some more of the rooms and, if you’re well behaved, some of the smaller tunnels, I want you to look for clues about how and when these rooms were created and what they were used for. What tools and materials were used? How long do you think it would have taken? Note down anything you notice on your clipboards."

The students started shining their torches into corners, around the walls and along the ceiling. "Oh. There’s nothing to see in here," complained one of the girls.

"Yes there is," said another. "Look at these scratch marks in the concrete. Hey. I think they're letters, capital letters. Look someone has scratched MCMXXXIX in the floor."

"Better write those down and follow me this way," said the teacher as she opened another door and stepped into the darkness.

They followed a little more carefully this time. There was no light and their torches flicked nervously all around. This room wasn’t being used as a storeroom. The walls were rough grey stone and the floor concrete. There were spiders webs and one of the girls squeaked in fright when something scuttled out of the darkness and ran into one of the tunnels in the other wall. "Oh. Yuck. That was a rat! I am not going any further," she said.

"I’d like a volunteer to crawl a little bit down one of these small tunnels and tell us what you can see," said the teacher.

"I will," said Maggie as she bobbed down and flashed her torch into the mouth of the tunnel.

"Just go a couple of metres along and we’ll ask you questions from here."

Maggie was down on her knees and crawling along the tunnel before the teacher could change her mind. She could feel that the floor was dirt and gravel. The air smelt quiet musty and felt damp.

"What can you see now? Are there any skeletons? What about vampires? They suck blood," called out some of the students.

"No. There’s nothing," said Maggie feeling around on the floor of the tunnel. "Wait a minute. Here’s something. No. It’s just a old stick of chalk. It’s gone hard and cold."

She crawled a bit further and got a fright when she something crunched under her hand. She flashed her torch down and felt herself go cold and shaky when she realised that she had put her hand on the withered, dried up remains of someone elses hand. She could see the bones like sticks of chalk, the skin like a spider's discarded shell. The nails were black and cracked.

Maggie picked up the withered hand and realised that there was a ring on one of the fingers. She twisted and pulled it off and held it up to her torch. A small red stone set in the ring glowed in the torch light. "Heh. You’ll never guess what I’ve found," she called back along the tunnel.

She dropped the ring into the pocket of her navy blue uniform, leaned the dried up hand against the wall of the tunnel and crawled forward wondering what would be the next thing lying in the dust. She didn’t get very far however. There was a creak and a woosh and the floor gave way beneath her and she fell screaming into the darkness.

Something hard rammed painfully into her ribs as she fell. It was if something was collapsing under her as her weight smashed it to pieces. She landed with a thud and a cold blackness closed in on her frightened mind.

Outside in the room the teacher was saying, "You’d better all come back out of the side tunnels now. Which one did Maggie go into?"

Maggie was slowing coming to. Something hard was under her back. Pulling it out she realised it was her torch. 'I hope it still works.' she thought and gave it a shake and banged it on the hard surface she was lying on. A beam of light flashed out and swept around the blackness. Desks, chairs, a blackboard with rules of grammar, old rifles stacked against the wall, white bony skulls peering out from navy blue school uniforms all covered in grey dust and cobwebs. One of the long dead girls had her hand raised as if she was wanted to give a teacher the answer to a question. As the beam of the torch light swept over the bony hand it picked out the shape of a ring and the glow of a small red stone.

The torch beam swept on like a search light to end at the desk she had fallen onto. In the middle of the circle of light was a skull and beside it a dusty old black mortar board. Maggie had fallen onto a long dead teacher. The collapsing skeleton had broken her fall.

A scream gathered in Maggie's chest somewhere below her heart. It shot up and out of her throat and echoed around the old underground class room rustling papers on dusty desks and causing the round identity disks on each of the bony necks to swing back and forth. She screamed again as she struggled to her feet and headed towards the door in the corner. She grabbed the door knob, twisted it and pulled the door open. She leapt out and ran up a sloping dusty corridor and around a corner straight into her teacher.

"Maggie where have you been?"

"There’s a room in there. It’s full of dead students. I fell on the teacher and he collapsed in a heap of bones."

"Oh Maggie. Where have you been really?"

Maggie insisted and, with the teacher, walked carefully back down to the door in the rock wall but when they opened the door there was nothing inside but some scuff marks in the dirt.

"Miss. I fell. I fell on top of a skeleton and landed on the teacher's desk. The students were all sitting at their desks. I could see their bony skulls and they all had round disks swinging around on their necks! I did."

"Come on Maggie," said the teacher putting her arm around Maggie’s shoulder, "let’s get out of here. You’ll be having me seeing things next."

She led her out of the room and back up the tunnel. When they got back to the rest of the students she said, "Straight back to the class room thank you class. We’ll see what clues to the history of St Margaret's we found but let’s stick to the facts thank you Maggie. We can learn a lot from the facts."

By lunch time Maggie had begun to wonder just what the truth was herself. She felt quite shakey and sniffly. She wandered around the school grounds and kept on being drawn back to the door to the underground rooms. "What’s really down there?" she wondered reaching for her hankie.

Her fingers touched something hard and round. "The ring?"

She pulled it out and, sure enough, there it was - a gold ring with a small red stone set in the band. "Do not put it on Maggie. Do not put on the ring Maggie. Stay alive for me Maggie," came a quiet voice in her mind.

The ring was the only proof she had that there was something weird under the ground but it seemed dangerous. Somehow it felt that if she gave in and slipped that ring on she’d be trapped in a dark, dusty dungeon just like that classroom of girls. She wrapped it back up in her hankie and found a spot under one of the mango trees near the old Petrie house to bury it. She drew a cross in the ground over the burial spot and wondered who had owned the ring and had she died during the war or some other way or time? How did her hand get to be in the tunnel? And why hadn’t a whole class room full of students and a teacher been missed or had they?"

Maggie kept to herself a lot that term and was often seen sitting under the mango tree. I've heard she's back to her old self again though. I wonder if she still enjoys history?

(This story was created during a storytelling improvisation session with a year 8 class at St Margaret's Anglican Girls School at Ascot, Brisbane on Tuesday the 24th of November, 1998. © Daryll Bellingham.)

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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
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Last update: 26th August, 2003.
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