Michelle Collins is a librarian who worked and lived a few kilometers from the location of ‘La Belle Farm’ where the Mordialloc baby murders took place. This story is her attempt to get her head around it.
Without warning, the Universe, or whatever greater power that guides it and bestows its gifts, blessed me with my ideal home. Granted it smelt like old books, which is not a bad smell, and it suited me. The house was small and protected from the road by the factory built in front of it. Presumably the rent was so cheap because the house was in disrepair (there were tiles falling off the wall in the kitchen) and smack dab in the middle of an industrial estate, but I wasn’t looking for good tiling, I just wanted somewhere I could afford to live and work in peace – and that’s what I got.
What I liked best about the house was the little viewing platform I’d found, built for a child I guess, above the verandah. On warm nights, I’d climb the branches of the lemon tree and gingerly ease across onto the corrugated iron sheeting and into the little nook where the verandah met the roof and where someone, years before, had built a little stool and a kind of crows-nest like you might find on a pirate ship, where a very young pirate could watch the goings on in the street below. Below the stool was a wicker basket and the remains of an old checked scarf, an eye patch and a little wooden telescope.
I’d asked the real-estate agent what he knew about the history of the house and the street in general, the block, the neighbours… and he fobbed the questions off:
“Ah, sure, love, a house that old, the walls could tell a story to be sure, but it wouldn’t be the most interesting story in the block.” And he winked at me knowingly.
“What do you mean? What happened on the block?”
“You don’t know?” He asked surprised. I was annoyed.
“Was it a brothel?” I asked. Every mysterious building in Melbourne was purportedly once a brothel. And the houses in the street were old, but unexciting. Pleasant looking, sweet.
“No, no. Not a brothel.” And he cocked his head on one side. “Ah, sure, love,” he said. “It’s just Mordialloc. Naught much of interest went on here… not unless you liked fishing or horses or golf…” and he changed the subject.
That was months ago now.
I caught a cab home this afternoon from my client in East Melbourne. I’d planned to catch the train, but there were delays on the line and my camera gear was heavy.
I hailed the cab just outside the clinic where a lone blonde stood praying the rosary under a tree.
“She’s stunning,” I murmured as we both stared at her, the driver and I, as the cab left the curb.
“She’s often there,” he said. “I see her most Wednesdays. It’s an abortion clinic, so they come to pray.”
“They?” I asked.
“Mostly older people, but there’s a bunch of young ones. She’s a regular.”
I watched her in the rear-view mirror.
“Do you think it helps?” I ask, “The praying?”.
The cabbie shrugged.
“I gave her a lift once, to her boyfriend’s. She reckons that having an abortion increases a woman’s chance of developing breast-cancer by 30%.”
I snorted. “Based on what science?” I asked.
“It’s in that doco, there.” The cabbie nodded towards a DVD labeled ‘Hush’, lodged in the side pocket of my door. “She talked about it a lot. I watched the doco. I mean, a woman that hot – she tells you to do something, you think there’s a chance you’ll see her again, you do it.”
“Fair enough.” I pretended to enjoy back to back episodes of The Office, once, on a similar logic.
He pointed the car’s yellow nose towards the South Eastern suburbs and we drove in silence through Richmond until we hit the freeway. We made small talk – about the weather, his ex-girlfriend, the football. I was glad he was driving me home, my heavy satchel slumped on the floor at my feet.
“Where in Mordi are we going?” he asked.
“The industrial area,” I told him, “…off White Street.”
“I know where it is,” he said. “Where La Belle Farm used to be. Not so ‘belle’, really, for the babies.”
“Sorry. That was in poor taste.”
“No, I mean… La Belle Farm? What?”
“You don’t know?” He shifted in his seat and looked at me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. You probably actually don’t want to know.”
No-one hears that phrase and doesn’t want to know.
We stopped at the traffic lights where the shoppers stream relentlessly, depressingly into Chadstone.
He beat his fingers on the steering wheel like he was playing the drums… buying time… considering.
“… tell me,” I said. And he began:
“There was this lady; Isabella Newman. Married with kids. Good with kids apparently. She used to make these train trips into the city with this big cane hamper. She’d catch a train, like she was going shopping and then arrive back after dark. She’d get a cab from the station to La Belle Farm in Malcolm road, where they lived, and the cab driver would help her carry her hamper up to the front door. And the basket was often heavy. And then she’d tip the cabbie some extravagant tip – I mean, disproportionate to his service – and she wasn’t wealthy or anything… so this went on for a few years…”
“How do you know this?” I interrupted.
“Local folklore,” he told me, tapping his nose mysteriously.
“No, really?” I insisted.
He shrugged. “There’s a chapter on it in a book that was just published about Mordialloc.”
“And you read it?” I asked.
“Nah, the guy who wrote it told me about it when I drove him home from the airport a while back now. And it stayed on my mind so a googled it.”
“Go on.” I said – and he did.
“Yeah, so anyway, the cabbies aren’t suspicious or anything, but these babies have started turning up dead around St Kilda area.”
“Like, kidnapped and murdered?” I asked.
“Not quite kidnapped.” He said. We’re crawling through Oakleigh now, past the school at 4o km/h. “It’s, like, 1905, or something and illegitimate babies are… you know, people keep it quiet that unmarried girls are pregnant … if some nice woman wants to adopt the baby for a small fee, take it off your hands… I mean, it saves the family from the scandal – it’s very similar to what’s going on back there in East Melbourne.”
“Ok,” I said. I put the window down. The air reeked of exhaust fumes. I put the window backup. “But the babies are turning up dead? I mean, they’re finding little dead babies around St Kilda, you said.”
“Yeah.” He changed lanes, distracted. “And that’s where Mrs Newman’s adult daughter lives; St Kilda. One time this cabby picks up Mrs Newman from Mordialloc station and she’s with this woman. Apparently she’s the aunt of one of the babies Mrs Newman has adopted. She keeps calling Isobel ‘Mrs Williams’ and demanding to see her sister’s son. The cabby drops them both out at the farm and is told to wait for this other woman to go inside and see the baby and then take her back to the train station.
This other woman storms out, shouting at Isobel– what have you done with my sister’s son? Where is he? You see, Isabella had put an ad in the paper under the name Williams and she’d been adopting these little babies and collecting money from their families. Five to ten pounds at a time. But this woman from Fitzroy had come to check on her sister’s son and Mrs Newman had a baby girl in her care, but there was no sign of a baby boy.
“Where was he?” I ask.
We’re stuck behind a bus. The cabby shrugs.
“Heaven knows.” He maneuvers the cab around the bus and accelerates through the intersection on an orange light.
“The cops get involved. They find a baby girl alive and well at La Belle Farm and re-unite her with her mother, but around the same time they find the remains of a baby boy washed up on Carrum Beach, a couple of kilometres away from their Belle Farm – and Mordi Creek was just behind her farm – an easy walk and that flows into the bay. They found two other little bodies buried in the chicken shed and 10 children’s worth of baby clothes in one of her cupboards.
“Had she killed them all?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. He wound the window down a crack and exhaust fumes flood the cab again. “The thing is, she kills herself almost as soon as the cops arrive to investigate. She leaves this sketchy suicide note and poisons herself, like she knew she couldn’t face the court. No-one really knows the full story.
“Not her husband?” I asked.
“No. No-one knows why she did it … or what she did with the money.”
“That’s appalling,” I said. He nodded.
“No, seriously, that’s revolting. I can’t get my head around it.” He nodded again, watching the traffic. “I can’t believe you just told me that.”
He didn’t apologise.
“I don’t think you necessarily live in her house – it was just that the estate was built on top of her farm. There’s not many of the original houses left anyway – they probably razed hers straight away – no-one would want to live there.”
That’s why it was so cheap.
Left down the highway, left down White Street… then along to the industrial estate. We sat in silence.
When we reached the drive-way I tipped him generously, like Mrs Newman would have done. I dumped my satchel on the front verandah and climbed straight up onto the roof as he reversed out.
I sit here with the toy telescope in my hand and think about what year the house might have been built. Maybe around the turn of the century, maybe around the time the babies went missing.
The sun won’t set for a while. From my look-out I can see the traffic building up in White Street and the belly of a plane as it makes its way towards Moorabbin Airport.
I can imagine a small child up here, on the lookout for mermaids or dolphins or bunyips or whatever magic or malice a small pirate keeps lookout for. They’d have a clear view over the trees to their mysterious neighbour, burying hidden treasure in the chook yard or, just as the sun set, carrying a small bundle swaddled in brightly coloured cloth, down towards the creek.
And so now I’ll keep vigil for a while as the sky grows dimmer. That’s enough for now. It’s my turn to keep watch.
Information about the Mordialloc murders:
The documentary mentioned early in this piece: