Quite often when I’m writing I’ll recall a story my father told me, or dig through our archives and find a forgotten document. This happened when I began crafting The Last Station. Rummaging through the past can yield fascinating information and it was while doing just that a few years ago that I recalled an intriguing story.
The character Ethan Harris in The Last Station is based on a real person. In the early 1900s my widowed great-grandmother Sara-Ann Alexander arrived home to our property in north-west New South Wales from her yearly holiday in the Blue Mountains. Accompanying her was a young man, Billy da Silva, whom she had met at Anthony Hordern’s department store in Sydney. Sara-Ann took it upon herself, with no prior family consultation, to offer Billy a home and employment. It was such an extraordinary thing for my great-grandmother to do, bring a young man into her family without consultation, but she was a widow and the matriarch, quietly spoken, dearly loved by her sons and rarely questioned. So although my grandfather and his brothers were surprised by Billy’s arrival, the boys welcomed him into the family.
I should add that unlike the fictional Ethan Harris in The Last Station, and his fractured upbringing, Billy was of pioneering stock and came from a loving family.
When the Great War broke out and my paternal grandfather enlisted, Billy was indispensable in helping to ensure the smooth running of the property during his absence. Billy was a natural at everything, from horse-riding to blade-shearing sheep. The death adder he caught by the tail was kept preserved in methylated spirits in a large glass jar in the station laundry for more than eighty years.
Billy was an integral part of the family and business, and it was Billy’s life with my ancestors that helped conjure Ethan Harris, although for narrative purposes I decided Ethan would not be so happily accepted into the Dalhunty clan.
I hope you enjoyed this snippet on part of the background to The Last Station which was released last year.
(Image: Billy da Silva and friend on a fishing trip to the Boomi River – note the fish hanging from the tree limb and the long necks on the bonnet of the car. Authors own collection)