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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

The Hot Chip and Gravedigging Club

Before you can dig up a grave, you’ve usually got to get over a fence.

Ribbon aimed a lasso onto one of the pickets, to give us a rope to climb. Calculus scrambled up the rope to perch on top of the fence, and Hitbox shot him potato sacks to drape over the spikes. Ribbon went next, gliding over the fence and springing into the yard. Hitbox hoisted Brick onto his shoulders, and Brick clutched the railing and heaved himself over. I handed Calculus the rope tied to the sack with our tools, and he threaded it to Brick, who hauled the sack into the yard. Then Hitbox shimmied up the fence, and he and Calculus reached down to lift me up. Hitbox jumped into a landing roll, while Calculus and I lowered ourselves down and let go.

I took out my notebook - that’s what they call me, Notebook. Step one, get over the fence. Tick.

Next, avoid the alarms and cameras.

The buildings are wired with infrared sensors to protect the computers and furniture. We don’t care about those things, so we don’t need to go into any buildings. Tick.

We scouted the cameras earlier, so we know the CCTV only watches the recreation area and car park, not the spot with the grave. Tick.

Our target is a private yard next to the gaol building. William Hall, hanged in 1860 for murder of a police officer. There’s no headstone. His name is cut into a brick on the wall. Imprisoned for eternity.

We don our gloves and masks. Tick.

I hope it’s a shallow grave. I can’t see the guards put too much sweat into it, so if we’re lucky we only have to dig 4 feet, maybe less. I couldn’t find out if they used concrete to seal graves on the goldfields. We have picks if we need to crack stone. Just the digging will be hard enough, even with Brick’s muscles.

The work needs to be done and we need to be gone by 6 AM. That’s when the custodian arrives. That gives us 9 hours.

Should have this finished before school starts.

Our gang met in detention. Detention’s in a hall in the gaol building that used to be a chapel. The gaol was built to hold prisoners taken on the Victorian goldfields. After the gaol was shut down, this school was constructed around it. The teachers love to joke about using the abandoned cells to scare students straight. Sometimes they hint darkly about the gallows, as if graves make grades…

Anyway. These were our crimes.

I wasn’t paying attention to schoolwork. We get it, our history teacher Mr Gilbert loves the War of the Roses. While he gushed over some British monarch or other I furtively scanned a library book on pre-federation inventions and engineering. I got too engrossed and the teacher caught on.

Ribbon fell asleep in class. She’s a top student. She studies hard, and has dance classes most nights, and her parents make her volunteer. All for university applications. She conked out during science. Maybe they would have let it slide, if the banana soaked in methylated spirits hadn’t caught fire.

Hitbox loves video games. And ninjas. He usually hangs at the back of class, fiddling with a weeaboo gacha game on his phone. If a teacher tries to stop him he tells them it’s an urgent message from his parents, so most of them have stopped trying. That day the math teacher Mrs. Sargent snapped and asked for his phone. He refused, dubbing her a dishonorable noob.

Calculus deleted the operating system on a school computer and replaced it with Linux. It’s faster, but now he’s the only one who can work it.

Brick picked up a kid and pitched him 6 feet. In Brick’s defence, the kid asked him to do it, so he could see how it felt to fly. Turns out the hard part isn’t flying. It’s landing.

That’s how we met. Confined to detention on the same day.

That’s where we saw the ghost.

In detention, we’re supposed to do schoolwork in silence. Joke’s on them, the teacher supervising our detention is old Mr Burden, and he doesn’t know pre-federation inventions and engineering isn’t schoolwork.

Mr Burden mostly naps. We don’t squeal - that works fine for us.

After an hour Mr Burden stands up, shaking, tells us he’s boiling, he’s baking, he’s dying.

We glance at each other. Ribbon asks him if he’s OK.

Mr Burden tells her to unchain him from this log, he has a certificate of leave from his employer, it isn’t fair to roast him in the sun.

None of us are game to budge from our seats. Hitbox tells him there isn’t any log. Or chain. And we’re indoors.

Then Mr Burden unfurls this rant, about sneaky police spies, and greedy license fees, and colony bosses, and how he’s a free man. The more he talks, the more we feel the heat banging like a killer at the door, until our clothes are sticky with sweat.

Hitbox records it all on his phone.

Then Mr Burden stops, looks around, dazed. He tells us detention is over and we should go home. We do.

Of course we can’t leave it at that. Next day at recess I get 3 large boxes of hot chips from the tuckshop and we huddle in a quiet spot to mull things over. Gravy for everyone except Calculus, who’s veggo.

That was the start of Hot Chip Club. Our investigation society, and the name of our encrypted group chat.

Ribbon twigged that it was goldfields stuff. She knows local history. Apparently people could be detained if they didn’t have an expensive license to dig for gold. The police on the fields didn’t have proper facilities in the early days to house people, so they would chain them to a tree or log exposed to all the sun and rain. Worse, the police were hugely corrupt, and would hassle innocent people to squeeze out bribes. Calculus suggested there could be some connection to the gaol. I volunteered to hunt for more info in the library. The others would talk to their friends, try to dig up weird happenings at the school.

Every day for the next week, we convened at lunchtime over a pile of hot chips and swapped information.

We heard a few tall tales, like how you can see your true love’s face if you open an encyclopedia volume to a random page. But you can tell from a kid’s eyes whether they’re pretending to believe something for a thrill, or whether they’re actually spooked. We collected the rumours that had a real fright in them, like looking in the mirror and seeing a skeleton dressed in your clothes.

In the end, we had 7 mysteries:

  1. Mr Burden’s freakout in the detention room and the phantom heat.

  2. From a distance you can see a gold nugget in the rock collection in the science lab, but it vanishes if you look for it.

  3. If you jump into the pool from the third diving board from the left feet first, you get a pain in your neck that doesn’t go away for days.

  4. In the music room, if you’re alone, sit in a chair in a corner, and close your eyes, you can hear men singing this faint and rusty ballad. When you open your eyes, the music stops.

  5. If you tear up your library card in front of the drinking fountain next to the gaol, the water turns red.

  6. The big eucalyptus tree near the tuckshop, if you put your arms around it, you can’t take them away and someone has to pull them off for you.

  7. The school’s Monopoly set sometimes has a chance card called ‘license fee’. If you draw that card and don’t pay it before the end of the game, you’re never seen again.

Along with this, I explored the history of the gaol our school is built on. Of the 5 hangings here, 4 of the bodies were given to family. One prisoner was buried here, right on school grounds. William Hall.

From the records, he’d left his job as a shipping clerk in Melbourne to find his fortune on the goldfields. In the early days gold was scattered on the ground for anyone prepared to bend over and pick it up. Back then it was just camps of diggers. Newspaper accounts are confused, but it seems William caved in the head of a policeman, claiming the officer had stolen his prize nugget. He was in custody for a decade through a string of appeals. By the time he ran out of chances a gaol had been built around him, and he was hanged and buried there. Like it wouldn’t be a proper gaol without spilling a little blood for the soil to drink.

The gold nugget was never found.

Even though it’s out of bounds, we snuck into the gaol yard. When we found the name cut into a brick, we knew we had found William Hall’s grave.

About this time, the teachers began to snoop on Hot Chip Club. I’m sure someone dobbed us in for secretive behaviour. It didn’t help that we’d all been in detention together only a week ago. We probably looked like a scurrilous criminal conspiracy in bloom.

That’s when the school banned hot chips.

At assembly, the principal chanted some cant about “nutrition and physical activity underpinning effective learning and achievement”.

We knew better. It was to break us up. But the teachers didn’t know the full story.

After we found the grave, we checked Hitbox’s recording. Sound and video were garbled. We expected that. Corrupt recordings are part of the modus operandi for ghosts. If you squinted, you could make out a mouth opening and closing, saying something over and over.

Free me.

This place never stopped being a prison, and it doesn’t want to give up its victims.

And we had a ghost to rescue.

If you’re really determined to dig up a grave, it’s not that hard, especially if you’re a reader. Not counting undertaker autobiographies or mortuary science resources, Stephen King goes into a lot of specifics in Pet Sematary. We were able to forage the tools we needed from family sheds, and a gardening shop run got us enough sacks and rope to empty the Valley of the Kings.

With 5 of us digging, we were done just after midnight. Calculus’ shovel hit a human skull. Good thing the guards had been lazy.

Brick recited a prayer for the soul of William Hall. We shared a silent minute in respect.

As planned, we gathered the bones in a sack. Imagine, coming to school after hours, learning so much about human anatomy, and not even getting extra credit.

We filled the hole and scrambled back over the wall with our bags of bones and tools, taking down the rope and potato sacks, blotting out any trace of our adventure.

Discussing it earlier, we decided that getting the remains off school grounds should be enough to free the ghost, since it would mean the body had officially left the gaol. But even in the best circumstances it’s awkward to leave skeleton bits lying around for anyone to stumble over. Imagine the fuss in the country newspaper.

Fortunately, our town has a trash incinerator not far from the school. We tied the sack and stashed it deep in the garbage skip. In a few hours it would be dawn and dull-eyed workers would load the trash into the incinerator and fire it.

Did you know that if you want to thoroughly destroy a body, leave nothing that can be traced, your best bet is to burn it?

Amazing what you learn in books.

Dispose of body. Tick. Checklist complete.

We split up and slipped back to our beds.

My alarm spasmed at 7. I went through the motions for school - toast, clothes, backpack, out the door.

On the way there, a thought smacked me. I just spent the night freeing a ghost who had been trapped at my school for 150 years. Heck with it. I’m skipping. Who cares if they catch me. Tomorrow they can bury me in class, but today I’m free.

I knew where I wanted to go. We have an amazing historical society, but it’s only open to the public one Thursday every month. Today. Normally I wouldn’t be able to go because I’m stuck at school.

I pay the entrance fee and poke around. I know what I want to see most.

An original Coolgardie safe, a cabinet with hessian sides and a water tank on top. Water from the tank dripped down the hessian, and wind evaporated the water, keeping the inside cool. The fridge of the goldfield diggers, and a treasure of pre-federation engineering.

I’m cooing over this marvel of innovation, when I see someone else who shouldn’t be here.

Mr Gilbert, our history teacher. He’s swooning over a drawing of a colonial governor with mutton chops like steel wool.

At first, I think he's been sent to catch me. We lock eyes. He looks away.

So he’s not supposed to be here either. I didn’t know teachers could ditch.

I hit up the Hot Chip Club group chat, see how the gang is going.

Ribbon is sheepish. Says she told her parents she was feeling sick, and when they left for work she went to the mall, disguised in a headscarf and dark glasses.

Hitbox is at the arcade, taking on all challengers in a fighting game, undefeated.

Calculus is hunting for electronic bargains at the pawnshop, precious components for a RoboCup entry.

Brick has joined a rugby game with some uni students and already become their MVP.

I’m back on the streets and wondering how it could be that everyone in our group decided to play hooky, when the math teacher Mrs. Sargent whizzes past me on a scooter.

Nearby, I see a group of kids from our school laughing over milkshakes in a diner.

A little further on, some of the woodwork students are building rigs for a go kart race.

I rush over to the school. The gates are open. It looks like it was opened up for the day and then abandoned.

I stroll through empty classrooms. The school has never been more peaceful. In my homeroom, a fox is sleeping on the teacher’s desk.

I decide to check the grave. Something’s on it.

Now, for context, the largest gold nugget in the world, the Welcome Stranger, was found here in Victoria in 1869. It weighed 100 kilos and was more than 30 cm wide and tall. Today, it would fetch more than 3 million at sale.

This is bigger.

It’s a tin bowl stuffed with hot chips.

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