It talks to me, the Arts Centre, this haunted, gothic institution, convict-built to impose Victorian notions of health and morality onto the early days of the colony at the mouth of the Derbal Yerrigan, where, anteinruptio, the Wagyl defeated the crocodile.
It talks to me in snatches of conversation: a woman’s pleading, a doomed young man’s boast, a lover’s sighed-laced avowals and a poet’s verse; their voices swirl around my Café Canvas table like fragments of a half remembered dream.
It is Bunuru, the hottest time, when the white flowering gums bloom, djiriji palm seeds redden, and the building’s soft old stones bake to burning hardness under the passionate noonday sun. It is quiet in the café’s courtyard, the fading easterly breeze barely stirring the fringes of the parasols, and even the lorikeets and crows are broodingly silent among the sheltering leaves.
Waiting. Waiting for the refreshing breath of the Fremantle doctor to ruffle the leaves of the weeping fig and jacaranda trees, to cool the heated gables and turrets, and mingle with the languorous whispers of lovers as they savour secrets and sweet cakes at their courtyard tables.
I can feel the stones leaning in, eager to catch their words, to absorb them, and store them in their adamantine memory, fusing them together with a century of eavesdropped mad, sad and happy voices, into a kaleidoscopic narrative. I can hear it, if I listen, clear above the rustling breeze, the excited squeals of children in the garden and the argumentative crows aroused from their noontime slumber.
But all is not summer warmth. A lone woman hunches over the table opposite, her face a cold pool of sadness that even the summer heat cannot dispel. Her mobile phone has messaged the end of her relationship; thick eyelashes blink back tears and fretful fingers twist and tug at her lover’s ring. She is not the first woman to suffer amongst these walls, nor will she be the last, but that is cold, cold comfort to a breaking heart.
It is Djeran when the red gums flower, the mornings are cool and the dew-frosted spider webs glint in the early sunlight. Now the sleek, grey killing-fish prepare to return to their hunting seas.
The old building is a naval barracks, there are hammocks slung between the colonnades, the dormitories wake to the sound of bells and the boatswain’s pipe, and the crisp morning air is scented by the smell of Lucky Strikes and fresh brewed coffee. Wrigley-mouthing, crew cut boys swap salacious lies and gamble prodigious sums which, despite their eager bravado, they fear they will never collect. Letters remind them of homes far away across a hostile ocean. Letters from real and imaginary sweethearts, whose pasted images on locker doors are admired with lustful fantasy or jealous envy.
The stones listen, absorbing the anxiously excited chatter, and at night retort with the imprisoned cries of earlier generations, whose pleas for love and freedom will soon be echoed by the screams of crushed, explosive-shattered men choking on cordite-bitter seawater, before embarking on a final, eternal patrol among the hagfish and boneworms.
It is Makaru, the coldest and wettest time, when the catchments fill, the Malis build their nests, and the building is a lunatic asylum whose gloomy chimneys and gables are lashed by salt laden gales. I watch the wind plucking at the ragged gowned, wild-eyed, skeletal inmates, their hope-drained ravings quarrelling with the gale and the mumbled curses of distant thunder.
Even the stones weep, while I shelter under the awning in the deserted courtyard, savouring the scent of mulled wine warming the patrons taking refuge inside the café, and listening to the shades, their tormented souls trapped by tragedy and sorrow, moaning their grief into the eaves and arches.
The anguished woman makes another break for freedom. Balanced on the ledge outside a dormer window, the wind snatching at her faded blue gown, wrapping it against her spindly legs and withered bosom. She is calling for her daughter, has searched again and again the bleak corridors and iron-barred cells. And failing to find her has taken refuge on the ledge, seeking consolation in the fury of the storm.
But she is not to be consoled, the storm cannot wash away her grief and she steps forward, hoping for oblivion, a discarded rag, falling onto the unfeeling stones, which receive her softly, but indifferently return her to her Sisyphean search.
It is Djilba when the flowering stalks of the Balgas emerge, the Djidi Djidis guard their nests, and the Koolbardies swoop from the plane trees to harry students hurrying on their way to classes. The building is a technical school now, and neglected. Youths carve their initials into the crumbling limestone, sometimes adding those of the girl they secretly admire entwined in a rough shaped heart, hoping, but also afraid, that she will find it. Men in dark sober suits, their heads encased in greasy trilbys, pace the walls, estimate demolition costs and the profits they will make from the homes, or offices or a hideous car park they imagine rising phoenix like from the funeral pyre of the old building. I listen to their conspiratorial whisperings as they plot its doom, and to the alarmed mutterings of the shades, their voices swirling around the colonnades as if for security. Where will they go, what will they do if their tortured memories are pried free of the stone’s grip by the demolisher’s jackhammer?
It is late spring, Kambarang, the season of birth when wildflowers embroider the spinifex, and the warming days encourage the snakes and lizards to end their winter rest. The resurrected building is an arts ‘centre, and for the café patrons, looking forward to Birak and the return of summer, it means casting aside woollen hats and jumpers, and offering pale exposed limbs to venerate the sun’s returning strength, in expectancy of beach holidays and surf-bleached hair.
There is renewed hope in the courtyard; the tables are filling with friends smiling in anticipation of coffee and conversation. The gaily-coloured parasols splash cool blue shadows across the tables and flagstones, and the chatter of the friends, the laughter of children and the calls of the lorikeets sooth the shades.
There are poets too, clustering around a central table, sharing verses that celebrate the cycling of the seasons and the birth of a new year. Their inspired voices entwinine the trees’ new growth in a web of word images; of warmed hearts, redeemed souls, the caress of loving fingertips, a baby’s smile, and exotic promises of distant lands.
Their poetry is music to the shades ensnared within the reincarnated building. If they can clutch hold of the ephemeral notes, dance with them along the tramline staves, ascend the octaves as they spiral into the clean, blue, early summer sky, then perhaps they too can be redeemed, and their imprisoned souls uplifted and freed by the magic of the poetry.
And mine too.