Callan Park


When I went onto the set for Terra Nova I found they had turned part of the old mental asylum into rooms and corridors of the eponymous boarding house. It’s so bleak, the cinematographer said to me then paused. Beautiful though—like a Dutch interior. He was on a break, we were smoking kreteks, looking out over the grassy parkland falling away towards the distant river. My eighteen month old son was in the crèche that was attached to the unit because the film had child actors in it. Well, one, Tuesday was her name, she was the daughter of the perhaps mad woman, Ruth, who had taken her and run away from home. Was it schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder? Or just a form of neurosis? She was afraid of her father, and of her mother’s collusion in her father’s depredations, whatever they may have been. I went for a walk around the buildings and found them eerie after the fashion of deserted institutions but there was something more. The way the light fell sharply into enclosed courtyards, the way precise inky shadows purpled beneath the verandas. Even though it was broad daylight, blue sky, hot yellow sun, green-brown grass, it felt very noir. As if a threat like a spider lurked in every drain pipe. The asylum was built on modern principles, water was gathered and recycled, there was a reservoir beneath the ground I walked upon, rumoured tunnels leading out to the river banks. The grounds landscaped with ha ha’s so that when an inmate looked out the window he or she would see no bounding walls but only parkland and water glimpses. I cannot remember who told me about the wing where the shellshock victims were : a rectangular high hall with tall windows made of facetted glass, isolated from the rest of the complex. In the 1920s nobody knew what the treatment might be for that particular affliction so the men were simply confined, some in restraints, some not, all prey to the terror incessant bombardment had initiated. They had lost their nerve, the saying went. Many were incontinent or worse; the stench was appalling; and in that oblong of hell they howled and wept or curled in corners rocking back and forth or walked up and down gibbering . . . when I thought of those whose work it was to feed and cleanse these men I almost understood the petty cruelties of nurses and warders, taking small revenge upon the alleged authors of their fate; their heroism and their sacrifice seemed beyond comprehension. There’s nothing much for a writer to do on a film set so it was only mid-afternoon when I collected my son and took him for a walk in the grounds before driving back up the coast to where we lived. By that house of former horrors I remember him on his bandy legs crowing as he stumped up the hill past the sundial and on into the shade of the eucalypts that grew along the ridge above the river; just before I ran to scoop him up again, I looked back and saw, beyond the formal gardens and the banked ha ha’s, gold light flashing from the windows of the empty asylum: as if the ghosts within were sending ironic messages of hope to we who have still to negotiate this vale of tears here below.

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