The first time I saw my room at the Caledonian it was waist deep in rubbish. Next time I came to look at it the kid from Ways Terrace, the flats across the road, who was going to take it if I didn’t, had cleaned it out and swept the floor. Funny, I never saw him again. It was small and oblong with two windows, two doors and a massive sandstone fireplace along the long outside wall. The maid’s room, someone said; there was a shaft for a dumb waiter outside the door that led to the rest of the cat-piss stinking, rubble-strewn basement in which there was a ruined brick oven with a chimney. One window had ladder ferns growing in it and you looked out through the green lattice they made to a footpath where peoples’ feet passed, not often, because we were the last house in the street and beyond was just industrial wasteland then the sea. The other window, which you could open, gave on to an old flag-stoned carriage yard with double corrugated iron doors on the right; sometimes I did hear horses’ hooves striking sparks on the stones at night out there. The other door opened into a narrow corridor that also led to the carriage yard; and across it there was an even smaller room than mine, that no-one used except for dumping things in. A storeroom no doubt. Single divan bed along the inside long wall, 1940s public service oak desk on the end wall, the fireplace with its carved mantel and then on the fourth wall, beneath the window, a cabinet with a kerosene lamp upon it—we had no electricity. The floor was smooth, the walls, rough-cut sandstock blocks mortared together, a white plastered ceiling. Above, the labyrinth. The Callie had been some kind of private hotel in the 19th century, probably the sort sailors liked to use when they were ashore; it was divided in two with a residence on the distaff side; the halves communicated with each other only via disintegrating balconies or outside doors. If you climbed the ricketty stairs up all four floors to the top you found a ladder which led to a hold-cover off an old sailing boat that you could move aside with your outstretched arms and hands and so stick your head out and survey the roof top and the surrounds. It was said, by whom I don’t remember, that a red lantern on a pole was, when a ship sailed into the harbour below, swung here to attract custom to the house. There was a billiard room, that we called the ballroom, with a leaking roof; and there must have been a bar as well as a place to eat, otherwise why the dumb waiter? But where it might have been I never could tell. A persistent rumour about that house was that there was a mismatch between the number of chimneys—17? 18?—and the number of fireplaces it had and this was true, I tried, often, to count both chimneys and fireplaces and never could arrive at a satisfactory number for either, let alone a matching one. This led naturally to a further speculation, that there was an unknown room in the house . . . we were a floating population, a dozen or so, like a group of Apostle birds, we sometimes lost one or two and had to look for replacements, other times there were too many of us. I remember all the names and faces, also fragments of biography, but what would be the point? Dead, scattered, elsewhere, gone. We covered the gamut, from failed idealists to criminals and sociopaths, from innocent children to raddled addicts, from hopeful monsters to genetic dead-ends. Ricky & Darren. Dave Evans. Johnny Muller, Johnny Bear. Mark Mac. Lyn & Lindi. George, Sonya & Rachel, the three New Zealand girls. Stefan & Tanya. The longer I was there the more I wondered: not just about the unknown room but who lived in it? Who lit the fire that set the absent chimney smoking? Or should that be the other way round? It was like a hole in the night, blacker than black. During the paranoid last days before my leaving of that place, when I was assailed from all sides, not by phantoms but by the vengeful living, a vast image began to trouble my sight; and grew in clarity and detail over the succeeding nights until the explosion. If I did not know that the Caledonian was sold and still stands, gentrified, as someone’s million dollar mansion, I would say this is what happened: one dark night, Anzac night probably, after Ricky and Darren smashed all the street level windows with pieces of 4 x 2, a shadowy riderless horse in the carriage yard struck at a flagstone with its iron-shoed hoof, the spark leapt up and travelled through the ether, up the dumb waiter, into that unknown room and ignited the tinder of centuries that lay crackle-dry upon the floor in there. The circle of stones I made on the floor of my room gave me just enough time to get away but the rest of them were consumed. I was running down the road when I heard the whoosh of the place going up behind me and turned to look back; the pall of black smoke that rose from the flaming pile resolved before my eyes into Goya’s Colossus on the sky; except it was a spirit of the Eora looming like a prodigy there. Nothing else apart from that vast black billowing shape and then it too was gone. I saw it wisp to zero in the dawn sky and, no longer afraid, walked on down to Harris Street, past the Terminus Hotel and the Royal Pacific, which are no longer there either, and on into the morning.
pics : a wagon on Point Street, 1954;
Herbert Street, 1986;
the Caledonian is the whitish-grey building with three windows between two chimneys to the left of the mass of the tree; Ways Terrace next to that. The silver smokestacks that appear to crown the Callie actually belong to the since demolished Pyrmont Power Station