by Paulette Smythe
Prisons are not, generally speaking, places of beauty or monuments to architectural elegance. And yet the wall, to my eyes, seemed constructed to conceal something wondrous. Rumour had it that what lay behind the wall was a prison but I – I confess that I thought of it as a palace.
Palace? We do not have palaces in Melbourne although there is something very close to be found on the edge of Maranoa Gardens in Balwyn. And there are showy and astonishingly luxurious mansions aplenty all over the Melbourne metropolitan area although outwardly, they are disappointingly uniform in appearance – flat, angular buildings in shades of white or grey, however flamboyant and expensively appointed their interiors may be.
A palace requires royalty, monarchs who reside within for at least part of the year. Who did I imagine dwelt within my supposed palace? I could not picture any dwelling at all beyond the door that sat so incongruously embedded in the long wall. In my mind’s eye, one simply opened the door and stepped within. There would be no path, no garden, no courtyard. I would be ushered directly into that palatial otherworld which I could not describe even to myself but in that place was to be found the solution to all that left me feeling lost and alone in my everyday life.
They say the wall is haunted, something wet and icy has been known to bleed from it and coagulate in crevices, or run unevenly down its sides. It has, they say, a face at dusk, a long weeping shadow which can be seen peering mournfully at passers-by just before nightfall. It is considered unlucky to walk on that side of the street.
And yet to walk along the length of the wall, to turn at the corner and take the road again – that was my one desire. For in passing back, I could see again the door – imposing in height, of elaborate pressed metal, bereft of handle or knocker or any other means of admittance but a key-hole. How often I had hoped to pass and see the door open or to see – even from afar – a person or people going in or out of the door or, at the very least, a car pulling up before it. I hoped in vain. Cars did occasionally park along there. Not often. It was and is a lonely road. An area zoned light industrial. A few small factories, a mechanic’s workshop, a desultory café and a handful of inexplicably quiet low-rise offices. An odd stretch of the world. Turn a corner and you are back in the stomach of suburbia, the streets full of life – school kids idling their way home, dogs barking, people wheeling out their bins or weeding their gardens.
In my mind, I had already flung myself against that door, not once, but many times, and felt the weight of its sinuous back turned against me, the stark impossibility of admittance into the charmed realm that lay beyond that door.
Why did I not simply knock? Because to do so was to invite change of a kind I could not envisage. If I should knock and find the door opened by anyone less than extraordinary, my disappointment would be unbearably intense and I feared I would never experience the thrill of anticipation in quite the same way. But if I should knock and find myself ushered into the unutterably beautiful, how could I ever return to my old, unsatisfactory but comforting life? For, if I went in, I must also come out again.
It is a passer-by I eventually summon the courage to ask.
What’s that place down the road there - the one with the door?
You know the one I mean - the one with the high wall . . .
Ah yes, I know the place you mean. It’s a prison.
A place where people want to get out. But I so desperately wanted to get in. The passer-by was mistaken for surely I had heard music and laughter coming from behind that wall. Seen, too, smoke or steam drifting from somewhere within, curling up into the twilit sky, certain colours rising and falling like curtains, shades of blue unknown outside these parts. Within must be a place of mysterious fruition, of repose and delight, not of pleasures curtailed or denied.
About the Author
Paulette Smythe is a Melbourne writer and visual artist whose work has been published in the Shuffle anthology, Eureka Street, Bewildering Stories and Verandah,