Thursday, 24 April 2008
Today in St. Andrew’s Cathedral a memorial service was held for the crew of HMAS Sydney. Recently discovered where she sunk after engaging the German Maritime Raider Kormoran in 1941, the loss of the Sydney and all 645 men on board has been Australia’s most enduring wartime mystery.
Not solved however, is my own small HMAS Sydney mystery. Let me explain:
At the start of 1987 I had a job painting buildings belonging to the Good Samaritan Sisters in Tempe, an old industrial suburb in Sydney’s inner south. It was a complex which had once been a “place for penitent girls and women”- the Sister’s description, not mine: I can’t be that cruel. There were endless corridors, a chilly dormitory everyone found positively creepy once the late afternoon shadows grew long, and a gloomy dining room/assembly hall in which we were all convinced someone (or something) watched us. Worse though, was the old abandoned commercial laundry.
A few years back there was a movie made about one of Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. I honestly don’t know if the place I hosed and scraped and painted had been as evil as the institution featured in that film, but I’d swear you could hear screaming if you pressed your ear to the wall. And the air hung thick with tears.
Sadly I didn’t think to take pictures at the time, and this is all I’ve been able to find. Taken a few years after I worked on the site; it shows the destruction caused by a fire which resulted in the complex’s demolition, but it doesn’t convey how I remember the place: in my mind it's always cold, grey and damp. The building in the centre housed a kitchen and offices added in the early 50’s, more than half a century after the laundry just showing on the right was constructed.
Inside the far end of the laundry was a sunken passageway leading to the dormitories. Over the years this had become a dumping ground for old laundry baskets and broken machines; for several days my task was to clean this out, replace the lighting, and paint the walls. Judging by the age of the detritus it had not been an official route for a very, very long time: after the day's work it was no doubt deemed more edifying to march the young inmates outside and across the quadrangle (perhaps via the chapel) than to permit them taking the easier direct passage.
Yet don’t think the passageway was unused. The junk was riddled with tunnels leading to small hidden clearings just big enough to let a few girls hide from the Sisters for a few minutes and rest. Or maybe read a contraband movie magazine and dream of film stars and Hollywood and anywhere on earth other than a reformatory for "immoral and uncontrollable girls" claiming to redeem it's captives by forcing them to wash soiled hospital linen. The passage had been regularly occupied for decades, but only furtively so; and the secret kept hidden from the Nuns must have passed down through generations of inmates.
The walls of these hiding places were covered with graffiti scratched into the grubby institutional duck-egg-blue plaster. Most of it was the usual timeless stuff: “Sue Loves Tom Forever” and “Mother Dorcas is a Bitch” (there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind she was a bitch - sadly there’s people like that to be found in the administration of every institution, in every age). But one etching shall live in my mind forever, and it’s the reason for this post.
It was of a crudely drawn ship, with two funnels, two masts and a prominent bridge. Underneath was written “HMAS SYDNEY” followed by two boy’s names, each clearly carved by a different hand, and each surrounded by hearts. At the bottom was the date 27 February 1941 – the date the ship last sailed from her home port, the city after which she had been named. The city in which the girls now imprisoned had loved their handsome young sailors.
The girls who’d created this never saw their young men again, for they spent the rest of 1941 patrolling the Indian Ocean. Until 19 November; after then they were listed as missing presumed dead. Fate unknown. That the graffiti predated their death I have no doubt: the date was of their departure – not their disappearance – and besides it just seemed so cheerful, so optimistic in a place where there was no joy at all.
As I’ve said, I didn’t have a camera to record what I found. I tried explaining to my boss its importance, but his idea of what’s important was different to mine. Being much younger and sillier in those days I shut up and did what he told me: I sanded the wall back and painted over this precious fragment of the past. Nowadays I can’t believe I didn’t even think to record the names listed, but that was a different time and place, and why I was there is another story.
This picture of Sydney crewmen was taken in 1940: perhaps two of these boys (I can’t bring myself to think of such hairless chests, and faces barely needing to be shaved as belonging to men) were the girl’s sweethearts. If not then there’s no doubt they were just as handsome, just as cheeky, just as sure that nothing , but nothing, could overcome them.
The girls, if still alive, must be quite old now: if so I dearly hope life came to bring them more than what they found during their dark days in the Tempe Magdalene Laundry. Somehow though, I suspect they may also have now moved on to the world beyond these Shadowlands. I’ve no evidence for this, and so it’s only my foolish heart dreaming, but while listening as the Sydney memorial service was broadcast on the radio today, I’d swear I could also hear a couple of young girls flirting; they were laughing with two sailors only a year or two older than themselves. You couldn’t quite catch what they were saying, but you could be certain the Sisters wouldn’t have approved.
Then again, the Sisters have probably also found forgiveness now. As, dare I say, so shall we. But today, however, belongs to a couple of kids. May the Lord tonight and always give them the joy which was their birthright, but which was stolen from them by others, by war, and by bitterness itself.