It is hard to gauge what people think about ghosts right now. If we go by the offerings on subscription TV, there is still a great thirst for their presence. We can watch Demi Lovato contemplate the alien origins of everyday spooks or follow the complicated plans of any number of ghost-hunting misfits armed with obscurely flashing and whining instruments. Someone is always on hand to convince us there is something going on beyond the veil. But, for me, when I am aching for commune with the spirits I simply take a bus to Rozelle. They have always served me well there.
One year I had been assigned to teach a Mindful Writing course at Writing NSW over a series of six evenings in the middle of winter. Arriving early to prepare the room for my first class, I flung open the windows to freshen the room before the students arrived. Poking my head out the first window I opened, I saw a small woman bundled up in the corner of one the verandah benches, shivering in the early evening gloom. She gasped when she saw me and whispered in a foreign accent, “Are you teaching the class?”.
“That’s me,” I said, my cheeks pink from the bracing breeze.
“Oh, won’t you let me in please,” she begged while pulling her coat around her.
“This place is absolutely terrifying.”
I hurried her in via the big front doors and, softly spoken, she confided in me that she was visiting from abroad and had no idea such places existed in Sydney, or perhaps anywhere. “How can it be here, right in the middle of nothing?” she asked, adding that she had driven round and round in circles peering into the strange, empty buildings that dotted the landscape of Callan Park before she found the right building.
The students gathered for class and we had a restful hour of meditation and reflective writing, everyone settling into the contemplative groove I sought to create for the course. It is rare for me to teach at night, and so I thought I would take advantage of the unique shadows the evening time offered. I proudly announced that for the next exercise I would be turning off all the lights. I slid the doors closed and told them to turn their chairs to the wall, if possible even sitting on the floor. “Look into the corners,” I urged as the strange nighttime pressed in on us. “Look for what shapes the darkness takes and what stories it is trying to tell us.”
The antique gas heaters sputtered and provided the faintest phantom light of their own. The students bravely entered into the spirit of the exercise, and together we summoned the secrets of the nighttime shadows. In just a few moments the shadows took over, and we were all held in thrall to a presence that had gone beyond the bounds of creative exploration and had become ever so slightly terrifying. Had a portly ghost hunter been present, all manner of strange flashing lights and squawking sound devices would have gone into overdrive.
We had no such technological reassurance. All we had was the spirit of willingness and a growing discomfort in the knowledge that the old house was telling us its stories. The big sliding doors began to shake a little, providing the smallest interior thunder to dress up the flutters and sparky shadows provided by the heaters. I saw a grand old shadow throw itself up in great relief on the wall, its presence entirely unexplained. The students became restless after a few minutes. I heard groans, deep sighs and the scratchy staccato of restless people pulling at their clothes. This exercise had worked too well. We were surrounded by too many shadowy stories.
“Oh, won’t you turn on the light?” begged one voice, and when I rushed to illumine the room once more I saw a small sea of anxious faces.
“Coffee?” I suggested in a too-jolly voice, not wanting to let them see my own anxiety.
The small woman with the foreign accent looked at me with the utmost gravity. “You must never turn those lights off again,” she said, and all her fellow writers murmured their agreement.
For the rest of the course the students would only ever visit the toilets in teams of two or three. The grand staircase became an obstacle course of paranormal suggestion of its own, and twice I was tripped on its uneven grandeur, once going up, and once coming down. Perhaps I was being punished for turning off the house’s easy access to imaginative minds in the darkness I had provided in those few early minutes.
In other ways the Callan Park house taunts me and whispers to me. There is that strange little room at the top of the back staircase. I often dream of offering exclusive workshops there for no more than three or four brave students. The Alice in Wonderland proportions of the room always stimulate my imagination, and I am drawn to drop in and say hello to it whenever I am there. And no matter how much care I take, I almost always manage to batter my delicately bald head on some unexpectedly low surface. The spirits of the place remind me that they have the upper hand at all times.
Some years ago I learned that the very best way to control bored high school students who were forced to take a creative writing workshop with me was to produce a crystal ball. I would walk out into the middle of the whispering and giggling mass of sixteen-year-olds and dramatically reveal a large crystal ball concealed beneath a pretty piece of cloth. Bringing it down to their eye level, I would urge them to gaze into it and see their own creative futures. It was the only thing that could induce total silence for at least 20 or 30 seconds.
Thus began my rather expensive hobby of collecting crystal balls. By now, I have a couple of dozen of them in all shapes and colours, some of the clearest glass, others of pitted and obscured rock crystal, rose quartz and citrine and other beautiful stones. I have discovered that all writers love to play with them, and often see interesting things in their depths, things that inspire them or surprise them into forward momentum. And I have discovered that nowhere do they work better than upstairs in Garry Owen House.
In a corner room, I concealed a dozen of them on a card table at the very centre of the teaching space, beneath a rather elaborate piece of pink fabric richly embroidered with tassles, mirrored beads and other flourishes. I had prepared my little piece of showbusiness good and early, and as the students arrived their eyes were drawn to the elaborate and mysterious display. “What’s under there?” they all asked as they were drawn to the little field of scrying stones hidden in their midst.
With impeccable timing, I moved to the centre of the room and with studied casualness removed the cloth and exposed the crystals to their curious eyes. Each student was invited to come up to the table and select the ball that most spoke to them, and then we settled in to gaze at the spherical optical illusions that so inspire the mind.
They quickly took up their pens and began writing and, unusually, after ten minutes or so they were all still at it, wildly recording the things they saw in the pretty globes. But I had underestimated the strange atmosphere of a hot and windy Saturday afternoon, and the psychic powers of the students themselves. One was an admitted clairvoyant, another an accomplished astrologer and yet another had, at one point, been a nun. The already immense energy of my carefully curated crystal balls was being fed by the collective wisdom and spirit of my class.
Soon strange things were happening. The wind picked up and blew through the corner room’s open windows, papers flew into the air and chairs clattered to e ground as the writers rushed to collect their newly recorded secrets. One of them began to laugh hysterically at something she had confided to paper, another pressed a handkerchief to her eyes, driven to the edge of an emotional realisation by the visions within her amethyst ball. The quietest student asked if she might read a piece of erotic poetry she had been inspired to write.
Everyone began to talk at once in the wind and the swirling energy. I had no way of calling my previously attentive students to order. “Coffee!?” I asked querulously, relying on my trustiest old device, but by now they couldn’t hear me. They all caressed their multi-coloured orbs and spoke to each other of their dreams and the certainty of their talents.
I caught the eye of the clairvoyant, and she alone was able to detect the desperation in my gaze. “It’s the crystals,” she said, holding up the mostly opaque green fluorite sphere she had selected for her own writing adventure. “The room loves them. The wind has picked up their energy and swept us all up. We have to cover them again.”
While the writers continued to chatter wildly among themselves, I hurriedly collected the crystal balls and soon had them restored beneath their dramatic cloth. We all went downstairs and made ourselves a beverage and on our return upstairs I found I could easily restore order. The house conspired once again, though, to remind us that it was still in control. In the midst of a quiet exercise, as we all had our heads bowed over our journals, something happened and the card table at the centre shook, causing the spheres to clink together in a quick little song of supernatural promise. The ghosts of Rozelle were saying goodbye.
I have always been open to these other-worldly communications, though I claim no great psychic gifts. Perhaps it’s simply that I am alert to the magical possibility of the paranormal, and it certainly excites my creative faculties. In the 90s my sister and I would weekly visit the old Spiritualist Church in Enmore. On Fridays there was floromancy. People would deposit flowers in brown paper bags in a basket at the church’s entrance and, in the middle of the service, mediums would extract a tantalising few of these flowers and bring otherworldly messages to their owners.
One night my sister came to my house before the service, and we spiritually prepared ourselves in our habitual way with a bottle of very cheap champagne. She casually put her flower on the kitchen table in front of her as we chatted. My little dog sat in her lap and, always alert to the possibility of play, sniffed at the flower my sister had stolen from the display on the reception desk at her office. The dog grabbed it off the table and ran down the corridor with it.
We retrieved it, slightly sodden, and headed to the church where, thrillingly, my sister’s flower was the first to be selected at random by the medium. She held it up to the light and placed a prophetic finger on the waxy petals of my sister’s solitary flower. The medium’s eyelids fluttered shut and there was a dramatic intake of breath as the message revealed itself to her and to us. Desperate for a message from beyond we leant forward.
Almost crushing the bloom in a tense psychic embrace, the medium announced to us her remarkable vision.
“I see a small grey dog,” she said, bypassing our own occult desires and addressing the clearly more pure energies of my beloved mutt waiting faithfully at home.
That little grey dog is long in pet heaven now, but I still dream about her sometimes, and often when I write I think I see her beloved spectral form at my feet. She is yet to manifest in my writing, but I know that she is there in a shadowy corner somewhere, waiting to offer herself to my art.
These tenebrous presences are something I have grown to appreciate about Callan Park. That big old house is its own enormous pulsating source of psychic energy, filled with story. It breathes and whispers and, on occasion, can still take us over. And the peculiar flowers in the trees that surround it can channel messages of creative hope and promise. Touch their petals some time and ask for their stories, your stories, to be revealed.
Walter Mason is a travel writer and blogger, and the author of Destination Saigon (2010) and Destination Cambodia (2013). He has trained in meditation traditions in Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia and Vietnam, and teaches courses in Buddhist cultural history and the spiritual traditions of Vietnam.