Four Grey Walls

Words by Elizabeth Caplice

Published on August 15, 2016

My partner and I bought our apartment together in 2013. We live in Braddon, which is as close as Canberra can get to an inner city suburb, in the green, broad, and open streets of ‘Civic’ (The CBD). Before I moved to Canberra in 2008, I lived in New Farm, in Brisbane. I knew I went Canberra native when I started to automatically refer to the inner cities of Sydney and Melbourne as ‘Civic.’

I moved to Canberra for my dream job—a librarian at the National Library of Australia, through the graduate program. The job was perfect, but Canberra was not. I spent maybe five years loathing the place, fleeing to Brisbane first, then Sydney, and then Melbourne for weekends and short breaks. It was Melbourne that captured my heart. It was Melbourne I wanted to live in. The coffeeshops and bookstores and street life and nightlife. And as all my friends left Brisbane, they all somehow fell into Melbourne.

Braddon is crisp—the cleanness of the air, the sharpness of the falling leaves, and the car yards that filled it when I first moved . I always loved it here, in the small narrow few blocks lined with oak trees; an easy walk to Civic. It always seemed to me like the only place in Canberra that could feel something like a home. The light industrial area has been replaced by numerous coffee shops, pop-up stalls and food trucks. It has made Canberra feel like a suitable proxy for my dream city. A friend from Melbourne tapped into the essence of contemporary Braddon perfectly:

Early into the British invasion of Australia, explorers would return to the UK telling stories of the strange animals they had seen here. Artists would paint them from descriptions, creating odd, wobbling animals that somehow became more beautiful, more displaced, and more endearing for their oddness. Braddon is what would happen if someone heard a description of Melbourne and, in turn, created a suburb that feels as though it could be similar to its suburbs of Fitzroy or Brunswick, but is somehow strangely different in a completely unintended way.

 

There is nothing uniquely ‘Canberra’ about our apartment. It is a generic yellow block, built in the ’90s, with a manicured yard and a body corporate that sends us letters we never read. Canberra is dominated by small, ex-government single level cottages, with narrow kitchens and small bedrooms. I’ve spent a lot of my life in friends houses, inside of these intensely Canberran spaces, with their scent of dampness during the long, dry summers, the heat rising through the floors. These cottages stand out the most because often the exteriors are identical but the intimacy of the insides adapt to the personalities residing there more than any other architecture I’ve seen. A house rented by students with milk crate furniture shifts into a beautiful home  with co-ordinating furniture and a tidy garden. They are, however, also quintessentially ‘Canberra’ in that they cost a fortune .

 

When we inspected our one bedroom apartment, I adored the place instantly. The small upstairs area would make the perfect library if we installed a floating wooden floor. We could rip up the carpet, paint the walls grey, and put as many holes in the walls as we liked to pin up our artwork. If we bought this place, the security of ownership would insulate us against eviction due to the pet rabbits and cats that were part of our family.

I am change averse, and this apartment was only one complex over from the apartment I had lived in since I’d moved to Canberra in 2008. That place carried the weight of mental illness and a bleak relationship imploding within its walls; it had been nicknamed The Reform School For Girls by one of my best friends who shared the place with me, as we were probably—by many people’s standards—girls in need of reforming. We would form our new place—The Second Reform School For Girls— by creating, decorating, and framing it as we wished, coated in the privilege of being under 30 and able to afford to purchase property. There was no flow of air in that place, and the roof leaked. It flooded twice, leading to the carpet being ripped up in both bedrooms—I asked  . There were two balconies, and when I started growing plants on them it started to feel like some sort of home.

We overlook a park, Haig Park, which has pine trees planted in straight lines. It is a long green grid that is beautiful to look at and walk through, the air always slightly cooler, yet it is disappointingly difficult to actually use as a park. A few months ago, I lay in the park with a copy of Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness as the pines on the ground dug into my back, and the grass that slipped between them made my legs go red. This park—the lines, the discomfort, the strange beauty that starts to rise from it with time—is somehow analogous to my feelings about Canberra as a whole. Looking out over the park as it rains always feels essentially ‘Canberra’. But what it is that I consider to be essentially Canberran can be hard for me to define—it comes down to the spaces, and the trees, and the parks, and the strange circular nature of the place, and the bureaucratic organisation. Yet when I think of the mark in my mind that Canberra leaves, I think of that park.

 

After my cancer diagnosis in 2014, the apartment—this place I love, this sanctuary—has shifted in my mind. I have spent countless hours staring blankly at my bookcases, staring at that floating wooden floor we so happily installed. It is our home, a place where it is me and her, and we shape ourselves inside of it. I am trapped within the stillness of it, quiet days where the walls wrap around me, the couch drinks me in. Days where it is only stubbornness that forces me to leave the apartment to get some sense of humanity back into me, by sitting in coffee shops and pacing through the civic mall, reminding me of how I both loathe and treasure this space I inhabit.

I rearranged my bookshelves recently, in a trivial attempt to gain control and structure over my life, my disease, and in a set of objects that I feel define me in a way that nothing else can. Alphabets and categories scraped off my surfaces, one book after the next, one procedure after another. Each volume another page of diagnostics; each book, another fragment of myself. The books make up a body, composed of who I am—I sometimes say they are the best of me, a fleshless projection of how and where my mind has shifted and catalogued my interests and needs and desires. I’m disembodied and safe within these grey walls, and I am crammed into them too, dripping with the smell of chemotherapy and the weight of my bones.

 

Now, regardless of my love for my apartment, of my sense of place or of my feeling of home, my partner and I have to leave this place—both our city and our apartment. There are three flights of stairs, and the palliative care team sadly explained that my mobility will decline and I’ll struggle to make the walk up the stairs, and become trapped in the walls even more than I am now. Our bathroom would need to be renovated and, when one day my medical team will install a hospital bed for me to die in, there is no room and no way of getting it up the stairs.

We are moving to Melbourne, my promised land. We will dig out a new space, in unfamiliar suburbs but surrounded by familiar faces of my friends and loved ones who have relocated there. We are moving there because we both want to live in a new city, and we are also moving there for me to die. I don’t know how this will impact on how I form my space. I don’t think anyone can know.

 


Elizabeth Caplice worked on this piece until May, 2016. In July, she died from stage IV bowel cancer. Stilts feels very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Elizabeth, and to be able to share her words with you. If you would like to read more of her remarkable work, we would suggest this, this, this, this and this.