The Picton library has a solid, functional appearance, the opposite to the vacant lot beside it with its overgrown grass and forbidding wire fence. I like vacant lots, especially in places where you don’t expect to see them. The Sydney I explored as a teenager had plenty of vacant city lots, from stalled developments that went bust in the 80s. I liked to look down at the pools of stagnant water far below, and spot the ferns growing in the cracks.
But Picton isn’t a suburb of Sydney, it is past the south west extremities of the suburbs surrounding Campbelltown, buffered by farmland, and very much a country town. I came here to teach a series of zine workshops at the local high school. After the first one of these I went to explore the town. I went to the op shops, ate crackers in the old graveyard, and found the library.
Before I entered I sat outside, drinking a fizzy lemon drink and surveying the library exterior. The window was decorated with the words “National Year of Reading 2012” in a commanding script, and smaller, more whimsical lettering with words describing the reading experience: laugh, cry, discover. I wondered what kind of things this year of reading would inspire. My hope is short stories on food packaging, for the kind of compulsive reader who finds themselves reading the back of the cereal box while eating breakfast.
Inside the library I immediately fell under the scrutiny of the librarian at the front desk, she was the stern kind who makes me nervous. I tried a “hello” and escaped to the back of the library. The library building is a long, thin rectangle, with tall bookshelves to hide among. I passed the computer room and the video game area, both of which were busy with kids, until I was at the very back of the library. Up here were two desks and a view out onto the vacant lot next door. If this were my local library, this is where I’d choose to sit, far away from the eye of the librarians and with a window to look out of.
Also at the back of the library was the local history section. Wanting to get to the bottom of the town’s hauntedness, a status I discovered coincidentally at Woollahra Library (and this library is called the Wollondilly Library – further coincidence?), I went to look for Picton books. On top of a pile was one that seemed to tell me all I needed to know:
Local history expert Liz Vincent has written a number of books about Picton. I read the cardboard insert first:
I was ready for signs of paranormal activity as I looked through the book. It was a collection of ghost stories organised by location. The library had a good few pages devoted to ghostly happenings, and I decided I’d photocopy these pages to refer to later. Approaching the photocopier I wondered if I had any change, but with no need, as there was the exact amount I needed to copy the pages already loaded onto the machine. The ghost must have been feeling obliging that day.
As well as doors opening and shutting, phantoms appearing outside the doors at book launches in the library, and weird noises, the most interesting story was about the first librarian, Mr Keith McKinnon, who had a habit of pushing the books to the back of the shelf. After he passed on, the new librarians conformed to the more usual practice of pushing the books to the front. Often they would come to work and find the books pushed to the back again. It seemed reasonable that the ghost of Mr McKinnon was still at work in the library.
I read a little of the introduction, which made the interesting point that the author didn’t believe Picton to be necessarily more haunted than other places, but perhaps it was a place where people are more sensitised to paranormal activity. When I’d sat in the graveyard with my packet of crackers earlier that afternoon, I thought of the story I’d read in Haunted and Mysterious Australia, about the police officer encountering ghouls in this graveyard and having to go back to the station and quickly consume about four cups of coffee to settle his nerves. As I’d walked around the small, old graveyard I thought I could hear someone following me. A number of times I stopped, and the sounds stopped too. Were they footsteps or was it just the jumble of things in my bag rustling as I walked?
I put the book back on the shelf and browsed around the non fiction section. The books were all pushed to the front of the shelves but I liked imagining the ghost of Mr McKinnon, a tall, thin man, emerging from the photocopier coin machine at night to start to put things in the order he preferred. I stared at the letters and numbers stuck on the windows, trying to decode them before realising they were random and decorative, before settling on one of the lounge chairs at the centre of the library.
When I’d arrived at the library there were people sitting in the lounge area reading the newspapers, but it was approaching closing time and the only activity now came from the kids in the computer room. As I read the paper I listened to the librarians talking as they reshelved books. Despite the quietness of the library, they all moved with great urgency. The woman who had been sitting at the front desk when I came in was of a particularly anxious disposition. Everything she said was in a tone of voice that indicated something was not right. In the small world of Picton Library there seemed to be many problems.
I had bigger problems to worry about however, as I had turned to a feature in the Sydney Morning Herald about possible causes for the end of the world. In addition to the expected ones, meteors and so on, were a number of new and distressing methods of obliterations such as “vacuum decay”, “strangelets” and “geomagnetic reversal”. While it was distressing to think of the world suddenly ceasing to exist by one of these methods, there was little I could do about any of them. I have no power over strangelets.
While I was reading about this a librarian passed me with pizzas and a box of Kirks lemonade cans, and put them on the table behind me. The kids who had been using the computers gathered around and started to eat the pizza while she explained the holiday program where after every five books they read they get a stamp, and the more stamps that they get they can redeem them for prizes, such as JB Hi Fi vouchers and something called a “cyberdisc”. When she finished explaining I heard the crack of a soft drink can being opened, and a kid saying “I hate reading”. The librarian was unfazed and told him that magazines counted as well as books. Other kids were more enthusiastic about it, bragging about how they were going to get the most prizes out of everyone.
This made me think back to the MS Read-a-thon, which I was never allowed to take part in (it still exists, I have discovered). Most of my friends at primary school took part in it and I was jealous. I read a huge amount as a child and would have done well in the Read-a-thon. The problem seemed to be that it involved adults sponsoring you a certain amount per book, with the proceeds then donated to the charity. Anything that required extra expenditure, or was through school but linked to an organisation, was discouraged in my house. I was allowed to take lots of extra art classes, however, so there’s no reason to feel sorry for me.
Perhaps now the emphasis of reading schemes has shifted from raising money for charity to bribing children to read, a depressing thought. The kids assembled for a photograph and, at the count of three, said “free stuff!”, and the photo was taken. Maybe it wouldn’t really matter if the world ended…
It was approaching closing time at the library, and I had one last look around. On top of the magazine rack were poultry magazines. I’d noticed that the most notable feature in Tahmoor, the nearby town where I was staying, was the chicken and duck processing plant. The area has a history of poultry farming.
I didn’t have enough time to find out about the frisky bantams, unfortunately. It was almost 5pm, and I was headed towards the bus stop, past the after hours return chute with a horological pattern.
The bus drove everyone back to their house individually. I got to see the neat houses where the old ladies lived and the Estonian Village where a rather aristocratic elderly man was dropped off. In the 50s people migrated from Estonia to come and farm chickens, and the village, a maze of little brick houses, was built. I imagined tidy lounge rooms with big padded lounge chairs. Beside each lounge chair would be a coffee table with copies of Australian Poultry stacked on top of the lace tablecloth.