Via Email, Liz requested three very interesting Canberra items:
No Lights No Lycra + Loading Zone + Belconnen Owl
Simone closed her eyes and tried to relax into the music.
She loved this song, ‘Lock It’, by the Falling Joys (an oldie but a goodie). She tried to let the music wash over her, feel the rhythm move through her mind, clearing away the jetsam of the day.
‘I really like you,’ she quietly sang to herself, as she danced.
Some of the debris was clearing, but the music and dancing wasn’t working as well as she would like. Usually No Lights No Lycra was the perfect anecdote to a bad day. The concept had appealed to her from the first time a friend described the experience in Melbourne. A dark room, a great playlist of music and an opportunity to sway and move to the music however you chose, without fear of judgement from those surrounding you.
When the event had come to Canberra she had eagerly joined in, and had participated at every night she could, finding the event a great way to wind down after work.
But today the clutter was remaining belligerently stuck in the forefront of her mind. The persistent knot in her stomach was testament to that; along with the flashes of the day’s events, which kept coming before her eyes.
Memories of her sitting across from James in the tiny interview room at the Police Station. She could still feel his piercing blue eyes boring into her; challenging her to dispute his claims.
Even it was amongst the most bizarre things she had heard.
‘I’m telling you Miss, they are all linked. They have to be. Why else would the Government pay to build them?’
She had paused at that moment, struggling to find the right words to use in response. Robert, her first boss out of university, and Senior Partner at Mallesons Canberra, had warned her that she was a ‘tough cookie,’ and would be ‘one hullava lawyer’, but she just needed to slow down and think about how to address the clients.
Now at Legal Aid, she had an entirely different client group, but she could still hear his words ringing in her ears.
‘James, no matter what reason you had, you are charged with criminal damage. Attempting to break the statue like that…’
But he had interrupted before she could finish, proving she had not chosen her words carefully enough. He leaned forward across the small desk between them, making her feel even more cramped in the tiny room.
‘You’re not listening. Or are you calling me a liar? I had to do it. I had to know how they are connected. They all have eyes. Why else would they have taken the Owl away the first time I located the door?’
She took a deep breath and tried again.
‘James, that may be the case. But we need to determine what I’m going to tell the magistrate at your hearing. You refused the original psych assessment, but we could try again to…’
‘No!’ he screamed, again cutting her off. ‘I’m not crazy. I’m trying to tell you what is going on…’
She didn’t pause to consider her response this time, and probably should have.
‘James, the public art you are talking about is, or was, funded by the ACT Government. But the agencies you accuse of using it are within the Australian Government. It just doesn’t make any sense as to why…’
‘You’re not listening!’ he screamed in return, leaning back in his chair, eyes wide with rage.
‘I’m sorry James,’ she had said softly.
James paused for a moment staring at her, and then slowly leant back in his chair, apparently placated by her apology. He closed his eyes for a few moments, and took deep breaths. For a moment, Simone thought he had gone to sleep.
At last he opened his eyes, a look of complete serenity on his face. It was such a contrast to his behaviour of moments earlier. A brief smile touched the corners of his mouth as he spoke.
‘The eyes have it. You just don’t understand. But the eyes have it.’
He had refused to talk to her after that, and she somehow found herself hours later, back at the office, trying to make sense of what the interview meant for his defence. In particular, whether she could make any use of the Google search on the history of the Owl Statue in Belconnen in front of her.
The eight-metre high owl cost $400,000 and was commissioned as part of the Government’s then ‘percentage-for-arts scheme’ where a small amount of a capital works budget went to constructing public art. The sculpture had been created by Bruce Armstrong out of wood, steel and fibreglass.
All very interesting from an artistic point of view, but not that useful to defend someone accused of damaging it.
Even less useful were the online discussions about how the Owl resembled a large phallic symbol. She discovered countless other art works had been funded by the scheme and spread through the parks, shopping centres and roads of Canberra. These included ‘moth ascending the capital’ (a bogong moth, complete with eye-like wings, bursting into flight), ‘the other side of the midnight’ (a whimsical dream-like collection of a doll and accompanying dog statutes) and the head of ‘Alfred Deakin in three phases’.
All of this seemed mundane; even if the artwork had proved controversial. Certainly, Simone could find no evidence or even hints as to how James had reached his conclusions about the various pieces being linked together to create some sort of network of intelligence gathering devices. The champion of the scheme had been Jon Stanhope after all, famous for, among other things, his stance on human rights.
She tried searching for Canberra conspiracy theories, but only found some crackpot writer’s musings on underground tunnels linking the national institutions, apparently part of some secret emergency network or storage centre.
She leant back from her computer and tried to take stock of what James had said. Surely googling weird theories about art weren’t going to help her defend him. He needed to have a psych assessment. Still, she found her mind drifting back to the pictures of many art pieces that she had just researched, particularly the Owl. There was something hypnotic about its eyes. Eyes; hadn’t James mentioned something about eyes?
At that point, she had glanced down at her watch and realised the time. She would have to leave work immediately to make No Lights No Lycra. She paused, considering if she should stay behind to continue researching. It might even make her feel better. But she had missed the last three NLNLs and she had promised herself that this time, no matter what, she would attend.
And Cameron might be there.
Now here she was, swaying to the sounds of The Whitlams’ ‘No Aphrodisiac’ (this really was a great mix), still thinking about work. She was also still wondering if Cameron was amongst the many bodies swaying around her. Simone had arrived just as the lights were dimmed, and so hadn’t been able to seek him out.
Resigned to work dominating her thoughts, she tried to concentre on those majestic eyes of the Owl sculpture to see if that would release some of the tension from her body. Whether those eyes did have hypnotic power, or it was the impact of the next song (The Church’s ‘Almost with you’), she felt much the knot in her stomach releasing and her body moving more smoothly to the tunes.
For a moment, she felt she might slip into that wonderful zone, apparently only possible when she was at No Lights. When the world would slip away, and she would become oblivious to virtually everything, even the music, except for the gentle swaying of her body.
But when the next song commenced, an obscure track from a band she had seen live in the uni refectory years ago, Crumpet’s Queenie, her muscles tensed again. This was too good a mix, it included all of her favourite songs… as she had them on her phone’s ‘Canberra playlist’. In fact, they may even be in the same order. Could someone really have put such a list together… in the same order?
The song always stood out in the mix, as its connection to Canberra was somewhat more tenuous to the others, based solely on Nic Dalton’s stint as bass player in the band. She had almost put a Red Hot Chili Peppers song in there, but claiming the bassist, Flea, as a Canberran based on family connections and a holiday home in the New South Wales town of Congo was probably a (Batemans Bay) bridge too far.
As the familiar combination of drums and guitar rang out to commence the song, she tried to continue dancing, despite the trepidation growing in the pit of her stomach. Surely, it was possible that someone would put together the same mix of music. Perhaps it was a sign from Cameron… but how would she have access to Simone’s iTunes?
She tried once more to relax into the music. There was nothing she could do about it now. And if this was indeed the same playlist, there was only one song left. That would settle it. The next track was another favourite local rarity, by Trouser Trouser, before they became Hashemoto. The chance of someone adding that as the last track of this mix was virtually impossible. If that was indeed the next track, someone was messing with her.
As the song commenced with familiar deep bass notes, it was clear someone was doing precisely that. She ceased her dancing, now determined to act. She would wait for the lights to come up and march up to Lucy and find out who had set out the night’s songs.
However, by the time she reached Lucy some of her anger had dissipated, and she felt a little silly.
‘Umm Lucy, any chance I could find out who did tonight’s playlist.’
Lucy put down the earphones she had been holding, and turned to face her.
‘Oh, hey Simi,’ she said. ‘Mystery playlister I’m afraid. Not even I know much about them. Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, it’s just…’ Simone paused, wondering what she was going to say; perhaps, after a day spent speaking to a man with (potentially) a mental illness, she was now convinced someone had stolen a playlist from her phone and played it at No Lights No Lycra.
‘What’s up Simi?’ came a voice behind her.
She turned to find Cameron’s handsome face, covered in a thin film of sweat smiling back at her. Shit, she had totally forgotten he would be here; that, in point of fact, only one hour ago she had been hoping he would be. A flush of hot embarrassment came to her face as she struggled to compose herself. She hoped the lights were still dim enough for him not to notice.
‘Oh, hey Cam,’ she said, trying to sound cool. ‘Just you know… um, asking about the playlist.’
‘I know!’ he exclaimed. ‘Wasn’t it great? I hadn’t heard the Falling Joys in years.’
Simone turned her head slightly to look at him more closely.
‘You didn’t have anything do with it, did you?’
‘I wished I had. It was great.’
‘Sim, I’m happy for you to look over the list, if that will help.’ Lucy said, interjecting. ‘Maybe you can make sense of this last entry. It was supposedly a song, but we couldn’t find it anywhere.’
Simone looked down at the piece of paper Lucy handed to her. It confirmed her worst fears; here were her eighteen favourite Canberra-related songs in the order they appeared on her mix. Youth Group, 78 Saab, Dough Anthony All Stars. Staring at them typed out neatly made it feel even more disconcerting.
As Lucy had suggested, there were nineteen tracks listed. The last was one she had never heard:
‘Loading Zone – Owl Breakfast Tomorrow’
It was apparently a long track, with a running time of 8 minutes 30 seconds.
‘Loading Zone…breakfast…weird,’ Simone said, staring at the paper.
Cam peered over her shoulder.
‘Sounds like a date…except for the owl bit, anyway. Loading Zone is a cafe in the city, yeah?’
‘You asking Simi out Cam?’ Lucy asked, smiling.
Simone and Cameron both simultaneously shuffled awkwardly at the question.
‘No, of course not,’ Cam stuttered.
‘Yeah, I mean Lucy, the man just said he didn’t do the playlist,’ Simone responded.
‘Not that I wouldn’t…you know,’ Cameron continued, his face turning red.
‘No, yes, of course…’ Simon responded. She paused, considering what he had just said.
‘I’ll leave you guys to sort it out. But yeah, I drew the same conclusion; if you leave the owl reference out, looks like someone is having breakfast at eight thirty at Loading Zone tomorrow.’
Simi stared down at the paper. There was only one conclusion. The owl reference wasn’t meant to be removed; it was the most critical piece of information.
It told her the message was for her.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she was doing the right thing when twelve hours later she was seated at a table outside the Loading Zone cafe. Cameron had offered to come with her, but sit away, so she would appear alone. There was a steady stream of workers coming in for pre-work takeaways, while three of the other tables around them were populated with various workers and tourists enjoying a hearty breakfast. They had arrived at 8:20am, and walked into the laneway separately. But none of the other patrons seemed interested in either of their arrivals, and so they had taken seats and begun the wait.
She found the cafe an interesting choice for a mysterious, if not secret, rendezvous. Seated at the table, she had a good view of all those exiting and entering from the entrances at both Alinga Street and London Circuit, into the Odgers Lane loading zone, from which the cafe got its name. The cafe was one of the first to try and bring some of the laneway vibe of Melbourne into the capital by reclaiming long-forgotten parking areas of the CBD. Simone had to admit she liked the concept.
She had been excited at the excuse to see more of Cameron, and while last night’s exchange had been awkwardness squared, it had at least suggested he might feel the same way. They had enjoyed a more relaxed exchange as they met up in the Civic interchange and walked together towards the cafe.
‘You’ve done the local politics round at the paper before, yeah?’
‘Yeah, actually I’m back on it now. That’s why I could meet you. I’m covering the Assembly for a few weeks while the usual guy takes leave. How come?’
‘What do you know about the arts scheme Stanhope started?’
‘I know it was controversial, on a few fronts. Some people just didn’t like the idea of such large sums of money being spent on public art; and others didn’t like the art that was created. But really, he was never gonna win on that score. By definition, any half-way decent art isn’t going to be universally loved. That’s what makes it interesting. I think the Government eventually abandoned the scheme due to public pressure. It’s a shame, I really like some of those pieces.’
‘What do you think of the Owl at Belconnen?’ Simone asked.
Cameron paused to consider it.
‘It’s not bad, I quite like the way it greets you at that intersection. I think my favourite are probably that windmill in Woden and Angel Wings in Tuggeranong… oh, and that moth with eyes in Kambah.’
The eyes; always a reference to the eyes, thought Simone.
‘Was the Australian Government ever involved?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think so…not that I heard.’
Simone paused before asking the question she really longed to have answered. Would Cameron think she was mad? Something about the whole situation was really getting under her skin. She’d barely slept last night. She didn’t know if it was some gnawing doubt about James’ guilt, or at least what had motivated him to supposedly damage the sculpture, or perhaps some deeper feeling there was more to that Owl. Those eyes now seemed burned into her mind’s eye, never far from the surface
She took a deep breath and phrased the question the best she could.
‘I’ve got this client, who is up for criminal damage. He reckons all those art works are part of some secret Government conspiracy to spy on us. Ever heard anything like that?’
‘I haven’t heard that one before. There are those crazy theories about ANZAC Parade being a runway for planes, linked to secret tunnels under the city.’
Now it was Simone’s turn to laugh.
‘Yeah, I found that one too.’
That conversation was twenty minutes ago, and now here she was sitting alone at a table waiting for…. she wasn’t sure what. Just as she was about to stand up and leave, she realised a man in a pin-stripe suit and black tie was walking briskly towards her. He didn’t break stride as he passed her table, and it took her a moment to realise he had dropped an envelope on her table. When she looked up from the table where it had landed, he had disappeared.
Cameron left his table and came over.
‘Did you see where he went?’ Simone asked.
‘Nah, I looked down at what he dropped and when I looked back he was gone. What is it?’
Simone picked up the envelope and examined it. It was A4-sized and blank, except for two eyes that had been hand drawn on the outside. They looked eerily like the eyes on the photos of the Owl she had seen.
She opened it to find a single sheet of white A4 paper. On it were written two words in red ink:
A wave of emotion passed over Simone. She found herself feeling simultaneously scared and angry.
After a brief internal battle, anger won out.
Fuck you, she thought. Fuck you for scaring me, and fuck you if poor James is innocent.
‘What are you going to do?’ Cameron asked.
‘I’m going to see this sculpture for myself,’ she said defiantly.
Cameron sighed. It was clearly not the answer he had hoped for.
‘Alright, but be careful, okay. This is a bit strange to say the least, and it appears you’ve seriously pissed some people off. Who knows what they’re capable of?’
‘Cam, my client might be innocent. I don’t know what this message means, but it suggests he was on to something.’
‘Maybe you should involve the police?’ he asked.
‘And tell them what? A man with a suit delivered me a cryptic note, and he likes the same music I do?’
Cameron screwed up his face and nodded.
‘Alright, I’ve got to go to work, but I’ll call you later, okay?’
He put his hand gently on her arm. She liked the way it looked there.
‘Sure, that would be nice,’ she said smiling.
Thirty minutes later she was standing under the large Owl sculpture, cars whizzing all around the intersection that surrounded her. She could see nothing out of the ordinary on the sculpture, although it was an imposing statute so close up. She certainly found no hint of a ‘door’ as Cameron had described. She looked into its deep eyes. These are what had fascinated Cameron so much, and she found herself once again drawn into their hypnotic quality.
She suddenly became aware of movement behind her, and turned to discover the man in the pinstripe suit running towards her.
‘We told you to stay away!’ he exclaimed, reaching down and grabbing her arm. She felt something being thrown over her head, and everything went black.
At first she was desperately panicked, as she felt herself being shunted into what felt like a car or truck. But then the grey darkness reminded her of No Lights, No Lycra, and she closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself back there; aware of nothing but the sounds of distant music and the gentle swaying of her body. And the eyes of the Owl.
Slowly she entered again her trance-light state of the night before, and became oblivious to all that was happening around her.
Some unknown time later, she became aware of the covering being removed from her face. She looked down to discover she was wearing a smock.
It was the same smock James has been wearing at their interview yesterday.
She looked up and found Cameron sitting at a small table across from her. She realised she was in the same police interview room that she had first met James.
’Are you okay?’ Cameron asked.
She paused to consider the question. A gentle smile touched her lips.
‘The eyes have it. You just don’t understand, Cameron. But the eyes have it.’
Owl Picture courtesy of the very awesome Newcastle Productions
Loading Zone logo via Loading Zone
No Lights No Lycra photo via the NLNL Canberra Blog