Something unwholesome is alive in deserted Phosphate House, and I can give it a name.
The old building, its extensive shedding and broad loading areas have been abandoned for some years now. Half of the businesses in our industrial estate have also been abandoned but none show their abandonment like Phosphate House.
It was always an oddity in an industrial estate of small factories, gravel piles, storage sheds: a three story office building in the honey-coloured brick popular in the 1950s, or whenever in the mid-century they stopped using that dark liver-brick. There was a smidgin of pomp in the squashed portico with the name “Phosphate House” carved across the top. There was something permanent about it, something that put you in mind of Elders and BHP and Menzies, something for keeps.
I remember it from my childhood in its first life as a superphosphate depot. Here the second great Australian need after water was stored and distributed: the mineral lacked by our soils. The head of Phosphate House wore a bulky double-breasted suit just like Sir Robert Menzies’, and people spoke of Mr. Stringer or just Stringer as someone who could make or break anyone in our country town. Probably he could. His secretary, Miss Crawley, was Valme, never Val. Apart from one ponderous broach, she was dressed plainly if neatly, reserving decoration for her cosmetic-caked face topped by a soaring and stiff beehive. People whispered the usual things about Valme Crawley and her married boss, but the main thing you knew about her was her gatekeeper’s power. She could let you see Mr Stringer – or not. And the phosphate boss could fertilise your prospects in the town – or not.
This account is more about an invisible Beast than about individuals who frequented Phosphate House over the decades. But you have to imagine the place as it was back in its first heyday: a great hub near rail and highway where the trucks continually came and went, where men in blue singlets yelled and sweated, where the sacks thudded and slid all day and even into the night, where the air was always piqued by that same acid aroma.
Somewhere, as we were taught in primary school with a certain reverence, islands were being gouged of bird dung; and the inhabitants of those islands were born wealthy because they lived where birds had thronged through millennia. These were the miraculous remote origins of the local miracle which was Phosphate House…
Then it stopped.
A government few in our town would admit voting for made it all stop. Superphosphate was no longer the Great National Substance. Farmers and gardeners simply bought it from produce stores in the same way they bought other fertilisers and chemicals.
The truck traffic to Phosphate House slowed and slowed, the freight train schedules changed.
Phosphate House became a dock for sacks of other things beside superphosphate.
We were told there was less world-wide of the white, acid-smelling substance which gave its aroma to my childhood. What there was of it became too expensive to pour over a continent. The brown people of those Somewhere Islands were now said to be Australian dependents, paupers even.
In the meantime, a scandal burst. Valme Crawley did run off with a Stringer – but it was with the very stern, prim and angular Mrs. Hazel Stringer.
Sometime in the 1970s Phosphate House closed. You could climb a fence and walk around its docks, if you really wanted to. There was just the white dust inside and, in exposed areas, the greying sludge left over from decades of bursting or leaking sacks.
If you sniffed attentively in a corner you could still pick up that bracing acid smell. Your childhood came back, in a trickle and just for a moment.
For a long time nobody wanted Phosphate House. It was too odd: a three storey building out of town with enormous unlockable shedding and docks. A government thought about it for a postal centre, but then decided on a modern, purpose built depot, to be established nearby.
Next it was considered for a text book depot. Then somebody decided on a proper shed with all the right shelving and forklift arrangements, to be built nearby.
At last, whoever ended up owning Phosphate House dropped the price on rental and it became offices and a seldom visited brick and paver display area for a nearby quarry. Later the quarry was acquired by some huge corporation – which then preferred another site nearby for some giant 1980s corporate idea it had in mind, before abruptly abandoning the town during “the recession we had to have”.
And so things went for Phosphate House. Nobody dreamed that a bodiless Beast had come to live in its very interstices, and it would find ways to emerge.
One day some large turquoise and gold lettering, just legible in swirly deconstructed style, was fixed above the portico. It read, as an appeal to tradition: Portico Transport Services. A funkified logo of the sun dawning between Greek pillars was fixed just beneath.
Two local buslines had merged, along with their government and other contracts, and had decided to make Phosphate House their headquarters. There was plenty of parking and easy access, after all. Why had nobody thought of it before? Perhaps because local buslines had always been small affairs tucked away behind high, overgrown fences hard by highways.
Portico would be different, and it showed immediately.
The two heads of the pre-merger businesses were locals and cousins: Kelvin Toukley and Brian Kelvin. Their respective families had been part of the one service in old merger days, before split-up days, before new merger days. Kelvin and Brian, both in their early forties, old rugby mates who were considered “lads” in the town, soon came to be known as the Portico boys, or just the Porticos.
The office staff and on-board staff began to appear around town in uniforms inspired by Virgin Airlines. One noted that the more attractive and groomed of our local youth found it easy to secure employment at Portico – and blonde was certainly preferred.
New buses of European marques like Mercedes and Renault were parked all about the Phosphate House yarding. Some even left the enclosure to take some schoolchildren to home or school, or do the airport run to Port Tench. When there was a train breakdown, a Portico bus might do the transfer. But there appeared to be no increase in bus traffic along our part of the coast, and the usual long-haul companies still handled the Sydney and interstate routes.
In short, nobody knew what Portico was actually doing with its attractive staff and European buses. Some suggested that a huge coup was coming…but none could say exactly what so many new buses could do, beyond what buses had always done in our region.
Other questions were raised. Who was funding and why? Was it the Arabs or the Triads washing money? Maybe the Chinese government…
That was it! The choicest minds of the Mulloway Hotel’s Anglers Bar finally worked it out. Nobody would spend so much, obviously all borrowed, unless there were plans for an entire new city, most likely a Chinese-funded “technopolis”. Word of the new city spread quickly, but no confirmations were forthcoming.
Because the Portico boys and their accountant, Grayson Donovan, were great motoring enthusiasts, most of the company’s lavish sponsorships went to motorsports. (In our town, you don’t go far socially or any other way by joining the Linux Users Group or the Chess Club.) Grayson Donovan always seemed to be wearing a racing jacket or driver’s suit as he dashed about town after hours and on weekends. The local tuning specialist became something of a celebrity. When you walked past his shop you could often see the Porticos and their accountant, together with any number of short, overweight men, sitting in a circle contemplating a computer readout or peering into the motor of a racing buggy or touring car.
It was then announced by Grayson Donovan that he had found a shopfront in an obscure part of Sydney where a sort-of-a-division of Portico could sell motorsport merchandise. Mercedes and the French would want in. It was about “cracking the big smoke”, explained Grayson, though the shop was installed into an abandoned milk-bar in an abandoned commercial strip well west of the city.
Then it stopped.
Just like the phosphate. It all just stopped.
Well, Kelvin Toukley, international traveller and business dynamo whose name was being mentioned in Sydney boardrooms and newspapers, had an affair. He did not have an affair with a London call-girl or with an attractive blonde assistant (his cousin did that) but with the receptionist at the local funeral parlour, a freckly country girl called Kylie Gawler. Kelvin’s country girl wife learned of the association (with a Gawler!) and decided to inform the entire world that Portico was a complete confection. A certain major Australian bank had been persuaded by a moving of decimal points or by rumours of future government contracts or by sheer Donovan confidence that it should pour millions into a simple rural busline. Grayson Donovan’s creative structuring of Portico did the rest.
All Portico had ever done was drive a few local kids to and from school, service the airport run…and process millions of dollars borrowed from the most respectable of Australian institutions. No Arabs, no Chinese.
Portico’s disgrace had elements of the fall of the Marcos’. Instead of a shoe collection, however, the most shaming and envied of Kelvin’s ill-gotten luxuries was an enormous stainless steel barbecue acquired for a price so stupendous that the locals had trouble believing it. “It just…gleams like a thousand suns!” said one eyewitness in the Anglers Bar.
Within months, Phosphate House was deserted. For a couple of years it remained so.
When I say deserted, I mean deserted of humans.
Green jobs, green tech, green initiatives, green armies, green whatever…
A new government had caught the mood of the times, and thinking laterally (but forward) had decided to avert a financial crisis and conserve expensive energy by unleashing rashly improvised hordes of ceiling insulation installers. All over Australia, and all at the same time.
An average full install was free, so there were a great many takers in a great hurry. If there were not that many installers and not that many insulation batts, something called job creation could produce the former, a place called China the latter.
A large insulation business covering a region needed both storage and offices, not to mention parking. So Insulpower, a business which had not existed some months before, quickly had their hoarding up on Phosphate House, right where the lettering “Portico Transport Services” had been bolted into the brick some years before.
Insulpower’s representatives drove around in little Toyota hatchbacks painted in the company colours of “cerise and cerulean”. You could not miss them coming.
Those of us who had reason to pass often through the industrial estate got used to the sight of yellow insulation fluff littering the streets and even catching in the branches of the bottlebrush which are the favoured landscaping tree of the town. In fact, Insulpower’s Toyota Dyna trucks did not leave any part of the town without a snow of yellow fluff, but few questioned the quality of the batts when the actual price of the free insulation was quoted at thirteen hundred dollars by Insulpower’s representatives. One prominent councillor and business person of the town was particularly effusive in his praise of Insulpower’s “super high-qual, ultra new-tech” batts from China’s “Three Gorges sustainability powerhouse”: Warwick Gawler, the Toyota dealer.
When questions were raised about the tendency of Insulpower’s batts to disintegrate and blow about the streets, it was explained that the batts had their special way of trapping air which made them movement-sensitive in transport but “like a shower of finest goosedown” in your ceiling. With the price set at zero, people were willing to believe.
What created more uncertainty were the installers, mostly young men who had the look of being previously unemployed, or even incarcerated. There were accusations of theft, of installations only half done or done very strangely. One angry youth piddled and defecated in the ceiling of his former headmaster. There was a rape allegation. There was a fire in a ceiling.
Then it all stopped.
Just like the phosphate and the buses. It just stopped.
After fires and electrocutions across Australia, the insulation schemes came to a halt. In such a saturated market, even the old and bona fide insulation companies folded.
At Phosphate House, the trucks, the hatchbacks and the piles of yellow insulation batts were all gone. The sign remained, and, if you looked closely, you could still see the bleached outline in brick of the lettering from Portico days. Might you have also seen dust or hardened sludge from the superphosphate days if you peered hard in corners? I never peered.
Certain things look their worst in grey morning light.
I was walking through our industrial estate around daybreak, just weeks after the closure of Insulpower.
The yellow fluff was still everywhere. It was trembling and shuffling in the firsts gusts of morning, like tumbleweeds in an old western.
I looked at the empty building and yarding of Phosphate House. Nothing had stirred there for weeks, and nothing would stir for a good while. Not every enterprise wanted such a home, only certain ones.
Then I realised about the Beast.
People say that Phosphate House is deserted now forever. But I know it will operate again, and again be headquarters for more illusion and plunder and waste. Perhaps because it has the ideal shape and nature: a somewhat pompous office building just out of town with easy access and with masses of shedding and parking. But also because the Beast has come to live there.
This calls for wit and understanding.
An invisible Beast has come to inhabit Phosphate House, a Beast which has a name.
And the name of the Beast is SUBSIDY.