Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Overdue blog part 2: Sydney

Yes, that’s right, another interstate trip.

Following my return from Albury, I’ve spent the last week and a bit gathering more research. I headed along to the National Library of Australia in Canberra, where I spent an afternoon scanning through 1930s editions of Truth newspaper, until I got seasick from the microfilm.

Then to Sydney, where I visited the Home front: wartime Sydney exhibition at the Museum of Sydney to get context on the time in which the pyjama girl case unravelled. I also visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw part of Vivid Festival while I was there—all in one whirlwind day.
The main event of the day though, was the Justice and Police Museum, housed in the historic building that was once home to the water police and court. Inside it’s a place of heavy sandstone walls, labyrinthine corridors, and old cells that would be eerie if they weren’t so neatly kept. Inside, you’d hardly know you were just steps away from Circular Quay.

The x-rays of that led to the discovery of a bullet

My reason for visiting was the exhibition dedicated to the Pyjama Girl, which includes her penultimate resting place—the lead lined coffin in which she was preserved for 10 years.
When people hear that she was submerged in a formalin bath, they often imagine something like a bathtub—or else, something in the way of a glass coffin. Even though I knew that wasn’t the case, seeing this receptacle in person gave me goose bumps. In fact, it made me feel incredibly sad. I tried to work up the nerve to touch it—after all, it was just a wooden box—but I couldn’t.

I left the room—an old cell—and wandered through the narrow corridor of the historic building to the next room. When I walked into this one, I saw two men in police uniforms with their backs to me and at first, I thought they stuffed manikins—ghosts on display, along with the photographs that lined the cinderblock rooms.

The lonely second-last resting place

Then one of the police officers shifted his weight, rolled his ankle in circles like someone who had been on his feet too long already that day, and moved across to the next row of photos.
I shuffled around the room too, following them without making eye contact—I was too spooked to look up.
We were all silent, until they began to leave the room, and I heard a radio crackle.
Later, I went back into the room where the Pyjama Girl’s casket was kept. This time, I touched it.

It was a wooden box,  hollowed, empty.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Overdue blog part 1: Albury

Apologies for the radio silence, but I’ve been busy working on the Pyjama Girl Project—as evidenced by the lack of procrastination-by-blogging.

Since my last update, I’ve been gathering research, ideas, and the story of the Pyjama Girl. This has included time trawling through Trove, library visits and a couple of trips down to Albury.
My first major milestone for my Jump project was to send excerpts of interview transcripts to my mentor, Colette. When I got Colette’s feedback, I realised I’d made a facepalm-worthy rookie mistake. You see, I’d already conducted so much research that I knew the story inside out. And when people were speaking to me, they assumed I had this level of knowledge. This meant I didn’t manage to capture anyone talking about the origins of the story—the dead girl found by the side of the road.

And at its heart, that’s what the story is all about.
So I resumed my hunt for talent. Without being sure what to expect, I tracked down Richard Evans, historian, criminologist and author of the Pyjama Girl Mystery–an exhaustively researched and definitive examination of the evidence, and beautifully written to boot. I think I ran around my office squealing when I heard back from Richard, who happily agreed to be interviewed, and even very generously offered to dig through his archives for some research I’d been chasing.

A week after interviewing Richard, who is the living expert on the case, I then had a go at pretending to be the second-foremost authority, when I gave a talk at the invitation of the Albury LibraryMuseum as part of Law Week 2012. The topic was Law and Justice: Our Murky Past. A local solicitor, Kym, spoke about the legal perspective of the case.
Afterwards, we had a photo shoot in front of the Pyjama Girl’s death mask, which is on display in the LibraryMuseum.

The death mask--and unfortunate reflective glare.
Believe it or not, this was my third time looking down the barrel of a camera next to that mask—but this time was very different—the glass case was unlocked and one side removed, and Kym and I were asked to move closer to the mask by the photographer. Obediently, we moved our heads into the case, occupying the same space as the mask (no copy, but the actual plaster cast that was once pressed against the dead girl’s battered face). It smelled sterile, like a hospital. That was the strangest thing. The cast looked sadder and smaller without the pane of glass separating us and bouncing my own reflection back at me. The photographer asked us to smile. It was hard to manage.