Of Sand and Stone and Sky

I had my first kiss beneath one of these winged stairwells. I learned how to love here. Guided by this passion and chaos, I learned to love here.

Art by Ely Yu

The sun will rise and set but it will never fall. Your class will finish at three o’clock and the bees will follow you home. The Quadrangle will never get bigger but it will grow, it will brim so full that the ghosts go quiet. The rain will pour and run and it might never cede. But at least we will be warm. 

I was nine years old when I caught my first glimpse of the Quadrangle, ten on my first real visit. I had never felt so small. Not insignificant or sorry; not awestruck or stunned. Ten years on and still, I have never felt so small, so scaled-down and pocket-sized in a doorway facing the city which built me. 

Heavenly stained glass melted on earthly green grass: hold me upright when all I want to do is sit. 

Sit and look to the hills speckled with cows and tractors. Scatter seeds to one day line the border with trees. Run down the dirt track and play in the stables, wooden and rickety with imported ills. Watch the convicts plough and the soldiers drill and long for a faraway home. Let them pray for their children. Send them back to where they came from, these men who break more than bread.

None of us are old enough to remember the souls carved into these colonial walls. No one ever wants to talk about the lime quarried from the shade of the Wianamatta shales. Nothing will ever bring back the overgrown billabong of the “Kangaroo Grounds.” This was a place of learning long before French, German and political thought. 

We cannot have sand without stone. 

Oblivious to the concrete path, the Great Hall rustles beneath budding ivy.

Build me from the ground up. 

Smooth out my edges and make me clean.

Adorn me with carillons and turrets,

harken me to Oxford

and send my love to the Queen.

If windows are the eyes to my soul

Then toss banners from my balconies,

cover me in taffeta,

and sing for seven days.

Lay me down.

Help me settle.

Water my roots with hot milk.

I’ll see you when you get here.

Deep voices echo through the early wooden frames. Too many say nothing at all. They do not listen, only mumble when they have not been asked to: a reminder! This is where the best minds come to study, struggle and shine.

July moves to January and new mouths are eager to introduce themselves. They have pale skin and red lips, high necks and black robes. I am not the first woman to walk these halls but I know she is holding my hand. It is September and the first caps are thrown to the ground with the last jacaranda petals, browned and smelling of tea. A new season has arrived and everyone is watching. 

Even the statues are dressed in pantyhose now, their souls laid bare like the Depression we had to have. The flags are flying but the deep mahogany bleeds and the gargoyles will not stop crying. Vulgar, vulgar, vulgar, crass: there is no longer anything ceremonial about a graduation. Push the boundaries and print the papers. Knowledge is free! Honi soit qui mal y pense! 

The first shouts turn your blood cold. Classes stop because students refuse to be lectured. Emotion, raw propensity pours from the centre’s every puncture. When it does not stop they know they have made history. Bell-bottom jeans stand in the central junction floating flyers on the wind. Charles Perkins boards a bus. Knee-high boots chisel footholds into loose bricks and the Chancellor’s Office in the Right Wing. Fingerless gloves drop posters and political dreams from the bell tower. Photographs may make time stand still, but sandstone never erodes.  

I had my first kiss beneath one of these winged stairwells. I learned how to love here. Guided by this passion and chaos, I learned to love here

From a soft tremor to a heartbeat: a body, fully-formed and sloped in all the right places. Famous alumni and honorary doctors and drag queens layer their footsteps atop mine, their art an homage to the greens and browns and blues stained onto their feet. My family cups my cheeks as I take a glass of champagne. There is a candle in the Macleay Museum I must light, a light that will never go out.

Now it is July again and they have taken away the jacaranda tree. The same sweeping sky that sunned my heart in summer souses it now that it has broken. The lawns invite me to lay down with them, to sink so deeply into their tolling bells and twinkling bulbs that the grinding gears and gossips and goodbyes forget we exist. I have always feared I will try my best and it will still not be enough. 

Yet I no longer need to face and sit: this moment will not be my last. I have many more tears to cry and discoveries to make. I do not know what I do not know, but I will take my time. 

You all look the same when you laugh and when you cry. The sun rises and you learn from it. You keep coming back, even when it rains. I will try my best to keep you warm.

Art by Ely Yu
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