As if to give Wednesday's last ever Christmas party at the ABC public housing apartments (near Canberra's CBD) some added poignancy workmen had, on the very eve of the event, surrounded the decomposing complex with temporary fencing.
Party organisers were not amused. The fencing said, in rented fence language, "Keep out. This is about to become a demolition site." And so to allow people into Wednesday's party in the apartments' Boomerang Centre, partymakers had to get permission to remove just one section of fencing to create a gateway. Then, to point the way, they festooned this temporary gap with technicolour metres of artificial Hawaiian leis (garlands of bright orchids). This splash of crazy gaiety was at odds with the drab and doomed tall apartments that loomed behind the fences.
The now-dilapidated Allawah, Bega and Currong (ABC) flats are to give way to a glamorous high rise residential and commercial precinct.
On Wednesday the Boomerang Centre was in Christmas party mode. Guests, past and present tenants of the ABC and of the other public housing precincts in the neighbourhood settled down under a ceiling festooned with tinsel. Long before lunch began, with a yeoman from a spit roast company carving manfully at a huge wedge of roasted flesh, guests began pulling cheerfully at the bon bons on their tables and tucking into their nibbles.
The room echoed to the reports of bon bons being pulled and this was kept up, irreverently, during the short, avuncular speech of guest of honour Bill "Big Bill" Stefaniak. He was, as a plaque on the room's wall testifies, as the ACT government's Minister for Housing and the official opener of the Boomerang Centre on Tuesday April 2, 1996. Now here he was – as MC volunteer Lyn Heywood boomed to everyone who was listening – on the premises on the Centre's last day! Today, making everyone's irreverence towards him on Wednesday even harder to understand, he has the grand-sounding title of Appeals president of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Rugby-tragic Stefaniak (who is still unnaturally big and seemed to fit poorly in the low-ceilinged room) reminisced above the crackle of cracker fire that he'd always had lots of fun at the Centre.
"There's been some great times here! We had some great singalongs here! It's a shame it's closing. But I suppose that's progress."
Another consequence of the acceleration of things indicated by the demolishers' fences was that, suddenly, everything in the Boomerang Centre's op-shop was free. Word got around and soon the shop was filled with fossickers, including this columnist.
"Take as many books as you like," a helper encouraged, " 'cos they're all going to the tip tomorrow."
Books seemingly bound for the top included the self-help classics Banish Your Belly and Mikael Svanstrom's Getting Pregnant The Hard Way. Then there was Brian Thacker's Rule Number 5 - No Sex On The Bus. Op-shop Vinyl LPs (deservedly) doomed to the tip included the Shirley Watts Accordion Band's Jingle Bells, containing of course I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus but also the forgotten hit I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas. Child star Gayla Peevey stormed the US charts with it in 1953, and (Oh, America!) was given a real hippopotamus, which she duly donated to a zoo.
St John's church in nearby Reid will miss the help of the op-shop, for as one volunteer told me on Wednesday, the shop donated its revenues to St John's to help with the church's good works. The most recent donation (the last, ever?) was $1200.
The ACT government has started the controversial transformation of the Allawah, Bega and Currong apartments from dilapidated public housing into a high rise residential and commercial precinct.
Dennis Mortlock (on Wednesday Bill Stefaniak gave Dennis a certificate "for being reliable and fun-loving") reminisced for us above the racket of the party that he'd lived at the Bega flats for nine years and had been a helper at the Boomerang Centre for 10 years. He said that as well as the annual Christmas party the Centre had always staged activities galore, including music concerts and painting groups. He pointed to how there were artworks (no longer hanging but propped against walls, awaiting urgent safe removal from the demolishers' wrecking balls) all around us, all creations of the painting groups.
"It's the end of an era, it's a bit sad," Mortlock mused, but still smiling though and so living up to his reputation as an award-winning fun-lover.
No one is quite sure, yet, if another version of the Boomerang Centre will arise in this public housing neighbourhood. But on Wednesday and at every table, amid the debris of the bon-bons, there was an optimistic-sounding flyer headed "It's not goodbye!" It promised that while the Boomerang Centre's usual lunches for everyone were going to have to be suspended they would be resumed, somewhere, in February.
The deeply-carnivorous farewell lunch was in full-swing as this columnist left through the lei-decorated gates. There was time for one more nostalgic look back at the eight-storey towers of the ABC precinct. Dilapidation is creeping over it now. There are broken windows. Grass sprouts from crannies. Which one of its now empty and silent apartments once throbbed to a fun-loving family singing along, with an accordion band, I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas?