Guests attend the Port Arthur Massacre 25th anniversary commemoration service (Image: AAP/Pool, Luke Bowden)

If Australia has one place where ghosts should walk it is Port Arthur. There are ruins enough here; an atmosphere of violence and decay; almost too many remembrances of human suffering.

George Farwell, 1965

The tradition of literature that qualifies as Tasmanian Gothic goes back to Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life in 1874, and continues to this day. Taking the Arthur Highway south east, it seems absurd. As the road curls through the endless rolling hills that frequently swoop down — as in Eaglehawk Neck, or Dunalley — into a glowing, mirror-like bay, or past the dense, dark forests that knit it all together, the thought of setting horror in such gentle and dreamy beauty seems like the kind of cheap juxtaposition a first-year film student would come up with.

And yet.

Tasmania is the site of possibly the worst attempted extirpation of Indigenous people in the history of Australia. And the human suffering Farwell refers to above is that inflicted in one of the most brutal convict prisons in the colonial era, Port Arthur, built with forced labour, housing boys as young as nine, with those who died taken over the sea to the Isle of the Dead and an unmarked grave. The ruins of the place still draw tens of thousands of tourists every year. The “ghost tours”, the website apologetically informs us, are heavily booked until the end of May.

And on April 28, 1996, 35 people were murdered here in the worst mass shooting in Australian history.

“Twenty five years ago today, evil came to this place, and we will never know why,” Maria Stacey, visitor services manager for the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority said yesterday in the opening address at the modest and stoic gathering in the memorial gardens to mark the anniversary. (Stacey has worked there since 1992.)

We entered the memorial, which emanates back from the now barren shell of the Broad Arrow Café, to the arrestingly lovely tones of the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra Chorus performing Dan Forrest’s “The Sun Never Says“.

The event is intimate, partly a function of the memorial garden design. Walled in by hedges around the bare café walls at one end and a sheer grey cliff at the other, it feels like a refuge, calming the bright chill hanging in the day’s air. But mainly it’s intimate because of the attendees.

There are very few journalists and even fewer politicians — it appears to be almost entirely locals; no one wanted the lead-up to 2016 repeated. And so the event feels familial, like a wake. Attendees share little smiles and waves, the tears are silent, and when it’s all over, they hug and chat easily about things other than the memorial.

There are speeches from former-premier Michael Field and memorial designer Torquil Canning, and the laying of wreaths at the simple memorial cross, which Canning tells us was erected mere days after the tragedy, an impromptu marker he wanted to keep. Various emergency workers and families lay wreaths; Kaye Foxe and Kevin Daly from Ambulance Tasmania stand silently, arms around one-another’s waist, looking at name after name after name.

Then there’s a minute’s silence, punctured only by the chirping of birds and echoing laughter of tourists, who feel light-years away, but are actually just behind the hedge. The silence is ended by Julia Palmer, who was a young girl in 1996, reading Margaret Scott’s Garden of Peace: “May we … cherish life for the sake of those who have died.”  

It’s typical of the approach to the day. There’s very little talk about what happened. I mean, what is there left to say? Who could have begun to forget? The raw material for the ceremony is what was created in the aftermath of this ineffable loss: Scott’s poem, Canning’s design, a warm and elegant song called “Always Remember” by locals Cait Vertigan and Ali Hart. And of course, the bond of having lived through a day where one’s own life, and that of the country, veered in an unimaginable direction.

They close with “Stand by Me”, the kind of song we feel we were born already knowing, rendered new and vivid by these surroundings. We’re all invited to sing. At first it seems Hart and Vertigan’s voices are too strong for attendees to confidently join in, but as the chorus hits and the choir kicks in, the sound swells around us, and at the end, people smile and cry and freely applaud.

A brochure for the site asks us to understand that any questions about the day can be “very disturbing” to those who work there. This corner of Port Arthur is not an “historic site”. Twenty five years is no time at all.

And so as I leave, one of the many stewards that dot the area smiles at me and asks if I want some afternoon tea. She would have been roughly my age, or a little younger, in 1996. I open my mouth to respond, and I hear the gravelly path to the Broad Arrow Cafe under my shoes, and, for just a moment, I can’t make a sound.