I found a heart in Melbourne city. It was red and shiny, painted on a black door on a grimy wall. “Everything for Love” was etched at the bottom near a keyhole. I ignored the man fiddling with his camera, inched closer, felt around for a key. Nothing budged. I moved away, fascinated. I’d left home that morning wanting to be inspired by our city’s street culture. What I found was the heart of Melbourne beating in a little gothic lane called Centre Place. Tucked between the labyrinth of congested streets, this lane is home to cosy cafes, inspiring street art, and the Sacred Heart.

The rusted metallic sign at the entrance of Centre Place offers an eerie welcome to a gloomy lane full of contrasts. Once you walk down the narrow path, past the cafes reeking of coffee, the pretty boutique stores, the metallic apartment balconies, it’s hard not to be awed by the diversity cramped in such a small space. Centre place is pretty, it’s warm, it’s gothic with charcoal walls. But once you reach the adjoining lane at the end, Centre Place explodes with colour. The lane’s gloominess is swallowed by green, orange, pink graffiti that cover walls and garbage bins. Orange milk crates are scattered around like marbles providing businessmen and women a place to rest at lunch. Here, image is a mess of colours and pictures on a backstreet wall. We’ve reached the “the heart of the city” as the graffiti dictates near a giant green fist. But look carefully because it’s easy to miss. It’s there on the opposite wall near the entrance of Centre Place Arcade, the heart on a black door. “Le Sacre Coeur,” the Sacred Heart was made for Melbourne architect Paula Birch by jeweller boyfriend Kane Greenhatch. Kane created 12 clues, gave Paula a key and sent her on a hunt around the streets of Melbourne that eventually lead her to this heart fixed among graffiti, colour and peeling posters.

An orchestral revolutionary concerto suit in 12 movements, darling, my opus to you. I have raised my hands to conduct. Keep close the key or the many doors will not open. With this message, Kane launched Paula into a two week hunt for the Sacred Heart. “When Paula moved to Melbourne she felt like she didn’t belong so I created a place for her,” Kane said, as we cramped around a small table opposite the heart. “This is her place.” I settled on the creaky stool near a garbage bin, awed by his gesture. This lane with its eccentric shops and groovy cafes was more than a canvas for street artists, it whispered stories.  Embedded on the wall near words of peace, balance and harmony is a door cementing a place for a friend and lover. “It’s a beautiful symbol of love and hope,” I said, nodding towards the heart. I fiddled with the clues I’d found online at Paula Birch’s website and was itching to decode them, to follow them around Melbourne the way she had a year and a half ago. The first clue led Paula to South Melbourne. Clarke and York Streets…Keys to lock things in, keys to lock things out. There Paula found a locked cupboard door. Her task was to find the screwdriver and take the door to Mario’s Cafe on Brunswick St Fitzroy. You and your door have a booking at the front bar. You must order a drink. You must leave the door behind you. Leave the key in the lock. Be exactly who you are and all the painted veils you will always see through. This is movement number two.

The lunchtime crowd rushed past, and a girl settled in a shabby archway near Centre Place Arcade. Kane’s sixth clue transported me to Toorak Road where Paula had to pick up onyx, silver, ivory, gold and diamond hearts from a jewellery shop and put them in a vial. Find the shop and the total weight of these hearts you must. Sometimes the most precious things we have we cannot hold or see. Movement number seven this shall be. From glamorous Toorak Road to grungy Brunswick Street, Kane enveloped the city with his love. When Paula finally got to the Sacred Heart and opened the door, she found a silver chain with a container for the vial of hearts. Carry safe my hearts and key was Kane’s concluding line. “It’s so romantic and creative,” I mumbled, taking notes, “so rare these days.” Kane shifted in his seat, sipped his beer. “No it’s not,” he said, “it’s a tragedy. We’re not together anymore.” Oh. Just as quickly as they’d arrived, the love hearts that were colouring this lane scattered like confetti. The gloom returned like a dark fog. Kane’s smile was thin and heavy with emotion. “I’m sorry,” I said, eyeballing the heart. I was no longer tracking a love story in a Melbourne laneway; I’d trespassed onto someone’s heartache and disappointment. I was so seduced by the Sacred Heart that I didn’t stop to think that hearts can break.

An awkward silence muted the noisy lane. Centre Place kept shifting. A part of me was pissed off. I felt cheated. I looked around, at the worn typewriter keys stuck haphazardly above the bin, at the cartoon of men parachuting down the walls, at the political propaganda staining the lane, at the painting of an Asian girl nuzzling a boy’s cheek. Centre Place was not the perfect setting for a love story. It was rough, it was ratty, and it was real. Just like the Sacred Heart. Kane looked at the door, shook his head.  “They vandalise it sometimes.” His hands curled around the beer bottle. “But we fix it up with paint and nail polish.” I smiled at these words. The surface of the heart was not smooth, it was patchy with maintenance. “We both still have a key,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “We leave random gifts for each other sometimes.” And once again, Centre Place flooded with hope. Faith crept beyond the cracked walls and peeling paint to bind two people together. This tattered heart wasn’t sacred for its shiny surface but for its courage. Here’s a heart that wasn’t afraid to see beyond the flaws, to take a risk, to have the guts to explore love and nurture it.

When I left Centre Place it was with a little more courage. Here’s a lane where risks are taken with the stroke of a brush, with words, with pictures, with open hearts. Centre Place is gritty, stinky, and beautiful. It’s dark, it’s light, and it’s grey with untold stories. I uncovered the Sacred Heart, and in a way, it uncovered me.