Adelaide, South Australia, 1901
The two brothers darted back and forth across the wide thoroughfare, dodging carts, carriages and horse-trams. They skipped and jumped over the piles of horse dung, some fresh and steaming, others hard enough for a person to trip on. When a motorcar chugged past they ran after it, calling to the driver to give them a ride. Each time a horse-drawn vehicle approached them, the elder boy, Alastair, would wait on the edge of the footpath until it was almost too late to cross and then he would dash out in front, startling the horses and drivers, before running to the other side of the road.
‘One, two, three. Go!’ cheered his younger brother, Ross.
Alastair sidestepped two carriages. One of the horses baulked and the driver drew back on the reins before letting the animal have its head again. By the time the horse was under control Alastair had already crossed the street and was waving at Ross to hurry up. From down the road a tram approached. Two horses, one grey and the other the shade of burnt biscuits, pulling the load. As the vehicle grew closer Ross could see the travellers through the saloon glass. On the top deck, ladies sat at the rear holding parasols where the canvas awning didn’t quite screen them from the sun. Ross felt the familiar rush of excitement. His chest rose and fell. The horses drew almost level. He dropped his head and ran.
‘Get out of the way!’ a man on a penny-farthing yelled.
Ross hadn’t seen the bicycle on the other side of the horse-tram.
The high-wheeler wobbled left and right as it struggled to veer out of his path, then the tall front wheel struck something on the road and its rider was pitched headfirst over the handlebars. The man’s hat soared upwards while the owner landed heavily, sprawling on the road. The traffic slowed as the riderless bike clattered across the street to fall on its side.
Ross stared at the unconscious man, whose limbs were splayed like a paper cut-out figure, a fine dribble of blood seeping from parted lips. People began running towards the injured rider. They were calling for a doctor, asking what had caused the accident.
‘Come on, Ross.’ Alastair dragged him through the gathering crowd.
Women reached for lacy handkerchiefs, grimy hemlines ruffled the dirt, men scratched at whiskery faces as a voice called out for a clear passage to be made. A black bag with a shiny metal clasp skimmed Ross’s shoulder. Alastair kept Ross’s wrist grip-locked until they reached the footpath.
‘It’s a stupid contraption anyway,’ said Alastair. ‘No one rides those old things anymore. Come on.’
‘But what if he’s hurt?’ asked Ross. ‘Or worse?’
‘Then we don’t want to be hanging around, do we? Let’s split up for a bit. I’ll meet you outside the hospital in ten minutes.’ Before Ross had a chance to reply Alastair was gone. He couldn’t help looking back at the chaos. Two men were lifting the twisted pennyfarthing.
What if the bicycle man had been killed? Ross’s hand went to his neck. They hanged murderers.
He stuck around, waiting to see if the man had survived but the crowd still clung to the place of the accident and Ross knew that it was best to leave and find his brother. He began to walk towards the hospital, gradually moving faster, rushing past the paperboy and finally breaking into a run, not slowing until he reached the wrought-iron enclosure of the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
‘Where have you been?’ his brother asked, barely out of breath.
Alastair was waiting outside the hospital gates, a foot propped up behind him as he leant against the fence. He was smoking a cigarette, the thin tube of paper dangling precariously from his mouth. He took a deep puff and then carefully stubbed it out. Wetting the tip with a glob of spittle, he slid the smoke into a pocket.
‘Where did you get that from?’ asked Ross.
‘It’s a free country.’ Alastair beckoned him to the fence. Three nurses dressed in their walking-out clothes, long black capes, and caps with floppy bows tied under their chins, stopped to help a sobbing woman who spoke with the same German accent as their housekeeper.
‘Another one for the dead house,’ said Alastair. ‘You know when they chop someone’s leg or arm off, they bury it in a big hole behind the hospital.’
‘They do not,’ said Ross, trying to match his brother’s stride.
‘Do so. Where else are they going to put them?’
‘I think I killed that man,’ admitted Ross, trying to stop tears from filling his eyes. ‘He fell on his head. And there was blood and everything.’
Alastair’s face lit up. ‘I didn’t see the blood.’
‘It was there. Lots of it,’ said Ross solemnly. ‘They hang you for killing people, Alastair.’
‘You were just crossing the road.’ His older brother pushed him forwards and together they followed on the heels of an elderly man with a slight limp, Alastair dragging his left foot as he mimicked him. ‘Even if you did kill him it wasn’t your fault, and if it was, the police would be after you, wouldn’t they?’
Ross wasn’t convinced. ‘I suppose so.’
‘And can you see any police?’
The street was busy with traffic and the people riding normal bicycles rang tinny bells so you’d know when they were overtaking. Maybe his brother was right. The problem with being eight years old was that you didn’t know everything. It was a very bad age. Alastair said that there was all manner of things that only became knowable and interesting once you turned the magical age of twelve. Which was, Ross thought, rather convenient for his older brother.
‘When I’m your age do you think Father will let us go north to visit Waybell Station?’
‘If you still want to go,’ said Alastair.
‘It’s a long way. Father’s not even been there.’
‘That’s why we should,’ said Ross. ‘One day I’ll be just like McDouall Stuart. The most famous Scotsman in the world. I’ll cross the desert, explore country no white man’s ever seen and float down alligator-infested rivers.’
‘They’re called crocodiles, Ross!’ Alastair picked up a stick and began using it like a sword, wheeling it back and forth, stabbing at the air.
‘We can dive for pearls and go back to the property at night,’ Ross continued. ‘You have to come with me, Alastair. Promise?’
Without answering, his brother ran ahead. When they stopped a few minutes later it was outside a stone wall. They stared through an open side gate at the long two-storey building that sat atop a rise. Wings extended from the main doorway, which was flanked by gabled windows, and a vine crawled across the face of the structure.
‘I’m not going in there,’ said Ross. ‘It’s full of mad people.’
‘That’s why we have to go, Ross.’
‘But if we get caught . . .’
‘One look. Promise.’
They loitered near the gate as a gardener loaded clippings and branches into a horse-drawn dray. He worked methodically, shovelling shrub trimmings and leaves in first before throwing the longer lengths of brushwood on top so that the smaller, finer rubbish wouldn’t blow away.
Alastair sat on the ground and took off his shoe. While the gardener worked, he removed the laces and then slowly rethreaded them through the punched leather holes, making a show of checking the length before tying a neat bow. ‘We’ll be here all night if he doesn’t hurry up.’
It was cold in the lee of the wall. The air pricked Ross’s bare legs as he hoped for the dray to break down or for the horse to go lame. The asylum was on Alastair’s list of ‘things to be done’, which meant that sooner or later they would have to go inside, but he’d always hoped it wouldn’t happen. At least not while he was still a boy. Alastair’s list was comprised of a series of tests he devised after reading about the feats given to the Greek god Hercules. Ross blamed their tutor, Mr Storey. The four-eyed teacher was more obsessed with the Greeks than Alastair was.
Overhead, the boughs of a tree reached across the wall. Shapes seemed to nestle in the leaves above. Ross imagined nine-headed monsters and enormous bulls, for his brother had taught him to see Greek stories in everything. But the problem with Alastair’s myths was that they were all make-believe. A place of gods and mortals without an inch of truth to any of the tales. Ross would choose King Solomon’s Mines over Hercules any day. A lost world it might be but at least Africa existed, and exploring was much better than fighting monsters.
The gardener gave them a friendly wave as Alastair impatiently tugged the second set of laces from the other shoe. ‘Sit down, Ross. He’ll think we’re up to something.’
Ross kicked at a newspaper in the gutter, sneaking his fingers into a pocket where he’d placed a handful of boiled lollies. Alastair’s tests of manhood were becoming riskier and riskier. The smoking of their father’s pipe and the drinking of a glass of whisky had already been accomplished, although the stealing of sweets from the Rundle Street confectioner hadn’t been quite as successful. Ross may have managed to whisk away some candy from an unattended open jar, however the shop owner had seen him. The problem was that he didn’t want to take anything from the store. He liked watching Mr Johnston unscrew the lid on the glass jars and with deliberate slowness count the candy into a paper bag, a long-nailed finger sliding each lolly across the glass counter as if he was counting out Ross’s weight in gold.
There were other things in his brother’s notebook. The kissing of a certain girl who didn’t have a name. And the construction of wings that would allow Alastair to float down from the upper branches of the camphor laurel tree. But the lunatic asylum, well, that was his brother’s biggest test.
The gardener turned his back to the boys and finished loading the dray. Alastair waited for just a second before catching Ross by the sleeve and dragging him to his side as they slid through the gate. Inside, they levelled their bodies against the wall, listening as the gardener closed the gate behind them, then they crouched behind a hedge.
‘I don’t think this is a very good idea,’ Ross whispered.
Alastair lifted a finger to his lips. ‘Quiet,’ he warned. They crept slowly towards the front of the building, keeping clear of the open veranda, their bodies crouched low and tight within the manicured vegetation.
‘If anything happens, Ross, head straight for the Botanical Gardens.’
‘What’s going to h-happen?’ he stammered, anxiously scanning the wide gravel path. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, but he could hear noises coming from inside the asylum.
‘Shush,’ his brother warned again. ‘I don’t know. We might get chased by a mad person.’
Ross took a step back. ‘But I don’t want to –’
‘Come on,’ Alastair enticed. ‘It will be dark in a couple of hours.
All the patients will be inside now. Tied up for the night.’
‘They tie them up?’ gasped Ross.
‘Straitjackets.’ Alastair made a moaning noise as he wrapped his arms around his body.
The younger boy felt a tingling sensation on the back of his neck. The sun was dipping behind the stone wall, patches of darkness already obscuring the flowerbeds and bushes that led to the gardener’s gate.
Ross watched Alastair as he ducked, running towards the building. At the jutting bay window he held onto the lattice that was securing a trailing vine, put a foot on the ledge and shimmied up onto the gable-shaped canopy. He squatted on the roof and beckoned to his brother.
Ross gritted his teeth and rushed across the lawn, wedged his shoe on the trellis and began to climb. He was too short to step straight across to the window shelf, so he climbed a little further.
The framework creaked under his weight.
‘Hurry up,’ Alastair hissed.
Ross managed to get one foot on the window sill as the timber frame gave an ominous crack and started to bend.
Alastair knelt on the roof above. ‘Stand on the sill. Reach up and grab the ledge.’
‘They’ll see me,’ said Ross.
‘No they won’t. The curtains are drawn.’
Ross tried to pull himself higher by gripping the edge of the canopy but there was nothing to rest his feet on and he wasn’t strong enough. ‘Help me.’
Alastair heaved him up by his shirt as Ross pushed the soles of his shoes against the glass. Inch by inch, he wormed his way towards his groaning brother.
‘I can’t do it!’
‘Yes you can, try harder,’ puffed Alastair.
With a final burst of energy Ross kicked out. There was the sound of breaking glass as he fell on the roof.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ scolded Alastair. The boys squatted on the small sloping space, holding their breath as people called out from inside the asylum. Ross braced his shoes on the rolled iron edging. Below, curtains were tugged open and a woman called for help. Alastair pointed to an open window a few feet above them. ‘I’ll go in and then I’ll help you.’
The trellis was lurching out over the flowerbed. It was a good ten-foot drop to the ground. Ross found himself agreeing.
Alastair reached up to take hold of the sill and hurled himself inside the building. A few moments later his head popped up. He was grinning.
‘Come on. It’s easy.’
Ross moved gingerly across the canopy. Reaching out one hand and then the other, his fingers grasped the protruding brickwork. The weight of his body pulled him forwards and he slipped, his chin hitting warm brick as his arms stretched from their sockets. ‘Alastair?’
His brother had him instantly and pulled him inside. They landed with a thud on the floor.
The room was in semi-darkness. When Ross grew accustomed to the light he saw two people sitting quietly by their beds. He waited for one of the men to call out or to complain but their eyes remained fixed on a picture of a sailing ship.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ said Alastair. ‘They don’t know we’re here. I’ve already checked.’
‘Are they sleeping?’ asked Ross quietly, getting to his feet.
Alastair waved a hand in front of the men’s faces. ‘With their eyes open.’
They’d seen their first mad people and they weren’t scary at all. Except that when Ross got a little closer he discovered that the men were strapped to their chairs, wrists and ankles bound tight. One of them was drooling. A thin line of wetness had attached itself to the man’s shirt, forming a damp patch on his chest.
‘I don’t like it here,’ admitted Ross.
‘I bet they’ve been given special drugs like heroin or opium, or maybe he’s been sitting in a freezing cold bath for days. It makes a person into a turnip. Look at them.’
Ross waved a hand in front of the unseeing patient and stuck out his tongue. ‘But why do they want to turn them into a turnip?’
‘They don’t. They’re trying to make them normal again. But when they’re as mad as a hatter you can’t make anyone normal again. You can only lock them up and feed them. They don’t feel anything, you know. They don’t know if it’s summer or winter.
If it’s hot or cold. Nothing.’
Alastair went to the door and turned the handle. It opened easily. ‘Guess they don’t have to lock them in when they’re tied up.’ Outside in the corridor he began checking the wards. He slid bolts across to reveal empty rooms. Only one was padlocked. ‘That’s probably where they keep the really mad lunatics.’
‘Won’t someone come looking for us?’ asked Ross, thinking of the broken window pane.
‘Doesn’t seem like it. I bet they’re searching the garden. Let’s try this one.’ Inside the ward sat four children on narrow cots. They looked younger than Ross. A battered teddy bear lay abandoned on the floor, and a little girl started to cry. Alastair held a finger to his lips to shush her, and they quietly left the room.
‘Are they mad too?’ asked Ross once they were back in the hallway.
‘Maybe they’re orphans,’ answered his brother. Downstairs they could hear people moving about. ‘We’d better hide. Just until things quieten down.’
A key sat in the padlock of the last door and without hesitating they unlocked it and entered. A man in a white jacket with long sleeves wrapped tight around his body shuffled in a circle across the empty room. ‘If they let me go I won’t do it again. If they let me go I won’t do it again,’ he repeated.
Alastair reached a protective arm across Ross and, very slowly, they edged to the door.
‘I said I wouldn’t do it again. I said I wouldn’t do it again.’ The man rushed towards them.
Ross screamed as they ran into the hall and straight into the path of a young boy clutching a teddy bear. ‘Hello,’ he said, with a timid smile.
‘We need to get out of here,’ said Alastair to the child. ‘Is there a way?’
The boy nodded and they followed him to the landing. Sitting on the top step, the bear in one hand, the boy began to push himself down the flight of stairs on his bottom.
‘We’ll be here all day,’ complained Alastair as they watched the little boy’s progress. ‘I’m going to carry you,’ he whispered to the child. He swept the boy up into his arms and ran down the rest of the stairs. At the bottom the child pointed to an alcove under the stairs, and the three of them squeezed into the small space. Concealed by a table crammed with books, they hid in the gloom as doors slammed and people called out for any intruders to show themselves. Ross’s fingers closed around the sweets in his pocket and he gave one to the boy. A swatch of dark skirt swished past them. The little boy pressed closer to Ross, the teddy bear wedged between them. The stairs creaked.
When they eventually crawled out from under the steps the boy led them to the back entrance of the building, pointing to a set of keys hanging from a hook on the wall. ‘A way out,’ said Alastair, as he began trying each key in the lock.
‘Hurry up,’ urged Ross. The keys tinkled in Alastair’s fingers. On the floor above doors were being banged as rooms were searched. Next to him the little boy jigged up and down on one leg, clutching the bear by its neck. He tugged on Alastair’s sleeve.
‘I’m going as fast as I can,’ Alastair replied.
After what seemed like an eternity, the key turned in the lock and they pushed through the door. Alastair shouted his thanks to the boy and then he took off, skirting the hedges, calling to Ross to keep up.
Ross concentrated on Alastair’s heels as they hurdled flowerbeds and weaved past blossom-drooping trees, out a gate and towards the expanse of the Botanical Gardens. He glimpsed the child once. A small shape quickly consumed by deepening shades of green.