Friday morning arrived with coffee, croissants and a nice hot shower. Aside from a fleeting feeling of standing wet, naked, and not quite alone, the morning was uneventful. The retreat space was feeling more homely with the busy-ness of breakfast bustle. The attendees arrived in dribs and drabs throughout the day. It was as if the presence of warm and living bodies made the lurking shadows retreat just a little further.
Hellos were said to old friends and new, more beds and hot drinks were made and guests settled in. Almost immediately the writerly chats began. Some astute individuals set up laptops, donned headphones and went straight to work. Others, like me, sat, mingled and talked writing. I wanted to learn more about writing in general. Another writer wanted to learn about world building and another if their work was any good. A few confessed to wanting to just be around other writers. It was a great way to break the ice.
The sun set to an informal chat hosted by Geoff Brown about the importance of social media to a writer and how the various mediums could be used effectively for self-promotion.
The warmth of the hosts and the other guests, and the magnificent heaters in the common area, almost made me feel like I was visiting someone’s home, and for a while, in the company of like-minded peers, I forgot where I was.
Pizza arrived for dinner. The resident barista, Leah, made wonderful coffee and then it was off to take part in the Beechworth Ghost Tour.
The History Tour
We met our host Ian in the foyer of the Bijou theatre in the asylum complex. He was dressed in the scratchy, rough canvas attire a male patient would have been wearing in the 1900s, along with the mutton chop sideburns for that additional authenticity. Ian led us through the abandoned buildings and gardens, pausing periodically to share facts about the asylum history and some of its colourful, and sometimes not so colourful, characters.
We heard about Dr Cunningham Dax who came to the asylum in the 1950s and revolutionised patient care. He believed that ‘the prejudice against mental patients’ needed to be broken down. Dax was known to have introduced art therapy and underwear for patients.
Although I couldn’t find any confirmation, one does have to wonder if the good Aussie phrase, meaning to drop one’s pants, should be spelled like this instead: ‘drop yer dax.’
Another well-known staff member was Matron Sharpe. A woman who was said to have left her own children in care to work at Mayday Hills so she could afford a better life for them. She was known for her kindness to patients and her attempts to improve their conditions. She introduced lace curtains and doilies and fresh flowers to the hospital. It is said she still walks the women’s ward to comfort the patients and was often seen by other nurses after her death to be holding the hands of patients who were having electroshock therapy.
Holding Hands? Comforting? In the women’s ward? I thought back to last night and wondered if it had been Matron Sharpe that had come to visit me.
The tour took us through Grevillia and Olivene. These are all freaky places with hellish stories of degradation and despair. These buildings are reputed for paranormal activity. Grevillia, notably the worse of the lot, was the building where patients endured shock treatments. A chair not unlike a dentist chair and an autopsy table (or operating table!) still sit in the room. Ian explained the doctors would sit the uncompliant males who had been gnawing at their restraints in the chair and remove one tooth. If they reoffended, remove another and third time unlucky, out they would all come. Keep in mind that there was no anaesthetic back then. I didn’t see anything, but I felt very uncomfortable.
Olivene was essentially a cottage with rooms surrounding an open courtyard and additional rooms at the rear. If it hadn’t felt so creepy, it could have been a pleasant area. We were told it once housed a patient who was criminally insane. He was described as a tall man, with long hair half way down his back. Why so long? Well, he had slit a barber’s throat because he didn’t like his haircut. Would you want to touch his hair?
Whether he was still there or it was something else, I sure felt uncomfortable in this area.
We visited other dusty areas, some taped off and in dire need of repair. There were patient rooms that were more like cells, big enough for perhaps a side table and single bed. Patients were locked in for the majority of the day and night with nothing to wear, no blankets and had no washing or toileting facilities. It was only when patients started dying of hypothermia they were given any bedding at all. As we left the cell a few members of the group were tracing with their fingers the etchings on the hardwood doors that signified over a hundred years of patients clawing to escape the cell. Those finger marks were more chilling than anything I had heard or seen so far. Even Matron Sharpe.
The last stop was the Bijou theatre itself. A most interesting place. Acoustically perfect and haunted. There was a viewing room above the stage where the performances could be watched from above. Even when the stairwell was removed and access was blocked to this area, figures were still said to be watching the performances on stage. Children’s voices could also, at times, be heard in the hall when there were no children around.
We returned to the female ward and it was off to bed. This time I slept in the big communal room which, once filled with attendees rather than mattresses and empty walls, did not feel anywhere near as scary.