“He looked up, and it seemed-this was crazy, but it seemed the door to the room the man had come out of was filled with the burning light of an Australian sundown, the hot light of an empty place where things no man had ever seen might live…
Tango-light, he thought. The kind of light that makes the dead get up out of their graves and tango. The kind of light-”
Room 1408, Stephen King.
I visit Melbourne once a month or so, and I love it more every time. It hurts to leave, and not just for missing the company I’ve been keeping. With the Most Amazing Man In The Universe as my tour guide, I get to view the city from the inside out, instead of the way I’ve gotten used- looking from the outside, in.
It feels, more and more so, the same way it did the first time I went there. Like I belong there, amongst trams and people and colour and life.
In Melbourne, drive forty k’s out and we’re engulfed in scrubby bushland, small stretched out towns dotted in between. Another ten or or fifteen minutes and we’d be at Kinglake. It’s the place where bushfire roared through just twelve months ago, taking the lives and homes of hundred of people. My Amazing Man has taken me here before; to the National Park with it’s eucalypts and their thick charcoaled trunks, bright green regrowth spilling from them. This place has a surreal, serous stillness; the sound of souls holding their breath.
Today our destination is small weekend market, the kind with stalls selling clothes and food, trinkets and books, earrings and necklaces. There are tarot readers and fortune tellers. A dreadlock hairdresser, a chai tent with cushions spread out on it’s floor and happy families spread across them taking refuge from the sun. The heat of the day is mixed with music, notes floating on soft breezes; the atmosphere is friendly and inclusive.
The Most Amazing Man In The Universe predicts that I will love it- and I do. He’s good at playing that guessing game he seems to know me inside out. We never get bored. If anything, we just run out of time to do all the things we have planned.
I think it was a mental hospital, a lunatic asylum, says The Most Amazing Man; and I attempt to shrug that off without putting too much stock in it, without letting my mind infest the building in front of us with imaginary ghosts where none may be. Creepy old hospitals always seem to fall in to the category of ‘asylums’, whether they actually were or not– it’s a horror movie cliche that none of us can seem to shake.
A quick Google search later that evening tells me that The Most Amazing Man is, in fact, correct– this was a mental hospital, more than fifty years ago. And the deeper we venture in, the more apt and obvious that becomes.
This building stings of crazy.
The first building we see is little more than an emancipated shell of itself, gutted from the inside out with only the sturdiest of brickwork and chimneys remaining. The bricks look amazingly clean– it’s as if, when this new suburban environment was built around it, the old buildings were cleaned and scrubbed as well. Oddly, the different, flatter light and the dryer, less humid air in Melbourne contributes to the feeling that these buildings have been held in a dry, mummified suspension. The greenery that surrounds them is scrubbier and lazier than what I’m used to seeing, less intrusive– vines grow through windows as an exception, not a rule. Lichen and moss are almost non–existent, and where there is rotting timber it’s a dry, cracking quality rather than a damp, mulchy-crunchy wood sag.
It’s the largest building, the one most visible from the road, that is the most accessible. It feels weirdly like a public place- any sense of trespassing here is muted and dulled. It helps that this is obviously the place for local teenagers to practice their tribal social skills– walking in, we see five of them, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. There’s a pang to that (youth is so wasted on the young)– they are so oblivious to the outside world, the friendship between them currently more important than any family connection, their kinship more real than what most adults feel on any given day.
Finding a way into this foreboding adolescent playground is ridiculously easy– the front door is, of course, wide open, and leads into a small, filthy front room. The windows are non existent, even their jagged broken glass removed. The carpet is packed with dirt and leaf litter blown in from the unkempt, grassy garden outside; the floor is layered with bottles and cigarette packets and other miscellaneous rubbish. There are broken chairs and random pieces of splintered wood. It smells like piss and vomit and decay.
Abandoned buildings almost always follow the age-old pattern of lazy humanity. The areas most obvious and accessible are filled with junk, despair and lack of care; any trace of the lives that once lovingly or laboriously existed there trampled and desecrated by the apathy of future generations. The deeper you venture, the cleaner, less vandalized, more settled and aged your surroundings become.
We walk softly, inside and up a small set of concrete stairs that leave us on the first floor of the building, ten feet above the scrubby ground outside. The building is a odd squared-off horseshoe shape, a covered walkway crossing the span between the two long, three storey wings. The covered walkway has heavy mesh fences all the way up to its top, with solid metal netting spreading out each side in a curve. The same way you see over railway bridges.
To stop people throwing things- themselves included- from over the side barriers and potentially injuring those below them in the grassy courtyard.
Or breaking their own neck as the ground stunts their fall.
The building is lit with that odd Melbourne sunshine- a gloaming, bright, unfiltered yellow that makes things appear so much prettier than they might be elsewhere. It’s all relatively solid and bright exposed brickwork, muted pale yellows and creams. The graffiti is beautiful, so much of it art, the colour popping and breaking from the walls in a perfect contrast to the slowly decaying surroundings. It’s fresh and vibrant and creative and metallically lush over peeling walls, over over occasional charcoal and scorch marks from lazy winter fires.
We reach the top floor and the carpet beneath our feet is mostly intact; the floorboards beneath it amazingly solid. The teens we spotted earlier are ahead of us, two girls calling out to their male friends below. There’s a peaked, giggly squealing note to their voices that echo through the wide, silent halls. This place evidently gives them the creeps and they discuss that, how weird it feels in here. I whisper an urge to The Most Amazing Man In The Universe (“Lets sneak up behind them and scare them…”); then think better of it. The girls spot us as we walk past the vast open room they’re lounging in. It’s an indoor balcony, well lit with huge open brick windows in the side. As they see us they jump, just slightly, but they are brave and do not scream. We smile and say hello and they return the salutation, their voices low with some kind of relief- not only did these adults not take advantage of their almost terrified, overly hormonal emotional states, but also treated them as if they had the same right to be here as we did.
Which was, of course, none at all. And at the same time, as citizens of the universe… every right in the world.
The Amazing Man and I skew off to explore the room across from where the girls are sitting. It’s a communal area, the same huge windows lighting the building with sun and keeping the damp and mildew away, slightly desolate in it’s layer of filth and scrawled graffiti and the junk and clutter of squatter survival. When we return to the main hall, the teens are still in their alcove and have been joined by their boyfriends, who give us shy smiles. They are sharing a two litre tub of Peter’s vanilla ice cream and the sweet unassuming childlike quality of that makes me smile.
This building is huge, high ceilings and wide twisting hallways. We can hear the teens on and off as we make our around wards and wings, kitchens and bathrooms. They are laughing, talking, shrieking. At one point we are in a corner room when I hear The Most Amazing Man In The Universe gasp just slightly… for a moment he’s seen a ghost. It’s a fourteen year old boy, crossing the hallway in front of us, quickly and silently, wearing a white shirt and jeans.
It takes us both only a beat of a second to realise this kid is from the same group we saw moments earlier. A beat of a second is enough, of course, to make your heart thump ferociously, for adrenaline to shoot sharp spikes down your neck. The atmosphere adds to it- it’s deceptive here, the layout of this hospital seeming to promote madness more than cure it. We think we’re in one place, our internal compasses telling us that the hall twisted this way, so we should be here… only to find ourselves not where we thought we were, returning to where we started from completely by accident. Sounds echo dully and strangely- the shrill laughter of the teenage girls sounds distant until they’re in the next room, closer until we realise they are on the other side of the building.