We’re approaching the town now. A spire. Some rooftops. There’s a large establishment looking like an outpost on a hill to the north. To my travel weary eyes it looks like a fort built long ago by the Portuguese on the west coast of Africa. Perhaps something in Benin — the Fort of St John the Baptist of Ouidah, which played its part in the slave trade. I haven’t been there, but the night before taking this trip to Aradale Asylum, I was watching Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde, a film about a Brazilian slave trader who operated the fort in the early 1800s.
Actually, the establishment looks nothing like a Portuguese fort. My mind is playing tricks on me, it’s neural nets still out at sea in the filmic and baroque language of Herzog’s historical pastiche.
In fact, the large nest of high-walled buildings on the hill, elevated above a thicket of trees, is Aradale Asylum. I’ve arrived. The train idles for entry into the town. The engines whir and we’re rolling again. The main road beside us curves into town. We follow it. Aradale appears and then disappears as we dip into lower ground. Large industrial sheds rear up to block the view. There’s no shortage of sheds out here, 200kms west of Melbourne. To the south I see a church in really good nick. We’re late arriving at the station.
In Aradale I meet a man named Dale. I refuse my mind’s insistence to mention the doubling of Dale. Dale’s an ex-librarian. His eyebrows are part of a state-sponsored regrowth initiative. His face is round and kind, his nose a bulb. He’s the only other punter there for the tour. Our guide is an amiable fellow with a patchy beard by the name of Mick.
Beginning in 1867 and operating for one hundred and thirty years, Aradale Lunatic Asylum, which was later classified as a Mental Hospital, took two years to build.
We move through Art Deco spaces, a smell of dust and piss and mould. The place is run-down. No money has been put into it for years. Locals vie for funds to keep it restored, but without success.
Out in the grounds the sun is hot. It’s late April, 2019, and still feels like summer. As Mick strings together one anecdote after another I seem to be rather preoccupied — transfixed is the word — by bees, many of which have gathered outside a vent on an Art Deco wall. What are these bees up to on this bright sunny day? Why that vent? There are other vents. I can see them. The closer I look (and Mick and Dale have gone on ahead without me) the more I can see they’re flying in and out of the horizontal ventilation strips high up on the building. It occurs to me that while watching these bees I’m actually lost in reverie, thinking of a time twenty years before when I was at university and renting a flat from a beekeeper.
My landlord the beekeeper lived in a large split-level house in Brisbane and my flat was attached to his house. He kept bees down in the yard. My bedroom window opened out, high up above the lush green yard. When I was at my desk reading World Lit. and philosophy and writing another critical essay, I would see him in the yard tending to his beloved bees. There was quite a distance between my bedroom window and the bees down there on the other side of the yard, but nonetheless, on those warm days when I had the windows open bees would fly into my room, as though on visiting rights. Actually, they came there to die. In the summer months when I went out I left the bedroom windows open, and arriving home I’d always find dead bees on the bedroom floor. Once, a bee had got so far through the cavernous interiors of my little flat that I found him dead just inside the front door. Was he trying to get out the front? Or more to the point: What was this martyrdom?
Pondering this question, lost in speculation, I catch up with Mick and Dale. We move in and out of sparse empty interiors with high ceilings and great walls that entomb you in a mausoleum-like silence. Opening the doors, dead leaves whoosh. Through a darkening passage we break into the light and come to an atrium. Sunlight penetrates the glass, saturating the place with a cinematic aura. The floors inside the atrium and in many of the buildings are strewn with rubble and dirt and leaves and small dead branches. The outside world has broken in and made itself at home. To top it all off I’m just waiting for water to start pouring down. But there’s been no rain. Mick tells us there’s been no rain for months. The last was a brief, intense, downpour that was over in less than thirty minutes. It was a wall of grey, he says. Flash flooding in town. The asylum flooded. Possum shit coming down with the water through roofs and stewing in mucky pools on the floors. Less than thirty minutes then nothing. The rain stopped like turning off a tap, he says, predictably, and hasn’t been back since.
We move on through long halls lined with narrow rooms, or cells, either side. Former homes for the incarcerated. A sadness wells up in me. At the end of the long passage there’s a cramped and spooky stairway. We brush away the cobwebs and make our way up. Dale’s telling me that when he was laid off from a city university library a few years ago, borrowings were down forty per cent and staff morale even more. He’s happier, he says, being out in the country, living under the sky’s overwhelming scale, hours away from the city and closer to wineries. Even the isolation is reasonable, he says. Mick then points out the winery on the grounds of the asylum. We make a point of seeing it. Dale’s grin is one for the ages.
It’s a hot day. The sun is searing and intense. We spend a bit of time in the shade of an enormous and majestic Algerian Oak. Mick says the tree was planted when the asylum first began. It’s an impressive tree. We all seem to flock to the Oak like disciples seeking solace from the sun. And I wonder, as we head back inside and climb more stairs and walk more lengthy halls to the Head Psychiatrist’s office, if the staff in these quarters where the Bigwig spent his days felt that they too were disciples of a sort.
In the office there’s a dank and mildewed smell reminiscent of all the other rooms and passageways in the old asylum. I go to the psychiatrist’s large window and look out across the grounds and beyond that to the country. Of all the derelict rooms and abandoned spaces in Aradale this office is of course situated in a prime location. It’s on the top level at the front of the main building and overlooks the great lands to the east.
From this great window I can see what the taxi driver on the way to Aradale described to me as The Pregnant Lady. I had only asked what the name of the hill was as we drove in its direction. ‘That’s what we locals call it,’ he said. ‘She’s lying on her back. Can you see?’ I got the idea, but he went on. ‘There’s her profile, too,’ he said, pointing a finger. I could see the protuberances of chin and nose. ‘And there,’ he said, tracing on the windscreen with one hand while navigating a round-about with the other, ‘are her …’ I get the picture, I said. Say no more.
The last room we visit is the safe room. Aradale provided up to four hundred jobs at one time in its history, and this room is where the staff came to get their wages. The safe is a secured closet. But what’s more interesting, I discover as I look around the cramped room — cramped for a reason, to keep everyone out at once — are the line-thin cracks that over many years, indeed, over a century and a half, have been spidering out like an entity across one of the walls. In this silent little room tucked away in a dark corner of the asylum the building itself has chosen its canvas on which to trace its own Gothic Wall Dreaming.
Back outside, Aradale over, the sky an implacable blue and everywhere a breathtaking stillness, I make my way to the train station and remember what Mick said as we relaxed in the shade of the giant oak tree, that the medication given to certain female patients in the asylum made them allergic to the sun. An awful irony for an Aradale patient. But perhaps one day it’s this kind of irony we may all have to endure, driven crazy in a burning world.