I've been AWOL and I'd like to apologise. I started a course with The Australian Literature Review in February. It's a Novel Manuscript Development Course which will end in July. If I have a decent, completed, manuscript by then it will go straight to the editors of some major Australian Publishing houses for consideration, bypassing the slush piles and the opinionated, overworked interns. So, I've committed to it and have been writing 5000 words a week on my novel Waxy Flexy – a supernatural horror/thriller.
I have four boys under seven. I put the majority of my energy in to my children but the time they demand means I can only write at nights between nine-ish and midnight. The kids are all asleep, generally, by 8.30. The half hour between then and 9PM I dedicate to Reservoir Mum – the love of my life – who has a voracious appetite for me. She demands I complete certain nightly tasks so that she can sleep peacefully. We often listen to energetic and sexy music as the tasks are being completed because it helps me to stay focused. Songs like Boom Boom Boom Let's Go Back To My Room, the theme song to Welcome Back Kotter and the one that motivates me most My Ding-a-ling.
This is boring, my life issues don't concern you, I'm aware of that. You just want to come to my blog and see me with my pants off, hear about my sexual exploits and discover the latest torture device my mother-in-law is trialing on me. And you're desperately upset that I'm not blogging daily. I get it.
In the meantime I'll post some excerpts from the novel. I know this may not interest the majority of RD regulars but it may interest some.
If you'd like to keep up with my writing journey you can visit the website Writing Novels In Australia where I'll be blogging occasionally (first post here) and you can also like their Facebook Page for updates.
Here's the first novel excerpt. It's an article written for 'Paranormal Magazine' by a character inside the story. It offers insight into the place where the majority of spooky things go down – The Selma Stone Ward.
Hemingsford Hospital - The Living And The Dead
by Brenden Metherall
The first thing I notice as I walk into the Selma Stone Ward is the way sounds hang in the air for longer than they probably should. The high arched ceiling that extends the entire ward sits over a wide linear corridor about eighty metres long. The walls are solid concrete that have been patched and repainted at least a dozen times. The heavy wooden reinforced doors to all fourteen rooms, arched just like the ceiling, open with a deep creaking sound that reminds me of a bass in an orchestra – it seems to have an aged intelligence about it, which is probably why I feel like I am trespassing on someone else's private space or about to tap the shoulder of an old university professor who has fallen asleep over a book. The single square windows in the doors gaze out like pried-open eyes that have seen more than they want to over their one-hundred-year history.
The linoleum floor, last re-laid in the late fifties, is covered in scuff marks caused by the hard rubber wheels of hospital beds and wheelchairs, tattooed in black lines that staff shoes had left behind, and worn down to noticeable dips in places – as if the concrete underneath has weakened under the sheer volume of comings and goings. Despite the obvious disrepair, the linoleum still manages to shine from one end of the long wide corridor to the other thanks, perhaps, to the daily visit from the midday cleaner's buffing machine which is much more modern than the ward itself.
The six lights across the arched ceiling run in a straight line with the largest and brightest being dead centre, directly outside room nine on the right, and in between three and four on the left. As I walk down the corridor, from the nurse's station at the north end, my shadow follows behind, growing longer and longer until it disappears directly under the central light, before leaping ahead of me, gaining in size with each step and climbing the wall at the south, dwarfing the door to the file room, as if observing the very person that casts it.
It's the way sounds are trapped and repeated that is the most disconcerting thing about the country's oldest, functioning psychiatric ward. When I took my first step from the main building – currently undergoing an extensive demolishing and rebuilding phase, one ward at a time – into the Selma Stone Ward, the sharp crack of my shoe on the floor echoed up the corridor, from wall to wall and back down again. Each step is like this, giving the impression that the ward is full of fast stepping staff, when in fact I am the only one here. When I stop suddenly I can take a nice long breath before my last two footsteps echo themselves out. Then I am left with only two sounds – the faint ticking of the clock above the nurse's station and the intermittent buzzing of the light in the file room.
All these things are easily explainable of course, and have no connection to anything ghostly or supernatural but it does go some way to explaining to me why the Selma Stone Ward has the highest turnover of staff in the entire facility. The fact of the matter is, after being alone in the ward for only thirty minutes, I am noticeably tense. The eeriness of this place is beyond any other hospital, castle, house or graveyard that I have visited in my search for the paranormal. And maybe because of one important fact I have yet to mention – several rooms still house patients.
In most cases this would be a comfort – there is nothing that a frightened person craves more than the company of other people – but the patients only seem to contribute to the sense of foreboding. They make me feel even more lonely isolated – and more threatened – than I would be if I was the only person in the building.
The patients here are described as catatonic and while that can mean they display one or more of many different symptoms, from running around hysterically, moving robotically, banging heir heads and hands into walls and even adopting lethal self-harming behaviour, the Selma Stone Ward only houses those presenting with less flamboyant symptoms. They generally lie or sit very stiffly, staring vacantly into space, showing no signs of being engaged with the world around them.
A person admitted with this level of catatonia is generally treated and able to leave the Selma Stone Ward for other, more engaging wards, within a few days to several weeks of their admittance but there are some who can spend months in that non-responsive state. One patient in particular, the subject of many psychiatric papers and medical lectures, has experienced only a few lucid periods in over 30 years. The Selma Stone Ward has been his home ever since. One can't help but wonder what those vacant eyes of his have been witness to.
Yesterday, when I was shown around the hospital, Nurse Jennifer Hartland – a gentle older woman, with wide-open eyes that give the impression that she is a touch excitable – made a point of showing me some of the patients.
One patient, a middle-aged woman with her head shaved and two thick scars covering her cheek and neck, lying flat on the bed, has the angriest face I have ever seen. I had to be convinced that she was actually catatonic but Nurse Hartland assured me that her expression had not changed for over a week. Physios had been in to manually exercise her limbs, the nurses had bathed and turned her but the piercing eyes, the skin folded above her nose, the eyebrows that veered down to meet each other in the middle and the lips pursed thin and white had remained regardless.
In another room there is a twenty-six year old man, horribly emancipated. He sits straight up on the edge of his bed, his arms crossed, his hands angled hard towards the ground. He has a much more neutral but still somehow disturbing expression and yet the way he stared off into the distance, through the walls, through the building, through anyone who stood directly in front of him was exactly the same as the woman's in the other room.
At present there are 7 patients in the ward, and as I stand here now, fighting a growing sense of foreboding, I can't help but get the image of the seven of them, trapped in their rooms, trapped in their own bodies, sharing the same expression. One face. It's like they are all part of the same twisted cult. I'm forced to remember some of the Zombie movies from my childhood – The Fog, Dead and Buried and Day of the Dead. Seeing these people, in the state they are in, makes those movies seem even more terrifying in retrospect.
I'm told that the doors are secure, only able to be opened from the outside but looking at their reinforced windows, I can't help but feel that one solid door is not enough. The longer I stare at them, the more likely it feels that a face will appear in the small square there.
For most of the week the Selma Stone Ward is run by skeleton staff and I really am in awe of the nurses – how can they possibly survive the long nights here, the clock ticking slowly above their heads, rousing from their desk every hour to check the patients and file reports, walking to the sharp echo of their own footsteps, being pursued and then watched by their own shadow, opening the large creaking doors to those ancient rooms and staring into the vacant eyes of one catatonic patient after the next.
As I stand in front of the file room and listen to the light buzzing in and out of life, again and again, I can't resist the progression of thoughts that lead me to this question: how many patients, with their eyes locked on something the fully conscious can't see, have died here? How many of them, with issues far from being resolved, took their last breath in this eerie, oppressive ward? And how many are still here borrowing the footsteps my echo leaves behind, counting the minutes down to every hour when the door to the rooms will swing open with a heavy groan?
I am alone here. And yet I feel as if I am observed. I haven't seen a face peering at me from any of the closed doors and yet I am almost convinced that more than one pair of eyes has been staring at me, waiting for me, too deep in the darkened unoccupied rooms for me to see.
The most haunting thing about the ward? The thing that builds on the constant chills I have been experiencing this whole time and creates an icy nausea in my stomach? It is the file room I have been willing myself to enter for the past few minutes, that also holds the story of how the ward was named. Above the door a plaque reads This ward is named in dedication to the memory of Nurse Selma Stone.
Selma Stone, a popular and hard working nurse at the Hemingford Psychiatric Facility when the ward was simply named The North Wing, walked into the file room late one night while doctors were busy attending to a patient in one of the rooms, placed two boxes of packaged files on top of each other, tied an electrical cord around the beam above, looped it around her neck, and kicked the boxes from under her.
Nurse Hartland, who worked briefly with Nurse Stone (and has now replaced her as longest serving nurse in the hospital) had this to say about her: 'She was a wonderful person. Everyone just adored her. She was so calm under pressure and great for me when I started here. We were all so devastated with what happened... she lost her child, you see, and after that she was never right. She was always preoccupied, angry with everything. No one could help her.'
What happened to her child? When I ask this Nurse Hartland shifts awkwardly and begins sorting through papers at her desk. I can't help but feel that she is not being entirely honest. 'They never found her. They think that maybe she just went off into the forest one day and got lost.'
Now, inches away from the file room where Selma Stone took her own life, I am not surprised that the ward has such a high turn over of staff. Besides the structural noises and peculiarities I've already mentioned, nurses have reported other strange, less easily explained occurrences.
'Have you heard the footsteps while working here alone, rhythmic creaking sounds? Have you seen anything...'
Nurse Hartland anticipates my questions and cuts in. 'I have. But it's so easy to imagine things, working here. Late nights, fatigue... you get so used to hearing the sound of your own footsteps bouncing off the walls... it can sound like a horse is running down the corridor sometimes... people with newborns say that just about everything they hear sounds like a baby crying after a while, that they hear it just before they fall asleep, even though the baby is sleeping. I think that's what happens. It's the clop, clop, clop in your ears all night... it just keeps repeating... echoing in your head, the way those kinds of sounds can.'
When I ask her about the buzzing light of the file room she looks past me and I am convinced that her expression has suddenly become stony to hide a certain fear that is still clear in her eyes. 'Oh that's been like that for a long time. The wiring around here is hopeless. It's one of the reasons everything is being rebuilt. Sometimes buildings just get too old.'
When I tell her that the rumour suggests that it started the night after Selma Stones death, she shakes her head.
The hour passes slowly and despite my reputation as a paranormal investigator I have to admit that I was not able to enter the file room. I opened the door and searched it with my eyes. It is not a large room. Trellises line all four walls leaving just enough space for the door to open. A single light hangs from the centre of the ceiling between two beams. As I glance up at the several beams inside, and wondered which one Selma had hung from, I get the very real sensation that there is someone here. Not inside the file room. But outside. Behind me. And as if trying to signal me in that direction the file room light buzzes out suddenly.
As I make my way down the corridor to exit the ward, wondering why I had organised time alone in this awful place, the rooms pass me by, one at a time. I dare not look towards their windows and step as softly as I can on the cold linoleum floor.
Just as I reach the door to the main wards, I look back to the file room, the light buzzes on again, and the echoes of my own footsteps fill me with dread.