Mercy put aside her untouched breakfast tray and slipped on her peignoir. Today, she’d go down to breakfast with Cornelius. She sat at her dressing table and brushed her hair. She’d leave it down for now – Cornelius so loved her hair. Golden silk, he called it. She held it back with two tortoiseshell combs at the sides and smiled.

She’d been surprised, last night, to find him returned – he wasn’t meant to be back until today. And he’d been so cross, demanding to know where she’d been, where she’d stayed. He’d stood before her, stern and angry, awaiting an answer she would not give. So she’d started to cry, knowing he couldn’t stand to see her weep, knowing it tore him apart. But this time her tears had not had their usual effect, and he’d still demanded an answer. She’d quickly changed tactics then, and told him Bessie’s appearance so suddenly all those weeks ago had reminded her of her past, of the struggles she’d endured when widowed with a small child. And how a new fear had come with these memories, a fear something could happen to  Cornelius. She knew she couldn’t bear to live without him, and this possibility haunted her every single day. And when he left on his business trip, his absence caused this fear to consume her so completely she’d panicked, unable to stay in the house without him.Read More


As soon as Quong’s buggy drew up to the steps at the front entrance of the hospital, Matron and two  attendants came to meet them; they were expected. Unlike the visits of the well-to-do, who would pay an admission fee to visit the asylum in the same way they visited the zoo or the theatre, Quong’s visits were unusual in that he never paid an admission fee, and always came outside of visiting hours with cakes, sandwiches and scones for the inmates, which he insisted be served in the ward’s dining room during his visit, no matter what time he arrived. This disrupted the routine of the ward and the patients’ work, and once, Bessie had questioned whether Matron would be so willing to do so if his visits didn’t also include a very generous donation to the hospital each time, but Quong had merely laughed.

Stepping down from the buggy, he pointed out the two large picnic baskets sitting on the back seat to the attendants, then came around to help Bessie alight.

‘The women this time, Mister Tart?’ asked Matron.

‘Aye, the women. One time the men, next time the women, each time a different ward. That’ll be fair,  wouldn’t ye say?’

‘Very fair, Mister Tart,’ Matron smiled.

Though it was cooler inside the sandstone building, the large lofty day room was stuffy and smelt of unwashed bodies. Before Matron even had time to lock the door behind them, some of the sixty or so women in the room recognised Quong and crowded around him, some serious, others laughing and clapping their hands.

‘Long time since you came, Mister Tart!’ ‘God bless you, Mister Tart.’ ‘Mister Tart, I want to tell you something. They hit me, Mister Tart. All the time!’ ‘Is Mrs Tart coming, Mister Tart?’ ‘Did you bring us cakes, Mister Tart?’ ‘I don’t want no water treatment, Mister Tart. They leave me there ever so long! Tell them, Mister Tart. Tell them!’ ‘God bless you and yours, Mister Tart…’

Quong smiled and moved easily amongst them, joking and raising his hat to the women, showing each as much respect as he would have the most esteemed woman in Sydney. ‘How are ye today, Nellie?’ ‘Now, Gladys, I dinnae think the nurses would do that.’ ‘Glad ye’re well enough to join us, Bella.’ ‘I have no say in yer treatment, Mary, ye know that. T’is the doctor ye want to be telling.’ ‘Winnie, I’ll swear ye’re getting younger every day.’

The women didn’t act in this way with Bessie – perhaps sensing her hesitation, or perhaps she was too ‘new’. They smiled at her, and answered if she spoke to them, but didn’t approach her voluntarily, all except one everyone called Mother Baxter, who’d waddle up to her with a big, toothless smile, her long grey hair a tangled mane around pale, hollow cheeks. She’d stand, grinning, so close Bessie could smell her fetid breath, never saying anything, content to just stand there until Bessie gently moved her aside.Read More

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