Foundlings is a work-in-progress.
Following the lives of two women who hoped for more, it’s historical fiction set in the Adelaide Destitute Asylum on the cusp of women’s suffrage legislation in the late nineteenth century.
Inspired by this true story of my great-great-grandmother
Two weeks before the Christmas of 1887, eighteen-year-old Rose Lattin is taken by dray from a farm outside of Adelaide. Her temporary home is a stone building, two-storey with wooden railings protecting a short verandah. There are other women here. They spill into a quadrangle of dry grass and their faces are dark with grime and circumstance.
The morning is blistering hot, with dark clouds rolling in from the ocean. This corner, where bustling North Terrace meets Kintore Avenue, smells of the Torrens River, and of upright trees meant for a different climate, and of dust churned by horses. At the top of the hill, St Peter’s Cathedral might toll its bells in preparation for the seasonal celebrations.
The baby pushes against the thick bones of her pelvis. It is too early. He is too small.
There is a room separate from the others. She is stretched out on a bed, on her back, birth canal bent into a ‘U’. Women talk in the open space next door. The cries of their babies are deadened by the soft mould of the walls.
Afterwards the matron will ask Rose for details so she can dismiss them: what is his name? where does he work? what evidence do you have? The women all bring out these men, one by one. They are John Miller, a shoemaker. They are Charles Hay Dunstan, an adulterer with three children. They are William Thompson, who raped Martha Young in the East Park Lands and disappeared.
Rose’s man is Harry Turner, a soldier stationed at blustery Fort Largs. She will never see him again.
In the afternoon, a storm rushes through. Heavy rain, a summer downpour leaving pits of mud in the streets. ‘A welcome change,’ the papers will say. The rain cools the yard and the children clear a space at the window and listen to the birds call out.
The baby is born by then. He is born alive.
He will cry, and then he won’t.
He is installed with his mother in the Lying-In Home, where three other women are confined to their beds. He grabs at the air with his thin arms. It is impossible to know if he is sick or just early; in 1887 the two conditions are one.
She calls him Leslie, but this won’t always be his name.
Foundlings is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.
Cath was there when the boy disappeared. Not right there, but close enough, taking scraps to the chooks. She heard his friend screaming. Help! he shouted. Somebody help! and Cath couldn’t remember if she was supposed to be somebody or nobody. Anyway, they often played games like that on the water. Called out and then waited to be found beneath the upturned boat. But help! came again, and twice more, or three times. She couldn’t remember even when she had told the police later. How many times that other boy had cried for help. She had sat in the room with the sergeant staring down at her and tried to remember, but she only saw scraps. Bits of carrot and corn. Not the bits you could eat, but the other parts. Hard green tops and the fibrous husks.
They had pulled the other boy out and laid him on the riverbank. They shouted at him: where is your friend? when did you last see him? what did you do?
What did you do?
She realised she was still holding carrot tops. The chooks would be furious. Surviving on grit and seed turned the eggs pale. She dumped the tops in the river. They went floating down stream, carried on the water’s need to get away. She looked for the fish. Everyone’d heard about the ones with mouths that opened into tunnels. They lurked in the brown clouds. Took whatever they could find when they went past: carrot ends, other fish, cricket balls. Maybe they’d have taken the boy, too, given the chance. Mistaken the red hair for some pretty plant fronds.
Cath’d heard a rumour those fish ate all the bad things off your skin. That their hula-hoop mouths would chew away at the dead patches. She tried not to wonder about it but she did anyway — how much did the fish eat? How many of those fish had carried a bit of the missing boy down river to the sea? How many fish would take part of this lost boy to some man’s dinner plate?
The police let Mr Hamilton howl. They didn’t say to him, calm down. They didn’t say, sir, you’re making a scene. They didn’t say, you’re embarrassing yourself. He stood by the river and he screamed and screamed. For the rest of the afternoon, his voice went echoing out across the valley. In the next field, cows joined in. Then the magpies criticised him, and the kookaburras laughed. A whole great chorus of them but nothing from the boy. He didn’t return any of the calls. Didn’t matter how many times his father demanded it.
‘Why was he in the river?’ Hamilton shouted. He said it to all of them, every person who had been working at the house. No doubt every person who had ever been to the house. They looked at him with their faces so pinched and they couldn’t say anything, couldn’t say they hadn’t seen the boy or that they had seen him, couldn’t say that they were sorry or that they would find him.
Cath’s belly constricted. The worry, again. Bringing on the baby.
Late in the afternoon the police left. They’d be back, they promised. They would figure this out. All the stones would be turned over, every lead followed. No one was allowed to leave, no matter what the reason. Told them to go back inside, get some sleep. Told them not to worry too much, that he had surely just gone for a wander. That he’d seen something interesting and followed it. Might even come back on his own, as they usually did.
The parents of the other boy arrived. A tall man and his very small wife. They took that boy in their arms like he might be an illusion. His mother pressed her nose right against him and inhaled deeply. There was her boy, her living boy. There were all the things that made him, all the smells and sounds and breaths of him. The little friend who’d been with him watched them leave. He shook like a leaf on a branch. Hamilton looked over as if he might comfort him, but didn’t. Looked for his own comforting figure. Couldn’t find one — just his staff standing around him in a semi-circle, waiting to be told what to do.
He didn’t tell them, so they stayed. When the clear Spring night fell, they murmured to one another. The lights in the house went on. Innis the cook said she would go inside and heat up some broth. Said it had helped her when her mother had died. The light in the boy’s sister’s room went out. No one looked to the trees beyond the river. No one said, look at those trees, with their legs in the mud. No one said, a boy could get lost in those trees.
Cath went to her room. The girl she shared with — a new hire, someone to teach French and Latin to the daughter — was there already with her back to the door. Wouldn’t stop looking through the window. Couldn’t, perhaps. She spoke to Cath in her musical accent and Cath didn’t understand a word she was saying but she heard the meaning anyway. The boy was missing. Nothing could be the same. Cath sat beside her and they looked out together. Over the paddocks, near the shepherd’s hut and the turnoff to the township, a lamp burned. A beacon in the darkness. They sat and looked until it went out and then there was only the moon.
In all that time, all those hours listening to Hamilton shout for his son’s face, Arthur was nowhere.