The Children of Somerton

The Children of Somerton

The Tamam Shud/Somerton Man case… I found a book that’s led me to think the dead man was involved with something that was going on in Somerton Crippled Children’s Home.


Mystery

Horror

Fictional Reality


Author’s Note

Comments

The Children of Somerton


Note: I went a very different way with this story. I am calling it “Fictional Reality”. What I mean by this here, is that the plot of this story is fiction, yet what it references is non-fiction. It is not a story for everyone, though if it leads you down a rabbit hole, I’d love to hear about it!

As this understandably invites confusion as to what’s real and what isn’t, I’ve included links to the “real”. I also need to point out that, from all I’ve been able to find out about the Somerton Crippled Children’s Home, it was an upstanding institution that did it’s best to provide care to the children who lived there.

Warning: This story involves child abuse, and old-fashioned descriptions of disability


When I say I found a “book”, I mean the book: the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The book that ended on the Persian words “tamam shud”, translated as “it’s finished”.

I think this story’s going to be a bit different from the ones you’re used to seeing here. This was months of digging and I still don’t have a great answer. But I have something…

I found the book in one of those little street-side libraries that have popped up around Sydney – a sweet community initiative where locals can take a book from a two-shelf cubby on a pole, read it, and return it or replace it with a different book. Walking my dog, I stopped at one months ago now and had a peek inside, wondering what books the local area had on offer.

The binding was of pale cloth so worn it was fuzzy and tattered at the edges, the cover faded to a ghost of itself. The pages were torn in places, many bedraggled, but on the last page were those two words “tamam shud”, and on the first page was the title, the date 1937, the publisher Whitcombe and Tomb’s, and this:

“Property of the Crippled Children’s Home, Somerton Park”

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is an anthology of 11-12th Century poems attributed to Omar Khayyám and translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in 1859, later revised numerous times. Today, this book is mostly known for the integral role it plays in the mystery of the Somerton Man.

To anyone hoping for it: sorry, no, I have not worked out the cipher, though I am sending the book on to someone who will try to crack it. But I’d done a deep dive into this case about a year ago, and the moment I held it in my hand I recognised the book for what it was.

For those who don’t know the story, I suppose I should give a quick run-down – which will be hard, as it’s a complicated tale.

On the 1st of December 1948, an unknown man aged in about his 40s was found dead on Somerton Beach in South Australia. He wasn’t known in the area, and he’d arrived by train only the previous day. From the outset, the story has the hallmarks of a mystery death: no clear cause of death despite an autopsy, no signs of poisoning or overdose; no one who came forward with information about him… We still don’t know what he died of.

It gets more complicated though. The first reason for that is the book.

Found about 6 months later, in a fob pocket in the man’s trousers, was a bit of paper, looking torn away from a larger piece of paper. On this piece were the words “tamam shud”, and nothing else. Police asked the public for information, and a local man came forward with a book he said he’d found tossed in the back of his car. It was a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and from the last page a bit had been torn out. It was confirmed the small piece of paper in the Somerton man’s pocket had been ripped out of this book, though why he’d torn it out and had it in his pocket was unclear. In the back of the book, as well, was a cipher. Though many think it’s the way to crack the case, no one has yet cracked the cypher.

From there, it just gets more mysterious. There’s the fact that most of the man’s clothing, both what he was wearing and what was in his suitcase, had the labels cut out – yet, on a few other pieces of clothing, labels bore the name “Kean” or “Keane”. No Kean[e] had been reported missing, and this lead has long gone dead. Then there’s the fact that all the original physical evidence – the suitcase, the man’s belongings, the Rubáiyát, the torn bit of paper, and original witness statements – have all since been either destroyed or “gone missing”.

And there’s the wife of Keith Mangnoson, whose husband ended up in an asylum after a fated journey to, reportedly, reveal the identity of the Somerton man. She complained of being stalked and threatened by masked men after that.

Furthermore, there’s a woman since identified as Jessica Thomson (died 2007). In addition to the cipher, the back of the man’s Rubáiyát had a phone number. That phone number was found to belong to Jessica, then granted anonymity in the press by the police. She denied knowing anything of the man to investigators who, it can be said, didn’t fully believe that. Much more recently, Jessica Thomson’s daughter Kate has spoken in a 60-Minues interview about believing her mother, who she described as having “a dark side”, had lied to police about knowing the man, and that Jessica had spoken Russian.  

Jessica had also, a few years before the Somerton Man’s death, given a copy of the Rubáiyát to a man named Alf Boxall, who was involved with military intelligence during and after the war.

The theories you’ll find about this case extend from the Somerton man having an affair with Jessica, to Russian sleeper agents in Australia – and both at once. As to that… There’s a few clues.

Getting back to my story: I took the copy of the Rubáiyát I’d found straight home and hopped on the internet with the book open beside me.

As I understand it, the key to book ciphers lies in the book. The right book. That was my first thought having found this copy of the Rubáiyát: was it the right one? Many people have tried to find the Somerton man’s copy of the book, with no success. The problem isn’t just that the books have disintegrated over time. There’s also the problem that there were just so many different variations of the book – about one new print of it a year through the 40s.

Long story short, it’s the right one. It felt like I was holding a goldmine. Yet, not being able to crack the cipher myself, my mind wandered into other areas to fulfil my… we’ll call it “fascination”.

But, I thought, if there were so many different versions of this book… Why was it that this man, unknown to the locals – who’d been in Somerton for merely a day – had the exact same version of the book the Crippled Children’s Home did?

Now, I did figure it could just be a coincidence, but it felt like a coincidence upon a coincidence. Because, in the old photographs of where Somerton man had been found on the beach, there was the Somerton Crippled Children’s Home – it would have been right there behind him. Why had he died there? Or, if he’d been moved to the beach after death, why had he been moved to a spot right in front of a children’s home?

So I posted on local internet pages and forums, asking for anything at all about the Crippled Children’s Home that had operated in Somerton from 1939 to 1976, now demolished. I got back a couple messages from people whose family members had been cared for there, describing generally decent experiences, and much more of the mundane “I think I walked past it once” variety. And then I got one message:

“Heya. I think my nan has some things from there. Got them after the place shut down.”

That got my interest. After some back and forth I actually went and booked a flight to South Australia.

As to why I was so interested… Well, I once did a deep dive into the history of some old suitcases I have. Enough said.

But for why I flew to South Australia: this person’s grandfather had taken and refurbished for sale a lot of the items – furniture and stuff – from the Crippled Children’s Home after they’d moved out of the Somerton building. In the furniture they’d gotten had been some of the children’s personal items, and those they’d just put in a box. According to the woman I messaged online, her grandmother still had the box, and was amenable to me having a look.

*

‘Oh I’ve had a look,’ the elderly lady answered me as she waved me into a garage jam-packed with stuff. ‘Years ago. But it’s too sad – little children with polio…’ She huffed a sad sigh. ‘Horrible disease!’ Her eyes screwed up emphatically as she said it. ‘Well I haven’t gotten it down for you,’ she said, shuffling slowly into the room after me. ‘But I did find it.’ She pointed the box out to me, balanced atop a couple other boxes and a well-used workbench.

I didn’t blame her for not. She walked with a cane. I hefted the box down and, in the living room with one of the lady’s cats on my lap, started looking through it.

Little kid paintings, exercise books… I pulled one picture out that appeared to be on used parcel paper. Flipping it over, I spotted the return address in faded hand on a section spotted with paint. “Callan Park” it read, with an address in Sydney.

‘The matron of the Home took my husband’s offer seriously,’ the elderly lady said, lowering herself into a sofa across from me with a cup of tea. She chuckled a little. ‘We woke up one day to all manner of things being dumped right on our front lawn! Desks, wardrobes, beds – the lot! It took years to finish selling it all off!’

She seemed much more interested in chatting to me than what was inside the box. When she told me I could take the box with me, I no longer minded. I took her up on that offer.

*

On the flight back to Sydney, my mind ran with thoughts of that packaging paper some child had used to paint on. A house with a family was what had been painted. It was sad, that was part of it. These kids would have been sent to live at the Crippled Children’s Home away from their families. Polio, or whatever disability they had, the child would be both hard to care for and subject to the stigma of the time, living in a home as an answer to the question “what to do with them?” as though they were broken pieces that didn’t fit society. Left to live in a home that had, as all such places did, become overcrowded.

The other part of my abstraction was that return address. I know Callan Park asylum. I’ve walked its grounds, meandering through the park it sits on amidst buildings of bordered-up windows, many with security fences surrounding them. And I’ve dug down deep into the history of that place too.

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, later Rozelle Hospital, was built to be an idyllic rehabilitation centre in the late 1800s. Yet it became anything but within only a few years. Unethical treatments, punishments, overcrowding and underfunding, and whatever the hell was in that sedative mixture, referred to in patient notes as only “Mist. Sed”.

What in the world did Callan Park have to do with a Crippled Children’s Home far away in another state?

That question just burned stronger in my head when I got home and started looking through the things left behind by children who’d lived in the Home 50 years or more ago. Most of it was the normal, though sad. A few letters from parents children had kept. Drawings and paintings, on fresh paper if, it seemed, they had it. On anything at all if they didn’t. Exercise books from lessons, often containing clumsy writing from either youth or disability. And some trinkets: a model aeroplane, a spinning top, and a decent collection of tin soldiers.

Some of the kids might still be alive, I thought. But others… The letter from her mom Doreen had received in 1941 was unlikely to be one she’d still be around to reread.

I’d resolved to hunt down families and offer them the things back when I found the first item that made me stop in my tracks.

It was a letter, addressed to David’s mother. It was so worn along the folds I had to hold it together as I lifted it out, as though it had been unfolded and refolded so many times the paper had just given up. David hadn’t thought to include a date, and it didn’t seem he’d gotten a chance to post his letter. I wonder, knowing what I do about old institutions, whether he’d be allowed to post something that didn’t paint the Home in a good light.

Until this point, a small part of me had wondered why I was looking through this stuff. Curiosity, even in me, still only went so far, and digging through the leftovers of disabled people’s childhoods… had made it feel increasingly wrong.

David’s letter wasn’t long; the handwriting large and childish. What he wrote (I’ve corrected grammar and spelling… the mistakes were too poignant to repeat) was:

Dear mum,

I’m sad. My friend Harry doesn’t talk to me anymore. I wrote you about Harry. He’s the boy with the soldiers we play with. The nurses say he has the paralysis, but he doesn’t look like he has polio. I get sad when I see him. He doesn’t eat food. When I talk to him he looks at me. But he doesn’t do anything else.

Anna says he’s seeing “the other”. Anna tells me to leave him alone and that he won’t come back. She says he failed, so he will die. I don’t like it mum.

At the bottom of this, in a spare blank area of the page, were the words “He died mum”. I’m pretty sure David wrote that later.

It was enough for me for one day. Feeling horrible for so many little lives, I just went to bed.

But I couldn’t sleep. Because my mind ticked over to something that had made people zombie-like. And from there it went to another person I’d learned about a while back. And the link from that to Callan Park.

*

I mulled it over, but I didn’t return to the box of children’s things for the next few days. Instead, I got back on the internet.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám has developed a bad reputation for being associated with death. I found a good few examples of it. A man called Joseph Marshall who took his own life in 1945 (not far from the Sydney hotel where Jessica Tomson gave Alf Boxall a copy of the same book at around the same time) had done it with the Rubáiyát open atop his chest. He had a history of mental health concerns and had spent time in a Perth asylum on the other side of the country. There was Joan Louise Ogilvie, a wife of a consular officer, who had suicided in 1953 in the UK with the book open at the foot of the bed, a verse marked.

Most of the deaths related to the book were from Australia, with a few from the UK and America.

Now, I know that the Rubáiyát was like the Harry Potter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Widely popular. Yet I noticed reports of deaths related to the book picked up in the years around 1950, despite what I understood about the book having become popular decades before then. Perhaps it was the after effects of the war that had caused that, though.

I stopped trying to rationalise it, however, when I found another death.

1951, of an unknown man in East Berlin. I’d given in and subscribed to a paid newspaper archive site, and I had to manually translate the article through an online text translation service, attempting to make out the words in a badly-digitised picture. It took me ages, though by far not as long as it had taken, sifting through results in a language I don’t speak, to find the article.

Unknown man found dead of unknown cause, with a copy of the Rubáiyát found in his suitcase – a case filled with paraphernalia authorities described as “medical equipment”, though the article didn’t specify what equipment exactly. And, one last point put in at the end, they were looking for a man named “Keane”, as that was the name on the tag of the man’s shirt collar.

Great coincidences. Among all of them, these three deaths stood out to me. A man who suicided a stone’s throw from where Jessica (who reportedly spoke Russian) had given Boxall  (an Australian military intelligence officer) a copy of the Rubáiyát; a woman whose husband was involved with an unnamed consulate; and a dead doctor in Soviet territory, with a story nigglingly similar to the Somerton man’s. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I was joining dots that were just too easy to join.

Which made me want to investigate more dots. I went back to the box.

I weathered through a bunch more letters, paintings, children’s exercise books – placing every tin soldier I picked out carefully on my dining room table. The little toy soldiers felt like they personified the souls of all the children in the box, and I didn’t want to toss them about.

And I got more determined about it. Day went to night and I was still digging, looking, and piling into categories: items that had first and surnames, to make it easier for me to find the families, things only with first names, and things with no names at all.

And, yes, I was looking for secrets. David’s description of a zombie friend was like that unbelievable online post I wanted to confirm. Disability and illness is complex. Especially when the medicine wasn’t up to working it out properly in the past. I’m no expert, but I get that. I’d pondered through descriptions of “madness” from Callan Park asylum before, things like “general paralysis of the insane” (what the hell was that?) and the diverse use of the word “fitting”. Could be a seizure (considered “insanity” then), could be anything.

“Crippled” back then could mean a whole mixed bag of different disabilities. It could well be part of David’s friend’s condition that he progressed into a vegetative state. Or they could have been drugging him.

But I did find it: that confirmation I’d been half-looking for. I found it in Nerida’s diary.

She wrote about a lot of things. Driven by some unstoppable force of focus, I read them. The first ones that approached what I’d been looking for were from the year 1947.

May 15

Mary went downstairs today. She was a good choice for it. I hope she’ll be better when she comes back.

May 17

I had my blood test today. I hope I can be cured. What else am I to do if not? Even a clerk is of no use if they can only type some days. I asked the nurses to take a course yesterday, but they told me no one would give me a job. Likely no one will marry me either.

The boys want to serve their country like the men did in the war. I just want to be like all those I see on the beach.

May 18

The knocking has started in the basement again. It happened last night. I’d have written then, but my affliction had worsened by night and I couldn’t get the words out. I’m sleeping in the school room now, as the more disruptive children need the upstairs rooms. I can hear the knocking clearly from here, while in the rooms before I only noticed it sometimes. It’s better than the moaning, but I do worry for Mary.

May 20

It’s gone silent. Two nights of endless knocking, and now it’s silent. I’d prefer the knocking. I worry when it’s silent.

There was a break of a couple weeks before the next entry:

June 6

I didn’t even get to see Mary. I’m so angry I could scream. They took her away, saying she passed peacefully in her sleep. I think it’s a lie, but that may be my anger. Tina says it’s normal to be upset when we lose people.

I wish Tina had been here longer, but she had to go home to her baby. Now I can only miss Mary on my own. The other nurses don’t like us talking about it.

While Nerida mentioned still being sad for her friend, the next several months held nothing more than her studies and daily activities, which painted a much nicer picture of the Home than her words about the basement and ceaseless knocking in the night did. I put the diary down and went back to my computer. It was as though the energy to read through her stories had left me.

Instead I sorted through old newspaper articles. Until I found one from 1953 about a Bondi woman who was found not guilty and had been treated so well by prison staff after she was accused of killing, dismembering, and flushing (down the toilet) her sister’s 8 day old baby – born visibly disabled. And this woman had found solace, all that while, in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám – it had kept her spirits up, even after she’d allegedly admitted to the crime. The way they talked about that disabled child was almost as though she was at best an afterthought, at worst a child that deserved that. Reportedly, the woman said, “I thought I was doing the right thing for my sister, but I realise I have got myself into serious trouble.”

*

Disgusted, I went to bed. I was back reading the diary after work the next day. Nerida didn’t write more about the basement or treatments until later in 1947.

Nov 18

The doctor is here. The nurses say my blood tests were no good. The doctor won’t treat me. Four other children get to go downstairs. Most were happy about it, but Benny had to be made to go. He was crying about the knocking and that the basement is dark. It’s only dark when the light’s off, I told him, but he wasn’t happy still.

Nov 21

It’s not just the knocking this time. Benny’s been screaming and crying all night. I hate sleeping in the school room. I wish I could sleep upstairs where it’s harder to hear. Or go down and comfort Benny. He sounds so scared. He’s been crying out for someone to come down and get him. I don’t think there’s a nurse down there, else they’d have gotten him to be silent. The nurses barely even look at the basement door. It’s like they can’t even hear the screaming.

Dec 12

Only Benny came back up. We’re told the other’s treatments failed. They don’t want us to see, but we don’t have a nurse with us in the school room, so I peeked. Joan warned me not to, but she can’t get out of bed without her sticks and they’d make noise that would alert the nurses we weren’t asleep.

They carried the children out on stretchers in the middle of the night. Two had sheets all the way over them, but the one over John, the bigger boy, had slipped. I thought you only put sheets over the faces of dead people. He was lying completely still on the stretcher, but I don’t think John was dead. I could just see his eyes in the dark as they hurried him past. He looked straight at me.

Dec 13

Tina’s been here, but she doesn’t have time for me. She’s been working with Benny. He’s no longer crying, but I don’t think the treatment cured him. He still acts younger than he is and walks in that funny way. Maybe I don’t understand medicine, but I can’t see why the nurses say the treatment fixed him. They’re all so pleased with it, and the doctor’s coming to see Benny. He’s the first child to not fail the treatment in a long time.

I think all the treatment did was change Benny. I won’t say anything, because the nurses tell me off when I bang on about things I don’t understand. But Benny’s just different. He won’t make eye contact anymore, he gets upset more often now, not crying but acting like he has a headache and flying into rages, and he’s been telling the nurses funny things about the man on the moon.

I looked in on Benny and Tina. They’re alone in there and I think that’s dangerous. Tina’s so small, and Benny’s pretty strong when he gets into a rage. Luckily, Benny was calm, but he was saying weird things like “the bombs – push, push, push – they don’t like it when you push too much. Push back and big,” he made the sound of an explosion. Tina was just nodding and trying to ask Benny questions. He’s not good at explaining himself, though.

Dec 14

Benny tried to get out tonight. I don’t know why. He’s never tried such a thing before. I saw him go by the school room towards the front door, and then the nurses came running after him. He’s locked in the small room now and he’s throwing things about. I think a neighbour noticed, as the nurses were worried about it.

Dec 15

I think I’m going to hide my diary in my mattress from now on. The nurses reminded us all to tell no one about Benny or downstairs. They’re all anxious, and Benny hasn’t been talking today. The doctor’s coming in a couple days.

Dec 20

The doctor’s been here for a few days now. I think he’s upset because he’s had to come so far, maybe from overseas as he has a funny accent, only to find Benny’s gone silent and staring like John was when they carried him out. Benny doesn’t move anymore, he doesn’t eat, he doesn’t talk. It’s like he’s not there anymore. One of the nurses even took a switch to his hand to get him to respond, but he barely flinched.

I’m not so sure this treatment is such a good thing. I don’t like the doctor. He’s been staring at us all, as though sizing us up. It all makes me very uneasy.

There it was, the confirmation that the zombie-like state wasn’t just a result of David’s imagination or a youthful misunderstanding.

The links I’d thought of before were now stronger in my head. It centred around a woman, named Bea Miles, who’d been sent to Callan Park, and had suffered from a mysterious illness that had induced a zombie-like state in many people.

Unless you’re from Sydney, you’ve probably never heard of Bea Miles. Here she’s something of a legend. Described as an eccentric and rebel, she’d been outspoken, often voicing opinions more in tune with today’s attitudes than those of the time she lived in, intelligent and well read, and lived as a vagrant – even sleeping in a beach cave for a while.

Between her unpopular opinions, refusal to conform, and the way she’d damage taxis if they wouldn’t pick her up (she tended not to pay fares – in fact, the only time she did pay a taxi fare was when, for some unknown reason, she took one right across the country to Perth) she was a controversial figure while she’s alive. Today she’s remembered for repeatedly smoking under a sign that said “Gentlemen will refrain from smoking”, and ushering a herd of sheep onto a beach. When confronted about it, she’d pointed out that while there was a sign about no dogs on the beach, there was nothing about sheep.

On one occasion, when Bea wouldn’t pay a tram fare, the driver got out of the tram and refused to drive on. So Bea took the wheel and drove the tram to Bondi for him, even stopping to let passengers on along the way.

Bea was born in 1902, and died, having lived the vast majority of her life on the streets, in 1973. She was from a well-off family and attended good schools, going on to university. Even as a child she’d been outspoken, protesting conscription and being critical of the war effort. Her behaviour became more bohemian – more “outrageous” – after she caught encephalitis lethargica somewhere around 1920, and her father, appalled by her lifestyle, frequent wandering around town, and advocacy for sexual freedom, had her committed to Gladesville Mental Hospital. She was later transferred to Callan Park before media attention secured her release.

Which brings me to the mystery disease. Encephalitis lethargica is one of those diseases we just don’t understand. No one knows what causes it, but we know its effects: on the mild side, it causes fever, malaise, tremors, and abnormal eye movements; on the severe side, it puts people into catatonic or coma-like states. Were it just one of those rare illnesses that are bad luck to get, it wouldn’t be so weird. That’s how it is now, with rare isolated cases around the world.

What makes it a “mystery disease” in my books is that there was a global epidemic of it. One of the lesser-known pandemics, encephalitis lethargica spread through the world, claiming at least 500,000 lives, from 1915 until it just disappeared in 1927. All this for a disease that has since not shown itself to be contagious.

*

Children in zombie-like states, changes in behaviour, a bizarre pandemic, and Callan Park. They seemed connected. So I went to visit my grandfather.

My grandad has lived in Randwick, a suburb near Bondi, for all his life. He’d met Bea Miles.

‘Us kids liked her,’ he chuckled when I brought the topic up. ‘Some of us,’ he amended with a tip of his head. ‘Gave me a toffee, once, when I was a boy. Just handed it to me, gave me a smile, and strolled off.’

So I asked him whether he’d ever heard Bea say anything about Callan Park.

‘Oh yes,’ my grandfather answered. ‘She was very critical of that place. She called for it to be investigated for poor treatment of patients and experimental medicines.’ He scratched the side of his head and went on, ‘One of the boys, you know, shouted at her to go on back there. It earned him a berating from her he wasn’t smart enough to argue back at.’

My grandfather chuckled a little. I pushed.

‘Oh, you know,’ my grandfather said, ‘about unethical treatments they used at Callan Park. About how it was used for the state’s goals and social repression – lock away anyone who thought differently.’

‘Did she specify any of the unethical treatments?’

My grandfather thought about it. In fairness, I was asking him to remember something from decades ago.

‘Mostly just the usual,’ he said. ‘Drugs and such. Everything was experimental back then, you know.’ He sat up straighter. ‘I do remember,’ he added, ‘her saying – I’m not sure when…’ He trailed off, then picked back up. ‘You don’t want to be interesting in Callan Park – or something like that. Be boring, and then they leave you alone.’

Though I asked, my grandfather hadn’t any more to tell me about that. We had tea, and, as I was readying to leave, I thought to ask, ‘Do you remember a woman from Bondi who killed her niece when the baby was only about eight days old? The baby was born disabled, it was in the 50s…’

‘Oh that was a big story around here at the time,’ my grandfather said, nodding. ‘Got everyone talking – actually,’ he leaned against the hall table, seeking balance, ‘Bea had a bit to say about that one.’

‘Oh yeah?’

My grandfather nodded slowly, thinking.

The poor child is probably better off,’ he said finally. ‘A controversial opinion, but I suppose that tells you what people thought of children born like that back then.’

*

What was a bit odd about Bea having that attitude, for me, was that she had been otherwise so progressive in her views. But then, Bea had probably had a far better idea of the realities of life back then than most people.

My grandfather hadn’t said anything I wasn’t expecting. I did read into it a bit, though. Particularly the part about being “interesting” at Callan Park. Perhaps I was just feeding my growing conspiracy theory, but Bea was a woman who’d lived through encephalitis lethargica, was changed by it. Would that have made her interesting to the doctors at Callan Park? Would they have passed what they learned from her onto the Children’s Home?

And another thought I had, just a passing one: might Bea have read the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám? She was known to be able to recite Shakespeare, and read at least two books a day.

The State Library archives are open only by appointment at the moment, due to Covid. Without a thesis to write or any good reason why I was so curious, I was denied an appointment. So without being able to dig further into Bea and her writings left behind in the Library, I went back to Nerida’s diary. I moved through entries, stories of daily life and the crush Nerida had developed on a man she saw out the window, into 1948.

March 29

I think Tina has brought bad news. I saw her whispering with the matron and the nurses have been extra waspish lately.

The third girl in the school room has gotten too old for the Home now. She’s moved on to another home somewhere else. There have been a lot of new children brought in to fill gaps she and the children who’ve died have left, but the matron thinks they need more supervision than Joan and I have here, so they’ve been squeezed into the sun room and the bedrooms upstairs. It’s just Joan and me in the school room now.

April 15

It seems they’re stepping up their treatment attempts. I watched with fear as the matron called out the names to meet the doctor tomorrow. Neither Joan nor me were picked. Joan was disappointed. I’m not. I don’t know why they never pick me, but now I’m thinking I’m glad for it.

Instead, they picked six other kids, most of them the new ones who don’t know about the treatments.

April 16

The knocking has started. I’m lying here listening to it. Joan has managed to go off to sleep but, even though she wants her turn at a treatment, she too finds it eerie. It’s just a steady knock-knock-knock coming, I think, from right below the school room. The school room’s dark and cold, and I think the knocking echoes a bit in here. The doctor left only a couple hours ago, shutting and locking the basement door behind him.

April 18

The knocking is still going on. I heard moans last night. Just a few, then they went quiet.

We’re not allowed to go down there. Even the nurses aren’t going down there. I’m not sure if the children in the basement are getting food.

I’ve had to scuttle back into bed. I was writing by the moonlight at the window. Our door’s completely open today, so I’d be seen out of bed. I’m writing this now right after the men carried out a couple stretchers. I think two of the children have died or gone into that blank state.

This is all getting more frequent. Joan says I shouldn’t, but I’m really starting to want to know what’s going on downstairs.

April 19

The knocking hasn’t stopped. I think it doesn’t usually go on this long, but I’m not sure. The house is silent but for the knocking. I haven’t seen any of the stretcher-bearing men tonight, and all the nurses are elsewhere. But I think the men from last night left the basement door unlocked.

Now I just need to work out whether I’ve got the courage to have a peek. My legs are up to it tonight.

April 20

I did peek! I had to wait for night-time to write this, so the nurses won’t see. Joan doesn’t know I did it. I went when she was sleeping.

I didn’t hear anyone outside the school room, so I tiptoed out and to the basement door. I wasn’t too sure the door was unlocked. Someone could have come and locked it since. But the handle turned.

I could see what was beyond. The stair light was on. But all I could see was the stairs. I shut the door behind me and went down just the first few steps as quietly as I could. One of the steps was creaky, and I regretted stepping on it. But no one came to look. I didn’t go any further down all the same, in case there were more creaky steps.

I didn’t need to. I could see through the bannisters when I crouched down.

Down in the basement the knocking sounds more metallic than it is upstairs. I couldn’t see what was making it, but it sounds like a machine. I was relieved, at first, to notice that, as I had started worrying that the knocking was one of the children banging on something. But the more I heard it, looking into the basement, the more eerie the machine seemed.

The basement is a simple and cold room. I could see the same stone walls the Home is made of, and a stone floor. It had beds in it. Just the normal beds we have upstairs. There was little other furniture, little else of anything, and the space just looked like a basic basement with beds stuck in it.

And I could see the children. The first I spotted was just like the others, lying in bed motionless, though his eyes were open. He was looking around, but blankly, like he didn’t care about anything he was seeing.

I had to change my position to see the others, searching through empty beds to find them. Two other children were in beds off to the side. My spot on the stairs made it hard to see them. And they were further away from the stair light. There were no lights on below, so I had to squint for a little while to see.

A girl looked to be shivering in her bed. Her eyes were closed. She was just shivering and shivering, constantly. I wanted to get her another blanket. It was cold down there.

The girl next to her was rocking instead. I’m not sure whether it was because she was cold or something else. She was groaning a little, just quiet noises, as she rocked, her back to me.

By my count, there should be four children left in the basement. I had to lean down low to finally spot the last one. And he surprised me.

It was the middle of the night. Though it seemed no one in the basement was sleeping, the other three were at least in their beds. The fourth, a boy I know as Peter, was sitting on the floor in a far corner, writing madly in a notebook. He wasn’t shivering or moaning, and he definitely wasn’t blank. His face was a scowl, and he just kept on writing.

A sound from above made me start. I looked around, but no one was there. I didn’t want to stick around any longer, though, in case I was caught, so I hurried quietly back to bed.

It hasn’t made it any clearer what’s going on down there. And it wasn’t reassuring. But for Peter, I didn’t know any of the children well, but to think they were just stuck down there was awful. And I think that one boy who was staring, if not all of them, was about to die.

May 2

All three of the children who’d been in their beds when I looked into the basement are gone, carried out under sheets by the stretcher men. Peter has come out though. I haven’t seen him, as they’re keeping him in the small room by himself, but the nurses are pleased with his treatment. They think the selection process has improved.

May 6

It’s the dead of night, or would be if all the nurses weren’t up.

I’m still shaking in my bed. Joan was crying in hers for a while, but one of the nurses took her to speak to her.

Peter had polio. He walks with two sticks, and the treatment hasn’t fixed that for him. I was asleep and didn’t hear him coming until he was clattering headlong into the school room.

It started me out of my bed, and what I saw made me gasp. Peter’s eyes looked stuck staring up at the ceiling. Like he couldn’t move them. I don’t think he was blinking, and he was stumbling and smacked into my bed, not able to see where he was going.

I called out to him quietly and he stopped. I don’t think he was trying to hurt me, but he was lit by the cold moonlight through the uncurtained windows, and it made the whites of his eyes, looking like that was all there was to his eyes, too bright.

His expression was fierce. But he recognised me, and he started talking to me.

‘Nerida – help me! We’ve got to go!’

Joan was whimpering and trying to crawl away out of her bed beside me. Peter was leaning on his sticks as his arms shook.

‘This place isn’t right!’ Peter hissed at me. ‘You can see that!’

There was the sound of people running up the corridor outside the room. Peter clattered forward, closer to me. His stuck eyes blind.

‘Please Nerida! Help me find the door!’

But the nurses were already there. Peter yelled and fought as they pulled him back, calling them demons and what they were doing barbaric.

I think they’ve locked him back in the small room.

May 10

Peter’s been sent away. He wasn’t carried out on a stretcher, so I don’t think he’s gone blank. The nurses told me he’d aged out of the Home and was going to stay in a place for adults. I don’t believe it, though. Peter’s not quite an adult yet.

The nurses tell me he’s been raving. That he doesn’t know what he’s saying. They say he was talking about great floods drowning the world and fires that spread far across the land. That we’re all going to burn and drown. They say he’s insane.

But I did agree with him in one way. What they’re doing here isn’t right. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right.

I wish I had helped him escape that night.

I set the diary back on the table. The last significant entry Nerida had made in her diary was at the end of 1948, when she wrote about seeing the dead man be found by authorities out the windows of the Home. She wrote that the children had no idea who he was, but that the nurses forbade them from going outside after that. For how long, I don’t know, because the diary ended there, having run out of pages.

Eyes rolling up and getting stuck that way is exactly the kind of abnormal eye movements described in encephalitis lethargica.

From here, it’s just speculation. I’ve found no other pieces of information in the box of the children’s things.

I have speculated, probably reading too much into it all. Floods and fires could be a reference to global warming; there had been men on the moon – if we want to go down the route that this illness gives people some sight into the future. Bea had certainly seemed more 21st century than her contemporaries.

As for Bea, what had she known? That taxi trip to Perth she actually paid for… Was that, just maybe, to visit the asylum Joseph Marshall had been committed to?

What had caused the encephalitis lethargica pandemic? I certainly think these children had it – they’d been given it – and it didn’t spread through all the children in the home.

For how the Russians might be involved, I can’t tell you more than I already have. Was the foreign-sounding doctor the man found in East Berlin?

That Jessica and the Somerton Man had been having an affair is a well-travelled theory. You can look up how Jessica’s son, conceived before she met her husband, bears a striking resemblance to the dead man.

One thing I did find, though, was a mention of how Kate Thomson, Jessica’s daughter, revealed her mother had been tiny – 4ft 11 and thin – and that she was a nurse colleagues had nicknamed “Tina”. Jessica had had a small baby in 1947.

And for the woman in the UK who’d died beside the Rubáiyát, I’m not sure. For Joseph Marshall, who died in Sydney with the book on his chest, I have found that he didn’t have the same book – his Rubáiyát was a different version to the one the Somerton Man and the Crippled Children’s Home had. Make of that what you will.

To bring it back to the book, I found one last thing in it, something I’d previously missed. Written over an illustration in the middle of the book were the words:

“To those who search, be wary of what you find.”

I don’t know what to make of that either, but I do know, more now than I did before, that the worst demons on this Earth are humans.


Author’s Note

As stated above, this is far from my usual type of story. I was fascinated by the mysteries of the past, and inspired to include them in this creative mock-up.

You’ll find echoed in this story similar topics I explored in Rin. Sed. and Blurred, and The Notorious Male Ward 7. “Mist. Sed.”, the unknown medication used to sedate patients at Callan Park, was real. And, to answer a question posed in the story: “General Paralysis of the Insane” was the final stage of Syphilis. Modern treatments have made obscure such conditions as that. What is worrying, is that with anti-biotic resistant Syphilis growing, we may well come to remember the paralytic stage of the disease.

Likewise, Encephalitis Lethargica is a real condition. We haven’t seen it as an epidemic for a very long time, and do not understand why it ever became one. A suggestion is that it was caused by the Spanish Flu, as an additional consequence of that disease. However, the Encephalitis Lethargica epidemic emerged prior to the Spanish Flu. Another suggestion is over-diagnosis. This may well have been a factor. But, all those years ago, what, even despite that, was causing person after person to catch this strange condition?

While what was found in those journals depicted in this story is completely fictional, the questions about what was going on in Somerton, around the death of the unknown man, are all too real. That people were taking their own lives with this book right next to them, decades after the greatest popularity of the poems, is a true mystery. High rates of suicide could be as simple and terrible as the effects of great wars on the psyche. But with this book beside them? I do find it curious.

If any of this led you down a rabbit hole, I’d love to hear about it!

Comments

One Reply to “The Children of Somerton”

  1. Joshua Twiggs says:

    This is one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever read!

    Like

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