Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace

October 25, 2021 at 8:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

She was known as Madame Brussels. Of course I loved the name; my favourite city. In my hometown on the other side of the world, I stood on the corner of Lonsdale Street in central Melbourne and looked for the laneway named after her.

Madame Brussels looms large in the history of Melbourne. She owned and ran some of the most expensive brothels in the city in the 19th century. There were dance halls, pubs, opium dens and many ‘houses of ill-repute’ crammed into the notorious Little Lon area, and their history still pokes through, if you know where to look.

17 Casselden Place, Melbourne (Little Lon)
Madame Brussels, Little Lon

I was on the hunt for Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace, with Bilking Square in the middle. The red light district of Victorian era Melbourne, if you can’t tell by the names.

In this city we’ve been in the longest, strictest lockdown in Covid history: 265 days of hardcore restrictions. No shops or bars open, no movement more than 5km from home, a 9pm curfew. It’s been…challenging. There are only so many Kali chants, bass guitar lessons and black and white movies a woman can take before she decides to use her daily exercise hour to explore the back streets of her own city.

Though in all honesty, I could take a few more Tennessee Williams film adaptations.

‘Night of the Iguana’ (written by Tennessee Williams)
‘The Misfits’ (written by Arthur Miller)

Here’s the thing though: I couldn’t find Romeo Lane, Juliet Terrace or Bilking Square. I walked, I frowned, I retraced my steps. My search took me past two of my favourite bookstores, Paperback Bookshop and Hill of Content, but they were (of course) shut in lockdown, and I was on a mission.

I found where I thought Bilking Square should be. It looked familiar. When I realised why, I leaned against a red brick wall to take it all in. I was outside the very restaurant in which I’d met my publisher at Scribner last year to celebrate signing a contract for my debut novel. I’d worn red lipstick, a cinched waist 50s dress with full skirt, and black ballet flats. I think I was aiming for Ava Gardner, but landed more on the side of Lucille Ball, with inappropriate jokes about the plague and polyamory. When the waiter leaned in to place a linen napkin on my lap, I flinched. I ate tagliatelle with smoked fennel seeds and almost choked on them when my publisher said my book has ‘just the right amount of blood in the water.’ I proposed a champagne toast to the memory of my beautiful aunt Grace, whom the book will be dedicated to when published. She felt right there at the table with me.

Lord, what a day that was.

Turns out it used to be Romeo Lane, but had been renamed Crossley Street 150 years ago in an effort to cleanse the streets of their sordid Little Lon reputation. It didn’t matter though; I went home smiling.

Turns out my stories are written on Melbourne’s streets, too, if I remember to look.

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