Tall Stories

I say ‘We’re doing a project with the Oral History Society. Talking to local residents about the St Anselm’s Bonfire. Capturing people’s memories on tape.’

‘You’re interfering.’ Says Irene. ‘Sticking your noses into other people’s business. Snooping about in places where you’ve got no right to be.’

Dr Tanner puts his head around the door. He says ‘She’s very tired. And quite confused. I suggest you keep it short and to the point.’

OK Dr Tanner. Have it your way.

‘Linda says you burnt the babies that were born on Macey’s Ward.’

Bruno kicks me in the shins.

Irene says ‘If you choose to put it that way, that’s entirely up to you.’

I can think of other ways to put it. Inhumane, barbaric.

‘You threw them in the incinerator. Like so much rubbish. You didn’t even keep a record of their names.’

Irene folds her arms. She doesn’t see why she should answer. Why Dee Delaney thinks she has the right to hold her to account. Then again, she’s nothing to be ashamed of. She’d like to set the record straight.

‘Men were dying in the trenches. We were struggling everyday to tend the living. I don’t apologise for skimping on the niceties of death.’

She’s rattled now. She’s on a roll.

‘Young girls have it easy nowadays. Abortion, contraception. It wasn’t so easy then. To spirit away a pregnancy, gloss over a mistake. These were illegitimate babies born to young girls who were ill. It was in everyone’s best interests that we didn’t make a fuss.’

People are so very sentimental. About mothers, about children. Irene has always found it rather silly. She was never big on family. The pressure to be intimate, informal. She thrived on institutions, regulations, order, structure, rules. She found home life oppressive. She was constantly in trouble for one crime or another. Teasing other children. Telling her tall stories. Torturing the cat.

She worked out her escape plan in the end. She ate carbolic soap and started foaming at the mouth. Said she’d been struck down with Scarlet Fever. A self-fulfilling prophesy. Once she was inside the Infirmary she’d catch it soon enough.

‘The girls were very grateful.’ She says haughtily. ‘Well, apart from May McGinty. The poor thing went quite demented. She used to wrap a pillow in a blanket and sing to it at night. She’s still here in St Anselm’s. Still pushing her pram.’

‘I’ve seen her.’ I say dully. ‘At the seafront. On the pier.’


Guinea Pigs

‘We had limited resources.’ Says Irene. ‘It simply wasn’t possible to keep everyone alive.’

‘So you let the weak ones die.’

Irene is hyper-ventilating. Really Dee Delaney is infuriating. Who does she think she is?

Bruno steps in calmly. Takes her hand. ‘It’s OK he says. Breathe slowly. In and out.’

Irene settles down. Breathes in, breathes out, breathes in again. She feels safe with Bruno Brown. She like his bedside manner. He has the look of Dr Sam.

‘That’s better.’ He says. ‘Don’t worry. You were only doing your job.’

Only. She thinks. Only. As though she was some kind of minion. A follower of orders, not a pioneer of science.

‘Young man,’ she intones grandly in her most imperious voice. ‘Please don’t minimise the significance of our enterprise. We were at war. With a leader on a mission to create a super race. Culling was essential. We couldn’t let the British gene pool go to pot. We wouldn’t stand a chance.’

Irene is lost in thought. Back in the Infirmary. So many things to test. It started with the beauty products. Hidden amidst the pills and potions. A new formula for face cream, a different kind of lipstick. Unknown side effects. You might be dizzy, drowsy, nauseous. Plagued with blisters, sores or blotchy skin. A small price for the quest for physical perfection. Half the women in St Anselm’s were on Irene’s distribution list.

The men were ready customers as well. Especially in the later years. Struggling to navigate the shifting sands of life without the war. They queued in line to trial new drugs. Anti-depressants. Antibiotics. At first they did it for the money. But there were other upsides too. Drowsiness, delirium. Out-and-out hallucination. Escape from the tedium of the present and the horrors of the past. It didn’t take too long before her guinea pigs where paying her instead.

She built up a decent business. It seemed she owned St. Anselm’s. Birth control was Irene’s biggest earner. Sterilisation for the feeble-minded and infirm. Auctioning abortions to the highest bidder. It was easy to arrange. Despatch carbolic soap. Take them in as patients when they were foaming at the mouth. There was infinite demand for illegal contraceptives. No-one cared about the side effects. Irene could name her price.

The girls were happy to oblige. To be the guinea pigs. Soldiers in the fight against depravity and frailty. How dare Dee Delaney look so indignant, so appalled? Passing judgement on those who put their heads above the parapet, their careers on the line. Imposed some sort of order on the rich mess of humanity. Battled for the improvement – the purification – of the human race.

Bruno coughs. Reminds Irene that we’re still here.

‘The fact is’ says Irene coolly ‘some of us were never meant to breed.’


Jumping Jack

Bruno says ‘So why did this one get a coffin?’

‘It was the Doctor. Doctor Sam. He was always sentimental.’

I say ‘Sentimental?’

‘Very caring, very warm. He couldn’t afford to be standoffish. He was grateful for the job. He was an African, you see. The English doctors wouldn’t work there. They knew they’d end up ill themselves.’

Now she comes to think of it, she owes it all to Dr Sam. The ability to see an opportunity where others see a threat. The mantra that has guided her through life.

Irene smiles a wistful smile before she carries on.

‘He was like a doll. A great big doll. We all had black cloth dolls.’

‘Golliwogs.’ I say flatly. I feel uncomfortable just saying it.

Irene looks lost in thought.

It’s really quite ironic. She scoffed when Linda asked for a black Barbie doll for Christmas. Still, you made do with what you had. And what they had back then was blackout fabric from the blinds.

‘It broke his heart. Even for a Doctor, it’s hard to watch your own child die.’

I say ‘It was a bit late to feel sorry. He abused his position. Those girls were in his care.’ My voice echoes round the ward. Sanctimonious. Disapproving.

‘Oh the girls were very willing. There wasn’t much to do.’

‘So how did the Doctor’s baby die?’ asks Bruno.

‘He was half-dead already.’ Irene says blithely. ‘Born with an infection. Premature. He’d never have survived.’

‘So you speeded things along?’

‘It was just a bit of fun. It all got out of hand.’

Irene’s eyes have misted over. She speaks as though she’s in a trance.

‘We let the children take him out. They had him in a pushchair. Wheeled him round from house to house. Put a sign around his neck that said ‘A Penny for the Guy’. He had the colour for it. The swarthy skin. Just the thing for Bonfire Night.’

Irene sees our confusion.

‘Guising. Blacking up. We’d smear soot on our faces and go off knocking at doors. Mind you, we were all of us so filthy you couldn’t always tell. Still,’ says Irene laughing, ‘you could tell it was the Doctor’s baby. There wasn’t any doubt.’

‘How?’ I say uneasily.

‘We put a stethoscope round its neck.’

Neither of us speak. We are hypnotized. Transfixed.

‘Oh for goodness sake.’ Says Irene. ‘It was a game. He was tiny, hardly breathing. He didn’t know what was going on.’

‘You put a sick child in a pushchair and used him as a toy.’

‘They were children. They played with what they had to hand.’

I say ‘A baby died.’

‘Oh no.’ She says. ‘Not then. It was later. At the bonfire. When the fireworks started. Penny Bangers; Catherine Wheels; Rockets; Sparklers; Golden Rain. The boys were swarming through the crowd. Throwing Jumping Jacks at people’s feet. Picking up the rag dolls and the scarecrows. Throwing them on the fire. They weren’t to know. How could they? It was just like all the others. So small, so frail, so limp. We tried to tell them. Make them stop. But what with the screaming and the chanting and the crackling of the fire…’

Irene tails off.

‘…We did our best to save him. Found a stick to hook him out.’

Her voice drops to a whisper.

‘But he’d already burnt before our eyes.’

She shakes her head. As though she’s shaking off the horror. Her voice is matter-of-fact again.

‘We took him back to the Infirmary and made him a proper coffin. Dr. Sam insisted. He said it didn’t seem quite right to burn his body after that.’

All three of us fall silent. Bruno holds my hand.

Irene looks at me and flinches. As though she’s just remembered who I am.

‘That was the last St Anselm’s Bonfire. You might want to think again before you try to bring it back.’


Blue Plaque

I say ‘We should give him a proper burial. A gravestone.’


‘The Doctor’s Baby’

Bruno says ‘I’m not sure what that would achieve.’

‘A mark of respect. An expression of regret. A reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.’

‘It wouldn’t be though, would it? It would be just another gravestone in a graveyard.’

‘We’re meant to draw on local history. We should say something somewhere. About the Infirmary, its history. The role it played in wartime Britain. We should mention Irene.’

‘Mention what?’ Says Bruno. ‘That she encouraged drug dependency and illegal abortion? Or that she killed unwanted babies as a matter of routine. Either way I wouldn’t want to put it in the marketing material.’

‘We could just put up a plaque.’

‘A plaque? What would it say?’

I say ‘The Doctor’s Baby.’ but it doesn’t sound right.

‘He deserves his own identity. We should give him a name.’

Bruno says ‘Dee, do me a favour. Don’t mention any of this to Lester. To anyone at all. The best thing we can do for this community is look towards the future. We won’t be helping anyone by dredging up the past.’

‘He had a name.’ says Irene. ‘We called him Sam. After his father.’

We both look at her in surprise. We’d forgotten she was there

‘Short for Sambo. Little Black Sambo.’

Bruno snorts. ‘You couldn’t make it up.’