Story Excerpt

The Mrs. Innocents

by Ian R. MacLeod

Being in the condition I was in, nobody thought it was a good idea that I should travel to Berlin in the autumn of 1940. Even my editor, who’d generally trusted my nose for a good story, and wasn’t too fussy about putting her correspondents at risk, was dead against it.

“Well . . .” She sat back in the herbal fug of her office and pointed her pipe at me. “Look at you.”

I glanced down. The small but growing bump in my belly still seemed strange even to me; one of the many things about pregnancy no one ever tells you is that you never really get used to it. “But that’s the whole point. I can go over there, say I’m reporting on, I don’t know, dear old King Willy’s prize geraniums. Then I can just turn up at the famous first Birthplace as if for a standard check-up. Maybe I’ll ask them right out, or maybe I’ll just go on a wander. You know me. I’m good at wandering.”

“And you think that that will get you some kind of piece about Lise Beckhoff, maybe even an interview?”

“Basically, yes.”

“What about going through the proper channels?”

“There aren’t any proper channels. She’s a recluse, and incredibly elderly.”

My editor raised an eyebrow, then looked at me the way many people were starting to. “And you’re comfortable with this?”

“Of course I am. Otherwise I wouldn’t be asking.”

“You do know we have an excellent Berlin correspondent?”

“I don’t need a hunch.” I smiled, and ignored the small, dizzy shiver that passed through me. “This is a last chance. Lise Beckhoff’s going to be dead soon.”

“And if I said you couldn’t go, you’d go anyway, wouldn’t you?”

I shrugged.

“But, nevertheless, and even though you’re selling me little more than a wild goose chase, you expect the Times to sanction this?”

“Isn’t that what I’m paid for?”

*   *   *

I’d wanted to be a crusading journalist for as long as I can remember. Even before I knew exactly what journalism was, I craved knowledge—to establish the real truth instead of comfy lies—and had grand dreams of astonishing, and perhaps even changing, the world.

Admittedly, the particular corner of the world I grew up in wasn’t that astonishing, Gallowhead being a small town on the Clyde not that far from Dumbarton, but a million miles away from being remarkable, even if it did have two rather pointless claims to fame. The first being the concrete folly of the Tesla Tower that rose like a rotting mushroom from the granite crag overlooking the town, and the second that it was where Mrs. Clara Innocent chose to spend her declining years. Which, as far as I was concerned, was no fame at all, and definitely no reason to hang around. That, and I definitely wasn’t going to have any children.

I first met my husband Richard when I was working as a reporter on the Dumbarton Daily Messenger, and he was a trainee architect up from London to do some work on a project that, like most things in and around Gallowhead apart from that stupid tower, never actually got off the ground. When we fell into talking one evening in a local pub, it turned out we both had much bigger plans. He wanted to set up his own practice as soon as he qualified, and from there the sky was the limit. Which, as I pointed out, didn’t even have to be a metaphor if you happened to be an architect. And we laughed and shared another beer, and kissed passionately under the stars.

We were sharing a freezing bedsit in London by the next spring, and I was finding out that all working for a Scottish regional newspaper got you at the big nationals was the chance to report on minor traffic accidents at a farthing a line, whilst Richard was far too occupied drawing plumbing diagrams to find time for his own designs.

But we worked hard. We stuck at it. Richard was able to take the leap and set up his own small practice on the back of a lucky inheritance, and a succession of minor freelance scoops finally got me a post as a junior reporter at the London Times, just as I’d always planned. But it turned out that junior anything wasn’t what I really wanted, any more than Richard was satisfied designing pneumatic substations for Western Rail. He wanted to be building town halls, department stores, new cathedrals, next-generation reckoning houses, and I was still on the hunt for the scoop that would change the world.

We weren’t rich, but we were hugely ambitious and ridiculously busy. We bought a house in Camden because it was cheap and convenient, and climbed into bed each night exhausted, and rarely made love. Still, and mainly to shut up my mother, we found the time to get married, although I kept my surname (after all, I had my reputation to protect as Sarah Turnbull, soon-to-be world-renowned reporter), and children still remained entirely off the agenda, especially as I approached the supposed milestone age of thirty. After all, I was a woman of today. I had my own life to live, not someone else’s.

It was Richard rather than me who cracked, at least in my version of this story—which is the one you’re going to have to put up with, whoever, wherever, and whatever you are, seeing as I’m telling it. Unlike me, he had an extended family of young cousins, nephews, and nieces, and was famously good with them. So it was, on a sunny Sunday afternoon at a great aunt’s house in Twickenham, where he’d been playing with the kids on the lawn while the rest of us adults sensibly snoozed in deckchairs, that he scooped up a particularly hot and snotty toddler, bore it over to me and said something along the lines of You know, Sarah, I rather fancy us having one of these.

It was an obvious joke—talking about having a child in the way you might about buying a new Morris Clara—and I took it as such. But the idea was somehow seeded in the far, distant allotments of our relationship, and it grew there, ignored and untended. Perhaps if I’d been able to take the new birth control pill that’s now being tested—another Birthplace innovation—things would have been different. But Richard and I were using condoms, which always got in the way, and thus we didn’t use them at all during the short “safe” time at the end of my period. Then the condoms somehow started becoming even more of a nuisance, and our “safe” days got longer. We were somehow managing to have more sex, too, even though we were still just as exhausted. Thus, month by month, with breathless nods and very little practical discussion, did I inch toward pregnancy.

Not that I was expecting it to happen. I was an up-and-coming reporter at one of the world’s major print journals, and certainly not some random child’s mother. Richard, admittedly, did have a fatherly side, at least when it came to organizing impromptu games with his younger relatives. Seeing as my own father had died when I was fairly young, I’ll even admit that that might have been part of what drew me to him. But when it came to the rest, I simply didn’t see a future that involved me growing some new person inside my body. In fact, and if I’m entirely honest, the whole idea gave me the creeps.

I can, in retrospect, place my first realization to the morning when, looking down at my habitual breakfast cup of coffee, I felt a sliding shift as if the world around me had loosened on its tethers, and decided I only wanted a drink of water, and even that tasted strangely metallic. There were other things. A whole, tedious litany of tingling skin and a buzzing in my ears and a floaty feeling of disconnection even before I started to wonder about what had happened to the ordinary aches of my period. So, what does any modern girl do? The first thing, of course, is to carry on as normal, and tell absolutely no one, and pretend it can’t possibly be true. Then, of course, she goes to a Birthplace—a Mrs. Innocents.

*   *   *

They’re a common enough sight. From mud huts, traveling caravans and structures built on wooden stilts, they come in all shapes and sizes, although we here in Britain still prefer plain old bricks and mortar. The Birthplace on Fetter Lane, just around the corner from Saint Dunstan’s, which I walked down to from the Times’ offices in Printing House Square one lunchtime, isn’t as grand as the one in Whitehall designed by Edwina Lutyens, but it’s still an impressive structure. Apart from a mosaic frieze of that Scottish, matronly, widow Mrs. Innocent herself—half Whistler’s mother and half Juliet’s nurse—on the frontage, it could be a major bank, or the embassy of some significant foreign power.

Looking left and right to make sure there were no familiar faces amid the London crowds, I pushed through the swing doors. I’d expected a waiting room decorated with health warnings and anatomical diagrams, but instead found myself in a large, high-ceilinged hall scattered with broad leather chairs and low tables spilling with upmarket magazines. The place felt more like a club than a clinic. Somewhere in the background, a tune I recognized as Daisy Ellington’s “Take the A Train” was playing. I was about to head out to check if I’d gone into the wrong building when a woman in that characteristic blue uniform of a Mrs. Innocent bustled up to me.

“Welcome,” she said with a beamingly bright smile, as if I was the very person she’d been expecting. “Have you been here before?”

I shook my head. “It’s just to check—you know, if I’m . . .” I trailed off, suddenly bashful as a teenager.

“Of course, of course. Every woman is entitled to know the state of her own body. Do you happen to have brought a urine sample with you?”

Obviously, I hadn’t, but that was no problem at all. She led me swiftly down polished corridors to a wood-paneled room that, despite the presence of a hospital screen and a toilet, still had that same club-like air. She left me there, and knocked discreetly when she came back, and thanked me with seeming sincerity for the small, warm phial I presented her with.

“If you’d like to sit down and wait—there are magazines over there, and some biscuits and fruit juice—and I’ll be back with the news in a few minutes.”

My head swam. My stomach growled. My whole body thrummed with a strange, disconnected fizzing. “You mean you can tell me right away? I thought it would take days. Don’t you have to inject frogs? Or kill rabbits?”

She favored me with another of her Mrs. Innocent smiles. “Nothing like that. It’s a quick, simple chemical test nowadays, and much more reliable. My name’s Phyllis Dunnet, by the way, and I want you to know you can stay here just as long as you like, or head out and come back later, and perhaps bring along a partner or friend. Or we could ring or electropen you at the Times, if you could give us a—”

“No, no,” I said, wondering exactly when, in all my confusion, I’d mentioned my place of employment. “I’ll wait here. Absolutely.”

*   *   *

Still in a daze, I took the pneumatic back to Camden that evening with an appointments card and several Birthplace leaflets nestling in my briefcase, and sat at our kitchen table waiting for Richard, as anxious as if I was about to confess some torrid affair. But he was blissfully unsurprised. So, when we took the express up to Gallowhead a week or so later, and even more annoyingly, was my mother. Even my colleagues in the third floor newsroom, which I’d been frequently fleeing in recent times to retch in the toilets, took the news as if they’d known all about it from the moment of conception.

Meanwhile, my visits to the Birthplace on Fetter Lane, and my sudden dislike of coffee, and the tiredness, and the swelling of my ankles, and the sweats, and the bouts of diarrhea, and the odd tingling sensation across my skin and in my ears, and that peculiar sliding feeling, continued, although I was assured that such symptoms were perfectly normal during the early stages of pregnancy.

My mother was, and is, a frank and practical woman. At least, when it suits her. Perhaps it comes in part from having to make her own way in the world after my father’s death, even if widows and single mothers have none of the disadvantages they had to face in the bad old days. She certainly made sure that I knew all about the facts of life—breasts and penises and periods and so forth—at an age that meant I could lord it over most of the other children at school. They listened open-mouthed as I explained who put what into where, and what happened after. In many ways, I still think of it as my first ever scoop. But when it came to the other end of things, so to speak, even my mother was much more reticent. The baby simply “came out,” or was “pushed,” and then the umbilical cord was cut. Which, my dear, is what gives us all our bellybuttons. And that was that.

As I approached the beginning of what is clinically known as my second trimester, and I was given nothing really substantial to work on, I began to spend more and more of my paid hours up in the Times’ library. This was, and is, a well-resourced establishment, with a high-bandwidth link to the new reckoning house in Sloane Square, so even books and periodicals that aren’t kept on the shelves or stored on voltaic tape can still be easily accessed. A whole, wide world of knowledge, you might say.

*   *   *

My fascination with finding the truth goes back at least as far as when my father was still alive, and I was an avid student of the cards from his packs of Churchman’s cigarettes, back when tobacco-smoking wasn’t yet seriously discouraged on health grounds. It was the feel and the smell of the cards that first drew me to them, the sweet, dark, fatherish odor that infused each little rectangle, as well as the information they contained. I soon began to collect whole sets. Flowers of the Hedgerow. The Story of Empire (we British still not having given up all our old colonies back then). I’d memorize each list as a kind of litany, and desperately covet the cards I didn’t have.

My father was just a local electrician who’d grown up in dull old Gallowhead, but in many ways he was a brilliant man, or at least the visions he stirred in my mind were brilliant. With the help of Stars and Planets, for instance, I had my first glimpse of the vast scale of the universe, and Great Inventors introduced me to Ada Lovelace (number 1 in a series of 25), Leonardo da Vinci (number 6), and Marie Curie (number 24).

Of that last set, and despite many swaps, I was somehow never able to get hold of the Nikola Tesla card (number 16), which was deeply frustrating, especially with Gallowhead being dominated by the man’s most famous folly. Locals called it the wee big thing, although of course I didn’t yet understand that the tower resembled an erect phallus as much as a huge concrete mushroom, and my father didn’t smirk when he said Tesla’s name, for the man was a genius.

One day, he led me up the cobbled street from our house to the crag from where the tower reared over the Clyde, far too big and solid to be economically demolished. We squeezed through a gap in the ivy-festooned fence to be greeted by a thick, almost palpable, darkness, and a predictable reek of urine inside. But my father grasped my hand and turned on his flashlight, drawing me on up the rackety spiral staircase. This level, Sarah, is where the operators would have slept. And this is the control room. Dusty dials, monitors, and antique switchgear winked back at me. But this, my dear, was the heart of everything.

The rusty iron core at the center of the tower, sunk deep into the solid rock, and wound with copper anacondas, had been designed, as my father explained in leaps of thought and the dance of his flashlight, to bring about a whole new age of light, power, and communication. The planet itself, or so Tesla had claimed, was an endless reservoir of energy which could be tapped by towers such as this and the other one he’d managed to get built at Wardenclyffe on Long Island, and the hundreds of others he envisaged throughout the world. Every home, ship, car, train, aircraft, and factory would have access to unlimited energy through nothing more than a simple aerial. And every person in the world would be able to send messages to anyone else using exactly the same technology.

No matter that Tesla’s science was fundamentally flawed—that it’s a basic law of physics that energy is lost in inverse proportional to the square of the distance from its source, as I now know all too well. Some dreams are so wonderful, so persuasive, they deserve to be true even when they aren’t.

Quite a lot for anyone, least of all a somewhat precocious young girl, to absorb. But of course, and above all, it made me want that last Nikola Tesla card to complete my Great Inventors set even more.

*   *   *

But knowledge, yes. Facts. Verifiable reports. Which, in the absence of W.A. & A.C. Churchman ever doing a Childbirth series, and in the buzzing sanctuary of the Times’ library, I discovered many things that my mother had never told me. The tearing. The stitches. The enemas. The agony. That, and the many things that can and do go wrong before, during, and after the process of a baby somehow emerging from a place that my friends at school had insisted was just plain impossible.

Still, there was always my Birthplace, which I could visit whenever I wanted, even when I wasn’t booked in for another respectful examination. I could make use of the well-equipped gym, or swim in the heated swimming pool, or talk to other mothers-to-be, or try to engage with the toddlers who ran around like wound-up toys in the crèche, or study the babies lying fresh-minted in their cribs, and wonder when the change would finally come over me that makes these strange and selfish little creatures seem irresistible. That, or I could gaze at the stock image that seemingly hung on every wall of Clara Innocent, midwife to Queen Victoria, whose name and grandmotherly wisdom had famously inspired the entire Birthplace Movement, even if she’s mostly remembered in Gallowhead as a batty old crone. Or there were the many photographs of Lise Beckhoff herself.

There she was, standing even taller than Amelia Earhart at the end of her successful round-the-world flight, or outside the Kremlin shaking hands with Alexander Kerensky, or with President Gandhi in Delhi, or standing before yet another new Birthplace in some far-flung location. She always wore practical clothes and had a practical smile. She looked pale yet determined; like someone who’s got the weave of all history wrapped around her little finger.

*   *   *

The basic facts of the movement Lise Beckhoff founded and still acted as nominal head of are the grist of many a schoolgirl’s history project, not least in Gallowhead. How, as the daughter of an Irish mother and a father of minor German nobility, she grew up in the small German princedom of Württemberg. When both parents died young, she was sent to court in Berlin to became a lady-in-waiting. There, because she could speak both German and English, she grew close to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, also christened Victoria, but universally known as Vicky, who’d been shipped over from England to marry Frederick, Prince of Prussia, at the age of eighteen, which was how things were then done.

By nineteen, Princess Vicky was pregnant in a strange and foreign country and had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead. Despite all her supposed privilege, childbirth in those days was a dangerous, and often fatal, business. Queen Victoria sent her own physician, Doctor James Clark, and her personal midwife, Mrs. Clara Innocent, over to Berlin help her daughter through her first confinement, along with a plentiful supply of the aether. In her own quiet way, Queen Victoria was something of a pioneer of the rights of women, and regarded the prevalent idea that the pain of childbirth was not only natural, but Biblically preordained, as the nonsense it plainly was.

Many important men had gathered in the draughty staterooms of the Old King’s Palace to await the young princess’s confinement, including several supposedly eminent doctors, not to mention politicians, courtiers, footmen, and ladies-in-waiting, the process of bringing an heir to the Prussian throne into the world being essentially a state occasion. But none of them—at least apart from Clara Innocent—had any real idea of what they were doing. Only she, with her hard-won practical experience, realized that the princess’s baby was positioned feet first, which would lead to a breech birth. Which, then as now, is incredibly dangerous.

Somehow, and despite her lowly status, and with Lise Beckhoff as her translator, Mrs. Innocent persuaded these pompous and ill-informed men to allow her to attempt to physically rotate the baby by gently kneading Princess Vicky’s belly. Somehow, and even more remarkably, she succeeded, and what would have been a difficult and possibly deathly confinement was averted, and Prince Wilhelm—who would eventually become the much-loved King Willy—was born whole and hale and healthy. And Lise Beckhoff was inspired to begin her life’s work of improving the lot of women across the globe.

What was at first a campaign soon became a movement, and then, surprisingly rapidly, an institution. I suppose it did no harm for Lise Beckhoff to be bilingual and have the support of two deeply grateful royal families, and then to use Clara Innocent, with her perfect name and brisk yet homely manner, as a figurehead. You might almost call it—or so it seemed to my cynical, modern journalistic eye—a canny piece of product branding.

Even with all of this in its favor, however, and despite Lise Beckhoff’s evident brilliance, the rise of the Birthplace Movement still struck me as extraordinary. Sure, she gained backing from many rich and powerful men—and in those days, it was almost entirely men—and she had vim and pizazz, and worked like a dervish. But she was also canny and lucky—you might almost say ridiculously so—with a string of spectacularly successful investments.

Did you know that the Birthplace Trust owns the patent for the crescent wrench? Me, neither. At least, not until the information fizzed into life across my cathode tube in the Times’ library. Then, of course, there are the many medical innovations—from electro-cardio stimulation, to X-rays, to epidurals—that the Birthplace Trust has been instrumental in developing, not to mention holding many significant patents related to the electropen, pneumatic transport, and the technologies of the reckoning house.

To me, this all seemed a bit strange. In fact, it was more than strange: I scented a story. Sitting amid heaped periodicals and punchcards in the humming green cathode tube glow of the Times library, your trusty correspondent had another of her odd shifting, tingling moments, and knew that she had to go to Berlin.

*   *   *

It was a clear, fine day in the beautiful autumn of 1941 when I arrived outside the arch of Euston Station with my small suitcase, ringbound reporter’s pocketbook, and increasingly protuberant belly. Once aboard my carriage, and borne along on a great, whooshing woof of power, purpose, and air, I opened my copy of today’s Times. At first I did what any self-respecting journalist does with any newspaper, studying not the news itself, but the names of the reporters. Nothing with my by-line, of course, although I hoped that would soon change, and meanwhile there had been another nasty earthquake in Turkey. Bad news, of course, always trumping good, even in this tranquil century.

Rocked by the sound and the motion as the train dived into the cross-channel tunnel, I fell into a drowse, and drifted toward memories of my childhood. There I was, back at the table in our little kitchen at Gallowhead, and I could still swing my legs without touching the linoleum floor. My mother was washing the breakfast things before she took me to school on her way to work at the Council offices, and the tobacco bristle from my father’s kiss was still fading on my cheek as he picked up his trusty toolbag and headed out of the door. But I called him back. Even as he turned, I could see he knew what I wanted. That last card—number 16; Nikola Tesla—which would finally complete Great Inventors, and yes, yes, of course he’d call in at the newsagents and buy another couple of packets of Churchman’s even though he probably had enough to see him through the week, and it was a bit of a detour. He was that kind of father. Then he was gone, delayed by my silly request for no more than thirty seconds, and it seemed to me that I could hear the rumbling onrush of that runaway cart and the screams of the onlookers even as I awoke with a sob and start, and realized it was just the sound of the train, slowing through the suburbs of Paris toward the Garde du Nord.

I ate a good, expensive, expenses-paid lunch in the dining car, and spent the afternoon gazing out across the flat and peaceful fields of lowland Europe. That, and practicing my German, which I’d assured my editor I was semi-fluent in, despite never visiting the country, and having gained only a second-level school certificate. Still, I managed to make myself clear enough to the taxi driver outside the Stadtbahnhof for her to take me to my hotel along roads lined with strangely ornamented apartments, elaborate synagogues, and tall churches. There, I electropenned Richard and my editor to let them know I’d arrived in Berlin, and puzzled for a while over the purpose of the concave shelf in the toilet basin. Despite all the many treaties of European unification, the Germans really are a different race.

*   *   *

I spent the following morning researching the cheesy travelogue that I hoped I wouldn’t have to write to justify my visit, and soon discovered that the city’s museums and art galleries are huge, and fabulous, but also hugely, fabulously tiring. Then I ate oddly flavored doughnuts for lunch in a café with my bump tucked neatly under a blanket, and worked at my German through trying to explain to the waiter that I definitely didn’t want any coffee. But I knew I was wasting time.

The Central Berlin Birthplace—although they seemed just as fond over there as they are here in Britain of calling such places Frau Innocents—lies in an enviable location amid the bigger corporate headquarters, embassies, and offices of state midway along the Unter den Linden. I’d always imagined that there was a strong dose of poetic license in that name, but tall and stately linden trees shimmered in the autumn afternoon sunlight as I ascended the marble steps toward the most famous Birthplace of all.

Inside, I felt instantly at home. There was the same club-like atmosphere and the same large leather chairs as my “home” Mrs. Innocents on Fetter Lane, but on a larger scale, and the music playing was something softly classical by, I think, Clara Schumann. Even the smell was familiar; a mixture of lavender floor polish and warm biscuits, with perhaps a hint of the crowns of the heads of babies, and a faint waft of something sharper and more purposeful underneath.

A woman with a predictable smile, cornrow hair, and a Frau Innocent uniform bustled up to me and wished me a cheery Guten tag. Then, when I attempted to reply in my schoolgirl German, she immediately switched to English.

“Ah, yes, of course. If I may just borrow your appointments card for few moments . . . ?”

She scurried off, to reappear clutching a freshly electropenned sheaf of what looked like my entire clinical history suspiciously quickly.

“So, Sarah,” she said as she warmed her hands in the wood-paneled examining suite, “you are a journalist for the Times of London. Does this mean you have come here to our city to write some particular story?”

“It’s really just a general travel piece.”

“So you are a travel journalist?”

“I suppose you could say that.”

Which resulted in her quizzing me throughout my examination about the many places that I surely must have visited during the course of my work—a discussion that grew awkward when it turned out that this particular Fräu Innocent had actually been to Bolivia.

“Now you say the hills around La Paz . . . Here is something strange about the English language. For would you not call the Andes mountains?”

“No, not exactly.” I busied myself with my clothes, then pretended to be struck by an idea. “But perhaps, seeing as I’m here and writing about Berlin, I could add something about its most famous resident. Is there a chance that I might have a few quick words with Frau Beckhoff? It wouldn’t take a moment, and I believe she has her apartment right here in this very building.”

My Fräu Innocent’s smile suddenly faded. “I am afraid that cannot happen. You see, our founder is very old and does not perform interviews. Although my colleagues and I will be happy to help you in any query you might have about our organization.”

“No, that’s fine. I just thought I might as well ask, seeing as I was here.”

“Of course.” The smile returned. “I understand.”

She led me back to the entrance hall, and left me there after extracting promises that I wouldn’t say anything bad about German food, or describe Berlin’s many museums as even slightly boring. Once she’d gone, I turned as if to leave, then headed back toward the nearest stairwell. This, at least apart from my being pregnant, was what I’d always imagined the life of a crusading journalist would be like—part poet and part secret agent—even if the long climb to the higher reaches of this particularly large and grand Mrs. Innocents left me sweaty and breathless.

Up here in the Birthplace’s main offices, above the wards and the delivery suites and the crèches, there were surprisingly few people about, and the atmosphere was very different. Electropens scritched, cathode screens glowed, and typeboards clicked as if to the march of invisible fingers. A futuristic smell of volatile fluids and freshly abraded paper tickled my nostrils. It was as if some great, murmurous brain—

“Was machen sie?”

I really don’t know whether the Frau Innocent who intercepted me bought my attempts at baby-brain confusion as she patiently explained that this part of the Birthplace was not open to visitors, and politely but firmly escorted me from the premises.



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Copyright © 2020. The Mrs. Innocents by Ian R. MacLeod