the condition (a novella)

 
chapter three

London, England

January, 1899

I turn now to the events of January 1899.

Over the course of that month, Mary Gearie and her daughter, who Mary had named Sarah, stayed with me to recuperate. Brother George would stop by every few days, bringing news of home. All three joined us for Christmas.

When I enquired about Sarah’s father, Mary informed me that she was a widow. Her husband had died not three months before Sarah was born.

George, it seemed, was Mary’s primary support. He was a devoted brother; bringing her small gifts and telling her stories that made her laugh. He was more wary around Sarah, but it was understandable. She was a quiet girl – difficult to read. A pretty girl, but at that stage I believed, not so bright. She seemed to be permanently in a world of her own. I hoped, though, that this was just the consequence of her extraordinary situation and that, given time, she would come out of her shell.

Miss English took a strong dislike to the Gearies.

“They’re taking advantage of your good nature Dr Beaglehole,” she said to me as she served me tea one morning in my examining room. “Why can they not go home to their own family?”

“Miss English, Mary is recuperating. She has been through a very difficult, trying operation and Sarah needs time to get used to the world. I can hardly expect them to travel all the way back to their farm in the sleet and snow, can I?”

“Plenty of others do,” Miss English replied. “I don’t see why she’s so special.”

“Oh, Miss English,” I said. “I think sometimes you try too hard to be contrary.”

“I don’t believe I know what you mean by that Dr Beaglehole,” she replied. “I have always called a spade a spade and if you don’t like it…”

“Let’s not get carried away, shall we Miss English? They will not be here for much longer. Let’s try to make them feel as welcome as we can.”

In recent years, I have been accused of taking advantage of Mary and Sarah Gearie both. I have been questioned about my motives and I have had unscrupulous characters sniffing around my home, presenting themselves as one thing but, in reality, being another.

I would like to assure you, dear reader, that nothing was further from the truth. I took these two women into my home and looked after them as if they were my own family.

*

The case may not have gotten any attention at all if it had not been for the fact that, at that time, a good friend of mine, Dr M. E. Nettleworth, was teaching at London University. When I told him about the Gearie case, he asked me to bring them along to meet his students so they could learn more about this most mysterious and unusual condition.

When I mentioned it to Mary she was unsure at first. She said she did not like the limelight. I was not especially surprised by her reluctance. Over the previous weeks I had learnt that Mary had lived a quiet life, growing up on her family’s small farm. The middle child in a brood of more than ten, I doubt her parents had a spare moment to pay her any special attention. She was an unassuming plain, sturdy type of girl; the type you might encounter in any small English village.

Despite her trepidation, I told Mary that in my opinion she had a duty to share her plight with learned men. In the future, I told her, this would mean that other women in her predicament would not be subject to the kind of fanciful, ridiculous suspicions that had dogged them in the past. If nothing else, I said, do it for Sarah.

Mary was not an unintelligent woman. She listened to what I had said and accepted the reason of my argument. She agreed that both she and Sarah would come with me to Dr Nettleworth’s class. The class went very well. I discussed the case with Dr Nettleworth’s students; some of whom asked Mary and Sarah questions directly. Men of that age often lack sensitivity and tact. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the respectful way the students treated both women and, I believe, both women greatly appreciated it.

It wasn’t until after the class had ended, that I was approached by Mr Crockett Doob, an American man who was studying in London. Mr Doob’s father, Professor Benson Doob, was a world class physician who specialised in unusual medical conditions of the type that Sarah had been afflicted with. It just so happened that Professor Doob had founded a specialist hospital in Boston, Massachusetts where he invited patients with special cases to avail themselves of treatment, free of charge, in his world class institution.

I told Mr Doob that Mary and Sarah would probably just as soon prefer to stay here in England, not being worldly types.

Mr Doob informed me that he was certain his father would not expect Mary and Sarah to travel alone. And, that as their primary physician, I would travel with them to Boston and work with Professor Doob to investigate the cause and treatment for this most… delicate of conditions. And can I say, Dr Beaglehole, Mr Doob stated, that Boston is one of the most charming cities you will ever have the good fortune to lay your eyes upon.

I’m sure you will not hold it against me for being tempted by Mr Doob’s offer. After all, at this stage in my career, having spent more than ten years tending to the needs of women in unfortunate circumstances, I felt I deserved a holiday. And, when I got to Massachusetts, I would be working with Professor Doob, most intensely I imagined, to investigate this most perplexing of conditions. This was an opportunity for Mary, Sarah and myself to contribute to science and thereby benefit future generations. Besides, when would two country girls ever get an opportunity to travel to another country and meet a man like Professor Benson Doob?

As we walked back to the house, I informed Mary about the opportunity that Crockett Doob had described. Sarah was also walking with us, stopping to stare into cracks in the pavement, following the path of the blackbirds as they flew between trees in the park, picking up the leaves left over from autumn.

Come, come Sarah, Mary would call to her if the girl fell too far behind.

Of course, I presented this opportunity to Mary in a way that would not overwhelm her. I told her that should she agree to Mr Doob’s offer, we would travel abroad to meet his father – a man who was most interested in getting to know both her and her daughter. I said that this would be a good opportunity for her to recover from the trials that she had been through over the past few months.

Just what the doctor ordered, I laughed.

“Boston, you say Dr Beaglehole? The United States of America?”

“Yes Mary. In the fair state of Massachusetts. A most pretty town, so I’m told.”

“The United States of America,” she said again, dreamily, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes for a moment. “Who would have thought?”

And then, most unexpectedly, she reached for my hand and rested her head on my shoulder.

“Magical,” she said.

I could have let go of her hand right then and there. I could have gently moved away from her as she became more comfortable with this level of affection. But, dear reader, I am not as heartless as some have made me out to be. I put my arm around Mary’s shoulder and we walked like that together through London’s foggy streets.

 
chapter two

Melbourne, Australia

4th September, 2011

The indignities of pregnancy. Meredith has to ask the taxi driver if he minds helping her up the ramp to the clinic. And then he stands by her side, holding her arm, as she waits for the receptionist to look up from her computer screen.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she whispers to him.

“Oh no”, he says. “A woman in your condition should be treated very carefully.” He smiles, his teeth brilliant white against dark skin. “My wife is also pregnant,” he pulls his wallet out of his pocket and flips it open. In the photograph pocket is a tiny ultrasound photograph. “Our little girl”, he says.

The white, jelly-bean shaped shadow has her hands spread out in front of her face, one in front of the other, as if she is about to start playing an imaginary trumpet.

“Oh, lovely”, Meredith says. She has her own ultrasounds in her backpack. She has folded them in half, probably contravening all the guidelines regarding the proper treatment of these strange, blurry, grey and white photographs. But she can no longer reach the shelves in her bedroom where she keeps her collection of bags so, at the last minute, she just shoved them into whatever bag was close to hand.

She has pored over the ultrasounds multiple times, but they make little sense to her. She can see what looks like hands and feet, fingers and toes, but it could be anything. There are none that clearly show what the taxi driver’s photograph show – a perfect, recognisable, little baby.

And she suspects that why she is here. She has been unable to sleep for days, dreading the news. There is something wrong. Certainly something wrong. She is only 5 months along and already she is huge. If it was a multiple birth, the sonographer would have just told her then and there, wouldn’t she?

“Take a seat,” the receptionist says. “Mr Glover will be with you shortly.”

The taxi driver leads Meredith carefully to one of the seats close to the hallway and holds both her wrists as she bends down and slowly collapses back into the chair.

“You’re okay?” he says. “Can I get you some water?”

“I’m fine, seriously, I’m fine,” she says. “Here, I’ll give you a tip.”

He holds his palms up in protest.

“No, no,” he says. “I would never dream of it. Please, put this money away.”

He strides back towards the door and waves before he exits.

*

One wall of Mr Glover’s office is covered in Japanese style wallpaper – pink cherry blossoms raining petals down upon white cranes standing in silver ponds. There is a room divider on the other wall, in a similar Japanese style.

“Oolong?” he says. “I can get Marjorie to make us a pot.”

“I’m fine,” Meredith says.

“Does wonders for the digestion,” he says, picking up the phone. “Sure I can’t interest you?” he says, his hand over the receiver.

“No, thank you,” Meredith says.

“Marjorie,” he says, “I’ll have the Oolong this afternoon. A pot. Yes. Thank you, Marjorie.”

He puts the phone back in the receiver and opens the file, flicking through the paperwork and nodding to himself.

“So,” he says, not looking up from the file. “Dr Treadwell.”

“Meredith is fine.”

“Doctor of…?”

“Philosophy.”

“Ah,” he says. “A philosopher.”

“Well, a sociologist but…”

“Yes,” he says, “yes, yes”, licking his index finger and flicking through a few more pages.

“And the ultrasounds?” he says.

She hands him the folded envelope containing the ultrasounds. Her heart is beating hard against the front of her ribcage and her hands are sweating. Why can’t he just get on with it?

“Yes,” he says, glancing quickly at the photographs, then looking up at her and folding his hands on the desk in front of him.

“Dr Treadwell,” he says, pressing his black fringe firmly against his forehead with his palm. “I want you to take a deep breath and listen very carefully to what I am about to say.”

Meredith breathes in and out loudly and holds onto the wooden armrests on the chair, as if she is preparing for some kind of wild carnival ride.

“Your baby has a condition.”

“Okay,” she says.

“It is extremely rare.”

“Okay,” she says again, reminding herself to keep breathing. “What condition?”

“It’s called Beaglehole Syndrome.”

“What?”

“Beaglehole Syndrome,” he pulls a pencil out of his shirt pocket and flips over a piece of paper from her file.

“In this condition,” he draws a large, kidney shaped outline with a crude baby-shaped figure fitting tightly inside. “The foetus develops rapidly,” he draws arrows, from the baby outwards, on various points around the kidney shape, “and is born as,” beneath the kidney shaped outline he draws a small circle with a straight line attached to the bottom of the circle, pointing downwards, “a fully…,” one line crossing through the straight line, half way up, “…grown…,” and two lines at the bottom of the straight line, pointing diagonally to each corner of the page, “… adult.”

He has drawn a stick figure. He puts 2 dots inside the circle and a curved line beneath to make a tiny smile.

“Beaglehole Syndrome,” he says, and stabs the stick figure’s face a couple of times with the tip of his pencil.

“What?” Meredith says.

“Beaglehole Syndrome,” he says, his hands folded together on top of the drawing, looking directly at her again.

“Yes, but…”

“It’s a lot to take in Dr Treadwell.”

There is a knock on the door and the receptionist enters the room, carrying a teapot.

“Ah Marjorie,” Mr Glover says. “Thank you so much.”

Marjorie places the teapot on top of a pile of files on a bureau behind Mr Glover’s desk.

“Thank you,” Mr Glover says again, as he holds one of the ultrasounds up to the light from the window.

“So you’re saying,” Meredith says, her head feeling strangely light, “that I’m not having a baby?”

“Technically, yes, that’s correct Dr Treadwell,” Mr Glover looks at her over the top of his glasses. “You will not give birth to a baby. You will give birth to a fully-grown adult.”

“But, that’s impossible,” Meredith says. She leans forward and pulls the file from underneath Mr Glover’s elbow.

“A-hum,” Mr Glover coughs quietly, “Dr Treadwell, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to…”

“Is this a joke?” she says, flicking through the file, trying to make sense of the test results and reports.

“On the contrary,” Mr Glover says, as he swivels on his chair to fetch the teapot behind him. He swivels back quickly and places the pot and a small, blue handle-less mug on his desk. “This is a very serious condition”, he says, as he pours the tea from a height.

“Back in your grandparents’ day,” Mr Glover raises the cup to his lips and blows on the tea, a soft, stream of mist drifting up to cloud his glasses, “a woman giving birth to a son or daughter with Beaglehole routinely died because of the risks involved. But you needn’t worry”, he says, putting down the mug and reaching for a notebook, “these days the risks are fairly minimal. As long as we keep a close eye on mother and baby.” He scribbles something in his notebook.

“But this is ridiculous,” Meredith says. “How could a fully-grown adult possibly fit in there”, she looks down at her stomach.

“The uterus,” Mr Glover says, “is a marvellous organ”, leaning back in his squeaky chair and bouncing a little, back and forth, like a little boy in his father’s chair.

Meredith wonders for a moment if Mr Glover is an imposter. Some kind of mad man. That any moment now the real Mr Glover will walk in and apologise for this unfortunate incident. The intrusion of a nutcase who goes around posing as a doctor; doling out ridiculous diagnoses and trying to explain them away with glib references to the wonders of the human body.

Mr Glover returns to his notebook and scribbles a few more notes.

“I just can’t quite believe…,” Meredith says.

“Yes, Dr Treadwell, as I say, it is a lot to take in. But, given time, the vast majority of parents of children with Beaglehole find a way to adapt. And can I reassure you, Dr Treadwell, that individuals with Beaglehole are perfectly average in every other way apart from the circumstances of their birth,” he leans towards his bookshelf and pulls down a framed photograph.

He hands Meredith the frame. In it, a young, fair haired man wearing a poorly fitting suit stands between an older man and woman. The young man is slightly stooped, a reluctant smile on his face. The man by his side, with his hands in his pockets, is leaning in towards the young man, as if he has been told to bunch up. The woman has her arm wrapped around the young man, tightly clutching his shoulder.

“Margot and Graham Lovell and their son Shaun,” Mr Glover says. “Shaun was born with Beaglehole. Graduated from high school 4 years after he was born and is off travelling the world now, I believe. Perfectly normal family,” he says, “who made the best of extraordinary circumstances.”

He hands her the sheet of paper he has scribbled on. “I want you to contact them, Graham and Margot.”

She takes it and stares at him, her mind a huge blank.

“They’ve spoken with some other families I have seen who are also having a child with Beaglehole. Just to talk. Discuss the finer details. How to deal with some of the more… personal complexities.”

“But I still can’t…,” Meredith says.

“Yes”, Mr Glover says. “I imagine it is very difficult. Why don’t you take the afternoon off work – ask Marjorie to organise a certificate. Just let it all sink in and check with Marjorie about my schedule over the next week. I will need to see you fairly soon, mind you. In the case of Beaglehole we need to make sure the child has enough time to grow, without placing too much pressure on mother.”

“But how is it…”

Mr Glover smiles. “I’ll see you out,” he says, standing and walking towards the door. “And please, do take care.”

chapter one

London, England

13th December, 1949

I have been asked if I would explain how it all came about. While I am under no obligation to do so, I recount the details that follow in the hope that it will put a stop to the unfounded accusations and blatant lies that I have recently been the subject of.

I am an old man and my memory is not what it used to be. However, over the years I have kept journals to record my thoughts and observations. When I was a practising physician I kept especially detailed notes on all my cases, and this particular one was no exception.

I had hoped that my journals would be used – either by myself or others – to untangle just a small part of the mystery of the human condition. Yet it seems that people these days are more interested in gossip than they are in science.

It is my duty to set the record straight.

*

It began in the winter of December 1898.

At that stage in my career, it was not unusual for waifs to land on my doorstep at all hours of the evening. They had heard of my reputation and would find their way to my residence, bang on the door and then, typically, collapse in an unhappy heap, waiting for me to rescue them like some kind of knight in shining armour.

Alas, I was only a doctor, not a miracle worker, and sometimes they died in childbirth, or the baby died, or both mother and baby died. It was an unfortunate state of affairs, but I sleep well at night knowing that I did the best that I possibly could, given the circumstances.

My housekeeper, Miss English, was none too impressed with the reputation that I had gained for helping women in unfortunate circumstances.

“We’re not running a poorhouse, Dr Beaglehole,” she would say the morning after these incidents. “You give those girls too much compassion. They got themselves in that situation. They should get themselves out of it.”

“Would you prefer that I leave them on the doorstep to die, Miss English?” I would say.

And she would sniff three times, the way she did when she was especially affronted, and then, typically, neglect to bring me my morning pot of tea.

So, I was not startled when I heard the banging on the door that blustery, December eve. I had fallen asleep at my desk. I recounted in my journal the dream I was having: there was a thick layer of snow on a forest floor, and I was following my father’s footsteps into the forest. There was a prism of sunlight breaking through the clouds – the kind that, as a child, made me think that God was close by.

The knocking entered my consciousness gently. I woke up, rubbed by face and stumbled to the door. Miss English was standing at the top of the staircase with her lantern – as she did every time one of these unfortunates came to the door in the middle of the night. I can still see her there, her long, white night dress falling to the floor giving her the appearance of a footless ghost.

“Thank you, Miss English,” I said. “If I need you, I will call for you.”

“Right you are then Dr Beaglehole,” she said, lifting the hem of her night dress off the carpet and disappearing back down the hall.

When I opened the door, there was a young man holding the arm of a heavily pregnant woman. The woman was barely conscious, her head falling forward on occasion and then jerking back up again. She wore a nightdress underneath a man’s woollen coat and men’s shoes without stockings, the laces undone.

“I’m sorry to disturb you Sir,” the young man said. “But we’ve travelled all day to get to you and my sister here, she is not doing well, as you can see Sir. We heard that you might be able to…”

“Come, come,” I said, opening the door and helping the woman across the threshold. “First door on the right,” I said to the young man and his sister.

As soon as I examined the woman, who I learnt from her brother George, was called Mary Gearie, I could see that I would be unable to deliver the baby.

There was something not quite right about the pregnancy; although the cervix was fully dilated, I could not feel the baby’s head and there were strange protrusions on the outside of the woman’s belly that moved from one side to another like small, tight waves at the seashore.

I had the feeling that I was about to witness something quite remarkable or, perhaps, quite monstrous.

It was lucky that at that exact time, another doctor was staying in the guest room. Dr A. L. Peregrine was the friend of a friend of mine from medical school. A Northern man of few words, he was in London to attend a conference about his area of expertise – the Caesarean section.

I called for Miss English, as Mary Gearie called out for her own mother, lost in some kind of delirium of hellish pain.

“Get Dr Peregrine,” I said to Miss English from the bottom of the stairwell. “Immediately.”

*

It was more than 5 or 6 hours later that Dr Peregrine finally emerged from my examining room, wiping his hands on a blood soaked cloth. As I could not hear the sound of a crying baby, I assumed the worst.

“Bad news,” I said.

“None so bad, none so good,” he replied, wiping his brow with the bloody cloth.

“The baby didn’t make it,” I said.

“On the contrary,” he said, “both mother and child have survived.”

“Oh, brilliant old man,” I said feeling a rush of admiration for Dr Peregrine’s quiet, modest manner. “Can I see them?” I said anxiously, having never lost the joy of holding a new born baby in my arms, cooing and babbling in a way that Miss English believed was unbecoming for a man of my stature.

Dr Peregrine nodded and waved me into the room, with him following close behind.

Mary Gearie lay on the examination table – fast asleep after her exhausting ordeal. George was asleep in the chair next to her, his hand still holding his sister’s. In a chair on the other side of Mary Gearie was a young woman wearing a man’s nightdress, and covered in a blanket, also fast asleep.

“Where’s the little one?” I said to Dr Peregrine, looking around the room. “And who is that woman?”

“That is the little one,” he said, pointing to the young woman in the chair.

“What?” I said, laughing softly, so as not to wake the sleeping patients.

“That is the little one,” he said again, his face as straight as the cap on his head. He sat down on the chair behind my desk and blew his nose into a handkerchief. “It’s not unheard of,” he said. “Happens sometimes.”

“What?” I said again, still confused.

“Only ever seen one other case of it,” Dr Peregrine said. “In Scotland. Mother and father said they didn’t want him. Said that he was cursed – that he’d kill off all the crops and poison all the rivers.” He poured me a whiskey, and then poured another glass for himself. “So he ended up as a beggar on the street. Sad case.”

“One case of what? What are you talking about Dr Peregrine?”

“Doesn’t have a name,” he said, handing me the glass of whiskey, “as far as I know. Folks prefer not to talk about it.”

“Talk about what?” I said.

“That,” he said, pointing to the mysterious young woman in the chair. “They prefer not to talk about that.”

“What, old man? You really are making no sense.”

“The birth of an adult,” he said calmly, reaching across to hold my arm. “Mary Gearie gave birth to an adult,” he said.

I stared at him for a moment and, in my journal, I have noted that at the time I wondered if was still dreaming.

“Are you saying that this woman,” I pointed across to Mary Gearie, still peacefully asleep, unaware of the remarkable situation she was now in, “gave birth to a fully grown adult?”

“Yes Dr Beaglehole. That is exactly what I am saying.”

“She did not give birth to a baby.”

“That is correct Dr Beaglehole,” he said. “There is no baby.”

“But that’s impossible, old man. Completely impossible. You can’t seriously expect me to believe…”

“If you’ll excuse me Dr Beaglehole. I would be happy to talk more with you, however I must say I am feeling quite tired and do need to get to some sleep,” he looked at his watch. “I am due to give my public address at the conference in less than 3 hours.”

“But how does it…”

 “Good night Dr Beaglehole”, he said. “Or should I say good morning.” And with that, he walked out of the room.

I distinctly remember looking at those three strangers asleep in my examining room, dumbfounded and shaking my head.

I finished my journal entry for that day with a single line: Impossible. Absolutely impossible.