Skip to main content

Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 40 page 09


Late one night Gladys, desperate for information, sneaked into Dr. Berkeley’s office. According to the file, his comparison of mother-and-child blood samples did find more cases in which a person’s presumed mother was not the actual parent. However, the samples provided insufficient data to pinpoint the biological mother.

The next night, someone broke into the nurse’s locker. She was certain that her boss was the culprit. The only item missing from the damaged locker was the Who’s Really Who notebook.

When Dr. Berkeley finally exposed the baby-swapping scandal, the town was horrified. Portions of the notebook, which he had turned over to the police, were leaked to the local newspaper. “You’re not my child!” fathers would yell at rebellious offspring in a moment of anger, not knowing for sure. Child custody disputes were brewing, pitting the birth parents against the couple rearing the youngster. The will of Edward Braddock III leaving a fortune “to my son” was challenged by Norris Rigley, who claimed to be the true son and thus the heir. Property was bitterly contested. Folks prone to mention their ancestors’ arrival on the Mayflower or to say “blood will tell” were disturbed to learn that the low-life Grupps were not necessarily Grupps and that genes might not determine character after all. Gossips noted how similar Jerry and Bonnie Edsell were, and though it’s true that spouses can begin to look alike, and incest is an ugly word, still... There were many baseless allegations and many residents willing to believe them.

The citizens claimed to know why the nurse had exchanged newborns. In the opinion of one faction, she was a nobody from a poor neighborhood who had wreaked vengeance on the community that had ignored her. A second group asserted that baby-hunger and jealousy had driven the frustrated spinster to deprive mothers of their rightful children. According to a third faction, the nonentity, after turning Communist like her uncle, had traded the rich and the poor to put the proletariat in charge. Regardless of her motives, the result was chaos — and a collective identity crisis.

In response, the town’s Board of Selectmen scheduled the meeting in the square. The goal was to quell wild rumors and help the community to heal.

The town leaders had asked Gladys to be a speaker, giving her side of the story. To their amazement, she accepted the invitation. When she arrived at the square, she was assigned a seat beside the stage. Her chair faced the audience, which included most of the town. The policeman responsible for protecting her and preventing her escape stood nearby.

To the crowd, the woman looked nondescript in her white, outdated nurse’s cap; her white, faded uniform; and white, fake-leather shoes. She sat, nervously smoothing her gray hair and clutching a shopping bag, as she waited for the meeting to commence.

“The authorities should charge you with criminal neglect of duty,” Bert Jamison shouted.

“Why, Mr. Elzinger,” she replied, using his real name, “I did you a favor when I took you away from your alcoholic parents.”

Bert scowled but kept quiet.

The police chief was the first speaker to take the microphone. He discussed the pros and cons of possible charges against Gladys. The case was complicated because it involved neither a typical kidnapping nor a typical robbery. According to the chief, the woman, if found guilty of child abductions, would spend the rest of her life behind bars.

Gladys showed no emotion, even when someone screamed, “She’s wicked! Let her die in the electric chair!”

Then Dr. Berkeley, her nemesis, took the mike. He revealed the parts of Who’s Really Who that had not been leaked. (His disclosure of the names of some of the nurse’s victims caused one listener to faint.) The man's talk focused on how his dogged detective work had unveiled her heinous crimes.

At the end of his self-congratulatory speech, Gladys applauded. “You were indeed very clever, Dr. Grupp!” she called out loudly. He looked shocked. She had had the last word after all. Now people would believe, wrongly, that Dr. Berkeley was a member of the sleaziest family in the region.

The third speaker was the head of the medical center. His main point, as he droned on, was that the hospital should not be blamed for the nurse’s evil acts.

According to the schedule, the accused woman would present her defense after his talk. In truth, she had no intention of providing excuses or answers to anyone. Nobody noticed when she slipped away before being charged. The spectators were arguing or heckling the medical director, and her bodyguard was driven to distraction from hearing that his name appeared in Who’s Really Who.

She knew it was only minutes before the town discovered her gone. Someone grabbed the mike to describe her clothes, and a mob started hunting for her. Quickly she rounded a corner and threw on the brown headscarf and black raincoat concealed in her shopping bag. She no longer looked like the white-clad nurse of moments earlier.

She hurried to the hospital where she had spent decades with other people’s children. Her only plan was to see the nursery for the last time. No one watched her climb the stairs to the ward, which due to the scandal had been vacated by government order.

The woman walked through the silent rooms of her kingdom. She stroked a crib gently, tidied the medicine cupboard, and re-folded infant outfits. The simple tasks reminded her of happy days with tiny patients and the milky scent of babies.

She opened the nursery window. Like so often before, Gladys smiled coolly down on the town from up high. She heard the hypnotic spray of the fountain in the courtyard. She felt the breeze. Now she heard footsteps on the stairs. The window was old, tall, and wide — and large enough to jump through.