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A Short Distance

Chapter Text

Nurse Crane was sat, one leg crossed over the other, in a high backed armchair in the living room of Nonnatus house, eyes on her knitting. It was not a random choice of seat, for nothing Phyllis Crane did was ever random. Her hands were busy in her lap, long plastic needles passing over one another in accordance with a creased knitting pattern balanced on her knee. The years had made her short sighted, and a pair of spectacles were balanced on the tip of her nose so that she might peer down at the handwritten notes added to the plan; “a standard pattern is of little use to a child with thalidomide-altered limbs” she had explained to young nurse Busby. Her distance vision however was as sharp as ever, and from this carefully selected corner seat, Phyllis could survey all over the rim of her lenses, which was just the way she liked it.

On a low pouffe alongside her was Sister Monica Joan, sat as close to the wireless as the low wooden table it was resting on would allow her. The nine o’clock evening news could just be heard, she had the volume turned so low. Several weeks of observation and the look on Sister Monica’s wrinkled face had led Phyllis to believe that she listened more for the dulcet tones of the newsreader than she did for the education of the house about the world’s events.

Phyllis started a new row of pastel yellow and shifted slightly in her chair to allow her peripheral vision to take in her other companions. It was a Sunday evening, and the rest of the nuns had retired to their rooms for private reflections, whilst Monica Joan paid worship to the wireless. It was therefore a room of rather tired midwives, plus Miss Busby, who by now, Phyllis mused, did not feel like an addition but a firm member of this slightly unusual household. The nurse in question was sitting at the table, her profile warmed by the glow of the living room fire, the doors thrown open so that the dining room and sitting room might feel like the same space. Nurse Patsy Mount sat across from her, cigarette in hand, and an exhausted looking Barbara Gilbert sat between them, explaining something with a slightly glazed look upon her face. Something about the whole scene was familiar, but Phyllis couldn’t place what or why, perhaps she was simply settled in at last. A trail of smoke wafted skywards from Nurse Mount’s fingers to mingle with a second trail courtesy of Miss Franklin, who was leaning, or rather lounging in the doorway in the way only Trixie Franklin could, with an ear cocked for the telephone. With three unexpectedly early deliveries, Sister Mary Cynthia away, and Sister Winifred suspended from calls by a horrendously heavy cold, it had been a very long week for those left to pick up the slack. Dark circles were visible on the eyes of everyone bar Miss Franklin, who Nurse Crane had no doubt could powder the dark circles off a panda bear.

The fire crackled and Phyllis checked her pattern once again before the phone rang from the corridor. ‘Duty calls,’ Nurse Franklin commented wearily, ducking into the room to stub out her cigarette before trotting to answer the familiar summons. ‘That better be Mrs Hemsworth or I may well leave them to it!’ Mrs Hemsworth had been the one of six scheduled births for that week, but she had shown no signs of labour so far, whilst unexpected labours had been calling Nonnatus house all weekend, most of which had required a second midwife or Dr Turner to be called. Nurse Gilbert’s delivery this afternoon had been the worst, a seven hour labour with an infant who had then not breathed for the first four tense minutes of life. The dark circles were well-earned. Nurse Franklin’s harried heels were heard again in the corridor, and the slam of the front door a few moments later confirmed that she was heading out on call.

Phyllis’s own week had not been easy, though she preferred to recover in her own time and privacy, rather than discuss and process in the way that her younger colleagues often did, usually with Horlicks or something stronger in hand. She did admire them, the four young women with whom she shared her newest home. She admired that after everything they went through each day that they still had the strength to offer support to one another. They offered it to her too, along with a Horlicks or a something stronger, and several reminders to use their first names. Phyllis usually politely declined the support, these experiences were newer for them, more raw. After so many years in so many service roles there was very little Phyllis Crane hadn’t seen, whether it be personal or medical, joyful or painful.

She had seen that strangest affliction many times, she thought, letting her gaze drift slyly back to the table, keeping her head facing her needlework. That most joyful and painful affliction of all, she had seen in all forms, though each young couple thinks they have invented it anew. She watched Nurse Mount light another cigarette and sigh, her own gaze never leaving the face of Nurse Busby, who returned it with equally unbroken attention. Nurse Gilbert - sorry, Barbara, seemed oblivious, addressing her explanations at the space between them, in the vague direction of the living room. The couple sat, unable to close that short distance between them, but the unspoken comfort that they gave each other across it was almost palpable. When they at last broke their gaze to murmur quiet understandings to their friend, Phyllis couldn’t help but sigh in sympathy, and at the stirring of a long-forgotten feeling that quivered in her chest.

Sister Monica Joan broke the sleepy atmosphere by switching off the wireless with a sudden click. ‘I must go, for there is much to be done in the advent of a new week,’ she declared to the room in general, hands clasped together at her chest. The clock bonged half past nine as she hurried from the room, though oddly in the direction of the kitchen rather than her quarters... Barbara too pushed back her chair, ‘I think I’m going to go to bed too, I just want to sleep this whole week off.’ She placed a hand on Patsy’s shoulder as she rose and smiled wearily at her companions, ‘Thank you for listening to me witter on, both of you.’ Patsy smiled up at her, giving the woman’s hand a squeeze with her own cigarette-free hand, ‘Witter on all you like Barbara, it’s good to talk it through.’ Nurse Crane saw Miss Bubsy, sorry, Delia, raise an eyebrow in surprise. ‘Goodnight Barbara,’ the young Welsh woman added, ‘I think I’ll wait up to hear from Trixie.’

‘Goodnight Nurse Gilbert,’ Phyllis called, as her roommate left, her gaze back on her knitting. It was nearly done now, the body of it anyway. She would add two short capped sleeves to the smaller than usual arm holes she had created so far, but when she had a little more energy. For now she would just tidy these ends up and enjoy the warmth of the fire for a few more minutes while she did so, and steady these sudden nerves of hers. A quick glance over the rim of her glasses took in the two women at the table, talking very quietly across the intense space between them. Their postures were almost mirrored, heads slightly angled, one dark, one red. They each had a tense hand on the table, no more than six inches apart, or no closer than six, perhaps. What would they do if she were not here, Phyllis wondered, as her needles clicked softly together, and the fire spat a little too close to her nylons. Probably nothing, in fear that someone would return down to fetch a glass of water, or Sister Monica Joan from her cake hunt, and their lives and careers be blown apart by someone witnessing a moment of much needed tenderness between them.

Phyllis pressed her lips together as a carefully suppressed emotion stirred uncomfortably in her chest. She had known that intense love once, she thought to herself. She had known loving in fear too; when the war had threatened to take everything from you at any moment, there was no other kind. She had been in her mid-thirties when she had joined the Womens’ Land Army just before the outbreak of the second war, but age and background quickly became irrelevant as the country and the world was plunged into the strange chaos that war brings. Intense friendships and even romances had been forged under the desperate uncertainty and horror of the years that followed.

Nurse Crane set her knitting down suddenly on the side table, not stopping to put it away properly, and rose a little unsteadily to her feet as emotion rose in her chest. She looked at the two women at the table who looked back at her with concern in their faces, ‘Phyllis? Are you quite alright-‘ Nurse Busby – Delia – started but the older nurse waved away her concern. ‘I’ll leave you – good - good night girls.’ she stuttered a little as she left the room, feeling two pairs of eyes on her as she closed the door as softly as she could behind her. She felt the blood rush to her head and tears spring to her eyes as she paused at the bottom of the stairs.

Phyllis had long been certain that she too could have been drawn into a romance with a man or a woman had the right one come along. Several of both kinds had certainly offered, but the right one had always been and always would be that young man, lost in France in the last days before ceasefire of the first war. Phyllis steadied herself with a hand on the cool wood of the banister and tried to ground herself as memories, clear and technicolour, thrust themselves uncomfortably into the forefront of her mind. So many nights sat up with exhausted land girls in the forties, waiting for news after daunting but inconclusive telegrams about husbands, brothers, loves. Letters full of intense emotions sent long distances to those dears ones abroad. Memories of long ago, those last painful days of the first war, waiting for news, when the rest of the country was celebrating the declaration of peace. Waiting for any word of her young man, those short miles across the channel feeling vast and with uncertainty, that distance growing wider with each day of silence. The eventual pain when confirmation came, so stark against the joy of all those around her.

With a sharp intake of breath Phyllis Crane centered herself back in the present; she was not a mourning teenager now, nor was she a middle-aged landgirl of the 1940s, she was here in Nonnatus house in 1962, stronger, wiser, most certainly older. Love was a younger woman’s game now, and no one else should have to do that in fear. Not again. Phyllis Crane would be damned if she let it happen.

Chapter Text

Barbara Gilbert washed the last of the day’s grime from her face and sighed at her tired reflection. The bathroom tiles were freezing against her feet but she had reached the level of exhausted where she couldn’t summon the energy to go and fetch her slippers, she just accepted the cold numbing while she brushed her teeth packed her toiletries back into the cabinet. She paused and took one look at the tub of cold cream that Trixie was so insistent they keep up with, and closed the cupboard with a click instead. The cabinet had a mirror on the door and she was met with her reflection again, she almost laughed to herself at the level of unimpressed that was currently evident on her face. Or she would have laughed, if she wasn’t so terribly exhausted.

She shuffled back to the bedroom she shared with Phyllis Crane as the tall clock in the hallway downstairs rang out ten o’clock. How was it Sunday night already? The weekend had been no easier than the week even without clinic, and tomorrow it would all start again. She hadn’t seen Tom in days. She reached for the light switch.

‘Phyllis? Are you quite alright?’

Phyllis appeared to come to with a jolt, getting hastily to her feet and fiddling with the belt of her dressing gown.
‘Phyllis why are you sat in the dark?’ Barbara closed the door quietly behind her and looked at her startled friend with concern. Phyllis Crane opened her mouth a few times with uncharacteristic uncertainty before finally managing a stern:

‘Waiting for you – to be done in that bathroom!’ Phyllis swallowed and pulled herself upright into her usual soldierly stance.

‘With the light off? Phyllis is there something the matter?’ Barbara started, but with that Nurse Crane bustled past her young roommate and pulled the door firmly shut behind her. Barbara stood and stared at the door handle as if it might answer her confusion.

‘Well that’s a bit odd.’ She said to the room in general, as she sat down on her bed and tried to rub some warmth into her feet. Phyllis Crane could be stoic and more than a little buttoned up, but they had formed a comfortable friendship since they had been roomed together, and Barbara had certainly never known her to be rude. The young nurse slipped the dressing gown from her shoulders and sank gratefully into the bed covers. As soon as her eyes closed they felt too heavy to reopen, and she had to force herself to prise them apart long enough to set her alarm clock, before placing it carefully back onto her portion of the bedside cabinet. Anything that strayed across to the wrong side of the electrical tape boundary would usually be found later in the middle of your bed.

Leaving the lamp on to guide Phyllis, she sank back into well-earned rest she had been dreaming of all the bike ride home. ‘Food, tea, talk with the girls, bed.’ She had told herself, a mantra to keep her peddling after one of the longest labours of her career. It had been a near miracle that she had managed to cycle back to the right house, but she had perked up at the sight of the living room full of her companions, and the plate of bacon and cabbage kept warm for her in the kitchen. Now though, the exhaustion had returned, and she was nearly asleep by the time she heard the door click. She waited for the familiar squeak of the mattress as Phyllis got into bed, but it never came. She prised her heavy lids open once more to see her older roommate stooped in front of the mirror arranging thin curlers in neat rows upon her head. She caught Barbara’s eye in the reflection but said nothing, her lips pursed in concentration.

‘You’re very good, to remember to fix your hair after a long day,’ Barbara tried, ‘I’m just going to sleep on mine and shove whatever I wake up to under my cap.’

Phyllis nodded curtly and the tenseness of her expression relented a little, but she made no response.

‘Phyllis, did something happen today?’

Nurse Crane tucked the last of her curls into place and pulled a thin hairnet over her work before turning to look at her concerned young friend, who was propped up on one arm, looking at her intently. Barbara had dark circles beneath each eye, but the eyes themselves were alert with genuine concern. She had worried her, Phyllis realised, and softened slightly.

‘Not today, dear. A long time ago now.’ She crossed to the bed and stepped out of her slippers, carefully lining them up with her own portion of the bedside table. ‘Nowt to worry about.’

‘A difficult memory?’ Asked Barbara softly. She was sharp this one, and persistent, Phyllis thought to herself as she sat down and swung her legs into bed.

‘The older you are, the more of them you have.’ Phyllis responded, vaguely. She reached for the cord on the bedside lamp, but Barbara made her pause a moment with a raised hand.

‘I won’t pressure you, Phyllis, but I am here if you should want to talk. We all are.’

Phyllis Crane nodded a curler-encrusted head as she readied her hand on the light cord. ‘Thank you, nurse Gilbert.’

She plunged them both into the relative darkness of Poplar, for a small amount of streetlight always permeated the upstairs bedrooms. Barbara listened to the few moments of shuffling bedclothes as her companion settled down to rest. She waited, and counted ten seconds to the ticking of the clock before venturing one last offer of support.

‘Mañana?’ She whispered into the dark.

Another ten ticked slowly past.