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Hopes and Fears

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Croeso adref – welcome home, Pats. You’re safe here.’

As Patsy lay staring up at the ceiling in their recently-acquired shared room at Nonnatus, Delia’s words from (much) earlier that morning were whirling around her head. She was trying sincerely to comply with Sister Julienne’s suggestion, delivered by Delia, that she retire to bed for (at least) the remainder of the working day to catch up on rest. Enthusiasm was easy to express at first. She was indeed physically exhausted. It would therefore have been both foolish and futile to deny the accuracy of either the diagnosis or its prescribed cure. Moreover, for the greater part of last night, gratitude about Nurse Crane’s unexpected but unquestioning acceptance of their relationship had effaced all other emotion. So much so that the older woman had succeeded in convincing them to address her by her first name in the future – outside of professional hours, of course. Patsy had been comforted, amid her initial confused consternation at being “found out”, by this clear evidence that Nurse Crane (Phyllis!) still possessed a sense of propriety almost as strict as her own. That was why she had proposed switching rooms, after all, wasn’t it? For all her understanding and sympathy, she must surely be safeguarding herself too, because it would be just as dangerous and detrimental to her career as to theirs if she were implicated in the event of any potential discovery.

Yet, for a few fleeting hours, gratitude had vanquished anxiety. So, snuggled up against her soulmate, she had been able to snatch some sleep – before waking with a start well in advance of either daylight or the dawn chorus. Not from nightmares, or not from those usually resident in her mind, at any rate. Rather from an expansion of the practicalities she supposed had inspired Phyllis’ generosity. Perhaps “reduction” was the more appropriate phrase. Beneath all the bravado brought on by their love finally being believed in as an actual, adult reality, there lingered a strong suspicion that she was still too small, in attitude and aptitude if not in age or stature, for even the slightest surmises on such subjects.

Not that she didn’t want to – not that they hadn’t before – but this was not before.

It was after before.

And before before.

God, she wasn’t making the barest bit of sense any more.

Delia had understood, though, as Delia always did. The beloved brunette was completely content to cosy up in a cwtch with her cariad; asking purely for physical proximity after they had spent so long apart. Then, when Patsy had failed fully to grant even that one request by sneaking downstairs to the garden, there had been no recrimination or reproach – only Horlicks. Well, Horlicks and the suggestion-that-was-really-a-demand that she stay in bed. Perhaps her young Nurse Busby knew that would be punishment enough! So much for selfless sensitivity... Patsy grinned at the thought of her tiny girlfriend’s temerity.

Still, the Horlicks had helped. Its milky, malted texture was a much-needed tonic as she tried to mute the murmurs of her mind for even a moment more – a far trickier task once Delia had left for the London. She had dutifully dozed for the majority of the morning, albeit perched atop the covers and fully-dressed. All of her girlfriend’s persuasive powers were not enough to get her back into pyjamas. She told Delia (and herself) that she was too tired to tussle with clothes twice before twelve o’clock, but really pyjamas were too close to comfort for comfort. Their silk stripes signified safety and she didn’t feel safe. Their homeliness made her homesick for a haven she could not have – for all she knew its pathways perfectly. It had been here, once, but now she was back that sense seemed to have slipped silently yet suddenly away.

Hence the jarring of Delia’s earlier words as she lay alone and lingered on them, having been jolted wide awake by the loudness of her own breath. The phrase they had both so longed to use had sounded sweet as they sat on the bench, but now she felt sick. It did not fit. She did not fit, despite everyone’s protestations about the Patsy-shaped hole of which they had been, both personally and professionally, so keenly aware. Everything was the same only different, different and yet startlingly the same. For her surroundings were unchanged, new room excepted. Unnervingly so. But then that’s what this was called, wasn’t it? She was unnerved. The carefully-ravelled threads of her neurology had come undone, and she did not possess either the physical or psychological strength to shove them back onto their spool.

 She was

            not

                        herself.

She was beside herself. Literally. Or so it seemed. Ecstatic in emotional exhaustion, she was standing outside her own consciousness and bearing weary witness to the woman and the girl she-was-had-been-had-become. Just at the moment when she wanted most to be within herself, and therefore with the woman who was her better self, she was without them both. Worse still, she had squandered their shared solitude in sleep instead of the satisfaction they had sought for the last nearly nine months.

Delia deserved better.

Delia, who whispered Welsh against her woes, and wanted nothing in return.

Delia deserved better.

Delia.

Delia.

Delia.

‘Pats?’ The door opened with a slight creak and Patsy leapt what felt like at least a foot off her bed. ‘Sori cariad – did I wake you?’

Oh good; she hadn’t spoken Delia’s name aloud. ‘No – I couldn’t sleep.’ Then, avoiding her girlfriend’s gaze and trying to keep the relief out of her voice, ‘You’re back early. And not in your uniform?’

‘I’ve been seconded on to district nursing at Nonnatus whilst you reacclimatise. It makes sense, since I’ll be working here as soon as my exams are done, anyway.’

Patsy nodded. ‘Was that Sister Julienne’s doing, too?’

‘No, actually, although she did agree. Male Surgical remember you well, and want you to have the best possible hope of a recovery, just like they did for me when I had my accident. I believe the words were “Nurse Mount deserves to have the support of her firm friendship with Nurse Busby at this difficult time”. They spoke to the Maternity lot, who in turn spoke to Sister Julienne.’

The tone of Patsy’s reply was not even slightly tinged with humour. ‘I am grateful to be held in such high esteem by my former colleagues, but bereavement does not equate to brain injury.’

Delia sighed. ‘Not visibly, perhaps, Pats – but you couldn’t sleep.’

‘Not for the reason you might think...’ The older woman trailed off, suddenly shy, and young.

‘Father?’

‘No.’

‘Gracie?’

‘No.’

‘Mother?’

‘Not grief at all.’

‘What, then?’

‘Guilt.’ Patsy paused, allowing herself the briefest upward glance to gauge Delia’s response, before rushing on. ‘I don’t really have the words to talk about it now, though; come for a walk by the docks with me?’

If her girlfriend was confused, she hid it well. ‘Of course, cariad.’

Diolch, Deels, darling,’ Patsy mouthed, grinning as she got to her feet and gathered up the crumpled bedclothes. ‘I’ll just put my shoes and coat on.’

~

Some twenty minutes later, as they strolled side-by-side within shouting distance of the river, Delia marvelled at the change in her girlfriend’s demeanour. Buoyed by the busy bustle, Patsy’s cheeks were beginning to pink, and not merely from the chill breeze blowing around them. Although that was certainly part of it, because, at the sight of her breath when it met the cooler air in front of her lips, she gave a girlish giggle. ‘Oh, how I’ve missed this weather. And scarves,’ she added, pulling her own higher to nestle more comfortably on her neck.

Delia flashed her a gentle grin. ‘I’m sorry I made you stay inside,’ she said, holding back the “sweetheart” that teetered on the end of her tongue. ‘I should have thought about the toll that would take on you.’

Patsy gave a slight smile at the way Delia’s words mirrored her own from a similar conversation on a walk not long after their reunion following the younger woman’s accident. ‘I needed to sleep, Deels, it’s not your fault I couldn’t.’

‘Pats?’

‘Mmm?’

‘What kept you awake?’ Delia’s face was all kind, caring, curiosity and nearly enough to provoke speech. But no. Not yet. Not here.

Patsy shook her head, wincing as she watched Delia deflate. ‘I’m sorry, but – oh, look, there’s Penny, I mean, Mrs Reed, pushing her adapted pram. Her daughter’ll be nearly a year old, now...’ She trailed off as the full implication of that sentence hit her. Curse her careless mouth.

There was no time then to rectify the damage, though, as they had been spotted and Mrs Reed was already raising a hand in greeting. ‘Hello Nurse Busby, Nurse Mount.’

‘Delia, please –’

‘And Patsy, we aren’t in uniform, Mrs Reed.’

The three women laughed at the topsy-turvy nature of Patsy’s statement. ‘Then you must call me Penny. And this is Bella, though of course you’ve already met her, too. We like to walk along here and see how many friendly faces we can find. Which reminds me – I never got to thank you both properly for your kindness so, if it’s not too far in breach of protocol, I’d like to extend an invitation to tea. Only when you’ve settled back in, mind you; I was so sorry to read the announcement about your father.’

Patsy felt her throat catch with a combination of still-raw grief and sincere gratitude for the matter-of-fact expression of compassion which reminded her so much of one of her own. ‘Thank you,’ she said softly.

‘Yes, thank you, that is extremely generous,’ Delia concurred. It took most of her willpower not to draw Mrs Reed (Penny!) in for a hug. This was what Patsy needed. People who showed that they cared, without pressuring her – and Penny understood more than most about reciprocity and kindness.

‘You’re very welcome. Take your time. And now I’ll leave you to your walk, as I should be heading back to start dinner.’ The three women shared a final smile as they said goodbye.

Patsy stared after the young mother for a moment, before moving off at such a fast pace that Delia had to run to catch up to her. When she reached her girlfriend’s side again it was to find her eyes shining with tears that she was trying desperately to blink away. ‘People are so lovely,’ she said, simply. Delia’s own eyes threatened to brim over at the thought that this was still a surprise to her “perfect Pats”. Who could not be lovely once they had witnessed the wonder of this woman?

It wouldn’t do to push her, though, so Delia merely murmured an agreement as they fell into step once more. ‘Indeed they are,’ she stated aloud, before adding a caveat in her head. It’s easy to be lovely to someone like you.

They were almost directly beside the Thames now. Patsy stilled and took a deep breath. ‘Not quite fresh air, but close enough, eh? You may have noticed I didn’t have a cigarette in my hand when you came to find me this morning –’

‘I did, but didn’t like to comment. I’m proud of you, Pats – if you’ve stopped, that is.’ Delia winked, knowing she could pass the gesture off as a reaction to the (admittedly weak) glare of late-afternoon winter sunshine against the remainder of last night’s snowfall.

‘I have. For now, at least. It’s not really acceptable behaviour for a nine- or even a twelve-year-old girl.’

‘Pats?’

Patsy shook her head, smiling sadly, and gazed out over the water before them. ‘I love walking by the river. Any river, I suppose, but this one is especially comforting. It’s always changing, but it’s there. Constantly. No matter what happens to those who live and work beside it, it just keeps rolling along.’

‘Is that a Showboat reference?’ Delia was delighted at the unexpected change in tone.

‘I suppose so. Sorry it’s not Shakespeare.’

‘Paul Robeson also did a fair bit of the Bard. However, you could always brush up on him...’

‘And the women I will wow?’ Patsy whispered the rhetorical question out of cautious habit. Then, louder, she voiced a further query. ‘Any ideas where I should start?’

‘One speech in particular does spring to mind, yes. You’ve probably read it, but – Viola’s speech (as Cesario) in Act II, Scene iv of Twelfth Night. It always makes me think of you.’

‘You’re right, I probably have read it, but my mind is blank. Perhaps I should get Sister Monica Joan to recite it for me.’ Patsy smiled ruefully at the apparent contradiction of that phrase.

‘I know it word for word.’ Delia was whispering, too. ‘I held it in my heart whilst you were gone. I think you might need it more than I do now you’re back.’

‘May I hear it, please?’

‘Here?’

‘Yes, I’d like to hear it here, and then head home.’ Patsy paused in hope that Delia would understand the significance of her choice of language. ‘We should talk, but I have an inkling that the words you’re about to give me will be helpful for the conversation.’

‘I hope so.’ Delia smiled and took a breath.

‘She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?’

As she reached the question which ended the final line, Delia’s voice wobbled. Patsy dropped a hand to hers and twined their fingers together within the shield of their coat sleeves, but said nothing. Delia panicked at the silence and forced out a further phrase. ‘It’s not the entire speech, just the important part – well, important to me, anyway – I’m sorry if it’s not what you expected.’

‘Deels – look at me –’ Patsy’s voice was husky, and when Delia met her eyes, she could see why. The long-threatened tears were cascading down her girlfriend’s cheeks, and, until now, had rendered speech not just impossible but superfluous. ‘We need to go home. But I have so much I want to say when we get there,’ she managed to murmur. Then, steeling herself a little, she laughed hollowly and wiped her face and eyes with her scarf. ‘That’s going in the wash right away. Thank goodness I didn’t apply any makeup before we left.’

‘We could use the side door, or go in the back, if you want?’

‘No, no. Far better to breeze in the front with an air of nonchalance as though nothing whatsoever has occurred.’ Patsy had switched on her “Nurse Mount” persona and Delia marvelled once again at how quickly she could change.

~

As predicted, they got home, through the front entrance, and upstairs to their room without incident. Patsy was the picture of professionalism. Only once the door had been very definitely shut and locked did she shed her mask – and more tears. Delia held her close as she cried. She quietly cursed the apparently arbitrary forces which had flung her gorgeous girl about so rudely, whilst (somewhat selfishly, she supposed) enjoying the warmth of the embrace the emotion afforded.

Eventually Patsy’s sobs subsided and she summoned the strength to speak. ‘Sorry, Deels,’ she started shakily, before raising a hand and a brow in a physical plea to finish. ‘It’s just, such beautiful poetry bears so little resemblance to how I consider myself. Does it really make you think of me?’

‘Of course, cariad,’ Delia said, hiding her heartache at Patsy’s doubt against the angular edges of the taller woman’s shoulder. ‘Not only does it practically have your name in it, it encapsulates exactly your strategy for engaging with the world. You smile at grief – in the sense of both bereavement and the hell that you are put through for loving me. Yes, I’m put through it too, but I don’t greet it anywhere near as graciously. I would have broken long before now if not for your support and succour. You are stronger than I could ever be.’

Patsy regarded her girlfriend incredulously. ‘I don’t feel strong. I never have, but I certainly don’t now. I feel small. Young, and yet so very old, too. Nine, twelve, and a hundred all at once. That’s why I stopped smoking; and that’s why I couldn’t sleep. I was wracked with guilt for allowing the girl who came back with me from Hong Kong to get in the way of expressing my extremely adult admiration for you. You (we!) have waited almost as long as the length of a pregnancy for a privilege most couples take for granted. More than that, Phyllis has provided us with the perfect ploy – but it still wasn’t enough to make me take the initiative I owe you. Even after all your patience with me,’ she added wryly, ‘I think someone got our names mixed up, don’t you?’

Patsy giggled briefly, but stopped as Delia’s head raised. Her girlfriend’s eyes sparkled but her face bore a serious expression. ‘I have something to tell you, Pats. I’ve told you before, but I think you need to hear it again. I apologise in advance if this comes across as condescending, cariad – it’s not meant that way –’

Patsy cut her off for a moment with a headshake. ‘I believe we’ve established that I feel like a child right now, love, so condescend as much as you deem necessary.’

Delia smiled now and stepped back slightly, trying not to wince when Patsy gave a shocked sigh at the sudden removal of contact. ‘I’m coming back,’ she reassured the redhead hurriedly. ‘I merely want to emphasise the point I’m about to make.’

Patsy nodded. ‘I understand. But be quick,’ she quipped.

‘You do not owe me anything. Your body belongs to you, and only to you. However much I might wish to show you, in a myriad of manners, how bloody brilliant and beautiful you are, I may only do so at your behest.’ She paused, her heart pounding at her frankness and the sudden frisson of the space between them. ‘Your boundaries are not mine to breach. Consequently, and contrary to your apparent understanding, consensual, clothed cwtches are worth a million times more than any further explorations which might cause you anxiety. Now, may I please take your hand, Pats?’

Patsy threaded their fingers together herself as she fumbled for the right phrasing. ‘I want –’ A breath. ‘So much –’ Another. ‘But I can’t.’

‘I know. You need to feel open enough to be ready again, and it mustn’t be rushed.’

‘You don’t mind waiting? Not for everything – I don’t think either of us has the restraint for that – but...’

‘Not at all. As you’ve said, we already have, and as I’ve said, just having you close again is comfort enough. I know I’ve railed against the injustice of it all far too often. So, in recompense, I want to guide you as you navigate this “green and yellow melancholy”. Not to hurry you, but to help you hold it. You don’t have to handle it alone, because I am here – but I need to know you’ll let me in. Not when, just that you will...’ Delia trailed off, words having suddenly deserted her, too.

Patsy was also silent for a moment as she pondered the best way to proceed. She hadn’t planned to mention this so soon after returning, but in the spirit of communication, she supposed she had a duty to do so. ‘I might have a sort of solution.’

‘Mmm?’

‘My father – my family – had a flat in Chelsea. It’s mine now. I don’t want it; there are too many memories, the ghosts of other people I was barely (and, in some cases, never) given the chance to know. If we sold it, though,’ she paused, hoping Delia would pick up on the plural, ‘or even rented it out, we would have funds to find a place of our own nearer to Nonnatus.’ Delia did not respond at all and Patsy panicked. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, I’m aware this is a lot to take in. I also know that any plans are likely to trigger painful memories for you, too. I didn’t really want to bring it up, at least not right now, but since we’ve been talking so candidly...’

‘Breathe, cariad.’ Delia’s interjection, when it arrived at last, was so calm it caught them both off-guard and they giggled. ‘I can think of nothing I’d like better. Not immediately, because I think you need to settle back in here, but it’ll be a fairly lengthy process anyway. But it’ll be easier for you to reframe your thoughts if you can do so in a place that is free from former associations whilst still being vaguely familiar. This is a very sensible suggestion – I’m proud of you, Pats – and tentatively excited, too.’

‘Oh yes?’ Patsy’s question was nonchalant in its simplicity, but her relief was palpable.

‘Yes. A place just for us. Somewhere only we know. To try again.’

Chapter Text

Watashi no namae wa Patience desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu...

Delia woke with a start at the unfamiliar noise, wondering where on earth she could possibly be if she was hearing what sounded like...Japanese?

Ah.

Oh dear.

This was new. Well, not exactly new. Nothing was ever completely new – and, if she had learnt anything from the combined lessons of nursing patients and nursing Patience, it was to expect the unexpected. So this should, more-accurately, be classified as “old-new” or “new-old”; because she had definitely heard her sweetheart speaking Japanese before. And she wasn’t entirely surprised to hear her again now, given, well, everything.

No, the problem was not the speaking of the language per se. It was that it was being spoken when her beloved was fully awake, which she must be, since the sheets next to Delia’s solitary skin were cold.

Usually it surfaced as a response to nightmares, in which case (even when they were not sharing the small space of either one of their beds), the younger woman would bolt across and offer the bolster of her body before a single sentence could reach its finish. If they were actually sentences at all; mostly being mere mutterings too incoherent to allow for proper categorisation.

But that was before.

And this was not before.

It was after before.

And before before.

Goodness, she was making no more sense than Patsy seemed to, sometimes, and they had only been back in the same space for a little less than a week. But it was a week in which they had barely had time to talk about work, let alone anything else. Consequently, after the torrent of tears during their first proper conversation, they had mostly communicated non-verbally, which left her with little opportunity to gauge the genuine state of her sweetheart’s mind. The façades of that formidable forehead had somehow strengthened beyond the bounds even she had once been able to cross. So actually, it (she, they) did all make sense, because they were beginning again.

Yet that, whilst expected, was unexpected.

However much she had told herself she knew how these things worked in theory, she was now aware that she had found consolation by thinking that, in practice, they could and would simply slip back into the comfortable companionship to which they had both become so accustomed. Of course there would be changes (how could there not be, following more than nine months apart?). She just hadn’t realised quite how drastic the difference would feel when it finally forced its way through the elation which had initially overridden everything else. She had supposed (naively) that they would at least still be sufficiently synchronised that the lack of words wouldn’t matter. That was why she had been so confident to let her cariad clear their path to clarity herself.

But they weren’t synchronised.

Not now.

It seemed that any semblance of symbiosis had (ironically) sunk the moment Patsy’s ship had reached the shore. For all her boldness that first night had been built not on bravery but its opposite – and desperation, as Delia knew only too well, was a shaky foundation indeed. Just as that little wave under the bridge had in reality been a sign of her ginger girlfriend’s gracious attempt to deny the fact that she was drowning, Delia could now call her own overtures of openness what they actually were; a pirate’s bribe from a fairy tale, fashioned out of fool’s gold, with no function other than to act as a foil for her failure. Simply put, she had been prepared for her girlfriend’s grief, and for the pain from her past it had brought with it, but she had been utterly unprepared for the gulf these feelings would forge between them.

For her dearly beloved to be distanced once again.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. She had been prepared for Patsy’s response – what she hadn’t been prepared for was her own. Ever the diligent student, alongside revising for her midwifery exams, she had buried herself in research on trauma and its impact in an effort to be properly equipped when the time came; even digging out her notes from placements in “psych”.

All that those textbooks had told her, though, was what she already knew: there was no textbook.

Which was fine.

They would find their way through. Together. That’s what she had promised herself, and Patsy. But, now that she was working in practice instead of in theory, she knew she couldn’t keep that promise. Because she didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. And she was frustrated with herself for believing that she could.

If she had understood, she would have woken up when Patsy did this morning. And all the other mornings this last week. More than that, now she was awake, she would have gone to look after her love immediately instead of languishing in her own inadequacy and musing on the meanings of a repeated phrase of Japanese...

...a phrase which was still being repeated.

During the time in which Delia had carelessly allowed herself to daydream, Patsy had continued talking. Not only whilst awake and apparently alert, but sitting, fully dressed, on the side of her bed, just a few short steps away – and seemingly oblivious that she was being heard.

The young, small, tired Welshwoman sighed, shucking off her coverings and getting to her feet. Ah well, at least she had learnt enough of the language from its night-time appearances to know what was being said, despite the deception of the very early daylight streaming through a crack in their curtains.

Watashi no namae wa Patience desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu. Watashi wa Patsy desu.

My name is Patience. I am Patsy. I am Patsy. I am Patsy.

Taking care to tread softly so as not to startle her sweetheart, Delia walked across the space between their beds, and knelt at the older woman’s feet, before reaching up to clasp her hands. The pose was so practised it might have been choreographed, but she hadn’t had to use it for a while, and hadn’t thought she would do so this soon. Still, “new-old” symptoms required “new-old” treatment, so she spoke up. ‘Yes. Your name is Patience. You are Patsy. You are Patsy, and I am Delia –’ she broke off as Patsy’s eyes began to refocus and take in the face in front of her.

‘Delia?’ she clarified, confused but smiling.

‘Yes, darling. Delia. Deels.’

‘Dee– Deels? Don’t touch me.’ Patsy’s eyes and mouth grew round with horror, and then shame, when the younger woman recoiled as if she had been struck. ‘No – sorry – words not working – I meant you shouldn’t touch me. I’m dirty.’

Delia immediately clasped her hands again, relieved this was anxiety, rather than anger or disgust. ‘You’re not, love, you had a bath last night. I helped you wash your hair,’ she stated simply, omitting the addendum that she had only been allowed to do so on condition that she stood in front of Patsy so her scars were out of sight – and that they did not talk. At all.

‘Not that kind of dirty. The inside kind of dirty.’

‘You mean you’re sick?’ Delia dipped her head and fought not to show her worry at the childlike simplicity of the sentences, or their overly-clipped pronunciation, focussing instead on rubbing soothing circles on each of Patsy’s palms.

‘What? No. Is everything all right, Deels?’

Making sure to continue her gentle massage, the younger woman permitted herself to meet her girlfriend’s gaze briefly, hoping that the change in tone she thought she had heard did in fact signify the return of Patsy’s adult self. Satisfied by the concerned but lopsided grin which greeted her, she smiled, too. ‘Yes, love. Well, it is now. You – you left for a bit.’

Patsy nodded. ‘Sorry, sweetheart. Did I wake you? Was I talking?’

Delia decided, hopefully deftly, not to answer the first question. ‘You were talking, yes; I think you were in Singapore. You were speaking Japanese.’

‘In that case, I was definitely in Singapore.’

‘You were telling someone your name – but it was almost as though you were telling yourself. Like you’d forgotten it.’

‘No. I was telling someone. I hadn’t forgotten it. It – that phrase – was something I had to say when – oh, that doesn’t matter...did I say anything else?’

Patsy looked at the floor, fidgeting, so Delia decided to let her darling’s deflection lie. For now, at least. ‘Not in Japanese, no, but after you “came back” here. You weren’t fully here, I don’t think, because you told me not to touch you.’

Patsy’s cheeks flushed almost as red as her hair. ‘Oh – I’m sorry – I didn’t mean – I don’t remember.’

‘I know, love. It’s all right. You actually clarified that you meant I shouldn’t touch you. Because you were dirty. Inside dirty, not outside.’ The last sentence was said hurriedly, before Patsy could interrupt, because Delia instinctively knew they were now straying into territory her gorgeous girl would not willingly want to visit. Maybe she did understand more than she had given herself credit for, she thought, and added a further (admittedly slightly backward) incentive to communicate. ‘You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, we probably have before, anyway –’

The shake of red hair cut her off. ‘We haven’t, and I need to, otherwise it’ll just get stuck. I haven’t talked to anyone about this – I wasn’t even aware – I mean, I knew it had happened, obviously, but not how much it had affected me. Not until I was in Hong Kong. But not now – I can’t afford to factor in the time for emotion this morning. Contrary to what my contrary consciousness might think,’ Patsy finished, with a wry grin and a snort.

A brunette nod in answer to the redheaded shake. ‘I understand. We could talk later? What time are you off shift today?’

‘I’m not.’ Patsy dipped her head to hide the blush she felt beginning.

Delia’s voice was kind, but confused, and very concerned. ‘Do you have a day off? I thought I saw your name on the rota.’

‘I have the morning off. Well – I have a meeting with the executor of my Father’s – my – our – British estate, about selling the flat, in a couple of hours, and then I’m coming back here to sleep some more, because I’m on the night shift.’

‘No.’

Patsy’s head snapped up, embarrassment having transformed into annoyance. ‘I’m sorry?’

Delia’s voice was now far less kind and far more concerned. ‘I said “no”.’

‘“No” what? That I’m on the night shift?’ Patsy laughed mirthlessly as she snatched her hands away from her girlfriend’s and got up to standing. ‘I realise you’ve only officially been working here a week, Deels, but you’ve been living here far longer. Surely you know by now, if you have issues with scheduling, you take them to Phyllis.’

Delia also stood, extremely uneasy at the sudden change in dynamic, and increased the space between them. Maybe she was pushing things too far, but she didn’t think so. She was almost certain that this hadn’t been Phyllis’ decision – the older midwife had more experience and nous than to structure the rota like that so soon after Patsy’s return. ‘I’ve a good mind to knock on her door right now and do just that.’

‘I’d like to see you try!’

‘I’d keep your voice down if I were you, love, you don’t want to attract any unwanted attention. Nurse Crane and I became quite the team in your absence, Nurse Mount.’

‘Yes, so I gather, but I am not one of your patients. As much as I understand – no, appreciate – your concern,’ Patsy paused, softening the edge to her tone slightly, ‘I must inform you that I made a particular request. I’m not managing to sleep, not much anyway, so I thought I might as well take the night shifts for a bit and save everyone else disrupting their patterns. And that way I won’t keep you awake, either; not unless you want me to, of course.’

Delia refused to rise to the bait, principally because the earlier part of their discussion (before it became an argument) had made it abundantly obvious that her girlfriend was in no fit state to flirt. ‘Don’t make light of this, Pats, please.’

‘I’m not. I think you’ll find night shifts are rather dark, actually, especially at this time of year.’

‘You know what I mean. Now you’re just being obtuse for the sake of it.’ The shorter woman could tell she was losing this battle, but drew herself up to her full height for emphasis. ‘It isn’t in the least bit sensible for you to take on the night shift right now.’

‘It might not be sensible but it’s what I need to do. Otherwise I’ll just lie awake and then be too tired for my actual day shifts anyway.’

‘Fine. I’m sorry I’m not safe enough for you to sleep next to, but I understand.’

Patsy watched Delia deflate, and felt awful. ‘I’m sorry, too, I didn’t mean...’

‘It’s fine. Honestly. I understand. Go to the meeting, then rest up before the night shift, all right? Not that you need my permission, of course,’ the younger woman spat out.

‘Deels –’

‘No, Pats, I’m done here. I won’t pressure you any more about sleep – it’s not worth the effort when you’re like this.’

‘What exactly is that supposed to mean?’ Patsy felt herself bristle again at her girlfriend’s words. ‘You have no right to be ordering me about, Delia. You aren’t my Mother.’

‘No, Pats, I’m not – but that’s the problem, isn’t it?’

Both women gasped as the question filled the sudden silence between them; Delia from regret and Patsy from barely-suppressed rage. ‘How dare you –’ she forced out through gritted teeth. Then, cold as ice, ‘I should leave you to dress, Nurse Busby. You might want to calm down a little and could use the time alone to ponder the importance of thinking before you speak. I expect we’ll see each other next before I start my night shift,’ she finished firmly. With that, she stalked out the door, although she couldn’t quite let herself leave it to slam.

Delia stayed still for a few seconds, transfixed by the space between her body and Patsy’s bed that had been so viciously vacated. So much for the chance to try out some constructive communication. Brava, Busby, you’ve really blown it now, she scolded sardonically – before launching herself at the neatly-tucked edges of the covers on the nearby bed to lie atop them and sob. She knew she was being overly-dramatic, but she didn’t care. Patsy had pushed her to breaking point, and this was the sole option she could think of as she tried desperately to claw her way back. It was also the closest she would get to her cariad for a good while, if the manner in which she had just exited the room was an accurate appraisal of the older woman’s pent-up anger and anguish.

Damn it all – Delia could cry more than enough for the both of them and, if it meant her girlfriend was greeted with a soggy pillow when she got back, then, well, good. It might make her think about the consequences of her actions for once.

No, that was unfair; but then, Patsy had been unfair. They both had. This whole thing was an almighty mess, and they were just as bad as each other. For two people with a mutual abhorrence of conflict, when it came to the crunch, they could make a bloody good go of it. Still, they both deserved the opportunity to emote, and this (tears whilst tucked up against the only tangible trace of the woman she loved to utter distraction, despite any outward evidence to the contrary accrued by the activities of this morning) was the petite brunette’s preference. So, slowly but surely, any guilt at the potential future state of Patsy’s pillow was outweighed by gratitude for the relief it offered now. Not least because she needed something to muffle her sobs and stop anyone hearing...although a part of her also briefly acknowledged how easy it would be to press just that little bit harder and send herself to the depths she deserved. Heavens, her surroundings were suffocating enough right now, would anyone blame her (or even notice) if she finished the job for them?

No.

This would not do.

How selfish and self-indulgent can you get, Busby? Pats has far better reasons to have such thoughts as that than you do, and she would never even dream of leaving you behind. You had to force her to read the letter, never mind get on the boat. She wouldn’t have it in her to give you such grief as you were just considering; if only because she knows how much it hurts to be the one who stays. Pull yourself together!

Scolding inwardly again, she sat up, planting her feet firmly on the floor in a feeble attempt to ground herself. In that same moment, she was startled by a knock on the door, and the force of her surprise threw her backwards onto the bed. Now she had to put up with the soggy pillow. Typical!

‘Nurse Busby? Are you decent?’

Phyllis. In spite of her self-pity, Delia immediately grinned at the gentle tone of her – their – colleague and friend’s enquiry. ‘I am, please do come in, Nurse Crane,’ she called. The door opened, and then shut, as her guest entered swiftly. ‘I was actually about to come and find you, so you’ve saved me a barefoot journey.’

The older woman took one glance at the sight before her and tutted. ‘Delia, lass, you are not up to any sort of journey; barefoot or otherwise. I’m exceedingly glad I took notice of my hunch that all was not well when Patsy passed me rather hurriedly just now in the downstairs hallway. She refused even to stop for breakfast.’

For a few seconds, Delia could only find the strength to respond with a nod and the raise of a brow. Then, sighing, ‘I can’t say I’m surprised in the slightest. Food is always the first thing to, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun, fall off Pats’ plate when she’s stressed. Which she is – stressed, and overstretched – to put it mildly. Traumatised and retraumatised, to use the proper psychological phrasing. If either of us is “not up to” anything, it’s Patsy, not me. I’m just feeling sorry for myself – she, on the other hand, has decided it’s her duty to take on the night shifts. ’

Phyllis grimaced. ‘I know. I did my best to dissuade her, Delia, really I did. But she insisted. So I thought it was safer to say yes to a single shift, and then see where we go from there, than to ignore her wishes outright. I’m sure you know what she’s like when crossed; and it seems to me this is a coping mechanism.’

‘I do indeed – and you’re right, it is. She isn’t sleeping, because she doesn’t feel safe on her own, but she also doesn’t feel safe next to me...’ The younger woman trailed off, not wanting to be any more specific, for all their sakes, professionally and personally.

‘No wonder you’re feeling sorry for yourself, lass, you have every right to be. I know how much you missed her, and so suspect that this new trauma is proving as hard on you as it is on her. Cut yourself some slack.’

Delia kept her voice low. ‘I must admit it’s not the new trauma I’m so worried about. I was aware of the likely effects of her Father’s death, and the fact that both her Mother’s and Grace’s would re-emerge alongside those, but – well, may I be frank?’

Phyllis nodded curtly. ‘You may, although I’d prefer it if Patsy were present.’

‘You’re right. I won’t be, then, but simply say there’s something she’s not telling me. Not only that, she’s told me she hasn’t told me before, but that it’s not anything new. Rather that it’s old, but she only realised its impact whilst she was away. Since it’s the reason she’s not sleeping, and now that is the reason we argued, it seems rather crucial. I think she knows it is, too, because she wants to try to tell me. Well. She did. Before I pushed her too far.’

Both women were pensive. Then Phyllis spoke up, surprising her younger friend by changing tack. ‘When you were a kid, lass, did you ever rescue a bird during one of your many tree-climbing escapades?’

‘Of course. Plenty,’ Delia giggled, unsure where this was going.

‘And did they trust you immediately?’

‘No.’

‘But they did eventually?’

A nod. ‘Yes, after much coaxing, and then I could teach them to fly again. But Patsy isn’t a bird – I’m not sure the comparison quite works.’

Phyllis chuckled now, too. ‘You probably think my vegetarian principles are overriding my logic. But I would argue that it does work. You need to get her to trust you again, as hard as that might feel given the strength and stability of your connection. The thing is, Delia, she grew so much over the span of her time with you that the gap between where she had got to and where she is now seems greater than it did back then. When you met, she had no upward parameters, no understanding of where she could reach; and neither did you. Now you both do, and that makes it easier, but also harder. Do you follow?’

A hesitant nod. ‘I think so – like when I had my accident and we had to start again.’

‘Yes, if that is a simpler scenario to map over onto your current one.’

 ‘It is. It’s her neurology, too, after all.’

‘Well then. When you were taking your first tentative steps, both literally and figuratively, did you ever do anything you thought wouldn’t help?’

‘Not deliberately, no. I just did my best with the tools I had.’

‘Exactly, lass. That’s what Patsy is aiming for with this night shift. I’m with you, in that I think it’s silliness of the highest order, but to her it’s the only possibility. And you have to let her try things for herself. Let her know you’re here, and she’ll come to you. She’s desperate for normality, so she’s thrown herself back into work. I think you might want to follow her example. When she sees you aren’t anxious, she’ll stop protecting you.’

Delia’s eyes widened. ‘Do you think she’s protecting me?’

‘I do.’

‘She knows she doesn’t need to...’

‘No, she did know, but everything is different now. You have to meet her where she is, and wake her up again, and your best bet for doing that is to do as you did before. So, get up, get dressed, and meet me in the Clinical Room sharpish so I can give you your rounds. Then grab some breakfast; we can’t have you wasting away as well. All right?’

A nod and a smile. ‘All right. Thank you, Phyllis.’

‘No need, lass. Thank you for sticking with her. I’ll let myself out – on the proviso you’re out of that bed the minute this door clicks shut again.’

Delia laughed quietly to herself as the older woman left, then did as she suggested, and sat up. As she stared once more into the centre of the room, she was struck by the parallel between her position and the one in which she had found Patsy upon first waking.

They really were quite the pair, weren’t they?

Obstinate.

Obtuse.

Bloody-minded.

Better-prepared to break than to bend.

Which somehow, she supposed, meant they were ordinary. Oh, so satisfyingly ordinary – a comfort to catch hold of in this decidedly extraordinary era of their lives. Because that’s what they both needed: comfort, compassion and care. Delia knew that, eventually, they would get back to giving it to each other. In the meantime, though, they could thank their lucky stars they had Phyllis to play Fairy Godmother.

Chapter Text

Patsy pulled the heavy wooden front door of Nonnatus House closed as quietly as she could, then leant against its inside panels, sighing with a combination of fatigue and relief. The second of the two consecutive “on-call” nights she had somehow succeeded in wangling out of Phyllis had now drawn to a close, and the emotions that knowledge brought with it were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, they had been (as she had insisted both to her senior colleague and to Delia) exactly what she needed. She had felt useful – no, more than that – necessary; and assisting with the miracle of midnight childbirth had reminded her she didn’t have to search too far afield to find light amidst the darkness. Figuratively as well as (very much) literally (especially in this weather). On the other, though, she knew without having to be told once, let alone twice, that it hadn’t been a decision formed from sense.

Merely survival.

She had privileged a strategy for short-term preservation over preparations for longer-term peace – and, if she ever hoped to reach the haven of the latter in her head, those plans could not be put off indefinitely. The tricky bit was that they involved talking. Specifically to her sweetheart. About aspects of her past she had not previously approached herself, never mind with anyone else, and (although she hoped) she didn’t know if Delia would deal with it. She might have known once, but she didn’t now. This was different from before, because before she had had all the facts and figures and functional distance firmly fixed herself, and that had permitted her to pass some of that distance to her darling when they discussed it. The edges of this experience, though, were far less definitely defined.

Being brutally honest, as she steadied herself and her thoughts by pressing her back into the door, she barely knew where to begin. Yet she also knew, once she did begin, that she would be powerless to stop. So she had to gauge her girlfriend’s readiness – and she had been acutely aware that any attempt to do so over the last two days would have resulted in her weeping uncontrollably on the Welshwoman’s shoulder as soon as their initial apologies were out of the way. That would simply not have done because, as much as tears and touches (of a certain, clothed, consensual kind) were allowed, they did not allow talking.

But then neither did standing here, half asleep, at four o’clock following a long night.

Well, two.

She really ought to get to bed, despite knowing she would lie there wide awake.

But she seemed, suddenly, not to possess the energy to move – so she was trying her best to rectify that, when the sound of speech drifted through her stupor.

‘Ah, Nurse Mount – you have returned to us. I thought that might be the case when I heard the door, but whatever keeps you standing by the threshold instead of going to get some hot tea or cocoa?’ Sister Julienne’s question, as she entered the hallway, was kind. So kind, in fact, that Patsy was only able to smile in response. Sensing her younger colleague’s discomfort at the unexpected interaction, the superior nun continued talking. ‘We are about to go into Chapel, but Sister Monica Joan is cold, so I have assured her the Lord won’t mind a jot if I fill this up for her beforehand,’ she said, returning Patsy’s smile as she showed her the already warm hot water bottle she had secreted in her habit. ‘I may also have promised her a warm drink when we finish. Why don’t you wait for us in the kitchen and we’ll join you shortly? I get the impression you are currently struggling to discern which, of sleep or sustenance, will be most helpful (and easiest to achieve) at this point – am I correct?’

‘Yes – thank you, Sister, you have got to the crux of my conundrum before I was even able to articulate that I had one,’ Patsy grinned, shaking her head at herself.

‘In that case, would you permit me to proffer a solution as well, by rephrasing my suggestion that you sit in the kitchen for a while as an instruction instead of a question?’

‘I think that might be necessary.’

The older woman’s heart thrilled at the deadpan tone of the reply, and at the giggle which followed it, unbidden. This was good – they were getting somewhere. Where, exactly, she did not yet know; but progress was progress. Nurse Crane had been right to rally the three of them round tonight. Patsy must not notice those tacit thoughts, however – she would want the ground to swallow her up if she knew she had been the subject of any sorts of discussions or the object of concern. So Sister Julienne simply nodded, smiling. ‘Very well. Please go to the kitchen to make yourself a drink, Nurse Mount. On your way there, if you would like something to occupy yourself in the time alone, you could always pick up the log book. Ordinarily I would firmly forbid you from writing up even the briefest of notes now, and send you straight to bed, but as you are going to be awake anyway –’

Patsy returned the nod and smile. ‘Of course, Sister. Thank you,’ she said again, thinking as she formed the words that Delia would take her to task (were she here to hear) for excessive expression of gratitude; but Delia was upstairs, oblivious.

‘Not at all, my dear, I know the need to be busy at such times myself. Speaking of busyness, I must be off to Chapel, or else Sister Monica Joan will complain I’ve let her hot water bottle cool by idling. We shall both see you shortly,’ and with that, the nun hurried away, leaving Patsy alone once more.

Except she wasn’t alone, she thought, as she walked purposefully to the telephone to retrieve the log book. Not now that she was home, she had a task, and people (who were not one particular person) to talk to whilst she did it. Not that Delia made her feel alone, far from it, but she needed to coax herself back into conversation before she broached anything with her beloved. Besides, the brilliant brunette was busy revising for her exams, and deserved to have dedicated time without distractions. Thank goodness for the older generation of Nonnatuns, and their unquestioning understanding.

Now she could curl up in the kitchen by herself, with no fear of judgement.

Not that Delia would judge. She never did. It was just that Patsy remembered only too vividly how hard it had been to separate her feelings out after the accident, so she was reticent to ask her love to do the same around this issue. Especially as it was, in many ways, far more intimately-linked to their, well, intimacy than any of the other things they had hitherto come up against together.

So, instead, she had separated herself out.

Separate shifts.

Separate beds.

Separate sleeping (or, rather, not sleeping) patterns.

Separate (and stressful) meetings with lawyers who wanted to know why it would not just be her name on the deeds of any property purchased with the proceeds from the flat.

Separate (and soul-wrenching) decisions to let them have their way, eventually, because it was easier than inventing explanations.

Separate, and silent, panic as she yet again assessed the risks related to renting (as before) or buying (as seemed more sensible now). The former would avoid the awkwardness around questions about their relationship – it was perfectly plausible that two girls would wish to share a rented flat to save on costs – but the latter would mean no landlord to kick them out if they were discovered.

So much separateness when they should be together.

Oh, God. How much she ached to go upstairs and apologise.

But she couldn’t. Not yet.

She had cocoa (or something similar) to drink, a log book to update, and a tongue to tease back into the habit of talking.

And she didn’t have long to do so, because it seemed Phyllis was also seeking a midnight (early morning, really) snack.

The older woman turned at the sound of footsteps. ‘Oh, Patsy lass, you look done in. Are you here for some sustenance before sleep?’

Patsy nodded, and took a moment before replying, chuckling inwardly at the way her senior colleagues appeared to have her pegged even better than she did herself – which, tonight at least, she could consider a blessing rather than a curse. ‘Yes, I am. I met Sister Julienne when I got home, and she insisted I have a hot drink. Apparently she and Sister Monica Joan have a similar plan as soon as they are finished in Chapel. She’s also letting me get my notes on tonight’s two births sorted now, since I’m still up, presumably hopeful that I’ll sleep in tomorrow – or rather today,’ she finished, flushing as she realised the true motivation behind the superior nun’s leniency around the usual rules.

Phyllis smiled gently to ease her younger colleague’s embarrassment. ‘I must admit I share that hope, lass. No more nights for you for a while, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh no, don’t worry, I couldn’t. I’m exhausted.’

Phyllis’ smile grew at her friend’s frankness. ‘Excellent – not that you are exhausted, by any means, but that you have realised you are.’

‘Oh, I realised, I just wasn’t sure what to do about it.’

‘Well, the kettle’s just boiled, so that might be a good place to start. Tea? Horlicks? Bournvita?’

The older woman turned back to the counter and bustled about in the cupboards. Patsy chuckled. ‘I don’t mind. I’m too tired to decide.’

‘What did Delia give you your first morning back?’

‘Horlicks,’ Patsy said simply, out of politeness, but with a raised eyebrow at the enquiry. How did Phyllis know about that day? Had they been talking?

‘Did it help?’

‘Yes.’

‘I think we ought to stick with that, then. Now, tell me about last night – two births, eh?’

Patsy held back a bark of laughter. Clearly her colleague could deflect just as well as she. ‘Yes – the Colmers had a beautiful girl, Hannah Rebecca, weighing in at a perfectly respectable seven pounds. I’d just got in from theirs, a very easy delivery, when the phone rang again. It was Mr Williamson to say that Muriel’s waters had broken already and the baby seemed to be coming very quickly this time. As it’s her third, I wasn’t too worried, but got there sharpish. Then we sat around and waited for two hours, followed by another for the actual delivery. Typical.’

Phyllis faced her again to offer a steaming mug. ‘I dare say you feel ready for this, then, lass. You pass me the log book, and I’ll write down the details, whilst you drink up. I know you, Patsy, and you think you need to impress because you have just got back. But you look like you could fall asleep where you’re standing. How much did you say the Williamson kid weighed?’

The younger woman blushed slightly at the piercing accuracy of the perception, and relinquished the requested item without so much as a murmur – at first. ‘Eight pounds, four ounces. A boy. Eddie. But I’m fine, Phyllis, I’m waiting up for the Sisters anyway.’

‘That’s as may be. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you need to give yourself extra work. You are already going above and beyond, on every level.’

‘Why do I sense that’s a reference to more than my professional conduct?’

‘Listen, lass, Delia told me you told her that you have something to tell her – so I just wanted to tell you that I know.’

Patsy at last let out the laughter she had been trying to suppress. ‘I think you have been spending too much time on Cryptic Crosswords, Nurse Crane. You may speak frankly with me, Phyllis, at least whilst the Sisters are not here. It’s just that I can’t be frank with Delia – not yet. Not until her exams are done, at any rate.’

A curt nod and a slight smile. ‘Very well. Thank you, Nurse Mount – Patsy. I appreciate your sensitivity to Delia’s studies, and I think it is sensible. I merely want to remind you, in case you have forgotten (despite your due attention to her professional progress), that she is also a nurse. Consequently, she is going to come across this at some point during her career, and I’d suggest that you telling her about your experience could only serve to better prepare her. You have no obligation to protect her – or anyone else – from your pain.’

Phyllis paused, pensive, and Patsy was struck by the way the older woman’s words mirrored those Delia herself had spoken almost a decade earlier when they had first discussed grief: “It’s not your responsibility to manage my feelings, or anyone else’s, especially not to the detriment of yours”. Still, that sentence was their secret, and she had no desire to share it – even with their new ally. So, offering up silent thanks for the reminder that Delia might not be quite as unprepared as she feared, she answered instead by posing a question.

Well, two.

‘Is it that obvious? Am I that obvious?’

‘No, lass – but, when you have worked as long as I have, you see a fair few things. And people tell you a fair few stories; even children. Especially during the war. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to say anything further.’

Patsy wanted to weep with relief; instead she nodded and took another sip of her drink. Then, swallowing, she used the Horlicks as a proxy. ‘Thank you, this is much appreciated.’

‘Any time, kid, any time. Although I do believe we have some visitors,’ Phyllis added, her tone warning but warm.

‘Indeed you do,’ said Sister Julienne. ‘May we join you – wait, Sister Monica Joan, what have I said about sweet things before breakfast?’

The elderly nun merely snorted and continued her search through the cupboards. Then, momentarily defeated, she resorted to the refuge of Shakespeare. ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’

The three other women laughed. ‘I simply think it is too early for cake – and for Twelfth Night, come to that, both the play and the festival,’ said Sister Julienne.

‘Surely our own patient monument is the best-placed person here to judge that?’

Patsy blushed beetroot at Sister Monica Joan’s words. Did everyone associate that speech with her name? ‘I don’t feel sufficiently well-versed in either scripture or Shakespeare to answer that, I’m afraid – and now I really must get to bed. Have a good morning, everyone!’ she said brightly as she moved to wash up her now empty mug.

‘Leave it, lass, I’ll see to that – and I’ll see you much later this morning, all right?’

‘All right. Thank you, Phyllis – I mean, Nurse Crane, since we’re in company.’

~

Cariad?’ Delia stirred slightly, murmuring, as Patsy finished putting on her pyjamas. The short sound and small movement made the older woman hold back for a moment from slipping into bed in front of her, before she decided that any lengthy deliberation would almost certainly wake her sweetheart, whereas the sudden arrival of the “small spoon” would be far more effective in persuading her petite partner to postpone philosophical discussions until they were both less exhausted and emotionally vulnerable.

‘Yes, love, I’m here.’ Sinking onto her side and into the mattress as she spoke, she felt a pair of warm arms wrapping reflexively around her waist – but she could also sense a pair of blue eyes boring (probably still a little blearily) into her back. Perhaps she hadn’t pulled off this plan quite as well as she had hoped. So, making a split-second shift in strategy, she wriggled around to face the worried Welshwoman.

‘Oh, Pats, I’m so sorry,’ her beloved brunette breathed the moment their eyes met. ‘My Mam always says never to let the sun go down on an argument, and I’ve left it two whole days –’

Patsy cut her off with a single finger against her slightly parted lips. ‘I’m sorry, too, sweetheart, so very sorry. But I believe we have rules about apologies, and right now is not the time to break them. Right now is the time for snuggles and sleep. I was a “silly goose”, as you would say, and I made some bad decisions – I’m not surprised you snapped. I’m actually impressed you held out so long. I promise I’ll talk to you before I do anything as drastic again. No more emotional estrangement, even if I’m not ready to divulge all of these new details just yet. For tonight, or rather this morning, I’d rather hold you – have a cwtch instead of a conversation. Make the most of the few hours we have in the same space before you have to head out on your rounds. All right?’

Delia nodded and, after seeking the subtle signal of consent in her cariad’s eyes, kissed the single finger which still lay against her lips.

This was enough.

They were enough.

They were getting there at exactly the right pace.

Their pace.

Her pace.

Patsy’s pace.

Because they were sweethearts, not strangers; and sweethearts stuck together.

Stayed together.

Slept together – in the sense of next to each other, side by side, as much as anything else. That “anything else” could wait as long as necessary, if it meant her cariad was content to cwtch again. And, more importantly, to surrender to sleep – because Pats needed sleep.

‘Do you feel safe, darling?’ Delia mumbled her question against the finger which still had yet to move.

‘I do, Deels – Diolch.’

‘We have rules about “thank yous” as well as “sorries”, cariad.’

Patsy merely laughed softly. Oh, how she loved this predictable, perfect (predictably perfect) partner of hers.

Chapter Text

‘Deels, I –’ Patsy’s sentence was cut off as she began to retch.

'Sit up, Pats, quickly.' Delia too was out of bed in an instant, searching for something of sufficient size to catch her cariad's sickness, should it actually appear. She had been waiting for this symptom to resurface since they had started co-sleeping again (it was always a case of when rather than if, in her mind at least) but, now that it was here, she felt horridly unprepared. As with everything else these days, eh, Busby? So far, so (un)usual, she thought, getting steadily more frantic at her failure to find an adequate...receptacle? Goodness, that sounded grim, even in her head. Since when had she been so squeamish? Since, she supposed, she had grown so complacently confident in the idea that her support – no, simply her presence – was ballast enough to keep her beloved's worries at bay. After all, she couldn't recall the resilient (now) redhead ever having mentioned an episode once she had moved from the Nurses' Home to Nonnatus; but then, she wouldn't have needed to mention anything, would she? Nevertheless, Delia was fairly certain that it hadn't happened in the time she had been living at the convent – although, again, they hadn't shared a room, except whilst everyone else was in South Africa. She would have to ask Trixie...and Trixie would likely have what they needed anyway! Brilliant, Busby, maybe you aren't as bad a nurse as you were beginning to believe.

Before she could contemplate seeking out their blonde friend (and perhaps – hopefully! – one of the containers used to keep up that colour), however, she had to sort something for the interim. What, though!?

Ah! Perfect.

For once even her ginger girlfriend would probably admit that cleanliness wasn't always conducive to comfort – they hadn’t taken their empty mugs downstairs before snuggling up last night, but that meant, this morning, they were right where they needed them to be. Besides, they were already dirty, so they might as well be used a second time. Surely this was the ultimate example of the Scouting motto? Phyllis would certainly be impressed; she just had to hope Patsy would be too. But her beloved's hatred of germs resulted from a situation in which survival had been both predicated on, and prevented by, exactly these sorts of privations. Moreover, the vomiting indicated that it was precisely this place her consciousness was currently compelling her to visit – and the last thing Delia wanted was to provide any further fodder for her darling's distress.

Now, though, nursing instinct told her the nausea was on the verge of turning into something more, well, productive. So she no longer had the luxury of lingering over her love's likely preferences. Necessity needed to win out over nervousness. A mug was a mug; whether the dregs of last night's drinks remained or not was really rather irrelevant.

'Here, cariad, can you hold this steady in front of you whilst I go on the hunt for something bigger, like a bowl? I'll be back as soon as possible, and we'll sort out any mess, so it isn't a problem if you don't manage it. There's another one on the bedside table next to you if you need it. Are you all right for me to leave you like this, love?'

Patsy took the mug but remained otherwise static. This was no surprise; such an overwhelming amount of information and questions was less than ideal, because at this point she would struggle to process simple sentences, let alone ones constructed from multiple clauses and peppered with all kinds of punctuation. But Delia had a duty to get consent – they had agreed this many years ago, long before a return to Hong Kong had even been hinted at – and Patsy deserved better than being patronised.

Especially as an adult.

The early origins of the traumas she was tackling now could not take away from her maturity as she did so.

If anything, they made it all the more emphatically obvious.

Delia had realised this whilst feeling woebegone following their fight three days ago. (Yes, she was counting, because she still cursed herself for being so careless in her choice of words that morning.) That was the point, though, since what Patsy had taken exception to was not so much the mention of her Mother as the evocation of everything she signified.

Childhood.

And, as difficult as it was for everyone else (Delia herself included) either to comprehend or to accept, childhood, as a concept, was nowhere near the same as childishness. Far from it, actually, because the nine years before the camp correlated to Patsy's first and final taste of true independence. The time when her sense of self (and of self-sufficiency) had felt most secure.

Physically- as well as psychologically-speaking.

Now, however complex and conflicted her feelings about her Father must certainly be, she was having to face the fact that, following his death, she had lost the last link to that more peaceful, patient period of her life. The point at which it had been enough to be “Patsy”, with no pressure to embody her namesake virtue. More than that, the trip to take care of him had put her back in a similar country, but in an entirely different context. She was there to fulfil a filial duty as adult daughter instead of the child she had been when previously in his presence. Yet, on those nights in which she had offered herself as nurse to give his others a break, whatever passed between them had obviously (and understandably) brought up buried burdens she had ostensibly forgotten she continued to carry.

Whilst Delia (still) did not know exactly the form these took, she could tell that they touched on bodily and emotional autonomy. She could also tell that her girlfriend’s grasp of both had to be shored up as much as was practically possible. It was only retching at this stage, anyway. Consequently, rather than revising her register in the hopes of hastening a response, she willingly waited for a redheaded nod. Her restraint was rewarded.

Yes.

Go.

But be quick.

~

Delia obeyed, sprinting to the room Trixie now shared with Val as fast as she could without falling over her own bare feet. When the latter young woman answered her insistent knock, she barely allowed her fellow brunette to blink, let alone offer a greeting. ‘Morning, Val. Is Trix up yet? It’s just, Patsy is vomiting, and I wondered if –’

‘Oh dear, is everything all right? Should we call Dr Turner?’

The Welshwoman tried her best to hide her frustration at being interrupted, because she had neither the time nor the energy to explain. ‘No, it’s fine, I just need –’

‘Hello, sweetie, sorry I wasn’t speedier. Take this,’ Trixie said, coming to the door and thrusting a suitably-sized bowl towards Delia as soon as Val let her pass. ‘I know I won’t need to tell our redheaded friend to polish it to perfection once she’s finished puking, but she may repay the favour by helping me to touch up my roots when they next need doing. It became something of a ritual immediately after your accident, because of course she really struggled to stay grounded –’

‘Understandably.’ Delia cut the sentence off, suddenly hit by her own wave of nausea, and wanting to cover the fact that she was only fully comprehending the impact her injury would have had on “their redheaded friend” as this conversation unfolded.

Oh.

Of course.

Poor Pats.

But she had no time for guilt.

She would make amends by helping to ease the symptom now.

Still, she wanted to know a little more about her love’s coping mechanisms whilst they had been apart, so she spoke again. ‘Did you sit with her?’ she asked, softly.

‘What? Oh – no, she wouldn’t let me, and I didn’t like to insist.’

Delia nodded. ‘That sounds familiar. Thanks, Trix, we’ll return this to you as soon as she’s scoured it,’ she said, winking, before sprinting off again.

When she got back to their bedroom, she was glad she hadn’t dallied too long, because her darling was doubled-over and barely able to breathe between bouts. Even the second mug was in use. Delia didn’t think she’d ever seen it this bad. ‘I’m back, Pats,’ she whispered, as she slid onto the bed to sit beside her beloved after shutting the door. ‘Is it safe for me to swap the mug for this bowl? Could you let go of your hair for a bit so you have a free hand to raise for responses, since you can’t nod?’

Patsy complied, letting her hair fall loose about her shoulders in order to raise her left hand. Delia then made the switch as quickly and quietly as she could, placing the mug carefully out of reach and (more importantly) sight.

Right.

Now for the recovery effort.

It would be disastrous for this to continue for long enough to add dehydration into the mix too.

Da iawn, cariad. Well done, love.’ In this moment, Delia was grateful for the requirements of bilingual communication, because they gave her an excuse to keep talking. She wasn’t entirely sure the Welsh words would do the trick if her sweetheart was in Singapore, but it was worth a try. ‘Yn araf. Anadlu. Slowly. Breathe.’

Patsy gave no indication of having heard. English on its own it was, then.

‘I’ve got your hair now; you just focus on calming things down, all right?’

A raised left hand. All right.

‘Only one more question, Pats, I promise – would it help if I rubbed your back? I can still keep hold of your hair.’

A left hand raised again. Please.

‘All right. You’re all right. I’ve got you,’ she soothed, her voice low as she traced circles across a pair of trembling shoulders. ‘I’m with you, you’re with me, and neither of us is going anywhere, all right? Try and feel the bed under you as you’re sitting here, sweetheart.’

The vomiting intensified.

Interesting.

That wasn’t how these sorts of situations usually worked. Descriptions of details like the furniture surrounding them had always helped before.

But this isn’t before, Busby. How long will it take you to get your head around that!?

Try again.

‘We’re in Poplar, Pats. In London. In England.’

For the second time that morning, Delia found herself feeling frantic. Ordinarily, when things progressed past a particular point, she would cease all speech and offer pure physicality in its stead. The comment about the feeling of her body against the bed had made Patsy’s panic (and puking) worse, so there was no predicting how she would respond to touching beyond the already-permitted backrub. But when her girlfriend still did not reply, and the sickness showed no sign of abating, the brunette really did not know what else to do.

So she said as much.

‘I don’t know what to do, darling. You have to help me help you. This is new, and it needs to stop, now. You’ll lose all the nutrients you have left, otherwise, and that can only end one way.’

Patsy pointed backwards, between their bodies, and Delia exhaled slightly at the simple signal.

‘You want me to sit behind you?’

The point turned back into a raised hand.

‘All right.’ The brunette nodded (more for her own confirmation than for her cariad’s) and clambered clumsily over the covers. ‘I’m here,’ she continued, settling, ‘is that close enough?’

No raised hand now. No. Closer.

Delia was surprised, but shuffled forward so she was almost flush with Patsy’s back. ‘Better?’

A raised left hand. Yes. Thank you.

‘Lean against me if you like, love. I’ve got your hair again, too.’

The two women sighed as shoulders met shoulders, grateful for the brief grounding it gave them both, before the pair in front were forced forward again by the overwhelming urge to vomit.

‘I’ve got you, I’m holding you tight. I won’t let go,’ Delia promised earnestly, wrapping the arm free from the not-inconsiderable length of her girlfriend’s hair around her (far too slim) waist. ‘Is this comfortable, cariad?’

A left hand raised again.

‘Good. I’m so glad. Can you breathe with me? Give it a go in the next gap.’

They waited, riding out the shudders of sickness together. Then, eventually, Patsy managed a tentative breath.

‘Yes, that’s it. Treat them like contractions. Breathe. And again. No hyperventilating, though, mind. You might choke, and I’m not having that after all this effort on both our parts – agreed?’

A raised left hand. Agreed.

‘Careful now. Don’t move too much, in case you drop the bowl. But breathing is fine; don’t you dare stop that. Keep going. I’m proud of you, Pats. You knew what you needed and you told me. So just stick with it for a little longer, and this will go away at last.’

Patsy merely breathed by way of a reply.

‘That’s it. You’re doing beautifully, darling. There, see, it’s easing off. Excellently done, Nurse Mount.’ Her girlfriend giggled at the use of her title, and Delia immediately felt guilty. ‘Sorry, Pats, that wasn’t fair. I shouldn’t make you laugh. Still, I must confess it’s nice to know you’re back.’

Patsy laughed again and leant into her love’s embrace a little more. ‘I am indeed, Deels – but I’m sorry. I thought this had stopped. It reappeared in the immediate aftermath of his death, but I got it under control during the trip back to Britain. I think I was probably the only person on the ship who wasn’t sick.’

Delia allowed herself the tiniest chuckle at her cariad’s continual recourse to sarcasm and humour. ‘I’ve been on tenterhooks for the last two days, since we started sharing a bed again, because I thought it might sabotage our sleep.’

‘Oh, so it’s your fault, is it? You gave the universe ideas...’ Patsy softened the truth behind her teasing by placing her free left hand over Delia’s where it rested on her ribcage. ‘Thanks for being here, love; that was quite the bout this time and I don’t think I could’ve tackled it on my own.’

‘You did most of it yourself, Pats – I had to get you to guide me, remember?’

‘Not really. My head gets rather hazy.’

Of course. What an incompetent, not to say insensitive, thing to ask. How could she possibly remember!? ‘Well, you showed me that I needed to sit behind you like this, although I was amazed you felt safe enough for me to do so.’

Patsy nodded, despite facing away from Delia – she wanted to reassure them both that she could nod again. ‘That’s because, when I was alone and it happened, I had to ground myself by pressing my back against a wall or door. For my absences in general, not just the sickness, which meant Sister Julienne found me seemingly stuck to the front door here when I got home from my second night shift.’ The taller woman paused briefly, pensive, and, when she spoke again, the memory had apparently made her consonants more clipped. ‘I was mortified, Deels, because I literally couldn’t move. Anyway, I think I’m now conditioned to need similar support even when there’s someone with me. You didn’t mind, did you?’

‘Of course not.’ The Welshwoman endeavoured to keep the eagerness out of her voice as she replied, not wanting to overstate her joy at being permitted to sit in this supposedly simple position.

‘Good. Diolch, darling.’

Croeso, cariad. You’re welcome, Pats love. It’s my pleasure.’

Delia could sense the rueful smile on her sweetheart’s face at the assertion. ‘Your pleasure to sit with me whilst I puke!? Well, I suppose you have to take what you can get right now, eh, you angel?’

Hang on, was that flirtation? Two can play at that game, Patience, if so. But you’d best be careful, Delia counselled herself, you don’t want to ruin things again. Start with an honest admission. ‘I’m not feeling particularly angelic...’

‘I bet you aren’t. Alas, it’s nearly shift time for both of us – and besides, I’m absolutely drenched with sweat. Oh, what I’d give for a bath, Nurse Busby!’

Since Patsy had initiated this more intimate aspect of their conversation, Delia felt brave enough to be bold. ‘I could give you one? Tonight? What do you say, cariad?’

‘You could help.’

The younger woman shifted her small hand so she could squeeze the larger one which remained on top of it. That answer was honest, and vulnerable, and she needed nothing more. ‘Then I shall – as much or as little as you wish, my patient Pats.’

~

Before tonight, there was today to get through. As always at Nonnatus (at least now order had been restored following Sister Ursula’s departure) the period between these two temporal descriptors was broken by general, jovial gathering for a hot meal.

Everyone who could be there was; including Barbara, whose wedding Patsy still felt awful about missing. Consequently, once the dishes were cleared and the younger generation of nurses had been gifted a brief moment to talk amongst themselves, she apologised profusely. ‘Can you ever forgive me, old thing?’

‘Oh, Patsy, please! We were both at the mercy of Fathers with decidedly inconvenient timing so, if anything, it’s given us another point of connection.’

Hearing her girlfriend’s stifled inhalation, Delia took it upon herself to educate her fellow brunette on tact. ‘I’m not sure that’s the most sensitive way to put it.’

Patsy could no longer hold back her full response – laughter. ‘How else would you have her put it, Deels? I appreciate your attempt to defend me in my devastation, but it isn’t necessary. We’ve always shared a similar sense of humour around these sorts of things; which reminds me, Babs, I was doing my best impression of you this morning and puking my guts up.’

Before Delia had a chance to voice her hurt at the rejection of her help, Val interjected, as seemed to be her modus operandi where Patsy was concerned today. ‘Oh yes, are you feeling better? I hope it wasn’t anything serious?’

‘Not at all – just a lingering reaction to the war. I’m sure you’re more than familiar with those from your own military days, since I gather that’s where you were not long before you joined us?’

‘Of course. Not merely from a professional perspective either. Some days it can hit you like a bomb, can’t it?’

‘Quite.’ Patsy grinned. She was going to get on with Nurse Dyer just fine.

Delia, however, was horrified – though whether it was more because of Val’s words or the lopsided smile that suddenly appeared on her sweetheart’s face, she couldn’t be entirely sure. Nevertheless, something ought to be said. ‘How can you both be so casual about such horrific aspects of your lived experience?’

‘How can we not?’ was the two women’s unison reply.

Then, more pointedly, from Patsy, ‘You’re surely not surprised by my coping mechanisms? Do you think I still need cushioning, even after seven years of friendship?’

You seem to think I think you do, even after “seven years of friendship”.’

The Welsh-accented repetition was enough to make the older woman digest the deeper implications of her original word choice. Badly done, Patience, badly done indeed. ‘Deels –’

She was cut off by the fleeting feeling of a tired, but tender, touch to her shoulder. ‘It’s fine. I’ll see you two later, though, all right? I have a few more home visits to make, followed by some long overdue revision, so if you’ll excuse me?’

‘Of course, Delia,’ Val said a little too cheerily, sensing the tension and wondering, not for the first time that day, if she was its root.

Of course, Delia, Patsy echoed silently – wanting so much to run out after her darling, but not daring to let herself. It was going to take a lot to repair this particular round of damage, and it would not help to rush into it unprepared. So, having held back for a while on the pretence of saying goodbye to Barbara, she only walked out into the hallway once her younger friend was ready to leave too. Then, as soon as she saw her safely reach the bikes, she shut the door and took up her solitary station against its wooden panels.

Pull yourself together. I know everything and everyone seems different, but that doesn’t mean your friendships have to be. Nor you yourself. You are fine. All they ask is that you’re here. And that you work. You have patients waiting, Patience. There’s no time for you to take time out now.

Stay here.

Please.

Stay in the game.

Please.

Stay –

‘Our patient monument is doing her best to live up to the statuesque connotations of her height, I see.’

Where on earth had that voice suddenly arrived from!? Oh. ‘Sister Monica Joan, you startled me.’

The elderly nun eyed her intently for a few silent seconds before deigning to reply. ‘You said that the last time we had the luxury of a private conversation, Nurse Mount. You may be surprised that I remember it –’ she paused, evidently expecting an answer, so Patsy nodded. ‘I thought as much. Yet, since I do, you will probably predict that the essence of my advice today follows on from that which I offered then –’ Another pause, awaiting another nod, which was given; and gladly. ‘Do you remember my words?’

‘We only fail when we do not try.’

Now it was Sister Monica Joan’s turn to nod. ‘Indeed. So try you did – and you succeeded too. But what I forgot to add then was, without doubt, the important aspect. We must also try to allow ourselves to fail, my fragile young friend, however hard and horrible it is as a prospect and a process. You deserve to receive some of the compassion you are so quick to offer to the young mothers of Poplar, Patsy, and I’d wager we’d all consider you more dignified for doing so. Let Nurse Busby, at least, give you the gift of her gentle guidance. I can attest to its power myself.’

With that, the still-imposing woman turned on her heel, and almost seemed to melt away. Goodness, Patsy thought, if that had been imaginary then her mind was really going for it – so she probably ought to take the nun’s advice, whether it was real or not.

First, though, she had some delivery packs to drop off (definitely) and (possibly) one or two labours to attend.

Because that was her job.

And she was good at it.

Very good at it.

Terribly good, in fact.

As for everything else?

She was getting better.

Chapter Text

‘I don’t expect you’ll want to help with my bath now, Deels –’

‘Why ever would you think that?’

The two women were whispering, heads together, as they stepped over the threshold of Nonnatus House. Whilst she waited for her girlfriend to shut the door behind them both, Patsy used the slight separation as an excuse to mull over her options before replying. At least, that was her intention; she actually found herself pondering the last time she had been in this hallway at night. Then, naturally, her train of thought travelled to the conversation she had had with Sister Julienne – and, from there, to the far more recent (and in some ways more significant) interaction with Sister Monica Joan.

For it was this latter talk, just that afternoon, which had prompted the redhead to speed up when she spotted her shivering sweetheart a little ahead, trudging towards their shared destination after a final early-evening home visit. (An early-evening home visit which had apparently run rather late.) She felt she had a duty to defrost the tangible tension likely lingering from when Delia had left after lunch. She had, therefore, been more than a little surprised by the warmth of her Welsh Wonder’s greeting – but she supposed it was just the sort of grounds on which she deserved such a nickname. Still, Delia’s niceness hadn’t negated the need for either an apology or a discussion. Acutely aware of this fact, Patsy had said what she had planned to say, and swiftly been floored (for the second time in almost as many minutes) by the younger woman’s response.

Hence her hesitation now.

Having shut the door and turned around to find her sweetheart staring fixedly at the space above her head, Delia raised her voice by the smallest of increments to ask a further question. ‘Penny for them, Pats? Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, but you went silent at quite a crucial point...’

Ha. Talk about stating the obvious, darling. ‘You have revision to do. It’s a lot later than we thought it would be.’ Her beloved brunette raised a beautiful brow at this thinly-veiled deflection, and Patsy sighed. ‘Fine. I was perfectly horrid to you earlier, that’s why.’

Delia dropped the volume of her voice again. ‘You weren’t. You were covering. For both of us.’

‘I don’t deserve you, Deels.’

Her girlfriend was now speaking so softly that she almost seemed to be growling; a tone which matched the gentle glare she shot in Patsy’s direction. ‘I’m unable to answer that appropriately in our current environment, Pats, for the same reason you call your actions at lunch “perfectly horrid”. So I don’t think I shall answer it at all. Instead, I’m going to drown out your self-deprecation by doing nothing more or less than I said I would this morning: ensure you get enough to eat, to compensate the toll the sickness took on your calorie intake and energy reserves, after which I’ll help you to bath, and bundle you right into bed.’

‘Deels, I’m nearly thirty, not three,’ Patsy whined, frustratingly conscious of her shields slipping, as she smirked in spite of her best attempt to be belligerent.

‘I know, Pats, and I’m over-emphasising for effect. But the point remains. Supper – even if you can only manage a mug or two of Bournvita or Horlicks –’

She was cut off as her girlfriend’s smirk grew into a snort. ‘You and Phyllis really want to foist Horlicks on me, don’t you? Did you buy joint shares whilst I was overseas?’

Delia snorted too. ‘No. It’s just, well, it wasn’t originally targeted at “Infants and Invalids” for nothing, was it?’

‘I –’ Patsy pouted, seemingly rendered speechless, or at least deciding not to finish the sentence she had hardly begun.

‘I thought that might shut you up,’ her girlfriend whispered, grinning, before barrelling on. ‘As I was saying, supper of some sort, closely followed by a bath and bed. That would be my prescription, anyway, for what my lowly professional opinion is worth.’

‘You’re not lowly, you’re lovely,’ Patsy purred, equally quietly. ‘Very well, Nurse Busby, I submit. I’ll have you know I’m neither an infant nor an invalid, though. That is such an awful phrase, anyway. People who need medical support are still perfectly valid, firstly, and secondly should not be equated to children. Besides, children, in turn, have no need of condescension. What?’ she asked on a breath, pausing at last, as she noticed that Delia was gazing up at her with yet another grin.

‘Oh, nothing much, Nurse Mount – merely that you are incandescent when incensed.’

The taller woman blushed right to her roots. ‘I thought you said this hallway was neither the time nor the place for such talk.’

‘It isn’t. At all – but that doesn’t stop me from basking in the spectacle when you break the rules. Speaking of, we should probably skedaddle and sort supper, before someone sends out a search party...’ 

‘Indeed,’ Patsy murmured, leading the way down the hall, her long strides meaning Delia could only just make out her further mutterings – likely because the minx meant her to do so. ‘“Incandescent when incensed”. The Celtic cheek of it! I’ll give her “incandescent when incensed”!’

‘I’m sure you shall, sweetheart,’ the smaller woman said softly when they were side by side again in the relative seclusion of the kitchen. ‘After supper, though, all right?’

Despite the low level of Delia’s voice, the endearment made Patsy panic, so she peeked (she hoped surreptitiously) over her shoulder to stake out the way they had just walked. Admittedly most of their conversation, even now, could be passed off as being founded on friendly concern. But Patsy knew she had pushed the boundaries too far in the hallway, and people had a painful propensity to interrupt around here. There were certain aspects which would not have altered in her absence, and which it would be fatal to forget. Yet, from her brief reconnaissance, the redhead could tell that somehow, although it was still fairly early, there seemed to be no-one else around. Satisfied, she squeezed her girlfriend’s hand, and answered her question with an affectionate affirmative.   

‘Yes, Nurse, after supper.’ She (along with her stomach) was suddenly grateful for the gentle prodding. ‘I’m not sure I should admit this in the circumstances, but I’m really rather ravenous. Swallowing has been a struggle today, too, so your offer of Horlicks was an astute, if unappetising, one. I barely managed a bite at either breakfast or lunch. Diolch, Deels, darling.’

Croeso, cariad; you’re welcome, love. I’ll pop the kettle on. I’m proud of you, Pats.’

~

‘I’m not convinced you’re justified in being proud of me, Deels,’ Patsy said a little while later once they had the more certain cover of the closed bathroom door – and the running water.

‘I beg to differ, cariad.’ Delia softened the serious tone of her reply by dipping her hand into the bath and swishing it about slightly to check the temperature. ‘You gulped down two whole mugs of Horlicks with, as Phyllis would probably say, “nary a complaint”. And now you feel sufficiently safe to get undressed with me watching. That’s proper progress.’ Then, satisfied that her sweetheart wouldn’t be scalded when she got in, she turned off the taps. ‘Right, it’s ready when you are, Red.’

The older woman snorted at the reference to CK Dexter Haven’s nickname for Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, even as she felt herself blushing. ‘I’m not even closely comparable to Katharine Hepburn. The colour isn’t natural either! Nevertheless I must applaud your nifty attempt to change the subject – despite its lack of effect. I wasn’t brave enough to undress with you watching, was I? I stayed in the bedroom whilst you started the bath, and when you came to fetch me I had my dressing gown on. True, I’m about to take it off,’ she paused, shrugging the referenced article from her shoulders, ‘but you’re standing over there – in front of me – on the express instruction you stay exactly where you are unless I ask otherwise. The sight of my bare breasts is not a novel one to you. Therefore, as much as I love you for trying to make me feel that I’ve been brave, I must protest at your pride. Especially because that wasn’t what I meant. My words earlier were perfectly horrid. I promised you no emotional estrangement and then promptly did just that.’

She stopped speaking to step into the bath, and Delia welcomed the chance to respond. ‘That was very definite emotional engagement, Pats. I’m the only one it’s safe for you to lash out at, the same as you are for me, and you were telling me you don’t need protecting. And nothing you said was untrue; we have been friends for seven years, although much more than that for nearly five. I understand. But neither do I – need protecting, I mean. I don’t expect you to tell me everything at once, but you have to give me something.’

‘Wash my back.’     

Having endeavoured to avoid confrontation by looking down to the floor, at her girlfriend’s short reply, Delia’s head snapped up to find a pair of blue eyes staring intently into her own. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Eyes shut, but you’re already an expert at navigating the contours of my figure with clothes on, so I imagine you’ll cope just fine working by feel now, Deels.’ Patsy paused again, this time to test out the reaction to her offer, and smirked at the simultaneously amazed and adoring expression on her sweetheart’s face. ‘What?’

‘Now I really am proud of you, Pats.’

‘Show me how much, then. Come on, quickly, or else this flannel will get cold.’ The taller woman hid her slight panic beneath the guise of practicality, making an elaborate effort to dangle the cloth from the very tips of the fingers at the end of her outstretched arm.

Her (blushing) beloved brunette needed no further persuasion. She plucked the proffered flannel, and then almost fell over her feet in her haste to bolt around the bath and do her duty by her darling. ‘My eyes are closed, cariad,’ she called softly once she found a spot from where she could reach without straining. ‘Are you ready?’

‘I’m ready,’ came Patsy’s breathy reply.

Delia fumbled with the flannel, her fingers suddenly struggling to function without the aid of vision, but eventually eased her way over her sweetheart’s shoulders. ‘There, love, does that feel nice?’

‘I don’t know, Deels, does it?’

‘Don’t tease, Mount, you minx.’

Patsy gave a throaty chuckle. ‘It feels heavenly, thank you.’

‘How about this?’ The younger woman traced a tender trail on either side of her girlfriend’s spine, sweeping stray locks of hair from her path as she met them in her mind’s eye. Then, she sensed a slight stiffening, and knew she must have made contact with a scar. ‘All right, Pats? I can stop.’

‘No, keep going. Daliwch ati, as you would say, Deels.’

‘If you’re sure.’

‘I’m sure.’

Delia did so, caressing each of her cariad’s curves as if it were the most precious thing she had ever laid her hands on; because that was how she felt. Her beloved could only be made more beautiful by her “blemishes”. They belied, not just what she had been through and borne, but the fact that she had done so with grace – and patience, of course. As the smaller woman smoothed the skin she sought with the flannel, she imagined doing the same solely with her fingers, and finally persuading “her Pats” how perfect she was. For now, though, this was enough.

More than enough.

And such a privilege, she thought, when she at last reached the redhead’s coccyx. Patsy had let the whole of her back be washed without as much as a whimper. In fact, if the sigh which escaped her love’s lips as Delia left off her task was anything to go by, she had actually rather enjoyed it.

‘I’m done, darling. Anywhere else you’d like help with, or would you prefer to sort the rest yourself?’

‘My front, if you’d fancy it? My chest is feeling rather neglected now.’

Delia’s eyes opened of their own volition, forcing her to shift her gaze up to the ceiling in order to keep to the parameters of their agreement. Her breath caught at the combination of the husky tinge to Patsy’s voice and the phrase her partner had picked to pose the question; she stifled a girlish giggle, feeling suddenly giddy. ‘Of – of course, cariad,’ she stammered, coughing in an effort to clear the tightness in her own chest. This was turning into an evening beyond her expectations, and she was equally thrilled and terrified. ‘From where I’m standing, or from the front?’

‘Come around here, Deels. I want to see your face, sweetheart, and especially those beautiful blue eyes. Only if you’d like to, though, love; it’s not just me who needs to feel comfortable. You respected my wishes, so now it’s my turn to respect yours.’

‘I’d love to, though, love,’ Delia returned simply, the almost-repetition an anchor as she made the wobbly walk back to the bottom end of the bath. Then, in an effort to find a sort of equilibrium through efficiency, she dipped her hand into the water to gauge its warmth. ‘I’ll just add a bit more heat,’ she said, smirking, ‘since it wouldn’t do for you to catch a chill, Nurse Mount. They can be quite the occupational hazard, particularly around the chest, due to the proximity of the lungs. Especially for former smokers.’

Patsy was transfixed as she watched the Welshwoman turn the taps on, and then off, once again. ‘Now who’s being a tease, Nurse Busby?’ Then, less confidently, ‘Could we keep things slightly simpler, sweetheart?’

Her girlfriend was immediately contrite. ‘Sorry, Pats, I didn’t mean to push you too far.’

‘Not at all, love, it’s just that I ought to finish actually washing before it gets too late.’

‘I can definitely help with that, darling. And there’s no need to make excuses with me; I’m already in far deeper than I had bargained for tonight.’

The taller woman trembled with visible relief at the realisation she was not alone in facing vulnerability. ‘A wash and bed, then?’

‘Certainly.’ Delia knelt beside the bath as she uttered the affirmative, as much to emphasise her empathy as to increase her access to the area of the redhead’s body now requiring attention. Then, tentatively, she touched the recently refreshed flannel to her cariad’s clavicle. ‘All right?’

‘Mmm...’

‘Your pecs, then, Pats?’

‘Mmm...’

Her girlfriend’s eyes were wide, and Delia could tell that every cell in Patsy’s body was primed to focus only on two things – the sound of her voice as she spoke, and the area referenced when she did. Otherwise it would all be too overwhelming. If the effect was allowed to expand she would lose her sense of self-control and, with it, all semblance of safety.

Softly, softly.

‘Remember you can always ask me to stop.’

‘Stop. Sorry.’ A red head slumped in shame.

Delia draped the flannel over the edge of the bath to be sure it would not slip and startle them both with a sudden splash. Then she spread her fingers and thumbs as wide as they would stretch, so Patsy could see, if she chose to look. ‘Done. Empty hands. Did I hurt you, darling?’

‘No – I’m just wet – and cold. I need to wash my hair, too,’ Patsy clarified, shaking her still-dry locks. ‘Sorry, love, we should have started with that.’

‘No “sorries”. I understand completely. Why don’t I fill this jug and leave you to finish up? Your pyjamas are just over there, so you can put them on before you come back to the bedroom, which will give me a chance to change too.’

Delia grinned at her girlfriend to show that she really didn’t mind, and was gratified by a genuine grin in return. ‘All right. Diolch, Deels.’

The brunette bit back a retort about the unnecessary “thank you”; instead rising to her feet, to turn on the taps for a third and final time, and filling the jug. ‘I’ll see you soon, sweetheart,’ she said, smiling again as she stepped swiftly to the door and left.

~

When they were together again, clad in their nightclothes and the cover of a shared quilt, neither woman spoke immediately. Now that they were roommates, and did not have to catch moments alone for a cautious conversation, silence for its own sake was something to savour.

Still, they needed to talk, and Patsy knew the onus was on her to begin. ‘Sorry I spoilt things, love.’

Delia shook her head. ‘You didn’t. You actually stopped things from being spoilt; because they would’ve been if we’d continued whilst you were feeling uncomfortable. You can’t spell “consensual” without “sensual”, cariad.’

Patsy chuckled. ‘Trust you to come up with a quip like that, you quirky girl.’

‘It’s true. I don’t want to do anything unless we’re both completely happy to – d’you hear me?’

‘Loud and clear, love.’

‘Good.’ Delia took a breath. ‘I do have one question, though.’

‘Fire away.’

‘When you said before I left earlier that you were “wet”, Pats – did you just mean from the bath?’

‘No – I meant –’ A pause, prevaricating.

Delia locked her gaze to her love’s, silently pleading with her to maintain eye contact. ‘Between your legs?’

Patsy nodded, swallowing. The movement was so mundane, but it was more than enough for Delia to feel a corresponding clench in her core. The sudden rapidity of her sweetheart’s respiration made it clear how easily she could be brought to the edge – and in many ways the Welshwoman knew that was exactly what her girlfriend needed. Flooding her senses with pleasure would pull Patsy out of her panic, and coax her to reconfigure her reaction to such physical responses so it was positive rather than painful.

But something told her it was too much too soon, for them both, so she refrained from reaching out as her reflexes were roaring at her to do.

Instead, she merely nodded too. ‘That’s allowed, you know.’

‘I know – except I don’t, not really. Not yet. My body, and the primal parts of my brain, are begging for something my mind and emotions can’t even cope with contemplating right now. It’s so frustrating, and unfair; especially for you.’

‘Especially for you. I can wait, cariad, I’ve told you this.’

‘You are too good to be true.’

‘I’m definitely not.’ Delia’s chuckle sprang from low in her chest. ‘You wouldn’t say that if you knew how much I’m restraining myself right now.’

‘That’s what makes you good. Oh, Deels, darling – may I kiss you?’

‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure. It won’t progress to anything – not until we’ve talked properly – and that can’t happen until after your exams. But you asked me to give you something, so I am.’

Wide blue eyes met wide blue eyes at the echo of the brunette’s earlier words. ‘You already have. You let me wash you.’

‘That wasn’t directly related to the discussion we need to have. This is; think of it as an initial, illustrative example. Like you letting go of my hand on that first day after we were reunited – do you remember, Deels?’

‘How could I forget, Pats?’ Delia grinned now, delighted. ‘In that case, I guess I should just ask – may I kiss you back?’

‘If you should find yourself inclined to do so.’ Patsy returned her girlfriend’s grin, before stopping any further speech by fervently capturing Delia’s already-parted lips with her own. When they eventually broke away, mutually needing a moment for both breath and balance, she again prevented the Welshwoman from talking by asking a question herself. ‘Was that up to par?’

‘Way above, love. You have a very talented tongue, Nurse Mount.’

The taller woman blushed and giggled, but refrained from hiding her face in her pillow. ‘I think you may be biased, Nurse Busby. Either that or you’re so starved for affection you’ll accept anything...’

Delia caught the genuine concern in her favourite voice and pair of eyes. ‘Anything from you, yes, because your touch is a gift. And you are very talented, so expect me to be clamouring for many more lessons once my exams are out the way. But I don’t think that was what you were trying to illustrate, was it?’

‘It wasn’t, no. It was that doing that with you feels so right, sweetheart, but so wrong too. My mind tells me I shouldn’t want to, despite every other bit of me being desperate.’

Patsy braced herself for her girlfriend’s reply, holding her breath until she saw a brunette nod accompanied by the slightest of smiles. ‘Because we’re two women?’

The Welsh-accented question held no judgement, only warmth, and a willingness to wait – so Patsy pushed herself a little further. ‘No. Because – because I – because they –’

Now it was Delia’s turn to stop breathing, not whilst she waited for Patsy to speak, but because she needed no further words to aid her understanding – or her rage.

She had no chance to cut off her cariad and offer spoken comfort, though, because the pattern of her beloved’s breath had quickened again; now from distress rather than desire. ‘I’m going, Deels,’ the redhead gasped, and then continued, her voice catching between each word. ‘I don’t want to go, Deels. I want to stay. Kiss me, please, keep me present. Keep me here. Help me. Hold me. Kiss me like I kissed you under the bridge.’

So Delia did.

Because what else could she do?

Chapter Text

‘Are you all right to work today, Pats?’

‘Absolutely, Deels – why?’ Patsy looked up from the Clinical Room counter, on which she was methodically sorting through recently-sterilised instruments, as she replied to her girlfriend’s query by posing one of her own. They had come through early enough that even Phyllis – Nurse Crane, now they were at work – was not yet about. Still, she knew their older colleague could appear at any moment, so kept her words brief and her tone brisk.

Delia refused to be dissuaded by the redhead’s obvious desire for deflection, but lowered her voice out of habit. ‘I thought you might need some time to process last night, and I have a day off for a final boost of revision before my exam tomorrow, so I was going to suggest we ask Phyllis if you could have it off too?’

‘Last night?’

The brunette sighed at the fact that her sweetheart’s focus had somehow skipped everything except the first clause of her sentence. She had thought that they had made strides as significant as the length of her love’s legs, and now...

Damn it all. Time to be blunt, Busby. ‘Do you not remember what you told me?’

Patsy swallowed, shaken, but hid her fear behind frostiness. ‘I didn’t tell you anything, Deels, deliberately. You may have made assumptions based on conjecture, but...’

‘Don’t do this, Pats. You don’t need to pretend. What you said was sufficient for me to understand, even before you started panicking.’ Delia paused for breath, striving to keep her tone calm and measured, before she continued. ‘I’m not asking you to say anything more. At all. Especially not here.’ She paused again to gesture rather pathetically at their surroundings. ‘I’m just reminding you that it’s perfectly reasonable to take a break, not least because you must be physically and emotionally exhausted. I was happy to help however you needed me to,’ another pause to drop the volume of her speech further until she was whispering, ‘and goodness knows I’m never going to complain about kissing you, cariad, whether it’s to keep you in your senses or to get you out of them. But neither of us got any sleep last night. I’m fine, since I fortunately have the respite of revision; you don’t, but you deserve some downtime. Surely you must see that no-one would sanction, never mind expect, you to attend to labouring mothers in this state?’

Patsy simply stared. Then, after several agonising seconds of silence in which she finished putting everything away, she stepped across the short distance from the counter to where the smaller woman was standing, took her right hand, and pulled her out of the room and through the hallway. ‘Come on, then,’ she said curtly.

Delia had to run to keep up. ‘Pats, what –’

‘Upstairs. Now.’

‘Slow down, we might fall.’

‘You in front. Up you go.’

The brunette was bewildered but for once knew better than to argue. Only when they were safe behind the stability of their shut door did she trust herself to speak again. ‘That wasn’t fair, Pats, you went far too fast. I’ve been a lot slower ever since my accident, you’re aware of that, even if no-one else is.’

Her ginger girlfriend refused to meet her gaze. ‘Perhaps it’ll help you to understand how I’m feeling,’ she said softly.

Delia’s breath caught at the sadness in her sweetheart’s simple sentence. ‘Oh, cariad –’

Patsy’s voice cracked. ‘You promised you were happy to go at my pace...’

‘I am.’

‘If – you – were – you – wouldn’t – be – pushing – me –’ The older woman’s chest was heaving now as she held back the sobs her younger self was desperately trying to force out.

The shorter woman stopped herself from saying that she felt she had actually been doing the opposite of pushing, and hoping to persuade her love to rest, by responding instead with a single Welsh word. ‘Cwtch?’

A hesitant shake of red hair. ‘I can’t. I’ll cry.’

‘That’s allowed.’

‘There’s no time for tears.’

‘Would you say that to one of your patients, Patience, or to me?’

‘Of course not, but you have revision –’ she broke off, thinking of Sister Monica Joan’s words, and tentatively met Delia’s eyes.

The brunette smiled at the subtle yet substantial signal that things were beginning to thaw. ‘For compassion towards others to be effective, it has to be based in compassion towards yourself, love.’

‘Where do you get your wisdom, Nurse Busby?’

‘From a certain young woman, who helped me to rebuild my life, both personally and professionally, after a devastatingly traumatic event. That’s where, Nurse Mount.’

‘It’s not the same – is it?’

Delia’s smile grew at the way her sweetheart’s statement turned into a question. ‘It is. Now, cariad cwtch?

Patsy pulled them together herself; emotions now overriding all the energy she would usually have to expend on self-doubt. ‘Cwtch,’ she breathed, before burying her face in her beloved’s shoulder.

The pair stood silent and still for some time – because they were really a trio. Patsy’s two selves, adult and child, were struggling over whether or not to release the long pent-up pain; not through words, not yet, but even tears felt too close to talking.

Especially when Delia had imminent exams.

She had shared too much already. Anything more would pose a serious risk of scuppering her sweetheart’s remaining concentration for revision – and consequently her results.

And, as much as the child-half of herself wanted to wail and howl, the adult-half knew that (since they had held on so far) a few extra days would seem a short span in comparison to the torturous time after her Father had...told her? No, that wasn’t the right phrase to use. Towards the end, he hadn’t been capable of “telling her” what he wanted for breakfast, never mind broaching something as big as that. Yet the pseudo-silences of her nights spent nursing him had spoken volumes; showing her she wasn’t the only one who fought with flashbacks. And that, she thought now, was strange – because she supposed, originally at least, that she would have been the one to tell him.

Just as she had told him about Mother and Grace.

Just as, later, she had told Delia about them.

Just as, now, trembling, she was trying not to tell – and yet to tell – Delia about this.

No. Her woes could wait until the Welshwoman’s exam worries (or the exams themselves, at any rate, because the results wouldn’t be released until the New Year) were over. The hug had helped, and she was glad she had risked it, but there really was no time for tears. So, instead of sobbing, she began to stand upright – before stooping again to brush her lips across Delia’s shoulder in the briefest of kisses. At the startled glance from her sweetheart, she cursed not seeking the consent she was so adamant she have for herself. ‘Sorry, Deels, I should’ve asked first.’

A vehement shake of a brunette head. ‘No, Pats, we’re already having a cwtch. I appreciate the sentiment but, if you’re feeling safe enough to be spontaneous, then I’m thrilled. It was just unexpected, that’s all; I’d readied myself for crying and what I got was cusan.’

Patsy laughed softly. ‘Sorry to disappoint. I’ve got makeup on; but no, in all seriousness, I couldn’t cope with tears. They’re almost more exposing than talking – you know that, because it’s how you know I trust you – and I can’t bear to bare all this just yet. You saw how I responded to the minimal amount I revealed last night, love, and I’m quite frankly terrified about what might happen when I actually tell you everything...’ She trailed off, hoping her petite partner would be both placated and persuaded by the half-truth (which was, in reality, a whole-truth, but currently merely masquerading as a convenient excuse to cover up her concern for her beloved’s revision).

‘I know you’re deflecting, darling, but I don’t mind; because I do need to revise. Diolch.’

Her ginger girlfriend grinned – it had worked! ‘You’re right, I am,’ she said, her gratitude prompting her to be honest. ‘That’s why I want to work – I need something to distract me that doesn’t distract you.’

‘I can understand that, love, and even appreciate it under the circumstances – but I do think you’d be safer staying here today. Tell you what, let’s compromise; it’s still early enough that Phyllis is likely to be the only one about in the Clinical Room. Come downstairs with me, cariad, and at least ask her what she thinks? Slowly, this time, mind – neither of our reflexes are as fast as they should be this morning.’

Patsy nodded. ‘Of course. And I’m sorry about that, sweetheart, I was very unfair.’

‘What have I said to you about “sorries”?’ Delia chided gently, chuckling, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t listening enough that you felt you had to resort to a physical explanation. Although they do seem to be working rather well for us at the moment, don’t they?’

She winked, and Patsy blushed bright red. ‘I suppose they do.’

‘Downstairs, then, my long-legged love, to find out what Phyllis would prescribe for you.’

‘You set the pace, Deels,’ the older woman (who felt awfully young in this moment) demurred as they ventured out into the corridor.

Diolch, cariad, but I think that’s up to you right now.’

~

When they traipsed their way back to the room it seemed like they had only just left, they found (as they had thought they would) Phyllis. Their older colleague was doing an impressive impression of her namesake bird, her neck stretched upwards to allow her to see into one of the cupboards. Delia and Patsy exchanged a surreptitious smirk; both thinking of how much Nurse Crane’s intense focus resembled that of the redhead’s when the fancy, or rather frenzy, took her to clean – although this task was more of a stock-take than a scouring. The two young women waited for their friend to turn around, not wishing to startle her in such a state. Delia was delighted when her ever-cautious cariad took advantage of the extra time afforded and slipped a hand into her own – but then she felt that it was shaking slightly.

Ah.

Apparently self-preservation was slowly beginning to be prioritised over strictly-professional conduct. Perhaps delight was not quite the appropriate emotion in this instance.

Poor Pats.

The brunette squeezed her ginger girlfriend’s hand in both comprehension and comfort; coming, as she did so, to the decision that (whatever Phyllis prescribed) her darling would definitely not be on anything more demanding than telephone duty today. She didn’t care which strings she had to pull, they would be worth it if she could revise without worrying whether Patsy was safe to be out at work. Any tricks could wait in the wings for now, though, like the serial subterfuges of her (their) favourite Shakespeare play. Phyllis (Nurse Crane) had at last caught sight of them, and was beginning to speak; she would surely have something sensible to suggest.

‘You two are up early – or should I say late? From the dark circles under your eyes, the latter certainly seems more appropriate.’ She tutted, but her tone was soft, and her gaze kind.

‘Both, I suppose,’ said Patsy, before shocking herself back into silence with her honesty, and actually the fact that she could summon coherent speech at all. Then, after weighing up the relative risks of either covering or confiding, she continued. ‘My brain didn’t give us any chance to rest.’

Phyllis nodded. ‘I suspected as much,’ she paused, pensive, pondering whether or not to push. She pushed. ‘Did you talk?’

‘Yes –’

‘Hardly –’

The two girlfriends glanced at each other before collapsing into (overtired) giggles at their unison, yet contradictory, answers – which, much like the brief “becauses” of last night, communicated more than a convoluted conversation ever could.

‘Good for you, lass,’ Phyllis said when they at last looked up again, smiling sincerely at Patsy. ‘“Hardly” is halfway there. Not if it takes your nights away more than they already are being, though. Nurse Busby, am I right in recalling that you have today off to revise?’

‘You are,’ Delia beamed as she confirmed what her colleague and comrade clearly already knew, cheering inwardly that Nurse Crane sensed both her concern and Patsy’s chafing against it.

‘Well, then, will you both permit me to propose a slight shift in the schedule? You might remember that Nurse Franklin has some hours to make up in advance of her imminent skiing adventure – I’m sure she would be more than happy to cover for you, should you wish to try and get some sleep, Nurse Mount.’

‘What’s this about you needing sleep, Patsy?’

‘I can’t decide if your timing is impeccable or inconvenient, Trix,’ the redhead said, tiredness and emotion emphasising the polish of her Received Pronunciation as she grinned at her recently-arrived best friend. ‘These two are doing their best to bully me into going back to bed after a truly awful night; and I’m not holding out much hope that you’ll be a willing ally in formulating the opposing argument.’

The blonde returned the smile sheepishly. ‘Despite wanting to avoid giving you another of your already ample reasons to brand me a hypocrite for the foreseeable future, sweetie, I’m afraid I think they’re on the right track.’ She paused to hold up a hand as Patsy huffed. ‘Far be it from me to pass disparaging comment on another woman’s appearance, since I know full well how much effort is required to maintain a façade of effortlessness. I’m sure we all do, come to that. But you do look exhausted, and I for one think you deserve nothing less than a day to look after yourself instead of other people. Sometimes we have to accept that we need help, as hard as it is to admit,’ she finished softly.

Patsy’s breath caught in cognisance of the trust it must have taken Trixie (the now aptly-named Nurse Franklin) to talk so frankly, and Delia deftly squeezed her darling’s hand again as Nurse Crane nodded approvingly. Then the four of them stood in silent sisterhood for a while, no-one really wanting or willing to break this bond and be forced to face reality, even (perhaps especially) if all that reality meant was a day in bed.

But work was work, and they all knew it wouldn’t wait much longer.

So, steeling herself for the potentially-sickening onslaught of praise, Patsy spoke up to voice her submission to the suggestion of sleep. Delia would be revising, after all, so she wouldn’t have to fear the lonely emptiness of her own thoughts. ‘Very well; since it would seem I’ve been outnumbered, I’ll make myself scarce, and try to do justice to your good judgement by actually resting for a bit.’ Her friends and girlfriend simply smiled – a gesture the redhead returned with what she could now recognise as relief. ‘I’ll be off then, shall I? See you upstairs, Deels?’

~

After shutting the door to their room for the second time in the short span of that morning, Delia clasped her cariad’s hand in her own without even the slightest subtlety, turning the palm upwards so she could paddle her fingers playfully across its centre. Using this movement as a distraction to ward off an absence, she asked what she felt was an important question in light of her task and the manner in which it might conflict with tiredness. ‘Are you sure I won’t disturb you? I can always make myself comfortable on the couch.’

Her sweetheart sounded so sincere that, for a split-second, Patsy was sure she was serious. ‘No, of course not,’ she stammered, her stability slipping as she eyed the Welshwoman warily. ‘I’d really rather not be on my own...’

‘Oh, cariad,’ came the immediately-reassuring answer, and the couple had a shared sense of déjà-vu before Delia continued. ‘Is it that bad?’

‘I’m afraid so.’

‘Do you think you’ll actually be able to sleep?’

Patsy nearly choked on her gratitude at the level of her girlfriend’s understanding. ‘Not likely, no.’

The smaller woman smiled sadly, saying nothing, and squeezed the hand she still held before letting it go and walking over to Patsy’s bed, beckoning the taller woman to follow. Then, feeling underneath the pillow, she found a favoured pair of striped pyjamas and held them out in the hope that her meaning would be clear. Still, speech would do no harm in the circumstances. ‘Put these on, Pats, please. I won’t look, I’ll be busy getting my books out, but then we can cuddle up and keep each other warm at the very least. You never know, the monotony of my murmurings as I go over my notes might be enough to make you nod off – or, failing that, you could always test me.’

Patsy bent down and began to take off her shoes; a convenient way of both conveying compliance and covering her face to hide her embarrassment at what she was about to offer. ‘I actually wondered if I might be of use as a practical model so you could try out your techniques for dealing with different kinds of presentations...’

Delia did her best not to stutter in surprise as her sweetheart looked up shyly, now only in stockings – and the rest of her uniform, of course. ‘You mean you’re happy for me to touch your stomach?’

‘I am – because it won’t really be mine, will it? It’ll be a proxy for all the pregnant ones you’ll be palpating after you pass.’

Making a mental note to address Patsy’s deliberate distancing from bodily experience at the earliest possible opportunity after her exams, for now Delia merely voiced her doubt at the older woman’s confidence in her capability. ‘If I pass.’

When you pass,’ the redhead said with a stern yet soft certainty that made her petite partner wonder which of them was more in need of comfort today.

‘See what I mean about the source of my wisdom? You’ve been coaxing me to be kind to myself from the very first day we met, cariad.’

Her ginger girlfriend grinned as she did up the last button on her pyjama shirt. ‘Reciprocity.’

‘Which is what relationships are all about. Speaking of, are you ready for me to examine you, Mrs Mount-Busby?’

‘I’m afraid there must have been a mix up with my file, Nurse,’ Patsy purred as she lay down on the bed, thinking how much she had missed this sort of light-hearted talk. ‘Because that isn’t my name.’

‘Oh? Sorry, I could’ve sworn that was what I read on your notes.’

‘It’s Mrs Busby-Mount – my wife and I discussed this at length over the years, but eventually I found a way to persuade her that alphabetical was the only acceptable order.’

‘I imagine that must have been tricky; however did you manage it?’

Both women’s breathing was shallow now, and two pairs of blue eyes sparkled with a curious mixture of silliness and sadness as they wondered how they had so naturally got to talking about this topic. Marriage and pregnancy; two of the most prevalent aspects of their professional lives, but most conspicuously absent in their personal ones.

Perhaps not everything had to be dealt with in a deep, meaningful conversation?

‘No, it was easy,’ Patsy paused, deciding if she could phrase things delicately enough to placate her brain into staying present. ‘She did extremely well in her midwifery exams, and afterwards I told her a terrible secret – so she understood why “Busby” was needed first, as a buffer in our mutual battle against everything my own surname implied.’

Fiction made fact easier to explain.

Chapter Text

‘You’re not cycling, are you, Deels?’

‘No, Pats, don’t worry – I’m too stressed for it to be sensible, even without this wind. Phyllis insisted that she’ll drive me over before she heads to her first patient, on the condition that I’m happy to make my own way back once we’re let out.’ Delia smiled up at her tall girlfriend to cement the redhead’s reassurance, and was gratified by a grin in return.

Patsy was clearly pleased at Nurse Crane’s level of foresight; and all the more so now that it wasn’t being employed with her in mind. Two can play that ganging up game, Busby, she thought, not a little smugly. Instead of verbalising her involvement, however, she merely nodded. ‘Good,’ she said simply, before gazing at the sky above them, as they stood on the front steps, and sniffing the air. ‘It smells like snow.’

‘It does, although the forecast thus far has only said that the wind is due to get stronger tomorrow. So maybe don’t mention the “s” word – Trixie’ll have your guts for garters at even the slightest suggestion that they might miss their flights!’

‘Oh gosh, you’re right! But they don’t leave for ages yet, surely it wouldn’t be a problem?’

Delia held back a chuckle as her darling’s eyes darted towards the (firmly shut) door – it was a novelty that her nerves were provoked by a cause other than potential discovery. ‘You can never be “sure” of anything until it happens; and on that somewhat sobering note, I’d best stop dallying, because Phyllis is likely to be out soon.’

‘Wait.’ The older woman stooped downwards and, for the briefest of moments, Delia was convinced that her cariad was about to throw caution to that very same strong wind and kiss her in full view of the convent and its inhabitants. Consequently, when the sole sensation she was greeted with was the snugness of a scarf around her neck, she couldn’t help but sigh (surreptitiously and selfishly) in disappointment. Then Patsy spoke again, though, and all her mind’s murmurs melted away. ‘Keep warm, Deels, and do well. I know you will.’

Softly, softly, her younger sweetheart reminded herself – like the snow it seems will soon be underfoot.

Diolch, darling,’ the Welshwoman whispered.

Croeso, cariad,’ the redhead said, her voice’s volume equally low as she returned the other half of the (their) phrase. Then, louder, ‘I could meet you afterwards, if you’d like, and we could walk back together for lunch?’  

‘Oh – I thought I might stay for a bit, actually, between the exam and my first home visit. That’s partly why I let Phyllis persuade me to let her give me a lift. I need a quiet space to get my thoughts together before the next paper. I know it’s not until the twenty-eighth, but there’s Christmas in the middle, and you know what it’s like around here at this time of year...’ Delia trailed off, chuckling, eyebrows raised.

Her girlfriend joined in the giggle, but hollowly. ‘Yes, of course.’ She knew only too well what “it” was like, but she also knew that “it” was not what Delia meant. Still, she could hardly talk when it came to inability to communicate – she could hardly talk, full stop.

No wonder her “Welsh Wonder” needed a break.

Hell, she needed a break; and it wasn’t fair to expect that they spent every waking moment together just because their being together was the closest thing she got to a break.

Reciprocity, Patience.

Your guiding principles are slipping, Patience.

Patsy knew she should be thrilled that her petite partner was putting herself first for once, and a huge part of her (the independent, adult part of her) was. Especially around these exams. Yet another (probably huger) part of her was anything but thrilled, though – and it was this “selfish, immature, decidedly impatient” Patience (to use her Father’s words from oh-so-many moons ago) who threatened to spring to the surface now as she saw her sweetheart off.

Delia didn’t want to come home to Nonnatus for lunch. Delia didn’t want her to meet her.

Delia doesn’t want me to meet her.

Of course she doesn’t – you aren’t exactly cheery company right now, are you?!

She’s being so patient with you, Patience; the least you can do is return the favour.

Reciprocity, Patience.

‘Pats? Are you all right? Phyllis is here; I need to leave...’

Patsy looked down at her hands to discover that Delia was rubbing slow, soothing circles on both of the palms. ‘Yes, sorry, of course,’ she said (she hoped smoothly), and smiled. ‘I’ll see you whenever you resurface.’

Whenever we both do.

Then, bending down on the pretence of tucking a wisp of hair whipped up by the wind behind the brunette’s ear, she whispered the words she really wanted to say. ‘Good luck, love. Pob lwc. And, yes, I did remember that from when we were cramming for finals. Caru ti, cariad,’ she breathed, before standing upright to wish Nurse Crane a sincere “Good Morning”, along with sly thanks for the assistance with travel.

As she waved the two women off, she felt her throat tighten, but forced the thoughts which had caused it to constrict from her consciousness. Apparently her absences were now arriving à propos of, if not nothing, then neediness.

Wonderful.

~

‘All set, lass?’ Phyllis grinned gently at Delia as her younger colleague shut the door of her Morris Minor and got settled. ‘You’ll be fine. And so will she.’ When the Welshwoman did not respond, the Yorkshire-woman tutted, and continued talking whilst she turned on the engine and swung them out onto the road. ‘Think of it this way – the sooner you’re qualified, the sooner you’ll feel like a fully-fledged member of our family. You already are, of course, but you need to realise that; and putting on the uniform will give you a last push, to use a labour-related metaphor. And, if that’s not enough incentive to pass with flying colours (because I know the two of you are equally terrible at thinking only of yourselves),’ she paused, watching her passenger flush pink, ‘she won’t have any more excuses not to talk to you.’

‘She’s under no obligation...’

Phyllis shook her head and slipped, as she did so, back into her “Nurse Crane” persona – because it was necessary. ‘No, and she knows that; but she also knows, from the help you’ve given her with her grief, that you are the best-placed person to help with this. I saw it in her eyes the other night. She’s only holding off for your sake – and that of your career. You can do this, Delia,’ she said decisively.

‘How can you be so sure?’

‘I see myself in you – in both of you – and I did it. And she did it. So it’s time that you did it. For you. For her. For me.’ Phyllis paused to gauge her younger colleague’s reaction once again, and was thrilled to see a tentative smile. ‘Now, Nurse Busby, do you feel prepared?’

The Welshwoman nodded as her smile grew slightly wider. ‘I do.’

‘That’s the ticket. You’ve done more than enough to deserve your medical doctorate, never mind a midwifery certificate.’

‘I didn’t have you down as fond of hyperbole, Phyllis,’ Delia sputtered as her shoulders shook with laughter.

‘That’s because I’m not – I’ve lost count of how many stories Patsy has told me in which the principal point of interest has been you spotting that a consultant has either misdiagnosed or completely missed a symptom.’

The smaller woman sat silently, digesting, and only spoke when she caught the older woman’s smirk in the rearview mirror. ‘And when, pray tell, has she regaled you with these ridiculously overblown tales?’

‘Whenever she gets the chance; both before she left and since she’s been back. Especially after your accident, for obvious reasons. She loves to sing your praises, lass. Almost as much as she loves you.’

‘Now I may add “sentimentality” to my list of unexpected facets of your personality.’

Phyllis coloured at the apparent slight and attempted to sniff as if affronted. ‘Clichés only become clichés because there’s truth in them to begin with, Nurse Busby. Ask Sister Monica Joan. But after your exam, mind.’

Delia grinned at the flustered face beside her, enjoying the evidence that her mentor was not above receiving a taste of her own medicine. ‘I think you’re right, though. She’s been so wonderfully helpful and supportive. She tried to sleep yesterday, but couldn’t, so volunteered to help me revise my palpation techniques.’

‘I shan’t ask how, because I don’t think you’d tell me if I did, nor that I would want you to do so...’

Now it was the mentee’s turn to feign affront. ‘Why, Nurse Crane, I assure you there’s nothing to tell! Only that she was absolutely lovely – yet how did I repay her? By refusing her offer to meet me, after my exam but before lunch, so that we could walk home together, that’s how.’

‘Good on you.’

Of all the responses Delia might have expected, this was not one. ‘Sorry?’

‘I think occasional, structured, pre-planned time apart is exactly what you need. You may have nine months to catch up on, but you don’t have to cram it all into one tiny gap. It’s not last minute revision; you could say, in fact, that it requires the opposite strategy. This is going to be a long game, lass, and it’s absolutely essential that you both have sufficient energy to tackle it together. Sometimes it takes separateness to underscore the importance of togetherness – and I don’t mean just after you’ve had arguments.’

Her younger colleague smiled ruefully. ‘I gathered.’

‘I’m glad,’ the older woman said, winking, ‘but that’s enough blathering on from me for now, Nurse Busby. We’re here.’

‘Thank you, Phyllis,’ Delia said sincerely, as the car drew to a stop and she slid out of her seat. ‘For the lift, the pep talk – and everything else.’

‘Oh, thank me for the pep talk, by all means, but not the lift; it wasn’t my idea this time.’

‘You mean –’

‘I do. I’ll trust you’ll get your own back by making her congratulate you suitably on your stellar performance on this paper?’

~

No pressure, then, Busby.

Delia allowed the tiniest of smiles to twitch at the corner of her lips as she waved goodbye to Phyllis; then she walked into the exam hall to register and find her spot. At least she was in the front row – perhaps Patsy had a point about the advantage of surnames being in alphabetical order. After all, her gorgeously generous girlfriend had offered her a map with which she could now make her way through this exam. Giving her pedantic partner permission to have her preferred order in their joint surname would be a small sacrifice in comparison to everything else Patsy had promised they would share.

She would present her with that present later tonight, as compensation for the lack of company at lunch. Yes, that was a good idea.

In the meantime, though (she mused as the signal to start was shown), they would both have to make do with the ticking of the clock, and the everything and nothing which transpired in the midst of each movement of its – and their – hands.

Patsy’s hands as they performed practised examination or delivery after practised examination or delivery.

Delia’s hands as she wrote the examination which was the key to her performing those practised examinations or deliveries (after practised examinations or deliveries).

And those four hands now seemed to fuse as the Welshwoman deftly translated her darling’s practical guidance from yesterday into the medical and theoretical jargon required to secure her the coveted title of State Certified Midwife. Well, some of it at any rate, because there was still another exam to go – and a mere seven days before she sat it.

But this one was first, and she would be considerably less fearful once it was over. So, pen speeding across the pages on the desk in front of her, she channelled her cariad.

And Nurse Crane.

And her cariad again.

Patsy and Phyllis, the pair of them, perennially pushing her to do her best work...

Then, finally, at that thought, she channelled herself – because she was Delia Busby and, if Delia Busby was anything, she was diligent and determined.

She knew what she needed to know.

If she had been able to comfort “her Pats” in the awful aftermath of the Bissette birth, she was certain she could cope when confronted with her own version of the circumstances, or in any of the others which might conceivably crop up. It just seemed strange to have to convince other people of that in such a clinical manner – she’d forgotten how it felt to take exams.

Needs must, eh, Nurse Busby?

The husky tone of her redhead’s voice rushed into the brunette’s mind, acting yet again as a helping hand to hoist her over the hill of mid-answer anxiety which had suddenly appeared. Delia began tapping her pencil just to the side of her paper in a timid effort to match the rhythm of what she would be doing with her hands were she assisting a labouring mother whose baby was in an unexpected position.

You can do this, Deels. Daliwch ati. Keep going.

Her sweetheart’s voice surfaced for a second time, and the Welshwoman felt her scalp tingling with concentration.

Yes, yes I can, Delia thought, making sure to train her gaze at the desk in case she accidentally mouthed the rest of her response. Diolch, cariad. I can do this.

So she did.

~

Once the allotted time had elapsed, they were all ushered out of the room – whether or not they were ready to be. Then came the chorus of either relief or despair which follows any exam. Each person’s affinity with a particular emotion was prescribed by their level of preparation beforehand, of course, but also by the way this preparation had matched to the minds of those whose responsibility it had been to set the questions. Rather than join in with the consequential kerfuffle and chaos (since she was aware it was all academic now anyway) Delia used it to cover a quick exit. She wanted to get her further study over and done with as speedily as possible, both because she had what was actually a full day’s worth of district rounds to fit into an afternoon, and because she needed to be back at Nonnatus tonight before Patsy. Her darling deserved nothing less than that after her unquestioning acquiescence this morning; but, if the Welshwoman was even going to contemplate achieving her goal, she could not afford to be caught by an old classmate.

The resultant sprint through the stomping ground of their shared student days gave the brunette a renewed sense of her reasons for – well, for a lot of things, really. For leaving the London, principally, and for retraining. She had told herself (and others) at the time that it was purely due to professional pragmatism, but each step she took now (literally) told her how wrong the choice of those two words had been. For it was for nothing but personal preservation; pushing along on Male Surgical just wasn’t pleasurable post-accident. Nor, for that matter, practical – a fact she was finally forced to acknowledge fully, over two years since the beginning of her rehabilitation, as she felt her feet begin to drag from the effort of running for what couldn’t have been much more than two minutes.

Patsy had sensed the need for this change of pace long before she had, of course, and had even been the one to broach it. It was funny, Delia thought now as she reached the library, how they were both so good at reading each other but utterly incompetent when it came to reading themselves. But even with that understanding, finding the path towards the realm of (something approximating) her recovery had been a trial, and the process once they did so had been a slow and arduous one. They had both been desperate for everything to rebalance itself, semi-miraculously, overnight; for two non-religious people their sudden surge of faith in such possibilities had bordered on fanaticism.

She paused at the entrance to the library, lost in sensations she had supposed long-forgotten. Rage that Patsy wasn’t simply prepared always to walk alongside her, or wait for her to catch up, coupled with guilt that she could not move fast enough herself to repay what she considered to be the redhead’s saintly ability, most days, to be unfailingly patient with her. Then, brought back to their current circumstances by an especially fierce gust of wind as it rattled the glass panes lining the length of the corridor, high above her head, she turned around.

Revision could wait.

An early evening cuddled up with her cariad could not.

And she had not thought about the extra time walking home would take, at least not enough to factor that into the route she had planned out for her patient visits afterwards.

Patsy’s voice rang in her ears for a third time.

Best get a wiggle on, eh, Welshie?

~

Several hours (nearly exactly seven in fact) later, as she walked towards Nonnatus through the wind for the final time that day, Delia laughed softly. She should have taken her own advice to Patsy that morning and not been so sure she would get home when she wished. Bodies and minds, either patients’ or practitioners’, paid no heed to best laid plans; and hers had not even been well laid.

So much for (gently) surprising her girlfriend with the gift of an early evening cwtch.

Glancing into the lounge as she passed it, though, she was surprised to be pounced on – albeit not by the person she may have expected. ‘Oh hello, Delia, sweetie,’ Trixie trilled as she wrapped her friend in a tight hug, before leaping away. ‘Gosh, you’re freezing! Has the wind got worse? Have you been walking in it all day!?’

The brunette nodded, grinning as the blonde’s exuberance rapidly transformed from friendly enquiry to clinical concern. ‘Yes and yes, Trix,’ she said, in what she hoped was a soothing tone, ‘but I’m fine, really. It’s rather a life-affirming feeling, walking in wind like that, and it was certainly safer than cycling – especially with the stress of my exam.’

‘Goodness, how rude and forgetful of me! Of course! How did it go?’

Delia grinned again, this time at the way her deflection had worked. ‘All right I think, thanks, although it seems an absolute age ago now. I’ve seen so many patients since this morning!’

‘I suppose it does, and you have. I also suppose you’re in dire need of a hot drink – would you like me to make one for you?’

‘Only if you were planning to pop the kettle on for yourself?’

‘I was, so I shall; and then I expect you’ll want to head upstairs sharpish, sweetie? Patsy said she’d pop your pyjamas in the bathroom so you could get changed in private. She’s already in bed.’

The Welshwoman’s playfulness vanished in an instant. ‘Is she all right? It’s only just gone eight o’clock...’

‘She seemed in fine fettle to me. She muttered something good-natured about Nurse Crane being overly-protective in your absence. But I’ll sort you that drink as some speedy supper so you can go and check on her yourself. Horlicks?’

Delia nodded. ‘Thanks, Trix, you’re a brick.’

~

Drinks made and pyjamas on, the brunette could at last pad barefoot to their bedroom and check on, and in with, her cariad. ‘Pats, love, are you awake?’ she called softly as she pushed the door open, then closed again, with her elbow to compensate for the two mugs she was carrying.

‘Of course I am, Deels, it’s only just gone eight...’ the redhead said, smiling as she rolled over.

The smaller woman smirked at the parity between their thought-patterns. ‘That’s what I said to Trix when she told me.’

‘It’s nothing, honestly – Phyllis promised me that I’m allowed early mornings (meaning she won’t begrudge me joining her in the Clinical Room first thing, like we did yesterday) if I pair them with early nights. So I humoured her; despite knowing it won’t make a jot of difference to my sleep. But that’s not important. How did it go?’

‘Fine, I think – largely thanks to you, Mrs Busby-Mount.’

Patsy’s breath caught for a moment as she registered her petite partner’s implication. ‘So that’s settled, then, is it?’ she asked, eyes sparkling.

‘’Tis indeed.’ Delia nodded as she placed their mugs on the bedside table before slipping under the covers to join her girlfriend. ‘It doesn’t mean you get away with sneakily arranging lifts on my behalf, mind,’ she added, putting a still-chilly hand on the slightly bare midriff which was now at conveniently close range.

‘Argh!’

The brunette pulled away immediately at the look of horror on the redhead’s face. ‘Sori, cariad, that was mean of me. I know how sensitive you are to touch right now.’

Her ginger girlfriend giggled. ‘Oh no, don’t worry darling, please. You’re just so cold!’

‘I know. The wind was quite something out there.’

Patsy raised an eyebrow. ‘Did you walk all day?’

‘Only because someone thought I shouldn’t cycle.’

‘Right. Put them back.’

‘What?’

‘Your hands. Both of them. Put them back on my stomach, and keep them there until they’re warm again.’

‘Sure?’

‘Sure. No wandering, but it’ll teach me a lesson – besides, I’ve missed your touch today, Nurse Busby.’

It was Delia’s breath which caught now. ‘Well then, Nurse Mount, I’m more than happy to oblige.’

Chapter Text

Delia checked the watch pinned to the front of her uniform and sighed. Slumped down in the chair she had so painstakingly (literally) placed in front of their dressing table, supposedly poring over her books, she had somehow spent two precious hours of the revision time afforded by a morning off doing... well, absolutely nothing. Admittedly, had anyone chanced to look, she would, to all intents and purposes, have appeared to be reading. Attentively, at that. So much so that she somehow seemed to have fooled herself that she was paying attention. She might even have pronounced her progress to be positively productive; an assertion to which the difference between the numbers of the page she had begun with and the one she was now on would ably attest. In truth, though, the only productive element of her effort (or, rather, the lack thereof) was procrastination.

Because she couldn’t recall any of what she had ostensibly revised. It wasn’t that she hadn’t known it before, and forgotten it. Far from it, in fact. It seemed, simply, that she had no recollection of rereading it now.

Her breath caught as her mind jumped straight to catastrophe.

This hadn’t happened since she had left the hospital to go home to Wales. Her amnesia in general had lingered longer, much longer, but her short term memory had stabilised fairly swiftly.

Oh God, she thought, as she began gasping for air – what if this was a sign that her symptoms had returned? It would render her unfit for work, and she couldn’t face that now. Not as she was so close to qualifying. Not when Patsy needed her to finish so she would have the headspace to hear as well as listen.

Poor Pats.

She’s being so patient with you, Delia; she definitely doesn’t need the extra pressure of knowing you have a nagging concern about niggles in your neurophysiology.

Buck up, Busby.

Back to work.

She’ll be off shift soon, too, and you need to have something to show her when she gets in, before you head out.

So, straightening her posture in a belligerent bodily attempt to silence the shrill voices invading her head, Delia knuckled down – only to be distracted again almost immediately by the sound of her darling’s dulcet tones just outside their door.

‘I’m back, Deels, how are you doing? Will it disturb you if I come in?’

‘No, not at all, that’s fine,’ the Welshwoman fought to control the wobble of her words, and failed.

She hadn’t really even needed to finish her sentence, however. At the merest murmur of discontent, her beloved had barged in and wrapped her seated shoulders in a gentle, grounding embrace around the back of her chair. ‘I know my hands are cold, cariad,’ the taller woman said softly, grinning at her girlfriend in the mirror when she managed to giggle at the combined physical and linguistic gesture, ‘but I sensed you needed a cwtch. What’s happened, Welshie?’

‘I – I can’t –’ the shorter woman stopped, shaking her head at the shake in her voice.

‘Take your time, love, I’m here,’ Patsy promised, squeezing her sweetheart’s shoulders as both proof and a pause. ‘For the duration, too, I think, not just lunch, because there’s bank after bank of snow out there. Something tells me there’ll be no skiing for Trixie, and no cycling for us, for a good while. Have you looked out the window?’

‘No. At least, I may have done, but I didn’t register it. I haven’t registered anything all morning. I can’t remember a single paragraph, let alone a page, of what I was supposed to be revising. Oh, Pats –’

‘Oh, Deels –’

They both laughed aloud at their reflexive responses, and Delia was able to draw breath before continuing. ‘I’m so worried I’m regressing, possibly even relapsing, and neither of us have the energy for that right now.’

‘I have two thoughts, my love, if I may?’

A brunette nod in answer to the redhead’s request. ‘You may, Nurse Mount.’

Patsy flushed pink at the slight smirk now deepening Delia’s dimples, but was glad to note the signal that her girlfriend was starting to relax. ‘Thank you kindly, Nurse Busby. Firstly, your final point is a fallacy – we absolutely have the energy for anything and everything, I can assure you of that, especially if we face it together. Secondly, though, I can understand your anxiety, but I really don’t think it’s necessary, darling. This sounds more like one of my absences than a memory lapse and (whilst I’m with you that they’re far beyond frustrating) they feel worse than they actually are. More than that, they’re exacerbated by stress, so I must admit I’m not in the least surprised. You’ve been studying far too hard, sweetheart. You even worked on Christmas Day.’

‘Only because you were out delivering babies!’

‘Ah yes, but I’m a humbug, Deels. It was a deliberate ploy on my part. You, however, love all aspects of this holiday; so for you to skip a single moment of festivity is a fairly startling suggestion that you’re taking this too seriously.’

‘Too seriously? Don’t you want me to qualify, cariad!?’

‘Of course I do, Deels – the sooner you have your certificate, the sooner you’ll be on Clinic, and the sooner we can partner up when you need a “senior midwife” to observe during your early days of attending births.’

‘Excuse you, Pats, I don’t think that’s entirely your decision; or within protocol.’

‘I’m not sure what you’re insinuating. I’m barely able to be touched without flinching, for goodness’ sake. I’m hardly going to rig the rota in order for us to have time for funny business, am I?’ Patsy broke off briefly as her younger girlfriend (apparently very much acting her age) snorted at this accurate appraisal of their current situation. ‘Behave, Busby,’ she admonished with a wink, ‘I only want to impress upon you that you know all this already. Definitely well enough for this blip today not to warrant you scaring yourself thinking your short term memory has disappeared again. All right?’

Delia nodded. ‘All right. Diolch, Pats.’

Dim problem, Deels,’ the redhead grinned at her girlfriend in a firm, but fond, gesture of reassurance. Then, standing up slightly, she tapped out a rhythm on the shoulders beneath her palms, as she continued to talk. She hoped that the slight pressure would have a similar effect to the circles her beloved so often drew on her back. ‘Speaking of the rota, Phyllis has shifted it because of the snow, so we’re both off after lunch. She said she didn’t want you overexerting yourself before your exam tomorrow.’

‘Oh. Oh dear. Now I have no excuse not to revise, but I’m overwhelmed just thinking about what I need to do to catch up.’

Patsy’s heart clenched at her petite partner’s genuine distress. ‘You don’t need to do anything, darling; in fact, I forbid you from spending one more moment bent over these books. Let’s go and play outside.’

Delia chuckled, her smile lighting up her face and eyes like the brightness of unexpected sunshine on snow, even as she shook her head. ‘We can’t, cariad, we’re both in uniform.’

‘Hmph. I suppose you’re right. Well, at least I made you laugh again, my love. I do actually have a sensible suggestion –’

‘Oh? Do tell?’

‘Are you happy for my hands to leave your shoulders for a second?’

A brunette nod gave the redhead relief to rustle about in her pockets, and eventually pull out a set of keys. ‘These. There’s a flat soon to be for sale just a few streets away; a perfectly reasonable walk, even in this weather. The previous tenants left two weeks ago because their landlord, the current owner, is starting to do it up in the New Year and they wanted to be resettled before Christmas. I delivered his second child before I went to Hong Kong, and the tenants took all their furniture with them. The perfect pairing, since it meant I managed to convince him to let us have the keys for a bit, so we could check it out for size if we happened to have some time to ourselves...’ She paused, aware she was rambling, and keen to gauge her girlfriend’s reaction reflected in the mirror before she allowed herself to get too carried away.

‘Oh, Pats...’ Delia trailed off, lost for words with love.

‘“Oh, Pats...” Positive or negative?’ the older woman clarified warily.

‘Very definitely positive, darling.’

A smile like sunshine on snow again, and Patsy sensed her own insides beginning to melt, too. She giggled; blushing under what she felt was the beatific benevolence of her better half’s gaze. ‘Oh, good; I’m so glad. I wanted to give this to you on Christmas morning, but then I was called out early and got back late, and I wasn’t sure when we’d next be off together.’

‘You don’t need to explain. You gave me far too many presents this year anyway, Patience.’

‘I can never give you too many presents, Delia.’

‘Shhh, cariad, clichés don’t suit you,’ the Welshwoman whispered as she stood up. ‘Right then, Red. Lunch, and then we’ll bundle up before we leave. No catching colds on our arctic adventure, some of us have exams to sit tomorrow.’

‘Yes, Nurse Busby. Certainly, Nurse Busby.’

‘Do you actually want to get out of this bedroom, Nurse Mount? Because I’m on my best behaviour, at your request, but, if you keep this up, I may not be held responsible for my actions – especially after a rubbish morning of non-revision.’

‘Sorry, sweetheart, I’m just giddy because we might’ve found a home.’

~

Any heightened senses which had remained over the meal were quickly cooled off as they opened the front door and stepped out into what they both agreed could aptly be classified as the “Big Freeze”. ‘No wonder there have been issues with the plumbing, eh, Pats?’

‘A little decorum, Delia, please. We are both adults, after all, aren’t we? Adults about to embark on the potential purchase of our first property...’

‘We are indeed.’ The shorter woman stifled a chuckle at the combination of Patsy’s suddenly impeccable posture and speech, before deciding that now was as good a time as any to raise the other subject her darling had been astutely avoiding since they had begun to talk about this move. ‘I’m paying rent, just to remind you, Red,’ she said on a breath as brisk as the breeze around them.

‘We’ll see, Welshie, we’ll see.’

Well, that was better than the outright refusal which had pervaded all previous iterations of this talk. Softly, softly on this score, too, it seemed – like the snow there was now no denying was underfoot.

Delia let her train of thought drift as she pondered the picturesque beauty before her – both Poplar’s and Patsy’s. Just as the ground glistened and glittered, made into a masterpiece by virtue of the stark simplicity of its snowy blanket, her girlfriend’s porcelain skin and red hair against this same backdrop rendered her (in the brunette’s admittedly biased eyes) more stunning even than a Pre-Raphaelite portrait. Whilst the older woman walked, all long limbs and perfect poise, her younger partner felt her own colour rise as she (covertly) took in the ruddiness of those chiselled cheeks.

‘Enjoying the view, Deels? You’re not too cold, are you, cariad?’

The purr of Patsy’s more pronounced accent, paired with the endearment from her native tongue (an apparent paradox that felt, funnily, never more appropriately-placed) caught the Welshwoman off-guard and she jumped. ‘Yes,’ she stammered shyly, ‘it’s beautiful. Bloody freezing, but beautiful.’

Her girlfriend’s reply, when it came, was husky – and hitherto unheard of in such broad daylight. ‘Until you added that addendum, I thought you were talking about me.’

‘I was. I rambled on a bit about the weather in the hope you’d let me off, since we’re in public, Pats.’

Her love flashed a slight (sly?) smile, before following her lead with a swift segue onto safer (and oh-so-stereotypically British) ground. ‘I like this chilliness. It’s so different from what I knew as a child. It makes me feel safe. You make me feel safe. Walking in this wintry wonderland with you (all the nuisance it will cause notwithstanding) is a delight beyond my wildest dreams.’ She paused, pensive, and looked down at her feet. ‘Am I going too fast for you, sweetheart, given your struggles today?’

Delia gasped at both the English endearment and the question. Something told her they were a reference to more than the realms of rehabilitation and neurology. ‘No, Pats, at just the right pace.’

A reticent, relieved, redheaded nod, accompanied by a revelation. ‘I might be going a little fast for me...’

‘That’s fine. We can slow down, or even stop. You only have to ask, annwyl.’

Annwyl?

‘Beloved,’ the Welshwoman breathed, barely on a whisper. ‘But I mean that about stopping. Do you want to head back?’

‘No. There’s nothing there, anyway. Just some empty rooms in an old house. Hardly justification for the sudden onset of spine-tingling terror.’

‘Does terror need justifying, Nurse Mount, spine-tingling or otherwise?’

‘Mine does. You know that. One set of rules for me, Nurse Busby, and another for everyone else.’

Delia certainly knew better than to argue at this juncture; although her panic earlier that morning had been equally unprovoked. So, instead, she opted for insight. ‘Last time there were empty rooms like that, you were alone, after my accident. It’s completely understandable. But I’m here now. Right by your side. And, even if I did have plans to cycle to work after we move in, it won’t be until at least April. That’s almost half a year away from October and the anniversary.’

Patsy said nothing for a moment, but simply slipped her gloved hand into her girlfriend’s. Then the movement, both masked and muffled by their coat sleeves, reminded her of the similarly snowy day after her return. ‘Cold weather is good for us and conversations. And rosy cheeks,’ she added, admiring the pair just beside (and below) her own.

‘You did notice earlier,’ her petite partner exclaimed, laughing.

‘Of course I did, Deels, it’s practically the oldest trick in the book. And one might say that circumstance has made sneaking sideways glances into our speciality...’

‘One might indeed.’

‘Watch it, or I’ll put on a Pembrokeshire accent, and make all the new mothers think I’m from Tenby.’

Pob lwc with that, then, Pats.’

‘I’m wounded! Don’t you think I’m getting rather good at Welsh?’

‘You could do with a few more lessons, cariad.’

Her ginger girlfriend gave her a grin in concession. ‘I suppose that’s a fair assessment. I’ll look forward to them, Deels, after your exam.’

Delia groaned theatrically. ‘Everything’s happening after my exam. I’ll be thrilled beyond belief when tomorrow’s over, I tell you!’

‘So will I,’ Patsy rejoined quietly, with a quick squeeze of the small hand resting in her own. ‘But let’s not think about tomorrow any more today; this is the house with the flat in it.’

Her sweetheart skidded to a stop. ‘Oh, it has a blue front door, how lovely!’

‘Is that significant?’ The redhead raised a brow, nonplussed.

‘Only that it’s not green.’

‘Oh... Yes, that’s good. Did you notice that before, or only when the memory came back? Actually, that’s extremely intrusive of me, you don’t have to answer.’

‘Both. It was more vivid the second time around, though.’

‘Yes, our brains have a way of doing that, it seems...’ Patsy let her sentence hang, mortified, and fumbled for the keys in order to have a focus.

Delia squeezed the fingers of Patsy’s other hand to still her search. ‘Could I do it, cariad? I’m scared, too, and I think, if I open the door myself, it’ll feel like I have a bit more control.’

The older woman could tell this was a blatant case of deflection on the part of her beloved, and she felt both guilty and grateful, but passed over the first key; noticing as she did that both of their hands were shaking. Perhaps it wasn’t such a deflection after all.

Poor Deels, darling.

‘Of course.’ They shared a smile as the door swung on creaky hinges. ‘Watch your step here, but then it’s on this floor. No flights of stairs to find your way up and down.’

‘Thank God. That’ll make such a nice change! Diolch, Pats, you’ve really thought this through.’

Patsy laughed as they reached the relevant door, which was also blue, and fumbled for the second key. ‘You don’t know if you like it yet!’

Delia did not respond until they were inside the front room. ‘I’ll like anywhere I live with you, love.’

‘What was that you said earlier about clichés, Deels?’

‘That they didn’t suit you. I, on the other hand, have the advantage of foreign folklore.’

‘So do I. I see your Celtic chivalric codes and raise you Singaporean shadow puppets...’

‘Stop purring at me, Patience, it’s terribly provocative.’

Her girlfriend giggled, growing as red as her hair, despite (because of?) the room’s relative warmth in comparison to the air outside. ‘Sorry. I really am. I’m nowhere near up to doing anything, anyway, so I ought to heed my own warnings and behave. There isn’t even a bed here...’

She trailed off, suddenly terrified again, and the brunette backed her up against the wall in order that she could sink into its solid support to avoid an absence. ‘I don’t need a bed, cariad, or us to be “doing anything” on it,’ Delia said determinedly. ‘I just need you, in this flat, feeling safe enough to flirt and be hopeful about the future. Honestly, love; I promise that isn’t a cliché.’ She paused, checking in with their mutual comfort levels, before continuing. ‘May I see the rest of the rooms, please, Pats?’

She gazed up at her girlfriend, who shivered with visible relief. ‘Of course, Deels, but look out of the window in this one first.’

The Welshwoman whirled around to obey, and then again just as quickly, mouth open and eyes wide. ‘Oh, love, it’s east-facing; we can sit and watch the sunrise together.’

Patsy paused before replying, wary of joining in with this joy (so evocative of earlier endeavours and emotions) in case she jinxed it, but then allowed herself the luxury of letting go just a little. ‘Yes,’ she said, smiling, the softness of her speech now due to the strength of her sentiment rather than a desire to hold it back. ‘Yes, we can. So you like it, then?’

Delia squeezed her hand. ‘I do. Diolch, darling. This is the best belated-Christmas-between-exams present I could’ve wished for – it’s perfect, Pats. So perfect, in fact, it makes me want to kiss you. May I?’

Her girlfriend grinned unreservedly now, and fumbled in her pockets again. ‘I was hoping you might ask that, because I brought this with me to add something to the atmosphere,’ she murmured as she at last pulled out a sprig of mistletoe. ‘I filched it from the pile of discarded cuttings left over from the wreath-making. I’ll probably be struck by lightning for such blasphemous behaviour but, right now, Busby, I couldn’t care less.’

The younger woman laughed delightedly. ‘I think, if anything about this is blasphemous, Mount, it’s having mistletoe in a wreath. Sister Monica Joan’s influence, no doubt.’ She stopped, snickering, before bringing herself back to the significance of Patsy’s gestures and gifts today. ‘You’re ridiculous, Red, you know that?’

Her tall partner shifted slightly to improve their relative angle. ‘I do. But isn’t that why you love me? Nadolig llawen, Deels.’

‘It is. Nadolig llawen, Pats.’

Chapter Text

‘No! Īe! Please! Gracie!’

Delia found herself jolted awake, and almost upright, by two formidable forces. The first of these, a triplet of shrieks from her sweetheart, was swiftly followed by the second, the sense of long legs flailing as they fought with flannel coverings and struggled to slip out over the edge of the single bed. The brunette was bewildered by both. Not because they were novel. No. Because nothing was novel any more – not even thoughts about the lack of novelty. At least, not on their own. But, in the middle of this mid-January night, the movement of her love’s limbs and the majority of the language which poured, panicked, from her mouth, did not match. That they were now tumbling together was terrifying indeed. For, whilst English was Patsy’s mother tongue, it did not usually hold a place in her nightmares about her mother; nor, for that matter, her sister, who was the subject of these specific screams.

‘Gracie!’

Still slightly too sleepy to get out of her girlfriend’s way, and feeling the impact of the taller woman’s thrashing feet as they fell backwards and beat against her own, the shorter woman swore (she hoped) softly. ‘Cachiad,’ she cursed. Shit. Then, startled by the combined volume and vehemence of her voice, she transformed the word from a term of frantic frustration into one of earnest endearment – and consolation. ‘Cariad,’ she called, thinking that, since the usual linguistic parameters were apparently not in play, Welsh might actually do some good and offer them both a bit of guidance. She received no verbal response from the redhead, although Patsy’s physicality suggested something had slipped through to her subconscious, because her movements had become more controlled and less chaotic. That was a start; even though she was still shouting.

‘Gracie! No! Īe! Please! Not her, me!’

Rolling over onto her side, Delia wrapped her darling in the warmth of her embrace. She was not in the least bit wary of being hit, and thought, since things were apparently as different at night as they had been for a while during the day, she ought to try bolstering her beloved by just being there against her back. It worked when they were awake – and, often, was the only thing that did – so why not now? Then, tucking herself right up close to the body before her, she tried again, willing the single word not to sound as small as she felt. Sometimes her tall partner posed a tall order. ‘Cariad,’ she called once more, hoping to coax and calm simultaneously, and trying not to let her own (internal) dialogue be derailed as she did so.

If Patsy had started saying things which would be easily eavesdropped on by everyone else, the sooner they moved out, the better. Realistically, however, she knew it would be both impossible (in terms of the purchase of the property, as well as the previous owner’s insistence on refurbishing it for them) and impractical (in terms of all they needed to plan, not to mention process). There were many bridges to build before they would be sharing a (significantly smaller) space as its sole occupants. Consequently, any concerns about this different kind of dream had to be dealt with now. In spite of the apparent evidence of her current inability to answer to that name, she needed to keep her cariad quiet.

And urgently, too. Her shouts might be less sophisticated, but they weren’t getting any softer, and showed no signs of ceasing.

‘Grace!’

‘Shhh, love, you’re safe. I’ve got you. Shhh,’ she soothed, starting to rub circles on her sweetheart’s shoulders. She really did not want to wake the older woman, despite it being a swift way to banish her younger self. She could tell, if she did, neither of them would get any further sleep; and she could tell, with even more certainty, that Patsy would refuse to talk about her talking.

Especially in English.

Still, she knew that, sooner rather than later, sounds as loud as those her love was making would lead her to wake herself up. It was, therefore, more a question of who would do the waking than whether it would happen. So, denying the fact that every fibre of her being was fighting against getting out of bed (in no small part because of the temperatures at this time of night in this weather, even inside), Delia did just that. Thankful she had had the sense to leave her socks on, although they made her slip as soon as her feet touched the floor, she dashed around to her darling.

‘Grace! Grace! No! Please!’

When she reached the redhead’s side, and at last had full view of her face, she could see eyes (and a mouth) which were wide but utterly unaware of their surroundings.

Awake or asleep, annwyl?

Patsy was still lying down, turned towards her, instead of sitting up as she frequently did (as she had tried to do), and Delia wasn’t sure. But she needed to be, and speedily. So, carefully and quietly, she knelt. Then, taking her cariad’s right hand between both of her own, she caressed the centre of her palm. Feeling four fingers and a thumb flex at the contact, she chanced a glance upwards again, and was relieved to find her girlfriend’s gaze beginning to refocus.

Awake, then, at least now.

Helo, cariad,’ the Welshwoman said, grinning when her beloved blessed her with the signal of a slight smile, though she had not quite returned. ‘Da iawn, darling, you calmed yourself down and brought yourself back. Without sitting up, or getting out of bed. You did so well.’

Patsy’s gaze was piercingly present at last but, as she made the effort to reply, her voice was small. ‘You’re out of bed.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ Delia demurred, drawing a few further circles on the palm she still held.

‘It does. It’s freezing.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘You’re not,’ Patsy insisted, and pulled her hand away in frustration. ‘I didn’t do well, anyway, Deels. I forgot the Japanese word for “please”.’

The brunette blanched – this was no longer just about the environment in the here and now. But then, that was good, wasn’t it? If they were talking, it had to be on Patsy’s terms, after all. So she steeled herself to hold eye contact for as long as it took, and spoke, softly. ‘Sorry, love?’

‘I forgot the word for “please”,’ the redhead repeated plaintively, reaching out to reground herself by retaking one of Delia’s hands in hers. The tone of her voice showed that her earlier snap had been due to panic rather than petulance. As she stroked her favourite person’s palm again, the smaller woman wondered if perhaps the self speaking at this point was not ginger but blonde – a thought which was confirmed by the rest of Patsy’s phrase. ‘I managed to get them to leave her anyway, but they would’ve considered me more seriously if I had spoken to them more fully in their language from the start. We only picked up the basics, but even so, I knew enough. But when I needed the words the most they weren’t there…’

She trailed off and, as she did, Delia’s sole thought was that she knew that feeling only too well. In this moment, for all her bilingual brilliance, the Welshwoman had nothing to say. She simply nodded, the movement meaning something approximating to “I understand, sweetheart, sincerely.”

The small signal was enough to get her girlfriend to continue to communicate. ‘I got them away but… I forgot the word for “please”. I forgot the word for “please”. I forgot the word for “please”. I forgot the word for please.’ Patsy seemed fixated on this single sentence. As she repeated it in an almost relentless rhythm which got louder with each new line, she stood up, pushing past Delia, before beginning to pace the room, barefoot. ‘I forgot the word for “please”. I forgot the word for “please”. I forgot the word for “please”.’

The younger woman took a deep breath. She could feel herself being hooked into the frenzy of her older partner’s younger self, and this would not do. Nor would following Patsy from behind, however, because that would hook into one of her deeply harboured fears. No – Delia needed to get in front of her, and that required all of her wherewithal. So, shucking off her socks, she sprinted, cutting off Patsy’s pathway and bringing them both to a sudden stop. ‘Pats, love, breathe deeply – can you do that for me?’ Her sweetheart simply stood still, stunned, and the Welshwoman was about to ask again, when she heard a sharp, spasmodic breath escape from her cariad’s throat. It had come from high in her chest, though, and wouldn’t give the grounding she desperately needed. ‘Good start, gorgeous girl, but could you have another go? Try to get the breath lower down, love, and engage your diaphragm.’ Naming the muscle seemed to spark off muscle memory, and the next breath was much deeper. ‘Marvellous. And again, annwyl. That’s it.’

As the third try came to an end, Delia at last exhaled fully herself, thinking they were now treading familiar territory – but then Patsy closed the tiny gap between them, and collapsed on her shoulder, sobbing. ‘I forgot – and the memory of forgetting made me forget you –’ she said when the shaky tears at last subsided. ‘I was here but not here. I’m so sorry.’

‘No “sorries”, sweetheart, not for things like this. They’re not deliberate, darling, and you’re doing your best. You’ve started talking to me now, haven’t you? That’s a big breakthrough. When we’re both warmer and more awake, though, we do still need to sit down and chat about this properly. I don’t think we should leave it much longer, either, so I’d suggest later today, after Clinic? Are you happy with that?’

The brunette felt rather than saw the redheaded shake against her shoulder. ‘I can’t. You’ve not even had your certificate two weeks, yet, and I don’t want you to be distracted whilst Sister Julienne is still showing you how she likes things dealt with.’

The shorter woman was grateful that their position meant her girlfriend would miss her rolling her eyes in frustration as she took a moment to come up with a more mature, and measured, response. ‘I don’t think she’d like how we’re dealing with this, love.’

Patsy raised her head slightly to meet Delia’s gaze, a pleading look in the pair of blue eyes that almost matched her petite partner’s. ‘I know. I don’t like how we’re dealing with it, Deels, but I can’t. Not now. Not yet. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not even next week –’

‘All right, all right, all right. It’s all right, love. Shhh now, I’m sorry I suggested it before you’re ready. This is the last time I’ll ask, I promise. Shall I rub your shoulders again whilst we stand here?’

A ginger nod – in both the colourful and cautious senses of that word – allowed the brunette to bring her beloved’s head back down so it nestled once more against her own neck. As much as this was a gesture of goodwill towards her girlfriend, it was also calculated, because it allowed them to conserve body heat; something they definitely needed to do if they were going to be out of bed for much longer.

Diolch, Deels,’ Patsy mumbled into her sweetheart’s shirt. ‘I really don’t know what I’d do without you –’ she broke off, the situation implied by that sentence suddenly searing into her soul, and then broke down again.

She hated her brain some days, she truly did. Didn’t it know one thing at a time was more than enough of a struggle!?

‘Let it out, love, it’s all right.’ Delia traced a tender pathway over the top of Patsy’s shoulders as the taller woman’s tears flowed fast and free. ‘I’ve got you and I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.’

Her girlfriend giggled in spite of herself. ‘You – sound – like – I – did – earlier,’ she said through a series of shuddering sobs.

‘Careful, cariad, you’ll give yourself hiccoughs…’ the smaller woman trailed off, chuckling, as her darling did just that. ‘See?’

‘Whoops,’ Patsy managed off the back of a similarly whooping “hic”, and both women laughed, probably a little loudly for both the topic and the time.

Humour had always helped as a haven, however, and often – especially – at the most inappropriately awkward moments. It wasn’t a habit they planned to give up now.

‘And you’re going to do it again, aren’t you?’

‘Yes – hic – several times – hic – I think – hic – Oh help – hic –’

Delia was practically crying now, too, but with laughter. ‘You’ll wake the whole convent, at this rate, if you haven’t already!’

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. ‘Everything all right, you two?’

Val.

‘Is she allowed in, cariad?’ the Welshwoman asked, whispering.

Patsy nodded, swallowing to silence her hiccoughs, a few remaining tears still making tracks down her cheeks. ‘If anyone’s going to understand this, other than you or Phyllis of course, it’s her. Rumple up my bedclothes, too, though – I don’t want her suspecting.’

Delia choked down a chuckle. ‘Val won’t care, love, she was in the Army!’

‘Stereotyping, are we, sweetheart?’

Her petite partner said nothing, but shot a gentle glare over her shoulder as she went to open the door and greet their visitor. ‘Sorry we took a minute to answer, but I think you’ll guess why when you see the state of this one…’

Val shook her head, smiling, as she followed her fellow brunette back into the room. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you both. I’ve just got in from a long labour – Mrs Flaherty, a boy, Jimmy – and the Sisters insisted I have some Horlicks before I went to bed –’

She broke off as Patsy snorted from behind the half-shield of Delia’s body, before being brave enough to step out to speak herself. ‘I know the power of that insistence.’

‘It’s quite something, eh?’ Val said evenly, evidently taking in the taller woman’s tearstained complexion, but deciding to wait a little before bringing it up. ‘Especially as it meant I came upstairs later than I’d planned, and barged in on your little pyjama party here. Sorry about that, I always seem to get in your way,’ she finished with a smirk, clearly thinking of the day they had last discussed their shared difficulties around the dining table.

The two girlfriends glanced at each other, unsure whether to grin or grimace. ‘I –’

‘We –’

‘It’s fine; I was in the Army, wasn’t I?’ She winked, and it took all three women all the willpower they had between them not to burst into gales of laughter. ‘Speaking of, Patsy, is your brain being a pain again?’

‘Unfortunately.’

‘Anything I can do to help?’

‘You already have, thank you.’

‘I’m not sure I can lay claim to that. Any time, though. You were so lovely when Trix and I got back from reuniting Linda Openshaw with her baby; but you understood exactly how I was feeling, from what I’ve been told.’ Patsy nodded mutely, memories once again too overwhelming for her to form words, but that movement was more than enough for Val. ‘Well, I might not know exactly what you’re facing right now, or did during the war, but I’m prepared to be here in whatever way is most useful. Alongside Delia, of course. Now back to bed, both of you, your feet must be freezing. I’ll see you at Clinic later once I’ve slept off my own gruelling night on call.’

With that, giggling, she slipped out the door; leaving two flushed faces staring after her.

~

Later that day, noticing that almost everyone had gathered in the lounge for an early evening catch up under copious amounts of blankets, Sister Julienne called for a brief moment of quiet. ‘I would like to make everyone aware of two important interventions over the next little while – one we shall have to endure, and one I hope to instigate. The first is that the electricity work-to-rule issues are set to continue a little longer. The second relates to the recently rescheduled pantomime, in which, as you are already aware, our very own Nurse Dyer is to take the lead role.’ The senior nun paused, pre-empting the claps and cheers which followed her reference to their newest colleague, and she was glad she had.

Trixie whooped, still thrilled that her feisty friend would have something positive to counter the doubt ravaging her sense of professional capability. Delia wolf-whistled. Patsy elbowed her discreetly in the ribs beneath their shared blanket as they sat side by side on the sofa. ‘Watch it, Welshie,’ she whispered, trying to school her own scandalised expression as she and Val briefly caught each other’s eye.

The younger brunette regarded her ginger girlfriend with a look of impish innocence. ‘What can I say, cariad,’ she teased, taking advantage of the noise around them, although keeping her voice equally quiet. ‘I’ve always admired women who can wear slacks well. One in particular, Pats,’ she finished, purring, as Sister Julienne stood poised to continue.

‘At the excellent suggestion of the Herewards, in the spirit of togetherness fostered by the show and this time of year (combined, of course, with the difficult weather conditions) we have decided to host a community dinner. This will be held at the Institute just prior to the pantomime. It would be quite the undertaking, even ordinarily, but, in light of the extra constraints imposed by the snow, I must impress upon you that it will need to be all hands on deck.’ A further pause for the appreciative murmurs on Barbara’s behalf, but also as the Sister sought upward guidance in order to phrase her final point appropriately. ‘As you are all astute enough to gather, I mean this not merely in terms of handing out mince pies to our guests, but providing sensitive emotional support along with the sweet treats. All of us are keenly aware of the bittersweet nature of Christmastime, as well as the struggles of many of our local families on a day-to-day basis. I therefore feel I should tell you of my hope that this event will afford an opportunity for reconciliation between two of the likely guests: Mabel Tillerson and her daughter, Anthea Sweeting, one of our patients who has just delivered her own child. You will no doubt recall my brief sketch of the Tillerson family history a few days ago, but I think you deserve a few more details –’

‘I’m terribly sorry, Sister, but might I please be excused?’

Everyone stared silently at Patsy as she stood up, breaking all of her own rigidly-enforced rules about propriety, politeness and precedence, to put herself first. Delia hid her delight at her darling’s determination behind her hand. Sister Julienne simply smiled. ‘Of course, Nurse Mount.’

After her initial bravery, the redhead’s bravado disappeared, because she had not thought beyond the strength it took to stand up. In fact, she had expected an altogether different response to the one she had received, and now all of her usual strategies were rendered redundant. Why was her employer being so unquestioningly compassionate? Did she know? Her eyes flicked to Delia as she fought to find some focus, before returning to the face of her kindly older colleague. ‘Th- thank you,’ she managed with only minimal faltering.

‘Not at all, I know family tragedy is a tale you do not need to rehearse. Would you like someone to be with you? Nurse Busby, perhaps?’

Patsy locked eyes with her beloved brunette and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. Delia nodded, similarly subtly, and then spoke up. ‘It might be sensible if I stay and listen, Sister, so I can summarise the significant points later on?’

‘That would indeed be sensible.’ Sister Julienne smiled at the young Welshwoman’s wisdom, and surveyed the rest of the room, sizing up potential substitutes. ‘Nurse Dyer?’

‘Yes, Sister?’

‘It strikes me that you have also had some struggles of late so, without wishing to presume, I wonder if you would like to leave?’

The Eastender jumped up immediately. ‘Thank you. I didn’t like to ask. Come on then, Patsy, let’s go AWOL for the sake of our psyches,’ she said, taking the taller woman’s hand and pulling her out of the room before she could protest at either the touch or the company.

~

By some unspoken agreement, they headed immediately for the room in which they had talked last night. Then, once the door was shut, Val began to apologise. ‘Sorry for shifting you so quickly –’

Patsy cut her off. ‘No, no, I needed to get out of there. Thank you. And thank you for not asking why.’

‘The whys don’t usually come into this sort of thing, I find,’ the brunette said frankly. ‘It’s more the responses than the reasons that matter – although sometimes the only way to work through the responses is to work out the reasons… Sorry, that doesn’t even make sense.’

‘It does.’ The redhead smiled ruefully. ‘It’s what Delia’s been trying to drum into me since training. Not about this, about everything else, but the principles are the same.’

‘Oh, so this wasn’t about your grief for your father, then?’

‘No. This is…new. Well, new-old. Old-new. And now I’m making no sense.’

‘You are. Perfect sense.’

They smiled at each other, content to sit in silence now, until there was an eventual knock. ‘Everything all right, you two? May I come in?’

‘Of course, Delia, this is your room!’ Val giggled as she opened the door and then shut it again – securely. ‘I have an odd reverse déjà-vu, don’t you?’

‘Indeed I do, Valerie Dyer. Thank you for holding the fort for me.’

Patsy coughed. ‘Whenever you’ve finished flirting, Delia Busby…’

Both brunettes blinked, blushing, before Val spoke again. ‘Oh I’m not – that is, when I joked last night – I fall for who I fall for. I think the current term is “bisexual”? Earlier medical textbooks call it “ambisexuality”, though, and I think that’s a better fit for me. It’s less gender-specific and sounds like a skill.’

‘Oh, I like that. But I think I’m happy in my not so latent lesbianism,’ Delia said, laughing delightedly at the red-faced relief of her love. ‘You know I only have eyes for you, cariad,’ she insisted, walking over to the taller woman with her arms wide open. ‘Come cwtch. I think you might need it whilst I tell you what we were told, although a more sensitive version of it. Anthea’s father –’

Patsy cut her girlfriend off by burying her face in her waiting shoulder, stealing a moment of solidity in order to solidify some sort of a response before she trusted herself to stand upright again, staying snuggled in close as she spoke. ‘Yes. He died recently, and then it was suggested that he – that he – that he was – very controlling towards her mother. We knew that, though, didn’t we?’ she clarified, checking in.

Delia nodded, shifting her position to be better able to reach around her partner’s back. They really were getting rather good at this routine, she thought as she began to rub the requisite circles. ‘Yes, we did, love. But… Well, it seems it wasn’t just her mother with whom he could be – controlling.’

Raising her head fully, Patsy nodded too, and stood completely upright. The brunette broke the comforting circle of her arms but, sensing that her gorgeous girl was still shaky, moved to take her hand so she would feel strong enough to talk. ‘I thought as much. That’s why I wanted to leave. It isn’t the same circumstance at all, but I should still go and find Sister Julienne. Thank you both. Deels, I know I’ve hardly told you anything more recently but, whilst I’m gone, perhaps you could give our dear Nurse Dyer a précis of everything else? You’ve not been here long enough for “Singapore” to have become embedded in your vocabulary, Val. I wasn’t here anyway, so it didn’t matter, but (now we seem to be forming a sort of bloc between the three of us) it feels only fair you’re brought up to speed. But I’m too tired to do it myself today. Is that too much to ask of you, my love?’

Delia traced a final circle on her hand before letting it go so she could leave. ‘Of course not. You’ve told your story enough. You can count on me to take up a lot more of your load from now onwards, cariad. I’m proud of you, Pats.’

~

When the redhead reached the bottom stair, she paused a moment before stepping down from it to the polished floor beneath. She felt she needed to polish herself a little prior to this discussion (however brief she planned for it to be), and what better way than to finish her descent like a debutante? She had never seen herself as one, even potentially, much to the chagrin of both her classmates and teachers; but, sometimes, the brightest smile she could muster on her own fell flat, and she needed the extra emphasis of elocution and deportment.

No, she thought as she walked towards the Sister’s office, what she needed was a little of that quiet wisdom her employer seemed to exude so effortlessly. It wasn’t, of course, but it looked it – and, pausing again before she knocked, Patsy could only ponder how painful it must have been to perfect such a perfect façade.

‘Come in,’ her senior colleague called, and the (suddenly very much) younger woman’s breath caught at the kindness and compassion discernible in that deceptively simple phrase, even as she obeyed what was essentially a command. ‘Ah, Nurse Mount, I wondered if I might have a visit from you,’ the nun continued, simultaneously embodying the divine attributes of benevolence and apparent omniscience.

‘Yes – I – I wanted to apologise for leaving earlier, and –’

A wimpled headshake cut off her concern. ‘Utterly unnecessary, my dear. In fact, I was glad to note your ability to prioritise yourself for once. It did not surprise me in the least that you were affected. Far be it from me to lay judgement on those who have departed, but I know your relationship with your own Father was – ambivalent, albeit for different reasons. Still, something in your straight-backed stance now tells me it was more than grief which got to you?’ A pause after the purely rhetorical question, posed to allow the girl and woman before her to understand she understood. Then, observing the briefest incline of the redhead’s titian tresses, she continued talking. ‘Anthea Sweeting has called her daughter Hope. I was always of the opinion that giving babies a connection to an abstract noun put rather a lot of pressure on them, but I’m coming to think it might be more of a guiding reminder than a rigid instruction. And your namesake virtue need not – must not – apply only to others, you know. Have patience with yourself, Patsy. Things won’t change overnight, but that is perfectly fine, because none of us expect they would. My intention in suggesting to Anthea that she might wish to be reunited with her mother was not to rush her or force reconciliation; quite the opposite. Rather than this dinner denoting the end of their journey, to me at least, it signifies the start. You no longer have that luxury with your blood family, for which I am desperately sorry, but you have us. So, if and when you are ready to find the beginning of your own route to recovery (and however rough it may be), I hope you may be confident in the sincerity of our support. You are under no obligation to answer me now as to how you are. I ask only that you think on what I have said.’

Chapter Text

‘Lucy, you’re doing really well, but we’re not ready for pushing yet. Close, but not quite there. Could you hold off on that a little and take some shorter breaths for me? Almost like you’re panting.’

‘Yes, Mrs Calvin, you’re doing fabulously, but listen to Nurse Busby. She’ll tell you when it’s time to push.’

The young almost-mother fixed Patsy with a fierce yet kind glare as she struggled to speak. ‘Nurse Mount, I’ve told you to use my given name. Don’t tell him downstairs, but I’m not quite used to my married one yet, even after six months to adjust to the idea. Moving countries to save him changing career was bad enough – and it was the last link I had to my parents,’ she paused, slightly breathless, before brightening so swiftly that neither nurse with her was sure they had heard what she’d said. Which, Patsy presumed, was precisely the point; but it was not her place to pontificate to a patient on how to cope with any pain other than those of labour. When Lucy spoke again, her tone had turned once more to sardonic humour. ‘So, no ceremony around here, please! This young’un certainly has none!’

The ginger midwife grinned down at the girl on the bed in front of them, glad to note that her deliberate ploy had provided suitable distraction from nerves if not from all negativity, whilst she chuckled inwardly at the way yet another Welsh lilt grew more pronounced when its owner grew passionate. ‘If I do, Lucy, will you a) call me Patsy, and b) listen to Nurse Busby, otherwise known as Delia? She’s really quite the oracle with regards to breathing techniques.’

The referenced brunette shot her tall partner an amazed and admiring look as Lucy nodded. ‘If you say so, Patsy. I’m sorry; I guess I’m scared since it’s my first time.’

‘That’s perfectly natural,’ the two women said simultaneously, causing their patient to giggle.

‘Do you two work together often, then?’

‘We trained together, and were on the same ward once we graduated. Male surgical. And now I’m keeping occasional tabs on the first month or so of her venture into district midwifery.’

‘Oh, so nursing was what brought you here? How lovely, and that you made a friend so easily, too. You must’ve become quite the team.’

‘We’ve had a fair few years to adjust to each other’s quirks, yes,’ Delia demurred as her girlfriend quirked a brow.

‘Shall I let you into a secret, Lucy?’ Patsy asked, grinning again at the effect her word choice had on both mother and midwife. The younger girl nodded, even as she grimaced in pain. ‘She’s usually the one keeping tabs on me. It makes rather a nice change,’ she finished, before sharing a glance with her colleague and cariad to confirm that things were progressing nicely.

‘She just likes having an excuse to boss me around. Not that I mind, mind, because it’s helpful when someone understands you well if you’re in a situation where emotions are intense. They know not to ask questions and are perfectly happy to go at your pace, no matter if it takes six months or six years to adjust.’

It was now Patsy’s turn to look amazed and admiring – and a little anguished. Yet, ever resilient (whether or not she would describe herself as such), the redhead recovered quickly and returned her gaze to the girl currently at the centre of their concern. ‘That reminds me, Lucy, if you find yourself slipping into Welsh, I won’t hold it against you. I think Delia might have me say something along the lines of alla i ddim siarad Cymraeg yn dda, which is true, but I know enough for it not to faze me.’

Lucy’s eyes widened. ‘Your accent might need polishing a little, Patsy, but if you can say that, then I’d say you do speak it well – Oh cachiad that hurts,’ she broke off, swearing softly as her contractions grew significantly stronger.

Patsy laughed. ‘Well I’ve definitely heard that word before.’

‘I don’t know what she’s talking about,’ Delia feigned affront, frowning. ‘But I do know, from looking at you, that last contraction was telling us you’re nearly there in terms of pushing. I want you to use the next one for all it’s worth, all right?’ A pause as the next wave of pain hit and Lucy followed her instructions to the letter. ‘Yes, yes, that’s it. Da iawn!’

‘I know what that means, too, and I agree. Well done!’ Patsy smiled in sympathetic encouragement.

‘Right then,’ Delia directed, ‘ready to go again? They’re nice and close together now.’      

Lucy grinned, groaning. ‘You’re telling me – Ow!

‘Maybe try not to talk and save some energy, eh?’ Patsy suggested once the latest pain had petered out. ‘And would it help if you grabbed hold of my hand? Delia’s doing fine down here, so I can leave her to it.’ Lucy managed the barest of nods. ‘Squeeze as hard as you like.’

‘I think I can see baby’s head, Lucy, keep going just a little longer. Daliwch ati.’

‘Do as Delia says and you’ll be splendid, but my hand’s still here.’

The three women fell silent, save for Lucy’s breathing and groans, united in a deep desire to make this little one’s entrance into the world as smooth and gentle as possible since the circumstances leading up to their arrival had been almost the opposite. After all, Patsy and Delia were only too intimately-acquainted with the trials of courting across countries and cultures, and they both knew that (were it not for the reticence which had resulted from their mutual gender) they could quite easily have been caught similarly short. The fact that that same shared gender was exactly the thing which would have stopped them from being so was irrelevant. What mattered was that they understood, and could translate that comprehension into compassion.

Then necessity required that they talk again, Delia dictating the developments for Patsy to pass on. ‘Head’s born, and now one shoulder, too! Gently, slowly, yn araf… That’s perfect, we’re so proud of you.’

‘You and your “young’un” are so nearly there, Lucy!’

‘I have hold of the head, sight of two shoulders and a stomach, and I can almost see the end of the legs…’

‘She still hasn’t taught me the names of body parts, so I’m afraid I’d be no help if you needed me to translate.’ Patsy apologised, giggling, before breaking off at the somehow perennially novel sound of a newborn baby’s cries and smiling at the two Welshwomen either side of her.

‘No, I should probably rectify that, since they’re rather pertinent to our profession,’ her beloved brunette said as she cut the cord. ‘All I’m interested in now, though, is whether you’d like to see your son?’

Lucy grinned. ‘Os gwelwch yn dda, Delia,’ she said shyly as the smaller woman passed over her precious cargo. ‘Dan will be so happy to have a boy, and he said I could choose a name, since I gave up mine along with my country. Sorry I can’t call him after you!’

‘Don’t be silly!’ the modest midwife said, blushing. ‘You did it all.’

‘Oh, you are just the most perfect little fellow, aren’t you? Caru ti, cariad,’ the young mother crooned, and Patsy and Delia shared their umpteenth sly glance that (long) afternoon, waiting for her to speak again, which she did. ‘You’ve put up with so much for me and your Tad that I think the only fitting thing to call you is Amynedd.’

Delia nodded fiercely, blinking away the tears which threatened at this sudden, unexpected, synchronicity. ‘That’s perfect.’

Her girlfriend looked from one shining face to the other, completely confused by the Celtic camaraderie. ‘Why? What does it mean?’

‘Patience. It’s given to boys in Wales, Pats.’

‘Oh! Is it your full name?’ Lucy asked, laughing at the stunned nod which was the redhead’s sole response. ‘That settles it, then; I want him always to have a connection to you both, and this combines an aspect of each of you. Thank you for helping me to meet my beautiful boy.’

~

Later, walking back through the mid-February snow (a sight neither nurse had thought they would see after the much-touted slow thaw and its resultant floods around the older woman’s thirtieth birthday), the two girlfriends were exhausted but elated. ‘I’m so proud of you, Deels,’ Patsy said as she smiled down at her sweetheart. ‘You won’t believe me, but watching you work really is a master class in midwifery. You’re a natural, Nurse Busby, and you have the most marvellous bedside manner.’

Delia hoped her scarf would provide sufficient cover for her pink cheeks. ‘It helped having such helpful people for both a partner and a patient, Pats.’

‘All births are special, but they had lost much of their magic for me since – since –’ A pause to cough and cover for her choking, ‘So, I wouldn’t have missed that one for the world. Even if my presence did mean the poor mite now has the spectre of my name to struggle with for the rest of his life.’

‘What did you tell me Sister Julienne told you this time last month?’

The redhead roared with laughter at the immediacy and accuracy of the brunette’s retort. ‘That abstract nouns might be guidance rather than pressure, and I need to apply my own namesake virtue to myself as well as to other people. I know, Deels, and don’t think I didn’t notice what you really meant about pace and understanding. That was why you let me let my birthday lie, despite it being a “big” one, wasn’t it?’

Delia merely nodded, saying nothing. She wanted to let her love walk a while, to convey that she was content in companionable contemplation of the crunch underfoot and the crisp air above. Cold weather was good for them and conversations, certainly, but it didn’t necessarily follow that they needed to happen right that minute. And now, thanks to Lucy and Amynedd, they had found a way of putting that across which was significantly less fraught than all the words they had fumbled with in the time since Patsy had tentatively started talking.

Admittedly, though, nothing else of substance had been said. If they were frank, which they far more frequently were these days, they would each have described the other as “frustrated”, in all its senses – and probably themselves too. Perhaps the thaw they had thought would arrive was not actual but abstract. Hence their ambivalence when the freeze had not merely remained but deepened. Would they have to wait for their woes to dissipate along with the weather? Surely not. Surely there was something to save them from themselves? Surely they could source the strength to stick it out from somewhere?

Delia decided she didn’t know, but she hoped. Oh, how hard she hoped. For all her genuine determination to be guided by her darling, their slow and steady progress (which seemed ever more to be erring on the slow side than the steady) was perpetually plagued by wrong turns. Moreover, these wrong turns took them onto emotional roads which her gorgeous ginger girl’s grief and guilt rendered just as impossibly impassable as the deep drifts of snow did many of the physical ones.

Pathetic fallacy had never felt so… pathetic.

Deliberately provoking.

Damn painful.

Pointless.

Blinking back the tears which had sprung unbidden for the second time that day from a decidedly different source to the first, the smaller woman forced her eyes upward in an inadequate effort to evade those of her tall girlfriend. Staring at the sky had brought solace barely a second ago. So much so, that she had used it as a signal to assert her ability to offer the (unselfish) succour of silent solidarity. Now it served as a smokescreen to obscure an admission of precisely its polar opposite – selfish self-absorption.

‘What is it, Welshie?’

‘Nothing.’ She sounded strangled, the single word split into two syllables (much like her simultaneous senses of selflessness and selfishness), both of which stuck in her throat.

‘Deels?’ Patsy paused, not wanting to pressure and therefore be tarred irredeemably as a hypocrite, since she gathered this issue stemmed directly from her own continuing hesitancy to talk. Having pondered a moment, the reticent redhead borrowed one of her beloved brunette’s own strategies and tried a different tack, pursuing a topic she would never normally even dream of broaching, despite the dusk and relatively deserted streets. ‘I want –’ she began, whispering warily, ‘I want so much to give you what Lucy has. A baby. You’d make an even more marvellous mother than you do a midwife, sweetheart, and it breaks my heart to think – to think that I – to think that you – to think that we –’

Emboldened by her girlfriend’s boldness, Delia gripped the older woman’s gloved right hand firmly in her own, before lowering her gaze to meet her love’s and noticing how young she looked. ‘I don’t need a child, cariad, I just –’

‘I know – you just need me.’

A nod and a grin. ‘I just need you.’

‘And I just need you. Except,’ Patsy continued, catching the sadness in that concerted attempt at a smile, ‘that isn’t all you need. You need me to talk to you.’

‘Only when you’re ready, Red.’

‘You say that, sweetheart, and I can see your sincerity. But I can also see it’s tiring you out. And I understand, because I’m tired, too. It’s hard holding this in. I don’t quite know how to get it out, but I know I have to, because it hurts.’

‘Why today?’ the brunette asked, then blushed, irritated at her own inanity.

The redhead reviewed her range of possible responses. Why today, indeed? Why today instead of all the other days which had dragged on so interminably after the end of her darling’s exams? Why, suddenly, was she so secure in the sense that she would manage to speak when all previous attempts had felt positively awful? The simple answer was that she wasn’t – but that she had reached the realisation she never would be. More than that, the more she thought about it, the more terrified she grew; and she had a sneaking suspicion that she was reaching the stage where she was more fearful of the thoughts this thing provoked than of the thing itself. That, at least, made sense, since she and it had coexisted in her consciousness for a not-insignificant while without her having the slightest inkling it was there. Not that it hadn’t been there, all along, all these years. Of course it had and, should she wish to, she could now count all the copious ways in which its tacit presence had affected her.

Profoundly.

But this prolonged period of profound effect was, in itself, the problem. The longer it had been left latent, the more deeply it had been buried. Of necessity, she knew, because she had needed to survive; and patience was nothing if not a virtue in such situations. Not least because every time she let someone in they had a terrible tendency to disappear, at best, or die (at worst). She had become so inured to the inevitability of enduring on her own that it had eventually become effortless. What took effort, actually, was the alternative, especially when she was already emotionally exhausted. So, when it had been time to return “home” from her “home”, she had subconsciously steeled herself for the absence of all that she had left behind when she had left London. Then when it – they – had not only welcomed her but had been waiting, wanting, to do so, she hadn’t been able to believe her luck.

Because it was luck, wasn’t it? It couldn’t be anything else.

Consequently, for the last three months, couched in concern for Delia’s career, she had fought to find a way to function alongside the acknowledgement that she was not, in fact, alone in the world. Far from it – now, here, other people (so many, utterly lovely, people) were…well, just there. No questions asked. She at last had the possibility of paring down her barriers, which was just the right word for the precision it would require, but starting that was somehow scarier than everything else she had been through put together. She was once more in control of her life, and that meant she had the luxury of conceding control; but just because she could, it didn’t automatically entail that she had a handle on how she could. She had struggled so long to assert her autonomy that the concept of letting it go was almost an anathema.

At least it had been until today. Today she had watched Delia deftly deliver a child and, thereby, restore a young woman’s hitherto shaky sense that she was in the right place, at the right time. She had seen an external, empirical example of the idea that loss and longing were not diametrically opposed to love. But now she was rambling, and she had no means by which to translate that wall of wordless words to her “Welsh Wonder”.

As her sweetheart looked askance, apparently supposing she was having an absence, all she could say was, ‘Because today I discovered again, thanks to my namesake newborn, that bereavement does not preclude beauty, and that a birthday may be a blessing rather than a blemish.’

~

The rest of their walk was silent again, but happily so, since a small gloved hand stayed snugly in a larger one and long legs brushed briefly against their shorter counterparts. As they wound their way back to Nonnatus, passing underneath the bridge which had brought them similarly significant close contact, the Welshwoman wound her way so she was nestled into the nook of her annwyl’s arm. Patsy didn’t appear to mind at all, quite the opposite actually, and this observation made Delia both proud and panicky. Particularly when they neared the front steps and her sweetheart showed no signs of pulling away. There was the tender tendre acceptable among female friends (as she had, ironically, so often endeavoured to impress upon the Patsy of their past) and then there was this. And, whilst this was theirs, the thrill that it was would nevertheless be perpetually tempered by the terror of it negating their right to nurse – which, even more than her own, was the redhead’s raison d’être.

Especially now.

No. Not now. It would not do to destabilise her darling’s precarious progress by bringing anything else into the mix. For, egotistical emotions aside, the professional part of Delia’s psyche knew the majority of that progress was not due to her but to the bolstering of much further reaches of her girlfriend’s found family. A family founded, furthermore, on a faith which (in its less nuanced-readings at least) would hail them heretical. Had not Patsy herself said as much when they had crept into the chapel to share chips?

So, electing to prioritise their careers over caresses until they were safe within the secret space of their shared room, Delia disentangled herself as deftly as she could manage, under the (real) pretence of unlocking the door. Then, tiptoeing over the threshold with the taller woman in tow, she took a moment to take in the fact that the hallway was as dark as the sky outside. Dusk drew in quickly these days, and the dreary weather made everyone more grateful for the glow given off by electric lights, especially after weeks of (absolutely justified) industrial action. Yet, although the work-to-rule might have finished, it appeared the power cuts had not.

‘Nurse Busby, Nurse Mount – is that you?’

‘Yes, Sister, it’s us. Just back from Lucy Calvin’s. She had a boy,’ Delia called into the gloom, smiling in spite of herself – and the fact that their employer could likely not see.

‘Oh, how lovely,’ the older woman said as she walked towards them, shielding a candle with one hand. ‘I’m sorry, this is quite the welcome home. It’s not because of the strikes now – simply that some snow has ingratiated itself into our electrics…but how was it? Was she all right for a first-timer?’

‘Yes, everything went swimmingly, and Delia was a marvel,’ Patsy interjected before her girlfriend could protest.

‘Of course she was – I’ve heard only the best about you from our recent mothers, Nurse Busby, and the darkness may spare your blushes. She would, no doubt, also have taken great comfort from your shared heritage. But you would have helped both of them, too, Nurse Mount. I couldn’t have chosen a more capable pair of colleagues to be with her if I’d tried.’

‘Oh, Patsy definitely helped,’ Delia declared as she decided to get her revenge for the redhead’s earlier generosity, ‘so much so that Lucy called her son after her, because the Welsh word for “patience”, Amynedd, is used as a boy’s name.’

‘Another abstract noun in our midst, then, Nurse Mount – which reminds me, I have been thinking further on our conversation a while ago. Anthea’s new daughter’s name is not the sole source of connection her family has with you; her brother, Edwin, was a POW of the Japanese. I do not propose this to pressure you at all, Patsy, but I am sure, should you wish it, she would be more than happy to correspond. It might do you a service to share things with someone who understands but is just that little more distant.’

The brunette could tell this would be too raw for her redhead to form an immediate response, so squeezed the hand still held in her own, and spoke herself. ‘It’s certainly something to think about, isn’t it, Pats? Thank you, Sister,’ she said sincerely, as her sweetheart smiled.

‘No thanks needed, from either of you. Thank you for tending so faithfully to our families even in this freeze. Speaking of, I imagine you’ll want to head straight upstairs, the relatively early hour aside. That is perfectly acceptable in my book. Are you confident you can find your way? There are candles at strategic intervals.’

The two nurses nodded. They might not be religious, but they were both convinced they had been blessed.

~

Upstairs and alone again at last, they shucked off their shoes, swapping them for the softness of the extra-warm socks they had piled under their pillows. Then, timidly, the brunette broached what they had begun before they had been (kindly) interrupted. ‘Are you sure you still want to talk tonight, love? It’s dark.’

‘I want to try,’ the redhead returned earnestly, edging along the side of the bed until their knees were nearly touching before she sat down. ‘I’m not sure how far I’ll get –’

‘However far you get is fine. And then, because it’s dark, darling, if it feels too much I can help you put on your pyjamas without any further need for conversation. Or for you to leave the room. How does that seem?’

‘It seems splendid,’ Patsy said, and Delia sensed the smirk she could not see, but stayed silent as her cariad continued. ‘So, where to start? My Father told me –’ No. Not there. Too recent. ‘My Mother –’ No. Not there either. Too raw given what she had been told. ‘Gracie –’ Oh God no. Not Gracie. Not her gorgeous giggling girl. Not now. Not yet. ‘Oh God no –’

Delia felt desperate as she heard her girlfriend gasp. She had known she was not ready, and she should have been more insistent that they leave this for the light of another day. But her desire to help her beloved bring down her defences – actually, her desire full stop – had stopped her from sensing that this was still too far, too fast. Far, far, too fast. Even these very few words were causing her already inarticulate annwyl’s throat to constrict.

Actually, she sounded like she…

‘Pats, it’s too difficult for me to get to your back, so I’m going to rub your chest. All right, cariad. Breathe with me. Breathe with me. You’re panicking, but I’m here, and I’ll help. Breathe with me, my love. That’s it. Slowly. Softly. That’s better. Breathe it out. Blow it all away. You’re all right. We’re all right. I’ve got you, my gorgeous girl, and I’ll never let you go. I’m holding you so close, cariad, and all those things are far away. It’s 1963 and you’re thirty years old. You’re thirty, you’re thirty, you’re thirty.’ The brunette needed to calm herself down, too, as she cursed the fact she had not processed the power of all the various aspects of the Calvin delivery.

Or this time of year.

Of course.

‘You’re thirty, love, it’s 1963, and I have you tightly.’

Always, annwyl.

As they both eventually began to refocus, Patsy gave her girlfriend a small smile, knowing it would be felt if not seen. ‘Diolch, Deels,’ she stammered, still slightly breathless. ‘I thought I – but – words – wouldn’t –’

‘I know, and then the pushing made you panic, Pats. Leave it a while longer, love. You’re close, but not quite there. Like Lucy earlier. Our bodies know what our minds don’t – yours will tell you when you’re ready to push, and mine will be right alongside you until you are. I promise.’

Chapter Text

Patsy perched, in pyjamas, on the edge of what she supposed she ought, still, to call “her” bed, although they had been switching so regularly between the two in their shared room that they almost reflexively referred to both as “their” bed. Nevertheless, the task she wished to accomplish prior to Delia’s return from a late labour was very much “her” task, and it had therefore felt fitting to use “her” bed to do it.

Or, more accurately, to attempt to do it; because there was no guarantee she would succeed.

Flipping open the notebook resting somewhat precariously on her knee, she flicked the lid off her fountain pen, and began – thinking, as she did, that she really should stop using it and transfer to a new, more modern, ballpoint. After all, there was no denying that they were less messy and more efficient, and she prized efficiency above almost everything else. The trouble, if that was the right phrase, was that fountain pens reminded her of her mother and, as the years went by (and by, and by, bringing her up to just shy of two decades in this world without both Mother and Grace) she needed all the reminders she could get. Hence writing, or trying to write, this letter. She would not send the first draft, that much she knew for certain; she merely wanted to get some words out tonight. She was well aware of how far away from constructive, coherent communication she remained, and would not dream of dumping any of those mangled emotions onto the intended recipient of this missive, especially as she could not even express them to her darling, devoted Delia. In acknowledgement of the Welshwoman’s wisdom and patience over the last three months, she could not do her the disservice of denying her as first port of call. Which, she thought wryly, was quite the apt metaphor, given the nautical nature of everything on her mind this evening. She was almost a month late from the beginnings, but that was no surprise, because her sense of time was anything but stable right now – and, especially this year, she had felt too raw to allow the full force of her emotions to erupt on the actual dates. Not that she ever really had, of course, since that simply wasn’t her way of dealing with things and (bluntly) there were just too many anniversaries for her to feasibly mark them in anything more than a muted manner if she wanted to be able to function as well.

As well as what, Nurse Mount? You don’t even deserve that title, do you, Patsy? You aren’t functioning at all, never mind well.

Trust her mind to turn its malevolent nattering into puns. Perfect. Painfully so. Well, as far as she was concerned, it could shut up. Tonight, in homage to the physical thaw which had hit at last, and cushioned by the dual comforts of an evening off followed by a later start on district rounds, she had finally decided to let the emotional floodgates open in the form of (written) words. True, there wouldn’t be a torrent of tears like those of her first full day back, or the sobs which had broken the silence and warmth of their worst nights since then. But what there would be would probably be better.

Possibly.

Hopefully.

However, as she had suspected, it – she – wasn’t proving very successful, if the blank (well, slightly blotted) page beneath her pen and hand was anything to go by. Or the water which was now blurring those several slight blots into a single bigger smudge.

What!?

Hang on, was she crying!?

Having just affirmed her intention not to!?

Marvellously done, Mount. Methinks we might need a drink. Adult-Patsy prerogative since child-Patsy is putting on the pressure. And now we’re referring to our single self as two separate people. Fabulous.

Well, she definitely needed (deserved) a drink. The best way to deal with double-selves was double shots. She was so done with all this, and drained. Finished with feeling fragile and fractured and, frankly, fucking awful. Sometimes, the only fix for woe was whisky. Specifically Scotch.

Just two, though, out of respect for Trixie’s continued commitment to her recovery.

Resolute, the redhead stood up, and stalked barefoot over to their wardrobe to rummage around on the top shelf and pull out the required bottle and glass. Once she found them, she poured a little of one into the other, and knocked it back, before repeating the routine just once more. Then, sadness stymied slightly, she retraced her steps to sit down on her bed and start again. Picking up her notebook and (precious) pen after placing the empty glass on the bedside table, she felt focussed enough to write at last, ink finally flowing in place of her previous, paltry, tears. Yet she still could not seem to manage much. So, having scrawled only a small amount of simple sentences (and crossed a fair few out, annotating most of the others), she let her left hand fall open. She had unconsciously been clutching it so tightly at the bottom corners of the page that she had creased them. That settled any remaining questions about sending this one; it was well and truly spoilt.

But that was probably a good thing, given her state of mind. It would not do to deliver a deluge to this woman she barely knew, despite the many mutual aspects of their history.

Slapping the still-open notebook spine-upwards next to her empty tumbler, she shoved the lid on her pen, and slouched her own spine down onto the bed, slipping under the covers. She was suddenly terribly tipsy and the room seemed to be spinning. Whoops. Maybe whisky wasn’t such a wonderful idea, especially on an empty stomach, because she was now not only sad but almost seasick.

Apt again, though, eh?

The redhead smiled ruefully up at the ceiling, even as she felt the start of another bout of silent tears smart behind her eyes. This was all her own fault, after all. She ought not to have begun to relive even this smaller section of her “childhood trauma” without Delia. Not least because it was essentially the first section, from which everything else had sprung, like the leak in the side of a ship – the ship, their ship – that had gradually grown bigger until there had been more leak than there was side to start with. Or so it had seemed to her childish consciousness. So it still seemed now, which was precisely why she needed her beloved beside her as a bolster (a lifebelt?), but she had felt she should face this before bringing the brunette on board. Simply, she had supposed that, if she could source the words for what the water had meant, she could then progress to finding phrases for the rest…of the rest…of the rest. But she had also been acutely aware that, if she enlisted her sweetheart’s support at this stage (and at this sensitive time of year, all the more raw since her return), she wouldn’t be able to stop herself. And, as much as she wanted to speak, as much as she wished she were, she knew she wasn’t ready to reveal it all.

And Delia wouldn’t be ready either, because they hadn’t ever really discussed even these slightly safer, earlier, elements in detail. They hadn’t discussed any of it in detail. Whilst she had told her petite partner more than anyone else, that was a low bar, and it hadn’t necessitated much of a stretch to broach the bare minimum. Since that initial “chat” in November 1955, in relation to their course content, she had happily talked on a surface level as and when it had come up in conversation – but mostly to ease the younger woman’s concerns that she wasn’t coping, and in the context of observable symptoms like her nightmares and sickness. Otherwise they had had an unspoken (although not entirely uncontested) agreement that her love would leave well enough alone.

Because that was what she did, and she saw no reason to alter a perfectly adequate response.

At least, she had seen no reason – until last year had brought with it the blow of not one, but two, unexpected reunions and returns. The first with her father, and to “home”, which was really a repetition of their actual first, after the war. The second with her sweetheart, which could possibly be posed as a repetition of their first, too, after Delia’s accident; but the brunette’s emotions had been different then, and had harboured more of her parent’s pain than her partner’s usual patience. Apparently she was destined always to deal with other people’s emotions ahead of her own. This, in itself, was not the shock – rather that arose from the utterly unexpected fact that she noticed and, moreover, minded. Now that she thought about it, the alcohol having at least been effective in removing some of her inhibitions, that was why she had held off from sharing anything. Far from careful consideration of her partner’s career prospects, her desire to deflect had been borne out of bristling at the cruelly-combined (yet contrasting) facts that they both knew they could not just carry on as before, but that they had still somehow expected they would. And, simultaneously, expected that they wouldn’t. That it would be more different than it turned out to be. In cognisance of all that had changed. But that was the paradox Patsy pondered now, just as she had when she lay like this waiting for her “Welsh Wonder” to get back from work in early December. Because, to all intents and purposes, nothing had changed.

Not for them, at any rate.

Just for her.

But they had got along fine before, carrying her grief in its individual manifestations between themselves as though it was merely a third ghost, completing her horrible, but nevertheless holy, trinity. Now that trinity had actually been completed, though, and the finality of its final piece had forced her to confront what mourning meant as an abstract concept as opposed to a smooth succession of isolated incidents which she could easily integrate and endure.

Not that they hadn’t hurt.

They had.

Like Hell.

They still did, especially alongside everything else; but, in large part because of everything else, she had had no choice but to construct a curious cocktail of compartmentalisation and conflation. Each thing in its proper, protected place, yet all of it thrown indiscriminately together, too. Survival presupposed suppression. Repression. So she had jumbled it – them – what happened – all into one big, tightly twined, ball, but her having done so now dictated that she seek help to untangle it. It seemed somehow too big, too tightly twined. That made her wish they had spoken in smaller, less significant increments, she and her sweetheart, over these far-reaching five (seven) years. Since, if they had, she might not have built (bottled) it all up so much; and thus not been quite so bowled over when this new-old nightmare had reared its head and jumped in to join the rest. She would have given her beloved the gift of a basis from which to work instead of, as she perceived it, practically pulling the rug out from underneath them both.

She hadn’t been able to write then either.

How ironic.

How ironic, indeed, that being reconciled (and reconnected) with her father and, through him, her family, had severed her sense of a similar connection to her cariad. In finding him, she had found her words, only to lose them again in losing him. The chest (both metaphorical and literal) that she had so carefully curated had been irrevocably opened but somehow, unhelpfully, seemed untitled. So, now that she at last understood the language her body had been speaking, she needed someone else who understood, for all the dialects they spoke themselves might sound different to outside observers.  She did not need the exhaustion of explaining – and nor, she felt, did Delia need the exhaustion of having things explained. But they had spent the last three months tacitly torturing themselves, and such tactics were untenable. That was why she had wrestled with herself to write this note tonight. She had thought, if she could tackle that, talking would come, well, easier if not easily. Because she wouldn’t have to explain to her.

But she had forgotten, conveniently, deliberately, how brutal the beginning had been; and now she had a bottle instead of her beloved to bring her back.

Brilliant.

No matter whose birth this was, it could not be over fast enough. She needed her sweetheart to stop this ship from sinking. Sharpish.

~

‘Pats? Are you awake?’ Delia padded, barefoot but pyjama-clad, into their shared room. She was planning simply to slip into bed beside her sweetheart. She hoped either that the older woman was already asleep or that her presence at last, though late, would soothe them enough to drift into a mutually dreamless slumber. Goodness knew both she and her girlfriend needed a night like that. Once she had successfully crept inside and closed the door, however, she allowed herself properly to register the brightness of not just their two bedside lamps but the overhead ones as well. Then, her train of thought and sight travelling from these telltale signs to the extra evidence of wide eyes in her favourite face, her heart sank. A normal night was not on the cards. No – and yet, for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine what there might be in its stead. Whilst her cariad was certainly upset, and the lines of tears tracked down her cheeks clearly freshly fallen, there were none of the usual suggestions of separation from her surroundings. If anything, the level of Patsy’s presence in this moment perturbed her; because, as soon as the redhead had sensed her return, she had sat bolt upright and greeted her beloved with a grin (albeit a watery one).

‘Deels, darling!’

‘Oh, cariad, have you been crying? Hang on just two ticks, and I’ll come cwtch. Here I was thinking how lovely it feels to find my pyjamas placed in the bathroom with your trademark precision, and how it’ll feel even lovelier when they’re in our own, but that as long as I can climb into bed next to you I really don’t care where we are. Meanwhile you’re in here and hurting. I’m so sorry I was so long, my love. What’s happened?’ She paused, ready to join the redhead, only for her partner’s hand to shoot out and stop her by pointing to the notebook which had apparently been flung face down beside the lamp…and an empty tumbler.

Oh. Oh dear.

Deducing that her darling would notice she had noticed, Delia elected not to comment on the latter item, merely picking up the former and, at a nod from Patsy, beginning (silently) to read what she had written:

Dear Mrs Sweeting,

Dear Anthea (No, too informal for an introduction)

Dear Mrs Sweeting,

I hope you don’t mind my writing this letter to you since I am, to all intents and purposes, a stranger .

I am unsure whether Sister Julienne will have spoken to you about me, or even mentioned my name, and I definitely would not wish to add further burden to your already busy life. Nevertheless she has suggested I write to you, on the basis that we seem to share several aspects of our childhoods. I lived in Singapore with my family until early February 1942, when we left in an effort to escape before it fell to the Japanese. We, along with many other civilian families, boarded a ship (in our case, the Giang Bee). (Why on earth would she care what it was called!?)

Our ship was sunk. My family and I somehow managed to stay together and find space in one of the lifeboats. We then landed (eventually) on an island called Banka, from where (again eventually) we were captured and interned. I gather your brother was imprisoned in a similar area whilst serving in the Army. I don’t suppose you knew or know where? (You can’t ask a question like that in this sort of letter!)

I apologise sincerely if this is still too sensitive a subject – I know it is for me, but that is why I am writing. I also lost my only sibling – my younger sister, Grace – along with my Mother. We also experienced things I have not yet fully explored. I think that may be what makes us most comparable in the Sister’s eyes.

It feels awfully unprofessional of me even to begin this correspondence but

May I be bold and ask if we could correspond? I need words for what happened to us – to my sister and to me – but I have none. People want to help but I haven’t the first clue how to let them if I can’t communicate.

I feel as if I have been shipwrecked all over again and I am drowning

Help. Please.

~

Delia felt as if she had been punched in the chest. She did not dare to look up, despite knowing that the second she did she would be greeted by a gaze far more anguished (of course) than her own. This letter had given her answers, for which she was grateful, but also more questions. So many more questions.

Oh, Pats.

Oh, my poor Pats.

Thank God the refurbishments were finished and they would be moving out – moving in – exactly a month today. Only four more weeks through which to force their way.

‘My dearest darling,’ she managed as she at last met her tall, trembling, partner’s eyes. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll be a better lifebelt, love, and I won’t leave you to drown.’

Patsy shook her head, pained, paying no heed to the tears once again pouring down her cheeks. ‘Not – your – fault – mine,’ she said, the stutter caused by a combination of sobs and surreptitious slurring.

After chucking the notebook unceremoniously onto the bed and collapsing under the covers beside her cariad, the Welshwoman’s look was warning. ‘None of this is, or was, your fault.’

‘I – mean – me – not – talking –’

‘You’re trying. No-one (including yourself) can, or ought to, ask any more than that of you.’

‘Not – not – talking – now – before –’

‘Before you went back?’

‘Before – it – got – this – big –’

‘But you couldn’t, cariad, because otherwise you would have. And I don’t think you should now, either. Shall I hold you?’

‘Please – but Deels?’ Patsy’s sobs had subsided and so, seemingly, had the slur.

‘Mmm?’

‘Not just a cwtch; I need you to touch me.’

The brunette’s breath caught as she watched the redhead reach down and begin to unbutton her own pyjama shirt. She, too, tried to talk, but found all she could muster was a sort of strangled snicker. Then, swallowing, she sourced speech by way of a yet another question. ‘Am I allowed to kiss you first, annwyl?’

‘If you insist,’ was her impertinent partner’s immediate reply. That settles it, the smaller woman thought slyly as she stretched up to cup her favourite face in her hands. Patsy was definitely drunk, otherwise she would have seen right through the reasons behind this request – and, when their lips touched, then tongues, the tang she could taste was unmistakable. Scotch. Slightly standoffish to start with, then sweet and subtle, with a surprising strength to follow if you were willing to wait for it. The perfect drink for her “Perfect Pats”; except this evening, when she had been alone and emotional.

Eventually bringing herself to break away, Delia locked eyes with her love. ‘Did you have a drink tonight, darling?’ A nervous nod. ‘I thought so. That’s fine, of course, because you’ve a late start tomorrow. It’s just helpful to know what I’m dealing with, cariad.’ Another, less nervous, nod. ‘So… How many, sweetheart?’

Patsy dropped her gaze to her lap. ‘Just two,’ she murmured, before looking up again. ‘Honestly.’

‘I believe you. You’re far too conscientious – and no doubt you thought of Trixie’s tenacity, too. But had you had anything to eat recently?’

‘Not since breakfast, no.’

Oh, Pats, how I wish I hadn’t been called out at lunch, and then again over supper!

Yet Delia successfully stopped herself from verbalising her concern, focussing instead on the practical implications of this information. ‘I’m not confident that this is an equal exchange, love, or that you’re capable of consent. It would be different if we were both tipsy (which I imagine we will be slightly when we do try again) but it really doesn’t seem sensible to rush things. Besides, even if you were stone-cold sober right now, cariad, I’m far from convinced you’re ready. Not for that kind of touching. Not yet.’

Her girlfriend looked crestfallen and crushed. ‘I thought you’d be pleased.’

Blue eyes eagerly sought blue eyes in an earnest effort to engage and reassure. ‘I am, Pats – or at least I would be if I thought it was what you really wanted. But it isn’t, is it? You feel guilty, don’t you, gorgeous girl? Because you can’t talk and you think you have to give me something else to make up for it?’

A reluctant redheaded nod as Patsy nonetheless raced to redo her buttons. ‘I’ve felt guilty since my first day back. Thanks to your tenacity, I’d mostly got rid of it, if only because it couldn’t coexist with my genuine inability to initiate either conversation or intimate contact. But then we missed our anniversary on Friday and it slammed me in the solar plexus again. Five years – and St David’s Day, too, Deels. That’s a big deal. So I screwed up my courage and wrote to Anthea. Or tried to. I thought if I could get it out on paper to her then it might help me get it out in person to you. But I could barely even manage that, and it feels so fucking unfair.’

‘And you feel so fragile,’ Delia demurred, folding her darling fast and firmly in her arms, even as she unconsciously omitted the euphemism for what they would both, frankly, really rather be doing. ‘I know, my love. I’m here, though, holding you and keeping you afloat. I’m your raft, Red, just like you are mine. So, in order that we may chart our smoothest course over the next month (because, now that it is just a month, it makes sense to wait it out), I would like to know how best you feel I may help.’

‘Honestly?’

‘Honestly.’

Patsy’s heart soared at her sweetheart’s sincerity, even as it sank at the insufficiency of her own response. ‘I have no idea.’

‘I may have come up with a few myself…’ came a whisper against her clavicle.

‘Please do share!’

‘Well, first off, I agree it was a shame we couldn’t mark our anniversary. I’m all too aware of how important they are, to you in particular, Pats. Most of them are hard, though, and it therefore seems twice as important to emphasise the more exciting ones. That said, secondly, as long as we’re mindful, I don’t think it always matters if we miss the actual dates. So I’d suggest we can, and should, still celebrate. We had fun when we made pancakes, didn’t we, and that was only a few days before.’

‘Indeed we did, Deels – but that doesn’t really count as “going out”, does it?’

‘No – but it does lead helpfully on to my third thought. How would you feel about going to the pictures on our next Saturday off, in a fortnight? Not evening, maybe, but a matinee; and fish and chips afterwards?’

The redhead fought off the sudden sensation that she needed to retch, refusing to capitulate whilst her cariad was being so compassionate. ‘This won’t make a single bit of sense to you, and I’m sorry, but I can’t set foot in a cinema right now.’

The brunette blinked, but otherwise maintained her composure. ‘All right, annwyl. I can’t say it does make sense, but I’m sure it will soon enough.’

‘It will. I promise – because I finally have a suggestion of my own.’

Delia was visibly delighted. ‘Oh yes?’

‘Yes. On that same Saturday, how would you fancy going furniture shopping? There’s absolutely nothing at the flat, so we need to buy all our own stuff, and we don’t want to leave it too late. Not least because I’m terrified – but that means I’d like to make a day of it, because we’ll have to take our time, and I’ll probably have to talk.’ Patsy looked directly at her love, slightly panicked, but mostly proud; and her effort in making eye contact was richly rewarded.

‘God I love you, Patience Elizabeth Mount.’

‘Is that so, Delia Busby? May I ask why?’

‘A whole blazon of reasons, but at the moment? Because you’re so bloody brave.’

‘I’m not. But I’ll take the compliment in return for you letting me give you a kiss, despite being drunk. Fair swap?’

‘Fair swap, sweetheart.’

‘Good – because I love you too. So very much.’

Chapter Text

‘This is our stop coming up,’ Patsy murmured as she gently stroked the top of the brunette head which had slumped against her shoulder during the last half hour of their bus journey. She had known the longer-than-usual trip was likely to tire her sweetheart out, despite (or perhaps because of) their comparatively late start, so she had decided to sit them in the most discreet part of the vehicle. Thanks to years of night shifts (and nightmares!), neither of their body-clocks responded well to lie-ins, but they were both conscious of how taxing today could potentially be, so had had a quiet word with Phyllis who had in turn had an even quieter word with Sister Julienne. That was also why they had taken the bus instead of the tube. There would be more than enough people in a relatively enclosed space once they reached their destination; they did not need the extra stress of enforced (if silent) socialisation before they even got through the front door.

Especially because Delia didn’t know which front door they were going through.

As her beloved began to stir at last, the older woman smiled at the thought of the amount of trust her (really very young) girlfriend was putting into this whole (progressively more protracted) process. Whilst she might feel, at times (oftentimes), that she herself was the childish, childlike one, the redhead knew that in reality she was the worldlier of the two of them. If that made her the more world-weary, too, then it seemed a small price to pay to keep her small partner safe. At least it did right now, this morning, prior to the conversation she had promised they would have – but they were taking things step by step (literally), so she had the luxury of leaving that thought to lie for a little while longer.

Sori, cariad,’ the Welshwoman whispered, her language a clear indication that she had not quite fully woken up. Yet another similarity between their sleeping habits, Patsy pondered in the pause before Delia spoke again. ‘I didn’t even realise I’d nodded off – but then I didn’t realise we’d be going quite so far either.’

The gawky ginger simply grinned wider when the bus drew to a stop. ‘Ready?’ she asked on a whisper.

‘Ready,’ her brunette beauty breathed as she beamed up at her, grin equally wide, and the redhead was reassured that she was ready too.

‘Right then,’ Patsy said purposefully as she stood, pulling her petite partner with her by virtue of the hand the smaller woman had sneakily slipped into her own. ‘Do you want me to walk down the stairs in front or behind you, Deels?’

‘Behind, please, Pats.’

A redheaded nod to convey yet more reassurance; this time the other way around. Reciprocity. Behind meant she could use the cover of her cariad’s coat to hide her hands and catch her if she stumbled. ‘That’s fine.’ They got down to the doors, and onto the pavement, without too much hassle or needing to hang back for fellow passengers. This would have been a not insignificant achievement on any day in London but, as this was both a Saturday afternoon and only just over a fortnight since the thaw, they felt they were entitled to be particularly pleased with themselves. Nevertheless, the older nurse knew they still had some walking to do, so she did not want to dally. ‘Ready, Deels? It’s not far now –’

‘Hang on, Pats,’ Delia said softly, pulling slightly on her partner’s sleeve to stop her from striding off at speed as she had a habit of doing when overwhelmed by her surroundings, and noticing as she did so that they were each repeatedly using the other’s nickname to replace the range of endearments to which they would otherwise reflexively resort. ‘I just need to get my bearings.’

‘I know, but –’

‘But that’s exactly what you don’t want me to do, isn’t it? So you’ve sneakily moved us far enough away from the bus stop that I now can’t see where we got off.’ The shorter woman paused, smirking at her sweetheart’s slightly pink cheeks. ‘I wonder why,’ she continued, casting a look around their immediate vicinity until she clocked a road sign. ‘Aha! Knightsbridge,’ she crowed triumphantly, before returning her gaze to her girlfriend and giving her a gentler grin. ‘Not that that helps much, mind, because the only two things my combined professional and personal characterisation as “country bumpkin nurse” allows me to associate with this area of the city are Hyde Park and The Royal Brompton Hospital; but both of those would be useless for furniture.’

It was now her tall companion’s turn to flash a triumphant grin. ‘Well, Welshie, perhaps you’ll take some comfort from the fact that you at least chose places beginning with the right letter of the alphabet?’

The redhead revelled in how cute her cariad could be when confused. ‘But they both start with different letters, and include multiple words, so that doesn’t narrow it down at all.’

‘All right, that was mean of me. Here you go. “Hyde Park” and “Hospital”. What else begins with an “h” around here, Deels?’

Blue eyes grew as round as one of the cakes of which Patsy hoped they would soon be sharing a slice. ‘Surely you can’t mean we’re going shopping for actual necessities at Harrods! Most people only go for souvenirs!’

At her beloved brunette’s bemused expression, another pair of blue eyes crinkled as long-suppressed laughter bubbled over. ‘This is why I didn’t want you to guess until we got there, the things we have to do and talk about are more than enough on their own to make you think I’m poncy and privileged. Or at least that I was until –’

A vehement headshake. ‘I don’t. But – but – but –’

Both women were struck by the novelty that it was Nurse Busby, not Mount, lost for words for once. ‘We aren’t here for everything, just one or two special things. Walk with me, my love, and I’ll explain?’ the latter asked earnestly, whispering but hoping her bravery would be sufficiently persuasive.

Delia nodded and began to walk in the direction being pointed out. ‘This had better have good reasoning behind it, Red,’ she teased, and tested their mutual level of relaxation by placing her hand on the crook of her cariad’s arm. When this touch was not greeted by her girlfriend automatically attempting to pull away, she pushed it through, and brought them closer together so they could communicate clearly yet covertly.

‘It does – but, before we get on to that, I’ve been meaning to ask. How do you even know that film, Deels? You can’t have been more than three when it was released. I, at least, was seven –’

‘Mam took me with her. She wanted to watch it and, as you so astutely point out, I was too young to be left alone. I was quite content, though. I think it set me on the right path for years of swooning over high society redheads…’ she trailed off, tickled by her own temerity, along with her tall sweetheart’s reddened cheeks. Then, taking pity, she focussed once more on the topic at hand. ‘Why are we going to Harrods, gorgeous girl?’ she breathed, feeling brave.

‘My father insisted.’

The smaller woman looked up at this subtle yet startling revelation, but found that her sweetheart was studiously avoiding eye contact, so answered by asking a question. ‘He did?’

‘Mmm. We were so similar, he and I, and knowing that now makes me at once wish we had kept in better touch, and understand precisely why we didn’t,’ Patsy paused, pensive, and finally flashed her “Welsh Wonder” a slightly wan smile, before pulling herself together to go on. ‘Anyway, when I first arrived, I was too eager to make myself useful and offer his actual nurses a break – but I gradually let my walls down –’

‘As you are wont to do if people wait, Pats,’ her petite partner supplied, squeezing the soft material beneath her palm in solidarity.

‘Indeed. And he didn’t have much choice but to wait, because neither of us was going anywhere anytime soon, and I was providing the only conversation not related to his condition. The curse of being an “invalid”, eh? Any entitlement one once had over choice of company is immediately invalid.’

‘Goodness, don’t remind me, Mam subscribed to that belief far too literally. Even when I was too old not to be left alone.’ The younger woman groaned in genuine distress at the memory. Patsy’s palm now pressed comfortingly against her coat, and they both permitted themselves a brief glance sideways for a shared, shy smile, because it was moments like these which reinforced the fact that they each took and gave equal amounts within their relationship. Then the brunette brightened and, blushing, apologised. ‘But I interrupted you. I’m sorry.’

A redheaded shake signalled that the reprieve had been much appreciated. ‘It’s good. It stops me rambling. Still, I haven’t explained. Eventually, we’d redeveloped a deep enough understanding that he was comfortable talking about my mother. I’ll come back to her when we chat properly later – you will interrupt then, too, won’t you? I’ll need it to be a dialogue –’

‘Of course, cariad, but keep going now. I want to hear what he said when you told him about us.’

Her sweetheart gave the smallest of stutters as she absorbed the knowledge that “darling Deels” already knew, and had trusted implicitly that she would not simply have styled them as close friends. ‘Yes, well,’ she said, stalling; and yet paradoxically grateful for their close proximity because it allowed her to keep her voice barely above a whisper, as Delia had done earlier when she grounded them once more in reality rather than fiction. ‘He merely suggested that, if you had managed to get beyond “our” notorious brusqueness, you deserved “the most deliciously decadent counterpane in the world for your bed”. He used all the variety of his vocabulary that he could before – before –’ she stopped, stalling again, but her reticence had a different reason behind it now. One which made the question of their relationship pale into insignificance alongside it. ‘It seems he was quite the hopeless romantic –’

‘I could’ve told you that for a fraction of the price of this precious “counterpane”, Pats.’

The older woman gave a girlish giggle at the sound of the archaic phrase when it was further enunciated by a Welsh lilt. ‘How did you make that deduction, Deels? I didn’t even know myself.’

Her love locked their gazes as they at last turned onto Brompton Road, having travelled exceedingly slowly once Patsy no longer had to prevaricate about where they were headed. ‘Like father, like daughter, that’s all, annwyl,’ the brunette breathed, made bold by their shared mirth. Then, back into protective practicality, ‘But, before we even think about any household furniture, I’m rather hungry – aren’t you?’

‘I was hoping you might say that, because he also informed me that we had to have tea first. He was very particular about where, too, hence me forcing us both into glad-rags. Apparently The Georgian has a strict dress code; you don’t mind, do you?’

‘Mind? When have I ever minded cake, cariad?’ Delia murmured mischievously, her Welsh lilt now even more pronounced than her partner had thought possible. Bless this beautiful woman for diverting her seemingly ever-present anxiety via metaphor.

‘I can think of at least one occasion…’ the redhead drawled from deep within her chest, chuckling again in spite of their surroundings.

‘Oh, but that depends on the kind of cake, Nurse Mount – and I’m sure such an illustrious establishment as Harrods will have plenty from which I may pick.’

‘You are incorrigible, Nurse Busby. Unfortunately for both of us,’ Patsy paused, raising a perfectly-pointed brow to illustrate that she comprehended exactly what her beloved brunette was about, ‘all I can do at the moment is ask you nicely to behave, because we’re here.’

~

Having used the excuse of the Saturday crush to stand still for a moment (as they had getting off the bus) and consider the imposing building before them, they were then swept up in the bustle and forced inside. Just as Patsy had supposed would happen. Once was more than enough. She was exceedingly glad they hadn’t taken the tube, she thought, a fleeting smile on her lips at the overly-emotive and yet restrained phrase which flew through her head, so fitting was it for where they were, for all it evoked a different era.

And a different couple.

No.

Not there.

Not here.

Not yet.

Tugging on Delia’s coat sleeve to keep her close, mirroring the movement she herself had made earlier, the taller woman brought them both towards the lifts, weaving through the crowds with an expert efficiency afforded by her height – and many other things which would make her stick out like a sore thumb even more than she already felt she did. ‘Fourth floor, please,’ she murmured politely when asked for their destination by a fellow passenger. In the hush which descended de facto as they ascended, Patsy permitted herself a glance at her girlfriend, since she had gone silent long in advance of the time etiquette (expectation?) dictated that they should. She wanted to ensure she was comfortable (well, as comfortable as was possible in such a small space). Then their eyes met, and Delia smiled demurely, before dipping her head to denote her acquiescence to someone else asking if they could step out slightly in front of her when the doors opened. She could blend in anywhere, that breathtakingly beautiful, delightfully disarming, brunette. Such a clever little chameleon – but, no, that animal was too exotic for the level of familiarity her love seemed to display here. Patsy, by contrast, could barely contain her desperate desire to disappear. Or so she felt. Hopefully her façade would hold her here, and together.

They were only having tea, after all.

Nothing more.

Nothing less.

No, nothing more.

Because anything more needed full stomachs and clear heads – which was why she hadn’t booked them in for the kind of tea that came with champagne. Perhaps not quite out of your depth, Patience. Since it was Patience whose presence was most prevalent now. Patience pushing her to parade across the floor as if she owned the place. Patience prompting her to ooze polish and politeness as they were greeted like honoured guests the moment she mentioned her name to the maitre d’.

Her name.

His name.

Their name.

No.

Stop this silliness. Stop it now. No use crying over milk which hasn’t even been poured, never mind spilt. You promised. How much has she pushed aside for you these past months, Patsy Mount? Where’s your patient monument when you need her most?

Not here, that much was patently obvious. Oh God, this was a terrible idea, and they had barely even begun tea. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.

‘Breathe.’

Delia’s voice was quiet and calm, and cut through her clamour quickly enough to bring her back before she realised she had left. ‘Th-’

‘No. Eat. I’ve steeped your tea, and put two cucumber sandwiches aside – I thought they would probably be easiest on your stomach.’

Blue eyes crinkled at their corners, all kindness and compassion. Patsy found herself sinking for an entirely different, rather more delightful, reason as she fought to force her features to behave enough to return her girlfriend’s gentle grin. ‘Sorry, I ought to be playing hostess. This is all exactly the wrong way around.’

‘When have we ever cared about convention, cariad?’ Welsh would go unnoticed here, it was positively provincial.

When indeed. Way, way, way back when. Not because I wanted to, either. But no, that can wait. Must wait.

Delia defied the convention so stuffily demanded by their dress code and reached across the table to grasp her girlfriend’s hand, tracing tiny circles on the even tinier circle of the older woman’s left wrist. Her sweetheart needed sustenance, and she was damned if she wasn’t going to see she got it. ‘Drink up, Pats, else it’ll get cold.’

That Welsh lilt is all the warmth I need. All I have. And I’m hanging onto it with all the strength I can summon. From somewhere.

More circles. ‘Take a bite of sandwich, Pats, please. Just a little one.’

Oh. Eating too? Really? But there’s so much food, I’ll never finish it all.

Yet more circles. ‘We can take anything we don’t manage back to share with everyone else. I’m sure they’ll box it up, and Sister Monica Joan will sing your praises tomorrow.’ A pause, to monitor the process of chewing and swallowing – and to do the same herself. ‘That’s it. And now a sip or two of tea, so it doesn’t get stuck in your throat. Shall I sort you a scone whilst you finish that off?’

‘Please,’ Patsy said softly, proud that she could speak a single word again.

Delia reflected the pride back at her tenfold, beaming. She was sincerely relieved that the redhead had returned to the room but also terribly concerned that this whole outing, and all its implications, was proving too much for her beloved to bear. Had she known just how big an undertaking Patsy had planned, she would have called it quits without letting her long-legged love stride a mere metre away from Nonnatus. But, she mused briefly as she sliced into the soft warmth of a scone, as had been evinced by the evasiveness when they got off the bus, she would never have been allowed to know. Because then Patsy would never have been able to talk – or, at least, would have continued to feel unable to do so. As much as it pained the smaller woman to witness, let alone acknowledge, the fact, this was a deliberate strategy on her partner’s part. So, passing the scone over, she simply smiled, content to watch as her darling demolished the (somehow slightly less stodgy than a sandwich) treat.

Well, that was a start, wasn’t it? And they had to start somewhere.

‘More tea?’

‘Please. And thank you. And I’m sorry.’

‘I shan’t answer any of that, but instead go and ask if we could have some boxes to take the rest home with us, all right?’

‘All right.’

~

Food finally out the way, it was now time to face furniture. Well, not furniture exactly, because whilst they could get beds and chairs and absolutely anything else they could possibly ponder purchasing, no amount of money would solve the conundrum of carting it all (discreetly) back to Poplar. But even the contemplation of covering the said furniture required one to concentrate on the furniture itself – and, as they walked towards the lifts for a second time to get to the second floor, the taller of the two women was thinking of this task with more than a little trepidation.

Still, needs must, Nurse Mount – and you definitely need somewhere to sleep. Come on, you can do this. Pretend it’s like before, when you joked with Sister Julienne about putting up shelves. Can’t you be as excited as you were then?

No. She couldn’t. Because the plain facts of the matter were thus: they had been excited, then it – they – had fallen apart. Whole countries had come between them. And that was without all of this other stuff poised to push them apart all over again. Which had resurfaced because yet more countries had come between them. Painful parallels she was sure were not lost on Delia any more than they had been on her. Yet, as she had observed in the bright lights of that hospital room (thinking back on the far dimmer lights of a much earlier, but equally emotive, hospital hut), she had picked herself up and brushed herself off – and she could do so again. Especially as, this time, she had an ally (no, an annwyl) alongside her. Even more especially as, if they wanted to fathom any kind of freedom from either the external or the (newer) internal enemies of their happiness, they would find it within the walls of their flat. Well, her flat, but only nominally. Whatever the deeds might say, it was, and always would be, theirs. Although the reminder of it being in her name also made her recall that it was her responsibility; and that was sufficient to smother all other feelings of overwhelm.

Which was a damn good thing, as Delia was looking increasingly lost; and that simply would not do.

So, walking like a woman filled with fire instead of fear, Patsy found their way to the relevant tills and rolled out her best impression of her mother – because, if both her parents, and her sister, were going to be bobbing about in her periphery, they might as well make themselves useful. Once the necessary niceties had been navigated, she wasted no time in getting her point across. This needed to be over and done with now. Preferably sooner than now.

‘Yes, thank you, I would greatly appreciate some advice,’ she said, hoping the extra enunciation would hide the sudden tremor in her tone. ‘I have recently inherited my father’s estate and, naturally, certain elements of it are frightfully masculine,’ she paused, cringing inwardly at her conformity to stereotypes, not just of class but of gender; and knowing Delia would rib her about this for weeks.

Sometimes they had to be joined in order to be beaten, she supposed? No, that was weak even by her standards of shamefaced and shuffling excuses. Ah well, she had said it now, and what she had to say next was only going to make things worse.

‘As I’m sure you will understand, this is a rather trying time, so I have brought my particular friend along to make the choice easier – not least because she will be keeping me company whilst I come to terms with my changed circumstances.’

The cashier nodded, smiling surprisingly sympathetically before she spoke. ‘Of course. Am I correct that, consequently, in the first instance, you would like matching linen for two twin beds?’

Patsy looked sideways at her sweetheart, wary, and was surprised to note that she had managed to shift almost imperceptibly closer. ‘We can push them together, cariad,’ the Welshwoman whispered with an equally imperceptible wink – and an elbow in the ribs.

Ow. When she had thought of being “ribbed” for weeks, she hadn’t meant literally. But she probably deserved that. Delia was right, though, they could push them so that they were next to each other. That would likely have to suffice, too, no matter where they went. Just as the amount of money they spent would have no impact on how easily things could be transported back to Poplar, it could not alter attitudes around a (relatively) young, unmarried woman buying a double bed. Especially in that environment. The extravagance on its own would be considered extreme, aside from anything else. For all her parents’ erstwhile pretensions, they had never been even halfway towards aristocracy, so she could not presume on the protection that level of status would offer from scandal. Not that she ever would have, anyway. At least Delia didn’t mind. She had said as much only a little over a fortnight ago – “as long as I can climb into bed next to you I really don’t care where we are” – and that statement now seemed to apply to the type of bed as well as to the original context of the room in which it might be placed.

Because what mattered was that they would be together.

Alone.

Alone together.

At last.

Oh God.

Watashi no namae wa Patience desu.

Oh God.

Oh God.

Oh God.

Watashi no namae wa Patience desu.

No.

Not here.

Please.

Onegaishimasu.

(Because of course you can remember it now!)

‘I’m sorry – I – excuse me –’

Patsy sprinted off as fast as her long legs would allow, searching for signs to point her towards the lavatory. She needed to wash those words away. She needed to wash it all away, but there wouldn’t be facilities within the bathroom of a department store (even one as well-equipped as Harrods) to permit her to do so discreetly. So she would have to settle for a simple hand wash. Or several. And maybe face, too. Was the lotion here suitable for faces? Oh, wait, was that Pears soap? It was! Well, she could use that on her whole body, should she wish. And she did wish. So very much – but that would be anything but decorous, or indeed desirable, here.

Hands would help, though.

Hands and face.

Hands and face.

Hands and face.

When she was at last able to remove the former from the latter and to meet her own eyes in the mirror above the sink, she saw another face – her favourite face – and two other hands. Smiling softly, saying nothing, and keeping her steady.

Dearest, darling, Deels, of whom she was utterly undeserving.

Only when she was certain she had been acknowledged did the Welshwoman venture to speak, and even then just three words. ‘All right, annwyl?’

A redheaded nod. ‘I think so. I’m sorry. I left you loaded with all those cakes.’

A brunette headshake. ‘Don’t be. They’re safe and, more importantly, so are you.’

‘The cashier didn’t mind?’

‘She was a bit bemused, but –’

‘As were you, I imagine.’

‘No, actually, I was expecting it.’

‘You were?’

Delia nodded now, as though deliberating over whether or not to continue this conversation here, when a toilet in one of the cubicles flushed and made them both jump. Then the door to that cubicle opened, and a woman roughly ten years their senior walked out and over to another of the sinks to wash her own hands, seemingly oblivious to the discussion taking place just beside her – and yet perhaps not. ‘This is terribly intrusive of me, but you seemed quite distressed when I came in, and, well, what you were doing felt familiar. Were you at all affected by the most recent war?’

The two younger women struggled not to stare at their older neighbour as she spoke, taking in not just her question but the heavy accent in which she asked it. Delia decided this was not her information to declare, and kept quiet, but Patsy had no such need. What she asked in return, though, was likely the last thing either of her listeners expected to hear. ‘Ben je Nederlands?

Ja,’ the woman responded immediately, barely even blinking, before registering the strangeness of the query within this situation. ‘Waarom?

Omdat –’ Patsy paused, remembering that they were not the sole interested parties here and that Delia deserved to understand, too. ‘Because – sorry, my friend doesn’t speak Dutch – because I recognise your accent from my childhood. But that was intrusive of me, and yet I fear I must go a little further. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know about my experience?’

The kindly stranger’s face softened even more as she regarded the redhead’s earnestness, and the empathy of the brunette by her side. Electing to let her skin speak first in her stead, however, she silently rolled up her sleeve. Then, turning her arm so that the angle was right, she showed them both her numbered tattoo. ‘I was in Belsen, and other places before that. Now, where were you, mijn vriend?’

Having been almost absurdly aware of her height all afternoon, the tall young woman suddenly felt tiny, her throat tightening at the tenderness of the unexpected endearment and the poignancy of being presented with the unconditional understanding of another person she had never met. She wasn’t sure she could ever repay the support offered here, and that made her feel inadequate and ungrateful. Nevertheless, she had been asked a question by someone who actually wanted an answer, for no other reason than that she could empathise. This woman had no prior investment in, or attachment to, her wellbeing – and somehow that motivated her to grant her request by answering honestly. This woman had already faced destruction; whilst Patsy might not know how to thank her, she could at least be confident that she would withstand the force of her own woe, and it would be such a relief to release it. So, summoning a smile, she started. ‘I was interned at the age of nine by the Japanese: on Sumatra, and just off the coast, so in what was the Netherlands East Indies. But it wasn’t the same as – they didn’t – that is –’

The older woman shook her head, mirroring Patsy’s slight smile. ‘There is no hierarchy in how suffering affects us, mijn kind. You lost much, I think?’ The redhead nodded mutely.

‘She did, yes,’ Delia supplied softly, finally feeling comfortable enough to contribute.

The smile shifted to the brunette as she blushed under the acutely assessing glance. ‘And you are a good friend to her, for which I thank you, although I have no doubt she tells you often enough herself. People like us are hard-pressed to find people like you – or people like us, for that matter. My name is Evi, by the way,’ the older woman finished as they both turned shyly to shake her hand.

‘Patsy. Aangenaam kennis te maken, Evi.’

‘Delia. Lovely to meet you.’

‘If ever either of you need me, I may be found at this address, where I live with my own dear friend, Susan.’ Evi looked away as she fumbled in her handbag for a fountain pen, and the two girlfriends shared a doubly delighted grin. ‘You look like you have had more than enough tea and things for the moment, but you are very welcome to join us at home one afternoon, should you have the time and inclination. Just telephone a little beforehand.’

Veel dank.’

‘Thank you very much.’

Graag gedaan. My pleasure. But I dare say now you’d like me to leave, so I shall. Take care of each other,’ she said sincerely, moving to do as she said.

‘Goodbye.’

Vaarwel.’

‘No ceremony with me, mijn vrienden. Tot ziens – see you soon.’

The two young women gazed after their new friend until the door shut behind her, and then at each other again, agog. ‘Well, this has become quite the adventure, hasn’t it Deels?’ Patsy said eventually, having taken time to process the encounter. ‘I could do with a constitutional in Hyde Park after all that. What would you say?’

‘Whatever you’d prefer, Pats.’

~

They first walked a while in silence, happy to hold hands surreptitiously beneath their coats, and invigorated vicariously by the excitement of the children around them at the still novel warmer weather. (It seemed that, no matter how much fun snow could be, the shine wore off for the younger generation as well.) Then, without any prior planning, they found themselves by the Serpentine; and, crucially, one of the few vacant benches.

‘Shall we sit?’ Patsy could sense that her “Welsh Wonder” was growing weary, although admittedly her motives were not entirely altruistic. The topics she had to broach, however briefly and sensitively, were not easily talked about whilst standing up.

Delia noticed the dual meaning behind the suggestion (of course) but posed a practical question before agreeing. ‘Are you sure you want to do this outside?’

‘Yes, because our only private space at Nonnatus is our bedroom, and…’

 ‘I understand. That’s fine. We could wait until we move?’

‘We can’t, because I ruined our shopping spree, and in order to go again (not to Harrods, to anywhere) I need to talk this through now.'

‘You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you? Shall we share an éclair?’

Her sweetheart smirked at the unintentional rhyme as she sat down, bringing her beloved brunette with her. ‘Only if we eat it quickly.’

‘Why!?’

‘That’s what it means – they were named after the word for a flash of lightning – because they’re gone in a flash. Here, pass me the box, and I’ll show you.’

‘Not if I show you first,’ her petite partner countered, placing a hand over the lid possessively.

Patsy pouted. ‘I thought we were sharing one,’ she whined plaintively, laying both her attitude and accent on thick.

Since the redhead’s RP had always been impossible to resist, the brunette had no option but to relent rapidly. ‘All right, annwyl,’ she whispered, the three words echoing their earlier reunion and reminding them both why they were here. They were silent again, though, chewing their respective halves of choux in tandem and then taking some much-needed breaths for bravery. Delia could tell her darling had no idea where to begin, but she recalled her earlier request that it be a dialogue, and deemed it her duty to honour that. ‘How many languages do you speak, Pats?’

Her girlfriend slid her a sideways glance. She knew where this question had come from but was less confident about where it was going. Still, it was a start. ‘Aside from the little bits of Japanese we all picked up? Four: English, French, Mandarin and Dutch –’

‘Which you learnt through being interned alongside Dutch people?’

‘Yes.’

‘In various parts of the former Netherlands East Indies?’

‘Yes.’

‘Not in Singapore?’

The redhead was wary now, but the brunette’s tone was calm, and gave her the courage to continue. ‘Not in Singapore, no. You read the letter I wrote to Anthea – sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound so –’

Delia reached for her wrist. ‘It’s fine. I did read it, yes, but you’ve always referred to everything as “Singapore” –’

‘I know. It was easier. I like to put things in boxes. It’s how I cope. You called me out for it in relation to another letter, if I remember rightly –’

The smaller woman laughed, in spite of herself, and the subject. ‘So I did.’

‘I even tried to put you in a box, once upon a time, but you were too stubborn to stay there. I’m so very glad, though, just as I’m glad you’re with me whilst I take this lot out – because I think it’s going to follow your lead and not stay put when I try and shove it back in. Not that it was really ever in there that successfully in the first place, if my nightmares and panic are anything to go by…’ She trailed off as she felt soothing circles being rubbed by a gloved hand on her bare skin.

‘You don’t have to justify your strategies to me –’

‘I know, but I do need to explain, so I am. We left Singapore on the night of 12th February 1942, on one of the last ships to take civilians. Papa had delayed until it was too dangerous to do anything else, and Mama was absolutely furious with him – What?’ Patsy paused at the sharp intake of breath beside her.

‘Nothing important – sorry for stopping you – it’s just I don’t think I’ve ever heard you call them that.’

The redhead smiled ruefully at that most bemused, most beautiful, of brunettes. ‘Mama and Papa? No, I don’t suppose you have; I didn’t let myself after – Anyway – There was an awful queue when we at last got to the docks, and the ship we were supposed to take (the Mata Hari, a big P&O commercial vessel that’d been requisitioned by the Admiralty) was already full. I’d never seen Mama so angry. Apparently Papa hadn’t either. I asked him about it when we stopped prevaricating because we both knew he couldn’t afford to delay any longer. Much like that night. Replaying the old patterns, I suppose. There was a point at which he had to talk, otherwise he’d never do so. Sound familiar?’

‘It does, rather,’ Delia demurred, still drawing circles on her darling’s wrist.

‘Of course you know what happened immediately after that from my letter to Anthea, but there’s a fair bit more. Am I all right to go on?’

‘Absolutely, annwyl.’

Patsy clung to Delia’s decisiveness like the raft she had said she would be. ‘The four of us were lucky enough to find space together in a lifeboat. I’d prefer not to dwell on those intervening days whilst we’re by a lake, but they aren’t that integral to the topic now, so hopefully you’ll forgive me. The only relevant aspect is that there was an older girl, called Joan, who had a sibling too. Her brother Ian. He was seven – the – the same age as Grace – and she was seventeen. When we eventually landed, we would walk together as we all made our way through the jungle. She’d carry Ian and I’d carry Grace, because I was already tall. If I got tired, Mama would take Grace, and Papa would carry me. Oh, Deels, I’d forgotten how nice it was to be near him; except now, in Hong Kong, it was me doing the carrying –’ She broke off, at last, as a single tear tracked down her cheek and splashed onto the skirt of her dress.

‘Oh, Pats, cariad,’ her “Welsh Wonder” crooned under her breath, the endearment an emotional caress to accompany the physical pressure against her wrist.

The redhead drew a ragged breath herself. ‘Anyway – Joan was everything I aspired to be – I worshipped her. Looking back now, she was my first crush, but I didn’t have the words for that then –’

‘Oh, so what happened wasn’t what made you –’ Delia stopped, unsure how to finish that sentence in their current surroundings, or if she wanted to at all.

‘No, Deels, it wasn’t. You and I are both well aware that that’s not how it works; and, even if it was,’ she paused to lower her voice a little further, ‘at least one aspect would have put me off women for life. That’s actually how it came up with Papa. His only surprise when I mentioned you was that I felt safe enough, given what happened. He didn’t say much more – he couldn’t – but that combined with his nightmares was enough for me to fit the pieces together. Then all my own memories came rushing back. Naturally,’ she added wryly, breaking off to sneak a look at her sweetheart’s expression. It was impassive and, although the grip on her wrist seemed significantly tighter, Delia appeared to be avoiding her gaze and no words were forthcoming. So she set off again, knowing that each phrase would carry her closer to these worst of wounds. ‘Anyway, I’m jumping very far ahead, but I think it’s necessary for both of our sanity. No doubt I’ll come back to the days in the jungle at some point. For now, though, I’ll move onto our capture and processing – because that’s why I couldn’t face the pictures. The building they took us to was the town cinema…’

‘Oh. Oh no. I’m so sorry I suggested it.’

It was Patsy’s turn to start circling a wrist. ‘Don’t be. You weren’t to know. I hadn’t told you.’

‘True, but –’

‘But nothing, Busby. We have rules about unnecessary apologies.’

Delia snorted. ‘We do, do we? I’d forgotten, since someone is so very skilled at breaking them, Nurse Mount.’

‘Touché. Still. Still. Still –’

‘We can stop.’

‘No, not now I’ve got this far. I’m going to skip a bit more, though, because it involves travelling on water again, and…’ she trailed off, gesturing gingerly at the expanse before them as it sparkled in the sun.

A brunette nod, still evading eye contact from earlier. ‘Understandable.’

‘Basically we were ferried repeatedly between the islands of Banka and Sumatra. That was why Mama got sick so frequently. The journeys were just too much and, in the end, they broke her. But she was sick even after one move, and that was the problem. We had roll-call twice a day, called tenko, where they counted us. I found it difficult enough because we had to bow deeply, and I didn’t always get it right because I was tall. So I’d be punished and forced to stand there in my underwear. Then Mama would fall over because she was sick, and she’d get humiliated, and Grace too. I wanted them to leave Grace alone, and they agreed on condition that they could “look” at me whenever they liked. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have a choice about anything, and they weren’t touching me, so…’ Delia stiffened, holding her breath and hoping that the sentence wouldn’t finish the way she suspected it might, but said nothing because Patsy’s tone told her she was too distant to heed a response. ‘So it sort of… well, didn’t count. Other girls had a far worse time. Girls who were a little older and more obviously attractive. It was horrible, though, and I hated it; my bladder got weak from the stress on top of everything else. Then the rest of the women were concerned when any of the children got too underweight. Where we were at the time, there was a proper hospital, so I was sent to be monitored. Most of the staff members were lovely, but because of my bladder I needed help – help – changing – a lot, and one of them – one of them put her fingers –’

Patsy’s stream-of-consciousness stopped abruptly after that word, and Delia was caught unawares at the sudden silence. When she looked directly at her love at last, she could see that she was shaking, and that her stare was glassy. She was not there – which meant that they needed not to be there.

But how?

‘Pats?’

‘Mmm?’

Oh good. She wasn’t completely gone. The redhead might not meet her gaze, but her relief at the absence of an overreaction radiated off her body.

‘Are you all right to get to the bus?’ Practicality and then protection.

‘We might have to run.’

‘I’m ready to run with you, annwyl. Always.’

Chapter Text

‘Deels?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Take off my shirt and bra. Not for my back – that can wait a while, now I’m not afraid of you looking – but I can’t. I want to welcome you home.’

Once Delia had complied with Patsy’s request to remove her remaining articles of clothing, the two soon-to-be (proper) lovers lay down, side by side, and stared silently at each other. They seemed, for the moment, to be mutually content in the (relatively) chaste contemplation of curves across the small but significant space between them – lust simultaneously deepened and dampened by the dimness of the bedside lamp which was now the sole source of light in what they could at last call a room of their own. Following the innuendo and intrigue they had employed in order to get themselves to this point, both panic and passion were palpable; and neither of them knew how best to proceed.

True, they had been here before, done this before, as Delia had said. But never exactly like this, as Patsy had said. Never as intimately as this, and the brunette was now cursing her carelessness in communicating – because she knew that her beloved’s anxiety was not actually based in her skin or her scars. That had all been a convenient cover, but it was not the crux of her cariad’s concern. Instead, its impetus was found in the event (or series of events) from her gorgeous ginger girlfriend’s girlhood which had most shaken her emotional foundations; so much so, in fact, that they had been buried in her body in order that she could motivate her mind to move on.

Yes, Busby, she was “talking about it as though we’ve never done this before”. You haven’t. Because this is not before, and now you know what that means; how could you be so thoughtless? Her “even just now at Nonnatus, we had to keep some clothes on” was a wry reference to the evening of the thaw, when she had tried to thaw herself. You don’t deserve the gift she is willing to give you tonight. You haven’t done anything to justify being “welcomed home” – but she’s letting you look at her, perhaps the largest of all leaps of faith in light of what “looking” once signified, and the least you can do is meet her gaze in gratitude.

When Delia did just that, tearing herself away from her inner torment and the excuse of lingering longer over her favourite person’s figure, she found a flushed face searching for her own. She opened her mouth to speak, surprised, but was silenced by a simple headshake – because Patsy had some words already waiting. ‘“She made good view of me; indeed, so much, that sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue.” Viola as Cesario in Act II, Scene ii of Twelfth Night. See, sweetheart, I’ve been a good student of Shakespeare.’   

The brunette blushed as red as her piercingly-perceptive partner’s hair. ‘Sori, cariad; you’re just so beautiful.’

‘So are you – my beautiful beloved.’

The simple sentence – and the fact that they were free to see, and to say, such things – briefly stole their breath again. Then, tentatively, two pairs of hands reached out to bridge the gap between their bodies by threading ten fingers through ten fingers; well, Patsy thought, as their palms met, eight fingers and two thumbs, to be anatomically-accurate.

‘I’m scared.’

‘I’m the same.’

‘Excuse you, that’s my line, and thievery!’ Patsy giggled at her girlfriend’s enviable ability to ease tension, and to surprise her (still) with how she did so. ‘In that case, I don’t suppose I’ll be successful in convincing you to go first, cariad?’

‘I’m on to you, Pats, with your crafty appropriation of my native tongue. If anyone’s stealing anything around here I’d say it certainly isn’t me. But, regardless, it doesn’t have to be a case of either or – it could be both together.’

Delia blushed at her own boldness as her beloved raised a brow. ‘Yes, thank you, Nurse Busby. I am aware of how our bodies work; and I think you are also. We’re both, theoretically, well-versed in the powerful potential of an artfully-placed finger, say, or thigh – or even, to reference my earlier quotation, tongue, but we only ever actually went as far as fumbles, and none of them…felt very good, because we were clumsy, and had to be quick.’

‘I say, Nurse Mount, for someone scared, you’re moving things rather fast, aren’t you –’ The smaller woman stopped herself speaking, as the full weight of her partner’s words pierced through her previous (poor) attempt at humour. She suddenly comprehended all this talk of theory for what it was; deflection. ‘You think if I “go first” –’

‘It’ll give me a chance to relax.’ Patsy blushed, now, but (for once) was proud of her bravery.

‘It won’t, love, it’ll give you a chance to say you don’t want me to give you what you’ll have just given me. Which is fine, of course; there’s no pressure. I just think you deserve it, darling. Your body and mind have been the cause of so much pain around this area recently, for reasons (since we talked) I now understand – and completely respect. But it’s because I understand and respect those reasons that I want to help you translate that painful response back into a pleasurable one.’ The Welshwoman paused, for both their sake, and wondered if she could find a slightly subtler way to continue.

Her English Rose – all red hair and palest of pale white (pink) skin, a perfect personification of the Tudor emblem – rose to the (apparent) bait proffered by the break. ‘I’m not that sophisticated at stalling when I’m (mostly) sober, sweetheart. Am I?’

Delia grinned at the gentle, genuine tone of the question, as well as the fact that their fingers had stayed tethered together this whole time; it meant her cariad was still comfortable with this level of constructive communication. ‘Yes, sweetheart, you are. On the walk back from The Gates, I thought I’d been convincing enough in my persuasion that this would be for you as much as for me, and we assuaged your anxiety about undressing when I helped, but then you said you wanted to welcome me home –’

Patsy returned the grin, albeit rather more bashfully. ‘A figure of speech –’

A brunette headshake cut her off. ‘A very deliberate choice of words, love, and you know it.’

‘I want to finish what I tried to start this time last month. I do want to welcome you home, Deels.’

‘A sentiment I very much appreciate, Pats – but have you thought about the possibility that I might wish to do the same for you? After all, I believe I used the phrase first, both in the context of planning for our original flat and then again on the bench when you got back. Speaking of you getting back, if my calculations are correct, it’s pretty much a year to the day since you left – you would’ve been on the ship out now, wouldn’t you?’ Her ginger girlfriend nodded gingerly, trying to guess where this was going. Delia saw the doubt in that dearest pair of eyes and squeezed her sweetheart’s hands. ‘Well then, I think it’s my turn to do the welcoming home – will you let me?’ she finished softly, smiling.

Her (ravishing) redhead nodded again, gratefully instead of gingerly now. ‘All right,’ she said, accompanying the affirmative with a squeeze in return, before baulking briefly at the realisation that, in her earlier listing of body parts, she had inadvertently included some she would much rather have left out. ‘No fingers, though,’ she pleaded, stammering. That was why she had noticed so specifically when their hands had touched.

The smaller woman understood and shook her head. ‘No fingers, Pats, I promise. No fingers anywhere other than where they are right now, if that would take away your worries. Just my mouth, since we never had the luxury of doing that before, because the position would’ve been too compromising, whichever of us was giving or receiving. So I’d love to love you just like that, my love. All right?’

‘All right.’

‘That’s my gorgeous girl. I’ll make sure you feel good when we get to it; first, though, I thought you might like a Welsh lesson? You’ve wanted one for a while now…’

‘Sorry?’

Delia decided they were done with discussions. ‘Do you trust me, cariad?'

'Of course.'

The Welshwoman smiled at her sweetheart's sincerity, and her willingness to waive an aspect of her autonomy even in this moment when she was at her least secure. Then, nodding, she loosened her grip on the older woman's hands; only to take Patsy's right one again immediately and cradle it between both of hers. Dipping her head, she pressed a tiny kiss in the centre of the palm, before looking up once more to explain (almost). ‘Llaw. Hand. And whose hand is it, Pats?’

Patsy chuckled, confused, but content to be so, for now at least. ‘Mine...’

‘That’s right. In Welsh that’s “fy llaw” – my hand. Can you say it?’

Fy llaw.’

Da iawn, cariad – well done.’ Delia beamed at her beloved, and then continued her coaching, nuzzling her favourite nurse’s forearm. ‘Braich. Arm.’ Once she had confirmation of comprehension, she took the trail of touch slightly further. ‘Penelin. Elbow.’ Further still. ‘Ysgwydd. Shoulder.’ Then, emboldened by the extra eloquence afforded by the language she knew she would forever be too embarrassed, now, to call her “mother tongue”, she kissed the nook between the redhead’s aforementioned joint and her neck.

‘Ohhh...’

‘All right, love?’ The smaller woman wanted to be sure the sound came from comfort and not consternation, and the English endearment’s contrast with the Celtic language comprising their lesson was crucial in allowing her to assess that.

‘Mmm, don’t worry – I’d forgotten how delicious that feels.’ Her tantalisingly tall girlfriend giggled again, and Delia was glad to know that at least some things hadn’t changed.

‘Oh good. That’s your neck. Gwdff. Fancy finding out where else feels nice?’  

‘I do.’

‘Perfect, Pats. Turn onto your back for me?’

‘Done, Deels,’ Patsy purred as she complied. ‘As lovely as this is, though, I think I should warn you that there’s absolutely no chance of me remembering any of these words whilst you seem to be doing everything you can to distract me, darling...’ She paused, pensive, and began to breathe slightly more heavily. ‘I don’t understand.’

No, Delia thought, as she saw the terror in her favourite face, you mustn’t go absent, Pats – this is exactly what I’m trying to avoid! Quickly, Busby, get talking. Use your words.

‘Oh, love, please don’t panic. I’m shifting your focus to remove your fear. You need – no, deserve – to reclaim ownership of your body, and the best way to begin to do that is to feel completely present in it. But you have to be present in a positive way. So these words are my attempt to call time on the negative clamour which would usually accompany the sensations I’m putting alongside them. I tell you what – since we’re commemorating your time on the ship out to Hong Kong tonight, think of Welsh as the waves of an ocean washing over you and drowning out any other languages. It was the Pacific which caused all your problems, essentially, wasn’t it?’ A redheaded nod as realisation began to dawn; this was a direct reference to their conversation in Hyde Park. ‘Well then – I’m offering you the alternative of, say, the Atlantic, to envelop you and help you to heal. Starting here,’ Delia whispered as she kissed the base of Patsy’s throat, ‘which, coincidentally, is the same word as neck. Does it feel similarly satisfying, sweetheart? Gwdff. Throat.’

Patsy shivered with delight, purring. ‘Yes, it does, Deels. You really are wonderful, Welshie, you know that?’

‘Hopefully you’ll soon know that you are, too, my love. Now, this is your heart. Galon. It sits in your chest, sweetheart, which translates to Welsh as frest,’ the younger woman said, continuing her caresses by dropping a kiss just to the left of the swell of her cariad’s cleavage.

‘Ohhh...’

‘Yes,’ Delia nodded approvingly, as though she had been provided with the perfect repetition. ‘And these are your beautiful breasts. Bronnau. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that they’re asking for some attention. How would you prefer I answer, Pats?’

When her girlfriend met her gaze, the single word she spoke was guttural – and yn Gymraeg. ‘Cusan.’

‘Kisses? Certainly. Like this?’ Delia asked, circling the wider area almost chastely with the lightest touch of her lips. ‘Or like this?’ She dipped her head fully and sucked slightly on one of her sweetheart’s nipples.

‘Like that!’ Patsy pleaded, panting, as she pressed her legs together. Ohhh... Oh dear.’  

The brunette’s head snapped up from her task. ‘What? Are you all right?’

‘Fine. These sheets will need washing tomorrow, that’s all,’ her ginger girlfriend said, grinning guiltily.

A brunette brow raised as two blue eyes narrowed. ‘That’s not fair, Pats, I thought I’d hurt you.’

‘Quite the opposite. Please do continue, darling.’

Delia huffed theatrically at the deadpan tone. ‘I’m not sure you deserve it after that – but, like you, I pride myself on finishing what I start...’ She dipped her head again, moving to the other nipple, and grazed her teeth gently across its tip.

‘Fuck! Delia –’ Patsy broke off briefly in an effort to regulate her breathing. ‘You’ve never done that before.’

‘No – and now I’m simultaneously wishing I had, and feeling very glad that I haven’t, given your response.’

The redhead’s cheeks went as ruddy as the Welsh word for them – ruddiau – and Delia felt her own glowing in triumph as Patsy replied, trying, but failing, to be completely contrite. ‘I was rather loud,’ she said sheepishly. ‘Vulgar, too. Sorry.’

The younger woman smiled and shook her head, the combined movements seemingly having become her reflexive gesture of reassurance tonight. ‘Be as loud and “vulgar” as you like, love, now that we can. Besides, if we’re going to be washing the sheets so soon after we’ve moved in, we might as well make it worth it, eh?’ she finished flirtatiously, her smile turning into a smirk.

‘Cheek! It’s a good job we went for two single beds pushed together.’ A pause, hoping her partner would notice her gesture, an effort to reclaim their space as well as her body after her previous panic had been provoked by precisely that phrase. Only when the brunette beamed at her bravery did she feel safe enough to keep flirting. ‘But I’d be careful, cariad, it’s your turn soon; and I seem to have inherited the Mount family trait of holding grudges...’

‘You know I don’t care what you do when you’re speaking Welsh – which reminds me, I should continue with your lesson, love.’

‘As you like, Nurse Busby.’

‘I do like, Nurse Mount – especially this bit. This is your stomach, stumog, and it’s perfectly proportioned to leave me with plenty of space for cusan.’ Delia demonstrated accordingly, accentuating the angles of Patsy’s ribs by trailing her lips along them. Then, spurred on as she observed their increasingly rapid rise and fall, she changed course a little and kissed the top of her love’s right leg. ‘This is one of your lovely long legs, my gorgeous girl. Goes. Eventually, if I travel down far enough, I’ll get to your thigh. Clun. But I think, right now, we’re both more interested in what’s between them, aren’t we?’

‘Wait.’

Her love looked up immediately at the sudden single word. ‘Do you not want me to?’

‘I – do – but – you – first.’ Patsy fought to calm down the fast pace of her breathing so she could speak properly. ‘Ideally both together, which as you say is perfectly possible, but I can’t quite cope with going back to trying that since it would involve…more than our mouths. So please let me pleasure you, sweetheart, because I need to understand how this works practically before giving over completely to my own physical responses. Does that make sense?’

Delia nodded. ‘It does.’

‘Good. I don’t think I’ll be able to let go fully otherwise; and you deserve not to delay, Deels – you’ve been so attentive to me. Besides, I’m not taking total responsibility for the state of our sheets. You need to be at least a little wet, too, you know...’

The brunette blushed deeply in response to the unexpected resurgence of the redhead’s confidence, but was secretly thrilled, because she knew hers had largely been bravado. ‘I think I already am,’ she admitted shyly.

Patsy’s eyes grew round at the thought that her response to their earlier activities had been enough to stimulate something similar in her sweetheart. ‘May I see?’ she asked reverently, swallowing in an effort to reduce the sudden dryness of her mouth, before making to sit up as she spoke again. ‘Lie down on your back for me, my love?’

‘Done, Pats,’ Delia said, smirking as she scrambled to comply – and relishing the colour of her girlfriend’s cheeks which resulted from her use of Patsy’s earlier phrase.

Covering her mixture of embarrassment and excitement, the taller woman crawled (cursing the ungainliness of her limbs as she did so) until she was level with her (almost) lover’s legs. Then, once she was settled, she began whispering in Welsh. ‘S’mae, cariad,’ she said softly against her sweetheart’s thigh, and smiled when she saw how the skin shivered as soon as her breath made contact with it. ‘Does that feel nice, Deels?’

‘Mmm...’

‘I’m glad.’ Patsy paused, observing the dampness of the dark curls which were now mere inches from her face. Delia was already wet, and gloriously so. Good. ‘Are you ready? Something tells me you are, but a lady never likes to presume...’

The Welshwoman giggled at that. ‘Patience Elizabeth Mount – virtuous to a fault, even (to use your apparently “vulgar” vernacular) whilst fucking.’

‘I aim to please, on all counts; but that hasn’t answered my question. Are you ready? And, remind me, what are the Welsh words for “fast” and “slow”, in the event that English escapes you?’

‘I am. And cyflym – fast – and araf – slow.’

‘Well, darling, since you were so gracious in giving me a Welsh lesson, without further ado, consider this your long-asked for tutorial from what (way back in December) you called my “very talented tongue”.’

Delia chuckled again, her eyes darkening, and Patsy used the small sound to mask the movement of her mouth as it found its first target. Inspired by the younger woman’s earlier ministrations on a different, but equally sensitive, part of her body, she kissed the soft down of her petite partner’s pubic hair. Delighted and relieved when the brunette let out a moan, she redoubled her efforts, with a tentative touch of the tip of her tongue.

‘Ohhh...’

‘All right, love?’

Delia nodded fiercely at the redhead’s echo of her earlier query, even as her eyelids began to flutter closed. ‘Daliwch ati, cariad, da iawn.’

Patsy knew what those two phrases meant – “Keep going, love, well done” – and grinned reflexively at the praise, needing no further persuasion to continue. But she did need increased access. ‘Could you open your legs a little wider for me, sweetheart, please? I’d feel a hypocrite using my fingers.’ Her girlfriend complied, giggling and stroking her hair. After adjusting her position to make the most of the extra space, taking more inspiration from the brunette’s attention to her breasts, she swiped her tongue slightly harder – and faster.

‘Ohhh... yn araf, cariad.’

Ah. Slowly. Whoops. One mustn’t get carried away, Nurse Mount. Patience is your namesake virtue, after all. Try something different. Daring, even.

So, heeding her partner’s instructions, slowly – oh so slowly – she sucked. Her reward was a response strikingly similar to her own.

‘Fuck! Patsy –’

Smiling, but electing not to comment, she repeated the motion, before swapping it for small but significant circles – also like Delia’s earlier efforts, but decidedly less chaste.

‘Ohhh... Ohhh... Ohhh please, Pats... Os gweli di'n dda!

Patsy grinned, and paused, purring slightly from the back of her throat before she continued. The brunette’s hips bucked briefly off the bed at the buzzing between her legs, and her girlfriend had to resist the urge to grab them with her hands so they could be held in place. Instead, she simply intensified the rhythm of her circling, coaxing her cariad towards her climax. God, it felt so good to give her this kind of pleasure.

Why had they never tried this, gone this far, before?

No. Don’t think about that. Not now.

Keep going. Daliwch ati.

Her beloved was building, on the brink, and, in this moment, nothing else mattered.

Delia was right. She needed to be present, positively, exactly like this.

Exactly like Delia was, too, actually, Patsy thought, as she circled her tongue once more in such a way that her lover finally reached her (far too-long awaited) peak.

Oh fy duw, Pats!’

Oh my God indeed, Deels. I only hope that felt as glorious for you to receive as it did for me to give, the older woman responded silently, as she snaked up the bed to envelop her girlfriend in an embrace whilst the receding waves of the Welshwoman’s pleasure continued to pulse through her beautiful body.

They lay like that for a while, kissing, twining tongues and tastes, content to bask in the afterglow of their first attempt at this kind of lovemaking, and Patsy genuinely believed she couldn’t have contemplated any better end to what was also their first evening in this flat.

But Delia, it seemed, had other ideas. ‘Pats darling, don’t you dare fall asleep, you promised!’ she said, pouting as she felt her cariad snuggle in slightly closer next to her bare and still-buzzing skin.

‘I’m not, I’m just cold –’

‘Liar.’ The accusation was adoring, and accompanied by a laugh and a gentle grin. ‘I still love you, though, love. How could I not after the gift you’ve just given me? By which I mean the openness and empathy, not merely their physical proxies. But I’d really like to offer you the same – if only because, if you really are cold, you taught me an excellent method of warming up...’ she trailed off, nuzzling her nose into the nearby neck.

‘Ohhh... Well, if you’re going to do that again, Deels, I ought to give in now, in the interest of efficiency and energy conservation,’ Patsy stated, deadpan, albeit with a lopsided smile which belied the genuine lust behind her clinical description. ‘Have your way with me, Welshie – take it as an early birthday gift, since I missed your twenty-fifth when I was away. And it also serves as a thankful acknowledgement that you were so successful (and sweet) about fending off my advances on that Wednesday evening in the week after our anniversary.’

‘You know perfectly well I didn’t mind that; and you owe me no thanks. Because you also know the reason I didn’t mind.’

Buoyed by the brilliance of her ginger girlfriend’s grin, the brunette allowed herself to drift a little, thinking back over the progress they had made in the past four months, which had been built, in turn, on that of the last five years. So caught up was she in her contemplation, she failed to detect the slight glint in her sweetheart’s eye, and was therefore caught completely off-guard when the older woman spoke next.

‘Why? Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding, or something – that –’ Patsy asked, purring and putting on a highly-exaggerated Philadelphia drawl to match her quotation of the film that, as they had observed on their shopping trip, had followed their path to this point – from Delia’s first reference to it that night of her bath.

Pulled immediately back to the present, her darling giggled delightedly and, skipping a few lines, played along. ‘You were extremely attractive, and as for distant and forbidding, on the contrary. But you also were a little the worse – or the better – for whisky,’ she paused, waggling her eyebrows to emphasise the switch from wine to spirits, ‘and there are rules about that.’

At that addendum, so apposite to their particular circumstances and yet somehow (like the rest) lifted directly from the dialogue, her cariad predictably laughed aloud. ‘Thank you, Deels,’ she said solemnly, also switching her favourite nurse’s nickname for that of Jimmy Stewart’s character, Mike, ‘although you’ll have to forgive me if I cease to quote the continuation of that line, because I decidedly do not think “all men are wonderful”.’

Delia smirked, showing off her dimples. ‘Is that so? I must say, I hadn’t noticed.’

Patsy raised a brow, blushing. ‘Am I to take that to mean you would rather not get your early birthday gift, Deels?’ she teased, nudging them both away from fiction and towards reality again, as her partner had done as they walked along Knightsbridge a fortnight ago.

‘Oh no, Pats, not at all; I can think of nothing I’d like better, but only if you’re sure.’

The younger woman was steadfast in her commitment to consent, and it made her girlfriend giddy with gratitude. ‘I’m sure, sweetheart. If it’s half as heavenly as it felt to be the one giving it, it’ll be glorious.’

‘Legs wide, then, please, Nurse Mount,’ Delia decreed, delighted, as she nestled into the necessary position for the second (and hopefully more successful) time that night.

‘Ha! You sound like you’re about to examine me, Deels. I’m not one of your patients, you know, Nurse Busby.’

‘Yes you are, sweetheart,’ her beloved brunette purred, turning one of Patsy’s earlier tactics to her own advantage and relishing the redhead’s moaning reply as the words buzzed between her legs. ‘You’re my favourite patient – my patient Patience.’

‘You and your puns. I can’t win. I’ll stop talking, then, and just lie back and think of England, shall I?’

It was her lover’s turn to laugh now. ‘Oh no, cariad, definitely not – lie back and think of Wales.’

‘That’s terrible!’ Patsy protested, whilst pondering the fact that she was somehow already panting.

‘Is it?’ her girlfriend asked innocently as she dropped a kiss in the centre of her cariad’s curls.

‘Ohhh... No, I take it back.’

‘Good. In that case, Red, are you ready?’

‘Yes, but it’s blonde –’

Patsy’s pedantic prevarication was cut off as Delia peppered further, faster kisses between her legs.

‘Ohhh... Slow down, sweetheart, please.’

Her wish was granted as the smaller woman swapped kisses for the slow, sweeping caress of her tongue, tentatively easing her way inside her lover’s other lips (at last!), as she would were they her mouth, to find the nub of Patsy’s pleasure.

‘Ohhh... Ohhh... Ohhh...’

The brunette’s teasing became much less tentative after that triplet, her tongue dancing around at a tempo which played havoc with her darling’s desire.

‘Oh God – Deels – Please!’

Eventually, the sound of her nickname loud on her sweetheart’s lips pushed Delia to provide Patsy with the release the redhead had not long since given her. Following one final, satisfyingly salty, swipe, she felt her cariad career over the edge, and heard her keening. The older woman was ecstatic – and yet, simultaneously, for this sensual sliver of a few, fleeting seconds, she had never been more stably centred or in her element.

Tomorrow morning would be different, of course; because nothing as nuanced or deeply-embedded as this type of trauma would be cured overnight. Goodness, they both knew enough from their professional practice to be aware that it would never completely cease to affect every single aspect of their personal lives.

But this was tonight.

Tonight, Delia wanted only to process how proud she was of “her Pats” for letting her in – and letting go.

So, tucking herself into the grasp of her still-trembling girlfriend’s arms, she returned the ginger’s earlier anchoring gesture, and sought consent for a kiss. ‘That’s your taste, love, and it’s beautiful – like you,’ she said, when they broke away. She wanted to finish this part of their evening in a similar manner to how it had begun. ‘Thank you for giving me the gift of your whole self.’

Patsy couldn’t stop the colour creeping into her cheeks, so she covered, as was characteristic. ‘I should say the same of you, Deels – diolch, darling. Thank you. From my heart.’

Diolch o’m calon,’ Delia supplied, smiling. ‘The spelling changes because of the pronoun.’

Diolch o’m calon,’ the redhead repeated, returning both the phrase and the smile. ‘I haven’t, though – given you my whole self, I mean. There’s something I still need to show you,’ she continued, turning over so that she was in the position she occupied whilst playing the part of the small spoon. From here, because they were naked, her beloved would have full view of her back; and its blemishes from brutality. ‘Do you have a word for these?’

Delia’s breath caught at the combined simplicity of the query and the starkness of the many marks to which it referred. But Patsy did not need her anger – she needed, and deserved, her admiration, which she was able to offer in abundance. ‘Sêr.’

‘Scars?’

‘No. Close, though, cariad – just one letter different, in English, at least. Stars. Because they are. They’re constellations, giving me a map with which I may chart the skies of your childhood, to help you find your way in what must sometimes feel the darkest of nights, across the stormiest of seas. This is only the beginning, love, and I want you to know I’m in it for the long haul. Far longer than the two decades these have seared into your skin. We need to sleep, now, sweetheart, so I won’t actually massage you tonight; but tomorrow, and every day after that, I’ll show you exactly how much their messages mean to me.’

Patsy was silent as she digested everything Delia had said. Then, turning for the second time as swiftly as the first, she poured all her pain into a single Welsh phrase. ‘Diolch o’m calon, cariad.’

Thank you from my heart, love.

Chapter Text

‘Pats, love?’

‘Mmm?’ The referenced redhead mumbled an inaudible response, as she cracked open an eye, and stretched sleepily.

Delia grinned at her girlfriend’s grogginess from where she stood just beside the outside bed, wearing a dressing gown and gesturing hello by waving two freshly-made mugs of coffee. ‘Bore da, beautiful,’ she said softly, as she set one of the mugs down on the bedside table next to the still unopened bottle of massage oil, before shucking off the robe and slipping back under the covers for a cuddle with her cariad. ‘You slept through.’

‘So I did,’ Patsy purred, smirking and reaching to tuck a stray wisp of hair behind her beloved’s ear, as she sat up to sip her coffee. ‘You may pat yourself on the back for that, Busby.’

The brunette’s eyes widened at the implications of that sentence. ‘I don’t think that’s why you slept, sweetheart,’ she stuttered, suddenly shy.

‘I do – and I also think we should try it again when we get in from our respective shifts tonight,’ the taller woman said slyly, sneaking her free arm around her shorter sweetheart’s shoulders and pulling them slightly closer together. Then her temerity was thwarted, as she felt a twinge from the movement, which made her wince.

Any innuendo vanished as mutual nursing instinct kicked in. ‘All right, annwyl?’ Delia asked, immediately attentive.

‘I’m not sure. My shoulders seem very sore. Actually, my whole back aches – but that’s the only symptom.’

The brunette breathed a sigh of relief at the redhead’s response. ‘I can’t say I’m surprised, then, cariad. We’ve talked about this,’ she supplied gently, pausing to grin at her gorgeous but gawky girl in reassurance that the phrase was meant as comfort rather than criticism. ‘It’s a physical manifestation of your emotional trauma. In this case, I’d guess your back is your weak spot, since you have physical damage there already – but it’s likely to be a proxy for everything else. So, whatever you might insinuate (and however flattered I might be), it’s not going to have magically disappeared on the strength of a single orgasm.’

Pausing, Delia looked down at her drink, momentarily floored by her frankness, and Patsy felt she ought to match the Welshwoman’s honesty with some of her own. ‘I wish it would,’ she said simply, and the softness of her tone (given the subject matter) was enough to make her partner meet her gaze again.

‘I know you do, my darling, and I’m so sorry for your sake that it hasn’t yet. But I also know, from my own experience with the effects of my accident, that these things don’t usually work how we would like. If anything, they get worse before they get better, because both our bodies and our minds take issue with being forced to change behaviour. Especially when they deem that behaviour to be protective rather than problematic. That’s why I thought the massage oil might be a good idea. I’m sorry I joked about ogling last night, by the way; that was an unfortunate choice of words given, well, what you had to deal with.’

Patsy laughed aloud for a moment, forgetting the tension in her back, but summarily and speedily regretting her recklessness as the muscles reminded her just how tight they were capable of becoming. ‘Ow!’ she groaned, and her girlfriend felt guilty.

Sori, cariad, I shouldn’t have mentioned it now, either…’

‘No, no. That wasn’t what made me seize up. Your words are powerful, my “Welsh Wonder”, but they’re not that powerful. The spasm came from laughing, but I was laughing because of how much I appreciated the phrase. I thought you’d used it deliberately, darling. It made me feel so safe, because you seemed to understand what I was really worried about even though I was fabricating excuses about clothes and scars.’

‘Oh. Really!?’ Delia was still doubtful so, in an attempt to deflect from her own inadequacy, she latched on to the last word of her lover’s sentence. ‘Talking of scars, sweetheart, since you’re sore – shall I massage you now?’

‘That would be very nice, if you think we’ve got time before we leave for work.’

‘There’s always time to look after yourself, annwyl, or to let yourself be looked after. Pass me the bottle, please, Pats.’ The smaller woman’s tone was firm yet gentle, a combination which gave a convenient cover for her private opinion that her “Patient Patience” ought not leave for anywhere this morning, least of all work.

‘You are too good to me, Deels,’ Patsy purred as she complied, then placed her half-drunk mug in the space conveniently vacated by the bottle, before lying down on her side again. ‘You’ll note I didn’t say “good for”, however. I am learning, love.’

‘You are indeed,’ the brunette breathed as she brushed her girlfriend’s ginger locks away from her shoulders to allow proper access to the most affected area. ‘We both are. You still help me so much, cariad, both physically and emotionally. Even this long after my accident. And, even this long after it, it’s still damn difficult to accept that help. I say that simply to reassure you that I understand, Red; and also to let you know how much I appreciate the opportunity to repay the support you’ve given me.’

‘Of course I support you, sweetheart, I’d be a poor excuse for a partner if I didn’t.’

‘Exactly my point, Pats.’

Touché. But this is exposing enough on its own, darling, so spare me the emotional examination just this once?’

Sori, cariad. You see, this is a learning experience for both of us, and I’m apparently babbling because I’m too scared to start. I’m just so worried I’ll hurt you…’

Her girlfriend grinned widely at the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in her apprehension, and was glad to be facing away from the Welshwoman, because she didn’t want to seem insensitive. ‘You won’t, Deels, honestly,’ she promised, putting all her powers of protection into practice. ‘M – my mother –’

‘You can call her “Mama”, Red, remember? You’re safe to do that here, with me, if it feels more comfortable now. Honour your nine-year-old self.’

The redhead’s breath caught in wonderment at her beloved’s wisdom and understanding. How did she know!? ‘When the first ones – happened – Mama was still well enough to look after me – us – and she made a basic paste out of one of the few plants we could get our hands on. It smelt foul, but it did the trick, and so, to distract us all from the awkwardness, she used to sing. That might make it easier?’

The brunette beamed against the taller woman’s back, wanting so much to kiss the soft skin in thanks for her thoughtfulness, but concerned about doing so without consent. Instead, therefore, she verbalised her gratitude. ‘That would make it much easier, my love; thank you.’ Then, as she poured a little of the oil into her left palm and rubbed it briefly on her right to ensure it would be warm, she asked what she felt was a crucial question in these sensitive circumstances. ‘Would you prefer me to pick a song she used to sing, or something completely different, Pats?’

‘Oh – I hadn’t thought that far ahead.’ Her partner paused, pensive. ‘I’d usually say something different, but it might be nice to try, just this once. I’m not sure you’d know many of them, though. Hmm… She liked to sing Al Bowlly, because he was from before?’

The smaller woman had to stop herself from squealing with excitement. ‘You likely won’t believe this, cariad, but so did my Mam! Some of my earliest memories feature his music because, before Tad had his medical and they said his chest was too weak for him to fight, he thought he might get sent as far away as India. So he would play “Hang Out the Stars in Indiana” as a promise he’d come home. He thought it was wonderful wordplay on his part…’

‘I bet he did,’ her darling drawled, deadpan. ‘I always suspected it was his fault you have such a penchant for terrible puns, and that’s just cemented my conviction. Still, it’s given us a shared sense of that song’s significance, so I can’t complain too much. Mama used to sing exactly that, because Papa had done similar before we got segregated.’

‘Oh, cariad –’ Delia cut her own sentence off, choked, and Patsy smoothly finished it for her.

‘What a coincidence. I know,’ she said, smiling despite the fact that her “Welsh Wonder” would not see. ‘Will you sing it, please, sweetheart?’ she asked, her voice full of admiration already.

‘I’ll try,’ her beloved brunette said, running her hands gently over the stark “stars” strewn over the skies of her sweetheart’s skin. Both women were acutely aware of the aptness of the metaphors in the music they had chosen together, particularly when coupled with their conversation as they had drifted off into a sated slumber, and they held their breath for a bit before the younger tentatively began her new task now.

Hang out the stars in Indiana –’ she sang softly, stroking the top of Patsy’s shoulders. Here the marks were smaller than most, but slightly raised, even after two intervening decades. She shuddered to think what stories the differences in texture would have to tell, were she brave enough to ask; which she wasn’t, of course. If it needed to come up, it would, and if not, that was fine. She was more than content with the trust offered here.

Up in the sky of midnight blue –’ Blue like the brilliance of her darling’s eyes when they were darkened by distress or, more recently, desire. ‘Hang out the stars in Indiana –’ How far away the wider open spaces of American states seemed in contrast to the cobbled streets and cramped tenements of Poplar – but then they both knew that even the greatest expanse could seem suffocating. Wasn’t that why she had left Wales? And wasn’t that why her lover so often “left” her?

To light my way back home to you –’ At least they each had sufficient empirical evidence now to prove that they would find their way back.

Have every robin sing a love song –’ This next lyric made the Welshwoman’s heart ache, and her voice waver, as she thought back on the tender longing which had been evident in her darling’s tone on the day after their shopping trip. Rather than being as retraumatised as they had both feared (and consequently prevented from any further communication), she had found herself almost unable to stop talking. So she had chatted away to (an enraptured) Delia about how her parents had paved the early years of her childhood with page after page of books but that, amongst them all, the one she had most appreciated (and all the more so in later years) was The Secret Garden. For all its obvious connections with her own story, of course, but also for the parts she had to imagine, because they were what had kept her strong inside when everything outside was striving to break her. The thought that a robin might just flit over the gedék fence and spirit her across the ocean to England was in many ways far less bizarre than what she had to face, alone, in the awful reality of the final camp, where the bamboo-encircled beauty was more brand than balm to her suffering soul.

A melody just meant for two –’ Then the brunette thought of how she had returned her redhead’s confidence (struck by the significance of this story to both of them in the same manner as she had been by the song today) by telling how Colin had helped her cope, when it had seemed as if nothing short of a miracle would let her move beyond the confines of her Celtic convalescence and the cosseting her Mam had considered necessary.

For in my heart there’ll be a love song –’ The waver turned into a wobble as she mused on the sense of hiraeth she had been subsumed by, which had mounted steadily with each successive day, not for the home she had been born to but of that she had built with her beloved. How hopes of having such a place again had seemed hubristic to harbour.

A song I long to sing to you –’ Yet, somehow, here they were, lying beside each other on the beds they had purchased (and pushed together) for precisely that purpose, papering over the cracks in their connections as the previous owner had papered, or painted, over these walls, which were constructed with comfort rather than constraint in mind. As her partner was letting her paper over the cracks she could sense beneath her fingers. Fissures so starved of attention, after nigh on twenty years without it, that they shrunk away in surprise – and, feeling her girlfriend flinch, Delia suddenly realised her skin was slick not just with oil but with tears.

As she had done earlier to cover for her choking, in acknowledgement that her annwyl was now acres beyond the bounds of her comfort zone, Patsy took up the baton of her beloved brunette’s bravery and sang the song’s third verse herself. ‘How could I find the things I sought for –’ she started in a timid alto, the huskiness of the slightly lower harmony only augmented by years of smoking. Perhaps it wasn’t an entirely bad thing, she thought, smiling ruefully before the second line reminded her why she had stopped as it coincided with the slight catch of her cariad’s caress over a cigarette burn.

No wonder they were all denied –’ Quite. Delia had saved her from herself on numerous counts, but her own mind had given her reason to regret that particular strategy. It was more akin to self-sabotage than self-preservation. The outward damage was ample evidence that she ought to eschew its inward counterpart.

The very happiness I fought for –’ Tooth and nail, grappling with her shrinking sense of self (in both its literal and figurative manifestations) to put one foot in front of the other whilst she stepped on and then off the ship, cursing not having heeded her father’s advice about flying back to avoid the anguish of being bereft in the bowels of yet another boat.

Was right back by your side –’ But she was there now, at last, and safely, too; a sentiment which was secured by her girlfriend joining in again on the final word, so that they could finish the final verse together, their voices blending as beautifully as their bodies had the night before.

So wait for me in Indiana

And, when the long, long, day is through,

Hang out the stars in Indiana

To light my way back home to you.

They let the silence hang a moment, reticent to break the spell of the mutual solace found in the words of a song which had been whispered down the generations by the women in both their families. Then they were struck simultaneously by the fact that their parents’ takes on the tune would have been significantly more sedate – although their thoughts travelled down different avenues. Delia deliberated on the delicious likelihood that Mrs Busby, especially, would have been scandalised to discover that her daughter was singing it stark naked; and with a woman to boot. Patsy’s pondering, predictably, pursued an (apparently) opposing path, but one which brought her to the same end because she was positive her father would have approved. ‘Well, I know which record we’ll be adding to our collection next, then…’ the ginger said, giggling.

The brunette echoed her beloved’s cheeky chuckle. ‘It is appropriate, isn’t it? The perfect length, too, because I’ve just reached the bottom of your back.’

The taller woman barely let the sentence end before she turned over to envelop her petite partner in an embrace. ‘Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deels,’ she said, smiling as she saw a pair of dimples begin to emerge at the linguistic gesture. ‘I’m sorry you got sad.’

The smaller woman shook her head. ‘I’m sorry you’ve got scars.’

‘It’s not your fault, you foolish girl,’ Patsy purred, engaging protectiveness once again, before seeking consent to silence any further protest with a quick peck on her lover’s lips. ‘However, as much as I’d enjoy showing you how appreciative I am of your attentions this morning, duty calls.’

So, with that, she was up and out of bed, slipping on her dressing gown to potter down the passage to the bathroom, where her uniform was already laid out. But Delia called her back before she had barely taken a step. ‘I was wrong about your backache being entirely emotional, cariad.’

The taller woman was concerned enough to stop walking, but not quite to turn around. ‘Oh?’

‘When’s your period due, Pats?’

‘In roughly a week, but my cycle’s been all over the place for ages – why?’

The brunette rolled her eyes at the way her redhead seemed capable of such astuteness around others, yet could be frustratingly unaware about herself. Especially in relation to her body. But Delia supposed that made sense in light of everything. ‘Turn around,’ she said simply, breathing an audible sigh of relief when her sweetheart complied.

‘Oh. Oh no,’ her girlfriend groaned at the not-so-subtle sign that greeted her questing gaze. ‘Our new sheets!’

The Welshwoman laughed at the predictability of her partner’s priorities. ‘Don’t you worry about that, love, you just sort yourself out.’

Patsy nodded sheepishly as she spun on her heel for a second time, and sprinted down the corridor, calling out in guilty gratitude over her shoulder. ‘Diolch, Deels, I’ll make it up to you!’

Once Delia had wrestled with the relevant linens – another advantage of having nominally single beds, she supposed! – she, too, walked down the passage with the aim of dumping them in the kitchen sink. As she passed the bathroom, though, she heard her sweetheart swear. ‘All right, annwyl?’ she asked through the wood panelling.

‘Not really, no,’ was the immediate reply, and the brunette felt overwhelmed by a strong sense of déjà-vu.

‘May I come in?’

‘Please,’ Patsy said softly, her voice panicky.

‘What is it?’ The door opened and shut swiftly as Delia entered, and tried to ascertain the issue, having deposited the dirty sheets outside it.

The ginger was sitting on the toilet with her eyes fixed firmly on the floor. ‘I – I can’t find any towels. I thought I’d unpacked them, but it seems not, and I can’t very well start searching through boxes now.’

‘I think I’ve probably got a few tampons left over from last week; you could have those, if you’d like?’

Wide blue eyes flew up to find their corresponding pair. ‘No! – I mean, no thank you – That is – I can’t use them, not at the moment.’ The older woman cringed visibly at the necessity of this discussion. They had always just left each other to it in this regard, outside of the occasional offer of painkillers, and their closer proximity had not altered that much because her trauma around touch had kept them apart even whilst sharing a room. So she had been spared the shame of revealing that her more recent resurgence of memories was coupled with reluctance to use anything other than pads, despite the extra effort they entailed.

Yet she need not have worried, since her younger partner saw the sense in this right away, and said as much. ‘I understand – and I guess if I helped you it would only make things worse.’

‘Exactly.’

‘In that case, cariad,’ Delia continued, her voice somehow as soothing to Patsy’s perturbed emotions as her hands had been to her pained body only a little while ago, ‘I’m going to run you a bath –’ She broke off briefly to stem the start of an interruption, holding up a hand to quell any queries. ‘I’m not finished,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m going to run a bath, which you are going to get in, and, in the time it takes for you to have a short soak, I’ll have been able to walk to Nonnatus and back. That’ll be quicker than me faffing around to find some here, and is the only other option, since it’s Sunday.’

‘Chemists are a rare exception to that rule.’

‘Nonnatus is closer than the nearest pharmacy, and I know where everything is kept.’

‘Why would you bother walking to work twice?’

The brunette’s tone was now anything but soothing, and actually rather brittle. ‘Because I need to tell Phyllis we won’t be in today, Pats, and our telephone has yet to be connected.’

Patsy’s eyes brimmed over. ‘I feel so pathetic not going in, Deels, but I really don’t think I can.’

‘I know you can’t, cariad,’ her girlfriend crooned, cursing the critical quality of her previous phrasing. ‘Come cwtch,’ she said, sinking into a squat so she was level with the loo.

The redhead was horrified. ‘You can’t sit on the floor in here without clothes on!’

‘I’m sure it’s sufficiently sterile, sweetheart, you scrubbed it top to bottom yesterday. Like the rest of the rooms,’ Delia added with a laugh as she brought the taller woman’s head to rest on her shoulder.

At the gentle gesture, Patsy finally fell apart. ‘It’s ridiculous, I know, but they make me feel so horrid now,’ she wept. ‘I ought to be grateful I even get them, since Grace never got hers, but – And the idea of –’

‘Shhh. Shhh, love. I understand. You don’t need to explain.’

‘But –’

‘Save your energy. Especially as you haven’t had breakfast yet.’

‘I can’t eat!’ Patsy choked out, still sobbing.

‘I know. It’s fine, I’ll make you some Horlicks,’ Delia deadpanned, hoping to coax out a chuckle.

No such luck. ‘No!’ came the wretched wail. ‘I know I shouldn’t be picky and accept whatever I’m given, and I'm not and I do, I’d never waste food, but –’

‘Shhh, love, I was only trying to make you laugh. If fasting for a day will make you feel more in control, I can countenance that, on condition you’re happy to be kept under careful supervision once I get back with supplies. We both know how quickly your weight drops, and I’ll need to ensure you’re sufficiently hydrated, at least. I imagine what’s happening here is similar to when your scars smart, but this is related to the hospital, because it involves certain areas of your anatomy. And, as the hospital was where you went so they could feed you up, food goes out the window.’

‘I love you.’ At last she had stopped crying!

‘I love you too. Now, Patient Patience, how about that bath?’

Patsy murmured assent against her beloved brunette’s bare shoulder, before sitting up slightly to speak more substantially. ‘How is it that you can articulate things I’m hardly even aware of, Nurse Busby?’

‘The same reason you can do so for me, Nurse Mount. Professional understanding is much easier to engage when there’s a degree of distance, however slight.’

‘You ought to go into psych.’

Delia baulked. ‘Absolutely not, annwyl. I’d go spare myself. I was scarred for life after a single short placement – I can’t believe I just said that, I’m so sorry…’

Her girlfriend giggled, both at the slip and the subsequent guilt. ‘I’m glad to note my humour is rubbing off on you.’

The smaller woman shook her head, bemused. ‘I’m not sure I understand it fully just yet, darling. How can you laugh at that but not at Horlicks?’

‘Because trauma isn’t logical in the least, love.’

Touché. Why do I feel as if we’ve come full circle this morning, cariad?’

‘Why indeed, Deels? If we aren’t careful, we’ll start singing in harmony again…’

‘I shall wait in anticipation for the next time we do. You sounded beautiful, Pats.’

‘I beg to differ. But, right now, I’m too achy to argue.’

Another novelty. You’re spoiling me! Bath?’

‘Bath.’

Chapter Text

‘If you need to leave at any point today, that’s fine. Just give me a nod and we’ll go.’

Delia’s reassurance was left hanging, apparently unacknowledged, as Patsy was already several paces ahead. The heels of the taller woman’s shoes were pounding the pavement with a purposefulness her petite partner would ordinarily have found hopeful (endearing, even). This morning, however, as they walked the few brief blocks to Nonnatus together for the first time since their move, it felt anything but. So she rushed to catch up to her redhead. ‘Pats, did you hear what I said?’

Her girlfriend at last graced her with a slight glance and sly smirk. ‘I’m not ill, Deels, you know,’ she whispered, her tone warm but laced with warning. ‘I’ve merely got my monthlies.’

The Welshwoman returned the whisper. ‘I wouldn’t say “merely” was the right word to use under the circumstances, cariad. Nor “monthlies”, for that matter, since that implies a regularity with which you’ve not been blessed since you got back.’

Patsy paled at her beloved brunette’s bluntness. ‘Nuances on which there is absolutely no need to dwell whilst we walk to work, Nurse Busby. Or once we get there.’

Delia sighed as her sweetheart shrugged off the palm she had placed (apparently unconsciously) on her elbow and strode off again. ‘Whatever you say, Nurse Mount,’ she muttered under her breath (but barely).

The brunette could hardly believe the difference twenty-four – actually, probably twenty-three, or even twenty-two – hours could make to her darling’s demeanour. Having ostensibly made such strides yesterday, today they seemed somehow to have slipped straight back into old strategies of deflection and defensiveness. Their current conversation had strong shades of the one they had had in the Clinical Room in December; were they now going to have a pattern of progress followed by punishment? She certainly hoped not (since this was likely little more than a result of her lover’s raging hormones and all the associations they held) but, regardless, she supposed she had better brace herself. Especially as everything would only be exacerbated once they arrived and the older woman realised how the shifts for the week had been arranged.

A realisation which was approaching rapidly, because they had finally reached the front steps, and the redhead had therefore slowed down out of reflexive courtesy to wait and walk up behind her beloved. ‘I’m right here if you need me, Deels,’ she said earnestly, catching her cariad off-guard.

We really are both as bad as each other, Delia thought, faintly amused as she inclined her head in thanks. Ever prepared to be the perfect partner; never prepared to accept more than the minimum for ourselves in return.

Diolch, Pats,’ was all she replied aloud, though, since she was genuinely grateful for her girlfriend’s assistance as they climbed the short but shaky distance together. ‘Ready for the onslaught of requests for a Girls’ Night?’

Patsy was now grateful for her partner’s quick reflexes, because the unexpected question surprised her enough that she stumbled, but she felt perversely thrilled as the slip gave her an excuse to groan theatrically. ‘You don’t think we’ll be expected to entertain this early on, do you!?’

‘I think all they’d want would be some cocktails (and a mocktail for inclusivity’s sake). I’d hardly call that “entertaining”.’

‘Talking of mockery, I see yours and take the hit, but honestly even that feels too exhausting for me at the moment.’

‘Oh, cariad –’ the brunette began, her outward sympathy masking her inward relief that her sweetheart had not entirely reconstructed her shields. Then the ginger glared at her, and all empathic emotion evaporated, her own exhaustion flooding in to take its place upon hearing the reprimand she had known she would.

‘I’ll thank you not to use that word, or any like it, in our professional environment.’

Delia bit back a retort along the lines of how they were not yet strictly in the said professional environment and how, even if they had been, her enraged response would be the cause of far more comment and speculation than one Welsh word none of their colleagues would comprehend. Instead she endeavoured (probably unsuccessfully) to appear contrite as her partner knocked on the heavy wooden door of the convent. ‘I’ll be on my best behaviour, Pats, I promise.’

‘Why does that sound more sassy than serious, D– Good morning, Sister Monica Joan,’ the taller woman said, taking comfort in her height for once and standing slightly more upright, as she switched smoothly between personas when the most senior of their fellow staff members popped out to greet them with open arms.

‘Our patient monument and wandering Welshwoman have returned to us at last! This is indeed a blessed way to begin the week.’

The two women deliberately did not look at each other, aware that, if they chanced even the briefest moment of eye-contact, they would burst into howls of laughter in response to the younger’s new nickname.

Instead, once Patsy could trust herself to speak again following the initial surprise, she did so. ‘We were only gone two nights, Sister, whilst we got settled. You won’t be rid of us that easily, I’m afraid.’

The older nun beamed at the both of them. ‘I should hope not. My mind is not best built to contend with too many changes these days; but then our beloved Nurse Busby is all too intimately-acquainted with those sorts of struggles, are you not, my dear?’

The referenced brunette nodded, also smiling, albeit a little sadly. ‘I am. And I can assure you neither of us will be going any further than a few streets away for a long while yet.’

‘Well, I am glad that all things sort so well.’

Much Ado about Nothing?’

‘Indeed, Delia – which is precisely what I seem to have made about your absence. And, now that you are here, I suppose I should keep you no longer from the duty which has called you back. There is the beginning of an assembly in the Clinical Room.’

The two girlfriends grinned at each other, mirth permitted at last, now that it was mutual between the three of them. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ they chorused as they trooped in and started along the corridor to join the rest of their colleagues. ‘We’ll see you at lunch.’

When they arrived at the required room, it was to find a rather flustered Phyllis. ‘Nurses Busby and Mount – I don’t think I have ever been more relieved to see the pair of you than I am this morning. The rota has had to be altered a little, and I’m going to need to shift one of you on to district nursing for this week. Nurse Mount, I wondered if you’d mind taking up the slack?’

‘The slack? I thought our district patients were rather thin on the ground (no pun intended) now that the weather’s calmed.’

Delia’s heart sank at her partner’s prescience – trust the overly-organised redhead to have looked at the records last week. Still, Phyllis would know what to say to save their plan. ‘That is correct; or it was until today. Mrs Reed –’

‘Penny? Is she sick!? Nurse Crane?’ Delia’s heart sank further at the genuine horror in her girlfriend’s tone. Perhaps this hadn’t been the best idea…

‘No, lass, she’s in fine fettle. It’s simply that Bella, her daughter, is now at the age where she is not only exploring walking but the things that will enable her to reach. As I’m sure you can appreciate, that causes quite the conundrum for a family such as theirs, because she and her husband –’

‘Derek.’

‘Derek – can’t be expected forever to be traipsing household items from the places where they can access them to those where she can’t. I gather she is having some sort of formal meeting about this next week to talk through possibilities but, since there is a tendency for them not to be taken seriously, she telephoned yesterday to ask if we might have some suggestions beforehand. When I told her you would be back in work this morning, she was delighted, and asked specifically for you to visit.’

‘She did?’ Patsy’s question was cautious, but accompanied by the start of a smile.

Delia, meanwhile, silently applauded their older colleague’s forethought. Oh, Phyllis was good… The two women shared a (hopefully) imperceptible wink across the Clinical Room’s central counter. Patsy, of course, saw the guarded gesture and forced her own gaze to the floor, that small smile swiftly becoming a scowl; but she had no chance to comment, as Nurse Crane’s no-nonsense Leeds lilt resurfaced to answer her query. ‘She did, yes, and it seemed sensible to shift you for the whole week instead of just today. To minimise disruption to the regular patients, you understand.’

The redhead nodded numbly, seething behind the smile she plastered with practiced civility across her face as she looked up again. Of course it would be lovely to catch up with Penny and Bella (if only because she felt bad that they had yet to organise their promised tea) and of course she too was delighted that the young mother trusted her enough to enlist her help in matters concerning the awkwardness of height. The problem was not Penny per se, but rather that she had been used as an incentive to sweeten the fact that both of the people she would usually consider her closest allies (Trixie excepted, but then her best friend would never sanction such subterfuge) did not currently think her fit for a full work schedule.

Whether or not she considered herself up to it was a moot point; it was not their decision to make.

Thankfully she was saved from saying something she would likely later have regretted by the interruption of that aforementioned best friend. ‘So I suppose that means I’m to be relegated to bookings in?’

‘Oh – sorry, Trix, old thing. By the sounds of it we both have fairly light loads today, though, and should be home by lunch. Shall I treat everyone to fish and chips on the proviso that you and I may hide away in what was our room? We haven’t had a proper gossip in an age.’ The older of the two midwives kept her voice bright and polished even as she pleaded with the blonde to agree. None of the other people present (least of all her lover or her mentor) must notice how suffocated she suddenly felt. Then she realised her awful thoughtlessness. ‘You don’t mind, do you, Val?’

‘Of course not.’

Trixie’s tone was as equally finely-tuned as the taller woman’s, cutting across the more general hubbub of gratitude. ‘I think my figure might just about cope with the grease,’ she trilled, adding the littlest laugh for the biggest possible effect. ‘That would be lovely, Patsy, thank you.’

Watching the two friends fawn over each other from behind the fortresses of their respective façades, Delia was unsure how she ought to feel about this change in dynamic. On the one hand, her partner had not put up (much of) a fuss so, for that, she was grateful. Genuinely. On the other, the redhead’s very readiness to agree seemed as if it should be a cause for concern, if only because she knew she would likely bear the brunt of her bottling up.

Ah well. Softly, softly, she supposed – thinking as she did how long it had apparently been since she had last had such a supposition. Over a fortnight (and yet it felt a lifetime, too)! How quickly one got complacent in improved circumstances; no matter how much one might have insisted it was important to remain vigilant against exactly this sort of complacency.

She smiled ruefully, lost in the illogic of it all for a moment (as well as the fact that her interior dialogue had seemingly assumed several qualities of her cariad’s exterior one – especially the use of the third-person singular), before her brief reverie was broken by a matching grin from her girlfriend.

‘Penny for them?’ Patsy purred, sidling even closer towards her with a gleam in her eye which might most-accurately be described as devilish, were it not for what the older woman had only some twenty minutes earlier termed their “professional environment”.

Pot and kettle much, Nurse Mount?

‘Oh,’ the Welshwoman whispered silkily, ‘nothing to write home about.’ That phrasing was unfair, and she knew it, but she did not care – at least until she saw the shock in blue eyes so like her own, and took the tiniest bit of pity on her beloved. ‘Only that I guess I’m not invited upstairs, cariad?’

‘Nope; no space for naughty girls who think they can get away with restructuring entire rotas in order to mollycoddle me. And before you bring up the fact that I organised you a lift to your exam, Deels, that was one twenty-minute or so drive. I don’t take kindly to having my whole week worked out.’

‘Pats –’

‘Pats nothing. I know you’re only trying to help, but you really have pushed things too far this time.’

Their older colleague coughed, calling them back to concentration (and to caution). ‘If you two have finished conferring in the corner, I’d very much appreciate silence whilst I finish reading the rounds list.’

‘Yes, Nurse Crane, sorry Nurse Crane,’ they mumbled, chorusing again, though not nearly as congenially as they had with Sister Monica Joan.

~

‘Midwife calling, Mrs Reed…’

Patsy could hear Penny’s chuckle at her formality through the letterbox and smiled in spite of her sensitivity. It really would be lovely to spend the morning with them both.

‘I’ve left the door unlocked, Patsy, just give it a push.’

The redhead did as directed and then made her way into the front room, which she found empty.

‘I’m in, Penny,’ she said, not wanting to startle either mother or daughter when they returned.

‘Fabulous. We’re just having a change of clothes and we’ll be with you. Pop the kettle on whilst you wait, if you’d like?’

‘I shall do – milk, no sugar for you, yes?’

‘Please!’ A pause. ‘Excuse me, Miss Bella, what have we said about wriggling away from Mummy when you’re lying here?’ Another pause. ‘That’s better.’

The kettle began to whistle just as Penny re-entered the room, Bella balanced awkwardly on her hip. ‘Perfect timing! Bella, this is Patsy, a very special friend of ours.’

The ginger grinned at the introduction, her smile growing wider as the little girl reached out almost reflexively towards her. ‘Mind if I say hello whilst you pour?’

Penny shook her head gratefully, gesturing that Bella would quite happily be taken. ‘We’ve got things down to a fine art, as you said we would, but I’m sure she’d appreciate a proper cuddle.’

Patsy arched a brow as Penny swiftly (and conveniently) turned her back to sort the tea. Rather than address the young mother’s words directly, though, she decided to detour slightly and employ the assistance of the almost-toddler now gurgling in her arms. ‘Any cuddle from your Mummy is a proper cuddle, isn’t it?’ she crooned, giggling at the serious expression on the baby’s face, as she listened intently to everything happening around her, and squealed at exactly the right moment. ‘Yes, I thought so.’

‘Trust you to reassure me about my adequacy as a mother, Patsy,’ Penny said, gazing in admiration at the picture before her when she turned around again.

‘As I recall, the last time but one that we met (not including our brief chat by the docks in December) it was you who reassured me about my adequacy as a daughter.’

‘Reassurance is something we both require a lot of, isn’t it?’ Penny returned dryly as she slipped smoothly back into practicalities. ‘Right then, young lady, shall we sit you in the chair your Daddy made for you, so that Patsy and I have free hands to sip our tea?’

‘Is this it?’ Penny nodded at the seat being pointed out. ‘Well then,’ Patsy continued, swooping Bella downwards and making her shriek with delight, ‘I’d say that’s a very good idea indeed. You really do live up to your name, don’t you, beautiful?’ she asked as she settled the squirming infant in place.

‘As do you, Patience,’ Penny added, smirking.

‘Not today I don’t,’ the younger woman admitted sheepishly. ‘It’s a certain time of the month for me and I said some things this morning I fear I’ll soon regret. I can’t quite bring myself to apologise, however.’

‘We’ve all been there,’ her slightly older friend said, smiling. ‘There have been times I’ve almost bitten Derek’s head off.’ Penny paused, pondering a moment, and Patsy braced herself for what the blonde was likely to say next. ‘How’s Delia?’

‘Delia?’ the redhead squeaked, swearing inwardly at her inability to keep calm in situations such as these. She certainly had practised façades (one would hope she did, after five years!) but direct questions remained a rare enough occurrence to throw her off course.

She had better not be blushing.

‘She’s well,’ she managed eventually, but not before dropping her gaze to her feet.

‘It’s fine,’ Penny promised earnestly. ‘I can hardly judge other people for having “unconventional” families.’

That final word had its desired effect, coaxing a shy grin and an answering earnestness from Patsy. ‘She’s been an absolute brick. I haven’t made the most spectacular job of coping recently…but I must admit I’m chafing a little, because I’m much better now we’ve moved out, and yet she doesn’t seem to think so –’

‘No?’

‘No. She’s been conspiring with one of our colleagues to shift my schedule around –’

‘Oh, I hope I haven’t added any additional anxiety?’ The young mother was serious in her concern and it made Patsy feel guilty for mentioning anything.

‘Not at all. I was thrilled at the opportunity to see you, and it gives us a chance to arrange a date for tea with Delia and Derek here too. But enough about me – we have childproofing to do. Don’t we, beautiful Bella?’

~

‘This was a jolly good idea, Patience, even if it will stink the place out for days on end,’ Trixie said a few hours later as they sat opposite each other in the bedroom they had once shared.

Patsy laughed at her friend’s fastidious folding of the edges of the newspaper which held her meal. Oh, she had missed this! ‘I do have them on occasion, Beatrix, and I volunteer for fumigation duties if necessary.’

The slightly younger woman smiled, knowing this to be a sincere pledge, but let that be her sole response. She was more pre-occupied with the concept (and consequence) of her friend’s intelligent contributions. ‘You do indeed; though usually for the benefit of others.’

The redhead nearly choked on a chip. ‘And what exactly do you mean by that, my dear Nurse Franklin?’

‘I mean, my dear Nurse Mount, that you were a staunch advocate of my getting professional support, but –’

‘But that I refuse to seek any for myself?’ Patsy decided Trixie’s name did not give her the monopoly on frankness.

‘Exactly.’

‘It’s hardly the same situation.’

Her friend snorted in a most unladylike manner. ‘I can’t properly reply to that, can I? I don’t know the particulars of your situation, beyond the obvious impact of your recent grief. I’m not going to ask you to tell me about it, either, because that’s not how we do things and I’m sure you’ve got enough badgering from a certain Nurse Busby –’

‘And Nurse Crane,’ Patsy put in, half as comedy and half as cover.

‘And Nurse Crane,’ Trixie agreed, musing on the many silent communications she had observed earlier that morning. ‘But I want you to know that, now, I can categorically say that getting help was the best thing I ever did. Even if it doesn’t always proceed quite as smoothly as one might hope,’ she finished softly.

Her friend’s head snapped up from her own moment of introspection. ‘Have you stopped going to your meetings?’ The blonde gave the barest of nods. ‘Oh, Trix, I’m sorry I’ve been too wrapped up in myself to be there for you. Is it because it isn’t all plain sailing with Christopher?’

Now the barest of headshakes, albeit accompanied by a few words. ‘Not exactly, no.’

‘Have you started drinking again?’

Another headshake. ‘Not quite. But I want to – and that makes me feel like a fraud if I turn up and suggest it’s all sunshine and roses. Well, no, not want to (obviously what I want is to stick with my recovery) but work has got so much more stressful since Babs and Tom went to Birmingham. I thought it would be easier when they left, if I’m honest, because as much as we weren’t suited and however happy I am – for both of them – they remind me of everything that might’ve been. But actually, Babs and I became really close whilst you were away, so them not being around hit me harder than I expected. And then Christopher was putting a lot of pressure on me to –’ Trixie broke off as her best friend sucked in a sharp breath.

‘He was what!?’

The redhead’s voice was barely above a whisper, but it still made the blonde flinch. ‘He wanted us to –’

‘When you eventually went away?’

‘Yes.’

‘I see.’ Keep mum, Nurse Mount, if you don’t want her to guess how that affects you.

Trixie smiled again, at last, because she knew the older woman did see – and saw that she had needed to say something but not everything. It had been fine, they (she and Christopher) had talked it through eventually, but those few early comments had rankled; and, as nice as Val was, she wasn’t her best friend. ‘I knew you would. You always did. I’ve missed you, Patsy.’

The slightly older nurse shared the smile spreading, finally unfettered, across her best friend’s face. ‘I’ve missed you, too, Trix. I’m sorry it’s taken us until April to catch up properly. You know I’m here for you, yes?’

‘Yes. And I’m here for you. Even if we’re just going to be stubborn and foolish together.’

‘Quite. Although, about that – if I were to think of getting help, would you consider going back to your meetings?’

‘I might do.’

‘That’s a sufficient answer for now,’ the ginger said, giggling, as she glanced down at her watch. ‘Oh gosh! I said I’d see Sister Monica Joan at lunch, and then I got so excited about spending time with you that I completely forgot.’

‘Oh dear! You’d best hurry downstairs, in that case, Nurse Mount. I’d hate to be an accomplice in you breaking a promise; I know how much store you place in them. Here’s hoping the fish and chips will have kept her occupied, eh?’ Trixie joked, joining in with the giggle, and glad that they were back on mutually-comfortable topics as their talk ended.

‘Indeed.’ Patsy got up to gather the now-empty newspaper, just as fastidiously as her friend had opened it earlier, before scurrying out the door – and straight into her sweetheart. ‘Oh, Deels, I’m sorry,’ she stuttered, completely nonplussed by her petite partner’s presence here.

‘I’m sorry, too,’ the smaller woman returned softly. ‘Please let’s not fight any longer today, love.’

The redhead stiffened; any desire for reconciliation wrecked by that single word – and the English version, as well! Did Delia have no sense of propriety!? Admittedly, Patsy acknowledged, she was probably on edge because she was hormonal; but their move seemed to have made her lover lax in all the wrong ways. And rigid in the wrong ones too. Why could she not behave sensibly, for goodness’ sake? Yes, things were different, and difficult, but progress had been made, and she wished her girlfriend could be as grateful for that as she was. They had agreed that any drastic alterations to coping mechanisms would wait – of necessity – until they were alone in the sanctuary of their flat. They had not agreed that the implementation of these changes would occur immediately after they moved. Of course, she had not thought to factor in her period, either. But she was fine, wasn’t she? Certainly content to be complacent with where they had got to for a while before battling anything else – and, in order to keep complacent, she had to keep busy.

Which Delia seemed determined to dissuade her from doing.

Damn it.

No, that was uncalled for, but then so was the hand currently curled around her wrist and rubbing circles.

In the corridor of a convent.

Using their connected hands as a convenient way to tug the brunette along behind her, Patsy pulled them both into the nearby communal bathroom. Then, shutting the door and placing her body against it for security, she hissed a sentence of the sort she would usually hold back, thinking it either too harsh or too petulant. ‘If you want us not to fight, Welshie, I’d suggest you stick with your native speech if you absolutely have to profess your otherwise all too obvious attraction to me. Because, as much as you apparently don’t want me to do it, this is my job. Our job. And I don’t want either of us to lose it because you lose control of your tongue.’

Having deliberated for the whole day over how she would respond to the redhead’s wrath when it eventually arrived, and spent the majority of her rounds thinking back on the spat based in a similar misunderstanding in December, Delia was now surprised by how detached she felt.

And amused.

And aroused, which was utterly inappropriate, not to mention impossible to deal with for at least the rest of this week.

Nevertheless, she needed to vent her frustration (of every kind) somehow, and Patsy needed to understand how ridiculous she was being. Despite demurring to the fact that their newfound intimacy would by no means have fixed the fundamental fractures of her sense of self, a truth which had been underscored by the unexpected onset of one of the fundamental fixtures of that sense of self, she seemed to be proceeding as though that was precisely what had happened.

As she always did.

Or always had done.

But there was a difference now – they were living together, with no communal areas in which to seek refuge – and the Welshwoman was unsure how many more of the old ups and downs she could face in such close quarters.

So, instead of engaging with her annwyl’s anger, she evaded it entirely; asking a question which was completely out of both context and character. ‘What would you say if I said I wanted to kiss you, cariad?’

The only reply she received was sound of the door opening, and the sight of the redhead’s receding back.

Well, she thought, I am glad that all things sort so well. Much ado about nothing indeed.

Chapter Text

Delia was woken by the sensation of a pair of warm arms wrapping around her waist and the even warmer feeling of breath against her bare clavicle as her cariad whispered an apology. ‘Penblwydd hapus,’ Patsy started, purring. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’ve been a beast. Can you ever forgive me?’

‘No,’ the brunette said belligerently, struggling to keep the tiny smirk off her face.

‘No?’ The redhead repeated, recoiling and removing the warmth of her arms as quickly as it had appeared.

‘No,’ came the third repetition as the smaller woman sighed reflexively at the loss of contact, even as she rolled onto her back, thereby putting a greater gulf between their bodies. ‘Not “no, I’ll never forgive you”, but “no, I won’t capitulate to this kind of empty grovelling”.’

‘“Empty grovelling”!? This isn’t empty, Deels, it’s sincere. I feel bad, and it’s your birthday, so I want to make it up to you!’ Patsy was still purring, but petulantly.

‘This is not the way to do that, darling. You’ve frozen me out for the last three days. Although that is an impressive feat, given that we now share not only a room and a bed but a space which is ours and ours alone, it is not something I can let slide without a constructive attempt at communication. I need you to talk to me, cariad, and then we can cwtch. You can’t just expect me to accept this as your apology. Especially on my birthday. Do you really think I’m so desperate that I’ll crumble the moment I feel your breath against my chest, conversation or no conversation? You were having none of it when I suggested a kiss on Monday and yet you seem to think somehow those rules don’t apply any longer because you’ve finished your period and want sex.

Excuse me!?’ Patsy recoiled even further, and faster too, as though she had been struck. ‘I’m glad you think so highly of my moral priorities. That is most certainly not why I am here, Delia. You know how difficult things are for me on that score; do you really think that would be my first thought after the week I’ve had thanks to my body’s refusal to accept I have no use whatsoever for such torment?’

The younger woman began to doubt the wisdom of her words, especially as she had apparently got entirely the wrong impression of her older partner’s motivations this morning, and rolled onto her side again immediately in an effort to rectify the damage before it got any deeper. ‘No, cariad, of course not. That was clumsy phrasing on my part,’ she began; hurt blue eyes boring into hurt blue eyes. ‘It’s just that you seemed so chuffed on Sunday morning that you’d slept through, and appeared very eager indeed to ascribe it to our activities the night before – and it felt like that added to the anguish when you discovered the arrival of your unfortunate guest. So I suppose I thought, as soon as it was over, that you would want to, in your words, “try it again”.’

‘Well you thought wrong!’ her sweetheart spat out, her voice sharp but shaky, as she shifted onto her back in search of some stability. The ruffled redhead was silent for a few seconds, smoothing the skin at her temples as she stared at the ceiling, and the brunette waited with bated breath for what she would say next. ‘I’ve only been sure it’s finished for the last hour – or did you not notice me get up at four to strip and scrub my pyjama bottoms with Sunlight soap to get rid of the last remnants from them and my knickers?’ She glanced sideways, saw Delia shaking her head, and huffed. ‘Then I sat up for a bit to be certain it had stopped. That is the sole reason I’m naked now. Anyway, I was actually going to ask if you wanted an early breakfast in bed before we leave, since we don’t have to ferry food up and down stairs, and then to tell you that I’ve got tonight off for us so that we can go out dancing. I booked it ages ago, and I’ve been feeling guilty about it after we took Sunday off too, but I guess I don’t need to worry any more because you likely won’t want to go.’

‘I don’t want to go anywhere until we’ve talked, annwyl.’ The brunette added the endearment despite being aware that it would probably make her beloved bristle even more.

She was right. Growling, the ginger got up from her bed, neglecting to put on her dressing gown and throwing her next (cutting) contribution over her stiffened shoulders as she stalked (deliberately slowly) across the room to leave; her scars a silent (yet screaming) reminder of how far off the mark her annwyl’s assumptions had been. ‘Well, as even I possessed neither the courage nor the authority to arrange for the whole day off, Deels, I’m afraid you haven’t much choice about that. We still have to work. So, on that note, I’m going to get washed and dressed. You’re welcome to lie in a little longer; that was always my plan, because it’s your birthday. ’

‘Come back, please, cariad,’ Delia called plaintively. ‘As you say, it’s my birthday.’

‘Well you should’ve thought about that before you jumped to extremely unfair, not to mention utterly unfounded, conclusions, shouldn’t you, cariad?’ Patsy asked rhetorically from the doorway, pulling herself pointedly up to her full height and pronouncing every syllable with the utmost precision.

When her lover did not linger for a response, the smaller woman scowled and burrowed sulkily beneath the duvet, indulging the idea that, if she pretended she was still asleep, she might be able to fashion a clean slate for them both. To turn her mind into a tabula rasa from which they could begin to rebuild. After all, she ought to put the widened philosophical perspective society said she was afforded by her slightly-increased age to good use. Particularly because she was not proving spectacularly successful at it so far. If anything (and, actually, if she had been observing the same behaviour in anyone else) she would judge it as positively juvenile. Just like Patsy was probably doing as she scrubbed her exponentially-increased sense of inadequacy away prior to slipping behind the starched shields of that blue uniform once more. An outfit which, in morphing her into Nurse Mount SRN SCM, also enabled her to turn her trauma into a symbol of sensitivity, a guarantee of good practice, and a vehicle for virtue.

Her namesake virtue.

Patience, who could be patient with patients.

Just not with herself.

And, the brunette now realised (for what was she was sure must be close to the millionth time over the past five months) that was the pertinent point. Because the more she tried to push her, the more her “Prickly Pats” would push back against being pushed. That was how it worked. How she worked. How they worked. Moreover, Delia decided, asking her to do anything else would be tantamount to triggering trauma herself – because control of her situation was the one thing she had not possessed as a child. No wonder she was so desperate to deny everything. And, really, knowing how difficult birthdays were for the older woman, she (in her relative youth of not merely age but experience) ought to have been flattered that Patsy was prepared to face all that in order to make a fuss of her.

Oh, her dearest darling. Her prickly, pained, patient, perfectly imperfect Patience.

How dare you think that you know what pace is best, Busby? If too slow is enough to make your sweetheart burn out, then too fast is enough to bowl her over, and you cannot let your worry about the former lead you to force her into the latter. How many times have you had this discussion, done this dance, since December!?

Still, the parameters for their mutual pacing had shifted hugely since their move, becoming simultaneously smaller and bigger, and (as she had thought on Monday) she was concerned that neither of them would cope for much longer with the old ways of doing…this. Them. Yes, part (a huge part) of the remit of a relationship was accepting the other person’s sovereignty over their own strategies, but another aspect was being there to point out when those strategies were no longer sufficient as a system for support and survival. Her sweetheart’s had stopped being sufficient some time ago, and she had thought the best aid she could offer was acknowledgement alongside only the occasional intervention but, now that they were in a space made more magnifying by its minuteness, she was convinced that they were not only broken but further breaking her beloved.

And she refused to stand by and watch as the redhead destroyed herself through overexertion in order to avoid dealing with the overwhelm of her emotions.

No.

They needed to talk, and they needed to talk now.

Just as Patsy had been prepared to put aside her qualms about birthdays to make this one special for Delia, so Delia decided (as she shucked off the duvet, shucked on her dressing gown, and crept towards the door, following the path her partner had taken roughly twenty minutes ago) that she was prepared to put aside the specialness of her birthday to quell Patsy’s current qualms. She knew she would never be able to enjoy any of it without her annwyl enjoying it, anyway.

Before she had set her bare feet even a hairsbreadth out of the bedroom, however (her plan having been to knock on the bathroom door and find out if her darling had finished dressing), she heard the distinctive tone of the redhead’s Received Pronunciation as it drifted through from the lounge. ‘Ja, ja, veel dank. Heel erg bedankt. Tot vanmiddag. Vaarwel.’ Then the unmistakeable sound of a telephone receiver being replaced in its cradle, followed by the equally recognisable clip of her cariad’s heels as they hit the hardwood floor. ‘Oh, Deels, you’re up. I hope I didn’t wake you again?’ came the soft yet still strained query as they met in the corridor in much the same manner as they had at Nonnatus on Monday – except, here, they had no need to hide, as was evidenced by Delia’s state of (comparative) undress.

‘No, no.’ A small smile from the smaller woman. ‘I was just coming to find you, Pats. We really do need to talk; but, before that, who were you ’phoning at seven am, love?’ The Welshwoman knew she had to ask, despite already guessing from her girlfriend’s language.

The taller woman looked at the shiny toes of her shoes. ‘Evi. We’ve been corresponding a little (I’m sorry I haven’t told you yet) and she mentioned that she’s up and about by seven at the latest each day. She’s an author, and she finds early mornings are her most productive time. Then she has the rest of the day to herself, too, which is a bonus. It wouldn’t work for me – my mind would wander too much – but I’m glad she’s got a routine that suits her own strategies.’

Well, if ever there was a loaded statement, that last sentence was a fine example…

Delia bit the inside of her cheek to stop the chuckle threatening to erupt. ‘What made you call her today, cariad?’ she asked instead, keeping things innocuous but direct.

‘Well. I thought, since it’s your birthday and your main wish seems to be that you want me to feel comfortable enough to communicate, we could perhaps give up on the Gates for tonight and go and visit her and Susan this afternoon after work instead? They’re in Highgate, so it’s a bit of a trek, but we can be open with them in every way and…’ Patsy trailed off, desperately trying to decipher her darling’s facial expression.

The brunette would be lying if she said she wasn’t bewildered. So she did not. What she did say was, ‘I’m not convinced that would help, Pats, because what we need to talk about is between us. I’m beyond thrilled we have them to visit, and that they understand the nature of our relationship since it’s theirs too, but this is private for almost exactly the opposite reason. Not because we’re different, far from it, but because we are the same as every other couple in this city. We have misunderstandings just like anyone else – and it’s us, and only us, who can work out the ways to resolve them.’

The redhead found herself reeling from confusion now and, unlike her petite partner, for once had no shame in expressing that. ‘But we can sit side by side on their sofa and talk, our knees touching, and no-one would mind or even notice –’

The smaller woman shook her head at what she was hearing this time; was her lover listening to herself!? ‘We can do that here, cariad,’ she reminded gently. ‘That’s why we moved out.’

‘I know. But that’s the problem. There’s no distance here.’

Delia wanted to be relieved that her earlier realisations were correct but, for some reason, the verbal confirmation just riled her. ‘You need distance from me?’

‘That wasn’t what I said or what I meant, but it rather proves my point. Everything is so charged here. Now that we have the freedom, within this flat, to do whatever we like, well, there’s a sense that we should just because we can. It’s always there as subtext. I mean, I couldn’t even surprise you with a cwtch on your birthday without being suspected of ulterior motives, could I!?’

‘I apologised for being presumptuous, Pats.’

Patsy sighed. This prevarication was pointless and painful. She was going to have to suck it up and speak. ‘I know you did, Deels, but the fact that you thought it terrified me. No, terrifies, because it means you don’t quite comprehend how complex this all is. I don’t think I do either, or didn’t, at least until my period arrived; but now I do. I thought living here would be easier, and it is and I love it, but it’s also turned up a whole lot of unexpected triggers. Triggers I need time to process in a space separate from here. Work is that separate space, and your efforts this week to reduce the load I bear there were enough to scare me even more witless than I already was.’

‘You’re going to exhaust yourself, and then you won’t have a choice,’ her cariad cut in bitterly. ‘Do you remember what happened with the night shifts in December?’

‘I do.’

‘Well then – can’t you understand where I’m coming from? If I’d refused to accept the changes after my accident, annwyl, would you have been content to step back and let me!?’

‘This bit isn’t the same as your accident, though. Please, hear me out,’ she begged, putting up a hand. ‘Firstly, everyone was extremely transparent about proposed changes to your shifts (even on Male Surgical), but I’ll let that lie for now. Secondly, you couldn’t remember things, and your brain needed time to rest. I can remember, all too well, and the idea of sitting around ruminating with nothing to distract me fills me with dread. Especially alone in this flat.’

‘You wouldn’t be alone, love, I’d take time off too. Phyllis and I have already talked about whether it would be feasible, and she thinks next month would be fine.’

‘This is what I mean! Why haven’t I been privy to these conversations!?’

‘It was only in passing on Sunday when I went to source you some supplies –’

‘Still. Why do you think you need to protect me? You’re wrapping me up in ever tighter layers of cotton wool, and pretty soon I won’t be able to breathe. That is the same as after your accident – I need to feel that I’m useful and valid in spite of my trauma. Surely you must understand where I’m coming from in that regard?’

Delia was quiet for a moment. As with the earlier part of their talk (if it could still be called a mere “talk”), this sentiment was not a surprise, but it was nevertheless quite a blow to hear it from her most beloved of mouths. ‘Do I not make you feel valid?’ she whispered, wounded.

‘Not when you think I’m incapable of making my own decisions about how I deal with this. We’ve only just moved in. It’s enough of a stretch for me to sleep naked next to you without being told I need to confront the implications of that by sitting next to you on our sofa and talking about tough topics. The truth is, Deels, after my period affected me so much I have absolutely no idea how I’ll respond to anything else that comes up; or what that anything else might be. I don’t want to destroy you.’

‘Now who’s making judgements on capability, cariad?’ The younger woman’s voice was so comparatively loud and curt that it made them both jump. ‘I’m not naïve, you know.’

‘I know, but –’

‘I coped with our chat on the bench in Hyde Park.’

‘I just feel I’m taking more than I can give at the moment, and work helps to offset that.’

‘Sitting next to me on the sofa and having conversations is not “taking”.’

‘No – that would be giving, but I can’t do that, and I can’t expect you to hang on until I can. Our conversation on the bench was outside, surrounded by other people, and I could leave if I felt too out of control without you feeling it was loaded. This is supposed to be our safe space, but in many ways I’m less secure here than I have been anywhere else. I don’t have to survive any more, which ought to be wonderful, but I’ve discovered this week that I don’t actually know how to do anything else.’

Her little love wanted so much to listen to the full extent of what she was saying, but she found herself fixating on two specific aspects. ‘You can’t sit on the sofa next to me? You don’t feel secure?’

Patsy panicked at the sharp edge to her sweetheart’s tone. ‘Please don’t shout, Deels,’ she pleaded. ‘I’m trying to be good at talking and explain.’

‘I don’t think you need to put yourself to any further trouble, Pats,’ came the petulant reply. ‘Your message is perfectly clear. You think I can’t control myself, either in relation to you in general, or in my responses to your specific struggles. You don’t feel safe enough even to sit, let alone sleep, next to me because you’re worried about the implications of that gesture and what it might bring up. Diolch yn fawr iawn for the vote of confidence on my birthday, darling. We’ll push the beds apart tonight, then, shall we?’

The redhead gave a reticent nod at the sudden softness of her beloved brunette’s voice, noticing the rage which was somehow all the more evident than if she had continued shouting. Like when she had first arrived back, she thought ruefully. Then she spun on her heel, unsure what else to say or do, and moved as though to pick up her keys from the table by their front door.

‘And where do you think you’re going, exactly?’ asked that same, searingly quiet, voice.

‘Work.’ Patsy had to employ all her willpower to hold back a laugh. Wasn’t that what had started all this, essentially!?

‘Leaving this early?’

‘Yes.’ Today, anyway.

‘Without food?’

‘Yes.’ I would have thought that was obvious.

‘I can’t in all good conscience let you do that, cariad.’

‘Fine. I’ll make myself some toast when I arrive. But then I’m off. And I’ll sleep on the sofa tonight, because I don’t want you to feel you have to wait up for me to move the beds, and the journey to and from Highgate might take a while in rush hour.’

‘You’re going to visit without me?’

‘I need to. I’m feeling fragile.’

The smaller woman could not stop herself from snorting. Whose fault was that, Nurse Mount? She kept herself to practicalities, however. ‘Very well. In that case, I think you should go now.’

‘It’s barely past seven o’clock. And work –’

‘If you use that word once more, Pats, I’ll use the prerogative afforded by my birthday and kiss you without even asking this time, since that’s likely to be the only way to get any sense into you.’

‘You’ll prove my point about your responses, and reveal yourself to be a hypocrite after you didn’t let me cuddle you in the first place,’ the redhead retorted smugly. ‘You’d’ve saved us both a hell of a lot of bother if you had.’

That sarcasm was the last straw for the brunette and she snapped, storming over to pick up Patsy’s keys herself and shove them in her hand. ‘Go,’ she growled.

‘What?’

‘Go. Now. My patience is wearing thin, Patience, but I’m not entirely devoid of compassion. Get out of here, and to work, as quickly as those infuriatingly lovely long legs will carry you. Then make yourself that piece of toast you promised – which you had better do, because I’ll be asking Phyllis when I arrive – and get yourself off on your rounds.’

Then, satisfied that her sweetheart had been stunned into silence, Delia shoved her out the door, before shutting it – and promptly bursting into tears.

Some birthday this was.

~

Half an hour later, as she brought her bicycle out from the only place it now rested, Patsy pondered how begrudgingly grateful she was for her belligerent (but nevertheless beloved) brunette’s foresight in suggesting district this week. Especially (perversely) today because, although she might fight the fact, she really was not fit for anything other than short pop-ins to administer medication or change dressings.

Useful, compassionate, yet uncomplicated work.

Mr Jones, who needed insulin multiple times a day, if he could be convinced – but, if anyone was good at convincing, it was Patsy. And no man could be half as irascible as her father had been.

Oh, Papa…

No, no time for that. Secure your kit and get cycling. Patients won’t wait, will they, Patience?

She wanted to have left before Delia arrived, anyway. She had had toast. She just did not fancy watching the Welshwoman gloat over that fact when she asked Phyllis and received an affirmative reply.

After Mr Jones was Miss Healey, who understood all about the unfortunate legacy names could leave, since she had never married but had lived the majority of her now fairly long life with the effects of juvenile arthritis. That would be a nice visit, though; a check-up followed by a brief lymphatic drainage massage if she wanted it. She (Nan) really was a lovely woman and, when Patsy had first visited soon after her transfer to Nonnatus, she had found it difficult to fathom the fact that she was on her own… Then she had mentioned this to Delia, who had gently rolled her eyes, and muttered something about her “ever so worldly Nurse Mount being ever so unworldly on occasion”. Because, of course, she was like them. But equally, of course, she could never know – which was such a shame, since (now) otherwise Patsy was certain Evi and Susan would have some slightly older friends with whom she could correspond.

Ah well.

Solidarity could be subtle, too, she supposed as she at last cycled off, deciding to switch her list around slightly to be better able to care both for her patients and herself. Mr Jones would still come first, a medical necessity to ensure his doses were correctly spaced out. Then, though, she would swap Nan for the Butler family, who required delivery of a couple of mattress protectors for reasons on which she would rather not linger too long in her current…state? After the Butlers, she would pop back to Mr Jones, then put in the regular roster of several patients who needed dressings seen to, for a variety of different wounds; that would give her a specific but fairly simple focus for the middle part of the day, and would make ending up at Nan’s feel even nicer. She almost wished she had Delia careering over the cobbles beside her now, so her petite partner could bear witness to how sensible she was being – but she had scuppered any chance of basking in her cariad’s cheerful camaraderie on the brunette’s birthday by virtue (ha!) of her own utterly ridiculous behaviour.

Having scorned them as frippery upon first reading, principally because she had had no relationship of her own with which to draw comparison, Patsy now understood the full power of the irony behind Jane Austen’s choices of book titles. Sense and Sensibility indeed. One overly-emotional and the other overly-rational, or so they liked to think; when in actuality they switched places with a far greater frequency than either of them would care to admit. Not that Deels was the Marianne to her Elinor, though… More the Chloe to her Olivia or, to return to referencing authors instead of their writing, the Vita to her Virginia.

No, no.

The Susan to her Evi.

With that fleeting (far less fictional) thought drawing her firmly back to the East End, the ginger groaned. Why on earth was she going “up West” to visit them this afternoon, without Delia!? No, she knew why, of course she did, but why today? No, she knew why today, but why did it have to be today, of all days? Her birthday!?

Because, as her beloved Nurse Busby would say under any circumstances other than the current ones, birthdays were hard – and sometimes self-care required a small amount of selfishness.

Still, she felt awful about everything.

Ah well. On your bike, Mount, she thought wryly as she reached her first stop-off point. Wasn’t that basically what her partner’s parting phrase had been?

~

‘I’ve told you, Nurse, I don’t need it.’

‘Come now, Mr Jones –’

‘Bert.’

Patsy sighed from a strange mixture of exasperation and relief. Was that all it was? He wanted her to use his first name? He was a fairly new addition to their books despite the relative severity of his condition, since his daughter had recently married and moved out, but she had visited nigh on twenty times this week already. Why could he not have said that on Monday and saved them both five days of unnecessary animosity? Well, no, that was a bit rich coming from her. She knew exactly why.

Pride.

Awkwardness.

Grappling for some semblance of control.

Given that she understood, she also knew how to respond, at least to the immediate request. The underlying issue would need to be dealt with more delicately, however, so she glanced furtively around the late-middle-aged man’s front room for inspiration. Her eyes fell upon a photograph apparently placed in an arbitrary position on the mantelpiece, but which was held in a frame so polished it could not but be significant. ‘All right, then, Bert,’ she agreed, allowing some of her fragility to seep through the fortress of her professional persona. ‘I’m Patsy. That’s short for Patience. Do you think you could help me live up to my name by rolling up your sleeve for me yourself today, so I may test your levels and then administer this with as little fuss for you as possible?’

Bert nodded and gave her a guilty grin as he complied. ‘What a lovely name for a lovely young lady. Sorry, Patsy, I’ve been a bit of a codger since my Charity left. I’m still not used to needing all this help and she somehow made it seem like nothing. Then her fellow got a job abroad, so they got wed, and that was that. They invited me to go with, but I didn’t think I’d make the travel. We didn’t part on the best terms. But you don’t need me moaning at you about my troubles; you’ve more than enough on your plate.’

Patsy shook her head, smiling, and trying to shake off the grief threatening to engulf her at her patient’s words. ‘Not at all. It was a wonderful distraction, Bert, and it also shows that you’ve come to trust me enough to share a little of your story. So, before I go this time, I’ll say thank you by sharing some of mine, too.’ A pause to clear her throat. ‘I grew up – abroad – and my father still lived away – until he passed in November of last year. We also weren’t on the best terms, but I visited for a while before he – and I hopefully was able to offer him some of the daughterly love and care you got from your Charity. It wasn’t the same condition, by any means, but his response to it was just like yours is to your diabetes. Which is a roundabout way of saying I understand how difficult such things can be. And how helpful it can be to make amends. Would you like to?’

‘Would I ’eck!’ Bert exclaimed, the most animated he had been all week.

The ginger grinned a wide grin in an effort to quell the giggle rising unbidden from her chest. Emotions really were odd things… ‘Well then,’ she said, smoothing down his sleeve again as she spoke, ‘since you’ve got me here for most of the slots tomorrow as well (for your sins!) how’s about I stay a little longer when I bring your lunchtime dose and I’ll help you write a letter?’

‘You’d do that for me?’ his tone trembled with a genuine surprise the young nurse knew all too well.

Patsy let her hand drift from Bert’s sleeve to his wrist and squeezed it gently. ‘Of course.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow – I’ll need to pick up stamps and things before I come in the morning.’

‘I can’t let you do that; they’re too dear!’

‘Nonsense. Our chat today is more than a fair exchange.’

 Her stern yet kind smile told him to accept. So he did, and graciously. ‘Thank you. For putting up with me this week an’ all.’

‘And you the same,’ she said, smirking as she let herself out. ‘I’ll see you later.’

~

‘Now, boys, what do you say to Nurse Mount?’

‘I’m sorry Nurse, I didn’t mean to,’ the Butler twins said in a sheepish singsong, as Patsy held herself back from slapping their mother.

Crouching down so that she was on an equal level with the two of them, she held their gazes steady and spoke with soft reassurance. ‘You don’t have to say sorry for things like this. Sometimes things happen at night that we can’t do anything about – I have bad dreams, too, you know.’

‘But you’re a grown up lady!’ Bobby Butler (poor kid, parents didn’t think about names regardless of circumstance or era, did they?) interrupted, eyes round.

The “grown up lady” laughed aloud. ‘I am, yes,’ she said, matching the young boy’s sincerity with her own. ‘But when I was just a little older than you and your brother, I also needed the toilet suddenly at times. I didn’t have a mattress cover like the ones you’ve got, though. These are special; do you think you can look after them for me, Billy?’ she asked, purposefully addressing the second boy with this question, so he would feel as protected as his brother had by her admission of nightmares.

‘Yes, Nurse, I can do that.’ His voice was small but his nod earnest.

‘Good boy.’ Satisfied that she had rescued at least a smidgen of their self-respect, she stood up, only now bothering to communicate with Mrs Butler. ‘Dr Turner would appreciate it if you could make a note of how often this happens from now on, so that he can keep tabs. If it continues for much longer he’ll want to think about different treatments. Often the best way is simply to support them to face their fears, though,’ she finished, before turning smartly on her heel and stepping out of their flat as fast as was humanly possible.

Phew.

~

‘You are a treasure, Patsy, you know that? I missed you whilst you were away.’

Patsy beamed up at her final patient for the day from her position at the foot of the elderly woman’s single bed, on which she had lain to receive a quick but thorough massage. ‘I know you did, Nan, and I missed you. At least I got plenty of practice at this, eh? My father loved nothing more than for me to talk to him whilst easing some of the spasticity in his legs.’

‘Oh, what I’d give for a daughter like you, my dear,’ Nan said wistfully, her Irish burr strengthened by sentiment. ‘But that is not our lot, is it?’

Patsy’s head snapped up at the unexpected pronoun and she saw a glint in the grey eyes which waited for her gaze. ‘No, no it isn’t,’ she concurred, hiding her sad sliver of a smile by returning her concentration to the tense muscles beneath her fingers.

‘Give my best to Nurse Busby, won’t you?’

~

It was that “lot”, and that Nurse Busby, which occupied the redhead’s musings throughout the lengthy journey (involving three buses, because her anxiety was far too acute for the tube) from Poplar to Highgate. If she had been a better person, and partner, she would have gone right home to her girlfriend and made amends as she had advocated to Bert that he ought to do. But she was not a better person. She was a panicky person and, because she was making an effort to accept things as they were, she was also acknowledging that she was the best person she could be at this point. It made her feel no less wretched about ruining her sweetheart’s special day, but it allowed her not to judge herself – either for feeling wretched or for the actions and choices which had led her to feel wretched.

Because the flat was too fraught with fear (not to mention all the other feelings) for her to be there this afternoon.

Even for the sake of her sweetheart’s special day.

Largely because of her sweetheart’s special day.

Oh God, she thought, as she stumbled down the stairs when the final bus finally stopped at Parliament Hill Fields – Evi and Susan would think her heartless. She should turn around now and head home.

But she couldn’t. So she kept walking until she reached the entrance of the building declaring itself as part of Brookfield Mansions, and pressed the relevant bell. Then, tripping up these stairs to find the flat, she found her friend waiting for her with a warm welcome. ‘Hallo, Patsy,’ the slightly older woman said. ‘Ze kwam niet?’

Nee,’ the redhead replied, knowing that the “she” referenced here was most definitely Delia; after which single word she started to cry.

Sometime later, the three women sat silently on a bench in the beautiful communal gardens behind the older couple’s flat, Patsy flanked protectively on either side as she sipped tea under her friends’ watchful gazes. Then, swallowing, and fortified enough to try speech (in English, so she did not have to think too hard), their younger guest started to apologise profusely. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m mortified, I hardly ever cry even in front of my closest friends –’

Susan cut her off with a slight headshake. ‘We have rules about “sorries”, Evi and I, and I’m afraid they must also apply to you whilst you are in our company.’

Patsy giggled, surprising all of them. ‘You sound just like Delia,’ she stuttered by way of explanation.

‘Delia is wise beyond her years,’ Evi interjected approvingly. ‘As are you, I might add. My troubles began at twenty-one, so I was a veritable grandmother in comparison to your nine-year-old innocence.’ She paused, watching the cogs turn in the younger woman’s head. ‘Ja, I am forty-two.’

‘You don’t look it –’ the ginger began, before breaking off, embarrassed.

‘No, she doesn’t, does she?’ agreed Susan, beaming up at her beloved in triumph. 'I’ve been telling her this for years but she refuses to listen.’

Evi huffed. ‘No, I don’t; I look older, and mostly because I didn’t deal with my experiences well. I still don’t. Probably never shall.’ She stopped, snorting. ‘I can hardly preach to you, Patsy,’ she said with a squeeze of her young friend’s free hand.

The redhead stared resolutely in front of her, drawing strength from the immaculately-kept green space, the soft sun which seemed to be smiling down upon it, and the plane trees in the distance, just over the wall on the slightly wilder Hampstead Heath. ‘That’s quite all right,’ she responded sardonically. ‘I, too, am adept at that sort of compassionate hypocrisy.’

‘She is being modest,’ Susan put in, her blonde hair bouncing, catching the light as her lover reached over Patsy to give her a playful push. ‘She works through things in her writing. Fictionally, of course. Do you have an outlet?’ she asked the younger woman in earnest.

‘My work –’

‘No, I mean creatively (and, yes, I do recognise our privilege in combining both work and pleasure; though, as nursing is clearly your vocation, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting you stop).’

Patsy paused a moment before replying, unsure if she could quite bring herself to reveal this just yet. Only Delia knew, as with so much else in her life, and even she did not realise how raw it felt since her trip overseas. Still, this was a safe space. ‘Well, my mother taught me the piano, so I played up until – and then afterwards, at school, it was the only thing that kept me sane. That and fencing. I haven’t done either since, though.’

The other women were silent when she stopped speaking, and she glanced around skittishly until she saw that they were smiling. ‘Have you finished your tea, mijn vriend?’ Evi asked, standing up as soon as she nodded. ‘Come with us.’

The redhead was reticent, but allowed her blonde and brunette hostesses to lead her back upstairs to their flat, and then through to one of the largest rooms with a view directly onto the Heath. In the centre, just in front of a wide bay window, stood a baby grand piano. ‘Oh, it’s a Steinway,’ Patsy breathed, bewildered. ‘May I?’

‘Of course,’ the coupled chorused, and the ginger had to hold back a giggle as she sat on the stool and touched the keys with reverence. Finding middle C, she applied light pressure, and revelled in the clarity of the tone as it rang out. Then, barely noticing the soft click of the Music Room door as the two older women left her to play in private, she tentatively began to cycle through some of the tunes from her childhood. Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Beethoven; notes flowing purely from memory as her fingers flew over the black-and-white keys so strongly evocative of the black-and-white bungalow in which she had last seen (and heard) an instrument as beautiful as this. Then, reminded of that home, she found her way at last to a song she could not name, but which her mother had played whenever she pined for England. Suddenly, overcome with elation and exhaustion, she stopped – feeling as she did so the start of tears building yet again unbidden behind her eyes. Slumping slightly on the stool, she let them fall, since she was alone.

Eventually, though, her caring confidante noticed the pause in playing and crept in to gather the girl-woman in a close, comforting embrace. ‘Ik heb je,’ Evi said softly, and Patsy only nestled further into the touch at the words, instead of pulling away as her instincts would usually instruct. Then, once the sobs had subsided, Susan too entered and asked if more tea would be of help.

‘No, thank you,’ Patsy said in a small voice. ‘I think I’m all right now. It’s silly, really, I don’t even know what that last piece is; only that my mother used to play it when she was homesick, because it’s apparently about a plane tree?’

Evi nodded. ‘Ja. It would make more sense if you had the words too. It’s from an opera by Händel, or Handel as you would know him. The opera is called Serse and the aria is Ombra Mai Fù – the shade that never was. Or, in context, it’s about how there is no shade more precious than that of the plane tree. Susi, won’t you find the Ferrier recording for me, please?’

Susan did as asked and, for four minutes, squeezed onto the stool as they had been on the bench, they listened to the lyrics (and the lyrical voice of Kathleen Ferrier):

Ombra mai fù
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

‘She died far too young also, you know,’ Evi said in a low voice when the record petered out. ‘Breast cancer. A celebrated contralto with no formal training.’

‘Oh –’ Patsy paused, choked, blinking back tears threatening for a third time. ‘It’s beautiful.’

‘It is, isn’t it?’ Susan agreed. ‘The recitative leading up to the aria is lovely, too – a wish that the tree may always be protected from storms and its peace never disturbed.’

The barest beginnings of an idea were forming in the younger woman’s brain. ‘I should go. Delia will be wondering where I’ve got to,’ she said, guiltily.

The couple nodded in unquestioning understanding; an echo of the emotion that had been evident from Patsy’s first encounter with Evi nearly a month ago. ‘Of course. Bring her with you once you’ve patched things up.’   

After she waved her new, dear, friends goodbye, the redhead retraced her route back to the East End – but not before making a brief stop to search for a very particular present for a very particular person.

~

When Delia woke the next morning and opened their bedroom door (Patsy having kept her promise and slept on the couch), she was greeted by the gift of a record. It was unadorned, save for its sleeve; and a note which, from the hand, betrayed its giver.

My dearest Deels,

Penblwydd hapus. Mae’n flin gyda fi, cariad. Caru ti i’r lleuad a nôl.

This won’t make a jot of sense until you hear the piece, but thank you for being my most precious tree, and granting me the chance to put my roots down next to yours. I am blessed by the light of your smile and the shade of your strong arms.

Your penitent Pats xxx

The brunette smiled as she read her sweetheart’s words, hearing her favourite voice as clearly as though the redhead were right in front of her and speaking. Trust “her penitent Pats” to let music do the talking – although it wouldn’t, not this time. It was a start, but one she would save for them to savour together, once they had worked things out with words of their own. Not right away. First, her devilish darling could do with a taste of her own medicine and a strong dose of the silent treatment, since much of what she had said (what they had both said) still stung. But, in a few days, after the tricky topic of birthdays had been left firmly behind for a bit?

Then they would talk.

And listen.

And sing.

Chapter Text

‘Miss Mount? Patience? You ought to go and get some sleep. At least try. He won’t notice if you aren’t here for an hour or so.’

Wasn’t it you who said I was “all he asks for” when I ’phoned? If you think I’m moving even an inch away from this bed, as Delia would say, you’ve got another think coming…

A laugh. ‘You’re as stubborn as he is. Those bright blue eyes speak volumes without you saying a word. But – as hard as this is for me to suggest – you need to start behaving more like an adult and less like an eleven-year-old girl.’

What is that supposed to mean? I’m not eleven, I’m twenty-nine! Aren’t I? Hang on, this isn’t Hong Kong, what’s happening!? Papa!? Papa!?

‘Patience? Sweetheart, you ought to go and get some sleep. At least try. She won’t notice if you aren’t here for an hour or so.’

No! I’m not leaving! I didn’t leave Mama, and I’m not leaving Grace! There’s no point me going to bed, anyway, he’ll only come and wake me up again when he wants to look at me! And who knows how many other people there are?

A laugh. ‘Your stubborn silence does your namesake virtue credit. But perhaps you could combine it with a little of your sister’s? You’re in double figures, now, and you need to start acting like a young woman instead of a young girl.’

What do you mean? I’ve been “in double figures” for over a year, I’m eleven, not ten. Aren’t I? Hang on, why am I in a hospital bed? Grace!? Grace!? Mama!? Mama!? What’s happening!? This is all the wrong way around. This is Charitas, which means… Oh. Oh no.

‘Patience? Patsy? You ought to be asleep. Are you going to tell me what’s keeping you awake? At least try.’

I can’t tell you, that’s the problem, because you’re the problem. And the man who… No. No. I can’t give anything away.

A laugh. ‘Those bright blue eyes tell me nothing. But stubborn silence will do you no good in the long run. Oh dear, have we had another accident? This really isn’t on, you know; a ten-year-old like you is far too grown up for this sort of thing. I can’t but think you want to make extra work for us. I suppose I’ll have to help you change again, won’t I, because you can’t over-exert yourself if we want to make any progress with your weight.’

No. No. Why couldn’t I just be left with Dr McDowell? No. Please. Please don’t touch me. Please. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.

‘Papa!? Papa!?’ A pause. ‘Grace!? Grace!?’ Another, more panicked, pause. ‘Mama!? Mama!?

Upon waking to the sound of those three names, Delia simply rolled over, groaning quietly – despite (no, because of) the fact that she had not heard them in quite some weeks. She was not surprised in the slightest that they had resurfaced now. If anything, actually, she was impressed that it had taken them so long to reappear. These days, with her cariad’s increased sensitivity (and in spite of her waking assertions that them simply being next to each other in bed was too much to bear), the only thing guaranteed to calm her enough to sleep well, let alone through, was the comfort of uncomplicated skin-on-skin contact when they cwtched. So the redhead had been right in her post-coital ponderings on the power of their connection, if slightly too specific in focus, and the Welshwoman now suspected that that had been the reason behind her rage when her first gift of an early morning cuddle was roundly refused; concern about her ability to sleep when all was not so well with them. Therefore it was no wonder, in Delia’s mind at least, that her lover’s anxieties had returned with an extra intensity (and in English) after their argument and subsequent agreement to sleep separately. The wonder was that it had taken five whole days (or rather nights). She was, as a consequence, not too concerned. The names by themselves did not have any more significance than being those of her special people and, as they gave no clues about the substance of a nightmare, they did not necessarily warrant waking Patsy, either. Especially when they were still ostensibly not speaking, because Delia had dragged out her delivery of the silent treatment for longer than she had originally intended, which (naturally) had caused her older partner to take umbrage and withdraw once again. The younger woman decided to wait a moment and monitor developments. She had no desire to stumble (starkers!) across the room for her sole reward to be a rebuff.

‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.’

Well, if she wanted a development, she certainly had it. This was different: far too coherent to be categorised as either a nightmare or an associated absence. Had Patsy somehow managed to wake herself up? Sighing, she supposed the only way to find out was to go looking.

So she did.

‘Are you all right, annwyl?’ she asked as she reached the side of the redhead’s bed, figuring that the fuller version of the phrase was more likely to ground her girlfriend and offer her extra time both to focus and to answer.

To begin with, all the brunette got back was the piercing stare of her partner’s blue eyes. Then her beloved blinked and spoke the same strange sentence for a fourth time. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to,’ she said, her voice small and scared.

The Welshwoman was no wiser as to what was going on here, and she could sense that any further stalling would do both her and her darling her huge disservice. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart, but I don’t understand why you’re saying that. Can you tell me what’s happened, cariad?’

Patsy blinked again, before stammering a single word. ‘Toilet.’

Delia blinked, now, completely confused. ‘Toilet? You mean you need the loo, love?’

The redhead shook her head, shamefaced, and lifted the duvet a little. ‘Feel,’ she said feebly, gesturing vaguely to the area behind her back and the material of her pyjamas.

The brunette did as asked, and endeavoured to stifle her shocked gasp when her hand made contact with the sodden sheets, noticing as it did how the flannel pyjama bottoms were stuck to her sweetheart’s skin. ‘Oh, Pats, you’re soaking…’

Her ginger nodded, now, gingerly. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to,’ she repeated yet again.

‘I know you didn’t, darling, it must have happened in your sleep without you realising. You were having a nightmare before you woke up, weren’t you?’

Another, ginger, ginger nod. ‘Papa. And Gracie. And Mama.’

For the sake of sanitation, Delia took Patsy’s left hand in hers, squeezing gently yet firmly as a defence against the delicate nature of her one further question. ‘And the hospital?’ A third nod, even more timid than the other two, if it could be. ‘All right, annwyl,’ the smaller woman continued softly as she gave her girlfriend’s hand another squeeze. ‘You’re all right. We’re all right. This wasn’t your fault, so you have nothing to be sorry about. If either of us ought to be apologising, it’s me. I’m sorry for my petulance over the past five days, and for pushing you away when you were only trying your best to make things up to me. Not least because it’s brought all this on again. We’re going to fix that, my love, starting tonight. You’ll have to share my bed, because I can’t push them back together on my own (and you’re in no fit state to help right now), but yours isn’t really in a fit state for sleeping on anyway. Does that seem all right to you?’

A slightly less timid nod from the redhead; followed by two words which, in this context, meant more to both women than they ever had before. ‘Diolch, darling.’

Croeso, cariad,’ the brunette returned sincerely, echoing the softness of her sweetheart’s speech. ‘Although you have nothing to thank me for – and I mean that. Especially as what I’m going to say next is likely the last thing you want to hear, given what you’ve been dreaming.’ She paused, shifting her grip on her girlfriend’s hand to allow her to draw circles on the older woman’s wrist, since she was sure Patsy would be feeling very young. ‘We need to get you clean and dry first, all right?’ she finished, hoping that the plural pronoun would make the prospect easier to process.

Patsy nodded, swallowing. ‘But I’m not sure I can make it to the bathroom on my own. I’m not even certain I can sit up on my own.’

Dim problem, Pats. We aren’t nurses for nothing. I’ll help you sit up, and then we’ll walk through together. I’m right back by your side, sweetheart, like Al Bowlly sings – and I’m not going anywhere. Ever again.’

As a demonstration of her devotion, Delia let go of her lover’s left hand in order to remove the duvet completely from the bed, so that she would have sufficient space to loop both of her own upper limbs behind Patsy’s knees and gently guide her girlfriend forward. Then she slipped a hand under her (slim) shoulder to support her as her feet searched for the stability of the floor and she sat upright. When, because she was weak and woozy, the taller woman’s fingers fumbled with the edge of the sheet out of fear that she would fall back down to lying, her petite partner put light but significant pressure on the back of her right hand to hold it in place. Then, tentatively, she coaxed her cariad up to standing by shifting the anchoring gesture from her hand, to her forearm, and (finally) her elbow. The appropriate position (and altitude!) for ambulance eventually achieved, they managed to move forward via a few shuffling steps; after which the longer pair of legs buckled without warning from beneath their owner, bringing both women perilously close to collapse.

Once they had regained breath and balance, the smaller of the two decided an alternative tack was necessary, if potentially problematic for her already perturbed partner. ‘Shuffle back towards your bed for me, please, sweetheart,’ she said softly, counting on unquestioned compliance – which, for once, she was granted. ‘That’s it; and now sit down again. Da iawn, darling, you’re doing so well.’ The brunette grinned at her gorgeous girl in an effort to reassure the redhead. This was going to be a trickier task to navigate than either of them had initially thought. ‘We need to try a different direction, cariad, since clearly you aren’t able to get as far as the other end of the corridor. Are you happy for me to make a suggestion?’

A ginger nod, but a nod nonetheless. ‘Of course.’

I’d like to change you in here, but on that bed, because this one is wet through. How would that be? I know there’s a huge risk of triggers, but I promise I’ll be careful, Pats.’

The question Patsy posed was unexpected. ‘How will we get there, though? I can’t walk, and you can’t carry me.’

Delia attempted to lighten the atmosphere by appearing affronted. ‘Who says I can’t, cariad? Do you not recall the ordeal of Male Surgical, my love? I’m sure half the louts I lifted there were at least double your weight. Especially at the moment; and I mean that in the most compassionate and caring way possible.’

Touché, Nurse Busby. Very well, you may try.’

‘Thank you for trusting me, Nurse Mount. Now, it might be sensible for us to slip your trousers off over here first, since they’re soaked. That way the sheets on our other bed are more likely to stay dry and comfortable.’ Another carefully-placed plural pronoun to ease both processing and the process. That was the plan, at any rate, but the beleaguered brunette did not hold out much hope of it being any more successful than the stymied stand had been. She was therefore profoundly (but pleasantly) surprised by the readiness of her redhead’s response.

‘Well, as you’re already naked, annwyl, I suppose it’s only fair if I am too…’ Patsy purred, smirking. ‘And, actually, I don’t think I’ll bother getting dressed again. That would save you some work, wouldn’t it?’

Ah, that explained that, then. Patsy was proceeding on the presumption that not putting on a fresh pair of pyjamas would mean less need to be touched. For once trauma was overtaking her obsession with cleanliness (which in itself was a reaction to trauma). Delia had not thought she would ever witness this particular paradox, and it worried her. Philosophising about it tonight would be fruitless, frankly, though – and she needed to keep her sweetheart on side as well as safe and secure. So she went for the simplest reasoning she could muster.

‘You’re more than welcome to leave your pyjamas off, love; I’m hardly going to object to that. You’ll still need a wash, though.’

‘I know. I just don’t think I can do that on my own, either, and…’

‘I wasn’t suggesting you did –’

‘And that’s the problem.’

The brunette was grateful her girlfriend was sitting, since (as on their first night in this flat) it made making eye-contact much easier. ‘I’ll be so careful, cariad,’ she said, searching the tear-stained face before her for the slightest hint of a smile. When none appeared, she employed two other persuasive and placatory promises. ‘I’ll use Pears soap, and I’ll sing to you.’

‘In Welsh so I won’t understand the words and I can lull myself into thinking it’s not happening?’ the redhead asked, even as the admiration growing in her gaze made it clear she had already acquiesced.

Delia grinned at her darling’s determination not to be defeated. ‘If that would be helpful. I’m sure I can come up with something; though it might be a lullaby my Mam used to sing to me, and that is definitely not the tone I want to set for the rest of our relationship.’

Her annwyl’s admiration turned arch, and she smirked. ‘I won’t tell if you won’t.’

‘Deal. Thank you for the record, by the way, on the subject of meaningful songs without translations. We’ll have to listen to it together, my love.’ Patsy nodded nervously, quietly thrilled that her gift had been acknowledged at last, but still wary because of the current source of angst and anxiety. ‘Ready, Red?’

A deep breath. ‘Ready.’

The brunette brought out her best “Nurse Busby” bustle. ‘Right. If you can push up just a little from the bed, love, I can pull your trousers down. Perfect, Pats,’ she purred as they performed their respective parts of the movement, genuinely proud (not to mention relieved) that her partner had regained even an ounce of her physical autonomy. ‘I’ll chuck them and the bedding in the laundry basket when I go and fetch the flannels and things after you’re settled over there,’ she continued, pointing in the vague vicinity of the other bed. ‘Now, sweetheart, would you like your shirt off too before we move? You seem rather sweaty.’

Patsy nodded decisively; a definite sign of improvement. ‘Please. That way you can wash my top half as well, Nurse Busby, and we won’t solely be focussing on…’ she trailed off, feeling timid again.

‘That seems sensible,’ was the sincere answer as small but speedy hands got busy with buttons. ‘Next steps, then, Nurse Mount. If you can slip your arms over my shoulders, and wrap your legs sort of around my middle as we come up to standing, we should be all set. I realise it’s rather unorthodox, but so are we.’

‘Indeed we are, Deels, and I wouldn’t have us any other way.’

‘Neither would I, Pats, neither would I. Now, do you have a secure grip on my shoulders?’

‘I do, darling, diolch. On three?’

‘Yes. One –’

‘Two –’

‘Three. Up we go, gorgeous girl.’

With that, the two women began the second attempt at their tentative travels across the room, both surprised at how quickly and easily they covered the distance, and both horrified by just how light Patsy actually was. Even Delia hadn’t quite expected the change to be so dramatic. Still, it would not do to place any additional strain on their already precarious position so, opting for professional pragmatism, neither nurse said anything until they were by the other bed. Then the younger merely verbalised her next movement. ‘I’m going to lie you straight down on your back, love, if that’s all right with you?’

‘It is,’ Patsy said, pausing as she loosened her grip on her girlfriend to allow herself to be guided gently backwards. Only when she felt the firm softness of fresher sheets beneath her now bare body did she dare to broach the topic of its slimmer silhouette. ‘I really need to put on some weight, don’t I?’

‘You do, yes,’ Delia replied matter-of-factly, impressed once more by her older partner’s bravery in posing the rhetorical question. ‘Don’t worry about that tonight, though, darling,’ she continued as she pulled the duvet up over her lover’s full length, wanting to keep her warm whilst she went to find flannels, a bowl and the promised Pears soap. ‘There’ll be time enough for strategising in the morning.’

‘Isn’t it morning now?’

‘All right, Pedantic Pats, there’ll be time enough for strategising later this morning. Much later.’ The brunette chuckled at her beloved redhead’s ridiculousness, but smiled to soften her headshake. ‘I’m going to leave you for a few minutes, to locate a bowl (two actually – one for soapy water and another for fresh to rinse with). Is that acceptable, annwyl?’

‘Hurry back,’ was the earnest, exhausted and still edgy entreaty.

Having heeded her girlfriend’s request by finding everything as quickly as she could in the disorientation which descended at this time of night, Delia somehow made it back to their bedroom within under five minutes (if not quite the stated few), despite balancing two bowls, the soap and several facecloths in such a way as to avoid spillages. ‘I think that’s everything,’ she muttered, more to herself than to Patsy, although she observed her partner’s obvious relaxation the moment she reappeared. Depositing her load on the bedside table, she reached out to grasp her lover’s hand and let her know she would not be leaving again. ‘Duvet off, dearest?’ She would start singing soon but, until then, commentary was crucial.

‘Duvet off,’ came the soft echo of her sweetheart’s dual assent and consent.

‘All right, annwyl, I’ll start with your face and see how we go from there.’

‘Singing?’ her cariad queried, her breath catching at the cold air as the covering was removed. Now the autonomic response to her earlier accident had lessened a little, her temperature was beginning to regulate, and the brunette was conscious of how quickly she would need to work to evade any extra chill.

It would be unnecessary and unhelpful to mention this musing, however, so, whilst she lathered soap onto the first flannel, she simply spoke the same single word. ‘Singing.’ Then, without further ado, she started both the song and the (gentle) scrubbing.

Huna blentyn ar fy mynwes,
Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon;
Breichiau mam sy'n dynn amdanat,
Cariad mam sy dan fy mron.’

Oh, how beautiful her love looked in the low light of the bedside lamp – and all the more so because the cause of their shared nudity now required the redhead to reveal not just her body but her soul. True, it had felt to them both as if that was what she had done on their first night together in this room, and so she had, but this was possibly even more intimate. No, no “possibly” about it – it was more intimate because, although consent had been given, it was out of necessity instead of actual choice. Delia remembered the delicacy of such dynamics only too well from the early days after her accident, and therefore threw all her adoring acknowledgement of her darling’s difficulty into each of the notes as she reached them, keeping time by matching the rhythm of the refrain to her reverent rubbing with the flannel. And, as she meant every emotion evoked by the music, so too she meant every word of the lyrics which accompanied it; the maternal motif notwithstanding. She would let her lover sleep upon her breast, both adult-Pats and her child counterpart; and it was this younger girl to whom she addressed the humming and lulling tune tonight. It allowed her subliminally to restate the more outspoken overtures she had made earlier, again on their first night together. She was entirely invested in the sentiment of arms held tightly as defence against disturbance or distress, and let this investment carry her over into the second part of the first verse.


‘Ni chaiff dim amharu'th gyntun,
Ni wna undyn â thi gam;
Huna'n dawel, annwyl blentyn,
Huna'n fwyn ar fron dy fam.’

No-one, indeed, would do her darling harm – of that she would make very sure – and, moreover, as they faced the effects of that which had already been done, she (and they) would hold her (and them) together. There was nothing Patsy deserved more than quiet nights filled with peaceful sleep, and this folksong was functioning as a poetic pledge made to cement her prosaic commitment to providing them (as best as she could, anyway).

Her cariad seemed to sense that she meant it, too, conveying her comprehension not verbally but visually, through the involuntary drooping of her eyelids as she found herself being swayed towards just such a slumber – perhaps by the appearance of one familar phrase in the form of “annwyl”. Whatever its impetus, the closure was complemented by the slight opening of her mouth, as it spread into the smallest of smiles. This movement made the brunette’s dimples deepen in turn, as she registered the relevance of her redhead’s relaxation in relation to the conceit of the next stanza, which (for the sake of extending its use during this delicate activity) she had split in half again.

‘Huna'n dawel, heno, huna,
Huna'n fwyn, y tlws ei lun;
Pam yr wyt yn awr yn gwenu,
Gwenu'n dirion yn dy hun?’

Without any prior prompting, Patsy was following the fictional scenario being spun, if not to the letter, then to the line. Sleeping quietly, and looking as pretty as a picture as she did so, thanks to the similarly pretty pictures in her head. A sight which was even more special because it signified how safe she felt. Delia was both humbled and honoured, but also heartsore, because she hated to think of the hurt which had led to her lover’s façades being formed in the first place. Hurt her darling was not dwelling on right now, however, and which the Welshwoman knew it was her corresponding personal duty to leave by the wayside – just as it was her professional (yet equally personal) duty to complete the task she had taken on willingly, aided once more by her native tongue. So, nursing instinct characteristically overriding emotion, she began the bedbathing again, before becoming conscious that she was about to arrive at the area around which her annwyl had most anxiety. Ideally she would hope to help her stay both asleep and smiling, but she wondered now whether not knowing what was happening would make things worse. Consent was critical, after all, and there would be two more half-stanzas to follow the one she was about to be on, should she need assistance in coaxing Patsy back to sleep once they were done. Since the subject of her current section was the reason for the sleeping listener’s smile, though, she felt she ought to finish it before waking her sleeping listener, even if it had given her an idea of how to ease the transition for them both once she did. She indeed wondered what lay behind her sweetheart’s smile, and it seemed only right that she should sing about it.

‘Ai angylion fry sy'n gwenu,
Arnat ti yn gwenu'n llon,
Tithau'n gwenu'n ôl dan huno,
Huno'n dawel ar fy mron?’

Whilst, knowing her redhead’s reticence around religion, there were likely no traditional angels watching over her and provoking a smile in return for theirs, given the presence of her family in the dreadful dream that had triggered tonight’s retraumatisation, the brunette could hazard a fairly good guess that they would be in her mind now, too. And that guess was one which made her giddy, because her greatest wish was that her gorgeous girl could and would find more and more happiness in her memories of them. Nevertheless, before she could let herself get carried away on visions, Delia was achingly aware that she had a final job to do; and that it was one for which the older woman (and, unfortunately, her ever-present younger self) ought to be awake. She therefore brought the final question to a close as quietly as she could, to buy some time to decide how best to do it. As she should probably have predicted, though, Patsy’s rest had only been light – and largely sustained by the singing.

Consequently, as soon as that ceased, so did her sleep. ‘Deels? Deels!?’ she called, disorientated.

‘Yes, love, I’m here.’

‘You stopped singing,’ her cariad said, thankfully seeming more confused than cross.

‘I did, darling, and I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m about wash you somewhere rather sensitive, Pats, and I thought it would be better if you were awake.’

‘Oh. Oh. Why didn’t you let me stay asleep!?

The smaller woman couldn’t stop herself shrinking away from her annwyl’s obvious (and understandable) anguish. ‘Because – because –’ Why indeed, Busby? Well?

Then I wouldn’t have known what was happening!

Thank goodness for Patsy’s propensity towards answering her own queries. ‘Exactly,’ Delia demurred, ‘and that was a boundary I wasn’t prepared to breach. I don’t want to add any layers to your panic.’

‘I suppose that makes sense. I’m sorry. I’m just so scared.’

‘I know, cariad, and I’m sorry too. I’m sorry that your trauma means we have to do the very thing which put it there to begin with – but, as we do, I can promise again that I’ll be careful. And quick. So quick. I won’t sing whilst I wash you here, because I think I should concentrate completely on what I’m doing, but I will as soon as I finish. And then until you fall asleep. All right, annwyl?’

‘That word was in the song!’

‘It was, yes,’ the brunette agreed, beaming. ‘You heard that bit, then?’

‘Half-heard it,’ the redhead said softly, returning the grin. ‘I was having the most lovely dream. Diolch, Deels, the singing really helped.’ She paused, startled by a seemingly sudden sound, and panicked. ‘Wh–what was that?’

‘Just the flannel splashing as it slipped back into the bowl, love. I’m just drying you off with the towel now, and then I’m all done. We’re all done. Shall I sing the rest to you as we slip back off to sleep? The last verse is about not being scared of strange noises, because there are angels guarding you, and because they’re only leaves rustling or waves lapping against the shore.’

Her gorgeous ginger girlfriend giggled at the coincidence, thinking of the metaphorical ocean that had been formed with waves of Welsh words on that first night. ‘Absolutely, then, in that case.’

Delia’s heart leapt at the laughter as she leapt up to lie next to her lover. ‘All right, annwyl,’ she said, and wrapped her arms around the taller woman’s waist as she began to sing them both to slumber.


‘Paid ag ofni, dim ond deilen
Gura, gura ar y ddôr;
Paid ag ofni, ton fach unig
Sua, sua ar lan y môr.

Huna blentyn, nid oes yma
Ddim i roddi iti fraw;
Gwena'n dawel yn fy mynwes.
Ar yr engyl gwynion draw.’

As she reached the final word and note, the Welshwoman nestled in as close as she could to her cariad and shut her own eyes, convinced by her beloved’s regular breathing that the redhead had already fallen asleep again. When Patsy spoke, therefore, her petite partner’s eyes popped open in surprise. ‘Deels?’ she asked, the single word whispered so quietly it might have been an extension of the fantasy conjured up by the folksong.

‘Yes, Pats, my love?’

‘How would you feel about us buying a piano?’

Delia decided this question was as near as it could get to literal music to her ears. ‘Absolutely, annwyl,’ she replied, reaching over to stroke her favourite redhead’s hair as she began to hum again, before a hopeful hush descended once more over the place they called their home.

Chapter Text

Patsy woke to find herself nude and alone in “Delia’s bed”, when somehow she was completely certain that she had gone to sleep fully-clothed and in “her bed” with the brunette just across the room. Had something happened that she had forgotten?

Breathing deeply, desperately trying not to panic as the multitude of possible answers to that question raced through her mind, she glanced over towards the space she had initially supposed herself to be occupying.

“Her bed”.

Which had been stripped of its sheets.

Oh God.

That was why.

She had wet herself. And her bed. At the age of thirty.

Rolling over to bury her red face in her pillow, the redhead moaned with mortification at the memory of all the intimate interactions which her physical inadequacy had rendered a necessity in the middle of last night – or rather in the early hours of this morning. Clearly she had made more noise than she intended to, too, because her whimper (or what she had thought was one) was swiftly followed by the sound of bare feet hitting the floorboards rather more heavily than usual as her petite partner stumbled down the passage. ‘All right, annwyl?’ was the breathless question asked when she at last approached the side of the bed.

Their bed.

From which the smaller woman had seemingly only recently departed, since she was wearing her dressing gown (tied tightly at the waist) and holding a bowl filled with some sort of hot breakfast food (if the tiny wisp of steam rising off the top was an accurate signal).

‘Yes, fine,’ her sweetheart started, her speech still slightly slurred from the residue of sleep, and grateful for the cover of the duvet as she crossed her fingers and hoped to hell it was anything other than porridge in that bowl. ‘Well, no, not fine – I just woke up, had no idea where I was, and then everything from earlier…’ she trailed off, not quite sure how to finish the sentence.

‘Came flooding back?’ the Welshwoman suggested cheekily, leaning over to ruffle her lover’s hair with her free hand as a distraction, whilst she placed the bowl on the bedside table and revealed that there was another empty one underneath it.

Patsy turned bright red at the pun. ‘I suppose that’s one way of putting it, yes,’ she concurred with a sheepish chuckle, the emotional awkwardness jolting her fully awake and allowing her to notice the physical difficulty her darling was apparently having standing up again. That, combined with her earlier breathlessness, made the older woman wonder if her younger girlfriend’s comforting caress of her head had been more of a deflection than a distraction.

Well, she thought, as “Nurse Mount” began to surface and silence “Patsy”, two can do that dance, Deels. ‘Enough about my embarrassment for the moment, though,’ she murmured offhandedly. ‘Are you all right?’

Delia blushed deeply now, caught off-guard – and caught out. ‘Yes, fine,’ she stammered, echoing her taller partner’s earlier phrasing. ‘Why?’

‘The way you walked down the corridor sounded like you were favouring your weaker leg, love.’

‘Oh,’ the brunette began, bright blue eyes avoiding the gaze of the others beneath her gorgeous girl’s ginger fringe, and darting about as though searching for a suitable alibi. ‘I stubbed my toe against a counter in the kitchen.’

The redhead raised a brow. ‘Really?’

‘Mhmm…’

‘It must’ve been quite hard to affect your back as well as your balance,’ her perceptive partner drawled, deadpan.

‘M-my back?’

‘Yes, Deels, your back – or, more accurately, your pelvis – because lifting me last night has given you a flare-up in your hips, hasn’t it?’ A pause, to permit a response, but which was filled by her sweetheart simply staring, open-mouthed. ‘I thought as much,’ Patsy continued without even the slightest triumph in her voice. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart.’

Delia shook her head, both in denial of the apology and disbelief at her darling’s aptitude for diagnosis. ‘How did you know?’

‘As you said, at some point in the small hours of this morning, we aren’t nurses for nothing. Now, Nurse Busby, are you going to be sensible and lie down so I can make up for your midnight exertion by giving you a massage? Or do I have to turn the tables and telephone Phyllis to ask for her assistance in persuading you?’

This second question was accompanied by a smile and an outstretched arm, with which the older woman captured her cariad’s wrist and coaxed her forwards, bringing her closer to the bed. At the mention of Phyllis, the youngest of the pair pouted, huffing – before starting to protest. ‘But I don’t want you using any more energy than you have to,’ she said, only just stopping herself from stamping her foot. ‘That was the whole point of me preparing breakfast, Pats!’

‘Honestly, sweetheart, I’m fine. I just had a difficult night which, much to my chagrin, ended up disturbing yours as well. I tell you what, if I promise (within reason) to submit to whatever it is you have planned for today (since a sneaky glance at our alarm tells me it’s already eleven o’clock) will you submit to me easing some of your aches, annwyl?’

‘Are you emotionally manipulating me?’ Patsy’s little love posed this enquiry teasingly, laughing as she let herself be pulled into her embrace and then pushed backwards onto the bed, her dressing gown suddenly not so tightly-tied and floating freely to the floor.

‘As if I’d dare, darling!’ the ginger said, feigning mock-outrage, even as she joined in with her girlfriend’s giggle and sought consent to roll her over onto her stomach. Then, reaching for the massage oil which was somehow still a permanent fixture on the brunette’s bedside table despite their recent disagreement, she moved to kneel between the backs of her lover’s legs. Nestling the still-closed bottle near enough to grab when they were both ready, she leant down to whisper in the Welshwoman’s ear. ‘Shoulders, too, sweetheart, or just your pelvis?’

Delia shook her head, giggling again, grateful that she could smirk into the sheets. ‘You just want more excuses to deflect, and to delay my plans, Pats!’

‘Nope. Not true, Deels,’ the Englishwoman insisted, enunciating all her consonants so that the Welshwoman would hear the parallel smirk playing about her lips.

‘No?’

‘No. We’ll talk about this properly soon, love, but I actually just want more excuses to touch you…’

The laughter evaporated as the brunette digested the significance of what her sweetheart had said and found herself suddenly breathless. When she recovered, she shifted her position a tiny fraction in order to lock eyes with the redhead, her face flushed to match the colour of her cariad’s hair – a lock of which was currently tracing a languid trail along her spine. ‘Oh,’ she said softly, ‘well in that case, love, take as long as you like.’

Patsy needed no further encouragement, but she did have one further question. ‘Shall I nip and turn the record on before I start? That way my hands can translate for me, since I don’t speak Italian.’

Delia laughed again. ‘So it’s not number six on your already extensive list of languages, annwyl?’

‘No.’ The taller woman was poised to get up, so did not process the question immediately, but paused as soon as she was standing. ‘Number six? Are you including the tiny amount of Japanese I have?’

‘No,’ the smaller woman murmured, wondering if she was altogether wise to broach this now.

‘Then what’s the fifth one?’ The ginger was genuinely nonplussed, and wary.

‘Malay, my love.’

Malay?’ her sweetheart squeaked, thanking multiple deities in whom she did not believe that her beloved was prevented from having full view of her face. What on earth had she said in her sleep!?

‘Mhmm. I’d gathered you had some words, the same as Japanese, because you’ve told me about things like the gedék enclosures, but not quite how much you knew…’

‘It was the lingua franca between cultures in Singapore and the surrounding area. Still is, I suppose,’ Patsy began, before stalling, debating how honest she ought to be. ‘I don’t like to remember it much,’ she stated eventually, keeping things simple.

‘I can understand that, cariad,’ Delia said sincerely, ‘and I’m not asking you to do so. Certainly not today. I just think it might be useful for me to have some sort of glossary in order to be able to decipher your early morning mumblings.’

The older woman laughed aloud at last in spite of her anxiety. ‘And said mumblings are now in Malay?’

‘Yes. At least I think so. They might’ve been Mandarin,’ her younger partner mused, realising how little they knew about the specifics of each other’s early lives, despite the comparative length of their relationship.

‘No, I think you’re right,’ her cariad conceded, sauntering along the side of the bed until they were eye-level again, ‘but may we wait a while before we talk about this again?’

‘Of course, love. The only request I have right now, Red, is for music to accompany my massage. Handel might help us both get a handle on things…’

The only response the brunette was granted for her deft use of language before her girlfriend left the room was the redhead deftly throwing a conveniently-close pillow at her head – an onslaught which nevertheless came with the reparation of relaxation as soon as she returned.

‘Does that feel nice, Deels?’ Patsy purred as she at last ran her palms over the taut muscles of her petite partner’s back, gradually working her way down towards the more sensitive pelvis and sacrum. ‘You will tell me if I’m applying too much pressure, won’t you?’

‘It feels heavenly, Pats. Diolch, darling.’ The two women were whispering so they could still hear Ferrier, in all her four-minute glory, from the far off land of the lounge.

Croeso, cariad. Glad to hear it, and rather relieved too, I must admit. You almost had me doubting my capabilities – both in terms of diagnosis and treatment.’

The smaller woman snorted. ‘You can’t seriously expect me to believe that, sweetheart. All the patients lucky enough to get a massage from “Nurse Mount” are forever saying how marvellous you are; and that’s mostly just lymphatic drainage. I won’t be so stubborn next time. Oh, ouch!’

Her taller partner grimaced at her discomfort. ‘Sorry, love – I’m just over your glutes now, and I think the problem might be that your piriformis has gone into spasm and is slightly aggravating your sensitivity towards sciatica.’

Her lover laughed wickedly at her careful choice of words. ‘So what you’re saying, Patience, is that I’m a tight arse?’

‘Delia!’ the redhead remonstrated. ‘I’m trying to be professional.’

‘You’d be a hell of a lot more convincing if we weren’t both completely naked, cariad.’

‘I – I can’t. Not this morning. Not – not after last night.’

‘I know, my love,’ Delia said softly, her quietness quieting her girlfriend’s qualms. ‘Shift slightly so I can turn onto my left side?’

They moved together, laughing again as their legs caught a little, and then the older woman traced her hand reverently along the side of her annwyl’s right thigh. Stopping just above the slight curve of her younger partner’s hip, she grabbed the massage oil and poured a tiny bit more onto her left palm, before dipping a single finger of her right hand into the liquid and trailing it lightly over the several small but still stark “stars” which sat there; a poignant physical reminder that the brunette, too, had regularly recurring reactions to trauma of her own.

‘This is enough, love, I promise,’ the Welshwoman whispered, ‘just like last night was enough. You let me help you when you were hurting, and that was more meaningful than any sex could ever be.’

Her sweetheart smiled sadly, trying to stop the tear which suddenly seemed to be tracking down her cheek, but failing to catch it before it splashed onto her cariad’s skin. ‘And now I’m helping you?’

Delia felt devastated at the upward inflection which denoted her darling’s words as a question instead of a statement, and so mirrored her sad smile. ‘And now you’re helping me. Reciprocity, Pats.’

‘Reciprocity, Deels,’ the redhead echoed as a further few tears fell.

‘I’m sorry you got sad.’

The ginger giggled in spite of herself, almost drenched in déjà-vu from their last “morning after” – albeit one of an entirely different kind, at least on the surface. ‘I’m sorry you’ve got scars.’

The brunette chuckled, too, and sought consent before reaching up to pull her partner down for a brief kiss. ‘It’s not your fault, you foolish girl,’ she purred when they broke away, smirking as she also stole her beloved’s line, along with her breath.

Patsy, however, remained impervious to persuasion. ‘It is my fault, though. I lent you my bike, and now lifting me has caused more problems.’

Delia arched a brow. ‘Are you still content to submit to my plans today, Pats?’ A nod. ‘Do you trust me?’ Another nod. ‘Well then,’ she breathed, raising her arms apparently nonchalantly above her head, ‘it’s time for us to switch places, sweetheart.’ With that, her arms flew from their prepared position to wrap around her partner’s waist and flip the taller woman over.

‘Deels, what –’ the redhead whispered, wide-eyed and winded.

‘See, cariad,’ the smaller woman said silkily, ‘lifting you has caused no problems whatsoever. I might be a tiny bit achy, annwyl, but I wouldn’t have done it unless I felt comfortable. All right?’ An awed nod, which made her grin, and gave her another idea. ‘And,’ she continued lazily, running her hands over Patsy’s (far too pronounced) ribs, ‘just to remind you, for the umpteenth time in the last almost-three years, you didn’t…’ she trailed off, before turning her tender touch into a tickle as she finished the sentence, ‘…cause my accident either.’

Her girlfriend gasped and giggled, squirming with delight, and feeling unexpectedly safe, given the change in dynamic. Eventually, though, she had rather more pressing (and physical) feelings which needed her attention. ‘All right, all right, all right,’ she wheezed. ‘You’ve made your point, Welshie, but I’m afraid I must absent myself rather speedily if we want to avoid a repeat accident on your sheets. Sorry, love, I should’ve gone when I went to put the music on.’

Delia shook her head. ‘No “sorries”, because it’ll give you a chance to put it back to that track, but I appreciate your consideration of our bed covers. Go, go.’

I appreciate your consideration of my bladder,’ Patsy said as she got up once again. ‘You like it, then?’

‘I love it – almost as much as I love you. I’m so glad you’ve felt able to reclaim it.’

‘As am I. On a political level as much as a personal one, too. It seems important to remember that countries are multifaceted and ought not to be defined by only one aspect of their history (much like people) and Handel is a prime example of that for Germany. So, as much as your joke made me cringe, it’s apt – because he is helping me to get a handle on things. Now I just need to find an equivalent for Japan.’

The younger woman laughed. ‘One day, dearest. For now, I’m pleased my puns are proving to be of some use. But go, quickly.’ She stopped, gesturing to emphasise her words, and then had a further thought. ‘Oh and Pats?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Weigh yourself for me whilst you’re in there? It seems sensible for us to have a better idea of what we’re actually working with in terms of figures.’

‘No pun intended, I’m sure,’ was the reply as she finally raced out the room, smirking, but calling back to offer assent. ‘Yes, Nurse Busby, I shall do.’

~

‘Well, love?’

Her annwyl could barely speak for anxiety and shame when she re-entered their bedroom. ‘It’s terrible, Deels.’

‘Come cwtch, cariad,’ the brunette said calmly, and her lover was only too willing to fall back onto her lap and into her waiting arms. ‘It can’t be that bad.’

‘It is,’ the redhead mumbled insistently into her bare shoulder. ‘Five-and-a-half stone. As bad as when…’ She trailed off, silent tears overtaking coherent speech and thought.

Delia let her cry quietly for some time without comment, since this release was clearly much-needed, and it also gave her a moment to mull over what this new information might mean. That was a very low weight indeed, and they would need to work on building it up again, but it did not appear to be adversely affecting her attention or ability to work – and the similarity of the amount to that during the period of the original trauma suggested a direct link between them. So, in order to allow her gorgeous girl to gain physical weight, the emotional weight would need to be addressed. It would not do simply to force food on her.

Not that her petite partner had ever supposed that strategy would succeed in the first place.

Softly, softly, once she had stopped sobbing; which she seemed to have done.

‘All right, annwyl?’

A nod against her neck, combined with an attempt at communication. ‘I’m so sorry you have to deal with all of this, Deels –’

The brunette shook her head firmly, fondly stroking the hair conveniently beneath her hand. ‘You said that enough last night, and it’s totally unnecessary. You aren’t doing any of it deliberately, darling, and you have to “deal with” a lot more than I do because of its implications. We can work on your weight. We’ll reconvene every few days to check in. As for everything else, Sunlight soap works wonders for washing sheets and clothes, you know that, like Pears does for washing your body.’

‘Or Lux does for washing yours,’ her girlfriend conceded. ‘You know, the hilarious thing is that I had to take mattress covers to the Butler twins just the other day. Their mother made them apologise to me, and I wanted to give her a smart slap, so instead I reassured the boys that it wasn’t their fault and they had absolutely nothing to be sorry about –’

Delia raised a brow. ‘Is that so? I’d say someone needs to start taking her own advice.’

‘Yes, Nurse Busby, sorry, Nurse Busby,’ Patsy purred, planting a covert kiss on her clavicle.

Her girlfriend grinned at the gentle gesture. ‘If I may, Nurse Mount, I’ve a couple of suggestions. Firstly, I’ve made you some porridge with honey, of which I’d like you to try a few mouthfuls.’ A pause as the redhead tried to hide her retch at the confirmation of her earlier suspicion. ‘If you don’t manage it, I’ll eat it, but it’d mean a lot if you’d try, love.’

‘All right. Diolch, Deels. I’m not sure how successful it’ll be, though…’ the older woman trailed off, wary, and uncertain how to continue this conversation without crushing her cariad’s genuine desire to help.

Delia picked up the bowl from the bedside table. ‘Just one mouthful?’ the Welshwoman wheedled, and Patsy could not find it in her heart to let her darling down. That would be sufficient to show her why it would be unsuccessful, she supposed, and perhaps she needed to see to understand.

‘All right. Pass it here.’

‘Oh, I meant to say, I’ll feed you. Energy conservation, cariad.’

The redhead rolled her eyes to cover for the rapidly-increasing levels of panic pooling in her gut. This talk was turning into one giant trigger, but she was at a loss as to how to tell the brunette, so, after much internal deliberation, she sat up slightly and opted for her usual shield of sardonic humour. It would hide an explanation in plain sight. ‘Fine. Tit for tat, as you let me massage you, and I promised not to complain. But if you even think of turning the spoon into any form of transportation as it travels towards my mouth, my love, I can assure you that the entire contents of this bowl will end up on your beautiful brown hair.’

Instead of laughing as expected, her girlfriend locked her gaze. ‘Did they do that to you? At the hospital?’

‘Not at the first one – at the third one, back in Singapore, when I was briefly admitted after “Liberation”. Papa, meanwhile, was waiting for me, ensconced in the processing centre at the Raffles Hotel.’ Patsy spat that last phrase out like a bad taste she did not fancy lingering over for too long, surprising both herself and her sweetheart with her vehemence.

‘So you were twelve? How condescending. I’m sorry, cariad, but I’m also glad to inform you that there are neither trains nor planes in the immediate vicinity of this flat. Just a spoon. And a bowl of porridge getting cold,’ Delia coaxed, as she deftly dipped the former into the latter.

Patsy smiled and opened her mouth to take the tiniest morsel from the proffered piece of cutlery. Snapping her lips shut, she made to swallow, and rejoiced briefly that her earlier anxiety had apparently been misplaced. Then she retched, and all sense of triumph vanished with the violence of the spasm in her throat and stomach.

Her petite partner proved entirely unperturbed, however, swiftly swapping the full bowl for the empty one. ‘Here, love, spit into this. Why else do you suppose I brought it with me?’

The taller woman said nothing for a while, focusing on the bowl held steadily below her chin, convincing herself that she was in control. Then, tentatively, instead of spitting, she tried to swallow again; and, this time, she succeeded. Perhaps she ought to add positivity to her register of emotions – it would fit rather snugly next to reciprocity. For now she could just be thrilled they had avoided a deeper discussion about starch. ‘More, please.’

Delia wanted to dance with delight. ‘Of course, cariad,’ she crooned, swapping the bowls again to spoon a small amount into her annwyl’s mouth, and contenting herself with making a further proposal. ‘Secondly, love, when I ‘phoned to say we wouldn’t be working, the girls wondered if we fancied an evening at Nonnatus tonight – I thought you’d prefer that to having them over here.’

A nod as her sweetheart swallowed, matching her second success to the second suggestion, and opening her mouth wide at last. ‘More, please.’

Her lover could barely believe her luck. ‘That’s my gorgeous girl – good job!’ A pause as Patsy giggled. ‘No, love, that’s not a good idea; you might choke. Still, you’re doing so well, I have a third treat for you. I had a look at the paper when it arrived this morning and, according to the classifieds, there’s a second hand upright piano for sale not too far away. So… I telephoned the owner whilst you were still asleep, and she’s keen for us to come and check it out. She’s a former music teacher with arthritis and wants to be sure it goes to a good home, but I knew you would want to see it first, anyway. Shall we go?’

‘Yes, please. More, please.’

Delia wanted to cry with both relief and laughter. Mostly relief. ‘All right, annwyl. We’ll finish this up and then you can get washed and dressed.’

‘I think I might wear slacks…’

~

‘You haven’t played since you were nine, you say, Nurse Mount?’

Patsy wanted to shrivel up at the sneer in this woman’s – Miss White, was it? – voice. ‘Not much, no,’ she admitted.

‘What has motivated you to take it up again now?’

Was this a catechism!? Good grief! Well, actually, that would work for an answer. ‘Remembrance of my family. My parents and sister.’

‘A recent loss?’

Such direct questions! She dared not look at Delia for fear she might collapse – or, worse, that her “Welsh Wonder” might wallop their host and thereby scupper their chances of purchasing this piano. It was so close, yet so far, and so…

‘My father, yes. But it was my mother who was musical. I was eleven when she died.’

‘Why the two-year gap?’

The ginger gritted her teeth. ‘Well, there was a piano in some of the places where we were interned, but the tropical climate of the former Netherlands East Indies wasn’t especially conducive to its tuning or upkeep as it lived largely outside. Look, let’s reach a compromise. I don’t enjoy playing in front of people, but I like talking about my childhood even less; so let me play something for you. Then you can decide if I pass muster.’

The older lady at least had the grace (no, courtesy, she did not deserve even the slightest linguistic connection to that dearest of little girls!) to look contrite, and vaguely impressed. ‘By all means,’ she said softly, gesturing towards the stool.

‘Do you have any preferences?’ The redhead decided to be equally direct as she sat down, but was relieved to see a silent headshake. That meant she would at least have jurisdiction over how to channel the mess of emotions churning through her mind, as joy at the thought of an outlet clashed against grief at the reasons she needed one.

What to choose, though?

Something she knew well, certainly.

Also something fairly fast, for the sake of literal speed – but something still imbued with the correct quantities of light and shade to offer adequate illustration of her skill…

‘I do, Pats,’ her petite partner interrupted. ‘Beethoven.’

Patsy kept her eyes on the keys to conceal her bewilderment at the brunette’s request. Why on earth would Delia pick Beethoven?

Ah!

Of course.

More German brilliance in cognisance of their earlier conversation.

What else, then?

His Sonata No.14 in C# Minor, otherwise known as “Moonlight”. Literal light and shade. Only the first and third movements, mind: the Adagio Sostenuto and the Presto Agitato. The second, the Allegretto, she would save for her annwyl to hear in private, since that was almost as sweet as Delia herself. Even the other two, though, could function as a message for her cariad, because she was the buffer between them, a sustaining force to guide her and keep her from flying too quickly into agitation. Moreover, as the mastery behind the music showed, these two apparent opposites of calm and consternation were not quite as polarised as one – she – might be predisposed to think; and the redhead now knew this was the reminder that her beloved brunette was continually and patiently (ha!) prodding her to accept. Perhaps she did not, in fact, know the piece (or, she mused as she played, her partner) as well as she flattered herself she did. Perhaps she was more of an open book than she prided herself on being, and the inscrutable enigma of their relationship was actually that epitome of openness, one Delia Busby?

None of that mattered now, though.

‘Well?’ she asked once she finished playing.

‘Well indeed. Very well indeed,’ their older judge murmured. ‘You skipped the second movement, of course, but I can understand why in the circumstances. When would you like to collect it?’

‘Really?’ Patsy could hardly keep still for the adrenaline coursing through her veins, but stayed sitting, to prevent herself from pacing the room.

‘Really,’ Miss White echoed in earnest. ‘I’m sorry I was so short with you beforehand, that was utterly unforgivable.’

‘Please don’t apologise. My mother was similarly protective of her piano. I still marvel that she let me play it at all, even twenty-one years later. Could our friend Fred come and fetch yours tomorrow, please, in his van?’

‘It’s yours now – I only ask that you take care of it.’

When the two women were once again alone on the street, by mutual consent, nothing was said regarding Miss White’s initial rudeness. Delia did, however, have one burning question for her beloved. ‘Pats?’

‘Mmm?’

‘How is it that you know so much, and play so well, from memory?’

Patsy paused a moment, pondering for at least the third time that day how honest she could bear to be. ‘I’ll tell you on the twenty-first,’ she said eventually.

‘Of this month?’

‘Yes. Of April.’

‘That’s oddly specific – but I’m content to play the hand I’m dealt in patience, Patience.’

‘How very demure of you, Delia; especially as we’ve not had a card game in, oh, eleven days? And it’s all my fault, too,’ the taller woman finished airily but apologetically.

‘You are a minx, Nurse Mount.’

‘I do my best, Nurse Busby.’

~

‘I feel bad doing this without Trix,’ Delia said later, as she sipped the last of her Manhattan, and placed the now empty cocktail shaker on the bedside table. She, Patsy, Val and Lucille (the newest midwife, with whom neither she nor her girlfriend felt they had really become properly acquainted, despite not actually having moved out before she arrived) were lolling around, pyjama-clad, in her fellow brunette’s room. They were having the suggested Girls’ Night at the convent instead of the flat, in cognisance of her cariad’s wish to keep their sanctuary separate for a while longer, and were paired up and perched facing one another on opposite beds. ‘I know I shouldn’t feel bad, because she hasn’t been joining us for drinks for ages, and she isn’t the only one not here, but she never used to disappear like this when we suggested it.’

‘She hasn’t disappeared, she’s with Christopher. Besides, even if Babs were here instead of in Birmingham, she doesn’t exactly have a brilliant relationship with booze herself, does she?’ Patsy put in, feeling she ought not to comment on anyone else’s coping mechanisms, least of all her best friend’s, and especially not before she had sought the help she had promised she would herself. ‘For drastically different reasons, the opposite end of the spectrum even, but she was sick as anything that first night and still hasn’t built up much of a tolerance.’

‘Oh, I’m glad I’m not the only one with an embarrassing “first night” story,’ Lucille said, laughing. ‘Falling flat on my face just outside the front door and being covered in snow didn’t give me much leeway to make quite the impression I’d hoped! And that was without knowing about my bladder infection.’

‘I think it suited you,’ Val offered valiantly, ‘because it set you up as having guts, which is precisely what we need around here.’

‘I’m not sure about that, but thank you for making me feel welcome. It was much appreciated after the journey I’d had,’ their newest colleague continued, running a hand through her curls as the memories caught up with her. ‘There’s a lot of pressure just getting on a ship like that, even if you know where you’re going and that people will be supportive once you get there. Obviously I was excited to come over here to train – we’d spent our whole childhoods being told about “the Mother Country”, and I was proud to call myself a British subject – but I hadn’t directly experienced the culture. So how could somewhere I’d never seen feel like “home”?’

‘I felt the same when I came on the ship to start school,’ Patsy piped up brightly, though her voice seemed almost as small as she would have been then.

The two brunettes glanced surreptitiously at each other in acknowledgement of this subtle shift in tone. Grateful for the cover of the blanket they were buried beneath (on the pretext that Patsy needed extra warmth to compensate for her reduced weight) Delia grazed her thumb gently across the underside of her girlfriend’s wrist whilst Val, still valiantly, spoke up again. ‘Hopefully you’ll get a better idea of the culture now that the weather’s changed at last. I think the long slog through the snow had an adverse effect on people’s attitudes as well as on road conditions.’

The Welshwoman nodded in agreement, glad they were on safer, if not necessarily less sensitive, ground. ‘Although some might consider me an “outsider” or “foreign”, I know it’s not nearly the same, so I’d like to extend a heartfelt apology on behalf of all bigots who share my skin colour.’

‘As would I. No offence to you, Val, since the family are old friends of yours; but I’m still utterly horrified by Mrs Stanton’s behaviour.’

‘None taken, Patsy – I am too. Mae was always vindictive, and now I know what happened with her husband I understand why, but she’s never struck me as nasty. And Marge would’ve been outraged at her.’

‘Poor Mrs Chivvers,’ was all Lucille could manage, unable to articulate the complexity of her response to her colleagues’ – no, friends’ – compassion. It was all very well for them to be “horrified”, and easy when they were offered such an obvious example at which to direct their horror, but they didn’t experience the everyday exhaustion which arose from seemingly smaller occurrences. And that was infinitely harder to endure. Nevertheless, there was a glint of something in the eyes of the two nurses opposite her that signalled their understanding, so she was grateful; and she already knew Val was on her side from her staunch support since that dreadful day.

‘Poor Mrs Chivvers indeed,’ Patsy returned, noticing the deflection in the dark brown eyes just across from hers and deciding it was now her duty to change the subject. ‘Everyone seemed to forget that it was she who had the stroke and must be struggling most to adjust to its effects.’

‘They tend to do that when there is a neurological issue,’ her beloved brunette said sharply, before blushing at the strength of her sentiment and how bitter she must seem, especially as the other two women had not been working there at the time of her accident. ‘Thank goodness Marjory has Dennis,’ she added quickly, ‘it makes such a difference if a patient’s partner is patient and supportive.’

The redhead blushed herself now, briefly dropping her gaze to her lap before realising that that was likely more suspicious, and looking straight ahead again to speak. ‘Love makes people more resilient; I reckon, with that to carry you through, it’s possible to survive anything. One might not emerge exactly as one was before, but one’s essence remains, and that’s what they loved in the first place.’

‘One’s essence does indeed remain, Nurse Mount,’ Delia declared in a deft imitation of her darling, at which everyone collapsed laughing. For once the older woman did not mind the minx’s mimicry, because it offered an escape route from the communal conversation neither of them yet felt confident enough to have, especially as Lucille seemed similar in her religiosity to Sister Winifred. In a silent signal of their respective strategy and comprehension, as the four friends giggled, two right hands (one a little larger than the other) wrapped firmly around two left wrists and rubbed soft circles on sensitive skin. Then, when they had all recovered, the shorter brunette stood up. ‘On that note, the level of our hilarity tells me we’ve had more than enough to drink tonight, so I’m going to do us all a favour and remove the evidence by dashing downstairs to wash up.’

‘I’ll come along and help,’ her fellow brunette said, jumping up too. ‘There’s a lot to carry and it isn’t fair to foist it all on you.’

‘Are you sure, Val?’ Patsy asked, clearly feeling awkward at the possibility of having to make small-talk with someone she (despite their positive professional interactions) barely knew on a personal level. ‘I can go, my legs are the longest,’ she finished, smirking.

‘You shouldn’t have added that – now I’m going on principle, Patsy.’

‘I thought you would know that after knowing me for so long…’ Delia joined in, delighted, giving her cariad’s shoulder the quickest of squeezes as she leant past her to pick up her (typical) tumbler.

‘Leave it.’

‘Pats?’

‘The glass. Leave it. Please. I’ll wash it when we get home.’

Delia nodded now, knowingly, and matched the slightly too bright smile which was now plastered on her girlfriend’s face. It was one of her father’s. ‘I won’t leave you too long, love,’ she whispered as she stood upright. ‘Come on then, Nurse Dyer, we have dishes to do,’ she called congenially as her colleague followed her out into the corridor.

Once they were alone, the two remaining women smiled sheepishly at each other. ‘I don’t think we’ve had a proper chance to talk yet, what with the extra work caused by the weather earlier in the year,’ Lucille said by way of a beginning, ‘and I must admit that was quite the shock. The combination of snow and cobbles was not one I contended with growing up.’

The redhead laughed in spite of herself, disarmed and delighted. ‘Me neither. At least, not in my early childhood. I grew up in Singapore,’ she supplied, seeing the confusion in her colleague’s eyes as she fought to reconcile her apparently perfect British accent with this new information. ‘The epitome and epicentre of our “Mother Country’s” colonial arrogance, I’m afraid,’ she added, ashamed. ‘Or at least it was until we were beaten at our own game – and those of us who had lingered just that little too long paid the price for our fathers’ foolishness and ended up interned.’

Patsy’s use of the plural in her final phrase was a deliberate form of distancing, but Lucille was well-versed enough in such tactics from her own life to understand the older midwife’s true meaning. ‘I’m sorry –’

A redheaded shake cut her off. ‘No need.’

Dark curls shook, too, as her colleague continued. ‘No, I’m sorry if what I said about travelling by ship to somewhere unknown set off any unpleasant associations for you. The reason for my journey was positive, but even that gets me panicking at times because I’d built up all these expectations in my head.’

‘And the reality has proven rather different?’

‘Precisely.’

They grinned at each other in genuine glee now, and the ginger was glad she hadn’t gone downstairs. ‘Well, if you ever need an ally in the fight against racism, count me in,’ she promised.

‘Thank you. Although I’m surprised you’d say that –’

‘Because my captors were Japanese?’ Patsy paused as she posed the question, pondering the fact that she didn’t think she’d ever used that word (“captors”) to describe them before. Delia would be proud of her progress; but she might be a little jealous that it was their new Jamaican colleague who had prompted it. ‘No – the opposite actually. When the Commandant in charge of my final camp came to tell us the war had ended, he apologised for any mistakes that had been made and said he hoped we could be friends. It was a flimsy offer, but it made me, at least, understand that we were all human. Not that that justifies what they did, but…’ she trailed off, transported.

Lucille sat and watched her for a moment, before nursing instinct overcame curiosity. ‘Patsy? Patsy, can you hear me?’ she asked, keeping her voice low as she moved to crouch in front of her colleague. ‘Am I all right to take your hand, Patsy? Nurse Mount?’

The sound of her title, with its complete lack of association to her childhood, somehow shifted Patsy back to her senses. Taking in her surroundings again, and seeing her far-too-kind new friend kneeling silently at her feet, she was mortified. ‘Oh gosh, I’m so sorry,’ she started, before a firm headshake told her to hush.

Lucille stood up, with the intention of allowing what was probably some much-needed personal space. ‘No apologies between us, thank you, Patsy. It would be neither right nor proper given what we’ve just shared. I imagine you’ll now want to have a moment to yourself before Delia gets back and you head home, though?’

‘I would. Thank you, Lucille, and I meant what I said about an ally.’

‘You too, you know, even if merely for the occasional piano duet.’

Chapter Text

When Delia woke two days later (in their blissfully bigger bed again!), it was to the sound not of their alarm but of her sweetheart playing her precious piano, which Fred had dutifully fetched and delivered the previous morning before giving them both a lift back to Nonnatus for a slightly later start. Patsy was proceeding extremely quietly, likely out of a dual desire to avoid disturbing her and avoid being disturbed herself – because, as she had said to Miss White, she did not enjoy playing in front of people. So far this morning she had been successful, choosing a combination of pieces commonplace enough for her cariad to sleep through but, as the brunette got her bearings, she could not settle on the origins or composer of the current tune. That must have been what had woken her, the Welshwoman decided, as the pretty notes pushed the final fog from her brain and prompted her to go and seek out their source; both instrument and performer.

Once she got to the lounge at last, having taken a moment or two to locate her dressing gown, she had thought she would find her partner perched on the stool in a similar state of dishabille – but the older woman was already perfectly pressed and ready for the workday ahead. After waiting at the door until the last phrase finished, not wishing to surprise her sweetheart with an unexpected interruption, she spoke softly to announce her presence before joining her girlfriend at the piano. ‘Pats?’

Bore da, Deels darling; did I wake you? Sori, cariad,’ the redhead replied, reaching up to take a small hand in her larger one as soon as they were side by side.

The brunette shook her head, smiling. ‘Dim problem, Pats, it was lovelier than any alarm. You’re up early, though, love; is everything all right?’

‘Yes, don’t worry. It was just that this needed taking in,’ the taller woman explained, gesturing timidly at her uniform. ‘You know I don’t want to be thin, don’t you?’ she added hurriedly, letting out a sharp breath of relief when the smaller woman gave a reassuring nod to coax her to continue. ‘It’s a response to everything, as you so astutely observed when my period started. I left off making changes until we had an actual weight; half denial and half practicality. Ah well, at least that’s one thing I learnt in the camps – how to alter clothing quickly and with few resources.’

‘That wasn’t all you learnt, was it, annwyl?’ the Welshwoman asked on a warm whisper, offering gentle guidance now that the subject had been opened.

‘No…’ the verbal answer was barely audible and accompanied by resolute avoidance of her gaze.

Cwtch?

‘Please. Sit on my lap, love?’

Delia was about to do as asked, knowing this was a compromise (connection without the confrontation of eye-contact), when she had an idea. ‘How’s about you sit on mine? I can understand you wanting to stay here by the piano, but that way you can lean your back against me to ground yourself if things get tough?’ She omitted the fact that her lover was easily light enough.

‘You are a marvel,’ Patsy said in genuine amazement as she jumped up so they could swap places on the stool. Then, once they were settled and her girlfriend had gathered her close to her chest, with a deep breath, she began to speak more seriously. ‘I told myself I wouldn’t talk about this until the twenty-first, like I said after we left Miss White’s, but then it was in my head when I woke up and try as I might I couldn’t put it off any longer and I just had to play it.’

Her petite partner surmised that the “it” in the sudden run-on sentence was the piece which had roused her. ‘It’s very pretty, Pats; who taught it to you?’

In the way that would seem uncharacteristic to anyone acquainted with the direct demeanour of “Nurse Mount”, but that was completely in character for those people (or that one person) who was privileged enough to glimpse the gawkiness of “Patsy”, her gorgeous girl’s response was roundabout – and all the more riveting for that fact. ‘There was an eclectic mixture of women in the camps. Much like at Nonnatus, actually. And, also like at Nonnatus, the plethora of personalities made it rather difficult to rub along at times; especially once they’d segregated us from the men. This situation was made infinitely stickier by not just the language difference but the fact that we were mostly billeted separately based on culture. So the Dutch or “Hollanders” in one area and the “English” (the general name for us Brits, the Australians and the few Americans or Canadians) in another. Of course we didn’t care, as kids, except when it came to teams for some of the early games we played; but the adults got rather uppity about it. All ridiculous, really, because I think in the end there were roughly thirty different national identities represented in our “society” – quite a few of whom were known as Eurasians because they had parents from both cultures. Like the Su family…’

The smaller woman noticed the tremor in her favourite voice as it trailed off, and wrapped her arms a little tighter around her taller partner’s waist. ‘I’ve got you, cariad. I’m with you. And their story ended well, as more of a beginning, thanks to you.’

Now Delia heard the rueful smile behind her redhead’s reply. ‘I suppose that’s another thing I learnt in the camps. At least my experience counted when it came to helping them.’

‘It much more than helped them, my love; you saved Jeanette’s life, and found dear “Nana Meg” a place where she could feel comfortable enough to spend time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’re all thriving, and would want you to be as well, I’m sure. Mrs Mahoney still has fairly regular check-ups because she’s nervous. You could always get in touch with her, you know. And them.’

‘I guess I could,’ Patsy agreed, wanting to cover for the excellent idea she had just had, and not needing to work that hard to do so because of the grief which was surfacing at the same time. So, leaning into her beloved brunette for balance, she took another breath, and began her explanation once more. ‘Anyway, there was an equally diverse range of occupations and social and religious backgrounds – from nuns and nurses,’ here she paused, amused at another hitherto unacknowledged link between present and past (but also wishing to avoid the inevitable end of the sentence), ‘to colonial wives like – like Mama –’ She broke off completely now, overwhelmed by unspoken anguish instead of amusement.

Oh no.

Her words were wavering again. She had thought she could do this today, she had wanted to do this today, but maybe it was too much too soon. It wasn’t even about Mama, at least not directly, so the mere mention of her ought not to be bothersome. It had been almost nineteen years since that particular day, and even this other one was already eighteen years ago, so she should be fine.

Shouldn’t she!?

After all, this wasn’t her most present pain at the moment. It was everything else. But then, it had only been five months since Papa had “passed away”. That was such an awful saying, although she used it out of respect for other people’s reticence around the reality – but he was dead, damn it!

They all were.

Papa.

Mama.

Grace.

And Miss –

No. No. No. This was not helpful for helping Delia understand.

Breathe, she begged herself, breathe. Please, breathe. You sat by the piano for a reason, don’t let yourself lose it here, because then it’ll stop being a safe space. Tears are fine, but not if they retrigger things. Try and play, perhaps? You left the lid open…

So she did, starting again at the beginning, and praying (as was only, and poignantly, apt) that its composer would be proud.

Hearing her gorgeous girl’s gasps for air, and prevented as she was from gauging her expression, Delia wanted to intervene – but then the redhead reached out for the keys to play that simple yet soothing song again, so the brunette was content to hold back. Only when she had cycled through it in full for a second time did the Welshwoman whisper three words. ‘All right, annwyl?’  

‘I think so, thank you. Do you remember the piano I mentioned to Miss White?’

The brunette smiled against her love’s ginger hair at last. This was better; a semblance of the dialogue they had deliberately employed for that other difficult discussion in Hyde Park. ‘The one which was frequently out of tune because it lived outside?’

‘Yes; although I must confess that was a bit of a fib – it actually lived in one of the houses in our first segregated camp. That house was occupied mostly by Australian Nurses. I think some of them even slept on it because it was more comfortable than the floor.’

The Welshwoman was glad her gorgeous girl could not see her grimace at that final sentence, and made a special effort to smooth over her speech as she asked another question. ‘Oh, so they let you use it?’

‘No, but they had sing-along evenings, and that gave some of the other women ideas. In those early days –’

Here Patsy broke off, briefly pondering whether or not it was necessary to clarify that those “early days” had in fact stretched to seventeen months, before deciding it was not and attempting to segue smoothly back into the flow of her explanation. Deflection could be duplicated, Delia.

‘In those early days, there was a discussion about the fact that the children – myself included – were missing school, which, aside from anything else, would provide some much needed structure. This was before things got really strict. Anyway,’ she said, stopping to source strength through a sigh, ‘the Brits had a few teachers as well as some women who were just keen to help. (Being in the Juniors, I was taught by Mrs Colley and Mrs Ward, although I only mention them by name because it’s an illustration of my memory and that’s what you’re asking about.) It also, I suppose, makes my remembering another name so well seem a tad less striking, although it isn’t really. I remember it because its owner was remarkable. Along with all the other occupations I’ve mentioned thus far – and I realise that’s quite a string – there were some missionaries, and chief among them was Miss Dryburgh. Her first name was Margaret but she commanded such respect that everyone referred to her in formal terms. Perhaps now you’ll understand my tendency to defer like that, Deels?’

Her smaller sweetheart laughed into the nape of her neck. ‘Perhaps, Pats. You make her sound almost as formidable as Phyllis – or, I should say, “Nurse Crane”.’

Her ginger girlfriend giggled, and they both relished the release. ‘Oh, she was very like Phyllis, right down to the northern accent, and she’d trained as both a teacher and a nurse prior to taking up mission work. So she served in a sort of supervisory role in the makeshift school – and it was in that capacity that we got talking about music. I still don’t quite understand what it was that drew her to me. I wasn’t in the least bit devout, though I did try for some time for her sake. Goodness me, I’m rambling; why on earth aren’t you stopping me, annwyl?’

‘I love listening to your “rambles”, my love,’ was the earnest and honest reply – at which the reticent redhead barked out a disbelieving laugh.

‘Very well, Welshie. I’ll keep going, then, shall I?’

‘Please do, my darling.’

‘It turned out we had a mutual fascination with, and ability for, memorising. In general, but mostly in relation to music. We were also both more inclined to the lower register of the female vocal range. Even at that age, if I wasn’t quite an alto, she could tell I’d at least be a mezzo-soprano. That understanding gave me confidence, having heard Grace and Mama way up in the heights from the earliest moment my sweet little sister could sustain a simple harmony. So she sort of took me under her wing, again much like Phyllis. But I digress, so I’m going to compress a little, because there’s a point at which an endearing level of detail becomes annoying.’

Now it was Delia’s turn to chuckle at her cariad’s candour. ‘Whatever works, honestly, annwyl.’

The redhead relaxed, relieved. ‘The children sang carols that first Christmas, which was both bizarre and lovely for us to do, mostly because it functioned as a marker of how tolerant things were – especially when they didn’t stop us singing to the men’s working party. We even had a youth club for a while, which means I must ‘fess up to another fib: I know Twelfth Night from memory, too, as it was put on. I didn’t have a big part, but I learnt everyone’s lines so I could prompt where necessary. I was loath to tell you that first day, love, because you were just brimming over with joy and I had no desire to temper that. It’s why I cried so much when you recited the speech. Can you ever forgive me?’

The brunette brimmed over with joy now, as well, her earlier chuckle eclipsed by the laugh she let out; although she still muffled it slightly in her taller partner’s hair. ‘Of course, cariad, but keep going. Daliwch ati.’

‘All right. Well, over the next few months –’ Patsy paused, hoping that understatement would once again be, if not unnoticed, then ignored, ‘Miss Dryburgh revealed herself to have a talent for poetry on top of practically perfect recall, by writing some music and lyrics for the Sunday services held in “Garage Nine”, where she lived. One of those songs was the piece I’ve been playing today. It’s called “The Captives’ Hymn” and has wonderful words too. I’ll sing it to you on the condition you won’t let anyone else hear.’

Her sweetheart nodded solemnly into her shoulder; they were alone, after all. ‘It’s just us here, my love.’

Once Patsy had played, and now sung, through the piece a third time, she leant back on her beloved for some balance – but was soon compelled to speak again. ‘That premiered in our primitive surroundings in the July of 1942, but was just one of her many contributions, and what the older women would probably have considered her most impressive achievement was still to come. In the autumn of the following year, we moved to the second segregated camp, once it had been vacated by the men. It was vile, so I’ll skip talking about the specifics now, because this is convoluted enough and I want to get to the end. Anyway, at some point Miss Dryburgh became friendly with Mrs Chambers (or Norah, as I knew her, because she was a colonial wife like Mama). She had been a violin student at the Royal Academy of Music in her youth, playing in the orchestra, and was similarly enthusiastic about my “potential”. So much so that she wanted me to apply for piano. But that was all fantasy, and afterwards everything was too raw, but Papa said he’d never heard of anything so absurd. That would’ve put paid to even the tiniest pretentions I might’ve had, but by then I knew I wanted to nurse, anyway. Gosh, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that word this morning…’ she trailed off, tired out.

The brunette jumped into the break, and willingly, too. ‘We can stop now if you want, my love.’

‘No, I need to finish. But you could ask me questions?’

‘All right, annwyl. What arose from the friendship between Miss Dryburgh and Mrs Chambers?’

‘A vocal orchestra.’

Her little love was lost, as she had known she would be. ‘Sori, cariad; I don’t think I heard you correctly. I thought you said “a vocal orchestra”?’

Patsy smirked, unseen. ‘I did. They transcribed the scores of famous orchestral pieces – from memory – and transposed them to be suitable for female voices in place of instruments. They thought (rightly) that it would help the cause of intercultural communication, as music without words is a universal language. It was brilliant. Us younger kids were considered too little to join in (and I’m unashamed to admit that Grace and I were mighty envious of the teenagers, who were allowed, especially because Mama was among the most ardent members when she was well enough to leave her balai-balai and assemble under the roof of the pendopo). There are two more words for you, my love,’ she teased, knowing her petite partner prized each new phrase she offered as if it were a pearl. ‘They were the sleeping platforms and our gathering place – respectively – in Palembang, at any rate. But back to the music; it was magical merely to listen. I’m sure I’ll never hear the “Largo” from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” without thinking back to those concerts.’

‘Oh, cariad,’ Delia put in, in the pause. ‘No wonder you struggle to sing now.’

A redheaded nod of resignation. ‘Especially as the concerts were swiftly curtailed once members started dying off in greater numbers than could be easily replaced,’ the taller woman whispered dryly. ‘Still, it kept us going. She – Miss Dryburgh – kept us going. She wasn’t quite a friend, I worshipped her too much, but she was a role model. That’s why I was so devastated when she died, too, having made it to what eventually turned out to be our final camp. Barely half a year after both Mama and Grace; on the twenty-first of April 1945.’

The brunette’s breath caught at that subtle revelation. ‘That’s why you wanted to wait until then to tell me about all this?’ she asked, drawing her darling even closer to her chest.

‘Mmhm,’ Patsy mumbled, pensive and unsure if she could get over the final hurdle. ‘She was all I had left, having left them somewhere on Banka before we were shipped back to Sumatra, so watching her give up – with the knowledge that even her most fervent of faiths was no use against the ultimate price of our captivity – almost destroyed me along with her. It certainly shattered whatever remained of my belief, which had been meagre to begin with. Because, by then, we hadn’t seen the men for nigh on two years. So I had neither the vaguest clue where Papa might be nor how I would face him if I ever found out whether he’d even survived. That’s when I sought solace in the robin. I felt so alone, and guilty for feeling alone when I should’ve been grateful to be alive, and my awful abstract noun of a name seemed to mock me more with every second of solitude. I tried to do her justice, reciting the song like a psalm instead of the hymn it professed to be – but – I – couldn’t –’

The redhead felt her voice crack, but resolutely refused to cry, so she gulped for air as she had at the beginning of this exhausting linguistic endeavour. Delia discerned this difficulty. ‘All right, annwyl?’

‘Yes. I just need to swallow it back down again. I should be able to put it all behind me now – it’s been almost twenty years.’

‘You need to do no such thing,’ her sweetheart said softly. ‘That’s what’s stopped you from processing everything properly before now.’

There was a genuine curiosity in the ginger’s tone as she replied. ‘You think so, Deels?’

‘I do, Pats. Actually, do you think you could write out the three vocal parts of that prayer?’

‘Of course. Why?’

‘Well, I know you said you didn’t want anyone else to hear you sing it, but it’s so beautiful, and the twenty-first is this Sunday. I think Sister Julienne would be thrilled to use it for one of the hymns at a special Evensong in Miss Dryburgh’s honour.’

‘I’m not standing up there on my own –’ Patsy protested, seemingly nonetheless satisfied with the concept of some sort of memorial. Delia was unsurprised; she put others perennially before herself, after all.

‘No, love, you couldn’t. It’s in three parts – but Lucille and I could sing it with you. Didn’t you say she said she’d be up for a duet?’

‘On the piano,’ was the pedantic, but only slightly petulant response.

‘Don’t get stuck on semantics, darling. Let’s at least ask her at lunch today?’

‘You really are belligerent, Nurse Busby. But beautifully so.’

~

When they did consult their new colleague later she was, naturally, thrilled. Patsy was at once delighted and distraught, having privately hoped that Lucille would have been too nervous herself, but she quickly found consolation in the prospect of partnering up on a piece which was personally significant for the soprano. That, an old folk tune, would come first (following a concurrent chat with Sister Julienne, who was equally amenable). So the tall young woman could stop feeling tiny and start being tentatively excited. Respectfully, of course. Now she had to make it through the rest of that day, all of Saturday, and most of Sunday. She was so very grateful to be on shift for the majority of that time, and just prayed – as had apparently become her default – that she could sit through the spoken parts of the service.

In order to distract her, Delia tempted both their taste buds with two evening meals designed precisely to nourish and nurture: a soothing variant of her Mam’s cawl recipe, which went down very well, and the surprise of fish and chips smothered in as much vinegar as the owner of their favourite place would part with. The smaller woman was keenly aware that the way to sweeten her sweetheart was to allow her free reign over that sour condiment – and, quite frankly, if Patsy was happy to eat, she would never dream of complaining about its tartness. On Sunday they would stay for supper with their found family.

~

The designated day, or rather evening, eventually arrived – simultaneously too slowly and too soon, as was the way with such things. Not simply because of the singing, either, but it was useful to have that as a proxy on which to project eighteen years of pent-up emotion. Delia was so proud of “her Pats”, and under no illusion about how difficult this would be, but equally conscious of how crucial it might prove in providing her with another much-needed pathway. So, sitting beside her beloved in one of the pews of a chapel of such secret significance for them both, the Welshwoman was powerless to resist the cover and call of such enforced proximity and permitted herself the smallest squeeze of the shaky hand hovering near her own. Her girlfriend grinned at her in gratitude, and she was so stunned that she almost missed the beginning of proceedings.

‘Blasphemous as ever, then, Busby,’ Patsy purred under her breath. ‘Were you not taught the value of appearing patiently attentive in such situations?’

Studiously ignoring her sweetheart’s sarcasm, the brunette stared blankly across the aisle, amazed (yet also not) by the number of people who had elected to attend – Trixie and Phyllis chief among them. Then she had no choice but to take her older (and, in this case, wiser) partner’s advice as they mumbled their way through the various responses in advance of the first hymn. That was reached sooner than she had realised it would be (having conveniently forgotten the structure of the service the moment her Mam had allowed her to skip it), which meant she scarcely had the chance to wish her love luck before Patsy was up and walking to join Lucille. Delia felt guilty for a few seconds – then her girlfriend started to sing, her alto line blending beautifully with the bright soprano of their supposedly more confident colleague, and all emotion other than adoration faded into insignificance. Patsy, meanwhile, was glad they were beginning (aptly) a capella, because she would have struggled to sight-read through the tears which were threatening at the tune and the topic:

I am a poor, wayfaring stranger,

Travelling through this world of woe,

But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger

In that bright land to which I go.

 

I’m going there to meet my mother,

I’m going there no more to roam,

I’m just a-going over Jordan,

I’m just a-going over home.

 

And though dark clouds may gather ’round me,

And though my way is rough and steep,

Still I can see gold fields before me

Where all the saints their vigils keep.

 

I’m going there to meet my father,

I’m going there no more to roam,

I’m just a-going over Jordan,

I’m just a-going over home.

As she sang, in thrall to the complex simplicity of the music and its motifs, she thought about what they meant, and concluded that she still found solace in the sentiments expressed, for all she might (would) argue the accuracy of the faith on which they were founded. Not least because she had an acute appreciation of the kind of circumstances in which they were helpful. Circumstances she would by no means have chosen, nor care to repeat, but from whence she had gleaned lessons she could, if not exactly value, then put to practical use. Circumstances, indeed, which informed the writing of the song serving as her contribution as much as those inspiring the original singers of Lucille’s. Consequently, the period between the two passed by in something of a blur, and before long she was up again, this time sandwiched between Lucille and her sweetheart. This was not strictly a helpful formation in terms of the music (she should have been at the end) but it was a necessary concession for moral support. Support that only grew as they began to sing again, splitting the first three verses into solo sections – starting with Lucille, the strongest in both voice and faith:

Father, in captivity,
We would lift our prayers to Thee,
Keep us ever in Thy love,
Grant that daily we may prove
Those who place their trust in Thee
More than conquerors may be.

Naturally, Patsy took the next, peppered as it was with her kindred spirit abstract nouns:

Give us patience to endure,
Keep our hearts serene and pure,
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own Thy will,
Be we free or captives still.

And for the most patriotic part, there was no better choice than her “Welsh Wonder”:

For our country we would pray,
In this hour be Thou her stay,
Pride and sinfulness forgive,
Teach her by Thy laws to live,
By Thy grace may all men see
That true greatness comes from Thee.

Then, for the fourth and fifth, they had planned to end together, harmonising as the score said to do – but, unbeknownst to the eldest of the trio, the other two had copied out the lyrics and left them surreptitiously spaced out among the listeners, who all began to sing in dual homage to “Miss Dryburgh” and “Nurse Mount”:

For our loved ones we would pray,
Be their guardian night and day,
From all danger keep them free,
Banish all anxiety,
May they trust us to Thy care,
Know that Thou our pains dost share.

 May the day of freedom dawn,
Peace and justice be reborn,
Grant that nations loving Thee
O’er the world may brothers be,
Cleansed by suffering, know rebirth,
See Thy kingdom come on earth.

After that, usual practice was permissibly abandoned, because the majority of the congregation was too choked to speak, never mind sing – so all those who wished to stay trooped across to supper and solidarity.

~

Later, a far smaller grouping (a pair, in fact) trooped home. Once Patsy had fumbled with the keys – a deliberate attempt to reassert some semblance of external control over the internal chaos currently rioting, literally viscerally, in her viscera – and they had opened and shut their front door, the taller woman blocked her back against it. Reflexively checking in with the state of play, her petite partner asked the question which they both felt had punctuated all of their interactions over the last three days. ‘All right, annwyl?’

‘Not really, no. Today was lovely and I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful because I am and I know it was supposed to be helpful in making a move towards reclaiming singing specifically as well as music in general but all it’s actually made me think about is how I’m still here and they aren’t and I don’t understand why that’s allowed and why I deserved to live and they didn’t and they’re all dead Deels and you had nearly died and then I didn’t write before I got on the ship because I didn’t believe I was worth waiting for –’

That second sentence, completely unpunctuated, rushed out as an elongated sob. Knowing that the wall of words neither warranted nor asked for a verbal response, the Welshwoman simply took a trembling right hand in her own and, after seeking and receiving a numb nod in consent, led her choked cariad through to the lounge for a cwtch on the couch. Then, holding her shuddering sweetheart as tightly as if she were a rope to moor the redhead’s raft amidst the stormy seas of her mourning (which, she understood, stung as much as saltwater once had on her younger self’s ulcerated mouth, even after the intervening years spent on supposedly firm land), Delia said nothing.

They sat, still and stalwart, for what seemed like the entire length of the tribute from whence they had just returned; and indeed it probably was, because the pieces put together had only just exceeded five minutes. Eventually, however, the sobs softened to sniffles – and the brunette was well-versed enough in her love’s body language to predict that the redhead would soon try to use spoken language and apologise. She therefore pre-empted this possibility with some of her usual placatory phrases. ‘All right, annwyl. I’ve got you. I’m here. I’m here. I hear. I’m here. I’m here.’

This strategy was successful and so, instead of groans, her girlfriend’s first utterance was a giggle. ‘You sound like a stuck record, sweetheart,’ she said quietly as she sat up a little, ‘but I suppose I do too. Honestly, I’m sure I never used to cry this much. I think I must’ve cried more in the past five months than I had in my whole life before that. I’ve certainly wasted more mascara than I can ever remember. Thank goodness I left it off today.’ She paused to flash a rueful grin as she returned to more serious matters. ‘I also think I’m finally forced to admit that you were right, my love.’

‘Oh?’ The Welshwoman’s surprise at her annwyl’s admission was genuine – not least because she had no clue about the context. ‘In what way?’

‘In that I need to take some time off. We can’t keep ‘phoning up to cancel our shifts if we can’t make it in – it isn’t fair, either for our patients or our colleagues – and my outburst just now is clear evidence that I’m carrying enough guilt personally without adding that on top professionally. However much I might wish to hide the cracks in my façade, the fact of the matter is they’re there for anyone to see, should they care to look.’

The redhead regarded the brunette warily, even as she beamed – from pride rather than triumph. ‘Da iawn, darling; I knew you’d get there eventually.’

Patsy feigned affront. ‘You needn’t look so smug,’ she said with a playful push. ‘I’m hurt that you held my capacity for making sensible decisions in such a questionable light. Hurt, I tell you. I’ll have you know I’ve been arranging my district patients in order that self-care may be foremost in my priorities, Deels.’

Delia laughed aloud. ‘That couldn’t be further from the truth, Pats. I’m not smug. Merely pleased that I was able to shove myself and my ego out of the way. You are more than capable of making sensible decisions, my love. Eminently capable, in fact. It was I who was incapable of remembering that, which was a bit rich really, given my own frustration after my accident.’

This tickled the taller woman, and she laughed aloud, too. ‘Very well, Welshie,’ she conceded once she calmed down from this opposite extreme of emotion. ‘That’s settled then, is it?’

‘’Tis indeed,’ the smaller woman demurred, and they both drifted for a moment, recalling a similarly spoken agreement about surnames which had resulted in equal mutual satisfaction. ‘We’ll talk to Sister Julienne tomorrow, shall we?’ Delia asked eventually with a soft smile.

‘Yes, let’s. But what on earth shall we do now? I’m exhausted but wide awake, and it’s only just gone eight.’

In answer, her girlfriend shifted their position slightly so she could get up from the sofa. Then, walking to the other side of the room, she turned around, grinning like a schoolgirl. ‘Well, annwyl, as you’ve been so good at accommodating my preferred method of communication this evening and having a constructive conversation, it feels only fair for me to accommodate one of yours. So, speaking of stuck records,’ she stopped, spinning on her heel again to thumb through their seemingly ever-increasing pile of LPs, searching for a particular album she had hidden among the rest. Finding it at last, she slipped it out of its sleeve, deliberately obscuring her taller-but-seated partner’s view as she placed it on the turntable and shifted the stylus so it would start on the second song. ‘Dance with me, my darling?’ she asked coyly.

Patsy pushed up off the couch to comply with her cariad’s request, and was in her arms before the first strum of what turned out to be a very short guitar introduction, but the initial, unaccompanied, words made her nearly wobble over backwards with laughter. ‘The world is treating me bad… Misery!’ Delia caught her with her left hand whilst putting the index finger of her right to her lips; a silent signal to keep listening as the guitar kicked in again. ‘I’m the kind of guy / Who never used to cry, / The world is treating me bad… / Misery!

Shaking her head at her sweetheart’s silliness, Patsy put her petite partner out to arm’s length to gaze at her in admiring annoyance. ‘You are an utter fool,’ she said sternly, although her grin gave her away. ‘Since when do women of our advanced age listen to The Beatles, Busby?’

‘Since Tim told me he thought you’d like it, actually. He says it makes him feel better when he’s missing his Mam but doesn’t want to talk about it in case it upsets Shelagh. It’s distant enough not to cause comment but still to offer an outlet.’

Patsy’s mouth fell open. ‘Oh, poor thing,’ she said, so softly that the continuing music almost covered her speech. ‘I hope you told him that I’m always happy to talk?’

‘Of course, cariad. I think this might’ve been his way of starting that conversation…’

‘He always was a clever kid.’

‘That he was, love. But this is about you – and there’s another song on here, just about to come up, which says what I want to say.’

‘“Twist and Shout”?’ her sweetheart suggested, smirking. ‘Or “Please Please Me”?’

Delia’s mouth fell open now. ‘You do know the album, you minx!’

The taller woman had the grace to blush and look sheepish. ‘Sori, cariad,’ she purred. ‘I was going to get it for your birthday, because I heard “PS I Love You” on the B-Side of “Love Me Do” not long after I got back, which felt significant…and then the full LP was released in March. But when I found it in the record shop it was only on mono, so I went for Ferrier inst–’

A chuckle from the younger woman cut her off. ‘You snob, Patience Elizabeth Mount.’

‘Isn’t that why you love me?’ the referenced redhead enquired meekly.

‘Well, actually, since you “Ask Me Why”, annwyl,’ her beloved brunette answered as she danced them closer to the player to skip to the sixth song. Then, once it started, she tucked her lover’s locks behind her ear before bringing the taller woman’s head down to her shoulder. ‘Listen, love,’ she whispered as she rocked them back and forth.

Patsy presumed the relevant lines were in the first verse:

I love you ‘cause you tell me things I want to know

And it’s true that it really only goes to show

That I know that I, I, I, I

Should never, never, never be blue

However, whilst this was a sentiment she appreciated very much (especially today), for the older woman the second verse, followed by the first couplet of one of the repeated refrains, struck far closer to home. But hopefully Delia’s choice of track signalled that she was beginning to comprehend that.

 'Now you're mine, my happiness still makes me cry
And in time, you'll understand the reason why
If I cry, it's not because I'm sad
But you're the only love that I've ever had

I can't believe it's happened to me
I can't conceive of any more misery’

And it seemed she was, because, when they reached that section of the song, the Welshwoman started whispering again. ‘I can’t promise a complete lack of misery, my love, and I know you’d think me foolish if I tried. So what I will say, cariad, is that we can face the moments there are together; and that you deserve every ounce of the joy alongside them, too.’

As was unsurprising in the circumstances, Patsy could find no words of her own with which to respond adequately. This evening, though, she was being actively encouraged to use other people’s, so she did – beginning to sing softly as she now danced them over to flip the side, not really fancying dwelling on the implications of song seven, for all she had felt able to joke about the title it shared with the album. Instead, therefore, she went with song eleven, hoping the combination of her voice and its lyrics would convey just how much every element of the past three days had meant.

Listen

Do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell? Woah oh, oh

 

Closer

Let me whisper in your ear

Say the words you long to hear

I’m in love with you

I’ve known the secret for a week or two –

Here she was helpless to hold back a giggle at the understatement, so she paused briefly, but she remained resolved to finish (if only because her “snobbery” insisted she finish in order to resolve the musical phrase). Before she could, though, her beloved brunette began herself; this song having apparently been on her mind as well.

Nobody knows, just we two…

Rather than being rankled, the redhead was thrilled, and gave her girlfriend a gleeful grin. She liked to think Miss Dryburgh would approve of their joint harmonic gesture on her anniversary, even if she would probably have looked (more than) a little askance at their particular kind of female solidarity. Give us Patience to endure, indeed – along with all the other abstract nouns her former mentor had packed into the hymn for her fellow captives’ use in self-preservation. Both she and Delia would need them tomorrow when they talked to Sister Julienne; although the connection reminded her that their employer was yet another benign and benevolent religious figure in her life.

So, as she danced with her “darling Deels”, the taller woman pressed the smallest of kisses to her petite partner’s shoulder (taking care not to leave the residue of lipstick on her uniform), and thanked heavens (of a scientific, observable, yet still extremely special sort) for all the people who were prepared to hold her up when she barely had the strength to stand – literally as much as figuratively, now as much as then, and in spiritual as much as physical presence.

She would – could – never take their guidance for granted, and (with their help) she was determined to try and get up, to feel her own feet firmly underneath her once again.

Chapter Text

‘Delia? You’ve been in there a while; is everything all right?’ No answer. ‘Delia? Deels?’ Patsy was nervous about using her girlfriend’s nickname in the passage of the convent they now both called home, especially outside the bathroom, but she was more nervous about the lack of response to the initial use of her full first name. Nursing instinct, and the caution arising from that, overcame the caution around concealing their relationship. After all, as Delia herself had said many times about many different aspects of her concern, they were close friends before they had been anything else – and close friends were permitted all kinds of concessions when it came to communication. Even the less formal register appeared to be having no effect, however. ‘Deels?’

Still no answer.

‘Deels? I’m going to try the door in the hopes that it’s unlocked, all right?’

Despite verbalising her intention, the redhead was reticent to follow through on her words. This felt like an extreme intrusion on her petite partner’s privacy, particularly as that privacy had been so hard (and so recently) won. If anyone understood how exposing an audience during bathing and dressing could be, it was Patsy. On so many levels. (Not that Delia knew that, of course, because they had never discussed more than the surface of what camp life had meant. Deliberately.) Still, something was wrong; something resulting either from the after-effects of her accident or a symptom similar to the older woman’s own experience of absences.

Oh no. Was her sweetheart being sick?

Right. That settled it. She was going in, if she could.

Upon trying the handle and finding it (thankfully) unlocked, she eased the door open as quietly as possible, and stepped swiftly inside the room – to see Delia, dressed and ready for the day, doubled over at the sink. Her heart contracting at the sight, she nevertheless said nothing whilst she locked them in for security, instead covering the distance between the door and her darling in just two of the short strides her long legs allowed. Only when they were close enough for whispers did she trust herself to speak. ‘All right, my love, I’m here. Shall I move your hair? Your bun’s slipped a bit.’

Delia raised her right hand and, as the redhead shifted her beloved brunette’s tresses out of harm’s way, she pondered how easily and readily they reversed roles. Was this what her wise Welshwoman meant when she rejoiced at the reciprocal nature of their relationship? She supposed so; but there remained a niggle in the recesses of her mind telling her that even this was not enough. Would never be enough. It certainly had not been enough to save her sweetheart from the cruel kiss of concrete against her skull as her head met the road on a borrowed bike. Her borrowed bike. How could she have been so rash!?  She had seen how wobbly the younger woman was as they had made their way to the flat the previous day to clean it. They had both laughed at the number of pedestrians who had only narrowly avoided being run over. Oh, how often she had cursed the inadequacy of technology in the intervening months since then. Chiefly her own complacent trust in clocks and their ability to keep accurate time – a trust she had thought beaten out of her (literally) long ago after yet again arriving a scant minute late to one of the increasingly irrational tenko summons. Not that Delia knew about that, either…

Not that Delia knew much about anything at this point in proceedings.

Get a move on, Nurse Mount, she scolded herself silently. Stop woolgathering and feeling woebegone, put your own hard won wisdom to work, and help your better half with her sickness.

‘All right, my love,’ she whispered again, ‘I’m going to take a leaf out of your book and rub your back. Acceptable?’

A raised right hand. Acceptable.

‘All right,’ she purred, tracing soothing circles over the strong but shaking muscles of the smaller woman’s shoulders. ‘You’re all right. I’ve got you, my darling, and I won’t let go. I’m here, and I’ll stay the course with you. Try the tiniest of breaths for me?’ Her girlfriend gave a small gasp. ‘That’s it. Now a slightly deeper one, Deels?’ A pause as her petite partner processed and then complied. ‘Wonderful. You are wonderful. One more? Yes, that’s it. Brilliant breathing, Busby.’ Now there were giggles instead of gasps. ‘Oh, love, don’t laugh – I shouldn’t have said that. How silly of me. Keep concentrating on your breath. In, out, in, out. Better.’

Delia did as asked, focussing solely on regulating the flow of air around her body, and Patsy fell silent as this stubborn symptom started to peter out. She was acutely aware of how awful it felt to come back to one’s senses after an episode of this kind, and wanted to smooth her sweetheart’s transition as much as she feasibly could. To offer a quiet caress was the epitome of care and compassion in moments such as these. Only when her little love was able to raise her head and meet her gaze in the mirror did she check in verbally. ‘All right?’

The brunette’s head dipped again briefly in a timid nod. ‘I think so,’ she whispered, her accent strengthened by combined emotional and physical exhaustion; so much so that she next resorted to Welsh. ‘Sori, cariad,’ she said sincerely as she stood up. ‘I heard you calling but couldn’t answer. I understand what it feels like for you, now, my love.’   

The redhead grinned ruefully at her girlfriend, but her expression belied her concern. ‘I can’t say I’m particularly pleased at that, Deels; what happened?’

‘Well,’ her sweetheart started sheepishly, ‘it’s all the mirror’s fault. I was washing my face, the light caught slightly funny, and for a split second I didn’t recognise myself. The impact of that, plus the panic which immediately reared its head at the thought that I might be relapsing, was apparently enough to make me want to puke. I’ve decided I no longer like August and its pre-autumn trickery.’

‘Oh, you poor poppet. Come cwtch,’ Patsy purred, trying to hide her perturbation.

‘“Poppet!?”’ Delia repeated disdainfully, even as she cuddled as close as she could into her taller partner’s proffered embrace. ‘I think you spent rather too much time in the company of a certain Beatrix Franklin whilst I was convalescing, cariad.’

Her girlfriend giggled, and the younger woman was glad she had successfully deflected her older sweetheart’s protective worry. This was nothing in comparison to the early days, after all, and she had no intention of letting her love into those secrets. Trauma had a way of teaching one to be less open – a fact she now knew from personal experience as well as by proxy through Patsy’s.

‘Well,’ the referenced redhead eventually replied, ‘I am glad, Nurse Busby, that our paired professional knowledge was able to free you from your sickness this morning. There, love,’ she finished, smirking, ‘is that register more palatable to you?’

‘Much, Nurse Mount, thank you,’ the brunette answered in a low voice, beaming. ‘I would kiss you, but you’d probably prefer me to brush my teeth first.’

‘I would, yes,’ her girlfriend said, grimacing exaggeratedly and stepping away from their hug with a horrified laugh. ‘But then I’ll happily reconvene in your room before we head downstairs. I’ve a gift to give you.’

‘In August? Whatever for?’

Patsy simply tapped her nose. ‘I can’t quite tell you yet, my love. Not until we’re both a bit more settled. Maybe when our next anniversary comes around, all right?’

Delia was nonplussed, but nevertheless nodded as her sweetheart sidled out, and then (having brushed her teeth more thoroughly than ever before in her life) raced to follow. When she reached their destination, her darling was already inside, holding out a pristine copy of the (fairly recently-released) two-record album “The Nat King Cole Story”. ‘Pats –’ the smaller woman started, but fell silent at the sight of a firm headshake.

‘So many of these songs mean so much to us that I thought it’d be practical to have them all in one place. Not to mention nice,’ the taller woman started timidly, feeling decidedly gauche. It was still a surprise to have her beloved brunette back, and sometimes she found all of the emotions she experienced in her presence even more overwhelming than when they had first admitted their mutual affection. ‘Anyway,’ she continued, colouring under her petite partner’s persistent curiosity, ‘as I say, lots of these are important, but tonight I’d like us to listen to the seventh song on the first record. Hopefully the music will make up for the mystery for now.’

~

‘Pats? You’ve been in there a while; is everything all right, annwyl?’ No answer. ‘Pats? Patsy?’ Delia had become so comfortable in the freedom the flat afforded her to use her sweetheart’s shorter nickname that uttering its slightly longer form felt odd, but it might serve as a signal to the redhead to respond. When even that proved unsuccessful, however, she began to get desperate out of a combination of professional and personal concern. ‘Patsy?’ she called again, quietly, through the wooden panels of their bathroom door.

Still no answer.

‘Pats, love, I’m going to try the handle on the off-chance you’ve left it unlocked. I think you might be being sick.’

The Welshwoman was wary of entering without permission, knowing how highly her partner valued her privacy (and being well aware herself of how awkward even necessary and unavoidable attention could feel), but there were additional causes for concern around this particular symptom these days. Her cariad could spare neither the nutrients nor the energy it would cost – which thought yet again led Delia to curse her own carelessness in not noticing quite how much weight she had lost until they had very definitely passed the point of possibly salvaging something close to reasonable for her height. Had passed the point of possible salvation? No, that was too religious for either of their comfort; but then they would need to follow a regime underpinned with quasi-religiosity in order to get her strength back. Couched in covert coaxing, of course, because the redhead would baulk (not to mention retch) at anything beyond that. But the brunette could tell that what they were beyond was messing about. For all her reassurance over the past five days, since they had discovered what they were dealing with, she had known that any hopes of maintaining weight would have to be rapidly replaced with concerted efforts to gain it – and, as a consequence, any extra strain would simply have to stop.

Right. That settled it. There was no room for further rumination. She was going in, if she could.

Finding the door (blessedly) unlocked, she stepped inside, giving silent thanks as she did so that they now lived with fewer people from whom there was need to shy away. None, in fact; although she was prevented from a chuckle at the potential pun that realisation might have prompted by the sight of her “precious Pats” still in her dressing gown and bent over the basin. It being expected made it no easier to bear.

Still, she had a duty to do, and so, performing the usual balance of “concerned partner” and “committed professional” which had almost become automatic over these past five months – having had its foundations laid over the last five years – she practically pole-vaulted to the side of the sink. Or at least that was how it felt. Then, to prevent a startle, she spoke softly. ‘All right, annwyl, I’m here now – would it help if I rubbed your back? Let go of your hair for me, my love?’

The redhead complied, raising her right hand to confirm that she would welcome the support, and Delia swept her gorgeous girl’s long (and therefore a little unwieldy) locks out of danger. Then, just as she had done on many a previous morning such as this, she began to stroke the pair of perfectly-formed but shivering shoulders beneath her palm in a soothing caress. ‘All right, annwyl,’ she crooned. ‘You’re all right. I’m here, I’m holding on, and I’ll hold you through. Take a small breath for me?’ Patsy puffed out a tiny bit of air. ‘Brilliant. And another, bigger, one?’ Delia felt her darling’s diaphragm engage at last – and her own heart swell with delight. ‘One more for me, Nurse Mount? Da iawn, cariad, daliwch ati.’ The Welsh words seemed to do the final trick, and the redhead began to regulate her breath without reminders. ‘Better?’ her beloved brunette asked eventually, as she raised her gaze so their eyes met in the mirror.

‘Better, Nurse Busby, thank you,’ the ginger said with a ginger grin.

Dim problem, Pats,’ her petite partner replied, relieved at how relatively quickly they had resolved things by working together. ‘What happened, though? Are you nervous about today? Did you have a nightmare and I missed it, my love?’

‘No. On both counts. It actually only started once I got in here. Do you remember that morning in the August after your accident, Deels?’

Her girlfriend groaned, nodding. ‘How could I forget, even with my still-unreliable recall?’

Patsy reached over her shoulder to give the smaller woman’s hand a steadying squeeze. ‘I’m sorry I mentioned it. I merely wished to offer a comparison – because it was the mirror’s fault now, for me, as well.’

The steadying squeeze now came in the opposite direction. ‘Oh?’

‘“Oh” indeed,’ was the wry repetition. ‘I – I – I – Oh, for pity’s sake, Patience; pull yourself together!’

‘It’s all right, annwyl.’

‘No – it’s not – I look like her – them – Near the end, I mean – Big blue eyes and not much else.’

Delia audibly swallowed as she digested this development. ‘Oh, cariad,’ she choked out eventually, pulling the older woman flush to her body as though that would cause the comfort to seep through to her younger self.

The gesture gave her girlfriend the strength to start strategising. ‘I need to have some breakfast. But I’m not sure I’ll manage it on my own –’ she broke off, feeling awkward about asking.

‘That’s fine, I’ll feed you,’ her “Welsh Wonder” put in with a wink.

‘No funny business, Nurse Busby.’

‘None whatsoever, Nurse Mount. I promise. I’ll simply bundle you under a blanket on the couch, and you can get more demurely dressed before we leave? I could even put some music on?’

If not for her almost irrational investment in rationality, Patsy was sure she would have melted into a puddle at the kind forethought. ‘That would be lovely, love. I think I might have an egg, if you wouldn’t mind? They were one of the first things I managed to keep down after – after we were freed…’

The grip around her waist tightened. ‘Of course. Soft boiled? And soldiers?’

Steadied again, the redhead laughed aloud at that. ‘I thought I said “no funny business”? I’m not a child.’

In answer, the Welshwoman looked longingly at her English Rose’s pink lips – and even pinker cheeks. ‘No, darling, you most definitely are not. But you’ll need simple yet sustaining food to get through our chat with Sister Julienne today.’

‘All right. I’ll just brush my teeth and wash my face.’

When they met again in the lounge roughly ten minutes later, her beloved brunette had lived up to her reputation for efficiency by boiling what appeared from its colour to be a perfectly-timed egg, cutting two slices of (dry) toast into equal-sized soldiers, and brewing what she had correctly decided would be a much-craved cup of coffee. Moreover, seemingly in order to prevent any protestations about deserving, Delia had already put on her chosen record – and the current track was “The Christmas Song”!? Patsy paused, mid-movement, as she lowered herself onto the couch next to the younger woman. ‘I really appreciate this, Deels – but I’m uncertain as to your meaning with the music…’

Her petite partner pulled her down fully, shaking her head and smirking. ‘It’s the double-disc album, you fool. I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss the next track. Now shut up and chew, cariad,’ she finished, shoving the end of one of the soldiers into her bemused girlfriend’s conveniently-parted lips as the song began – and realisation dawned:

‘There was a boy,

A very strange enchanted boy,

They say he wandered very far, very far

Over land and sea

A little shy, and sad of eye,

But very wise was he

 

And then one day,

A magic day, he passed my way

And while we spoke of many things,

Fools and kings,

This he said to me:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love and be loved in return.”

 

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love and be loved in return.”’

‘I’ve understood the sentiments behind the lyrics for a long time, Pats, but that’s why I’m reflecting them back at you,’ Delia said over the next (comparatively irrelevant) tune, “Lush Life”. ‘I thought you might need a reminder this morning. Although you never did tell me why they were apt for August, you know, annwyl.’

Her ginger girlfriend giggled, swallowing her mouthful. ‘Sori, cariad,’ she purred, contritely, on catching the confusion in her favourite eyes. ‘It’s just that this song pretty much describes your lonely ventures to The Gates, doesn’t it? I’m sorry you were left for so long, my love, but I guess that’s the reason I never told you. Our anniversary was overshadowed with worry about Penny, and then I went to Hong Kong –’ she broke off, suddenly stricken with guilt. ‘I’ve only just got back! I can’t take time off now!’

Patsy’s panic was silenced by another bite of soldier being shoved between her teeth; unethical but effective. ‘Chew. You can, cariad,’ her sweetheart soothed. ‘You need to. And you can tell me about the importance of “Nature Boy” in August this year.’

 ~

Later, as they walked to Nonnatus, the wise Welshwoman observed that her usually brisk lover was lagging. Perhaps she was more nervous about the upcoming conversation than she had implied earlier? Or perhaps her wariness was due to the umbrella under which they were huddled thanks to the rain which had been almost omnipresent since the day after Delia’s birthday? She had barely noticed it then, being wrapped up in woe following their fight, but thinking back she found herself tickled by the pathetic fallacy. At least their anger had broken long before now, since the weather had still not abated. Anyway, whatever the reason for her reticence, the brunette knew that the redhead would not respond well either to being asked or to the offer of a hand to hold, so she silently fell into step.

It wasn’t as if they were in any particular rush to arrive, after all – except to be early enough to catch Sister Julienne, as Patsy had forbidden a pre-emptive ‘phone call. Stubborn even when she was scared and sad, her girlfriend thought with the tiniest of grins.

Patsy caught the slight smile on her sweetheart’s lips. ‘Penny for them?’

‘Oh,’ Delia said (deliberately) demurely, ‘just pondering how conveniently cosy umbrellas are, cariad.’

‘And you tell me I’m a terrible liar,’ her taller partner purred, pouting. ‘Come along then, Busby, business will only be delayed by dawdling. I suppose we ought to bite the bullet.’

Even so, several more minutes elapsed before they found themselves at the front steps and, finally, knocking on the door. Fortuitously (or not, they were as yet undecided) it was answered by just the person with whom they wished to speak. ‘Ah, good morning, Nurse Mount, Nurse Busby,’ Sister Julienne said with her usual joviality, before recognising their lack of verbal responses and rather sombre expressions. ‘Is everything all right, Patsy? Delia?’ she asked, immediately shifting register to signal her concern.

‘Might we have a word in private, please, Sister?’ the older woman replied, knowing it was her responsibility to make the request.

Impressed by her frankness, the nun merely nodded and ushered them inside. ‘I’ll just be a moment,’ she whispered once they were fully shielded from the elements.

~

As they sat in front of the desk in their employer’s office, waiting for her, both women found themselves transfixed by its tidiness, for it was as immaculately-presented as its owner. Today, at any rate. Patsy pondered the distance between her feelings of dishevelment and her desired state of dress. Delia deliberated on the fact that her perfectionist partner would be worrying about looking dishevelled when she actually looked as dapper as always. Or rather delightful, because “dapper” would not be appreciated as an adjective in these circumstances.

Delightful, yes, but diminished. And slightly dimmed.

Oh, her poor darling.

Thankfully, Sister Julienne saved her from too much stifled sadness by choosing that point to close the door and come to join them; apparently having sought out some tea. Placing the tray as gently as possible on the polished surface separating their chairs and hers, she made to pour, before pausing to check preferences. ‘White for you, Patsy, and sugar as well, for you, Delia?’

The brunette nodded, and the redhead nearly did the same, but she made a split-second decision. ‘I ought to have some sugar, too, really,’ she said softly. ‘Thank you, Sister.’ She stopped, sighing heavily. ‘And I suppose that gives me as good a place as any to begin. I’ve lost an awful lot of weight in recent weeks.’

The nun’s wimple dipped slightly in acknowledgement of her admission. ‘I had noticed, my dear, but, as it did not seem to be detrimentally affecting your work, I felt I would be going too far by raising it myself.’

‘I appreciate that,’ the ginger said, with a grin so wide it lit up her whole face. ‘Sincerely. Because the weight loss itself isn’t the issue,’ she paused, pensive, and took a fortifying sip of too-sweet (yet somehow still comforting) tea before continuing. ‘It’s a symptom rather than a cause.’

Sister Julienne hummed equally thoughtfully as she replaced her own cup in its saucer. ‘I had guessed as much.’

‘So it won’t be too great a surprise that, although my weight might not be detrimental to my ability to work, I feel everything from which it results is?’

The wise older woman answered by posing a question in return. ‘And that you think, for the safety of both your patients and yourself, you should ask me for a leave of absence?’

‘Y-yes,’ Patsy stammered, surprised herself at the level of her employer’s comprehension; enough to rush into further explanation. ‘I’m so very sorry, I feel absolutely ghastly for even asking as I’ve only just got back (and I know you can hardly spare one of us let alone two), but it would be for no more than a month –’

The wimpled head facing them now shook instead of nodding, cutting off the young nurse’s stream of nervous chatter. ‘I’m proud of you for coming to talk to me today, Patsy. And grateful for Delia’s influence.’

The brunette mirrored their employer’s movement, shaking her head, but smiling. ‘I can take no credit. If anything, my attempts at advice pushed Patsy to keep going for longer than she ought.’

Sister Julienne smiled too. ‘Well, that pleases me even more. If I remember rightly, I said way back in December that I was pleased you had felt able to prioritise yourself when we were all talking about the Tillersons. I’d like to reiterate that now, Patsy, if I may.’

‘Thank you, Sister,’ was all the referenced redhead could manage in response.

‘Thank you; since I’d wager this level of trust is no simple undertaking. And nor, indeed, was your sharing with us at the service yesterday. Now, I’ll telephone Dr Turner and ask him to write two notes – from today for you, Nurse Mount,’ the senior nun clarified, finally returning to the professional register she knew would make everyone more at ease, ‘and from the end of next Tuesday for you, Nurse Busby, if that suits? Do you think you can cope with an extra week, as Nurse Hereward is still away? And will you be all right on your own during the day?’ she finished, addressing each of her queries to the younger and elder of the two women respectively.

‘Of course,’ they chorused in (almost) unison.

‘Perfect. Your flexibility is much appreciated. I want to give you both the whole of May off, and I would also like to let Lucille have a bit more time to reassert herself before we throw her in at the deep end with you both gone. That said, I am insisting you have today to yourselves, as well.’

‘Are you sure?’ they asked, together again, their four blue eyes staring in disbelief across at her two.

‘Absolutely. Go home and get changed,’ their employer said, her speech all the more commanding for its softness. ‘I shan’t allow you to come back for lunch, either, as I imagine you’d prefer to have your meals in a safe space for a while but feel awkward about saying that.’ Receiving no reply from either nurse, save for yet more bewildered stares, she nodded as she had when they arrived; but now her blue eyes gleamed. ‘I thought so. Be off with the both of you.’

They rose to leave her office as directed, and Patsy was out of the door in an instant, attempting to walk off at least a little of her adrenaline by pacing the hallway. Delia, however, had some stiffness on standing. Sister Julienne noticed the smaller woman’s struggle, of course, and called her back before she had taken more than three steps. ‘Please look after yourself as well, Nurse Busby. I may not have had the privilege of knowing you as long as I have Nurse Mount, but you became part of our family even prior to moving in, and (as I said to your mother) we cherish our young women. It seems to me that your dear friend is not alone in her tendency towards self-effacement, and I ask you to remember that you may always ask for help in helping her.’

‘Thank you, Sister,’ the Welshwoman said timidly, blushing, as she too stepped out into the passage to find her partner talking to her best friend.

‘Oh, hello, Delia,’ Trixie trilled. ‘Patience here has just been telling me how sensible she’s being.’

The redhead raised a brow, both at the blonde’s use of her full first name and the rest of her choice of words. ‘Yes, well,’ she returned archly, ‘Beatrix here has just informed me of similarly sensible behaviour on her part.’

The brunette beamed at the two women, before absorbing the potential implications of Patsy’s words. ‘Oh, Trix, are you going away?’

‘No, no. Not yet, anyway. But I have gone back to my meetings. I was there last week, the night before you had drinks here – the sixteenth – so I didn’t quite trust myself to join you. I’m going again tomorrow night, and I’ll see how I feel after that.’

‘I’m proud of you, old thing.’

‘Less of the old, please, sweetie – some of us are still in our twenties, aren’t we, Delia?’ The Welshwoman glanced warily at her girlfriend’s face, gauging her reaction to the friendly jibe, but eventually grinned again and nodded along with the assertion. Her English colleague laughed at the unspoken exchange. ‘I’m joking. I’m proud of you, too, Patsy.’  

~

‘Well, that was easier than expected,’ Patsy mused out loud, later, speaking through their bathroom door as she slipped into a pair of slacks. The commentary was half in earnest and half just a way of reassuring her girlfriend that she had no plan to repeat her earlier experience in that room. Then, satisfied that she had restored even a modicum of her sense of self, she headed out into the passage to search for the smaller woman. ‘And now we have an unexpected day to fill. What shall we do, Deels?’

‘Sorry, Pats,’ her lover called from the lounge. ‘I’ll just be a second. I’m on the ’phone.’

The older woman’s stomach plummeted the full length of her long legs – or so it felt. Who on earth could her petite partner have to call before nine on a Monday morning!? Enid (or rather Mrs Busby)!? Patrick had said to Sister Julienne that he would tell Tim to drop their notes in on his paper round first thing tomorrow, so that was sorted… Oh, God. Delia knew how much she detested surprises –

That tumultuous train of thought was stopped in its tracks by the reappearance of her younger sweetheart with a reassuring grin on her face, and looking stunning to boot, having apparently decided it would be sunnier this afternoon. ‘Oi, cariad,’ she said, laughing as she closed the gap between them and pulled Patsy into a grounding cwtch. ‘When you’ve had your fill of staring, I’ll tell you who that was.’

‘Sorry, love,’ the redhead said, hiding her red face in her beloved brunette’s hair. ‘I’m a horrid hypocrite.’

‘You aren’t, annwyl. I was leering at your lips earlier.’

This coaxed a chuckle from her cariad’s throat, and the smaller woman swore she could feel the vibrations of her favourite voice right down to her toes. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ the taller woman agreed. ‘Who was it, then, Welshie?’

‘Evi. She was calling to ask if we had our shifts for this week yet and find out whether we’d fancy coming over for lunch one day. So I told her we’d actually just been given today off. How would you feel about a trip to Highgate? There’s no pressure, Pats, obviously, but Sister Julienne didn’t specify a safe space…’

The ginger grinned against her girlfriend’s perfectly-placed parting, giggling in the unguarded way that seemed guaranteed to make her giddy. ‘I’d love to. Let’s go.’

~

Having waited a while for the rush hour traffic to settle to a level at which it was reasonable to attempt a journey across London, they braved the elements again, and got on their several buses. As it was raining, and the windows were consequently rather misted, Delia drew a noughts-and-crosses grid on the one next to them in each, and they passed some time playing that. Patsy did not always allow her to win, partly for fear of her wrath at being coddled, but mostly because she knew the proper (if gentle) competition the game provided would be good for them both. It could function simultaneously as a convenient distraction from her own emotions and a useful exercise through which to ascertain her annwyl’s level of alertness. Since the morning she had insisted on giving her girlfriend a massage, the older woman had noticed a subtle but steady increase in her younger sweetheart’s physical symptoms, and this, coupled with the comment this morning about her “still-unreliable recall”, had made “Nurse Mount” yet again take precedence where her petite partner was concerned.

Reciprocity, Deels.

She did not want to let on just yet, however, and was therefore thrilled to be offered the opportunity to observe in a situation which was seemingly lower-stakes. Only seemingly, mind, Mount, she counselled herself – because, albeit for vastly different reasons, she had used exactly this tactic with Grace, once upon a time.

In a land far, far away, too, come to think of it.

Yet, she thought ruefully, how much closer their idiosyncratic fairy story had been to the original Grimm Tales than to the saccharine Disney versions which seemed ever more swiftly to be supplanting them in the popular imagination. Although, actually, if she were being particular (which of course she was) she would propose that their experiences had borne more resemblance to Lewis Carroll than to anything else – but then, by now, he too had been adapted for the screen. She had always wondered what Miss Dryburgh would have made of the lurid Technicolor retelling of Alice in Wonderland. All students had been strictly forbidden by school from going to see it, naturally – especially those in the younger years, of whom she was unfortunately still one – but everybody had bunked anyway as it was nearly the Summer Hols. Just as she probably ought not to have been aware of her former mentor’s own adaptation, but very definitely was.

She should recite some of it to her sweetheart. She had no copy, but that was the mercy of a memory like hers, and it would afford her another frame of reference for the trickier topics she was (still) otherwise unsure how to broach. Delia would have to understand her humour after that, surely?

Not today, though.

Today they had already had enough trouble with mirrors for her to feel able to look through that particular glass – or at least to do so without creating a very realistic replica of the rain outside their various buses on her face inside them.

If only because she had makeup (and, crucially, mascara) to maintain.

And because they had reached Parliament Hill Fields.

~

Kom binnen, mijn vrienden, snel,’ Evi said the moment they pressed the bell. This compassionate order was followed by her ushering them into the dining room as soon as they had trudged up the stairs.

There they found Susan spooning steaming chicken soup into bowls. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but with the rain, we thought the best option would be leftovers from our contribution to the community dinner at shul last night,’ she said, by way of a hello. ‘We don’t go much, and certainly not usually on a Sunday when we do, but, well, why don’t you tell them, mijn liefje?’

The older of the two women huffed at her partner’s prompting in a manner very familiar indeed to their guests, and both Patsy and Delia had to school themselves against a smirk in order to encourage Evi’s already reticent reply. ‘Yesterday was Yom HaShoah – the annual day within the religious calendar for remembrance of the Holocaust or, in Hebrew, HaShoah. The catastrophe. So we had a special evening of prayer and togetherness. Wat is er mis?’ she asked, registering the extreme emotion suddenly flickering across her redheaded friend’s face. Then, realising Delia would not understand the question, she translated. ‘What’s wrong?’

Guessing that her gorgeous girl was unable to process all she was feeling, let alone articulate it, the younger brunette sought a nod and answered in her stead. ‘Yesterday was especially significant for us, too. It was the anniversary of the death of one of the women in Patsy’s camp community who was most important to her, so we had an Evensong service in her memory –’ she broke off as her beloved was brave enough to take up the thread.

‘I realise it’s different, as for you the date must move each year, aside from anything else – it’s just the coincidence this year caught me by surprise.’

‘Let’s eat and share stories, shall we?’ Susan suggested, smiling and gesturing for them all to sit, but not yet moving herself.

‘Sorry there’s no butter for the bread, by the way,’ Evi added, somewhat sheepishly, also remaining standing as she spoke further. ‘We keep kosher; one of the few rules we do respect.’

Everyone laughed at that. So much so that Patsy was relaxed enough to joke, too. ‘It’s fine. I never really understood what the fuss was about, anyway. After three-and-a-half years of “soup” of sorts on its own, having any accompaniment at all felt – and still feels – the very definition of decadence. Besides, I’m similarly selective in my faith. Aren’t I, annwyl?’

Delia grinned at the endearment. ‘Except when you’re singing, sweetheart,’ she said with a squeeze of her girlfriend’s hand.

‘You sing as well as play?’ Both of the older women pounced on this revelation about another facet of the redhead’s skill and, when she gave an exaggerated huff at the prompt, it was their turn to stifle a smirk.

‘I do,’ she confessed eventually, ‘and so does Delia. We could share a slightly altered version of the piece we structured yesterday’s service around, if you’d like, after lunch?’ The offer was only slightly begrudging.

Evi was nearly ecstatic at the thought. ‘And in return we’ll teach you a Hebrew tune. Actually,’ she paused, pondering, ‘we could use it as a blessing before we eat? It’s a round, called "Shalom Chaverim", which means “peace, my friends”, and we sometimes sing the English lyrics anyway – don’t we, Susi?’

‘We do,’ her blonde partner agreed, amused at how animated she was. Then she got excited as well. ‘Oh, I’ve had the most wonderful idea – when we called this morning, you said you’ll both be off for all of May, Delia?’

The younger woman nodded, and was about to reply verbally, when Evi jumped in. ‘Are you thinking of the tickets to Figaro?’

Nodding, Susan continued. ‘We have a box at the Royal Opera House. Not our own entirely – we share it with some other author friends – and we had booked the evening of the twenty-ninth for the two of us to have it and watch Le Nozze di Figaro. But it turned out we’re all meant to be at a book launch. Would you like them? It’s Mozart, not Handel, but it’s a comedy and relatively gentle for a first trip.’

Their two younger guests were agog. ‘That’s – terribly generous of you,’ Patsy managed after a moment.

The older Englishwoman shrugged. ‘You’re our friends,’ she said simply, ‘and you deserve some fun without any prior planning on your part – and outside of your usual environment. It would be our pleasure to help you catch the opera bug,’ she finished with a grin.

‘Well, thank you. That would be lovely,’ Delia put in, also smiling.

‘You are welcome. Graag gedaan,’ Evi responded emphatically. ‘We’ll find them after lunch. For now, let us sit, sing, and eat soup.’

‘Yes, let’s,’ Susan concurred, ‘otherwise it’ll get cold. And lose all its fabled healing properties.’

Patsy giggled at that. ‘My mother made up all sorts of stories in our first women’s-only camp to get us to eat the food. It’s strange; one of the roads there was called Irenelaan – Irene Avenue, Deels – after the princess born just before the war. Her name means the same as Shalom (“peace”), and I always thought it was a ploy that they picked there to imprison us. It made me so angry. But Miss Dryburgh – the woman we were commemorating yesterday – said we should use it as a reminder to keep our spirits up.’

‘That’s what I’ve always used this song for,’ her fellow Dutch-speaker said, smiling sadly. ‘Sometimes it takes years, and a big shift in understanding, but eventually beautiful things outweigh bad. Shall we teach it to you?’

The two young women nodded. ‘Please.’

Alsjeblieft.

So, as they sat at last around the circular table, Evi gestured that they should clasp hands. Then she and Susan started singing:

Shalom, chaverim,
Shalom, chaverim,
Shalom, shalom;
L'hitra'ot,
L'hitra'ot,
Shalom, shalom.

Shalom, my friends,
Shalom, my friends,
Shalom, shalom;
Till we meet again,
Till we meet again,
Shalom, shalom.’

Chapter Text

‘Pats, love, I’m home,’ Delia called, unable and unwilling to stop the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she clicked their front door shut after what would be her final shift for quite some weeks. What a relief it was to think that she could devote the whole of the next month to helping her darling. ‘Pats, cariad?’ she called again and stepped further along the corridor, her joy tempered by the absence of an answer, until her shoe scuffed against something. Chancing a glance at the floor, she saw the culprit - a note explaining the lack of acknowledgement from her annwyl:

D,

Welcome home, my love.

I'm in the kitchen, to which you are forbidden entry on pain of the silent treatment (I nearly wrote 'tickles', but figured that'd only encourage you to break the rules). So, I've run you a bath, and I'll meet you in the lounge in half an hour. You’ll notice when you walk past that I’m being a proper housewife and listening to the radio; that’s why I’ve not heard you if you’ve called. Dress code for dinner – your comfiest pyjamas.

Pxxx

PS There's a candle and a matchbox just by the side; I didn't want to leave it lit and unattended.

The smile resurfaced, flickering across the Welshwoman's face like the flame of the candle her English lover had left for her to light when she returned to their sanctuary; a symbolic testament to the strength of their transnational ties and the unlikely yet indubitable point of their convergence that was Poplar.

Could Patsy be any more perfect?

Delia didn't think so, and decided she must give her ginger girlfriend due gratitude over the course of this dinner's courses, however many there might prove to be. After her bath, though, since she would not dare disobey "Nurse Mount".

So, in order to keep to her sweetheart's standards of punctuality, she checked the watch which (for tonight) was still conveniently pinned to her uniform and tiptoed towards the waiting water. She wondered, whilst she stripped with a significantly greater struggle than usual, whether her darling had done this deliberately and out of more than a romantic motivation. Had she noticed that she was nursing stiffness? Half of her hoped not, because Patsy would pounce on the slightest opportunity to deflect from her own difficulties, but the other half recalled what Sister Julienne had said last Monday and knew she would be a hypocrite if she refused to allow her partner to exercise the reciprocity she herself was forever foregrounding. Not least because she was stiff and, honestly, probably using Patsy’s struggles to deflect from her own.

Lighting the candle, she stepped into the bath, surrendering (as she sank beneath the suds) to the fact that she needed this time off as much as her sweetheart did. She really must be careful – but carefully so, to avoid concerning her cariad.

 ~

Half an hour later, when she met the referenced redhead in the lounge, Delia realised that, in relation to her own discomfort, “Project Placate Pats” would be harder to pull off than she ought to have perceived. Her beloved was beaming and bright-eyed, but, as she had said on the night of the twenty-first, the cracks in her façade were “there for anyone to see” and her worry about her “Welsh Wonder” was evident.

‘Hello, Deels,’ Patsy purred, drawing her in for a hug, and whispering a few further phrases into her hair. ‘Did you have a nice bath, my darling? I’d originally planned for us to share one, but I decided that wasn’t a good use of time this evening, and (slightly selfishly) I rather like having my own. It’s a terrible waste of water but, like I said to Evi and Susi about the soup, having the opportunity to choose anything is such a luxury –’

She was silenced by the soft touch of a single finger against her lip. ‘I had a lovely bath, and I’m thrilled you did too. Diolch, cariad. To what do I owe the delight of such domesticity?’

Her ginger girlfriend pulled back slightly to meet her gaze. ‘Come now, Delia, domesticity is practically imprinted into my genetic makeup.’

The Welshwoman grinned up at her affronted annwyl, moving her right hand from the redhead’s waist to her hair. ‘Wouldn’t you say it’s more nurture than nature, Nurse Mount?’

Her taller partner huffed in adoring exasperation. ‘I suppose so. And that gives me my answer to your question, though my actual answer is going to arrive via the medium of music, firstly, and secondly through something involving very little sound. Dance with me, my dear Nurse Busby?’

‘Certainly, cariad,’ Delia demurred, her grin growing wider as she dropped her hand again and allowed herself to be guided over towards the record player. ‘Your curves are coming back, you know, Pats,’ she observed offhandedly. ‘Only slightly, but still. Da iawn, darling.’

Patsy paused at the comment, but also because she had a request. ‘Well, that’s a relief. It’s difficult for me to tell,’ she said, smirking. ‘Pick up that top disc, please, Deels.’

Following her darling’s direction, the smaller woman stooped and gathered up what seemed, from its size, to be a new single. Before she could investigate further, though, her taller partner plucked the sleeve from her grasp.

‘No peeking,’ she admonished sternly, tutting as she altered the position of the turntable. ‘But I will say you aren’t the only one who can bring out the Beatles, Busby. B-Side first, I think,’ she finished, having ensured that the fit (of the record on the player and her partner – for both this dance and life – in her arms) was snug. Then she whirled them once more into the middle of the room. ‘I’ll keep you steady on your feet, sweetheart,’ she promised over the introduction, conscious that neither of them were wearing shoes.

Her little love laughed. ‘Do you think I’m likely to fall?’

She was simply shushed, since the song had started properly. ‘Listen.’

So Delia did – and promptly laughed again, so hard that she slipped, in an accurate imitation of the older woman’s own stumble when the channels of communication through popular culture had been reversed:

Oh, oh, you’ve been good to me

You made me glad

When I was blue

And eternally I’ll always be

In love with you

And all I gotta do

Is thank you girl, thank you girl’

As promised, her cariad caught her and held them both steady. Then, when the second verse began, Patsy dropped her head to her ear and whispered along with the words:

‘I could tell the world

A thing or two about our love

I know, little girl,

Only a fool would doubt our love

And all I gotta do

Is thank you girl, thank you girl’

‘I could tell the world a thing or two about our love, my love,’ she continued ad lib, keeping her voice low. ‘And I’d love to. But I don’t think it’d be wise right now, Welshie, so until I can I’m just going to have to tell you – over and over and over – like the repeated lyrics of this song, which couldn’t really be any more appropriate than if I’d asked Mr McCartney and Mr Lennon to pen them as a personal present,’ she finished. Then, with a finger firmly pressed to her petite partner’s lips to delay (if not entirely prevent) any protests, she began to sing along again:

‘Thank you girl for loving me

The way that you do (Way that you do)

That’s the kind of love

That is too good to be true

And all I gotta do

Is thank you girl, thank you girl

 

Oh, oh, you’ve been good to me

You made me glad

When I was blue

And eternally I’ll always be

In love with you

And all I gotta do

Is thank you girl, thank you girl

 

Oh, oh, oh

Oh, oh, oh

Oh, oh

As the final echoing “oh” faded out, Delia faded in her usual arguments about excessive gratitude. ‘You and I need to have words – again – on the subject of too many “thank yous”, cariad,’ she started, nevertheless smiling. ‘Especially when they’re unnecessary and involve spending money on me.’

Patsy pouted, protesting herself now. ‘But it’s not just a general thank you; it’s specific to the current circumstances. You did make me glad when I was blue, and have been prepared to hold me through all of this hell with hardly any recompense for yourself. So it’s very timely, because you’re helping so much, and asking so little. And tomorrow is May Day, and you made me heed my own Mayday signals, which were called that because of the French m’aider, meaning “help me”, a shortened version of the phrase for “come and help me” –’

‘All right, all right, all right, annwyl,’ her petite partner whispered, pulling them into the position they adopted for a more usual cwtch in an effort to cut off the taller woman’s sudden trembles of anxiety. ‘In that case, cariad, if we’re being clever with language, the only thing for me to say is xièxie.’

The brunette heard her beloved redhead’s breath catch at that last word. ‘What?’ Patsy asked softly.

Xièxie – isn’t that how you say “thank you” in Chinese, my love? Am I not pronouncing it correctly?’

Her ginger girlfriend pushed away ever so slightly to grin down at her. ‘You’re pronouncing it perfectly, if you’re saying it to someone who speaks Mandarin – which I do, as you know,’ she added in haste at the consternation flitting across her favourite face, ‘but, in the spirit of the honesty I’ve been practicing more and more over this almost-half year, I actually only learnt that in Singapore. My parents let me have tutoring from the age of three after I refused to speak English when we first moved. Apparently it was becoming the official language, based on the Beijing dialect, for things like business by then, so Papa considered it vaguely respectable. But there were so many Chinese people in Singapore anyway that he wouldn’t really have had a choice. In Shanghai, though, I spoke Shanghainese, the local variant of Wu Chinese – which sounds completely different despite the written characters being mostly the same. I don’t remember much of it now (I was a toddler when we left, and even my memory isn’t that impressive) but because it was such a big part of my formative years there are certain phrases I think I’ll always know. Like “thank you”,’ she broke off, smiling again and wider, ‘which is xiáxià.’

Xiáxià?’ Delia repeated, delighted at this (apparently) unexpected series of revelations.

‘Yes,’ Patsy purred, thrilled at how easily and naturally she had introduced this particular topic. ‘Technically xiáxià nòng, including the word for “you”, like how in Mandarin it would really be xièxie nǐ – do you understand?’

‘I do, cariad,’ the smaller woman concurred. ‘Thank you – xiáxià – for being so brave and sharing this with me.’

‘It’s actually barely scratching the surface of my plans for this evening,’ the taller woman admitted, timidly taking a small hand in her own and seeking consent to lead her lover to the kitchen at last. ‘Not quite on the scale of your Welsh lesson, and through food rather than – well, I’ll let you finish that sentence as you deem fit, Deels. Now,’ she said more purposefully once they had reached their destination and sat down at the tiny table, ‘do you trust me enough to close your eyes and open your mouth?’

Her beloved brunette nodded, complying, and relishing the extra intensity of both feeling and flavour provided by the lack of either sight or context. It – whatever “it” was – tasted salty and slippery and soupy. ‘Mmm,’ was all she could manage as she eventually opened her eyes and saw the steaming bowl below her.

‘You like them?’

The reticent redhead needed genuine reassurance, which she was only too ready to give. So she took another slurp with the spoon now beside her bowl, swallowing happily before she spoke again. ‘“Like” doesn’t cover it, cariad. They’re delicious, and I don’t even know what they are!’

‘Oh, I’m so glad,’ her girlfriend said, sighing out her long-held suspense, and giggling as she picked up a pair of chopsticks so she could take a slurp for herself. ‘They’re yángchūn miàn – yángchūn noodles – so named for both the local word for the tenth month of the year and the number ten more generally. Their price as street food was around ten fen a long time ago, apparently. I know that because the vendor I met in Chinatown with Jeanette and Marina Su today told me –’

‘You got in touch with them?’ her sweetheart squealed in surprised pride.

‘I did. I thought you might be pleased,’ Patsy paused, winking. ‘I knew I needed to if I wanted to have any hope in hell of being courageous enough to go and get supplies to cook for you. I remembered Jeanette saying, before she got sick, how much she loved to treat Benny with the occasional dish from China – even though he pretended not to care now he’s lived here for so much longer than anywhere else. And Marina is adorable, Deels. She’s nearly two, can you believe it? Mrs Mahoney dotes on her, of course.’

‘Of course,’ the smaller woman concurred, smiling and adding a silent addendum to that sentence – and on you, I’m sure, cariad; if you’d let her.

‘Anyway, I bought a whole lot of stuff for various meals so we can try things out over the month of May. I’d always planned something like this – it’s childhood but before – and then Evi and Susi cemented the idea with their chicken soup. So I thought I’d start with these, and blanch some bok choy for alongside them. They’re in a really basic soy sauce and stock broth, so are filled with protein, and one of my favourite tastes from that time. I can’t cope with soy beans these days, because we essentially lived on those in the camps, but soy sauce is sacred. Mama and Papa would be horrified to hear that, I’m sure. Like all colonial families, we ostensibly upheld our native national traditions, food included, but I loved the local cuisine in both Shanghai and Singapore. Do you remember Mary in The Secret Garden had an ayah?’

‘I do, annwyl.’

‘Well, I –’ the taller woman faltered and looked at the floor, embarrassed. ‘I – and Grace too, later – had the Southeast Asian equivalent, an amah. Or several. We spent the majority of time with them, except when we were at lessons once we were old enough, and they spoilt us by sneaking us into the kitchen and letting us snack on things like these –’

The redhead stopped again, but for vastly different reasons, and her stare now (though still as vacant as it often was) was filled with vitality at the vividness of this positive recollection. Nonetheless, her girlfriend knew she needed guidance, so she gripped her wrist to draw a comforting circle. ‘All right, annwyl?’ she asked, as Patsy’s gaze became piercing once more.

‘Yes. Xiáxià – or rather diolch, Deels. I just remembered how lovely those afternoons were – and mornings as well, because my first amah, Chun-Mei, made these for breakfast sometimes. Oh,’ she breathed, suddenly (literally) inspired, ‘we can have the leftovers tomorrow!’

Delia nodded even as she showed her sweetheart her empty bowl. ‘If there are any leftovers, love.’

Her cariad collapsed into giggles. ‘Well, Welshie, I appreciate the compliment to my cooking – though I think the Busby family cawl is better. Right, I’m done too; bathroom to brush teeth, and then race you to the lounge, my darling?’

 ~

Patsy got there first, despite hanging back slightly in the hope that her little love might win, and then felt terrible about testing things out in that manner. ‘Sori, annwyl,’ she crooned contritely as she folded her beloved brunette in close. ‘That was unfair. I just didn’t think you’d be honest with me otherwise, and it seems to me that we’re both struggling –’

‘You’re right, Red,’ Delia said, cutting off the awkward attempt at an explanation by deciding to be frank. ‘I’ve been pushing myself too hard, too, and now I’m paying for it. Not through looking after you, mind, Nurse Mount; simply through neglecting to look after myself.’

‘Oh, my poor Nurse Busby,’ the taller of the two midwives purred into the hair beneath her chin. ‘In that case, I’m thrilled I bought the single, because the A-Side track just got even more important. Humour me and listen, love?’

Her girlfriend giggled against her plaid pyjama-clad chest. ‘If you insist, cariad,’ she whispered, shaking her head in amusement as she felt herself being walked over to the record player for the second time that evening. Then the walking halted abruptly, only to shift into a slight rocking motion as soon as the music started:

Da da da da da dum dum da

Da da da da da dum dum da

 

If there’s anything that you want

If there’s anything I can do

Just call on me and I’ll send it along

With love from me to you

 

I’ve got everything that you want

Like a heart that’s oh so true

Just call on me and I’ll send it along

With love from me to you

 

I got arms that long to hold you

And keep you by my side

I got lips that long to kiss you

And keep you satisfied, ooh’

At the third verse, which mostly comprised movement, Patsy ceased their rocking in order to mime along – gesturing keeping Delia even closer than she already was, and feathering air kisses mere inches from her nose, then cheeks, then lips, and waggling her eyebrows suggestively at the already obvious connotations of “satisfied”. The younger woman was entranced by the show of sentiment and sensuality on her older partner’s part, barely hearing what followed…

‘If there’s anything that you want

If there’s anything I can do

Just call on me and I’ll send it along

With love from me to you

 

From me, to you

Just call on me and I’ll send it along

With love from me to you’

 …before being shocked back to attention as the mimes began again when the lyrics were repeated:

‘I got arms that long to hold you

And keep you by my side

I got lips that long to kiss you

And keep you satisfied, ooh

 

If there’s anything that you want

If there’s anything I can do

Just call on me and I’ll send it along

With love from me to you

To you, to you, to you

‘So, sweetheart,’ Patsy continued silkily once the song (and Delia’s resultant hilarity) had run its course, ‘is there anything that you want?’

‘Nothing that immediately comes to mind, no,’ her beloved brunette said, equally silkily. ‘Perhaps you could sing the third verse for me again, annwyl? You know what my memory is like…’

‘Cheek!’ the redhead rejoined with a raspy chuckle. ‘It isn’t bad enough to make me believe either that you’ve forgotten those lyrics since they were played – or that you’ve never heard the song. So I think I’ll have to send you straight to bed for that, Nurse Busby –’

‘I shan’t go, Nurse Mount,’ came the immediate (and husky) reply.

‘Oh, is that so? We’ll see about that.’ Then, mouthing so as not to ruin the mood, Patsy shifted out of character to ask a crucial further question. ‘Is this all right?’

Delia nodded deliberately slowly, also mouthing her response. ‘I trust you,’ she promised, before raising her voice a little. ‘Besides, you ought to put those returning curves to good use, cariad.’

With that, she found herself hoisted gently over her girlfriend’s shoulder. ‘Is that sufficient as a reminder of why one does not disrespect one’s elders, Deels?’

‘I could do with a few more, my darling Pats…’

‘Allow me to oblige, annwyl,’ was the only answer offered up before her lover began the – short yet interminably long – journey towards their room.

~

And oblige she did, though in a decidedly more devoted way than the tone of their previous teasing would have proposed. Depositing her lovely load with the utmost care into a sitting position on the side of one of their beds, Patsy proceeded to pull the duvet down slightly, before lowering her lover backwards again so that her head met a pillow as her pyjamas met the sheets. Seeking consent in a smile and a nod (words of all languages having deserted Delia somewhere in the corridor), she coaxed the buttons of said pyjamas’ shirt open, and slipped it off slack shoulders. Then, and only then, did she move to remove her sweetheart’s trousers, guiding her favourite pair of legs to bridge and allow her the “easier access” the smaller woman had applauded slacks for offering on a night when her taller partner herself had needed this sort of help to feel safe. Yet, as soon as they were off, the brunette’s top half became the object of interest once more – because neither she nor the redhead were in any rush right now.

‘May I use my hands, my love?’

‘Mhmm,’ Delia managed to mumble, before forcing out coherent speech to clarify her cariad’s meaning. ‘Not for – Not unless you can too –’

‘No, not for that,’ Patsy purred, placating. ‘For a massage first.’

‘Oh. You don’t mind waiting longer, then?’

‘Oh, I’m not – Tonight is about you…’

As Patsy’s phrase trailed off, the Welshwoman pulled her English Rose down beside her, despite their difference in dress. ‘I think you’ll find tonight is about language, cariad, just like it was when we first moved in. So, now that I’ve found my voice again, I’ve decided to expand your vocabulary. The new word, Nurse Mount, is “mutuality”: sharing between people –’

Her older partner huffed, wanting to regain the mood from mere moments ago. ‘I know what it means, Nurse Busby, I got you the single all about it –’

The younger woman paid no heed to her interruption, simply shushing her and moving on. ‘All right, annwyl. Let’s extrapolate from the general theme of the song, then, to the specifics of us. Like you said about “Thank You Girl”, before you’d even played me “From Me to You”. In our relationship, mutuality means that I want to share in all your experiences and emotions, and for you to share in mine. Not in a co-dependent way (in fact I think it’s crucial for us to do things separately). When we are together, however, what brings you joy brings me joy, what makes you sad makes me sad (although hopefully not so much that I can’t help you cope), and what gives you pleasure gives me pleasure –’

‘You ended on that one deliberately, didn’t you, Deels?’ Patsy fervently hoped that the direct question would keep her darling quiet at last.

No such luck.

‘I did, Pats, yes,’ her sweetheart said, smiling as she sought out both consent and contact for a quick and chaste kiss. ‘Not to pressure you into doing anything you’d rather not tonight,’ she reassured when they broke away, ‘but actually the antithesis. My needs and your needs are not mutually exclusive, cariad; in fact they’re mutually conducive. I realise that was your point on the surface when you said tonight was about me, but I think what you meant was that you’re feeling bad because you think I’m missing what we might have. I want you to know that I’m not, all right?’

‘Oh, I do,’ the redhead replied, offering reassurance of her own in return, having failed in her endeavour to be subtle and deepen the sudden kiss. ‘But I want you to know that I didn’t mean I’m feeling bad. Far from it. I was hoping to sound seductive when I let my sentence hang, you silly thing. I’m aware I’m not the woman I was, in this area or any other – and I’m unsure if I’ll ever be again – but that doesn’t negate the fact that I want to try and reclaim aspects of her personality. I miss her – but something of her is still here in me – and I miss you more than I feel the fear that stops me from letting her loose. I’m done with wasting time, Welshie. Massages can wait until the morning. For now, love,’ she finished, her voice soft and low, ‘are you going to let me love you?’

Delia’s mouth was dry, and her words appeared to have deserted her again, so she simply nodded, swallowing, completely in Patsy’s thrall – and content to be so.

‘That’s better, Busby,’ her ginger girlfriend said with a throaty laugh as she turned onto her side to whisper in the Welshwoman’s ear. ‘You’ve given me a run for my money – or rather Papa’s – with your rambles tonight. In any other circumstances, cariad,’ she paused, chuckling a second time as her use of that very language made her lover shiver, ‘I’d be impressed, but it’s actually just made me impatient. And you know how tetchy I can get when I’m prevented from living up to my name. Since we’ve been talking about mutuality, I need you to understand how I’m feeling. So we’re going to take this slowly, sweetheart, but only to make it better for you. If you want me to stop, just say,’ Patsy paused again, slipping out of character as she had earlier that evening to ensure that they were together. ‘Am I all right to continue?’

The brunette nodded, barely able to breathe, let alone speak, for the anticipation that had been bubbling ever since her bath – and the redhead relished the brightness of the blue eyes boring into her own. ‘Right then,’ she said, kissing the ear into which she was whispering, before grimacing at an unexpected urge. ‘I’ll be back in two ticks, my dear. Nature calls,’ she clarified sheepishly.

Delia was bereft at being left alone, but her annwyl was indeed back after only the briefest of moments away, and clad solely in her bare, beautiful skin. Resuming her previous position, she also resumed her whisper. ‘Let’s give this a try again, eh, love?’ Then, shifting her weight slightly (and realising as she did so that Delia was correct about the little she had regained) Patsy nuzzled her petite partner’s neck, beginning a tender trail down her beloved’s body, lavishing every inch with her intimate attention. ‘Look, no hands,’ she joked as a distraction whilst she moved from her side to her front, and angled her arms so that her tongue could reach to trace a caress along her cariad’s cleavage. Checking in, she noticed that her favourite face was flushed, and those beautiful eyes on the point of fluttering closed. Good – because from here on in it would (mostly) be sound rather than sight acting as a guide for both of them – and that knowledge made her brave enough to move from cleavage to breasts, first one and then the other. Dipping her head, as her darling had done during their last “card game”, she took each sensitive nipple in her mouth, and sucked softly, teasing with her tongue until that same sweetheart uttered a moan.

Playing a patient hand paid off.

So, keeping her pace consistent, Patsy proceeded from her petite (perfect) partner’s nipples to the niches at the top of her ribs, running her lips across the area she already knew by heart from the touch of her hands. She felt her sweetheart’s intercostal muscles flex on a sigh, and all her knowledge of anatomy had never seemed as special as it did in this moment, through that movement. Then she kissed just below her favourite nurse’s navel, at which the Welshwoman whimpered, sending her nearly weak at the knees.

‘All right, annwyl?’ she asked, just loud enough to be heard.

Da iawn, cariad, daliwch ati.’

After that emphatic instruction and encouragement, she repeated the motion, and was rewarded by a repeated whimper. So, inspired by Delia’s own deliberation when dealing with her body, she altered her course ever so slightly to kiss down the length of her little love’s legs – again, first one and then the other – watching in wonderment when her toes flexed just as rapidly as the area around her ribs. As she retraced her route, making her way up her darling’s right leg again, she thought how much of a relief it was to find that such reactions were still reflexive. It meant her neurology still knew what to do.

Now, however, she had a rather more romantic focus; one requiring a last, loving, request for consent. ‘Are you ready, my love?’

Os gweli di'n dda.

Please.

How significant circumstance could render a supposedly simple sentence – which, when translated, was just one word.

‘All right, then; brace yourself, Busby,’ she called quietly up the bed, hoping to cover her first movement with a chuckle as she had done just once before. It worked, and her “Welsh Wonder” laughed, so she kissed the curls between her legs. Then, far less tentatively than on her previous attempt, she teased with her tongue at the sensitive (and surprisingly slick) entrance to her sweetheart’s secret place – the site of their most mutual anatomical aspect and yet definitely unique to her “darling Deels”. Inhaling deeply in an effort to capture her cariad’s essence, she was tickled by the first aroma which caught her attention. So much so that she spoke again, despite having decided to stay silent. ‘You smell like Lux,’ she whispered, laughing herself now, against her lover’s thigh.

The brunette was helpless to contain her own giggle, and the buck of her legs in response to the buzz of her beloved redhead’s rich alto between them. ‘I should’ve known you had ulterior motives for running me that bath – Ohhhh!’ she finished, arms flailing as her cariad found her way to that tight bundle of nerves at last, and began coaxing her towards the climax they had both been craving.

As Delia felt her desire build, her breathing growing heavier with each stroke of that “talented tongue”, she understood that it was she who had needed the reminder about the definition of mutuality. She might take pleasure in giving Patsy pleasure; yet, if that were the case (as it was), Patsy would also get satisfaction from satisfying her. So, when the crest of that wonderful wave of feeling finally hit and washed over her, the Welshwoman thought of their last night like this and knew there was only one thing to say whilst her “English” Rose wrapped her arms securely around her still-quivering waist.

Xiáxià, Pats. Thank you for sharing a little of Shanghai with me, my love.’

Chapter Text

One step forward, two steps back.

One step forward, three steps back.

One step forward, four thousand steps back.

This aphorism, and copious variations on it (themselves varying in intensity and rationality), flew through Patsy’s grey matter as her fingers flew over her piano – the keys of which had also blurred to almost-grey with the speed of the scales she had been compelled to play on repeat since the earliest sociable hour that morning. Her head bowed forwards, red ringlets of untamed hair falling wherever they pleased, as the relentless ascent and descent afforded her with something approximating to control amidst the seemingly ceaseless torrent of her (unexpressed) emotions. Crescendo after crescendo came crashing into diminuendo after diminuendo, too – because she simultaneously wished to scream and be swallowed up by silence.

How could she have been as careless as to have failed to factor in what today was? It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been obsessively focussed on the more abstract importance of May Day (and its linguistic, if not contextual, connection to “mayday”) for the whole of last week. And it wasn’t as if she didn’t pay similarly obsessive attention to global politics. It was just – “just” – that she had not thought to link the two. She had been so set on making everything nice and neat and comfortable and cosy at home for her cariad (and so concerned about leaving Lucille with the least possible burden to bear whilst they were both off) that she had forgotten.

And, once she had remembered, waking up with a start and a sinking feeling in her stomach stronger than all of her nausea and bladder weakness put together, she found she did not (in one of her predictable and perfect paradoxes) possess the words to explain.

Because she shouldn’t feel upset about this.

At all.

The emotions she was currently experiencing went exactly against her most-prized principles – both personally and politically – so much so that she was ashamed to admit to their existence, even to her annwyl.

Especially to her annwyl.

Especially after last night.

Because last night’s assertion of her adulthood could not be more contrasted to the crushing sense of childishness she felt flooding every fibre of her being now.

How dare she be so hypocritical?

Not only was it not her struggle, she understood such struggles all too acutely, and should consequently be celebrating instead of commiserating.

It was about time. It wasn’t even in the same geographical area. It wouldn’t even be reported as news until tomorrow; and it was really already old news. This was just – “just” – the official conclusion of the political process. As was only right and proper. The popular perception had been shifted since last year, at the latest, and 1945 at the earliest, with 1949 as the marker for when the rest of the global players caught onto the mood. She and Papa, when they were together, had even mutually observed (if not quite talked about) the coincidence of the dates for the New York Agreement's declaring of the change – the fourteenth and fifteenth of August. It was about time.

Her anguish ought to be an anathema, but it engulfed her every inch indiscriminately, not deigning to discern that today was as deserved for them as liberation had been for her and her fellow internees. Not pausing to ponder the fact that this fight had been just as hard won as theirs. Not permitting the possibility that it was exactly these sorts of structures which had set up, then exacerbated, the situation in which they had all eventually become embroiled. If they, as cultures, as empires, had somehow been the architects of their own downfall (which her adult-self believed they had), then it was surely, was it not, poetic justice that those – all those – they had oppressed now be offered the opportunity for self-determination? As poetic a justice as the pathetic fallacy of the rain outside their windows was providing for the pathetic feelings barely being held at bay inside her body.

All this she knew (or thought she did) and yet she seemed incapable of impressing any of it on the immature individual who maintained she had a right to residence in her psyche.

Past-Pats did not take kindly to reasoning, and Present-Pats had no room left to be unreasonable.

This did not bode well for the next month. Perhaps she ought to have dubbed it “Mayhem” instead of “Mayday”.

Potential puns aside, she had no clue how to continue, or how to ask for assistance. So she had resorted to the only refuge she could rely on – the lounge, with its perfect pairing of a lockable door and the piano. Delia would feel, at best, frustrated, at worst hurt; and she could not cope with either. Her darling did not deserve either, either, but she had needed space. A safe space.

And this was it.

Until the telephone rang, and its trill made her tremble; because she was trapped on the stool, transfixed, stuck in the (almost) centre of a room which suddenly seemed infinitely more expansive than it had when she initially entered.

Then its surprising sound was followed by that of the (slow and sluggish) footfall of her still-sleepy lover, who tried the door and found it locked…of course…and was concerned…of course.

Cariad?

She couldn’t answer. Neither Delia nor whomever it was calling at the crack of dawn. She wanted to, on both counts, but she couldn’t. She really hadn’t thought this through. She was stuck inside, and Delia was stuck outside. She really hadn’t thought this through. She wasn’t thinking now. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t call. She couldn’t cope.

She. Could. Not. Cope.

Oh help. Oh help. Oh help. Oh help. Help. Help. Help. Help.

Cariad?

A pause, as the telephone continued to torment her with its trill.

‘Pats, love, don’t do this.’

Another pause, whilst the door was tried again.

‘Don’t do this, darling. Please.’

I’m not doing anything; at least not deliberately. I want to open the door but I can’t even reliably sit up let alone stand. It’s like a twisted individually-imposed version of tenko – if I move a muscle I’m convinced I’ll collapse.

Oh Deels. Oh Deels. Oh Deels. Deels. Deels. Deels. Oh. Oh. Oh.

Somehow that simple moan must have circumvented her lack of language, and become actual sound, because her sweetheart’s tone transformed from tight to tender. ‘Pats, love, I need to know if you can hear me. Make a noise for yes.’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good.’ Her girlfriend kept her speech simple and her voice low – but loud enough to be heard over the still-ringing telephone. This person was nothing if not persistent. ‘Da iawn, cariad,’ Delia continued, ‘now I’d like you to take a breath. Make another noise once you’ve managed it.’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Now,’ the younger woman paused, wondering where to go from here. Ordinarily she – they – would avoid referring to her older partner’s younger self aloud but, as she was unable to offer physical assistance with the redhead’s reintegration, this was far from ordinary. And the telephone needed to be answered. She therefore decided to try a new tactic, involving explicit but gentle acknowledgement. Her darling’s own distancing came from a protective instead of problematic impetus, anyway, so the occasional productive application of it ought to be all right. And she had no other immediately-obvious options. So, taking a deep breath to sustain them both, she started implementing this new strategy. ‘This next bit might be tricky for Past-Pats to cope with, so I want you to ask her to help us to keep Present-Pats safe. Can you do that?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good – tell Past-Pats the robin is going to fly her off the piano stool and over to the door so that Present-Pats can unlock it. All right?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Now, can Present-Pats turn around so she’s sitting backwards on the stool?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Is Present-Pats able to feel her bare feet firmly on the floorboards?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Is Past-Pats coping?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. In that case, can Present-Pats use those feet to push up to standing from the stool?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Is Past-Pats still coping, and is Present-Pats stable?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Working together, can they take a step or two towards the door?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Good. Can they manage the rest of the distance, going slowly and carefully?’

‘Mhmm.’

This latest mumble was accompanied by the focussed rhythm of the redhead’s footfall, and the brunette allowed herself the luxury of another deep breath before asking a penultimate question, sensing it was safe to slip back into second-person address. ‘Are you by the door, cariad?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Can you unlock it?’ Rather than receiving a verbal response, Delia now heard her darling doing as directed, and then saw her favourite face as the door opened at last. ‘I’m so proud of you, Pats, sweetheart,’ she said softly, with as wide a smile as she could muster. ‘I’ll just answer the ’phone, and then we can sit quietly for a bit –’

Once again, there was no verbal reply, but a very vehement physical one; as Patsy cut her off by pushing past her and running towards the kitchen. The smaller woman sighed at the sight of her taller partner’s retreating back, wordlessly thanking the former owner of this flat for leaving a lock off that one door at least. Then she stepped into the lounge to answer the still-relentless ring, hoping it would be the person its insistence implied it was.

~

Patsy, meanwhile, was mortified. Not only had her attempt to marshal her emotions at the piano proved a miserable failure, it had also added an additional, dangerous, dimension to her panic and its associated absences. Admittedly the danger was a result of her locking the door rather than her panic per se, but the logical extension of acknowledging that was that she ought not ever to lock a door again.

And that was a terrifying thought.

Having waited so patiently for the privilege of privacy as a child, her adult self would protest wildly at parting with it. How ironic that it might be the very same child self who would force her now to relinquish the freedom she had so fervently wished for then. How ironic, too, that that possibility was presenting itself the day after she had decided she was ready to regain some of her adult self’s agency and autonomy. Yet, as she stood at the hob preparing a pot of porridge, she considered now, content to let her silent ramble rush on again (if only because she was too exhausted to stop it), that perhaps it was not ironic at all. Wasn’t this just the sort of paradox dear Miss Dryburgh had predicted in one of her early poems? She had had such a gift for humour that, were even a single line misheard or missed out, one could easily have missed the darker tinge to some of the sentiments expressed; and this had been no exception to that rule, providing a chatty commentary on the community of camp life alongside good-natured groans about the impositions on individuals’ space and time. It was only in the final four lines that the possibility of struggling with solitude after such enforced interaction was allowed to emerge:

Alone! Alone! When shall I be
All by myself in privacy?
When that day comes, mayhap I'll own
I rather fear to be alone.

Many a true word really was spoken (or, in this case, written) in jest. She would have to recite that to Delia, as well. Not that her beleaguered brunette would likely wish to hear it now, or anything else, since she had been so rude and rushed from the room with barely a backward glance. Regardless, it was a much-needed reminder that emotional responses were complex and tricky to tease out. Nothing was ever cut and dried – however much she, and others, might wish it were so. Nevertheless, knowing something as a general rule, and transferring that knowledge into believing it to be true with reference to one’s own experiences was far from simple. So she seemed incapable of allowing herself the nuance she was always ready to impress upon everyone else.

But then there had been little space for nuance whilst struggling to survive – she really needed to cut herself some slack.

This wasn’t even about her, though. She had no right to be affected, surely? And wasn’t it the height of hypocrisy if she was?

‘Pats?’

The sound of her nickname in her girlfriend’s gentle lilt was as comforting as a physical caress – a gesture of which she did not feel in the slightest deserving. It was followed by the sight of that same wondrous Welshwoman leaning over in the gap between her body and the stove to switch off the gas and stop the porridge bubbling over the edge of its pot.

Oh God – she must’ve gone again.

Couldn’t she even have one day where nice things didn’t cost the rest of the week’s rations of rationality!?

‘I think we’d probably best avoid a re-enactment of Sister Monica Joan’s crisis with the Christmas pudding, cariad – as hilarious a story as that would be to tell the girls at our next cocktail night.’

Her sweetheart’s speech was so soft it made her want to slump back into the safety of the arms she was sure would be waiting to catch her if she chose to; but her beloved brunette was dealing with enough of her own difficulties, and could do without the addition of this one. Especially as it was, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary and entirely unrelated to anything significant. At least to anything significant that was also easily explainable. So she stood firm and stayed silent.

‘I don’t expect you to be up to talking quite yet, darling, but I want you to know that it was Evi calling. She told me what’s happening today and I completely understand why you’d be upset. And all the more so because that upset goes totally against your dearest-held ideals.’

The older woman whirled around to face her annwyl. She was stunned, simultaneously, by the news that her younger partner was aware of the cause of her anguish and that this awareness had arisen because one of the only other people privy to the details of her past had been kind enough to check in.

Perhaps her feelings were not in fact as farfetched as they felt.

Still, it did seem rather selfish.

Something of this confusion must have been conveyed by her eyes as they met those of their corresponding colour, because Delia deftly placed a finger against her lip. ‘It’s the end of an era, and an empire, sweetheart. It makes perfect sense.’

‘But Netherlands New Guinea is nowhere near – And it’s been under administration as the UN Temporary Executive Authority of West New Guinea since last October anyway – And it’s important that the Indonesians get the chance for full self-determination of their territories –’

Delia’s finger moved slightly to encourage Patsy’s mouth to close, despite knowing her next question would provoke a protest from her predictable partner. ‘And what about Sukarno and his comrades’ co-operation with the Japanese during their occupation of the rest of the Dutch East Indies?’

‘They didn’t have a choice. And it was the Netherlands East Indies. But anyway, we – the Europeans – had oppressed them first.’

Ignoring the semantics around titles of countries, Delia strongly disagreed with this assertion, and said so. ‘They did have a choice, cariad. You’ve told me lots about the kindness of individual Indonesians, even some of those who were guarding you. And, as Phyllis would almost certainly say, two wrongs do not make a right. I’m not condoning colonial activity of any kind at all – I’m Welsh, for goodness’ sake, and we aren’t even properly considered a country any more. Politically we’re a mere “principality”, which is why our flag doesn’t feature as part of the Union Jack. But I do want you to feel able to acknowledge that what happened to you was completely unjustified and unjustifiable. I think that might be easier to achieve if you also consider the fact that the Co-Prosperity Sphere was as much an imperial project as any other. And a fascist one at that, which encouraged nationalist fervour in order to achieve its own ends. Borders are deliberate human constructs, cariad –’

‘Someone’s been a swot,’ Patsy put in eventually, smirking to cover her emotional overwhelm at this evidence of how much her beautiful, brilliant girlfriend actually cared and wanted to understand.

The supposed “swot” swatted her playfully on her dressing-gowned shoulder. ‘Forewarned is forearmed,’ she returned just as cheekily before continuing. ‘Anyway, as I was saying. Borders are deliberate human constructs – something which makes me wonder how the indigenous Papuan people will feel about this changeover, and whether they’ve even been consulted – but, on a wider scale, that doesn’t take away the significance we ascribe to them. And, now that Netherlands New Guinea has been West New Guinea and is to be West Irian, there’s no longer a political guarantee that people will remember what happened. It might be nowhere near any of the other islands, but its status as a colony connects it to them, and consequently to you. In the same way that Cuba is geographically and politically distant from the areas which affected you but any reference to nuclear warfare would obviously bring reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You’re allowed to be upset, Pats, I promise.’

Blue eyes filled with tears as her ginger annwyl gingerly attempted an answer, overwhelmed again by the depth of her darling’s desire to support. ‘It’s just – I’ve never thought about this before, and it’s more than a bit belated now – but who will look after their graves? Who has been looking after their graves these past two decades? Those are rhetorical questions because I already know – no-one –’ she broke off, dragging in a shaky breath as she once would have done with the steadying smoke of a cigarette, ‘but that just feels so unfair. I’m aware it’s not necessary to have a particular place to pay one’s respects,’ was the immediate justification in deliberately distanced third person phrasing, ‘but their bodies…’

Seeking silent but affirmative consent in an exchange of nods and raised eyebrows, Delia pulled her cariad close for a cwtch, and peppered kisses into her hair. Between these long-awaited expressions of physical affection, she wanted to whisper words of comfort. Not condolence, not even really consolation, because she knew she was powerless to offer either properly without coming across as trite; whereas comfort was definitely her domain. Her duty. And she was usually well-equipped for these sorts of situations, when language was largely irrelevant. Something told her that Welsh would not work, though, and English seemed likely to be equally ineffective as her sweetheart was thinking of her mother. So she dipped into the rudimentary Dutch she had begged off Susi whilst they were washing up after their lunch, and the older woman had mentioned how well Patsy had responded when Evi had elected to use it on instinct during her very first visit. ‘Ik heb je,’ she started softly. ‘Ik heb je. Je bent veilig. Ik heb je. Altijd.

At that final phrase, her girlfriend raised her head slightly from where it had been resting on her shoulder and gave her a small, sad, still-teary smile. ‘How do you always know exactly what I need you to say?’

The Welshwoman shrugged, bumping her cariad’s chin gently as she did, and winked. ‘Telepathy, I suppose,’ she said whilst she wiped Patsy’s eyes with the edge of her own dressing gown’s tie.

They were both relieved when her annwyl’s answering smile turned rueful and lopsided for a moment – before becoming serious again and leading her to speak with extremely clipped consonants. ‘Well, as you’ve ascended to a higher plane of consciousness, could you tell me why I’m still alive and they’re all dead?’

Delia was devastated, if unsurprised, that her sweetheart’s guilt was still so close to the surface. ‘I can’t answer that last bit, except to say that life is cruel, and that none of you deserved this. Grace ought to have grown up to be as bright and funny as her older sister (not to mention beautiful). Your parents ought to have had many more years of love to share, with both of you as well as with each other.’ She paused, gauging her redhead’s reaction, and hoping Patsy would appreciate her frankness. A returning grin reassured her that her response had been the right one, so she continued. ‘But I do know, cariad, that you survived because you were determined not to be beaten and to do justice to Grace and your Mama. Like I wrote in one of my sonnets, love: “I’m sure your Mam and Gracie would be proud; / your work sings both their memories aloud”. I meant every word, Pats, I promise.’ The smaller woman could sense that her taller partner would have no coherent reply to such praise, so she simply pressed one more kiss into her gorgeous girl’s hair and moved on to more practical matters. ‘Now, I’m guessing food is no longer your first priority?’

Red hair shook in confirmation of the brunette’s suspicions. ‘No. I need some Chopin.’

Delia devilishly kept her tone deadpan as she responded. ‘We are not going out in this weather, annwyl. It’s pouring, Pats. I flatly forbid it.’

Patsy’s eyes grew wide whilst she processed her petite partner’s words. ‘Not shopping, Chopin –’ She broke off as she saw the twinkle in her girlfriend’s gaze. ‘Oh, you’re teasing, Busby, you beast!’

‘Of course I am, Mount; I’m not that provincial!’ her little love said, laughing. ‘Am I allowed to listen to you play, please?’

A decisive nod from her darling. ‘I was hoping you’d ask that – I’m rather afraid to go back in there on my own.’

‘I’ll sit beside you on the stool, sweetheart.’

~

Once they were on the stool, nestled, with their knees touching, Patsy felt safe enough to offer a short explanation for her choice of repertoire. ‘I’m going to play the Preludes, because today is a prelude to the next month. There are twenty-four of them, and they ought to be played in order, but I only know three by heart. I’m also going to be controversial and not keep to the suggested structure. Number Six (referred to as either “Tolling Bells” or “Homesickness” depending on which conductor’s commentary you read) will come first, but then I’ll play Number Twenty, before finishing with Number Fifteen. That’s my favourite of the three, and is commonly called the “Raindrop” Prelude – although Cortot calls it “But Death is here, in the shadows”, and that seems more suited to the environment where I first heard it. They were part of the vocal orchestra concerts,’ she finished matter-of-factly.

Delia squeezed her right hand where it lay against the keys, poised to play, yet not quite ready to begin. ‘Well it’s raining now, my love, so let’s go with the first title?’

The redhead giggled at her beloved brunette’s reticence. ‘Is the second too morbid for you, sweetheart? Try this for size – Number Twenty is known as the “Funeral March”…’

The Welshwoman’s mouth opened in wonder as she now reached for the keys in front of them. ‘What, this?’ she asked, incredulous, as she played a few famous bars.

Her (usually) reserved English lover roared with laughter. ‘No, no – that’s his second piano sonata – but they do have the same nickname. Well played, though, Welshie; we’ll have to duet sometime, never mind Lucille.’

The brunette blushed bright red. ‘I do know some of his Nocturnes quite well, not that those are duets. But I haven’t done proper practice since school – and, before you say you hadn’t either, I’m not blessed with your memory, my love.’

It was the redhead’s turn to provide reassurance through the slight squeeze of a hand. ‘It might be good for you for precisely that reason; and I hope you know this is our piano. You’re welcome to use it any time.’

The smaller woman shot her taller sweetheart a dazzling smile. ‘I do. Diolch, cariad. But right now, Pats, I’d like to hear you play.’

‘All right then. I think we should call Prelude Number Six “Hiraeth” from now on, don’t you, as it’s dubbed “Homesickness”? This was the one played at his funeral, along with the “Funeral March” sonata.’

‘I’m sensing a theme…’

Patsy brought a finger briefly to her own lips before dropping it again to the piano to begin.

And she was immediately transported. As she let her fingers linger over the melancholy  melody, relishing the higher tones which appeared almost à propos of nothing amidst the deeper downward digressions, she heard not the singing of the piano but that of her mother and the other sopranos. In that “hearing”, she found a solace she had not thought she would find again, and had certainly not considered seeking in those darkest of times. For who had ever had nostalgia for a nightmare? Yet homesick she was – filled with hiraeth, longing for those places which (whilst they were undeniably the worst she had ever known, putting the slum conditions in the tenements of Poplar far up the pecking order of human habitation) had nevertheless held some of the fellow humans she had held most dear.

Mama.

Grace.

Miss Dryburgh, who would have got on famously with Phyllis, despite their differing ideas about religion.

Mrs Chambers, whose dedication to music as a motivation she recalled whenever she watched Mrs Turner at work. Some of the camp singers had been just as unruly as the children's choir enlisted for the Christmas concert before measles had run amok – much like the belligerence of the Banka fever back in Muntok. Norah and Shelagh would have made a formidable combined force.

Darling Ruth Russell-Roberts, whose tall and willowy figure had exuded elegance even in that awful atmosphere and had (almost) put her own Mama to shame. She could have taught Trixie a thing or two.

That old battleaxe Mrs Brown, who had turned out to be not such a battleaxe after all, and who (now she thought of it) was strikingly similar to dear Chummy’s “Mater” – just as her daughter had borne quite a resemblance in outlook to Chummy herself. Although Shelagh (another Shelagh, actually most like her Nonnatun namesake in both looks and personality!) was rather more timid than Patsy's more contemporary compatriot in class-based contempt. But that wasn’t saying much, really; and they had banded together so strongly once they were both members of that cruel “Motherless Daughters” club, age being unimportant by then because time as a whole had long since lost its already amorphous meaning. She, and Shelagh, and Molly, and oh so many more.

And then Helen – who had held on to the end, with her own sisters, the three of them willingly taking the “jongeling” under their wing as a surrogate sibling whilst they all waited for news of both their fathers. Having grown to be much more than the custodian of the library in the “Houses” camp of Irene- and -Bernhardlaan (a position which had ensured the popularity of “Mejuffrouw Helen” with Grace as much as with Patsy herself), it was she who had given the gift of a fourth language to a grateful grieving girl with few other useful tools to face the post-war world. The Colijns had carried her through those final months, all three turning their various joint hospital stays into havens rather than the hell they would have been for her alone, so it seemed only right that it was Dutch offering deliverance (via Delia) today.

It made sense. She understood.

Just as she finally understood why she was upset. Her “Welsh Wonder” was right, of course, in that she was worried other people would forget the atrocities – but she was more concerned that she would forget those small snatches of happiness from when she had last had a full (if separate) family.

And friends who could comprehend without needing explanations. For all shared trauma was terrible, it brought with it a strong sense of togetherness one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. A camaraderie which everyone employed to cope. A more intense version of the professional bond the nurses and nuns fashioned at Nonnatus. It made friends feel like family.

Not that she didn’t know she owed a huge debt of gratitude to all those who had come to her aid, most especially her “darling Deels”, but the camp community had taught her to survive and helped her to succeed in doing so.

That was hard to let go. And now the last trace of it would be gone. No more markers for her mourning, save the mourning itself.

That was what Miss Dryburgh had predicted in her poem.

No wonder she was sad, or feeling, in fact, funereal.

How fitting a follow-on, then, she thought as she started the second piece.

How fitting a title, too, as it evoked exactly the atmosphere suggested by its epithet. The climbing chords, were her feet not otherwise occupied on the piano's pedals, would provoke them to mimic the musical movement in miming out those she had made when heaving shovels and wood however far was required for perhaps the most terrible of tasks. The adults certainly thought it was, anyway, and had at first forbidden her from forming part of those particular working squad. But then both of her relatives had become ill and, aside from the fact that the burial parties were among the select few guaranteed to be granted attendance at the gravesides, she had suddenly had no choice other than to pull the little weight she had left. Propriety paled into insignificance somewhat when the scale of that poignant plot had grown beyond the boundaries of even the most inventive imaginations among them.

Those marches had not been entirely macabre, either, but a conscious, conscientious meshing of light and shade to honour and allow the full gamut of feelings which developed in defence when grief threw down its gauntlet. Just as the rhythm of the contrasting yet complimentary chords she was playing now, remembering them, was neither solely sad nor sickeningly saturated in its opposite emotion. Everything in moderation.

Not that she permitted herself such luxurious releases in the immediate aftermath any more than she willingly would all these years later.

Which was why she had left her favourite, Number Fifteen, for last.

Miss Chambers had told her, on the understanding that she would not tell Miss Dryburgh, that Chopin composed it, at least in part, when his lover George Sand was out walking in a rainstorm and he had a dream which convinced him that she was dead. Of course, at that point, surrounded by so much real suffering caused by death, she had considered it melodramatic, but she had since come to understand exactly how he had felt.

Even prior to adulthood and Delia, however, it allowed her the outlet she did not easily know how to find elsewhere. That was a truism with regards to most of her piano pieces (and the three Preludes especially) to some degree, but this one even more than the rest. It managed to capture the crux of the confusion she felt at her change in circumstances, and to help her process the fact that her idyllic youth (represented by the D♭ Major with which the piece began) had been so rudely interrupted – because, at the beginning of the time in the camps, everyone had insisted that it was merely an interruption. Not the irrevocable ending it had eventually proved to be; and that could have been predicted by the steadily-encroaching influence of C# Minor. These middle moments, which grew more and more intense as the music moved relentlessly onwards, gave the pianist (or, indeed, the singers) a fairly clear idea of the torment they would endure. Moreover, in an apt nod to her (their) particular predicament which she had not previously noticed, this section lasted just under three minutes, with the most mournful music towards its close, thereby providing a greater symbolic testament to the most trying periods in Palembang and Muntok, and on the Belalau plantation. By then neither performer nor prisoners could dream of the refreshment in the final phrases which resolved and revolved back to the original theme. The reassurance of the calm after the storm as much as the proverbial one before rang frighteningly false. Or at least it had until she met Delia, as she had observed whilst playing another Romantic composer to Miss White.  

Growing back into her age in time with the music, the redhead reflected that it also gave her a framework for present days like these, when such seemingly exquisite joy was followed by equally exquisite (excruciating) sorrow. She had become so accustomed to, and adept at, shoving it (all of it) down into the bottle of her belly and choking herself with various custom-made corks that when it refused to remain where requested she did not know how to respond. It therefore tore her apart inside until she was forced to free it for fear of what she might do if she did not. That was anything but healthy – especially because she felt so much better when she did let herself let go. Was that what Mr Glennon had meant by using storms himself as a metaphor when she sat by his hospital bed, rendered both relieved and reticent in knowing that he knew?

It made sense – and yet the anguish was so acute that she was scared she might never stop sobbing if she let herself start. Rationally she could rationalise, obviously, and cauterise that concern, just as she would if she were counselling a patient…

But Mama.

And Grace.

And Papa.

Oh, Mama…

And Grace…

And Papa…

‘Pats?’

Delia’s voice cut so suddenly through the silence Patsy had not even realised had fallen that she jumped, despite her little love having kept it calm and quiet. She was also surprised to find that the smaller woman had moved from the stool to stand behind her. ‘Did I go again, Deels?’ she asked softly, her own tone trembling with anxiety.

‘You did, cariad, that’s why I’m blocking your back –’

‘I’m so sorry –’

She felt the sincere shake of a brunette head against her shoulder. ‘I wasn’t in the least surprised, love. Are you all right for me to come back and sit next to you now?’

A nod of red hair which unwittingly tickled its owner’s favourite face. ‘Yes. Thank you. I am sorry, though, I keep ruining everything –’

Another headshake as her sweetheart slid onto the stool and took her hand. ‘Whatever makes you say that? You let me hear you play in person, Pats.’

‘Out of necessity,’ her beloved returned bitterly. ‘Which is ridiculous. All of it is ridiculous. I ought to be over it by now. I’m so tired of this. It’s like listening to a Billy Fury record, where the happiness seems substantial on the surface, but is actually just a bubble that can be popped by the slightest disturbance. Last night was so lovely and then this morning…’

‘…was – is – perfectly natural,’ Delia said decisively, taking advantage of her girlfriend’s slight gap for thought and finishing her sentence before she could do so herself. ‘That kind of logic involves a similar leap as the one that tried to convince you you couldn’t have time off because “you’ve only just got back” from Hong Kong. Which wasn’t true in the first place, because there are many months between December and May. Your brain is trying to remind you who the boss is, cariad, and stop you from remembering that you’re in control, or celebrating the progress you’ve made. The fact that you’re feeling this way this morning is not only understandable and expected but actually, in my opinion, a good sign. It means you’re allowing yourself to emote, and that’s what this month is for. I don’t think you’ve “ruined” anything at all – aside from wishing you weren’t struggling I’m delighted to be able to help. The same as you feel about me, which was why you wanted us to have last night. The only difficult bit is when you don’t let me; again the same as you feel about me. All I ask is that you (metaphorically) leave the doors open, annwyl. That’s what you’re meant to do in a storm, anyway, or so my Tad always says.’

Patsy’s breath caught at her darling’s final sentence and its echo of her own earlier musings on Mr Glennon’s advice. Her “Welsh Wonder” had teased her about telepathy, but she was beginning to think it might be one of the brunette’s real abilities. Perhaps it was a boon of her Celtic heritage. Rather than verbalise any of this, however (because she was too exhausted for a longer conversation than they had already had), she simply admitted the tiredness. ‘In that case, I know I’ve technically only just got up, but I think I might have to go back to bed.’

Her annwyl nodded in agreement with this assessment, and used the hand she still held to pull her taller partner with her as she herself stood up. ‘You do look done in, darling,’ she observed as kindly as possible whilst they walked together along the passage. ‘And, again, I’m not surprised in the slightest.’

‘Me neither,’ the older woman demurred, deferring to her younger girlfriend’s diagnosis of the cause behind her fatigue without any of her earlier frustration, and sighing happily when the backs of her legs at last hit the bed. The signal that she could safely sit and sink into soft sheets had rarely felt more welcome in recent months. ‘I am. Done in, I mean,’ she continued as her sweetheart slipped her dressing gown from her shoulders to let her lie down. ‘But I’m scared about going to sleep.’

‘I can understand that, cariad,’ was the soothing response which arrived within an instant. ‘But I’ll be right here next to you,’ the brunette promised, demonstrating by lying down as well and burrowing in close against her back, just as she had stood at the stool to keep her steady.

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ the redhead asked, still reticent.

‘Not at all. This way, my extremely witty line about how wonderfully pagan it feels to wake up naked next to you on May Day won’t go to waste,’ the Welshwoman whispered with an unseen wink.

Her proper, English, girlfriend giggled, even as she yawned. ‘Terima kasih, Deels.’

‘Is that what I think it is, my love?’

‘“Thank you” in Malay? Mhmm,’ Patsy managed to mumble briefly before she submitted to sleep.

Delia was delighted, but did not want to disturb her darling at this delicate early stage of slumber, and consequently waited until she heard a soft snore before speaking the phrase she so often wished, but so rarely dared, to say whilst they were both awake. ‘You’re so brave – and beautiful,’ she breathed as she placed a tiny kiss on each of the “stars” scattered across her sweetheart’s upper back; the ones she could reach without either stretching or feeling that she needed to seek consent. ‘I’m so lucky you let me love you,’ she went on, pulling her cariad even closer in for a cwtch, repeating the soothing string of Dutch with which she had had such success earlier as she did. ‘Ik heb je. Je bent veilig. Ik heb je. Altijd.

And, like she had promised in reference to the lines of her sonnet she had also quoted in the kitchen, she meant every word.

Chapter Text

‘One hot water bottle for my beloved’s bellyache,’ Delia said brightly as she walked into their room, having washed up after a shared supper in bed, to give that item to her ginger girlfriend – who she knew was feeling decidedly ginger. ‘How are you doing, Miss “geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)”?’

The referenced redhead was curled up under the covers, reading the collection of children’s poetry her belligerent brunette of a partner had somehow successfully begged to borrow from Shelagh and Patrick (or, more to the point, Angela), and resolutely ignoring the insistently nagging pains in a certain area of her anatomy which seemed determined to derail her attempts at reclaiming the concept of childhood. In an effort to reassure the still-wary older woman after her repeated absences on Wednesday, her younger sweetheart had demonstrated that she really did not mind, claiming her cariad to be her “red and blue remedy” – like the flowers of those colours which featured in AA Milne’s “The Dormouse and the Doctor”. Patsy had been nonplussed by this allusion, apparently (amazingly, given her otherwise almost-encyclopaedic knowledge of British children’s literature) never having been introduced to the poetic precursor of Winnie-the-Pooh. So the smaller woman had considered it her professional duty as a nurse to acquire the anthology in which it featured for her annwyl, and thus far it seemed to be a great success. As she had begun the relatively short book on Friday the third by reading three poems, and there were still forty-one to get through in the remaining twenty-nine days of May, she had thought to savour them and allow herself only one or two before bed each night. But then her bloody (ha!) period had started (early) later that same evening, and she had needed all the peaceful ammunition she could muster to combat the warring terrors which once more arrived along with it. So far, When We Were Very Young was proving to provide that.

She had, consequently, abandoned any mask of moderation and ensconced herself for the entirety of the weekend.

And today, too.

It wasn’t as if Delia would have let her get up for anything longer or more strenuous than toilet trips, anyway.

Nevertheless, even that (comparatively tiny) deliberate disregard for temperance could not persuade her completely to forfeit method as she made her way through the various verses, because something told her it would not be sensible simply to proceed from cover to cover. Following Wednesday’s fiasco, any previous laxity in vigilance against triggers had vanished, an (additionally) heightened alertness rushing in all too eagerly to fill its vacuum. She had therefore commenced by combing the table of contents extra carefully to single-out some of the more obviously awkward options, such as “Buckingham Palace”, “The Wrong House”, “Nursery Chairs”, “The Island”, “Rice Pudding” and “Vespers”. Admittedly this was purely based on titles, but better safe than sorry, at least at first. Then, satisfied, she had moved to read her first choice after the tale of the misdiagnosed dormouse – “At Home”, because she was – and was delighted to find her favourite nurse’s name in only the second line. Whilst she could by no means agree with the young protagonist’s sentiment of wanting a soldier (since if she never met with one ever again it would be much too soon!) she could concur with their admiration of busbies.

Or rather a Busby.

From there, confident that she would cope with most of the other subject matter (save for that of those poems she had already elected to exclude), she had proceeded to peruse the rest. She roared in recognition at the fastidiousness around footfall proposed by “Corner-of-the-Street” (despite it reminding her of the real watchfulness at corners it had once been necessary to practise), and chuckled at the soothing simplicity of splashing in puddles which, she decided, ought indeed to be the definition of “Happiness”. Even “The Three Foxes”, filled with mentions of foraging for food and other associated activities (right down to coconuts, albeit in a shy at a fair), had felt fine.

So today, being brave, she had ventured into the verses she had dismissed as too dangerous to be desirable – in no small part because rereading the others had become tiresome – and swiftly rued her rashness in supposing she could be rational. She had needed distraction (yet again) from dissociation – the proper name for her absences which she had chosen, on Wednesday, to adopt in an effort to take ownership of them. This bout also resulted from news, but not an event of which she had already been aware.

Far from it.

She ought not to have read the paper, really, and had gone explicitly against her annwyl’s advice in doing so; but what Delia didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. And she would make damn sure that she did not. Not not read, but not know that she had read. It only (shamefully) took up a tiny portion of a page, anyway, so it was likely that her little love had passed over it without noticing. Patsy, by contrast, had needed the help of poetry to process her perturbation. So she had selected one of the six, settling (supposedly randomly) on “The Island” – and summarily become stuck on that for the next several, horrifying, hours.

Even when she wasn’t reading, but spending time snuggled with her sweetheart in the comfort of a cwtch, clothed, thanks to the “curse” of their gender, the thoughts had refused to retreat to the recesses of her mind; and then, when she had picked up the book again, she was powerless to resist the pull of that particular poem.

Enthralled by emotional overwhelm.

Not gone – actually absurdly, painfully, present – but unable to absorb anything other than the pages in front of her face.

So much so that she had missed her “Welsh Wonder’s” eventual re-entry to their room.

‘Pats?’

Now somehow hearing the sound of her nickname, the redhead at last looked up to meet the bewildered blue eyes of her beloved brunette. ‘Oh, Deels – diolch, darling – that’s exactly what I need,’ she said sincerely, placing the book spine-downwards on her knee where it was outlined under the duvet to take the proffered rubber pouch and settle it on her stomach. ‘Sorry, my love, I was engrossed,’ she continued contritely. ‘Come cwtch?’

Delia nodded, her worry apparently appeased by that answer, and moved to slip into bed beside her beloved; before backtracking as soon as she realised she had a second gift (of sorts) to give. ‘I brought you some aspirin, as well, annwyl,’ she added, using her now free hand to pick up the glass of water which stood next to the vase holding the market delphiniums on her darling’s bedside table.

‘You angel,’ Patsy purred, pausing to put the two tablets on her tongue and take a gulp from the glass to get them down. ‘I hate to admit this, but I’m in absolute agony. I don’t think I’ve ever had cramps this bad. Would you object to massaging my pelvis when we eventually settle down for sleep?’ She used the question to cover for her certainty that the physical pain had been exacerbated by her emotional stress about today’s news, and was mightily relieved the only response was a headshake and an unquestioning smile of sympathy and acquiescence. ‘You really are too good to be true. Now come cwtch.’

Her petite partner giggled at her persistence. ‘I’m coming, cariad,’ she promised. Then she sprinted around the bed to jump into her side. ‘What’ve you been reading in my absence, then?’ she asked excitedly whilst she cuddled in close. ‘Do I get the delight of any more recitations?’

The taller woman turned the book back over with her left hand, using her right to shift the pages back a fair bit as surreptitiously as possible before her sweetheart could catch a glimpse of the title. ‘Well,’ she started, deflecting with a deliberately dazzling grin, ‘I’ve discovered the most precious little package of a poem which pretty much encapsulates you in both size and content. Would you care to hear it, Welshie?’

Delia giggled again, seeing right through her cariad’s charade, but unable to mind at this moment, because her enthusiasm was so infectious. ‘I would indeed, my love. What’s it called?’

Her girlfriend grinned even wider as she found the relevant page.

‘“Independence” – and it’s short and sweet, like you:

I never did, I never did,
I never did like “Now take care, dear!”
I never did, I never did,
I never did want “Hold-my-hand”;
I never did, I never did,
I never did think much of “Not up there, dear!”
It's no good saying it.
They don't understand.’

The Welshwoman’s whole body wobbled with laughter at the accuracy of the choice, although her darling did deserve a poke in the ribs for her presumption, coupled with some ribbing of the metaphorical kind. So (having delivered the gentle prod of her elbow), she sneaked her hand over to her lover’s lap, and snatched the book up from where it was balanced on one of those lovely long legs to flick through and find a suitable riposte. The one she settled on seemed equally apt for her annwyl, and she said so. ‘That’s me, is it, cariad?’ she murmured cheekily. ‘In that case, love, this is you. Try and guess the title:

If people ask me,
I always tell them:
“Quite well, thank you, I'm very glad to say.”
If people ask me,
I always answer,
“Quite well, thank you, how are you to-day?”
I always answer,
I always tell them,
If they ask me
Politely…
BUT SOMETIMES

I wish

That they wouldn't.’

Patsy took the hit rather more graciously than her girlfriend, with only the slightest smirk in acknowledgement, before replying. ‘“Politeness”. I read that earlier and decided it was almost useful enough to copy out a few times so I can give it to people who just won’t leave their opinions unsaid…’

The smaller woman looked pensive as her taller partner trailed off. ‘You don’t mean me, do you, Pats?’ she asked anxiously.

Her gorgeous girl was mortified that her attempt at humour might have been misinterpreted. ‘Of course not, Deels, darling,’ she said earnestly, seeking consent in the beautiful blue eyes locked to her own to pull her sweetheart closer. Then, dropping soft kisses into brown hair, the redhead rushed to give further reassurance. ‘I could never mind you checking in on me, my love. Here, pass me the book,’ she continued as she pushed away a little, ‘and I’ll show you how I can make fun of myself.’ The brunette was confused, but complied, keeping her gaze trained on her girlfriend’s hands as she thumbed through the poems to find the one she sought. ‘Aha!’ the taller woman exclaimed in triumph when she at last succeeded, flashing a grin to illustrate that everything really was all right. ‘You probably know this one by heart, but I have a slightly different spin on it. I think it’s meant to be comforting – for me, though, it explains how I feel when I dissociate.’

‘You’re using the proper phrase!?’ Delia was grinning, too, now. ‘Da iawn, darling; I’m so proud of you.’

Patsy huffed good-naturedly. ‘I think it’s important to try at least. Anyway, here’s the poem. It’s called “Halfway Down”:

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
Other stair
Quite like
It.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where
I always
Stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!’

‘Oh, my poor Pats!’ the smaller woman said, plucking the collection from her cariad’s now trembling grasp and gathering her in close for yet another comforting cwtch. They were both making reciprocity earn its keep in their relationship tonight. ‘I’m pleased you’ve found a way to make sense of the sensations, sweetheart, but I wonder if you were entirely wise to share them now, when you’re tired and sore?’

The redhead increased the gap between them, as she had done earlier, and fixed her favourite face with a genuinely reassuring grin, trademarked in its languid lopsidedness. ‘It’s fine, my love,’ she replied, hoping this half-truth would hold out for tonight at least, and possibly tomorrow too, since Trixie was coming to visit in the evening. It wasn’t “Halfway Down” which was giving her horrors, after all.

The brunette remained wary. ‘Still, I think we should read one more before we call it quits, cariad,’ she said with soft but sincere concern. Patsy nodded mutely now, and gave her space to search, although Delia did not need to linger long. Flipping immediately to the final page, she took a deep breath. ‘I think you’ll like this, love, because it involves me singing a little and that always seems to soothe you.’ Then, with another breath to kick the worry out of her diaphragm, she began: 

 ‘Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

God bless Mummy. I know that's right.
Wasn't it fun in the bath to-night?
The cold's so cold, and the hot's so hot.
Oh! God bless Daddy – I quite forgot.

If I open my fingers a little bit more,
I can see Nanny's dressing-gown on the door.
It's a beautiful blue, but it hasn't a hood.
Oh! God bless Nanny and make her good.

Mine has a hood, and I lie in bed,
And pull the hood right over my head,
And I shut my eyes, and I curl up small,
And nobody knows that I'm there at all.

Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day.
And what was the other I had to say?
I said “Bless Daddy,” so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.’

When the final refrain reached its finish, the Welshwoman opened her eyes (which she had closed on account of the multitude of memories the poem, and the song especially, had caused to resurface for her as well) to be met with the still-surprising sight of her stoic English sweetheart crying silent tears. ‘Oh, Pats, cariad,’ she crooned softly. ‘That wasn’t meant to make you sad – was it because it’s about parents? I didn’t think; I’m so sorry, my darling…’ she trailed off as the redhead’s gaze focussed a little better and she could seek consent to wrap her arms around her again in a strong and sure embrace.

Once she had the bolster of her beloved brunette’s body, Patsy felt secure enough to try speech. ‘No – not exactly –’ she started, stumbling over her words as she struggled to stop her now audible sobs. ‘It’s – I do know that poem – and this book – I must’ve blocked it out – and then you sang and I – there was a record – a young actress – Papa brought it back from one of his last trips to London in 1941 – for us – and Mama used to swap my name for Christopher Robin’s –’

Delia gave her a gentle squeeze for even more stability. ‘Patience Elizabeth’s saying her prayers?’

‘Mhmm,’ the adult version of that same child mumbled into her shoulder.

‘You’re allowed to have happy memories of them, you know, Pats?’

‘I know but I don’t want any memories I want them here and it’s not fair…’ her annwyl answered on a wail, at last letting herself fully let go.

Her petite partner was aware there was nothing to do but allow this anguish to take its natural course, but she also knew that Patsy would be too exhausted afterwards for even the (supposedly) simplest of physical functions. So, channelling some of the older woman’s flair for forthright practicality, she asked an important question. ‘May I come and help you lie down, cariad? I think you’ll be safer on your side.’

Red hair snapped backwards and blue eyes flew wide in fear. ‘You won’t leave?!’

Brown hair shook soothingly. ‘Absolutely not, annwyl. I’ll lie down behind you and give you the massage I promised.’

‘All right,’ came the tiny, tired agreement, followed by further howls of grief.

Delia loosened her grip briefly to slip out of bed and around to her bereaved beloved. Then, deftly divesting her darling of the duvet, she took the taller woman’s trembling legs in hand and coaxed them upwards so that her sweetheart could settle downwards on the sheets. Once the redhead was ready to roll over, she helped with that as well, finishing by replacing the cosy comfort of the hot water bottle against her aching abdomen and tucking the bedding back around her body. Satisfied that Patsy was physically, if not quite emotionally, secure, she moved as noiselessly as she could back to her own side and slipped into the welcome warmth again, grabbing the massage oil as she did.

‘I’m going to slide your trousers and knickers down slightly, cariad – just to allow me to access your pelvis whilst keeping your pad in place,’ she whispered, before a hand shot up to capture her wrist and stem its downward movement.

‘I’m wearing briefs with the towel inside them,’ Patsy choked out through her tears. ‘They should still be all right to pull down a bit, but please be careful.’ Not that Delia wasn’t always, especially in this area, but (especially in this area) she felt she couldn’t afford not to ask.

‘How very modern of you, Nurse Mount,’ her younger partner murmured approvingly, as she at last ran her palms over the older woman’s pelvis, hoping to add a little levity to proceedings.

Now it was laughter which found its way past her long-legged lover’s tears. ‘Periods are beyond punishing without the added stress of a bloody belt, Nurse Busby.’

‘A bloody belt indeed, annwyl,’ the smaller woman repeated, smirking into the small of her sweetheart’s pyjama-clad back.

‘Pun utterly unintended, I promise you!’ Patsy sputtered, her emotion finally exhausted.

‘Distractions work wonders, don’t they, dearest?’ the brunette breathed, thrilled that her cariad had managed to calm down without too much coaxing.

You work wonders, Welshie,’ the redhead replied, yawning as she relinquished all remaining resistance to sleep.

~

Or appeared to, not just to Delia but to Patsy, who had somehow lulled herself into such a stupor through sadness that she could have sworn she slept.

Yet, when her eyes opened entirely without prompting, a quick flick of her bedside lamp to glance at their alarm informed her that she had in fact only managed a mere ten minutes.

And she was hot. Too hot.

She just needed to stop thinking about –

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

Then the headline from which her unexpected emotional outburst had provided a perversely welcome respite flew in front of her mind’s eye and she was lost, stripped of all hope of any further rest. There was nothing for it but to get up and pace. So she did, stowing the now irksome hot water bottle safely somewhere at the bottom of her bed, and treading as softly as her still-wobbly legs would let her in order to avoid disturbing Delia.

Unsuccessfully so.

‘Pats?’

The taller woman spun on her heel to find that her petite partner had switched on her own bedside lamp and was gazing groggily into the half-illuminated gloom. ‘Sori, cariad,’ she crooned softly, speaking Welsh to start with to try and minimise the dissonance between her darling’s dreams (if she had had any in the short time since they had last spoken) and their mutual dusky reality. ‘I’m hot; I just need to regulate my autonomic nervous system by being up and about for a bit. Go back to sleep, sweetheart.’

‘Not likely, love,’ her far too astute annwyl returned archly, as she also arched a brow. ‘Have you had a nightmare?’

‘No.’ Well, she hadn’t, had she?

Leaning over to her now empty bed, Delia felt the sheets, and absorbed their unabsorbed sweat. ‘Let me take your temperature, Pats?’ she pleaded, somehow keeping her tone level.

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

‘No.’

‘Let me at least feel your head?’

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

‘No. I’m fine. It’s just the hangover from my grief.’

The smaller woman sighed at the slightly slurred phrase, wishing somewhat uncharacteristically that she was not quite so conscientious about consent, and could entertain the idea of pulling her prickly taller partner back into bed without any further words between them. Her motives were purely medical, but even so, she knew she ought to ask. ‘Come and lie next to me, my love? I’ll stay awake with you; it isn’t as if we have work tomorrow, and Trixie’s brief pop-in won’t be arduous.’

Patsy sighed too, but nodded, and went to join her girlfriend again. ‘I can’t talk, mind,’ she cautioned whilst she snuggled in close and smiled at her favourite face. Those beautiful blue eyes were going to be her only ballast against her blasted brain. She dared not even blink, because when she did, well…

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

200 DROWNED IN THE NILE

~

‘Hello, old thing, have you come to check on my sanity? Sorry about the veritable florist-shop in here – my darling Deels brought me a much-needed prescription.’

As she greeted her best friend the next evening (having spent the whole day after her awful night reading every poem but the one the paper had prompted her to) Patsy was aware her tone rang deliberately bright. She was also conscious that she might just have let something significant (and secret) out. Curse her careless mouth – why was it that sickness made her shields slip so easily? Delia’s face was redder than she had ever seen; poor sweetheart.

But their blonde friend and colleague was smiling, seemingly oblivious, so perhaps the situation was still salvageable. Trixie had a hand to her forehead in a grandiose gesture of concern, and Patsy thought she could probably use the close proximity to her advantage. ‘Hang on,’ she began, hedging, ‘it’s Tuesday. Why are you here and not…elsewhere?’

The hand withdrew as concern turned to consternation and her best friend stood up, regarding her warily. ‘I – They gave me the night off because I was worried about you,’ she answered, deflecting. ‘Delia ’phoned Nonnatus on Sunday because the weekend had been tough, and I gather last night wasn’t much better.’

Patsy was torn between three feelings: horror that so much had been shared, guilt that her girlfriend had been struggling in silence, and annoyance that Trixie didn’t trust her to tell the truth; although that last one was rather rich coming from her. She went with the second when she spoke. ‘Oh, Deels, I’m sorry –’

The brunette cut her off with the barest of headshakes and a grin. ‘Don’t be. I’m fine. I just thought we could both do with some company, and Trixie volunteered for duty.’

‘You say that as though it’s a hardship, sweetie,’ the blonde put in, pouting at her younger friend’s choice of words.

‘Isn’t it?’ Patsy parried, laughing briefly before spotting another opportunity. ‘Especially on a Tuesday.’

Trixie’s face fell for a completely different reason now. ‘I – I think I might stop going again,’ she admitted at last, collapsing onto the bed and sobbing.

‘Oh, Trix…’ both other women breathed, more in response to her emotion than the news which had provoked it.

Beatrix Franklin hardly ever cried, and certainly not in front of other people.

Their reply came, eventually, along with the baleful nod of blonde hair. ‘I went back on the twenty-third, like I said I would, but then last week I tried and there were just too many people when I arrived and I couldn’t cope, so I left – and this week I had the convenient excuse of visiting you.’

‘Right,’ her best friend said firmly, with a gentle smile in recompense for her rash words. ‘Climb into bed next to me now. And that’s an order, Nurse Franklin – isn’t it, Nurse Busby?’

‘Absolutely, Nurse Mount. The patient is in critical need of treatment via an urgently-administered cwtch.’

Trixie giggled, but did as she was told, and found herself swiftly followed by Delia. ‘This is the wrong way around, though,’ she protested once they were settled. ‘I’m meant to be taking care of you.’

‘Nonsense,’ she heard from either side. ‘We all take care of each other.’

~

‘For pity’s sake, Lizzy –’

‘Don’t “Lizzy” me, Charles –’

‘Fine. For pity’s sake, Elizabeth, I don’t know how many times you want me to say it. I’m sorry –’

‘I just don’t understand why or how you let yourself leave it so late. If only you’d pulled some strings, we could all have been safe on the Mata Hari, and far away from here by now…’

‘We don’t know that for sure. She was almost certainly caught in the bombing like the rest of us. And there weren’t any strings to pull; the whole bloody puppet theatre had collapsed!’

‘I’ll thank you not to swear at me so near to where the children are asleep –’

‘And I’ll thank you not to raise your voice at me in the same place, not to mention in public!’

‘This bl-blasted island hardly qualifies as public, Charlie!’

‘Double standards, Lizzy –’

‘Yes, well, I gather it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. And it seems silly to hold old grudges when everything is new.’

‘Apology accepted, then?’

‘Apology accepted, my love.’

Patsy knew she ought not to be listening. She ought, in fact, to be asleep, just as Mama said she was. But sleep had been a struggle since they had landed here. Part of her wanted to think that was because she had had to work so hard to stay awake on the lifeboat that her body could no longer quite grasp the idea of rest, but another part of her, the less grown up and intellectual part of her – the one without long words like “intellectual” – knew that the real reason was much simpler.

Nightmares.

And not like those she had had at home in Singapore sometimes, either, where she would wake up sweating but with no understanding of what had happened in her dream.

No. These were as clear as if she were awake, and stayed with her for a very long time afterwards. Was that because they were more than just her imagination? She knew she had always had a very active one of those. Papa called her “fanciful”. Affectionately, of course. But these dreams were different. Far bigger and scarier than anything her brain had ever made by itself before. Because this time it had help.

Since the sinking, all she had been able to see when she shut her eyes was the same loop, spinning out like one of the Pathé newsreels shown at the beginning of some films. Yet not like them at all, because they were grainy, and these images inside her head were anything but. The sound onscreen was tinny, too, and the quality here was better than every other noise she had ever heard. Well, “better” was the wrong word. There was nothing good about it.

Nothing good about the bombs.

Nothing good about the screams.

Nothing good about the scramble to one of the only lifeboats left without holes in its side.

Nothing good about falling off the edge of it once they were on the water and thinking she would drown.

And absolutely nothing good about watching Mama waving frantically to Papa as soon as she realised there was a tiny bit of space beside her. Nor about watching him leap from the side of the ship. Nor about that awful moment when she – they – thought he had gone under as well. Nor the one just after that, when they had begun to move away, knowing that there were still so many people on board and that there was nothing to be done to save them.

No. She couldn’t sleep.

No.

No.

No.

‘Patsy? What’s my precious patient girl doing awake?’

Papa. He had been so nice recently. It was strange. He had always been attentive, but mostly about lessons and things she had learnt. Not just nice for niceness’ sake. Perhaps he was feeling guilty? Whatever the reason, blue eyes so like hers were holding her in a kindly gaze, he having come to settle down on the ground beside her; taking up his sentry post at the edge of their closely-huddled group.

‘Scared,’ she said softly.

‘Scared to sleep?’

She nodded.

‘Because of dreams?’

She nodded again.

‘Cuddle up close to me. I’ll keep you safe.’

Smiling now, she nodded a third time, and did as he said. But, even as she did, she knew he could not keep his promise. Through no fault of his own, he had not been able to so far, and something told her things were only going to get worse. Her father was not an all-powerful king like those in the fairy stories he read them at night. Not even a prince. He was a human being. And human beings were only human. So, whilst she shut her eyes and could not but be grateful for his strength when she nestled into his hug, she did not dare believe his presence would keep her dreams away.

And she was right not to – because with sleep came the bombs. And the screams.

And the kicking when she fell off and thought she was drowning.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Delia was fast asleep, more deeply than she had been in days, lulled into thinking she could let herself drift off fully by the fun they had had with Trixie. Snuggled up, all three of them together, they had offered mutual support with their struggles. Struggles which were different and yet similar too. And her gorgeous girl had seemed happier than in ages as well – not just since her period had started but since the beginning of May. Since that awful morning of the changeover of government; which took place both half a world away and right in their front room.

True, Monday evening had been hard, with the redhead’s unexpected yet understandable realisation about AA Milne and everything that had proceeded from it. But, even with the fever, they had been fine. Although it was staying awake which had stopped the nightmares then, so perhaps the brunette ought not to have been so bewildered when she was suddenly woken by thrashing feet.

Still, she was – but she somehow schooled herself to avoid showing her anxiety as she leapt automatically to her lover’s aid. ‘It’s all right, Pats,’ she called quietly whilst she adjusted her position to offer an anchoring grasp around the taller woman’s waist. ‘You’re safe, cariad, I’ve got you, I’ve got you –’ The attempt at soothing promises stopped abruptly as Patsy’s flailing fist connected with her jaw. Stifling her surprised exclamation, she shifted her grip to grab the errant arm in a gentle hold, and shifted her strategy too. She needed to wake her girlfriend up. ‘Pats, love,’ she started a little more loudly, ‘come back to me.’

More kicking. No response.

‘Come on, come back,’ she crooned. ‘Please, Patsy.’

At that final word, the completely unconscious use of her full nickname, the redhead’s eyes flew open. ‘I’m sorry, Papa,’ she stammered. ‘The dreams came again.’

Papa?

Delia paled at that, and glanced upward and over to that pair of beautiful blues to find them unseeing. There was more work to be done. ‘Not Papa, Pats; it’s Deels. Delia.’

Her beloved broke their contact to sit bolt upright now, fully awake, and utterly bewildered. ‘Delia? But…’

Hearing the small and scared tone of her older partner’s voice, the younger woman sat up as well, and pulled her cariad close again. ‘I know, my love, you had a nightmare. You were kicking,’ she explained simply, hoping her matter-of-factness would prompt Patsy to open up, even though it was the middle of the night. When that did not work, she tried humour. ‘You pack a pretty powerful punch, too,’ she added with a low laugh.

The redhead wrenched herself from her grasp. ‘I hit you!?’ she asked, horrified.

The brunette shook her head and gently brought her girlfriend back in for a cwtch. ‘Not deliberately. You didn’t seem in control of your limbs.’

Her annwyl nodded awkwardly against her shoulder. ‘I thought I was drowning. The shipwreck – Banka Island – and Papa…’ she trailed off, too exhausted to articulate the complexity of this particular dream.

Delia nodded, too, in understanding. ‘I thought he might be there. You were talking to him when you first woke up.’

Patsy was perturbed, more that she did not remember than that it had happened. ‘I was?’

‘Mhmm. You apologised and told him the dreams came again.’

The perturbation passed in a slight exhalation. ‘Ah – well, that makes sense at least. I was having a nightmare about having nightmares. It was very strange; I’ve not had one like that before. I think all this poetry might be going to my head,’ Patsy said, smirking as she pushed away to meet her petite partner’s gaze.

Delia returned the grin, but there was a seriousness behind her smile. ‘I wanted to ask, actually,’ she began, reaching almost reflexively for her sweetheart’s right wrist as she spoke, ‘do you have any idea what might’ve brought it on?’

Rather than respond verbally immediately, the redhead wriggled her hand out of the brunette’s hold and stretched to switch on her bedside lamp, so she could see properly to accomplish her real task – rummaging under her pillow to pull out the paper she had hidden beneath it two days ago. ‘A motor launch capsized in the Nile on Saturday and the majority of the passengers drowned. It was only meant to hold eighty people and there were over two hundred on board; mostly pilgrims to Mecca. That, coupled with the news about the Soviet Union admitting having burned Hitler’s body…’

‘Oh Pats – but why did you hide it?’ Even as she felt desperate for her darling’s distress, Delia chuckled a little inwardly; she had wondered why Monday’s Guardian had suddenly vanished when all the other days’ issues were still stacked neatly for reuse. Not that she had been checking…

Her musings were cut off by the answer to her question. ‘You told me you thought I shouldn’t read the news and then I felt bad because I did and you were right. But also because telling you about that would’ve meant telling you about this –’ Here Patsy paused to gather further evidence in the shape of the poetry she had joked about just now. Flipping to the page she had so skilfully skipped the other night, she passed the collection to her cariad. ‘You read it. Aloud, if you like. I don’t mind, it’s just, well, I can’t.’

‘All right, annwyl.’ The smaller woman squeezed her taller partner’s hand, which she had wangled her way back to holding, and began to recite after a deep breath:

‘If I had a ship,
I'd sail my ship
I'd sail my ship
Through Eastern seas;
Down to a beach where the slow waves thunder –
The green curls over and the white falls under –
Boom! Boom! Boom!
On the sun-bright sand.
Then I'd leave my ship and I'd land,
And climb the steep white sand,
And climb to the trees
The six dark trees,
The coco-nut trees on the cliff's green crown –
Hands and knees
To the coco-nut trees,
Face to the cliff as the stones patter down,
Up, up, up, staggering, stumbling,
Round the corner where the rock is crumbling,
Round this shoulder,
Over this boulder,
Up to the top where the six trees stand…

And there I would rest, and lie,
My chin in my hands, and gaze
At the dazzle of the sand below,
And the green waves curling slow
And the grey-blue distant haze
Where the sea goes up to the sky…

And I'd say to myself as I looked so lazily down at the sea:
“There's nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me.”’

Having sat in rapt silence until the very last syllable in the very last word of the very last line had left her lover’s lips, from that moment onwards, Patsy’s trance broke and she could not stop herself speaking. ‘It’s just so idyllic in comparison to my experience of “Eastern seas” and the contrast makes me feel sick. Especially because the only “Boom! Boom! Boom!” I know of is the sound of bombs.’

‘So did he. That’s why it’s idyllic.’

‘What do you mean?’

Her ginger girlfriend seemed genuinely confused, so the brunette tried to elaborate as simply and quickly as possible. ‘He had a response similar to yours now after he left his regiment at the end of the Great War.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, cariad.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I found his self-titled autobiography in the library when I originally thought I’d borrow the poetry from there. But in the end I wanted you to have a less impersonal copy. Anyway, I’d say he wrote how he did in order to reframe some of that.’

Big blue eyes stared, star-struck, into their matching pair. ‘You are so wise, Welshie.’

Her little love laughed at the taller woman’s amazement. ‘I’m not, annwyl. I just know that even the most apparently perfect childhood holds secrets and sadness, so things are never as they seem –’

‘Oh, my love –’

‘No, Pats, that wasn’t me trying to get pity. I only want to say I’m not wise. I understand; that’s all. Not on the same level as your struggles, sweetheart, but Mam’s interference didn’t start out of the blue after my accident. You know that.’

‘I do, Deels,’ her cariad concurred contritely.

‘All right then. In that case, will you accept my offering of an alternative beach scene to help you get back to sleep?’ Patsy nodded, and Delia smiled as she looked down at the book again to search. ‘It’s called “Sand-Between-The-Toes”:

I went down to the shouting sea,
Taking Christopher down with me,
For Nurse had given us sixpence each –
And down we went to the beach.

We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose,
And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes.
Whenever a good nor’wester blows,
Christopher is certain of
Sand-between-the-toes.

The sea was galloping grey and white;
Christopher clutched his sixpence tight;
We clambered over the humping sand –
And Christopher held my hand.

We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose,
And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes.
Whenever a good nor’wester blows,
Christopher is certain of
Sand-between-the-toes.

There was a roaring in the sky;
The sea-gulls cried as they blew by;
We tried to talk, but had to shout –
Nobody else was out.

When we got home, we had sand in the hair,
In the eyes and the ears and everywhere;
Whenever a good nor’wester blows,
Christopher is found with
Sand-between-the-toes.’

The redhead listened in rapt attention again, leaving a slight pause at the end of the poem before speaking herself. ‘Mama recited that at me and Grace after she caught us playing outside in the middle of a monsoon once, you know. Probably just before the invasion, so November 1941? It was far more effective than a traditional telling off –’

She stopped as her girlfriend groaned audibly. ‘Oh no!’ a pronounced Welsh lilt lamented. ‘Have I made things worse for yet another night?’

‘No, no. That’s a nice memory; and, as you reminded me recently, I’m allowed them too. Now my period’s a little less present, I can comprehend that without crying like a toddler.’

‘You weren’t,’ the younger woman admonished gently.

‘I know, I said that deliberately to goad you into reacting,’ her older partner said gleefully as she got slapped on the shoulder for her cheek. ‘But seriously, I do understand better now. When we’re not right in the midst of a response to trauma, we can use other things to work through it. It’s an extension of my “humour-as-a-coping-mechanism” tactic. And actually even when we are in the midst of things it can still work quite well. Thank you for reminding me it’s possible, my love. I really ought to have remembered myself, since Miss Dryburgh gave me ample examples –’

‘Oh?’

‘Mhmm – she wrote a satirical sketch called Alice in Internment Land. I’ll recite it for you –’

‘Not tonight,’ Delia put in firmly.

‘No, not tonight,’ Patsy promised. ‘Tonight I have one more poem to put forward, because all this talk of reframing memories has made me realise that I might just be able to be a tiny bit grateful to that “blasted island”, as Mama called it – because it, and everything after it, gave me a chance to be closer to her (and Papa) than I probably would have been otherwise. Not that I’m glad it happened, I’d never think that, but our relationship before the war was… Well, do you know the poem I mean if I say “Disobedience”?’

A brunette nod, accompanied by a delighted recitation. ‘James James –’

Patsy grinned, continuing the piece. ‘Morrison Morrison –’

Delia returned her redhead’s smile, taking the third line, and prompting them to swap throughout the remainder of the final verse. ‘Weatherby George Dupree –’

‘Took great –’

‘Care of his Mother –’

‘’Though he was only three –’

‘James James –’

‘Said to his Mother –’

‘“Mother,” he said, said he:’

‘“You-must-never-go-down-to-the-end-of-the-town-if-you-don’t-go-down-with ME!”’

The two women laughed far too loudly for the late (or early) hour, gasping for breath between their giggles. When they eventually recovered, the eldest briefly expanded on her metaphor. ‘Basically, if we wanted to visit with either of them, we essentially had to make an appointment – and that’s what this poem evokes for me. But I don’t think such hilarity is conducive to sleep, sweetheart, so I’m going to take a tip from you and sing a hymn I learnt when I was very young…’ She trailed off as they both giggled at her reference to the title of the anthology she held between her knees, using the gap to gear herself up to performing. ‘It’s about exactly the ideas we’ve been playing with tonight, and it goes like this:

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
For love and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
But still to adventure and battle I ride,
Though back into storyland giants have fled,
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
'Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
And let me set free, with the sword of my youth,
From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.

Chapter Text

By Monday the twentieth, when early May had morphed into mid- and was on the verge of becoming late, Delia was exhausted. There really was no other word for it. Emotionally and physically drained. She was sure Patsy must be, too, but her taller partner was too preoccupied by the tenacity needed simply to stay afloat – almost literally – on the relentless tides of her trauma to have either the energy or inclination to fathom out feelings. Following the mixed blessing of the anthology, the older woman’s reaction to the events of her younger days had steadily grown in both vividness and intensity. Possibly (probably) as a direct response to, and a pulling back against, her attempts to reassert some control over (and find something to cherish in) her childhood. And, whilst the worried Welshwoman could understand this, she nevertheless found it inexcusably unfair. Trauma brought tiredness and then had the audacity to remove its remedy by stopping solace in sleep. For both of them, too; because Patsy needed to stay awake to feel safe, but she was unable to feel safe if she lay awake alone. Not that they were getting no rest whatsoever – because, of course, out of concern for her “Welsh Wonder’s” wellbeing, she always endeavoured to drift off in the first instance.

Usually she succeeded, too.

But broken sleep was almost worse than none at all, and Delia was unsure how many more disturbed nights in a row she could take. How many more Patsy could take. Because it was now putting strain on their daytimes as well. Things had not been as tricky as this in a long while.

Not since they had moved.

As was evident from the fact that she was currently standing beside the east-facing window in their lounge and trying to coax her cariad back to their joint reality.

Again.

As she had at some point every day for the past near-fortnight. But the individual instances of this particular issue had never lasted so long. And never appeared in the evening, in such a way that she had had to physically force Patsy upright when she had found her beginning to bend at the waist, for fear that, if she let her keep going, she would stay there all night.

Keirei –

‘No, Pats, not keirei. No bowing.’ Not now. Please. Not just before bed. I can’t get you undressed like this…

Keirei!

The panic in Patsy’s voice made the word sound more like the order it had once been, and Delia felt desperate, but she knew she had to stand firm. Literally. Otherwise she would lose her lover to everything the language she was now speaking signified. So, whilst the redhead wriggled, she simply tightened her strong but gentle grasp around her middle. Then, shaking her brown hair in such a way that it tickled the back of her sweetheart’s neck, she tried again. ‘No keirei, cariad. No salutes. Sleep.’ Please God let’s go to sleep.

Keirei!

Her darling was becoming more and more distressed. Delia felt frantic, as the taller woman’s body begged to break free, and she was fast running out of ideas. Although not all had deserted her. Not yet. ‘No. Īe. Onegaishimasu. Please, Pats.’

The brunette held her breath whilst she waited for the redhead’s response. ‘Keirei!’ The breath came out on a sigh. That had been her last individual resort. There was only one other option, and it required teamwork – and a telephone call.

Right.

Now to get her cariad to the couch so she was secure. Loosening the grip of her right arm, the Welshwoman moved it in a flash from her girlfriend’s waist to her wrist. ‘Walk. Now. Quickly. Lekas,’ she instructed softly, knowing she could almost certainly count on compliance because the rhythmic movement would be close enough to filing in or out of place to trick her beloved’s brain into believing she would soon be allowed to bow, and the last word in her list was one of the reasons she would rather not remember Malay. Delia hated doing this, hooking into the setting of her sweetheart’s struggle, but sometimes it was the only way to be sure she would listen. And she had a duty of care. So, keeping her left hand on Patsy’s stomach to offer stability, she used the placement of her right on her wrist to propel them both forward. Then, once they were near enough, she gave two further instructions. ‘Sit.’ Patsy sat. ‘Don’t move.’ Patsy nodded numbly. This latter she was sure to respect for a similar reason to the walking – freezing her muscles was familiar within the context of “where” she was in this moment. Satisfied that her older partner’s younger self would be safe for the brief interlude of the telephone conversation, she bolted across the room to ring for reinforcements.

‘Oh, hello, Sister. It’s Delia. I’m sorry to call so unexpectedly and I don’t wish to take time away from our actual patients –’ A slight, nervous giggle and a pause for breath. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right. Dr Turner is our GP too. Thank you. It’s just tonight is proving tricky and, well,’ another pause, to glance furtively over her shoulder, after which she lowered her voice a little more, ‘I need to get Patsy to bed but I can’t lift her if she’s completely unable to help.’ A third pause. ‘Yes, that would be perfect. But only if she isn’t too busy and absolutely doesn’t mind –’ One more pause. ‘All right. Thank you so very much.’

Replacing the receiver as quietly as she could, the smaller woman padded back to the sofa to sit next to her tall, and trembling, girlfriend. Knowing speech was out of the question, she simply snuggled up close, and hoped the uncomplicated proximity would suffice to say how sorry she was to have been forced to resort to such tactics. Not the telephone call, but everything which had preceded it. Restraint had been bad enough when it was with patients on psych placements – they had talked often of their mutual discomfort at it, despite understanding its necessity in certain instances – so to have used it now, however gently, not on a patient but on her Patience

It made her physically sick.

She felt she had failed. As a nurse and a girlfriend.

Thankfully, she only had mere minutes to mull over her guilt, as there was a soft yet firm rap on their door; someone must have let Phyllis in the front. Bless the neighbours they (still) had yet to meet. ‘Don’t move,’ Delia repeated on a whisper as she stood up and sprinted stiffly through to welcome their welcome guest.

This was taking a toll on her body too, damn it!

Their older colleague was barely visible behind the camp-bed she had somehow lugged from her car. ‘Whatever’s that for!?’

The younger woman’s question had rushed out before she could mind her manners, but Phyllis just chuckled and provided a pragmatic explanation. ‘What do you think, Delia, lass? Once we’ve got dear Patsy settled, we’ll move your bed into the lounge together, and I’ll set myself up on this on the floor next to hers.’ She put up a hand to signal she had more to say. ‘I know you’re concerned about her not sleeping, but the circles under your eyes seem so comfortable there that they might as well be permanent residents, so I’d wager she hasn’t been anyway. Correct?’ Delia nodded, open-mouthed, but not at all offended. ‘Well then,’ their friend continued frankly, ‘it hardly matters who’s with her whilst she’s awake. Nurse to nurse, Miss Busby, you need a night off if you’re going to make it through the rest of May. Aside from anything else, we need you fighting fit when you return to work.’

The Welshwoman bit back the worry her Northern colleague’s last phrase inspired – she wasn’t sure herself if either of them would be fit to return to Nonnatus any time soon – and simply nodded again in agreement, before qualifying slightly. ‘All right. But let me take the camp-bed, Phyllis, please. You’ll have to be up and down to her, and she’s much more likely to feel safe enough to sleep if she can see you.’

Phyllis was clearly impressed by her practicality. ‘Very well, lass, if you think that’s sensible. Are you happy to swap the sheets whilst she and I get sorted out?’ A nod. ‘In that case, I think we’d best not leave her much longer – just tell me exactly what’s been tricky.’

Delia did so, quickly and quietly. ‘Patsy wants to do nothing but bow – it’s been a recurring thing for almost two weeks, and makes sense, because she had to do it so regularly as a child – but today, tonight, she’s more disturbed than even I’ve ever seen, and I had to restrain her. The only way I could let go to use the telephone and then answer the door was to insist she didn’t move from her position on the couch. Exactly the tactic they used during the tenko, or roll-call, in the camps. I feel awful,’ she finished.

‘Don’t,’ the older nurse responded decisively, electing not to ask at this point if her younger friend had read the news. ‘You did what you had to do to keep her safe. When she’s able to articulate things properly again, I’m sure she’ll be grateful. And, in the interim, I’m here to help choose the next course of action or treatment. Now,’ Phyllis paused, taking Delia’s hand in her free one and giving it a gentle squeeze, ‘let’s shift this bed into the lounge and see how she’s doing.’

Once they were in the lounge, as Delia set up the camp-bed, Phyllis perched on the couch next to Patsy and took her hand by way of a gentle greeting. ‘Hello, lass,’ she started, before breaking off when her friend fixed her with a piercing yet somehow distant stare.

‘Mama is sick so she can’t come to tenko again today and that means Grace and I have to get really good at our bowing because she won’t be there with us. When we get it wrong they usually hit her – I don’t mind if they hit me in her place – but I’m worried they might hit Gracie.’

Phyllis and Delia shared a look they knew she would not notice. ‘I’ll fetch the thermometer from the bathroom cabinet,’ the smaller woman said softly. On her return, she grinned as widely and unwaveringly as she could at her girlfriend, and placed a (hopefully) steadying hand on the redhead’s seated knee in readiness for whatever protests panic might provoke. ‘Could you open your mouth for me, please, cariad?’ she asked brightly. ‘I just need to pop this under your tongue to take your temperature.’ The Welshwoman was wise enough to avoid her annwyl’s armpits at this juncture – not for the specific area, but because her limbs would be on high alert.

‘No.’

‘Please, Pats; it’ll only take two ticks.’

‘No.’

Delia shared another glance with her fellow brunette for guidance. Phyllis pointed silently towards herself. ‘Would you let Phyllis, love?’

Patsy simply opened her mouth. ‘That’s a good lass,’ their older colleague said sincerely, channelling her Northern heritage here for comfort rather than condescension. As she took the thermometer from Delia, she gave her hand a quick squeeze, aware that the rebuff would feel like rejection no matter how much the Welshwoman might use her medical knowledge to rationalise it. Then, moving speedily to maximise the advantage of consenting compliance, she stuck the thermometer under Patsy’s tongue. ‘And close,’ she continued, checking the watch she had habitually pinned to her shirt as she had left the convent, despite being out of uniform. She wanted to ensure the measurement was accurate, because there was no telling when they might get another. ‘Open again,’ she said after a suitable amount of time had elapsed.

She showed Delia the reading, in part so that they were working from the same basis, but also purely because the younger woman would know better how to proceed. ‘I think you’re sick, sweetheart,’ she began, her sentence vacillating between her roles as nurse and partner.

‘But I can’t get sick. Mama will be angry if I leave Gracie on her own.’

Delia shook her head, deciding to meet Patsy where she was tonight instead of fighting against the fiction of her fever. ‘I think she’d be proud of you for taking care of yourself, Pats,’ she said, carefully speaking only true statements.

‘I agree,’ Phyllis put in, ‘and, if she saw how you’re shivering, she’d say you need a nice warm bath and bed.’

‘I am rather chilly, but hot too,’ Patsy conceded, giggling.

‘In that case, lass, a bath is definitely in order. Shall I help whilst Delia makes us all some tea?’

~

In the time it took her beloved to be bathed (an unfortunate necessity where treatment for one trauma took precedence over the triggers of another) Delia not only made tea but stripped her bed of its sheets and put fresh on for Phyllis. Then she brought the stripped sheets through to the lounge, planning to put them somewhat haphazardly onto the camp bed, before deciding she had too little energy to bother and opting for a pile of blankets from the airing cupboard in their stead. She would be too exhausted to observe the difference anyway, she thought tiredly, as her girlfriend and friend trailed back from the bathroom.

That had been a success at least; or so it seemed.

‘Tea then bed, yes?’ Phyllis prompted. Patsy nodded mutely and sat down on the couch, stock still.

Perhaps not quite a success, then. Her sweetheart still wasn’t fully present. But it must be the fever. It had to be.

The older woman’s experience caught the concern in her younger colleague’s eyes immediately. ‘Patsy has promised to let me drive you both to see Patrick first thing tomorrow. Haven’t you, lass?’

Watching as her redhead nodded again, the younger of the two brunettes applauded her elder’s concerted effort to seek engagement even when it was not assured. ‘Da iawn, darling,’ Delia said with a smile which was returned tenfold, and she felt the icy grip of fear on her heart melt just a little. Then a little more as Patsy patted the space on the sofa beside her. At least, if they were sipping their tea in silence, it could be companionable.

But cups of tea only lasted so long, and eventually it was time to take on the next task – bed.

Nos da, cariad,’ the Welshwoman whispered in her English lover’s ear as Patsy allowed herself to be led from the room. ‘Mae’n flin ’da fi.’ Then, once she was alone, she collapsed in quiet tears on the camp-bed, before bucking herself up and trooping through to the bathroom for a soak of her own. Phyllis had said to meet back there to debrief once she was clean and her sweetheart was settled – so they did, roughly twenty minutes later.

‘Out for the count,’ their older colleague said softly and with a reassuring smile as she stepped into the room in slippers. ‘And I think I found the cause of the increased intensity this evening.’

Only now did Delia notice that Phyllis was holding a newspaper. ‘Oh no,’ she returned, grimacing. ‘Was it hidden under her pillow?’

‘It was, lass.’

‘Is it today’s?’

‘It is.’

The younger woman groaned again. What was it about the Monday Guardian, for goodness’ sake!? ‘Is it anything especially important?’

Her fellow brunette nodded. ‘It is, actually. I nearly asked about it when I arrived, but I thought we should deal with what was in front of us first. Sukarno was made President for Life of Indonesia on Saturday – and it takes a while for the subsequent reports to filter through. But it’s been on the cards for some time; it’s merely a formality to cement his total rule. Patsy probably already knew. It’s just that it’s in ink now. Definitive proof that it’s happened.’

Delia took a moment to digest this information. ‘So another dictatorship?’

‘Essentially, yes. And it seems all is not rosy in the newly-named West Irian, either. None of the Indonesian islands have enough food, so he’s holding propaganda conferences all over the world. There was a piece about that in the paper on the sixth, come to think of it.’

‘I don’t think Pats will have read that – that was after I told her to stop. Although she clearly didn’t, given her nightmare following Trixie’s visit, and how she’s been since…’

The sentence hung as both women froze, listening to ascertain whether there had been a shout from down the passage.

Mama! Mama! Mama!

Phyllis shucked off her slippers and sprinted towards the bedroom. Delia had never seen her – their – dear friend move so fast. She, meanwhile, flopped face-down on the camp-bed and sobbed herself to sleep.

~

Patsy’s back hurt.

Of course it did.

They – she and Grace – had been stuck here in the sun for hours.

Along with everyone else.

Except Mama and the other sick women and children.

It. Was. So. Hot.

Too hot.

She wasn’t sure how much more she could stand.

Literally.

But she had to keep still.

Any movement would be taken as a sign of disrespect, to be punished as the guards counting them saw fit, and they all knew by now what would happen.

Someone would take the hit.

Again, literally.

(Her brain thought it was so clever, with those cheeky reminders. It wasn’t.)

Usually it was Mama, because they pretended to be nice to the children, but there was nothing worse than watching your parent be punished on your behalf.

Patsy was certain it would have been better to be hit herself.

She wanted to protect Mama. And Grace.

It was her duty as the eldest child.

That was why she did what the man said and stood still whilst he looked at her whenever he asked.

And why she refused to let herself collapse now.

But her body seemed not to be listening.

It was too hot.

Too hot.

Too hot.

Too hot.

Then there was a guard screaming at her. ‘Keirei!’

She was on the ground. ‘Keirei!’

She scrambled up again. ‘Keirei!’

Then she was on the ground again through no effort of her own.

At least he hadn’t slapped Gracie.

Her head hurt, though.

The other mothers were making angry noises, too, and some of them were bravely breaking out of line to check if she was all right.

But she didn’t want them.

She wanted Mama.

‘Mama! Mama! Mama!’

‘Patsy,’ Phyllis called in what she hoped was a comforting manner. ‘I’m here. You’re safe.’ The younger woman shifted slightly in her fitful sleep, and the veteran nurse was glad of two things – that her legs were still sturdy enough to have carried her back to the bedroom sufficiently quickly, and that she had heeded Delia’s advice about their respective sleeping arrangements. So much so that she had left the two single beds together. That way, once she was lying down, she could comfort her friend and colleague by holding her close.

Not like Delia, of course, and not even like the mother Patsy seemed so desperately to be craving tonight – Elizabeth, was it? – but at least something approximating her.

Phyllis had always been perfectly content to focus on her career. Nursing patients, and birthing babies, was about as near to biological motherhood as she fancied getting, quite frankly. But her younger colleagues were family, and she would do whatever it took, for however long, to protect them from pain. So she had leapt at the chance to help out when she had heard that two of them were hurting. And these two in particular, because they didn’t officially have each other; unlike dear Barbara, who had Tom, or Trixie, who had Christopher.

‘I’m sorry, Mama. I’m trying my best to look after Gracie.’

Phyllis cursed her momentary lapse of attention as her redheaded companion rose from her bed. This was no time for sentimental musings. ‘Going for a walk, are we, lass?’ she asked on a breath as she too got up and moved to follow the younger woman.

Patsy did not respond to her question, merely continuing the conversation conjured up by her delirium as she paced, barefoot, back-and-forth across the bedroom’s bare floorboards. ‘The problem is the bowing. I’m too tall and it’s too hot and I get tired. I know I shouldn’t, the heat isn’t that different from at home, but my head hurts and my arms get heavy and my legs just can’t hold me up. Did anyone tell you I fell yesterday?’ A pause as though she was listening; this was the residue of a resurfaced memory rather than a nightmare. ‘No, they didn’t hit Grace. Just me. I guess I’m almost a woman now.’ Another pause. ‘I know I’m only nine. I’m sorry, Mama, I’m doing my best. But the bowing is so hard. Watch –’

‘Oh no you don’t,’ Phyllis pre-empted, slipping around so she was in front of her friend, before wrapping her in an embrace. She wanted Patsy to be able to see her if she could bear to open her eyes, since any touch without the possibility of meeting gazes would be terrifying in her current state, but she knew for that to work she had to be there before the bowing began.

A luxury her “darling Deels” had not been gifted earlier.

Patsy still tried to protect her sweetheart, even when feeling fragile; that much was evident from observing the briefest of interactions between them.

Patsy tried to protect her little love just as she had endeavoured to do with her little sister.

Poor poppet.

‘Please, I need to practise. Let me show you.’

‘No. It’s not time for that now.’

‘But why!? If I don’t practise, I won’t get better, and the punishments will only get worse –’

‘Because you don’t need to practise here, Patsy – we’re in London.’

‘London!? No we aren’t, that’s silly.’ The younger woman buried her face in the conveniently-placed shoulder just nearby, further blocking out her surroundings.

Phyllis decided this fever had done enough damage. ‘Look at me,’ she pleaded.

Patsy paused a moment before complying, summoning up the strength to lift her heavy head and then convince her eyes to open. When she eventually succeeded, she blinked, adjusting to both the light and the sight of her roommate for the night. ‘N-nurse Crane?’

‘Hello, Patsy lass,’ her colleague said calmly, smiling, faintly amused at the use of her title. When the fever had broken during the redhead’s bath, their language had been much more informal – but then so had the situation. Boundaries sometimes slipped when there were naked bodies involved, of necessity, in an attempt to ease awkwardness. On all sides.

But it was just such blurred boundaries which had caused part of the problems in Patsy’s childhood.

Poor poppet.

‘Oh, Phyllis,’ that same girl-woman now said over a sob, clinging onto the comfort of the Northern nurse’s kind eyes and gentle hug as though her life depended on it; which, in the context of the recent crisis of her fever and its remnants, was a fairly accurate assessment of how she must feel.

‘All right, lass, let it out.’

Patsy needed little prompting. ‘I’m – so – sorry,’ she wailed against the older woman’s pyjama shirt, its material (thankfully) muffling the full volume of her mortification.

‘No apologies. You’re sick.’

‘Only because I was silly,’ came the self-reproach once the sobs had passed.

Brown curls shook in refutation of that blame. ‘You can’t expect yourself never to read or listen to the news again in case it triggers you. And I think it’s justified on this occasion. I have a few choice words for Sukarno and his ilk, Hitler and Hirohito chief among them. I believe the weather of the last few days agrees with me, too.’

The redhead laughed now, albeit a hollow, rueful one. ‘True. On all counts. But poor Deels. She needs a break.’

Phyllis nodded, simultaneously impressed and saddened by the fact that her first thought was for the other, and (clearly) beloved, brunette. ‘She does. But that’s why I’m here tonight – and, if necessary, we’ll sort the rota so it can be a recurring arrangement.’

‘You don’t think I’m ready to come back, then?’ There was no trace of indignation in this enquiry.

‘I’m not qualified to judge. Only you, together with Patrick (and perhaps some support from “poor Deels”, as you call her), may decide that. But I will say that I think you need a break, and you seem not to have found your way to one just yet.’

‘I’m getting there. I might need some more help, though.’

‘Which we can see about sorting tomorrow,’ her friend said with another nod and smile, ‘but for now you only need bed. I’ll be right by your side as you sleep, and on hand for if and when your fever returns.’

‘Thank you, Phyllis.’

‘I feel as strongly about “thank you” as I do about “sorry”, lass.’

Patsy smirked, at last fully herself again. ‘All the same –’

‘All the same, if you aren’t under those covers by the time I get back from popping to the loo, I’ll carry you there myself.’

It was now Patsy who was grateful for sturdy legs and the speed they afforded…

~

The next morning, following an (understandably) restless rest of night, Phyllis telephoned the surgery and bundled them both into her Morris, explaining that she would either pop back for the camp-bed or leave it in situ for her next visit, depending on the outcome of their chat with Patrick. Still mutually overwhelmed by the kindness of their colleague (colleagues, actually) the two young women merely nodded, hiding nerves in white-knuckled grips on each other’s hands. When they arrived, sensing their anxiety, their older companion asked a practical yet personal question. ‘Would you like me to come in with you?’

She received her reply via two more nervous nods.

Of course, their concerns were entirely unfounded, because Patrick (and Shelagh) knew only too well what they were battling, if not quite the nearness of their connection – and, moreover, the older couple were the epitome of professional discretion mixed with personal compassion. ‘I’ve made us all some tea,’ the Scotswoman said, and Patsy decided her version of the Celtic cadence was almost as soothing as her “Welsh Wonder’s”.

‘Now,’ Patrick began, once everyone was settled, ‘I think the first thing to offer is my congratulations. Accepting that you need additional support is the hardest part of a journey such as this. I can attest to that myself; can I not, Shelagh?’

‘Indeed you can. And I agree with you. You’re halfway there just by having this conversation, Patsy.’

The redhead blushed at their validation, but grinned nonetheless, and managed a timid voicing of gratitude. ‘Thank you.’

‘Thank you for trusting us. All of us.’

Now Phyllis and Delia joined in with the murmurs of approbation, and Patsy was unsure how much longer she would cope. ‘May I be frank?’ she asked, faltering over the four words.

‘Please,’ Patrick replied simply.

‘I’m not sure I’m ready for a place like Northfield. I know it’s been of help to Cynthia – sorry, Sister Mary Cynthia – as it was for you, too, but I’m barely able to talk to people I know well…’

‘I understand; in fact, I suspected you would say something along those lines, not least because it would involve going away again. There’s the Tavistock Clinic –’

‘Psychoanalysis?’

Patrick struggled to hide the smirk which sprung from the younger woman’s perceptiveness. ‘Psychodynamic psychotherapy. But, yes, it’s linked to psychoanalysis. Rather like an outpatient equivalent of Northfield’s practice, in an environment more conducive to civilians.’

‘So in groups?’ Patsy now struggled to hide her grimace, both at the thought of the treatment and the word “civilians”.

‘You could have individual sessions if that felt easier.’

‘I oughtn’t to use up National Health resources.’ She was clutching at any straws she could find, now, and they all knew it.

‘It’s means-tested, Nurse Mount,’ was Patrick’s even and gentle rejoinder, aware that she would respond better to her title.

‘Oh…’ Wide blue eyes had not the faintest idea where to look. Perhaps Papa would approve of her inheritance being used for this?

‘I could refer you for an assessment and then you can decide if it fits? An appointment will take a while to come through, anyway.’

‘All right,’ she acquiesced, as Delia squeezed her hand.

‘And, in the meantime…’ Patrick paused, unsure how to broach this next bit.

‘Yes? I’ve been frank, Dr Turner, you may be also.’

Everyone laughed a little at that accurate appraisal of the atmosphere.

‘Very well. There’s a new drug available called diazepam (under the trade name “Valium”), and a low dosage might take the edge off things a little, especially at night.’

‘I think I’ve heard of that – isn’t it a sedative?’

‘Of a sort, Patsy, yes,’ Delia put in here, following an encouraging nod from both Patrick and Phyllis. ‘I had a very brief acquaintance with its predecessor, chlordiazepoxide, immediately after my accident. That was a fairly new drug then, too, and it helped with the anxiety around my amnesia.’ Although not the amnesia itself, she added silently, with an inward shiver at how disorientated she remembered having felt whenever she resurfaced from the fog it had induced.

This particular aspect of her annwyl’s treatment would be short-lived; she would make sure of that. Not because medication wasn’t useful, but because Patsy’s tendency to dissociate scared them both enough on its own, and she could not quite countenance the concept of her cariad being drugged into docility.

Unless it brought her redhead significant relief, of course. For that she could cope with anything – and, after the Distaval debacle, Patrick did not prescribe lightly.

He came back into the conversation now. ‘Delia has it exactly right. We’d try it to find out if it helps you feel generally calmer.’

‘But it is essentially a tranquiliser. So I couldn’t return to work for some time after starting it?’

‘Not at first, no, I wouldn’t advise it; but do you want to?’

‘Not really.’

‘And you need sleep.’

‘I do.’

‘Well then – do we have a deal?’

‘I suppose we do,’ Patsy said with a sheepish grin.

~

A little later, they collected her prescription – ten micrograms, split into two doses of five, because further discussion suggested she should try it for more than “just” sleep, and her other symptoms called for slightly increased initial intervention – which Delia used as an excuse to broach the idea of brunch.

‘Scrambled eggs, sweetheart?’ she asked as soon as Phyllis dropped them back at the flat and they had shed their coats after coming in from the rain.

‘All right,’ her annwyl agreed. ‘May I help in any way?’

‘Come and cwtch whilst I cook?’

Her gangly girlfriend gave her a grateful grin. That was a request she was only too keen to grant after her sweetheart’s stoic support this morning. So, taking Delia’s small hand lovingly in her larger one, Patsy pulled her petite partner in close, before walking the shorter woman down the corridor in the same manner that she herself had been coaxed across the lounge on the previous evening.

That way her “Welsh Wonder” would know she had not minded the well-meant mediation.

Her little love knew indeed, and laughed the laugh only she was allowed to hear, which made the ginger blush in yet more gratitude. Then, once they arrived in the kitchen, she let go solely to offer further assistance in the form of fetching the requisite pan from its rather precarious position on top of the fridge – not least because it gave her licence to linger over the touch the passing of it would permit. Even in their private sanctuary, such subtle signals of affection would forever mean more than any of the “greater” gestures their solitary state afforded them.

When her sweetheart broke the silence to speak, it was with the phrase which married the two languages forming the lingua franca of their love. ‘Diolch, darling,’ Delia said with a dazzling smile. ‘That’s your domestic duty done, cariad, so come cwtch again.’

Patsy did as requested, cradling the curves of her favourite person’s figure in the same gentle hold her darling had demonstrated the day before, and marvelling at how quickly the eggs were whipped up and onto a pair of plates. ‘You really are a wonder, Welshie,’ she whispered as she took the crockery and cutlery over to their table. Delia used the moment her back was turned to pour a glass of milk. ‘What’s that for?’ the older woman asked warily when they both eventually sat down.

‘To line your stomach. If you take it now, the drug can have the course of the meal to work its magic, and the effect won’t feel quite so dramatic. Trust me, my love; I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with this kind of medicine in the past few years.’

Her cariad nodded, content to comply, and was about to lift the glass and tablet to her lips when a terrifying thought stopped her hand in its tracks. ‘I can’t go to the Tavistock, Deels – they always want to talk about relationships in appointments like that.’

‘You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to, annwyl. But take your pill, Pats – and eat.’

The younger woman was channelling an artful combination of comfort and persuasion, and her lover loved her for it. ‘Done, Deels,’ she said, smirking as she swallowed, before beginning on her eggs.

‘That’s my gorgeous girl. Take this food as a “thank you” for your tenacity over the past two days.’

Patsy snorted at that statement. ‘You have it the wrong way around.’

‘I do not,’ Delia returned decisively. ‘The only hard bit for me is having to watch you hurt.’

Her girlfriend flashed her a brief smile, and reached to intertwine their fingers across the top of the table. ‘I’m the same,’ she said softly as they let silence fall so they could finish their food.

And a little while afterwards, as well, whilst the nurses in them waited expectantly for the diazepam to do its duty. ‘All right, annwyl?’ Delia asked, watching her girlfriend’s gaze grow ever so slightly distant. It was so subtle it might be mistaken for dissociation – but, from her own fleeting acquaintance with chlordiazepoxide (or “Librium”), the brunette knew better. ‘Pats? How are you feeling, cariad?’ she prompted.

‘Cloudy,’ was the redhead’s simple response.

‘I think it’s kicking in,’ her girlfriend said with a gentle squeeze of the hand still holding hers. ‘Calm cloudy or panicky cloudy?’

Numb cloudy – but it’s different from when I dissociate. I’m still “here”. Just not quite. Like a dream.’

‘A nice dream?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘That’s fine. May I help in any way?’

Patsy wanted to tell her off for that turn of phrase, but had lost the turn of phrase with which to do so. She had only three words left. ‘Piano. Debussy. “Rêverie”.’

~

Once Delia had led her lover through to the lounge and settled them both on the stool so that Patsy could play, she understood precisely why she had picked this piece on her quest for some comfort and comprehension. It captured exactly the essence of the limbo induced by this sort of drug. There was just the right amount of light and shade; the darker and more disconcerting elements were only discernible if one listened extremely closely. Moreover, the overtones were almost absurdly optimistic – much like the front her partner had persisted for so long in presenting to the world. From this, and the fact that she knew it by heart, Delia deduced that it was another aspect of the vocal orchestra’s oeuvre. It certainly lived up to its title, being as dreamlike as anything else she had ever considered as an analogy for that particular phenomenon of human consciousness. This set the Welshwoman off wondering, musing on the parallels between this musical reverie and the maternal one proposed by Wilfred Bion, the current President of the British Psychoanalytical Society; and, come to think of it (ha!) the pioneer of the Northfield experiments. (The brunette had done a lot of reading on those lonely nights whilst her redhead was away.) He was also a very influential figure at the Tavistock. Did her darling know any of that, or make the connection with her choice of repertoire?

Likely not – but they were useful things to bear in mind (an apt aphorism if there ever was one!).

She would have to wait for another opportunity to muse on this, however, because Patsy had stopped playing and was beginning to drop off to sleep. So she needed to stop her before she dropped off the stool. ‘All right, gorgeous girl, I’ve got you,’ she soothed, humming gently to ease the shifting sensations surrounding her girlfriend as she fought to maintain balance. ‘Let’s get you onto that conveniently-placed camp-bed, eh, cariad? It’s almost as though I planned it being there,’ she purred, shifting her grip on the taller woman just enough to enable her to tip her beloved backwards and bring her gently to the ground. At moments like this she harboured guilty gratitude that her lover was still a little lighter than she should be – and then this emotion was effaced by the thought that the redhead’s slightly-reduced weight was what had made her react so swiftly and strongly to such a comparatively small amount of sedation.

That and the fact that it took anyone time to adjust.

This was going to be…interesting, Delia demurred diplomatically, as she joined her annwyl on the floor.

Neither of them had factored even a single aspect of this sort of adventure into their plans.

But her accident had not featured either.

And, right then, all she could see was the peaceful smile playing across her favourite face as the redhead drifted into a relaxed, well, reverie, really; which was enough for her to invest in any interesting endeavours the world deemed fit to send their way.

Especially (selfishly) if it meant she got some sleep too.

She

       just

               had

                       to

                            wake

                                      them

                                                 up

                                                       for

                                                              supper…

Chapter Text

‘Delia? Are you awake?’ Patsy asked softly when she herself woke on the morning of what a quick glance at the carefully crossed-out squares of their wall-mounted calendar told her was Wednesday the twenty-ninth of May. Stroking the brown hair which was nestled against her naked back, she felt fresh and fundamental joy wash over her at the confirmation that she had now slept through for eight consecutive nights. Assisted by a sedative, admittedly, but still. Sleep was sleep, and her darling deserved some uninterrupted rest, which she had been apparently otherwise unable to grant her at any time of day or night. The diazepam was doing its job; even if she did feel awful for the majority of the hours in the gap between her doses.

Either drowsy or dreadful.

She liked the mornings a lot. Her head was refreshed from good sleep, and clear too, because the clouds from the previous night’s dose had dissipated and were yet to be replaced by those which descended the moment she took her tablet at breakfast.

The redhead jolted out of her ruminations as she got the answer to her question via a quick kiss to her palm – and a chuckle at her use of her cariad’s full first name. ‘I am, Patience; I’ve been enjoying the still-rare opportunity to watch you sleep, whilst waiting patiently for you to rouse yourself.’

Delia’s darling laughed aloud at her gentle humour. ‘In that case,’ she responded shyly, ‘you’ll likely be pleased that I’m well and truly roused…’

Patsy heard her beloved’s breath catch as she digested the meaning behind the clever wordplay. ‘Are you saying you want –’

‘I am.’

‘Can you consent?’ The Welshwoman hid her raised heart rate behind practicality.

Deels…’ her usually practical English girlfriend groaned.

Sori, cariad.’ The brunette breathed out evenly now, hoping to soothe through the subtle deployment of her native tongue. ‘I just know the drugs have hit you rather hard this last week –’

‘You’re right,’ the redhead conceded, ‘but I can consent; and, actually, that’s precisely why I’m asking. They make me so distant and drowsy that I thought we could both do with, well, waking up. I need to remind myself that I can be present. I might go as far as to say it’s a medical necessity to have your mouth on me this morning…’ She trailed off as her sweetheart gave a strangled snicker.

‘Well, when you phrase it like that, how can I possibly refuse?’ Delia asked huskily, as she shrugged off the duvet and snaked her way down the bed, still unable quite to believe her luck. After fifty-two days (fifty-two! Not that she was counting…) she was at last allowed to love her lover again.

Patsy giggled as her petite partner reached the desired position, and adjusted her own so she could settle down between her legs. ‘This is all on the proviso that you let me return the favour, yes?’

Brown hair nodded below her. ‘Absolutely, annwyl. Later, though, when we get back from the opera –’

‘Oh, that’s today, of course! How lovely.’

‘Not as lovely as you, my love…’ The smaller woman was suddenly overcome by her taller partner’s beauty and bravery, but she couched that emotion in a reverent remark on the already evident responses of her body. ‘You’re so wet,’ she said in wonder, when she saw the sheen on her beloved’s blonde curls.

The older nurse smiled knowingly, but swallowed before she spoke, because she was nervous as well as excited (in every sense of that latter word). ‘I’m surprised too – from what I’ve read of Valium, I had expected the opposite, however much you always affect me. It may be that the dizzypam is a muscle relaxant as well, so my usual tension – in – in that – area – has – decreased – somewhat.’

Her younger girlfriend chuckled at the combination of her candour and the choice of epithet for her new medication. ‘“Dizzypam”?’

‘I think it’s a better name; it makes me dizzy.’

‘Well,’ her “Welsh Wonder” whispered, gently grazing her hand over the join of a nearby knee, ‘hopefully I’ll make you dizzy for a different reason, darling. Before I do, though, since you’re so sensitive in all sorts of ways; may I use my hands to hold your hips and keep you steady?’

‘Please, Deels,’ Patsy agreed, panting.

‘So polite, Pats,’ Delia purred in approval as she placed her palms lightly on her patient partner’s pelvis, before finally dipping her head to sample the sticky sweetness pooling between her legs, lingering with only the lightest touch of her lips on those lips – less a kiss and more a caress.

‘Oh yes, oh God yes,’ her annwyl answered, as she arched at the contact, seeking increased connection to continue the tingles already coursing around the apex of her thighs.

The brunette bubbled over with laughter, giddy at how open and responsive her usually reticent redhead was, and got a further reason to be grateful when the buzz made her buck even closer into her intimate ministrations.

‘Slowly, though, sweetheart,’ her beloved begged. ‘I need to savour this.’

Delia merely moaned her assent; even if her mouth had not been otherwise occupied, she could not have conveyed how much that confession meant.

Patsy still wanted to receive pleasure as well as give it. What a gift that knowledge was. One she would not take for granted, but use wisely, and well. She would learn a lesson from her long-legged love, and demonstrate her devotion through deeds instead of words. They had so many spoken languages between them, and had waited so long for the space in which to utter their phrases without fear, that sometimes she forgot about the subtlety of silence. So, ceasing the kisses which weren’t quite kisses, she let her tongue trace a languid trail over her lover’s tender flesh. Soft and slow sweeps, to maximise sensation, and make the most of her sweetheart’s sensitivity. But not too much. After all, her annwyl had asked, and Delia felt she had a duty to adjust her pace accordingly.

Her favourite voice, if not face, would let her know when to pick things up.

For now, they seemed mutually content to lose themselves in the continued meandering of her mouth. Or rather find themselves; since Patsy’s project in proposing this, this morning, had been an attempt to reassert her presence in her – their – present moment.

She certainly appeared to be enjoying the attention thus far, if breathy sighs were an accurate barometer of satisfaction. Immensely, in fact. So much so that, in the spirit of this morning’s enthusiasm for experimentation, Delia decided to be daring. Her cariad had called it a “medical necessity”, and she would be a sorry excuse for a nurse if she did not explore every avenue of treatment. Not outside the already-established parameters of their agreements on this score, of course, but surely it was the duty of “Nurse Busby” to give her dearest “Nurse Mount” a safe space in which to encounter all those sensations which would, in any other circumstance, be unnecessarily surprising!?

(That was how she rationalised her suddenly deepening desire to hear the full range of her ravishing redhead’s responses, anyway.)

As her almost-auburn annwyl was being this brave, the brunette thought she ought to be, also. Sighs were all very well, but she needed some other noises to accompany them if this was going to be a longer game. So, leaving off her light licking, she lifted her head a little to look up the bed at her lover. Patsy’s eyes, which had been closed in bliss, popped open in bewilderment. ‘Deels? Is everything all right?’

‘Yes, love,’ her smaller sweetheart said silkily, ‘more than all right. Perfect, in fact, don’t you think?’

And, with that, she dipped her head again. This time, though, it was not her tongue touching the sensitive skin on the surface level of that most private part of her partner. Rather it was her nose, which hovered hardly a breath above her beloved’s body, gently grazing her girlfriend’s slick entrance and gratefully inhaling the gift of her essence.

Ahhh…’ Patsy moaned as the air from Delia’s deliberately drawn-out exhalation danced across her (almost) over-stimulated skin.

Interesting. A new noise for a new movement. As she had hoped.

Inspired (literally) by the effect of her breath, she grew bold enough to add her mouth into the mix once more; but for neither licks, nor kisses. No – now she took another lesson from her lover, and did something she had only had done to her before. Having licked her lips to moisten them slightly, she took the soft sweetness of her sweetheart’s other kind tenderly between them, and sucked.

Mmmm… More of that, please.’

The smaller woman looked up and smiled in surprise. Here was not just a new noise but one which morphed into a polite instruction. Her annwyl really was more aware of herself in this moment than she had been for some months. Da iawn, darling, Delia said silently, dipping her head again to worship her tall (and titian) goddess as she wished to be.

This felt so good.

Ohhh…’ Eventually, on hearing the return of a response she knew well, Patsy’s petite partner changed tactics for a final time, wanting to catch the beginning of her cariad’s burgeoning climax before she brought herself any closer to the brink. Moving her mouth so it was slightly more central, she teased very briefly at her beloved’s only-too-eager opening, then inched her tongue inside.

At last.

Ohhh…’ the older woman moaned a second time, and the younger gave herself over entirely to her girlfriend’s guttural guidance. For all Delia’s delight in prolonging the process, there was no doubt that it was now Patsy (her perfect, passionate Pats) who held all the power. ‘Ohhh…’ she moaned again, as a taut tongue nudged at her tight bundle of nerves. ‘OhhhOhhhOhhh…’

Both women were tickled by the triplet, an echo of their very first try at this technique, and the room seemed to reverberate with the redhead’s laughter at the remembrance. But the brunette was too busy to break even for the briefest chuckle, so she articulated her amusement by redoubling her efforts to increase her annwyl’s anticipation. Her restraint was rewarded, because her patient partner was now perilously (no, perfectly) close to the crescendo. Climbing towards her climax as ceaselessly as the string of scales she so frequently sought for comfort. (Musical metaphors which, the young nurse thought rather naughtily, matched her attention to the sounds she had summoned from her sweetheart so far this morning.)

And, as was apt on a day when she was resolute that her focus would remain solely on the two of them, when Patsy finally found her peak, the only words she had were for her “Welsh Wonder”. ‘Oh – Deels – darling –’ she cried out, her phrase punctuated by pulses of pleasure as she hit the crest; that wave, so long-awaited by them both, feeling somehow even more magnificent for their dual determination that she be granted a much-deserved release.

All before breakfast, too; as it had had to be if she wanted to welcome it without the sense of drowning dazedness brought on by her diazepam. She relished that release as well, of course she did, but in a roundabout way because of the relief it brought her beloved. For herself, she decided a little devilishly, she was much fonder of this natural remedy. The drug subdued her panic by subduing her sense of self – desire subdued her panic by restoring it, because it gave her back dominion over her body.

Or so it seemed, anyway, as she returned to reality to find that she was held close in a cwtch by her cariad.

‘All right, annwyl?’ the Welshwoman whispered as she tightened her grounding grip around her waist.

Her English lover chuckled, pressing the quickest of kisses to her ear. ‘More than all right,’ she replied, relishing the red face which greeted her repetition of her younger partner’s earlier sentiments. ‘Perfect, in fact, don’t you think?’ This purring gratitude was met by yet more blushes from the brunette, so the redhead took pity. ‘Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deels,’ she said sincerely. Then, so it would appear as an afterthought instead of the insistent terror it actually was, she added, ‘Brecwast?

‘That’s cheating, Pats,’ her petite partner returned, pouting. ‘It’s basically the same word.’

‘It sounds better, so it feels easier to digest (pun absolutely intended). Like “dizzypam”.’

Delia could hardly disagree with that logic.

~

Rather later on that day, as they dressed to leave for an early dinner before their initiation into a not unintimidating new art form, Patsy swore unexpectedly. ‘All right, annwyl?’ Delia asked from the wardrobe, immediately on alert.

‘Sorry love,’ her sweetheart started, ‘I’ve just laddered these new tights before I’ve got them over my bum. Hardly a catastrophe but a snag I could do without. Damn drug-induced doziness – and I haven’t had my evening dose yet either. Oh gosh…’ she trailed off, suddenly terrified.

The Welshwoman heard the clipped consonants of her cariad’s Received Pronunciation and decided her own deliberation over which dress to change into could wait a while. Dashing over to offer her darling both physical and emotional assistance, she whipped a pair of stockings from the fastidiously folded pile on the top of their chest-of-drawers, and (inaudibly) instructed the older woman to sit on the edge of “her” bed.

Patsy began to protest, although she did sit down. ‘I can’t have my legs only half-covered for Covent Garden, Deels!’

Delia just laughed delightedly. ‘I call dibs that you do. Ladies lived without the luxury of nylons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, love.’

Her redhead rolled her eyes. ‘They still had hose. You shan’t beat me with a history lesson, sweetheart. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re about, either. Just because Evi and Susi have leant us their box, it doesn’t mean we can –’

The brunette rolled her eyes now. ‘What do you think they use it for?’

‘Watching opera!’

The younger woman gave an exasperated sigh at her older partner’s obtuseness. ‘A type of art in which half the parts are young men played by women wearing breeches.’   

Touché.’

‘Yes, a fair few of them probably have fencing, too.’

‘You are ridiculous, Busby,’ the redhead said, laughing at last.

‘Isn’t that why you love me, Mount?’ her brunette beauty breathed as she boldly lifted one of her long legs, and then the other, to remove the laddered tights.

‘Mhmm,’ Patsy managed to murmur through teeth gritted tightly against the anxiety provoked by these touches. Then, emboldened by her earlier bravery, she forced out two words. ‘Stop. Please.’

Delia did so before she even finished speaking. ‘Oh, cariad, how careless of me,’ she said, genuinely sorry. ‘Have I spoilt things?’

‘No, darling, I promise. I’m just on edge even more than usual because we haven’t been out of the house since I started this medication – and if we’re having an early dinner, I’ll probably fall asleep the moment we take our seats, which seems rather a waste.’

Her girlfriend grinned at this admission, glad to be able to help here at least. ‘I’ve thought of all that, annwyl. The bus home’ll take at least an hour so, if we pack some snacks and a thermos, you can have it with them just before our final stop. You shouldn’t take it too much before bed, anyway, and then if we have a lie-in tomorrow the spacing of your doses will even out.’

The older woman stared at her younger sweetheart in amazed disbelief. ‘How –’ she began, before breaking off and shaking her head silently, smirking.

‘I might not always get it right as a girlfriend, Pats,’ Delia demurred apologetically, ‘but I have been informed by reliable (if biased) sources that I mostly pass muster as a nurse.’

‘That you do, Deels, that you do,’ Patsy promised. ‘You do a damn fine job as a girlfriend, too, if you’ll permit me to say so,’ she continued cheekily, waiting for a slight nod before leaning forward to place a small yet tender kiss on her little love’s lips.

The Welshwoman mewled with pleasure and relief at the gesture. Oh how she loved these lighter moments between them – they made the difficult ones disappear. ‘I will permit you,’ she purred when they parted. ‘And now I’ll pass you some more tights.’

‘You don’t mind?’ her English Rose asked anxiously. Stockings were Delia’s favourite, after all, except for slacks which were out of the question.

‘No. I’d only mind you feeling uncomfortable, my love.’

~

When they eventually left the house and found their bus, Patsy fell asleep on Delia’s shoulder, and the smaller woman was unsure quite how she ought to feel about this role reversal. On the one hand, it could be held to be a sign of her increased sense of safety, but on the other, entirely due to…well, as her taller partner had so perceptively put it, “drug-induced doziness”. Even some hours after her first tablet.

Ah well, at least the impact seemed less intense each day.

No, that was an understatement; what she ought to think, Delia decided, was that her annwyl’s adjustment improved each day. Not just to the medication but to life alongside everything it evoked. Aside from the (completely understandable) spikes of fear in unfamiliar, if exciting, circumstances like the ones of their outing this evening, Patsy was so much calmer. More than that, she seemed content to contend with difficulties as they arose rather than always needing to plan ahead. Some semblance of spontaneity. Whereas in previous weeks the laddered nylons would have spelt disaster (not least because of the brunette’s own blunder in providing help which actually provoked horror), tonight the redhead had taken it in her long-legged stride.

And that was without the request of this morning, the blissful reminder that she did indeed desire as much to be loved as to love.

Just as Nat King Cole sang in “Nature Boy”.

Still, though, her sweetheart was not quite the same. They both knew that, obviously, but often it took Delia unawares. At times, when their gazes caught, it was as if her ginger girlfriend was looking at her through frosted glass, or water; something seemingly transparent but actually rather blurry, blocking out Patsy’s proper view of the world. At least the visions of her nightmares had been vivid. Now everything she did seemed dim and dulled. The Welshwoman wondered if this was how it had felt for her English lover to find her lying in that Royal London Hospital bed, with no memory of her former life.

She supposed so. She had been there and yet not there.

The difference now, of course, was that her taller cariad had no relatives to wrench them apart. In fact, if she had, she would have no need of them – because it was their absence which caused her such agony. Were her mother here, she would not be nearly so desperate for mothering. But then, were her sister here, she likely would not have found a home among the Sisters of Nonnatus; nor, for that matter, been called to nurse.

And, had she not been called to nurse, Delia would have been denied the delight of her company.

How confusing it was to feel terrible and thankful about something at the same time. Delia could understand why Patsy preferred to compartmentalise – if she dealt with emotions at all.

But now the bus was stopping, so she had to stop woolgathering, and wake her sweetheart up to walk the relatively short distance to their destination for dinner. In honour of both the occasion (the opera) and the era in which it was set, Patsy had procured them reservations at Rules – the oldest restaurant in London, having opened in 1798. Not quite as old as Figaro, but close enough. Delia had to hand it to her darling; she really knew how to set the tone for a special treat. Ordinarily, she would have had something to say about the expense but, since the tickets for tonight had been a gift, she had granted her girlfriend the chance to splash out on supper before the show.

Secretly she was just pleased her annwyl was showing unprompted interest in food. Multiple courses, too.

Multiple courses of not insignificant nutritional and calorific value and content.

A full roast – chicken – followed by sticky toffee pudding.

Oh, how proud she was of “her Pats”. Tonight and every night.

‘What?’ the older woman asked archly as she saw her younger partner’s smile at the empty crockery across the table. ‘Papa told me we had to come here if ever I felt brave enough to venture to Covent Garden.’

Delia grinned even wider. She had been wrong in surmising that the absence of Patsy’s family would be on the surface this evening. Rather the redhead was finding comfort and courage in their presence, and that made the brunette beam.

‘Nothing, cariad,’ she said softly. ‘I’m just happy to see you so happy.’ I just love you so much.

The ginger giggled. ‘I’m just happy I’m still awake,’ she returned with a wink, before reverting back to practicality. ‘Right then, Busby; I’ll get the bill, and we can make tracks.’

~

Even the redhead’s cultured confidence was cowed by the sight of the splendid interiors of the “R.O.H.” Neither woman knew quite where they ought to look, it was so beautiful.

Delia declared it (in her mind): “subtly sophisticated with poise but no pretention” – much like someone else she could mention.

Patsy pronounced it (also in her mind): “wondrous and yet somehow unaware of this attribute” – also like someone else she could mention.

Of course there were elements of ostentation but, as this was the third building on the site after several fires had caused varying levels of damage over the centuries, that seemed allowable. The colonial and class connotations excepted. But then they put on pieces like Figaro which, Evi and Susi informed them, had source material Louis XVI had considered so inflammatory that he had initially overridden the decision of the censors and banned it himself. Such was the nature of art through the ages, apparently; things once considered radical were eventually incorporated into the canon, and not merely enjoyed but encouraged.

How they hoped the same would one day be true of a love like theirs.

In the meantime, though, they could be grateful for the sanctuary of storylines that sanctioned the expression of same-gender love; even if it was ostensibly figured as between men and women. Trouser-, or breeches-roles, might just be their new favourite thing – the redhead because she at last had a reason to like being a mezzo-soprano, and the brunette because she now had ammunition with which to tease her annwyl about hankering after other women. ‘I see you with those opera-glasses, Nurse Mount,’ she purred mischievously when Cherubino first appeared. ‘I’ve a good mind to go around to stage door afterwards and ask Ms Berganza precisely what she’s about, looking so “frightfully fetching”, as you might say.’

Patsy rolled her eyes exaggeratedly as she whispered back. ‘Oh please, Nurse Busby, this is becoming positively absurd. First you mock me throughout the opening duet, because apparently I get like Figaro when I clean – so focussed even your glorious presence can’t dissuade me from my task – and now I’m having aspersions cast on my fidelity? How very antiquated of you.’

Delia giggled under her breath. She loved getting her girlfriend wound up; all the more so when Patsy knew she was being provoked and played along. Amused, she added another layer. ‘Oh, so you wouldn’t mind if I went off with her, then?’

She was answered by a soft but significant slap to the knee. It was time to be quiet again, since Berganza was beginning to sing the first of her two arias – “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” – all about being in the first flushes of love and having no-one with whom to share the excitement. They were more than well-acquainted with that particular struggle, albeit in a very different context; so the hand resting on that knee was unsurprised when another came to join it, and join their fingers in a comforting caress. They were both grateful they had borrowed an Italian dictionary from their friends, too, because it meant they understood the line about women making Cherubino blush. They shared that predicament as well. And the one of having so many words but nevertheless none which did justice to their mutual joy.

Yet more music to say things better than they ever felt they could.

This was a theme which only accelerated as the acts progressed. Act II brought “Voi che sapete” the young man’s plea for help when he felt unable to cope with having no object for his affections, and was wondering if what he was experiencing was even love at all. It had both women on the edge of their secluded seats, although not due to the amusement of the Countess and Susanna. Rather they were reminded of their own questioning of their attraction to women; first as a general, abstract concept and then in relation to, well, their relationship. Its significance was perhaps subtler than that of his previous piece, but as was so often the case, that made it more powerful. They, too, had not known how to hold their emotions – or really even what they were. Here their interpretations diverged, however. Especially of the line “Non trovo pace notte nè di” (I find peace neither night nor day). Both women felt guilty, but for almost opposite reasons. Patsy struggled to shake off her sense of shame for all the difficult nights her sweetheart had had to endure because of her emotions. Delia, by contrast, was still devastated that she had been unable to do more to help and that they had had to resort to medication. No matter how reasonable and comprehensible a course that was proving to be.

Because, in order for her beloved to be calm, she had to be distant from herself. Deliberate distance to combat the kind conjured up by her dissociation.

It made Delia’s heart ache. Physically hurt.

Consequently, as Patsy identified most strongly with her vocal counterpart of Cherubino, she saw herself in the soprano struggles of the Countess. Not in terms of their connection within the story (him having a crush on his married godmother was almost as strange as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s implications of intimacy between their old friends Mary Lennox and Colin Craven in The Secret Garden) but because of her struggle as an individual character. So, when Ilva Ligabue sang the emotional aria “Porgi, amor, qualche restoro”, it was only her awareness of her mascara that made her hold back her tears. Well, that and the fact that she wanted to avoid being asked about why it affected her so much. Not (their jokes about Teresa Berganza excepted) because she was sore due to her partner’s abandonment. Far from it, since Patsy somehow seemed to cling even closer now than she had before. It was not physical proximity which was the problem, nor even really emotional; but that their togetherness seemed predicated on a sort of separation. She wanted the whole world to resound with her respect for Rosina’s plea to the personified Love: “Either give me back my treasure or at least let me die.” Except, of course, that was the last thing Patsy needed at this point. Her accident had been agonising enough – and that thought made her pull herself back to their present pleasure, because it reminded for the second time that evening that her dearest redhead had dealt with these very same feelings.

Perhaps, if she were brave enough, they could talk about it.

One day.

Tonight, though, she hoped the music would suffice in speech’s stead.

It was for her, at any rate; the Countess’ second aria, “Dove sono”, in Act III, guiding her to be grateful for the “sweet moments” that they did indeed still share, despite the fact that, sometimes, everything seemed “changed into tears and pain”. Patsy’s heart, unlike the Count’s, was steadfast and faithful and (probably more than Delia herself did) she wanted them to get back to the days before all this. To move forward to after it. Since both were possible, and true, at once. So, by the time they reached the forgiving resolution of the Act IV finale, the tears pricking at the brunette’s eyes were from joy instead of grief. She knew now for certain that, if they could run together (“corriam tutti” – not quite the direct translation but, like Rules restaurant, close enough), they would both find reason to be happy in the midst of their tumultuous life. It just would have more verisimilitude than the events of this opera, which unfolded in only a single day.

For now, she could be satisfied with a successful evening out.

~

Once they had found their way back to the bus, and were snuggled up in secluded seats, Delia expected Patsy to fall asleep again, and elected to pre-empt this by offering her some snacks with which to take her tablet.

The redhead refused, all their earlier plans apparently out the proverbial window. ‘I’ll have it at home,’ she said firmly.

‘But it’ll take you ages to get to sleep, Pats.’

‘We have plenty of things to occupy the necessary interval, Deels.’

The brunette blushed the colour of her cariad’s hair. She had forgotten about her compromise this morning. Clearly she was not alone in having taken lessons from the lovers in Figaro.

Patsy simply purred at her surprise, before breaking into a grin to rival the Cheshire Cat’s.

The Welshwoman was silent for the rest of their journey – she seemed to have lost her words.

Then, when they at last arrived home, she tried to find them again and persuade her partner to take her pill. The older woman smiled a second (hopefully seductive) smile, and placed it carefully on her bedside table next to a glass of milk and a biscuit, before laying a finger against her little love’s lips and beginning to sing softly. This time, though, instead of Cherubino or the Countess, she drew inspiration from a duet between Figaro and Susanna in Act IV, using its lilting libretto as leverage in the same way her smaller sweetheart had employed their opening exchange. ‘Pace, pace, mio dolce tesoro, pace, pace, mio tenero amor,’ she purred – “peace, peace, my sweet treasure, peace, peace, my tender love” – and Delia could only echo the emotion evident in her favourite eyes and voice. Seeking consent, the taller of the two women slipped soft fabric from the shorter pair of shoulders, slowly removing her darling’s dress. Eventually, the brunette was clad in only her bra and knickers; as well as a pair of stockings she had somehow slipped past the notice of her observant “Nurse Mount”. The redhead’s delight at this discovery radiated from her every pore, and the resultant laughter rippled from low in her throat. ‘Well, Welshie,’ she said reverently as Delia sat on the side of “her bed”, ‘this makes me the most awful hypocrite, I know, but I’m ever so glad you wore these. It means I get the joy of taking them off you…’ She trailed off, sinking into a squat in order to kiss her way up that most precious pair of legs whilst she unclipped the garter belt and peeled the fabric from yet another perfectly-formed part of her beloved’s body.

The Welshwoman had worshipped her; she now had a duty to do the same.

Duw Pats!’ her annwyl puffed out as she arched into the first of her touches, although she was nowhere near the area which usually provoked such reactions. Apparently they were both more responsive today. Tempted to tease as Delia had done this morning, just to test things out, Patsy pulled away – but simply to alter their angles, coaxing her cariad to lie back on the sheets. Delia went willingly, with a single imploring instruction. ‘Peidiwch â stopio…

All thoughts of nursing had vanished with the violence of her need.

The redhead saw this in the blue eyes now below her own, and shook her hair in a gesture of understanding, despite knowing it would barely move for all the lacquer she had put in prior to their jaunt out. ‘Peidiwch â phoeni,’ she returned, quieting the concern in the request, as she ran her hands over Delia’s raised hips to pull down the underwear impeding the intimacy they both wanted. She had no plans to stop any time soon. Not until her darling knew exactly how much she ached to give her her own release. This was the closest they had – and would – come to “before” for a long, long time, and she refused to relinquish the taste of this oasis until they were ready. Even if it turned out to be a mere mirage.

Sometimes, when fact felt too hard to face, one had to fashion hope from fiction. They might be losing on every other score; but here, in this room, for this moment, they were winning.

And, just like the characters in the framework for their fun escape today, Patsy was presumptuous enough to declare that they deserved for once for their desire not to be dampened by demons from either of their pasts.

Passion instead of panic.

Fireworks instead of fear.

To be thrown together instead of torn apart.

To direct the outcomes of their own dreams.

As she gazed down at her girlfriend and began to dip her head, Patsy found herself unexpectedly content to live up to her name. She could be the virtue it demanded she personify. If opera had given her an opening to reclaim one of her parents’ cultural pursuits, she would use it to restore her faith in the name they had once bestowed as well. Her life – their life – might not have proceeded as any of them imagined, but it had persisted to proceed in spite of everything which had ensued. Rather than feeling she would forever fall short of the standards they had set, therefore, she suddenly saw that she could create her own, in their honour.

Her love for Delia in adulthood felt as incandescent as theirs had seemed to her in childhood.

Yes, the pieces of their particular puzzle were more than a little fractured right now, and (especially when under the influence of diazepam) she often watched their dances as if from a distance; as though she needed opera-glasses to observe the full picture.

But fractures were not irrevocable breaks.

If her annwyl’s accident had taught her anything, it was that.

Tomorrow, she would put these epiphanies into practice.

But tonight she only wanted to hear her sweetheart sing. Specifically, the song only she was allowed to hear. The wonderful wave of Welsh words which accompanied the peak of her petite partner’s pleasure. Either “Oh fy duw, Pats!”, “Os gweli di'n dda”, or “Caru ti, cariad”.

So, mirroring the younger woman’s movements from this morning, she used her mouth to tease the tender flesh of her tender love, tongue tasting the secrets of that most secret and sensitive skin. She had expected complaints about still being clothed, but her state of relative dress had passed the usually alert “Nurse Busby” by. This gave her free rein to reap their mutual reward, and she did it deftly, building her beloved brunette’s desire until Delia was almost bursting.

Enough that she spoke in English. ‘Please, Pats.’

Her cariad was sufficiently surprised to surrender and, once she did, Delia thanked her in her native language. ‘I love you, my love,’ she keened as she came undone and then, eventually, down. ‘Now and always.’

Chapter Text

Oh, het was geweldig, heel erg bedankt. Het gebouw is prachtig en de muziek was magisch.

Delia grinned to hear her girlfriend chattering away to their friends on the telephone. Their trip last night had been such fun, and it appeared to have carried over into her cariad’s demeanour this morning as well. ‘Say “thank you” from me, too, please, Pats,’ she called from the doorway as she walked to collect the last few breakfast dishes from beside the couch to wash them up.

Delia zegt ook bedankt,’ came the requested phrase from across the room. ‘Ja – ze hield ervan. Ligabue vooral. Ik prefereerde Berganza, natuurlijk –’ A pause to listen and laugh. ‘Nee – maar ze was jaloers –

The Welshwoman stopped in her tracks, only just managing to rescue the crockery she was balancing. She might not understand all that much Dutch, but certain words were similar enough for her to get the gist. ‘I was not,’ she interrupted indignantly.

Patsy had the decency to turn slightly and flash a sheepish grin. ‘Ze wilde gaan podium deur…’ she continued with a chuckle, before pausing again as Evi asked for clarification. ‘Ja, “Stage door” in Engels. Maar we kwamen thuis. Het was leuk – en ik bleef wakker ondanks mijn medicijnen –’ Another pause and a slightly softer chuckle. ‘Ja, ik ben in orde, dank je, gewoon vermoeid – maar het is beter nu. Geen nachtmerries meer.’ One more pause. ‘Ja, tot ziens. Zes uur? Ja, dat past perfect bij ons. Goed dan. Vaarwel.

By the time the redhead replaced the receiver, the brunette was back, and pretending to bristle. ‘You have some cheek, Pats,’ she said with mock-affront as she settled into the (only recently-installed) window-seat just by the ’phone.

‘I haven’t the foggiest what you mean, Deels,’ the taller woman purred whilst she stood and moved over to join her smaller sweetheart. ‘Budge up, Busby; you know I got Fred to build this for the two of us…’

Both women studiously avoided thinking about what would complete that sentence – “as an apology for the amount of time we spent in here whilst I was bowing”.

Instead, the younger grinned impishly up at her older annwyl. ‘Well, apparently I’m jealous, so that would presumably mean I find it difficult to share.’

‘Hmph,’ her ginger girlfriend huffed grumpily, having been beaten at her own game.

Delia took pity and, after seeking consent in an exchange of beaming smiles, drew her lover onto her lap. ‘Come cwtch, cariad,’ she crooned, revelling in the redhead’s giggle as she slumped downwards, and trying not to fixate on how well jeans suited her sweetheart. ‘And tell me about all the plans we have for today. I’m impressed with your initiative –’

‘It’s only that it seems easier to stay awake and alert if I’ve got things to keep my mind occupied.’

We deserve better than being stuck between these four walls, she added in her head, and I’m making it my mission to get us out of here!

‘What, like this?’ the Welshwoman asked with a wink as she stretched up and around to press a quick kiss to her favourite pair of lips.

Her English lover laughed and spoke aloud again. ‘That certainly helps. As you do in so many ways, my darling, every day. But today, if all goes well, I want to expand both our horizons. Partly because it’s important for us to spend time with other people – I think a great deal of the extra difficulty before we went to see Patrick may have arisen from the fact that we fought so long to be alone it felt like failing if we let anyone else in – but also because if I don’t leave the flat for non-stressful reasons it’ll be impossible when I need to go out for things like –’ She stopped suddenly, realising she could not quite bring herself to say the requisite words.

‘Like your appointments at the Tavistock, annwyl?’ her stalwart sweetheart offered gently, with a slight squeeze of her hand.

Her answer arrived as a ginger, ginger nod (which she saw from the back), and an attempt at clarification. ‘Even the thought of the assessment terrifies me.’

Her little love held her a little tighter. ‘I know, cariad, but I’ll come with you and wait. There are lots of lovely gardens in Bloomsbury, and the weather is sure to be more stable by the tenth – that’s the date you’ve been given, isn’t it?’

Another ginger nod, followed by a timid verbal confirmation, which itself was followed by infinitesimally-yet-significantly-increased muscular tension. ‘Yes; but I feel bad dragging you all that way when there’s no benefit for you.’

Brunette hair shook, playfully tickling the back of her neck. ‘I get the benefit of being a good girlfriend,’ Delia declared in a determined voice, and was glad when she got a giggle in return for her resolve. ‘Besides,’ she continued, choosing to divert their discussion to a less-charged topic, ‘something tells me our picnic-supper with Evi and Susi this evening might be scuppered by storms, and I want the chance to walk with you on Hampstead Heath at least once this summer. We can go there after your appointments.’ A pause, as she held her breath, wondering how her redhead would react to her continued use of the plural “appointments”. She let it out in relief as she felt her favourite pair of shoulders begin to relax again. ‘That’s it, cariad, lean into me,’ she prompted quietly. ‘I’ve got you.’

‘You caught me before I left –’ Patsy managed to choke out.

The brunette shook her head again. ‘No, love, you caught yourself. You’re doing so well already.’ You’re wearing jeans again. Jeans!

‘Still. Thank you. For being here.’

‘Thank you for being here. And brave enough to venture out today. What time did they say to arrive tonight?’

‘Six, if that suits?’

‘All right. And are you sure you want to stay over?’

The nod which greeted her question now was only ginger in colour. ‘I am. I’m mostly used to the drugs, and it’ll be good to try out being away, but in a known environment, before we book a longer holiday for later in the year.’

‘I’ve missed “Practical Pats”,’ her petite partner purred against her shoulder.

The taller woman chuckled at both the sentiment and sensation. ‘She’s out in full force today, and her much shyer sibling “Positive Pats” is tagging along too. She and “Precocious Pats” rather enjoyed our escape yesterday.’

Delia laughed at her darling’s self-deprecating humour. ‘Well, as I’ve said before, I love all of those girls,’ she murmured, nuzzling her nose into the nape of her favourite nurse’s neck. ‘What have they got up their sleeves in the hours between now and the bus to Highgate?’

Patsy paused over the phrasing of this proposition. ‘You know when Fred came over to build this?’ she began, playing for time by posing a question, not caring that her observant better half would pick up on the prevarication.

‘Mhmm?’

Well, that was successful… Might as well just go for it, Mount. ‘He said that Trix was having a tough time again. I know you’ve likely had your fill of being compassionate, love, but I feel we should join everyone for lunch at Nonnatus. Could you cope with that?’

Of course, the younger woman wanted to yell, because that means you’re voluntarily eating in front of them again – and not just after a service, either!

What she actually said was, ‘Absolutely, annwyl,’ whilst hiding her smirk in her older partner’s orange tresses.

‘You are a wonder, Welshie. I’ll ’phone and let them know we’re coming, then, shall I?’

‘If you stay on my lap; I’m sure your arms are long enough to reach the receiver…’

The taller woman giggled and tested out her petite partner’s theory. ‘They are,’ she agreed, with an unseen grin, ‘but you’d best behave, Busby.’

‘Oh, I will, Mount,’ Delia demurred as she tucked a rogue ringlet of red hair behind her annwyl’s ear.

Patsy put up a hand to silence any further playful teasing whilst she waited for the call to connect. Then, ever the epitome of professionalism, she straightened up reflexively when it eventually rang through – but her posture belied the mode of address she would use after hearing who answered. ‘Hello, Val, old thing. It’s Patsy. I won’t keep you, because I know things are busy, but Delia and I were wondering if you could all bear to have us visit for lunch today?’ A pause as she removed the ’phone slightly from her ear to let her little love listen to the squeals that suggestion had provoked. ‘We’ll take that as a yes, then? All right. See you in roughly three hours. ’Bye.’

~

Now that they had slightly more structure to their day as well as to their evening, Patsy was able to relax a little. With plans in place but not imminent, she could let herself feel the lethargy brought on by her medication without needing to fight it – and that allowed her to remain awake. Perhaps, perversely, because she was not using extraneous energy to stop herself from falling asleep. So, with the reserves of strength she had somehow stored up to combat the drowsiness post-breakfast and her tablet, she sat down at the dresser in their bedroom and began to write a letter to her best friend. Or rather three drafts of one, because diazepam dried up her usually inadequate abilities of articulation more than she had even thought possible.

Dear Trix

I gather you might need a shoulder (No, that’s no good – we haven’t seen each other in weeks, how would you have gathered!?)

Dear Trix

Sorry if this makes no sense – the drugs aren’t great at aiding words. (No, don’t mention diazepam – it’s addictive and that’s her issue with alcohol.)

Dear Trix

I know we aren’t great at talking at the best of times, and this is neither of our best times, so I’m writing to say I’m here. Always. Any time. Please remember that.

Your best friend,

Patsy

When Delia came through to say they ought to leave if they wanted to make lunch on time, she found her fiddling absentmindedly with her fountain pen, flicking the top on and off. ‘All right, annwyl?’

‘Yes, sorry,’ her sweetheart said, startled. ‘I was just writing a note to Trix because it’s likely to be too busy for proper chats in person. It’s ridiculous, though; I’ve taken the best part of the past three hours to write, what, four sentences (if one doesn’t count the sign-off).’

‘May I read it?’ the Welshwoman asked, wrapping an arm around her seated annwyl’s shoulder to compensate for the neurological clamour caused by her unexpected entrance.

‘You may,’ her English lover purred, passing over the paper for her to peruse.

The brunette did so, and then looked up to flash a beaming smile in the mirror. ‘That’s perfect, Pats,’ she said sincerely. ‘It says exactly what is needed.’

Her reticent redhead broke into a relieved grin. ‘If you think so, I can trust that. Shall we head off, then? I’ll just wash my hands to get rid of all the ink I seem to have spilt…’

~

The moment they arrived at the convent, both women were very glad they had mentally prepared themselves for having very little room to breathe between listening to their colleagues’ updates and being bombarded for their own. Delia willingly took on the majority of the talking, on the (only half) pretence that Patsy needed to focus on her food in order to eat without becoming overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the older woman positioned herself opposite her best friend, observing (as expected) that she was also subdued, and passed the neatly-folded paper under the table as soon as grace had been said. Feeling their hands touch, Trixie glanced down in surprise, but took the note and read it. Then she glanced up, shooting a grateful grin across at the ginger, who was waiting to catch her gaze.

‘Hug afterwards, please,’ the blonde mouthed, and the redhead nodded in agreement and acquiescence, before they both returned to their meal.

Sister Julienne saw all of this, of course, but said nothing, of course – because that was neither her way nor her right. She was simply glad to note that the solidarity between the nurses was as strong as that she felt with her fellow nuns. Still, even after all these intervening years; of which there were a fair few for the younger generation, albeit not quite as many. They could support each other in their difficulties, and goodness knew these two young women had been sent more than their fair share. If having the roles of adults foisted on them as children were not enough, they were now dealing with the ramifications of that in their actual adulthood as well. Often she really did want to have a deep discussion with the Lord to whom she had devoted her life, in the hopes of fathoming out His methods – but, in the meantime, she was content to use her faith to provide the shelter and support His scripture suggested she should.

In a benign and gentle way.

And her gaggle of girls seemed to respond quite readily to such guidance. It took time in every case, as with all of the labours she attended, but eventually they found their proper paths – either under her roof or elsewhere – and, if the latter, they made sure to visit or at the very least send news. So, whilst she was always sad to part, on both personal and professional grounds, she would console herself that they were doing the necessary duties to live the lives they deserved. Because what could be better than them getting better? Not in the sense of a cure, always, but of finding ways to fit their new puzzles together. No, nothing could be better than that. All she knew was that they deserved better than to be in pain, and to build some semblance of selfhood outside of their struggles.

Which reminded her – a letter from Sister Mary Cynthia had arrived earlier this morning. It was probably still in her pocket. She ought to read it aloud before everyone dispersed. So she did, after calling kindly but decisively for quiet:

‘As we are almost all together again today,’ she began, with a smile at the suddenly shy faces of Nurses Busby and Mount, ‘it seems apt that I have news from our Sister and colleague, Mary Cynthia. Or Cynthia, as she has chosen to be called, until she is clearer about the future. She has written one of her regular updates on her progress, and the final paragraph of her letter is addressed to everyone. She says: “In typically British fashion, before I sign off with my love to you all, I feel bound to mention the weather, because the extremes thus far this year have been quite something. We began with snow and it seems the start of summer is set to be scorching. At Northfield we find meaning in everything, in much the same manner as at Nonnatus, although the bases are arguably a little different. So with that in mind, the weather makes sense to me, because it has been as up and down as my moods were before I came. As they still are, I should add; the process is a tricky one and often tiring. But there are brighter glimmers of hope than I ever imagined at the beginning – and I wanted you all to know that. Sister Monica Joan said some time ago, in her wonderful metaphorical way, that fog makes clearer heads more precious. I’m learning that she might be right, and I only hope you may find your own piece of that clarity. I wish I could write to each of you individually – but perhaps it’s better that you have space to make your own judgements. I know that’s what I needed.

Love always (and I miss you more than I can write)

Cynthia”. And now,’ Sister Julienne continued when she finished reciting, ‘I’d invite you all to take space as you see fit in the brief break before you begin your rounds again.’

‘Thank you, Sister,’ Patsy put in, preparing to slip behind the mask of practicality. ‘I’ll help with the dishes.’

‘You shall do no such thing,’ her employer responded with kind but immovable force. ‘The “as you see fit” was within reason, Nurse Mount. I’m sure you have more than enough dishes to do at home.’

‘I don’t, actually,’ the younger woman said with a chuckle as she stood up, ‘Delia won’t let me at either breakfast or dinner, in case I’m dozy and drop something. Lunch is my domain now.’

‘Not today it isn’t, lass,’ Phyllis interrupted, insistent. ‘Go and have a gossip with your friends.’

The redhead raised a brow, wondering when either of the older women had last observed her “gossiping”, but said nothing more and trailed after Trixie.

The blonde enveloped her in a tight hug. ‘Thank you, sweetie,’ she whispered in the taller woman’s ear. ‘You must know I’m here for you also. Always. It would be good to have a chat, but I suspect the telephone will ring shortly about Susan Slater, and she’s a nervous first-timer.’

‘I understand. We can’t stay too long, anyway, we’re going to friends in North London for supper.’

‘Get you, Patience, you’re becoming quite the social butterfly.’

‘Be off with you, Beatrix,’ her ginger friend returned, feigning a grumble as she waved the younger woman goodbye – only to be pounced on by Val, who was already dragging Delia towards the stairs.

‘I have a question – do you two have a moment?’ the newer nurse asked breathlessly.

‘Of course,’ the other women chorused, sharing a confused look. ‘Your room?’

‘Yes please,’ Val said softly, and then was silent until they were safely shielded behind a shut door. ‘Sorry to be so abrupt and awkward. I didn’t think I could just appear at your flat –’

Delia cut her off. ‘Of course you could, Val, you’re our friend.’

‘All right, well anyway,’ her fellow brunette continued, faltering, ‘I need some advice. Specifically on how to get over a straight girl.’

Four blue eyes grew round as the couple realised just what she was saying. Then Patsy found her voice. ‘Oh, hard luck, old thing. I’m rather rusty, I must admit, since all my crushes were some time ago.’

‘They’d better be,’ Delia joked at last, to lighten the mood, before she was struck by a sudden thought. ‘Is it anyone we know? Only because that might serve our suggestions of strategies.’

Val went very red very quickly. ‘Lucille,’ she said, so quietly that they had to strain to hear. ‘Ever since that bloody bigotry from Mae Stanton, we’ve been getting closer and closer. And she’s stunning as well. But straight.’

‘Are you sure?’ her Welsh friend asked softly.

‘Almost certain. And even if she isn’t, she’s so religious I’m afraid she’d be uncomfortable with that identity. I’ve been thinking of asking her to help me put on some classes around puberty and things at the Youth Club, but I’m not sure she’d even be up for that.’

Her Cockney consonants were joined by Patsy’s clipped ones. ‘Ask her,’ the ginger prompted gently, ‘because she likes your friendship a great deal. That much is obvious. Then you can gauge where to take things from there. And otherwise, come to Gateways when we next go. I won’t be drinking now I’m on meds, so I volunteer my services as wing-woman.’

‘That club in Chelsea?’

‘Yes. You will come, won’t you?’ Delia struggled to decide if she was more excited that her partner seemed proud to make the invitation or that Val was being invited, so she simply added her own offer.

‘All right,’ her fellow brunette agreed with a bashful smile, which grew as she saw the way to restore the balance of humour somewhat. ‘Nice jeans, Patsy,’ she said, seemingly offhandedly, giggling at the glare this provoked from the redhead’s petite partner.

~

Later, when the two girlfriends had left Nonnatus and stopped off at the market for picnic provisions before grabbing their night things from home and getting on the bus, the older woman felt guilty. ‘We ought to have asked her to join us for supper.’

‘I think it’s fine not to have for tonight, cariad, since we’re staying over,’ the younger soothed as she sat next to her sweetheart.

‘Oh yes,’ the redhead said, laughing and grateful for her brunette’s brilliance. ‘Although I might need a nap now. Would you mind waking me when it’s time to change buses?’

Delia did so, twice, and a third time when they eventually got to their destination. Evi and Susi welcomed them inside with open arms and joyful smiles. ‘You look so well, both of you,’ the older Englishwoman said.

‘You do,’ her Dutch partner concurred sheepishly. ‘I rather hoped you wouldn’t, secretly, because it’d stop her bullying me into trying Valium.’

The younger couple smirked at this dynamic. Patsy sought to keep things calm by making a joke, as was her modus operandi. ‘That isn’t even half of it,’ she put in, groaning theatrically. ‘I’m starting psychotherapy soon…’

She trailed off for effect, and Evi happily took the hint. ‘Oh, how terrible!’

Susi and Delia rolled their eyes and spoke simultaneously. ‘You are ridiculous, love.’

Their partners gazed at them and giggled, and Evi saw an opportunity. ‘If we are, as the weather makes it look like a walk is off-limits, why don’t you sort out the food in the kitchen together? We’ll set the table.'

This was acceptable to everyone, and they split off. One pair to chat away in Dutch, the other to practise it. One to moan about sleepless nights and guilt that their girlfriends suffered them too, the other to share their guilt that they struggled to offer as much support as they felt they should whilst they were tired. One to say that they ought to just “get a grip,” the other to say how much they wished their sweethearts would cut themselves some slack.

Then Susi reminded Delia that this was still early days, and that Patsy was doing her best, just as she was. ‘Look at us,’ she said, laughing. ‘We have yet to reach our limit, and we’ve been living alongside our difficulties for, oh, a decade and a half? We met in 1948. I was twenty-three and recently graduated – History at King’s, having started slightly late because my father had been sick and he was bitter at being left out of the war. He thought study was a poor replacement – and Evi was, well, a refugee trying to find her place in this new country which was rather battle-worn itself. They have had some interesting discussions –’ she paused, seeing her friend’s surprise. ‘Only as “a friend of mine”, though I do have suspicions that my mother knows. Anyway, we clung together as though our lives depended on it. We still do.’

‘So do we,’ Delia responded, knowing the older woman was holding some significant parts of their story back, and electing to respect that.

‘I can see,’ Susi nodded, grinning. ‘I’m so glad we’ve met you both – and I’m so pleased you liked Figaro. We’ll bore you with titbits from the book launch over supper, and then both of our beloveds need sleep.’

~

They did indeed, but Evi was stubborn, and wanted to stay up. So they did, swapping stories from their respective engagements on the previous evening, then congregating in the Music Room to play the piano and sing – at Patsy’s suggestion! Eventually, however, Evi could barely keep her eyes open; so the younger couple slipped quietly into the spare room, trying desperately to hide their squeals at sharing a proper double bed. Patsy took her pill, put on her pyjamas, and was under the duvet faster than Delia had ever known.

Phyllis’ influence was clearly still being felt.

The Welshwoman was therefore more than a little concerned to be called just over ten minutes after they had settled.

‘Deels?’

She kept her voice calm as she replied, thinking that she ought, really, to have expected such a situation. ‘Yes, Pats, cariad?’

In order to speak the necessary sentence, the Englishwoman turned to face her favourite person, and kept her consonants clipped. ‘I’m probably being overly-analytical, because we’re here and not at home, but the diazepam doesn’t seem to be working.’

The brunette breathed out, relieved that they could have a proper conversation, and that she could assuage this particular bit of anxiety with relative ease. ‘That’s because you’ve only just had it, annwyl. The same as last night, after the opera. Your body’s got used to having it with an early supper and going to bed almost immediately. So, now that you’re trying out taking it a while afterwards in order to enjoy a later evening, it’s likely a little confused. I can understand it feeling strange, though, sweetheart – especially as we’re away. Shall I sing to you?’

Her redhead was horrified at the thought of disturbing their hosts. ‘With Evi and Susi asleep just down the hall?’

The smaller woman snickered softly at the fact that her lover’s sense of propriety was evident even when she was exhausted. ‘I’m hardly going to imitate the members of the Covent Garden Opera Company, cariad,’ she said, snuggling in slightly closer. ‘The beauty of this being an actual double bed is that I can even whisper directly in your ear.’

The taller woman was tickled by this practical explanation. ‘All right, then,’ she acquiesced, knowing it would not have taken much in the way of persuasion.

The brunette beamed at her redhead’s readiness to be brave. ‘In that case, I think we need some Doris Day, darling.’

‘Doris Day?’ Patsy was nonplussed, the drug already making it difficult to marshal her thoughts and come up with a useful song for this time of night.

Delia simply smiled. ‘Mhmm - “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. I thought you’d prefer it to a version of “Mr Sandman”, although I could change the pronouns.’

Her lover laughed quietly now. ‘No, you don’t need to do that. “Dream a Little Dream…” would be lovely. But the original was Ozzie Nelson, before even I was born.’

Her petite partner held back a giggle at that pedantry. ‘I know, and lots of other people have covered it in the intervening years. But Doris Day had a version on her album “Day by Night”. Not only is it apt for right now, but you gave me that record just after we started “courting”, cariad, so it’ll always be the most special take on the song.’

‘I did, didn’t I!?’ the redhead asked rhetorically as realisation dawned. ‘And, you know, I now know why I did. At the time I thought it was just cute because the album had so many songs that were relevant for us. You were already helping with my nightmares in 1957, even though we weren’t “together”, and then once we were it just made sense to buy it for you. But not long after I arrived in Hong Kong, I found the Ozzie Nelson version in amongst Papa’s collection, and I put it on because it reminded us both of Mama. I asked him why I had such a strong association of her with it, and he told me that she used to play it to him (and sing along) whenever he was going abroad for work –’

‘Oh, cariad,’ her little love interjected. ‘I don’t have to sing it if you don’t want me to – there are plenty of others I could pick.’

‘No, no,’ the taller woman said quickly, quieting her beloved brunette’s worries. ‘I’d love for you to sing it; just maybe something else first?’

‘All right,’ her sweetheart returned, relieved. ‘Like what?’

‘Like…’ Patsy paused to rack her steadily-fogging brain, ‘like “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)”.’

Delia giggled, but was rather dubious, despite the significance of the title. ‘Doesn’t that have the line about castles tumbling?’

‘It does. But it’s a reminder that life is transient – “Life’s really funny that way” – and I’m trying to take comfort in its constant changes instead of fighting against them. If only because fighting is tiring. Look, love, if you’re squeamish about singing it, I will. If I’m going to join in at all, it needs to be now, anyway.’

‘All right, annwyl,’ the younger woman allowed, impressed yet again by her older partner’s resilience and initiative.

With a ginger nod, her girlfriend grinned, took a deep but quiet breath, and started to sing the first song:

When skies are cloudy and grey,
They're only grey for a day,
So wrap your troubles in dreams,
And dream your troubles away.
Until that sunshine peeps through,
There's only one thing to do,
Just wrap your troubles in dreams,
And dream your troubles away.
Your castles may tumble,
That's Fate after all,
Life's really funny that way.
No need to grumble,
Just smile as they fall,
Weren't you King for a day?
Say!
Just remember that sunshine
Always follows the rain,
Come on and wrap those troubles in dreams,
And dream your troubles away.

Having been content to listen, because it gave her the chance to gauge the progression of the sedative’s effect on her sweetheart’s system, once Patsy finished Delia knew it was imperative she herself started again almost immediately. This transition was still tricky, and her darling deserved to feel safe. So, hoping to help things along and give gentle guidance through music instead of medically-motivated instruction, she chose another fairly obvious title – with equally useful lyrics throughout:

Close your eyes
Rest your head on my shoulder and sleep
Close your eyes
And I will close mine

Close your eyes
Let's pretend that we're both counting sheep
Close your eyes
Oh, this is divine

Music play
Something dreamy for dancing
While we're here romancing
It's love's holiday
And Love will be our guide

Close your eyes
When you open them dear
I'll be near, by your side
So won't you close your eyes

As she probably ought to have predicted, when she reached the end, those blue eyes which paired with hers so perfectly were still wide open. ‘That was meant to be an order, Nurse Mount,’ she admonished sternly, albeit with a smile.

‘I know, Nurse Busby, and I’m sorry,’ her cariad responded, seeming genuinely contrite. ‘I want so much to fall asleep this minute; but, well, the sound of your voice combined with the strength of the Valium evoked another of her songs so explicitly for me that I just have to sing it. Please let me?’

‘All right, annwyl, if you feel up to it,’ Delia agreed, with only the barest attempt at appearing annoyed. If Patsy felt safe enough to sing, it was not her prerogative to prevent her from doing so.

Her girlfriend nodded, grinning, and geared herself up to begin again. ‘It explains how I’m feeling right now,’ she said simply before starting: 

Soft as the starlight in the sky
Soft as the pillow on which I lie
Warm is the glow from the moon above
Warm is my heart that is filled with love

Love that only you can bring
Love as soft and warm as spring
My heart knows the reason why
I feel soft as the starlit sky

Dreams become reality
Darling, when you're near to me
So I'll dream of you and sigh
Soft as starlight in the sky

Love that only you can bring
Love as soft and warm as spring
My heart knows the reason why
I feel soft as the starlit sky

Dreams become reality
Darling, when you're near to me
So I'll dream of you and sigh
Soft as starlight in the sky

Soft as the starlight in the sky

‘I love you, love,’ Delia returned equally simply when the final phrase had petered out. ‘Thank you for teaching me how to talk through music. It saved me, you know, when I was stuck at home after –’ the brunette broke off, not wanting to sully this sacred moment by using the actual word, and the redhead took her hand in silent comprehension. This tender touch gave her the strength to finish her thought, which was about thought. ‘My first memories were from songs.’ Then, bolstered by the caress and a potential connection, she continued talking about their present. ‘Just like your strongest positive ones, of your childhood, have seemed to be so far, sweetheart. First Al Bowlly, then “Vespers”, and now “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Are you ready for me to sing it?’

Patsy nodded again and smiled. ‘Please,’ she said, slurring slightly now. ‘Mama and Papa’s song…’

Her little love nodded, too, sensing that she ought to be quick about this one if the taller woman wanted to process it properly. Without any further preamble, therefore, she took another breath and began to sing for a second time:

Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore trees
Dream a little dream of me

Say “Nightie night” and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you'll miss me
While I'm alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me

Stars fading but I linger on, dear
Still craving your kiss
I'm longing to linger till dawn, dear
Just saying this

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me

Stars fading but I linger on, dear
Still craving your kiss
I'm longing to linger till dawn, dear
Just saying this

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me

Dream a little dream of me
Dream a little dream of me

At the end of this long-awaited cover, the Welshwoman found that her drowsy English darling had not quite made it through, but she did not mind. How could she when it meant she had the gift of watching her girlfriend sleep!? She would join her soon, as promised in the first song she had sung, but the nurse in the brunette knew it was wise to keep watch a while longer – and also, from previous experience, that her redhead had a tendency to jolt awake if singing stopped too soon. Consequently, as she had held one further tune in reserve in case it was necessary, Delia decided she ought to deploy it in the hopes it would drift through to Patsy’s dreams. Her annwyl needed extra reassurance in their unfamiliar surroundings tonight, after all; hence their request at supper to leave one of the bedside lamps on, if the older couple could spare the cost. Evi had insisted that they did, of course, knowing that struggle all too well herself. That was actually the inspiration behind their youngest guest’s final choice of song – which was incidentally, if she remembered rightly, the final track on the album they were repeatedly referencing – because the lamp was indeed low. So, content that she could control her volume and vibrato enough to curl up even closer in a cwtch with her cariad, she shut her eyes at last and sang:

Dream beside me in the midnight glow, the lamp is low
Dream and watch the shadows came and go, the lamp is low
While you linger in my arms, my lips will sigh “I love you so”
Dream the sweetest dream we’ll ever know
Tonight the moon is high, the lamp is low

Dream beside me in the midnight glow, the lamp is low
Dream and watch the shadows came and go, the lamp is low
While you linger in my arms, my lips will sigh “I love you so”
Dream the sweetest dream we’ll ever know
Tonight the moon is high, the lamp is low

Then, having checked on Patsy once more, she permitted herself to do as Miss Day directed, and dream beside her beloved in the deliciously-soft double bed. As she succumbed to sleep, she could not help but think that, given everything, they could not do much better than this…

Chapter Text

‘Pats, love, I’m coming in –’

‘No –’ the redhead broke off to retch.

‘I am. You need help.’ The brunette was being her best (and most belligerent) “Nurse Busby”. She had been waiting for a morning like this, once the proverbial honeymoon with diazepam was over. More than that, though, she knew exactly what the issue was today, and refused to let her darling languish in distress unnecessarily.

Another retch. ‘I don’t. What I need is to do this on my own. You won’t be in my appointment later, and I can’t rely on you for everything any more. It’s neither fair nor healthy nor practical.’

Delia felt no triumph at this confirmation of her suspicions – the logical (illogical?) extreme of Patsy’s determination to be less dependent. Rather she was consumed by sadness, because she understood that this desire had been founded on fear and guilt instead of the positivity she had pushed to the fore since they had sought simultaneous shelter and escape in the opera. Her darling was defaulting to the type she had so painstakingly-perfected in the years before they had met. “Positive Pats” had been a front for “Petrified Pats.” She was, simply, scared that (if she leant too heavily on help) it would evaporate at exactly the point when she needed it the most. Because that dynamic seemed, perversely, to be one of the only constants in her life; and was one which Delia herself had encountered in those very same months when the woman she most loved had made so little contact. Moreover, now that she had reached the day of starting psychotherapy, she was (unconsciously) working on the presumption that she could transfer the burden of her care from her partner to the practitioner.

“Transfer” being the operative word in this instance, the Welshwoman thought wryly, glad that she had done all that reading before her girlfriend got back.

Yet there was a second layer, too, she realised: one rooted in the fact that this shift of support required speaking to someone who was not her sweetheart. So much so that anxiety around this upcoming conversation was acute enough to assert itself in direct opposition to the walls her cariad was reconstructing as a result of her deep-rooted but repressed fear of abandonment.

It didn’t feel like people had left if you pre-empted their departure by pushing them away – but the taller woman had obviously retained enough of a vantage point to know that she needed to venture out of her comfort zone if she wanted to shield the smaller from her struggles.

Poor Pats, Delia thought desperately as she stood dithering outside the bathroom, no wonder you’re feeling sick.

Then she stopped dithering and pushed the door open. It was time for them to talk; if only because her beloved needed to quell this nausea before she took her tablet at breakfast.

‘I’m coming to hold your hair back,’ she began, although she changed her mind as soon as she saw the older woman hovering by the toilet. The last thing her love needed was to be stooped over like that. So she started again. ‘I’m moving you to the sink, Nurse Mount,’ she said matter-of-factly, employing her girlfriend’s slight turn in surprise at the unexpected use of her title to seek silent consent and grasp her gently around the dressing-gowned waist to guide her to that more suitable and sanitary destination. Then, once they were settled, she swept her sweetheart’s hair aside in a movement calculated to be both comforting and constructive. This was successful, because her annwyl offered up a small smile in the mirror, even as the retching resurfaced. The brunette therefore felt bold enough to address her redhead’s reticence in receiving help this morning whilst she held her hair and rubbed her back; both preventative measures as it was still no more than nausea.

But that was good, because she would hear what her “Welsh Wonder” had to say:

‘I know you can’t talk right now, love, so I need you to listen. If it were up to me, you’d sit on my lap for the whole of your assessment session this afternoon, along with all of your appointments after it. Why? Because that would make it easier for you to communicate. It would also, however, defeat the object of the psychotherapeutic process – not to mention make whomever you see jump immediately to some pretty simplistic and problematic conclusions about the basis of your issues. We both know I can’t come in, and the reason I can’t. But it doesn’t mean I can’t help in other ways – or that I don’t want to do so. I do. And I want you to know that. I understand you’re anxious you’ve been asking too much, annwyl, and that you feel you ought to fend for yourself again. Especially now you’ve found some sort of structure and routine around your medication. But, just like you help me with my continued recovery, I want to help you with yours. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the only thing that hurts more than watching you hurt is when you won’t let me help. Besides which, I’m not budging, so trying to push me away will merely succeed in sapping energy you can’t afford to spare. I’m not going anywhere, and I won’t leave you. Are we clear, cariad?’

Her English girlfriend gazed at her in amazement in the mirror. ‘Yes, Nurse Busby,’ she answered, at first hiding behind customary humour. Then, though, she decided that her determined darling deserved to be let in more than that. So she started again by asking a question. ‘How did you know where this came from this morning?’

‘Because I know you, Pats,’ Delia said simply. ‘Not perfectly, since I would never be that presumptuous, but I’ve been on the receiving end of this particular response quite a few times before.’

‘I suppose you have,’ Patsy replied sheepishly. ‘I’m sorry –’

Her girlfriend cut her off with a gentle glare and a grin. ‘That word is banned today. As is “thank you”. In any language.’

‘But –’

‘No “buts”.’ Brunette hair shook vehemently to stop the redhead’s remonstrance, although it was already overwhelmed by the return of her retching. ‘You have something much more important to tell me – do you think you’re actually going to be sick, annwyl?’

Red hair shook now, followed by the soft and wary utterance of another single word. ‘No.’

‘In that case, can you breathe with me? We need to calm your throat down.’

The taller woman nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said tentatively as she followed instructions.

‘That’s it. Can you try two more?’ The smaller woman paused whilst her beloved breathed in, then out, then in again, and out again. ‘Good job, gorgeous girl. How are you feeling now?’

‘Fine, I think,’ the ginger began, gingerly. ‘And I suppose I ought to see if I can stomach some breakfast.’

‘If you feel up to it,’ her petite partner put in with a smile. ‘Shall we sit together on the window-seat and make the most of the early morning sunshine?’

‘All right,’ the older woman answered anxiously; the agreement garnering her a soft squeeze of admiring approbation.

The younger woman walked them both through to the lounge, aware that her lover’s long legs would be too weak to manage the movement alone. Then, when they arrived and her annwyl was anchored in the alcove she had asked Fred to fashion, the brunette felt she could broach the concept of specific food as opposed to the abstract idea of breakfast. ‘What would you like to eat, my love?’

Patsy thought carefully. ‘This is a strange suggestion, I know, but maybe some crackers and cheese?’

Delia was delighted. ‘It’s not strange, sweetheart – I think it’s sensible. Not too intense, but it’ll give you both carbohydrates and protein. Just one question: Carr’s or Jacob’s?’

‘We have both?’ The redhead was incredulous.

‘We do,’ the brunette said, beaming. ‘Choice is important, cariad.’

The Englishwoman grinned at her girlfriend’s turn of phrase. ‘Well then, Welshie, I think I’ll have Jacob’s today, please.’

The referenced Welshwoman nodded and ran (haphazardly) through to the kitchen to collect the requested substantial snack. When she returned, she saw her sweetheart staring out at the recently risen sun, and guessed that her gaze would be glassy. Therefore, having placed the plate of sliced cheddar and cream crackers by the ’phone along with the pill and a glass of milk, she called quietly for her cariad to move. ‘Stand up, love, and you can sit on my lap.’ Patsy did so, despite not properly acknowledging her petite partner’s presence, and Delia slid into position before bringing her beloved down again.

They stayed like that for quite some time, content to bask in the warmth of the weather and each other, whilst they waited for the older woman’s adult and child selves to synchronise. Eventually, though, the brunette decided that her almost-auburn annwyl needed to eat in order to have her tablet at something approximating the usual hour. So she suggested this, keeping her voice as low as she could. ‘Can you reach your crackers, cariad? You might want to make a start on them before the cheese begins to melt in the sun.’

The answer she got was unexpected. ‘How can cheese melt?’

‘Sorry, sweetheart?’ Delia asked as calmly as possible, given that she was unable to see her cariad’s face.

‘How can cheese melt?’ Patsy repeated, her tone not modulating at all.

The smaller woman reached around to grasp her taller partner’s wrist, trying to still her own shaking hand as she started to rub the soothing circles she had thought the diazepam had rendered redundant. She was scared herself now – Patsy was never like this in the mornings, before she had had her first dose. The mornings were their sacred time. This was unfair, and uncalled for. She had known the wonder of the contrast would eventually wear off (that was why she was waiting for the nausea) but to hear her scientifically-trained partner pose such a peculiar question was perturbing. Even when she was gone she was coherent within the realms of whatever her mind manifested.

This was about as far from coherent as she could get.

Oh God.

They had to get her off this medication, but that was going to bring its own terror.

The brunette thought she had bargained for everything – and yet apparently familiarity with the fog brought on by a similar sort of sedative was insufficient as ammunition against the seeming infinity of its side-effects.

Right now, though, she could not afford to waste a moment on ruminations. She needed to rub her redhead’s wrist and bring her back to reality.

After what felt like an interminably-long interval, the worried Welshwoman heard her English lover speak again at last. ‘Deels?’

‘Yes, Pats?’ She kept her voice as soft as her sweetheart’s and her syntax as simple.

‘Did I go?’

‘You did, darling, but you’re back now – and safe here with me.’

‘It – it was – different and I didn’t like it.’

‘Yes, it sounded different.’ Keep calm, Delia counselled herself. Patsy is panicking enough for both of us.

‘My head feels as foggy as it does after my first dose. It has done all morning. That’s why I felt sick.’

‘All right, annwyl. Would you feel able to ’phone Patrick? I think it might be wise to get his advice.’

‘Could you make the call, please?’

‘Of course, cariad, but you’ll need to speak to him about the specifics.’

With that, they worked together, her long-limbed darling dialling and passing her the receiver, after which they waited for their colleague to answer, checking the clock on the wall above their heads to be certain he would have arrived at the surgery. Satisfied, they sat still and silent, the only sound the ring on the other end of the line. ‘Hello, Patrick, it’s Delia; please forgive us for ringing so early –’ the smaller woman started timidly, before relaxing at the kindness of his immediate enquiry. ‘Yes, everything is fine at this exact moment, but it hasn’t been for most of this morning. Patsy seems to be reacting differently to the diazepam, and she has a few questions.’ A pause to listen, and nod reflexively. ‘I’ll put her on. She’s still slightly dissociated so her speech might be slower than usual.’

She gave the receiver to her girlfriend, who gripped it tightly again. ‘Hello, Patrick.’ A pause to listen, in which she was grateful to the doctor for being direct and not expecting her to explain entirely in her own words. ‘Yes, I slept fine, but woke up feeling worse than I have since I started it, with my nausea and everything,’ she said eventually, pausing again to get his feedback and further questions. ‘No, I haven’t had my morning dose. But actually, now that I think of it, this isn’t the first sign of difficulty. My concentration has steadily deteriorated each day. Last week I took three hours to write a note which was four sentences long.’ A third pause. ‘I was trying to eat some breakfast when I dissociated just now. It felt different and Delia said it sounded different too – I’m not sure, I’ll ask her.’ Patsy put her hand over the mouthpiece to clarify what had happened. ‘What did I say, Deels?’

‘You asked me how cheese melts, cariad,’ the brunette answered as softly and sincerely as she could manage. ‘I was trying to get you to eat your crackers and was concerned they’d get sweaty in the sun and the cheese would start melting.’

‘I – I did what?’ The older nurse was completely confused, but relayed this development to Patrick. ‘I’m not really sure what to make of it myself. Obviously cheese melts.’ A pause again to listen, and to motion to her younger partner to feel her head. ‘No, I don’t think I have a fever, but I do think I’d quite like to decrease my dosage. Especially as I’m starting therapy today.’ Another pause, both to listen and to steel herself for a lengthier reply. ‘Yes, I am enjoying sleeping better, but it seems a moot point if my function during the day is reduced so dramatically. The occasional absence due to dissociation is preferable to prolonged periods of lethargy. And the therapist will want to work on my nightmares, won’t they?’ Yet another pause. ‘I saw you on the twenty-first, so just under a month. I read something about shorter-term usage of diazepam being better for acute anxiety?’

She got a (deserved) slap on the shoulder for that. ‘Don’t push it, Pats,’ her petite partner hissed in her ear.

‘No,’ she continued, stopping the small hand from retreating and squeezing it lightly with her free one as she spoke again to their GP. ‘I understand it needs careful management. What would you suggest?’ A further pause. ‘Really? Actually shaving it off in increments each day? All right. I’ll keep you posted. Thank you ever so much.’

Once she had rung off, Patsy leant back against her annwyl and gave them both a moment of quiet contemplation before they restarted strategising. Delia willingly held her close. Then, fortified by her favourite person’s touch, the taller of the two women leant forward to reach not for the telephone but for her food. ‘I suppose I should eat this, since it’s caused such controversy,’ she said, chuckling as she tucked in to the (unmelted) cheese.

~

Only a little while later, as she was anxious about arriving on time, having reread her referral letter and realised that the Clinic was in fact no longer in Bloomsbury but just off Harley Street, Patsy forced herself from her drug-induced haze and through to their room to dress. Or, in a more accurate description, to agonise over whether to wear a dress. Slacks made her feel safer, but that did not necessarily correlate to being safer. Especially in an unknown environment. Eventually she went with the sensible yet stifling option.

She felt both sensible and stifled today, after all.

Then they left, thinking that, if they ended up arriving early even by their standards, they could always wait in Regent’s Park. That was Delia’s plan anyway, and would be their stop-off point afterwards, now Hampstead Heath was too much of a trek. (The confusion had resulted from the brunette’s equation of the Clinic’s name with the Square from whence it had acquired it but, in a lapse which seemed almost laughable given the redhead’s reason for going, she had forgotten that most of the papers she read had been pre-war and therefore prior to the evacuation of the original premises.)

At least the slightly longer bus journey meant that Patsy could sleep, and thereby hopefully stay awake for the whole of her assessment. If she could get to sleep, that was, as her anxiety seemed to have other ideas. So, rather than hankering over rest she could not have, the redhead resolved to fill the time productively, turning a tactic she had used with both her sister and her sweetheart on herself. Today, however, the hot weather required that she draw the noughts-and-crosses grid on a piece of paper instead of the window – and that they pass the pen (which she found at the bottom of her handbag) between them. In a way, she supposed that was better, because it made her focus more intently on the progress of the games. And, equally, less aware of the exhaustion behind her eyes that was somehow being stopped from sending appropriate signals across her synapses.

Damn anxiety.

No, damn emotions in general – and yet here she was at the beginning of a journey, both literal and figurative, whose precise purpose was to deal with them.

What the hell was she thinking!?

No. Those intrusive thoughts were even more unwelcome today than usual. What she was thinking was that she could try.

It had better be worth it. It had better work. She would be better off if it did.

But, if it did not, she would be no worse off. That was what she needed to remember. There was no harm in having an initial conversation, but there might be a whole lot of help.

And help was something to hope for rather than fear – was it not?

She never answered her own question, since she finally fell asleep on their second bus, lulled at last by the thrumming of the motors and the gently dappling shafts of sunlight which streamed softly over her face and the timid arches of early freckles on her bare cheeks. Where this morning that had understandably set off her panic, at this later and less fraught hour, it seemed to pacify it. Both she and her beloved brunette were grateful for the respite.

~

When she awoke, gently prompted by her girlfriend, they were in Harley Street; a mere five minute walk, along Marylebone Road, from Beaumont Street and the building she wanted. It was busy, though, it being Monday lunchtime – and her usually-stellar sense of direction was dulled by the effect of her drugs. So, sensing she would struggle to find her way, her smaller sweetheart suggested that they take the walk slowly together. Then Patsy could go in alone, but secure in the knowledge that Delia would know where she was and would meet her afterwards.

The Welshwoman’s English annwyl was so anxious again that she agreed without hesitation.

Necessity had a knack for quelling nerves.

Even the most lingering walk could not lengthen the distance beyond its actual parameters, however, so eventually they found themselves outside – and, knowing that she would have a fair amount of paperwork to complete in advance of her assessment, the older woman steeled herself with one last squeeze of her darling’s dainty hand before mounting the few steps to the entrance. Then, once let in, she climbed yet more flights, to seek out the Adult Department’s waiting room on the second floor, where she would make herself known and find the relevant forms. As she searched, she was more than a little disoriented by the manner in which the paint made the walls (and, consequently, the corridors) blend into one blurry mass. What was it about medical buildings that led the people decorating them to decide on such confusing colour schemes!? The London had been bad enough. Here she was unsure if she could accurately describe the shades she saw; somewhere, she supposed, between green and grey.

Greenish-grey?

Greyish-green?

Fortunately, the nature of the Clinic’s (rather shabby) structure was such that, really, the only way was up – and there were enough signs, if she could focus sufficiently to look at them – so after some stumbles she did succeed in locating the waiting room.

 Staffed by an unexpectedly smiley receptionist.

‘Patience Mount,’ she offered softly when the woman asked her name. ‘Here to see Miss Hendricks for an individual assessment.’

‘Of course, thank you,’ the receptionist answered. ‘If you could take a seat and fill in these preliminary forms, she will be through shortly. Oh, and as we are likely to become quite well-acquainted over the next little while, my name is Claire.’

Her grin was so genuine Patsy could not help but return it. Then she sat down and, grateful for the errant pen they had found for their earlier game, began to go through the forms. This she only managed by reminding herself that she was now very much living up to one of the definitions of her name, and engaging with services as a patient instead of a nurse. Was this how Delia had felt after…?

No. She mustn’t think about that now, because she could not talk about it. Regardless of how retriggering it had been. It was not up for discussion, at least not here.

Here, Delia did not exist, and yet without Delia she did not exist.

How was this going to work!? Psychotherapy was about unburdening the unconscious mind, and she could never do that fully whilst they had to hide.

This was just silly and pointless and painful. She should leave now.

No. She had – they had – come all this way across London. It would be unfair on them both if she gave up now.

Focus on the forms, Patience. Focus on the forms, Patience. Focus on the forms, Patient…

~

‘Patience Mount?’

Roughly fifteen minutes later, the referenced redhead heard her name and looked up to find a woman reminiscent of a slightly younger Phyllis standing just outside the doorway. She was also smiling, and Patsy could not quite decide if that was a good sign.

Nevertheless, that was her cue, so she stood up. ‘Here,’ she said, probably too brightly.

‘Kitty Hendricks. Are you all right to follow me to my consulting room on the third floor?’

‘Absolutely.’ Once again, she felt her tone rang too brightly, but she brushed that thought away and concentrated on carrying out the movements required to reach the room which would, one way or another, open the door to the rest of her life.

When they arrived, and were alone, the younger of the two women paused awkwardly, unsure quite what would happen next. Ever one for the efficient use of time, however, she hid her anxiety by looking around the room. She had no doubt about the colour of this one. It was very definitely grey. A particular tone, too – pearl, perhaps? Yes, that was it. And, in this pearl-grey room, the sum total of the furnishings was as follows:

A desk and its chair by the far wall, beneath the window, beside which was a bookshelf filled, naturally, with books. Ten points for observation so far, Nurse Mount.

No, you aren’t that here, she reminded herself sternly; and returned to the task she had set to find stability, continuing to compile the inventory.

Further across the wall next to the window was a clock. Good. That meant she could keep time without forever glancing furtively at her uniform watch, which she had pinned painstakingly to her pocket-less dress. Unless, of course, Miss Hendricks wanted her to lie on that couch, which would prevent her from seeing the face of the clock…

Oh God.

Oh God.

Oh God.

‘Patience?’

It took all of her wherewithal not to leap off the floor at the sound of the older woman’s voice. ‘Patsy, please,’ she started, before blushing at her own boldness. ‘And I’m awfully sorry; I have a tendency to dissociate.’

‘That’s quite all right,’ Miss Hendricks answered kindly. Too kindly. ‘I only wanted to say I’ll be sitting in my desk chair, and to ask if you would prefer a chair or the couch yourself.’

‘I get a choice?’

‘Of course, Patsy. Choice is important. Especially in our work together.’

The younger woman said nothing at first, simply sidling over to the second chair and sitting down, because she could not fathom the niceness of this dynamic. It undermined all of her expectations and preconceptions – rather like the change in her father when they had met again in Hong Kong after so many years.

But no.

She mustn’t think about him either. Not yet, anyway, except in the most abstract sense. To distract herself, she decided she had to direct where this would go. ‘I suppose you want a more detailed history than is on those –’ she began, gesturing at the pages Miss Hendricks had only just placed on her desk as she herself sat down.

‘I want whatever you feel comfortable giving me. This time is yours, aside from a few brief minutes at the end we save to discuss how things work here at the Tavi in terms of future appointments.’

This was so unfair. Why did she have to be so nice!? She was meant to make it easy to end things early on!

‘Well, I’d be most comfortable giving you a history.’

‘A history.’

Is that all!? You start out being all cosy and then just repeat things!?

‘My history.’

Miss Hendricks smiled at the subtle change. ‘Go ahead.’

Patsy wanted to wipe the smirk off her face, but she simply began to speak. ‘I was born in Shanghai in 1933, to British parents, the eldest of two children. We moved to Singapore when I was three and my sister one, for my father’s business. Shortly after I turned nine in early 1942, we tried to flee, because it was going to fall. We got passage on a ship but it was bombed and wrecked. We found our way to land, in what was then the Netherlands East Indies, but were captured and the interned by the Japanese. The camps were segregated, so I didn’t see my father until liberation a while after VJ Day –’

‘You were alone?’ Miss Hendricks clarified, picking up on the pronoun.

A nodded “yes”. Then, in a monotone that almost turned the two sentences into one, ‘My mother and sister died the autumn before. I was eleven.’

Miss Hendricks mirrored her nod. ‘How often have you told this story?’

‘Only when I absolutely have to do so.’

The older woman hummed. ‘You like lists.’

‘I do,’ the younger demurred, trying to grasp the connection.

‘You listed just then.’

‘I did!?’

‘A sequence of events to which, perhaps, you wish to appear to have no emotional attachment.’

Patsy stared silently into the space between them, unable to form words immediately when confronted with such frank, well, analysis – but knowing she had to try and say something. ‘It’s – easier –’ she admitted after a long pause.

‘Yes. Except it isn’t any more, is it?’ Miss Hendricks guided gently.

Red hair shook, resigned. ‘No. Now Papa is dead too and –’ Patsy paused again, horrified that she had used his nickname, then even more horrified to feel a single tear escape and slide down her cheek. ‘Sorry –’

Miss Hendricks passed her a paper handkerchief in preparation for any further leaks, and she could not but smile inwardly, thinking of Mrs Busby and her disdain for them. ‘Were you with him?’ the therapist asked, prompting her to come back to the present, or rather the more recent past.

‘I was, yes. He called me to him in Hong Kong, where he was based after – everything. He had motor neurone disease. I think that forced him to be grateful I’d trained as a nurse,’ she finished with a wry laugh.

‘Humour is easier too?’

A pause. ‘It was. I don’t know how to respond to anything now.’

‘When did he die?’ Miss Hendricks kept her enquiry simple, and avoided any of those awkward euphemisms, having picked up, perceptively, on her patient’s preferred phrase.

Patsy was grateful for her frankness. ‘November. Just before Mama’s eighteenth anniversary, actually.’

‘And she and your sister –’

‘Grace.’

‘She and Grace are the reason you went into nursing?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you been able to grieve?’

‘For him?’

‘For all of them.’

‘Define “grieving”.’

‘I’ve made you defensive by asking too many questions at once.’

The redhead laughed, taken aback. ‘I suppose so. Sorry.’

‘You feel you have to apologise for that?’

I feel I have to apologise for everything, Patsy mused, before verbalising a completely different query. ‘Don’t I? Doesn’t it get in the way of our work?’

‘This is our work.’

‘Oh.’ Oh.

‘Oh?’

‘Oh – oh, well, I guess I haven’t left my uniform quite as far out the door as I thought.’

‘Is it difficult to be the patient?’

‘Thank you for refraining from the pun on my name.’

‘Boundaries,’ the greying-brunette returned simply, although she smiled.

‘That’s my problem. Mine have disappeared. I can’t keep my concentration. I can’t read the papers, because the news is just too much, especially now that Profumo –’ But, no, it was too early for that. Any of that. So she pretended she had not said any of it. ‘May was a terrible month. I don’t even know where to start, because it was meant to be a break and a chance to recover, but everything seemed to spiral down. I couldn’t sleep properly –’

‘Couldn’t?’

‘My GP wasn’t sure how long the referral here would take, so he prescribed diazepam.’

‘I see.’

‘Indeed. It helped to start with but the shine has worn off rather quickly. I’m trying to cut down, so if there’s space for me after this assessment –’

‘You’d like to continue coming?’

Patsy worked hard to decipher the tone of this question. ‘I’d like to try. There’s a great deal more than grief I have to broach.’

‘Understandably. But grief deserves acknowledgement of its own.’

‘Tell me something I don’t know.’

‘That idea makes you defensive. Can you articulate why?’

‘Because – because – because – if I –’

Miss Hendricks – Kitty – saw she was struggling and offered a starting point. ‘Because if you acknowledge that…’

‘Because if I acknowledge that then I have to acknowledge everything else and it will hurt. It will all hurt. More than it already is and I can barely breathe through that,’ Patsy said that last bit in such a rush she was left gasping for air, enacting the sentiment of her sentence.

Kitty waited calmly for her to recover before continuing. ‘Tell me about “hurting”.’

‘Do I have time?’ the younger woman asked as she glanced warily at the clock.

The older woman smiled. ‘You’re being a nurse again. Here, in this room, making sure we keep within our appointment is my responsibility. We still have fifteen minutes. Your only task is gradually to get comfortable enough to relax.’

Patsy choked back the laugh that concept brought unbidden to her lips. ‘That is almost an anathema to me.’

‘What is it you think will happen if you do?’

‘The whole world will collapse around my ears. Like before.’

‘When you were nine?’

‘Yes. And for the three-and-a-half years afterwards. That part of me, my childhood self, is very present. So much so that she takes over my nights. And sometimes my days, too, through dissociation.’

‘The only space she can take. The things we can’t consciously deal with have to find other ways out.’

‘Well she certainly does that.’

‘Your awareness of her is a good start, you know.’

Patsy did not bother to check her chuckle this time. ‘We’ve been living together for the last twenty-one years.’

‘Humour again,’ Kitty put in gently, ‘but that does allow me to ask another question. Has she been obviously present for the whole of that time?’

‘No. More since – since I rediscovered things I’d rather not talk about so close to the end of this session.’

‘Understood.’

That single word meant so much to the girl-woman who heard it, and she said so. ‘That’s how I feel. Thank you. Bits of it are disconcerting, I must admit, but mostly it’s a relief.’

‘That’s what I aim to provide,’ the therapist returned sincerely. ‘We all do. But, before we get onto practicalities, is there anything else you would like to talk about?’

Patsy broke eye-contact to take a deep breath and steel herself for a final moment of honesty in this hour – not quite the ultimate revelation, but an important (and difficult) one nonetheless. ‘What I said about the acknowledgement of grief earlier wasn’t entirely true.’

‘No?’ Kitty had the kindness to seem genuinely interested instead of smug. Or perhaps it was merely her professional mask.

Patsy knew all about those – but she was not here in a professional capacity, so spoke before she became too nervous. ‘No. The real issue is I’m scared that if I start feeling I won’t be able to stop. And then I won’t be able to function properly either. Not that I am anyway –’ she broke off suddenly, conscious that she was rambling.

‘Feeling and functioning are diametrically-opposed for you?’ Kitty asked softly.

‘They have been.’

‘How would you respond to the possibility that feeling could be necessary for functioning?’

‘Sceptically?’

‘Are you sure about that?’

The younger woman sighed despite her amusement that they were answering questions with questions. ‘No. I know I feel better when I do eventually let myself cry. It’s just that I hate doing so in front of other people.’

‘I suppose I’m considered “other people”?’ the older woman clarified, repeating the redhead’s own words as she had at the start of the session.

‘Absolutely,’ Patsy returned, arching a brow at the suggestion that this brunette she barely knew could be anything else. Even the brunette she knew best hardly ever got to witness tears.

Kitty hummed thoughtfully. ‘And if I were to position myself as an extension of your unconscious so that, in these sessions, you were effectively alone and could emote as you choose – what would you say?’

‘I’d say you’ve been doing this for too long.’

‘Haven’t you been hiding behind humour (paired with your necessary medical knowledge) for too long, Patsy?’

Brown eyes smiled as they stared her blue ones down, and she was once again strangely comforted. ‘I’m not sure how to answer that except in the affirmative.’

Kitty broke character at last. ‘That is sufficient,’ she said, before softening. ‘I should apologise – such a leading question isn’t exactly orthodox, even for the Tavi, but you were so close to getting there yourself and it seems sensible that we start laying the groundwork for future sessions. I’m not trying to force you to cry, or to change your use of humour, especially at the end of your assessment. But I meant that about being an extension of your unconscious. This time and space is yours, for you, and no-one else. I’m here to help, but on a purely advisory basis, and I hope eventually you’ll know that the full range of emotions is welcome here whenever you are ready to bring them. Does that make sense?’ A pause as the younger woman nodded. ‘Good. Now for an easier question: will this slot suit on a regular basis? Mondays at two?’

Patsy hesitated. ‘For now – but when I’m back at work…’

‘When you’re back at work we’ll rearrange.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Our caseload is smaller than we wish it could be, hence the waiting list (unless your GP is concerned enough that we rush you through) –’

‘Like mine was about me.’

‘There’s no shame in needing help. That is the precise reason the Tavi was set up – to challenge the narratives in this area.’

Patsy hummed at this. ‘Narratives my nursing career has given me a lot of opportunity to experience.’

Kitty gave her a kindly nod. ‘I’m sure. My point, though; now you’re with us we’ll work around you. And now you’re with me, we’ll work together to make this a safe space. All right?’

‘All right,’ her patient patient agreed timidly, still amazed at the depth of this apparent stranger’s understanding.

‘Same time next week, then?’

‘Same time next week. Thank you.’

~

When Patsy finally found her way downstairs again, and out into the sun, her own ray of sunshine was waiting. Rather than ask immediately how things had gone, however, knowing that the older woman’s childhood would probably be too raw for them to have a conversation, Delia merely suggested to her darling that they retrace the ten minute walk to Regent’s Park she had just taken in the opposite direction. The redhead, being eager for exercise after an awkward hour spent sitting down, was only too pleased with this plan.

Admittedly, when they arrived, they found it much more manicured than Hampstead Heath. Neither of them minded the occasional manicure, though, and the weather had conjured up an influx of people who gave them convenient cause to cuddle up close on a bench. This reminded them of Hyde Park, too, so perhaps things had turned out better than they could have predicted.

In fact, their surroundings and their seating arrangements evoked enough of a sense of safety for Patsy to feel able to speak without her annwyl having to ask. ‘It went well,’ she started, and her sweetheart smiled encouragingly. ‘She was lovely. A bit intense at times, and I can tell she’s going to work me hard, but she understands and wants to help.’

Of course she does, Delia thought, because you deserve to be helped. What the Welshwoman said aloud, though, was simply, ‘I’m so glad, Pats.’

The Englishwoman was silent for a moment before adding, ‘It’s hard being the patient, isn’t it?’

‘It is.’

The brunette’s ready agreement made the redhead brave. ‘Deels?’

‘Mhmm?’

‘Not today, because we’re both tired, but sometime – could we talk about what the aftermath of your accident was like from each of our perspectives? Only it’s the one thing I can’t take to therapy, but it was obviously important…’

‘You know, cariad, I’ve been wanting to bring it up since the night we went to Figaro.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. I wondered if how I feel when you’re deep into the effects of diazepam is similar to the way you felt when you found out how – different – things were for me. But I agree, not today; today let’s just sit and enjoy the wonderful weather.’

So they did, staring up at the blue sky interrupted only by the occasional cloud and the arches of green trees through which sunlight streamed downwards and dappled prettily over paving slabs and pebbles, content to let themselves be consumed by the simplicity of the scene and the knowledge that each of the other people in this park were just like them. Humans with lives to live, songs to sing, and stories to share. That was what was lovely about London (and cities as a more general phenomenon).  Everyone was different and yet the same. Everyone had reasons to celebrate and struggles to keep secret. In the amalgamation of all these individuals, there would be no tale left untold. No way to navigate the world left unexplored or unconsidered. It reminded them that they were at once irreplaceable (instrumental) and insignificant. That was one apparent paradox they could perceive in a positive light.

Like the literal light which, through the leaves, was lingering on their faces now.

It offered comfort in the midst of chaos – a changing but constant compass by which to chart their courses.

And goodness knew they needed that.