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Clarice Millgrove

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Lucille’s been on your mind a lot lately.

You wish it were for entirely good reasons, like the way she comforted you after Cath, and every other bad shift she’s been there to witness. Like your nightly chats, and the rum hot chocolates that you’ve finally got right. Like singing along with her out-of-tune to the radio in the clinical room, laughing as Trixie fiddles with the dial to find Radio Caroline. Like the way you’ll sit together on the garden bench, attempting to catch weak rays of sun while Lucille reads her latest letter from her mother, Hortense. You listen contentedly, struck by the warmth with which she reads. Somehow, your heart is full of love for people you’ve yet to even meet. You laugh good-naturedly at her mother’s wishes for Lucille to find a “Good, clean man,” noting the way Lucille looks at you over the top of the pages, knowingly, with just a little mischief.

All these little moments. All these little wonders. All down to Lucille.

You wish it were those things, because then you wouldn’t be so worried, but it isn’t and you are.

Lucille’s on your mind not because of the comfort, the kiss, the radio, the chats, the rum, or even the letters, but because of her patient, Clarice Millgrove. A lady she cared for with such compassion when so many others lacked it. To everyone else, for far too long, Clarice was either an annoyance to be endured or a silly old woman to be pacified. Lucille saw beyond that hard exterior, the crotchety demeanour, the righteous anger, and saw a person. She saw that Clarice Millgrove wasn’t just that antagonistic old lady; she was a woman, with a mind and a heart of her own, who lived to do and be so much more than any of you ever imagined she had.

What is it they say? Never judge a book by its cover. How true that is. There’s so much more to Lucille than everyone thinks. Hidden depths. Much like Clarice. That’s why they got along so well, you think. So different, and yet, so similar in so many ways. Now, you wish you’d had the chance to meet her, not least because of what Lucille shared with you, and what a profound effect it seems she’s had.

Some patients stay with you long after you’ve stopped caring for them. You know that better than anyone. Sometimes, those people are Cath Hindman’s and sometimes, they’re Clarice Millgrove’s. For bad, and good, they stay. You carry them with you. A little like that e.e. cummings poem that Lucille and Sister Monica Joan are so very fond of.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

The words have always been familiar, but until now, their true meaning less so. When Lucille first recited it to you, soft and reverent, without needing to refer to the book at all, her face lit just so from the warm light of the lamp by your bed, it felt different.

You knew, even if you didn’t entirely understand.

That feeling was the kind of love your mum would speak of; like it was the greatest treasure, the most wonderful and blessed secret. The love your sisters would build elaborate daydreams around. Be giddy and shriek, and giggle and long for like it was all that mattered. Suddenly, you knew what they meant.

All the songs on the radio. All the sonnets and poems. All of it made sense.

If you’re being honest with yourself, it’s made a lot of sense to you ever since Lucille came in your life.

You became such good friends so quickly, helping her to settle in and find her way in Poplar, that it’s hard to imagine what things were like before she arrived. Whenever she felt homesick or someone had said something to her, you could always cheer her up and make her feel better. Included, loved, so the miles between Poplar and Mandeville seemed that bit shorter, so the snide remarks wouldn’t cut as deeply. At least, that’s always been your hope. She always tells you how important you are and how grateful she is for your support and your friendship.

Lately, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing nearly enough.

She’s been out of sorts ever since Clarice died. It’s different than being upset or the grief you feel when you lose a patient. It’s something deeper you think. Something harder to ignore, and more difficult to push through and get over. She hasn’t said anything to you about it. In fact, you haven’t really spoken about Clarice’s death at all. She purposely avoids it whenever you do get chance to talk. She doesn’t need to tell you though, not really. You can see it. She’s smaller. Her smile is dimmer. You thought the funeral would help, as it did with Barbara. It did on some level, but not to the degree you hoped. There was quite the turnout. Familiar faces from Clarice’s street. Ladies from the movement. Older, frailer, but their spark still very much alight. You went along with Lucille to pay your respects and show support. Sister Julienne was keen for Nonnatus to be represented in some fashion, and there’s no way you’d have ever let Lucille go through that alone, even if Shelagh and Dr Turner went too.

They were there for each other. You were there for Lucille.

She gripped your hand tight all through the service. “I couldn’t have done that without you.” She’d said tearfully, when you ended up toasting a sherry in Clarice’s honour down The Black Sail for the wake. What is it that Dr Turner said? Oh, yes, it was about “psychological closure” and “finding comfort in the fact Clarice is at peace.” You understand what he means, and you know he has the best of intentions, but that’s all a bit too neat for your liking. As if you can draw a literal line under things, and cut off all that came before.

You’ve never really been able to do that, and neither can Lucille. You’re not in the kind of job where you can clock off and leave your work behind, and you wouldn’t like to be either. “There’s a great deal of difference between giving care, and caring about them,” Sister Monica Joan had once told you, at the end of a very long, and incredibly difficult, night shift that ended in the loss of mother and baby both. “You’re one of so very few who truly understands that difference.”

On days like today, you hope she’s right.

Clarice became important to you all. That’s the way Nonnatus is. Everything is shared. The burden of work is never just entirely yours to bear. Every day, Lucille would update you and Sister Monica Joan with the progress she’d made, usually over a cup of tea and a sneaky slice of cake. She’d come to you for counsel, you see, wary of overstretching herself and doing too much following Sister Julienne’s gentle warnings to slow down.

She was doing far too much. Often, she’d return to Nonnatus far later than the end of her shift, bone-tired, but never once complaining. Full of worry and fear about what was next for Clarice instead. Determined to do the best she could. As more and more of Clarice’s past came to light, the more driven Lucille became.

Everyone rallied of course, between their own work. Phyllis made tea and warmed late dinners put aside by Mrs B. Trixie or Sister Frances put a hot water bottle in her bed or drew a bath, but you were the one who coaxed her to take all of that help, never thinking herself worthy of the attention. “If you make yourself ill working like this Lu, what good will you be to Clarice then?” You reminded her, quite sternly one evening, when she wouldn’t hear of an early night. In the end, you helped her to bed, and she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. You pulled the covers up, making sure she was warm enough, and placed a careful kiss on her forehead by way of goodnight.

No one was more shocked than you to see Phyllis standing in the open doorway, looking at the scene with fondness. For a moment, your heart leapt up into your throat, terrified that she might’ve seen something. Terrified that kissing a dear friend goodnight could be construed as something at all. “Good god, Phyllis, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” You’d replied, in a harsh, too-loud whisper, hand clutched to your chest. “Just checking on the patient,” she offered, simply. “But as ever, I see she’s being well cared for.”

With that, Phyllis was gone, and you were left alone, watching Lucille’s sleeping form, with nothing but your racing heart, and the very real fear you’d been caught red-handed doing something you shouldn’t. If Phyllis did see anything, she hasn’t spoken of it since, but you wish she would, because then it’d be one less thing on your mind to keep you up at night.

There are a lot more things doing that of late, and no amount of counting sheep seems to make sleep come any quicker. In the daytime, it’s far easier to push things with Lucille to the back of your mind. When you have the fixed routine of the duty rota and your patients to lose yourself in, it’s so much easier not to wonder, or worse, hope for something more.

You don’t dare.

Today, Clarice is the one wholly occupying your thoughts. Soon, you’re all due to walk round together to the polling station to do your bit and stick a cross in the box for Vi, or should you say, Councillor Violet Buckle, Poplar North. It has quite the ring. For as long as you can remember, your mum has told you how important it is to vote, but it carries so much more weight today. You’ll do it for Clarice. For all the women who fought for the right to vote and lost their lives because of it. People say it’s only a local election and it doesn’t really matter, but if everyone thought that way, you’d likely still be marching, banners aloft, wearing green and purple. Change begins from a single choice. Doing nothing is the easy way out, and you’ve never been a fan of anything that comes too easy.

You’re just putting on your coat and checking your hair and lipstick in the mirror – Trixie won’t have poorly applied lipstick, not even at the polling station – when Lucille’s reflection appears behind you. You didn’t even hear her on the stairs. She must’ve been taking tips from Phyllis. There’s no shock though. No jolt. No speeding heart. Not this time. Lucille comes and goes so frequently that Trixie has taken to leaving the door open, so she can come in whenever she likes.

There’s barely a night where you don’t see her, even when you’re on different shifts. “mi casa, su casa,” Trixie announced with a grand sweep of her arm, cigarette wagging between her lips as she spoke, when Lucille seemed hesitant to enter in the immediate hours following Trixie’s return from Portofino.

That feels like lifetimes ago now. So much has happened since then.

It’s only when you turn around and look at Lucille properly that you realise she’s been crying. Tears barely dry staining her cheeks.

Now, that familiar terror, that uneasy dread you so often feel comes back, and your daft joke about her quietly creeping in dies on your tongue. She’s shaking slightly, clutching a slim black box in both her hands. She left over half an hour ago to speak with Sister Julienne, summoned along with Sister Monica Joan.

The last time you were alone like this, it was when she rushed to tell you the news of Clarice’s passing, she could barely say your name before she burst into tears, inconsolable. You sat with her on your bed listening to her sob, feeling every tiny movement as they wracked her, shedding silent tears of your own. “It’s alright, it’s alright, darlin’” You’d said quietly, in the faint hope it would make everything hurt a little less.

The bedroom door stayed closed for the first time in a long time. Later, Sister Monica Joan told you about the rhubarb and the sugar in the garden, and you wish you’d been there in those immediate moments, when she’d needed you the most. But, the fact she came to you later, that she’s come to you now, means something, even if you’re not sure exactly what.

You swallow hard. “What’s happened?” you ask, trying not to sound as scared as you feel.

You had every intention of keeping something like respectful distance between you after the kiss, and the way she curled into you in her sleep, but you just can’t keep your guard up. Giving your heart away never ends well, and you really should know better by now, but this is Lucille.

She dismantles you so easily. You can’t deny her anything.

Before you realise, you’re rushing to her, easing her down to sit on the edge of your bed before she falls down. You stay kneeling in front of her, watching intently.

“Clarice, she gave me her suffrage medal,” she replies, shakily, barely above a whisper.

“Oh Lu,” is all you can say, when the box opens with a creak, and there, revealed inside is Clarice’s medal for valour.

“How can I take this?” she asks, shaking her head in disbelief as she traces the ribbon. “What have I done to deserve it?” she looks at you then, her eyes brimming with fresh tears.

The sight of it just about breaks your heart. You wish you could say that that was a rare occurrence.

“I won’t have talk like that.” It’s too harsh really, for the state she’s in, but no less true. You hate how little she thinks of herself and her work. You hate how she feels like she’s on the outside looking in, no matter how hard you try to make sure she’s included.

You never want her to feel unloved or unwanted. Ever.

“You were wonderful. You looked after her, and stood up for her when everyone else had given up,” you remind her, reaching up to brush away her tears.

You can’t help it when you stroke your thumb across her cheek, lingering long after the tears are gone.

Lucille lets out a shuddering breath. “But …”

“But nothing,” you reply, letting your hand fall away. “She gave it to you, and that’s the end of it.”

She nods grudgingly. “I just don’t feel entitled.”

That’s the second time she’s used that phrase this morning, and you hate it as much as the first. She has every right to vote. She has every right to be here. She has every right to keep that medal.

“You are,” you reply firmly, not letting her look away. “She wanted you to have it.”

“Courage calls to courage everywhere,” she says, softly.

Oh, if only she knew.

There are different kinds of courage. Different kinds of valour.

You know that and so does she. Maybe that’s why you’re so drawn to each other? Maybe that’s why you try and fail so spectacularly not to care for her as you do.

“It does,” you can barely speak now, your voice thick with emotion. She looks at you for what feels like a long time, as if she wants to say something else, but isn’t quite brave enough. Yet.

It’s too much. It’s all too heavy. It feels like you can’t breathe.

“Come on, you’ll ruin my mascara at this rate,” you joke.

“Trixie will have a field day!” she smiles, and it’s almost worth it. “A lady must look her best in public!” she continues, mimicking Trixie’s most familiar phrase.

Both of you laugh then, and suddenly everything is lighter.

You stand up, bending to wrap her in a loose hug. She pulls you closer, with a sigh that feels like relief. You can breathe again. For now. Before you can think of holding back, or second-guessing yourself, you press a quick kiss to her temple.

For comfort. For courage.

“Chop, chop, ladies, Mrs Buckle needs our votes!” Trixie breezes in, breaking the spell.

No being caught red-handed this time. Trixie makes no comment.

“Clarice gave Lucille her suffrage medal,” you offer, as if that’s some kind of explanation for whatever Trixie saw.

Trixie softens immediately, walking over to see. “Goodness, that’s quite something,” she declares, admiring. “I do hope you’ve changed your mind about coming with us?”

“I don’t know,” Lucille offers, sheepishly.

Trixie looks like she’s going to start up again and read her the riot act, so you elbow her quickly in the side.

“Well, you know what I think,” you offer, reaching for your handbag. “You have just as much right to vote as we do.” You pause, making sure she’s really looking at you when you add, “Poplar is your home too.”

“Quite right, Valerie,” Trixie agrees, and Lucille just nods, still looking altogether too uncertain.

With that, Trixie marches off to recruit Sister Hilda and Sister Frances, and you start to tag along behind. You don’t want to push her too hard. It’s Lucille’s choice, and she very much knows her own mind, but you can’t help but think how fitting it would be to honour Clarice by going along. Bigots be damned.

When you reach the doorway, you turn back to look at her. She’s holding the medal in her hand now, free from the box.

Just one last try.

“You know where we are if you change your mind,” you say, hoping to encourage, rather than pressure.

“I do,” she replies, with a smile. “Thank you, Valerie.”

You nod, and turn away, leaving her to her thoughts. This is about more than a cross in a box. It always has been.

Again, that strange little spell that weaves its magic between you is broken.

“Valerie, will you come on!” Trixie calls, loudly after you.

“Trixie, we’re going to vote, not get tickets for The Beatles!” you call back, rushing down to meet her.

The last thing you hear before losing yourself in the conversation and getting carried along with Trixie’s ridiculous excitement is Lucille’s laughter. Soft, sweet, and the greatest sound you’ve ever heard. There’s been far too little of it ringing out through the halls of Nonnatus lately.

Courage calls to courage everywhere.

One day, you might be brave enough to say you love her. One day, she'll be brave enough to love you back.