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Jeannie Tennant

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You can’t take much more of this.

You know you should sit here and wait it out, see what Trixie has said to Sergeant Woolf, or rather, what she didn’t say – because so much of this goes unsaid. A whisper here, a whisper there. Word gets round. Someone’s aunt. A friend of a friend. Some alley. Somewhere. Someplace else. An unholy alliance. An unwritten law, because well, the written law doesn’t work at all.

Not for Jeannie. Not for Cath. Not for countless women like them.

You’re meant to carry on. Get on with the job. Roll with the punches, there’s work to be done.

Jeannie’s not the first woman you’ve known driven to this. You wish she were. That she would be the stopping block. The hard line. The full stop on the final chapter. But, you all know it deep down; she’s just the first line of a new paragraph.

Jeannie’s end isn’t really the end.

You wish it were the first time you’d sat in this collective heavy silence. It’s the first time at Nonnatus, but not the first time in your life. You’ve sat in the quiet of grief in countless living rooms and kitchens. Friends. Aunts. Cousins. Links at once, twice, or three times removed.

No matter the distance, it never gets any easier. You just get angier, and angrier, and seemingly less able to do anything, no matter how you’ve trained. Deaths like Jeannie’s aren’t unheard of, even if there are people who would like it to be that way. More whispers of a different kind. Hushed up. Swept under the carpet and never spoken of again.

There are too many now, too close together. There’s pattern somewhere, but you can’t work it out. You don’t want to think of how it might stack up. What an ugly turn of phrase. Stack up. You flinch at it. What an ugly event. Ugly.

Unnecessary and entirely preventable.

That’s why, you see. Why you can’t just eat your toast and sip politely on your tea because Jeannie’s death shouldn’t be normal. Shouldn’t be ordinary. She shouldn’t have had to go to those lengths to take control of her own body and her own life. You should all be screaming from the rooftops about it until you’re hoarse, but that’s not the done thing. You should be knocking on doors – no, knocking them down, demanding all these MP’s who so want your votes get off their arse and do something.

But, they won’t, until it’s their wives or their daughters. Until it’s a face and a name they know. Perhaps not even then.

Maybe that’s why you can’t quite shake this one. Not after Cath. Not after you saw Trixie break down like she did, right before she mustered all her courage to go and see Frank and the boys, you and Lucille at her side.

You have to be solemn and resolute. Offer your condolences to Frank Tennant and pretend like his world hasn’t caved in round his ears, like he’s not terrified about coping with two little ‘uns to look after, on his own. Without her. All you could do was give him a hug and too-sweet tea while you negotiated a kitchen that’ll soon be stacked high with every casserole dish from here to Chelsea and back. Hoards of well-meaning women with tissues, wringing their hands and swallowing down the lie that it’s never been them. They’ve never done what Jeannie did. They’ve never whispered. They’ve never done the asking. They’ve never needed to.

It was easier, to take care of the children, Lucille changing the baby, while you played aeroplane with her eldest. Easier to answer the door and take in those dishes and condolences. Easier because you had something to distract you from the unholy sound of Frank’s grief, yanked out from the depths of him. All Trixie could do was offer soothing words while he sobbed.

Sister Julienne urged you all to go, and you were glad to be able to do something, to be useful, but it didn’t feel like enough. Nowhere near.

“I’ve never heard such a terrible sound.” Lucille had said, softly, both of you lagging a few steps behind Trixie on the way back to Nonnatus, in some strange little cortege. You nodded, solemnly, thinking how small Frank looked, glimpsing him between the gap of the slightly open door, curled up on the bed, clinging to Jeannie’s nightgown.

You didn’t have the heart to tell her you’ve heard that kind of pain before, been the one to shoulder it like Trixie did, nose to the wheel. Back to the wall.

Some things really are better left unsaid, and that’s one of them.

That rule doesn’t apply here, it can’t possibly.

At the moment, your own silence is less troublesome, on the face of it at least, but the longer you sit here, the harder it is to hold your tongue. You’re being unfair, you know you are, because you all feel something, but from the look on Sister Hilda’s face, your expression of murderous intent was perhaps just a little too much. If you had your way, the second you knew who it was, you’d drag her in to see Sergeant Woolf by her hair. That would feel something like justice. That Jeannie’s death hasn’t been in vain. That Trxie’s deep, unspoken sadness – she’s moments from tears ever since you all heard the news, tissue in her hand like Catholics and the Rosary – would count for something. That the pain you saw etched on Frank’s face come to be less sharp. The wounds won’t ever heal, but you hope they don’t cut as deep.

By now, you thought you would’ve heard something, but there’s been nothing. That’s the other unwritten law, you think: silence. The truth will out, as they say, but it’s taking far too long for your liking, and whoever’s protecting this woman, this abortionist, they’re just as bad. You sometimes wish you could have some of Sister Frances’ naïvete, the kind that makes her ask probing yet seemingly innocuous questions because she just needs to know. If you were elsewhere, in less polite or respected company, you’d tell her to shut up and leave it alone, because all she’s doing is making it worse. Setting everyone – but mostly you – on edge. She was the one who set Trixie’s morning tears off when she’d otherwise been coping quite well. As well as anyone can cope on too little sleep, wracked by the guilt of knowing how she could’ve helped, if only she’d been allowed to, instead of trotting out the company line about care and support. True, genuine, well-intended as it is, you know it isn’t always the good or right solution for all your ladies.

You were like Sister Frances once. You needed to know too, but that particular curiosity got snuffed out once you saw far too many things you weren’t at all ready for, that never once entered your mind when you got it into your head that you wanted a life with some kind of adventure in it.

Seeing the world is all well and good. It sounds fun and exciting, until you actually get to the seeing bit of it. Curiosity killed the cat, as they say. Or, more accurately, it almost killed the equally eager, bright-eyed girl from Poplar.

You learned that the hard way. You hope Sister Frances doesn’t have to, but it already feels too late for nice ideas like that.

“In extremis, necessity finds a way.” Sister Monica Joan said.

It’s neat, clever, and wise. Usually, you’d nod and smile, because she’s right, but today, it feels like cheating. A half-truth. It is and isn’t an answer to Sister Frances’ question. It’s infuriating.

Trixie’s been gone too long now, and you wonder what else Sergeant Woolf possibly has to ask, or indeed, what Trixie has left to answer.

You can’t just sit still and wait patiently for the phone to ring, happily dispatched on your bike, cape flapping in the breeze to one of your ladies, all sunny smiles and friendly hellos like nothing at all has happened. Like all the pain and the sadness doesn’t matter. Frank’s tears don’t matter. His sons’ tears. Trixie’s. Lucille’s tears, blindsiding her suddenly in the Tennant’s kitchen. You felt each sob as you held her, shielding her from the children’s view.

She took longer to break, but when she did, it was just as horrendous as when Clarice died. The fact she forced herself to recover for the sake of those children, bright and happy again in the time it took for the kettle to boil, hurt you in a different kind of way to Jeannie’s death.

You can’t deny any of that. You just can’t pretend, no matter how you might like to. You can’t because today’s not normal and ordinary. You’re bloody seething with anger. These women are getting closer and closer to you. Their names aren’t whispers on the breeze anymore, they’re right in your earshot.

You’ve said them aloud. You’ve listened to their voices.

Their lives have intertwined with yours.

Sister Frances has another question. You've only heard the last couple of words, but you know you can’t tolerate it any longer. You heave out a breath, pushing back your chair. It makes an ungodly scraping sound against the floor, but you don’t apologise, you don’t say a thing. Not even when you hear Lucille call a soft “Valerie?” in concerned question after you.

Enough.

Enough sympathy and contemplation. Enough silence and holding your tongue.

Enough.

You march out towards the garden, pushing the door far too hard, slamming it off its ancient hinges. Another job for Fred, you think, absently, searching for anything in your pockets to busy yourself with. To keep yourself from screaming or crying or yelling obscenities to whatever God is meant to be up there.

This is all part of the plan isn’t it? You’re all God’s children? Well if God sees fit to rob Trixie of a dear friend, Frank Tennant of a wife, and her sons of their mother then you want even less part in it than you did before.

Faith. It sounds wonderful and soothing sometimes. It sounds right and reasonable. Worth something to you, when Lucille explains it to you in her soft awed voice. The verses she offers every so often, whispered – different to all the other whispers you hear – like a warm secret. They’re powerful, she clings to them, they see her through storms, and she’s told you as much. They’re so familiar to her; such a comfort, that quoting is like breathing.

When you look at her, you understand why she believes. You wish you could too. You wish you could take in the air, fill up your lungs, and feel the relief.

Maybe that’s why she looks so calm? The answers are already hers, because she was willing to listen.

Your pockets are empty. Of course they are.

Even though you knew they would be, it’s still a surprise of some sort. A hollow surprise, like an empty birthday card, a popped balloon, a rainy day off.

So you heave another breath, hands tight on your hips in desperation to stop them shaking, your head still tilted to the sky.

Where’s your sign? Bushes in Poplar don’t burn, it seems.

Your anger’s shifted to full-blown rage somewhere. It feels like it’s flashing red behind your eyes – it should be, there should be some sort of outward sign. This shouldn’t just be endured – heart pounding, blood rushing in your ears so loud you can barely think.

And then, you hear it.

“Valerie?”

She cuts through everything. She came to find you. Of course.

“Are you alright?”

You turn around, tearing yourself away from the empty, Godless sky.

She steps toward you, cautious, as if you might lash out. “I know, it’s a ridiculous question.”

“No.”

It’s the best answer you can give.

Some of this anger is misplaced you’re aware. Bubbling over from Cath, reined in after you learned she’d fled, shame-faced, like some sort of criminal. Trixie’s angry; you know it, even if she hides it well. You’ve syphoned it off from her somehow. It’s leached into you, and now there’s too much.

“I should go and tell him about Cath,” you say, looking past Lucille over her shoulder.

For a moment, the thought blooms, roots in, and takes hold. You think of it. Storming in there and telling him. One woman doesn’t seem to matter. How about two? How about seven? Ten? Tens of tens?

“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” she reasons, gently.

“Why?” you snap, all too loudly. “He needs to know the truth. We need to stop being silent!”

“I don’t want you to get in trouble.” she replies, in that same cautious voice, laced with concern. “If he finds out about Cath, he’ll find out about you helping her.”

She looks afraid of you, or afraid for you. Maybe both.

“I don’t care!” You’re properly yelling now. You shouldn’t be. You don’t much care about that either. “I’m sick and tired of all this tea and bloody sympathy Lucille! Tea won’t help Jeannie or Frank or those poor boys!”

Val, please.” She tries again, moving closer. “Sergeant Woolf will hear you.”

Good.” You know she’s right, but you can’t seem to stop yourself now you’ve started. “He should bloody hear! How many women will it take, Lu?! How many Jeannie’s, hmm?

“Shhh!” Lucille says, cautiously glancing back toward the door.

Any moment, someone will be out to investigate, and all you can think is good. They need to hear this. The whole bloody street can come out and listen for all you care.

“How many women does it have to take before they’ll listen? Before some … man decides abortions should be legal and women like Jeannie Tennant don’t have pay God knows what, travel God knows where, just to get the help they’re desperate for? Doctor Turner couldn’t even help her! How many women have to die? When will it matter? When it’s Trixie, or me?”

It all rushes out of you in one breath. A release, but not nearly enough.

Lucille says nothing, blinking back surprise. So, you say the only thing that’s been on your mind since the news about Jeannie was broken.

“How can we keep doing this? How can we just pack people off with tea and sympathy? God knows, in the last couple of hours, we’ve had enough tea to fucking drown in!” You laugh, but it’s hollow. So incredibly hollow. “Why aren’t you angry?”

She flinches, stepping away again. You didn’t mean to say any of that out loud. She’s not used to hearing language like that from you. It’s been a long time since you’ve used it anywhere near here.

Even though you’re outside, it still feels more than a little blasphemous.

You’re too loud. Too angry. Too much.

Lucille’s answer is quick. “Because I don’t have words for it.” She takes a breath to steady herself, daring to step closer again, closer than she’s been before. “I’ve never been angry like this. I wish I could express it like you. I wish I didn’t have to be the one to tell you calm down and be quiet because that’s the last thing I want.”

“Lu, I …”

Now it’s your turn for surprise.

“I want to scream, for those women who can’t be heard anymore like Jeannie. For those terrified women, who see no other way but to do as she did,” she pauses, choosing her words carefully. “But that’s not me, and that’s not what we need to do.”

She’s always so clear. So sure. You wish you were.

“Who’s going to speak for ‘em if we don’t?”

“You and I both know that it’s going to take far too long for things to change,” she sucks in a quick breath. “And, there will be far too many Cath’s and Jeannie’s yet. There will be more tea and more sympathy.”

You open your mouth to reply, but think better of it.

“We can’t change the world overnight, but we can help it turn. I know you think it moves too slowly.” She reaches out, her hand brushing your arm, hesitating before she takes your hand. She never used to hesitate. “Be angry,” she smiles a little now, leaning closer. “Use that beautiful, righteous anger that I love about you, but use it for good.”

Something in you shifts. The anger isn’t gone, but it’s dulled. Its edges are less keen.

“Let it fuel you,” she continues, her voice softer, lower. Lulling you somehow. “Help the best way we can. We can’t change the law, but we can we be there for these women until it does change. Tea and all. You’ll be no good to them in a prison cell.”

You nod. Deep down, you know she’s right. She’s always right. That you have to be patient. That you have to wait. To do and be what they need. Even if that sometimes feels woefully inadequate.

“Valerie,” she begins again, like she’s sharing a secret of some kind. “Don’t mistake my silence for not caring.” She holds your gaze then, squeezing your hands, just a little in comfort. In solidarity.

You feel guilt of a different kind.

“Just because I don’t say it, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”

It feels like the start of another conversation; one you’ve been scared of for a long time now. One that exists in a different world to Jeannie, and Cath, and all this horror you can’t fix with dressings and stitches.

You’re so close now. So close to something. The balance – whatever that is, whatever that means – is tipping.

But, you don’t get to say anything else, and neither does Lucille, because the phone rings, shrill, unyielding. She lets go of your hand, and you look at each other for a moment. You know what that means, if nothing else. Until she let go, you didn’t know how much you needed her touch. How you needed to feel that connection.

She smiles, but it’s sad. “Duty calls.”

Lucille’s right. The world does turn. But now, it’s moving altogether too fast.

She’s gone inside before you realise.