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Elaine Pilkington

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“He’s not the person I thought he was.”

Lucille said a lot of things in that conversation about Cyril, but that’s what really sticks with you. She doesn’t like being lied to. Granted, the Cyril situation turned out to be a product of Sister Monica Joan’s ever fertile imagination rather than him actually being dishonest, which is something of a relief, but the root of Lucille’s upset is still the same: she can’t abide liars.

Not so long from now, in another conversation with Trixie, just like the one you had to get to the bottom of the business with Cyril, Lucille will say the same thing about you, because you have lied all this time about your feelings. No, your love for her. You love her. You’re in love with her. It’s all so confusing, all so bound up with fear and shame that sometimes you forget how wonderful she makes you feel.

You wonder if she’ll look as hurt as she did when she said it about him. If she’ll be angry that you couldn’t confide in her, as she has in you so many times now. You wonder if Trixie will feel the same. That wonder and that worry kept you awake long after you came back from delivering the Jenkins baby, and all the mums and babies at clinic that came after.

This isn’t just a lie any longer, that word seems small and inconsequential for what this truly is. You’re betraying her. You’re betraying yourself, which is the worst thing of all. You could keep your feelings to yourself, nice and separate. Never the twain shall meet, as they say, because the girls, the women you met, it was all done in the cloak of darkness – shadows and whispers. Never on a clear bright day. Never in the room next door. Never at the breakfast table.

Sometimes, you wish you’d never opened the door to,and willingly let Cyril in with a smile. Other times, rarer times, you wish you’d never opened the door to Lucille. You wish it’d been Trixie or Phyllis or Sister Julienne instead, because then, those early moments, where it was just the two of you, would’ve never existed, and you wouldn’t crave them so now.

Cyril’s arrival means a lot of things, but mostly it means she doesn’t need you as much anymore. If at all. They can talk about things with each other that you can never truly understand. They share their faith; they share the experience of coming to a new country and feeling alone. You’ve only ever felt a stranger in the place you’re from, and that’s a different thing altogether.

You should be happy of course, because she needs someone in her life like that. We all need friends, and you’d hate for her to feel alone, or lonely. You know what that’s like. How easy it is to feel alone in a room full of people who all know your name.

But, that’s it you see, you already know that Cyril won’t just be her friend.

You’ve seen the way he looks at her. You know what being in love looks like. You know because you’ve caught your reflection sometimes, in the glass cabinet of the supply room or a shop window, and his face is the same as yours. Except, you have to hide it, and that’s getting harder and harder to do.

Trixie’s looks are knowing too, for an entirely different reason. Where Lucille’s concerned, she’s started to default to you. There’s an expectation that you’ll know what to do and what to say, as if you have extra insight, and can somehow decode her feelings.

If only.

Wondering what to do and how to be around Lucille is distracting you now, even when you’re on duty, listening out for the phone to ring. Nonnatus feels empty, even though it isn’t. Trixie and Sister Frances are out on visits, Sister Julienne and Sister Hilda are here somewhere, and Fred is in the garden, but you may as well be alone. It even distracted you when you went to visit your gran, ticking away in the back of your mind, underneath everything, while you took care of her. You used to be good at hiding. You used to be good at ignoring the wondering and the ticking. The noise of it all didn’t feel nearly so loud.

Nonnatus feels so empty because Lucille isn’t here. She’s gone to church with Cyril, so you’re left here, tidying the clinical room and the supplies closet, trying to busy yourself with something, anything to feel useful. Nurse Dyer is useful, and resourceful and capable, but Valerie doesn’t feel like any of those things. Not lately.

This is the price to pay, you suppose, for letting your guard drop. For letting Lucille in. For hoping.

There’s worse pain in the world, you know that, you’ve been there and you’ve felt it. You’ve been the witness to other people’s pain too. This isn’t the kind of pain you can fix or change, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, you just wish you knew, one way or the other how Lucille felt. Truly. She says how important you are, how wonderful, how dear, but, it’s more than that for you, it always has been. You wish you could come right out and say it; find out if all those looks and touches and late night chats – very different whispers, surrounded by very different shadows – actually meant something, or if it was all in your head. Just silly nonsense.

If it were, things would be a lot easier.

For now, you have to focus on something else. If you’re not careful, Phyllis will give you chapter and verse about not paying proper attention to the job at hand. She’ll say how unlike you it is, remind you that you’re “not some silly schoolgirl.” Lucille makes you feel that way sometimes. She makes you laugh, and blush and long to be around her. Just the nearness of her, like that old Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duet Trixie loves so much.

She likes to play it, softly, late at night, and you listen together, both sat up in bed, her flipping through the pages of a magazine, and you, through some Austen or Keats. It makes you both wistful and nostalgic. Quite without your notice, a tear or two has escaped you, rolling down your cheek, and Trixie would say “Lovely, isn’t it?” and offer you a tissue to dry your eyes. You thought about telling her on those nights, when Lucille was out on call, because there was less chance of her coming in for one of those nightly chats, hot cocoa for you both in hand.

It’s been there, on the tip of your tongue, so many times. You’ve watched, waited, hoped that in the end, she’d just ask, but she never asks, and you’ve never been quite brave enough just to declare it. The risk and the fear is just too much. You know you aren’t alone in that of course, so many of the women you care for have to hide things, hold back and hold their tongue. They don’t have friends like you do. You’re lucky in that way, luckier than you ever could’ve imagined back in your army days.

Elaine Pilkington pops into your mind suddenly, and you’re given a much needed dose of perspective. As soon as you have something else to think about, that ticking and wondering gets quieter, not gone entirely, but it’s quieter. She’s so very young, and she and little baby Sarah only have each other now she’s been abandoned by her parents. The poor girl has nothing in the way of baby clothes, bottles, or anything at all really, going off what Lucille told you. She spoke about Elaine and the baby with such care and warmth, and the sorry situation she found herself in, that you couldn’t help but be moved.

Instead of tidying the clinical room, dusting shelves and lining up bottles of pethidine and antiseptic, you set about doing something that really is useful, to drag yourself out of this ridiculous moping that you can’t allow yourself to stew in any longer. After all, you aren’t a silly schoolgirl anymore, far from it. You’ll make a little care package for Elaine and the baby, just a few things to get them started. Phyllis’ lost and found box in the kitchen is always overflowing, and a couple of blankets from the clinical room won’t be missed. You’ll give that pram out back in the bike shed a clean up, it’s only got a wonky wheel, and Fred can see to that. There’s always more donations of baby clothes, formula, and toys to be found. Your ladies frequently drop by with cardigans and blankets; it won’t take long to replenish things, and once everyone finds out who it's for, you’re certain they’ll want to help too.

“Valerie Dyer,” a peal of light laughter follows your name. “What on earth are you doing?”

You jump at the sound, hitting your head on the top of the cupboard you’re rummaging inside, rooting through the lost and found box for anything that might be the right size for the coming months.

Lucille. You’d know that voice, that laugh, anywhere.

“I thought I’d do something for Elaine and the baby,” you offer, rubbing at the back of your head as you move back. “Poor girl’s got nothing, has she?” you gesture vaguely at the tiny cardigan in your other hand, before placing it down next to you.

“Oh, bless you,” she replies, and you turn right at the moment she smiles. Suddenly, everything feels alright again. “What a lovely idea. I’m sure she’ll be grateful,” she continues, giving your shoulder a little squeeze. “Let me help.”

Before you know it, her coat is off, she’s knelt down next to you, looking inside the box. She hasn’t even given herself a moment to change, still in her pretty yellow dress from church.

“You’ll ruin that,” you comment, motioning towards it. “It’s far too nice to be scrabbling round on this floor in.”

You hear the vague echo of your mother in your words. She said that the first time you tried to help her scrub the kitchen floor when you first tried on your nurses uniform.

Lucille shakes her head. “Don’t you worry, I’m not about to meet the Queen, so I’m sure a wash will do fine.” She nudges your shoulder and you both laugh a little.

You’ve missed this. Too much.

You stay like that for a moment, folding and unfolding, working together in this strange little sort of silent ballet. All it takes is a look from you and she places it in one pile or another.

“How was church?” you ask, as you pass her a bib.

“I feel quite restored,” is all she offers, and you wonder why she’s holding back.

“Good, I’m glad.”

You’ve heard what it sounds like from the outside of course, when you’ve accompanied Lucille, waiting patiently until the service is over. Without fail, Mrs Palmer welcomes you inside and offers you tea, despite the fact you don’t observe in any way. She and Lucille have that same, unwavering kindness. You miss going with her. You miss the tea and the conversation. You miss sitting opposite her in the café in Lime Street for a late breakfast. Plastic chairs and too bright strip lights. You miss those hours more than you ever realised now they’ve slipped from your grasp, out of sight.

“You were missed, you know,” she looks over at you again, soft eyes, soft smile.

“Mrs Palmer still had some biscuits left for once, you mean!” you deflect, chuckling a little to yourself.

“She might’ve, but she certainly missed talking to you.” She holds your gaze a little too long. maybe it’s not just Mrs Palmer who misses talking. There haven’t been nearly as many late night chats in these last few months.

“Oh that’s lovely,” you say, abruptly changing the subject, desperate to fill the silence with something, anything really, noticing another cardigan peeking out over the edge of the box. She leans closer, picking it up, her knee touching yours.

“Babies always look so nice in lemon, don’t you think? Sarah’s such a beautiful little thing.”

You nod, a little too slowly, watching her as she puts it aside. She feels too close suddenly, but you don’t dare move, because you don’t want to draw attention to it.

“How’s Elsie?” she asks.

You like that she calls her that, it feels warm and familiar. Like the stories she’s told you about her own family.

“She seems much better,” you reply, out of reflex, and then less so. “Thanks for asking.”

“Not at all. I know you worry.” There it is again, that soft, sweet smile that undoes you so. “I’ll look in on her tomorrow, if you’d like?”

“You would?” It's a silly question. She’d do anything you asked.

“Of course!” she frowns at you a moment, like she doesn’t know why you’re saying what you are. ”I know you’re waiting’ on Mrs Mulaney, and if her other deliveries are anything to go by, you’ll be waiting’ a while!”

You smile, giving her a pointed look “Don’t remind me, Trixie said little George was a bit of a marathon!” You’re laughing again, and things don’t feel so difficult and heavy anymore. Phyllis always says that you ‘chuckle together conspiratorially,’ like ‘you’re sharing a secret.’ The implication used to make you anxious, angry, even, but now you know she’s right. It’s not like this with anyone else. Not even Trixie. “Thank you,” you say, needlessly.

“Think nothing of it.” Another fond look. Then, she’s more serious, “Wound care like that matters, and we can’t have her on her own all day. I might not be her favourite granddaughter, but I’ll be a friendly face.”

 

“You will.” Her kindness always touches you, and you never quite know how to respond to it. How to tell her how much it means to you. So, you don’t. You can’t, because other things you can’t take back will follow. “Though promise me something?” You wait to make sure you have her attention. “As soon as she gets the photo album out, you’re out too.”

“You were quite the bonny baby, so I’m told,” she teases. “Be nice to see some evidence.”

You huff, feeling yourself growing hot with embarrassment. “Sister Monica Joan!”

“She adores you.”

It’s said so easily, plainly, simply. You envy it.

I adore you.

The unsaid hangs between you for a moment. She looks at you, and you at her. It’s such a long time since you’ve been alone together, without interruption. It’s when thoughts bloom. When closeness breeds.

“Better get back to this, hadn’t we?” you say, breaking the spell. Lucille blinks back surprise, and there’s a brief flash of confusion on her face, and then, it’s gone again.

You do get back to the silent ballet, passing more things back and forth. Tiny socks and vests, bibs. Every time you do, your hands brush.

“Sorry,” it’s nervous and awkward, you clear your throat to cover it.

She shakes her head and there’s another laugh then, because you’ve both reached for the same teddy at the same time. You look between her and the bear, she just looks at you, down at your hands, touching, and back up at you again. Her expression is unreadable. She doesn’t move away, and she doesn’t move her hand either.

“Valerie.”

She gulps in air.

You forget to breathe.

“Things alright with Cyril then?”

The question pops right out before you even realise, and she lets go of the bear. It feels like you made a mistake. Crossed some invisible line.

This energy, tension, whatever it is, falls back level again. Her attention is well and truly diverted. You want to know of course, because you can’t bear to think of her upset or unhappy, but increasingly, there’s a bigger part of you that doesn’t want to hear it either, because he could so easily become her source of happiness.

“Early days,” she glances across at you shyly as she folds a romper suit, placing it on the pile that’s now designated for keeping. There’s a faint blush in her cheeks.

“Well, if he ever gives you any trouble,” you look at her squarely, holding her gaze, “he’ll have me, Trixie, and Phyllis to answer to.” You keep your tone easy and light, so she knows it’s not a real threat, but you have no reservations about giving him a piece of your mind should he ever hurt her.

“Goodness, that’s quite the deterrent!” She laughs again, and her whole face lights up. Then, she turns serious again. “What would I do without you?”

She’s said that to you often, but it’s never felt this heavy with meaning. This is the hard part. The push and the pull. Where you don’t know what any of this means, and everything feels heavy, and too painful and just too much. Her hand falls to rest on your knee, lingering there, and you don’t know what to do. You can’t think. You can’t breathe suddenly, and she’s looking at you in this very pointed way, as if she’s waiting for you to do or say something in return.

It would be so easy, so very easy, just to close the distance between you and kiss her. On the cheek … on the lips. Just give in. At least then you’d know. There would be something finite.

“Good gracious, it’s like a jumble sale in here!”

Phyllis’ voice cuts through everything.

She’s standing over you both, hands on her hips. When you look down, Lucille’s hand is gone. The moment is gone too.

You briefly wonder how guilty you look, heart racing. She’s caught you.

“All for a good cause,” you start. Your voice is shaky, as unsteady as you feel when you stand up.

“For young Elaine,” Lucille overlaps, standing too, picking up everything you’ve gathered so far. Her voice is steady, calm. Like nothing at all has happened.

You envy her resolve.

“Oh of course, and little Sarah,” Phyllis beams. “How kind. Poor lass needs all the help she can get.”

“I’ll go and see what else we can use from the clinical room,” you offer, remembering the blankets and the formula mulk.

You need distance. You need to take a breath.

“Good idea,” Phyllis replies, looking through the pile with Lucille, spreading it across the table for inspection. “Get some boxes while you’re in there, let’s get this packed up for them, eh?”

You turn and nod, trying not to give anything else away. When you look back at Lucille, she’s busying herself with your finds, brows furrowed in concentration. The flush in her cheeks is back, and deeper than before.

She’ll be the death of you, one way or another.

In the relative silence of the clinical room, shielded from their view, you let out a long, unsteady breath, tilting your head up to the ceiling. This can’t go on. You can’t do this dance any longer. You have to end this. Cut it off. Let it go. It’s best for all concerned. Until a few moments ago, you were certain Lucille wasn’t interested, at least, not anymore, not with Cyril, but now, you’re not sure of anything again. You came so close to something happening, closer than you’ve ever been, and when you least expected it to happen.

A little hope is a dangerous thing.