An hour ago, everything was fine.
You were all gathered around the television, cheering on Ann Packer to Olympic victory. You were sitting next to Lucille, both caught up in the excitement of the occasion. Then, the phone rang. You didn’t quite know then, what was to come when Trixie told you that your Aunt Flo was on the other end.
“I need you down the pub, bring your nurses bag.”
Ten words. That’s all it took for everything to change. That’s all it took for the balance to tip. You felt it shift. Felt the weight swing.
“and come round the back, your Gran’s with me.”
Nine more words.
The dread settled in you quickly. Not about what she’d said, but about what she wasn’t saying. Immediately, your mind began to race with different scenarios. Maybe Gran had taken ill. Maybe one of the regulars had tripped and fallen on the steps out the front after having one too many. Maybe there was an accident with one of the Draymen or that young lad who collects glasses.
Trixie picked up on your unease immediately, not having a bar of it when you made a daft joke about someone going into labour. It was easier than the increasingly nightmarish possibilities you were silently entertaining.
Now, you wish you had been the one to answer the phone instead, and you’d gone alone. She’s complicit now. You’ve pulled her into this terrible mess, and put her in a horrible, impossible position, just like Auntie Flo and Gran have done to you.
Your work, your life, it’s always been about doing good, doing the right thing. How can you do the right thing if there’s no right thing to be done?
Someone will lose, no matter what happens. The weight of the evening sits heavy on your chest as you cycle back to Nonnatus alone. You’re going slowly on purpose, listening to the steady turn of the chain as you pedal, desperate to understand the why and the how of the horrendous mess you find yourself in. This is the “scenic route” as Fred would say, but there’s nothing scenic about what fills your head. What will likely never leave it for some time. Poor young Teresa Banley on that filthy back room table. The pain etched on her face, sweaty, drained of colour. The blood. Too much everywhere, to the point that Trixie had to ask for towels in case one of you slipped.
The sight disgusted you, made your stomach churn as anger rose up. It wasn’t a quick flash like usual, blinding and righteous like Lucille said once. The anger built slowly, like a kettle on a slow, rolling boil.
For those first few moments, as the enormity of it all began to dawn on you, all of that nursing training went out the window. You couldn’t move and you couldn’t think about what needed to be done, Trixie’s words drifting over your head. You felt sick, unsteady, like in those immediate moments after a bomb blast, or when the arcing throw of a grenade makes contact, leaving you dizzy and disoriented as you get to your feet, ears ringing, not yet able to hear. Adrenaline and panic propelling you forward. You half expected to hear that ungodly boom, and the pub would shake on its rafters, windows rattling and shattering in their frames. There was no sound, no great explosion to explain the bloody scene you were faced with. You just watched, picking through your bag, waiting for the moment when the world would snap into gear again, and you’d hear everything with startling clarity.
Teresa’s gone now, Trixie and the ambulance along with her. She didn’t falter, not like you, she took charge and helped that poor girl in the best way she could, barely able to contain her anger, resolute in putting Teresa first. You were like that with Cath once, doing what needed to be done, caring when she had nowhere else to turn. You weren’t this time. All you can think about as you turn the corner, with Nonnatus in the distance, is that you’ve let Trixie down, you’ve let Teresa down, and worst of all, you’ve let yourself down, by not performing your duties.
You’ll carry that guilt for a long time. Until now, you prided yourself on doing your job no matter what. No matter your fear, no matter the mud you had to drag yourself through, the rubble you had to climb over. No matter the sticky, oppressive heat or the bitter cold, making your fingers seize. No matter the long nights pacing hospital tents or overcrowded wards or the agonising hours, sitting at the bedside of so many – too many – men you couldn’t save, no matter how hard you tried or wished it not to be true.
Gran and Auntie Flo used your hard work, your skills, the job you love, and turned it against you. They don’t care what might happen or what you could very easily lose. All they wanted was someone on their side. Someone to sweep this under the rug, like all the times before.
The damage is done though, you both know that. The damage was done as soon as the money first changed hands. As soon as women like Cath and Jeannie, young girls like Teresa, were forced into such a position. You hope against hope that Teresa will be alright, but even Trixie’s considerable skills and experience have limits.
You can see Nonnatus clearly now, and you get off your bike, slowing down to walk the last bit of the journey, your dread heavier and heavier with every step. What do you say to them once you get there? How can it still be home? How on earth can you do your job once they learn the truth. No woman will trust you again.
In the end, it didn’t matter what your Gran said or how she tried to justify that it wasn’t about money. Setting light to it was an empty gesture. You’re both on different sides of the same tug of war. Your anger became rage, boiling over without warning. It makes no real difference in the end why all this happened, the grim outcome remains the same.
“You hurt people Gran,” you’d said, brokenly, desperately trying not to cry, because she won’t see you do that.
You can’t break down. Not yet.
She hurt more than Teresa, and all the other women before, she hurt you. It cuts deeply and yet, there’s no blood. You wish there were. All that while, as you tried to fathom it, standing in that backroom as you talked, scrubbing and disinfecting while she watched on, you couldn’t keep your emotions steady, veering wildly between that deep, sharp unbearable pain that comes with betrayal – it is a betrayal, even if they’ll never call it that – and a deep-seated rage inspired by events of the evening.
Teresa is the latest in a long, long line. You already know the line will never stop unless you do anything. But, what, but how? Before now, you’d have thought nothing of dragging the woman responsible for all this to the nearest police station, but the mere thought of doing that now makes you feel sick.
Your gran, Elsie Dyer, the centre of your family, is a backstreet abortionist. Just admitting it to yourself – the truth of it ringing like a bell in your mind, is enough to sicken you to your stomach. Worst of all, they likely all knew it before you. They were all so proud when you joined the sisters at Nonnatus, but now, all you can feel is used. All you can feel is shame.
What right do you have to that righteous anger now? How dare you try and rally and speak for these women, when the person who has mutilated them is someone you’ve known and loved all your life? How can you deal with the idea that someone can do wrong with good intentions?
The law isn’t right, but neither is this. There’s nothing right or safe about what happened to Cath, Jeannie or Teresa. Nothing. There’s nothing right about all those women in Royal Holloway either, but how can you possibly let this slide? You asked Lucille once about how many women would have to die before the world would change, and what on earth could be done in the slow march of those years.
Now, that feels ridiculous. How can you possibly stem the tide?
You’re angry. You’re so incredibly bloody angry and all you want to do is scream it from the rooftops. You’re angry at the world, you’re angry at Flo and your gran. You’re angry at yourself for being so ridiculously naïve. For being so black and white. For thinking it could ever be resolved. It’s tangled, messy and complex, bound up in whispers and cloaked in darkness. Shame surges up in you again as you draw close to the entrance of Nonnatus. The place you’ve come to love and call home. You don’t deserve to be here anymore. You can’t be one of them.
Now, you’ll be the one whispering. Adding to the ugly undercurrent. You’ll be the one doing the lying, because you can’t possibly go in there and tell them the truth. You can’t tell Sister Julienne or Phyllis, or God forbid, Sister Monica Joan. Worse still, you can’t tell Lucille. She can’t know about this. You can’t bear to say it out loud. You can’t stand the thought of seeing her face, her disappointment. You’ve never wished to see her name on the bike shed board before now, feeling a wave of relief wash over you as you wheel your bike in and realise she’s on call for the evening. Mrs Giddens, you think absently, remembering her nerves at clinic as a first-time mum. Lucille soothed her worries, so quickly, so easily.
Oh, you want that now. Her kind eyes, soft voice, and the deep, deep love you feel when she wraps her arms around you.
For a fleeting moment you wish she’d been the one to accompany you, but not at all, because it would’ve shattered her to see it. She cares deeply, just as much as you, if not more. You wish you could seek her out now, and tell her alone, so everyone else didn’t have to hear. You wish you could just break, collapse into her arms and be held while you sob.
There’s too much feeling inside of you, built up with nowhere to go. You should be used to this, and in so many ways you are, but this pain is different, new, keen and unexpected.
That’s what makes it so hard to hold it all in. But you’ve got no other choice. You’re not even sure that will change whenever Trixie returns from the hospital. You can’t go in. You won’t go in. Not yet. So, you do the only thing you can, you park up your bike, and take off your cloak and cap, draping them over your nursing bag. You shudder a little at the change in temperature.
A cigarette will keep up the pretence if they see you from the window. They’ll never suspect a thing. Lighting one is more difficult than you thought with such shaky hands. The lighter sticks and takes an age to spark, but when it does, you finally take a long, heavy drag. The calm you hoped it would bring doesn’t come.
They can’t see you like this. You’re not deserving of their comfort. Soon, the shuddering isn’t just from the cold. It’s from tears, bitter, bitter tears, that spring up and spill over unexpectedly, stinging your eyes. They’re for Cath, they’re for Jeannie, they’re for Teresa, they’re for god knows how many other women you pass by in the street, never knowing what they’ve been driven to or what they’ve suffered. Some are for you too, and the grief you can feel blooming in your chest for the life that you knew. For the person you knew and loved. For the person you thought she was.
You’re not sure if you can ever look at her the same way again.
The cigarette burns down, ash columing on the end, and you still cry, stealing yourself to keep from making a sound, squeezing your eyes closed sometimes in the hope you’ll stem the flow, and somehow leave no discernible trace of what’s happened behind. They can’t see you. They can’t know.
This is something you must bear alone.