The scooter was a 1958 Vespa 125. The Sisters of Saint Raymond Nonnatus, an Anglican order of nurse-midwives, had purchased it after a particularly successful summer fete. They'd originally planned on using it to haul gas and air to home deliveries. But the plan was shelved after the carburetor proved fickle- and several nitrous oxide canisters plunged to their doom on the East End cobblestones. The Vespa was left under a canvas in the convent tool shed, until such time as one of the nuns or their lay-nurse colleagues might require it.
That time would come in 1962.
The nurse was a former colleague of the Order's. She had come out of retirement to pitch in while half the Nonnatans were on an emergency mission overseas. She could handle the work itself, but making rounds on a bicycle- the Nonnatans' standard mode of transport- had proven "physically taxing" for her. Tony Amos, the garage owner's son-in-law, was given no further details. He didn't ask questions; he never could abide snoops.
A young, low-voiced little nun dropped off the Vespa at the garage. She told Tony that the nurse would be the one to pick it up on Saturday afternoon, and she asked if Tony might teach her how to ride it? Their scooter-savvy colleagues were all currently abroad. Tony said he'd be glad to help.
Saturday was warmish, drippy but not properly raining. One could hardly hope for better riding weather in January. Tony busied himself with some oil changes while he waited for the nurse. He entertained a vague notion that he'd be meeting a diminutive older woman with a cozy, middle-class manner.
Just after one o'clock, a navy blue Vauxhall Wyvern EIX stopped halfway down the block from the garage. A tall, broad-shouldered figure clambered out of the passenger seat. The figure stooped and waved into the car's back window, then headed towards the garage while the car turned and drove off.
At first Tony thought the approaching figure was a man. They wore slacks and loafers beneath a blue overcoat, and their stature only grew more impressive as they came nearer. This person was a head taller than Tony; or maybe two heads; well, over six foot in any case. Their hands and feet were rather large, almost ungainly on the ends of lanky arms and legs. Tony was downright jealous of those strong, straight shoulders.
But then she spoke, in a sweet, high voice:
"I say. Is that the old Vespa? You've really got her back in tip-top condition, what? You're Tony Amos, I presume?"
"I'm your hapless pupil for the day. Call me Chummy."
"Oh! Hello, Chummy." He coughed back his surprise, stepped forward and shook her hand. "Don't write yourself off just yet. Riding a scooter's not that different from riding a bike."
"Yes, well…" she started sheepishly.
"Sorry. Can you ride a bike? I assumed, 'cos you were a Nonnatus nurse…"
"I can ride a bike." She sounded almost defensive. She twisted her gloves in her hands. "But I only learned when I came to the district five years ago. One wonders: does the adage about 'one never forgets' still apply if one first learned as an adult?"
"Guess we'll find out," Tony grinned.
She certainly wasn't the little old lady he'd pictured. Tony wasn't a skilled judge of women's ages, but he'd guess Chummy was no older than forty. Her face was lined quite lightly, and her chestnut-brown bob had only the merest hint of gray. She wasn't middle-class, either- or at least, she hadn't been raised as such. She had a 'rather mahvlous' accent, real top-shelf stuff.
And she obviously wasn't a man. The convent never would have had her, for one thing. But then there was her voice, gentle despite the sharp accent. Her eyes were doe-like behind her specs; her smile was a bit shy. She was feminine, not in the cutting and practiced way of many women, (and even some men Tony used to know,) but in the unpolished manner of a young girl.
The practicalities of the scooter were easy enough. Chummy already knew how to start it. Hand signals were the same as they were for cyclists. The gauges and meters were familiar, as she sometimes drove her husband's Vauxhall. The rack behind the seat was more than adequate for her bag of midwife's tools. And the convent had already worked out an agreement for weekly tire checks and petrol fillings.
It was the physicalities of riding that seemed to elude Chummy. First it took them twenty minutes to find a pair of goggles that fit comfortably over her spectacles. Then it was an age before she found a sitting posture that didn't crimp her legs, throw her off-kilter when she accelerated, or even cause her discomfort. From time to time, Tony saw Chummy wince, and briefly hover her hands just below her waist. This must have had something to do with her inability to make rounds on a bicycle. Tony suspected it was some sort of "women's ailment." He made no mention of it.
He did offer to take a break whenever she liked. "We keep some biscuits and Horlicks off in the side room, where it's clean."
"Horlicks, you say?" Chummy smiled and raised her eyebrows.
"My daughter's favorite. My wife brings her down the garage sometimes."
"It's rather my favorite as well," Chummy confessed. "Would it be too much to hope for, that you might also have an ice water bottle?"
They didn't. But Tony improvised: he took one of the thick rubber gloves they used for handling potential live wires, and he filled it with some snow lingering in a shaded corner. Chummy called it "top hole, rather ingenious." Tony set up a folding chair for Chummy. (They kept a few in the garage for when his father-in-law's old friends came round.) She sat with the glove in her lap- until it started to melt and leak. Tony was apologetic. But she assured him that the glove had been "helpful while it lasted," and that "a little water never hurt anything."
Over Horlicks and biscuits, they chatted about their children. Chummy had two boys: Freddie was three, and Davey was six months old. Tony and his wife had a daughter, Julia: she would turn two in May.
"Oh yes, you have quite the lovely little family. I remember now," Chummy remarked.
Tony's chest tightened. So Chummy remembered the trial. Of course she did; no one in the East End had forgotten. It was the gossip of the decade. When meeting new people, Tony could only hope they didn't realize that he was the man from that sordid headline. But now Chummy must have put two and two together…
"Your wife got on quite famously with Nurse Franklin, didn't she? She's one of our finest, and frightfully vivacious, rather. Do you know, she's in South Africa right this moment? I imagine when off the clock, she's holding court in a grass hut, painting local women's nails and giving them facials!"
Chummy said nothing more about the time surrounding Julia's birth. Still, Tony was sure she knew. The next chance he had to half-naturally slip it into conversation, he told her that Julia was his whole world.
"I live for her. In everything I do."
"As all parents should," Chummy smiled. She seemed to trust him as much as ever. Perhaps she hadn't put two and two together, after all. Meanwhile Tony had barely stopped himself from blurting: I've been behaving myself. Taking those bloody pills. I've got the blood tests to prove it, even.
They returned to the taming of the Vespa. Progress was slow and clumsy. But what Chummy lacked in grace, she made up for in cheery determination. No jolting start or skidding stop, no botched turn or near-fall, could deter her from hopping right back on.
"She's a lively little filly, but I'll get the measure of her soon enough," she said, patting the Vespa affectionately. "The women of the district are depending on it."
By the time Chummy was ready for a simple obstacle course, the brushed-steel sky was darkening towards an early night. She'd accumulated an audience of over a dozen neighborhood children. They'd all been warned against loitering outside this particular garage. But the temptation to watch some hoity-toity klutz try and master the art of the motor scooter was too much for them to resist.
A nun marched up the lane. Tony didn't recognize her. She had a pinched face, and a voice to match. "Nurse Noakes!" she called.
Chummy looked up from adjusting the mirror. "Yes, Sister Ursula?"
The nun began to lecture Chummy for taking up the mechanic's time, which after all was attached to the Order's limited funds. Tony scarcely heard a word. The name Noakes had kicked him in the gut.
There had been a Sergeant Noakes at the gentleman's convenience that night, two years ago. Not the handsome young copper with the whistle: Noakes was one of the stodgy ones who barged in after the whistle blew. Noakes was the one who handcuffed Tony. Noakes was the one who turned him round roughly by the shoulders. Noakes was the one who shoved Tony out into a world where he couldn't show his face.
Noakes had testified for the prosecution. He'd looked out over the courtroom at no one in particular, and narrated levelly:
The defendant made sexual advances to my colleague, Constable Jamieson. And on my arrival I witnessed the defendant in a state of undress.
Nurse Noakes. Chummy Noakes. Was she Sergeant Noakes' sister-in-law? His wife? It didn't really matter. She was a Noakes. Tony could no longer bring himself to look her in the eye. Even though her round brown eyes were warm and innocent. So unlike Sergeant Noakes' squinting, icy blues.
He felt no righteous anger or betrayal- only the familiar shame. When Chummy held out her hand to him, it took Tony a moment to remember what to do. His handshake was limp. He pulled away quickly.
"Tony," she said softly. She paused. "Thank you. You've been so very kind."
She set off on the scooter, slow and tottering, her knuckles white over the handlebars. After a couple hundred yards, she turned back, smiled toothily, and gave him a playful salute.
Tony thought back on the afternoon. How Chummy never let on about the trial, even though she must have known all along. How she never gave him her surname. Perhaps that was deliberate. Perhaps, when she had her husband drop her off at half a block's distance, she wasn't trying to protect her family from Tony. Perhaps she was protecting Tony from her husband.
Chummy had said Tony was kind. But she had shown him more kindness than almost anyone in the past two years.