If anyone asked, it wasn't Fred's idea to place bets on whether Baby Noakes was a boy or girl. It was Police Constable David Thompson's idea.
Fred had run into Dave down the Hand and Shears one evening. They got to talking. Dave had been Peter Noakes' best friend since they were both nippers, and now the Noakes were planning to name their second child for him- if it was another boy.
"Sure it won't be, though," Dave shrugged with appropriate modesty. "I'd put ten bob on a girl."
Fred squinted keenly. "Would you really? I mean… is it allowed?"
The Betting and Gambling Act 1960 said nothing about babies, as far as Dave could recall. But he did know the new law had relaxed many of the old restrictions. There were licensed establishments now, where people could play darts or cards for small stakes in full sight of the law. Surely a baby was even more innocuous than a game of bridge? After all, there was no peeking at these cards.
Word spread quietly at the station, mostly among the young constables. Fred took half a dozen bets in the fortnight before Chummy's visit to Nonnatus. Nurse Trixie Franklin caught wind of this. (You could never pull the wool over her eyes, that Nurse Franklin.) She confronted Fred. To placate her, he'd offered to give the Noakes half the house's cut.
"But that would involve telling them," she'd pointed out. "We wouldn't want Chummy to think any less of you. Or for Peter to put a stop to all the fun…"
She put one pound, six shillings on a girl.
None of the other Nonnatans placed any bets until after Chummy's visit. (On Monday she checked into the London Hospital high-risk maternity ward. "Just a precaution," everyone kept reciting. "Just a precaution.") At first, Fred thought Nurse Franklin must have waited until Chummy left before even telling the others. Then he overheard them talking at supper. He realized they'd spent all weekend sizing up the odds.
"So what do we think, girls? Do we trust yesterday's ring on a string?" Nurse Mount teased.
"It's a girl. I'm sure of it." Nurse Franklin said as she drizzled oil over her salad. "Not that she's stealing her mother's looks, per se. But Chummy's just not glowing like she was with Freddie."
"Chummy spent six months in Africa before Freddie was born." Sister Mary Cynthia laughed softly as she passed through on her way to Compline. "That wasn't a glow, Trixie; it was a tan!"
"My Mam swears by the way a woman carries," said Nurse Busby between bites of a nice corned beef sandwich. "High and wide it's a girl, low and narrow it's a boy. I'd put one pound on a boy."
"Did you hear that, Fred?" Nurse Franklin called over to the sitting room, where Fred was giving the chimney a thorough seeing-to during its summertime hiatus. "We are in need of your book!"
"Oh, don't take her in like that," Nurse Mount protested. "Think of your studies, Deels. Chummy's thirty-seven weeks on. Of course she's carrying low and narrow, now that Baby's head-"
Fred stuck his own head back up the chimney and began whistling 'Tulips from Amsterdam' before he could hear more details.
A few days later, Nurse Crane happened past while Fred was fixing a door hinge. She cast a glance about for eavesdroppers before asking:
"You got that book on you?" She lowered her voice. "The one on Baby Noakes?"
"Thought you weren't betting," he said.
"And I most certainly am not. I'm only curious to see what the others have wagered."
"A girl's favored, nearly three-to-one," Fred reported. "Nonnatus is an even split, just abouts. But the station's all in for a girl."
"All of them?"
"Yeah, well, they 'eard Peter's missus wants a girl this time…"
Fred had been amused at first. Bobbies kept coming up to him on their beat- some not half startling him with their solemn looks- and murmuring quietly.
Ten bob on a girl. A bit of sugar and spice for Mrs. Noakes, eh?
A quid says it's a girl this time. Hopes it is. Every mother wants one, and the Noakes ain't spring chickens, you know.
I 'eard she was the only girl out of seven kids. Don't seem right she'd be outnumbered again, does it? Let's have two quid for a girl.
It wasn't until Saturday evening and the raspberry scones, that Fred understood where the bobbies were coming from. Not long after she decided on the doll's name, Chummy had thanked Fred for the snacks and the pleasure of his company. He helped her up, and offered to clean up after them both. She merely pretended to protest. He saw her off with a peck on the cheek; it was only proper, after not seeing each other for so many months.
Then she tottered off, smiling at her tum and humming to herself. The tune was strange and droning, foreign to Fred's ears. But he could tell it was a lullaby by the slow simplicity of it. The song melted into the fading summer dusk, the lingering warm pinks.
He'd jotted a line in the "Girl" column, before he could chicken out. Vi would have his guts for garters if she knew. If he lost, he'd only have to cut back at the Hand and Shears until 1962.
Now every time he reached in his pocket, he felt the pinch, and remembered to hope as hard as he could.
Asha - £5
Nurse Crane scoffed. "They do realize they can't bribe the baby? Even if they could, they're far too late. This particular matter was settled many moons ago. Now it's only a waiting game."
"Ah, you know them bobbies though," Fred shrugged. "Romantics at heart, the lot of 'em."