07. But Mary Kept All These Things
Shelagh sat outside the courtroom with Nurse Dyer and the Noakes. Sergeant Noakes sat stiffly, gingerly, in his police uniform. The women were all in skirt suits of somber navy or black. They spoke little, each lost in their own thoughts.
Arthur Pilbury's death in the docks explosion was being investigated by the coroner's court. Sergeant Noakes, Nurse Dyer, and Shelagh were all invited to speak as witnesses. Patrick had told Shelagh- repeatedly- not to get anxious about this. But how could she not? Their words couldn't bring Arthur Pilbury back- but they might influence the court's decision on what support should be provided to his widow. Or compensation for the injured workers. Or safety measures that should be implemented at the docks, to help prevent future disasters.
Nurse Dyer lit a cigarette. "Is that Henleys?" Sergeant Noakes asked her.
"Yeah." She grinned sheepishly. "Don't tell Uncle Billy."
"Does he not like Henleys?" Shelagh asked.
"Not since that time they…" Sergeant Noakes trailed off. He took another, shallow breath. "Made 'im foot the bill…"
"For a lost order for his shop, yeah," Nurse Dyer finished for him.
There were stilted, quiet chuckles all around. Chummy squeezed her husband's hand as he caught his breath.
The coroner's clerk appeared in the doorway. "Sergeant Peter Noakes?"
Chummy helped Sergeant Noakes to his feet. Shelagh had to wonder whether he even had the strength for a court testimony. But then, perhaps there was strength to be found in weakness. It could impress upon the jury the seriousness of the accident: to see a strapping policeman shuffle in with help from his wife, bandages on his hands and across one cheek, out of puff and guarding the right side of his chest.
Perhaps, Shelagh thought, if we could convince some of the injured dockworkers to testify as well…
The courtroom doors shut with a weighty, institutional thud. Shelagh and Nurse Dyer were left in the silence again. Mostly just to say something, Shelagh remarked:
"It's an odd coincidence, that you and Sergeant Noakes are cousins."
"Not that odd, if you know my family. Which you probably do, one way or another," Nurse Dyer quipped. "I'm related to half of Poplar! My great-granddad had eleven kids live to adulthood; most of them've had big families, too. Pete and I are first cousins; my dad and his mum are brother and sister."
"It must be nice having so many loved ones nearby."
"It is, most of the time. Can get a bit claustrophobic, everyone knowin' your business." She smiled sardonically. "And sad to say, there's some'll cut you down as a 'tall poppy' if you leave the East End or 'marry up.' Poor Auntie Myrtle- Pete's mum. Some of the aunties are still sore about her marrying a bobby. And then taking her kids to her brother-in-law's horse farm during the War."
"The rest of us were billeted- if we left London at all, that is. 'Course, it don't seem so bad when you're a kid. Bit like summer camp… Cor!" Nurse Dyer chided herself. "Here I am, talking your ear off…"
"It's quite alright," Shelagh assured her.
"It's nerves, I suppose. You should've seen me fussing over my outfit this morning. Still, it took my mind off things." She shook her head sadly. "All the questions they might ask, and all the answers I want to give, keep going round and round inside my head."
"Oh mine too," Shelagh sighed with relief.
Nurse Dyer gave her a sympathetic look. "You just want to get it right, don't you? For the sake of the victims."
"George Marsh and Arthur Pilbury deserved better. They weren't soldiers going into battle; they were men doing a job. And it could've been avoided."
Nurse Dyer spoke with the authority of someone who'd spent her whole life around either workingmen or soldiers. There was a quiet steeliness to her conviction; it certainly made it easier to see that she and Peter Noakes were related. Shelagh felt compelled to live up to that conviction. As if there wasn't enough weight on her shoulders already…
The heavy doors creaked open. The clerk called: "Mrs. Shelagh Turner?"
Nurse Dyer gently squeezed her arm. "Do your best for them."
Everything echoed in the courtroom. Shelagh's Sunday-best heels on the granite floor; the clacking of the secretary's typewriter; a quiet sob from the gallery. She turned as much as she dared, and spotted Arthur Pilbury's widow dipping her face into her handkerchief.
The coroner confirmed Shelagh's name, address and occupation. Then he asked her to describe her actions in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The incident. That's what he called the pair of explosions that killed a man, and sent nine more to hospital.
She took a deep breath before starting. This was the moment she'd been preparing for all week.
"I was walking through Gibson & Company's dockyards on my way back to work, having just finished with a mobile vaccination clinic nearby. I was already on the scene when the first explosion occurred in storeroom C."
That was the part of her account that had frightened Patrick the most: how close Shelagh was to the initial blast. How she'd felt the heat of the flames at her back. How she'd been momentarily deafened by the noise. She thought of the way his face crumpled when she told him. His large, strong hands had trembled slightly as they wrapped around her own…
She took another deep breath.
"I escorted workmen away from the building and checked them for smoke inhalations, burns, contusions, broken bones or concussions. The foreman, a Mr. Francis Hughes, informed me that there was no running water or first aid supplies on hand. I had to make do with the supplies in my nurse's bag." She swallowed hard. "Perhaps if there had been-"
"Thank you, Mrs. Turner," the coroner cut in. "Can you recall how much time passed between the initial explosion and the secondary one?"
Her stomach clenched. "I… I'm sorry. I couldn't say."
She felt like a fool. She'd spent the past week visiting the more severely injured men in hospital. After offering her sympathies, she'd inquired after each one's diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. This was the information she'd assumed the court wanted from her: her expertise as a nurse. She didn't expect to play timekeeper. Though perhaps she should have. She silently chastised herself. How hard would it have been to spare a glimpse or two at her uniform watch?
"It's alright, Mrs. Turner," said the coroner. "We understand that several first responders entered storeroom C between the two blasts."
"I wasn't one of them," she blurted, hating how meek she sounded. "But we didn't even realize at first that there were still injured men inside. Had there been a workmen's register-"
"Mrs. Turner," the coroner said evenly. "I was merely going to ask if you could confirm the identities of those who entered the storeroom."
"Oh. Yes. Erm. It was Mr. Hughes, Sergeant Peter Noakes, and Nurse Valerie Dyer."
"Thank you, Mrs. Turner. We are appreciative of your time."
She let herself be escorted from the courtroom, her face hot with embarrassment. That's it? That's all they wanted from me? How could that testimony make any difference for the dockworkers? Would they have let me speak more if I'd kept my composure better? If I'd gone into storeroom C with the others? If I were a man?
She kept her eyes on the speckled marble floor. She avoided looking Mrs. Pilbury, Nurse Dyer, or the Noakes in the eye. She tried to stop the corridor from spinning, but found her efforts were in vain.
She beelined for the ladies' room, threw open a stall door and fell to her knees. She trembled as she rested her forearms on the seat and her head in her hands. The room began to steady. After just a few timid, dry gags, her stomach gave up protest. Thank goodness.
She leaned back, relishing the coolness of the metal door against the back of her head. She'd be up and about in a minute or two. Frankly, this was a breeze compared to just a few weeks ago.
They say the first trimester is the hardest, she thought, smiling down at her lap. That means we've already made it through the hardest part, wee one. I pray for you all the time, you know. I pray that you're growing bigger and stronger every day. Perhaps we'll start telling more of Mummy and Daddy's friends about you-
A hiccupping sob echoed against the tile. She looked down the row and saw a large pair of feet, in stockings and black flats, pacing one of the other stalls.
"Is everything alright?"
"Oh gosh! Shelagh!" answered a familiar voice. "Not to worry. I'm tip-top and" (hic) "tickety-boo."
Shelagh heard Chummy unlatch her stall door. She scrambled to her feet. The women met at the sinks. Chummy was holding a hand-knitted, lemon-yellow matinee jacket and matching booties.
"It's from Peter's Auntie Grace, via" (hic) "Valerie," Chummy explained. "We told Peter's mother about the baby last week. Apparently, she took the liberty of telling the entire family."
"That sounds a bit overwhelming."
Chummy nodded, her face pulling long as she held back tears. "One shouldn't be superstitious, especially in our" (hic) "line of work. But it feels terribly early to start 'nesting'. Like tempting fate… Gosh. I" (hic) "sound like such a fool…"
"Not at all," Shelagh said quietly. "I think I'd feel the same, honestly."
"It's such a spiffing little outfit. In a" (hic) "few months' time, it can have pride of place in the nursery bureau. But for now, one almost wants to…" she stopped and bit her lip.
"One almost wants to hurl it into the back of the closet and forget it's there?"
"Yes!" (hic) "Precisely!"
In truth, Shelagh wasn't just guessing how Chummy must feel. She'd once felt the same way about a christening gown. Only the gown wasn't a gift: Shelagh had been sewing it herself, in hope for the future. When those hopes were dashed, she was blessed to have someone stronger and wiser than her who could take the gown for safekeeping.
"I think I know of somewhere we can keep this," Shelagh smiled. "Just until the bureau is ready."
When Sister Julienne agreed to see Nurses Turner and Noakes in private, she pictured herself hosting the two women in her office, offering words of comfort or encouragement whilst planning the way ahead. Then she remembered that the office was no longer hers. And she was no longer qualified to make any plans.
Sister Monica Joan took it upon herself to bring a tea tray to Sister Julienne's cell. That, at least, made things feel a little like old times. Sister Monica Joan brought extra milk and sugar, and a generous quantity of Mrs. B's chocolate macaroons. At the sight of the decadent biscuits, both nurses' eyes lit up like those of children stood outside the sweetie shop. Sister Julienne remembered Shelagh's happy news- and her suspicions about Nurse Noakes. But she quietly bit back a smile.
Sister Monica Joan was somewhat more forward. In her own unique way.
"But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart," the elderly Sister pronounced. She smiled at both of the nurses in turn- a gentle, lingering smile. And a knowing one.
Then she glided out of the room, leaving both nurses with mouths agape and cheeks aflame. Nurse Noakes' hand even flitted to her tummy.
"Gosh. Is it that obvious already? I'm only fourteen weeks."
"So you are expecting?" Sister Julienne asked. Nurse Noakes simply nodded. "Oh that's wonderful news! I shall pray for you and your family."
"Thank you, Sister," she murmured. She stared into her lap, looking up only to give Shelagh and Sister Julienne the quickest of bashful smiles.
Shelagh cleared her throat. "We asked to see you today on account of a gift Nurse Noakes has just received. It's still so very early, and we wondered if you might keep it safe for her, just for a few months."
Nurse Noakes dug a baby outfit from her bag and held it out to Sister Julienne. It was made of the softest lemon-yellow three-ply, and so expertly knitted that Sister Julienne checked inside for a tag. But there was none; it was homemade. Such a gift would carry tremendous love and hopes from the giver. No wonder it felt like too much at just fourteen weeks.
"I will gladly keep this safe for you," Sister Julienne promised. "It's the least I can do since, unfortunately, I cannot advise you on when and how to return to work."
Nurse Noakes pulled a face. "I suppose I should speak to Sister Ursula before I leave today."
Shelagh patted her hand in sympathy. She was too busy tucking in to the macaroons to actually say anything.
"Does she already know? Does everyone know?" Nurse Noakes cast a glance towards the cell door, as if she might catch all of Nonnatus eavesdropping in the corridor. "I told Patsy before she left, and I rather suspect Phyllis knows. But I would have pegged them both as paragons of discretion."
"They are," Sister Julienne agreed. "And the others wouldn't dare presume. But there has been some… benign speculation."
As Nurse Noakes busied herself with the macaroons, Sister Juliennes caught Shelagh's eye. The Sister raised an eyebrow, asking, Does she know about yours? Shelagh replied with a nigh-imperceptible nod.
"About both of you, in fact."
"I suppose my steady intake of Rennies hasn't escaped notice," Shelagh grinned.
Sister Julienne chuckled. "No, it hasn't. And I was sorely tempted to spill the beans to Nurse Hereward after the Clipboard Incident. Just to put the poor girl's mind at ease."
"The Clipboard Incident?" Nurse Noakes asked.
"At clinic yesterday," Shelagh explained. "Nurse Hereward and I collided around a corner. She sort of… jammed my clipboard squarely against my bust."
Nurse Noakes inhaled sharply, wincing.
"I'm afraid I scarcely stopped myself from calling her something… very un-Christian. I apologized, of course. But I still feel terrible."
"Well I'm quite sure she'll forgive you, once you've explained," said Nurse Noakes. "Just as poor Fred will be rather relieved when I explain the Stoop Incident."
"I think I remember that one!" Sister Julienne smiled. "Three or four weeks ago, when you came back to Nonnatus with a flat tire?"
"Whilst Fred was patching up the old warhouse, I had a purely unintentional 'kip' on the front stoop," Nurse Noakes explained to Shelagh. Shelagh nearly snorted well-sugared tea out of her nose.
Down the corridor, they heard Nurse Hereward plodding up the stairs after her lengthy afternoon rounds. "Hello, Babs," Nurse Busby called. "Fancy joining the nuns in recreation hour?"
The nurses brushed macaroon crumbs from their skirts, while Sister Julienne stood and moved the empty tea tray out of their way.
"Are you ready to announce your glad tidings?" she asked.
A/N: Thank you as always to cooldoyouhaveaflag, my beta and my British-TV-bingewatch enabler. :-D Also: the chapter title and Sister Monica Joan's quote are from Luke 2:19, King James Version.