All my cares and woe

"See you later, ladies!" Pearl calls out as she turns for the door. There's a distinct spring in her step, but there's nothing affected about it.

"She's in a good mood," observes Faith affectionately after the door has fallen shut behind Pearl and her fur stole.

"She's also early," Esther points out while consulting her watch. "The dance hall doesn't open for another two hours."

Mabel resurfaces from where she was half-hidden in one of the kitchen cupboards. "She's meeting her beau, isn't she?"

A beau?, Faith thinks. How could she have missed this?

"How did we miss this?" enquires Esther for her.

There's a grin and a shrug from Mabel. "She's quite coy about it, which I take to mean it's serious."

Esther catches Faith's eye and raises her eyebrows playfully.

"Do we know him?" asks Faith.

"I don't know if you do. Between your hospital and that handsome stranger you're hiding from us, you haven't been at the dance hall in a while," teases Mabel.

Smiling good-naturedly, Faith lets it slide. She has come to realise that no matter how often she tells them that Ken Ford is a friend, if that, he provides too good an opportunity for teasing for her friends not to make use of it on occasion.

"So, she met him at the dance hall?" Esther wants to know, deftly keeping the conversation on subject.

Mabel nods confirmation. "You might have seen him when we were there last time – sans Faith. He bought every possible dance with Pearl."

Esther hums in thought. "I think I do remember him. Tall, lanky, bespectacled fellow? A bit awkward? Two left feet and a rather persistent cough?"

"That's the one," agrees Mabel, clearly pleased with being able to divulge some juicy gossip. "From what little I could needle Pearl into telling me, he's come to the dance hall every Friday, spending what she presumes is his week's wage. For weeks, he only dared pay for her dances before he took a heart and asked her for dinner."

"Today, I assume?" asks Esther and sends a pointed look at the closed door.

A nod from Mabel confirms that the aforementioned dinner is, indeed, planned for this very evening. Faith finds herself distracted by another piece of information though.

"That cough you mentioned…" she begins slowly, inadvertently sensitised to all symptoms of the respiratory tract by treating too many little diphtheria patients as of late.

"Gas, I think." That's Esther, who sees former soldiers often enough in her job and knows, perhaps best of them all, the sound of lungs forever ravaged by chlorine, or its deadlier brother, phosgene.

Faith nods. Like Esther, she, too, cared for soldiers affected by gas during the war and is familiar with its awful effects, both immediately and longer term.

"Poor boy," she sighs and it doesn't even occur to her that Pearl's beau can't be a boy anymore, because to Faith, they would all remain boys forevermore.

"He's no dashing duke sprung from the pages of a romance novel, but he thinks Pearl speaks with the voice of a lark and carries the stars in her eyes," explains Mabel. "In short, he's quite besotted with her."

"Good for Pearl," replies Faith sincerely, because while her kind of love was never the besotted one, she wishes everyone happiness, especially her friends.

"Amen to that," agrees Mabel. Reaching behind herself, she takes her coat from a hook by the door and shrugs it on, thus signalling that this particular conversation has drawn to a close.

Esther cocks her head to the side quizzically. "Where are you going?"

"Quadruple F requested my presence today," answers Mabel and grimaces. "Who knows what she could want…"

Mabel trails off and sigh dramatically, but when Faith looks at Esther, she thinks, judging from her friend's thoughtful expression, that she might have an idea what Mabel's Great-Aunt could want from her on this Friday afternoon.

Her assumption proves to be correct, for when Mabel has left them with another long-suffering sigh, Esther sits down at the kitchen table and observes, "Those two will be moving out within the year."

Faith looks at her, startled. "Do you think so?"

"Hmh," hums Esther. "Pearl will marry her besotted beau and Mabel is being prepared to take over the Home for Working Women from her great-aunt."

"Is that so?" asks Faith, but it's rather a rhetorical question. She knows better than to question Esther's assessment of interpersonal relationships, just like she always knew better than to question Una on the same issue.

Esther shrugs. "It was a question of time."

Yes, Faith supposes so. They found each other, four young women needing a place to live after the war, but this was never meant to be a lasting arrangement. She just hadn't considered that it would actually end one day.

"I've seen this coming for a while," Esther tells her, thus proving how much more attentive she is than Faith.

"I haven't, which just goes to show that I'd be useless without you," Faith declares playfully. "I hope you have no plans to desert me for a dashing duke?"

She expects a laugh and a denial. Instead, she gets silence of the uncomfortable kind.

"Esther?" Faith frowns, confused.

It has always been an unspoken understanding that neither she nor Esther will ever marry – or take over a family business, come to that. The war robbed Esther not of a fiancé but of two brothers, yet she's never shown inclination to find a beau for herself and even if she wanted to, the war itself ensured that too many women of their generation will remain spinsters. When the young men die, the young women are left behind.

"No dashing duke," assures Esther, but she hesitates as she down and Faith feels cold. "It's just…" She trails off and sighs.

"Just?" prompts Faith, even if she's not sure she wants to hear what will inevitably follow.

"My parents are getting elderly," Esther continues slowly. "I'm the only one left and at some point, they'll need my support. It won't be right away, but I owe it to them to go back and help them when they need it."

It's not a logic Faith can argue with. Esther's parents live in Brighton, which is close enough for the monthly visits home that Esther has reliably been undertaking ever since moving to London, but even using the rail services, it's not feasibly to go there much more often. Having met Esther's parents more than once, Faith knows them to be well into their sixties and she realises that at some point, they'll be needing the kind of support that Esther can only provide by moving south.

Dimply, she's aware of Esther watching her anxiously, but she is too busy organising her jumbled thoughts to react. It all makes sense, she can't deny, but at the same time, it smells of change in a way she doesn't like. She used to love change, she remembers, back when she was impatient for the world to bend to her will, but that is long past. Perhaps she came to mistrust change when she realised that the world bends for no-one.

A knock on the door saves her from having to react.

Abruptly, Faith gets to her feet. Esther follows, more slowly.

"Dr Meredith?" calls a voice through the door and Faith recognises the middle son of the shopkeeper down the road. "There's a telephone call for you." Lacking their own telephone, they struck up an agreement with the shopkeeper whereby they can use his phone and he… actually, Faith doesn't know if the man gets something in return at all.

"I'm coming," she calls out loudly to the boy. "That'll be the hospital," she tells Esther, quite unnecessarily, and reaches for her coat.

Esther remains standing in the kitchen, looking worried. "We'll talk about this later, won't we?"

"Sure," replies Faith without meaning it. Never before did an emergency call from the hospital come at such an opportune moment.

Seconds later, she's through the door and facing the shopkeeper's boy. "You're required urgently at the hospital," he informs her and she knows that he's repeating the wording used by whoever was on the other end of the phoneline.

"Thank you." She briefly puts a hand on his shoulder and turns him towards the still open apartment door. "Go on inside, if you want to. I'm sure Esther has a biscuit for you."

"I do," calls Esther from the inside and the boy doesn't need to be told twice. He makes a beeline for the kitchen and Faith hurries in the other direction, out of the building and towards the bus stop.

When she arrives at the hospital, she's sweaty and out of breath, but the thought barely registers in her mind. Rushing towards the reception, she asks, "Where am I needed?"

Thankfully, the receptionist appears to be well-informed and immediately sends her on to one of the children's wards. Faith takes the stairs two at a time in her hurry to get there. She doesn't know yet what awaits, but she knows that when the hospital calls her in again after her daily shift, it must be important.

Her notion proves to be correct, for when she reaches the ward, she immediately sees, at the end of the hall, a familiar figure. He has his back to her, stooped slightly as he's propping himself up on the windowsill, but she recognises him in a heartbeat.

"Ava?" she asks, anxious.

Ken turns and as he does, she spots the little girl, sitting by his feet with her back to the wall and a terrified expression on her face.

"Jims," he corrects and Faith feels her heart sink a little more.

"He hasn't been feeling well for a few days, but I thought it was just a cold," Ken explains, his voice low and strained. "Today, he woke up with a slight fever and a sore throat. As the day went on, he was increasingly short of breath and had trouble swallowing, which I thought was because of the sore throat. He slept through the afternoon and I thought it best to let him rest, but when I checked in on him after an hour or two, it looked like his neck was swollen

He trails off, but he needs to say no more. Faith already knows everything she needs to know.

"Diphtheria," she states, quite plainly.

Ken rubs his face, shaking his head. "I don't understand it. He had it as a toddler, didn't he? Rilla told me about how Mary Vance smoked out his lungs, or whatever it was that she did."

"Sometimes, people who got infected once can get it again later on," Faith explains with feeling. She thinks she should do something to comfort Ken, but instead, she looks down at Ava.

"How are you feeling?" she asks the girl. "Do you feel ill?"

Ava clutches her stuffed camel closer and shakes her head. It is disconcerting, to see the girl who isn't cowed by anything suddenly be afraid, but Faith supposes that some things are enough to scare even the fearless. After all, she, too, used to think she was scared of nothing, until life showed her what fear truly felt like.

"I'm going to check in on him now," Faith tells Ken, trying to project confidence and calm. "I'll be back to tell you how he's doing."

Ken nods, his expression weary. A whimper escapes Ava, though Faith can see that she's trying to be strong. Her father notices, too, and bends down to pull her into a hug. Ava throws both arms around him, all the while still clutching her camel by an ear.

Leaving them, Faith enters the room the receptionist indicated to her earlier and finds Dr Everly inside, standing between the beds.

"You're looking for the little Ford?" the other doctor asks and nods towards the bed by the window.

For a moment, Faith wonders how everyone knows why she's here and how the hospital knew to call her in the first place. She supposes Ken asked them to and though she should maybe irked at having her evening off taken away like this, she's glad to be here. She's terrified, of course, but she's also glad.

"How is he doing?" she enquires of Dr Everly, trying to appear professional.

"Diphtheria," her colleague confirms what Faith already knows. "We gave him the antitoxin, but he's been ill for a few days, so I don't know how much good it will do at this point. He's running a fever and not breathing well."

"Possible tracheotomy?" Faith makes herself ask.

The other woman inclines her head. "I hope he pulls through without one, but if his lymph nodes swell even more, we might not have another choice."

Faith swallows heavily. "I'd like to look at him if that's alright?" She's burning to check on Jims and there's not a fibre of her body not crying out to do so, but she learned long ago to keep her impulsivity in check at work. In a hospital, no-one is helped by her plunging head-first into a crisis and she knows better than to muscle in on the treatment of a colleague's patient. Procedure, alien as it might be to her nature, keeps people alive.

"He's all yours," replies Dr Everly with an expression that is both knowing and sympathetic. Looking at her, Faith realises that her colleagues are drawing the same faulty conclusions about her and Ken that her friends did, but she doesn't have time to care, not right now.

Approaching the bed by the window, she finds Jims awake, but looking exhausted. His face is flushed with fever and his neck is visibly swollen. Just when Faith comes to stand beside the bed, a barking cough overcomes him.

"Hello Jims," she greets him, mustering calm. "Do you recognise me?"

It takes another few seconds for the cough to subside enough for Jims to croak out, "Dr… Dr Mere… Meredith."

"That's right," she encourages. "I'm going to examine you now to see how you're doing. Try to breathe evenly and speak as little as possible."

Jims nods to show that he understood. Faith can see distinctly how he's struggling for breath and can hear the stridor, the tell-tale high-pitched sound whenever he breathes in. His swollen neck, too, has all the signs of the so-called bull's neck that is characteristic of true croup. When she asks Jims to open his mouth, the grey pseudomembrane covering his tonsils comes as no surprise.

"You have croup, Jims," she tells the boy and places a hand on his forehead. "Do you know what that is?"

He nods slowly. "Had… had it… before."

"Yes, you did, when you were little," Faith confirms. "You got better then and we'll make sure you'll get better now, too. The other doctor, Dr Everly, already gave you an antitoxin, which helps your body fight the illness. The needle in your arm is connected to this drip here. With it, we can put the antitoxin and fluids directly into your blood."

With him being unable to swallow, at some point, food will become an issue, too, but that's a worry for another day. Right now, they need to keep him breathing and hydrated, which will be difficult enough.

"I'm going back outside to talk to your Dad now," Faith tells Jims. "If anything is the matter, you can alert any of the hospital staff and they'll come get me."

Again, the boy nods, but his eyelashes are already fluttering shut. He's clearly exhausted and his body needs all the rest it can get.

Out in the hall, Faith is immediately accosted by an anxious Ken. "How is he?"

Faith, however, doesn't answer right away. Instead, she waves Nurse Fletcher closer and goes to kneel down in front of Ava.

"I need you to be very brave for me now, Ava," she tells the girl and looks straight into her eyes. "Nurse Fletcher here will give you something so that you won't fall ill like Jims. There will be a little prick in your arm, but I promise it won't hurt much. Can you do that for me?"

Ava looks at Faith for a long moment. She looks small and scared, but gradually, Faith sees the resolve return to her eyes. "Yes," she answers and clutches her stuffed camel closer. "I can do that."

Nurse Fletcher, having listened, extends a hand for Ava to take and the little girl goes with her, head raised high and shoulders squared. Ken moves to follow her, but Faith stops him with a hand on her arm.

"Shouldn't I…?" he begins.

"Ava will be fine," Faith assures and hopes it to be true. "She's a brave girl and Nurse Fletcher will look after her. I need to speak to you here." Out of earshot of any children, that is.

Ken's eyes follow his daughter, but he remains standing by Faith's side. "How is he?"

"It's a serious case, but there are things we can do for him. We gave him an antitoxin, the same we're giving Ava now so she won't catch it as well. If his neck swells anymore, we might have to make a little cut into the front of his neck and insert a tube for him to breathe through, but we aren't at that point yet."

She tried to be reassuring, but she can see the effect her words have on Ken by the devasted look on his face. It takes several moments for him to have composed himself enough to ask hoarsely, "If I had brought him in earlier…?"

"There's no use thinking thoughts like that now," Faith tells him, even though, she, too wonders if this could have been prevented. If she had accepted Ken's invitation to the cinema two days ago, maybe she would have caught the early symptoms that he missed… but it's all moot now.

Ken shakes his head. "He… he can't die. Do you understand that? Rilla saved his life twice. He can't die on my watch."

Nor on mine, Faith thinks.

"He and Ava… they're all I have left of her," Ken continues, increasingly agitated. "I know people questioned our marriage, because they thought it was hasty and that we didn't really know each other. Hell, sometimes even I wonder whether I really knew her. Everyone keeps saying how much Ava is like her, but she's different from the Rilla I knew. I don't know, maybe I never knew her well, but I loved the Rilla I did know. I love her still and I can't lose one of her children."

Faith remembers what Jims said, about Rilla changing after her illness and she thinks someone should tell that to Ken, too, if only to drive away some of his demons, but now is not the time and she is not the person.

"I'll do what I can to save him. We all will," she finds herself promising instead.

"I know," replies Ken and he sounds like he believes it.

"I should warn you though," Faith hears herself add, "I've come to care for Jims and the people I care for… a lot of them didn't make it. I turn my back and they…" She leaves the sentence hanging.

She knows, even as she speaks the words, that Una and Father would have chided her for being superstitious, at least inasmuch as Una and Father ever could chide anyone. They can't chide her anyway, however, because they're among the people she cared for who didn't make it, carried away as they were by that blasted flu over eight years ago.

Ken looks at her with dark, tired eyes. "You're not turning your back now. This is your chance to save one of them."

To Mammu:
I'm glad to hear you found this story and gave it a chance, despite it featuring Faith as a protagonist! We all have characters we like more or less, but if you find the story interesting regardless, I'm taking that as a good thing ;). We'll go back to Rilla with my next story, too, so this is really mostly an interlude of sorts.
Are you otherwise well? It's been a while. Is everything okay in your corner of the world?

To DogMonday:
Ava is really interesting to write, because I deliberately set out with her as a spoiled, obnoxious brat, but I always knew I didn't want to end on that note. She's still much too entitled, of course, and too brash, but she's not all egoistical and self-centred, so I've been trying to show that and shift the portrayal of her a little. She very much represents part of a younger Faith and reflects those aspects back to Faith while also helping her connect to her past self, too. The rollercoaster ride is perhaps the most visible moment of that happening, but not, I think, the only one.
At the same time, I think Jims is more similar to Faith in the way he deals with his grief. They both hold it close to their chests and are hesitant to share with others. That's why Jims opening up to Faith is such an important step. I think he recognised certain similarities in their grief, which made it easier, but - pragmatically - he also doesn't meet many adults who knew his mother and can talk to her without pain. Jims is someone who's experienced so much pain himself that he doesn't want to see anyone else hurt (which, yes, makes him similar to Una in their selfless approach!), and talking about Rilla usually hurts the people around him. With Faith, he didn't have to fear that, which made this conversation possible for him.
As to why he thinks Faith might become his new mother, part of that is certainly that she's the first woman he truly sees Ken interacting with. (I'm not saying Ken never met with a woman in the six years after Rila's death, but I don't see him introducing a casual acquaintance to the children.) Ken and Faith possibly making a match of it is a thought that crossed his mind - and it made him uneasy, precisely because he likes Faith. If Ken likes her romantically, Jims won't ever stand in the way, but he himself rather has Faith alive and as a friend than as his new mother and at risk of some curse he probably thinks has befallen him.