JIMMY - Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth

Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth (2002)


‘Is that Jenny Lee? Where the hell have you been hiding all this time? We haven’t heard from you in months. I had to get on to your mother to find out where you were. She said you are a midwife in a convent. I had to tell her, gently, that nuns don’t do it, so she must be wrong, but she wouldn’t listen. What? You are? You must be mad! I’ve always said you had a screw loose somewhere. What? You can’t talk? Why not? The house phone reserved for expectant fathers! Look, that’s not funny. All right, all right! I’ll hang up, but not till you agree to meet us at the Plasterer’s Arms on your evening off. Thursday? OK that’s a date. Don’t be late.”

Dear Jimmy! I had known him all my life. Old friendships are always the best, and childhood friends are very special. You grow up together, and know the best and the worst of each other. We had played together for as long as I could remember, then left home and gone our separate ways, only to meet again in London. Jimmy and his friends came to all the parties and dances organised in the various nurses’ homes to which I was attached, and I joined their fraternity in sundry pubs in the West End when I could. It was an excellent arrangement, because they could guarantee meeting lots of new girls, and I could enjoy their company without any commitment.

I had no boyfriends at all when I was young. This was not (I hope) because I was unattractive or boring or sexless, but because I was so in love with a man I couldn’t have, and for whom my heart ached more or less all the time. For that reason no other male held the slightest romantic interest for me. I enjoyed the company and conversation of my men friends, and their lively and wide-ranging minds, but the mere idea of a physical relationship with any man other than the one I loved was abhorrent to me. In consequence I had a great many friends, and was in fact very popular with the boys. In my experience nothing arouses a young man’s interest more than the challenge of a pretty girl who for some inexplicable reason does not appear to find him the sex symbol of the century!

Thursday evening came. It was nice to be stepping up west for a change. I had found life with the sisters and the work in the East End so unexpectedly absorbing that I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere else. However, the chance to dress up couldn’t be resisted. Dress was rather formal in the 1950s. Long full skirts that flared outwards at the hem were in vogue; the smaller the waist and the tighter the waistband the better, irrespective of comfort. Nylon stockings were fairly new, and had seams that, de rigueur, had to be straight up the back of the leg. “Are my seams straight?” was a girl’s constant worried whisper to her friends. Shoes were killers, with five to six inch steel-capped stiletto heels and excruciating pointed toes. It was said that Barbara Goulden, the top fashion model of the day, had had her little toes amputated in order to squeeze her feet into them. Like all the smartest girls of the day, I would totter around London in those crazy shoes, and wouldn’t have been seen dead in anything else.

Careful make-up, hat, gloves, handbag, and I was ready.

There was no underground beyond Aldgate then, so I had to take a bus along the East India Dock Road and Commercial Road to pick up the tube. I have always loved the top front seat of a London bus, and to this day I maintain that no transport, however expensive or luxurious, can possibly offer half so much by way of scenery, advantaged viewing point and leisurely locomotion. There is endless time to absorb the passing scenes, perched high above everyone and everything. So my bus ambled along its route, and my mind wandered to Jimmy and his friends, and the occasion when I had very nearly got myself thrown out of nursing, had I been found out.

The hierarchy was very strict in those days, and behaviour, even off-duty, was closely monitored. Except for organised social events, boys were never allowed in the nurses’ home. I even remember one Sunday evening, when a young man had called for his girlfriend. He rang the bell and a nurse opened the door. He gave the name of the girl he wanted, and the nurse went off to find her, leaving the front door open. It was raining quite heavily, so the young man stepped inside and stood waiting on the doormat. It so happened that the Home Sister passed at that moment. She stood stock-still, rooted to the spot, and stared at him. She drew herself up to her full 4 foot 11 inches and said, “Young man, how dare you enter the nurses’ home! Kindly go outside, at once.”

So intimidating were these hospital sisters of the old school, and so absolute was their authority, that the young man meekly went outside and stood in the rain, whereupon the Sister shut the door.

My behaviour over Jimmy and Mike would certainly have merited instant dismissal from the nurses’ training school, and very likely the profession altogether. I was working at the City of London Maternity Hospital at the time. Early one evening, after I had come off duty, I was called to the only phone in the building.

“Is that the fascinating Jenny Lee with the fantastic legs?” a smooth voice purred.

“Come off it, Jimmy. What’s up? And what do you want?”

“How could you be so cynical, my dear? You grieve me more than I can say. When have you got an evening off? Tonight! What good luck! Could we meet at the Plasterer’s Arms?”

Over a convivial pint it all came out. Jimmy and Mike shared a nominal flat in Baker Street, but what with one thing and another, such as girls, beer, clothes, fags, the flicks, the occasional horse, Lady Chatterley (the communal car), and other sundry essentials, there was never quite enough money to pay the rent. The landlady who, of course, was a dragon, was lenient when the rent was two or three weeks in arrears, but when it slipped to six or eight weeks with no money forthcoming, she started breathing fire. One evening the boys returned to find all their clothes gone, and a note stating they would get them back when the arrears had been paid.

They sat down with pencil and paper, and worked out that the replacement value of their clothes would be less than the eight weeks of rent outstanding, so their course of action was obvious. At three o’clock in the morning they slipped quietly out of the house, leaving their keys on the hall table, and spent the rest of the night in Regent’s Park. It was a fine September evening, and after a reasonable sleep they stepped jauntily off to work, congratulating each other on an excellent plan well executed. They reckoned they could continue such a modus vivendi indefinitely, and thought what fools they had been ever to have paid rent to that dragon of a landlady in the first place.

Jimmy was training to be an architect, while Mike was a structural engineer. They were both attached to the best firms in London (such training in those days was based on the old apprentice system, and students were not college based). Though they could wash and shave in the public lavatories, they could not change their clothes (they had none), and a smart London firm would not tolerate its staff turning up for work day after day covered in autumn leaves! After about a fortnight they began to think that another plan would have to be formulated. Unfortunately, both had an entire wardrobe of clothes still to purchase, so money was very tight.

A third pint was ordered as we discussed the problem. Jimmy asked, “Isn’t there perhaps a boiler room or something like that in the nurses’ home where we could camp out for a little while?”

Old friends are old friends. I did not even consider the risk I would be taking. I said, “Yes there is, although it’s not a boiler room. It’s the drying room at the top of the building. All the water tanks are in it, and it’s used for drying clothes. I think there’s a sink in it too.”

Their eyes lit up. A sink! They could wash and shave in comfort!

“As far as I know,” I continued “it’s only used in the daytime - not at night. There is a fire escape that goes up the back of the building, and presumably there will be a window or door from the drying room on to the fire escape. It’s probably locked from the inside, but if I opened it for you, you could get in. Let’s go and have a look.”

We had another pint or two before leaving for the nurses’ home in City Road. The boys went round the back to the fire escape, and I entered the front door. I went straight to the drying room, and found that the slide windows opened easily from the inside. I signalled to my friends below, and each of them in turn climbed the iron ladder. It was not a staircase, just a ladder fixed to the wall, and the drying room was on the sixth floor. Normally, such a climb would be hair-raising but, fortified by several pints, it proved no trouble at all to the boys, and they entered the drying-room jubilantly. They hugged and kissed me, and called me a “brick”.

I said, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t stay here, but don’t come before about ten at night, and you must leave before six each morning so that no one sees you. You must keep quiet, too, because I will be in trouble if you are found.”

No one ever found out, and they stayed in the drying-room of the nurses’ home for about three months. How they managed that terrifying fire-escape in the middle of winter at six o’clock in the morning I shall never know; but when you are young and full of life and vitality, nothing is a problem.

The cry “Aldgate East - all change” broke into my reverie. I found my way to the familiar pub. It was a glorious June evening when the endless daylight lingered on and on - the kind of evening that fills you with gladness. The air was warm, the sun shone, the birds sang. It was good to be alive. By contrast the enclosed atmosphere of the pub seemed dark and gloomy. This was usually our favourite hostelry. This evening the beer was right, the time was right, the friends were right, but, somehow, the venue didn’t feel quite right. We chatted a bit, drank a few glasses, but I think we were all feeling a bit restless.

Suddenly someone shouted out, “Hey! Let’s all go down to Brighton for a midnight swim!”

There was a chorus of approval.

“I’ll go and get Lady Chatterly.”

This was the name given to the communal car. Who now remembers the furore that surrounded the proposed publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, written in the 1920s, and the court case brought against the publishers for intending to make widely available an “obscene publication”? All that happens in the book is that the lady of the manor has an affair with the gardener, but the case went to the High Court and some pompous QC is on record as having said to a witness, “Is this the sort of book you would allow your servants to read?”

After that Lady Chatterley became synonymous with illicit pleasures and millions of copies of the book were sold, making the publishers’ fortune.

Lady Chatterley was not a family car, but an obsolete 1920s London taxi. She was magnificent and huge, and on occasion actually achieved a speed of forty mph. The engine had to be coaxed into life with a starting handle, inserted beneath the elegant radiator. Considerable muscle power was needed, and the boys usually took it in turns to do the cranking. The front bonnet opened like two huge beetle wings when it was required to get at the engine and four majestic coach lamps shone on either side of the fluted radiator. There were running boards from front to back. The wheels were spoked. The capacious interior smelled of the best leather upholstery, polished wood and brass. She was their pride and joy. The boys garaged her somewhere in Marylebone, and spent all their spare time coaxing her frail old engine into life, and titivating her majestic body.

But there was still more to Lady Chatterley. Chimney pots had been added and flower boxes attached. The windows were curtained, which meant that the driver couldn’t see out of the rear window, but no one bothered about little things like that. The car also boasted brass door knockers and letter-boxes. Her name was painted in gold across the front, and a notice at the rear read: DON’T LAUGH, MADAM, YOUR DAUGHTER MAY BE INSIDE.

She was brought round to the pub, and everyone turned out to admire her. A few of the original enthusiasts had dropped out, but a crowd of about fifteen climbed into Lady Chatterley and she set off, amid cheers, at a steady twenty-five mph down Marylebone High Street. The evening was exquisite, warm and windless. The declining sun looked as though it never really would decline altogether, it being already about 9 p.m. The plan included a midnight swim in Brighton, near the West Pier, then back to London with a stop at Dirty Dick’s - a transport cafe on the A23 - for bacon and eggs.

Roads in the 1950s were not as they are today. To begin with we had to get out of central London by weaving our way through miles of suburbs - Vauxhall, Wandsworth, the Elephant, Clapham, Balham, and so on. It wasn’t quite endless, but it took a couple of hours. Once through the suburbs the driver called out, “We’re on the open road now. Nothing to stop us till we get to Brighton.”

Nothing, that is, except the temperament of Lady Chatterley, who tended to overheat. Forty mph was her maximum, and she was being driven at that speed for too long. We had to stop at Redhill, Horley (or was it Crawley?), Cuckfield, Henfield and numerous other ‘-fields’ so that she could rest and cool down. Tempers inside the Hackney carriage were becoming as frayed as the upholstery. The sun, which we had thought would never desert us, had relentlessly crept around to the other side of the globe, leaving us girls chilly in our flimsy summer dresses. The boys at the front called out, “Only another couple of miles. I can see the South Downs on the horizon.”

Eventually, after a five-hour journey, we crawled into Brighton at about 3 a.m. The sea looked black, and very, very cold.

“Right,” cried one of the boys. “Who’s for a swim? Don’t be chicken. It’s lovely once you get in.”

The girls were less optimistic. A midnight swim conceived in the warmth and security of a London pub is a very different thing from a 3 a.m. swim in the cold, black reality of the English Channel. I was the only girl who did swim that night. Having come all that way, I was not going to be beaten!

The pebbles of Brighton beach are nasty at the best of times, but if you happen to be wearing six-inch stiletto heels, they are murder. We had planned to swim in the nude, but no one had thought of what we might use for towels. It had been a cold winter and early spring, but nobody had thought about the temperature either.

About six of us stripped off, and with falsely jolly shouts to cheer each other on, we plunged into the sea. Normally, I love swimming, but the cold stabbed like a knife, taking my breath away, and brought on an asthma attack that lasted for the rest of the night. I swam a few strokes, then crawled out of the sea, gasping for breath. I sat on the wet pebbles shivering with cold. I had nothing to dry myself with, nothing to wrap around me. What a fool I had been! Why did I get myself into these crazy situations? I tried to dry my shaking shoulders with a small lace handkerchief. No help. My lungs were on fire, and air just didn’t seem to go into them. Some of the boys were really enjoying themselves, tumbling about with one another. I envied their vitality. I hadn’t even the strength to crawl back up the beach to the car.

Jimmy came out of the water, laughing and throwing seaweed at someone. He walked towards me. We couldn’t really see each other as he threw himself on the pebbles beside me, but at once he sensed that something was wrong. Perhaps he could hear me wheezing. His gaiety left him, and he became kind, concerned, thoughtful, as I had always known him when he was a little boy.

“Jenny! What’s up? You’re ill. You’ve got asthma. Oh, my dear, you are frozen. Let me dry you with my trousers.”

I couldn’t answer. I could only fight for breath. He wrapped his trousers around my back and rubbed hard. He gave me his shirt with which to dry my face and wet hair, and dried my legs with his socks and underpants. He had kept his vest dry, and he put it on me, as I had none of my own. He helped me into my thin cotton dress, then put his shoes on my feet, and helped me walk up the beach to the car. His own clothes were soaking wet, but he seemed impervious to this.

Everyone was sleeping in Lady Chatterley, sprawled about all over the place, and there was nowhere for me even to sit. Jimmy soon dealt with that. He shook a boy. “Wake up, and move over. Jenny’s having an asthma attack. She needs somewhere to sit down.”

Then, to another: “Wake up there, and take your jacket off. I need it for Jenny.”

Within minutes he had procured a corner for me to sit comfortably and a jacket to place around my shoulders. He woke another lad, and took his jacket to put over my legs. He did it all with charm and ease, and everyone liked him so much that no one grumbled. Not for the first time I reflected on what a pity it was that I couldn’t love Jimmy. I had always liked him, but no more than that. I had love for only one man, and this had eclipsed the possibility of loving anyone else.

Eventually we started back for London. The boys who had been swimming were in high spirits, invigorated by the swim and bantering with each other. All the girls were sleeping. I sat, leaning forward, elbows on my knees, by an open window, trying to get my lungs working properly again. There were no nebulisers in those days; the only treatment was the breathing exercises I was doing. An asthma attack usually passes in the end. Death from asthma is a new phenomenon related to modern living - indeed we used to say “no one dies from asthma”.

A beautiful midsummer dawn was breaking as we left Brighton. We made our slow, majestic way north, several times stopping to let Lady Chatterley cool down. At the foot of the North Downs she refused to go any further.

“Everyone out. We’ll have to push,” cried the driver, gaily. It was all right for him. He would be sitting at the steering wheel, or so he thought.

The sun was well up, and the summer morning spread over the countryside. We all climbed out of the vehicle. Worried that the physical effort of pushing might bring on another attack of asthma, I said, “I’ll take the wheel. You can push. You are stronger than me, and you don’t get asthma.”

I sat at the wheel of Lady Chatterley while the others pushed her up the North Downs. My heart went out to those poor girls in their stiletto heels pushing all that way, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I simply enjoyed the ride.

The rest must have done the old lady good because, over the crest, as we freewheeled down, she gave a deep cough of contentment, and the engine purred into life. We continued back to London with no further troubles. We were all working that morning, mostly starting at 9 a.m. I was supposed to be on duty at 8 a.m., miles away in the East End. I got back to Nonnatus House just after ten o’clock expecting serious trouble. But, once again, I realised how much more liberal the nuns were than the inflexible hospital hierarchy. When I told Sister Julienne about the night’s adventures I thought she would never stop laughing.

“It’s a good thing we are not busy,” she commented. “You had better go and get a hot bath and a good breakfast. We don’t want you down with a cold. You can start your morning’s round at eleven o’clock, and sleep this afternoon. I like the sound of your Jimmy, by the way.”

A year later Jimmy got a girl into trouble and married her. He could not support a wife and child on his apprentice pay, so he left his training in the fourth year and took a job as a draughtsman with a suburban county council.

About thirty years later, quite by accident, I bumped into Jimmy in a Tesco’s car park. He was staggering under the weight of a huge box, walking beside a large, cross-looking woman carrying a potted plant. She was talking incessantly in a rasping voice that assailed my ears before I even noticed them. He had always been slight, but now he looked painfully thin. His shoulders were stooped, and a few grey hairs were brushed across his bald head.

“Jimmy!” I said as we came face to face. His pale blue eyes looked into mine, and a thousand memories of the fun of a carefree youth instantly sparked between us. His eyes lit up, and he smiled.

“Jenny Lee!” he said, “After all these years!”

The woman poked him heavily in the chest with her thumb, and said, “You come along with me, and don’t hang about. You know the Turners are coming round tonight.”

His pale eyes seemed to lose all their colour. He looked at me despairingly and said, “Yes, dear.”

As they left, I heard her say, suspiciously: “Who is that woman, anyway?”

“Oh, just a girl I used to know in the old days. There was nothing between us, dear.”

He shuffled off, the epitome of the hen-pecked husband.