Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth (2002)
LEN AND CONCHITA WARREN
Large families may be the norm, but this is ridiculous, I mused as I ran through my day list. The twenty-fourth baby! There must be some mistake. The first digit is wrong. Not like Sister Julienne to make a mistake. My suspicions were confirmed when I got out the surgery notes. Only forty-two years old. It was impossible. I’m glad someone else can make mistakes as well as me, I thought.
I had to make an antenatal visit to assess the mother and the viability of the house for a home delivery. I never liked doing this. It seemed such an impertinence to ask to see people’s bedrooms, the lavatory, the kitchen, the arrangements for providing hot water, the cot and the linen for the baby, but it had to be done. Things could be pretty slummy, and we were used to managing in fairly primitive conditions, but if the domestic arrangements were really quite unviable, we reserved the right to refuse a home delivery, and the mother would have to go to hospital.
Mrs Conchita Warren is an unusual name, I thought as I cycled towards Limehouse. Most local women were Doris, Winnie, Ethel (pronounced Eff ) or Gertie. But Conchita! The name breathed “a beaker full of the warm South ... with beaded bubbles winking at the brim”.3 What was a Conchita doing in the grey streets of Limehouse, with its pall of grey smoke and the grey sky beyond?
I turned off the main road into the little streets and, with the help of the indispensable map, located the house. It was one of the better, larger houses - on three floors and with a basement. That would mean two rooms on each floor, and one basement room, leading into a garden - seven rooms in all. Promising. I knocked on the door, but no one came. This was usual, but no one called out “Come in, luvvy”. There seemed to be a good deal of noise inside, so I knocked again, harder. No reply. Nothing for it but to turn the handle and walk in.
The narrow hallway was almost, but not quite, impassable. Two ladders and three large coach prams lined the wall. In one, a baby of about seven or eight months slept serenely. The second was full of what looked like washing. The third contained coal. Prams were very large in those days, with huge wheels and high protective sides and I had to turn sideways to squeeze myself past. Washing flapped overhead, and I pushed it aside. The stairway to the first floor was straight ahead and was also festooned with washing. The sickly smell of soap, dank washing, baby’s excreta, milk, all combined with cooking smells was nauseating to me. The sooner I get out of this place the better, I thought.
The noise was coming from the basement, yet I could see no steps down. I entered the first room off the hallway. This was obviously what my grandmother would have called “the best parlour”, filled with her best furniture, knick-knacks, china, pictures, lace, and, of course, the piano. It was only used on Sundays and on special occasions.
But if this fine room had ever been anyone’s best parlour the proud housewife would have wept to see it. About half a dozen washing-lines were attached to the picture rail just below the cornices of a beautifully plastered ceiling. Washing hung from each of them. Light filtered through a single faded curtain that appeared to be nailed across the window, screening this front room from the street. It was obviously impossible to draw this curtain back. The wooden floor was covered with what looked like junk. Broken radios, prams, furniture, toys, a pile of logs, a sack of coal, the remains of a motorcycle, and what seemed to be engineering tools, engine oil and petrol. Apart from all this, there were scores of tins of household paints on a bench, brushes, rollers, cloths, pots of spirit, bottles of thinners, rolls of wallpaper, pots of dried out glue, and another ladder. The curtain was pinned up with a safety pin by about eighteen inches at one corner, allowing sufficient light to reveal a new Singer sewing machine on a long table. Dressmaking patterns, pins, scissors, and cotton were scattered all over the table, and also, quite unbelievably, there was some very fine, expensive silk material. Next to the table stood a dressmaker’s model. Also hard to believe, and the only thing that would have resembled my grandmother’s front parlour, was a piano that stood against one of the walls. The lid was open, revealing filthy yellow keys, with several of the ivories broken off, but my eyes were riveted by the maker’s name - Steinway. I couldn’t believe it - a Steinway in a room like this, in a house like this! I wanted to rush over and try it, but I was looking for a way down to the basement, where the noise was coming from. I closed the door, and tried the second room off the hallway.
This room revealed a doorway that led down to the basement. I descended the wooden stairs, making as much clatter and noise as I could, as no one knew I was there and I didn’t want to alarm anyone. I called out “Hello” loudly. No reply. “Anyone there?” I called, fatuously. There was obviously someone there. Still no reply. The door was ajar at the bottom, and there was nothing for it but to push it open and walk in.
Immediately there was a dead silence and I was conscious of about a dozen pairs of eyes looking at me. Most of them were the wide innocent eyes of children but amidst them were the coal-black eyes of a handsome woman with black hair hanging in heavy waves past her shoulders. Her skin was beautiful - pale, but slightly tawny. Her shapely arms were wet from the washing tub, and soap clung to her fingers. Although obviously engaged in the endless household chore of washing, she did not look slovenly. Her figure was large, but not over-large. Her breasts were well supported, and her hips were large, but not flabby. A flowered apron covered her plain dress, and the crimson band which held back the dark hair accentuated the exquisite contrast between skin and hair. She was tall, and the poise of her shapely head on a slender neck spoke eloquently of the proud beauty of a Spanish Contessa, with generations of aristocracy behind her.
She did not say a word. Neither did the children. I felt uncomfortable, and started babbling on about being the district midwife, and getting no reply when I knocked, and wanting to see the rooms for a home confinement. She did not reply. So I repeated myself. Still no reply. She just gazed at me with calm composure. I began to wonder if she was deaf. Then two or three of the children began talking to her, all of them at once, in rapid Spanish. An exquisite smile spread across her face. She stepped towards me and said, “Si. Bebe.” I asked if I might look at the bedroom. No reply. I looked towards one of the children who had spoken, a girl of about fifteen. She spoke to her mother in Spanish, who said, with gracious courtesy and a slight inclination of her sculptured head, “Si.”
It was clear that Mrs Conchita Warren spoke no English. In all the time that I knew her the only words that I heard her speak, apart from dialogue with the children, were “si” and “bebe”.
The impression this woman made upon me was extraordinary. Even in the 1950s that basement would have been described as squalid. It contained, haphazardly, a stone sink, washing, a boiler bubbling away, a mangle, clothes and nappies hanging all over the place, a large table covered with pots and plates and bits of food, a gas stove covered with dirty saucepans and frying pans, and a mixture of unpleasant smells. Yet this proud and beautiful woman was completely in control and commanded respect.
The mother spoke to the girl, who showed me upstairs to the first floor. The front bedroom was perfectly adequate: a large double bed. I felt it - no more sagging than any other. It would do. There were three cots in the room, two wooden dropsided cots, a small crib, two very large chests of drawers and a small wardrobe. The lighting was electric. The floor covering was lino. The girl said, “Mum’s got it all ready here,” and pulled open a drawer full of snowy white baby clothes. I asked to see the lavatory. There was more than that. There was a bathroom - excellent! That was all I needed to see.
As we left the main bedroom I peered briefly into the room opposite, the door of which was open. Three double beds appeared to be crammed into it, but there was no other furniture at all.
We descended two flights to the kitchen, our feet clattering on the wooden stairs. I thanked Mrs Warren and said that everything was most satisfactory. She smiled. Her daughter spoke to her and she said: “Sí.” I needed to examine the woman and take an obstetric history, but obviously I could not do that if we could not understand each other, and I did not feel that I could ask one of the children to interpret. I therefore resolved to make a repeat visit when her husband would be at home. I asked my little guide when this would be, and she told me “in the evening”. I asked her to tell her mother I would come back after six o’ clock, and left.
I had several other visits that morning, but my mind continually drifted back to Mrs Warren. She was so unusual. Most of our patients were Londoners who had been born in the area, as had their parents and grandparents before them. Foreigners were rare, especially women. All the local women lived a very communal life, endlessly engaged in each other’s business. But if Mrs Warren spoke no English, she could not be part of that sorority.
Another thing that intrigued me was her quiet dignity. Most of the women I met in the East End were a bit raucous. Also there was her Latin beauty. Mediterranean women age early, especially after childbirth, and by custom used to wear black from head to foot. Yet this woman was wearing pretty colours, and did not look a day over forty. Perhaps it is the intense sun that makes southern skins age, and the damp northern climate had preserved her skin. I wanted to find out more about her, and intended asking some questions of the Sisters at lunch time. I also wanted to tease Sister Julienne about writing the “twenty-fourth pregnancy”, when she really meant the fourteenth.
Lunch at Nonnatus House was the main meal of the day, and a communal meal for the Sisters and lay staff alike. The food was plain, but good. I always looked forward to it because I was always hungry. Twelve to fifteen of us sat down each day at the table. After grace was said I introduced the subject of Mrs Conchita Warren.
She was well known by the Sisters, although not a lot of contact had ever been made because of her lack of English. Apparently she had lived in the East End for most of her life. How was it, then, that she didn’t speak the language? The Sisters did not know. It was suggested that perhaps she had no need, or no inclination to learn the language, or perhaps she just wasn’t very bright. This last suggestion was a possibility, as I had noticed before that certain people can completely disguise a basic lack of intelligence simply by saying nothing. My mind flitted to the Archdeacon’s daughter in Trollope, who had the whole of Barchester society and London at her feet, praising her beauty and bewitching mind, when in fact she was profoundly stupid. She achieved this enviable reputation by sitting around on gilded chairs, looking beautiful and saying not one word.
“How did she come to be in London at all?” I asked. The Sisters knew the answer to this one. Apparently Mr Warren was an East Ender, born into the life of the docks, and destined for the work of his father and uncles. But when he was a young man, something had made him a rebel. He was not going to be cast into any mould. He cut loose, and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It is doubtful if he had the faintest idea of what he was doing, as foreign affairs rarely penetrated the consciousness of working people in the 1930s. Political idealism could have played no part in it and whether he fought for the Republicans or the Royalists would have been immaterial. All he wanted was youthful adventure, and a war in a remote and romantic country was just the stuff.
He was lucky to survive. But survive he did, and came home to London with a beautiful Spanish peasant girl of about eleven or twelve. He returned to his mother’s house with the girl, and they obviously lived together. What his relatives or neighbours thought of this shocking occurrence can only be conjectured, but his mother stuck by him, and he was not one to be intimidated by a pack of gossiping neighbours. Anyway, they could hardly send the girl back, because he had forgotten where she came from and she didn’t seem to know. Quite apart from this, he loved her.
When it was possible, he married her. This was not easy, because she had no birth certificate and was not sure of her surname, date of birth, or parentage. However, as she had had three or four babies by then and looked about sixteen, and as she was presumably Roman Catholic, a local priest was persuaded to solemnise the already fecund relationship.
I was fascinated. This was the stuff of high romance. A peasant girl! She certainly didn’t look like a peasant. She looked like a princess of the Spanish court, whom the Republicans had dispossessed. Had the brave Englishman rescued her and carried her off? What a story! Everything about it was unusual, and I looked forward to meeting Mr Warren that evening.
Then I remembered the children. I said to Sister Julienne, saucily, “I’ve caught you out in a mistake at last. You put in the day book the twenty-fourth pregnancy when you must have meant the fourteenth.”
Sister Julienne’s eyes twinkled. ” Oh no,” she said, “that was no mistake. Conchita Warren really has had twenty-three babies, and is expecting her twenty-fourth.”
I was stunned. The whole story was so preposterous that no one could possibly have made it up.
The door was open when I returned to their home so I stepped in. The house was literally teeming with young people and children. I had seen only very young children and a girl in the morning. Now all the schoolchildren were home, as well as several older teenagers who had presumably returned from work. It seemed like a party, they all looked so happy. Older children were carrying tiny ones around, some of them were playing out in the street, some of them were doing what might have been homework. There was absolutely no discord among them and in all the contact I had with this family no fighting or nasty temper was ever in evidence.
I squeezed past the ladder and the prams in the hallway, and was directed down to the basement kitchen. Len Warren was sitting on a wooden chair by the table, comfortably smoking a roll-up. A baby was on his knee, another crawled along the table, and he had to keep pulling him back by his pants to prevent him falling off. A couple of toddlers sat on his foot and he was jigging them up and down singing, “Horsey, horsey don’t you stop”. They were screaming with laughter, and so was the father. Laughter lines creased his eyes and nose. He was older than his wife, about fifty-ish, not at all good-looking in the conventional sense, but so frank and open, so downright pleasant-looking, that it did your heart good to see him.
We grinned at each other, and I told him that I wanted to examine his wife and take some notes.
“That’s OK. Con’s doing the supper, but I spek she can leave it to Win.”
Conchita was calm and radiant, standing by the boiler, which in the morning had been doing the washing and was now cooking an enormous quantity of pasta. Copper boilers were common in those days. They were tubs, large enough to contain about twenty gallons, standing on legs, with a gas jet underneath. A tap at the front was the means of emptying them. They were intended for washing, and this was the first time I had seen one used for cooking, but I surmised that this would be the only way of catering for such a huge family. It was sensible and practical, if unusual.
“Here, Win, you tek over the supper, will you, love? Nurse wants a look at yer mum. Tim, come ’ere, lad, you tek the baby, an’ keep them two away from the boiler. We don’t want no accidents in vis ’ouse, do we now? An’ Doris, love, you lends a hand to our Win. I’ll tek yer mum and the nurse upstairs.”
The girls spoke rapidly to their mother in Spanish, and Conchita came towards me, smiling.
We went upstairs, Len chatting all the time to different children, “Now then Cyril, now then. Let’s get that lorry off them stairs, shall we, there’s a good lad. We don’t want the nurse to break ’er neck, do we nah?
“Good on yer, Pete. Doin yer ’omework. He’s a scholar, our Pete. He’ll be a professor one of these days, you’ll see.
“’Allo, Sue, my love. Got a kiss for yer ol’ dad, then?”
He very seldom stopped talking. In fact I would say that in all my acquaintance with Len Warren, he never stopped talking. If occasionally he ran out of something to say, he would whistle or sing - and all executed with a thin roll-up in his mouth. These days health workers would be very disapproving about smoking around babies and a pregnant woman, but in the fifties no connection had been made between smoking and ill health, and nearly everyone smoked.
We went into the bedroom.
“Connie, love, the nurse just wants to have a look at your tum.”
He smoothed down the bed, and she lay down. He started to pull up her skirt, and she did the rest.
Her abdomen showed stretch marks, but nothing excessive. From appearances, this could have been her fourth pregnancy, not her twenty-fourth. I palpated the uterus - about five to six months.
“Any movements?” I enquired.
“Oh yeah, yer can feel the li’l soul kickin’ an’ wrigglin’. He’s a right little footballer, that one, ’specially at night when we wants ’a get some sleep.”
The head felt uppermost, but that was to be expected. I couldn’t locate the foetal heart, but with all the kicking described, it hardly mattered.
I examined the rest of her. Her breasts were full, but firm - no lumps or abnormalities. Her ankles were not swollen. There were a few superficial varicose veins, but nothing serious. The pulse was normal, as was her blood pressure. She seemed to be in perfect condition.
I wanted to try to establish her dates. Merely going on clinical observation can be deceptive. A small baby and a large baby of the same gestation can give the appearance of about four to six weeks’ difference, so you need some dates to back up observation. However, with a baby of about seven to eight months old downstairs, it seemed unlikely that Conchita had had a period at all. I was not accustomed to asking such delicate questions of a man. In the 1950s such things were never mentioned in what was called “mixed company”, and I felt myself blush scarlet.
“Ah, nah, nuffink like that,” he said.
“Could you ask her, please; she might not have mentioned it to you.”
“Yer can tek it from me, nurse, she ain’t ’ad no periods for years.”
I had to leave it at that. If anyone knows, he should, I thought.
I mentioned that we had an antenatal clinic every Tuesday, and we preferred patients to come to the clinic. He looked dubious. “Well, she don’t like goin’ out, yer know. Not speakin’ the lingo an’ all, like. And I wouldn’t want ’er to get lost or frightened, like. ‘Sides, she’s got all them babies to look after at home, yer know.”
I didn’t feel I could insist, so I put her down for home antenatal visits.
In all this time, Conchita hadn’t said a word. She just smiled, and submitted passively to being felt and prodded all over, to hearing herself talked about in a foreign language. She got up from the bed with grace and dignity, and moved to the chest of drawers, searching for a hairbrush. Her black hair looked even more beautiful being brushed, and I observed hardly a grey hair. She adjusted the crimson band, and turned with proud confidence to her husband, who took her in his arms and murmured, “There’s my Con, my gel. Oh yer looks lovely, my tresher.”
She gave a contented little laugh, and nestled in his arms. He kissed her repeatedly.
Such a display of unashamed love between husband and wife was unusual in Poplar. Whatever the relationship in private, the men always kept up a show of rough indifference in front of other people. A good deal of lewd banter often went on between them, which I found very amusing, but they did not openly speak of love. I found the tender, gentle and adoring looks of Len and Conchita Warren very affecting.
I returned many times to the house over the next four months, checking Conchita’s progress. I always went in the evenings, in order to speak with Len about the pregnancy. Anyway, I liked his company, liked listening to him talk, enjoyed the atmosphere of this happy family and wanted to find out more about them all. This was not difficult, due to Len’s insatiable volubility.
Len was a painter and decorator. He must have been a good one because 90 per cent of his jobs were “up West”. “All the nobs’ houses” was how he described his work.
Three or four of his elder sons worked with their father in the business, and apparently he was never short of work. With low running costs there must have been quite a bit of money coming into the household. Len worked from home, from his shed in the backyard, where he also kept his barrow.
Workmen in those days didn’t have vans or trucks to go around in. They had barrows, usually made of wood, and often homemade. Len’s was made out of the chassis of an old pram, with the upholstered pram part removed, and an elongated wooden construction fitted to the highly sprung base. It was perfect. The springs made for lightness of movement, and the huge, well-oiled wheels made it easy to push. When going out to a new job, Len and his sons would load up the barrow with their equipment and push it to the address. They may have had to push for ten miles or more, but that was all part of the job. In that respect, a painter and decorator was lucky, because a job usually lasted a week or so, and they could leave their stuff at the house and go home by tube as far as Aldgate.
Plumbers, plasterers and suchlike were less fortunate. Their jobs usually lasted only a day, so they had to push the tools to the job, and then push them home in the evening. In those days you would see workmen laboriously pushing their barrows all over London. They had to walk on the road, which held up the traffic considerably. But drivers were used to it and just accepted it as part of the London scene.
I once asked Len if he had been called up in the War.
“Nah, ’cos of this Franco-job,” he said, pointing to a leg wound that had rendered him unfit for military service.
“Were the family in London all through the war?” I asked.
“Not bleedin’ likely, beggin’ yer pardon, nurse,” he said. “Wouldn’ let Jerry get Con an’ the kids.”
He was shrewd, well informed, and above all enterprising. In 1940 Len had observed the failed strategic bombing of the air bases and ammunition fields. He had seen the Battle of Britain.
“An’ I thought to meself, I though’, that slippery bugger Hitler, he’s not goin’ to stop there, he’s not. He’ll go for the docks next. When the first bomb fell on Millwall in 1940, I knew as how we was in for it, an’ I sez to Con, ‘I’m gettin’ you out of this, my girl, an’ the kids an’ all.’”
Len didn’t wait for any evacuation scheme to come into operation. With typical energy and initiative he took a train from Baker Street out of London to the west, into Buckinghamshire. When he thought he had gone far enough, he got out at what looked to be a promising rural area. It was Amersham, which is almost a London suburb these days, on the Metropolitan Line. But in 1940 it was truly rural, and remote from London. Then he quite simply trudged around the streets, knocking at doors, telling the householders he met that he had a family he wanted to get out of London, and had they got a room they could let to him?
“I must ’ave called at ’undreds of places. I reckons as how they thought I was mad. They all sez no. Some didn’t speak, jes’ shut the door in my face and said nuffink. But I wasn’t goin’ to be put off, not by no one. I just reckons as how someone’s goin’ to say ‘yes’ some time. You jes’ gotta stick with it, Len lad, I says to meself.
“It was gettin’ late. I’d spent the whole day trudgin’ round, ’aving doors shut in me face. I can tell you, I was feelin’ down, an’ all. “I was goin’ back to the station. I tells you, I was that depressed. I went down a road of shops with flats above ’em. I shan’t never forget it. I hadn’t knocked at any flats, only houses that looked like what they’d got a lo’ of rooms in ’em.
“There was a lady, I shall never forget her, goin’ into one o’ the doors next to a shop, like, an’ I just says to her ‘you haven’t got a room I could have, have you lady? I’m desperate.’ An’ I tells her, an’ she says ‘yes’.
“That lady was an angel,” he said reflectively. “Without her, we’d be dead, I reckons.”
It had been a Saturday. He had arranged with the lady that he would pack up his household on the Sunday, and move in on the Monday. This they did.
“I told Con and the kids we was goin’ on ’oliday to the country.”
He simply told their landlord they were moving out. They left all their furniture and only took what they could carry.
The accommodation the lady gave them was called the back kitchen. It was a fairly large stone-floored room on the ground floor leading to a small backyard with access both to the flats above, and to the shop at the side. It contained a sink, running cold water, a boiler, and a gas stove. There was a large cupboard under the stairs, but no heating, and no power point for an electric heater. There was, however, an electric light and an outdoor lavatory. There was no furniture. I don’t know what Conchita thought of it all, but she was young and adaptable. She was with her man and her children and that was all that mattered to her.
They lived there for three years. Len made a few trips back to London to collect what furniture and essential bedding he could bring on his barrow. Very soon his mother came to join them.
“Well, I couldn’t leave the old gel back there for Jerry to get, could I now?”
Apparently his mother passed most of the day and each night in an armchair in a corner. The older children went to school. Len took a job as a milkman. He had never handled a horse before, but it was a docile old creature that knew the round, and with native quickness Len soon learned, and whistled his way around the roads. The children came with him when they could and felt like King of the Castle sitting up behind the horse.
Conchita looked after her children, and did the lady’s washing and cleaning. It was a good arrangement all round. Two more babies were born. It was when they were expecting the ninth baby that the local evacuation authorities decided Len’s family needed more room, and they were allocated two rooms, a kitchen and bathroom.
It sounds pretty grim today - just two rooms for three adults and eight children, but in fact they were lucky. The times were hard, and one sees on old newsreels pathetic pictures of train loads of East End children with labels and a small bag being shunted out of London. Thanks to their father, the Warren children were not separated from their parents throughout the entire war.
Len and Conchita’s children were beautiful. Many of them had raven black hair and huge black eyes like their mother. The older girls were stunners, and could easily have been models. They all talked in a curious mixture of Cockney and Spanish when together. With their mother they spoke only Spanish; with their father, or any other English person, pure Cockney. I was very impressed by this bi-lingual facility. I wasn’t able to get to know any of them very well, principally because their father never stopped talking, and entertaining me with his chatter. The only girl I did have contact with was Lizzy, who was about twenty and a very skilled dressmaker. I have always loved clothes, and became a regular client of hers. Over several years she made me some beautiful garments.
The house was always crowded, but there was never any discord as far as I could see. If an argument arose among the younger children, the father would say good-humouredly, “Nah ven, nah ven, le’s ’ave none of vis,” and that would be that. I have seen internecine fighting between siblings, especially in overcrowded conditions, but not between the Warren children.
Where they all slept was a mystery to me. I had seen one bedroom with three double beds in it. Presumably the two bedrooms on the upper storey were the same, and they all slept together.
In the last month of Conchita’s pregnancy I visited weekly. One evening Len suggested I had a bit of supper with them. I was delighted. It smelled good and, as usual, I was hungry. I was not at all squeamish about eating food cooked in the boiler that had been used in the morning for washing the baby’s nappies, so I accepted with pleasure. Len said, “I reckons as ’ow the nurse would like a plate, like. You get ’er one, will you, Liz love?”
Liz piled some pasta on to a plate for me, and gave me a fork. It was only then that Conchita revealed her peasant origins. All the rest of the family ate from the same dish. Two large shallow bowls, the old-fashioned toilet bowls that used to be found in every bedroom, were filled with pasta and placed on the table. Each member of the family had a fork and ate from the communal bowl. I alone had a separate plate. I had seen this once before when I was living in Paris, and had spent a weekend with an Italian peasant family who had moved to the Paris area to try to find work. They all ate from a single dish in the middle of the table in just the same way.
The time came for Conchita’s confinement. There were no dates to go by, and therefore no certainty when she was due, but the baby’s head was well down and she looked near the end of term.
“I’ll be glad when we gets this baby out. She’s getting tired. I won’t go to work no more, the lads can do the job. I’ll stop here, and look after Con and the kids.”
This he did, to my amazement. In those days no self-respecting East Ender would demean himself by doing what he would call “womens’ work”. Most men would not lift a dirty plate or mug from the table, nor even pick their dirty socks up off the floor. But Len did everything. Conchita lay in bed late in the mornings, or sat in a comfortable chair in the kitchen. Sometimes she played with the little ones, but Len was always watching, and if they got too boisterous, he firmly took them away and amused them elsewhere. Sally, the girl of fifteen, who had left school but not yet gone out to work, was there to help him. Nonetheless, Len could do everything - change nappies, feed toddlers, clear up messes, shopping, cooking, and the endless washing and ironing. And all this was accompanied by singing or whistling and unfailing good humour. Incidentally, he was the only man I have ever met who could roll a fag with one hand and feed a baby with the other.
Conchita’s twenty-fourth baby was born at night. A phone call came through at about 11 p.m. that the waters had broken. As fast as I could I pedalled along to Limehouse, because I guessed it would be a quick labour. I was not wrong.
I found everything in perfect readiness. Conchita was lying on clean sheets, with the brown paper and a rubber sheet under her. The room was warm, but not too hot. The baby’s crib and baby clothes were all waiting. Hot water was boiling in the kitchen. Len was sitting beside her, massaging her stomach, her thighs, her back, and her breasts. He had a cold flannel with which to wipe her face and neck, and with every contraction he took her in his arms and held her tight. He murmured encouraging noises. “That’s my girl. That’s my lass. Won’t be long now. I’ve gocher. Jus’ hold on to me.”
I was startled to see him there. I had expected to see a neighbour, or his mother, or an elder daughter. I had never seen a man at a delivery before, apart from a doctor. But in this, as in everything else, Len was exceptional.
A glance told me Conchita was very near the second stage. I gowned up quickly, and laid out my tray. The foetal heart was steady, and the head barely palpable. It must have been already down on the pelvic floor. As the waters had broken, I did not do a vaginal examination, because any such intrusion could risk infection, and, unless absolutely essential, should be avoided. The contractions were coming about every three minutes.
Conchita was sweating, and moaning slightly, but not excessively. She smiled at her husband between each contraction, and relaxed completely in his arms. She had had no sedation.
We did not have long to wait. A change came over her facial expression, that of intense concentration. She gave a grunt of effort and with the next push, the whole baby slid out at once. It was a small baby, and delivery was so quick I had no time to do anything more than catch the child. The little thing was just lying there on the sheet with no help from me. I cleared the airway, and Len handed me the cord clamps and the scissors. He knew exactly what to do. He could have delivered the baby himself, I thought. The placenta came out fairly quickly also, and there was no excessive bleeding.
Len wrapped the baby tenderly in warm towels, and placed her in the crib. He called downstairs for hot water, and gave the message that a little girl had been born. Then he washed his wife all over, and deftly changed the sheets. He brushed her black hair, and put a white hair band on her, to match her white nightie. He called her his pet, his love, his treasure. She smiled dreamily at him.
He called downstairs for one of his children, “Here, Liz, you take these bloody sheets, and put them in the boiler, will yer, love. Then we might think about a nice cup of tea, eh?”
Then he turned back to his wife, and took the baby from the cradle, and handed it to her. She smiled contentedly, touching the baby’s little head, and kissing its wee face. She didn’t say anything, just chuckled with contentment.
Len was ecstatic, and started talking non-stop again. During Conchita’s labour he had hardly said a thing. It was the only time I had ever known him to be silent for so long. But now nothing could stop him.
“Oh, look at her. Jes look at ’er, nurse. Isn’ she beau’iful? Look at ’er li’l hands. See, she’s got fingernails. Oh, she’s openin’ her li’l mouth. Oh, you li’l swee’heart, you. See, she’s got long eyelashes, like ’er mum. She’s jes perfick.”
He was as excited as a young father with his first baby.
He called all the other children up, and they all sat round their mother, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English. Only the toddlers were asleep. The rest of the house was awake and excited.
I packed up my equipment and slipped silently out of the room, feeling that the unity and happiness of the family would be all the greater if I was not there. Len saw me leave and courteously came out with me. As we left, I noticed that the conversation behind us slipped into Spanish.
He thanked me for all I had done, although I had done virtually nothing. As he carried my bag downstairs, he said: “Let’s have a nice cup o’ tea together, shall us nurse?”.
He chatted happily all the time we had our tea. I told him how much I liked and admired his family. He was a proud father. I told him how impressed I was that they all spoke Spanish so fluently.
“They’re a clever lot, my kids, they are. Cleverer than their old dad. I never could pick up the lingo, meself.”
Quite suddenly, with blinding insight, the secret of their blissful marriage was revealed to me. She couldn’t speak a word of English, and he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.