SISTER MONICA JOAN - Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth

Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth (2002)


“Light is the higher plane - life is the lower - light becomes Life. There is a fiery flash, a vision granted, a golden moment of offering.”

I could listen to her all day - the beautiful modulated voice, the moving hands, the hooded eyes, the arch of her haughty eyebrows, the drape of her veil as she turned her long neck. She was over ninety, and her mind was going, but I was utterly captivated.

“Shining questions, infinite response, the astro-mental plane of man lies in the etheric. The outer darkness is a monstrous dragon, with its tail in its mouth. Did you know?”

I sat at her feet, bewitched, and shook my head, not daring to speak in case I broke the spell.

“This is the cosmic body, the critical point, the translation of parallelisms running to the neutral centre of the disappearing point. Have you seen the clouds pass and float and roll as planets do? And so we see Him come, pierced. I am the thorn that pierced His brow. Can you smell burning, my dear?”

“No. Can you?”

“I think that Mrs B.’s ahrimatic unconsciousness has prompted her to make a cake. Let us go with God in all things. I think we should investigate, don’t you?”

I would rather have continued listening to her talk, but I knew that once the spell had been broken, there would be no going back - for the time being - and the smell of cake for Sister Monica Joan was irresistible. She smiled appreciatively. “That smells like one of Mrs B.’s honey cakes. Come on, get a move on, don’t just sit there.”

She jumped up, and with quick, light steps, head held high, back straight, she sped towards the kitchen.

Mrs B. turned as she entered. “Hello, Sister Monica Joan, you’re a bit early. They’re not done yet. But I’ve kept the bowl for you to scrape, if you wants to.”

Sister Monica Joan pounced on the bowl as though she had not eaten for a fortnight, scraping with the big wooden spoon, and licking both sides with murmurs of delight.

Mrs B. went over to the sink and took a wet cloth. “Nah ven, Sister, you got it all over your habit, an’ a bit on your veil, an’ all. Wipe your fingers, there’s a good girl. You can’t go to Tierce like that, can you? And the bell will go any minute.”

The bell sounded. Sister Monica Joan looked round quickly, and winked.

“I must go. You can wash the bowl now. Oh the delight in Heaven as the spheres move, and the tiny grains of sand touch the stars. The Phoenix rises from the living flame, and Ceres cries ... don’t forget to keep the crispy ones for me.”

She tripped out of the kitchen as Mrs B. fondly opened the door for her.

“She’s a caution, she is. You wouldn’t fink she’d been in the Docks all through two world wars, and the Depression, would you? She’s delivered thousands of our children. In the Blitz she wouldn’t leave. She delivered babies in air-raid shelters and church crypts, an’ once in what was left of a bombed house. Bless ’er. If she wants the crispy ones, she can ’ave ’em.”

I had heard stories like that so often, from so many people - her years of selfless work, her dedication, her commitment. Sister Monica Joan was known and loved throughout Poplar. I had heard that she was the daughter of a very aristocratic English family who were scandalised when she announced in the 1890s that she was going to be a nurse. Wasn’t her sister a Countess, and her mother a Lady in her own right? How could she disgrace them so? Ten years later, when she qualified as one of the first midwives in the country, they remained silent in their displeasure. But they cut her off altogether when she joined a religious order and went to work in the East End of London.

Lunch was the one occasion during the day when we all met together. Most monastic orders take their meals in silence, but talking was permitted at Nonnatus House. We stood until Sister Julienne came in and said grace, after which we all sat. Mrs B. would bring in the trolley and usually Sister Julienne would serve, with one other person carrying the plates around. Conversation that day was general: Sister Bernadette’s mother’s health; the two guests due to arrive at teatime.

Sister Monica Joan was peevish. She couldn’t eat a chop, due to her teeth, and she didn’t like the mince. Cabbage she could never abide. She would wait for the pudding.

“Do have a little mashed potato, dear, with some onion gravy. You know how you like Mrs B.’s onion gravy. You need the protein, you know.”

Sister Monica Joan sighed, as though all the injustice of the world had been heaped upon her,

“‘Stop and consider! Life is but a day - A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way.’”

“Yes dear, I know, but a little mashed potato wouldn’t go amiss.” Sister Evangelina paused, fork in hand, and snorted, “What’s that about a dew drop?”

Sister Monica Joan lost her peevishness, and said, sharply, “Keats, my dear, John Keats. Our greatest poet, though perhaps you don’t know. Uh-oh, I shouldn’t have said anything about dew-drops. It was a slip of the tongue.”

She took out a fine lawn handkerchief, and held it delicately to her nose. Sister Evangelina was beginning to turn red around the neck.

“Your tongue slips a great deal too often, if you ask me, dear.”

“No one was asking you, dear,” Sister Monica Joan addressed the wall, very, very quietly.

Sister Julienne intervened. “I’ve put a few fresh carrots on your plate also. I know you like carrots. Did you know that the Rector has seventy-two young people from the youth club in his confirmation class this year? Just imagine! That, on top of all their other work, will keep the curates busy.”

Everyone murmured interest and approval of the size of the confirmation class, and I watched Sister Monica Joan push the carrots around her plate with her forefinger. Such compelling hands, all bones and veins covered with transparent skin. Her nails were usually long, because she couldn’t be bothered to cut them, and resisted anyone else doing so. The forefingers on both hands were astonishing. She could bend the first joint, keeping the rest of the finger quite straight. I sat quietly watching, and tried to do it myself, but couldn’t. She got some gravy on her fingertip, and licked it off. She seemed to like it and brightened a little. She dipped her finger again. Meanwhile, conversation had turned to the forthcoming jumble sale.

Sister Monica Joan took up her fork, and ate all the potato and gravy, but not the carrots, then pushed her plate away from her with a hard-done-by sigh. She had obviously been thinking. She turned to Sister Evangelina and said loudly, but in the sweetest tone, “Keats may not be your cup of tea, but do you admire Lear, dear?”

Sister Evangelina looked at her with justifiable suspicion. Instinct told her there was a trap, but she had neither verbal skill nor wit, only a heavy, ponderous sort of honesty. She walked straight into the trap. “Who?”

It was the worst thing she could have said.

“Edward Lear, dear, one of our greatest comic poets, ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’, you know. I thought perhaps you might particularly admire ‘the Dong with the Luminous Nose’, dear.”

There was a gasp around the table at this piece of effrontery. Sister Evangelina’s face turned red all over, and the moisture began to glisten. Someone said “Pass the salt, please”, and Sister Julienne asked quickly if anyone would like another chop. Sister Monica Joan looked archly at Sister Evangelina, and murmured to herself, “Oh dear, now we are back to Keats and dewdrops.” She took out her handkerchief and started to sing “Ding Dong Bell, Pussy’s in the Well”, as though to herself.

Sister Evangelina nearly exploded with impotent rage, and scraped back her chair. “I think I can hear the telephone; I will go and answer it,” she said, and left the refectory.

The atmosphere was tense. I glanced sideways at Sister Julienne, wondering what she would do. She looked exceedingly cross, but could say nothing to Sister Monica Joan in front of us all. The other Sisters looked down at their plates, discomfited. Sister Monica Joan sat erect and haughty, her hooded eyes closed. Not a muscle moved.

I had often wondered about her. Her mind was obviously going, but how much was senility, and how much downright naughtiness? This gratuitous, unprovoked attack on Sister Evangelina was a piece of premeditated malice. Why did she do it? Her history of selfless dedication in over fifty years of nursing the poorest of the poor would imply saintliness. Yet here she was, deliberately humiliating her Sister in God in front of the entire staff, including Mrs B., who had just brought in the pudding.

Sister Julienne rose, and took the tray. Serving the pudding caused the diversion she needed. Sister Monica Joan knew that disapproval was in the air. Generally she was served first with pudding, and given a choice, but on that occasion she was served last. She sat aloof, seeming not to notice. On any other occasion she would have complained bitterly, gobbled up her pudding, and asked for more. But not today. Sister Julienne took up the last bowl, placed some rice pudding in it, and quietly said, “Hand that to Sister Monica Joan, if you please.” Then she said, “I will go and see Sister Evangelina, if you will all excuse me. Sister Bernadette, would you please say the closing grace?”

She rose, said a private grace, crossed herself, and left the room.

There were a few desultory remarks about the prunes being a little tough, and would it, or would it not rain for the evening visits, but we all felt a little uncomfortable, and were glad when the meal was over. Sister Monica Joan stood up with a regal toss of her head, and crossed herself elaborately as grace was said.

Poor Sister Evangelina! She was not a bad sort, and certainly did not deserve the torment she got from Sister Monica Joan. Her nose was a trifle red, admittedly, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as “luminous”. She was heavy and plodding, both in mind and body. Her big flat feet clumped about. She banged things down on the table, rather than putting them down. She flopped down into a chair, rather than sitting down. I had seen Sister Monica Joan observing all these characteristics with pursed lips, drawing in her skirts as the heavy feet passed. She, so light, so dainty, who moved with such grace, seemed unable to tolerate the other’s physical shortcomings, and called her the washerwoman, or the butcher’s wife.

Nor was Sister Evangelina any match for the quicksilver mind of Sister Monica Joan. She thought slowly and pedantically, entirely concerned with practical matters. She was a careful, hardworking midwife, and an honest and devout nun; I doubt if she had ever had an original idea in her life. Sister Monica Joan’s flashing wit and wisdom, her mental gymnastics, leaping from Christianity to cosmology, to astrology, to mythology, all of them thrown together in poetry and prose, and muddled in a mind on the verge of decay, was too much for Sister Evangelina. She just stood with her mouth open, looking stupid, or snorted her incomprehension and stomped off out of the room.

There was no doubt that Sister Evangelina had her cross to bear, and perched on the top was Sister Monica Joan, giggling and winking, kicking her heels in delight as she made such catty remarks as, “I think there’s thunder coming - oh no, it’s only you, dear. The weather is a little unsettled, isn’t it, dear?”

Sister Evangelina could only grind her teeth and plod on. She never got the better of these altercations, try as she might. Had she possessed a sense of humour, she could have defused the situation with laughter - but I never saw Sister Evangelina laugh spontaneously, whatever fun was going on in the house. She would watch other people, to make sure it was funny, and then laugh when others did. Sister Monica Joan would mock this also, “The tinkling bells chime, and the stars laugh with joy. The little cherubs clap their wings and laugh with heavenly harmony. Sister Evangelina is a little cherub, and the tinkling sounds of her laughter ring the changing universe into eternal changelessness. Don’t they, dear?”

Poor Sister Evangelina could only say, with solemn emphasis, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Ah, so far, so far, the never star, the fruition of Joy, the husk of Despair.”

Sister Julienne tried her best to keep the peace between the two Sisters, but not very successfully. How can you reprimand a nonagenarian whose mind is wandering? And would it do any good? I am sure she wondered, as I did, how much of it was due to senility, and how much was calculated mischief-making; but she could never be sure, and in any case Sister Monica Joan’s wit had always flashed and gone before she could do anything about it. So Sister Evangelina’s suffering continued.

The monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are hard, very hard. But harder still is the task of living, day in, day out, with your Sisters in God.