Call The Midwife - Jennifer Worth (2002)
She must have planned it, and picked me out as I got off the bus at the Blackwall Tunnel. It was about 10.30 p.m. and I had been to the newly opened Festival Hall. Perhaps I looked smarter than most of the other travellers that night, which she assumed meant more affluent. She came up to me, and said quietly, in a lilting Irish voice: “Could you change a five pound note for me?”
I was staggered. Change for five pounds! I doubt if I had three shillings to last the rest of the week. It would be like someone stopping you in the street today and asking if you had change for a five hundred-pound note.
“No, I haven’t,” I said brusquely. My head was full of music, I was replaying the performance over and over again in my mind. I didn’t want to be bothered with total strangers asking silly questions.
It was something about her despairing sigh that made me look at her again. She was very small and thin, with a perfect oval face, rather like a pre-Raphaelite painting. She could have been anywhere between fourteen and twenty years of age. She wore no coat, only a thin jacket that was quite inadequate for the cold evening. She had no stockings or gloves, and her hands trembled. She looked a very poor, ill-nourished girl - yet she obviously had five pounds.
“Why don’t you go into that café and change it?”
She looked furtive, “I dare not. Someone would see me and tell. Then they would bash me up, or kill me.”
It occurred to me that she had probably stolen the money. Stolen goods are of no value unless you can get rid of them. Sterling can usually be passed on without much trouble, but this girl was obviously too afraid to attempt it. Something made me say: “Are you hungry?”
“I haven’t eaten today, nor yesterday.”
No food for forty-eight hours, and five pounds in her pocket. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said to the caterpillar.
“Well look, let’s go into that café and get you a meal. I will pay with your five pounds, and then anyone who sees will think it’s mine. How’s that for a scheme?”
The girl’s face brightened with a joyful smile. “You had better take it now, so no one will see me giving it to you.”
She looked around her, and then thrust the huge white crackling bank note into my hand. She is very trusting, I thought. She is afraid of someone, but she’s not afraid that I will pocket the five pounds and run off.
In the café we ordered steak and two eggs and chips and peas for her. She took her jacket off and sat down. It was then that I saw she was pregnant. She wore no wedding ring. Pregnancy outside marriage in those days was a terrible disgrace. It was not as bad as it had been twenty or thirty years previously. Nonetheless, she would have a hard time ahead of her, I reflected.
She ate in hungry concentration, whilst I sipped a coffee, looking at her. Her name was Mary and was an Irish beauty, with tawny brown hair, delicate bone structure, and pale skin. She could have been a Celtic Princess, or the spawn of a drunken Irish navvy, it was hard to tell - perhaps there is not much difference, I thought.
The first of her hunger was assuaged, and she looked up at me with a smile.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“Have you ever been away from home before?”
She shook her head.
“Does your mother know you are pregnant?”
Fear, guilt and resentment came into her pretty eyes. Her lips tightened.
“Look, I’m a midwife. I notice these things. I’m trained to do so. I don’t suppose anyone else has noticed yet, though.”
Her face relaxed, so I said again, “Does your mother know?”
She shook her head.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You will have to go back home,” I said. “London is a big and scary place. You can’t bring up a child by yourself here. You need your mother’s help. You will have to tell her. She will understand. Mothers hardly ever let their daughters down, you know.”
“I can’t go back home. It’s impossible,” she said.
She wouldn’t answer any more questions on that subject, so I said, “How did you get to London, and why did you come, anyway?”
She was more relaxed now, and looked more inclined to talk. I ordered apple pie and ice cream for her. Slowly, and in bits and pieces, the story came out. I was so charmed by the lilting music of her voice, that I could have listened all night, regardless of whether she was reading a laundry list or telling me the age-old pathos of her life.
She was the eldest of five living children. Eight of her brothers and sisters had died. Her father was a farm worker and peat cutter. They lived in what she called a sheelin’. Her mother did washing for “the big house”, she told me. When she was fourteen her father caught pneumonia in the west Irish winter, and died. The family was left with no protector. The sheelin’ was tied to the lands worked by the father and, as none of the sons was old enough to take over the labour, the family was evicted. They moved to Dublin. The mother, a country woman who had never travelled more than walking distance from the mountains and meadows where she had been brought up, was quite unable to cope with the alien environment. They found lodgings in a tenement, and at first the mother took in washing, or tried to, but there was so much poverty and competition from other women similarly placed that she soon gave up the struggle. They couldn’t pay the rent, and were again evicted. Mary took a job in a factory, working sixty hours a week for a pittance. Mick, her brother of thirteen, lied about his age and left school, taking a job in a tannery. For both of them it was child slave labour.
The combined efforts of these two might have been just enough to keep the family afloat, had it not been for their mother.
“Me poor mam! I hate her for what she did to us, yet I can’t hate her really. She never could get herself away from the hills and the broad sky, from the sound of the curlew and the skylark, the sea, and the silence of the night.”
Her voice was like the sad, plaintive cry of an oboe rising from an orchestra.
“At first she just drank Guinness ‘because it does me good” she said. Then she took to any old sour stout that she could get. Then it was poteen, which the knife-sharpener man distilled. I don’t know what she drinks now. Most likely it’s meths and cold tea.”
The schoolmistress reported that the three younger children were playing truant, and that when they did come to school, they were half-starving and half-naked. They were taken away from their mother, and put into an orphanage. The mother didn’t seem to notice that they had gone. She had already hitched up with another man.
“It’s probably a good thing that they were taken away, because I have two little sisters, and I wouldn’t want what happened to me to happen to them.”
I shuddered. I had heard from Child Care Officers that if a mother takes another man into the house this can frequently be the death sentence for the children.
“He was a big man. I had never seen him sober. There was nothing I could do. I never knew that anything could be so awful. He did it again and again, until I got used to it. It was when he started hitting me and my mam with anything he could get hold of that I knew I had to leave. Me mam didn’t seem to notice the wallops, I think she was too drunk to feel anything. But I wasn’t. I thought he would kill me.”
She had slept in the streets of Dublin for a few nights, with her possessions in a string bag, but her thoughts were on London. She said, “Do you know the story of Dick Whittington and his black cat? Me mam used to tell us that story, and I always thought London must be a beautiful place.”
She went to the docks, and enquired about the cost of the fare to England. It was equivalent to three weeks’ wages, so she continued at the factory, and slept in a store room at night.
“I was as quiet as a mouse, and as secret as a shadow, and no one knew I was there. Even the caretaker didn’t find me when he did his rounds at night, or I would have been thrown out,” she said with a mischievous grin.
She spent nothing on food, scrounging what she could from other girls in the factory, and at the end of the third week, she took her wages and left, saying she wasn’t coming back.
There were many cargo boats going daily from Dublin to Liverpool in those days, but nonetheless, she had to wait until the Monday before she could get a passage.
“I spent the whole of Sunday wandering around the docks. It was beautiful, with the great ships, and the water splashing, and the seagulls crying. And I was that excited about going to London, that I didn’t notice I was hungry.”
After another night spent in the open, she paid all her money apart from a few shillings, on a one-way ticket and boarded the vessel.
“It was the most exciting moment of my life, and as I said goodbye to Ireland, I crossed myself and prayed for the soul of me dad, and asked our Holy Mother Mary to look after me poor mam, and me brothers and sisters.”
She arrived in Liverpool docks at about 7 p.m. on Monday evening. They did not seem to be quite as different as she had expected. In fact, they looked exactly like Dublin docks, only bigger. She did not know what to do. She enquired where London was, and was told three hundred miles away.
“Three hundred miles,” she said. “I nearly fainted. I’d thought it was just around the corner. Can you believe I was so silly?”
She’d spent another night in the open, and found some bread that had been thrown out for the seagulls. It was stale and dirty, but satisfied the worst of her hunger. In the morning, as the sun rose, her spirits and youthful optimism rose also, and she enquired how she could get to London without any money. She was told that 95 per cent of the transport lorries leaving that day would be going to London, and all that was necessary was to ask the driver if he would take her.
“You shouldn’t have any difficulties, a pretty girl like you,” her informant had said.
I know this to be true from my own experience. From the age of about seventeen, I had hitch-hiked all over England and Wales, always thumbing down long distance lorries and reaching my destination safely. I was always alone. I knew it was said that lorry drivers pick up girls for one purpose only, but this had not been my experience. All the lorry drivers I met were sober, hardworking men, who knew the road, had a load to deliver, and had a schedule to fulfil. Furthermore they were in a named company lorry, and any complaint would identify them immediately, not only to the boss, but also to the wife back home!
Mary found her lorry driver, and told me, “He was such a nice man. It was a long journey and we talked all the way. I sang him songs me dad taught me when I was a child, and he said I had a pretty voice. In some ways he was like me dad. You know, he even took me into a transport café and bought me a meal, and he wouldn’t take anything for it. He said ‘you keep that, lassie, because I think you are going to need it.’ I thought to myself, I’m going to like it in England if all the Englishmen are like this”. She paused, and looked down at her plate. Her voice was barely audible when she said, “He was the last good man I have met in this country.”
There was silence between us for quite some moments. I did not want to force her confidence, and in any case I am not by nature nosy about other people’s affairs, so I said, “How about another ice cream? I’m sure you could manage it. And I wouldn’t mind another coffee, if you think you can afford it.”
She laughed, and said, “I can afford a hundred cups of coffee.”
The proprietor brought our order, and said it was 11.15 and he was closing his till, so could we pay now. But we were welcome to sit at the table until midnight.
The bill was two shillings and ninepence, including coffee. That is equivalent to about twelve pence today. I drew myself to my full height, and with a grand gesture drew out the five pound note.
He jumped and spluttered, “Look ’ere, ain’t you got nuffink smaller’n that? How do you expect me to change five pounds?”
I said coldly and firmly, “I’m sorry, but I have nothing smaller. If I had, I would have given it to you. My friend has no money on her at all. If you can’t change the note, I am afraid we cannot pay for this meal.”
I folded the note and put it back into my handbag. That did it. He said, “All right, all right, Miss Toffee-nose. You win.”
He went and scratched through the till, then had to go out to the back to unlock the safe. He came back to the table, muttering and grumbling, and counted out four pounds, seventeen shillings and three pence change, whereupon I handed over the five pound note.
Mary was giggling like a schoolgirl at all this. I winked at her, and put the change into my bag. She remained just as trusting, because I could have got up and walked out with all her money.
It was getting late. Although it was my night off, I had had a very busy day, and I was on duty at 8 a.m. the next morning, with the likelihood of another busy day ahead. I was tempted to say, “Look I must get off now” but something drew me to this lonely girl, and I said, “Have you any plans for the baby?”
She shook her head.
“When is it due?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you booked with for confinement?”
She said nothing, so I repeated the question.
“I’m not booked with anyone,” she said.
I was concerned. She looked about six months’ pregnant, but if she had been half starved it might be a small baby, in which case she could be nearer to full term. I said: “Look Mary, you must be booked for a confinement. Who is your doctor?”
“I haven’t got one.”
“Where do you live?”
She didn’t answer, so I asked again, still no answer. She looked angry, and a hard suspicious tone came into her voice:
“It’s none of your business,” she said. I think if I hadn’t had her four pounds, seventeen shillings and three pence in my handbag, she would have got up and walked out.
“Mary, you might as well tell me, because you need a doctor, and antenatal care for your baby. I am a midwife and can probably arrange it for you.”
She bit her lip, and picked her fingernails, then said, “I’ve been living at the Full Moon Café in Cable Street. But I can’t go back there any more.”
“Why not?” I said. “Is it because you stole five pounds from the till?”
“They’ll kill me if they find me. And they will find me, somehow, I’m sure of that. Then they will kill me.”
She said these last words in a flat matter of fact voice, as though she had faced and accepted the inevitable.
It was my turn to be silent. I knew that the East End was a violent place. The midwives did not see it because we were deeply respected, and on the whole only dealt with the respectable families. But this girl could easily have been in potentially violent company and if she had stolen from them that undercurrent of violence could erupt into reality. Her life might well be in danger. I had not yet heard about the notorious cafés of Cable Street.
I said, “Have you got anywhere to sleep tonight?”
She shook her head.
I sighed. The responsibility was beginning to dawn on me.
“Let’s go and see if the YWCA is open. It’s very late, and I am not sure what time they close, but it’s worth a try.”
We thanked the proprietor, and left. In the street I gave Mary her money, and we walked the mile to the YWCA. It had closed at 10 p.m.
I was weary and tired. My stiletto heels were killing me. I had another mile to walk back to Nonnatus House, and a heavy day’s work to come. I cursed myself for getting involved at all. I could so easily have said at the bus stop, “No, I do not have change for five pounds”, and walked away.
But I looked at Mary standing outside the closed door. She looked so small and vulnerable, and somehow utterly docile in my hands. How could I leave her in the street with, possibly, men looking for her who might kill her? Who would notice if she disappeared? I thought, There, but for the grace of God, go I, and that solemn thought was truer than you might suppose.
She shivered in the cold night air, and pulled her thin jacket around her neck. I was wearing a warm camel hair coat with a beautiful fur collar of which I was very proud. The collar was detachable, so I took it off and put it round her thin little neck. She gave a sigh of joy and snuggled into the warm fur.
“Ooh! that’s lovely,” she said, smiling.
“Come on,” I said. “You had better come back with me.”