New beginnings at Nonnatus House.
"Hello. I'm Shelagh Mannion. I was told to report to the matron in charge."
"Venus and Saturn are now in alignment. It is entirely appropriate that you should appear! Welcome to Nonnatus House."
Shelagh was wondering if this old woman in the habit was really a nun or, if she was a guest at Nonnatus Halfway House. It was, after all, a temporary home for former psychiatric patients and other people in need of community life. The nuns of the order of St John ran the place. She had heard only good of this institution so far, and this model of preventive and supportive psychiatric care was the reason she had applied for a post as a nurse here. Now she wasn't so sure of her choice.
"Are you Sister Evangelina?"
A contemptuous grunt. "Certainly not."
A voice rang out from the hall: "Stop frightening the newcomer, Sister Monica Joan."
A round and rather stern-looking nun in her early sixties guided the older Sister aside and offered her hand to Shelagh: "I am the matron in charge. Welcome, Nurse Mannion. Please, come in."
Shelagh followed the matron. The old nun had vanished into the kitchen mumbling something about a cake.
"We are so glad you could join us. I will show you your room later, but first I will tell you about the life here and about your duties..." Sister Evangelina guided Shelagh in to her office.
Later, sitting in her room, waiting for the dinner gong, she mused on what Sister Evangelina had told her. The Halfway house ran on community life, with common meals, rehabilitative work and common prayer at the Chapel. There were eight single or double rooms in the guest wing for former psychiatric patients or other people who needed a temporary shelter or retreat. "Loneliness, that is the great affliction of our times", Sister Evangelina had sighed. "We try to offer what we can: the best medicine of company, prayer and suitable work". There was a vegetable garden, a carpentry shed, and a room for handicrafts and needlework on the ground floor. Laundry shifts were rotated between the residents. Many of them took part in these activities. Cooking and other kitchen duties were organized by the housekeeper and the cook, Mrs. Fairfax.
Sister Evangelina said Mrs. Fairfax worked part-time at Nonnatus and part time as the live-in housekeeper of Doctor Turner, the doctor-in-charge.
He ran his large general surgery out of Nonnatus House in addition to looking after the Nonnatus patients. He got a quarter of his salary from Nonnatus Foundation, and the resident nurses rotated as his receptionists. There was also a small ward of six beds, a mini-hospital, on the ground floor.
On the other wing, the so-called nurses wing, there were rooms and apartments for nurses and nuns who worked as district nurses or midwives. Two working nuns were living there right now, Sister Mary Cynthia and Sister Evangelina herself. Nurses Trixie Franklin and Jennie Lee were the other residents in that wing.
Shelagh had been shown the chapel, a beautiful place. Partly she had been drawn to work here because of her religious beliefs. She was fascinated by the idea of working adults, patients and guests living and praying together.
Hearing the dinner gong, Shelagh walked the stairs down to the great hall leading to the Common Dining Hall. She heard a door slam and at the bottom of steps she nearly stumbled on someone.
"Gangway!"this tall, dark man cried and ran towards the hospital ward, his coat flowing.
From the door of the ward, he hollered at her: "Do not startle me like that. And the visiting hours are over, you should leave immediately."
She turned around and retorted:"I am not a visitor."
"Well, you look like one. From some otherworldly sphere, perhaps."
With this astonishing repartee, he vanished in the ward.
In the dining hall, Shelagh met Sister Monica Joan again. "Oh, you have met Doctor Turner . He must have thought you were a visitor from realms apart from ours. You look a little like elf, you know, "she said with a whimsical smile.
Shelagh touched her new glasses a bit self-consciously.
Sister Evangelina arrived just in time to hear this. She shook her head. In a low tone, she explained to Shelagh that Sister Monica Joan had the early marks of senile dementia and how you should sometimes just ignore her. Shelagh knew of Sister Monica Joan's work as a nurse and her pioneering work on rehabilitative occupational therapy and therapeutic communities. Now she was living with them in her old age "giving us cheer and moments of exasperation, in equal turns", Sister Evangelina had laughed.
At the dinner table Shelagh had met the other nurses and some of the present guests. It had been a remarkably cosy meal. I am really going to enjoy this, Shelagh thought. After dinner, Shelagh helped Mrs. Fairfax with the washing-up. The housekeeper-cook had then left for home, leaving Shelagh to finish the cleaning of the dining hall.
She smelled cigarette smoke. She heard noise. Someone was in the living room. She approached the door tentatively. Doctor Turner sat there smoking and staring at the fire in the fireplace.
"Please come in Nurse Mannion. I won't bite," he said without turning his head. How had he known it was her? She noticed a narrow mirror above the mantelpiece and a tall, large one in the hall behind her. He was inspecting her reflection in the small mirror, basically seeing only her back.
She entered the room, only to hear the footsteps of Sister Evangelina after her. She was bringing a glass of sherry for Doctor Turner. "A glass for you, Doctor. Thanks for today. Excellent work, but please do not scare our new nurse. She has already met Sister Monica Joan, that is enough for one day."
He smiled a little. "Nurse Mannion and I have already met." He rose and offered her his hand." I am sorry for being so curt. There was an emergency. " Shelagh could sense honesty underneath this brevity. Here is someone I could like - if he'd let me, she thought.
"Oh, good, you have already let her feel your typical bedside manner, "Sister Evangelina laughed. "So I do not have to issue a warning about that."
"Thank you, Sister Evangelina,." he commented with a perfectly friendly, amused manner, not at all perturbed by her teasing.
As Sister Evangelina left for her office, Shelagh came forward to warm her hands in front of the fire.
"Please, take a seat, Nurse Mannion." His voice was deep and sounded tired.
Shelagh sat down in the armchair, observing him. He had a craggy face and long legs that were currently spread apart on the low sofa. There was some silver in his dark hair, although Shelagh guessed that he was not older than forty. He was not a handsome man, per se, but he had a kind of rugged charm. There was, however, an air of heaviness around him that seemed to subdue it.
"You should not run in the corridors." Her tone was neutral, she didn't want to sound reprimanding.
He raised his eyebrows and smiled wryly.
"Sometimes running is the only option. You'd know that if you'd served in the war."
"I did serve in the war."
"I mean I served by taking care of the victims of war. I worked with war victims at Hampstead Heath Nursery. Children, displaced by war."
He rose a little from his hunched position and took a look at her. "I am sorry, Nurse. I didn't mean to dismiss you. You look quite young to your age, then. I presumed you were a child during the war. How old are you?"
"I am twenty-five."
"Where did you study?"
"At the London Central Nursing School. But I entered the Hampstead Heath Clinic* as a war victim myself, at the age of fourteen. I've lived there ever since. I've been helping with their practice. I completed my nursing school with their financial and....other help."
"Hampstead is a very good institution. Those women are quite the trailblazers. I only hope that that kind of training and research will someday become the norm in the psychiatric training. It wasn't easily available when I was studying."
"So, where did you specialize in psychiatry?
"The Countess of Irby hospital." A pause. "And at Northfield."
"I have heard that Northfield Hospital is quite a place. Great progressive work."
"Yes. It is." His face turned dark as if remembering something unpleasant.
After a silence, he asked: "May I ask what happened to you when you were fourteen?"
Shelagh pressed her hands against her knees. It was an odd interrogation. Yet she felt that despite his rough manner, he was seriously interested.
"The Aberdeen Blitz."
"Ah. The bombs. "
If Shelagh had been able to take a look at him, she would have seen his face turn gentle.
He had risen, to tend the fire and add a log into it. While he was doing this task, he seemed to mutter something to himself.
"Hmm. How much psychological help was needed to overcome that? A lot of survivor's guilt, I reckon. With a heavy dose of stubborn will to live. An interesting condition."
Shelagh was not sure if she was required to answer or even if he was talking about her at all. His voice was diffident, his manner absent, his gaze fixed on the fire.
His focus returned with a clap of his hands. "Well then Nurse Mannion, welcome to the regiment. I am glad we have you as a re-enforcement. Please, shake my hand."
She took his hand. It was firm and warm. He must think I am dumb, she thought.
He seemed to read her mind. "You think I am silly or that I think that you are silly. No, Nurse Mannion, I only want to shake the hand of a good comrade. A comrade-in-arms."
She smiled weakly. "We are not at war anymore."
"Do not think that war is over. There is an ongoing war against disease, poverty and...dare I say...stupidity. Surely you share this fight with me? You could be a companion. Of mine. In that fight."
"Who are you calling stupid, Doctor?"
He chortled. "You do not shrink from telling me to mind my manners, do you? I meant ignorance and fear. They are the most stupid things to conquer. "
He was looking so different now; there was life and urgency in his appearance. "You must learn my battle cry. No fuss, no silly propriety rules. Then we will get along fine. Nice to have met you, Nurse Mannion."
Turning on his heels, he was gone.
Despite feeling as if she had been run over by a bus, Shelagh felt fine. Elated even. This is going to be interesting.
* see Hampstead War Nurseries, Anna Freud Centre
Meeting Timothy and other Poplar residents
By and by, Shelagh was learning the Nonnatus House routines and schedules. There were from six to eight guests at a time, and the meals, prayers and the community life were open to any people at Poplar who wished to take part in them. She had learned how to keep the community life going: the garden tended, laundry taken care of, logs available for the fire, food for kitchen bought at the local shops and the handicrafts and needle work kept in progress. Quiet hours at the chapel were her recreation; singing hymns together seemed a blessing, an oasis in the middle of busy days.
There was also nursing work in the district which occasionally fell to her. Last, but not least, there were the surgery hours, working together with the enigmatic Doctor Turner.
On her second full day at the Nonnatus House, Shelagh learned more about him in a series of quickly escalating events.
She had entered the hall in the first floor to see Sister Monica Joan knocking on the door to a cleaning cupboard.
"Please, Timothy, come out of there! Your elevenses are waiting."
A voice came from inside the cupboard. "Wait a minute, Sister, I haven't finished the development yet. The photos are at a delicate phase."
Sister Monica Joan harrumphed and turned away waving her hands in the air. "That boy should have kept to his drawing and water-colours. This photograph business is getting out of hand."
Laughing, Mrs. Fairfax appeared at the door of the kitchen. "No chance there, Sister. The boy has his father's tenacity. And photography runs in the family."
Mrs. Fairfax beckoned Shelagh to the kitchen' "Come here, Nurse Mannion. Have one of my rolls, they are just out of the oven."
Shelagh took a seat at the kitchen table where Sister Monica Joan was already tasting the rolls. Mrs. Fairfax poured a cup of tea for Shelagh. "Have a little snack, Nurse. You look like you do not eat enough. You need some fattening up."
Shelagh took the cup and a buttered a roll. "Who was that in the cupboard, Mrs. Fairfax? I thought it was a cleaning cupboard.
"It is indeed. But we have given young master Timothy Turner a permission to use it as a studio for the development of his films. There is a sink, and he has put a red lamp bulb there. That is why the Sister here calls it a Red Room."
"I would not be astonished if it does not in the end produce events of unpleasant horror similar to those of its illustrious namesake. I of course mean Jane Eyre's Red Room, Sister Monica Joan smiled innocently at Shelagh. "A most extraordinary heroine."
"Who is Timothy Turner?" asked Shelagh.
"Oh, he is Doctor Turner's son. You didn't know he has a son?"
"Is there a Mrs. Turner?"
"She died after the war, in 1945. Tuberculosis, I have heard. I originally come from Birmingham, as do the Parkers, Mrs. Turner's family, and as does the good doctor himself. I know old Mrs., Parker slightly and she asked me to be their housekeeper when they moved here in 1948. I never met Mrs. Turner, though."
At that moment, the door of the closet opened, and a slender, brown-haired, boy with a dazzling smile came out. "Hey, look at these. My photographs of the last school outing in the New Forest turned out really well. There is Jack and me by the trail head. That one I took with the self-timer. And I managed to take a very good one of Dad leaning against his car."
"Timothy, this is Nurse Mannion who has just started working here. Say hello."
The boy shook hands with Shelagh. What a sweet child, she thought.
"Can I have my elevenses now, please, Mrs. Fairfax?"
"Yes, you may."
While he was eating, the boy chattered on about the school trip and all the aspects of the photos he had taken there. How different from his Father he is, Shelagh mused.
Sister Monica Joan intervened in the chatter: "Tim, you should show Nurse Mannion your water colour works. They are more tasteful than those snapshots. There is the fine one based on the photograph of your Mother. "
Timothy went to the living room and came back with a portfolio. "I keep my portfolio here instead of home," he said in a tone of conspiracy to Shelagh. "To tell the truth, there is always a much better audience here than at home. I think my Dad gets sad with my pictures. Perhaps I remind him of Mum too much."
Shelagh was shown both the original photo and Tim's water colour version of it. Tim's hand was very good for a child of his age. Shelagh could see a likeness between mother and son. Mrs. Turner seemed to have had the same brown hair as Timothy as well as the same delicate chin and nose. She had been a stylish woman.
"I have to go," Tim said, closing his portfolio, "Jack is waiting for me. Goodbye Sister, goodbye Nurse Mannion. See you later Mrs.F."
And he was gone. When it came to moving rapidly, he was his father's son, Shelagh thought, smiling a little.
"Poor boy." Mrs. Fairfax sighed. "A fine character, I think, but in need of more adult supervision. His father is too busy, and men are not naturally inclined to child-rearing. "
"How old is Timothy? Isn't photography an....expensive hobby for a boy so young?"
"He is twelve. The camera was a gift from his grandmother. The Parkers are an eccentric, but a fairly wealthy family. The old Doctor Parker was the head of Northfield Hospital. I think these kinds of artistic interests are not unusual in their circles."
A week later, Shelagh had another opportunity to get acquainted with Doctor Turner and his character. It was Sunday supper, a small affair after the big Sunday lunch. Mrs. Fairfax had taken the evening off and Maureen Warren, an 18-year-old dark-haired girl with a very sure manner in the kitchen had taken her place as cook.
Doctor Turner and Timothy were present, Timothy having turned down his Dad's offer of fish and chips. Doctor Turner related this news himself in a happy manner.
There was a large congregation around the table, eating leftovers from the weekend.
Shelagh sat between Doctor Turner and Sister Monica Joan. Sister Monica Joan made her opinions heard aloud, while Doctor Turner preferred to talk to Shelagh in a low voice. He was introducing her to the life stories of the people there.
It seemed there was a recently discharged couple from The Countess of Irby hospital, Victor and Ellen Tenby. Then there was a retired Methodist pastor: according to Doctor Turner, he was forced to retire because he was suspected of embezzling from his church. His wife was there too, with long dark hair and saintly eyes. She had been a novice at the Order of St. John when she had met her husband.
At that news, Shelagh turned to him and asked if he was absolutely sure it was true. "It happened before my time, you may have heard that I arrived here with Timothy in 1948, but yes, I think it is true. Ask Sister Evangelina, if you do not believe me." He had a slightly mischievous look.
The young cook was bringing out the desert leftovers: jelly, cake and vanilla custard.
"Our temporary cook, Maureen, is from a famous Poplar family. She is the eldest daughter of Conchita Warren, the heroic mother of eighteen children," continued Doctor Turner.
"Eighteen?" repeated Shelagh in disbelief."
Sister Monica Joan joined the conversation, "I remember when she came to Poplar from Spain. Mr. Warren, Len, took her home with him from the Spanish Civil War. She couldn't have been much older than fourteen at that time." Her voice was loud, and Sister Evangelina was making gestures to Shelagh to make her lower her voice.
"That sounds...scandalous." Shelagh said haltingly.
"Len was always the odd one out, wasn't he, Sister Monica Joan? " Doctor Turner gave a sideways look to Shelagh. "He always knew his mind and didn't stray. He has become a model of a family man. His sons are now helping him with his booming carpentry business. And the girls are all bonny and bright, like Maureen."
"Oh yes. I think most men would have been pleased with enemy binoculars, but he had to have his girl. "Sister Monica Joan showed her wonderful capacity for drollness.
Shelagh laughed. She couldn't help herself. Doctor Turner looked at her with astonishment and grinned widely. "You have a good sense of humour, Nurse Mannion. You will need it in Poplar."
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