Sister Mary Cynthia smiled as she cycled along the road at the start of her round. The sun was shining, and although the afternoon looked to be another hot one, there was still a bit of a cooling breeze which made cycling very pleasant. She exchanged greetings with people as she passed; the tradesmen she saw regularly, the mothers whose babies she’d helped deliver in the past, and those who she didn’t know specifically, but recognised her as ‘one of them nuns from Nonnatus House’.
She called out a cheery greeting as she knocked and entered the first flat, then stopped abruptly as she heard angry shouting. She knocked again.
A towering red-faced man came charging towards her, glaring. Sister Mary Cynthia gave an involuntary step backwards.
“Don’t you give her any of that namby-pamby advice either about needing to rest. She needs to stop that crying and get out of bed and remember she’s already got two kids who need their breakfast. I had to cook for myself again and I’ve had it up to here with her. And you can tell her if my food isn’t on the table when I get in tonight I’m heading straight back out again and going to the pub, where I will spend her housekeeping money on beer, because she clearly doesn’t have any need for it.”
He slammed the door behind him as he left.
Sister Mary Cynthia hurried into the bedroom to find Doreen Parsons lying in bed crying while holding two small children, the baby in a cot beside her.
“Right,” Sister Mary Cynthia said, “first things first, I’ll make us both a nice cup of tea.”
“Thank you nurse,” Doreen replied. “Would you mind giving these two a cup of milk as well?”
“Of course not.” A thought struck her. “Have they had any breakfast?”
Doreen shook her head. “I tried to get up and get it, but I nearly collapsed.”
“In which case I shall get breakfast for you all as well.”
Sister Mary Cynthia took the two children into the living room and sat them at the table whilst she cut them some bread and poured their milk. Through gentle questioning she learned their mother had felt ill the previous afternoon and had fallen asleep before she had given them their tea. When their father had returned from work he had cooked his own food, but had sent the children to bed with nothing, and Sister Mary Cynthia presumed he hadn’t fed his wife either.
With the two children happily eating their bread, Sister Mary Cynthia took the tea into the bedroom.
“Do you have any family who could help you?” she asked.
“No, my dad’s ship was sunk during the war, and my mum died shortly after Janet was born. I’ve got one brother in Bristol and another in Enfield, but I haven’t seen either of them for over a year.” Sister Mary Cynthia gave an enquiring look. “My sister-in-law refuses to have anything to do with Ron.”
“What about friends or neighbours?”
Doreen started to cry again, and Sister Mary Cynthia turned her attention to the baby. “Are you managing to feed her?” she asked.
Doreen nodded weakly, but Sister Mary Cynthia wasn’t convinced. She could see Doreen looked very pale and was shivering slightly, and the baby was fretful, uttering the occasional small cry.
“I’m going to go and phone Dr Turner and ask him to call in to see you later this morning,” she said.
“I don’t want to be any trouble. I’m sure if I rest a little I shall soon be fine.”
“That may be the case, but I’d be happier if you saw the doctor.”
“If it makes you happy, nurse.”
Sister Mary Cynthia was on her way back from telephoning when she saw Nurse Crane coming out of one of the other tenement blocks.
“I didn’t know you were coming over here,” she said.
“I was just dropping a wheelchair off to Mr Rumsey,” Nurse Crane replied. “I thought it would easier bringing it in my car than you having to strap it to the back of your bicycle.”
Sister Mary Cynthia smiled. “Actually, if you’ve got a moment, I’d be really grateful if you could pop up and take a look at Doreen Parsons. I’ve asked Dr Turner to visit later, but I wouldn’t mind a second opinion.”
They were part way up the first flight of stairs when they heard screaming.
“That’s little Janet Parsons,” Sister Mary Cynthia said.
They ran up the next two flights of stairs.
“Mummy’s on the floor,” Janet cried.
Nurse Crane ran into the bedroom and knelt down next to Doreen’s motionless body. “You go and phone for the ambulance, Sister. I’ll stay here.”
Shortly afterwards Sister Mary Cynthia returned. “The ambulance is on its way.”
“Good, we’ll need to find someone to take care of the children. And since no-one came when Janet started screaming I don’t think the neighbours will be inclined to help. What about the father?”
“I saw him this morning. I doubt he’ll think he should. Will the baby need to go to hospital?”
“I don’t think so. She could do with a bit of feeding, but other than that she seems all right.”
The ambulance drew up and Nurse Crane went onto the landing and called out to the ambulance crew to come up.
Once Doreen Parsons had been taken to the ambulance on a stretcher, Nurse Crane said, “I think the best thing to do will be to take the children back to Nonnatus House. You had better carry the baby.”
As Sister Mary Cynthia bent down to pick up the baby, she spotted a piece of card on the floor. She picked it up.
“Something important?” Nurse Crane asked.
“It’s a couple of addresses. Doreen said she had a brother in Bristol and another in Enfield, it’s possible these are their addresses.”
“Bring it with you. It might prove useful.”
As they left the building a few neighbours watched curiously, but none of them offered any help. They got in Nurse Crane’s car and she drove them to Nonnatus House.
Once they were back Sister Julienne came to meet them, having heard their voices in the hallway.
Sister Mary Cynthia explained what had happened, then said, “I should be off, I have the rest of my visits to do, and I had to leave my bicycle behind.”
She opened the front door and they all heard Sister Evangelina saying loudly, “I don’t know what you’re stopping here for, we’ve got nothing for you.”
Then a gruff voice replied, “I’m not collecting, love, er, sister, just dropping off the other sister’s bike. Thought she might need it.”
“Oh right, thank you very much,” Sister Evangelina seemed slightly mollified. She came in and said, “The rag and bone man’s just brought your bicycle back.”
“That was very kind of him,” Sister Mary Cynthia said, trying hard not to laugh at the expression on Sister Evangelina’s face. She clearly didn’t approve of delivery by rag and bone man.
Sister Julienne smiled. “Since you now have your bicycle, sister, I think it would be best if you did continue with your visits. And while you’re away we shall try and find someone to take care of the children. The first thing will be to attempt to contact the father, however reluctant he may be to look after his family.”
Later, Sister Mary Cynthia sat down gratefully as she joined the others at the dinner table. She looked round the table, keen to find out what had happened in her absence.
“Where’s Nurse Crane?” she asked.
“She ate earlier, with the children,” Patsy answered, as she passed Sister Mary Cynthia her dinner.
“The children were hungry, and we felt it would be easier if they ate first,” Sister Julienne added. She continued by explaining she had telephoned Sergeant Noakes to see if he could assist with getting a message to Ron Parsons, only to learn the father had been arrested that morning on suspicion of burglary. However, Sergeant Noakes offered to contact the police in Enfield to see if someone could find the sister-in-law. “We agreed we would wait until this afternoon before we contacted social services.”
Sister Mary Cynthia nodded. “Those poor children,” she said.
The telephone rang and Sister Winifred got up to answer it. A few minutes later she hurried back. “Sister Julienne, it’s for you. The children’s aunt is on the phone.”
Sister Julienne excused herself. A few minutes later she returned looking pleased. “That’s all settled. The aunt is happy to look after the two older children. She has no problems with her sister-in-law, only with Mr Parsons. And I imagine the terms she used to describe him would have been rather stronger had she not known she was speaking to a nun.” Sister Julienne smiled. “Unfortunately the lady herself has a broken arm, which means that although she can manage the older children she would be unable to care for the baby. However, I don’t think there should be any problem finding a short-term foster mother for the little one. Also, since it will be difficult for the aunt to come here to collect the children, she has two of her own, I have agreed Sister Mary Cynthia will accompany them to Enfield. I trust that is acceptable to everyone.”
Sister Mary Cynthia smiled. “I shall be delighted to take them. I’m just pleased things have turned out well for them.”