‘Croeso adref – welcome home, Pats. You’re safe here.’
As Patsy lay staring up at the ceiling in their recently-acquired shared room at Nonnatus, Delia’s words from (much) earlier that morning were whirling around her head. She was trying sincerely to comply with Sister Julienne’s suggestion, delivered by Delia, that she retire to bed for (at least) the remainder of the working day to catch up on rest. Enthusiasm was easy to express at first. She was indeed physically exhausted. It would therefore have been both foolish and futile to deny the accuracy of either the diagnosis or its prescribed cure. Moreover, for the greater part of last night, gratitude about Nurse Crane’s unexpected but unquestioning acceptance of their relationship had effaced all other emotion. So much so that the older woman had succeeded in convincing them to address her by her first name in the future – outside of professional hours, of course. Patsy had been comforted, amid her initial confused consternation at being “found out”, by this clear evidence that Nurse Crane (Phyllis!) still possessed a sense of propriety almost as strict as her own. That was why she had proposed switching rooms, after all, wasn’t it? For all her understanding and sympathy, she must surely be safeguarding herself too, because it would be just as dangerous and detrimental to her career as to theirs if she were implicated in the event of any potential discovery.
Yet, for a few fleeting hours, gratitude had vanquished anxiety. So, snuggled up against her soulmate, she had been able to snatch some sleep – before waking with a start well in advance of either daylight or the dawn chorus. Not from nightmares, or not from those usually resident in her mind, at any rate. Rather from an expansion of the practicalities she supposed had inspired Phyllis’ generosity. Perhaps “reduction” was the more appropriate phrase. Beneath all the bravado brought on by their love finally being believed in as an actual, adult reality, there lingered a strong suspicion that she was still too small, in attitude and aptitude if not in age or stature, for even the slightest surmises on such subjects.
Not that she didn’t want to – not that they hadn’t before – but this was not before.
It was after before.
And before before.
God, she wasn’t making the barest bit of sense any more.
Delia had understood, though, as Delia always did. The beloved brunette was completely content to cosy up in a cwtch with her cariad; asking purely for physical proximity after they had spent so long apart. Then, when Patsy had failed fully to grant even that one request by sneaking downstairs to the garden, there had been no recrimination or reproach – only Horlicks. Well, Horlicks and the suggestion-that-was-really-a-demand that she stay in bed. Perhaps her young Nurse Busby knew that would be punishment enough! So much for selfless sensitivity... Patsy grinned at the thought of her tiny girlfriend’s temerity.
Still, the Horlicks had helped. Its milky, malted texture was a much-needed tonic as she tried to mute the murmurs of her mind for even a moment more – a far trickier task once Delia had left for the London. She had dutifully dozed for the majority of the morning, albeit perched atop the covers and fully-dressed. All of her girlfriend’s persuasive powers were not enough to get her back into pyjamas. She told Delia (and herself) that she was too tired to tussle with clothes twice before twelve o’clock, but really pyjamas were too close to comfort for comfort. Their silk stripes signified safety and she didn’t feel safe. Their homeliness made her homesick for a haven she could not have – for all she knew its pathways perfectly. It had been here, once, but now she was back that sense seemed to have slipped silently yet suddenly away.
Hence the jarring of Delia’s earlier words as she lay alone and lingered on them, having been jolted wide awake by the loudness of her own breath. The phrase they had both so longed to use had sounded sweet as they sat on the bench, but now she felt sick. It did not fit. She did not fit, despite everyone’s protestations about the Patsy-shaped hole of which they had been, both personally and professionally, so keenly aware. Everything was the same only different, different and yet startlingly the same. For her surroundings were unchanged, new room excepted. Unnervingly so. But then that’s what this was called, wasn’t it? She was unnerved. The carefully-ravelled threads of her neurology had come undone, and she did not possess either the physical or psychological strength to shove them back onto their spool.
She was beside herself. Literally. Or so it seemed. Ecstatic in emotional exhaustion, she was standing outside her own consciousness and bearing weary witness to the woman and the girl she-was-had-been-had-become. Just at the moment when she wanted most to be within herself, and therefore with the woman who was her better self, she was without them both. Worse still, she had squandered their shared solitude in sleep instead of the satisfaction they had sought for the last nearly nine months.
Delia deserved better.
Delia, who whispered Welsh against her woes, and wanted nothing in return.
Delia deserved better.
‘Pats?’ The door opened with a slight creak and Patsy leapt what felt like at least a foot off her bed. ‘Sori cariad – did I wake you?’
Oh good; she hadn’t spoken Delia’s name aloud. ‘No – I couldn’t sleep.’ Then, avoiding her girlfriend’s gaze and trying to keep the relief out of her voice, ‘You’re back early. And not in your uniform?’
‘I’ve been seconded on to district nursing at Nonnatus whilst you reacclimatise. It makes sense, since I’ll be working here as soon as my exams are done, anyway.’
Patsy nodded. ‘Was that Sister Julienne’s doing, too?’
‘No, actually, although she did agree. Male Surgical remember you well, and want you to have the best possible hope of a recovery, just like they did for me when I had my accident. I believe the words were “Nurse Mount deserves to have the support of her firm friendship with Nurse Busby at this difficult time”. They spoke to the Maternity lot, who in turn spoke to Sister Julienne.’
The tone of Patsy’s reply was not even slightly tinged with humour. ‘I am grateful to be held in such high esteem by my former colleagues, but bereavement does not equate to brain injury.’
Delia sighed. ‘Not visibly, perhaps, Pats – but you couldn’t sleep.’
‘Not for the reason you might think...’ The older woman trailed off, suddenly shy, and young.
‘Not grief at all.’
‘Guilt.’ Patsy paused, allowing herself the briefest upward glance to gauge Delia’s response, before rushing on. ‘I don’t really have the words to talk about it now, though; come for a walk by the docks with me?’
If her girlfriend was confused, she hid it well. ‘Of course, cariad.’
‘Diolch, Deels, darling,’ Patsy mouthed, grinning as she got to her feet and gathered up the crumpled bedclothes. ‘I’ll just put my shoes and coat on.’
Some twenty minutes later, as they strolled side-by-side within shouting distance of the river, Delia marvelled at the change in her girlfriend’s demeanour. Buoyed by the busy bustle, Patsy’s cheeks were beginning to pink, and not merely from the chill breeze blowing around them. Although that was certainly part of it, because, at the sight of her breath when it met the cooler air in front of her lips, she gave a girlish giggle. ‘Oh, how I’ve missed this weather. And scarves,’ she added, pulling her own higher to nestle more comfortably on her neck.
Delia flashed her a gentle grin. ‘I’m sorry I made you stay inside,’ she said, holding back the “sweetheart” that teetered on the end of her tongue. ‘I should have thought about the toll that would take on you.’
Patsy gave a slight smile at the way Delia’s words mirrored her own from a similar conversation on a walk not long after their reunion following the younger woman’s accident. ‘I needed to sleep, Deels, it’s not your fault I couldn’t.’
‘What kept you awake?’ Delia’s face was all kind, caring, curiosity and nearly enough to provoke speech. But no. Not yet. Not here.
Patsy shook her head, wincing as she watched Delia deflate. ‘I’m sorry, but – oh, look, there’s Penny, I mean, Mrs Reed, pushing her adapted pram. Her daughter’ll be nearly a year old, now...’ She trailed off as the full implication of that sentence hit her. Curse her careless mouth.
There was no time then to rectify the damage, though, as they had been spotted and Mrs Reed was already raising a hand in greeting. ‘Hello Nurse Busby, Nurse Mount.’
‘Delia, please –’
‘And Patsy, we aren’t in uniform, Mrs Reed.’
The three women laughed at the topsy-turvy nature of Patsy’s statement. ‘Then you must call me Penny. And this is Bella, though of course you’ve already met her, too. We like to walk along here and see how many friendly faces we can find. Which reminds me – I never got to thank you both properly for your kindness so, if it’s not too far in breach of protocol, I’d like to extend an invitation to tea. Only when you’ve settled back in, mind you; I was so sorry to read the announcement about your father.’
Patsy felt her throat catch with a combination of still-raw grief and sincere gratitude for the matter-of-fact expression of compassion which reminded her so much of one of her own. ‘Thank you,’ she said softly.
‘Yes, thank you, that is extremely generous,’ Delia concurred. It took most of her willpower not to draw Mrs Reed (Penny!) in for a hug. This was what Patsy needed. People who showed that they cared, without pressuring her – and Penny understood more than most about reciprocity and kindness.
‘You’re very welcome. Take your time. And now I’ll leave you to your walk, as I should be heading back to start dinner.’ The three women shared a final smile as they said goodbye.
Patsy stared after the young mother for a moment, before moving off at such a fast pace that Delia had to run to catch up to her. When she reached her girlfriend’s side again it was to find her eyes shining with tears that she was trying desperately to blink away. ‘People are so lovely,’ she said, simply. Delia’s own eyes threatened to brim over at the thought that this was still a surprise to her “perfect Pats”. Who could not be lovely once they had witnessed the wonder of this woman?
It wouldn’t do to push her, though, so Delia merely murmured an agreement as they fell into step once more. ‘Indeed they are,’ she stated aloud, before adding a caveat in her head. It’s easy to be lovely to someone like you.
They were almost directly beside the Thames now. Patsy stilled and took a deep breath. ‘Not quite fresh air, but close enough, eh? You may have noticed I didn’t have a cigarette in my hand when you came to find me this morning –’
‘I did, but didn’t like to comment. I’m proud of you, Pats – if you’ve stopped, that is.’ Delia winked, knowing she could pass the gesture off as a reaction to the (admittedly weak) glare of late-afternoon winter sunshine against the remainder of last night’s snowfall.
‘I have. For now, at least. It’s not really acceptable behaviour for a nine- or even a twelve-year-old girl.’
Patsy shook her head, smiling sadly, and gazed out over the water before them. ‘I love walking by the river. Any river, I suppose, but this one is especially comforting. It’s always changing, but it’s there. Constantly. No matter what happens to those who live and work beside it, it just keeps rolling along.’
‘Is that a Showboat reference?’ Delia was delighted at the unexpected change in tone.
‘I suppose so. Sorry it’s not Shakespeare.’
‘Paul Robeson also did a fair bit of the Bard. However, you could always brush up on him...’
‘And the women I will wow?’ Patsy whispered the rhetorical question out of cautious habit. Then, louder, she voiced a further query. ‘Any ideas where I should start?’
‘One speech in particular does spring to mind, yes. You’ve probably read it, but – Viola’s speech (as Cesario) in Act II, Scene iv of Twelfth Night. It always makes me think of you.’
‘You’re right, I probably have read it, but my mind is blank. Perhaps I should get Sister Monica Joan to recite it for me.’ Patsy smiled ruefully at the apparent contradiction of that phrase.
‘I know it word for word.’ Delia was whispering, too. ‘I held it in my heart whilst you were gone. I think you might need it more than I do now you’re back.’
‘May I hear it, please?’
‘Yes, I’d like to hear it here, and then head home.’ Patsy paused in hope that Delia would understand the significance of her choice of language. ‘We should talk, but I have an inkling that the words you’re about to give me will be helpful for the conversation.’
‘I hope so.’ Delia smiled and took a breath.
‘She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?’
As she reached the question which ended the final line, Delia’s voice wobbled. Patsy dropped a hand to hers and twined their fingers together within the shield of their coat sleeves, but said nothing. Delia panicked at the silence and forced out a further phrase. ‘It’s not the entire speech, just the important part – well, important to me, anyway – I’m sorry if it’s not what you expected.’
‘Deels – look at me –’ Patsy’s voice was husky, and when Delia met her eyes, she could see why. The long-threatened tears were cascading down her girlfriend’s cheeks, and, until now, had rendered speech not just impossible but superfluous. ‘We need to go home. But I have so much I want to say when we get there,’ she managed to murmur. Then, steeling herself a little, she laughed hollowly and wiped her face and eyes with her scarf. ‘That’s going in the wash right away. Thank goodness I didn’t apply any makeup before we left.’
‘We could use the side door, or go in the back, if you want?’
‘No, no. Far better to breeze in the front with an air of nonchalance as though nothing whatsoever has occurred.’ Patsy had switched on her “Nurse Mount” persona and Delia marvelled once again at how quickly she could change.
As predicted, they got home, through the front entrance, and upstairs to their room without incident. Patsy was the picture of professionalism. Only once the door had been very definitely shut and locked did she shed her mask – and more tears. Delia held her close as she cried. She quietly cursed the apparently arbitrary forces which had flung her gorgeous girl about so rudely, whilst (somewhat selfishly, she supposed) enjoying the warmth of the embrace the emotion afforded.
Eventually Patsy’s sobs subsided and she summoned the strength to speak. ‘Sorry, Deels,’ she started shakily, before raising a hand and a brow in a physical plea to finish. ‘It’s just, such beautiful poetry bears so little resemblance to how I consider myself. Does it really make you think of me?’
‘Of course, cariad,’ Delia said, hiding her heartache at Patsy’s doubt against the angular edges of the taller woman’s shoulder. ‘Not only does it practically have your name in it, it encapsulates exactly your strategy for engaging with the world. You smile at grief – in the sense of both bereavement and the hell that you are put through for loving me. Yes, I’m put through it too, but I don’t greet it anywhere near as graciously. I would have broken long before now if not for your support and succour. You are stronger than I could ever be.’
Patsy regarded her girlfriend incredulously. ‘I don’t feel strong. I never have, but I certainly don’t now. I feel small. Young, and yet so very old, too. Nine, twelve, and a hundred all at once. That’s why I stopped smoking; and that’s why I couldn’t sleep. I was wracked with guilt for allowing the girl who came back with me from Hong Kong to get in the way of expressing my extremely adult admiration for you. You (we!) have waited almost as long as the length of a pregnancy for a privilege most couples take for granted. More than that, Phyllis has provided us with the perfect ploy – but it still wasn’t enough to make me take the initiative I owe you. Even after all your patience with me,’ she added wryly, ‘I think someone got our names mixed up, don’t you?’
Patsy giggled briefly, but stopped as Delia’s head raised. Her girlfriend’s eyes sparkled but her face bore a serious expression. ‘I have something to tell you, Pats. I’ve told you before, but I think you need to hear it again. I apologise in advance if this comes across as condescending, cariad – it’s not meant that way –’
Patsy cut her off for a moment with a headshake. ‘I believe we’ve established that I feel like a child right now, love, so condescend as much as you deem necessary.’
Delia smiled now and stepped back slightly, trying not to wince when Patsy gave a shocked sigh at the sudden removal of contact. ‘I’m coming back,’ she reassured the redhead hurriedly. ‘I merely want to emphasise the point I’m about to make.’
Patsy nodded. ‘I understand. But be quick,’ she quipped.
‘You do not owe me anything. Your body belongs to you, and only to you. However much I might wish to show you, in a myriad of manners, how bloody brilliant and beautiful you are, I may only do so at your behest.’ She paused, her heart pounding at her frankness and the sudden frisson of the space between them. ‘Your boundaries are not mine to breach. Consequently, and contrary to your apparent understanding, consensual, clothed cwtches are worth a million times more than any further explorations which might cause you anxiety. Now, may I please take your hand, Pats?’
Patsy threaded their fingers together herself as she fumbled for the right phrasing. ‘I want –’ A breath. ‘So much –’ Another. ‘But I can’t.’
‘I know. You need to feel open enough to be ready again, and it mustn’t be rushed.’
‘You don’t mind waiting? Not for everything – I don’t think either of us has the restraint for that – but...’
‘Not at all. As you’ve said, we already have, and as I’ve said, just having you close again is comfort enough. I know I’ve railed against the injustice of it all far too often. So, in recompense, I want to guide you as you navigate this “green and yellow melancholy”. Not to hurry you, but to help you hold it. You don’t have to handle it alone, because I am here – but I need to know you’ll let me in. Not when, just that you will...’ Delia trailed off, words having suddenly deserted her, too.
Patsy was also silent for a moment as she pondered the best way to proceed. She hadn’t planned to mention this so soon after returning, but in the spirit of communication, she supposed she had a duty to do so. ‘I might have a sort of solution.’
‘My father – my family – had a flat in Chelsea. It’s mine now. I don’t want it; there are too many memories, the ghosts of other people I was barely (and, in some cases, never) given the chance to know. If we sold it, though,’ she paused, hoping Delia would pick up on the plural, ‘or even rented it out, we would have funds to find a place of our own nearer to Nonnatus.’ Delia did not respond at all and Patsy panicked. ‘Sorry, sweetheart, I’m aware this is a lot to take in. I also know that any plans are likely to trigger painful memories for you, too. I didn’t really want to bring it up, at least not right now, but since we’ve been talking so candidly...’
‘Breathe, cariad.’ Delia’s interjection, when it arrived at last, was so calm it caught them both off-guard and they giggled. ‘I can think of nothing I’d like better. Not immediately, because I think you need to settle back in here, but it’ll be a fairly lengthy process anyway. But it’ll be easier for you to reframe your thoughts if you can do so in a place that is free from former associations whilst still being vaguely familiar. This is a very sensible suggestion – I’m proud of you, Pats – and tentatively excited, too.’
‘Oh yes?’ Patsy’s question was nonchalant in its simplicity, but her relief was palpable.
‘Yes. A place just for us. Somewhere only we know. To try again.’