Mrs. Beazley's Home for Broken Things. It was something Doctor Blake - the old Doctor Blake, the real Doctor Blake, not his fiery, incorrigible son - used to say. Some mystical force compelled people to search her out, with their broken hearts and their shattered vases and their trousers ripped beyond all hope of repair, and Jean took them in, the great and the inconsequential alike, poured them tea and mended their fissures, her deft hands possessed of healing properties that put even old Doctor Blake to shame. He would tease her, just a little, when Danny came round for tea or Mattie was wailing about some youthful nonsense in the sunroom, when the ladies who were too embarrassed to talk to Doctor Blake of their marital troubles relayed their worries to his compassionate housekeeper instead, when a steady stream of brides-to-be came floating through his kitchen door each summer in desperate need of the kind of assistance he could neither fathom nor provide. They come to you, Mrs. Beazley, he would say, as pilgrims to an altar. And Jean would blush and demur and try not to think too long or too hard about the truth of what he said, try not to wonder why it was that all the lost and broken things always found their way to her in the end.
The last time he'd said it was the evening before his final stroke, the one that left him mute and half-paralyzed, the one that broke Jean's spirit as surely as it broke his body. He came limping into the sitting room, leaning heavily on his cane, and eased himself into the armchair, his eyes full of sorrow as he watched her mending a pair of Danny's trousers.
"I've written to Lucien," he announced into the quiet, and as he spoke Jean's heart had grown heavy with dread. Doctor Blake did not speak often of his son, and when he did his voice was always soft and sad, his revelations painfully brief. Jean knew something about that, about what it was to worry for a son lost to the world, and she empathized with the old man; they did not speak about their wayward sons, the disappointments and the fears and the shattered hopes that dogged their steps, but then again, there was no need. No one knew Jean Beazley's story better than Doctor Blake, and no one understood his grief better than Mrs. Beazley.
"I don't have much time left -" Jean tried to protest, but the old man cut her off, some shadow of his former, more forceful self rising to the fore for a moment - "come now, Jean, we both know it's true," he said. "And I've told my son as much. He will need to be here, when the time comes, to settle my affairs, to see that you're looked after."
Tears stung at the corners of Jean's eyes, though she kept her gaze fixed resolutely on her work, knowing that such a display of emotion would only embarrass them both.
"When he arrives," Doctor Blake continued, "he will need someone to help him, to guide him. He is lost, Jean, and broken. He will need you, more than he knows."
Jean had blushed, to know that Doctor Blake held her in such high esteem, to know that he believed she could mend his son's shattered heart. She did not share his confidence, but he was an old man, and a good one, and she would not burden him with her own doubts.
"I will do my best," she said firmly.
"All the lost and broken things find their way to you in the end, my dear," Doctor Blake said, his voice thin, his face lined and weary. He sank back against his chair, closing his eyes as exhaustion overtook him, as it so easily did in those days. "And you make them whole again."
He drifted into sleep, and all the while Jean stood guard over his repose, thinking on his words and the promise she had made to him.
The arrival of the younger Blake and the loss of the elder threw Jean's life into a tailspin, but some things remained the same. Mattie was still underfoot, in need of guidance, reassurance, and occasionally in need of reprimanding. And Danny too still came round to see his Auntie most every day, and most every day Jean fed him and boxed his ears when he needed it and reminded him to watch his language. The Doctor's patients expressed their concerns about turning their care over to his wild son, and Jean soothed their fears with gentle words and tender hands and if she found herself confessing more often than ever to the sin of lying she counted it a necessary evil, to keep the house and the Doctor's practice running smoothly. And then there was Lucien himself, Lucien who needed scolding and watching and feeding, needed strong shoulders to support him when he was too inebriated to find his own way to bed, needed the soft hands of a mother to soothe him when terror struck him in the darkness, needed the compassion of a woman to stop him in his tracks when he grew too pugnacious. Jean was all things to all people, in those days, and too busy to stop and think about how she had gotten herself into this mess, too intrigued by the sudden change in the course of her life to wonder if it was what she wanted after all.
The days turned into weeks turned into months, and life settled into a sort of a routine, one she could work with, if not fully understand. Mrs. Beazley's Home for Broken Things was full to bursting as the Doctor wrought havoc through the town and the onset of summer had a whole host of ladies making their way to her door in search of tailoring and advice and comfort; Jean barely had a moment to herself, between murders and visitors and patients and the never-ending tide of dirty dishes that threatened to bury her as she played host to her friends and her supplicants.
One fine Saturday afternoon Jean was enjoying a rare moment of peace, alone with her flowers in the sunroom, no lodgers or irascible doctors underfoot, no young mothers-to-be clutching her china teacups and asking but what if, no young men tracking mud across her floors, no roasts enduring assault in the back garden. The flowers brought her peace, and joy, and hope, and she loved them, loved to drift between the blooms, her fingers trailing round the edges of pots and planters, the smell of soil and life floating all around her. A farmgirl at heart Jean missed the earth, the strain of the work, the taste of the sweat at the end of the day, but now the closest she came to those fond memories in this fine house was the hours she spent tending the begonias. It will have to do, she thought as she carefully took stock of her orchid, another broken thing that had found its way to her when its previous owner - a flighty young woman who did not know the first thing about botany - had confessed that it was near to death, and she was near to throwing it in the bin. Jean had stepped in, had suggested that perhaps it might still be salvageable, and under her watchful eye it was slowly returning to life.
"Jean?" a voice called out from somewhere behind her, and she spun on her heel, cleaning the dirt from her hands on the corner of her apron as she responded.
What on earth, she wondered as she waited for her visitor to put in an appearance. There had been no appointments on the calendar, no callers who had given warning of their arrival, and yet in a moment Alice Harvey was standing in the doorway, lovely, self-conscious Alice with her firebird hair and her fierce intellect and her uncertain eyes.
"I hope you don't mind," Alice said slowly, hesitating as if she were unwilling to enter the brightness of Jean's flowery kingdom without invitation, "I just wanted to chat."
And because it was Alice, because Doctor Harvey had always been kind to Jean and because Alice had always been in need of a friend, Jean insisted that no, she didn't mind, ushering Alice into the sanctuary of the sunroom, guiding her to a seat on the bench before flitting away to make them both a cuppa. Jean's thoughts raced as she went through the motions, piling her favorite serving tray with cups and saucers and sugar and milk and biscuits, using her favorite china teapot, the one painted with a pattern of fine blue flowers that had belonged to Mrs. Blake. What could have brought Alice Harvey here, on a sunny afternoon when everyone else in town was out enjoying the park or the lake or their gardens? There were parties aplenty, this time of year, places to go, things to see, and yet Alice was here, sitting nervously in the sunroom while she waited for her tea. She and Jean had not spoken often, their conversations brief but always cordial, but even so Jean had sensed something in the other woman, something that called to her, as all the lost and broken things inevitably did.
In a moment Jean was back in the sunroom, laying the tray on the low table and fixing up Alice's tea, just the way she liked it - Jean had been too long employed in service, and always took note of how everyone took their tea, should the information ever prove useful - passing it over to her with a smile.
"What can I do for you, Doctor Harvey?" Jean asked as she settled herself down on the bench, one hand on her saucer, one hand on her cup, back straight the way her mother had always taught her.
"Just Alice today, please, Jean," Alice answered. She took a sip of her tea and gave a little sigh, her expression troubled and thoughtful.
There was a pattern to these sorts of conversations, Jean had found. Those who sought her out came to her for confession, for penance, for absolution, for advice, and they did not respond well to goading. Alice would tell her what the trouble was in time, and Jean knew the best thing she could do was simply sit, and wait, and sip her tea. And so she did, breathing deeply as the scent of her flowers calmed her, soothed her, prepared her to battle whatever demon dogged Alice's steps. It was not in Jean's power to solve her own dilemmas, to answer the questions that kept her up at night, to find her way through the maze of her own complicated emotions, but she had always handled other people's problems quite well, and she was ready and willing to assist Alice in whatever way she could.
"Do you think," Alice began, but then she promptly stopped, giving her head a little shake as if to clear her thoughts and try again. Jean bit back a gentle smile; pity was the last thing Alice needed, and yet when Jean looked at her she could not help but feel it, just the same. Alice was strong and brave and brilliant, but there was something about her, something fragile as the heart of a child, that stirred a rather protective instinct deep in Jean's soul.
"Is there anything I could do, do you think, to appear more...approachable?"
Ah, Jean thought. There it is. Though Alice was no doubt quite happy in her own company she was as susceptible to that most human failing of desire as anyone else. It's what we all want, in the end, Jean thought, what we all crave. A hand to hold, a heart that understands. Even Jean had fallen prey to that want, that need, to see and be seen, to look upon another and say this one, this one is mine, and I am his. Once, long ago, Jean had had a love of her own, a man above all others, strong and brave and kind and hers, two arms to hold her, two legs to tangle with her own beneath the bedsheets. Seventeen years later she still felt the sting of his loss as fresh as if it had only just occurred, and for all that, her heart still yearned. Yearned for a pair of blue eyes, a set of strong shoulders, a gentle voice calling her name, a love that could never be hers. Jean knew which man it was who occupied her own thoughts, infiltrated her dreams, buoyed her hopes and crushed them in the same breath; which man was it, she wondered, who had set Alice's feet on this path today?
A question had been asked, however, and an answer ought to be given, but such advice could not be handed down lightly. Jean pondered Alice's words as she sipped her tea, her gaze coming to rest on her orchid. The poor flower had been battered and bruised, weak and half-starved when it came to her, but with the right touch it was growing again, slowly but steadily, learning how to be strong. If only Jean could do the same for Alice.
"Well," she said at long last. "A smile wouldn't go amiss, and a kind word here and there. But really, Alice, you've nothing to worry about. You're an interesting, independent woman, and the right person will see that and respond to it. There's no sense in parading about pretending to be something you're not."
A powerful urge to reach out and tuck Alice's hair behind her ear nearly had Jean lifting her hand as she spoke, but she restrained herself, remembering at the last second that she was not in fact Alice's mother, and such familiarity might not be well-received by her companion.
Alice sighed. "Sometimes I think it might be easier, if I were something else, someone else," she said softly. "Someone more like you. You always know what to say, and everyone adores you." Alice's words were rueful, but honest, and so Jean did not try to dissuade her, though she knew in her heart the truth was altogether more complicated. People were kind to Jean so long as she stayed in her place, kept her head down and her voice soft, but when she dared assert herself, dared to demand more than the life of quiet service she'd been relegated to, the iron fist of society always struck her down, reminded her that it would not do to step above her station. If her eyes lingered too long on Lucien the whispers would start up again, the ladies who enjoyed her tea turning on her in an instant as they sought to bring her low. Perhaps one day she would tell Alice about it, about the way her friends had talked, when she'd married Christopher so quickly without her mother in attendance, the way they still talked, if she ventured out in Lucien's company. Perhaps one day she would tell Alice about her boys, one a criminal and one a soldier and neither willing to come home to visit their mother as often as she wished they would. Perhaps one day she would tell Alice of the fight that had set her husband's feet upon the path to war, the bitter words that had stolen him away from her, forever. One day, perhaps, but not today, for Alice did not need for Jean to add to her burdens.
"Sometimes I think it might be easier if I were more like you," Jean told her gently. "Braver." For in Jean Beazey's eyes Alice Harvey was the bravest woman she had ever known, turning convention on its head and fighting tooth and nail to take her place in a man's world, and Jean rather thought Alice ought to hear it. "Now," she said quickly before Alice could protest, "what's brought this on?"
Doctor Harvey was warring with herself, Jean could see. It was a quiet, bloodless war as she fought that battle all women must face, between what she wanted to say and what she ought to say, between the longings of her heart and the propriety of the day. Not that Alice had given much indication that she was over-concerned with other people's opinions before this moment, but as Jean sat quietly beside her, all the little pieces of Alice Harvey began to fall into place. Too smart, too bold, too much for the local boys to handle, Alice had grown a thick skin, but she was only human, after all, and no doubt a lifetime of enduring cruel and sniping words from people who could not hope to understand her had taken its toll.
"It's Superintendent Lawson," Alice blurted out at long last, her face betraying her confusion and her shock at the forcefulness of her own words.
Ah, Jean thought. Of course it is. Matthew Lawson was a good man, and a kind one - if somewhat gruff - not spectacularly good looking but handsome enough in his own way. He had been a frequent visitor at the Blake residence during the tenancies of both Doctors, and he and Jean got on rather well. He was always courteous to her, and every now and then he made her laugh. He was quiet and calm and dedicated, and Jean thought she could understand how those qualities might speak to a woman like Alice, a woman unaccustomed to the brash antics of more extroverted men like Lucien Blake.
"He said something to me the other day," Alice continued, and the sudden hope that had blossomed in Jean's chest at the thought of perhaps playing matchmaker for her two acquaintances suddenly withered as she began to worry that perhaps Matthew had put his foot right in it, "and I don't know what he meant by it, or what I should do about it."
"What did he say?" Jean prompted her gently when Alice did not immediately explain.
"We were discussing the case - the woman we found in the lake - and I said it seemed reasonable to assume that she'd been killed by her husband, that so many of the bright young women we see end up that way. And he asked me if I'd gone off the idea of marriage altogether. It wasn't what he said that bothered me, it was the way he said it. I know I'm not exactly an expert when it comes to reading people's expressions but it made me wonder."
Jean hid her smile behind her teacup. She could almost picture the scene, Matthew and Alice together in the morgue, he in his uniform and she in her white coat, blood on her hands and that serious look in her eyes, and for a moment she tried to imagine what sort of expression might have crossed Matthew Lawson's face to cause Alice such distress, to have her calling on Jean out of the blue on a beautiful afternoon.
"He was never married, was he?" Alice asked. She was not timid, or shy, but there was something in the way she spoke that seemed to indicate that she understood her question could be interpreted in all manner of ways, and that she was rather hoping Jean would not take her to task for it. Not that she needed to worry; Alice was no gossip, and Jean knew it. The question was not borne of a desire to mock or deride him, but rather out of a genuine curiosity.
"No," Jean responded. "He never was. Once, many years ago, there was a woman we all thought he'd settle down with, but she married someone else and moved interstate. Matthew isn't one to jump without looking, and he seems to get on well enough on his own."
Alice nodded, but her eyes remained troubled. Could it be, Jean wondered, that perhaps Matthew and Alice were the answer to one another's questions, that perhaps they could forge a quiet, comfortable connection, could ease one another's loneliness and build a life together? Jean knew what it was to hope for such a thing, to wish for it with every piece of her heart, knew the beauty that could be found in partnership with the right person. For so brief a time she and Christopher had been deliriously happy together, confident in the knowledge that no matter how difficult their lives might become they had one another to lean on, to shoulder their burdens and carry them through. There was a small, bright piece of Jean's heart that wished for such comfort again, that looked at Lucien in the stillness of a quiet evening and wondered what it might be like to be someone's wife once more. Maybe Alice had found herself wondering the same thing as she looked upon Matthew Lawson. It was a cheerful thought, sufficient to distract Jean from her own woefully hopeless circumstances.
"Matthew Lawson is a serious man," Jean told her companion, "and he would never presume to chase after a woman who hadn't expressed any interest in him."
"I don't imagine he'd approve of a woman who threw herself at him, either," Alice pointed out shrewdly.
"No," Jean allowed, seeing the heart of Alice's problem at once.
"What can I do, then?" Alice asked, a note of weariness creeping into her voice. "If he asked me, I think I might like to spend a bit more time with him, but I don't want to be too bold. Too much."
How many times, Jean wondered, have men said that to her? Alice was enthusiastic about medicine and murder, helpless in the kitchen, awkward at the dinner table; how many times had she been told to moderate her passion, to lower her voice, to be more ladylike and less like herself? Alice seemed to Jean to be the perfect example of that conundrum of womanhood, simultaneously too much and not enough, in the wrong dress or the wrong field of work, her very existence questioned by the men around her who expected a woman to be demure and graceful and silent until they trotted her out for a party. Lawson wasn't like that, though; Jean rather got the feeling he would be intrigued by a woman like Alice, would not deride her for being different.
"Be patient," Jean said at last. "All the best things in life take time, and Matthew isn't the sort to rush into anything. But the next time he asks you a question like that, Alice, tell him the truth. You haven't gone off the idea of marriage, have you?"
A small, hesitant smile tugged at the corners of Alice's lips. "Not altogether," she admitted quietly. "Not if the right person was asking."
"There you are then," Jean said brightly, reaching out to give Alice's knee a reassuring pat. "Be honest, and the right person will come, in time."
"I don't know how you do it, Jean," Alice said, discarding her tea in exchange for a biscuit as her confessional drew to a close. "You always seem to know just what to say."
Maybe that was true, or maybe not, as Jean found she could think of no response to such a statement. Yes, people seemed to come to her with their problems, and they always seemed to leave happier than when they'd arrived, but to her mind she possessed no great wisdom. Life had taught her a thing or two about people, about the nature of the human heart; she had loved with passion, and lost with boundless grief, had survived poverty and raising two rambunctious sons on her own, had endured gossip and pity. Hope and devastation were both old friends of hers, and yet she greeted each new day ready to face whatever might come, secure in the knowledge that she could weather it as she had weathered every storm she'd faced thus far. And compared to her own problems, the solution to Alice's quandary had seemed remarkably clear. After all there was nothing to stop Matthew Lawson courting the lovely doctor if he chose, and nothing to stop Alice from receiving his advances with good grace if she approved of him. It was nothing at all like the tempest of Jean's own desires, her longing for a man so far beyond her reach, a match so inappropriate as to be scandalous. Mrs. Beazley had a talent for mending broken things, but she could see no way to repair her own shattered heart.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in gentle, desultory conversation; Jean indulged Alice as she expounded upon her latest murder victim, and Alice listened with all the appearance of attentive interest as Jean described her latest trial in the kitchen. They were two very different women, Jean and Alice, moving in two very different circles, leading two very different lives, but as they sipped their tea in the dappled sunlight of Jean's little kingdom, secreted away at the back of the house and far from prying, judgmental eyes, they forged a bond all their own, a connection borne of their shared experiences as women who lived their lives on the very edge of propriety. When Alice Harvey left that evening she was smiling, and Jean was as well, grateful that one more broken thing had been mended with tea and understanding, the way so many of them were.