Mature Jenny’s voice over begins:
In 1960, Poplar was as vibrant a place as could be found in London. New babies were blessed in countless different ways; they were greeted, joyously, in countless different languages; born to families from countless different places. And they were welcomed into families of shapes and sizes that defied the imagination. These changes were not always welcomed by all, but change, and difference, had always been a part of the fabric of the East End. It was the differences that separated us from the rest of London, and what bound us to one another.
We see scenes of various Nonnatuns attending a Hindu naming ceremony, a circumcision, and a christening. Meanwhile, a large, excited family chat around the bed of a Chinese mother with Sister Winifred. The grandmother grasps Sister Winifred’s hand to express her thanks and Sister Winifred smiles in response. In the late afternoon sun, she rides her bike through the vibrant, busy streets of Poplar, nodding at all the greetings that come her way.
Dr. Turner and Shelagh are sitting at their breakfast table, with Angela bouncing happily on Shelagh’s lap, trying to get her hands in Shelagh’s breakfast. In the background, Timothy, in his uniform, putters loudly.
“You’re in a bit of a rush this morning,” Shelagh says, dodging another grab from Angela.
Dr. Turner looks up from his paper. “And already dressed? This is a first.”
“I’ve got to get to school early. Billy Curwen’s holding football tryouts before school,” Timothy says, around the piece of toast he’s just shoved into his mouth.
“Football tryouts? Good on you,” Dr. Turner says. “I wouldn’t mind bragging about having a son on the grammar school football team.”
Shelagh gives him a deprecating look. “We’re very proud of you, Timothy.”
“It’s not the school’s team. It’s Billy Curwen’s team. He always plays with the same team at break, and they always win. But now Dean Ramsey’s been expelled for fighting and there’s a free space.” Dr. Turner and Shelagh look at each other in surprise. “And everyone’s trying out.”
Dr. Turner shakes his head and returns to his paper.
“Oh, I don’t know if I like the sound of that. It sounds a bit exclusive to me,” Shelagh says.
“Don’t, Mum,” Timothy says, pointing his crust at her. “Don’t try and suck the fun out of this.” He shoves the crust in his mouth, checks the clock and dashes out of the room.
“Good luck, I suppose,” says Dr. Turner, while Shelagh chuckles. The front door slams.
Dr. Turner folds his paper. “I should be off, too.” He leans across the table to kiss Shelagh, and stroke Angela’s hair.
“I’ll be there just as soon as I drop Angela off with Mrs. Penny,” she says as he heads out the door.
Angela makes another grab and puts her hand directly into Shelagh’s marmalade toast.
Shelagh sighs. “Oh well, I was finished anyway,” she says as Angela slowly looks at her while licking marmalade off her palm.
Sister Winifred hurries into the medical room the next morning. Everyone else is already there, chatting. She starts getting her bag together.
Nurse Crane is referencing her clipboard.
“Right. Sister Mary Cynthia, you’ll be at the Maternity Home this morning. Nurse Gilbert and Nurse Franklin, prenatal visits, if you please.” They nod. “Nurse Mount, you’re on call. Nurse Busby and Sister Winifred…” They both look up at their names being called. “You two are on district rota today, as am I. Look sharp, we have a few new patients.”
Delia and Sister Winifred make fairly awkward eye contact and give each other tight smiles at being paired up. They don’t know each other that well yet.
To the sound of that familiar bouncy tune, everyone gathers their bags and files outside, one blue and red uniform exiting Nonnatus House after another, and soon the bikes set off in a row through the narrow, cobbled streets of Poplar. In ones and twos they split off to their various duties. Delia and Sister Winifred smile at each other as they are left cycling together.
At the Maternity Home, Shelagh and Sister Mary Cynthia are boiling urine and cleaning vials in the clinical room. Dr. Turner comes in to grab a file. As he is on his way out, he turns.
“Oh, Shelagh, I’ve had a telephone call from Meredith; her train arrives at 4:00 tomorrow, I’m going to the station to pick her up.”
“Good. I’ve already set up a makeshift bed for Timothy in Angela’s room. I’ll tell him to tidy up a bit,” Shelagh says, looking up from her urine sample.
“Who is Meredith?” Sister Mary Cynthia asks.
“She’s Maggie’s sister, and my sister-in-law, and she’s coming to stay for a few days. Unfortunately,” says Dr. Turner.
Shelagh gives him a disapproving look. “Patrick. She’s your family.”
“I know. And you can’t pick your family. Or Meredith certainly wouldn’t have chosen me." He sighs and turns to Sister Mary Cynthia to offer an explanation. "Meredith was never any fan of mine, even when Maggie was alive. I suppose no one was good enough for her little sister. At least I wasn’t. And since I married Shelagh, well…” he trails off with a shake of his head, and walks out of the room.
Sister Mary Cynthia turns back to Shelagh with a curious look. Shelagh smiles.
“Needless to say, Meredith is no fan of mine either. But that’s understandable, as I did marry her sister’s widower. But what matters is that Timothy has a relationship to his aunt.”
“It still must be hard on you, hosting someone in your home who makes clear she doesn’t like you,” Sister Mary Cynthia says.
Shelagh gives a little shake of her head. “I try not to say anything. It’s only for a few days.” She smiles and turns back to her boiling urine.
Sister Winifred and Delia lean their bikes up against the wall of an old, somewhat dirty, red block of flats, with children running around beneath billowing laundry. Upstairs on the outdoor landing, they knock on a nondescript door.
“This is one of our new patients, a Miss White, who recently had a heart attack,” Sister Winifred informs Delia.
The door is pulled open by a frail, old woman with hair tied in a bun at the base of her neck and a cardigan draped over her shoulders.
“Oh,” says Sister Winifred in surprise. “Miss White?”
“No, my name is Miss Allen. You’re the nurses? Please come in.”
Delia and Sister Winifred step into the tiny flat. They are in dark-wallpapered living room with the blinds drawn. The kitchen is separated only by a counter, a bathroom is visible, and there is one other closed door. Sitting in a chair facing the rest of the room is another, somehow frailer, woman curled into the back of the chair and covered with a blanket. Her short cropped white hair frames her wrinkled face. She watches the nurses with a mildly interested expression.
“Are you a neighbour, Miss Allen?” Sister Winifred asks, as they set their bags down.
There is a beat of silence before: “This is Miss White. Dorothy. She still has some days where she is quite alert but…today she is in her own world. She has been ill for quite some time. Even before the attack.”
“Is Miss White often out of bed, Miss Allen?” Delia asks.
“She gets so restless,” Miss Allen says.
“It would be better if she didn’t move around so much. Did you help move her yourself?” Delia asks.
“I can manage,” Miss Allen says.
“We wouldn’t want either of you to have a fall.” Delia says. Miss Allen nods, worry on her face.
Sister Winifred crouches down in front of Miss White. “Hello, Miss White. I’m Sister Winifred and this is Nurse Busby. We’re here to look after you. Now, let’s have a little look at your breathing and your temperature.”
Thermometer in hand, Sister Winifred approaches Miss White’s mouth. Miss White’s eyes widen slightly in alarm, and she moves her head away, clearly confused. This gives Sister Winifred pause.
“Oh no, don’t worry, my d- old friend. The nurses are here to help you. And see, I’m right here,” Miss Allen says. She comes to put her hand on Miss White’s back and grasps her hand.
Delia pauses and eyes them as she approaches with her medical bag. With a smile and a nod, Sister Winifred takes Miss White’s temperature and the two nurses continue their medical check-up.
“Miss Allen, does Miss White have someone here who can take care of her? We can apply to the Council to provide a full time nurse, but it would be better –” Sister Winifred starts.
“I live here,” Miss Allen says. “I take care of her.”
“Oh,” says Sister Winifred, and both she and Delia both look up in surprise.
Delia meets Miss Allen’s gaze with wide eyes and an awestruck expression, but quickly looks away when Miss Allen starts to squirm. Instead her eyes land on the two women’s intertwined hands, but she quickly looks away again and isn’t sure where to direct her gaze. She glances at the window, and sees a vase with fresh flowers sitting there. She understands the situation, of course.
“You live here, Miss Allen?” Sister Winifred asks, still confused.
“We are…old friends,” Miss Allen explains, while Delia loudly and rather nervously busies herself with supplies. “We began sharing a flat when we were younger and as neither of us ever married, it just made sense to go on living together. Financially, you see.”
“That’s unusual. You didn’t want more privacy and space in your retirement?” Sister Winifred asked.
Miss Allen smiles a tightlipped smile. “Oh, a little company is always nice, especially for two old spinsters like us.”
“We’ll teach you how to give her her medicines, and some techniques to help relieve some of her discomfort,” Delia says kindly, giving Miss Allen a shy smile.
Sister Winifred tries to give Delia a confused look but Delia avoids her eye and carries on with their check-up.
There is a knock on the door and a little voice calls, “Miss Allen, it’s Lucy.”
“Come in, dear,” Miss Allen says.
A little girl enters carrying cake tin. “Good morning, Miss Allen. My mother sends some cake for Miss White. And you, if you’d like some.”
“I don’t think she’s quite up to cake today, Lucy, but leave it in the kitchen, and say thank you to your mother.”
The little girl obediently leaves the tin in the kitchen, watching the nurses warily.
“Say hello to the nurses, Lucy,” Miss Allen instructs.
“Hello, nurses,” says Lucy obediently, making Delia and Sister Winifred chuckle. “Is Miss White going to be okay?”
“We’re here to make sure she’s nice and comfortable,” Delia assures her.
Miss White, who has been mostly ignoring the two Nonnatuns and their administrations, makes an attempt to wave at Lucy, who waves back obligingly.
“It was you Nonnatuns who delivered little Lucy, of course. Sister Evangelina, I think. Lucy is the daughter of our neighbour, Mrs. Walter, just next door,” Miss Allen explains. “Dorothy and I helped her when little Lucy was born, and with all the older Walter children: cooking and cleaning and babysitting and that.”
“How lovely,” Sister Winifred says with a smile. “Mrs. Walter must have been so appreciative.”
“Well, it was right that we look after her, with her family being up in Birmingham, and we never had – I mean neither of us ever had children of our own,” Miss Allen says. “And now Mrs. Walter looks in on us every day, or sends one of the little uns, so I do have help. Run along now,” she says to Lucy.
With Lucy gone, the nurses finish with their check-up.
“I think it best that we check up on Miss White daily now, Miss Allen,” Sister Winifred says.
“She is…quite near the end, isn’t she, Sister?” Miss Allen asks, with a break in her voice. One hand fiddles constantly with the top button of her cardigan.
Sister Winifred presses her lips together. “We’re going to do our very best for her, Miss Allen. To begin with, we can pop her back into bed before we go.”
Miss Allen continues to fiddle nervously with her top button. “Oh no, that’s perfectly alright. She gets so restless lying there.”
Sister Winifred and Delia share a look.
“Miss Allen, she really does need to be resting. I’m sure she’d be more comfortable in her own bed,” Delia says cheerfully.
“Well, no need to trouble yourselves. I can manage myself. Or I can ask Mr. Walter to help me with her once he gets off work,” Miss Allen says.
“No need to wait till then, with us here,” Sister Winifred says. She and Delia are already helping Miss White out of her chair, each allowing her to lean on them with her frail arms. She seems confused but quite amiable to the change.
“Oh, I don’t want you to trouble yourselves,” Miss Allen says worriedly.
“Miss Allen, this is our job,” Delia assures her.
“Where are the bedrooms, through here?” Sister Winifred asks as the pair lead Miss White towards the only closed door in the flat.
Miss Allen closes her eyes, lets out a long sigh, and nods.
Gingerly and slowly, the two nurses support Miss White across the room and Miss Allen opens the door for them. The trio hobbles through the door into a single bedroom. The bed neatly made, with two bedside tables, a neatly kept vanity table to one side and a window, with the blinds. Miss Allen is feverishly fiddling with her cardigan as they lead Miss White in.
Sister Winifred stops short when she notices. “One bed?” she says in shock. She turns to Miss Allen, who is still standing in the doorway. “Where is the other…why is there only one bed?”
Miss Allen gulps and then draws herself up to her full height. “We only have need of the one, Sister.”
Delia, eyes wide, keeps her gaze steadfastly trained at the ground.
Sister Winifred stares at Miss Allen a few seconds longer as the reality of the situation sinks in. “Oh, Miss Allen,” she says finally, disappointment heavy in her voice.
Miss Allen holds her head high. “We have always been discrete,” she assures them.
“But,” breathes Sister Winifred, shaking her head.
“Sister Winifred, let’s get Miss White settled in her bed,” Delia says.
“We can’t put her there – it isn’t right,” Sister Winifred says desperately.
“I think our patient is getting tired; she needs to lie down,” Delia says pointedly. Miss White has indeed begun to shift from foot to foot.
“Oh – of course,” says Sister Winifred, and the two get the old woman settled into bed, propped up on lots of pillows.
As soon as they do, Sister Winifred, looking very uncomfortable, gives Miss Allen a guilty look and brushes past her out of the room.
Delia is left standing awkwardly in front of Miss Allen, and manages a smile. “Remember the techniques we taught you to relieve her discomfort. We’ll be back to check on her tomorrow.”
Miss Allen looks as if she is trying to think of something to say, to save face, but she can’t. Neither can Delia, so she leaves.