Chapter 1: Speaking in Silence
The exhaustion of the day presses on my shoulders as my oxfords push down the green carpet going up to the nurses' wing. But as I climb the staircase, the weight of the day sheds itself step by step until the only pressure left on me is an ache on my much abused toes. Why I agreed to teach a man with two left feet to dance, we may never know. I pause at the landing, turn, and sigh at the dark impressions of my footsteps lightening by the second. The temporality of it all seems so obvious in hindsight. When one actually takes the time to look back.
With new breath in my lungs, tasting of scotch and cigarettes, I forsake the my thoughts and cross the rest of the hallway to my room. The door stands open, and Trixie lounged on her bed, reading the latest edition of Vogue. But her eyes, they stare through the page and beyond anything within their room. Trixie catches my gaze from the corner of her own and reaches her hand back to tuck a non-existent thread back behind her ear. She refocuses on the present and not inside of her own mind.
I suppose tonight's one for deep thoughts. At least she'll lose that solemn look soon as the good Reverend repays her that dance.
I grin as I pass her bed, too tired and too preoccupied with the promise of bed to notice a shadow of betrayal above her cheeks.
"Bridge, was it?" she asks, her tongue clipped.
I sit on the edge of my bed, feeling the day's work burgeon inside my legs, and face away from her. It takes me a moment to respond. "Yes. The old dears do love it." After all the masks I've worn in my life, I'd think wearing another one wouldn't feel so wretched. And yet, this lie tastes of lead.
"And you accompany it with romantic music?"
Damn. Of all the things to assume. When I finally meet her gaze, it hurts.
"I didn't come down in the last shower." Damn those big blue eyes. "I saw you. With Tom."
Of all the nights. I close my eyes and feel my swollen toes burn. "It's not what you think. Or at least, what I think you might think." Trixie rears back, ready for a bold-faced lie or something equally demeaning. I can't help but feel inhuman.
"Don't make a fool of me," she says with tears in her voice.
Damn her. The masks that had always protected me through the worst of humanity, now damned me to be unbelieved. And Trixie, she didn’t deserve this deception. If anything, she protected herself from the world by embracing the whole of it. If she stood close enough the to pain of the world, she thought she could heal her own pain by healing those around her. Her father, her first patient, drank from the very abyss of human emotion and she drank from the same. Now, every mask I wore to protect myself was slipping. But staring at Trixie’s face, one so open and in such pain, I decided. I decided to let them fall.
"I'm rather hurt you think I would!" If only she knew how unappealing an entire evening of dancing with two men was for me. "Rats! Look, I was teaching Tom to dance..." I pause, "For you." Her eyes perk. "He wanted to surprise you." And just to add to the heady romance, Fred was there, utterly irresistible to both Tom and myself." Trixie's frown didn't waver, but the darkness dancing across her face lessened. "And with the greatest respect, Tom is not my type. At all." Part of me wishes that she would understand why Tom was not my type. And that the words could come from her mouth and not my own.
"And what do you mean by that?" Trixie asks, still caught up in her indignation.
The absurdity of her jealousy! "Well, apart from the fact that he's clearly besotted with you, there are certain things he lacks" - a soft waist to rest my hands on, sweet-smelling locks, a laugh that sounds like the rain in spring - "and certain things he has too much of" - two left feet, a beard - "for me."
Images of her, unbidden, come. Her gentle smile bursts through my memory until tears prick the edges of my vision and my palms begin to ache.
Perhaps a bit too forcefully, I pull my shoes off. With it, the strain of Tom's missteps and another weight, the one I almost dared speak to Trixie, came with it. I gasp at the feeling.
"Are you alright?"
Trixie’s anger cools, but the pain pulling at her features lingers. Those dark thoughts, on the verge of tearing her apart, threaten to crack that beautiful mask of hers. But even through all of her darkness, she still sees others; still puts them before herself. Maybe their darkness is easy to wade through than her own.
I try to speak for the both of us when I say, "John 8:32, the truth will set you free." Her brow furrows. "I'm no Sister Mary Cynthia, but I can't help but feel comforted by it right now."
“How so?” she asks.
Words crash onto my tongue. But gentle words, like “love”, are silenced by “unnatural” and “forbidden”. I gape at Trixie and shake my head.
We stare at each other, wishing for something to fill this silence other than our unspoken secrets.
Chapter 2: The Blue Woman
Marie beams with pride at their parlor, and of Tony by proxy. Golds and pinks dress the walls and furniture in near royalty. The sunlight coats every fiber with a brightness so rare in Poplar. As a summer zephyr wafts through the curtains, the room pulses with an energy so personal, I feel like an intruder. Marie herself seems as a visitor in this slice of heaven within her own home. A single portrait cuts through the warm colors of the parlor. A woman, her face tinted blue in the expressionist vein, stares from her rosy perch. I can’t help but to stare back. Marie notices and grins. She turns to it, thinking of her Tony.
“He says it made him feel sad the way she looks down, like she don’t really want to be there. But the painter, well, he’s sort of making her be there, on account of how she’s so beautiful.”
I look again. The whole room seemed centered around her portrait and her face burns, not with shame, but resignation. Her beauty is her curse and instead of basking in it, she’s trapped inside of this singular painting. Stagnant and alone. Why would Tony temper this bright abode with such a melancholy vision?
Marie, never really enthralled by the portrait, only with Tony’s understanding of it, looked back at me. “Imagine seeing all that in a picture.” I smile, feeding on Marie’s pregnancy glow, but glance back at the portrait as I reach inside of my bag and feel my smile temper under this nameless woman’s mournful gaze. The stethoscope around my neck suddenly feels like a collar rather than an extension of my hearing as I guide it into my ears and over Marie’s arm. Her skin is warm under my fingertips.
“Well,” Marie asks, “do I need bed-rest and waiting on hand, foot, and finger?”
Her words are muffled, but her veins run clear. The body, much more than just a vehicle for one’s soul, spoke volumes when the voice was silent. Marie, married, pregnant, and sitting in this beautiful parlor, didn’t need to fight her body. She was living a truth so few of us actually could.
She was “Achingly normal, I’m afraid.”
Lucky. I think as her shoulders relax from the word ‘normal’. If only everyone could feel so comfortable inside that word.
I finish my examination and straighten my frock, embarrassed at the few wrinkles it contained against the parlor's seamless presentation. The blue woman’s eyes watch me as I put my stethoscope back between the rolls of gauze in my bag. Her spell is finally broken after the latches snap into place.
“All done, Mrs. Amos. We’ll send a delivery pack a week before the due date but if anything happens, just call.”
I place a reassuring hand on her knee. Marie smiles so wide her eyes crinkle. Mine don’t. She waves me off to the rest of my home visits, the sun haloing her face. I hear the cobblestone streets rumble under my tires and watch them glisten from the wear of men and women, countless before me. I wonder how heavy these streets would be if every downcast gaze, every blue-stained visage, was caught within the mortar. Shoes part before my bicycle tires. It’s the only place my eyes dare to wander.
Back at Nonnatus, I finally hear the news.
Constable Noakes leans against the wall of our autoclave. The grimace across his face mirrors his arms, crossed and resting atop his expanding midsection.
“We’ve had complaints about that gentleman’s convenience. That’s why we put in the pretty police, their job’s to smoke out his type.”
“A honey trap?” I hope that the disgust riddled across my features is attributed to the general attitude toward queers, not the anger pushing blood into my cheeks. But unfortunately (thankfully), Noakes looks almost proud about entrapping the poor man. I’m surprised that my hands don’t shake as I replace old rolls of gauze with new ones. My hands burn in comparison to the icicles spearing my heart. “And now he’ll go to prison.”
Peter pauses. “It is a crime, Nurse Mount.”
Against whom? “Mrs. Amos is about to have her baby.” I say. If anything, it’s a crime that her husband won’t be there for her, now.
“Your heart breaks for her doesn’t it?” he says.
My heart doesn’t break for much anymore.
“I wonder if she’ll forgive him.” Trixie interjects.
“Could you?” I ask.
“Not a chance.”
Taken aback by her reply, I retreat further into myself. But as I look to my left, her face isn’t twisted in disgust like Peter’s. Her eyebrows are raised in simple contemplation. “Because of what he is?” My words taste heavy, like lead.
“Because he’s cheated.” My brows furrows for the smallest of moments. Trixie continues, “I couldn’t care less who with. And I certainly don’t mind Frauleins.” Her voice burgeons with warmth and she smiles into the distance, recalling a distant memory. “In fact, I provided diversionary cover for one during my training. A young doctor, melting to look at, but the other way inclined. Perfect gentleman, sadly. Without me on his arm, he would have lost his position.”
The other way inclined. Something about those words - there was no morality attached to them; no judgement. It felt as innocent as discussing alternative routes through Poplar. Or preferring dresses to slacks.
“It’s the same for nurses. They told us the day we enrolled.” I remember that day so well. Mostly because of the static humming between myself and a particular brunette standing too close and still too far away. Neither of us expected to one day call each other “mine”. No, our coming together was slow but inevitable. Ironically, our Matron’s warning sealed our conjoined fate. There is too much history passing across my face to risk meeting Trixie’s eye. Especially not with Constable Noakes so near and with morals heavy on his mind.
“Quite. No dark secrets, girls” she recites. “Not if you value your life.” I force a grin onto my face but can’t return her laughter, however tongue-in-cheek it sounds.
Dinner serves only to cool my veins even further. Sister Winifred, with all the honesty of a nun, causes me to chew slowly to occupy my mouth with anything besides speech. Trixie, bless her, reminds me of Delia’s embrace when tensions threaten to overwhelm our usual harmony.
Love. Love lives inside of her arms. It ignites the fire burning in our eyes, hot as phosphorus. It doesn’t cower behind closed doors even when we find ourselves shut away by four walls and the peering eyes of strangers. Like Tony’s parlor, our love was beautiful even when though no one hardly saw it. And like Tony’s parlor, the blue lady would watch over us, her somber gaze tempering the both of us to become stronger for each other.
“Nurse Mount, will you pass the piccalilli?” Sister Julienne breaks me from my passive torpor. I reach across Barbara and Trixie, caught in their own inner turmoil, and almost warn Sister Julienne about the piccalilli. I reconsider. Tonight, everything tastes bitter.
Propped up against my pillow, eyes burning with exhaustion, sleep continues to elude me. Delia’s voice ghosts through my mind like smoke off a candle wick. Her visage dances before the backdrop of my thoughts and haunts my every thought. Or rather, her absence does. The heartache of it all squeezes me back into reality. Just as Trixie smooths errant strands of golden hair behind her ear, I tuck those thoughts away. But not completely.
“Am I the only one that doesn’t despise them?”
Trixie meets my reflection as she wipes her lipstain off. “Who?”
“The queers,” I sigh.
“Of course not.” she says. Hearing her affirmation lessens the strain upon my soul. Of course, her reaction is less in question and more an outlet for this absolutely wreck of a day. “I just don’t think it’s our battle to fight.” And the pit reopens in my stomach.
If it’s not even my battle to fight, “Who will, then?” Who will stand up for Delia when casual slurs are carelessly thrown in her direction? Who will rage against the injustice of it all? Who will fight for me?
Trixie gets that look in her eye, the one I usually reserve for her when she starts going on about the latest fashion trend. A knowing grin slides onto those still-pink lips. “Why do you care so much?”
I almost tell her. But alas, the words disseminate throughout my ribcage and only add to the pressure building inside my chest. My breath comes shallow.
So I lie. “Perhaps I’m like Sister Monica Joan. Perhaps I don’t hold with culls either,” and turn out my light. Even through the darkness, I can feel Trixie’s eyes boring into the back of my skull. Or maybe that’s just my resolve solidifying. Either way, morning will come soon enough. But for now, the night holds me with its gentle arms of and shields me from strangers’ hatred. As I slip into unconsciousness, a single tear escapes through the cracks in my composure.
One of the first things I learned while growing up in an internment camp, was that bravery didn’t exist. There was survival and stupidity. Everything else was semantics. But working at Nonnatus and seeing new mothers scream against the pain of birth, I realized that survival itself was brave and even the smallest act of courage could change the world.
So as Marie stands next to the new Rose Queen, in front of a community that has largely ostracized her, I stand as well and begin to clap. And while I stand for her and for Tony, I stand for myself and for Delia. Whether it be by the grace of God, or by the power of love, people begin to applaud until the entire gymnasium is standing in ovation to our former Rose Queen. Just as the crown is passed on from one generation to the next, I can feel the world changing with the applause. I keep clapping until my hands sting and my ears echo.
I hum with an energy until all the chairs are folded and put away. Tony seems particularly focused. He doesn’t leave until it’s just us, in front of the stage.
“Thank you, Nurse.” Tony’s voice, like ice, freezes in his throat.
“Whatever for?” I ask as I sweep the last of the rubbish leftover into a dustbin. My eyes never leave the brush.
“For not holding it against Marie. The awful things I done-”
“We can’t help who we love, Mr. Amos.” I interrupt and finally look up at him. I try to catch my emotions before they unfold across my face. “So I would appreciate you not demonizing those of us still caught in the shadows.” His eyes widen in understanding.
“I see.” he says and begins to walk away.
I reach out to grab his hand. “I really don’t think you do.” Sweat beads on his palm. I let him go. I wipe my own palms on my skirt. The green fabric wicks away the moisture with its rough stitching. “I’m not married, Tony. And what you did hurt a lot of people.” Pink colors his cheeks. It would suit him if it weren’t out of shame. “But what I feel - what we feel - isn’t inherently wrong. Do you understand?”
Tony locks gazes with me. His jaw sets with purpose and his eyes burn. I watch him walk away. Tension radiates from his shoulders but I see the way he looks at his daughter. She will give him enough love to sustain him.
For the first time in nearly a week, I can breathe. My legs are weak beneath me but they do not fail. All I can focus on is the sweet, sweet air that brings with it all the pain trapped inside of chest. My sobs echo against the hardwood floors and fill the entire centre. When my tears dry up, peace fills the cracks in my heart. Delia’s shift won’t be over for another three hours, but when it is, we’ll set the world ablaze. Even if our world is only big enough for two.