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Fragile Things

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A short while after the wedding, and three cramped but wonderful weeks in Peter's bachelor lodgings, they moved into a little house in one of the nicer streets of Poplar. The house was suitable for a police officer, though there was a quiet and rather practical agreement to purchase the house in full from Chummy's funds.

"Why, isn't this lovely," Chummy said, turning around in the cosy little kitchen. Her head still smarted from its encounter with the pantry door, which was obviously intended for a smaller woman, but never mind, the sturdy block of wood she called a head wouldn't burst from a little knock.

Nothing in the house found mother's approval, though it was undecided whether she was more appalled by the size of Chummy's new home or by Chummy's decision to remain employed as a midwife.

"It's unseemly," she said in a very emotional moment, after she had sniffed at the tea Chummy served and ignored the biscuits Chummy had baked. "People won't just think you married below your station, it's that you married so poor you have to keep working!"

But Chummy did not see why she should abandon patients she had accompanied for months, and the other nurses were honestly quite busy enough without taking on Chummy's cases. Besides, the house was so small it was cleaned in no time at all, and she was never so proud as when she told Peter in the evenings of a difficult birth and a happy outcome, and he smiled at her and found it the most exciting story.

It was odd to think of herself as married. She didn't giggle over her wedding ring as other girls might have, and at their one-week honeymoon in Jersey she kept being startled by being one of about seventy couples in one hotel. Seventy couples and she still stuck out like a Christmas tree that had accidentally got disguised as a party-goer. Peter laughed about that, and said at least it made her easy to find. His smile was bright the way it was whenever he found her.

She missed the convent sometimes. The simple life had appealed to her, and meant she was less prone to knock into furniture or conventions.

But she would have missed Peter more.

Her stomach still fluttered in the morning when they were sharing the kitchen table, Peter shaved and ready to go to work, and Chummy looking forward to hearing all about it when they both came home.

Peter was so handsome.

Trixie took to calling her 'Mrs Noakes' with a very naughty undertone, and whether Chummy blushed or not depended mostly on the nature of the night before.

~~~~

The spring after their marriage, they did something no Poplar police constable and his wife had ever done: they travelled to Africa.

It was a present from Mother, who had wanted to modernize Chummy's little kitchen; then suggested new wallpaper and a chaise longue for the sitting room; then attempted to buy them an automobile; then, after none of those had happened, said, "Well, what am I allowed to give you for a wedding gift?"

It was not at all the same as going to Africa to do missionary work, naturally. But stepping off the boat in Douala with Peter at her side, she felt a profound happiness at the way things had turned out. It wasn't the Africa of huts and wooden school houses Chummy had always pictured, but she loved it here, the newness and the smells and even the humidity. It had been so long that she'd been anywhere exotic, and she breathed it in to the fullest, without having to wonder if this was where she finally belonged.

She linked her arm with Peter's and they strolled through markets and unpaved roads and through a port that but for the different dress and skin of the workers might have been in the East End, and Chummy soaked up the sun and Peter's fascination with everything.

"Bit strange," Peter confessed the first night after dinner in their hotel, which was small and hot and had served them dishes that made Chummy curious and Peter extremely suspicious. Finding accommodation in Africa was nothing like taking a hotel in Jersey. "When it's like everyone staring at me."

He looked like an adventurer from a book in his khaki trousers and rough cotton shirt, the safari hat Chummy had bought for him beside him on the table. Only the sunburn across his white nose gave him away as a recent arrival.

Chummy had towered over everyone at the market as much as ever. "Everyone's always been staring at me," she said, and Peter seemed surprised, like there was something he'd never considered.

But he smiled, and they both laughed about it. He was really quite extraordinary, and his explorer fashion gave her that giggly feeling in the pit of her stomach. 

He then kissed her hand, right across the table as if they were the stars in a romantic picture, and maybe that was what made Chummy stand up at her full height and feel like Grace Kelly, and only a very brief dash up the wooden stairs later, she felt like Sophia Loren, and like someone who knew exactly what to do when not so much of Peter's explorer fashions was really on Peter but the exploration continued, and was rather exciting indeed.

They went on a safari. It seemed unmissable, going to see elephants and monkeys and other splendid creatures they would hardly ever get to see in a zoo.

They were not the only people in the rattling bus, though they were the only couple among far more serious men who had brought their own guns. The men looked at Peter as if they wondered why on earth he had brought a wife, when Peter was looking the same way at their arsenal.

Chummy had been to many a hunt but the actual killing still did not appeal to her, and so she was glad when the animals stayed out of reach of a chase or the guide found the terrain not safe for hunting.

They saw lions, magnificent beasts with their cubs that made Chummy shiver even with the guns around her, and a herd of antelopes panicking from the noise of the safari jeeps.

Peter's eyes were wide and stunned, and he kept laughing like it was Christmas morning.

They saw elephants from the distance, out of reach of the guns, and breathtaking just the same. Slow, enormous creatures, too big for this world. On another day, they would be helpless, their size nothing against hunters and bullets.

"Amazing," Peter said, his voice thick with wonder, pulling Chummy to his side. It made her feel so safe. "This is amazing, nobody's going to believe this at home."

~~~~

It was the autumn after their vacation to Africa when Chummy realised she was pregnant. In the first few months of their marriage, she had quietly expected it, being familiar with the natural consequences of the life of a young couple as she was. But then she thought it was perhaps not her time, and she was older than most newly-wed women, thirty already. She was busy at Nonnatus, as well, and so stopped thinking about it. It was still silly of her to be shocked one morning when she was tidying the bathroom and realised she hadn't used any femine towels in seven weeks.

She thought she should wait before letting anybody know, especially Peter. She kept it quiet for an hour and a half after Peter came home from his shift, and until Peter looked at her across the dinner table and said, "You know you remind me of those thieves I talk to who try too hard to look innocent. Something happen?" She never wanted to keep anything from Peter.

She wasn't nauseous or otherwise incapacitated. In her heart of hearts, Chummy was a little disappointed she did not feel her pregnancy more, as if her body was too stoic to notice there was a baby in it. But then she told herself to stop being silly and imagined how hard it would be to do her work while sick as a dog, and when her baby started to kick, she would smile and pat it and then go back to work as the rest of the women in Poplar.

She just cried a little more easily when she handed a newborn baby to its mother, and Sister Evangelina called her the new Poplar water fountain.

The others found out when Chummy and Trixie raced out one night to attend to Mrs Walsing, the wife of a dock worker, and the ambulance wouldn't come and Dr Turner was, it later turned out, trying to save the life of a shoemaker with a heart attack.

"Oh, Chummy," Trixie said when it was all over, wrapping her arms around her on the dirty back stairs of the house of Mrs. Walsing, who would bury her second baby tomorrow the way she had buried her first. "That was a tough one."

Chummy sobbed into Trixie's shoulder; made a right mess of her second clean uniform today. It just came up from somewhere deep down and wouldn't stop. "I kept thinking, what if something goes wrong with my baby," she said in a blubbery, embarrassing voice. "And isn't that very selfish? Poor Mrs Walsing." And the sobbing started again. 

She also cried when the nuns and the nurses threw her a party at the convent. The girls had made a little baby dress in the style of their uniforms, and Trixie whispered, "Could've been a habit, too, but we thought that'd set your girl up wrong," which made everyone laugh and and Chummy fan her eyes.

Sister Monica Joan gave her a knitted black doll with lots of curly hair, and Chummy thought it was the loveliest thing.

~~~

She was in the convent's kitchen, sitting awkwardly away from the table as she had a cup of tea. Jenny was first on call, but had just gone up to the rooms to fetch an extra sweater, when Chummy felt her whole body seizing up, like her insides were coming loose, and then a big wet splash.

"Oh no," Chummy said. "Oh dear." She stood, moving her hands, but it took her a remarkable while before she had any idea what to do with them.

Then she remembered to phone Peter at work.

He was out, naturally, but she left him a message. How odd, she thought. It was all the wrong way around, people always called here to say, the baby is coming; me mum's having the baby; help. And she stood for a moment, blinking at the phone in amazement.

Jenny stopped in the doorway. "Did a call come in?" she asked.

"No," Chummy said. "I'm afraid it's me."

So she had her baby girl in Nonnatus. Fred carried a mattress into the kitchen, and the nuns for all their years of experience in midwifery were fluttering about like nervous hens until Trixie banished them all to the hall and declared that the young mother needed quiet, and she and Jenny Lee would call if they needed the reinforcement. Peter arrived and the midwives covered Chummy up and let him sneak in for a moment to kiss her on the forehead and say something nonsensical about his mother, before they shooed him out like any distraught future father who would just get in the way.

There was something profoundly embarrassing about being in this much pain. Chummy kept breathing and biting her mouth shut, already huge and noticeable in all this fuss made about her, but when the contractions came and gripped her, like an unearthly monster stretching its fiery arms inside her, she screamed.

When it died down, she felt like she had yelled the house down, made it puff up and fall flat like the big wolf and the straw hut, but Jenny acted like nothing had occurred at all, and Trixie wiped Chummy's brow and told her she was doing fine. "Not long to go now, Mrs Noakes," she said.

"Not to worry," Chummy puffed, "I know I'm in excellent hands."

"Stop trying to make us feel better, Chummy," Jenny said with a smile. They really were all extraordinarily capable and calm.

Trixie sat down beside her on the bed and patted the back of her sweaty, swollen hand. "You're not getting out of being the main attraction for this one," she said, and Chummy would have blushed, except another contraction tore through her and she rather indelicately crunched down on Trixie's fingers.

Chummy had to concede that her training and experience did not entirely prepare her for being on this side of labour, and whenever Jenny examined her and nodded like everything was going just perfectly to plan, she was startled at the wave of relief.

It took six hours until her girl was born, neither unusually short nor unfairly long for a first delivery. Chummy remembered what happened to new mothers the moment the baby was there, and then she remembered nothing, because Trixie put the baby in her arms.

She was fragile, and so very small, the vernix cleaned from her head and her puffy blue eyes squinting at the world.

Jenny smiled and said she was a big one, but Jenny must be mistaken, because no baby had ever looked this tiny as Chummy looked down at her daughter. It was like the pride and terror of delivering an infant, only a hundred times over.

Then the strangest thing happened, as Chummy moved to feed her, and play with her grasp reflex, and took her back from Peter when she started to cry. She should have felt clumsy, this tiny baby in her big arms, held against her breasts that were rather overabundant even by her standards. But this baby was perfect, was like Peter. Everything fit.

~~~~

She couldn't continue at Nonnatus, of course. The baby needed her around for nursing, and kept her awake at the oddest hours. Chummy had also never had this much laundry in her life.

She was a little frightened at first of being a mother with a baby in a community of mothers with babies, because the first time as a student of needlework she'd gotten the needle stuck in a piece of leather, and the first time as a nurse in training she'd accidentally leaned on a patient's broken leg, and the first time as a midwife at the clinic she'd knocked over a cart of breakable equipment.

The first time she took Eva out in the pram to go meet a group of other policemen's wives, she drove the pram through dog excrement and didn't notice until she was standing in the well-scrubbed little parlour of Mrs Getty.

"Oh, Nurse Browne," Mrs Getty said, who had a three-year-old delivered by Chummy and Sister Evangelina and a one-year-old delivered by Cynthia. "Pardon me, Mrs Noakes, of course. So good to see you here. Is that your little girl?"

The dog excrement was nothing but an unfortunate distraction. Chummy felt perhaps a bit out of place in the narrow houses of the police wives, but her experience and knowledge was much sought after, and her advice taken no less seriously now that she no longer wore the uniform.

~~~~

The second time Chummy was in labour, she went into the hospital. It was nothing she would have wished, being a trained midwife and trusting in her experienced colleagues, but there was nothing to be done for it when the blood kept running down her legs.

Peter had come from work, arriving at the scene just as Cynthia had the neighbour call for the ambulance. So Chummy arrived in style in a black speeding police car, making a dreadful mess of the back seat and stepping on poor Constable Smith's feet when she couldn't hold her balance.

"Somebody!" Peter was yelling, his arm around Chummy as he took her through the door. "Somebody help my wife, she's having a baby, she's bleeding, somebody..."

Fathers were always so out of their depths.

"Not to worry," she wheezed, trying to pat his arm, though she missed and gesticulated through the air in a foolish manner. "You know me, tough as an old shoe."

They put her on a bed, and it didn't take long until it was messy and bloodied too, all the while people were fluttering about in an embarrassing commotion.

Peter was with her. Police Sergeant Noakes, surveying the scene. Her big hand and Peter's strong, comforting one. Chummy held on but there was an odd lightness to her fingers.

"You'll be all right, love," Peter told her, though his eyes were big and red, like those of the young boy who sits on the stairs, terrified for his mother through a night of screaming and blood. 

Oh, no.

"I'm sure I will be," she said, as cheerfully as she could, though she found it more difficult than always, rather more like needlework or dancing. She blinked her eyes hard and quickly, because Peter was so brave, sorting out scoundrels and dragging drunkards apart by the scruff of their necks, and surely a big old horse like she was nothing to fret about.

She didn't like the hospital.

So many noises, movement and people, nothing like what she knew.

She felt faint. That was new and frightening, and she thought of her little girl at home, of Mother who was with her. Peter was holding her hand like she was the most precious of things, and she was always breaking those.

"It'll all be good, love," Peter said, but Chummy felt like she was lost in a vast scary place as they wheeled the bed away.

~~~~

She wasn't well for a long time. It was very silly, really, because she had spent so many years in foreign countries with, oh, malaria and all dreadful sorts of fevers, and she'd always been fit as a fiddle. Now she was in her cosy home in England, where the worst you ever got was a little damp, and her arms tired when Jane nursed for more than a quarter of an hour.

Peter would embrace her cautiously, never with any great strength because lactation made her breasts sore and she ached at the end of the day, with a fatigue she'd never known. She'd never felt so weak.

But Peter's strength was in everything around the house, whether he came home after a long day on the beat and took the baby off her first thing, or whether he left in the morning with a hearty breakfast ready for Chummy and her favourite crosswords and adventure novels right by the armchair where she spent the majority of her recovery.

He sometimes looked at her when he paused from doing a splendid job calming Jane down with a song and whistle, or playing checkers with Eva. Sometimes she caught his eyes lingering on her, and he'd look as if he had come down from a steep, dangerous mountain, and his legs were still shaky from the fright.

 ~~~~

They were quiet years as the girls grew older and Peter was promoted to inspector, and Chummy volunteered to feed the homeless and look after poor retirees.

When Eva was six and the baby two, they moved into a four-bedroom house with better amenities, but it was merely three streets over. It took Chummy's money again, but if Peter had never been much distressed over her larger funds, after Jane's birth anything that made Chummy's life easier and more comfortable outweighed even the faintest whiff of hurt masculine pride.

They did not travel much, especially after Eva started school, but Chummy got letters from Trixie about great foreign adventures. Trixie had left the convent and was currently seeing most of Europe, and some parts of the world Chummy was sure were not in Europe, at the arm of an extremely handsome chap who sold refrigerators for a living. Chummy read the letters to the girls with great excitement and the most vivid images in her head, and without a shadow of envy.

She somehow found herself as the chair of the Poplar branch of her homelessness charity. She didn't know how it had happened, because being the chair of anything seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a hash of it, but after the first flutter of nerves, she realised she could be as good at this as she'd been at delivering babies.

She was re-elected the following year, the committee congratulating her with homemade pie. It wasn't quite a calling, but it all fit itself around her, the tasks on her wide shoulders and the expectation that she wouldn't knock anything over, and nobody had to move the breakables out of the way.

~~~~

After the quiet years came the years of slammed doors and loud music.

It wasn't that Chummy minded Eva's music, even though it seemed quite impossible to dance to even if you didn't have two size nine left feet. She didn't mind Eva's friends either, and made sure to be friendly and welcoming, even though Eva seemed to consider it part of hospitality to stomp past her mother as fast as possible and, if necessary, drag her friends out of sight.

Chummy had not felt this out of place in a long time. Eva lived with them, and was their darling girl, and she might have inhabited a different country, of strange customs and dresses and language, more strange and exotic than Chummy's old memories of India.

"I heard your mother call her her little lamb," Peter said over dinner one night, after Eva had left the table in an outrage over the tortured animal that had had to die so they could stuff their imperialist faces.

"Oh, she is sweet as a cream puff when she's with my mother," Chummy said. She did not like to whine, but the unfairness had begun to sting. "She called me a colonialist. I've lived in Poplar for eighteen years."

"Them kids these days…" Peter looked a little helplessly at Jane, who emptied the mash pot to go with her second slice of roast.

Peter was as confused as Chummy at the young people, their clothes and styles and demands, and it didn't help that he tended to encounter only the most sorry of them through his work. But he was not home for the majority of the arguments, the door-slamming, or that dreadful fight they'd had when Chummy squared her shoulders and tried to talk to Eva about condoms. Talking to a class of mocking Poplar women hadn't shaken Chummy as much as that conversation.

It distressed her. For the first time since she'd married Peter, Chummy felt as out of step with the world as she had as a young woman.

~~~~

She was ironing Eva's flower print blouses and flared jeans, watching the evening news, with Peter out on nightshift. Jane was in bed, and Eva was out meeting friends. Chummy would have liked to know the names of the friends or where they were going, for then she might have gone to bed, but she had not taken Eva's, "to the other end of the police state," as an entirely accurate answer.

The phone rang around eleven.

"Mummy, can you come pick me up?" Eva said, in the snot-filled tone of a crying baby. It startled her, fanning all her lurking fears, but then it was all strangely easy, because she knew what to do with crying babies.

She scribbled down the address, threw on her tweed jacket and raced out to their car. She didn't like to drive and had a terrible sense of direction, but she didn't stop to be embarrassed when she asked two people for the way. Booming music greeted her outside the apartment, and kids with beer bottles and snotty expressions hung around the hallway. It stank horribly of cigarettes.

When she entered the apartment, everyone stared at her as if she were an alien creature. She stood out the way she had all her life, her tweed suit and flat shoes that never saved her from being a giant, between these young bright people and their tight jeans and fashionable jackets, and she made herself as tall as she could. She found Eva in the kitchen, a forlorn little heap on a folding chair surrounded by other girls who tried to console her or argue with her, and Chummy pulled Eva to her and said, "there, there," and Eva just crumpled.

Chummy took them out to the car, and she didn't care who pointed or giggled at her. But nobody did. All they could do was stare, and nobody dared get in her way, nobody stopped a lioness.

She brought Eva home and sat her at the kitchen table, where the sniffles gave way to sobs and bitter complaints about the stupidity of boys.

"Well, that was a little silly of you, love," she said, patting Eva's head, and Eva didn't shrug her off. "He sounds like a terrible cad."

"He's a wanker," Eva sobbed. So they were basically in agreement.

Chummy put her arms around her. This would heal, and Eva had time. And she thought how she still knocked into things and couldn't teach her feet music, but she could also pick Eva up and carry her to safety.