This story is thanks to a couple of readers who made me think. It stands alone, I think, but if you haven't already read the earlier Dulcie, Jennie and Serendipity stories, the background gives the characters more depth.
"I love to watch you feed Peter," Doctor Richard Chesterman smiled at his wife.
"As much as you like to taste my milk yourself?" She grinned back at him.
He screwed his face up, considering. "I don't know. Probably not."
"It's just as well I like both. The way the two of you are going, I'll never stop producing." Dulcie glanced down at the almost one-year-old, suckling at her breast. "Christmas, and a birthday party together. Of course, he won't really understand this year." After a pause, "It's nice having Sasha and Malcolm take the Christingle service and give us some time together."
"Yes. I'm sorry I have the duty tonight. But you know how it is."
"I know. And at least we'll have you with us tomorrow afternoon."
He frowned. "God willing. As long as nothing goes wrong."
The child began to play with the nipple, rather than sucking. "Peter, stop that. If you're not going to eat any more, it's time for bed."
He wriggled in her arms. "No, Mummy." But he yawned.
"Come on, son. It's time for you to be in bed."
Despite his protests, the toddler was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Dulcie looked at her watch. "Come on, Richard. We've time for you to empty this breast before you leave and I have to get ready for Midnight Mass." Of course, one thing led to another, and they both needed a quick shower before leaving the Rectory ... Outside, the first flakes of snow were falling. "Well, I wonder if we'll have a white Christmas this year."
"I doubt it," the doctor opined, "I can't remember the last time we had a significant fall of snow at any time of the winter. But I'll take the Defender, anyway." They'd not long since replaced his car with the four-wheel drive Land Rover. Dulcie's Zafira was fine for her needs, both as a mother and as a minister, but there was no doubt the Defender was a safer bet if he was called out in bad conditions. "Liina's staying with Peter?"
"Yes. Sweet girl. I don't like to deprive her of the main Christmas service, but she takes her role as big sister seriously."
His opinion was shown to be wrong, as there was a distinct layer of white on the pavement as Dulcie made her way to the church, and the flakes were much larger, and the fall much denser by the time she got there.
"Oh, Dulcie!" Andrew Cameron greeted her as she entered.
"Happy Christmas, Andrew! Everything under control?"
He laughed, "As much as they ever are. The building's warm, anyway. There's a light out, but I can't get to replace it this evening – it'll have to wait. I don't think anyone will notice anyway."
"Good. Who's doing the welcoming of late-comers?"
"Dennis and Emma, Carli and Jen. Arthur and I will hover anyway, in case of disruptive elements."
The service proceeded normally, with the customary late arrivals, once a year, usually inebriated, folk arriving around midnight from the local hostelries. They were happy drunks, though and were little problem apart from an occasional tendency to make loud comments during the service.
It was Carli Brooks who thought she heard something in the porch and went to investigate. She was careful opening the ancient, heavy oak door, as the old iron latch was capable of a loud 'clack' if lifted unwarily, so by the time she got to the porch she could see no-one. She noticed, and almost ignored, a bundle of what looked like old clothes, but just in time noticed a little whimper coming from it.
It was a bundle of old clothes, but they were wrapped around a baby that could only have been days, or perhaps hours, old. She picked it up and took it into the church, where she found a seat at the back and sat cuddling it. The human contact seemed to pacify it for the time being. She glanced round, seeing the curiosity in the faces of her friends.
At the appropriate time, she took her turn at the altar-rail, still holding the child. Dulcie's shock was clear, but she managed to continue with the administration of the bread, merely touching the babe's head for a brief blessing. Carli took it to one of the front pews, though, rather than returning to the back, and at the end of the service, Dulcie went straight to her instead of immediately taking her place at the back of the church to greet the congregation as they left.
"It was just left in the porch," Carli told her.
Dulcie shook her head. "The poor mite ... the poor mother! Why ... well, that's a silly question, I suppose. There's probably a dozen reasons why a woman might abandon a newborn, though she'd have to be absolutely desperate. Look, I need to go to the back. Ring the police to inform them. But say we'll look after it for the time being."
"But ... what about..."
"Feeding? I still have plenty. That's the least of our problems. I'm pretty sure there're neonate Pampers tucked away in the cupboard-under-the-stairs, 'just-in-case'. Anyway..." and Dulcie set off to greet – and satisfy the curiosity of – her congregation.
The police were very matter-of-fact. Without a description of the mother, all they could do was put out a general call – woman, possibly young, probably distressed, in need of medical attention ... The Social Worker on call was relieved that the baby would be in the care of someone previously approved for foster care, of known reliability and probity. Not to mention that she was able to breast-feed the infant. An on-call doctor would visit as soon as possible to ensure it was not in need of professional attention.
The snow was several inches deep, crunching underfoot as Dulcie carried the bundle back to the Rectory. She trod very carefully; it would not do to slip.
The doctor was brisk and efficient, despite the hour – three in the morning – and pronounced the child, a girl, healthy. "Hours old, only," he said. "The mother..."
"We don't know," Dulcie told him. "The babe was left in the church porch. Fortunately I'm still breast-feeding my own son."
The doctor nodded in approval. "You'd better get her to a clinic as soon as the holiday's over. Have you thought of a name?"
Dulcie frowned, then smiled. "Tikva," she said. "It means, 'Hope'."
He smiled too. "Appropriate," he agreed.
Tom Carmichael, unusually, woke when his wife Chrissie got up to feed their third child, Jennifer. Amy, 'almost six' and David John – 'DeeJay' – 'almost five' were asleep next door. He watched his wife lift the little one from the crib, open her nightie and lift Jennifer to her breast. The whimpers ceased, Chrissie cradled the child against her and walked over to the window and opened the curtains enough to look out, so she was silhouetted against the light, which was ... odd. Different.
He slipped out of bed and stood behind her. "You're beautiful, and I love you, Ashlin," he said in her ear. Then something caught his attention outside. "Snow!"
(Chrissie's middle name is 'Aisling', pronounced 'Ashlin', and means 'Dream'. Tom uses it as an endearment and pet-name.)
"Thank you. You know I love you, too. Isn't it beautiful?" They stood together, Chrissie leaning back against her husband who was only an inch or so taller than she, as Jennifer sucked, and was transferred to the other breast. She finished, and Tom took her to burp her and change her nappy, then put her, asleep again, back in the crib. "As you're awake, darling, you can empty this breast. Of course, if you're too tired..."
They were woken, far too early, by Amy, followed by DeeJay, charging into the room and jumping on the bed, holding small toys from the Christmas stockings, which had occupied them for far too short a time.
Amy's and DeeJay's main presents were a scooter and model yacht, respectively. Neither could easily be properly played with with the snow, but Amy also had the recorder she'd been pestering for – not that Chrissie, talented musician herself, had any objection – and DeeJay a train set, so problems were avoided. Breakfast was had and the children played. Jennifer woke, and was fed, and the small turkey put in the oven. The phone rang.
"Tom? I'm sorry to disturb you..."
"You haven't, Dulcie. We've been up some time. Happy Christmas!"
"Good. Happy Christmas to you, too. Look. Someone left a baby in the church porch last night..."
Tom gasped. "Is it..."
"She's fine. I've got her here. But the thing is, the mother's somewhere – we don't know. I just thought, well, it might be good to check the barges. See if maybe she hid in one of them out of the snow."
"I'll do that. It'll do the kids good to go outside, anyway – get some fresh air. Work up an appetite for lunch."
"What a good idea!" He could hear the smile in her voice. "Of course, you could always come to the service at eleven..." after a pause, "There's a couple of sledges in my garage if Amy and DeeJay would like to use them."
With Jennifer in a sling on Chrissie's chest and all of them in Wellington boots and well wrapped up, they set off. The snow was a novelty, so the usual complaints of tiredness from DeeJay didn't start until they were almost at the Rectory. The door was opened by Liina, though Dulcie was right behind, holding Tikva. Liina took Tom to the garage with Amy and DeeJay to find the sledges, flat plastic things, ideal for the soft snow. Returning to the front door, Chrissie was still cooing over Tikva when the door opened again, and, reluctantly, she followed them; the kids riding on the sledges, pulled by Tom. There are very few, very short slopes for tobogganing in Maldon – not usually a problem, since there is rarely any snow to toboggan on. The possibilities were exhausted long before the children's enthusiasm. Tom had to remind himself of the main object of the outing, then to persuade the kids to abandon the slopes.
They didn't object to exploring Daddy's workplace. In fact it was actually Amy who came across the girl, huddled in several duvets, in one of Reminders cabins, and called Tom. On seeing him, the girl was so obviously terrified that he immediately withdrew and called Chrissie, who entered the cabin. Tom went with Amy and DeeJay to the saloon and lit the stove, though it was unlikely to make much difference before they left.
Meanwhile, Chrissie was perched on the edge of the bunk, the girl huddled as far away as possible. Jennifer whimpered and stirred. "She's hungry," she said.
The girl gasped and Chrissie saw tears tracking down her cheeks. Jennifer's complaints grew, and Chrissie fumbled at her clothes to release a breast and guide the baby's mouth to it. The girl stared. She couldn't actually see anything, but it was obvious what was happening, even without the quiet sounds. "My baby..." the girl said.
"She's safe," Chrissie told her.
"I didn't know what to do," the girl whispered.
"How old are you?"
"I was fifteen when Tom, and some other good people, saved me from a life of prostitution. It took a while, but ... we have a good life now. Will you let me help you?"
"You need to see a doctor, then you need to be safe."
"The men ... they'll find me."
"So ... we need to make sure they don't." Chrissie had to stop to switch Jennifer to the other breast, a somewhat more demanding action than the initial one. The girl watched as Chrissie adjusted the sling and her clothing.
"I never fed my baby like that." She gasped. "I just ... left her ... at that church."
Jennifer settled to suckling, but as usual lost interest long before the last of the milk was gone. Chrissie wrapped herself back up. "Come home with me. Tom won't hurt you. Hot bath, clean clothes, turkey dinner." The girl stared, wide-eyed. "What's your name? I'm Chrissie." Silence. "I tell you, I've been where you are. Please?"
Very long pause, as Chrissie held the girl's gaze. "Geraldine," the girl finally whispered.
"Well, Geraldine, will you come home with me? Warm house, bath, clean clothes, food?"
There was blood on the duvets. Quite a lot of it. 'Have to do something about that. Phil wouldn't be at all happy to see it.' "You had the baby here?"
"Yes. I didn't know ... where to go, what to do ... but it just happened, you know."
"All on your own?" Chrissie was horrified, although she'd assumed that, the reality hit her hard.
Geraldine cowered, thinking Chrissie was angry with her. "I was afraid."
"My God, I'm not surprised. I can't think how you managed. You're very brave; I don't think I could have coped with that. Come along."
They met Tom at the companionway, and the girl shrank behind Chrissie, away from Tom. Chrissie leant in and whispered in his ear. "There's a bit of a mess in that cabin. I'm going to take Geraldine home – could you bring the duvets with you?"
Chrissie ushered the girl ahead of her up the companionway steps to the deck, and Tom went to the cabin, where he bundled up the two soiled duvets and tied them with a piece of line, so he could sling them from his neck and still have both hands free to pull sledges. The stove would burn out soon enough. He set off home, Amy and DeeJay running around him to warm up.
The house was a very ordinary, Thirties villa, in a row of almost identical dwellings. The girl looked around her in the entrance hall, breathed in the mixture of aromas, scented candles, a hint of tar from Tom's work clothes, cooking turkey. She stripped off the grubby jacket and Chrissie took it. "All your clothes need washing, Geraldine. Mine will be a little long on you, I think, but they'll do for now. Come on upstairs; I need to settle Jennifer in her cot and get you soaking in the tub."
Geraldine watched as Chrissie took Jennifer out of the sling, laid her in her crib and covered her with the little blanket. The little girl barely noticed the transition. Chrissie showed Geraldine to the tiny bathroom, and started the bath running. "We'll start with it warm, and you can heat it up as you thaw and get used to it." Pause, "Take your things off and I'll wash them and bring you some of mine."
The girl, grubby anyway, even before she'd given birth, did as she was told and stepped into the warm water. Chrissie went to start the clothes washing ... and to call Dulcie.
"We found your missing mum, Dulcie ... Yes, in Reminder... Fifteen, would you believe? ... She's having a bath just now. Look, Dulcie, I know the rules have to be followed, but can we make sure it's women who deal with her? She was even terrified of Tom, can you believe it? Probably the least threatening male in Essex, your hubby excepted ... Yes, we've plenty. I told her she'd have Christmas dinner with us ... I really feel for her – you know my story, don't you? ... Bless you, Dulcie."
Dulcie walked to church, Peter toddling along in his Portland Bill Wellingtons, with Liina, who was carrying Tikva in the baby sling. Before they were half-way, the little boy had to be picked up and carried. Walking in six inches of snow is tiring, especially when you're only one year old. The church was warm by comparison with the outdoors, only the chancel and Christmas tree with lights on. Warm, secure, reassuring light. Andy, the Reader, greeted her as she headed for the Vestry.
"Happy Christmas, Dulcie! Everything okay?"
"We're fine. You heard about our guest?" She indicated the bundle slung against Liina's chest.
"Yes, I did. What about her mum?"
"Chrissie and Tom Carmichael found her, just now. I don't suppose they'll get here for the service."
"Will you be okay to take the service? You know I will, if there's a problem."
Dulcie smiled warmly. "Should be okay. I ... well, Liina has a bottle of my milk for Tikva if she wakes and needs it. But thank you, Andy. I don't know what I would do without you, you know."
"You might think about encouraging one or two of the others to do the Readers' course."
Dulcie nodded. "Maybe."
Geraldine appeared, Chrissie's jeans and sweatshirt rolled up so her feet and hands were free, her hair wrapped in a towel. She stopped at the door when she saw that Tom was in the lounge with Amy and DeeJay, and backed away.
"Geraldine!" Chrissie called to her from the kitchen. "Come in here and dry your hair."
Having got the girl to sit in the kitchen with hair-dryer, brush and comb, Chrissie left her there long enough to go to Tom in the lounge. "Tom, why don't you take the kids to church? Give me a chance to reassure Geraldine a bit?"
He nodded. "Good idea. We'll probably be a bit late, but I'm sure no-one will mind." He stood. "Come on, Kids, bring one new toy each and you can ride in the sledges again to church." There was a little whining, but no real resistance, and they were soon wrapped up and out of the house.
The girl's hair was long and, as Chrissie brushed and dried it, it became clear that it was a glorious golden blonde. "Gorgeous hair," she commented.
"They used to pull it, to make me do things."
"Oh, my dear. I ... well, that happened to me, too. Though my hair was never so long. Remember, though, you have friends, now. We'll do our best to make sure you have a better life. First, we need to have a doctor see to you."
"I know. But that's the first thing that needs to happen. Then we need to get you straightened out with Social Services. Dulcie will help with them..."
"Dulcie's the Vicar. She's the one who's nursing your baby."
"Oh." Longish silence, then, "Will I see my baby again?"
"Do you want to?"
"I ... well, I don't know. I can't look after her, can I?"
"Probably not. But that's not to say you can't have a place in her life, if you want one."
The short, child-oriented service was an opportunity to get kids out of the house, really, and to sing well-known carols. The children had an opportunity to show off a new toy and to look at the Nativity scene. And no-one minded if the little ones wandered around. At the end, though, after 'Christians Awake' and the benediction, Dulcie remained at the centre of the chancel arch.
"My friends ... one moment, please. Liina, would you come here with Peter and Tikva?" She waited until the young blonde girl was standing beside her. "Last night, during the Midnight service, a young woman left a baby, a little girl only hours old, in the porch. Happily, we found her and she's perfectly well. Her mother has also been found, and we're waiting to hear from a doctor about her health, and Social Services, too. So I'd ask your prayers for their future, both of them. Also, as you probably know, Peter, here," she stooped and picked up her son, "was born here, shortly after the Midnight service last year. I thought you might like to wish him happy birthday..."
The organist played the last few notes of the song and everyone sang 'Happy Birthday' to Peter. It was a bit of a shock to him and he buried his face against Dulcie's shoulder. It took a long time to greet everyone and answer questions, but eventually the building was emptying and Dulcie found Liina, who was chasing Peter round the pews.
"Liina, will you take Peter home? I thought I'd take Tikva and walk with Tom and his two to see Tikva's mum."
"Of course." Liina's reaction was not shared by Peter, whose bottom lip was quivering when he worked out Mummy wasn't walking home with him. But Liina bent down, and in a stage whisper told him, "I think there's chocolate milk-shake and Jaffa Cakes waiting at home for you," knowing that mince-pies definitely had no appeal for the youngster. He perked up immediately and dragged on her hand, delaying the transfer of baby and sling to Dulcie. It was snowing again as they set off.
The doctor and a social worker, both female, as requested, turned up at the Carmichael home just before midday and shortly before Tom and his companions returned. The doctor, who looked young, spoke first. "Doctor Smythe," she said, holding out her hand. "I gather you have an unattended primipara ... um ... a first-time mum who delivered her own baby?"
"That's right." Chrissie shook the offered hand and turned to the other woman, middle-aged and with a somewhat stern expression. "Chrissie Carmichael," she said, offering her own hand to the older woman. "Won't you come in?"
The older woman sighed and shook hands too. "Beverley Jenson," she said, "on call social worker."
Chrissie's eyebrows rose. "Any relation to Harriet Jenson?" she asked.
The woman smiled. "My mother-in-law," she said. The smile transformed her face. "You know her?"
"Indeed – she vetted my foster parents, who later adopted me. She was really good with me."
"The consummate, caring professional," Beverley agreed. "But you have another waif – in your care, now?"
"We do; would you come with me? She's very nervous..."
"Understandable," Beverley said, the doctor nodding in agreement.
"Can I examine her before we do anything else?" the doctor enquired. "I'd like to make sure she's not in urgent need of attention. I expect she's fine, but there's plenty could be wrong."
They entered the lounge and Geraldine looked nervously up from the book she was reading. "Geraldine, these are Doctor Smythe and Missus Jenson from Social Services. The doctor would like to check you over..."
The girl nodded and stood. "Will you stay with me?"
Chrissie looked at Doctor Smythe, who nodded. "If that will make her feel more comfortable, I'm okay with that."
Tom, Dulcie, Amy and DeeJay arrived home and found Beverley Jenson in the lounge. "Who's this, Daddy?" Amy, unsurprisingly, wanted to know. DeeJay, though, tried to discreetly hide behind his father.
"Mister Carmichael? I'm Beverley Jenson, from Social Services. Your wife is with, um, Miss Finlay, while the doctor examines her."
"Any relation..." Tom started,
"To Harriet Jenson? My mother-in-law. That was about the first thing Missus Carmichael asked."
"Okay, good. May I introduce Reverend Dulcie Hanson ... um ... Chesterman." He stepped aside to permit Dulcie to shake hands with the social worker.
"Delighted to meet you, Rector. I've heard a lot about you – all good, I'd have to say."
"Thank you! But please, call me 'Dulcie'. Just to say, I hope we'll be allowed to keep Tikva and Geraldine."
"The baby. 'Tikva' means 'Hope' in Hebrew. It seemed appropriate."
"We'll have to see, Dulcie. That would be good all round if there are no problems."
The doctor appeared at the door. "She seems to be fine, though she's covered in bruises and has obviously been abused rectally as well as vaginally. I'd like her to be seen by a gynæcologist, but I'm reasonably sure that'll keep until after the holiday. Of course, if there's any suggestion of a problem, there's always A and E. Actually – it's amazing on several levels. She didn't tear, which is surprising. And on a personal level, that's one amazing young woman; to do what she did, all alone..." She took a deep breath. "She's all yours, Beverley."
The older woman nodded and headed upstairs to find Geraldine with Chrissie in the guest bedroom.
"Missus Carmichael – would you give me a moment alone with Miss Finlay?"
Geraldine scowled. "Can't Chrissie stay?"
"I'm sorry – no. But I only need to ask a couple of questions, then she can come back in. Okay?" The girl sighed and nodded reluctantly. Chrissie left. "Okay. May I call you Geraldine?" The girl nodded again. "You can call me Bev, if you like, or Beverley, or Missus Jenson."
"Okay, Missus Jenson."
"Right. First question – are you quite comfortable with Mister and Missus Carmichael?"