For anyone who loves Call the Midwife or Andrea Levy - the new novel from Orange Prize
listed author Patricia Ferguson.
Violet Dimond, the Holy Terror, has delivered many of the town children - and often
their children - in her capacity as handywoman. But Violet's calling is dying out
as, with medicine's advances, the good old ways are no longer good enough.
Grace, Violet's adopted daughter, is a symbol of change herself. In the place where she
has grown up and everyone knows her, she is accepted, though most of the locals never
before saw a girl with skin that colour. For Violet and Grace the coming war will bring
more upheaval into their lives: can they endure it, or will they, like so many, be swept
aside by history's tide?
A moving tale of prejudice, struggle, love, tragedy, bravery and the changing lives of
women in the twentieth century, The Midwife's Daughter grips the reader all the way
to its heartstopping conclusion.
'Strong, affecting, vividly depicted . . . It is a pure pleasure to read' Lionel
Shriver, Telegraph (on Peripheral Vision by Patricia Ferguson)
Joe Gilder came from Yorkshire, where he had grown up
just about half-starved until he was nearly fourteen, when
his mother had remarried. Presently the new husband
had taken Joe to one side – lifted him bodily, in fact, to one
side of a long dark glass-strewn alleyway – and given him
to understand that he, Joe, would without any doubt be
best off making himself scarce. The husband was scrawny,
but Joe was scrawnier, and so he had taken the hint.
A great deal of water had flowed under bridges since
then. A great deal of blood had flowed too, some of it
Joe’s, at the time when he had been Corporal Gilder, and
shot at by German lads, though since those days no one
had ever heard him decry any nation but the French. Mr
Gilder’s hatred of France and French people was one of
the strongest things about him. Frenchmen, when he was
Corporal Gilder, had approached him in broad daylight
and tried to sell him their sisters; when he was dazed with
thirst one summer near the Front after days of marching
in the blistering heat, French people, for whom he had
been fighting all these years, and for whom his friends had
died, had refused him a drink of water, from a village well,
until he had paid for it. Grousing about the French seemed
to keep Mr Gilder limber, and free his mind for other
He told only one further story about the War.
‘I were sent to get the rum ration. A nip for every man,
in a tin bottle. Halfway back and a shell bursts right by me,
blows me to kingdom come. I’m there in the bottom of
this hole, and I know I’m hit. I’m dying. That’s what I
thought. And God help me I reckon: if I’m going to go,
I’m going to go pissed: rum for twenty and I’m knocking
it back like water, drunk as a lord I were all night till they
come for me – saved me life, that rum!’
A jovial story, told to please. Every time he told it, Mr
Gilder felt a faint lessening of that terrible infinity of time
when he had lain in agonized confusion in the mud, waiting
to stop seeing. Every second of the eleven hours and
nearly forty minutes had gone by, one by one, while the
chill earth gritted wet beneath his fingers, and his eyes had
kept on opening, all by themselves.
Though the lessening never seemed to last very long.
Every now and then, going downstairs to make his wife a
cup of tea in the morning, or unlocking the back door to
look out over his sunny garden, Joe would suddenly know
that despite what felt like the pleasant reality of the scenes
before him, that terrible night, dead and cold as ice, was still
somehow going on somewhere, flowing slowly, like a glacier
of darkness. Certainly it showed its continuing existence by
way of occasional nightmares. And all he could do by way
of reply was jeer at it, entice others coarsely to laugh at it
with him; a puny enough response, he knew, but better
than none at all.
On his lapel Mr Gilder even now was careful to wear
the little badge that proclaimed him a wounded soldier.
The bursting shell had untidily scooped away most of his
‘Leg wound,’ said the doctor in the field hospital, and
Joe had thought him a prissy old fool – a medic who
couldn’t say arse, for Pete’s sake! and had laughed about
him with those of the other men still capable of laughter.
It had not occurred to him for several weeks, until the
wound was well on the way to healing, that a buttock is
merely where a leg leaves off. That without a buttockfull
of strong elastic muscle, a leg is a poor weak prop-like
article, hardly capable of forward movement, barely able
to take any weight at all.
‘I’m afraid it’s going to be more like having a false leg
than a real one,’ said a different doctor, in the convalescent
hospital this time. This was a big grand house Joe was
at first barely aware of, with lengths of stone corridor and
shining acres of parquet flooring. After a week or so he
was moved to a bed beside one of several great tall windows,
so that through it he could see a terrace with stone
pineapples on either side of it, and one or two blokes in
wheelchairs being trundled about between flower beds;
but when he raised himself up on his elbows, which still
in those days involved much tremulous effort, and peered
right out beyond the flowers and the distant lawn, further
out, further still, he saw a long unbroken haze of darker
blue, where far away the sea was meeting the sky.
At first he had been afraid to look again. He knew that
beyond that apparently wide stretch of water lay the lads
still fighting in the endless war. If he strained his ears he
would hear them; gentlefolk hereabouts, it was said, were
much put out at luncheon by the distant thud of artillery.
‘Quiet today,’ he had remarked to a passing nurse, that
first day beside the window. ‘Can’t hear nowt.’
‘What? What d’you mean?’
‘Can’t hear the guns.’ He gestured towards the window,
and the sea, and France.
‘Where d’you think you are? Only it’s next stop America
out there: this is Cornwall.’
‘Is it?’ In truth this conveyed very little to Joe’s mind, as
geography was one of the many things his education had
entirely neglected. ‘Is that in England?’
The nurse laughed. ‘Some people think so,’ she said.
Presently the house grew walls, and other beds, and
other men, assumed shape and then routine. Every other
day nurses brought folding screens and a laden clinking
trolley, and carefully tortured him, packing and repacking
the raw hollow of flesh with coiled lengths of wet crêpe
bandage; gnarled locals of both sexes, speaking an almost
incomprehensible dialect, helped him briefly stand while
his bed was made, shaved him, cut his hair, wheeled him
lying on his stomach on his trolley up and down the long
corridors, and eventually took him out into the stunning
sunshine of the terrace.
The sea glittered and changed its colours, sometimes
sporting a small white sail or a plunging fishing-boat.
Several weeks went by. The torture lessened. Someone
measured him up for crutches, someone else showed him
how. He stood; he hopped slowly from one side of his
bed to the other; he crossed the room. Every day as he
stood for longer, hopped further, he grew more despondent.
Pain had filled so much time, given his days such
shape; trolley-dreading had almost been a full-time job.
Without it he began to understand what lay ahead.
Seagulls wheeled over the terrace, eyeing the tables set
out there in fine weather, where one day, at breakfast, Joe
overheard one of the other men idly announce that he
knew for a fact that the house was keeping a negro slave
in the basement, to do the washing-up.
No one took much notice, as the man in question was
a known liar and prone anyway to sudden spells of vagueness
connected to his head wound. Presently however
someone else chimed in from across the table, a new chap
called Dexter, pale as death from pneumonia.
‘Surely not a slave, old chap, that’s all been done away
with, hasn’t it?’
There was a pause. It was a listless group sipping its tea.
Joe was standing up, as usual, leaning on the wall, his good
leg protesting already that it was tired working all on its
own. Sometimes Joe felt quite angry with this leg. There
was nothing at all the matter with it and yet it was always
making such a fuss, quivering and aching and constantly
threatening collapse: letting the whole show down.
Everyone else sat rather slumped in their chairs,
exhausted by the toil of dressing, washing, shaving and
making it as far as the terrace breakfast table, though
Dexter himself was not yet able to walk that far, and sat
now in a battered heavyweight wheelchair, his skinny legs
wrapped in a blanket.
‘Though there is a darkie here,’ Dexter added at last. ‘In
‘A coon,’ said the liar, whose name was Bowen.
Sit down, sit down, begged Joe’s good leg. It seemed
completely unable to remember that sitting down was a
thing of the past. Lie or stand, that was the drill these
days. But Joe had had enough of lying down. Besides
there had been an attractive hint of playfulness in
‘There’s not,’ he said.
Dexter looked up at him. ‘Ten bob says there is.’
‘Get out,’ said Joe easily. ‘Tanner.’
‘Sixpence it is,’ said Dexter.
Others round the table had quickly entered the bet, but
settling it would involve risk. Men were not supposed to
visit the kitchens or even hang about outside them without
good reason, and it was generally agreed that settling
a bet would not count as one of these. In any case the
Dexter pointed out, was effectively enemy territory,
staffed as it mainly was by hoary locals of uncertain
temper: ‘They should be women,’ said Dexter. ‘And yet
their beards forbid me to interpret that they are so.’
But Joe had not done anything of his own volition for
what felt like years; not since the day he’d joined up.
‘I’ll go,’ he said, and swung his way over to Dexter’s
wheelchair. ‘Cop hold.’ He laid his crutches on Dexter’s
blanketed knees. ‘Haven’t got yer brakes on, have yer?
Where am I going, round the corner, is it?’
He pushed, experimentally. The handles seemed to
take his weight. He could shove the thing forward, and
then catch up with it, one near-hop at a time, the bad leg
taking just enough weight. Slowly they ground across
the terrace, past another table, past the open glass doors
of the ward, where long pale muslin curtains shifted a
little in the breeze.
‘I say,’ said Dexter presently, in the tone of one mildly
interested, ‘are we taking the stairs?’
Joe stopped. He had not realized that the terrace was
raised. The curving flight of stone steps at either end
beside the stone pineapples led down to the wide flagged
path about the house, and so he was stranded; no one had
explained stairs to him yet. He had forgotten stairs existed.
But then they had never been a barrier before.
Dexter spoke up: ‘I think we need brawn here, Gilder.
Where’s that chump Bowen gone?’
Bowen was still at the table, gazing out to sea, but was
at length induced to bump Dexter and his wheelchair
slowly down the steps, while at the top Joe hesitated,
Could he lean on the broad stone banister?
There were no real hand-holds. Don’t make me, said his
good leg, trembling beneath him. There would be swinging
involved, there would be a swing out into stony
nothingness. The banister hard to his palm.
‘Your turn, peg leg,’ said Bowen, leaping up the steps
again, and he picked Joe up, as easily as once the reluctant
stepfather had, prior to the private word in the long dark
glass-strewn alley; Joe had time for a moment’s swift nostalgia,
for threats so simple and so personal, before he was
propped fairly gently against Dexter’s wheelchair on the
flagstones at the bottom of the steps.
‘Good man,’ said Dexter. ‘Afraid we’ve rather cut off
‘No-Man’s-Land,’ said Bowen.
Joe said nothing, but remembered the taste of rum.
‘We must advance with all due caution,’ said Dexter.
‘Oh, are you leaving us, Bowen? Ah. Farewell, then.
Bowen appears to have a prior engagement.’
‘Very busy man,’ said Joe, pushing the chair forward.
Slowly they neared the corner, turned it.
‘Through there, I think,’ said Dexter, as they approached
a small arched doorway. ‘Kitchen garden. Watch out for
Through the arched door the path abruptly turned to
cinder, which was much harder work. Joe was sweating.
His arms began to ache and tremble almost as much as his
good leg. In slow silence they passed a plot of spinach and
an onion bed. ‘Alright?’ said Dexter.
‘Bum hurts,’ said Joe.
‘Dulce et decorum est,’ said Dexter. ‘You have given your
arse for your country, Gilder; an honour granted to few.’
‘Listen!’ Now they were nearing an open door in the
undistinguished brickwork at the back of the house. Windows
beside it also stood open. From it came unnerving
kitchen sounds: the rattle of china and cutlery, saucepans
clanging, taps running, and shrill voices raised over the
racket. What was left of the fun of the whole expedition
seemed to drain away right there and then.
‘Dear Lord,’ said Dexter. ‘Sounds a bit lively. Don’t you
Joe stopped. He thought about lying down. ‘Call it
quits?’ he said.
As if in reply Dexter abruptly had a coughing fit. His
face went scarlet, his eyes streamed. He threw himself
about in the chair, as if he were fighting with himself. The
extra tension of seeing this made Joe’s head swim, the
tearing noise of it seemed to pierce right through him like
spears. His good leg began to shake violently beneath him.
‘Help!’ he cried, or thought he did, and then became
aware of someone embracing him, holding him upright, of
buxom shapes and sweeping skirts, of someone stooping
in front of Dexter and the terrifying cough falling suddenly
silent. Someone took his arm, firmly, and helped
him forward, through an open doorway into a hot bright
place, fearfully crowded, full of strangers, cross old women
in a row, all glaring.
‘Sorry,’ he squeaked, and then fell silent, for he had
suddenly understood how close he was to bursting out
crying. He felt almost faint with embarrassment and
shame, caught trespassing; caught out anyway.
‘We – we went the wrong way,’ he muttered.
‘Got confused,’ said Dexter croakily.
The woman nearest him, the cook presumably, from
her general menacing air of command, big square face
and brawny forearms, did not smile back. She leant back
against the table behind her, and glared down at him, and
then up at Joe, who looked quickly away. She turned to the
woman beside her, and spoke, in the local dialect.
‘What are we to do with these here, Mrs Dimond?’
This was another old witch, even fiercer in appearance,
since in fine music-hall style she was holding a large
wooden rolling pin upright like a floury truncheon in one
knotty red hand. There was a pause while, slowly shaking
her head, she appeared to consider. Then she said:
‘You reckon . . . they like cake?’
‘Well now, Mrs Dimond,’ said the cook slowly, deadpan,
‘I believe they might. What d’you say, young man?’
‘Oh . . . gosh,’ said Dexter, instantly brightening, and
there was suddenly something like a party atmosphere,
and fussing, and laughter. For mainly the women in the
kitchen, as Joe at that time could not begin to imagine,
had looked at Dexter and himself and seen not marauding
soldiery or trespassing young men, but something
more like children; a famished child in a wheelchair, a
crippled child on crutches.
‘Here. Eat up, go on.’
‘Where you from, my lovely?’
‘How old are you?’
‘Coffee or chocolate?’
‘Have another bit, go on.’
And then Joe saw her. He saw her hand first, as she
held out towards him a plate of little round honey tarts
still warm from the oven. He remembered the bet, and
unconsciously shook his head, disowning it; still, he
couldn’t help but stare, at her delicate wrist, her small
He saw a blue dress open at the throat. He saw
her neck, dark, very slender, and at last he dared her face,
oh, just a girl, a girl’s smile, eyes glistening sweet as blackberries.
He saw that everything about her was normal
and real; the only difference was that it was all brown. A
commonplace prejudice dropped away from him before
he had so much as thought to voice it.
‘Thanks, Miss –’
A giggle. Oh, how pretty she was!
‘Now then, Gracie,’ said the old witch-one, Mrs Dimond.
‘Take a bite, do,’ said Gracie, in that same local-yokel
accent, that he’d thought made you sound so countrified
and daft; but in her mouth it was cosy, coaxing, as lovely
as her name: suited her. When she slipped back to work
over by the window, behind a big white enamel-topped
table, he couldn’t stop looking at her. He watched as she
took the covering tea cloth from a large brown china
mixing bowl and drew something out of it, creamy-white,
elastic, clinging: bread dough?
Joe limped closer, until he could lean against the other
side of the table, where he watched her scatter it with
flour and knead it, busily pulling and tucking it into itself.
Occasional flecks of raisin surfaced now and then, to be
quickly folded back into the depths. He felt shy. But he
had to speak.
‘Miss? What you making?’ He nodded at the dough.
‘ ’Tis for buns,’ she said, and again the accent struck him
as somehow intimate, though at the same time wonderfully
exotic. Presently though he noticed that he couldn’t
quite make sense of her hands. Curious; something kept
looking strange, as if her slender floury fingers somehow
didn’t bend as they should. He concentrated; and finally
understood that her hands looked strange because one of
them was: her left normal, but while her right hand gracefully
shared the turn and tuck, turn and tuck, there – and
there, again – something was terribly wrong with it. The
ring and little fingers were missing, the merest stumps; the
middle finger too short.
As soon as he realized this the words jumped out of
him: ‘What’s up with your hand?’
She stopped still, though not before the right hand had
slipped to hide itself behind the left.
‘Accident,’ she said, without looking up, then quickly
unfolded the mismatched fingers and set to work again.
Joe felt stunned. Over the blood thundering in his ears
he kept hearing himself asking her, What’s up with your
hand? as if there was some way he could go back and intercept
himself. He had forgotten how normal people
behaved, he thought. It was being here; it was one of the
things you talked about, in this place: What brings you
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have asked.’
She stopped work again, and this time gave him a
straight look. He held his breath, so sudden and so strong
was the personality in that glance.
‘No matter,’ she said. ‘’Twas long ago.’ She took up the
canister, and swiftly floured the dough again. ‘What about
He gave her the cheery version he had given his mother,
the shell that had caught him in daylight, knocked him
out, the stretcher, the field hospital, the good ship home,
and here. But when he had finished she gave him another
look, and it was as if she knew how much he was lying. It
occurred to him that perhaps she had told such smoothedout
versions of the truth herself; that she had, in fact, just
He told her his name, and asked if he could help her
somehow, could he do a bit of kneading for her, perhaps?
Would she show him how? Partly a joke, and to try and
take away the taste of what he had asked her, mainly
because it looked like a good way of standing closer to her.
‘You can help with the shaping, if you like,’ she said. Was
her tone a little warmer? His heart thought so, and thumped
excitedly in his chest. ‘You got to wash your hands first,
mind.’ She gestured at the stone sink behind her.
‘Anything you say,’ said Joe, to this warmer tone, and
saw breathlessly that in reply she drew her skirts out of
his way with a little half-mocking flourish.
At the sink he took the edge in his wet hands for a
moment, and leant forward to lift his weight free. But he
had forgotten his leg, for a little while, he realized. Had he
ever once forgotten it before? He thought not.
‘’Ere. Dry yer ’ands.’ Proffering a clean blue and white
tea towel, ironed smooth. He could have laid it to his cheek.
She was very little, close up.
‘Is they proper dry?’
‘They proper is,’ he answered, as near to her accent as
he could get, and that set her off giggling, you’d think no
one had ever tried to make her laugh before, he thought
gloriously, it was a while before she could speak at all.
‘Put yer ’ands out – no, over the table! Palms up. That’s
right. Stay still.’ She snatched up her canister, and gave it a
quick merry shake over his hands. The fall of it was so
light he could barely feel it. It was like feathery down, it
was like a childhood dream of warm snow. When he
rubbed his fingertips together he felt no gritting at all, not
even dustiness, it was like rubbing silken nothing.
‘There. Now you can touch it,’ she said. He saw the tip
of her tongue as she laughed now, flashing him a little
sideways glance. Saucy! His knees trembled, but with glad
Joe put his hands exactly where hers had been on the
dough, and pushed at it with his right-hand knuckles.
‘It’s warm!’ It was unlike anything he had ever handled
before, at once weighty and buoyant, an impossible airy
heaviness. It seemed responsive. He turned it with his left,
as Grace had, and it seemed to fall naturally into his hands.
Close to, he could faintly smell cinnamon in it.
‘Let me cut it. Here. Now, you take ’im, and you roll ’im
into a ball, see? Like this.’
She had floured the enamel table in front of her. She
spun the piece of dough under her palm, and turned it at
once from fragment into nicely rounded little bun-shape.
She used the injured hand, and he saw the swirling scar
halfway up her forearm, where once a flame had travelled.
‘Should make a couple of dozen,’ she said.
‘There’s never enough,’ he told her. His bun looked
nothing like hers, try as he might. ‘It’s all skew-whiff, look!’
‘I’ll make you one special,’ said Grace, turning to look
up at him.
Joe had held various jobs before the army had let him in,
underage though he indubitably still had been; mainly
running to fetch things, or cleaning, none of it skilled or
even practised, and nearly all of it the sort of thing you
tried not to think about afterwards, except that the smell
of it stayed in your clothes. He had rarely thought of the
future then, and these days he generally tried not to think
about it at all. But on the way back to safety (let out of the
back door into the kitchen garden, and through that into
the perfect legality of the old croquet lawn) it occurred to
him that people would always want bread. You took the
cleanly silken fineness of flour, he thought, and added to
it, and turned it into something wholesome that people
would always want more of. And you could do it standing
up. No: you had to.
‘You owe me a tanner,’ said Bowen at lunch.
‘Bet’s off,’ said Joe.
‘The committee feels,’ said Dexter, ‘that the case is
‘Not a negro.’‘What? Course she is,’ said Bowen. ‘I seen her. Black as
‘Ah, but there you are wrong, old love,’ said Dexter.
‘Newgate’s knocker considerably blacker, I’d say.’
Her glance that went right into you, thought Joe, her
wonderful laugh. How could a girl as beautiful as that
even look at a cripple like himself ? Though at the same
time, and at a level too deep for thought, he wondered
whether her being a darkie didn’t in some way even things
out a little.
‘Still counts,’ said Bowen.
‘Sorry, mate,’ said Joe, ‘but you can kiss my arse. What’s
left of it.’
‘I’ll make you one special,’ said Grace, turning to look up
at him; and she had. To one side of the heaped tray of
ordinary thinly marged buns served at tea-time that afternoon
was a paper bag with his name pencilled on it,
holding not only an extra-large supremely sticky extra-fruited
buttered beauty, a bun of buns, but a little note.
6 May, ’18
Dear Corporal Gilding, it was nice to meet you, here is the
bun you helped make.
Yours sincerely, Grace Dimond, 7a Market Buildings,
Joe folded the note and put it into the special pocket of
his wallet. He kept the paper bag, too. His recovery had