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In Poplar, women are queueing round the block for the new contraceptive pill. It’s an exciting time, but Doctor Turner’s spirits are dampened. “Unmarried women can’t be referred for oral contraception. It isn’t what we hoped for,” he frowns. “No, but it’s a start,” replies Shelagh.
And, the pill aside, there are still babies and pregnant mothers who need their attention. Rhoda Mullocks is back with little Susan for a check-up. She’s happy and growing bigger by the day, but her mum is struggling and can’t sleep. Turner prescribes a mild sedative, Distaval, to help her. “If I can’t fix her, I’ve got to fix myself,” says Rhoda.
“City lad” Mitchell has returned to Poplar from Australia, where he unsuccessfully tried his hand at sheep farming. And he’s got a surprise for his mum Tessie. His Australian fiance Noelle is following on a later boat – and she’s in the family way. A wedding must be planned for “the minute that boat docks,” insists Tessie. Tom jumps to it, while Tessie gets Violet sourcing maternity essentials. When the girl arrives it’s clear she could go into labour any minute…
Sister Evangelina isn’t dealing with newborns – “babies are a two-handed job” – but she’s settling back into the pace of life at Nonnatus after her time away, solving problems, dishing out advice and scolding her fellow midwives when necessary.
She’s trying to nap in the kitchen, but Barbara, Trixie and Phyllis are discussing pantyhose and whether they are “a breeding ground for yeast.” When Barb bangs a ketchup bottle on the table she snaps. “Is there nowhere a woman can get 40 uninterrupted winks around this place?” she shouts.
Boxes of “junk and tat” have arrived at Nonnatus House. The Mother House is converting its attic so the contents have been sent on. Sister Evangelina looks on from her chair while the rest of the nuns pore over their contents. They find a box full of the wedding dresses they wore to say their vows. Sister Mary Cynthia admits to being disappointed when she learned the tradition had been dropped, but Evangelina tuts. She’s pleased. She never dreamed of wearing a wedding dress and insists she looked like a “side show” in hers.
The next morning, Barbara asks if Sister Evangelina will assist at Tripti Valluck’s labour. The Indian family live in a poorly maintained block, with a broken toilet, an outside tap and fleas. She agrees to come along and do the “donkey work” and while Barbara helps deliver the baby, Evangelina sets about cleaning the flat.
Going to fill up a bucket with water, she hears Tripti’s baby’s first cries and is visibly moved. Later, Barb asks if she’ll bathe the baby girl and Evangelina reluctantly agrees. But she manages with her left hand just fine, washing and holding the little girl – and clearly enjoying being around newborns again.
Barbara and Sister Evangelina return to Nonnatus, happy and tired. Evangelina settles into her chair by the fire while Barbara covers her in a blanket and goes off to fix them both a cup of tea.
Early the next morning Fred heads into Nonnatus House and Sister Evangelina is right where Barbara left her. He thinks she’s asleep but she doesn’t wake when he loudly knocks over the fire pokers. “Sister Evangelina?” he asks, before taking off his hat and clasping her hand. She’s passed away in the night.
Doctor Turner is playing with baby Angela when the telephone rings. The girls are gathered on the stairs, Trixie and Patsy shellshocked and smoking while Phyllis comforts a sobbing Barbara. “I’d put money on another stroke,” reports the doctor sadly, as Sister Monica Joan wails.
When Turner returns home, Shelagh is crying, but it’s not just because of Sister Evanglina. Distaval is being withdrawn with immediate effect. Deformed babies have been born and they think there’s a link. The news is in medical journal The Lancet too, but the article says there have only been one or two cases, and none in the UK. “I have prescribed Distaval to dozens of patients… deformed babies have been born in our district. We need to speak to someone and then we need to act.”
Phyllis and Patsy are called and they set about trawling through medical records. “I don’t know how to put it right,” cries Turner, as they find connections between several women and the drug.
Ruby Cottingham had been prescribed Distaval for anxiety before she got pregnant and must have taken what she had left, while Rhoda Mullocks’ sister had been prescribed the pills for insomnia.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary Cynthia is called to see Noelle and the pair start talking about the expectant mother’s impending nuptials. She’s having to wear a pink suit to say her vows, because they couldn’t find a dressmaker to fashion her a maternity gown, and she’s disappointed. Mary Cynthia thinks she hears Sister Evangelina’s voice in her head, as clear as day, telling her to give Noelle her old wedding gown. “Now is not the time to start arguing with her, is it,” replies Sister Julienne, who laughs and then bursts into tears.
The nuns wash Sister Evangelina’s body and lovingly comb her hair, while Barb, Trixie and Delia turn her old dress into a new gown for Noelle. When the undertaker arrives he asks if he can take care of everything free of charge. Sister Evangelina saved him and his mother when he was born two months early. “Now it’s time to pay back what I owe,” he says.
The people of Poplar line up to pay their respects to Sister Evangelia, while Patsy and Phyllis do the rounds, removing bottles of Distaval from their patients. Julienne finds Ruby, who is struggling and drinking in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. She’s still taking Distaval, but gives it to Julienne after taking one last pill. Rhoda Mullocks is left distraught by the news. “You’re not to blame, Rhoda. I promise you,” says Turner, while she cries and apologises to Susan again and again.
Trixie irons her funeral outfit while having a heart to heart with Phyllis. She’s lonely and feels lost, but “it’s not actually the lack of a man that bothers me,” she insists.
“There are some women who make a very decent fist of being spinsters. I like to think I’m one of them,” Phyllis replies. “But you aren’t and there’s no use pretending otherwise. Let’s see what Father Christmas brings you.”
Meanwhile, Noelle’s wedding is in full swing. She’s holding her bouquet in front of her bump for the photos, but soon she can’t hide the truth. Her waters break at her reception and Nonnatus is called. Trixie and Mary Cynthia assist while wedding guests dance the other side of the curtain – and a baby boy arrives, all while Noelle’s still wearing Sister Evangelina’s gown.
The time has come for Sister Evangelina to leave Nonnatus House for the final time. PC Noakes stops the traffic and people line the streets of Poplar. Sister Monica Joan appears last, putting Evangelina’s work shoes on the casket. “They deserve their rest as well as she,” she says.
Thankful families gather to say farewell and the nuns and nurses shed sad tears, and follow the coffin down the street.