Sarah Bealen emerged from the steam of the Kingstown train, arm in arm with both her parents. She was still getting used to the idea that her adventure was truly beginning; from Kingstown to the world. Her father carried her two suitcases. Her letter of appointment had restricted her to a maximum of two cases and strictly no trunks. As they made their way down to the mail boat shed for embarkation, Sarah again checked her handbag for her passport, tickets and the address in London, to which she had to report. They arrived within quite a large group at the ticket collector on the dockside. She stepped to one side and turned to face her parents. Her mother was close to tears, trying to control her emotions. They hugged, and when they parted, both dabbed their eyes with magically appeared handkerchiefs.
“Be a good girl, Sarah,” said her mother softly. “Do what you are told, and never forget your prayers.”
“Of course I will, mother. It’s a good thing I’m doing, repairing lives damaged by the War. I’ll make you proud, you’ll see.” She turned to her father, who was as usual a tower of strength. He handed her a suitcase, saying, “I’ll carry the other on for you and see you settled.” He purchased dockside tickets from the ticket collector and the three walked up the gangway.
“I want to stay on the deck, daddy,” said Sarah. “I don’t want to fall asleep and miss anything.” She picked an empty bench, close to the funnel and settled her coat around her. Her cases were placed beside her and her mother sat down. Her father remained standing, watching suspiciously the other passengers milling about. He returned to looking at Sarah.
“We are very proud of you, Sarah. A career of helping others is something to treasure. You’ll be alright, just don’t come home with an army officer on your arm.” They laughed heartily.
“No fear, father. I’ll just patch them up and send them back to France.” A ship’s officer walked the deck, calling on those not travelling to step ashore. Sarah stood and helped her mother to her feet. They hugged again. Her father palmed her a five-pound note as he let her go.
“Thank you, daddy,” Sarah said, closing her handbag. “I’ll write you every day, if I can get the time. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back before you know it. Give Claire my love too, please. She’ll have my bed to herself when she visits next.” Sarah’s older sister, Claire was in service in county Kildare and had not been home since last Christmas. “Ask her to write me and I’ll share all my news with her. I’ll stand by the rail ‘til we’ve sailed out of the harbour. God Bless and thank you both for everything.” The ship’s officer, having completed a lap was starting another circuit, warning non-travellers that it was the last call for them to go ashore. Mr and Mrs Bealen paused at the gangway, and looked back at the stairs that they had just descended. They could see Sarah’s head still visible and everyone waved once more. Sarah stepped over to the rail and saw her parents reach the pier side. They all waved an encore and Sarah walked back to her cases and her bench. She had time to think. She still held her handkerchief. Within ten minutes, the gangway was pulled in and the ropes were being released. A blast of the whistle momentarily deafened Sarah and after a short pause, she felt the gentle rocking of a ship under steam. Her life had begun, and she dabbed her eyes again, without even realising it.
The voyage on the mail boat had been a wonderful trip, docking in Holyhead, in Wales in the early hours of the morning. She walked to the London train, and an official looking man had punched a hole in her rail ticket, telling her to go to Platform One. The train was already there, coughing smoke and spitting steam. She climbed into a Third Class carriage and hauled her suitcases onto the seat opposite. She hoped that someone strong could lift them into the luggage hammock for her. As it was, three young, slim girls entered and plopped down in a tizzy around Sarah. When she tried to apologize for her cases, the new arrivals dismissed it with, “we’ll use them as our table, if that’s okay?”
Agreeing warmly, she introduced herself, “I’m Sarah; Sarah Bealen from Carlow town.”
“A pleasure to meet you Sarah, I’m sure. I’m Margaret O’Sullivan from Kingstown and this pair of Ireland’s fairest are Tracy Southall and Lucy Taylor.” Handshakes over, they took a few minutes to settle everything, although it would be another half an hour before they were due to depart.
“So what brings you to this side of the pond, Sarah?” inquired Margaret.
“Oh, I’ve signed up for the Territorial Force Nursing Service,” answered Sarah, removing her hat and running her hands through her ginger curls. She added in the silence, “For the war effort, you see? I was a nurse in the Rotunda, but felt that I could do more, so when this doctor told us about nursing the troops…”
“I’m sure they would enjoy that,” said Margaret, to screams of laughter. “It very noble, Sarah I’m sure. Not like us, running to London to catch ourselves rich husbands!” More screams of friendly laughter, which was contagious enough to make Sarah giggle too. Without warning, the carriage lurched forward, sending Lucy crashing to the floor and Margaret bouncing face first into Sarah’s lap. Yet more laughing as they got themselves upright again. They were then stuck to the view out of the window, as the train moved out of the station into very pleasant countryside. They each quietly were reminded of home. Sarah allowed herself to float out and up, imagining the future that she was planning for herself. Her mind wandered and she closed her eyes to take a breather. The next thing she consciously heard was the train guard shouting that this was Crewe Station. She stretched luxuriously and looked around.
“I seem to have nodded off,” she said. Margaret was awake, but Tracy and Lucy seemed fast asleep.
“You looked to be having a lovely dream, so I was afraid to wake you. We are going to be here for two hours, I’m sorry to say. It’s the military transport that’s using the line and we are not important enough to be considered.” She smiled broadly and leaned close to Sarah’s face. “Do you fancy getting out of here for a stroll to refresh ourselves?”
“Sure, Margaret. Will our luggage be safe?” Margaret nudged Tracy and told her to look after the cases, while Sarah and she went outside for a bit, she explained with a wink. They hopped down onto the platform and walked along it towards the station’s Ladies Waiting Room.
“No,” said Margaret, as Sarah went to enter. “Come around the back, where we can have some privacy.” Sarah hesitated, before following Margaret out of the sight of the other passengers. What she witnessed was Margaret lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply.
“Oh my,” exclaimed Sarah, “I had no idea!”
“Don’t take off so,” said Margaret exhaling. “If I am forced to wash and feed some snobbish Londoners, then at least I can smoke before I get there.” She laughed warmly, and offered the box to Sarah. “Won’t you be joining me, little miss Sarah?” Sarah laughed aloud at her new friend’s big secret, while waving her hands in a gesture of refusal.
“I wouldn’t dare, Margaret. Gosh, if my parents were to see me smoking!”
“Sure what of them, aren’t you on your own now? Aren’t you the prettiest Irish lass to walk on Welsh soil, freckles and all, and no one to call a friend except the despicable Margaret O’Sullivan, the Leinster Witch!” She had been walk towards Sarah as she spoke and was pushing the cigarette box into her hand by the time she had finish. Sarah laughed again, saying that she had never smoked; not even in the Rotunda.
“And how than, may I ask,” said Margaret, putting on a condescending accent. “How did you handle the stress?” As they continued to laugh, Margaret lit another cigarette and pressed it to Sarah’s lips. By the time they had caught their breath again, Sarah was smoking for her first time. After they had finished, they walked arm in arm back to the train, waking the other girls as they climbed back into their carriage. Combining their food supplies, they surveyed what they would make a communal picnic with. The time passed quickly, after they got going again, travelling south towards London’s Euston Railway Station. After eating salad sandwiches, washed down with great mugs of sweet tea, Sarah dozed contentedly, only waking on the outskirts of London. As the ladies started gathering their belongings together, Sarah swapped addresses and her hotel’s telephone number with Margaret. After arriving in the station, they hugged goodbye with each other, promising to talk again very soon. As Sarah waved, the three new friends of Sarah’s were soon swallowed up by the morning commuter crowd.
With a suitcase in each hand and her handbag hanging around her neck, Sarah headed out of Euston Station into the early London smog. She was delighted that she had budgeted for a taxi ride, rather than having to negotiate the tube service. Dropping her cases beside the first vacant driver, she read from her note, “The Great Central Hotel, Marylebone, please.”
“Certainly, Madam,” said the driver, swinging open the rear door, waiting until she was settled before setting off. Sarah was trying to take in all the sights that seemed to flash past. She had no idea of the route that the taxi took, but far too quickly they had arrived. “A pleasure, Madam,” said the driver, handing her the change from her five-pound note. “Thank you so much,” said Sarah, moving her cases to the footpath. As the taxi departed, she looked at the front façade of her new, if very temporary home. It was gigantic, in red brick and terra-cotta. A porter, in livery reached for her cases.
“Good morning, Madam. May I be presumptive enough to hope that you will be residing with us.”
“Yes, thanks. I have booked for tonight,” answered Sarah, following the porter through the grand entrance. What greeted her was the most spectacular space that she had ever seen. Marble and panels of wood and tapestry surrounded the dominant reception desk, of intricately engraved mahogany.
“Miss Williams,” said the porter, addressing himself to the receptionist. “May I take the pleasure of introducing Miss, em.”
“Miss Sarah Bealen, of Carlow,” offered Sarah adding, “the town, not the countryside.”
“Carlow’s Miss Bealen” repeated the porter, “who shall be staying with us just for tonight.” He smiled at Sarah warmly, while Miss Williams confirmed the booking and handed over both the room key and the register form.
“Just hand back the form when you’ve had a chance to freshen up. Will you be dining with us this evening, Miss Bealen?”
“No, thank you.” said Sarah. “I’m all tired out from the long journey and have an early start tomorrow. Besides I got to eat on the train.” It was some time later before Sarah ventured out of her room again. She had never seen such luxury in her twenty years, but then the only time she had been outside Dublin was to visit relatives in Ballycotton, in East Cork, and that was on a farm. Here, she had had a long bath, with running hot water straight from the tap and had followed it with a wonderful nap in the largest, softest bed she had ever known. Still, she was aware of the time and her mother had given her some idea of London’s social expectations. So she changed into an evening dress and headed downstairs to the entrance lobby. She handed in her registration form and inquired about how best to contact her new friend, Margaret O’Sullivan.
“Thank you Miss,” said the receptionist. “We can call your friend for you, if that is convenient?”
“Thank you, Miss Williams and please call me Sarah. I don’t want to disturb them tonight, as they’ll be as exhausted as I am.”
“Well, Sarah,” said Joan, “you just give us the number that you want to talk to, and sit in one of our telephone booths. We’ll do the rest, and add the cost of the call to your bill. Might I suggest that you tour the ground floor spaces, read some of the magazines or just sit in our covered courtyard and watch the world go by.”
“I’d love to tour the floor, it is so awesome!” She had learnt this Americanism from an Uncle that had family in the US. She liked the sound of it, but had never believed that she would ever be in a position to use it.
“Fine, a bell boy will arrange everything, if you want to make a telephone call later. Have a lovely evening, Sarah,” and she disappeared into a back office. Sarah casually walked through the rooms, each one
grandeur than the last, until she eventually sat in the covered courtyard and tried to remember all that had already happened on the busiest day of her life. Then there was the expectation of what was to come tomorrow, when she had reported for duty to the nursing service. It was all a bit much for her to take in, although everyone was being extremely nice to her since she arrived. The first chill of an evening breeze sent her back indoors and up to her room. She wrote a quick, short note to her parents, just to use the embossed hotel stationery. Then she went to bed and dreamt of what tomorrow might bring, at Alexandra’s Training Hospital. “So far, so good!” was her last thought before falling asleep.
to be continued