Charles opened his eyes, but dared not move. He could feel the warmth of a midday sun, shining directly on his face. Soft cotton sheets crest his skin, while heavy blankets held him tight to the down-filled mattress. He was home. His father had given him a pair of sunglasses, as his eyes were still quite weak, despite the removal of the bandages. Once he had the glasses in place, he pushed himself into a half sitting position and looked around the room. Everything was both familiar and childish. His parents, he was assuming by that, his mother had kept everything like he had left it, when he went to enlist at Lichfield Training Depot, in August 1914. A tap-tap on the bedroom door admitted his mother. She was glad to see him alert and smiled. “How do you feel this morning, Charles?” She was putting his officer’s jacket on a hanger, smoothing it affectionately.
“I’m feeling a lot better, mum. I actually slept last night and feel that I could even manage a little breakfast, if that is still available at this hour?” His mother turned to him with a grin, and asked what he wished to eat. “I’d love coffee and a boiled egg, if the hens are giving?”
“The new help is here today, so she’ll deliver it when it’s ready. I’ll throw on some toast as well. Now make yourself presentable, Charles. I won’t see the family’s status diminished in front of the domestic.” She put a bowl of water, a flannel and a brush beside him and went off to get the breakfast started. There was no mirror in the room, just as in the hospitals, so he still had not seen the damage to his face. He started to use the flannel to wipe himself. He felt the seven days growth on his chin, not having shaved since Brindley Heath. It was twenty minutes later that another tap-tap announced the arrival of his breakfast. When nobody entered, he said, “Come!”
The door slowly swung open and standing there, framed in the doorway and holding a breakfast tray, was Sarah Bealen. She worn the widest grin that Charles had ever seen, and almost dropped the tray in the excitement of the moment. She stepped to the bed and placed his breakfast across his legs, before leaning in to kiss him long and hard. When she got vertical again, she straightened her pinafore and, giving a little curtsy, asked “Will there be anything else, Sir?” Charles gapped like a fish out of water.
“But, how did you; when did; my God, are you in service here?”
“Easy, soldier” said Sarah, “your breakfast will get cold and you know that your recovery is my number one priority. Questions can wait ‘til later. Now eat up, as I have to get to work. This is extra duties; not that I’m complaining.” Another delicious smile as Mrs Huffington entered behind her.
“That will be all, Sarah. We’ll see you at 0600 hours tomorrow, with a starched apron, okay? We must maintain our standards, even in wartime.” Sarah mouthed ‘0600 hours’ at Charles, curtsied and left with a giggle. Mrs Huffington turned to Charles, straightening his bed-clothes.
“Honestly, Charles. This war of yours is ruining the lower classes. I know they are scrapping the barrel, but really; that little Irish girl is the limit.”
“Mother,” shouted Charles, before continuing more calmly, “That ‘gal’ is Sarah Bealen, the nurse that saved my life and, I might add, the lady I intend to marry.”
“Eat your breakfast, Charles, and eggs are a treat these days. Sarah, if that’s her name, may be tending to your basic instincts, but in this house she is the Irish help and not very good help either, I might say.”
“MOTHER!” he shouted, handing her the untouched tray. “I don’t understand. I need to get dressed,” he added, throwing back the blankets, before realising that he wasn’t wearing pyjama bottoms. “You’ll have to leave, please.”
“You come down to the kitchen, if you really feel up to it,” said his mother, turning to leave. To add to his embarrassment, he clearly heard her mutter, “Serve his basic instincts indeed,” as she was closing his door.
When he entered the kitchen, his mother was just lifting the kettle from its place on the range. The necessary cups and condiments were on the small wooden table; set for two, he noticed. He sat down, pulling his braces onto his shoulders. Lucy, his mother, fussed with the chore of tea pouring but eventually sat and looked at her son expectantly.
“So, Sarah saved your life, Charles. That’s quite an accusation to make, I might say.”
“She did, mother and has followed my recovery from Calais to here and for the foreseeable future.” He blew on his tea, which was still too hot to drink. “I’m totally serious about us being an item, and I do intent to ask for her hand.” His mother took the news in her stride.
“Don’t you bother about such things until you are properly recovered. Anyway, your Sarah already has a beau. I saw them only last Tuesday when I was visiting your father’s tailor in Lichfield.”
“That’s impossible,” proclaimed Charles a little too quickly. “She is mine, I tell you, and when we marry you will apologise to us both.”
“I certainly didn’t mean to upset you, Charles but I actually had to address her about starting here today. She introduced the man with her as her boyfriend. He was an army officer, I remember.” Unknown to Charles, the only inaccuracy in Lucy’s statement was that Sarah’s companion was an old, rather than current, boyfriend. When Charles had been granted home leave, from Brindley Heath, Sarah had looked for lodgings within cycling distance of Wombourne. She found it in Lichfield; in a lovely boarding house under the very shadow of Lichfield Cathedral. After dropping her belongings, she had gone strolling through the town, to look at her new surroundings. She had been absent-mindedly flicking through a bookshop’s external display, when she caught “SARAH!” being shouted from down the street. She spun around and saw an army officer running towards her, arms waving wildly over his head. “SARAH,” he continued shouting, until he arrived breathless before her. She was so taken aback, that she never even tried to recognise the man. He continued to babble at her, “I simply don’t believe my eyes; how did you ever!; it is SO great to see you; is your whole family with you?”
“Do I know you?” she asked, recovering her hands from where he had grabbed them. She took a couple of steps backwards and remained apprehensively staring at him.
“Oh my Gosh, Sarah, it was so presumptuous of me to imagine that you could have remembered me. Please forgive me; I was just so ecstatic at seeing you here, in the middle of Lichfield. I’m Edward; Edward Cole!” He exaggerated a Carlow accent and observed the recognition appear on Sarah’s face.
“Oh good gracious me, I never dreamt! Edward, it really is you – and in the army too, I see?”
“Yes, the King’s shilling for all it’s worth.” While he had been looking intently at her, he had spotted the medical service badge on the right side of her coat. “Are you an army nurse, Sarah?”
“Yes, Territorial Force Nursing Service, if you please. I thought that there was more to do than just delivering babies in Dublin, so I answered the call. But how are you and your family? Gosh, how long has it been?”
“Over six years, Sarah. Six years and a lifetime ago. Listen, have you time for a tea. My mother runs the tea rooms in the Recreation Park’s pavilion. She’ll be so thrilled to see you; she still gets homesick, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I’d love to. Unfortunately, I’m actually going to.” She was cut off by an automobile breaking hard on the road beside them, the surprise forcing Sarah to take a little jump towards Edward, who put a protective arm around her waist. The rear window of the automobile was wound down and a woman addressed her from within.
“Miss Sarah Bealen? I am Mrs Huffington and have accepted your services from the Carlson Agency just five minutes ago. Mr Carlson pointed you out to me, so I thought that I would introduce myself.” She was studying Edward, his uniform and the position of his right arm around Sarah’s waist. “The agency assured me that you were single.”
The reaction of the pedestrians was twofold. Edward came to attention and saluted, while Sarah curtsied and reassured Mrs Huffington by saying, “Oh no, Madam. This is my boyfriend since childhood. We just met again by accident after many years.”
This seemed to satisfy her new mistress, who simply said, “then we will see you at 0600 hours tomorrow morning, Sarah. Mr Carlson will supply the address. The help entrance can be approach from the rear lane.” She knocked on the driver’s glass partition and, as she rewound the window, the automobile pulled off with a grinding of gears and a couple of puffs of exhaust fumes.
to be continued