Christmas 1940 at Heronfield…

The story so far…

Heronfiled House has been transformed into a convalescent home for the duration. The Kemshalls, who own the house, have moved out into a Lodge at the end of the drive. The Kemshall’s eldest son, David, was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. He was recently shot down and killed. The younger son, Tony, experienced Dunkirk and is training to be sent into France with the SOE.

Up at the hospital Sarah Porter is working as a VAD, her mother and boyfriend live in Coventry and she misses them dreadfully, especially since experiencing the bombing of the city while home on leave. Over the months she has become friends with Tony Kemshall who wants much more than friendship from their relationship.

Christmas 1940 is rapidly approaching. A tree has been brought up to Heronfield House by Sir Michael who does not feel like celebrating Christmas this year but knows that he must go through the motions for the rest of the family. Some of the nursing staff have been given two days leave but the remainder, including Sarah, are staying on to care for the patients; their celebrations will begin at the dance to be held in Marlborough on Christmas Eve and continue with Christmas dinner at the hospital with all the patients.

Christmas Eve dawned clear and bright and an air of expectation pervades the whole hospital. The rounds were completed early and the auxiliary staff have completed their work now that dinner had seen served to the patients and cleared away. All that remains is to serve tea to the patients later in the afternoon and then the women will be free to go into Marlborough. The afternoon is spent bathing, washing hair, beautifying, for the chance to go to a party comes rarely in the secluded precincts of Heronfield House…

Sarah was sitting in front of the mirror, perusing the face which stared back at her. She smiled wistfully. How she wished she could be back in Coventry for the next few days. She had never been away from home at Christmas before and knew that she was going to miss the midnight service followed by a glass of sherry before bed; then the excitement of present opening beneath the tree after breakfast. She was glad that Mr. and Mrs. Cook would be with her mother, she would hate for Alice to be alone on Christmas Day. Sarah began to brush her hair vigorously. What she would miss most of all, she had to admit, was seeing Joe.

The door opened and Jane entered, quilted housecoat tied tightly around her waist and hair wrapped in a towel.

“I can’t wait to get to the dance.” She waltzed excitedly across the room as she spoke. “I hope there are plenty of handsome young men there.”
Sarah laughed.
“None of them will dance with you if you look like that!”
Jane sat down on the bed and began to towel her hair dry.
“You wait ’till you see me tonight! They won’t be able to resist me!”
“I hope so. Then at least you’ll have a happy Christmas.”
Jane stopped towelling her hair and gazed thoughtfully at her roommate.
“Won’t you?”
Sarah shrugged and smiled.
“I suppose so. It’s just that I’ll miss Mum, and Joe.”
“There will be so much going on here that you won’t have time to be homesick.”
Sarah put down her hairbrush and made her way over to the wardrobe where she took out the red dress which she intended to wear that evening and hung it on the back of the door to allow the creases to fall out. There was a knock on the other side of the door, which startled Sarah and made Jane laugh.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Carol. Is Sarah there?”
“Yes. Come in” Sarah replied as she opened the door to the young nurse who came in, smiling broadly.
“There’s someone to see you. I think he’s come down from Coventry.”
Sarah’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Joe? Joe!” She turned and rushed over to Jane. “It’s Joe Jane!”
Jane laughed.
“I had gathered that! Now get down there before he goes back to Coventry!”
As Sarah rushed from the room Jane smiled mischievously at Carol.
“It must be love!”
Sarah stopped at the head of the staircase and looked down into the hall. She knew it was a moment that she would remember for the rest of her life. The tree was bright with baubles which twinkled merrily beneath the lights, holly hung above the mirrors and picture frames, streamers hung from the ceiling and in the midst of it all, standing straight and tall beside the green, silver and gold of the tree, was Joe. Smiling radiantly Sarah made her way down the stairs and into his arms.
“Joe! It’s so good to see you! What are you doing here?”
Joe smiled down at the girl in his arms. Her happiness radiated from her like the light from a candle in a darkened room and he felt a surge of pride to know that she was his.
“I just couldn’t face the thought of Christmas without seeing you so I came down. I can’t stop long, the last train leaves at six o’clock.”
“But that only gives us an hour or so!”
“Then let’s not waste it. Can you get away?” Sarah nodded and he continued. “Then get your coat and let’s go for a walk.”
Sarah rushed upstairs for her coat and was back in minutes. Breathlessly she took Joe by the hand and led him out of the house and down the gravel drive.
“You didn’t tell me that Heronfield House was so big and beautiful.”
Sarah smiled.
“It’s another world isn’t it.” They passed the Lodge as she spoke. “The Kemshall family who own the House are living in the Lodge for the duration. It must be quite a change for them.”
The two young people were so engrossed in each other that they did not see Tony Kemshall who stood a little way from the drive and watched them walk out through the big wrought iron gates. They looked so obviously in love that he knew at once who Sarah’s companion was. Turning back towards the Lodge he frowned unhappily, his plans for the day suddenly disrupted by the appearance of his rival.
Sarah and Joe walked slowly down the road going nowhere in particular, just glad to be together.
Sarah sighed happily.
“This is one Christmas I’ll never forget.”
Joe stopped walking. They were beneath the spreading branches of a chestnut tree, bare now in the winter sunlight.
“Perhaps I can give you another reason to remember today.” Joe reached a hand into his coat pocket as he spoke. “I realised during the bombing that life wouldn’t be worth living for me if you weren’t there to share it.” He took a small blue velvet box from his pocket and opened it so that Sarah could see the ring that nestled inside, diamond shining brightly. “Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
Sarah said nothing. Her eyes were fixed on the ring, her throat constricted by emotion.
“You don’t have to answer me now. You can think about it and give me your answer when I next see you.”
“Oh Joe.” Sarah’s voice caught in her throat. “I don’t need to think about it. You know I love you. I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to be your wife.”
Joe smiled happily as he took the ring from the box and placed it on Sarah’s finger.
“Oh, it fits perfectly!”
Joe grinned.
“I thought it would. I asked your mother what your ring size was when I told her I was coming down.”
As he took Sarah in his arms and placed his lips on hers Sarah thought that her heart would burst with happiness.

Joe left Sarah at the gates to Heronfield House and she watched him walk away towards his bus to Marlborough where he would catch the train to Coventry. With a quick glance at her watch she realised that she was late and rushed inside to serve tea to the patients. Sarah worked as though in a dream, her actions purely mechanical as her hands passed out plates and cups, and though she spoke cheerfully to the patients her thoughts were not with them but many miles away. She was going to marry Joe! She had known for some time that Joe was the only man for her and she had though that he felt the same, now this confirmed it. The war seemed so far away at this point in time and almost insignificant as her brain raced with ideas for the wedding and plans for the future. Her new position as Joe’s fiancée gave her a different perspective on the conflict. No longer was it a war that blocked out all normality in life, but something which infringed on life for a time and would eventually go away to leave her and Joe to enjoy life as any young married couple should. The time seemed to fly by as though on wings and Sarah soon found herself back in her room sitting once again in front of the mirror, gazing at her reflection and contemplating the rosy future which lay ahead of her.
The door opened and Jane came in.
“Has Joe gone already?” she asked in surprise.
Sarah nodded dreamily.
“Mmmm. He had to get the last train back to Coventry.”
“It was hardly worth him coming so far for such a short visit.”
Sarah smiled happily.
“Oh yes it was!”
She held out her left hand and Jane gasped in amazement.
“Sarah! Is that an engagement ring? Of course it is! Oh how wonderful!” She hugged her friend happily. “I’m so happy for you. This is certainly one Christmas you won’t forget in a hurry!”
Sarah laughed.
“I’ll never forget it! Now, come on and let’s get ready. We have a party to go to!”

The trip into Marlborough and the early part of the dance passed in a whirl for Sarah. Her friends and colleagues at the hospital had been full of congratulations and she had danced with almost every young man at the party. Sarah had never been happier in her whole life.
Tony came late to the dance. He had wondered if it would not be better for him to stay away as he did not want to watch Sarah with Joe for the whole evening, but in the end he had decided that he would be even more depressed if he could not see her at all. So he had taken David’s red sports car and driven to Marlborough. It seemed strange to be in the car without his brother but Louise had said that she was sure that David would have wanted him to have it and, reluctantly, he had accepted the gift, wishing that David were there and that there was no gift to give. He felt rather conspicuous and alone as he walked into the hall which was a whirl of swirling colours when he arrived. Couples danced energetically to the band which played the latest dance tunes, some people stood at the refreshments table while others admired the huge Christmas tree. He stood quietly by the door watching the festivities and it was some time before he noticed Sarah sitting alone at a table. His eyes widened with surprise to see her unaccompanied but he soon had his feelings under control and made his way across to join her. Sarah’s thoughts were miles away, reliving the time she had spent with Joe that afternoon, and she jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Merry Christmas Sarah.”
As she turned in her chair and looked up at him Tony thought that he had never seen her looking so beautiful.
“Hello Tony. Merry Christmas.”
“Are you alone? I thought I saw you with a young man this afternoon. I assumed it was this Joe you’ve told me so much about.”
Sarah smiled radiantly at him.
“Yes, it was. But he’s already gone back to Coventry.”
Tony smiled as he envisaged the evening stretching before them. If he could only spend time with her maybe she would see how much he cared and choose him instead of Joe.
“Would you like to dance?”
Sarah nodded and Tony’s heart was thumping wildly as he led her onto the floor. It felt so good to hold her in his arms and they seemed to move together as one, as though they had been made for each other. The fresh, clean scent of her hair intoxicated him and he wished the night could last forever.
“Did Joe bring a Christmas present from your mother?”
Sarah shook her head.
“No he only decided yesterday that he would come down so Mum had already posted my present. But Joe did bring me something from himself.”
“Oh?”
Sarah stopped dancing and held out her left hand excitedly.
Tony felt the blood rush from his face and his breath catch in his throat as he saw the ring and knew that he had lost her. He forced himself to smile although the muscles in his face did not want to assume those contours. Hiding his dismay as best he could he took her hand in his.
“Congratulations. I can see by the sparkle in your eyes and your radiant smile that you could not be happier.” He swallowed hard, then continued. “I wish you and Joe every happiness. You deserve it.”
“Thank you Tony.” Sarah tipped her head to one side. “Are you alright? You seem a little unhappy.”
A little unhappy! Tony almost laughed at the understatement but there was no way he could explain his feeling to her. Finally he shrugged his shoulders.
“I suppose it’s because this is the first Christmas I’ll spend without David” he half lied.
“I’m sorry Tony. I’m so engrossed in my own happiness that I’d forgotten how you must be feeling.”
“There’s no need to apologize. Now, let me congratulate you properly.”
As the dancers whirled about them Tony leant down and kissed Sarah on the lips for the first and he, assumed, the last time in his life. It was a bittersweet experience, a gentle kiss, soft and lingering, a kiss he knew he would remember for as long as he lived.

For more about Heronfield please click here

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