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Authors: Annie Groves

A Christmas Promise

BOOK: A Christmas Promise
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Title Page






























An Interview with Sheila Riley

About Annie Groves

Also by Annie Groves


About the Publisher

September 1943

‘Forty-eight hours’ embarkation leave.’

Tilly felt a thrill of excitement shoot through her veins. This was it: she had been accepted to do her war work abroad. It was what she had been hoping for since she had volunteered for overseas duties. So much had happened in the last few months that it seemed as if she had been on exercises in Wales for years. Not that she could or would discuss it with anybody, even her mother, but there was a lot going on in Whitehall right now. Her mother would have nightmares if she knew that the War Office was preparing for a second front that would end the conflict, one way or another, once and for all. Nor could she tell her mum about the nature of her foreign duties, which had just been confirmed with a tap on her shoulder by a high-ranking officer. But she had to put that to the back of her mind now.

She was so happy to be going home, especially now, and Rick said he would have leave, too.

‘Your leave starts now,’ said the chief commander. ‘Leave a contact number – but don’t bother about bringing back your bathing costumes. You may not be sent straight away.’

‘How droll,’ Janet said as they left the commander’s office. ‘Sunbathing, indeed! The beaches will be heavily fortified with barbed wire the same as here, no doubt.’

‘I know,’ said Tilly, aware that her leave would be tinged with sadness. She and the other three girls with whom she had trained, Veronica, Pru and Janet, had all volunteered for overseas duty. Every girl who offered to undertake such duties released a man for service elsewhere. The bonus was the excitement of being in some exotic foreign country for the winter instead of being stuck in foggy old London. Tilly and the other girls had been billeted close to Whitehall and her long hours meant that she rarely got home, but now, as the time to leave was drawing close, Tilly wasn’t so sure she had done the right thing, and foggy old London seemed not so bad after all. There was one consolation, however: some of the other ATS girls hadn’t been called up to go overseas for months.

A Few Days Earlier

‘Are you thinking of going back to Liverpool?’ Olive asked Sally as she scraped carrots for the evening meal at the brown, stone sink, before she went out to do her Women’s Voluntary Service work. Sally, her lodger, picked up another carrot and automatically began to do the same.

The two women enjoyed a catch-up in the kitchen when they got a chance, but as they both led busy lives, that hadn’t been often of late. However, Olive could see that Sally, as fidgety as a cat on a hot wall now, had something on her mind.

‘Is something the matter, Sally?’ Olive pressed her, the knife stilled in her hand as she studied the young nurse’s face. Sally looked tired, which was understandable; the whole country was tired – and sick of this war. But Olive could see in Sally’s eyes that it wasn’t just the war and the privations it brought that concerned her especially, nor was it like her to be secretive. Olive had noticed that she had talked a lot about her mother lately, much more than she had done in the past.

‘I’m fine, Olive, truly,’ Sally assured her landlady with a stiff smile, pushing her burnished auburn hair out of her eyes, but, as she dropped the scraped carrot into the bowl of water, her smile slipped and she turned to Olive. ‘You know, I haven’t been back home since I found out about … the death of Alice’s parents …?’

Olive nodded and looked at Sally for a long moment before she said, ‘Do try and see the situation from all sides, Sally.’ Her words sounded unusually abrupt, but then she continued in a milder tone: ‘He was your father, too.’ There was a moment’s silence as the two women took in the enormity of Olive’s words. It had been nearly two and a half years since Sally’s father and her one-time best friend had been killed in the Liverpool blitz back in May 1941, leaving their baby daughter an orphan, but the thought still brought a savage pain coursing through her heart, which Sally was sure would never heal.

‘I remember you wanted to give Alice up for adoption,’ Olive continued in that caring, motherly tone all the girls under her roof had come to know and love. It was true that Sally had wanted nothing to do with her half-sister, seeing her only as a reminder of the bitter, angry resentment she felt for her one-time best friend. ‘And I also know you would have regretted that decision for the rest of your life – you couldn’t give part of yourself away …’

‘Yes, and that is the very reason I don’t want to give her away,’ Sally said, her heart breaking at the thought of little Alice being evacuated to the countryside. Even though the air raids weren’t as bad as they had been in earlier years of the war, they were still a threat. Now, Sally acknowledged, three-year-old Alice was the most precious gift she had ever received.

‘Maybe a visit to Liverpool would clear your head?’ Olive ventured as she turned back to her chores.

‘I feel as if I’ve left it too late, as if I should have laid my ghosts to rest by now, Olive,’ Sally said, though Olive was shaking her head as if not believing a word of it, ‘but more than that …’ She struggled to find the right words.

‘You feel as if you’ve deserted your home city and locked away your memories in a bomb-proof box?’ Olive suggested.

The twenty-six-year-old nurse gave a self-conscious half-laugh. ‘Well, maybe … But it’s more than that – something I can’t explain.’

‘You want to make your peace, perhaps –,’ Olive smiled kindly – ‘and maybe thank somebody up there who is looking down on you and granting you small mercies?’

‘Oh, Olive, you always know the right thing to say.’ Sally’s eyes lit up and she hugged her landlady as she would have done her own mother if she were still alive. ‘And that is why it is so difficult for me to say this to you now …’ Sally marvelled at Olive’s ability to put people’s minds at rest, no matter how sensitive the subject. ‘I have something to tell you.’ Sally’s tone was hesitant, almost cautious. She touched Olive’s arm. ‘Drew is shortly to leave hospital.’

Olive stopped what she was doing and stared into the muddy-coloured water before saying in a low voice, ‘Is he going back home to America?’ Olive liked Drew. He was a lovely young man, who had shown her daughter, Tilly, a lot of attention back in the day when they were very young and life was a little more carefree.

‘I don’t know,’ Sally replied. ‘He said he was going to a wedding but he didn’t say whose wedding it was.’

‘I don’t mind as long as it’s not my daughter’s.’ Olive couldn’t quite carry off the mirthless laugh, and Sally knew she had hit on a raw subject here and must take things slowly.

‘This war has changed everyone – especially Tilly,’ Olive said eventually. ‘She’s no longer the giggly girl who lost her heart to the young Fleet Street journalist. She’s a grown woman with a mind of her own; a young woman who has joined the ATS and will fight for her country, if necessary. She and Rick are courting now!’ Olive’s voice rose a little and Sally suspected she was starting to panic when she said, ‘He thinks the world of her … they are in love …’

‘I’m not disputing that, Olive,’ Sally said in the same tone she used with patients who had just been given overwhelming, terrible news. ‘Are you all right, Olive?’

‘She and Rick could set up home here. In London!’

‘Close enough for you to see her regularly?’ Sally offered, knowing Olive had always been terrified her only daughter would go and live in America. And if the scenes on the newsreels were anything to go by, Americans were still not having as bad a time of the war as the people here in England had to endure. It would be such a temptation to a young, love-struck girl to want the things this country could not offer.

‘Will you go and see Drew before he is discharged from Barts, Olive?’ Sally asked in a low voice, knowing Drew hadn’t wanted to see Tilly while he was in hospital; he couldn’t bear the thought of her seeing him as an invalid.

‘It’s for the best if we leave the past where it lies.’ Olive resumed scrubbing the carrots with renewed vigour.

‘He’s walking now,’ Sally answered in tones usually reserved for church, ‘and although he will never be deemed fit enough to fight for his country, he is doing fantastically well on his walking stick.’ Her manner became more enthusiastic as she continued: ‘The doctors say that when his spine is strong enough he may even be able to discard the stick – isn’t that wonderful after all he has been through?’

Olive wished that Sally would drop the subject of Drew; it was far too painful for her to revisit the memories of her daughter’s traumatic separation, and she still felt a fierce guilt for her own part in that. Just as she had done that day she met up with Drew’s father in a chic London hotel to map out their children’s future, knowing that Tilly would never forgive her if she found out.

Drew’s father had begged her not to tell Tilly his son was in a London hospital. Olive remembered how easily she had complied with his wishes, not wanting Tilly to go through the same heartache that Olive herself had gone through: caring for a husband who had been so badly injured in the First World War that he was an invalid for the rest of his short life.

But the decision to keep Tilly and Drew apart hadn’t been hers to make, Olive knew that now. It should have been Tilly’s choice. Olive believed back then that she had done the right thing. But now she wasn’t so sure.

She had always held her own counsel; being widowed at such a young age and forced to bring up a child alone did that to a woman. She’d had to be strong and make quick decisions, but none had been faster or easier than the one she made that day when Drew’s father asked her not to tell Tilly that the man she loved had been in a life-threatening accident, which had left him in a coma for months, almost paralysed from the waist down. Her decision had been for the best.

For the best … The words kept going around in her head. Olive knew that if the truth ever reached Tilly’s ears … That was the real reason she stared, wide-eyed at the ceiling in the small hours …

‘Olive, are you all right?’ Sally hadn’t realised that the news of Drew leaving hospital would hit her landlady so hard as to drain her face of any colour. Olive stared ahead out of the kitchen window. Then she took a deep breath.

‘Of course I am,’ she said with forced brightness. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ She told herself that Tilly was happy with Rick, that she had done the right thing in not telling her only daughter that Drew was here in London. But that didn’t ease the tearing sensation of culpability that ripped into her whenever Drew’s name was mentioned in this house.

‘Well, if you’re sure …’ Sally realised that the news had come as a shock to Olive. ‘… I have to go now.’ Sally knew she should stay to discuss the matter, but she would be late if she didn’t go now. Picking up her navy-blue cloak from the back of the door, she said in a voice loaded with understanding, ‘It’s going to be all right, I’m sure of it.’

‘Alice is still having her breakfast … I’ll drop her off at the child-minder before I go to the church hall,’ Olive said in a far-away tone of voice that told Sally the subject was now closed.

‘Thank you, Olive. I’ll pick her up on the way home.’ Sally was still wondering whether to go or to stay, but realised this was something that Olive had to sort out herself.

Oh, Callum, please don’t do this to me, Sally silently begged as she took the blue envelope from the post-woman at the front door and recognised the neat handwriting of her former sweetheart.

A kind-hearted Scot and uncle of little Alice, Callum had given up his teaching job to serve as an officer in the Royal Navy for the duration of the war. It was in the senior service that Sally’s fiancé, George, had been so tragically killed when his ship was torpedoed back in 1942.

Taking a deep breath, Sally slipped the envelope into the pocket of her outdoor uniform.

‘See you later, Olive. Bye, Alice, be good,’ she called before slamming the front door behind her.

Sally was grateful to Olive for looking after little Alice while she worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where, as the newly appointed Sister Tutor, she trained the new intake of probationer nurses. If it wasn’t for Olive, Sally thought, desperately trying to ignore the rustle of the envelope in her pocket as she cycled to St Barts through the rubble of war-scarred London, she would not be able to continue the work she loved so much.

Her mind drifted back to the days when she was very young and carefree, when her wonderful, beloved mother was still alive, and before she came to London to work at Barts before the start of the war. For that had been the best of times.

However, her mother’s passing was the very reason Sally had left Liverpool – or rather the aftermath: when her one-time best friend, Morag, had shown compassion to her widowed father in a way that Sally thought disgustingly inappropriate. She had come home early one day and caught Morag kissing her father in such an intimate way that it left little room for doubt about their intentions, and Sally knew immediately she could no longer stay in her home city.

Callum, Morag’s brother, had tried to make her see it from his sister’s point of view – well, he would, wouldn’t he? He was bound to take her side. And Sally had keenly felt the betrayal from all of them. They were the people closest to her in the whole world and yet they had stolen the security of her home life as surely as if they had killed her mother.

She left as soon as she could and never went back. Her father and Morag married – and had a daughter without her even knowing. But it was the night Callum brought little Alice to her that really changed Sally’s life for ever.

He looked so handsome in his officer’s navy-blue greatcoat and cap, carrying a tiny Alice in his arms – bringing her to London when Hitler’s bombs had rained down on Liverpool back in May 1941. That was the night Sally discovered that her former home and family had been wiped out, all gone except for the child she didn’t know existed until then.

As she pedalled through the rubble of half-bombed streets, Sally felt that niggle of shame as she recalled wanting nothing to do with her half-sister, whom she so desperately wanted to send to an orphanage, and how Callum had begged her to keep Alice safe until he was able to come back and take care of her. She wanted to forget her outright refusal to comply with Callum’s wishes and how she had let the other residents of number 13 Article Row dote on her baby sister.

But little Alice eventually did to Sally what she did to everybody who met her: she claimed Sally’s heart with such a fierce love that she could not imagine a life without Alice in it.

‘Time is a great healer,’ Sally said, just loud enough to stop the memories flooding into her mind and preventing the worry about what the future held for any of them. Alice was all that Sally lived for now. Since George, a navy surgeon, had been killed, she couldn’t allow herself to get close to a man again – especially Callum.

While she had secretly been more than flattered to receive his friendly letters when George was alive, and had looked forward to Callum’s lively banter more than any engaged woman ought to have done, she could not contemplate reading them now her fiancé had gone.

Sally also realised now that, as unseemly as it sounded, she had looked forward to Callum’s letters far more than she had enjoyed George’s more placid, informative epistles, and that there may be some doubt in her heart that she had ever loved quiet, amiable, steadfast George at all.

The thought caused her skin to tingle and grow cold as she approached the gates of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Of course she loved George! She had agreed to marry him. She had given herself to him in the knowledge that they would be man and wife. But once again that knowledge brought on a new episode of uncertainty.

Sally suspected that she would have had her head turned by Callum; she may even have betrayed George, had he lived. The thought riddled her with shame and made her feel small. So the least communication between them the better, she felt.

Callum was genuinely interested in Alice, as the only child of his departed sister. He was obviously eager to know how Alice was progressing, and he had made no secret of the fact that receiving Sally’s letters, with news of his niece, was important to him. He would also ask how Sally herself was faring, although thinking about it now, she reasoned that would have been because she was bereaved. Sally had been so angry with George for joining the navy without consulting her, and she had been even angrier when he had got himself blown up and killed!

BOOK: A Christmas Promise
4.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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