From Chapter 1:
Peggy came into the billing office buzzing with excitement. ‘Guess what, Sylvia?’ she said. ‘The American Red Cross are looking for girls to volunteer at their clubs. We could go and sign up after work.’
The Red Cross had set up numerous clubs in central London to cater for the GIs based there, as well as the thousands who would pour in from all over the country when their two days a month’s leave came up. On Piccadilly Circus was the famous Rainbow Corner club, open 24 hours a day, where the GIs could shoot pool, play pinball, eat hamburgers and waffles, and generally get a taste of ‘home’.
‘I will if you will,’ Sylvia replied enthusiastically. She was delighted at the thought of doing something to help the Americans, and Peggy seemed quite keen on the idea too, if the grin on her face was anything to go by.
After work that day, the two girls took themselves to the US Embassy for an interview. A Red Cross lady in a military-style blue uniform took down their names and addresses, and asked what their parents did for a living. I hope they don’t only want posh girls, Sylvia thought to herself, as she explained that her dad worked down the gas works and her mum was a munitions factory worker at Woolwich Arsenal.
But the American woman didn’t seem to be put off by anything that Sylvia said. ‘The most important thing is being warm and friendly,’ she told her. ‘Whatever problems you have in your own life, you check them at the door. Our boys deserve a good welcome the moment they step inside a Red Cross club.’
She explained that Sylvia and Peggy would be sent to the Washington Club on nearby Curzon Street, and would be expected to work there two nights per week. Sylvia’s first three-hour shift would be the following Tuesday, while Peggy would start later in the week.
When she arrived on Curzon Street after work on Tuesday, Sylvia found the club easily. It was housed in the Washington Hotel, which had suffered bomb damage during the Blitz but had recently reopened, and as she passed under a big blue awning and through the revolving front door, she felt a thrill of excitement go through her.
Inside, she was met by a young woman in Red Cross uniform. ‘You must be the new volunteer,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’
Sylvia was aware of music playing in the distance, as the young woman led her down a corridor leading further into the hotel. On either side of them were racks of American newspapers and magazines from various states, with pride of place given to the Stars and Stripes, the servicemen’s newspaper, written by American journalists in London and distributed by the News of the World. As they passed into large room at the end of the corridor, the music got louder, and Sylvia could make out the final bars of ‘I’ll be Seeing You’ giving way to the lively beat of Glen Miller’s ‘In The Mood’.
The room was filled with GIs – some playing pool, some jostling for control of the juke-box, and others taking doughnuts from a silver machine in the corner – while half a dozen young women rushed around serving them. A smell of apple pie suffused the air, and Sylvia could hear snatches of conversation in a variety of distinctive American accents, from the harsh gutturals of New York to the lazy drawl of Alabama. It really did feel like being in another country, she thought.
The kitchen was a small affair at the back of the room, and inside Sylvia could see volunteers peeling potatoes and washing dishes. ‘So, what can I do?’ she asked, keen to get stuck in.
‘You can start by clearing the plates off the tables,’ the other girl told her.
Sylvia didn’t need asking twice. She put away her coat and bag and got to work straight away.
Clearing the GI’s tables, Sylvia found she learned a lot about American eating habits. For a start there were the strange combinations of sweet and savoury items on a single plate, such as bacon and eggs topped with strawberry jam. Then there were the soft drinks that went along with them. Many of the GIs were sipping a dark substance that looked like some kind of fizzy vinegar, and Sylvia learned it was called Coca-Cola.
But the most striking thing about the GIs’ meals was the sheer size of them – a single plateful might constitute half a week’s rations in England, and they often left much of their food uneaten. Sylvia felt guilty as she threw away plates full of perfectly good food, aware how much her mum struggled at home to feed the family.
The GIs were keen to chat to her as she worked. ‘Hey beautiful, don’t forget my plate!’, one called out. ‘Aw, honey, why don’t you come sit down with me?’ shouted another.
At first Sylvia blushed shyly at their remarks, but after a while she got used to laughing them off like the other girls did. She remembered what she had been told about giving the men a warm welcome, and when they wanted to talk to her about their homeland she was a willing listener. One young man told her about living in North Dakota, where it snowed for six months of the year. Another described growing up in sophisticated San Francisco, while a third, from Arizona, told her all about life on the border with Mexico.
Sylvia loved to hear their tales of America, and she could see it helped them too. Beneath the bravado and charm, they were lonely young men in a strange country, far from their families and facing an uncertain future. They knew they hadn’t been sent to England just to have a good time – one way or another, they were preparing for an invasion of the Continent, which they described rather poetically as ‘the far shore’. Sylvia knew there would be dark days ahead for many of the men in the room, but in the meantime, the least she could do was keep their spirits up.
As she worked, she began humming along to the music issuing from the juke box. Her dad had always described American music as ‘twaddle’ when it came on the wireless, but Sylvia loved the swing sound of Glenn Miller and his ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, and soon she was singing her heart out.