In the shadows of the great pyramids, the Zeitoun School of Instruction bustled with a sense of military purpose. The drill field was a stirring sandy whir of men on horseback fighting an imaginary foe. The rifle range was crack, crack, cracking as shooting skills honed to deadly perfection. The Remount Station exploded with excitement as horses were subdued into submission.
In contrast, the streets were mapped out with neat rows of wooden barracks and uniformed collections of circular white tents. Paths were marked with rocks painted white and potted plants. Moreover, it was a picture of a perfectly ordered world; one which William Lyons embraced with open arms after months of uncertainty and chaos.
William and Lt. Atkinson stepped out from the Post Office onto Suez Road and briskly strode the short distance to the YMCA Canteen. Compared to the splendid symmetry of the Officers’ Mess with its arched façade and path lined with potted flowers, the YMCA was basic. Whilst lacking in class, it was warm and homely, thanks to Mrs Biddy Chambers. Her ever-ready smile and home cooked food made her establishment feel like a home away from home.
Entering the canteen, William welcomed the shelter from the burning sun, taking a few seconds to adjust his sight. Light filtered gently through the rattan walls and beamed down from the open shutters that were suspended from the peaked ceiling.
Removing their feathered hats and placing them under their arms, the two men made their way towards a smiling Mrs Chambers who greeted them from across the counter.
“Good Afternoon, Chaps,” she beamed. “Two white teas today, is it?”
“Yes thanks Mrs Chambers,” William responded as they both looked out over the arrangements of tables dressed with clean white cloths and pretty vases of flowers.
Surveying the scattering of chatting patrons from various Anzac Regiments, the two men carried their hot teacups to a spare table in a quiet corner close to the counter. They placed their hats on the two spare chairs, lowered themselves onto the chairs, sinking the timber legs down into the floor of sand.
“Here’s to our promotions!” Lt. Atkinson raised his tea cup, encouraging Will to follow suit.
“We have to pass first,” William retorted as he chinked his teacup against that of his companion.
“Pass? Of course we’ll pass.” They both laughed in unison.
William had spent the last two weeks of September completing the Officers’ Training Course. The days had been long and rigorous, but nothing compared to his experiences during the past months clashing with the Turks. By mid-August, the enemy had been pushed away from the Suez. Men were offered leave to Port Said and some, including William, were sent to Zeitoun for training. He relished the opportunity for self-improvement as well as a change of scenery.
As the two men sat sipping their tea, little Kathleen Chambers, toddled over to their table holding a plate of biscuits. Shyly smiling from beneath her mop of blond hair and large floppy bow, she waited for a response. Three year old Kathleen was almost a fixture at the YMCA Canteen and a joy to weary soldiers’ eyes. She was loved by all.
William took a biscuit and placed it beside the cup on his saucer.
“Why, thank you Miss Kathleen,” he said, with a slight bow to his head, before retrieving from his pocket a lolly he had saved from his Comforts Fund Parcel.
Kathleen’s eyes lit up as she took the lolly from William’s hand.
She paid him with a sweet “Thank you” before carrying the plate of remaining biscuits back to her Mother.
“You know, I haven’t seen my family for two years,” Will suddenly felt a pang of home sickness as he took a bite from the sweet biscuit.
“The boys are all getting older, growing up, and I am not there to enjoy it.”
“I know that feeling only too well,” his companion replied. “Has the sacrifice really been worth it?”
William pondered the question as he savoured another sip of tea, a luxury that as evaded him for months. His thoughts wandered to conversations he had with Colonel Wilson regarding a promotion that could mean the opportunity of utilizing his 20 years as a Drill Instructor. The very possibility brought a smile to his face. The hardships of the past two years along with the long separation from his family, might prove to be worthwhile after all.