The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (3 page)

Do you remember the first job your sister and I had in London? In crabby Mr Hawke's second-hand bookshop? How I loved him—he'd simply unpack a box of books, hand one or two to us and say, ‘No cigarette ash, clean hands—and for God's sake, Juliet, none of your margin notes! Sophie, dear,
don't let her drink coffee while she's reading.' And off we'd go with new books to read.

It was amazing to me then, and still is, that so many people who wander into bookshops don't really know what they're after—they only want to look round in the hope of seeing a book that will take their fancy. And then, being bright enough not to trust the publisher's blurb, they will ask the assistant the three questions: (1) What is it about? (2) Have you read it? (3) Was it any good?

Real dyed-in-the-wool readers—like Sophie and me—can't lie. Our faces always give us away. A raised brow or a curled lip means that it's a poor excuse for a book, and the clever customers ask for a recommendation instead, whereupon we frog-march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it. If they read it and despise it, they'll never come back. But if they like it, they're customers for life. Are you taking notes? You should—a publisher should send not just one reader's copy to a bookshop, but several, so that all the staff can read it, too.

Mr Seton told me today that
Izzy Bickerstaff
makes an ideal present for both someone you like and someone you don't like but have to give a present to anyway. He also claimed that 30 per cent of all books bought are bought as gifts. Thirty per cent??? Did he lie?

Has Susan told you what else she has managed apart from our tour? Me. I hadn't known her half an hour before she told me that my make-up, my clothes, my hair and my shoes were drab, all drab. The war was over, hadn't I heard?

She took me to Madame Helena's for a haircut; it is now short and curly instead of long and lank. I had a light rinse, too—Susan and Madame said it would bring out the golden highlights in my ‘beautiful chestnut curls'. But I know better; it's meant to cover any grey hairs (four, by my count) that
have begun to creep in. I also bought a jar of face cream, a lovely scented hand lotion, a new lipstick and an eyelash curler—which makes my eyes cross whenever I use it.

Then Susan suggested a new dress. I reminded her that the Queen was very happy to wear her 1939 wardrobe, so why shouldn't I be? She said the Queen doesn't need to impress strangers—but I do. I felt like a traitor to my country: no decent woman has new clothes—but I forgot that the moment I saw myself in the mirror. My first new dress for four years, and what a dress! It is exactly the colour of a ripe peach and falls in lovely folds when I move. The shop assistant said it had ‘Gallic chic' and I would too, if I bought it. So I did. New shoes are going to have to wait, since I spent almost a year's worth of clothing coupons on the dress.

Between Susan, my hair, my face and my dress, I no longer look a listless, bedraggled thirty-two-year-old. I look a lively, dashing, haute-coutured (if this isn't a French verb, it should be) thirty.

Apropos my new dress and no new shoes—doesn't it seem shocking to have more stringent rationing after the war than during the war? I realise that hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe must be fed, housed and clothed, but privately I resent it that so many of them are Germans.

I am still without any ideas for a book I want to write. It is beginning to depress me. Do you have any suggestions?

Since I am in what I consider to be the North I'm going to telephone Sophie in Scotland tonight. Any messages for your sister? Your brother-in-law? Your nephew?

This is the longest letter I've ever written—you needn't reply in kind.

Love,

Juliet

From Susan Scott to Sidney
25th January 1946

Dear Sidney,

Don't believe the newspaper reports. Juliet was not arrested and taken away in handcuffs. She was merely reproved by one of Bradford's constables, and he could barely keep a straight face.

She did throw a teapot at Gilly Gilbert's head, but don't believe his claim that she scalded him; the tea was cold. Besides, it was more of a glancing blow than a direct hit. Even the hotel manager refused to let us compensate him for the teapot—it was only dented. He was, however, forced by Gilly's screams to call in the constabulary.

Herewith the story, and I take full responsibility for it. I should have refused Gilly's request for an interview with Juliet. I knew what a loathsome person he was, one of those unctuous little worms who work for
The London Hue and Cry
. I also knew that Gilly and the
LH&C
were horribly jealous of the
Spectator
's success with the Izzy Bickerstaff columns—and of Juliet.

We had just returned to the hotel from the Brady's Booksmith party for Juliet. We were both tired—and full of ourselves—when up popped Gilly from a chair in the lounge. He begged us to have tea with him. He begged for a short interview with ‘our own wonderful Miss Ashton—or should I say England's very own Izzy Bickerstaff?' His smarm alone should have alerted me, but it didn't—I wanted to sit down, gloat over Juliet's success and have a cream tea.

So we did. The talk was going smoothly enough, and my mind was wandering when I heard Gilly say, ‘… You were a war widow yourself, weren't you? Or rather—
almost
a war
widow—as good as. You were to marry a Lieutenant Rob Dartry, weren't you? Had made arrangements for the ceremony, hadn't you?'

Juliet said, ‘I beg your pardon, Mr Gilbert.' You know how polite she is.

‘I haven't got it wrong, have I? You and Lieutenant Dartry
did
apply for a marriage licence. You
did
make an appointment to be married at the Chelsea registry office on the 13th of December 1942, at 11 a.m. You
did
book a table for luncheon at the Ritz—only you didn't turn up for any of it. It's perfectly obvious that you jilted Lieutenant Dartry at the altar—poor fellow—and sent him off alone and humiliated, back to his ship, to carry his broken heart to Burma, where he was killed not three months later.'

I sat up, my mouth gaping open. I just looked on helplessly as Juliet attempted to be civil: ‘I didn't jilt him at the altar—it was the day before. And he wasn't humiliated—he was relieved. I simply told him that I didn't want to be married after all. Believe me, Mr Gilbert, he left a happy man—delighted to be rid of me. He didn't slink back to his ship, alone and betrayed—he went straight to the CCB Club and danced all night with Belinda Twining.'

Well, Sidney, surprised as Gilly was, he was not daunted. Little rodents like Gilly never are, are they? He quickly guessed that he was on to an even juicier story for his paper. ‘OH-HO!' he smirked. ‘What was it, then? Drink? Other women? A touch of the old Oscar Wilde?'

That was when Juliet threw the teapot. You can imagine the hubbub that ensued—the lounge was full of other people having tea—hence, I am sure, the newspapers learning of it.

I thought his headline
IZZY BICKERSTAFF GOES TO WAR—AGAIN! Reporter Wounded in Hotel Bun-Fight
, was a bit harsh, but not too bad. But
JULIET'S FAILED ROMEO—A FALLEN HERO IN BURMA
was sickening, even for Gilly Gilbert and the
Hue and Cry
.

Juliet is worried that she may have embarrassed Stephens & Stark, but Rob Dartry's name being slung around in this fashion is making her ill. All I could get her to say to me was that Rob Dartry was a good man, a very good man—none of it was his fault—and he did not deserve this! Did you know Rob Dartry? Of course the drink, the Oscar Wilde business is pure rot, but why did Juliet call off the wedding? Do you know why? And would you tell me if you did? Of course you wouldn't; I don't know why I'm even asking.

The gossip will die down, of course, but does Juliet have to be in London for the thick of it? Should we extend our tour to Scotland? I admit I'm in two minds about this; the sales there have been spectacular, but Juliet has worked so hard at these teas and luncheons—it isn't easy to get up in front of a roomful of strangers and praise yourself and your book. She's not used to this hoopla like I am and is, I think, very tired.

Sunday we'll be in Leeds, so let me know then about Scotland.

Of course, Gilly Gilbert is despicable and vile and I hope he comes to a bad end, but he has pushed
Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War
on to the best-seller list. I'm tempted to write him a thank-you note.

Yours in haste,

Susan

P.S. Have you found out who Markham V. Reynolds is yet? He sent Juliet a forest of camellias today.

Telegram from Juliet to Sidney

Am terribly sorry to have embarrassed you and Stephens & Stark
STOP
Love Juliet

From Sidney to Juliet
Miss Juliet Ashton
The Queens Hotel
City Square
Leeds

26th January 1946

Dear Juliet,

Don't worry about Gilly—you did not embarrass S&S; I'm only sorry that the tea wasn't hotter and you didn't aim lower. The press is hounding me for a statement regarding Gilly's latest muckraking, and I am going to give them one. Don't worry; it's going to be about journalism in these degenerate times—not about you or Rob Dartry.

I've just spoken to Susan about going on to Scotland and have—though I know Sophie will never forgive me—decided against it.
Izzy
's sales figures are going up—right up—and I think you should come home.

The Times
wants you to write a long piece for the supplement—one part of a three-part series they plan to publish in successive issues. I'll let them surprise you with the subject, but I can promise you three things now: they want it written by Juliet Ashton,
not by Izzy Bickerstaff;
the subject is a serious one; and the sum mentioned means you can fill your flat with fresh flowers every day for a year, buy a satin
quilt (Lord Woolton says you no longer need to have been bombed out to buy new bed-covers), and purchase a pair of real leather shoes—if you can find them. You can have my coupons.

The Times
doesn't want the article until late spring, so we will have more time to think up a new book idea for you. All good reasons to hurry back, but the biggest one is that I miss you.

Now, about Markham V. Reynolds, Junior. I do know who he is, and the Domesday Book won't help—he's an American. He is the son and heir of Markham V. Reynolds, Senior, who used to have a monopoly on paper mills in America and now just owns most of them. Reynolds, Junior, being of an artistic bent, does not dirty his hands making paper—he prints on it instead. He's a publisher. The
New York Journal, The Word, View
—those are all his, and there are several smaller magazines as well. I knew he was in London. Officially, he's here to open the London office of
View
, but rumour has it that he's decided to begin publishing books, and he's here to beguile England's finest authors with visions of plenty and prosperity in America. I didn't know his technique included roses and camellias, but I'm not surprised. He's always had more than his fair share of what we call cheek and Americans call can-do spirit. Just wait till you see him—he's been the undoing of stronger women than you, including my secretary. I'm sorry to say she's the one who gave him your itinerary
and
your address. The silly woman thought he looked so romantic, ‘such a lovely suit and handmade shoes'. Dear God! She couldn't seem to grasp the concept of breach of confidentiality, so I had to dismiss her.

He's after you, Juliet, no doubt about it. Shall I challenge him to a duel? He would undoubtedly kill me, so I'd rather not.
My dear, I can't promise you plenty or prosperity or even butter, but you do know that you're Stephens & Stark's—especially Stark's—most beloved author, don't you?

Dinner the first evening you are home?

Love,

Sidney

From Juliet to Sidney
28th January 1946

Dear Sidney,

Yes, dinner with pleasure. I'll wear my new dress and eat like a pig.

I am so glad I didn't embarrass S&S about Gilly and the teapot—I was worried. Susan suggested I make a ‘dignified statement' to the press too, about Rob Dartry and why we didn't marry. I couldn't possibly do that. I honestly don't think I'd mind looking a fool, if it didn't make Rob look a worse one. But it would—and of course, he wasn't a fool at all. But he'd
sound like it
. I'd much prefer to say nothing and look like a feckless, flighty, cold-hearted bitch.

But I'd like you to know why—I'd have told you before, but you were in the Navy in 1942, and you never met Rob. Even Sophie never met him—she was up at Bedford that autumn and I swore her to secrecy afterwards. The longer I put off saying anything, the less important it became for you to know, especially in the light of how it made me look—witless and foolish for getting engaged in the first place.

I thought I was in love (
that
's the pathetic part—my idea of being in love). In preparation for sharing my home with a husband, I made room for him so he wouldn't feel like a visiting
aunt. I cleared out half my drawers, half my cupboard, half my bathroom cabinet, half my desk. I gave away my padded hangers and brought in those heavy wooden ones. I took my golliwog off the bed and put her in the attic. Now my flat was meant for two, instead of one.

On the afternoon before our wedding, Rob was moving in the last of his clothes and belongings while I delivered my Izzy article to the
Spectator
. Then I tore home, flew up the stairs and threw open the door to find Rob sitting on the low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cardboard boxes. He was sealing the last one up with tape and string. There were eight boxes—
eight boxes
of my books bound up and ready for the basement!

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