The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (4 page)

He looked up and said, ‘Hello, darling. Don't mind the mess, the caretaker said he'd help me carry these down to the basement.' He nodded towards my bookshelves and said, ‘Don't they look wonderful?'

Well, there were no words! I was too appalled to speak. Sidney, every single shelf—where my books had stood—was filled with athletic trophies: silver cups, gold cups, blue rosettes, red ribbons. There were awards for every game that could possibly be played with a wooden object: cricket bats, squash racquets, tennis racquets, oars, golf clubs, ping-pong bats, bows and arrows, snooker cues, lacrosse sticks, hockey sticks and polo mallets. There were statues for everything a man could jump over, either by himself or on a horse. Next came the framed certificates—for shooting the most birds on such and such a date, for First Place in running races, for Last Man Standing in some filthy tug of war against Scotland.

All I could do was scream, ‘How dare you! What have you DONE?! Put my books back!'

Well, that's how it started. Eventually, I said something to the effect that I could never marry a man whose idea of bliss was to strike out at little balls and little birds. Rob countered with remarks about damned bluestockings and shrews. And it all degenerated from there—the only thought we probably had in common was, What the hell have we talked about for the last four months? What, indeed? He huffed and puffed and snorted—and left. And I unpacked my books.

Remember the night last year when you met my train to tell me my home had been bombed flat? You thought I was laughing in hysteria? I wasn't—it was in irony—if I'd let Rob store all my books in the basement, I'd still have them, every one.

Sidney, as a token of our long friendship, you do not need to comment on this story—not ever. In fact, I'd far prefer it if you didn't.

Thank you for tracing Markham V. Reynolds, Junior, to his source. So far, his blandishments are entirely floral, and I remain true to you and the Empire. However, I do have a pang of sympathy for your secretary—I hope he sent her some roses for her trouble—as I'm not certain that my scruples could withstand the sight of hand-made shoes. If I ever do meet him, I'll be careful not to look at his feet—or I'll lash myself to a flagpole first and then peek, like Odysseus.

Bless you for telling me to come home. Am looking forward to
The Times
proposal for a series. Do you promise on Sophie's head it will not be a frivolous subject? They aren't going to ask me to write gossip about the Duchess of Windsor, are they?

Love,

Juliet

From Juliet to Sophie Strachan
31st January 1946

Dear Sophie,

Thank you for your flying visit to Leeds—there are no words to express how much I needed to see a friendly face just then. I honestly was on the verge of stealing away to the Shetlands to take up the life of a hermit. It was beautiful of you to come.

The London Hue and Cry
's sketch of me taken away in chains was exaggerated—I wasn't even arrested. I know Dominic would much prefer a godmother in prison, but he will have to settle for something less dramatic this time. I told Sidney the only thing I could do about Gilly's callous, lying accusations was to maintain a dignified silence. He said I could do that if I wanted to, but Stephens & Stark could not!

He called a press conference to defend the honour of
Izzy Bickerstaff
, Juliet Ashton and journalism itself against such rubbish as Gilly Gilbert. Did it make the papers in Scotland? If not—here are the highlights. He called Gilly Gilbert a twisted weasel (well, perhaps not in exactly those words, but his meaning was clear), who lied because he was too lazy to learn the facts and too stupid to understand the damage his lies inflicted upon the noble traditions of journalism. It was lovely.

Sophie, could two girls (now women) ever have had a better champion than your brother? I don't think so. He gave a marvellous speech, though I must admit to a few qualms. Gilly Gilbert is such a snake-in-the-grass, I can't believe he'll just slither away without a hiss. Susan said that, on the other hand, Gilly is also such a frightful little coward, he would not dare retaliate. I hope she's right.

Love to you all,

Juliet

P.S. That man has sent me another bale of orchids. I'm getting a nervous twitch, waiting for him to come out of hiding and make himself known. Do you suppose this is his strategy?

From Dawsey to Juliet
31st January 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Your book came yesterday! You are a nice lady and I thank you with all my heart.

I have a job at St Peter Port harbour—unloading ships, so I can read during tea breaks. It is a blessing to have real tea and bread with butter, and now—your book. I like it too because the cover is soft and I can put it in my pocket everywhere I go, though I am careful not to use it up too quickly. And I value having a picture of Charles Lamb—he had a fine head, didn't he?

I would like to keep up our correspondence. I will answer your questions as well as I can. Though there are many who can tell a story better than I, I will tell you about our roast-pig dinner.

I have a cottage and a farm, left to me by my father. Before the war, I kept pigs and grew vegetables for the St Peter Port markets and flowers for Covent Garden. I also worked as a carpenter and roofer.

The pigs are gone now. The Germans took them away to feed their soldiers on the Continent, and ordered me to grow potatoes. We were to grow what they told us and nothing else. At first, before I knew the Germans as I came to later, I thought
I could keep a few pigs hidden—for myself. But the Agricultural Officer nosed them out and carried them off. Well, that was a blow, but I thought I'd manage all right, for potatoes and turnips were plentiful, and there was still flour then. But it is strange how the mind turns to food. After six months of turnips and a lump of gristle now and then, I was hard put to think about anything but a fine, full meal.

One afternoon, my neighbour, Mrs Maugery, sent me a note. Come quickly, it said. And bring a butcher's knife. I tried not to get my hopes up—but I set out for the manor house at a great pace. And it was true! She had a pig, a hidden pig, and she invited me to join in the feast with her and her friends!

I didn't talk much while I was growing up—I stuttered badly—and I was not used to dinner parties. To tell the truth, Mrs Maugery's was the first one I was ever invited to. I said yes, because I was thinking of the roast pig, but I wished I could take my piece home and eat it there.

It was my good luck that my wish didn't come true, because that was the first meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, even though we didn't know it then. The dinner was a rare treat, but the company was better. Talking and eating, we forgot about clocks and curfews until Amelia (Mrs Maugery) heard the chimes ring nine o'clock—we were an hour late. Well, the good food had strengthened our hearts, and when Elizabeth McKenna said we should strike out for our own homes instead of skulking in Amelia's house all night, we agreed. But breaking curfew was a crime—I'd heard of people being sent to prison camp for it—and keeping a pig was a worse one, so we whispered and picked our way through the fields as quietly as we could.

We would have come out all right if not for John Booker. He'd drunk more than he'd eaten at dinner, and when we got
to the road, he forgot himself and broke into song! I grabbed hold of him, but it was too late: six German patrol officers suddenly rose out of the trees with their Lugers drawn and began to shout—Why were we out after curfew? Where had we been? Where were we going? I couldn't think what to do. If I ran, they'd shoot me. I knew that much. My mouth was as dry as chalk and my mind was blank, so I just held on to Booker and hoped.

Then Elizabeth drew in her breath and stepped forward. Elizabeth isn't tall, so those pistols were pointing at her eyes, but she didn't blink. She acted as if she didn't see any pistols at all. She walked up to the officer in charge and started talking. You've never heard such lies. How sorry she was that we had broken curfew. How we had been attending a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society, and the evening's discussion of
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
had been so delightful that we had all lost track of time. Such a wonderful book—had he read it?

None of us had the presence of mind to back her up, but the patrol officer couldn't help himself—he had to smile back at her. Elizabeth is like that. He took our names and ordered us very politely to report to the Commandant the next morning. Then he bowed and wished us a good evening. Elizabeth nodded, gracious as could be, while the rest of us edged away, trying not to run like rabbits. Even lugging Booker, I got home in no time.

That is the story of our roast-pig dinner.

I'd like to ask you a question of my own. Ships are coming in to St Peter Port harbour every day to bring us things Guernsey still needs: food, clothes, seed, ploughs, animal feed, tools, medicine—and most important, now that we have food
to eat, shoes. I don't believe that there was a decent pair left on the island by the end of the war.

Some of the things being sent to us are wrapped up in old newspaper and magazine pages. My friend Clovis and I smooth them out and take them home to read—then we give them to neighbours who, like us, are eager for any news of the outside world in the past five years. Not just any news or pictures: Mrs Saussey wants to see recipes; Madame LePell wants fashion pictures (she is a dressmaker); Mr Brouard reads obituaries (he has his hopes, but won't say who); Claudia Rainey is looking for pictures of Ronald Colman; Mr Tourtelle wants to see beauty queens in bathing costumes; and my friend Isola likes to read about weddings.

There was so much we wanted to know during the war, but we weren't allowed letters or papers from England—or anywhere. In 1942, the Germans called in all the wireless sets—of course, there were hidden ones, listened to in secret, but if you were caught listening, you could be sent to the camps. That's why we don't understand so many things we can read about now.

I enjoy the wartime cartoons, but there is one that bewilders me. It was in a 1944
Punch
and shows about ten people walking down a London street. The chief figures are two men in bowler hats, holding briefcases and umbrellas, and one man is saying to the other, ‘It is ridiculous to say these Doodlebugs have affected people in any way.' It took me several seconds to realise that every person in the cartoon had one normal ear and one
very large
ear on the other side of his head. Perhaps you could explain it to me.

Yours sincerely,

Dawsey Adams

From Juliet to Dawsey
3rd February 1946

Dear Mr Adams,

I am so glad you are enjoying Lamb's letters and the copy of his portrait. He did fit the face I had imagined for him, so I'm glad you agree.

Thank you very much for telling me about the roast pig, but don't think I didn't notice that you only answered one of my questions. I'm hankering to know more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and not merely to satisfy my idle curiosity—I now have a professional duty to pry.

Did I tell you I am a writer? I wrote a weekly column for the
Spectator
during the war, and Stephens & Stark collected them together into a single volume and published them under the title
Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War
. Izzy was the nom-de-plume the
Spectator
chose for me, and now, thank heavens, the poor thing has been laid to rest, and I can write under my own name again. I would like to write a book, but I am having trouble thinking of a subject I could live happily with for several years.

In the meantime,
The Times
has asked me to write an article for the literary supplement. They want to address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading—spread out over three issues and by three different authors. I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate and so far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga. You can see I need help.

Do you think your literary society would mind being included in such an article? I know that the story of the society's founding would fascinate
Times
readers, and I'd love to learn more about your meetings. But if you'd rather not,
please don't worry—I will understand either way, and either way, would like to hear from you again.

I remember the
Punch
cartoon you described very well and think it was the word
Doodlebug
that confused you. That was the name coined by the Ministry of Information; it was meant to sound less terrifying than ‘Hitler's V-1 rockets' or ‘pilotless bombs'.

We were all used to bombing raids at night and the sights that followed, but these were unlike any bombs we had seen before. They came in the daytime, and they came so fast there was no time for an air-raid siren or to take cover. You could see them; they looked like slim, black, slanted pencils and made a dull, strangled sound above you—like a motor-car running out of petrol. As long as you could hear them coughing and put-putting, you were safe. You could think, Thank God, it's going past me.

But when their noise stopped, it meant there was only thirty seconds before the thing plummeted. So, you listened for them. Listened hard for the sound of their motors cutting out. I did see a Doodlebug fall once. I was quite some distance away when it hit, so I threw myself down in the gutter and hugged the kerb. Some women, in the top storey of a tall office building down the street, had gone to an open window to watch. They were sucked out by the force of the blast.

It seems impossible now that someone could have drawn a cartoon about Doodlebugs, and that everyone, including me, could have laughed at it. But we did. The old adage—humour is the best way to make the unbearable bearable—may be true.

Other books
Kiss Me on the Inside by Janice Burkett
Out of Promises by Simon Leigh
The Gift by Cecelia Ahern
Realm Wraith by Briar, T. R.
Shadowed (Dark Protectors) by Rebecca Zanetti
Icelandic Magic by Stephen E. Flowers
Horizon (03) by Sophie Littlefield