The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (10 page)

Stop and think for a moment, and you'll realise why you shouldn't fuss. First, Piers will take excellent care of Sidney. Second, better Piers than us—remember what a vile patient Sidney was last time? We should be glad he's thousands of miles away. Third, Sidney has been stretched as tight as a bow-string for years. He needs a rest, and breaking his leg is probably the only way he'll allow himself to take one. Most important of all, Sophie:
he doesn't want us there
.

I'm perfectly certain Sidney would prefer me to write a new book than to appear at his bedside in Australia, so I intend to stay right here in my dreary flat and cast about for a subject. I do have a tiny infant of an idea, much too frail and defenceless to risk describing, even to you. In honour of Sidney's leg, I'm going to nurse it and feed it and see if I can make it grow.

Now, about Markham V. Reynolds (Junior). Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being struck on the head by a mallet. Am I in love with him? What kind of a question is that? It's a tuba among the flutes, and I expect better of you. The first rule of snooping is to come at it sideways—when you began writing me dizzy letters about Alexander, I didn't ask if you were in love with him, I asked what his favourite animal was. And your answer told me everything I needed to know about him—how many men would admit that they loved ducks? (This brings up an
important point: I don't know what Mark's favourite animal is. I doubt if it's a duck.)

Would you care for a few suggestions? You could ask me who his favourite author is (Dos Passos! Hemingway!!). Or his favourite colour (blue, not sure what shade, probably royal). Is he a good dancer? (Yes, far better than I, never steps on my toes, but doesn't talk or even hum while dancing. Doesn't hum at all as far as I know.) Does he have brothers or sisters? (Yes, two older sisters, one married to a sugar baron and the other widowed last year. Plus one younger brother, dismissed with a sneer as an ass.)

So—now that I've done all your work for you, perhaps you can answer your own ridiculous question, because I can't. I feel addled when I'm with Mark, which might be love but might not. It certainly isn't restful. I'm rather dreading this evening, for instance. Another dinner party, very brilliant, with men leaning across the table to make a point and women gesturing with their cigarette holders. Oh dear, I want to nuzzle into my sofa, but I have to get up and put on an evening dress. Love aside, Mark is a terrible strain on my wardrobe.

Now, darling, don't fret about Sidney. He'll be stalking around in no time.

Love,

Juliet

From Juliet to Dawsey
25th March 1946

Dear Mr Adams,

I have received a long letter (two, in fact!) from a Miss Adelaide Addison, warning me not to write about the Society
in my article. If I do, she will wash her hands of me for ever. I will try to bear that affliction with fortitude. She does work up quite a head of steam about Jerry-bags, doesn't she?

I have also had a wonderful long letter from Clovis Fossey about poetry, and one from Isola Pribby about the Brontë sisters. Apart from delighting me—they gave me brand-new thoughts for my article. Between them, you, Mr Ramsey and Mrs Maugery, Guernsey is virtually writing my article for me. Even Miss Adelaide Addison has done her bit—defying her will be such a pleasure.

I don't know as much about children as I would like to. I am the godmother to a marvellous three-year-old boy named Dominic, the son of my friend Sophie. They live in Scotland, near Oban, and I don't see him very often. I am always astonished, when I do, by his increasing personhood—no sooner had I got used to carrying a warm lump of baby than he stopped being one and started rushing around on his own. I missed six months, and lo and behold, he learnt how to talk! Now he talks to himself, which I find terribly endearing, as I do, too.

A mongoose, you may tell Kit, is a weaselly-looking creature with very sharp teeth and a bad temper. It is the only natural enemy of the cobra and is impervious to snake venom. Failing snakes, it snacks on scorpions. Perhaps you could get her one for a pet.

Yours,

Juliet Ashton

P.S. I had second thoughts about sending this letter—what if Adelaide Addison is a friend of yours? Then I decided no, she couldn't possibly be—so off it goes.

From John Booker to Juliet
27th March 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Amelia Maugery has asked me to write to you, because I am a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—though I only read one book over and over again. It was
The Letters of Seneca: Translated from Latin in One Volume, with Appendix
. Seneca and the Society, between them, kept me from the direful life of a drunk.

From 1940 to 1944, I pretended to the German authorities that I was Lord Tobias Penn-Piers—my former employer, who had fled to England in a frenzy when Guernsey was bombed. I was his valet and I stayed. My true name is John Booker, and I was born and bred in London.

With the others, I was caught out after curfew on the night of the pig roast. I can't remember it with any clarity. I expect I was tipsy, because I usually was. I recall soldiers shouting and waving guns about and Dawsey holding me upright. Then came Elizabeth's voice. She was talking about books—I couldn't fathom why. After that, Dawsey was pulling me through a field at great speed, and then I fell into bed. That's all.

But you want to know about the influence of books on my life, and as I've said, there was only one. Seneca. Do you know who he was? He was a Roman philosopher who wrote letters to imaginary friends telling them how to behave for the rest of their lives. Maybe that sounds dull, but the letters aren't—they're witty. I think you learn more if you're laughing at the same time.

It seems to me that his words travel well—to all men in all times. I will give you an example: the Luftwaffe and their hairdos. During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe took off from Guernsey and joined in with the big bombers on their way to London. They only flew at night so their days were their own, to spend in St Peter Port as they liked. And how did they spend them? In beauty parlours: having their nails buffed, their faces massaged, their eyebrows shaped, their hair waved and coiffed. When I saw them in their hairnets, walking five abreast down the street, elbowing Islanders off the pavement, I thought of Seneca's words about the praetorian guard. He'd written, ‘who of those would not rather see Rome disordered than his hair?'

I will tell you how I came to pretend to be my former employer. Lord Tobias wanted to sit out the war in a safe place, so he purchased La Fort manor in Guernsey. He had spent World War I in the Caribbean but had suffered greatly from prickly heat there. In the spring of 1940, he moved to La Fort with most of his possessions, including Lady Tobias. Chausey, his London butler, had locked himself in the pantry and refused to come. So I, his valet, came in Chausey's stead, to supervise the placing of his furniture, the hanging of his curtains, the polishing of his silver, and
the stocking of his wine cellar
. It was there I bedded each bottle, gentle as a baby to its cot, in its little rack.

Just as the last picture was being hung on the wall, the German planes flew over and bombed St Peter Port. Lord Tobias, panicking at all the racket, called the captain of his yacht and ordered him, ‘Get ready the ship!' We were to load the boat with his silver, his paintings, his bibelots, and, if enough room, Lady Tobias, and set sail at once for England. I
was the last one up the gangway, with Lord Tobias screaming, ‘Hurry up, man! Hurry up, the Huns are coming!'

My true destiny struck me at that moment, Miss Ashton. I still had the key to his Lordship's wine cellar. I thought of all those bottles of wine, champagne, brandy, cognac that had been left behind—and pictured myself alone with them. I thought of no more bells, no more livery, no more Lord Tobias. In fact,
no more being in service at all
.

I turned my back on him and quickly walked down the gangway. I ran up the road to La Fort and watched the yacht sail away, Lord Tobias still screaming. Then I went inside, laid a fire, and stepped into the wine cellar. I took down a bottle of claret and drew my first cork. I let the wine breathe. Then I returned to the library, sipped, and began to read
The Wine-Lover's Companion
. I read about grapes, tended the garden, slept in silk pyjamas—and drank wine. And so it went until September when Mrs Maugery and Elizabeth McKenna came to call on me. Elizabeth I knew slightly—she and I had chatted several times at the market—but Mrs Maugery was a stranger to me. Were they going to turn me in to the constable? I wondered.

No. They were there to warn me. The Commandant of Guernsey had ordered all Jews to report to the Grange Lodge Hotel and register. According to the Commandant, our ID cards would merely be marked
Juden
and then we were free to go home. Elizabeth knew my mother was Jewish; I had mentioned it once. They had come to tell me that I must not, under any circumstances, go to the Grange Lodge Hotel.

But that wasn't all. Elizabeth had considered my predicament thoroughly (more thoroughly than I) and made a plan. As all Islanders were to have identity cards anyway, why couldn't I declare myself to be Lord Tobias Penn-Piers himself? I could
claim that, as a visitor, all my documents had been left behind in my London bank. Mrs Maugery was sure Mr Dilwyn would be happy to back up my impersonation, and he was. He and Mrs Maugery went with me to the Commandant's Office, and we all swore that I was Lord Tobias Penn-Piers.

It was Elizabeth who came up with the finishing touch. The Germans were taking over all Guernsey's grand houses for their officers to live in, and they wouldn't ignore a residence like La Fort—it was too good to miss. And when they came, I must be ready for them as Lord Tobias Penn-Piers. I must look like a lord of leisure and act at ease. I was terrified.

‘Nonsense,' said Elizabeth. ‘You have presence, Booker. You're tall, dark, handsome, and all valets know how to look down their noses.'

She decided that she would quickly paint my portrait as a sixteenth-century Penn-Piers. So I posed in a velvet cloak and ruff, seated against a background of dark tapestries and dim shadows, fingering my dagger. I looked Noble, Aggrieved and Treasonous.

It was a masterly stroke, for, not two weeks later, a body of German officers (six in all) appeared in my library—without knocking. I received them there, sipping a Château Margaux 1893 and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the portrait of my ‘ancestor' hanging above me over the mantelpiece.

They bowed to me and were all politeness, which did not prevent them from taking over the house and moving me into the gatekeeper's cottage the very next day. Eben and Dawsey slipped over after curfew that night and helped me carry most of the wine down to the cottage, where we cleverly hid it behind the woodpile, down the well, up the chimney, under the haystack and above the rafters. But even so, I still ran out
of wine by early 1941. A sad day, but I had friends to help distract me—and then, then I found Seneca.

I came to love our book meetings—they helped to make the Occupation bearable. Some of their books sounded all right, but I stayed true to Seneca. I came to feel that he was talking to me—in his funny, biting way—but talking only to me. His letters helped to keep me alive in what was to come later.

I still go to all our Society meetings. Everyone is sick of Seneca, and they are begging me to read someone else. But I won't do it. I also act in plays that one of our repertory companies puts on—impersonating Lord Tobias gave me a taste for acting, and besides, I am tall, loud and can be heard in the back row.

I am glad the war is over, and I am John Booker again.

Yours truly,

John Booker

From Juliet to Sidney and Piers
Mr Sidney Stark
Monreagle Hotel
79 Broadmeadows Avenue
Melbourne
Victoria
Australia

31st March 1946

Dear Sidney and Piers,

No life's blood—just sprained thumbs from copying out the enclosed letters from my new friends in Guernsey. I love their
letters and could not bear the thought of sending the originals to the bottom of the earth where they would undoubtedly be eaten by wild dogs.

I knew the Germans occupied the Channel Islands, but I barely gave them a thought during the war. I have since scoured
The Times
for articles and anything I can cull from the London Library on the Occupation. I also need to find a good travel book on Guernsey—one with descriptions, not timetables and hotel recommendations—to give me the feel of the island.

Quite apart from my interest
in their interest
in reading, I have fallen in love with two men: Eben Ramsey and Dawsey Adams. Clovis Fossey and John Booker, I like. I want Amelia Maugery to adopt me; and I want to adopt Isola Pribby. I will leave you to discern my feelings for Adelaide Addison (Miss) by reading her letters. The truth is, I am living more in Guernsey than I am in London at the moment—I pretend to work with one ear cocked for the sound of the post dropping in the box, and when I hear it, I scramble down the stairs, breathless for the next piece of the story. This must be how people felt when they gathered around the publisher's door to seize the latest instalment of
David Copperfield
as it came off the printing press.

I know you're going to love the letters, too—but would you be interested in more? To me, these people and their wartime experiences are fascinating and moving. Do you agree? Do you think there could be a book here? Don't be polite—I want your opinion (both of your opinions) unvarnished. And you needn't worry—I'll continue to send you copies of the letters even if you don't want me to write a book about Guernsey. I am (mostly) above petty vengeance.